Archive for the 'windows' Category

Workhorse Windows Computers

As each year goes by, I get less and less technical. I do still hack together fixes for software when needed, and write some procedural code from time to time. Most of the tools I use are still Windows based. While I know all the “cool kids” do Linux or containers, and I should too, especially with my background, it just hasn’t happened.

We have a number of discrete, single task computer systems that we use around the house. I have a dedicated music streaming server in the mechanical room in the basement; a system than runs Rouvy, Zwift, plays streaming video in the garage for my bike trainer and treadmill sessions; and in the living room, I use another system attached to a TV to do vinyl recording, mixing, and editing.

Everyone of those systems is a Dell Optiplex desktop computer. Why?

Because you can pick up the systems from ebay for $25-$150, upgrade the memory, replace the HDD with an SSD, and come out with a top-notch, headless system for less than $200. The processors are everything from 2-core Pentiums to 4-core Intel i7’s and if you get really creative, you can switch almost all the parts from one system, to another. The form factors run from Ultra Small Form Factor(USFF), to Small Form Factor(SFF) to Mini-Tower, to full size desktop.

The reason there are so many of these on ebay for sale is exactly the same reason I want them. They are low cost, they are easily maintained, Dell has an outstanding support website which when searched with a “Service Tag” will return the original configuration, including all the software.

That’s important, you can tell if the original system was shipped with a Windows “Certificate of Authenticity”. If it was, with a small hop-skip-and-jump you can install Windows 7 and upgrade to Windows 10. Some of the Optiplex 90xx series even have sufficient hardware to run Windows 11.

Sadly this week the system I use for my music editing died. It wouldn’t even power on. It’s been sat unloved, on a shelf, behind a closed door, in the media center under the TV for 4-years. I went through some basic diagnostics and it wasn’t obvious where the problem was, so I removed the SSD from the i5 Optiplex SFF 3020, and put in an i3 Opitiplex USFF 970. It booted and everything was great.

I scoured ebay, and secured a Dell Optiplex 7010 SFF i5-3570 3.40GHz 8GB RAM 2 TB HDD for just $66. I added another 8GB of memory, and the existing SSD and no software installs, when switched on, Windows booted, switched drivers, and rebooted and I was back online.

The best thing about using these though, is possibly using the Dell Support portal to track inventory, add location and other information. You can organize by folders, I even keep one for defective equipment and another for out of use stuff.

Buying from ebay

If you are considering buying an OptiPlex from ebay, here are a few tips.

  1. “Bare Bones” – Beware buying systems listed as bare bones. These are likely to have been completely stripped, and have no processor, HDD, or memory/RAM. They can be useful for parts like power supplies or replacement USB modules. If you don’t have experience putting systems together, probably best to avoid, by the time you buy parts it’s likely more expensive than buying a pre-built system.
  2. Processors – As discussed, the OptiPlex come with a range of processors. Here is a simple guide: Pentium(Slow); i3(adequate; i5(good), i7(much better) – an I3 will run a browser and local apps with 8GB of memory, perfectly OK for day to day Google Apps and web browsing. i7 with 16GB will run pretty much anything, I record vinyls albums while watching streaming movies, and checking email etc.
  3. Memory – These systems can pretty much only take 16GB of RAM/Memory. 8GB is fine, 4GB will work with Windows 10 but is slow, on an i3 or Pentium processor, it’s probably too slow. You can add memory easily, but only have two slots on most systems until you get up to the 9xx models. You can mix and match sizes of memory, but not speed. Don’t over pay for an identical system that has maybe 4/8GB of additional memory. You can pick up the RAM/Memory for as little has $9 per 4GB on ebay.
  4. HDD/SSD – check the model on the Dell support system before buying, even if just by model number, better by service tag. You can check the documents or original configuration and see what size HDD they were shipped with. Probably the best performance upgrade you can make is to get an SSD, even a 128GB SSD. I buy Kingston SSD’s. Many of the SFF systems will need a plastic drive caddy to mount the SSD in. If you need more storage, an external HDD or SSD might be the simplest, all the models have ample USB ports, some even have USB 3 ports.
  5. Graphics – in the same way the OptiPlex models have evolved with processors/speed, the graphics have developed the same way. The early Pentium models have basic onboard graphics, typically only supporting 1920×1040 resolution. Even if you attach these to a large screen LCD 4k TV that won’t deliver anything other than a good Windows text based display. Later models, especially SFF, Mini-tower and desktop models withy i5 and i7 processors will have Intel 4000 series graphics chips. The newer models have Intel 4600 series processors which can do 4k display. The desktop and mini-tower have enough space to install a full graphics expansion card.
  6. Networking – All the OptiPlex models have Ethernet ports, generally, while the all support a wifi card, almost none of them will be supplied with one. If you need wifi, it’s probably simplest and cheapest to add a wifi USB stick. The same is true for Bluetooth, almost none have it, which is frustrating if you want to use your phone, or headphones with them. Again, you can find a 2x pack of Bluetooth 4 dongles for as little as $12 new.
  7. Power – The new USFF models, those with the all black faceplate, like the Dell Optiplex 9020m i5  don’t include a power supply. They need an external brick and cable like a laptop. Don’t buy one without a power supply.
  8. Local Pickup vs Shipping – Watch the shipping price. This is a good rule for buying anything on ebay, but especially larger/heavier items. I paid $50, $12.95 and had free shipping on Optiplex systems, factor that into the total price. If you have time, like me, consider local pickup. I found one seller just 20-miles away that offers free pickup. Not only do you save on shipping but you may be able to get it the same day, or next day.

