Friday, October 2, 2009

Basic Netbook Tweaks - XP

Since my little brother got one of these puppies for his birthday I figure I better pick up the pace on my netbook blogs!

There are a couple of basic tweaks that I have found useful.  Most apply to any of my laptops and are power related, but a couple I applied specifically to my netbook.
First and foremost I am a bit of a freak about a clean desktop.  Anyone who knows the slob that I am may find this surprising, but the clutter of a thousand icons on my desktop just drives me nuts.  The madness is quelled in a few ways:

Launchy - I mentioned this outstanding little application launcher/ anything you want it to do wonder of a program before.  It eliminates the need for clicking on those dirty little icons by making the launching of programs accessible through a few keystrokes.  The mousepad can be a pain for some people, especially on a little netbook, so this program is essential.

Taking control of your toolbar - That little toolbar down there can be very useful! Begin by right clicking on any empty space.  If there is a check next to 'Lock the taskbar' then click on that to uncheck it.  Right click again to bring the menu back if it disappears then go to 'toolbars' and another drop down menu should show when you hover over it.  The only toolbar I leave checked here is the quick launch.  Anything else, such as the language bar, should be unchecked to save real estate - unless you use it of course.
The quick launch is kind of a second launchy.  I put any icons that I use a lot here where they are much more readily accessible than on the desktop.  Things like My Computer, My Documents, My Network Places, and any other folders or programs that you access a lot can go there.  If the program is not there then just drag the icon from the desktop to the quick launch bar and viola!
After setting up the quick launch with about five icons visible and the rest accessible from the drop down menu that comes up when you hover over the arrow icon, I get a hold of the notification area - that little area on the bottom right that is so important yet few people probably pay much attention to.
The notification area is so important because it is the first step in controlling your valuable resources.  A lot of programs tend to overestimate their importance and think it is ok for them to load up on startup and run in the background, taking up very valuable resources - or wasting them I should say.  Those programs generally post a little icon in this area, so the first order of business is to  look at each icon and see what it represents.  If it is a program that you are not using right now, then it should not be there.  I recommend CCleaner for the newbie - it gets rid of all the crap (CrapCleaner - get it?) and there is a section for taking control of what starts up with windows.  Go there and be very frugal about what you let start with Windows - security programs, utilities such as process hacker and any drivers should be about it.  When people experience a slow down in performance, this is the first place to look.
Once you get control of your auto-starts then you can control the real estate.  If you right click on the bar, choose 'properties' and then 'customize' under the notification area, you are presented with a list of all the icons that can show up.  Any that I don't need to see all the time, like security related icons, I click 'always hide'.  This saves a ton of space!

Finally, power related tweaks.  Go to Start then choose Control Panel and Power Options, which brings up the 'power options properties' box with a few tabs.  The initial tab - power schemes - is your choice.  I choose never for turning off the hard disks then whatever you choose for the others.  Next go to the Hibernate tab and enable Hibernation.  This may prove to be a problem for those with netbooks using SSD's because Hibernation needs at least a few gigs of HD space.  Next go to the Advanced tab, where the magic happens.
For 'when I close the lid' I chose do nothing, because I sometimes use my netbook to listen to music and I like to close the lid and keep listening.  There are some heat issues with this, I have found, so use speedfan to keep track of that and see if it is the same for you.
For 'when I press the power button' I chose to put the computer into hibernation.  More on that later, but one of the main advantages is that coming out of hibernation you have the F8 option so if something catastrophic happens you can get into safe mode.
For 'when I press the sleep button' I put standby - though my netbook doesn't have a sleep button.  For standby, I just go the old school route of Start -> Turn off computer ->Standby.
On this tab you can also choose whether you have to enter your password everytime you come out of standy or hibernation.  I chose to do this.

Standby and hibernation are very similiar in that the current state of the machine is saved and the machine is powered down.  Startup is much faster because you are not rebooting - the computer basically picks up where you left off.  The difference is that in Standby the state goes to RAM, so that there is still power going to the RAM and your battery will be depleted, though startup is theoretically faster, and you're not writing to the HD.  In hibernation the state is saved to the HDD and everything is powered down.  Standby and hibernation are very useful with netbooks because I find myself using it for very short periods of time sometimes so you can essentially power the system down and come right back to what you were doing.
Again, I recommend using your power button to go into hibernation because it is a quick way to power down the system in such a way that you can get right back to what you were doing and you have the F8 option if something goes bad, which you don't have with standby.

