Faster PC with “multi-disking”

External disk and a 13-port USB 3.0 hub

You can definitely do this without a 13-port USB hub, but they are cool to look at (but hot to the touch). Two USB 3.0 thumb drives should do for most people. Even one will help.

I have not seen this anywhere else, but I am sure I am not the first or only human to think of this. Well, probably not. I’ll tell why I did it and how it helped me, then you can see if it is useful to you or someone you know.

What is multi-disking? I actually came up with that word just today, nobody has told me about it. It means I distribute the applications with the most disk access on different drives (either hard drives, SSDs or Flash drives). In my case, I have games on an external hard disk, My Documents on a smallish external SSD, and my browser on a thumb drive. Because the computer can read/write to different disks/drives simultaneously, it does not get clogged up in queues and the speed improves. If this is enough for the revelation to reach you, off you go! Otherwise, it is a long story as usual.

***

I bought my ASUS N56V back in May 2012, so it is not super old (look, Sims 3 was already around!) but it is well past its warranty. All the more reason for me to not take it apart if I can avoid it. (That, and the computers I have taken apart tended to end in a loud crack or a rain of sparks followed by acrid smoke. Not a soldering iron man, me.) What then could I do when it started slowing down? For the last months, I had had more and more episodes where it simply stopped responding for several seconds, and then responded sluggishly for a while longer.

Using the Resource Monitor that comes with Windows 7, I quickly suspected the disk activity. I found that if I had several things going on simultaneously, and/or the computer had been running for a while without logging off or restarting, it would have used almost all the physical memory. (6 GB in my case – if you actually can add memory to your PC, this is probably the most dramatic speed increase you can get, but this can be impossible on a laptop.) When I opened a web page, for instance, it would start writing content from memory to “pagefile”. You can read about virtual memory elsewhere if you wonder what a page file is, but basically when the memory is full, it uses the hard disk instead. The hard disk of a laptop is easily a thousand times slower than the memory, so no surprise things ground to a halt.

Again, if you are a screwdriver person, you will probably have heard that you can replace your hard disk with a SSD (Solid State Drive) which is slower than memory but many times faster than a hard disk. But again, this is for the screwdriver folks, and can cost a pretty penny. Also, Windows may wake up after the surgery and decide that it is on a new computer, and require you to register again. Windows is not free, contrary to common belief, and if you don’t have the documentation for your personal installation, Microsoft could think you have stolen their Windows and shut it down in whole or in part. Of course after 7 years, my documentation was well and truly lost.

I did however have some peripherals lying around, including a handful of 32 GB USB 3.0 memory sticks that I bought when they were on sale. They did not cost many breads each, so I had a bunch, and an external USB 3.0  hub to connect them all to the PC. Now, the 3.0 is fairly important here as it is 10 times faster than 2.0. If your computer only supports 2.0, you may see less or no improvement here, I am not sure. But you also have an amazing computer to have survived that long. In 2012, my computer already had 2 separate built-in USB 3.0 controllers with separate ports. Most computers still running should have at least one.

First I tried to move the page file to the external disk. Windows cheerfully confirmed that this was done, but it did not work. This is because when you start Windows, it starts the page file before it starts the USB (unless you boot from an USB – this is an alternative that you can find elsewhere by searching from “boot windows from USB” or words to that effect.)

So I settled for less. Why settle for less? Because I am cheap and lazy. I had already put my games on an external hard disk, because games are big and the hard disk is not. Plus it fills up with Windows updates, temporary files and other gruff that you have to clear out from time to time, and some of it will crash the machine if you clear it out. (Use a certified disk cleaner, like the one that comes with Windows and is called “disk cleanup”.) But even with that, small disk is small.

Next thing I outsourced to a USB device was My Documents. This folder and its many subfolders, are used by Windows and many programs (including many games) so it sees a fair bit of use. You can find detailed tutorials on how to move it to another disk (search “how to move documents folder to another drive”), others have illustrations and even videos about this. It can be pretty big so check in advance that you have a big enough device. Some of the content may be ready for archive anyway, but luckily I had room on my biggest device.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I installed my favorite browser on a thumb drive. I was lucky that my favorite browser is Vivaldi (made in Norway, by the way). It has a choice for “standalone” in advanced setup. It actually transferred my saved passwords from the hard disk after installation, but you can choose this. With other browsers (and most people have another browser) you will probably want to go to PortableApps or search for “install browser on usb windows” for tutorials for your particular browser. The nice thing about PortableApps is that you may browse it for other FREE software that you can install to other USB drives to take even more load off your main disk. But My Documents and your browser are typically used a lot, so these two should make a difference. They sure did for me!

