Laptop Build Quality

I’ve been looking around at various laptops, in preparation for getting a new one. I wrote about considering the Surface Book, which is still on the list, but has dropped a bit. The hardware quality is great, but when I was in the UK last week, a few people had them and complained about some driver bugs. In particular, I was messing with one person’s touch keyboard, and they warned me not to pull if off.  If I did, the machine might crash.

Ugh. At $2k and lots of hype, I wouldn’t expect any issues like that.

In any case, this post is about build quality, not software.

I was laying in bed this week, working on some editorials when my daughter came in. She wanted me to look over a piece she was writing for school and handed me her laptop. She has a Macbook Air, and as soon as I put my Toshiba z30 down, I was impressed with the Air’s build. It’s solid, it’s light, but it feels strong. I remember loving my Macbook Air, and holding it as I reviewed her work, I was reminded of that.

My z30 flexes, to the point that across a year, my touch point is unusable with the twisting of the frame. The trackpad was also far, far superior on the Air. I thought the Macbook Pro was like that, so I swung by a Best Buy to check. I walked in and went to the Apple section, picking up a Macbook and it feel solid. It’s just a better device than my Toshiba.

However I was curious about others. I did walk over and look at a Surface Book. It’s a solid machine, about the size and weight of the MBP. However it has the touch screen, which is interesting. The trackpad works differently, but it’s a nice machine. Detaching the screen, it’s a tablet, which is nice. I still don’t know how much I’d use the tablet factor, but it’s tempting. However the weight distribution is strange. The screen is heavier than the keyboard, the opposite of most laptops.

I also walked over to look at a Yoga 900, which I was curious about after reading Tim Mitchell’s review. I’m actually anxious to see how Tim’s machine looks next month in NM, but for now I contened myself with the display model. The hinge is neat, but this is a light laptop. At first glance, it also was solid. The flex I have on my Toshiba was not there. Despite a few reviewers noting this felt plastic and cheap, I didn’t get that feeling. It’s no Macbook, but it’s better than my Toshiba.

This will be an interesting decision for me, but since I’m going to wait for Apple’s announcement in March and see what they might do. I doubt they’ll go touch screen, but you never know. I have gotten used to touching my screen for some reading, and I think I might miss that with a MBP.

Surface Book

It’s almost time for me to get a new laptop. I’ve had a Toshiba for about a year, but it’s not held up well. The screen has gotten loose, the trackpad and clickers are not consistenly responsive, the pointer device sometimes drifts on its own, and I have had a couple memory related crashes. All in all, despite a similar travel schedule to what I’ve had the last couple years, this laptop is showing its age quicker than others. These are flaky issues, not easily reproducible, and something that the warranty doesn’t seem to cover.

As I look to future travel and talks, I realize that I need to find something that might be more reliable. That’s always tricky as it seems people have a variety of different experiences with the same model machine. This last year has made me hesitant to think about chancing a new, or unpopular brand, something I did last year in trying to find a small, lightweight machine that can handle 16GB of RAM.

I read a review of the Surface Book after two months, which is one I’d like to consider. I’ve been impressed with the Surface Pros, but prevented from using them as I need 16GB on the machine. The Surface 4, on which the Surface Book is based, has that capacity, so I am intrigued. I worried about the new hardware, but it seems that the Surface 4s have been fairly solid. A couple of firmware glitches relating to sleep mode, but I’m hoping those get ironed out in the next couple months. At least I hope they do because I really like the idea of a Surface machine.

I do suspect that like the reviewer, I’d mainly use the machine as a laptop. That’s what I need, and I’m not a big consumer of media. However the option to use the machine as a tablet is interesting. I had the chance to use Rob Sewell‘s Surface 3 as a notebook with a stylus during a presentation at SQL Relay and enjoyed the experience. There are some nice OneNote integrations, though I’m not sure how often I’d want to take notes on a computer rather than paper.

