Category Archives: Technology

Chuwi Hi10 Plus | Award BIOS

Chuwi Hi10 Plus – A Surface on the cheap?

This all started in autumn last year: I had mandatory courses to follow and I was sent there with our recently hired Digital Curator.  There we met a young IT guy from the CGIE (The IT department of Luxembourgish education), who owned a Surface.  I don’t particularly get enamoured with Microsoft products, especially those that cost 1000€ and more.  Our Digital Curator, however, saw something in the device.

He’s been talking ever since buying one, or at least a functionally equivalent machine.  Since we share an office, I told him what I knew about the hardware and if I didn’t I looked it up, interpreted the results and explained him what to know.  Different CPUs, USB-C, screen resolutions.  All the questions that are difficult because they go in the nitty gritty details.  It was all about the hardware, I may not like Microsoft but if he wants a Surface or Surface-like device, it’s going to be Microsoft whatever I do.  A very interesting device I discovered while researching alternatives, was the Acer Switch Alpha 12.  Still I wouldn’t buy it at that price, since I have four laptops.

As a sidenote, I’m pretty sure that properly justified, he’s simply be able to get a Surface from work.  After all that’s why he wants one: for work.  My question, however, is whether you really need so much power for the kind of work he does.  We IT people all know that our machines are extremely overpowered for most of the mundane tasks.

Gearbest Chuwi Hi10 Plus order

Gearbest Chuwi Hi10 Plus order

Any way, I’m pretty sure my research online got the attention of some advertisement algorithms and I started to get ads for Surface like devices.  I sometimes buy stuff directly in China and one day my GearBest newsletter offered me a Chuwi Hi10 Plus for just shy over 155€, and they’d throw in the keyboard for free.  That last one was important, because when you buy Chinese, you better read what you get and don’t rely on the pictures.  Keyboards are usually not included with Tablet.  I thought it was a decent deal enough in order to give it a try.  After all, that’s basically what you pay for a cheap Android tablet without a keyboard.  Oh, and if you never dealt with the Chinese: these things are basically always on sale.  (When I looked up the links, the Tablet could be had for 164,30€ and the keyboard for 24,24€.  A worse deal than what I got, but still relatively decent).

Of course, you do not get Surface hardware for that price.  You get:

– Cherry Trail Atom x5-Z8300, which truly is the lowest of the low end.  Don’t let the “Quad Core” impress you, this thing has a Passmark in the order of a Core-based Celeron 867 and that is a dual Core CPU.
– Intel Graphics (aka, whatever Intel thinks it can get away with)
– Full HD 10.2″ touch screen
– 4GB DDR3
– 64GB eMMC disk
– An American layout magnetic-attached keyboard
– Dual boot Android RemixOS and Windows 10 Home

I would never have recommended anything like this to anyone, given my relatively bad experiences with Atom chips.

As with all Chinese orders, you wait….
Surprisingly short wait… 11 days, which is really good.

What surprised me more is that these constructors have really looked at packaging from high end hardware manufacturers like that fruity company.  The packaging was excellent, well designed and well thought out.

Chuwi Hi10 Plus Keyboard Case

Chuwi Hi10 Plus Keyboard Case

Chuwi Hi10 | Front

Unboxing the Chuwi Hi10 Plus, front side

Chuwi Hi10 Plus | Backside

Unboxing Chuwi Hi10 Plus showing the metal backside

Chuwi Hi10 Plus | Award BIOS

Chuwi Hi10 Plus booted into Award BIOS, attached to its keyboard

As for the hardware?  Wow… If there wasn’t the Intel logo on the back and the mandatory “QA OK” small sticker on the back, I’d have guessed it was an iPad.  The back is metal, it has a nice heavy feel and the finish is really nice.  The keyboard, has a nice velvety feel (like the Surface keyboards) have and it clicks effortlessly in on the tablet while making a nice protective shell.  The triangular stand system is a bit awkward, but I’m using it right now to type this report.  It works.  One thing that I found a bit sad, is that I found no way to use the keyboard as a protective shell and still use the tablet in tablet mode.  For two reasons: you cannot fold the shell in such a way that you can use the tablet as a tablet and not be bothered by the shell.  Even if you could, the keyboard tells the tablet to behave as a laptop (you can switch that in Windows 10 though).  I don’t know if this flaw is shared with higher end devices.  Fine, when I don’t use it: fold it in its keyboard, and just detach when you want to use it as a tablet.

Initially, I thought to just image the disk of the device in order to be able to restore it to the original condition whenever I wanted.  I was pretty certain I could do that, if I found a way to boot to a Linux distro.  The ports are basically MicroUSB and USB-C and a MicroSD card reader.  Formats in which I have no bootable media.  Doesn’t matter, I thought…

On boot you can easily get into the EFI Firmware, which is bog standard Award Firmware.  I just hit Escape when the Chuwi logo popped up.  The firmware hinted already that the configuration might be a bit complicated.  As bootable devices, it listed three times Android and once Windows 10.  Weird.  If you let it go, you get a nice boot screen showing the Android and the Windows logo.  Just select with mouse or keyboard whatever you want.  Windows it is then.  In typical Chinese style you do not get an Out of the Box (OOBE) experience, which are actually mandatory for OEMs if I recall correctly.  You boot into a pre-created “admin” user and get presented with your Windows 10 Home desktop.  I expected some Chinese crapware, but in reality it does look pristine.  Windows activated without any problem.  The mind boggles.

The partition dedicated to Windows 10 is 45GB large.  Not stellar, but 25B is usable, Windows 10 taking approximately 20GB.  I was curious on how the partitioning on a Android/Windows 10 computer would be.  Well, if you must know: Highly complicated.  Two EFI partitions, many small partitions.   Apart from the EFI partitions, the only things I can identify is the 9GB partition probably being the Android “Internal storage” (Android reports: 8GB), and the two Windows partitions.  Originally I thought of trying Linux, or something, but given this partitions scheme, I will never be able to set it back to anything resembling the original state.

