Tag Archives: pc

Spectre and Meltdown woes continue as Intel confesses to broken updates

Intel’s Navin Shenoy says the company has asked PC vendors to stop shipping its microcode updates that fix the speculative execution vulnerabilities identified by Google’s Project Zero team:

We recommend that OEMs, cloud service providers, system manufacturers, software vendors and end users stop deployment of current versions, as they may introduce higher than expected reboots and other unpredictable system behavior.

This is a blow to industry efforts to fix this vulnerability, a process involving BIOS updates (to install the microcode) as well as operating system patches.

Intel says it has an “early version of the updated solution”. Given the length of time it takes for PC manufacturers to package and distribute BIOS updates for the many thousands of models affected, it looks like the moment at which the majority of active systems will be patched is now far in the future.

Vendors have not yet completed the rollout of the initial patch, which they are now being asked to withdraw.

The detailed microcode guidance is here. Intel also has a workaround which gives some protection while also preserving system stability:

For those concerned about system stability while we finalize the updated solutions, we are also working with our OEM partners on the option to utilize a previous version of microcode that does not display these issues, but removes the Variant 2 (Spectre) mitigations. This would be delivered via a BIOS update, and would not impact mitigations for Variant 1 (Spectre) and Variant 3 (Meltdown).

I am not sure who out there is not concerned about system stability? That said, public cloud vendors would rather almost anything than the possibility of code running in one VM getting unauthorised access to the host or to other VMs.

Right now it feels as if most of the world’s computing devices, from server to smartphone, are simply insecure. Though it should be noted that the bad guys have to get their code to run: trivial if you just need to run up a VM on a public cloud, more challenging if it is a server behind a firewall.

Amazon.com sales stats snapshot shows why Microsoft is reinventing Windows

Anyone who questions the need for Microsoft’s radical reinvention of Windows need look no further than Amazon’s sales stats.

I was on Amazon.com checking out the specs for Samsung’s new Ativ slate, and happened to click the link for best sellers in Computers and Accessories.

On the morning of 17th October 2012, here is how the top 20 looked:

  • Six Android tablets including Samsung Galaxy Tab at number 1 and Google Nexus 7 at 3
  • Four varieties of Apple iPad at number 4, 7, 9 and 13
  • Two Apple MacBooks (Pro and Air) at positions 2 and 16
  • One solitary Windows laptop at number 10 (Dell Inspiron).

A mix of networking devices, screens and accessories make up the other eight places; I chose the entire sector because it puts tablets and laptops alongside each other.

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This is not about price. That Dell laptop is $429.99, little different from the 16GB iPad 2 at $399.99 and 42.5% of the cost of the MacBook Pro.

Windows still outsells the Mac overall. Gartner gave Apple just 13.6% of the US PC market (excluding tablets) for the third quarter of 2012. However, Windows is boosted by large corporate sales, where the Mac is still a minority taste; Amazon is largely a consumer vendor.

Further, Amazon’s figures change hourly and I may have hit a low spot; check out the current list yourself.

Finally, the large number of Windows laptops on offer dilute the ranking of any one – though there are a lot of Android tablets on sale too.

For Microsoft though, this is still a worrying list to see. Today’s Windows 7 devices are not what consumers want. Reinventing Windows for tablets was the right thing to do – though that does not, of course, prove that Windows 8 will succeed. Windows 8 pre-orders are not high on the list either – and yes, they are on the list; the Samsung Ativ convertible is currently at 60.

Will Windows 8 save the PC? Gartner reports 8% year on year sales decline

Gartner has reported on third quarter worldwide PC sales and they do not look good:

  • At 87.5 million units, they have declined 8.3% compared with the same quarter in 2011
  • HP is down 16.4%, Dell is down 13.7%. Lenovo managed 9.8% growth and is now number one with 15.7% of the market

Key quote: “The third quarter has historically been driven by back-to-school sales, but U.S. PC shipments did not increase, not even sequentially, from the second quarter of 2012. Channels were conservative in placing orders” said Gartner’s Mikako Kitagawa.

Gartner researchers add that ultrabooks have failed to turn round sales because they are not competitively priced. Worth noting when you look at the expensive hybrid docking tablets and convertibles vendors have come up with for Windows 8.

Gartner’s figures exclude “media tablets” such as the Apple iPad or Android tablets.

Of course you would expect a decline on the eve of the launch of Windows 8, as retailers clear their shelves, though Kitagawa says “On the professional side, there was minimum impact from Windows 8 in the quarter because the professional market will not adopt Windows 8 PCs immediately after the release.”