However the main contender for me is probably a MacBook Pro. I loved the MacBook Air I had, and was disappointed to move away from it. I also want to do some iOS and cross platform development, which a MacBook would allow. The hardware is solid and proven, and it’s a similar cost to the Surface. I have a few months to decide. If I go MacBook, I’ll wait for the March (rumored) refresh. If I’m unsure that that time, I’ll probably think about the Surface as a backup. Either way, I’ll be in hardware search mode across the next few months, with fingers crossed that my current machine survives.

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Hardware Issues

My backup drive failed last night. I was struggling with a few VM issues and when I finally resolved a few, I went to back up the VM in case I had more. I plugged the external, 2.5” SSD into my laptop and got nothing. No response, no new drive in Explorer.

That’s not what I want to see, though I’m glad it was a backup drive, and not one I needed for presenting. Not much I could do at night, on the road, but in the morning I resolved to get a new one.

I did have a California geek moment, heading to Fry’s for the first time to replace my drive. I’ve read about, and heard about the store for years. I’ve passed them in Northern California, but never gone in.

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It was a bit of a mistake, since I was late getting back to our Red Gate event. I got a little entranced with the various displays and options in there. It’s like a Best Buy++, combined with a Radio Shack and more. Microcenter in Denver is similar, but Fry’s has more.

I decided to go mSata rather than a 2.5” one, mostly for space and weight. It’s amazing to me how small things have gotten. I got the Samsung 840EVO 500GB drive and a small case.

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I carry a screwdriver, but the case came with a tiny one that I used to mount the mSata drive. How small is this? Small.

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The picture above shows my hand, a 16.9 oz water bottle, my Arc mouse, and the 500GB mSata drive in an enclosure.

500GB!

I could probably carry 4TB worth of these one hand. For $249 for the drive and $20 for the case, it’s amazing. I’ve got a nice backup for multiple copies of my VMs, which is very handy and cost effective.

If you haven’t tried mSata, take a look. I’m not sure I’d look at any other formats for portable storage.

Toshiba Portege Z30 Review

I saw recently that Grant Fritchey wrote a review of his laptop, the Portege Z30. I had noted Grant’s issues with laptops and waited to see what he got last year before I replaced mine. I actually had the chance to compare his Z30 with my old Lenovo T430 in Washington DC and was impressed.

With my old machine randomly failing, I decided to duplicate Grant’s efforts and get the same model. I figured we could support each other, and any issues one of us had, the IT department at Red Gate would gain knowledge as well.

Size and Shape

I used to have a MacBook Air and was thinking to go back to one, but since it wasn’t updated to contain 16GB, I couldn’t. I considered a MacBook pro, but they are a bit heavy, and the Z30 was fairly light. Here’s a shot of it.

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It’s definitely thicker and heavier than the Air, but it’s thinner and lighter than my Lenovo, so that’s nice. This is actually the test I use for laptops:

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Since I’m on the go, and I can be getting on and off podiums, I need to be able to easily carry this one handed. Not that I always do, but I want to. I can’t do this with a MacBook Pro and it was hard with the Lenovo. Here it seems to be OK.

The construction is metal and fairly solid. Not a lot of flex. The thin frame with rounded corners also easily slips in and out of my Everki bag, something that wasn’t the case with the Lenovo.

Keyboard

I think the keyboard is important and I wished I’d spent a bit more time on Grant’s. It’s loud, There’s a noticeable clacking when I type and the travel isn’t great. I’m not sure what to make of it. It’s mildly annoying to me, but not overly so.

the layout is good. Better than the Lenovo or Air for me. That’s the key, it’s better for me.

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I used the arrow keys a lot when demoing and having them separate is good. The Lenovo surrounded them with Page Up/Down, which forever caused me issues. Backspace/delete as well placed for me and I’ve easily learned where they are.

Backlighting is automatic, as you type. Slightly annoying when I need to start typing in dim space, but I can hit a key and then backspace and be fine.

The trackpad is too large for me. My palms always hit it, so I’ve disabled it. I use the pointed (blue button in the middle) exclusively, which is OK. I haven’t gotten it tuned well for my use. It’s either too slow or too fast (hence arrow key use). However it works just like the Lenovos.