***

Why did this break through the wall of pauses, stuttering and crawl? Because multitasking. The USB has its own controller (in my case two, so I put one drive on each of them, but even one should help). Before yesterday, when I clicked on a link, Windows checked to see if I had spare RAM memory. If there was too little, it would start writing the memory to disk. The same disk that it was trying to read the browser code from. (The browser has a lot of code for displaying all kinds of things like different fonts, different sizes, pictures, formatting etc etc, so it reads all of this from the same disk that is busy writing.) A hard drive has a physical read/write head (kind of like an old gramophone) that races furiously from place to place on the hard disk when trying to do two things at once. Back and forth, back and forth. When it only needs to do ONE thing, it can stop scurrying, and the speed increases dramatically.

If you have a computer with two physical disks, you could simply move the pagefile or the browser to a different disk, but in my case (and almost all laptops with “two” disks) they are actually different partitions on the same physical disk, and moving things between them will just slow it down even more. Thus my decision to “outsource” to flash drives.

So now I can have Sims 4 running in the background, installed on disk G:, with its save files and other data in My Documents on drive M:, while I use my browser on drive I: running under Windows on disk C:. In addition I have Windows ReadyBoost on drives H: and N:. Yes, I have a lot of drives, most of them cheap 32 GB but some larger or smaller. Two 16 GB are actually better than one 32 GB for ReadyBoost, which I and many others have written about already. I just assumed you already had that. But moving your browser is probably more important than ReadyBoost if you use the Web a lot.

My computer is running smoothly again, thanks to the wonders of multi-disking. And it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Adventures in Windows ReadyBoost

Performance Monitor, exhibit 2

Using two 32GB USB sticks. Light blue = disk read, purple = skipped. SKIP THOSE READS BABY!

Let us talk about the Windows ReadyBoost, why don’t we.

It is a little known (?) part of Microsoft Windows which uses flash memory (such as an USB memory stick, or a SD card) as an intermediate storage between the hard disk and the random-access memory. It was introduced with the ill-fated Windows Vista, which needed more internal memory than was common on new computers at that time. Unfortunately, ReadyBoost was a bit of a quick fix (not to say “kludge” or “desperate attempt”) and not as effective as it could have been. Not being very good at the one thing it was meant for, it pretty much faded ignobly into obscurity. However, the friendly folks at Microsoft kept tinkering with it, and the version that was released with Windows 7 was actually greatly improved. Not that many people bothered to try it. In the meantime, it had become customary to sell computers with much more RAM, both because of lower prices and because it was obvious that Windows Vista need a lot more memory than XP had done. Windows 7, on the other hand, was better than its predecessor at using the computer’s resources.

***

At my home office, I have an office computer and a gaming computer. The office computer is a laptop from 2012. It was a beast of its time, with 6 GB of RAM and a core i7 processor. However, it was also the last computer I bought with a 5400 rpm hard disk and no SSD. (The gaming computer has an SSD and no internal hard disk.) The laptop also came with support for USB 3.0, a technology whose time has now come, but was still fairly rare and expensive back then.

So yesterday I saw a 32 GB USB 3 flash stick at an affordable price in the local hardware store. When I plugged it into my USB 3 hub, the laptop helpfully asked if I would use it for ReadyBoost. However, it could only use 4 GB. It turns out that the stick was formatted with FAT32 rather than NTFS. So I went ahead and reformatted it, then used the whole stick for ReadyBoost.

***

Despite the vague name, ReadyBoost actually does only a few specific things. It does not boost processor speed, despite its name: If anything, it uses the processor a bit more since it needs to perform various calculations and also move data around from here to there to elsewhere. What it does is:
1) When I save data to disk, it first saves them to the USB stick, which is faster. Later it saves a copy of those data from the stick to the hard disk when it has nothing better to do.
2) When I load data from disk, it loads them from the USB stick instead, if they are there. They could be there because I had already saved them there, as above. But they could also be there because Windows has creepily watched what I do and made guesses as to what I am going to do next, and quietly copied just that stuff onto the stick while it was bored waiting for me to press the next key.

So the ideal computer for ReadyBoost has:
-Not much RAM (so you need to swap data in and out of it frequently.)
-A slow hard disk. (Laptops typically had slower disks, before SSD.)
-A fast processor (to move all those data twice as often, and to stalk the user and guess what he or she will do next.)

Now, I have a decent amount of RAM for a five year old machine, but the two other criteria fit pretty well. Given that online articles vary from dismissing ReadyBoost completely to praising it as almost like adding more RAM, I was curious. What would happen?

***

The first thing I noticed was that the small light on my USB stick started blinking eagerly. Watching on the Computer Management app (specifically Monitoring Tools – Performance Monitor), I could see the cache filling up rapidly. Clearly the computer already had opinions on what I would need!

