Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Best way to completely erase a hard drive

It's easy to believe that choosing a file on your computer, selecting Delete and emptying the Recycle Bin will forever remove its presence from your life.  Not so!  Sometimes traces will remain even after a reformat or blanking procedure (writing zeroes to all sectors).

This came up in a recent question I was asked:

"I have the HP Pavilion Media Center 2005 Edition.  I would like detailed but easy to follow directions on how to remove the hard drive and destroy it before I donate or discard of it."

There are two options to effectively remove data from the drive -- software and hardware. I recommend you do both, just to be safe.

First, run a program like DBAN (http://www.dban.org). It's free software and the best for eliminating nearly all traces of data on the drive. Many universities (including Stanford) use this program for their machines.

Next step would be to remove the drive. Take off the side and front panels first, then unscrew the two screws from the front of the drive bay. After the screws are out, pull back and hold the bay release and slide the bay out of the case. Finally, remove all four screws from the drive itself.

Finally, If you're really serious about data removal, a hardware solution is in order. Degaussing often requires expensive equipment, but drive destruction is also an option. Drilling multiple holes in the drive is fairly quick and effortless, but if you're up for it, disassemble it and and then destroy the platters.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Windows 8 Upgrade

Luke from Corpus Christi, TX recently asked:

"How do I know if I need the Windows 8 upgrade or the full retail version?"

If you already have Windows Vista or Windows 7 installed then the Upgrade version is fine.  If you have no operating system or a non-Windows operating system installed, you will need the Full version (also called System Builder version).  In addition, upgrading from Windows XP requires a whole new set of gymnastics to get things going, which is something beyond the scope of this post.

Also, there are some additional limitations, depending on which Windows edition you already have installed (i.e. Windows 7 Home, Professional, etc.) and to which edition you'll be upgrading.  Microsoft has been kind enough to provide specific info on that here:


Finally, keep in mind that if you have a 32-bit version of a previous Windows operating system installed, you can only directly upgrade to another 32-bit version.  If you want to upgrade to a 64-bit version, you'll need a System Builder/Full install.

Whew!  I know!  It's all so very confusing, but if this hasn't made things clear for you, please feel free to get in touch and I'll be happy to walk you through!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Windows Experience Index - Failed Disk Assessment

As part of my three-part series on Windows 8, I mentioned that one of my annoyances was the inability to run the basic built-in benchmarking tool, the Windows Experience Index (WEI), on my system.  Every run ended with the following error:

"The Windows Experience Index for your system could not be computed. Could not measure storage performance. Error: Failed to properly assess the disk. Incorrect function."

As I mentioned before, I tried every possible solution to get it working, but after two days of tinkering, I simply gave up.

Flash forward 30 minutes after posting that last blog entry and now this issue is resolved!  I'll explain how it was done, but first, a little background:

Every time I've had to do a clean install of either Windows 7 or Windows 8, I've had to disconnect my 2TB Seagate hard drive.  This is the drive that holds all of my media files, backups, etc. (my 2x 60GB solid-state drives in RAID0 are for Windows and programs), so unplugging it during install and plugging it back in afterwards isn't a problem.  I always thought it was kinda weird, but I managed to live with it.

With that thought in mind, I disconnected the Seagate drive and ran the WEI -- and it worked!  The results are kind of sad, but keep in mind that I started building this machine almost six years ago:

Processor = 5.7
Memory (RAM) = 7.1
Graphics = 7.1
Gaming Graphics = 7.1
Primary hard disk = 7.5

As part of my initial troubleshooting, I posted a help request to the Microsoft Community.  Since finding this solution, I've updated my post so hopefully I'll be able to help others in the same predicament.

Is Windows 8 really worth it? (Part 3)

Sorry about the delay in getting this third and final installment on Windows 8 posted.  It's not like I was having trouble with my newly-installed operating system that required a complete reformat and reinstall, right?


Let's start at the beginning. This last post will cover my personal experiences from working with Windows 8 over the last month.  Although what follows is mostly positive, there have been a few bumps in the road along the way.

First, adjusting to the Metro interface may take some time.  Even more so if you've never interacted with a smartphone before.  Unlike, say, the nearly overwhelming change from DOS to Windows or even Windows 3.1 to Windows 95, upgrading to Windows 8 is more of an adjustment than a complete "start from scratch" re-education.  I found the easiest way to adjust was to find analogies to previous operating systems.  For example, although there is no longer a Start button, the Metro screen itself is comparable to the Start menu and by right-clicking the lower-left corner of the screen, you're able to directly access a number of useful utilities that often required more effort in Windows XP/Vista/7.