On a side note, I have found some freeze up issues with my netbook when going into standby with the computer plugged in.  It may be my tweaking, though.

Well, this was a hell of a lot longer than I thought it would be!  I hope you found something useful here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Importing Contacts to Blackberry with Google

I found another method for doing this in the crackberry forums that I admittedly did not try because this method seemed easier.  Every other way seemed to rely on MS Outlook, which is not necessarily an option for us Linux/ Open Source users.  This how to is from the perspective of populating an empty address book.

First, backup your current GMail contacts.  Make sure a few of them have phone numbers associated with them so that the necessary fields are there.  In Gmail, go to contacts then Select Export and choose All and the Google CSV format.  Save As google_backup.csv.

Next make sure you have google sync installed on your blackberry, but do not sync yet, or at least not contacts.

Now you have several choices for the contacts on your current phone.  Basically you need to get them into spreadsheet format the easiest way possible.

Now open google_backup.csv (using Open Office Calc of course)and Save As google_bb.csv so that changes you make to this file won't screw up your backup.  Now cut and paste from your current contact spreadsheet into the relevant fields below your current contacts.  Finally, erase the non phone contacts above.  It's better to do it in this order so you have something to use as a reference when cutting and pasting.  Remember to delete the whole row(s) when getting rid of the contacts you don't want on your phone.  Finally, save this file.

Now go back into Gmail contacts, choose all and Delete Contacts (don't worry, you have your backup!).  Now choose Import from the upper right and import the google_bb.csv.  Now open up google sync on your blackberry and under options choose to sync contacts and then sync now.  Viola!

Now uncheck sync contacts if you want and re-import your original contact list.  I actually took the opportunity to go through the file and clean it up.  Again, leave the original backup file intact!!!!!!!   ie  DON'T CHANGE THE ORIGINAL BACKUP!  This saves you lots of time if you mess up.

The whole process takes about as much time as, or less, than reading this how-to.  Let me know how it goes!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Usual Suspects: the Windows Collection

There are several programs which I generally use in every Windows installation then a few specific to my netbook, mostly having to do with writing in some form or another.

For security, I use Comodo Firewall. It is honestly a bit on the technical side but I like that and it is in the end worth the extra brain time to see what is trying to connect to the internet that the Windows firewall would let through. I have found free antivirus to be enough; my top picks are: avg, avast, and bitdefender. The antivirus that comes with Comodo seems to have trouble for me, though I like it more for doing so it identified quicktime as a virus; so I usually disable it. I use AVG the most though I have been trying Bitdefender lately.

Next come System Utilities. Revo Uninstaller and CCleaner come first. For defragmentation I like MyDefrag or Defraggler. I use a combination of Speedfan - which I set to show my CPU temp in the taskbar - and Process Hacker - which is essentially a suped up Task Manager. I set Process Hacker to run at startup to keep tabs on my CPU cycles. I find Launchy to be an indispensable utility. If you check out any check out this one. It seems so simple yet can be so functional - especially on a netbook where you may have trouble with the mousepad at times - it is so much easier and faster to start programs and open folders and playlists, etc, from Launchy! Also, I use Terabyte for file transfers. It seems to be much faster with a better GUI than the standard drag and drop.

SandboxIE is a great utility for opening questionable executables or if you are visiting websites that you are worried might install crap on your computer. Clonezilla is a great backup utility - essential for not losing all your hard work! I like FoxIt reader - it works well, is small, and integrates nicely with Firefox - Oh yeah - Firefox! I love it and use it exclusively. The add-ons I cannot live without, from betterGmail to ScribeFire - which I am using to write this blog. For pictures I like FastStone Image Viewer. It is a great editor as well. Picasa works well too.

As far as multimedia software goes I use VLC for movies and sometimes music, and Foobar2000 for music. I create playlists for Foobar and store them in a separate folder that I catalog with Launchy so that I can start them with a few keystrokes.

For office software I have Abiword and the open source suite Open Office. I am also using a diary program called Efficient Diary which I enjoy and I recently downloaded a program called StoryBook for when I get to writing my novels.

