Friday, March 18, 2016

My home technology

Its no secret that I have several Thinkpads at home, but here is a little more information on my other builds at home.

Home Network
I have cable modem service by the local provider and that ties into my router - a Netgear WNDR3400.  We stream movies across our network from our digital library on a 3TB external drive.  the Netgear router supports ReadyShare via a single USB port.  The drive is also used for storage and my back software library.

Living Room
For entertainment I have an HP DC7900 running Windows 10 Pro with 4GB of RAM and a 320 GB HD.  Its connected via ethernet to the Netgear router.  I have an ASUS Nvidia GT210 card that gives the computer HDMI out to a 32" TV.  We can watch Hulu, videos, and Youtube from this computer.  Occasionally we'll watch movies from Amazon and Netflix.  We also have the TV connect to the kid's Xbox 360 via another HDMI cable.

I have my home office area which is currently housing my Dell Optiplex 790.  I picked this computer up used for $150 off ebay a few months ago.  I upgraded the RAM to 32GB and installed an ASUS Nvidia GTX 650 in it.  I use this computer for gaming and work.  The computer also has a 500GB primary drive and a 1tb drive for back up, which has become my standard configuration for desktop.  This computer has a i5 2500 quadcore running at 3.3GHz.

My old home office computer was a HP DC7900 running Windows 10 Pro with 8GB of RAM, a 320 GB hdd for primary and a Westerna Digital Black 1TB as backup.  It has a 2.3GHz Core 2 Quad processor.  The machine can run 99% of my current steam library, but was recently shelved due to issues with a processor fan.  My future plans are to replace the fan, and put a PNY Nvidia GT640 into it.  I may use it elsewhere in the house or maybe even create a fileserver.

I don't use my Thinkpad W500 as often as I once did.  I recently replaced the factory Hitachi 180GB hard drive with a Samsung 850 EVO 250GB drive.  The DVD drive was removed to use a hard drive adapter.  I have a 500 GB Western Digital Black drive in there, which is used for storage.  I haven't used the DVD drive in quite some time and don't even know where it went.

Other machines that frequent my living room are an Asus Netbook I rebuilt for work, an old Thinkpad X61 Tablet, and a few odds and ends android tablets with various older versions of Android.  I keep these around because people at work have brought all manner of  Android devices they are having trouble with and its nice to have some of the base OS they're using to navigate.

Bedroom Computers
My bedroom computer is another HP Dc7900, with a 3 GHz Core 2 Duo and 8GB of RAM.  This machine is running Windows 10 Pro and has a similar 320Gb/1TB drive set-up.  This computer is mostly for watcing movies, Netflix, and Amazon in addition to our digital library.  I do also use this computer for work as I can get calls at any hour of the night and may need to troubleshoot a problem.  The computer has a PNY Nvidia GT640 and connects to a 32" LED TV via HDMI.

On my nightstand I have an Onda 820w 7" tablet I just got.  It runs Android 5 and Windows 10 Home.  It is mostly a novelty but it is a fully working computer.  I opted for this to replace my old Lenovo Android tablet.

I gave my girlfriend my Thinkpad T500 and it is running Windows 7 Pro.  I was unable to get some of her older games to run in Windows 8 or 10, so we stuck with Windows 7.  The computer has 8GB of RAM and a 400GB Toshiba HDD.  She still has her DVD, but from the numerous time she's dropped the computer since having it, the drive no longer works.  She also carries several external USB drives for movies when we are on the go.

My girlfriend's kid has my old HP DC7600 that I brought back with me from Wisconsin.  Its running Windows 7 Pro from a single 160GB hdd.  It is mostly stock except for its wireless card.  He watches Youtube and plays a few games.  But its mostly a distraction for him since he is only 8.

Future Plans
If money allows it, I may pick up some additional Optiplex 790s and start retiring the HP fleet.  They have been great computers but most of them are 8 years old.  This would likely be more of a Fall project and depends largely on Used Pricing staying relatively stable over the next few months.  Luckily, I know a few recyclers that have thee machines, so I'm hopeful I can get a good deal.

The other plans involve replacing the W500 and T500 with Thinkpad T420s.  They have been going for right around $180 and it is very tempting.  I do plan to buy Samsung EVO drives for them and upgrade the RAM to 16GB if I can.  The real trick will be finding the version with the right graphics card setup.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Few Tips for a Good Windows 10 Upgrade

I've found the Windows 10 Upgrade process goes best for me if you follow these guidelines.  There are a few steps to doing this, so ask questions where they are needed and I will try to help you along.