Chuwi Hi10 Plus | Partitions

Screenshot of the Chuwi Hi10 Plus partitioning scheme

So, I used it a few days running Windows 10.  Frankly, Windows 10 is annoying.  It does push all kind of Microsoft Services on you.  For example, in the action center, there is an icon called “Notes”.  I thought: “Cool, a post-it” application.  Nope, it launches OneNote.  OneNote for which you need a Microsoft account, and on top of that is uninstallable (Well, unless you find the magical powershell incantation)  This kind of stuff is everywhere, and I truly have no idea how Windows users stomach it.
Another really annoying this is how Windows 10 uses gestures.  Whether it’s on the touchpad or the touchscreen, sometimes I just move in such a way that suddenly Windows minimuze, or resize or, disappear and I have no idea what I did.  I tried to figure out what exactly I did, in order to understand the gesture I accidentally invoked, but I don’t seem to be able to find any consistency.  I also have found no way to disable gestures.
Another thing that irked me was that if you touch the screen, sometimes (but not always) you see some kind of trail following your finger.  At first, I thought it was just me touching too heavily on the screen and making the LCD misbehave.  Not so.  Windows 10 does that.  It doesn’t happen on Android.
When in tablet mode, the on screen keyboard is weird.  You don’t have directional keys, which makes it very annoying when doing shell work (how the hell do you navigate in the history), but there is one thing worse: the on-screen numeric keypad follows the phone layout!  Not the traditional computer numeric keypad layout.  I have no words.  This is not a phone!

Windows 10 has an immature beta feel to me.   There is a lot of work to make it usable, at least in my book.  The combobox bug is still there by the way (In modern apps, you cannot press a letter to jump to the items starting with that letter).

A little word on touch screens.  I am surprised that you don’t see finger smudges as much as you’d expect.  Yes, when the device is off you see how bad it is, but in use, pretty much not at all.  I did see them when I had direct sunlight shining on the screen.  That said, the touch functionality is basically not used when using it as a little laptop.

As for just light working on the machine?  I’m surprised myself, but having HTML5-playback music clips running in Firefox, with 11 tabs open, while typing this in Notepad++, it doesn’t use all that much resources, as you can see in the screenshot.  Sure, the Core i machines I have, don’t even use 5% when doing similar tasks, but if the intended use case is too take notes, shoot a picture of an object/document for documentation and stuff like that.  More than sufficient.

The battery seems to be ok.  When I started writing this about two hours ago, it told me 9h of battery remaining.  Now it says a bit over 4h remaining.  We all know these predictions are too optimistic.  I can just extrapolate: I guess another two hours should be possible with that prediction.  Giving me a total of 4h.  Acceptable, but I expected a tad more.  Definitely not a full day of work.  Perhaps if you really just have an editor open or so…

System usage Chuwi Hi10 Plus

System resource usage with light work

All in all: It’s not a Surface, but the hardware is damn impressive, well built, and high quality for the price I paid.  If you know your needs, and a tablet/laptop hybrid is what you want, plus you don’t want to break the bank and understand you won’t be running Crysis on it, this is a good choice for a Windowd 10 based device.  If you need more power, get yourself a refurbished Lenovo X220, which comes at a similar price point with a whole lot more power and expandability, but you won’t get touch or a tablet.  If you want everything and money is no object, get the real thing.

I should really try the Android part next.


Note: I did not have a spell checker on this machine, so this document wasn’t spell checked

Using a SLIC license in a VM

SLIC licenses are interesting.  In my last post, I covered how you can get the SLIC installation medium for select HP machines.  Now, obviously, I went back to Linux, but it did open some experimenting opportunities using virtual machines.

Now, let’s be clear, my Windows needs are tiny and most are covered by a VM I run on my infrastructure and I connect using RDP+SSH.  I really just like to mess around and see where the limits of these things are.

So, back in Linux, I installed VirtualBox and looked how I could use the SLIC enabled license within a virtual machine.  Obviously, I need the installation medium, which I have in WIM format (look up the package wimtools on Linux: Invaluable for working with WIM images).  So, ignoring anything else, I used that installation medium to install Windows 7 Pro.  That worked fine, albeit it was a hassle to try boot from USB (Solution: Don’t. Boot from a second SATA disk containing an image of the USB).  It obviously wasn’t activated, and I though “VirtualBox Guest Additions will take care of it, right?”.  Well, no…

Googling around gave me the solution.  You can make your information from your firmware available to the machines running1.  Theoretically, you could use the following:

VBoxManage setextradata "DummyVM" "VBoxInternal/Devices/acpi/0/Config/CustomTable" "/sys/firmware/acpi/tables/SLIC"

(Where “DummyVM” is the name of your virtual machine)
It would be the most honest form, as you directly use the license information from the host machine.  It won’t work, though, because the rights of that table are readonly for root only.  No problem!  Everything is a file, so do simply copy the SLIC table and give yourself the rights:

sudo cp /sys/firmware/acpi/tables/SLIC ${HOME}/VirtualBox\ VMs/DummyVM/SLIC.bin ; sudo chown ${USER}:${USER} ${HOME}/VirtualBox\ VMs/DummyVM/SLIC.bin

At this point, you can tell VirtualBox to use the SLIC file:

VBoxManage setextradata "DummyVM" "VBoxInternal/Devices/acpi/0/Config/CustomTable" "${HOME}/VirtualBox VMs/DummyVM/SLIC.bin"

The path to the SLIC.bin file must be fully qualified.  Dispite my best efforts, I couldn’t get it to use relative paths.  Doesn’t matter as the vbox configuration file is littered with absolute paths.

Anyway, launch the Windows 7 virtual machine and it will be instantly activated.  It gets better though: cloning a COA (Certificate Of Authority) based Virtual Machine, will almost always trigger an activation, because normally cloning changes system-ids and MAC addresses.  Cloning this won’t, because Windows 7 thinks it runs on a machine that’s licensed based on the SLIC table.  Theoretically, but I didn’t try, it should not even complain when moving to a totally different host machine.