However, as I did various everyday things on my computer, I could not notice much if any speed improvement. Performance Monitor pretty much verified this: Skipped reads stayed stubbornly low compared to total reads, like 2-5%. Not much to write home about. Of course, this was the first hour or two, so if Windows had not expected me to use ReadyBoost, it might not really know what to prepare for. I should give it more time.

After I stopped actively using the computer, something happened. From time to time, there was a small blink in the laptop’s harddisk light, as there usually is when it is left to itself. I still had the Performance Monitor running, and it showed that an increasing number of the disk reads were now skipped. After a few minutes, the hard disk light was on almost constantly, and the monitor showed frenetic activity. Again, this is normal. By now, skipped reads (due to cache) were fairly close to total reads, although not quite identical. But we’re talking about 95% or so for the most part, the reverse of what I saw when I was using the machine actively. This went on and on. I don’t know what Windows does when it has the machine to itself, probably some kind of maintenance, checking and optimizing. I am sure it is some good purpose, at least as seen by Windows. And it sure knows how to use ReadyBoost.

So… first impression: Windows has no idea what I am doing, but it sure knows what Windows is doing. Everybody who already guessed this wins a big fat no-prize.

***

 

Reading up more on the topic, I found that ReadyBoost can use up to 8 flash devices of up to 32 GB each. Some say it can even read and write to multiple drives simultaneously, distributing the load across the various flash drives. If so, the limit would be the speed of the USB 3.0 controller, which should be able to handle around 6-7 drives working at full speed.

I am not quite that adventurous, at least not right away, but the next day I bought an extra USB 3 hub and a second USB 3.0 memory stick, formatted it like the first and plugged it in.

***

The graphics above show Windows having a little time to itself on the second day, after it had gotten used to having two thumb drives to play around with. It seems there is a pretty good match between disk reads and skipped reads most of the time. Which I am sure is a good thing. It is also a lot more than yesterday.

But this is Windows doing Windows things. When it comes to my actual use of the computer, there was still no noticeable difference. But this, I realized, was because the system was already fast. The Asus N56V was, as I said, a beast of a laptop when it came out 5 years ago. Total overkill. Even today, it is more than fast enough to read, write, dictate, play music or video, while sharing the latest Ubuntu Linux torrents in the background. Would I even be able to detect an improvement from 2 seconds to 1.5 seconds when opening a complex document? I needed to challenge the machine, push it closer to its limits. Luckily I knew how to do that.

Mostly out of curiosity I had installed Civilization 6 on my external hard drive. The game from October 2016 is in my Steam library, and was originally installed on the gaming machine, but after a while that machine could not longer play it. I then tried running it on the laptop, which is older and weaker, but the game hadn’t been playable there, as expected. Well, now it was. The graphics were grainy but the game started and ran just fine even with a mid-sized world. HUGE SUCCESS! It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction… ^_^

Basically what I have done is add an extra layer of slow memory / fast disk between the existing internal memory and hard disk. Adding more thumb drives not only increases the size of this layer, but also makes it faster, supposedly.

Is it useful? Not really for small everyday tasks. But it allows new things that were not practical on laptops before, like large sprawling games (Sims 3 anyone?), huge spreadsheets and databases, video recording and editing.

MS Windows troubles

Screenshot anime Kanojo ga Flag o Oraretara

This morning was absolutely crawling with chaos. It started as I turned on my home office computer, which had installed updates at 3AM and restarted itself, as it frequently does. It seems like a good idea, to install updates while you sleep. After all, you would not want to miss the latest security patches and improved functionality.

Unfortunately, the new functionality was that I could not log in. Whether I picked my usual account or the betatester account I use for testing games, there was just a brief pause and then Windows returned me to the login screen. No error message. I restarted the computer and tried again. I did various things and tried again and again. No change. I restarted in Safe Mode. Same problem. I restored Windows to last good configuration. Still the same.

I installed Ubuntu Linux, which is a pretty good alternative to Windows for most people, and free. After a little while I switched to Xubuntu (it is really just a different setup, the core is the same as Ubuntu, but Xubuntu is more similar to old Windows versions). Ubuntu is free, like most Linux versions. I use to install it on old laptops when they become too slow under Windows. This is less of a problem these days, but it was a big deal back in the days of Windows Vista.

Xubuntu is nice enough, but there were a couple problems. I had used this machine to provide Internet access to my cabled home network, which includes a Windows 10 machine for playing games, a NAS (home server) for backup and sharing files, and a small old notebook computer for uploading and downloading to and from the NAT without taking up resources on the main machines. But now I could not get Linux to share the Internet. It should be easy, really, there is a choice for it. “Shared with other computers” it says, but that actually only lasted for a minute or so, then I got a message “Disconnected from Ethernet”. (Ethernet is the cabled network, to put it simply.) I did various things and restarted numerous times to no avail.