Before you upgrade to Windows 10 from Windows 7 or 8, make sure your current operating system has all current updates.

Locate all program disks and install program for any software you will need.  During the preparation stage, when you reserve your upgrade, the Windows 10 tool will scan your computer to find software and hardware components that are incompatible with Windows 10.

Make a note of its finds, but understand this is a preliminary compatibility test - it may not find everything and there may still be other issues that may develop because of your specific computer configuration.

Go to your computer manufacture's website and check to see if they make Windows 10 drivers available.  Dell and HP both advertise Windows 10 readiness for your specific system.  If you have an aftermarket graphics card, wireless card, etc. go to their sites to locate your drivers

What should happen during the install is the Windows 10 installation locates the updated versions of the hardware drivers for your system.  But, it may not find all the components, especially if you use generic or no-name or generic hardware components.  This seems especially the case with AMD/ATI driver components which seem to be problematic during installation.

Check with your Antivirus company to see if they have a Windows 10 compatible upgrade.  This is important because you will want to keep Anti Virus protection on your new OS, unless you intend to use the free Windows Defender.

Find backup media Windows DVD for your old OS - you may need to buy the install media from the computer manufacturer, but this should not be more than $12.  You can also locate these disks on eBay for about $12 a set - make sure this is for your brand of computer before you buy!  You need these in case the backup doesn't go as planned and you are unable to revert the changes after the upgrade.

Have all of your important files and programs backed up to external media that you can access should the upgrade have problems.  It is better to play it safe than to expect everything will be OK.

Windows 10 Upgrade Preparation

Assuming you are running Windows 7 or 8, you will have the Windows 10 notification icon in your taskbar.  During the initial upgrade process you will be prompted as to how you will upgrade.  You are given the option to download the upgrade as a Windows Update and apply the update when done or to create installation media.  I recommend creating the install media and putting it on a USB disk.

You can do this two ways, you can create an ISO file and create a bootable upgrade disk using a USB formatting utility called RUFUS or you can burn the ISO to a DVD for deployment later.  I suggest you choose these routes because it will immediately give you backup media.

As with your other backup files, copy this to your external backup so that you can access this again later, should you have issues with the upgrades.  If you choose to upgrade through Windows Updates, I suggest you still look for a Windows 10 media option - find  Windows 10 disk or download the ISO files at another time.

The Actual Upgrade

If you chose the Windows Update Option, it will first begin by downloading the 3GB files to perform the upgrade.  This will take time depending on your internet connection speed.  Once all files are downloaded it will begin installation.  

If you choose to create installation media, you will need to load this and begin while your old Windows OS is in operation.

The initial stages will allow you to operate in Windows while files are copied.  The latter stages will take control of the computer to apply the updates and may reboot your computer a few times.

You will be given the option to download Windows updates during the installation.  I recommend doing this as it will also grab any new drivers and software changes needed to get your machine running.

You'll go through the prompts to set updates and security settings, you'll be prompted to enter wireless settings if you were using wireless previously and if the wireless drivers loaded properly, it will then load your username account from the previous Operating Systems.

Upon launch, check to make sure your existing software is still functional.  check to verify that file are still there.  Then check the control panel Device Manager and note any missing device drivers.  You will need to locate and install drivers for the missing items.

Accepting the Upgrade Went OK

At this point you should have a working machine, but still have the option of going back to the previous OS.  If you are certain everything is working right, I would suggest you now prepare for doing a clean install of the OS with your USB drive or DVD media.

As with previous upgrades in the Windows family, there will be leftover files from the old OS.  Some issues from the old registry may still be present.  Luckily, part of the upgrade process can help with this.

During activation, your new Windows Key is matched against your hardware information that is sent back to Microsoft.  This means you no longer have to type in the Windows key after reinstalling Windows.

After you back up all your files and programs, boot from your Windows 10 media into the Install program.  Reformat your drive, and begin installation.  You will be prompted to enter your windows key, just click skip...  and move on.

You will have to set up the user accounts and passwords, again, but once you load into the desktop, you will have a clean installation.  Reinstall your programs and backups and you should be good to go.

Post Installation Tips

I have some additional tips for making the installation go smoothly.  

Image your original OS drive onto a spare drive.

Instead of upgrading your original hard drive, purchase a second matching drive and image this installation to the new drive.  Perform all upgrades on this new drive.  That way, if you run into problems, you can revert to the original drive and lose nothing.

Upgrade your original drive but do the clean install on a new drive

This is a similar concept, except you keep your working upgraded drive to fall back on.  This may also help if you have trouble locating drivers.

Consider adding a second internal drive to your system.

