Improved boot times: Vista vs Windows 7

I think it was Andrew who pointed me to Soluto as a method of improving boot times on Windows PCs.

I have mentioned before that my Vista-running X61 tablet takes a while to boot. Soluto measured boot time at just over 10 minutes. I followed its advice, and through delaying and removing various crapware and legitimate startup programs I got boot time down to 5 minutes and 10 seconds.

Emboldened, this weekend I took some advice from Ian’s comments on my last post and shelled out AU$300 for a copy of Windows 7 Professional (upgrade).

Now, with a few tweaks recommended by Soluto I’m recording a consistent boot time of 1 minute 35 seconds.

My aging tablet feels like new again (during boot).

Update: Actually, it feels pretty snappy since the Windows 7 makeover and some hybrid SSD drive loving. Boot time is now a shade under a minute and application launches are snappier than they’ve ever been.

iPhone 3GS

I can’t review my new iPhone 3GS. Frankly, I haven’t used it enough. I’m still waiting for my old carrier to port my number so I can use it as something more than a very expensive iPod Touch.

One of the first things I did after getting it was to sit down with a couple of our kids and show them the maps, video camera, photos, some Wall-E, Phineas and Ferb and then an iPhone version of Peggle which they had played on PC extensively.

When I had decided that demo time was over my 3 year old daughter insisted that the iPhone was hers. To encourage me to hand it over she started ripping up and throwing things around the house with some impressive, wanton, and very primal, rage.

This experience has brought me to the realisation that slavish iPhone desire is nature, not nurture.

I’m seriously considering buying a decoy.

Our Apple TV experience

As mentioned previously, we recently acquired an Apple TV and a fairly standard 720p 66cm LCD TV.

What problem was I trying to solve?

After spending some time in the US, we have Australian and US iTunes Store accounts. For the last year the majority of our TV came from one iTunes store or another (mostly one). We grew tired of advertising and DVDs. J & I promised that when we gave up our roughly $100/month cable subscription a few years ago that if legal downloadable content became viable we’d be happy to pay at least half that amount on content we could select for ourselves, watch at our leisure, and enjoy without advertising.

We’ve also recently boxed a few hundred CDs and put them in storage. This came about after we realised we’d purchased a shedload of music, but only about one physical CD per year for about 2 years. We needed a more convenient method than an iTunes library on a NAS to access our music collection.

What’s good?


We’re paying to be hostages to iTunes DRM. It’s not great. We got over it.

Convenient and sexily-presented access to all of our music

It’s an always-on jukebox of all our favourite hits which is easier to use than a CD player and doesn’t become scratched and unplayable when handled by children or visiting Luddites.

Consumer-grade access to video content

Fewer hours spent fiddling with PCs or digging for DVDs. Just cursor around and watch. Bored? You can drop a few bucks on a hire movie and watch straight away with little chance of there being a big fingerprint on the final chapter that stops you from enjoying your purchase.

What didn’t I know before I bought it that I should have?

Hard disk size

I got the 160GB version, and not the 8040GB thinking that I had to be able to manually carve up our 220GB of content and I’d prefer to have as much of it available as possible to avoid having to make too many decisions about content. Truth is, you don’t really need to go overboard with hard disk space. I have about 40GB of audio, and when you set the Apple TV to decide what to sync for you, it seems to allocate enough space for my entire audio collection and uses the rest of the space on what video it divines I’m likely to want t watch.

Automatic sync settings

Automatic sync works by constantly updating the content of the Apple TV with the iTunes libraries on your network to try to make sure the content you care about is online when the iTunes libraries aren’t. If your iTunes library is online, the Apple TV shows the content of those libraries as available through the menu system and if you play something that isn’t on the Apple TV’s hard disk, it begins to copy the content onto its hard disk and starts playing when it’s confident there won’t be a break in transmission to re-buffer.

The bad?

Getting started

The Apple TV seems to be hard or slow to wake up after a rest. Often you have to poke away at the remote for 15-30 seconds to get it to display or utter the first "bloops" of evident wakefulness.

Very occasionally the Apple TV appears to thrash like a computer and be consistently unresponsive. Twice I’ve had to switch it off and on to restore sanity and responsiveness.

