Barcelona-bound

Andy and I are travelling to Barcelona this weekend for TechEd EMEA IT. I’m really looking forward to some of the sessions on Hyper-V, SharePoint and Forefront.If you’re going to be there, feel free to drop us a line and say hi.

Mix Remixed

I don’t visit the Mix community site often – historically, the content has been of little interest and infrequently updated. Imagine my surprise, then, to find a relaunched Mix Online with a new Microformats project – Oomph.

In short, it’s cool – a microformats extension for IE plus other goodies to help implement them, including a live writer plugin for creating hcards. Go check it out, and I’ll try to post more later…

Vista on Dell Mini 9: Using junctions to move files off the SSD

Flush with my success earlier in getting apps installed on the SD card now mounted as ‘c:\SD Program Files’ I installed a few things. I then hit a snag.

When you install apps using an MSI, the installation files get cached by Windows Installer. Steadily, c:\windows\installer gets bigger and bigger, so whilst my apps were no longer taking up space, the install files were (and some of those are quite large).

I now have an image of the Vista install so I’m becoming more cavalier. I wondered if I could move the Installer folder from c:\windows onto my SD card by copying it into the mount point, but still get Windows Installer to work as though nothing had changed.

So, first I used Robocopy with the /SEC option to copy the installer folder tree over. Next, I deleted c:\windows\installer and created a directory junction which allows the moved content to still be accessed as c:\windows\installer.

To create a directory junction, use the mklink command with the /J switch to create the installer folder in c:\windows and point it at ‘c:\sd program files\installer’.

So far, it’s working fine. I need to try a few more installs to be sure, though…

Vista on the Dell Mini 9: Installing applications on an SD card

I’m still trying new things with the Mini 9. I now have an image file that I can restore to the Mini which has my base install after running sysprep. The problem I have is storage space – the SSD isn’t _quite_ big enough.

So, Richard wandered in this morning and handed me a 4Gb SD card to experiment with. The question: Can we use the SD card and install app onto it?

Our initial finding was a big fat no. Visual Studio setup refused to install to ‘removable media’. Bearing in mind all we’d done at this point was stuff an SD card into the card slot I wasn’t too surprised.

I fired up computer manager and went into disk admin. The partition on the SD card was FAT32, so we replaced that with an NTFS partition for a start.

I then went into the drive properties and changed the Policy settings. By default the SD reader is set to allow instant removal. Changing that to enable write caching means I will have to use the tray icon to ‘Safely Remove Hardware’, but I think that’s the key setting to allow me to install apps. However, I wanted to make things a little more integrated, so I created a folder on the C: drive called ‘SD Program Files’ and used it as a mount point for the SD card.

Visual Studio is now happily installing to the SD card.

As a 16Gb SD card is around twenty-five quid, this makes a reasonable approach to increasing storage space, assuming apps run reasonably quickly from the drive.

That’s the next test…

Vista on the Dell Mini 9: Redux

I’ve been chipping away at this for a while now today, and I’ve learned a few things on the way:

  • When Vista says it suggests installing the battery drivers for the system, don’t. The zip file it suggested I install broke power management.
  • Patch the system fully as an admin user before logging in as a restricted user. It will save you hours of time.
  • Sysinternals Diskmon doesn’t work with Vista – you need to run it as admin, and that certainly isn’t an option for my restricted users.
  • Vista when hibernating just shows a black screen. That’s not very helpful the first time you try it, on a silent machine with no disk activity lights at all.
  • think Vista takes longer to hibernate and come back from hibernation than XP, although coming back from sleep is much quicker than it’s older sibling.

Overall, I’m still happy. I have Vista, Office 2007 and Live Writer and 3.5Gb of disk space free. With no serious hacking the Dell runs at around 50% memory usage witrh a browser and live writer running. I can live with that. Battery life appears OK. It’s 10:30 and I’ve been using the Dell since 8pm, thrashing the disk (as much as there is one) and the wi-fi, and I’m at 38% battery. That puts me on track for about four hours or so and I can live with that.

Ironically, having been using the Aspire One all weekend, the Dell keyboard is more annoying than I found it before I got the Acer. Comparing the two, however the Dell is a good inch narrower and a little lighter. If portability is critical then the Dell has the edge, although I’m starting to favour the Acer for ergonomics.

Top tips, then:

  • Try to use slipstream media – it saves a bit of tidying up.
  • Turn off system restore to save a bit of disk space initially and quite a bit in the longer term.
  • Keep the cruft at a minimum – additional windows components take up disk space, but shoving lots of apps on gobbles memory, which is quite tight with 1Gb of memory.
  • I tried to install from a USB memory stick with Vista installation media on it and it didn’t work – a USB optical drive is the easiest way.
  • Make sure you copy the drivers folder off the Min 9 before wiping the disk for Vista – you’ll need the drivers folder to install the appropriate system drivers before Windows can work it’s Update magic.
  • The 16Gb SSD isn’t that big when you try installing Vista and Office. I’ve not reduced Vista’s footprint with tools like vlite, but they might help. Certainly, being hard on yourself is important – do you really need Microsoft Access on a netbook?

