Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Surface - the RT and the Pro

Microsoft recently gave most of their employees the new Surface RT tablet, in part to encourage us to all to advocate for this new tablet. It certainly is an effective strategy - the tablet gets noticed, and people I know are starting to buy them. Even beyond my very obvious bias, I do love the Surface RT, and I think it does a good job of selling itself. It's not for everyone, but for many people I recommend it over both Apple and Android tablets.

Recently, Microsoft also provided me a Surface Pro (though this one is very much a work asset). Comparing the two, what I realized is that the raw specifications really don't convey the real-world experiential differences between these two devices. So, I figured I'd share what I've observed so far.

Form Factor

The RT is a slim device. It's not 'light', but the aluminum chassis feels right - solid and rugged without being uncomfortable to use. I've used lighter tablets, and they feel cheap and plastic-y and scream in protest at the slightest torsion.

The Pro is noticeably thicker and heavier - you can tell the difference, especially after using both in succession, but in practical terms, neither is heavy enough for the weight to really matter. Both Surface models are at their best on a table where you can leverage the keyboard and kickstand anyways.

Unlike the RT, there is a small gap along the whole back edge of the Pro, presumably for the active cooling. It's not really a problem, but it's unusual enough to attract attention.


The RT runs forever. It'll go several days without a charge, and even with heavy use, it'll make it to the charger at the end of the day with power to spare. While the Pro's battery life has been often maligned, it's not horrible for casual use. I haven't tried watching movies yet, but I can check mail and take notes throughout the day at work and still have (a sliver) of battery left when I leave the office. Unlike every laptop I've ever used, I haven't had to compulsively hunt for power everywhere I go.

The RT may warm up slightly if you use it heavily. By comparison, the Pro is cool when idle, but can get quite hot when it's under intensive use, particularly for games. It seems that the Pro also has some active cooling when it's running hot, and it can be surprising when one hears a fan whir up on a tablet.

Sleep is a bit different between the two devices. The RT is "Instant On"; you push the button, and you light up immediately. The Pro is the same when it has power, but if you leave it idle on battery for awhile it goes into a more traditional laptop-style sleep mode. This just means you get the Surface logo and it takes about five seconds to wake up. I assume, much like a normal laptop, the settings for sleep are configurable.

One thing to note - though they are the same plug (and presumably "compatible"), the RT and the Pro's chargers are different. I'm told the Pro's is much beefier, to meet the Microsoft guidelines for device charging times on the bigger battery.

Pen Input

One obvious bonus to the Surface Pro - a full tablet stylus. This isn't a glorified pointy stick that just replaces one of your smudgy fingers, but rather makes the Surface Pro a full drawing tablet with pressure sensitivity, hover, eraser, and pixel-precise resolution. Gabe speaks at length as to the quality of the stylus for drawing purposes. For the non-artistic population, honestly you won't use it much - apps are designed for finger-poking so the precision of the pen is redundant. However, there's one killer feature for the pen - digitally signing documents. The built-in PDF reader will allow you to draw and save, which means you can sign emailed documents without them ever hitting paper.

The pen attaches magnetically to the power socket so you can carry it around. While this seemed brilliant when I first heard about it, it's actually quite annoying because when you connect to power, you end up having to just leave the pen loose. Then the cat knocks it off your desk.

Device Support

Both the RT and the Pro have a USB port, putting both devices miles beyond Apple-like tablets with their device-specific plugs. The RT in theory only supports a small set of devices designed for it, but it's actually surprising how many USB devices work automatically. I've tried with a few USB keys, a camera, and even my smartcard reader, and they all work! I've heard that most mice and keyboards work magically too.

The Pro is like any other computer - if it's USB, it'll work. Period.

The RT and the Pro both have video out; micro HDMI for the RT, and Mini DisplayPort for the Pro. I have yet to try the Pro, but the RT can drive some devices to high resolution (more than the device itself). Don't buy the expensive adaptors from Microsoft; generic adaptors can be had on Amazon for a few dollars that will work just as well.

