Wednesday, January 21, 2009

RIP Compaq - welcome to the house Acer

Should have been blogging about this all along so it wouldn't be so long.  But then, I suppose that would have been kind of hard to do.  Why?  Couple weeks ago my laptop computer died.  I'm not real sure what happened to it or how it happened.  I give it a small probability that some problem with the Mepis energy management caused it to overheat and cooked something on the motherboard.  I had noticed a boot problem earlier in the day that it occurred, but the laptop recovered on its own.  That evening though, it froze up and then would not boot.  I cannot even get to the BIOS settings.  Tried both hard drives, no luck.

Fortunately, my wife let me go out this past weekend and buy a new laptop.  In the meantime, I had been borrowing hers or using my desktop (which meant being banished to the office).  I really was ready to go for a MacBook and look at trying to triple boot it into OSX, some Linux, and Win XP.  But we had to go cheap, so the $999 MacBook became a non-option.  We spent Saturday night looking for something at Office Depot, Best Buy, and Office Max.  Office Depot had three different options - back to them in a minute.  Office Max really did not have anything at all.  Best Buy had a couple that I was interested in.  One was a Dell that must have been a returned unit or something as it had a handwritten price card indicating it had been written down from $565 to $515.  It was pretty nice.  The other option was a nice Compaq that was on sale for $449.  It would have been a really good computer.  Alas, Best Buy was out of stock.  They indicated the closest units were at the Cary store.  But they couldn't have them send one over.  And they couldn't order us one to pick up at a later time.  They were trying really hard to not sell us a laptop.  We decided to go back to Office Depot.

Back at Office Depot, I had settled on a nice Acer that was on sale for $449.  But, they too were out of stock of the unit (as well as the other two we had identified as possible options).  They indicated they would sell the floor model to me, but they would not give me a discount.  They reasoned that it was the last day of the sale and they only extend discounts on floor models early in the week.  ????  I can only guess they really wanted to keep that floor model and sell it later at full price.  Must not be much of a recession going on for them if they aren't willing to work with a buyer in hand.

I was so frustrated at that point, we decided to just not do anything.  Instead, we headed off to the theater to see Gran Torino.  Excellent film (better than Nights in Rodanthe that I had to see with my wife a couple weeks earlier), but we had to come back for the late show due to the crowd at the theater.  I've never seen it like that.  Apparently the big draws were Notorious and My Bloody Valentine 3-D, although it was a packed house for Gran Torino as well.

Next day we headed back to Best Buy to get an Acer they had in their flyer.  Yeah, I was not too happy with them from the night before, but I figured I would give them another chance.  Interestingly, they did not keep the one we were looking for on the sales floor.  But it is in their weekly flyer.  I still haven't figured out a good reason for that.  Other than forcing you to have to get a sales associate to help you and the attendant up-sale pressure.

Before leaving the shopping phase, I noticed all of the store had lots of options for netbooks.  They looked really cool and I was very tempted to get one of those as I mainly use the laptop for e-mail, web surfing, writing something occasionally.  But I was worried about what I would do when I was editing pictures as I frequently like having good screen real estate.  At Best Buy, they even had an Asus Eee which is a netbook loaded with a version of Linux.  Sells for only $199.  I'm tempted to go back and get one just to play with it (and between it and this new laptop, I'd still spend less than a MacBook).  A friend that I ate lunch with on Monday said he recently got one (a netbook, not the Asus Eee) just to mess around with and likes it.  He is looking at them as a possible option for techs who have to get into relatively tight places and don't want to have to lug a full size laptop around with them.

The laptop I ended up with is an Acer Aspire 4730Z (I'd link to it, but I can't find it on the Acer site).  I don't really know much about Acers, though my sister reportedly bought one recently.  Seems to be a nice enough unit.  Dark blue cover on it adds a little uniqueness.  One thing I like is that it is not too big.  My wife's has a huge screen which I suppose is nice, but this has a 14.1 inch screen (I think that is right).  Two GB of RAM - may have to look into upgrading that at some point.  Came with a 250GB hard drive, but after losses to operating systems and the "recovery" partition, I have about 190GB useable.  The biggest weakness looks to be the video.  Has an onboard Intel chipset and from what I can tell, only has 64MB of dedicated RAM (yep - weak, weak, weak) but can access 768MB?  I can tell under Vista as it pauses every now and then when running all the Aero eye candy.  So I turned off some of that and it helped a little bit.  Of course, it rocks under Linux.

Speaking of operating systems, it came with Vista Home Premium.  I decided to leave that on there for dual-booting purposes when I absolutely have to use Windows.  As you may recall, I had started the transition on the other laptop to Linux as I work to phase out Windows completely.  The setup took a couple hours for burning recovery CDs and installing Windows updates and a handful of "primary" programs - Thunderbird, Firefox, OpenOffice.org, and The GIMP.

The next step was to install Linux on it.  I decided to go ahead and stick with Mepis Linux.  I had to download a new iso (and fortunately, Acer had installed some program called NTI Media Maker which supported burning iso images, something Microsoft does not do natively).  It is a release candidate for Mepis 8.