Whatever you do, do check the Dell Owners Manual for the system you intend to buy. It will be on the Dell support website in .pdf format. You can see how simple these are to work with and what components they can take etc.

Finally remember, even if you can buy a cheap new system for a similar price, it’s unlikely to be so flexible and repairable. Also, it may not have an embedded Windows license. Don’t forget, e-waste is a massive problem, by buying used from ebay you are keeping it away from a distant country where it might be disassembled by a child using a soldering iron. At best, you’ll be keeping it from landfill.

If you want to buy, here is a starter link to ebay. Once there add the key tech you want like +i5 or +16GB to the search. Feel free to leave questions.

Farewell Windows?

Not quite, and not for a long long time. In my house we run 4x laptops with Windows 10, we have a small office computer running Windows 10; then there is the Music Server in the basement, and the media laptop buried in the TV cabinet, they also run Windows 10. So it will be a long time before we stop using it.

However, in an excellent summary of what’s been going on at Microsoft, Matthias Biehl also makes a number of organizational truisms. It’s well worth a read. Also, do yourself a favor and try the Microsoft To-Do program, I use it on Windows and Android, it’s excellent.

culture flows from success


The app hell of the future

Just over 5-years ago, in April 2011, I wrote this post after having a fairly interesting exchange with my then boss, Michael Dell, and George Conoly, co-founder and CEO of Forrester Research. I’m guessing in the long term, the disagreement, and semi-public dissension shut some doors in front of me.

Fast forward 5-years, and we are getting the equivalent of a do-over as the Internet of Things and “bots” become the next big thing. This arrived in my email the other day:

This year, MobileBeat is diving deep into the new paradigm that’s rocking the mobile world. It’s the big shift away from our love affair with apps to AI, messaging, and bots – and is poised to transform the mobile ecosystem.

Yes, it’s the emperor’s new clothes of software over again. Marketing lead software always does this, over imagines what’s possible, under estimates the issues with building in and then the fast fail product methodology kicks-in. So, bots will be the next bloatware, becoming a security attack front. Too much code, forced-fit into micro-controllers. The ecosystem driven solely by the need to make money. Instead of tiny pieces of firmware that have a single job, wax-on, wax-off, they will become dumping ground for lots of short-term fixes, that never go away.

Screenshot_20160524-113359Meanwhile, the app hell of today continues. My phone apps update all the time, mostly with no noticeable new function; I’m required to register with loads of different “app stores” each one a walled garden with few published rules, no oversight, and little transparency. The only real source of trusted apps is github and the like where you can at least scan the source code.IMG_20160504_074211

IMG_20160504_081201When these apps update, it doesn’t always go well. See this picture of my Garmin Fenix 3, a classic walled garden, my phone starts to update at 8:10 a.m., and when it’s done, my watch says it’s now 7:11 a.m.

IMG_20160111_074518Over on my Samsung Smart TV, I switch it from monitor to Smart TV mode and get this… it never ends. Nothing resolves it accept disconnecting the power supply. It recovered OK but this is hardly a good user experience.