Aside: Type vs Touch
The debate rages on. The touch keyboards are thinner, quieter, and come in several colors. You can certainly type faster than an on-screen keyboard, but it'd still be a bit awkward if you're a proficient touch typist and need to write an essay. The type keyboards are black, thick, and undeniably click-y. Click-y is good.

After using both; the choice is obvious. If you're doing a lot of typing, get the type keyboard.

The touch keyboard is good as a cover, and still a big improvement over an on-screen keyboard if you occasionally need to poke more than a text message out.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Windows 8 Boot Recovery

A bizarre day of hard drive tinkering.

So one of Amber's hard drives started making the telltale grinding noises of impending doom. "It sounds like my computer is driving over a gravelly road... and now it's stuck at the Windows loading screen." she says. I groan; I know that particular sound means I'm probably already too late, and that the odds are distinctly not in my favor for getting any data off, but I promise to try to extract the data that evening.

So, I take the drive from her computer, connect it to one of my many SATA ports, and power up. Sure enough, the drive is sounding truly awful. But sadly, the presence of this drive has apparently confused the Windows 8 boot loader.

Lets take a step back. I have an "interesting" configuration. I run a 100GB RevoDrive, plus a 1TB SATA3 drive; System Partition is on the former. However, the latter is divided into three partitions. First is the "System Reserved" partition (which Windows always insists on putting on the SATA drive for some reason), then my data partition. Due to experimentation back in the Windows 8 Release Preview days, my third partition is a functional Win8RP partition. The configuration is by nature fragile, since the RevoDrive needs non-standard drivers, but I've never had install problems.

Back to the boot process. Windows 8 startup for some reason REALLLLLLLY wants to do stuff with the dying drive, and kicks off some repair. The repair freezes at 100%, the drive is sounding worse and worse. I can't exit back to the normal boot process, so I hard reset. Now this just makes Windows MAD! They decide that it's time to do "automatic repair", and decides to give the old Windows 8 RP build supremacy, presumably for being on the same physical disk as the reserved partition.

Now I'm totally screwed. RP has control, isn't showing any other boot options, and wants to reboot hourly to discourage me from using the pre-release OS any more. The standard recovery tools (notably bootrec.exe) are not actually available live, only in the recovery environment. So I write my Win8 ISO to a USB stick, reboot, and enter a repair command prompt. The recovery tools in Windows 8 should have no problem fixing me up, but unfortunately, the recovery paths that let you load drivers are mutually exclusive with the recovery paths that let me fix repair my boot sequence.

Well, reboots, and further frustration ensure. Long story short:
  1. Copy RevoDrive drivers to a second USB stick.
  2. Reboot to Windows 8 install. Choose "Repair my System".
  3. Find Windows 8 RP mounted on SATA drive.
  4. Run pnputil -i -a J:\path\to\driver.inf
    This loads the drivers from the command prompt! The tool isn't in the recovery environment for some reason, but seems the RP version worked fine.
  5. Run bootrec /fixmbr
  6. Run bootrec /RebuildBcd
    This is the magic. It scans all the fixed disks, and writes out the BCD to boot them properly. Now that the drivers are loaded, it's suddenly not even interested in RP anymore and finds my Windows 8 Pro release build.
After this, a quick reboot and my machine is functional again.

Needless to say, I've permanently deleted the RP partition, so Automatic Repair doesn't get smart with me again. Next up, proper backup recovery.

Want to know the funniest thing? After all that, the dead drive turned out to not be Amber's system drive (or even her data drive). It was just a leftover drive from when she needed the extra space for MMO clients. Her OS, and practically all the data she cared about was intact!  Who knows why Windows 7 refused to boot when the system partition was intact, but once the dying drive was removed, her computer was fine like nothing happened.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lumia 920 win

My Samsung Focus rather unceremoniously bit the bucket today - it decided suddenly to stop accepting a battery charge. Thankfully, this occurred to the day of my upgrade cycle with AT&T, so I decided to upgrade to the Nokia Lumia 920 (black), one of the new Windows Phone 8 devices.

