Categories
Configuration

Will it remain possible to upgrade laptops with SSD?

Last year, I upgraded my sister’s Thinkpad G500 with a SSD, which greatly increased its performance. The laptop also suffered from hardware issues because of its faulty DVD drive; removing the drive surprisingly cured it.

After this success, I was thinking about improving her boyfriend’s laptop, an HP machine that happened to be slower than the older Thinkpad. The presence of a McAfee virus scan, possibly running on top of Windows Defender, wasn’t helping much, but the 5200 RPM hard drive was definitely making startup slow.

Figure out if we can install the SSD

Since Apple started to make it harder and harder to upgrade their laptops, to the point it is now nearly impossible with their most recent MacBook, possibly other laptop makers can follow so it is important to verify if and how we can upgrade the hard drive before purchasing a drive!

The best way to figure this out is to search for hard drive replacement for the laptop model, on Google. The model was HP 15-bw028ca. However, this time, all I could find was the specifications of the laptop, and some YouTube videos showing how to disassemble other similar laptops but not that one! I searched for more than an hour to find out the maintenance manual of that laptop, and then I was able to get the information I needed.

The hard drive was installed behind a bottom cover that can be removed. However, according to the manual, only the battery and optical drive should be removed by the user. Everything under the bottom cover should be serviced only by an HP-authorized technician. Quite bad! But since that laptop wasn’t under warranty anymore, it was less of an issue. But this makes it more important to carefully evaluate if I can reliably remove that cover and put it back, without breaking it. Without the cover, the laptop may at best look ugly, at worst not hold together anymore so not work!

Besides assessing the risk of disassembling the laptop to reach the hard drive without making it ugly or non-working, I needed to figure out the type of drive to install. The machine supports SATA 2.5″ drives, but it also accepts M2 ones. HP used SATA hard drives but M2 SSD. However, M2 requires the replacement of the connector, which is specific to HP. Getting the M2 connector is likely to be problematic, so I decided to try with a SATA SSD, since both hard drives and SSDs can be SATA. I got a 500Gb SSD on Amazon.ca and ordered it.

Replacing the hard drive

When I got the laptop and the SSD, I first examined the laptop a bit and figured out it looked like the one referred to by the manual I found. There was a small difference, though: no optical drive, so the laptop wasn’t the same as the one in the manual.

First I put the laptop upside down and removed the battery, using the latches. That operation was easy as expected. Only MacBook and ultrabooks have soldered batteries that cannot be removed.

The HP laptop upside down
Latches holding the battery

After that, I had to find and remove all the screws holding the cover in place. There were screws pretty much everywhere, even under the four rubber pads and under the battery. Trying to pry the cover starting from the back near the battery slot without removing the screws was a risk of breaking the cover or the chassis, making the reassembly impossible. I was thus quite worried, and more and more concerned the cover couldn’t be removed without a special tool.

Screws can be anywhere, including center and sides

Some attempts at removing that cover caused concerning cracking sounds. I was seriously concerned about the possibility of breaking that laptop altogether. But at some point, the cover unclipped completely, showing up the inside of the machine.

Removed cover
Inside the machine

The hard drive is at the upper left corner of the above picture. It is held in place by a bracket screwed to the chassis, similar to the Thinkpad. I removed the screw and was able to disconnect the drive. Then I transferred the bracket on the SSD and put the SSD in there. Nice, it seemed to work. I was so sure it worked that I put back the bottom cover and the screws.

Unfortunately, when I turned on the laptop, I found out it didn’t detect the SSD at all. I first started Ubuntu from a USB key: that worked but couldn’t find the SSD. I booted up without the USB key and was told to install an OS or press F2 for diagnostic. I pressed F2, tried to start a test of the hard drive, and got a message telling there was no installed hard drive. Could it be that only HP-approved drives can be installed?

I thus had to remove the cover a second time. Before putting back the old hard drive and call it a day (my sister’s boyfriend would have to contact HP that would check his warranty, then advise him to buy a new laptop), I removed the SSD and checked the connection. First time, it was a bit too easy to connect the drive; the drive wasn’t aligned into the SATA connector! The second attempt, I felt a slight resistance showing that the drive engaged into the connector. I screwed it back in and tested, with the cover but not the screws yet. After I checked it worked and passed the auto-test from the HP diagnostic, I put back the screws; the drive was installed and detected!