Eventually I found an USB wireless receiver and connected this to the Windows 10 machine, then told it to share its Internet. This worked well enough, except the NAS (Network-Attached Storage) server did not show up. After changing the workgroup name by editing a configuration file, I got it to show up. But as soon as I tried to copy a file to it, it hung up and show up empty until I logged off an logged on again. This repeated itself for as long as I bothered trying.

I was kind of in a hurry to continue working on my National Novel Writing Month story. Luckily that was saved on a disk I could access from Xubuntu. I copied it to a USB drive, in case I wanted to continue writing on it on the other Windows computer (the gaming computer). I installed WINE, a program that lets you run Windows programs in Linux. I had already read a few years ago that you could run yWriter in Linux this way. (yWriter is the program I use for writing novels. It is written by a programmer and novelist and fits my working style exactly.) It did work when started with WINE, and it found my novel in progress, but the spell check did not work and it did not recognize the names and locations. I downloaded the dictionary and manually copied it to the place it should be. Now it worked except it did not recognize words when Capitalized, such as at the start of every sentence.

Somewhere around this time I decided to reinstall Windows on one of the disks. (I am keeping Xubuntu on the other.) This took the rest of the evening and will continue into the next day or two or more.

Needless to say, there was no progress on the novel this day. But then again, contrary to the slogan of National Novel Writing Month, the world does not really need my novel. Probably.

1988 and no time for books

Cardboard box that once contained monochrome display

This box once contained a monochrome display. Those were the days, when we had time to read books but did not know where to find them. (There are still a few books in this box, though. All non-fiction.)

Using my amazing powers of mind, I recently traveled to the year 1988, in a timeline very close to this one. OK, so it is not some supernatural power that nobody else has – it is just a combination of imagination, memory and Google. (And occasionally dice.) But it works for me.

One thing that struck me was how different 1988 was from now. On the surface of it, things were much the same. Most people had already begun to work in the post-industrial economy, for instance, and the cars did not look all that different from now. It was already common for men and women both to work outside home, and (in sometimes unrelated news) divorce was already common. All significant political parties had the same names, at least in the western world, and the borders between nations were the same as now with a few exceptions (mainly in the communist world). Ordinary people ate pizza, watched TV and occasionally had sex. It does not really look all that different.

But then there are the computers. Oh, we had computers in 1988 too. The IBM Personal Computer was launched in August 1981. I already had one at home, and we had a few at the office too, as had many other offices in the reasonably rich world. But they were not really the same thing as we have today. They were slow and primitive in every way. Their capacity was very small. The pictures on the screen were blocky and usually in monochrome, typically green and black, although by 1988 there were color monitors and color video cards (typically bought extra). They were still blocky though.

The power of computers double roughly once every one and a half year. Let’s see: 3 years = 4 times, 4.5 years = 8 times, 6 years = 16 times, 7.5 years = 32 times, 9 years = 64 times, 10.5 years = 128 times … Conveniently, this means 5 years is approximately 10 times and 10 years approximately 100 times. So the computer 25 years ago was 100*100*10 times weaker than today, overall. 100,000 times. This kind of explains why my smartphone is fantastically more powerful than all the computers of my workplace back in the day.

In 1988, we still had physical file cabinets to store the vast amount of paper required by the bureaucracy. Bored housewives were hired to store and retrieve these papers, and spent much of the day with their butt in the air because some uncharted law of the universe ensures that most of the papers always end up in the two lower drawers, no matter what sorting your choose in advance. Many of these later developed severe back pain and became disabled, although around the time the physical file cabinets disappeared and were replaced by virtual file cabinets which you can still see on your computer screen. Kids these days probably don’t know that the folder icon is actually a picture of something that once existed in the physical world.

There are still books in the physical world, but Amazon.com has for quite a while now sold more ebooks than the sum of paperbacks and hardbacks, and the proportion keeps sliding toward more e and less paper. Of course, there wasn’t an Amazon.com back then. At a time when there were no awesome computer games, no social networks and no YouTube to distract me, I still did not read thousands of interesting books, because I did not know that they existed. And even had I known, I would have had no idea how to get them. Even if I knew the publisher, chances were small that the books were imported to Norway unless they were extremely mainstream (and therefore not all that interesting to me). Although I think I discovered Piers Anthony around that time? That sounds early, but I had read him for several years when someone made a computer game based on one of his Xanth books, and the game was rather bad and mercifully forgotten by most of the world long ago.