The resync

"While Apple TV is playing back video content, the syncing of content from iTunes is temporarily paused. Syncing will automatically resume shortly after you stop playing video content. " (

What this doesn’t tell you is that for some reason, when you’re paused in the middle of an Apple TV-purchased movie, your Apple TV also likes to do resyncs if you accidentally leave your iTunes running on another PC. I suspect it’s zealously syncing where you’re at in the movie so it can restart you from that point on any other iTunes instance. The problem with this is that resyncs while you’re in the middle of a TV show or a movie cause the Apple TV to become unresponsive or sluggish and stuttery for a time. It seems to take upwards of a minute to recover from a resync commenced when you paused a feature-length film. The unit becomes unresponsive, eating remote control clicks or misinterpreting them as click-and-hold commands. I typically spend some time after the Apple TV has recovered from sluggishness trying to find my way back to where I originally paused.

This is probably the biggest disappointment. It seems to me to be a bug. Resyncs should be transparent to the user of the Apple TV and certainly shouldn’t affect usability or response time. Fingers crossed for a fix.

"Automatic" sync almost works as I’d expect

With Automatic sync the Apple TV loads up on video content you haven’t watched yet and content you have watched tends to be deleted to make way for new content. The downside of this for us has been kids’ content. We have Dora the Explorer on high rotation, and the Apple TV liked deleting Dora in favour of other content. Now that Dora has been watched a few hundred times Apple TV has taken the hint, but having to boot up a PC to get Dora on the air was a little more tiresome than I expected. It would be nice if you could explicitly hint that you’d like to prioritise some content for caching on the Apple TV.


Apple TV is visually polished, extremely well integrated with all things iTunes, yet suffers the same poor responsiveness of other computers that pretend to be HiFi equipment (I’m lookin’ at you Media Center PCs). It’s not as polished and predictable as I expected.

On the whole, as an iTunes-dependent family we’re hooked and find it indispensable. Without an iTunes addiction it wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

Fossilized Amiga bones

I was foraging around in some old boxes when I found a small collection of things that used to be in Amigas I have owned.

Here’s what might be the original Motorola 68000 processor from my Amiga 1000:

Motorola 68000 processor

I believe this might be the processor I swapped out for a 68010 in a vain early attempt at a speed upgrade (the Amiga 1000 was architected to be synchronous with PAL and NTSC video frequencies so overclocking wasn’t even a dream back in the day).

I recall severing one of the pins during some overenthusiastic and too-frequent brain transplanting, but the one you see above is bent up a bit yet doesn’t have any missing pins. It’s in better condition than my own brain’s recollection of where this processor came from, it seems.

The 68010 was mostly indistinguishable in performance from the 68000 and screwed up many of the games of the day, possibly because of their reliance on the 68000’s loop speed as a precision timing mechanism. I used to pop it in and out while I was searching for the 68010 emperor’s new clothes.

Eventually the 68000 and 68010 gave way to a 16MHz 68020 & 68881 LUCAS board, which provided excellent bang per buck in terms of performance and ram upgrades, and allowed the 68000 to be switched back in for games compatibility.

This is the “Agnus” chip from either my Amiga 2000 or someone else’s Amiga 500:

Commodore Amiga "Agnus" 8371 chip

This was the chip responsible for most of the bling in typical Amiga graphics demos. It contains a hardware blitter, video coprocessor, DMA controller, and a bunch of other functionality. I can’t recall the fault, but I can recall that replacing it made life a little better.

I believe this is the Intel 8088 (actually made by Siemens) that occupied the strange little expansion box called an Amiga Sidecar:

Intel 8088

The Amiga Sidecar was an IBM PC clone in a box that, as you can tell from the Wikimedia image, did not make the Amiga any prettier, but it did provide an inconvenient and expensive way to run PC programs and a relatively inexpensive route to hard disk capacity. If I recall correctly the PC ran independently but through “Janus” software the PC screen was accessed through a program running on the Amiga Workbench. There were also a bunch of utilities for sharing data and text between the two computers.

The processor above was supplanted by the almost perceptibly faster NEC V20 processor.

SCSI controllers and drives were insanely expensive, if technically superior, when the Amiga 1000 was ascendant. With a Sidecar you could get a relatively cheap PC hard disk controller and PC hard disks to share with the Amiga side.