Second, the approach that Windows 8 takes to handling applications is a bit different.  The friendly "X" to close a program is a rarity now.  Actually, unless you specifically request it, programs don't close at all when you're done with them -- they merely shuffle off into the background.  I found the easiest way to deal with this was to close them anyway by moving the cursor to the upper-left corner of the screen, right-clicking on the program you want to close and then selecting Close.

Third, like all new operating systems, sometimes drivers are not immediately available or are still in a beta state.  This happened to me with my sound card, a Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium.  Although the built-in drivers were sufficient, I was missing all of the functionality that Creative Labs Windows 7 drivers provided.  Although a beta release was available at launch, it suffered from an annoying bug that muted all sound to the speakers until they were reconfigured.  Fortunately, WHQL certified drivers were released to resolve this issue.

Fourth, for those who were up in arms about the Metro interface and the lack of a Desktop, guess what?  Desktop is still there, offering an experience comparable to the previous operating systems.  The major difference is the lack of a Start button, which I've already covered.  To be honest, I spend the majority of my time on the Desktop anyway and find it just as easy to use as in Windows 7.

Finally, I'll mention some of the problems I've been having with Windows 8.  The first was fairly minor.  For those who are unfamiliar, the Windows Experience Index is a way to test your hardware with a number of basic benchmarks.  I honestly feel it was just designed to give speed junkies bragging rights when they wanted to convince their friends whose rig was faster.  Regardless, I'm always curious as to how my ancient and decrepit box holds up, so I decided to run WEI shortly after I installed Windows 8.

Unfortunately, running the WEI generated an error: "The Windows Experience Index for your system could not be computed. Could not measure storage performance. Error: Failed to properly assess the disk. Incorrect function." I won't go into everything I tried to fix this issue (although the curious may want to check out my plea for help from the Microsoft Community at http://tiny.cc/dix5qw) but let's just say that even after a fresh reinstall, the error persists (and the aforementioned Microsoft Community is oddly silent).

Which leads us to my most recent difficulty, which serves as a lesson in humility on my part and a warning that should be relayed to every Internet user, new or old:  don't believe everything you read on the Internet, as evidenced here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmx4twCK3_I

A few days ago I decided to get a jump on the tax season and install Intuit's Turbo Tax on my PC.  My attempt was immediately thwarted by an error message ".Net 4.0 Framework verification tool can't be found."  As might be expected, Intuit blamed Microsoft and an hour or so of web searches revealed that Microsoft, for the most part, blamed Intuit.  In addition to discovering that in my research, I also came across a dozen or more possible solutions to the problem, all of which failed.  In desperation, I made one last ditch effort by following instructions that indicated I should delete a sub-folder from within the .Net folder, reboot and then try the reinstall.

No, I don't know what made me do it and no, I have no idea why I didn't make a backup of the folder. <sigh>  So, the end result is what you might expect -- I hosed my .Net install.  To make matters worse, since .Net 4.5 is built into Windows 8, reinstalling it is not an option.  After a few more hours of research, no viable solution presented itself.

At this point I felt I'd done enough damage and resigned myself to doing my taxes through Intuit's website and skipping the software install entirely.  Well, that was until I tried to do some work with Windows Firewall and received multiple error messages about missing files.  Was it related to my previous blunder or was it something new?  At that point, I pretty much didn't care, so I backed up all of my files and did a complete reinstall.

With that said, please don't let these two minor flaws prevent you from enjoying Windows 8.  If you're in the market for a new laptop or desktop, the odds are you'll be using this operating system for the foreseeable future.  If you're a current Windows 7 user and you're contemplating an upgrade, however, I can't really recommend it.  There is no vital reason to move to Windows 8 at this time.  XP/Vista users, though, might want to consider making the switch, especially with the upgrade currently going for $39.99 ( just be warned that will increase to $119.99 on February 1st).

As always, please feel free to comment with questions or requests for clarification.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Is Windows 8 really worth it? (Part 2)

In case you missed my previous post, I've installed the Windows 8 Pro 64-bit edition.  After a few minor hiccups, installation was complete and it was time to start playing around with Microsoft's latest.  This second part of a three-part series will cover some of the "annoyances" that some users find when upgrading from previous versions of Windows to Windows 8.