If I had just put back the old drive, without investigating the connection further, maybe it would have failed again, and I would have been stuck, not able to get the SSD working but also unable to put the laptop back into its original state. Every hardware modification causes such a risk; this must be carefully considered before attempting this. This is why I decided not to try my luck on my Lenovo Ideapad Yoga 13, which contains a too small SSD; that one is trickier to access.

Another activation concern

Then comes the time to install Windows 10. My plan was to use my USB-based installation medium as I did on other laptops. However, will activation work? It was possible that it would not, asking me for a product key. I could not get the product key unless I put back the old hard drive and log in to the old Windows installation, which would either require the password of my sister’s boyfriend or a way to hack the installation in order to turn on the local administrator account. Even with that product key, activation could fail anyway, requiring me to call Microsoft and try by phone. This could have gone as far as requiring HP’s custom recovery partition, or the purchase of a new product key.

Fortunately, the simple installation worked like a charm. The installer didn’t ask me for any product key and after that, Windows was activated!

Some testing and post-installation steps

After that successful installation, I installed the drivers and tested the machine a bit. It was working and not crashing. I added Firefox and LibreOffice and I created the user account for my sister’s boyfriend, making sure it was set to Administrator and not Standard account.

Restoring Enigmail

My sister’s boyfriend is using Thunderbird and Enigmail to send encrypted messages to some of his friends. If we don’t fully restore his configuration, that means he will have to generate a new private key, notify all his friends about that new key and get back all their public keys. That is kind of annoying and inefficient, both for him and his friends. I thus wanted to restore this configuration but we didn’t know where it was stored.

I had to install Enigmail on my machine to test and figured out it’s using the GnuPG’s keyring. That keyring is located inside the Application Data folder under the gnupg directory. I wasn’t sure he found and backed up that directory, so I plugged his hard drive on a SATA to USB adapter and got the directory back. He would thus be able to copy it at the right location, after he installed Thunderbird and Enigmail.

Why couldn’t have I set this back up completely? Because that would require logging in to his account, which would have required his password. Then to set up his GMail account, I would need his GMail password. It is important that passwords remain secret, even if both of us knew I would not misuse the password afterwards.

Categories
Configuration

Bumpy Windows 10 activation

It’s been months I was thinking about a way to upgrade my parents’ computer to Windows 10. The machine was running a copy of Windows 7 that failed to activate so required a crack. I wanted to both upgrade to Windows 10 and get it a fully activated genuine copy. However, the machine was four year old, so a bit worthless to pay more than 150$ to get a OEM Windows on it, that cannot be transferred to another PC. I thus put this thing off, since the computer was working correctly.

However, during summer 2019, I was forced to figure something out, because in January 2020, Windows 7 will be out of life (no more support and security updates), and the software program my mother was using for her taxes, ImpôtRapide, was discontinuing support for Windows 7 as well. So we needed a solution. Without my help, my parents would have been stuck going at a computer store that would be likely to tell them they are sorry, but it’s worthless to install Windows 10 and would be better (for their cash flow…) to purchase a new computer. They have some at 400$. Yeah, likely to get a uselessly slow laptop with a small hard drive. My sister got caught this way. Her old laptop on which I replaced the hard drive with a SSD is faster than her new one!

I thought about two possibilities to solve the Windows 10 issue:

  1. Pay 150$ for the OEM copy from Microsoft. It would have worked, but if the computer broke a couple of months later, we would need, in addition to the new computer, a new OEM copy!
  2. Convince my parents to buy a new computer with Windows 10 preinstalled. This would have been far simpler for me but more costly for them. My mother told me some day she would like a laptop to transfer photos on my grandmother’s digital frame. But finding a good laptop requires time. It is easy to end up with something slow, overbloated with crapware and difficult to upgrade.