Yeah, I have a lot of smart home stuff,  but little or none of it is immune to the app upgrade death spiral; each app upgrade taking the device nearer to obsolescence because there isn’t enough memory, storage or the processor isn’t fast enough to include the bloated functions marketing thinks it needs.

If the IoT and message bots are really the future, then software engineers need to stand up and be counted. Design small, tight reentrant code. Document the interfaces, publish the source and instead of continuously being pushed to deliver more and more function, push back, software has got to become engineering and not a form of story telling.


Touch screen and the desktop

I just posted a response over on a CNET discussion topic. As often is the case, rather than write, review, edit and post; I banged away a response and submitted, as always I made a few typo’s, so here is a corrected version.

I’ve just retired from an senior engineering position at Dell, specializing in software and firmware but I also participated in a number of usability studies for hardware/software combinations. I was the originator of the NFC enabled server systems management concept. I’d offer a few thoughts to confirm what some others have said, but also a slightly different perspective.

1. yes reaching across a keyboard to a monitor mounted at the back of a desk is ergonomically unpleasant.

2. Touch is an interesting technology, but for fixed monitors and TV’s etc. it is less than optimal. There are numerous efforts underway to come up with a more responsive, natural way to control a UI. Think X/BOX or Nintendo, or the Samsung SmartTV gestures, voice ala Amazon echo etc.

3. That said, I for one would never go back to a non-touch laptop screen. I can lift my arm from the keyboard and prod the “submit post” button below much quicker that I can use the touchpad, or grab an extrnal mouse and click.

4. If you want a touch screen desktop I’d highly recommend getting an all-in-one with a touch screen and mounting it into a desk. I had one of the Dell XPS 27’s and had an IKEA draftmans desk. We cut a hole 99% the size of the screen; mounted the screen into the hole; secured it with picture wire in a # format across the back. I gave up using a physical keyboard and mouse, bought a Targus Stylus and went 100% touch. The advantage of the IKEA desk is that you can easily angle the surface to one that suits you. Also, it came with a medal lip which stopped things sliding off the edge; also it came with a built in glass area, which was great for to-do lists, notes etc.

One final note, on Touch screen PC’s. As with Windows 10, when switching over to touch screen you have to try to stop doing the way you did them with a mouse and keyboard. The Adobe PDF app for Windows 10, is much easier to use than the Adobe desktop app for Windows 10. Using a drawing program for line art, block diagrams etc. either with your finger, or with a stylus is a huge leap forward to messing about with Word and Powerpoint. In the case of slides, and powerpoint, it made me released me from decades of serial text mode slides.

So rather than ask why so few touch screens for desktop computers. Ask, what are top-5 applications I use, and how could touchscreen make them better, easier, or me more productive. If it’s email, calendar and web browsing, it probably won’t. Although even in those cases, zoom in and zoom out is an improvement.

Its all about the apps

At least according to anyone who has owned an Apple phone, its all about simplicity… The iPhone does that. Despite the recent announcement of a whole set of new iOS6 features integrated with Facebook that are mostly copied from Windows Phone 7.5 its actually still all about the apps for me.

As of yesterday I was till under the impression Dell was going to launch new phones later this year. Well apparently not anymore, a shift in strategy means we are going to focus more on the management, than phones themselves. I’ve grown really fond of my dell Venue pro with Windows phone, despite the fact I’ve been holding onto a device with a cracked screen, hoping for new devices to be launched real-soon-now.

One of the big frustrations I’ve been living with isn’t the phone or the OS at all, its the Twitter client/app. It constantly returns “rate limited”.

Want to tweet? Sorry, rate limited. Want to retweet, rate limited. I tried birdsong, at 99c what a deal, shame the red on black text is unreadable and not changeable. At least accordingly to the Windows Phone marketplace, it is an official app Published by: Twitter, Inc. and released in October 2010. Ever since I installed this, it often fails with rate limited, I guess this is an app error based on – Shame is loads of people are complaining about it that twitter have not addressed it.

Next up, I tried Seesmic… Used it before, wasn’t really that good, very restricted input windows for non-twitter sites like facebook. lets try again, sorry can’t create twitter space, turns out to be a authentication error…. I’m guessing in direct response to twitter changing to always returning a gzip formatted authentication response.