Admittedly it's hard to say I'm unbiased, but Windows Phone 8 is truly a work of genius. Ecosystem be damned, this thing is way better than even the mighty iPhone.  Nokia also adds a respectable amount of value.

A short list of why the Lumia 920 (and Windows Phone in general) is the best phone ever:
  • Nokia Drive. FREE MAPS, and not the crappy homebrew ones from Apple, but proper Navteq. Of course, with voice turn-by-turn. The big surprise - OFFLINE maps - now I can finally navigate in Canada! Did I also mention "completely free"?
  • Free ringtones. None of this charging for ringtone nonsense from iTunes; just drag a song from your computer to "Ringtones".
  • Forget re-buying all the accessories (*cough* iPhone 5 *cough*), my Lumia plugs in with *gasp*.... micro-USB. Wherever will I find a cord that fits?
  • Skydrive sync. Zune was always behind iTunes in terms of phone syncing... but now it's irrelevant. Windows Phone 8 just does away with Zune entirely. Your texts and app list are backed up, and your photos back up directly to SkyDrive.
  • Uberscreen. 4.5" of HD, with jet black blacks (both bigger and higher resolution than iPhone 5).
  • Really fast - noticeably faster than the Focus.
  • Childproof. Now with a "Kids Corner", a mode where kids can access games or apps you choose, but not dial Russian sex lines.
  • Resizable tiles. Yes, it may sound like a dumb thing to get excited about, but once you start customizing your start screen, you realize how satisfying it is to turn your start screen into a proper information hub.
  • Ready for business. Mobile Office pre-installed; automagic sync to both SkyDrive and SkyDrive Pro (didn't even have to set them up). Email and calendaring to Exchange (and Google, and Hotmail) retains the utter perfection achieved in Windows Phone 7.
... and I haven't even tried some of the best stuff yet, like the "Lens" feature (or the camera in general), tap-sync, or the legendary pillow charger. I suspect the next few days will be fun.

While I'm disappointed with the loss of Zune sync support, the fact that you can simply copy stuff with Explorer or a variety of other sync apps more than makes up for it. While the new Windows 8 "Windows Phone" app is obviously primitive and feature-anemic, it did copy media to the phone as advertised with no issues.

For my token negative comments... seriously, AT&T, is the crapware really necessary? Why would I pay monthly for your navigation, TV or music, when it's given away for free by apps built in to the phone? You cost me entire minutes deleting it all!

UPDATE 1/23:
More cool stuff discovered while using the phone.
  • Separate volume for each Bluetooth device. This was a complaint I had with WinPhone 7.0, and its resolution makes my morning commute way easier.
  • Visual voicemail. About time!
  • Emotion added in text-to-speech! It's pretty minor, but you can hear that the 8.0 voice actually sounds happy that you've received a text message, while the 7.5 voice is carefully neutral.
  • Nokia Music. Actually pretty good - perhaps redundant to Zune Pass holders, but you can offline your "mixes" with less effort than Xbox Music.

Monday, January 07, 2013

How do I protect my Paypal account?

A friend of Amber's recently asked an interesting question - how can you protect your Paypal account from being hacked?

Well, I may not work for Paypal (or any Internet finance company), but I do know a thing or two about security, so I figured I'd give a shot at providing some tips to keeping your account secure. The same tips can apply to just about any valuable Internet account you want to protect.