Please note: Every program I have mentioned is FREE for personal use. Sorry for not hyperlinking but there are just too many to mention. I am always trying new stuff, especially new utilities, so if you have any suggestions let me know!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I settled on an Acer Aspire One from Newegg. The exact model is the AOD 150-1577. The price was right and I am very happy with it and the extended battery life of the 6 cell battery. The Asus EEE-PC was a strong contender and honestly the choice came down to price. I may have gone with a Dell if the price was more competitive but I have had problems with very long waits from them.

One of the primary reasons for using an Aspire was the plethora of community documentation and support in relation to lesser known Linux distros that I like to play with, especially Puppy Linux. The more mature distros like Ubuntu seem well supported across most of the hardware, though, and I am happy to see so many netbooks shipped with Linux.

Mine came with XP and a lot of bloatware. I heartily reccomend a program called Revo Uninstaller when first buying a computer with lots of crap pre-installed. It does a good job of getting rid of installed programs more completely than the standard uninstallers. Or you can geek it up...

After confiming that everything worked correctly, the first thing I did was replace the hard drive and RAM. For the hard drive, I took apart a 320 gig Western Digital external drive and put that in place of the standard 160. I saw plenty of how tos that showed taking the case apart and putting it back together with the old netbook drive installed, but by the time I got the drive out the case was not really reusable. Thankfully I had a spare external case handy. Next I put in a 2 Gig RAM stick (20 bucks from newegg) and ended up with a faster machine with more storage.

Partitioning the hard drive is always the first step. There are plenty of how tos for that so suffice it to say I partitioned it out to hold my XP, a few Linux distros, swap, and about 200 Gigs left over for storage.
I really prefer Linux as an OS but I enjoy XP as well and find it very tweakable, so I started off with that as my primary OS. I used a version available 'around' called TinyXP. I had the good fortune of being able to use a friend's Acronis Enterprise with Universal Restore. Basically, I installed the OS into VirtualBox, added a few programs and then backed it up with Acronis, then used the recovery software off a USB drive to install it onto the netbook, using the Universal Restore feature. Initially I had trouble with the install failing until I discovered these SATA drivers, which I used at the appropriate step in the Universal Restore recovery process (These drivers would be useful in any process of intalling XP outside of the version provided). The result was a fully functional, stripped down, very efficient and pre built fully updated XP into which I installed all the additional drivers found on Acer's website. I really liked this process of preparing the OS as a virtual machine and then migrating it to the hardware.

Next I installed Xubuntu 9.04, which seems to work right out of the box - wireless and all. I have been messing with XP for now, though that will change soon, I am sure.

Next I'll go through my list of favorite programs.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Netbook Specs

I recently purchased a new netbook and I will be documenting most of my
'work' on it here. A friend recently saw it and said he was considering
getting one and asked for my help and I thought I may as well write my
suggestions down for all my readers.

First, you have to consider what you want to use it for. I started by
salivating over the Archos 5. I have been very interested in something
small that can network. When I started thinking about everything that I
would want to do, however, like VNC and word processing - writing more
like this and journaling - I realized that what I really wanted was a
netbook - something small that could do basic computing tasks: web
browsing, basic word processing, and handle media files. If that is all
you are planning to do then a netbook is a great idea.

For more complex tasks like image manipulation or low end gaming or
simply bigger screen size then a laptop would make more sense. And then
for high end gaming and video processing and virtual computing a desktop
would make more sense.

As far as minimum requirements for a netbook mine were: at least 1 gig
of RAM with the capacity to upgrade to 2 Gigs. This is important
because some motherboards did not support such an upgrade. I wanted a
minimum of 1.6GHz processing power/speed. I think this is the area where
we will see the most improvement as the newer generations come out.
Finally, I preferred a standard 2.5"HDD vs the smaller and more
expensive SSDs. However, the SSD does drastically reduce size and weight
Since I was going to playing a lot of media I prefer to be able to store
it locally but it makes sense to use a home server or small external HDD
as well.

2 considerations: Buy a cheaper model with 1 gig of RAM and upgrade to 2
yourself. Also, buy a smaller hard drive for a better price and if you
need to upgrade. Both of these imply a third important factor for those a
bit more on the geek side: ease of access to components. This feature
has evolved toward the easier access route.