But in June 2019, I found a third possibility: Kinguin, a website offering product keys for Windows, Office and several Steam games. There was a risk to get a key that would not activate, even worse, a completely non-working key, but if it works, it would cost 40$ for each key. I took the plunge on Sunday, July 14 2019, and purchased both keys. It would have been smarter to purchase just the Windows key and try it first, but I wanted to have both keys at the time I was at my parents’ place.

Preparation

Before attempting the installation, I used Clonezilla to make a full backup copy of the SSD that would be formated. The disk contained Windows 7 and a few programs. In case of a total and catastrophic failure, such as non-working activation causing repeated errors or an unexpected but super shocking hardware incompatibility, it would be possible to restore Windows 7 in less than half an hour, as opposed to fully reinstall it. Of course, that would have been temporary; a new attempt at installing Windows 10 would have been needed later.

Even that operation sucked and caused issues, because for some reasons, the USB stick Clonezilla is installed on gets corrupted (this happened at least three times since I started using Clonezilla, most likely because of flaky USB keys, not the program itself) and some programs fail to load. The image checking program failed, causing errors saying the images were broken. I had to reformat the stick and reinstall Clonezilla on it with Tuxboot, then try again. Second time, Clonezilla was reporting the images to be fully restorable.

I was expecting the new installation to be fully UEFI compliant as opposed to the Windows 7 setup for which I needed to fall back on BIOS/MBR because of the crack used for the activation. I wanted no trace of the MBR at all and wasn’t sure Windows would remove it, so I booted the machine using a USB key containing Ubuntu MATE, and used GParted to create a new GUID Partition Table (GPT). That pretty much destroyed all the data on the SSD.

Installation but no activation

After the preparation, I successfully booted another USB key, that one containing the installation medium of Windows 10 I just recreated a couple of days ago; there is now a free tool from Microsft allowing that. That contained the latest updates, so no ever-lasting installation of updates like in Windows 7. The boot happened correctly, in UEFI mode. To make sure the USB key booted in UEFI, I pressed F8 at computer startup to get the boot menu and picked the UEFI entry of the USB key. I was then able to proceed with the installation, and the product key from Kinguin worked without any issue. It was shipped as a scanned or pictured sticker with the key written on it. Using my laptop, I displayed the image and zoomed in until I could see the 25 characters and typed them.

After the installation completed without issues, I was required to login with a Microsoft account. My mother wanted to use the email address provided by her ISP so I tried that. The system was saying she already had an account. I didn’t know she has a Microsoft account. Fortunately, she managed to remember the password and we could connect it to the new Windows 10 installation, so no need to create a new account with a Microsoft email address or attempt a password recovery.

Then I tried to install the drivers. The Intel graphics driver from ASUS failed to install. I then figured out that all devices were working and decided not to try installing the drivers. Graphic was OK, audio was working, network as well, except maybe a quite slow Internet connection. At the time of writing this post, I was starting to question myself: maybe I should have installed the Ethernet driver.

Then came the dreadful part: is that new installation activated? In order to determine that, I pressed the Windows and Pause keys simultaneously to access system properties, searched a bit, and found, at the bottom, a message saying that Windows was not activated. Oups! I found out a button to Activate, clicked, was offered to activate by Internet or by phone, naively tried the Internet activation, and that failed. A concerning error message was stating that the key may be used on another PC. Aouch! The system was then proposing to purchase a key on the Windows store.

I was kind of stuck, not knowing what to try next, and forum posts I found on Google didn’t help at all. One I found was stating that Kinguin keys are from volume licenses; they may work, they may not, they may work for some time or not. Ah! No!

In order to evaluate the extents of our losses, I tried to install Microsoft’s Office 2016. For this, I used my mother’s Microsoft account to log in to Office website and found an option to enter a product key. That time, it was possible to just copy/paste the product key. That got me a download link for Office 2016. I downloaded the program and installed it. I don’t remember if I had to copy/paste the key again at the installation program, but what I remind is that the installation was awfully long. Something seems to be throttling my parents’ Internet connection, maybe Videotron because my parents chose a lower end plan, I’m not sure. Anyhow, the installation succeeded, but activation, again, failed.