Starting from a clone, I investigated what would happen upon Windows 10 upgrade.  So, I launched the “Assistive Technologies Upgrade” and got Windows 10 Pro, fully activated running inside the VM.  I was still curious what would happen if I removed the SLIC file from that VM.  After all, under Windows 7, removing it would make it unactivated.  To remove the SLIC file from the VM execute:

VBoxManage setextradata "Dummy10VM" "VBoxInternal/Devices/acpi/0/Config/CustomTable" ""

The activation remained!

This is an upgrade, so perhaps I want a fresh install?  No problem.  Keep the Virtual Machine configuration as is, but delete the associated hard disk.  Create a new empty one, and hand the Win10 iso to the optical drive.  Boot, go through installer, skip license key.  Wait… a… long… time… and: Activated Windows 10 Pro.

Conclusion: neither SLIC, nor the hard disk are in the hash submitted to Microsoft.  Well, if they are, they do not count towards activation.  Oh, and the difference between a fully patched Win7 vs Win10 regarding disk usage?  Seventeen fucking Gigabytes!  Windows 7 patching eats storage for breakfast:

find /home/${USER}/VirtualBox\ VMs/ -name Win*.vdi -exec ls -sh {} \; | sed s/\\/.*\\///g
29G Win7Pro.vdi
12G Win10Pro.vdi

Reminds me, that I should write up on how to get a Windows 7 machine up to patch-level in minimal time.  It’s a nightmare frankly.


1 Source https://forums.virtualbox.org/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=43678&p=227455

Recovering an SLP license for an “OS-less” machine.

Marketing stickers

Microsoft Windows and Intel marketing stickers

Windows 10 is actually awesome. Not for the reason you think, but you’ll understand soon. You see, I got myself a second hand HP ProBook 4340s. Sandy Bridge i3, 4GB RAM, 320GB HDD. Nothing fancy. It’s a business machine and it’s in an excellent state, it was worth the 200€ I paid for it.

It was sold without operating system, which really is quite odd for a HP machine. I checked the spot, under the battery, where the COA (Certificate of authenticity) sticker should be and it wasn’t there. Now, one thing you need to understand about Windows licenses, prior to Windows 8, was that for each computer you get two types of licenses. The SLP license, and the COA license (The “sticker with the key”). The SLP is tied to the manufacturer of your computer and is some kind of “mass pre-activation”, which is done by the installation medium provided by the manufacturer. So, if every manufacturer would provide you with an installation medium, you would never actually need the COA sticker/license.  We all know you rarely get installation media.  You also need to understand that you can’t actually both at the same time: if you use the COA, you can’t use the SLP and inversely.
The COA is something like a “backup” license. You could use any OEM installation medium and activate your Windows. So, if you have a COA sticker, I could give you a Dell installation DVD (and I have a few of those), and you could install it on your Lenovo and while it wouldn’t activate, you could use the sticker to get it activated.  Alas, COA stickers fade (my fathers old Alienware has a totally unreadable COA) or get accidentally ripped off.  Both happen very often on laptops.
All this explains why Microsoft wanted to get away from this system quickly and went for firmware-tied keys from Windows 8 on: every Windows 7 COA sticker was a potential “pirate” installation.

Now, what made me suspicious that this machine wasn’t actually originally OS-less, was that it had the “Windows” sticker next to the “Intel i3 Inside” sticker. You know, the marketing ones that actually have no value and I usually remove any way. I have seen quite a few “true” OS-less machines, and I can assure you, there won’t be a “marketing Windows” sticker on those. So, after I did my initial Linux install for my usage, I took out the disk and slammed in a 160GB HDD that I had lying around. Next I installed Windows 10 Pro, on it while skipping the activation. At this point, I have a fully functional Windows 10 that simply isn’t activated. (I downloaded and burned the Windows 10 installation ISO using Linux, on the machine itself)

After Googling, I found out about “HP Cloud Recovery Tool“. I downloaded it, and ran it. It detected which machine I had (including serial number) and told me that it originally came with “Windows 7 Pro” and I could download it, including drivers.

Now, I do not know why, but it failed… several times. I don’t really know why, perhaps my 16GB USB stick was bad (doesn’t look like it), perhaps something else. What I do know for certain is that it downloaded something big. Very big. Well, I found a file called “650434-DN6.WIM” in %USERPROFILE%\AppData\Local\Temp [This is equivalent to %TMP%. Corrected: Originally I wrote “C:\Windows\Temp”] and a WIM file is nothing else than a certain kind of Windows image file. I copied it over to the desktop, and used 7Zip to extract the contents and… indeed… it looks like a Windows 7 Pro installation DVD. At that point I just ran the setup.exe in the extracted folder and it started installing Windows 7. Half an hour later, it booted in a clean Windows 7 Pro installation which was activated. This due to the magic of SLP.

At this point, I could have stopped, because… well, there I have it: a running activated Windows 7 and that’s basically the best that Microsoft has to offer. However, the legality of this installation is debatable. Windows 10 is the way to make your installation “legal”, in the sense it doesn’t need a COA any more and gets a digital entitlement.  Well, that isn’t hard… Use the “Assistive Technologies” loophole. After installing a network driver, I downloaded the Windows 10 Assistive Technologies Upgrade and ran it.

In the morning1, I had a shiny activated Windows 10 Pro waiting for me. So, by using only Microsoft and HP approved tools, I went from a machine with a missing COA, to a digital entitled Windows 10 Pro. You know, the one that “never expires” and doesn’t require stickers, license keys or anything. Just a hash stored by Microsoft. The installation has become indistinguishable from a totally legit machine (with COA ripped off, which… well happens in reality)

If you wonder: At this point I put back the 320GB disk and it is running Linux again. The 160GB disk has been formatted. Even if it’s free, I don’t want their junk. I just like a challenge from time to time.


1 I’m simplifying. In reality it took several, attempts to get through the Windows 7 “update hell” before the upgrade tool actually did what it needed to do. Never mind the upgrade tool cannot be interrupted and when it hung on 99%, I aborted it and I had to do it all again. Disable Windows Update in services before you even try the upgrade tool.

Tuxedo Computers: How not to be a Linux OEM

Tuxedo Computers Logo

Tuxedo Computers Logo taken from their Facebook page. Logo belongs to TUXEDO Computers GmbH.