But will consumers rush to buy Windows 8 machines and make the next quarter boom? Let me throw out a few predictions:

  • Kitagawa is right about the professional market. We may see a few Windows 8 tablets show up among execs, but most companies will go the easy route and stick with Windows 7 for the time being.
  • The Windows 8 launch will be fascinating with cries of agony from some while others say it is rather good.
  • Time will be good for Windows 8 as the shock wears off and people learn how to use it.
  • Microsoft’s Surface will be a success and show Windows 8 at its best, though there will be confusion over lack of compatibility with desktop applications.

I am not sure though that this means a strong fourth quarter. Confusion over the new UI and vendors with over-complicated hybrid products will probably prevent sales from taking off immediately. Further, Windows 8 has to compete with Windows 7, which is already pretty good.

Broadly I reckon Microsoft is doing the right thing with Windows 8: reinventing the platform as a tablet OS while keeping faith with the past, on x86 at least.

I have doubts about some aspects of the Metro user interface and expect it will improve in later versions with some softening of the “immersive UI” religion that hides menus and toolbars so effectively that users think apps are broken, or have to click or tap twice when once should be enough – eg the back button in Metro-style Internet Explorer.

Even so, there are a few excellent new-style apps, more will come, and I expect the platform to succeed eventually.

This may be why your computer is crashing

I was asked to look at a PC which was misbehaving. Sometimes it worked, but increasingly it was freezing or crashing. Sometimes the hard drive would corrupt and needed Windows repair before it would boot.

I took a look. I ran the drive manufacturer’s diagnostics, which reported no drive errors. I ran memory tests. I removed each of the two RAM sticks alternately to see if one was faulty. I tested the power supply. The PC was still not stable.

Then I took a close look at the motherboard. The only visible sign of possible trouble was that two capacitors close to the RAM sockets were bulging slightly at the top.

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I removed the board and replaced the capacitors – not that easy a task, though the actual capacitors are cheap enough. You need a powerful soldering iron and plenty of patience.

Since the replacement though, the PC has been perfectly stable.

Of course the owner had presumed a Windows problem and spent ages updating drivers, looking for viruses, and so on.

The capacitors are branded Tk and since making the repair I discovered that others have similar tales. It is not just these specific capacitors though. The bad capacitor problem remains a common fault with PCs that are a few years old.

The economics of the repair is marginal unless you can do it yourself. A replacement motherboard costs so little that it does not pay for much professional service time. However if like me you get some satisfaction from repairing rather than disposing of old but good electronics, it is worth it.

The other point: if your PC is crashing a lot, take the back off and check the capacitors. Any bulges or leaks, and you can stop wasting time trying to fix a hardware problem by tweaking Windows.

Building a cheap PC, and why it still beats tablets and laptops for value

I thought the Google Nexus tablet was good value, and compared to an Apple iPad or most other tablets out there it is, but for sheer capability on a budget a desktop PC has it beat.

Needing a cheap desktop I went along to Ebuyer and purchased the following:

  • Asus P8H61-MX SI Motherboard bundled with Intel Pentium G620 and 2GB DD3 RAM
  • Extra Value Micro ATX case with 500w PSU (unbranded)
  • Additional 2GB RAM

The total cost was £128.54 with free delivery. I then plucked a Sata DVD drive and a 200GB hard drive from a dead server, and put it all together, which took less than an hour. Next installed Windows 7 64-bit, for which fortunately I have a subscription license. Plugged in spare keyboard, mouse and monitor.

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I was impressed by the Windows Experience Index of 4.9, and Gaming graphics of 5.6 achieved by Intel’s integrated graphics. The board has VGA and DVI ports and supports dual displays. It also has HD audio and of course ethernet networking.

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What would it cost if I had not had spare DVD and hard drives? A 500GB drive is £42.70 and a DVD drive £11.94 currently, making £183.18, or £152.65 without the VAT.

Need Windows? You are a system builder, so you can get Windows Home Premium with SP1 64-bit for £75.99, or Professional for £104.98. Total cost with the cheaper option is £259.17, now more than a Google Nexus tablet (£159.00 for the 8GB version).

Add a screen, keyboard and mouse for £65.97 (BenQ LCD 18.5” 1366 x 768), and the complete system is £325.14, or £249.15 if you stick Ubuntu on in place of Windows 7.

Still, I’d bet that the average household has at least some reusable bits lying around.

The real point is how capable even a budget box like this turns out to be. The RAM is upgradeable to 16GB.

The dark side to all this is that the value of your old PC has plummeted since you bought it three or four years ago, and faults beyond the trivial are hardly worth repairing.

Finally, I should mention Raspberry Pi. The board complete with CPU, networking and graphics is £25.92. Add case, 4GB storage, power, keyboard, mouse, and HDMI monitor though, and my quick price for the complete system is £147.81, mostly for the monitor (Benq 21.5” HDMI). Of course there are many creative uses for a Raspberry Pi without buying a monitor.

My vote still goes to the PC for the best productivity on a budget.