All of this brings painfully to mind the startup scripts that I used to write and debug to deal with booting from a floppy, and handing off to the hard disk with subtle timing and software incompatibilities between booting with the Sidecar and LUCAS boards in different modes.

Tablets, Tablet PCs and software development

For a long time I thought that if I were better able to quickly construct illuminating diagrams to make a point or communicate a concept then I’d be a much more effective communicator. Effective communication is a boon to software development, so improving my ability to rapidly pump out neat diagrams was a noble goal worthy of investment.

I thought that if I had a tablet I’d be able to pick up any drawing package and quickly render those few boxes, circles, arrows, classes, use-cases and swimlanes with a pen in double-quick time. Surely a pen is the natural way to draw, and therefore faster and easier.

I had my eye on a Wacom tablet for a while. I had used a few casually and found them awkward. Designer friends told me that it takes some getting used to and a rigour about the way you set up and use applications. I had also worked with a UK-based engineer who used one for illustrating and annotating shared applications, presentations and documents during design collaboration conference calls. I was convinced my first impressions were wrong.

“Cool” I thought. “Let the tablet-led communication-effectiveness and R&D begin!”

After I saw that Julian had a tablet, I abandoned rational thought and cool-headed evaluation while toy envy took over. I dropped about AU$100 on a cheap Wacom-like tablet to figure out if it was a worthwhile addition to my professional and home-tinkering life.

After getting used to looking at the screen and not the tablet, and making the mental switch from mouse-relative pointing to tablet-absolute positioning seem relatively natural I worked on using a few applications.

In a week or so of trial use I came to the following conclusions:

  • EverNote is way cool for doing shape-drawing, but I was still about half as fast at constructing diagrams with the tablet as using a mouse and keyboard. I also made lots of mistakes with the tablet that were kind of painful to correct. I wish more applications had EverNote’s (and the Apple Newton’s) shape recognition/fixup mode.
  • Visio is kind of awkward with a mouse, and even more awkward with a pen.
  • Few applications have big enough icons that can also be positioned conveniently enough for tablet use.
  • Unsurprisingly, the best applications are painting programs like Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro. Primarily it’s because with a tablet the curve you render on the tablet is the curve you see on the screen. With a mouse, you have to convince your body to implement a kind of feedback and control system to modify your physical action to produce the curve you want to render.
  • Tablets are cruel and frustrating.

I gave up on the Wacom-style tablet, though I’m not sure that I gave it a fighting chance. I got to a point where my frustration was greater than the residual value of my AU$100 investment and abandoned it.

Time passed… and the opportunity to get a tablet PC at less than extortionate prices presented itself. Quite apart from the X61 being a tablet PC, it’s far more portable and usable than any laptop I’ve owned since my Mac PowerBook 170.

In summary, in the contest between tablets and tablet PCs, tablet PCs win.

Direct manipulation of screen pixels is much more approachable than separate tablet hardware. They’re more portable, convenient for more applications and they don’t get your colleagues confused about whether you’re a graphic designer or a developer.

That’s not to say tablet PCs are the perfect tool for diagramming.

Bear with me while I offer some completely un-benchmarked productivity estimates.

When it comes to drawing diagrams with perfect boxes and lines in an application like Illustrator or Visio, I’m about 20% faster with a mouse. If the requirement is for nicely typed text, then the mouse and keyboard wins by about 50% over the tablet PC.

But there’s a diagramming mode where the tablet PC shines: freehand diagrams.

If the boxes, lines and arrows don’t need to be perfect, and if the text is handwritten, and if the diagram won’t need to be maintained, then drawing freehand using OneNote or EverNote on the tablet PC is probably 50% faster than using a keyboard and mouse.

After recognising this my primary use of the pen mode on my X61 Tablet has settled into these tasks:

  • Quick and dirty diagrams to capture notes or communicate information, often projected on a meeting room display or web conference, and sometimes to be later transcribed into a “proper” UML tool or Visio.
  • Annotation of documents, spreadsheets and presentations with Office 2007’s pen reviews.
  • Note-taking & annotation of typed notes.
  • Painting.