My Fathers Alienware laptop has been dying lately. He’s also been very unhappy with the latest Microsoft offerings, and since Mom has been using Ubuntu for years, he was willing to give it a shot. My father likes nice hardware and is willing to spend money on it, unlike his son who just buys the cheapest crap. So the decision was: Dad wants a laptop with Linux.

My eye has been on Tuxedo Computers for a while. I intended to buy there, once either my Acer Aspire S3-391 or Dell XPS L502x would give up the ghost. Not happening any time soon, but I did recommend my father to buy a laptop at Tuxedo Computers because, as far I could tell, they’d ship with Ubuntu pre-installed.

I am, alas, a busy man, and the Tuxedobook arrived, and I won’t be having time to look at it the next weeks. I managed to clear up one measly hour to assist my father in doing the first setup. I, naively, assumed that would be all I need. Let’s see how I imagined this:

  • Unbox the laptop
  • Plug it in
  • Boot up
  • Get presented with the Ubuntu OEM installer
  • Set the hostname, set up his account
  • Copy his Thunderbird and Firefox settings from his Alienware Windows machine
  • Set up the samba share to our family server
  • Have a coffee, and have a chat with him and be on my merry way

I know this is possible.  I have done it myself, I sent my Zotac Nano ID61 to my friend John in Germany.  I did the OEM install, tested it (and reset it back to OEM install).  Approved it for good and I know it worked for him.  He told me he was suprised I did it for him, as he obviously could do i installs from scratch himself, but the gesture was appreciated.  Really, an OEM Ubuntu install is as easy as setting up a Windows OEM machine.  If not easier.  This is how OEMs, and Tuxedo Computers is one, should sent the hardware to their customers.

So, naively, I went to my parents without any of my gear.  No cables, no USB DVD Rom drives, not even a long network cable (my father uses wireless and while there is cabled infrastructure, there are no RJ45 in the living room).

I get there and my father hasn’t even unpacked it.  He let me do that.  Shiny!  We figure out how to plug in the battery, connect the power supply and then the magical moment of booting up comes.  It boots up, and the magnificent logo of Tuxedo Computers comes up.  Of course, I expect the Ubuntu logo next, but… nope… PXE booting starts.  Odd?  Is there no system on the SSD?  Perhaps on the HDD?  Let’s try booting from the HDD instead.  Nope.  Okay, fine.  First, I think: I’ll do a PXE boot and we’ll have this running in no time.  Oh. No network cable, right…

Let me think, ah, they added a Ubuntu DVD!  Great, let’s boot from… oh, yes, right.  Modern laptops don’t have optical drives.  Obviously my USB DVD drive is at home.

Well, Dads got 100Mbps fibre.  I’ll download Ubuntu 16.04 on my Moms computer.  That takes less than 5 minutes from releases.ubuntu.com, then I’ll drop it on a USB stick and we’re  running.  Look, I even have a brand new 8GB USB stick in my car.  As expected, the download takes no time.  Startup disk creator fails on it.  I try a direct dd of the ISO on it.  Nope, somehow hangs.  Weird.  I guess that USB stick was dead.  Dad gives me an old 2GB USB stick.  Startup disk creator fails, dd from iso succeeds.  Sweet.  We’re 40 minutes in my allocated time.  I may be lucky and get it running within the remaining time.

I boot from the stick and during the installation process, the Ubuntu installer tells me: “Hey, buddy… This thing already has Ubuntu on it.  Wanna overwrite it?”  What?!? How?  I notice it’s an EFI installation (hey, the “EFI” partition gives it away, right?”).  I abort the installation and  boot into the firmware of the computer.  I notice that EFI is disabled.  Keep in mind: it was delivered this way!  I turn EFI on and reboot!

It does boot into Ubuntu. Sweet!  I’ll get this done in… Wait?  What?  It boots to a German version of Ubuntu (fair enough) and the login screen and presents us with a user named after my fathers first name.  I ask my dad whether he got a password from Tuxedo Computers.  He says that he hasn’t.  Sure, he might have overseen it and perhaps we didn’t look enough in all the enclosed papers, but that’s not how you pre-install Linux.  I tried a few passwords, like his first name again, our last name, 1234.  Nothing let us in.

Obviously, I said “Fuck this shit, I’ll do it myself”.

Booting from the USB stick I created earlier, I tried installing Ubuntu.  Which then gives me crap about EFI and I notice that the Ubuntu installer doesn’t allow me to create GPT partition tables.  It also tells about SSD alignemnt problems (SSD tells sectors are 2048 based, Linux tells it’s 512 based.  Partitioning stupidly believes the Linux kernel) I tried the classic MBR setup.  That’s easy and usually works.  Grub fails to install.
I tried to install grub manually, I don’t manage.  Surely my fault, because I’m really angry by now.
At that point, I am through my time and I have to give up.  I was really, really, enraged.  As in “physically violently” enraged.  I wanted to smash something.  This was supposed to be easy, this was supposed to be working out of the box!

Yes, I do realize that the majority of Tuxedo Computers customers are people like me that nuke and install anyway, but that’s no excuse!  This was the most crappy out of the box experience I’ve ever had and I now have a ton of work, waiting for me and a father who cannot use his new toy.  Earliest I can take time would be begin August.

If I’d be a customer who just wanted a “Linux computer” that worked out of the box, I’d definitely return it.  Sure, I’ll fix it, I’ll get it running, but you shouldn’t actually need a guy like me to get a Linux machine up and running.

This is exactly the reason why people think that Linux is hard.  Exactly this!

Daddy needs a new laptop

In pretty much all my conscious life, people have come to me for advice about buying new computers.  Often, they just ignored whatever I said and bought whatever they wanted and then asked whether it was any good.  To which I usually said: “Meh… Will do, you still should have listened to me”.

In the last few years, I have seen a certain trend though: People come to me and tell me “I’d like a new laptop, but it shouldn’t cost more than 400€”.  Fine, I get it.  Many people I know have children now, and they have other priorities.  This blog entry here is based upon a late night Facebook-Chat conversation, where I realized how very confusing and hard buying new hardware has become if you aren’t highly informed.  You know what? Even in this context, I’m not “highly” informed, just a bit better informed.