PS let’s not forget the cheapest Mac, currently a Mac mini at £529. OS comes with it, but only 2GB RAM, no mouse, keyboard or monitor. Add those and it is over £600.

How many clouds is too many? AcerCloud announced in Las Vegas

Acer has announced its AcerCloud in the run-up to CES in Las Vegas. This is a service that spans mobile devices, PCs and the internet, the aim being that pictures, documents and multimedia are available from any device. Take a picture on your smartphone, and it appears seamlessly on your PC. Download a video to your PC, and view it on your tablet. Play music stored at home from your tablet while out and about.

The press release is short on technical details, but does say:

AcerCloud intelligently uses local and cloud storage together so all data is always available

That said, it is more PC-centric than some cloud services. It seems that Acer considers the PC or notebook to be the primary repository of your data, with the cloud acting as a kind of cache:

Professionals can update sales documents on a PC and save them, and the documents will be put into the personal cloud and streamed to other devices. They can then go to their meeting with their notebook or tablet PC and have immediate access to all the updated files. The files will be temporarily accessible for 30 days in the personal cloud and on the devices, or they can choose to download the files on to other devices for long-term storage.

One of the features, which failed in the CES demo, is that a PC which is in hibernation can be woken up through wi-fi to deliver your content on demand:

As long as the main PC is in sleep (standby/hibernation) mode, Acer Always Connect technology can wake it up through Wi-Fi® so media can be retrieved via a mobile device.

This whole thing would work better if the cloud, rather than the home PC, were the central repository of data. A PC or notebook sitting at home is unreliable. It has a frail hard drive. It might be a laptop on battery power, and the battery might expire. The home broadband connection might fail – and most home connections are much slower uploading to the internet than downloading from it.

Another question: if you one of the professionals Acer refers to, will you want to put your faith in AcerCloud for showing documents at your business meeting?

Acer wants to differentiate its products so that users seek out an Acer PC or tablet. The problem though is that similar services are already available from others. DropBox has a cloud/device synchronisation service that works well, with no 30 day expiry. Microsoft’s SkyDrive is an excellent, free cloud storage service with smart features like online editing of Office documents. Google Music will put all your music in the cloud. Apple iCloud shares content seamlessly across Apple devices, and so on.

The problem with this kind of effort is that if it is less than excellent, it has a reverse effect on the desirability of the products, being one more thing users want to uninstall or which gets in the way of their work.

We will see then.

Finally, I note this statement:

AcerCloud will be bundled on all Acer consumer PCs starting Q2 2012. It will support all Android devices, while future support is planned for Windows-based devices.

Android first.

Moving Windows with its applications: too difficult

I have just replaced my PC – well, if you count new motherboard, new CPU, new hard drive, new RAM as replacement, though it sits in the same case – and faced again the question of what to do with my Windows setup, complete with hundreds of applications.

A few years back, there was no question. You took every opportunity to do a clean install, because without it Windows gradually became unusable, as gloriously recounted by Verity Stob.

Stob’s analysis is not completely wrong today, but the matter has greatly improved. The Windows 7 64-bit installation that I use today was installed in August 2009 (run systeminfo if you want to check yours), and that was an in-place upgrade from Windows Vista 64-bit, as recorded here. That Vista install was done in January 2008, so I have preserved applications and settings for coming up to four years and two motherboard changes.

The trade-off is that in return for putting up with some cruft you get a big win in convenience. There is no need to dig out install media, downloads and licence codes, and migration to a new system is quicker.

So why complain? Well, although it can usually be done, moving Windows from one machine to another is not supported by Microsoft, unless the hardware is identical:

Microsoft does not support restoring a system state backup from one computer to a second computer of a different make, model, or hardware configuration. Microsoft will only provide commercially reasonable efforts to support this process. Even if the source and destination computers seem to be identical makes and models, there may be driver, hardware, or firmware differences between the source and destination computers.

What this means is that users who get a new computer are directed instead towards the Windows Easy Transfer application:

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This is a handy tool, but it does not transfer applications. This last point can be particularly tiresome if you use software that requires activation on each machine on which it is installed, not least Microsoft’s own Windows and Office. Adobe’s Creative Suite, for example, allows installation on up to two machines, after which it will no longer install unless you specifically deactivate it:

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If you trash your old PC, or it breaks, without deactivating first, then you have to call support and plead your case.

Apple’s Migration Assistant, by contrast, does move applications, making a better user experience.

If you can easily move applications, settings and data, of course, there is no need to move the entire operating system, since you have all that matters.

Why does Microsoft make this so hard? Two reasons I can think of.

One is that there are technical challenges in moving Windows to new hardware; though having said that, I suspect that Microsoft could easily have created a migration wizard that includes applications if it wished to do so.