The buttons, however, on the trackpad feel cheap. They travel and click too much. We’ll see how they wear over time.

Screen

The screen is pretty nice. I didn’t notice this as being amazing, as I did with a few cell phones, but it does look good. It handles bright sunlight fairly well, and I haven’t add brightness issues during indoor use. You can get specs from the Toshiba site.

It’s a 13" screen, which works for me. The resolution is fairly good, but I’m not too picky here so you’ll have to make your own judgment.

I will say that I like the touch screen. I do a lot of reading and scrolling around, and I’ve found it handy to reach up with my right hand and scroll while I’m holding the laptop with the left hand. I don’t use it to select or press buttons often, especially as edit boxes often bring up the on screen keyboard. That’s really annoying.

On the upside, I can use VGA or HDMI as outs to a screen.

Ports

I present with my laptop, so having a few USB ports is a must. The new Air with one port doesn’t even come close for me. I often need two USB ports for a mouse and my presentation device, plus power. Plus display.

This is a good laptop for me. It has two USB-3 ports on the right side and 1 on the left. That allows me to move an adapter depending on where I’m presenting. This also has a hard Ethernet port, which has saved me in a few hotels or venues where the wi-fi didn’t work. Not a big deal, but nice.

All ports are on the sides. Nothing in back.

Power

This is one of the big things for me. We have a power brick, but it’s tiny. It’s light. It’s a few ounces, which is amazing after the larger ones that I’ve had. It’s probably lighter than the Air adapter, though it’s still the power cord plugs into the adapter, which plugs into the laptop.

One thing I’ll note is I forgot my adapter in Europe and had to buy a new one. A generic one, putting out the 19V worked fine. Nice to know I can easily find one, and now I have a US and UK adapter, which suits my work.

Overall

I’ve been using the laptop for about three months now, and it’s one of the better machines I’ve owned. The keyboard and mouse buttons are the only downsides for me. The i5 and 16GB of RAM perform great. The SSD has been fast, and I can hook up an external when I need it and still have my two ports free for other use.

I’d have to say I’d recommend this if you need 16GB of RAM. If you can get by with less, I think you have some other choices in the ultrabook range that I’d look at.

Desktop Repairs – Power Supply Issues

My desktop didn’t restart after vacation a few weeks ago. That wasn’t what I wanted to have happen with a lot of work to get done before some travel. Needless to say I wasn’t thrilled when it happened.

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I was worried that something major had died. However I’d replaced the main boot drive recently and I had the old one. If I could get power.

I emailed Glenn Berry, who’s my go to hardware consultant. He suggested I check the power supply since I couldn’t get anything to happen. On his advice, I went to the local Microcenter and bought a new 650W power supply. Here’s the old one, with a stock CPU cooler. I bought a new one of those as well, since I find the heat alarm going off during some video editing.

Photo Jan 30, 10 11 59 AM

I didn’t remove the old power supply at first. I actually disconnected it and connected the new one to the motherboard from outside the case and powered things on. Sure enough, everything came on. Lights, drives, etc.

I then powered things down again and set about replacing the power supply. It’s actually easy, and I’m surprised I’ve never had to do this before in my life. Probably because I’ve tended to replace machines so often.

In any case, it was a matter of removing 4 or 5 screws from the back of the case, carefully slipping out the old PS and then putting the new one in there.

The CPU cooler was trickier. The tabs push through the motherboard and hook, but they are somewhat fragile. I was worried, and sure enough, the first time they weren’t tight. The cooler needs to be held tight to the CPU to pull off heat. It was loose and I got heat alarms once I started using the machine.

However I kept messing with it, slowly trying to get the tabs in there and eventually they are holding fairly tight. I still get heat alarms during heavy duty video processing, so I think this cheap $25 cooler isn’t good enough. Or I don’t have enough thermal grease. Either way, I’ll probably replace this soon.

Here’s everything together.

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And a happy Steve.