Now, I can get almost anything from Amazon.com, and in many cases download the books instantly to my lightweight Samsung tablet. But now I have so many fun things to do that I end up not reading many books. There is never a time for books, it seems.

 

My first NAS: Mybook Live Duo

Network-Attached Storage at home: WD MyBook Live Duo

6 terabytes. I love living in the future. I remember when that black box would have filled a room and heated the whole house in midwinter.

There are already various professional reviews out there on the Net, so I thought I would write something a little more personal (but not embarrassingly so, I hope!).

NAS? What’s NAS?  I did not know either as late as last year. It means “Network-Attached Storage.” Basically it is a tiny computer with a big hard disk (or two big disks, in the case of the Duo). You plug it into your home network (or small business, although this is clearly meant for the home). If you don’t have a network, that’s OK too. When you connect it to your Windows, Linux or Mac computer using the enclosed cable, a network should automatically arise.

I actually don’t use a router, just a switch that connects the computers to each other and the NAS, and it works just fine whether there is one or more. The three computers I have tested it with run Windows 7, Windows Vista, and Ubuntu Linux. The enclosed CD maps the NAS disk up as a network drive in Windows. In Linux, you just find it in Places – Network and start using it. A good thing, since my tiny netbook does not have a CD drive!

Out of the box: The NAS is so lightweight, a man can hold it easily in one hand. I remember back when 6 terabytes (million megabytes) would have filled a room and heated the whole house in midwinter. The future is amazing, isn’t it? It has finally arrived!

The first thing I did was connect it to the mains. It came with a tree-prong head, but I soon figured out how to pop that off and replace it with the enclosed two-prong. It does not even need to be grounded, and it figures out on its own what voltage it is connected to and adjusts automatically.

While the machine was spinning up, I attached the network cable and plugged the other end into the network switch. If you have a router, you should plug it in there. If the router also broadcasts WiFi, you can access the NAS from your laptops, slates and phones wirelessly.

After a couple minutes, the NAS was running. Even before I ran the CD, I could find the NAS under Network, and clicking on the picture of it brought up a menu with help for setting it up. You don’t need to do that, it works fine right out of the box. If you are the only person who will use it, or if you have nothing to hide, you can login as admin without a password and just use the public shares.

Users, shares and devices: I set up a separate user for myself and one for Tuva the Imaginary Woman. I gave each of us a private share in addition to the public ones. What is a share? Basically it is a top-level folder on the hard disk of the NAS. You can have many of these, and they can be public or private. The system comes with some public shares set up already, for things like photos, music and video. But if you have deep dark secrets that you don’t want to share with others, you can have private shares as well. It took me only a little fiddling to hide my private share from my Imaginary Other, and the other way around. You can also have shares that are owned jointly by parents but not children, or other arbitrary groups of users. If you are using the NAS in a business, this suddenly gets more serious, but it is still quite simple.

So shares are only loosely tied to users. You can have many of each, and they don’t need to be one on one. A user can have many shares, a share can have many users. Or not. It is up to the Admin, the first account that meets you the first time you log on the Duo.

Devices is a bit different. As long as you are in your home (or small business) network, you can log on any user from any machine. Remote logon is slightly more complicated. You have to explicitly create a web access account for an existing user if you want them to log in over the Internet. The procedure requires their email address, which will get a mail with the instructions to create a new password. This comes in addition to the password they would have used if they were physically at the home network. (The two passwords can be the same, if they are strong enough to be accepted.) Once the user has created this password, they can log in from any computer on the Internet. (Whether they should is another matter. The solution as it stands today is based on Java, which is as full of security holes as a Swiss cheese, or so the experts say.)

Adding a mobile device is a separate action. It also requires an existing user. You can have web access but not mobile access, or the other way around. Mobile access also requires an app; in the case of Android it is named WD2go (Western Digital to go, OK?) and is free on Google Play. It is simple and straightforward to use, but you first have to register it using a 12-digit code that must be generated on the NAS. This means that even though I downloaded the app at work, I could not register it until I came home and could connect directly to the Duo on the home network. The app allows not only streaming of music but also of video. You should have a pretty new and powerful device to do that, though. And even then it will wait some seconds before it starts playing a song, and even more before playing video.

So each user can have multiple mobile devices but they must be registered separately, whereas on a PC you can log on your account from any computer once you have been set up with web access.

Extreme expansion: The third hole in the back of the Duo was for a USB cable, but contrary to my first imagination you can not use this to connect it to the PC like I did with my long row of external disks (half of which died horribly before the warranty expired, sometimes in mere months). Over time the external hard disks became gradually more robust, and my 1.5 TB Samsung has proved quite a reliable companion. But now that I have the NAS, which is built for heavy duty, it is time for the Samsung USB disk to retire. I gave it one final chance to shine though: Plugging its USB cable into the back of the Mybook Live Duo, it suddenly showed up on all my PCs simultaneously as a share within the NAS, without me having to do anything extra. You can even use a USB hub and connect all your old external disks and memory sticks, and make them all available to the whole family (or office), as well as friends and family all over the world on the Internet.