For me personally, the dream of being able to use any illustration package more effectively with some kind of tablet is gone, yet note-taking with freehand illustrations is something I now find indispensable.

Taking the plunge: Windows Vista Service Pack 1

Every patch on my X61 tablet seems to bring Vista closer to the nimble responsive OS I’d like on my quasi-mobile PC that isn’t a Mac.  Today I noted on (Ars Technica) that Vista patch nirvana had arrived: SP1.

Installing Vista SP1

It’s not kidding either.  It was 1 hour and 20 minutes later that it declared Windows Vista SP1 installed on my tablet.  Thankfully no intervention is required during that time.

Now fingers crossed that not waiting for the Windows Update push in mid-April will spare me an NT 4.0 service-pack-like experience. 

So far I can report an overwhelming sense of sameness.  It’s quiet.  Too quiet.

Update:…and it boots and comes out of sleep faster.

The Lenovo X61 tablet four months later

I’ve had my X61 tablet for about four months now, so it’s time to talk about wear and tear and how battery life looks in regular usage.

In general, it’s the least battered-looking of any laptop I’ve owned at 4 months.  The only externally visible signs that it’s not a brand new laptop are that the screen is usually covered with my grubby fingerprints, and the middle-bottom of the screen has pulled away every so slightly from the plastic cowling above the rotating hinge.  If you look carefully you can see the adhesive has pulled away from the two pieces of plastic.  X61 tablet pen with sticky tape repairs

Another defect I’ve recently encountered is a broken button on the tablet pen.  At AU$60 replacement cost, I was expecting the tablet pen to be pretty solid.  In general it feels like it is. It feels great and it comes with extra nibs and a piece of circular scrap metal generously described as a nib-remover by the manual, which indicates which part the designers expect to wear out first.  The Achilles heel of the tablet pen is the button on the side which is used for the equivalent of a right mouse click.  The button has a hilariously flimsy plastic bracer to hold it into the pen body. This tiny, fragile, destined-to-fail, bracer, snapped on mine.  No more right-clicks and context menus for me in tablet mode.

I was about to cry into my coffee this morning when my two year old unhelpfully suggested sticky tape.  I was drawing breath to humour her with praise for suggesting her cure-all for anything broken (plates, cars, dead pets, flat batteries) when it occurred to me that it might actually work.  See the image attached for the resurrected pen.  It now feels more solid and clicks more positively than before it broke.

I’ll work on Lenovo to see if my warranty is worth pursuing later in the week.

Practical battery life

I’ve been on a course this week, so I’ve been able to check out a real-life battery longevity scenario. 

Usually I’m only away from power for two or three hours of meeting use, and that hasn’t really tested the battery life near its limits so that isn’t too interesting. 

This week I’ve been in a room from 9am to 4:30pm for two (and a half) days, and managed to get the X61 to last the whole time by plugging in for 45 and 50 minutes at lunch (12:10 to 1pm-ish).  On the course I was taking sporadic notes, and being distracted by one or two projects that were running hot though my instant messengers and email.  I had WPA-2 wireless G connectivity up 100% of the time and I was running Microsoft Outlook 2003, OneNote 2007, MS Office Communicator 2005, Google Talk Firefox  and Word 2007. I was using the tablet lightly enough to have brief IM conversations and answer emails, while still being attentive enough to engage with the instructor and not get thrown out (the course was 8 hours of information crammed into a 3 day course, so sue me for my lack of attention).  I run with about 4 bars of screen brightness, and use a slightly tweaked clone of the power-source-optimised power profile.

On day 1 ended at 4:30 with 37 minutes of battery left according to the battery meter, and on day 2 we ended closer to 4:10pm and I had 50 minutes of battery left according to the same source.

My X61’s battery is a 4.55 Amp Hour 8-cell Sanyo Lithium Ion (FRU 93P5032 in Lenovo parts speak).  Better longevity than I expected.

Vista wireless woes

As I mentioned in a previous post, Vista is overly aggressive about powering down the wireless network interface on my new tablet notebook.  Vista seems to want to disable the wireless when it loses connectivity, when wireless network strength is less than excellent, when the wireless network interface is idle for too long, or if it gets tired of me being productive. 