The next step is to run the new Mini 9 with Vista in parallel with the XP Pro install on Richard’s and see which is the better long-term bet. Watch this space…

Getting Vista on the Dell Mini 9

Our second Mini 9 arrived in the office today. This one is for Andy and myself to use whilst out of the office. Richard has successfully upgraded his to XP Professional, so we had to try to push the bar out a little further – we’re running Vista Business.

I have not spent any time tweaking or prodding yet. I used install media with SP1 included and obliterated the partition on the SSD, then installed the drivers from Dell where necessary, and a driver for the battery hardware that Vista itself suggested rather than the Dell solution.

I have disabled System Restore to claw back some disk space, but even so, prior to installing the bits of Office 2007 we need (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote) I had around 7Gb free. That’s enough – we’re going to be using this for note taking and document writing, not heavy lifting.

Performance-wise, it’s quite nippy. Aero is disabled, and the sidebar is off (it’s a small screen, why waste bits of it?) and I have well over half the system ram available at idle. Right now I have no complaints at all.

Depending on performance I may well look at upgrading the RAM to 2Gb, but in the short term I’m sure I have an SD card kicking around somewhere I could use for ReadyBoost, should the need arise.

Why Vista? UAC. Shocked? I probably would have been a few months ago, but in all seriousness, UAC means that it’s much easier to run with limited-rights user accounts and still be able to do admin-stuff if the need arises. You can’t do that with XP Pro.

First thoughts on the Acer Aspire One

You can’t say that things never change. I nipped out to Tesco last night for a few bits of shopping – you know, some beer, spices for cooking, etc – and came back with an Acer Aspire One. As you do…

To be fair, I have been looking at them closely, and Tesco are by far the cheapest place to get one. I picked up the 1Gb RAM, 120Gb HDD Linux model for about two hundred and fifty nicker, which I thought was pretty reasonable.

So, I hear you thinking, why did he just buy an Aspire One after singing the praises of the Dell Mini 9? The answer – this is for home use. Our home needs are different. We want something to use whilst researching our family tree; we need to be able to store scanned documents whilst out and about; run the family tree software and upload photos from a camera prior to pushing everything onto the Home Server back at home base. The Dell doesn’t have the storage for all that.

Add to that the keyboard on the Dell, which my wife really didn’t like and you have a good case for the Acer.

Out of the box it looks lovely – we got the white model and it’s clean, shiny and sleek. It also comes with a slip-on pouch which will protect it whilst in a bag, something I’ve not seen amongst the competition. Like the Dell, it’s completely silent (I wasn’t expecting that, it having a hard drive which I though would hum gently) and quick to boot.

I must say that I like the feel of it. I’m not so keen on the trackpad, whose buttons are located either side of the pad, rather than across the bottom, the de facto standard as far as I am concerned. It makes it harder to click with your thumb whilst tracking with a finger. The keyboard, though, is great. A full complement of keys and the same layout as my Travelmate meant I could type quickly and accurately with no learning curve, unlike the Dell. However, the keys are slightly smaller so if you have stubby fingers you might prefer the Dell.

I was also impressed with the Linux OS and interface installed on the One. I’m almost sad to say that it will be replaced by XP – for the novice user it really is a clean, task-centric interface. If it didn’t have to run Windows applications I’d leave it alone – I really would.

I don’t like the power charger. No sleek, compact charger like the Dell – it’s a standard laptop-style adapter, which means a cloverleaf power cord and a charger with a lead to connect to the laptop. The extra cables mean extra bulk and as a result I probably wouldn’t want to be carrying it around.

Which leads me to the battery. The OS reckoned it had two hours life available on a full charge. That’s not great, given what we need to use it for. However, the battery is only a three-cell, unlike the Dell’s four cell, which explains, whilst not justifying, the lower life. The upside is that I can get a six cell battery for around seventy quid, which by all accounts on the web increases the usage time significantly (I’ve seen figures like six hours being thrown around).

Overall, I’m really pleased with it. It’s comfortable to use, wasn’t very expensive, looks the business and meets our needs almost perfectly. I think the larger battery will be an imminent purchase, and it will get an XP makeover, but it compares very favourably indeed with the Dell. I would probably suggest my colleagues got the Dell for business use (we need less storage and want to carry the charger around), but if my parents asked, I’d point them at the Acer.

Time for the old pros and cons, then:

Pro

  • Small and lightweight.
  • Beautiful to look at (at least, the white one is!).
  • Good size hard disk for storage.
  • Performance is good.
  • Screen quality is great.
  • Keyboard is better for home users (and it has all the function keys!).
  • Linux environment is really good (if you’re happy with Linux and don’t want to install Windows apps).

Con

  • Trickier to upgrade than the Dell (no handy covers here – it’s a strip-down job).
  • Shiny case is likely to be a fingerprint magnet.
  • Standard hard drive means moving parts so a bit more fragile than the Dell.
  • Battery life out of the box is uninspiring.