There are probably limits to how much extra storage you can add this way, but I am not sure what the limit is. I added 1.5 TB, but there are 2 TB disks available at affordable prices, and the documentation explicitly states that you can use a USB hub to connect multiple devices.

In theory I could just let things stay that way and continue to use the Samsung. I mean, it is Samsung, so it probably won’t keel over dead easily. But just in case, I am currently copying the contents to the NAS. That way I can just keep the old disk as a backup. A NAS is made for heavy duty, or so I am led to believe. It is not a backup solution, but more like the servers of a corporate network, where you want the data to lie on the server and not on each PC.

Speed, or lack thereof: Copying takes its sweet time though. I blame the USB 2.0, the system told me it would take 19 hours to copy 1 TB from the old disk to the new. That’s a lot of time, but then it is a lot of data. A letter page with typewriter text is about 4000 characters. 1 TB is a million million characters, or a thousand billions.  There are just over 7 billion humans in the world today. So I could write a short description of each of them to make a terabyte. We’re not quite on the same order of magnitude as the US national debt, though. Perhaps with the next generation of NAS!

Copying from my laptop over the network cable was actually quite a bit faster than copying from the USB disk, but still took some time for large folders. Like the MP3 files I ripped from my hundreds and hundreds of CDs before throwing them away. 12.6 gigabytes of data I have legally bought and paid for. Unfortunately so, in many cases, since most non-Irish CDs have only 1-2 good songs and the rest filler. The least I can do is share them with family and friends. (In Norway this is actually legal, although the definition is pretty strict.) And with my new NAS, I can do that without publishing it to the whole Internet. Another question is whether my family and friends want to hear my music, given that even I only do so sporadically.

One final thought before I close. Even when I am not copying anything to and from or between the WD NAS and the Samsung, they are both blinking frenetically, as if they were busy moving stuff around. What’s up with that? Back when the Samsung was attached to the laptop, it would go to sleep after a few minutes of inactivity. So I assume it is the small computer in the NAS which is doing something, but I don’t know what. Indexing? Quality checking? Defragmenting? Pointless running in circles? I will probably never know.

[Edit to add: Two days later I woke up in the morning and both of the disks had quieted down. I noticed that copying from the Samsung to the WD now seemed to go a little faster. So probably it had done something useful, like indexing or defragmenting.]

But even with that, I am impressed. Not quite indistinguishable from magic, but close enough. I love living in the future, and that future is now well within reach of the working classes here in Norway.

New computer: Asus N56V

Asus N56V – the superlaptop. Here running The Sims 3.

The day before yesterday, my main computer – the black tower desktop from Multicom – started rebooting randomly. Well, not entirely randomly: When playing games – including browser games – it turns itself off and back on every few minutes. When using just Opera or yWriter, it lasts hours.

The reason this started was probably the tropical heat, but cooling the machine down doesn’t seem to help it now.

A better man than I might have taken it as a hint from Above to stop playing games and get on the Jacob’s ladder of love, wisdom, self-reflection and progress,or something like that. But I am not a better man than myself, so the thought did not even strike me until after I had already bought a new laptop that is more powerful than the big black beast from 2009.

***

 I have searched Google for reviews of the Asus N56V, but there are pages and pages of copy + paste of the same review, written about a pre-production model. Guys, don’t do this, copying and pasting other people’s reviews. Just link to it, for goodness sake. Like this: Asus N56V review at Techradar. Don’t fill up my first six Google pages with copy and paste.

That said, the machine is so new, there probably aren’t a lot of reviews up yet. And this one says it pretty well without going on and on. This is not a compromise between weight and performance: It is performance without compromise. Well, it is still a laptop, so you can’t put in extra video cards or extra hard disks or things like that. But everything you can do with your desktop that’s too heavy for a toddler to topple, you can do with this laptop.

OK, I may exaggerate slightly. But the machine is more powerful than my desktop from 2009, at least. It has a quad-core processor too, but more modern and faster; each core runs two threads. It has 6 GB of RAM – the tower machine has 4 GB but can only use 3.25 GB. Since some of the memory is used by Windows itself, any extra memory is available to programs. In the case of Sims 3, the difference is quite noticeable. It is pretty much the ultimate Sims 3 machine. And of course it can handle any sane business use, including speech recognition. So, the future has arrived, and it is portable.

(I still intend to fix the desktop. Someday.)