First of all, you need to realize that a computer is a complex machine, and it’s the combination of all parts that makes or breaks the performance.  In the low-end, there is actually only one part that you can vary and that is the CPU.  CPU stands for Central Processing Unit and you can basically call that “the thing that makes calculations”.  You might wonder how moving a window on screen is maths, but I assure you: it is.  Your computer can only do two things: calculate data and store data.  Everything you see and do on your machine is reducible to those two basic actions.  The “How” is irrelevant for this discussion.

So, back to my acquaintance.  I asked him what type of machine he now has.  It’s a Windows Vista-era machine (Still running Vista, I might add), sporting a Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, 2GB RAM and a 320GB Hard disk.  Given the information I have, I guessed, it was approximately bought in 2007 as a high-end laptop.  I can also tell you immediately that the main bottleneck here will be the 2GB of RAM, but that can easily be fixed with a 40€ upgrade and replacing the hard disk with an 85€ SSD will also give it a boost.  Add in a new battery and you might have infused it a bit more life, if it wasn’t for Windows Vista that is only supported until 2017.  However, is it actually “worth” upgrading this machine?  No.  Not if you can buy a decent new machine.  Can we buy a decent machine would be the next question…

That’s where a thought process of most people kicks in, that has been indoctrinated by our consumer oriented society:  This machine is eight to nine years old, a new one, even a cheaper one must undoubtedly be better.  In certain ways, that new machine is going to be better.  It will most likely use less electricity and have better battery life, but that’s not why you are replacing your machine, is it?  It’s because it’s not doing what you want it to do: it’s too slow for certain tasks.  So, given normal peoples workloads, you will want a faster CPU.  Let’s take a look at budget PCs.  The column called Prozessor means CPU and the one called Speicher means RAM.  Ignore the laptops ones tagged “Generalüberholt”, which means “Refurbished”.

First of all, you’ll notice that none of these machines have more than the 4GB RAM, albeit of a higher speed (which is mostly irrelevant, even though one can discuss endlessly about that).

The second thing you notice that many of them have a Celeron N3150 processor.  Of course, that doesn’t tell you anything.  It might be the best thing since sliced bread.  Also, never mind that CPU model numbers are horribly, horribly confusing.

So, how do we compare these CPUs?  Well, in honesty, you can’t!  Not really.  Mostly we use so called “Benchmarks”, which try to evaluate how quick a certain processor does a certain task.  Alas, some processor do well on task A, but badly on task B.  All benchmarks are pretty much artificial.  From my experience the “Passmark CPU benchmark” gives a quite decent indication on what to expect, but it’s no panacea since you need to be able to interpret results.  Still, I’m going by this.  Let’s look up the scores for the Core 2 Duo T7500 and put them side by side:  There you go: gut feeling correct 1522 > 1274, the T7500 is 84% of the speed of the Celeron N3150.  It’s faster!  Case closed!

Not so fast.  First of all, consider this: a low-end budget CPU, just barely beats the old high-end one (The N3150 is a year old, to be fair), which means you’re going to spend 400€ to get just a minimal speed increase?  Are you serious?  Furthermore, there is a detail that needs to be pointed out.  The T7500 has two cores, meaning two independent calculators.  The N3150 has four of them.  Four is better than two, so, case closed, the N3150 is better!
The thing is: more cores work best in cases where tasks can be split up, and that isn’t true for most tasks.  It’s worse: most user-oriented tasks aren’t like that at all.  So, the speed of a single core does matter and it matters quite a lot.  That’s the line marked “Single Thread Rating”, where you can see for the T7500 that it has a score of 764 versus 418 for the N3150.  For so called “single thread tasks” the T7500 is actually better, much better.

My biggest point is: You’re going to spend money for something that is not significantly better.  A midrange modern day Core i5 with 8GB RAM (example: Asus ZenBook UX303UA-FN121T ) will set you back the double of your budget, but will triple the performance compared to your old machine and you’ll have double RAM, which also has a positive impact.

Finally, there is one last thing I need to stress.  Many people think that computers get slower when they age.  I can think of a few scenarios where that is true (defective or dusty fan and a disk slowly getting bad clusters), but as a general rule: Your machine today is as fast as it was when you bought it.  What may have changed is the software you are running requires more power.  The solution to this is to do an analysis of your needs: What do I need?  List it.  Identify the software to do that and stick to that software and only that software.  It called “having a fixed feature set”, and it generally makes your computing experience more smooth.
If you’re running Windows, and haven’t done that, your machine might be loaded up with all kind of crap over time that you’re actually not using, but still is loaded.  The only solution is then to reinstall the machine, which usually requires specialist intervention. (So does the suggested SSD upgrade, by the way.)  If you feel adventurous, you might even try using Linux.  Talk to your local nerd about it, who might be closer than you think.

If there is one thing you should take away from all of this: Don’t just buy a new computer, because if you do without being properly informed, you might end up with something that isn’t as great as you’d thought it would be.  Or as the Romans already said: Caveat Emptor.

Steam, Linux and Intel Graphics

Jorg… are you using Steam on Linux?
No motivation to pay close to 1000 for a steam box, but an i3/i5 with Intel graphics would be ok price wise… question is, would it be worth it?

Short answer: Yno.
Long answer:

This is a question in multiple parts, namely:

  1. Do you use Steam on Linux?
  2. Does Steam on Linux work well?
  3. Are integrated graphics sufficient these days for games?
  4. What about graphics drivers?

Now, let start with the easy part: Yes, I use Steam on Linux.  I basically only use it on Linux and one of the main criteria for buying games on Steam, or from Humble Bundle, is Linux support.  Steam, the application, works very well on Linux and it comes down to installing a package and that’s it.  That said, Steam is just Steam, being a kind of game library with a useful “Big Screen” (aka, “use it on TV”) mode.  On no configuration, did Steam refuse to run, but nobody runs Steam to run Steam.  What you want are the games.