The second, and more important, is licencing. Most consumer versions of Windows (and Office too) are OEM licences, which are not allowed to be transferred from the machine with which they are supplied. If Microsoft made it easier to move Windows or to migrate applications, less new software would be sold. Enterprises are expected to handle this in a different way, with centralised application management tools.

Virtualisation changes the game of course. The point of virtualisation is that you run the operating system on abstracted hardware that can easily be replicated on another machine. I really would like to run a virtual desktop, but I do not have a suitably high-powered server and there are niggles over fast graphics, USB devices, studio quality audio and so on. I expect all these to be solved and that a virtual desktop is in my future.

In the meantime, I have personally lost patience with the idea of reinstalling everything, and fortunately I do not use OEM Windows licences.

The wider question is interesting though. Although the desire of Microsoft and its partners to protect licence income is understandable, there are new models of application licencing that work better for users. In Google’s world you just sign on in your browser, and all your stuff is there. In Apple’s world, your iOS apps are licenced to you, not your device, and when you get a new device they all reappear. Even Microsoft’s Xbox works like this too, though that was not always the case.

This competition, in combination with virtualisation, means that Microsoft’s approach with Windows looks out of date as well as being unpleasant for users.

Windows 8 is on the horizon, and I would guess that the forthcoming Windows Store will be better in this respect, though note that at its Build conference in September Microsoft did not discuss the business aspects of the Store.

Sanity prevails at HP which is keeping its PC division

HP has announced that HP is keeping its Personal Systems Group, its PC division.

“HP objectively evaluated the strategic, financial and operational impact of spinning off PSG. It’s clear after our analysis that keeping PSG within HP is right for customers and partners, right for shareholders, and right for employees,” said Meg Whitman, HP president and chief executive officer. “HP is committed to PSG, and together we are stronger.”

The strategic review involved subject matter experts from across the businesses and functions. The data-driven evaluation revealed the depth of the integration that has occurred across key operations such as supply chain, IT and procurement. It also detailed the significant extent to which PSG contributes to HP’s solutions portfolio and overall brand value. Finally, it also showed that the cost to recreate these in a standalone company outweighed any benefits of separation.

I am not surprised – it took me and many other observers about two minutes to reach the same conclusion back in August, when HP announced that it was considering a “spin-off or other transaction” for PSG.

I find it remarkable that HP did not conduct this research before, rather than after, announcing its uncertainty to the world. These last couple of months must have been challenging for the PSG sales and marketing team and costly for HP.

Nevertheless, good news for HP and its customers, and for Microsoft for whom HP is perhaps its most important hardware partner.

Reports of 19% decline in Western European PC market show structural change

As if we needed telling, a new Gartner report shows a steep decline in the PC market in Western Europe. A “PC” in this context includes Macs but excludes smartphones and what Gartner called “media tablets”, mostly Apple iPads. A few figures comparing shipments in the second quarter 2011 with the same period in 2010:

  • Total PC sales down 18.9%
  • Netbook sales down 53%
  • Desktop PCs down 15.4%
  • Apple up 0.5%
  • Consumer PC market down 27%

What interests me here is not so much the normal ebbing and flowing of the PC market, but structural change indicating a switch away from PCs and laptops to more lightweight mobile devices. I believe this is evidence of that, though the economy is weak and extending the life of existing PCs is an obvious saving both for businesses and consumers.

Still, the dramatic decline in netbook sales suggests that consumers really are buying the more expensive iPad in preference. If you believe that consumers are to some extent ahead of business in their technology choices, then we can expect more of the same in the corporate market too.

No doubt alarm bells have been ringing in Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters for some time. The company is betting on Windows 8 to rescue its operating system from permanent decline, which is why next month’s BUILD conference is so critical. Nevertheless, it will be a year or so before we get new-style tablets running Windows 8, so will it be too late? I tend to think not, just because of the strength of Microsoft in the business world and the importance of Windows for existing applications, but it is interesting to speculate.

One factor which you can argue either way, in terms of Microsoft’s prospects, is that non-iPad tablets seem to be struggling. HP’s TouchPad and RIM’s PlayBook seem to be selling poorly. Google Android looks more hopeful though overshadowed by legal concerns from multiple sources. In Australia and parts of Europe Apple has successfully barred or delayed sales of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1, though the latest news is that the ban has been lifted outside Germany.

See also: Fumbling tablet computing – Microsoft’s biggest mistake?

Dusty PC keeps on keeping on

It is amazing how well desktop PCs work even when choked by dust. This one was working fine:

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It is a little hard to see from the picture, but the mass of dust on the right is actually a graphics card. The graphics card has its own fan, which was so dust-choked that the the space between the blades was filled.

Running PCs in this state is not a good idea. If your machine is not working properly or overheating, it is worth a look. If it is working fine, perhaps it is a worth a look anyway. The best way to clear it is with one of those air duster aerosols.