Gadget lust

Samsung Galaxy Note - Marketing photo

Infatuation is the illusion that something outside ourselves will make us happier. In this case, a Samsung Galaxy Note.

The other day as I was at the cheap electronics chain to buy yet another LED bulb, I passed by the shop of Netcom, in this case the Nordic mobile telecom company. They not only sell subscriptions, but also phones, and any combination thereof. And they had the Galaxy Note!

If you have not heard of Samsung Galaxy Note, that may be because it has just recently arrived. According to Wikipedia it has not yet come to the US, but it could be Wikipedia is not updated yet. It has come here to Norway, and it has caused quite a stir.

Galaxy Note is either the largest smartphone or the smallest tablet running the rapidly spreading Android operating system. As for its hardware specifications, those are fit for a tablet, going at the throat of the iPad. Or perhaps it goes for the eyes.  The physical size is 5.3 inches, but the screen resolution is 1280×800, more than iPad 2 has on its 10 inch screen! For another comparison, on a TV it would qualify as “HD ready”. In other words, that’s an extremely detailed display, and the vivid colors that Samsung pack into its displays don’t hurt either.

This is the closest thing yet to the “datapad” that I have predicted as the upcoming all-purpose entertainment and communication device.

Normally this would just give me a case of mild curiosity, but then I came home and found that I had used up my fast download quota on the mobile phone in the exact middle of the month. I also have the old Galaxy Tab, which I now use for my Internet use. But even if I pace myself – and I generally do – it will probably run out sometime between Christmas and New Year’s. If I were to add a third mobile broadband, I would be able to watch as much YouTube and listen to as much Spotify as I wanted. Conveniently that could go along with a brand new Galaxy Note…

Or I could, you know, watch less YouTube and spend the time in prayer and fasting, or whatever people do who don’t have three mobile gadgets at any one time.

LeanBack 2.0

Title picture from Economist slideshow: LeanBack 2.0

Lean Back 2.0 – the written word undergoes a phase change?

Meme of the week, at least for some of us, is “LeanBack 2.0” – not a software product, thank goodness, with that embarrassing name, but a concept by The Economist Magazine, in a slideshow that has made its rounds on the net.

The “lean back” part refers to the traditional leisurely approach to reading, where people would read in a good chair, in bed, during long travels and other times when they had time on their hands. The leaning back in a good chair was contrasted to the leaning forward in the office chair in front of the computer, where we consumed (and sometimes produced) content on the Web.

The 2 part comes from the rapid spread of reading tablets: Amazon’s Kindle, B&N’s Nook, Apple’s iPad and Google’s Android tablets. These reading slates are largely used like books in the sense that you hold them in your hands, read them in a chair or in bed etc. But at the same time, they are similar to the Web in that you can view many different sources on one device. Statistics gathered by The Economist  show that users of reading tablets differ from both of the previous groups, while having some similarities to each.

Perhaps most notable: Tablet readers tend to read in-depth articles, and prefer long texts to newsclips and soundbites.

Is this a result of the technology, does it change the behavior of those who use it? Or is it rather that this technology attracts a specific type of users? I have an opinion on that, of course, being not only a more or less daily user of the Galaxy Tab, but also having predicted the rise of the datapad ten years before the iPad and Galaxy Tab appeared (the Kindle and Nook came a little earlier but were more specialized).  I think those who have followed my ramblings here will realize that I have always liked “walls of text” if they seem to have a point.

But it is not impossible that these devices may “enable” a behavior that was discouraged in the Age of the Web. It certainly looks like Amazon’s Kindle, at least, has caused a surge in book reading not only in America, but around the world wherever it is shipped. Kindles are still running like a river out of the factory, a million or more of them each week! That’s one for every family in one of the world’s large cities, in just a week. And the people who have bought a Kindle, start buying more books than they did before they had it. Intriguingly, they don’t just substitute e-books for paper books. They actually buy more books, and spend more money on books, than before.

I strongly believe this is a good thing, overall. Not all books are good, but people reading books is generally a good thing. As an online friend reminds us in her signature: “Wicked people never have time for reading. It’s one of the reasons for their wickedness.” (Quote from Dewey Denouement: The Penultimate Peril)

This is one of those “the future has already begun” things that I sometimes write about. Five years ago, I was still regarded as a bit of a gadget freak because I read books on my mobile phone. Now, e-books are rapidly outselling both hardcover and paperbacks. It is a tide rising, changing things gradually but irresistibly. But as the presentation says: We had centuries to get used to the printed page, a few decades to get used to the Web; these new changes take place in months.

It’s the end of the world as we know it – and I feel good enough to lean back, at least.