That’s where question #3 comes in, and sorry, no… Linux won’t compensate your underpowered hardware.  Just as in Windows, you might end up buying a game and figuring out that “hell, fuck no, this won’t work“.  If it’s not because the game doesn’t start up at all, it will be because it is so horribly slow, that it’s unplayable even when turning down all the settings.  Now, in all fairness, my experience with Steam on Intel, limits itself to:

  • Zotac Nano ID61 – Celeron 867 / 8GB RAM / “Intel HD Graphics” (I have given this machine away, I can’t do tests any more)
  • Dell XPS 15 – Core i7-2630QM / 16GB RAM / “Intel HD 3000″ (Paired with an NVidia GT 525M)
  • Acer Aspire S3 – Core i5-3317U / 4GB RAM / “Intel HD 4000″

All run Ubuntu 14.04LTS with Steam installed from the Valve repos.  These are all older chips based on Sandy Bridge (Celeron 867 and Core i7-2630QM) and Ivy Bridge (Core i5-3317U) architectures, so obviously it’s not very representative for modern Intel hardware.  Take everything I say with a huge grain of salt.  Haswell, Broadwell and Skylake based processors might be so much better, especially with the Iris Pro graphics.  Intel graphics are so very diverse and the labels stuck on them make it next to impossible to find accurate benchmarks.  So basically, what it means is that I must go on feeling which really, is very subjective.

However, it’s not the only thing you can go on.  You can simply see what the minimum requirements for some games say.  A very well known AAA type game working on Linux is Sid Meiers Civilisation V.  Go and visit it, and you’ll notice that in the PC world, you damn better do your homework about your hardware and what this hardware means in relation to recommended and minimum settings.  Also, keep in mind this is a strategy game, and really shouldn’t tax your graphics card all that much.  Well, go and look:

  • Windows: Core i3 or better integrated graphics
  • Mac OS X: “Intel GMA (950/X3100), HD 3000″ not supported
  • SteamOS/Linux: Intel Integrated video chipsets (GMA 9XX, HD 3XXX) will not run Civilization V for SteamOS and Linux, and are unsupported.

So, the Zotac is out as is the i7 (using Intel graphics).  The i5 might run it, I don’t think I tried.

Another one?  Let’s take Victor Vran.  I bought this game because the gameplay reminded me of the PlayStation 2 version of Baldurs Gate.  I didn’t check specifications and I tried on the i5-3317U, connected using HDMI to my TV.  The game loads, but it is unplayable at any detail level.  Specs, here you go:

  • Windows: GeForce 8800 or higher, AMD Radeon HD 4000 or higher, Intel HD 4000 or higher (min. 512 MB VRAM)
  •  Mac OS X: OpenGL 4.1 (GeForce 600 or higher, AMD Radeon 5000 or higher, Intel HD 4000 or higher)
  • SteamOS/Linux: OpenGL 4.1 (GeForce 600 or higher, AMD Radeon 5000 or higher)

Hey!  Intel isn’t even supported on SteamOS/Linux.  I should try it on Windows to see how playable the game is, but I doubt it will be a very agreeable experience.

… you’ll notice that neither of these games is even a first person shooter-puzzler.
Indie games will work, right?  Right?

Yeah, kinda… Again better check what the specs are.  Rochard works fine, for example, and is a fun game.  Less graphically intensive games like World Of Goo or Thomas was alone work perfectly.  Rochard and Thomas was alone and are a joy to be played with an XBox controller, which works out of the box on Linux.  Are these your kind of games?  You’ll be happy with Integrated graphics and Steam.

However, not all is perfect. Which brings us to the drivers and question #4.

How are the drivers?  Intel has a good reputation on Linux for drivers, but, and that’s really a but… that’s because AMDs drivers are quite horrible and NVidias drivers are closed.

Are Intels drivers good?  Generally, yes, and it might just be because I use whatever comes stock with Ubuntu 14.04LTS that I have problems in some games.  Most of the issues here are in my i5-3317U (which is what I use for most casual gaming).  First time I noticed that something was wrong was that in certain scenes of Book of the unwritten tales – Critter Chronicles, the characters were very dark.  That’s a point ‘n click adventure, nothing graphically too fancy.  My guess, is that they used a badly implemented shader.  The game was playable, but when it happened, it looked ugly.
Recently I’ve been playing Never Alone, which is very playable on the i5 from a performance perspective.  However, the game uses some shader that is broken.  Probably the same issue as mentioned before, but it’s so much more annoying because the shaders move and look so very much out of place.  Is it playable?  Yes.  Is it pretty?  No.

There is also something strange going on with the i5.  Due to a flash of genius, I had the idea to just connect the laptop to my TV and play on the TV.  I set the TV as primary display and disabled the internal panel.  The surprise came when I tried playing something like Stanley Parable or Talos Principle.  They were unplayable, at any resolution.  Why is this remarkable?  Because I played these games on the Zotac ID61, which is immensely lower spec than that laptop.  Something is going, on, but I have no idea what.  Given these games play fine on the internal panel, my guess is it has something to do with the drivers and how a dual screen configuration is handled.

Back on topic: if you’re using Intel Integrated for gaming (within the range of chips I talked about), you get what you pay for.  I could recommend looking into AMD offerings, as their integrated graphics solutions are better, but you’ll still end up with disappointment.  I was rather happy with my A8-3850 (Radeon HD 6550D), but as a matter of fact, you’ll end up running most games on low settings any way.  I have given up and just got myself an low-range NVidia gaming card.  (Which I haven’t tested properly to tell whether it was a good idea.)

What does this mean?
Linux gaming will work, if you have the hardware to match.  If you don’t the experience will be as crappy or crappier than on Windows.  That 1100€ SteamBox suddenly does look more attractive, doesn’t it?   No, I don’t have that kind of money for toys either, but my fans can of course send me one as a present ;-).  Whether such a SteamBox will actually play games well enough, that, I cannot say.  Maybe consider a Steam Link to your real game box?