The first issue to address is the user interface.  I'd done some research and even played with the Release Preview a few months back, so I sorta knew what to expect. However, even with a bit of background, it still takes a little getting used to Microsoft calls the "Metro" interface.

The lack of a Start button was the first stumbling block.  Since Windows 95 I've mindlessly right-clicked on the Start button and selected some version of Windows Explorer to get to my folders.  It didn't take me too long, however, to discover that moving the cursor to the lower-left corner, right-clicking and selecting File Explorer does the exact same thing!  The same holds true for a number of options you previously saw on the Start menu:  Run, Search, Command Prompt (both normal and elevated) and so on are all in this handy menu. 

Where's the familiar Desktop, you might ask?  You can access it using the exact same menu.  Not only that, once you've gone to the Desktop initially, you can toggle between it and the Metro screen by pressing the Windows key on your keyboard (in addition to a few other ways as well).

One thing that's not on this menu is your Shut Down options.  It took a while for me to find this one, but it's not that complicated.  Simply move your cursor to the upper-right corner of the screen until the sidebar pops out, click on the Settings "cog" and select Power.  Your options for Sleep, Restart and Shut Down are all there.

Actually, that sidebar can come in pretty handy, especially when dealing with native Windows 8 apps.  For example, after installing Skype I had a devil of a time trying to figure out how to change the microphone and speaker settings so that it would use my Logitech headset instead of my computer speakers and Line In.  I was so used to finding those options on a toolbar in the app itself, but Skype for Windows 8 has a very clean interface.  As it turns out, the Settings option on the sidebar was the answer.  Profile, Options, Permissions -- they're all right there!

Finally, a lot of folks (myself included) were a little confused about the lack of the familiar "X" that would close a program in most windows.  Windows 8, by default, leaves all programs running in the background.  However, if you want to close a program completely, go to the Metro screen, move your cursor to the upper-left and you'll see all of the apps that are currently running.  Right-click on one and you'll see the Close option.  Select that and the program closes.

That's all for Part 2.  In Part 3, I'll give what can best be called a review of the OS and go in-depth on some of the features I found interesting and fun (or conversely, tedious and annoying).

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Is Windows 8 really worth it? (Part 1)

As so many spent this holiday gathered together with their families beneath the glowing, festive symbol of their choice, I too indulged in a long-standing tradition:

I installed a new operating system!

Initially, I tried a dual-boot system, retaining Windows 7 while adding Microsoft's newest, flashiest OS.  However, hard drive space limitations quickly killed that idea, so I decided to go all-out, backup everything, wipe the drive and install Windows 8 fresh.

My first roadblock was a minor one, since I was expecting it from my initial Windows 7 install.  Apparently Windows doesn't like my second hard drive (the 2TB jobber that has all of my files) being connected at the same time as my main (boot, apps and games) drive.  Depending on my mood I'll either disable the large drive in BIOS or unplug it from power, but either way that solves the initial problem when done.

Since my Blu-Ray burner died on me, I've been using either virtual drives or USB sticks for my install needs.  Unfortunately, I had a number of problems trying to install Windows 8 from my Kingston 4GB USB drive.

The first was minor and more a result of impatience on my part.  The first screen you will see during a fresh Windows 8 install is of a stylized "Window" with a dark blue background.  No text indicating the installation is progressing and no other indication that anything is happening at all.

I guess I'm used to Windows 7 which is verbose, comparatively and usually gets me to something within 30 seconds.  So, I waited 5 minutes for something to happen before trying the install again.  This resulted in the same issue, so I switched to watching some TV and came back about 30 minutes later to find that I was on a very familiar "language selection" screen.

Shortly after, I was brought to a screen asking for a Mass Storage Driver, which hasn't been a problem since Windows XP.  For some reason moving the USB stick from the USB hub to a port on the PC resolved that issue.

Next, I received an error that an Install.esd file was missing.  I started the install over twice (this time babysitting the initial sequence which, as it turns out, took about 6 minutes to get to the Language select screen), but nothing changed.  Did some research and discovered that using Microsoft's own install tool (found here) to create the bootable USB install was not the best option.  Oddly enough, just directly coping the contents of the image file I was using to the USB drive was the trick I needed to get this working.