The Elder Scrolls and technology

Screenshot from the game Skyrim, showing a bright aurora at night.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim impresses with new visual effects, such as the norther lights. Luckily it does not have the actual long winter nights of its real-world counterpart, although you may need the Nordic winter cold to keep your computer from overheating if it is too old.

This is about computer games, so not particularly important. Since I am still fairly new to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I tend to compare it to earlier games in the same series, especially its predecessor Oblivion.

I actually think the difference from Oblivion (spring 2006) to Skyrim ( fall 2011) is not all that big. They both run on the Xbox 360 and PS3 gaming platforms, as well as Windows-based computers. Bethesda Softworks argue that they know the console platforms better now, so are able to wring more power out of the same hardware. That seems to be true, to some extent. But the Windows version also does allows computers with the newest video cards to show off their capabilities.

I find it thought-provoking that the basic gaming platform has not changed in five and a half year. That was certainly not true a decade ago. The change from Daggerfall (one of the last games made for MS-DOS, in 1996) to its sequel Morrowind (Windows and Xbox, 2002) was dramatic. Not only were the graphics superior by leaps and bounds, but the AI was radically improved. The changes from Morrowind to Oblivion and on to Skyrim have been subtle in comparison.

It may be true that the capabilities of our computers double every year and a half, but there is little sign of this in the games. Except for the more detailed graphics, especially in the rendered landscapes, both of the latest games could have been made with the technology of 2002. Developers have certainly learned from the earlier games and improved on them, but they hardly rely on technological progress to any great extent. In so far as they do, it has more to do with cheap storage: Skyrim is filled with recorded voice dialog throughout, which would have been considered a luxury with the hard drives of a decade ago, but is barely noticeable on today’s much larger hard disks.

The artificial intelligence is more advanced now, it seems, and it is possible that this would have taxed the computers of 2002 beyond what they could handle. Certainly the game world seems more alive and natural now. But it is a gradual improvement. And the change from Oblivion to Skyrim is quite incremental, more a matter of design than raw power. Which makes sense since we are still stuck with Xbox 360 in 2011. Who would have thought it?

Another data point to my theory that the personal computer has reached the end of the line. Gradually from around 2005, the “battle front” has moved from personal computers to portable devices. The progress there is still pretty fast. But there really is no strong demand for more powerful personal computers or game consoles. They are already doing what we want. And what we want right now is to play Skyrim. ^_^

My Galaxy Tab and I

At least my Android tablet is sexier than I. And yet I am the one people get to see more often.

It’s three weeks since I got my first Android tablet, last year’s model of the Samsung Galaxy Tab. As far as I know, their second generation Galaxy Tab 7 isn’t out yet. Even if they make one, I am not sure whether I would upgrade. It depends, mainly on whether the screen is radically improved without gutting the battery life. Running Honeycomb (the tablet version of Android) on more or less the same hardware is not really an improvement, in my opinion.

That said, I am fairly impressed with the old model, except the screen resolution is just a little too coarse. It would take only about 20% more pixel density to get rid of the slightly blurry and uneven text and pictures in the current size. It is good enough as is, just lacking the “wow” factor.

So, with this attitude, I must be using it a lot and dragging it with me everywhere, right? No, I have barely used it these three weeks. And only taken it out of the house two or three times. Basically I use it as a wireless access point, and that’s that. Occasionally I get up and wander into my living room just to get out of my boss chair, and use the Tab to catch up on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. It is very well suited for those, and the Android apps for those services are all quite good. Oh, and Tumblr too.

So why am I not going steady with Tab? The short answer is: “I already have a mobile phone.” The 7″ fits in a coat pocket (or a purse, not that I have that) but not in a shirt pocket. And the overlap is almost complete. The Tab is better for reading (it is the size of a softcover book, only thinner, and the weight is similar. The phone is better for phone calls and for having in your shirt pocket. I actually receive phone calls very rarely, but of course the day I leave my phone at home, I get an important call.

My employer has invested in some high-end (Jabra) Bluetooth headsets that we familiarize ourselves with as part of our tech support job (at least those of us who specialize a bit toward Android), and I believe one of those would actually make the Tab *better* than my cell phone for calls. Using the headset for the calls, it should be possible to look up things on the Tab at the same time. I haven’t tested it though.

Honestly, I can see a potential in work for this size of tablet. Eminently portable yet with enough surface to read documents, look up data or search the Web. Add the fact that they are *phones*, and you basically have an office in your coat pocket. Or purse.

But if I started to carry this thing with me everywhere, I would leave my cell phone at home. Having Internet access at home is how I (and you) can stream my record collection over the Internet anywhere, anytime. I would not deprive my friends and family of that without good reason, would I? ^_^ Well, perhaps a little…