Acer Aspire S3 – Battery swap

In September 2013, I bought an Acer Aspire S3. Why? Because it was on sale for a really good price. When I can avoid it, I won’t ever pay laptops full price. The downsides were a 1366×768 resolution screen, soldered-on RAM and a built-in battery. Manufacturing date says November 2012, so at that point the battery was already about a year old.  Yes, even unused batteries degrade.

Fast forward to December 2015.  The battery really is getting low on capacity.  It barely holds an hour for light surfing.  So, the time has come to try to replace the battery.  Here are the statistics of the original battery:

Battery statistics of the Acer Aspire S3, before battery replacement

Battery statistics of the Acer Aspire S3, before battery replacement

My favourite battery supplier is duracelldirect.eu, as the prices are reasonable, the delivery is very quick and they regularly send newsletters giving you codes for 10% off (or more, but mostly 10%).  So basically, when I need a new battery, I just wait until I get such a code.  Why pay full price, right?  With coupon, I got the battery for 66,14€, including VAT, including delivery. Here is what a new battery looks like for the S3.  Exotic, I admit.

While the S3 didn’t look all hard to open up, and was pretty much akin to the infamous ThaiBook with regards to screws, I did do some research.  I found a youtube video by Sunderland Computer Repairs with detailed instructions, giving me confidence I could do it on my own. It really was as easy as described. For an Ultrabook, the repair-ability is great.  Obviously, just having a user-replaceable battery would be better.  Actually, in some sense the repair-ability is better than my Dell XPS L502x, because if you want access to the hard disk in that one, you have to be prepared for quite some pain.  The battery is user replaceable on the Dell, though.

The battery statistics after the swap:

Battery statistics of the Acer Aspire S3, after battery replacement

Battery statistics of the Acer Aspire S3, after battery replacement

Good for another two years, I say…

I also was happy to see that the SSD is exchangeable.  The reports on the Internet were mixed regarding this.  For some it’s soldered-on, for some not.  I’m apparently one of the lucky ones.  That said, the 20GB SSD is more than sufficient to hold my operating system.

Seven to ten to seven

Seven to ten to seven

“Seven to ten to seven”

As you undoubtedly know, for now my recommendation about Windows 10 is: Stay put when you’re on 7, upgrade when you’re on 8/8.1. If you disagree, that’s fine: do what works for you. Of course, there is an “if”, namely, you’d better upgrade to 10 in order to secure the 10 upgrade for free before the promotion ends. As such, I’ve been a busy bee, taking Windows 7 machines, making an image of their disk, then upgrade and the revert to the 7 image.
Technically, you can upgrade to 10, ensure your machine is activated and then click the “revert to 7″ button in the “Upgrade” section somewhere. You have 30 days to do this. Now, personally, I prefer the “image-upgrade-restore” process because you do not know what Microsoft does when you click the rollback button. Is your machine hash flagged? Well, you get to say what you think of 10, but there is most likely not a human soul that will ever see these complaints.

Being more the Unix guy, I automated my work as far as possible. The automation consists of three parts: an imaging script and two windows scripts (reg and cmd). The first script is actually rather old and was originally written for other purposes: image newly bought PCs. It uses parted, so I assume that it should work on GPT partition layouts, but I have never tested this.

Now, to be entirely honest, you’re not going to manage to do the imagining without a little crash course on devices and the Linux command line. (Only tested on Ubuntu 14.04 LiveUSB. Dependencies are: ntfsclone, dd, dmidecode, hdparam and probably another few)
Basically, you’ll run it as following: sudo ./generate-image.sh /dev/sda
However, this assumes a few things: your working directory has my script, that in this working directory you have enough space to store the generated images and that the disk you want to image is /dev/sda (which it most likely will be, but I cannot say for sure). You also need to be sure that no partition of /dev/sda is not mounted. (Hey, now that’s something I could add to my script…)
When you run that script, it will create a directory based on your machines information, and will attempt to image the mbr (full and without partition table), and all partitions. For vfat it reverts to dd, for ntfs it reverts to ntfsclone and it generates a restore.sh script for your convenience for easy restoration. I’d say: cool, but you may think otherwise.

Nevertheless, I have decided to publish it here for the nerdier guys.

So, then you upgrade to 10, wait until it’s activated and that’s the last you’ll see from Windows 10.

Now, you boot back to your LiveUSB, go to the image directory the script created and run sudo ./restore and it will restore everything magically. If you want to use the backed up partition table, give any parameter (it’s a bit dumb, yes…).

When it’s all done… Reboot. You’re back to your Windows 7 machine as if nothing ever happened.

Now for the part any Windows user can do. The two scripts in the privacy.zip, are privacy.cmd and privacy.reg. The reg file you can just double-click, and it will essentially mark your machine as being “not interested in Windows 10, don’t bother me any more”. It disables GWX (the Windows 10 notification icon), disables the upgrade function, disables reservation and disables the fact that recommended updates are treated like important updates. This is important, because Microsoft used the “recommended” channels to push these -let’s just say “annoying”- patches to your computer.

The privacy.cmd script does something entirely different. If you haven’t been living under a rock the last months, you know that Microsoft pushed patches that adds a tracking services to your pristine Windows 7 installation. Now the script starts off with stopping that service, and then disabling it. I do this, because the uninstallation of the offending patches might fail for some reason. At least, then you’re sure the service is off. After it has done this, the script tries to uninstall the patches related to the Windows 10 upgrade and the tracking service.
Be advised, in order for the privacy.cmd script to work you need to run it as Administrator. Right click on it, then select “Run as Administrator”. It might take a while.
Congratulations, the nagging for the upgrade should stop, until Microsoft decides to push it as an important upgrade. After a reboot, you may want to manually mark these patches as hidden. Perhaps I should try to figure out, whether you can do that with a registry patch too.

Upgrade to Windows 10 or not?

Pit Wenkin asked me regarding my thoughts about upgrading to Windows 10 or not.  It ended up being a rather large post, so I decided to write it down as a blog post:

What do I recommend?  You’re asking this a Linux user.