I tried Birdsong, a really nice twitter app, sadly it uses red on black for twitter names and links, which on my phone is unreadable. So what to do about a broken app? Despite my enthusiasm for Windows 8, I think the time has come to switch over to Android. I have a B&N rooted to Android Gingerbread, and a Smasung Nexus S with ICS, and although they are both great computers, as a smart phone, I prefer Windows Phone 7.5. But hey, as a platform the Facebook app is not keeping up, the twitter app is broken, the marketplace lacks details on versions, updates and more.

Posted from WordPress for Windows Phone

Windows 8 – Hero or Villain?

Friday evening I headed down to the Woodlands to see the Beach Boys, just as I was walking in I got an email, it said simply “Hi Mark, what are your thoughts on this[Windows 8] as a user?”.

Since I had 20-minutes before the concert started, at least, I figured I’d bash out a quick reply. I’d been thinking I should write a follow-up to my earlier “Windows 8 and is change ever good?” entry and earlier in the day had read “Final thoughts on Windows 8: A design disaster” on zdnet.

If you ended up here to get confirmation that Windows 8 is indeed a bad idea, and you are not interested in anything else, then good news, just read the next paragraph and you are done. If you do though, you are risk of missing the point, and that’s what I think is happening now. Reviewers are missing the point, well mostly. And before you accuse me of being a Microsoft shill, remember I contributed to the IBM Linux strategy as discussed on my “corner” over the years, so don’t have my past or my future vested in Microsoft’s success. One of my documents on Linux, from the year 2000, is still available from the About page of this blog.

Corporate PC use: As a corporate laptop user with a keyboard and mouse, Windows 8 is indeed a pain. A number of the default windows behaviors have been changed which mean using it with a mouse is, clumsy at best. I sort of like Metro, and full screen windows, but then I’m an old guy who used grew up on 3270 mainframe terminals.

Ultimately these inconsistencies are going to be a big barrier to early corporate adoption on traditional PCs and laptops, the lost productivity will be a big cost, eventually i can see MS having to ship a Windows 8 that doesn’t boot to metro so they can withdraw support for WIN7.

Home use touch-screen: At home I’ve got an Dell 17-inch Inspiron touch screen laptop attached to my tv and home theatre system. Windows 8 and metro are brilliant, everything i had before works, I’ve been able to write scripts with a UI to automate a few simple, repetitive things I do. For example most mornings I listen to BBC Radio London over the Internet, I’ve now got a metro initiated script that launches the web page and stars the player, all it takes is a simple tap on a big button and it works. Even when the button is off the screen it takes just a few simple swipes. No more trying to scroll win7 scrollbars, trying to be accurate double touching icons, etc.

As a software architect:  One of my current projects the Dell Enterprise Systsmes Group Software/Firmware mobile/UI strategy. I love that you can use a knockout.js   implementation and that you can build apps out of html5 JavaScript and a smattering of CSS and this I think is a key point. There is a great article here if you don’t understand this.

My view is Windows 8 shouldn’t be aimed at corporate for a while, I don’t have a Windows 8 tablet, but one of our guys has bought his own Samsung, taken a Dell IT early Windows 8 build, and is using it in the office. So when Adrian Kingsley-Hughes says on zdnet he’s “going to avoid commenting on Metro on touch-based systems for now because Windows 8 is too far off in the future to know what the hardware is going to be like.” – He’s just wrong.

With the ability to use touch on a tablet or phone, build UI apps easily, I think Microsoft have taken a bold step, making WIN8 pretty compatible with mobile hybrid apps, and touch. In the next few years that will turn out to be a masterstoke but with the ability to capture a new generation of developers, writing web apps, Windows 8 apps, Windows Phone apps, and xbox.

As a PC User: All the apps from win7 are compatible, I get a pretty useful touch paradigm, and best of all, we get a pretty easy way to write metro apps without the old complexities of windows UI programming.

And I sent off my reply. A Few minutes later the reply came back “Sounds great Mark and I am seeing this in a similar way to your view below but you’ve added some new insights. Thanks and enjoy the beach boys! Michael [Dell]”.

One to follow?

Nepotism rocks, it makes the world go around. Ok, ok, maybe not. However, when one of your personal friends, that until a few years ago you never even knew worked in IT, starts writing a great, to the point blog, what’s a man to do except provide a link. Here it is, Jays “Technology Defenestration” blog.