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Hardware Ups and Downs

I replaced the SSD in my desktop the other day and was pleased to not have a red bar when I booted it up and looked in Explorer. I went from a 128GB SSD (with 2GB free) to a 256GB SSD for about $130. Not a bad price, and since I have 2TB on other drives that are less than half full, this was a nice upgrade.

However.

The front fan was rubbing something when it ran, ticking just loudly enough to be annoying. I knew this would be an issue, so I shut down the desktop last night as I walked out the door to take my daughter to volleyball practice. This morning the machine wouldn’t boot.

Nada. Nothing. Press the power and nothing happens. This occurred a few weeks ago when I shut down after some install instead of a warm boot. I waited, fiddled with the power cable, and things restarted. This time I see a blue LED on the back that shows there is power to the case, but nothing boots.

Events like this are very frustrating to me. As much as I appreciate cool hardware, most of the time I’m working on something else and I just want the machine to work.

At this point I’m unsure of whether I have a motherboard failing, a short somewhere, a bad power supply or something else. It’s very strange and I don’t have the time, or energy, to debug it today. Likely I’ve got a dead desktop for a week right now. This is a first world problem, and more annoying than anything as I can work on my laptop. It’s just less efficient for me since I get a lot done with three large monitors.

At least I managed to get another machine working. As a birthday present for my wife, I ordered 8GB of RAM and a 500GB SSD for her Toshiba laptop. She had 4GB and a slow, 5400rpm HDD that caused her laptop to really drag. It’s an i3, and I could hear her cursing it regularly. For $270, I replaced both and now it runs much quicker for her.

It wasn’t completely smooth. The memory went right in, but the attempts to reboot the machine from a CD that contained the Acronis software failed. Toshiba has made the BIOS difficult to get to, and very frustrating. Fortunately I used the same software I’d used with my own laptop SSD replacement and that worked well.

All in all, a mixed day and likely I’ll be playing with hardware when I return from my trip next week. Hopefully I’ll get some idea of what to do and perhaps what to order, before I leave.

Out of Space

I’ve used placeholders to ensure I don’t run out of space on my machines. That’s worked well, and usually I can delete a placeholder when I have an emergency, and then clean up the drive.

However I got a low warning today when trying to do an iOS upgrade.

space_a

I’d already removed placeholders, moved all my libraries and downloads to other drives, and installed most programs in other places. However my profiles are still here and they had grown large. I couldn’t really find anything else to delete here that might clean up space.

I thought about moving profiles, but I saw this post that noted we shouldn’t move profiles. I’m a power user, but I don’t want to debug or rebuild things on this machine, and especially not now. I want it to work.

That left me with one real choice: upgrade the hardware.

I asked on Twitter what people liked in SSDs, and got a number of recommendations, but it seemed that Samsung got the most votes in my informal survey. I even got a link to Tech Bargains for drives, but a few of the links I checked went to EBay or similar discounters. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with EBay merchants, but in this case I want the drive to be new, working, warrantied, and shipped quickly.

Amazon is my go-to place for lots of stuff, partially as a Prime member, and partially because they are so easy to work with. In this case, I saw the Samsung 240GB 840 series for about $135 and decided that was a good move. I don’t expect to put much more on this C: drive, but it might grow a bit. I ordered this, and it should arrive by Friday.

I also decided since I was upgrading things, and my wife’s birthday is coming, I grabbed an SSD for her laptop along with a 4 -> 8GB memory upgrade. Hopefully that will be a nice surprise for her.

Upgraded SSD

I was going to call this an upgraded HDD, but that’s not right. Technically it’s a drive update, but really it’s an SSD upgrade.

My new Portege Z30 came with a 128GB drive. I could have had Toshiba upgrade it, but it was more expensive than the deal I got before Christmas. Instead of Toshiba’s $400 for a 512GB upgrade, I paid $220 for a 512GB mSATA drive, and I also will have the 128GB one that came with the machine as a spare.

I decided to upgrade the drives this weekend and was surprised how easy this actually was. I probably need to wipe the existing OS and reinstall a cleaner version of Win8.1, but for now I wanted to duplicate things.