The pain of the phone-based activation

Next step was to try to activate by phone, before contacting Kinguin. I thus restarted the Windows activation wizard, and selected the option to activate by phone. I was asked for my country, and given a phone number. I first entered into an automated system asking me if I already activated Windows, if I replaced some hardware, etc., but no matter what I picked, I ended up at an operator. I had to identify myself to her: name, phone number, email address. Then I needed to provide the product key. This was a long and painful process, as the phone line or my parents’ handheld phone were causing sound issues. I had to repeat several parts of the 25-character sequence. But that ended and she got the whole thing checked. It was an OEM key, used by sellers like Lenovo, HP, etc., but the key was valid and usable! Phew! But it would need a phone-based activation.

That procedure consists of stating the installation ID, which is split into 8 groups of six digits. The operator had me utter and confirm the digits, then despite my doubt about the correct communication of that awfully long sequence, we tried to generate the confirmation code that I entered into the second page. That one is also a long sequence of digits split into groups. I used the keypad to directly type the digits into the fields, no pen and paper for that! Then expecting a long revision process, I clicked on Activate and got the thing activated. YEAH!

After a small break, a couple of glasses of water, and a short walk, I came back at the computer for the second part: Office. That one was pretty much the same principle, with different challenges. I again needed to pick a country, then got a phone number. This time, the system was fully automated. My past experience with automatic speech recognition told me that errors are perfectly possible, so I took care of speaking as clearly as possible while dictating the installation identifier, again a sequence of numbers. The confirmation code given as the response was uttered relatively fast, so I had to be careful not to miss any number. The keypad was essential to get this done flawlessly. After I entered the whole confirmation code, I tried to click the button to activate and that worked!

Both Windows 10 and Office 2016 were now activated!

After this installation and bumpy activation succeeded, I created a second Clonezilla image. If something bad causes the installation to be corrupted in the future, it will be easy to restore it from the image without having to reinstall and reactivate.

Various small problems

When my mother tried to access her Facebook account, she got a completely different UI with no access to games. This was because Chrome opened m.facebook.com instead of facebook.com. After that, the games took a long time to load and one of them failed, but this was caused by connection issues, not Windows 10.

There was also a strange issue with the Volume icon in the notification area. The icon just disappeared the day after the installation of Windows 10. I searched for a while to figure out how to solve this. There is an option to disable system icons: all system icons were enabled, including Volume. There is a group policy to disable the icon; it was turned off. The solution was to unlock the task bar, expand it to use two rows, then the icon showed up. Coming back at one row, the icon stayed visible.

Fonts are small than on Windows 7. I thought I was getting crazy or loosing sight because of too much time spend in front of my computer, but no, my mother also found characters to be smaller than before. We searched and searched, no way to enlarge them, besides changing the DPI scaling. But bumping up the DPI causes her Scrabble game not to fully show up on the screen. Part of the problem is the too small screen, running in 1440×900 as opposed to a full HD 1920×1080 display.

I suspect the installation, besides activation, was too smooth. Like with my own systems, problems will happen after the fact. Hopefully, things will not be too bad, but we don’t know.

Categories
Bug

A dying laptop

My Lenovo Ideapad Yoga 15 is dying.

It happened the second time today, and that’s quite concerning. Suddenly, the machine freezes, keyboard is not responding, the mouse is moving but clicking does nothing. There is no way out other than rebooting, and when I did it, the screen became black with an error message displayed in white on a blue background.

The machine was telling me that there was no boot device or boot failed. What? This Lenovo laptop has a builtin mSATA SSD. I didn’t disassemble the laptop, ever, so why suddenly either the SSD became faulty, or the connection between the SSD and the motherboard is now unstable? Fixing any of these would require disassembling the laptop, with the risk of not being able to put it together again afterwards. The keyboard that needs to be removed to reach the components is clipped, and clips can break when trying to remove.

As the last time, during the holidays, powering off the laptop and booting up again “fixed” it. But who knows if that will last. Maybe it will fail tonight, maybe the next week, I don’t know. And next time it fails, maybe it won’t boot up again.

Besides of that, the battery lasts not really more than 2 hours and the wi-fi is now so clunky that most of the time, I need to plug in a USB to Ethernet or 802.11 adapter.