Finally, battery life. Your choices are generally 3 cell with an
approximate 4 hour battery life and 6 cell with a 7 hour life. Again a
bit of research could save you some money - if you can get a 3 cell for
a good price and a battery separately then go for it.

My preferred sites are: Newegg, TigerDirect, and Amazon. I will always
check the comments on all three to get a good picture of what I am
getting as well.

Next I'll reveal which one I got and start going into the modifications and tweaks.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


I've noticed it's not so easy to post videos here on facebook (this blog is being ported to facebook) so I am wondering if videos post through this blog on the notes page - like this one made from the last thanksgiving beach blast....

And I have noticed that gifs (animated pictures) don't seem to work - but I wonder if the monkey one does....

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Boot Ubuntu from Floppy/ Fix Windows MBR

If you live in a Windows only household with non-technical users and you have been held back from doing a dual install Linux/ Windows system by the fact that most Linux OS's, and Ubuntu in particular, changes the boot process thereby causing a potential uproar in the house, then this blog is for you! Faced with this situation I found by combining instructions from several different sources and simple head exploding trial and error how to create a system with Ubuntu and Windows that maintains the Windows boot process and uses a floppy to boot into Ubuntu and a frugal install of Puppy Linux 301 - 3 OS's to choose from!

This blog is part 2 of my previous blog which details how to install Ubuntu as a second OS using GParted to manually create partitions. However, it is applicable in any situation that uses GRUB as a bootloader, since essentially I am just putting the Windows MBR back and running GRUB from a floppy. In addition to having Ubuntu already installed you will also need mbrfix, a very useful little Windows utility that can be placed on a floppy and used to fix the MBR. Detailed instructions are provided with the program.

So we start from the install of Ubuntu in addition to XP which has GRUB loaded at boot. Boot into Ubuntu (or just let it do so automatically) and follow the instructions to make a GRUB boot floppy (taken from here):

To keep from having to type sudo over and over, in the terminal type:

sudo -s

and enter your password. Now format the floppy:

mke2fs /dev/fd0

Now mount the floppy and copy the necessary files:

mount /dev/fd0 /media/floppy (note: there is a space between fd0 and /media)
mkdir /media/floppy/boot
mkdir /media/floppy/boot/grub
cd /boot/grub
cp stage1 stage2 menu.lst /media/floppy/boot/grub
umount /dev/fd0

Now start GRUB in interactive mode by typing


and the command prompt should change to 'grub>' after which you type the following commands:

device (fd0) /dev/fd0
root (fd0) (note - I get an error message the first time I type this but it works fine if I repeat it)
setup (fd0)

Now you have a bootable floppy. However, this did not work for me without a couple of extra steps.

Restart and boot from the floppy. You should see a screen exactly like you were booting from the hard drive, with a list of OS's and Windows XP at the bottom. Choose the Ubuntu and if it starts then you are good to go. However, I always got an 'error 15 file not found' message. Press any key to continue and then 'c' to go to the command line. Type

find /boot/grub/stage1

one line of output should be the disk - fd(0) - and the other is the partition that your Ubuntu is on, something like (hd0,5); make a note of this for later.

Now take out the disk and poweroff with the power button and then reboot into Ubuntu. Put the floppy back in and open up a terminal and type

sudo -s
mount /dev/fd0 /media/floppy
gedit /media/floppy/boot/grub/menu.lst

This opens up the menu.lst document in the default editor as root, allowing you to make changes. Scroll down to the sections that don't start with #. You'll notice the titles are all the same as those listed on your initial screen when you use GRUB to boot. The first section is the one that you default boot from. Delete the last two lines of the first section:


and then Save. This should alter the menu.lst document on the floppy. To make sure close the terminal, go into the /media/floppy/boot/grub folder from the Places menu and open the menu.lst file by double clicking on it and making sure those two lines are missing.

Now reboot with the floppy in and Viola! it should boot into Ubuntu as if you were booting from the hard drive/ MBR-GRUB.

Finally, reboot into Windows. Run mbrfix.exe in the commandline to replace GRUB with Windows' standard boot code by opening the command window and typing:

Mbrfix /drive 0 fixmbr /yes

This will replace GRUB with the standard Windows Boot code. Now when you boot you will go straight into Windows and the only way to access your Ubuntu/ other linux distros is with the floppy. You now have a hidden Ubuntu OS, since the linux partitions are not visible to Windows without special software.