During my last upgrade, I chose to add a second drive to my system.  I used this drive to keep backups of all my software, files, and drivers.  This made recovering from the clean installation took minutes instead of hours.

Take the time to address other issues with your system.

While I was already going to have my machine open to install upgrades, I also took the time to clean the inside of the systems and around the working area.  Remove dust, fluff, and any other junk around your computer area so that you can start with a clean system and work space.  I also took the time to address cabling and ventilation issues.

Program Installation Compatibility Issues with Windows 10 Pro:

There are some cases where an installation program won't properly install in Windows 10, even with compatibility set to an earlier OS compatibility settings in the program properties. Some programs may check to see if a specific OS is installed. If it does not find that OS, it will error out and cancel the installation.

There are cases where Windows 10 will not allow you to install a program because the author of the software does not register their program with Microsoft. I found Irfanview would not install in the 1511 versions of Windows 10.

There are fixes involving using an elevated command prompt or using "Run as Administrator" when installing the program, which you should probably do anyway. There are also fixes listed by changing compatibility settings, Unfortunately, none of these worked for Irfanview.

What I ended up doing is activating the built-in administrator account, logging into Windows under this account, installing the software in question, then logging out and disabling the account. After which, I was able to use Irfanview without further issues.

I will be performing facility upgrades at work on a few dozen machines, so I may revisit this article with a few more updates.  Please do ask question, I will try to answer if I can.  Good luck with your update!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Moving on towards Windows 10 Pro

AS the natural successor to my Windows 8.1 Pro Article, I have decided to write this short article on my experiences on Windows 10 Pro.

First off, I like Windows 10 Pro.  There are quirks, bugs, and outright compatibility issues that are frustrating, but I feel 10 Pro is a very polished and refined successor to 8.1 Pro.  I have yet to run across significant issues that make a move to this OS a problem, and, in fact, I have moved the majority of my home machines from Windows 7 Pro to 10 Pro using the free upgrade from Microsoft.

When given the chance to upgrade in early August, I jumped at the offer, reserved my upgrades and began the process of moving my home machines from Windows 7 to Windows 10.  My personal desktop and laptop, I had upgraded to Windows 8.1 Pro during the fall of 2014.  I was very pleased with 9.1 and saw the changes in the Windows 10 Tech Preview released late spring of 2015 to be quite positive.

Second, the majority of users I have run across who have problems with Windows 10 also had the same complaints about 7, 8, and 8.1.  I don't feel they understood the consequences of upgrading, they didn't look at solutions to adapt, they simply saw something new and different and refused to change.  Or, in many cases, they didn't understand that their older software may not operate in a new OS environment.

I have run across some common complaints about how updating to Windows 10 ruined their computer or how much they hate the newer software they are being forced to use.

I work in IT and support Windows, Linux, and Mac systems in addition to Android and iOS platforms.  If you don't understand that every software update may change your working environment, then you need to stay away from those decisions.  At the same time, updates do provide solutions to existing bugs, security fixes, and may resolve conflicts that exist for others, but you may not be experiencing.  What I'm saying is when given the opportunity to read the documentation on an upgrade, do so.  This may give you the chance to prevent making your system change in a way you don't like.

Microsoft makes their living by selling software and hardware solutions.  That being said, you need to understand their motivation is to sell their new product, discontinue their old products, and move forward.  Hardware revisions come along that make old solution obsolete and a vendor can only support an obsolete system for so long.

This takes me to my third point.  Microsoft wants to get everyone they can onto the newest version of the OS.  This can be for many reasons - marketing failures with Windows 8, as of yet unknown security issues with Windows 7, or simply to wean people off older systems.  The Windows environment has changed significantly since Windows XP in 2002 - that was nearly 15 years ago now and if you want to stay current with the changes, you need to move to the newest version of OS.

You will find there are driver issues, software incompatibility, and some feature you will need to relearn.  If you're not ready or willing to do so, stick with Windows 7.

Lastly, support for Windows 7 is due to expire in 2019-2020 - this gives you plenty of time to retire older systems and move forward to the new OS.  Unless you have to have features to run the latest and greatest games and software, you really should consider postponing the upgrade until you decide to move to a newer computer.

In my case, I moved all of my machines that could handle the upgrades to Windows 10 Pro, after having tested it on my own computer.  I run multiple systems that share the same or similar hardware specs, so I understood which challenges I would face with the other systems.  I also had the option to go back to the previous OS and had taken precautions by backing up important files and programs I would need in case it didn't work out.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Windows 8.1 Pro on the Lenovo Thinkpad W500

I recently installed Window 8.1 Pro on my Lenovo Thinkpad W500 and had run across an issue with the AMD drivers both on the Lenovo Site and from AMD.  Because the W500 uses a Switchable Graphics card, the AMD driver does not correctly install, you are stuck with a mis-identified Radeon 3650 driver and the system does not properly utilize the graphics card feature.