Losing the wireless capability on a Lenovo tablet/laptop (because power-savingness is close to godliness, or something) shouldn’t be a problem. There are a couple of utilities and control panel widgets for turning wireless back on again.  The infuriating problem with my tablet is that either Vista wireless or Lenovo’s wireless managers seem to get themselves, or each other, royally screwed. The easy methods of getting your wireless card turned on again become completely unresponsive. Sometimes they fail to show the correct state and hang when you try to disable or enable wireless again.  The result is extended periods of wirelesslessness.

With Vista’s ambition, though not-terribly successful (compared to Mac OSX) attempts to quickly wake from sleep and power-conserving modes, I would think that getting wireless back should be fast and simple.  It’s supposed to be.  Sadly, it’s not so.  Usually it takes a reboot (which, under Vista, also isn’t that fast) to restore wireless capabilities to their former, precarious, glory.

After searching for answers and persevering with Vista throughout its insistence that I save power foremost through the loss of my wireless connectivity, I finally decided to side-step the problem.  Basically, I excluded my wireless adapter from any power saving scheme. 

Continue reading Vista wireless woes

Solid state reliability

A while back I learned something that I think is interesting for anyone who is interested in reliability. The reliability of solid state components in computers is related to the Arrhenius Equation. The Arrhenius Equation describes how the rate of chemical reactions is affected by temperature. A theory of reliability about solid state components of computers says that the reason they fail (after DOA and child mortality failures) is primarily due to chemical reactions, like oxidation.

In Wikipedia’s inimitable style:

The general rule of thumb, without solving the equation, is that for every 10°C increase in temperature the rate of reaction doubles. As with any rule of thumb, it does not always work.

Theoretically that means that for every 10°C you can cool your computer beyond its nominal operating temperature, you can (according to the unreliable rule of thumb) increase the mean time between failures of solid state components in your PC by a factor of 2. Another way of describing this is that it doubles the reliability of those components.

Now, a question: Should I freeze my backup DVDs?

Lenovo X61 Tablet Review

image image

My new favourite thing is my Lenovo X61 Tablet.  It’s a "convertible" 12 inch laptop with a Wacom tablet display and a bunch of of other things to help fulfil the diverse requirements of tablet PC users. 


  • Display: 12" 1400 x 1050 Wacom "Penabled" display which can rotate 180 degrees and fold flat over the keyboard.
  • CPU: (Santa Rosa) Intel L7500 (1.6GHz Core2Duo with 4MB L2 cache)
  • Ram: 2GB
  • Video: Mobile Intel 965 Express 3D graphics decelerator
  • Disk: 200GB 7200RPM Seagate "G-force" drive
  • 1GB of Flash Memory divided 50/50 between Windows ReadyBoost & ReadyDrive.
  • SD card slot
  • Fingerprint reader
  • Wireless A/B/G and Bluetooth
  • Ultrabase Dock with DVD writer
  • Windows Vista Business

How fast is it?

For Vista fans:


And for comparison, this is my desktop with Intel 6600 Core 2 Duo CPU, 2G of RAM, 7200 RPM drives and an NVIDIA 8800 GTX video card:


Notably, the tablet is often sluggish when being carried.  This is because of a Lenovo-supplied tool called the "Active Protection" system which monitors the IDE hard disk’s accelerometers for signs of movement and actively parks the disk heads in anticipation of a drop or rough treatment.  You can scale back the sensitivity of the utility, or uninstall it to regain speed with increased risk.

Missing and strange hardware

The main thing I miss is a trackpad.  The X61 has a track point thingy, and after a couple of days I had the hang of it. Swapping from other laptops (especially J’s MacBook) requires little moments of brain readjustment and muscle-memory retraining to get used to again.   It has a three (mouse) button arrangement under the space bar – with left, right and middle buttons.

X61 tablet keyboard layout

The keyboard is generous, yet not quite full-sized.  The feel is excellent, with quiet, comfortable clicks. 

The strangest keyboard design decisions are:

  1. To put a browser back and forward key either side of the up part of the cursor inverted "T" formation on the right.
  2. To put the "Fn" key in the bottom left corner where I expect to find ctrl.