Finally, the install started and in this Windows 8 was impressive.  I think it took about 5 minutes from Language selection to a working operating system!

That's a good place to stop this first part of my adventure with Windows 8.  In part two, I'll expound on the various virtues and pitfalls on this new operating system.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Laptop shopping

One of the many disadvantages to being out of work is the inability to invest in new toys.  My 6-year old self-built PC is really starting to show its age!  So I was practically giddy when I was approached by two friends over the weekend who were looking for laptop buying advice.  If I can't upgrade my own rig, I can live vicariously through others who are making the leap.

As we enter the final stretch of the holiday season, the promises of big box, brick-and-mortar retailers and their online counterparts are dancing in consumer's heads like so many sugar plums.  However, a bit of preparation is required before clicking that Checkout button (or entering that exceedingly length checkout line).

First and most important:  you need to know your main purpose for using the laptop.  Do you just need something to check e-mail, surf the web and play Facebook games or is this going to be a true desktop replacement capable of running the latest First-Person Shooter with all of the bells-and-whistles turned on?

If it's the former, a simple netbook might be in order.  Web-surfing is what these little wonders were made for and it doesn't hurt that they're a bargain for the budget-conscious.  Acer is a popular brand and they offer many models in the sub-$300 price range.

At the high-end, I highly recommend Alienware, a company that has been building custom PCs since the mid-90s.  Becoming a subsidiary of Dell hasn't hurt their stellar reputation, either.  However, the allure of having a high-end rig in portable form doesn't come cheap and you'll be lucky to find a beefy Alienware model for less than $2,000.

One caveat before we move on:  you simply can't swap out laptop parts when it's time for an upgrade.  Only RAM is upgradeable (and it's effectiveness beyond 4GB is debatable), so don't expect to replace the motherboard, CPU or GPU a year or so down the road when you experience slow performance in the latest app you need to run.  I mention this because when you do finally take the plunge, make sure your chosen machine meets or exceeds your requirements with some room left over for the future.

Many consumers opt for a laptop that fits between the two extremes of basic and powerhouse.  Here are a few points I'll mention for those who are hoping to have a machine that does everything, but don't have the budget:

1) Recent desktop AMD processors have been disappointing and this applies to their mobile counterparts as well.  Although there will be naysayers, I always recommend Intel CPUs, with i3, i5 and i7 processors being the most common.

2) If you're trying to stay in the $500 - $700 price range, your choice will most-likely have an Intel video chipset onboard (the 4000 HD is pretty common).  This isn't necessarily a bad choice, but don't expect to run, say, Far Cry 3 with all of the detail settings at maximum.  On the other hand, games with lower requirements should run fine.

3) 4GB of RAM is now pretty much the standard.  If you have specific requirements for more, adding a second SODIMM module is fairly painless and inexpensive.

4) 15.6" displays are the norm for units in this price range.  Unless you have a particular reason, avoid touchscreens which are often more trouble than they're worth and tend to increase the overall price of the unit.

5) Laptops are notorious for poor audio fidelity.  If audio quality is important to you (and you're willing to sacrifice a bit of portability), some inexpensive external speakers might be an option.

6) Hate it or love it, Windows 8 is installed on almost every new laptop.  Downgrading to Windows 7 should always be an option, but I'm just an unemployed tech and not a bigwig at a major PC provider, so that decision is outside of my purview.

7) Don't skimp on important accessories!  If you're going to be traveling a lot, invest in a quality laptop case/bag.  Also, there's nothing worse than getting a Low Battery message and being miles away from an electrical outlet, so I often recommend a second battery.  Just make sure you charge it first before leaving for the day!

8) Finally, we'll talk a bit about warranties.  Some people like the peace of mind that warranties provide and some think they're a complete waste of money.  I tend to fall somewhere in the middle (they were the bane of my existence when I worked retail -- see my first post for my feelings on selling things).  Admittedly, an extended warranty has its advantages, particularly from a store that provides in-house service or has a repair shop on site.  Think of them as insurance policies for your electronics:  if you never use it, you'll think it was a waste, but the first time something fails and you end up not having to pay a repair bill that totals more than the cost of the laptop, you'll be grateful you made the investment.

Well, that about wraps it up!  As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch.  As for me, I'm looking forward to having the distinct pleasure of helping some friends go laptop shopping next month.  No, really, I get into this kinda thing!