I read on the Thinkpad forums that many had simply given up running 8 and went back to using Windows 7.  The switchable graphics card driver for Windows 7 is, at best, buggy.  I found this especially true on my T500, which actually does have the Radeon 3650.  My W500 constantly developed errors related to the AMD software and this was a constant source of frustration to others, requiring a specific set of steps to install drivers to minimize problems.

This is totally unacceptable, but something I just had to deal with.  My options were to accept the buggy software and simply use the Intel GMA card, disable the switchable graphics in BIOS and use the buggy mis-identified 3650 driver, or keep trying to hack on the drivers until I got something to work.  But as I primarily used the AMD/ATI grpahics card for gaming, I opted to disable the Switchable graphics option and force the Discrete Graphics card to be used.  These options are all in the BIOS, so you will need to do this first.

I found a post by one member who claimed he was able to get the Lenovo drivers to work by installing the driver package, but by cancelling out the actual driver install portion.  It seems that you can use the Windows 7 drivers by setting Windows compatibility to an earlier version and running the package as an administrator.

I tried this, but kept getting an error during the CIM portion of the install.  My solution was to open the installation folder, seek out each of the individual installers, and set each to Compatibility mode for Windows 7.  After a few tries, I eventually located the CIM installer and, it too, was set to compatibility mode for Windows 7.  While the install completed, Windows 8 then popped up a compatibility module for the driver software.

As I understood Windows 8 architecture, Microsoft .Net Framework Services are now embedded in the OS itself, meaning you no longer have to download and install the packages as with previous versions of Windows.  However, some older software may require legacy versions of the .Net Framework to operate.  This was the case with the Lenovo Windows 7 AMD Driver package.

Windows 8 prompted me to download .Net Framework files for versions 2.0 through 3.0 in order to guarantee operation of the driver software.  I did so, once the download was complete and a reboot of the OS, the AMD driver package worked properly.

The post caliming Windows 8 functionality also claimed he was able to get the switchable graphics function to work, but I have never cared for this functionality, so have decided to just use the AMD card for now.

To sum up what I did, here are my instructions for getting the AMD/ATI Discrete Graphics to work properly in Windows 8.1 Pro.

Changes to BIOS
1.  During boot, hit "Thinkvantage" button to access Thinkpad BIOS.
2.  On the Graphics card function, disable OS Detection of Switchable Graphics.
3.  Set the Primary Graphics card to "Discrete"
4.  Save Changes and EXIT BIOS.

Finding the correct driver
5.  Boot into Windows 8.1 - the graphics card will likely be detected and the OS will download a Radeon 3650 WDM- driver package from Windows Updates.  This is OK.
6.  Download the Lenovo Windows 7 W500 Switchable Graphics /AMD-ATI Driver Package from the Lenovo website.
7.  Allow the Driver Package to extract the files to the c:/Drivers directory, but do not allow the installer to install software just yet - it will fail.

Edit the properties of the Installation package components
8.  Open  the c:/drivers directory and locate the following files:

  • c:/drivers/win/video/setup.exe
  • c:/drivers/win/video/bin64/ATIsetup.exe
  • c:/drivers/win/video/bin64/InstallManagerApp.exe
  • c:/drivers/win/video/bin64/setup.exe

9.  Each of these, open the properties and set program compatibility to "Windows 7" and check the "run as administrator" option at the bottom of the check list.  Click Apply and OK.

Run the installer package manually.
10.  Run the c:/drivers/win/video/setup.exe program.  If you get any errors during the installation, make note of the item and then go back into the installer directory to locate that installer, change the compatibility of that installer, and run it again.  You should have all components successfully install.

The Net Framework portion
10.  At this point, Windows 8 will prompt you with a request to download addition .Net Framework components.  Allow Windows to download these from Windows Update and complete their installation.  At the end of this process, you may be prompted to reboot the computer.  DO IT!!!

11.  During the reboot, the driver package will run an automated command line prompt for WinSAT.exe  Just allow this to complete as this is part of the Windows 7 installation.  Once this has completed, you will boot tot he desktop and be all set.

12.  If you check the Graphics Card Properties, it should correctly display the Radeon Mobility FireGL V5700 properties instead of the Radeon 3650 WDM driver.

Thats it!