After powering on the machine and getting things setup (Which was easy, having my old settings of my Lenovo T430 pulled from OneDrive during setup), I needed to clone the drive. There are ways of doing this, but I settled on using the Macrium Reflect method from this MaxiumumPC article.

I downloaded Macrium Reflect and installed it. It’s a simple GUI and connecting my new MSata drive in the external enclosure, I set things duplicating while I went off to watch my daughter’s volleyball tournament.

The next day, I fell in love with YouTube and the community again. I found this teardown video that shows how easy it is to open up the Toshiba and get at the memory and drive. This is a slightly older model, and I didn’t need to the TORX screwdriver, but it was good to see someone show me without fumbling around or digging through poorly written documentation.

This morning I started making coffee. I have a BUNN maker that brews a pot in about 5 minutes from start to finish, and it’s hot. I turned that on and then broke out a screwdriver. I didn’t take pictures, but it took me about the same amount of time as the coffeemaker to get done.

I removed all the screws. I had one false start when the bottom didn’t lift up. I had missed two screws under the rear rubber feet, so I had to pry those off and remove the screws. I also needed a set of pliers to help turn one of the screws holding the drive in. This includes swapping the drives in my external case.

I screwed things together and booted up the machine and it looked exactly like it had with the 500GB drive as it had with the 128GB one.

Now to clean the OS and build things the way I want them.

Technology Advances – mSATA external case

I had an SSD die last year. It was one of my traveling SSDs, where I keep spare copies of my VMs and presentations. Fortunately I didn’t need the backup that trip, and when I got home, I switched out to the second drive and carried that along.

I wasn’t planning on replacing the SSD too quickly, but when I saw a sale from Crucial over Christmas, I ordered a new mSATA drive. I hadn’t really paid attention to the format, thinking this would be similar to my other small SATA drives, but it wasn’t. It’s a card, as in a small SD card sized device.

I can’t believe how small a 512GB drive has become.

I also ordered an external case for is, a Sabrent one that was highly rated on Amazon. Here is the collection of the case and drive. For scale, my Bluetooth headset is in the picture.

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When I opened the case, it’s essentially a card that slides out. The mSATA card clips in there, much like a memory stick.

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Once I clipped it in, I slipped the insert back in the case and used two tiny screws (almost eyeglass size) to lock things together.

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The connection to a computer is with a USB3->SATA cable, the same format as my previous drives. That cable might be the bulkiest part of this ensemble as the drive could really be seen as 1/4 the size of my iPhone 6.

My desktop recognized it right away and things look good. I didn’t do anything with that as I’m planning on sliding it into my new laptop and then using that 128GB drive as my backup on the road for talks and the main VM I need.

I’m still considering grabbing a small PC like a Gigabyte BRIX as a spare device for me to present from. I’d love a tablet like the Surface Pro 3, but until I find an ultrabook or convertible with 16GB, I’m limited on choices.

Just In Time

I’m glad my new laptop shipped and should be arriving shortly. I saw this on my current Lenovo

alptop

I had taken my laptop downstairs and noticed the battery was low. I grabbed the adapter, plugged it in and didn’t think about it. However when I disconnected the power, I got the “low battery” message again. I was surprised as the machine had been plugged in for a few hours. When I hovered over the battery icon, I saw the tip above.

I’ve tried removing and replacing the battery, and I guess the battery could be dying, but on a previous Lenovo, when I got this it meant a motherboard issue. The internal connectors weren’t working anymore and apparently the repair guy had seen this quite a few times over the years on laptops. As they age, apparently this is one area that fails.

Replacement of the motherboard for that machine was $1000. It looks like it’s $500-600 for this one, and with all the wear and tear I’ve put on this machine, it’s time to just replace it.

I suspect with all the presenting and traveling I do, I should be happy with about a 2 year refresh cycle.

Now I just need to hustle and get my new machine here and set up. I should have two weeks for prep before I travel to Germany for the SQL Konferenz. Fingers are crossed.