Laptop keyboard design is all about compromise. Even with the odd tradeoff decisions, the layout is generous.  The keyboard offers  sound control, Fn-qualified media control keys and full-sized alpha-numeric keys, which is something other portability-optimized laptops don’t always manage. 

Another thing I miss is a DVI monitor output.  Not that it really troubles me to use VGA cables from a laptop, but I thought I had retired my stock of VGA cables for good.  Even the Ultrabase doesn’t have a DVI video socket.

Other Annoyances

Vista (or Lenovo’s wireless drivers and services) are too aggressive about saving power and turn off the wireless when you’re not connected or reach a point of poor reception.  The wireless reception is good, but not great.  I figured this out on a recent road trip where in a few hotels, J could get flawless reception on her MacBook where my poor tablet was able to achieve only intermittent connectivity.

You would think Lenovo could improve on IBM’s Stalinist-era design sensibilities, but the X61 Notepad is just a functional solid-feeling black brick.

Good things

I was always suspicious of fingerprint readers, but I’m beginning to wonder how I can get a fingerprint reader onto all the computers I use.  They seem pretty reliable for me, though kid-sized fingers don’t scan reliably.  Not having to pen-input your password when you’re in tablet or laptop mode is a great relief.


Let’s start with Vista.  The X61 Tablet comes with Windows Vista Business and really, it’s not too terrible.  I resisted XP Tablet edition because Vista’s handwriting recognition is allegedly better and the X61 comes with the on-board flash memory option that Vista takes advantage of.

I’ve used Vista before and found it to be annoying enough to warn other people to avoid it.  Without having installed XP tablet edition I can’t compare – but I’m happy enough with Vista.  The usual caveats apply, though.  It’s sometimes hard to get software you’re used to on XP to run on Vista.  The VPN client I used to access work isn’t yet available, for example.  When I’m on battery, by favourite time-killer application (Art Rage) sometimes seems to freeze the entire computer – something that I thought Vista was supposed to make a thing of the past…  The Tablet PC Input Panel – the little flying window that lets you recognize text and do without the keyboard – sometimes stops responding to input.  It flies onto the screen and can be dismissed, but it sometimes doesn’t do what it’s supposed to – recognize text. The following is the text entry panel working in free-form recognition mode.

Vista recognizing! ink!

The most important software to talk about is what’s bundled in ThinkVantage Productivity Center – Rescue and Recovery.  This utility is a backup system that provides the ability to perform master and incremental backups on a regular basis either to a network or other attached storage device, or to a hidden & protected folder on your hard disk.  The Tablet’s hard disk is partitioned with a 5GB "rescue" partition that boots into a recovery mode version of Vista that lets you restore from a backup and a bunch of other repair and maintenance options. This seems superfluous given Vista Business’ perfectly-good built-in equivalent, but maybe I’m missing something subtle.

EverNote and OneNote both rock, and  I have been using both.  OneNote is winning the battle for my attention and has become my most-used application in a short period of time.

Is it fun and useful?

Having taken notes a couple of times in meetings and web conferences, the ability to use OneNote to clip, annotate and draw all over material is very natural and efficient. It’s light enough I can lug it around pretty easily in a backpack when I ride to work.

Technical diagrams are a breeze.  I’ve been using Illustrator, Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, Visio (and *cough* Art Rage), and the ability to draw shapes and move them around directly in freehand takes some getting used to after the mouse, but is ultimately rewarding and feels like a small increase in productivity.  The big gains are in scratching up diagrams to share.  If you need to mark-up a presentation quickly, use Office 2007’s pen tools to scrawl all over the electronic copy.  If you need to show someone a UML design you’re thinking about – scratch one out and email it, or even better – web conference it.

For the most part I use it as a pretty respectable lightweight notebook with a great keyboard.  As a tablet, it has turned the tedious parts of note taking, drawing and general collaboration into something enjoyable.

PS: See also this post, on wireless troubles, and this post on anecdotal battery life and the the flaky tablet pen.

GreenCom moonlighting

If you’re at all interested in Green Computing, can I commend the proceedings of GreenCom07. There are some excellent papers that should be good reading for anyone who’s interested in data centres, power and heat-aware software design, hardware architectures or saving the planet one CPU cycle at a time.

You can also play “pick the odd person out” when you review the Program Committee.