1. Use a unique password.
Your password should be something:
  • NOBODY else knows. Yes, not even your spouse, your kids, your tech support guy, or even your Mother. The more people that know, the higher the chances that at least one person will abuse the access, or even if they don't, will make a completely unintentional mistake that ends up exposing your password.
  • Is not used at ANY OTHER WEBSITE. It turns out that financial institutions (usually) do a pretty good job of protecting their users' passwords. However, FarmCityVampireTownVille, written entirely in Edgar's Mom's basement, is likely not quite as careful. Any two-bit hacker cracks the game's password file, then tries those passwords on more valuable websites like Paypal.
  • Is not blatantly obvious. While hackers may not know the name of your dog or your birthday, that angry ex-girlfriend probably remembers it acutely, and is eager to use that knowledge to steal every cent you have.
  • Is not written somewhere easy to access. Sticky notes (the real world kind) on the monitor are bad. A Notepad file on your desktop (the virtual kind now) is worse. Having the browser remember your password is just asking to get robbed. If you really want to save your passwords somewhere, there are specialized applications, eg. 1Password, which will allow you to save your passwords encrypted on your computer or phone. These applications can be a mixed blessing - the idea is that saving all your passwords under a single master password is worth the risk because it is then practical to use unique passwords for every website.
I specifically omitted any tips about having a "strong" password. While your password shouldn't be excessively short or common ("abc" or "dog" are probably not good choices), the gains from adding a bunch of numbers and punctuation are modest at best, and changing a password frequently (more than once every few months) is often more counter-productive than helpful. In my humble opinion, it's more important to have a unique password you can remember than what some security experts consider a "strong" password.

2. Use only computers you trust.
A compromised computer or device can easily steal your password.
  • Run anti-virus, and keep it up-to-date. You are susceptible to computer viruses. Period. I don't care how safe you think you are. I don't even care if you only surf news sites, or if you don't even have the Internet. You WILL eventually be exposed to a virus, and an effective anti-virus can protect you from most of them (blocking rates for most good anti-virus programs are in the mid-90%'s).
    If you don't have an anti-virus (or let your subscription lapse on the one you have), and don't feel like paying for one. Microsoft gives away a free anti-virus. Alternatively, if you have Windows 8, you already have anti-virus built in.
  • Don't use anyone else's computer to access your account. Don't log into Paypal from your friend's computer. Or your Mom's computer. Especially not an Internet kiosk, or at a store. I'd even warn against using your account on a shared computer at home, if you can avoid it. It is simply too hard for you to be sure that the computer you are using is trustworthy to not steal your passwords.
  • If your computer is behaving strangely, don't access your account. This is a bit more subjective - computers can often seem to act 'strangely' in completely normal circumstances. However, if your computer is displaying unexpected pop-ups, redirecting your Internet searches, running (unusually) slow, you should consider at least a virus scan before using your account. If you have been told that you have a virus, *never* use your account until your computer has been successfully cleaned by anti-virus software - and if possible, inspected by a professional.
What I didn't say here is "trusted networks". Go ahead and use your account on any Internet connection you can get - home, work, your hotel room, even public wireless. Any credible financial website these days will use encryption ("https"... usually indicated by some sort of padlock icon in your browser address bar). This means that, assuming your computer is otherwise trustworthy, that even if somebody is listening in on your connection, they can't see your password.

Note: while Paypal protects your entire session using encryption for privacy, other websites (eg. Gmail) only protect your password, then switch to an unencrypted connection. This means that anyone listening in will be able to see whatever you're browsing (for example, your emails), particularly on a wireless connection. If you value privacy, the EFF makes a great tool called HTTPS Everywhere that turns on encryption automatically for many common websites.

3. Protect your email account.
It turns out that your email account is one of your most valuable assets for security. When you click that "I forgot my password" link on your favorite website, usually they send you a password reset email. Even worse, your email likely has enough personal information (friends/family information, birthdays, account numbers, sometimes even passwords or security questions) to crack most every account you own, even ones that aren't on the Internet!

Take similar precautions with your email account as you would with your Paypal account, because the former may provide the keys to the latter.

Anyone else have good tips to protect your Paypal or other valuable Internet accounts? I'd love to hear about them in the comments.