If you have questions, please post below and I will try to help out the best I can.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lenovo Thinkpad T500 is a mix of great value and great performance!

I posted this review to my eBay page.  Unfortunately, I was somewhat limited as to how many characters I could post, but with no such limitations here, decided to also post it here.

I purchased the T500 as a replacement to my T61, which had gone down when the cooling fan died. I'd found a replacement fan assembly and planned to replace the damaged component, but I also was interested in getting a newer system that utilized the less expensive DDR3 RAM.

What I like about the T500 is the larger display and the additional expansion. On the smaller T400, SD and Memory Card expansion occupies the Express/PCMCIA bays. This is a compromise that can limit your expansion capabilities. On the T500, SD is placed on the front of the palm rest, which greatly simplifies access, while freeing the Express Card Bay for further expansion.

The larger display of the T500 gives you more real estate on your desktop, but also give you a larger picture for watching video, playing games. The ATI discrete graphics gives excellent performance for gaming, graphics and video emitting, and makes for an excellent portable workstation.

What I don't like about the T500 - RAM
This has more to do with the internals than anything else.  The T500 is extremely touchy when it comes to RAM, so make doubly sure you verify compatibility of the RAM you choose. Choosing the wrong RAM will result in severe memory stability problems in Windows and Linux.  If you are getting memory errors in Windows, Linux, or, more specifically during installation you should pull the RAM in the system and replace it with modules rated for the system.  I suggest Newegg's Memory Finder as even Crucial was throwing out incompatible modules.

The memory problems actually lead me to purchase the Thinkpad W500.  The Lenovo Diagnostic tool gives a generic answer when diagnosing Memory and System Board errors, relying on your warranty to allow Lenovo Support to give you a specific diagnosis of your problem.  As my T500 was two years past its warranty, I decided to look up my issue via the Thinkpad Community Forums.  In the mean time, my girlfriend ordered me a W500 from a reputable retailer offering the W500 with a new copy of Windows 7 for $350 shipped.  While more expensive, but came with a no DOA warranty that my eBay retailer did not offer.

Shortly before my W500 arrived, I was able to replace both memory modules on my T500, therefore completely eliminating further problems with my T500.  Instead of returning the W500, I opted to send my T400 to my mom, who had been using an aging Gateway laptop since 2004.  This older machine was equally finicky when it came to finding RAM, so I opted to give her a machine I knew she could count on.

Switchable Graphics - ATI & Intel GMA
The Discrete Graphics can cause overheating issues in the T400 Series, the T500 seems to address this with a larger cooling system, but the ATI graphics does run hotter than the Intel GMA-only versions. For this reason, I suggest having the cooling system cleaned thoroughly.  This requires partial dis-assembly of the system to accomplish.  If you are comfortable opening your system, this isn't a problem and there are several excellent videos detailing this procedure on Youtube, but it can be inconvenient. Knowing this, you should consider a laptop cooler if you intend extended gaming or if you need to push performance.

Another drawback is the Switchable Graphics layout. The system has both ATI and Intel GMA. You can go into the BIOs and force ATI or GMA depending upon your power and performance requirements; I believe this to the best way.

The AMD/ATI Switchable Graphics driver is problematic at times.  Performance during gaming can suffer if the system jumps between graphics options, which can happen when running on battery power or when operating power saving options.

Lastly, the AMD Control Panel for ATI graphics can cause performance issues when a newer driver becomes available.  Newer drivers are not always installed properly or there are, at times, problems with installation itself.  In my opinion, this is more of an issue with AMD than the T500, itself.  Many times, I prefer to get ATI Drivers from Lenovo's support site, even though they are not as up to date.  
T500 vs W500 vs R500 - Which to buy?
If you do not require the ATI-enabled versions and think the Intel GMA version will suffice, I suggest instead looking to the R500.  It has the same basic layout as the T500, only with Intel GMA Graphics option. If you need more performance, I'd suggest the W500  Here are some basic specifications of the three systems:

T500 you will get Switchable Graphics w/ Intel GMA 4500/ATI Radeon 3650 with 256MB, Core 2 Duo 2.0 - 2.93 GHz processor options, 8GB Max of RAM, 15.4" screen.

W500 you will get Switchable Graphics w/ Intel GMA 4500/ATI FireGL V5700 with 512MB, Core 2 Duo 2.0 - 3.17 GHz processor, 8GGB Max of RAM, 15.4" screen

R500 you will get Intel GMA 4500, Core 2 Duo 2.0 - 3GHz processor, 8GGB Max of RAM, 15.4" screen

It comes down to the graphics options, choose the one that fits your budget and needs.