Hey Jay, when you get a minute, do me a favor, read this paper of mine on virtualization from 2006 and try to put Oracles hard and soft partitioning in context. Cheers.

My Windows 7 Upgrade Experience

Completely out of context for this blog, but I thought it worth a mention. I’ve been running Windows 7 for about 7-months as my main OS with Outlook 2007 for work and personal email, and Chrome as my primary browser.

Dell IT required us all to upgrade to the WIN 7 RTM by Sept. 11th for a number reasons. I’ve was out on vacation last week through Tuesday and when I got in the office yesterday I was ready to go with the upgrade.

I have to say it went really smoothly. Before starting the RTM upgrade , I did an image backup of my whole Dell Latitude 160Gb hard drive, I also did a User State Migration tool (USMT) backup, both to an external hard drive.

I then started the upgrade, it formatted the hard drive, installed with one mid-install reboot and then it was pretty much done. After that, I ran USMT to re-apply my customization and it did a pretty faithful update, producing a report on the programs and settings that needed some attention. This report, the “Windows Easy Transfer Report”, listed everything that WAS transferred including account, documents, programs and settings and system settings. The report also contained a list of programs installed prior to the migration, and their status afterwards.

Overall the process was pretty faultless and all my data preserved. I had to re-install Chrome, amongst a few other programs. However, all its settings, bookmarks etc. were preserved and restored. While I don’t run a heavily modded system, I do run a highly customized on.

Of course, I can’t say what it would be like upgrading from say Windows XP to Windows 7 RTM since I stopped using XP completely when I first installed Windows 7. Interestingly, I’ve still got a few programs I wrote for Windows 3 back in the early 1990’s. These all still run perfectly without recompilation. Admittedly they are fairly lightweight but it’s pretty good they still run. One really old school program that I’m delighted still runs on Windows 7, ZDNets Password Pro 32, which is from 1998.

One of the cool new tricks in Windows 7, is when you take a full Image backup, you can later mount the VHD file created as a drive letter, enabling the simply copying of files and directories from your backup.

Good luck if you are upgrading, hopefully it will go as simply as mine!

The Windows Legacy

My good friend and fellow Brit’ Nigel Dessau posted his thoughts, and to some degree, frustrations with Windows Vista and potentially Windows 7 today on his personal blog, here.

The problem is of course they are stuck in their own legacy. If I were Microsoft,  I’d declare Windows 8 would only support Windows 7 and earlier apps and drivers in a virtual machine.

They’d declare a bunch of their more low level interfaces deprecated with Windows 7 and won’t be accessible in Windows 8 except in a Windows 7 VM.

Then they’d make their Windows virtual machine technology abstract all physical devices, so that Windows could handle them how they thought best, and wouldn’t let applications talk to devices directly, only via the abstraction. They would have generic storage, generic network, and generic graphics interfaces that applications could write to and Microsoft would deal with everything else.

This would initially limit the number of devices that would be supported, but thats really status quo anyway. They would declare how devices that want to play in the Windows space would behave, declare the specs, and Microsoft would own the testing and to a degree validation of almost all drivers or they could farm this out to a seperate organization who would independently certify the device, not write the code. Once they stabilised the generic interfaces though, the whole Windows system itself would become more stable.

This would be a big step for Microsoft. When you look at the Windows ecosystem, there are hundreds of thousands of Windows applications and utilities. Way too many of them though are to deal with the inadeqaucies of Windows itself, or missing function. Cut out the ability to write these sort of applications and their will be at least an infrastructure developer backlash. It might even provoke more antitrust claims. While I know nothing about the iPhone, this would likely put Windows 8 in the same position with respect to developers.

For all I know, this could be what they have in mind, it’s and area I need to get up to speed on with them, and obviously the processor roadmaps for AMD and Intel, as well as understanding where Linux is headed.

About & Contact

I'm Mark Cathcart, formally a Senior Distinguished Engineer, in Dells Software Group; before that Director of Systems Engineering in the Enterprise Solutions Group at Dell. Prior to that, I was IBM Distinguished Engineer and member of the IBM Academy of Technology. I am a Fellow of the British Computer Society ( I'm an information technology optimist.

I was a member of the Linux Foundation Core Infrastructure Initiative Steering committee. Read more about it here.

Subscribe to updates via rss:

Feed Icon

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 915 other followers

Blog Stats

  • 89,083 hits