Of course, the Linux install was quite easy.  The biggest problem was that I had to repartition the hard drive to nuke the Windows "data" partition to use for Linux.  And then that had to be split up into partitions for /root and for /home.  Been a long time since I've done that on an existing hard drive - I usually work with new, clean drives.  As I discovered, the repartitioning process is painfully slow, especially on these huge drives (I cannot even imagine doing this on a TB drive) so I had to leave it working on it overnight.

The next morning it was all done and I proceeded to get Linux loaded up.  Most everything was there as expected, though I could not find Thunderbird in the repository and had to install it manually.  Then it would not do anything when I clicked on a lick in an e-mail, so I had to do some research and ended up adding to the about:config file
network.protocol-handler.app.http = /usr/bin/firefox

That fixed it.  Unlike the last laptop, I decided to install the Lightning addon (which I use at work as well) and the Google Calendar plug-in.  Now I can keep my calendar sync'ed up at home, work, and on my new iPhone (that is another post).  Very sweet!

The next challenge was trying to figure out how to get data off the old drives.  For that I purchased a hard drive enclosure from RocketFish.  It is pretty cool - pop in a 2.5" drive, then plug it into a USB drive (it actually uses two USB slots, one extra being used for power purposes).  Much easier than taking a laptop apart to swap hard drives - wish I'd had this a year ago.  Anyway, the drive shows up as a USB HDD.  Mepis recognized it instantly and mounted the different partitions.  Well, kind of.

The old Mepis drive loaded without a problem and I was able to pull the data off of that.  That mostly consisted of some Moneydance files (a program I'm evaluating to replace Quickbooks for keeping my bank accounts in order), my e-mail archive (which are actually scattered all over the place and I don't feel like trying to merge them, but this was the most recent/critical copy), and a few other odd documents.  Once that was completed, I decided to repartition the drive back into a single partition.  It now functions as an external 60GB drive.  I haven't really figured out what I'll use it for yet, but it is there for me to put data on.

The old Windows drive was a different matter.  Unfortunately, it is encrypted with PGP Whole Disk Encryption.  I actually thought the whole thing was encrypted, but apparently only the data partition is.  Of course, that is the one I need access to.  Under Mepis, it does not even see that partition.  Under Vista, it sees the partition, but it does not think it is formatted.  I put it in the RocketFish enclosure and tried to boot from it.  I did get the PGP screen for my password and grub to select what to boot into (I had SuSE installed on it a long time ago).  Unfortunately, when booting into Windows XP, it crashes back to a reboot.  As I discovered, Windows is not capable of booting from a USB hard drive (at least, not that I've been able to figure out yet).

The next thing to try was booting it into a virtual machine.  I had VMWare Workstation and tried to install that on Vista.  But my version was 5.5.x and as I found out, it does not work under Vista.  Nevertheless, VMWare, after warning me it was not appropriate for Vista, proceeded to install itself.  And now I cannot get rid of it.  I had to do some research to get the VMWare services turned off and to try to clean out the registry.  I downloaded VMWare 6.x to try to install and try, but the installer keeps reporting that an older version of VMWare is installed and it cannot remove it (after trying) and I should use the Windows program installer/remover.  But that no longer lists VMWare as being installed.  I think I've about reached the end of the road on that option (especially after seeing all the other posts from people who have the same problem installing VMWare).

I've looked at trying VirtualBox under both Mepis Linux and Vista, but it does not give me an option to boot from a USB HDD (it pretty much wants me to boot from a CD-ROM).  So that does not look promising.  I'll look into some other VM clients.

I also looked into trying to swap the hard drive into one of our good laptops to boot directly and pull everything off onto an external hard drive (maybe the "new" portable drive in the RocketFish?).  But this Acer and my wife's Compaq both use SATA drives.  And I can't even figure out how to access the hard drive on an old, old laptop my kids occassionally use (so old, it came loaded with Windows ME).

The other option I've been looking at is some tool from PGP to let me access the encrypted drive partition.  But they are not much help.  So at this point, the data on that drive is still locked up.  Who knew the person the drive would be protected from would be me?  The locked up data includes some downloads for a couple programs I had hoped to install under Vista.  I suppose I'll just have to find Linux replacements.  About the only silver lining is that just prior to the crash, I had actually backed up my Quickbooks files to my server, so I can access them (whenever I install Quickbooks).  Those were really the only things that I would consider critical data.  Everything else may be unfortunate to lose (e.g. downloaded music files) or annoying, but not really critical.

So now I'm settling in with the new laptop.  I've done some tweaking on the power settings under Mepis (may still need to do a little more as I noticed in a test of Suspend to RAM that the wireless interface did not come back up automatically) and created a theme that is a little easier for me to live with (ok, I admit it - I did pull the Segoe font over from Windows - just like the way it looks onscreen).  Couple other small issues to address like setting up my nfs connections with my server (been using Samba up to this point, but I'd really like to mount them so they look like a folder in my home directory).

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