For starters:
– If you are a Windows 8 user, do upgrade… Now… It is better than Windows 8.
– If you are a Windows 7 user, you are between a rock and a hard place.  Windows 10 is not better than 7, at least not in my eyes.  Windows 7 is end of life in January 2020 (Source: microsoft.com), which means security patches should come in until then.  However, your “Free” upgrade is only valid one year.  You have to upgrade NOW, or you are losing money.
– The reviews of 10 are generally positive, but… the arguments are always the same: it’s a Windows 8 underpinning (which, allegedly has a bit more “under the hood improvements”) with a more 7 like interface.  It’s still the ugly flat interface, though.  It always stops with “Hey, it’s free, you should take it”.  I personally find that one of the worst arguments for an upgrade.

Knowing this, you have to balance out the following:

  1. Will Microsoft keep their promise regarding EOL status of 7?  If we can see back in history, we know they won’t.  Both NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 didn’t get important security updates before their EOL because “it was too much work for the short time”.  The answer Microsoft could give is: Hey, Win10 is free, upgrade to that.  It would be a arsehole move, I admit, but look deep into your heart:  How much do you actually trust Microsoft?
  2. How long are you going to keep your device?  If you’ve got a machine and think you’re going to replace it anyway before 01/2020, you have no reason to upgrade (ignoring point 1).  Just keep on shrugging happily with Windows 7, and your new machine will be 10 anyway (or a Mac, please buy a Mac or ask me to install Linux!)
  3. Given point 2.  Keep in mind that machines have longer lifespans these days.  Even if you get a new machine every three years or so, it’s most likely going to have a life after your usage.  Which means, it’ll better have Windows 10.  It increases it’s “value” in the sense that it will get continued patches once it’s in someone else’s hands.  Now, you might not care and that’s fine.  I am just pointing it out.
  4. How much time do you have spare?  It’s quite simple.  If you do the upgrade now, and the immediately roll back (Yes! You can do that!), your machine is registered as being upgraded.  The main issue here is that we do not know how much the hash Microsoft has about your machine, will change on diverse hardware upgrades?  Does a disk change modify the hash?  Does a RAM upgrade do?  We only know for certain a motherboard swap does.

This brings us to my plan for my family & friends machines, and the one I did on my Ultrabook1.  I will take their machines, one by one, and upgrade it to 10, then revert back to 7.  That way, in 2020, they can go to 10 (because they have to), and keep on using 7 meanwhile.  Should anyone care to go to 10 voluntary, they will be able without paying.  At least, that’s the theory.  This will waste a lot of my time and a shitload of bandwidth, but it’s the best balance I found between point 1-4.
I am going to test what happens if I do a disk swap, instead of a dd clone (that takes so long).  If I can get a machine to upgrade with HDD A, and then use another HDD B to do an install from scratch and it activates fine, I don’t need to do the upgrade on the actual installation (aka, the one people use) and it’s only downtime for the users.

1 My Ultrabook came with Windows 8.  It never actually booted into 8, because I dumped Linux on it.  From day one.  Now, since I do care about the people “after me”, I did the following:  I made a dd clone of the disk, then I installed Windows 8, then I upgraded to Windows 10, then I restored the dd clone of the disk.  It took over three days (in the sense, I did one operation every evening and let it work overnight).  This is the roadplan, I have for Windows 7 machines.  Secure the upgrade, continue using the old and trusted.

Windows 10 upgrades – I’m becoming highly sceptical

If you’ve been following my progress on Facebook, I am getting very sceptical regarding the Windows 10 upgrade process.  The word in the street is that, if you have a legit installation, and do the upgrade from your Windows 7 installation, your key -printed on the famous sticker- is going to be “upgraded” to a 10 key.  (Ignoring Windows 8 for now, as the keys are in firmware)

Now, fate happened to give me a defective computer just before Windows 10 got released.  My sisters computers hard drive died and it required a full reinstall.  My sister has a System Builder version of Windows 7 Pro.  It is 100% legit, has never been installed on any other hardware and has basically only been installed once, a few years ago, when she bought the hardware.  Ideal situation.
Since I finished the 7 install, but didn’t have the time to go on with the installation, I decided to let it upgrade and, as such, make sure her key is both valid for 7 and 10.  Regardless of what you think about 10, we all know that a fresh start (complete reinstall) is always preferable.  So, I decided to download Windows 10 USB stick creation tool, and create a bootable Windows 10 USB installer. (On her computer, from the upgraded 10 version, no less!)  The word on the street is that, after a successful 10 upgrade, you could install from scratch.

So, I launch the installer and it asks me the key…  The key that -according to the word on the street- should have been upgraded during the, ehm, upgrade.  Not so… It didn’t take it.  I find this highly worrying.  If these key are not updated, future reinstalls will not work and sooner or later the “Install 7/8, the upgrade” will become paying.
I now tried “Skip” and reinstall it from scratch any way.  Perhaps network connectivity is missing or so, and that’s why it doesn’t work.  If not, I foresee huge problems in the future when re-installations of 10 are needed on initially upgraded machines.

If the “install first, then enter key and activate” scenario fails, I give up on Windows 10 for my family and they’ll have to live with 7.  Which, to be entirely honest, is still superior.

Update 2015-08-1@23:31CEST

It makes sense now.  What really happens is that you seem to get a new key.  It is not even a special key, everyone gets the same one.  What really seems to happen is that a hardware hash is sent to Microsoft to identify the machine associated with the OEM key (I have no retail keys to test).
So, every time the installer asked for a key, I skipped it, ending up on a desktop which was… activated!  So, yes, you can reinstall your machine freshly after you did an upgrade, it just is really, really, really dumb about it.  The user (me in occurrence) is left with the idea he has a bad key, but the importance of the key is gone.  At least not the key you have that you used for the upgrade.
Now, keep in mind this has a bitter after-taste.  Re-using OEM licenses, as was totally legal in the EU, suddenly became much harder, if not impossible  Also, if you decide to stay with 7, and upgrade your hardware in the next few years, and in 2020, you say… “Hey, I had this 10 license, I can do that upgrade for free, still”, your hash might have changed and you’ll be out of luck too.  Pray for static hardware if that’s the path you choose to go.