I’m wondering if that is Windows 10 that is killing this machine. As soon as I upgraded, the laptop became slower. A few months later, the battery life was reduced. If I could make Ableton Live work on Linux, I would attempt a switch to Ubuntu, but nope, no Linux version. All major DAWs have just Windows or Mac builds, no Linux. Things may change in 10-20 years, but that doesn’t matter to me, my passion may not be there at that time.

I’m kind of hopeless now to get any type of working laptop in the 10-20 next years. They all suck. Any candidate, any, I can find bad reports on some forums. People are slowly but surely stopping to use computers and/or migrating to Mac, which I cannot do because of font size issues. Maybe home computing is coming to an end, replaced by “smart” but limited phones and tablets not offering any efficient way of typing text. People are working around by posting meaningless pictures with any description, that’s what I see every day on Facebook: XYZ added on his story, no text, just a picture. I came to the point of disabling Facebook notifications on my smartphone and debating the possibility of closing my Facebook account.

But I want a solution. As a computer scientist, I just cannot give up having a computer, that makes just no sense to me.

Categories
Configuration

Trying to salvage a lemon

My sister got a Thinkpad G500 from Lenovo pretty much at the same time I purchased my Ideapad Yoga 13 from the same brand. My Ideapad, while suffering from battery life and wi-fi issues and being stuck with a too small SSD, still performs reasonably. It still boots fast and doesn’t exhibit hardware issues. The upgrade to Windows 10 seems to be the change that made it worse, but it still works… compared to the G500 of my sister. That machine was painfully slow and, I discovered, suffered from various hardware issues I didn’t know about.

Assuming the only issue was slowness, I proposed my sister to replace the hard drive of the laptop with a SSD. Before doing so, however, I checked in the user’s manual of the laptop how to replace the drive. It was possible to do it by removing the back cover of the machine and unscrewing the drive, no need to disassemble the keyboard, remove the memory, the display, etc., like on my Ideapad or even worse, on a MacBook. If there is too high risk of breaking something while dissassembling the laptop to reach the hard drive, it is better to leave that machine alone and invest in a new one later on. This is what I chose to do for my Ideapad, because of brittle keyboard clips that could completely break, preventing the keyboard to hold on afterwards. I also needed to make sure a 2.5″ SATA SSD would fit, because maybe I could need a M2 instead. If something intermediate is needed, like a mSATA, upgrading is less worth it. A SATA or M2 SSD can at least be reused in another system if the target laptop fails later on.

The SSD doesn’t fit! WHY?

I started to work on the laptop January 5, 2018. I first removed the battery, unscrewed the back cover and located the hard drive. It was attached to the system using a bracket screwed into the chassis. I removed the screw and was able to disconnect and pull off the drive. I then needed to unscrew the bracket from the hard drive and screw it to the SSD instead. That part didn’t work well. No matter how hard I was trying, I wasn’t able to fit the screws. I thought the laptop had a 1.5″ hard drive instead of a 2.5″, but no, it ended up working. The SSD had something written on both sides so I was trying to install the bracket on the wrong side. After I was able to screw the bracket, I connected the SSD to the laptop.

After I installed the SSD, I put back the cover and the battery. Then I turned on the laptop and booted using a USB key containing Ubuntu Live. I used that to run a SMART check on the SSD, making sure it wasn’t flawed right from the start. This is more likely to happen with an hard drive, but it CAN happen with a SSD as well. Doing a self-test before installing anything can thus save a lot of time.

Stuck at Lenovo logo, requiring RMA

After that check, I inserted my USB-based Windows 10 installation medium. I got this medium from Microsoft, it can now be downloaded freely as opposed to previously, requiring the purchase of a CD or DVD. Getting the medium is now easy, the challenge is to get the activation working now.

But before tackling the activation issues, I had to make this laptop boot the USB medium. Instead of booting, the laptop just froze at the Lenovo logo. The only thing I could do is hit ctrl-alt-delete, get a blank screen, and the logo back again. I tried to power off the laptop, power it back on, to no avail.

I searched on Google and found other occurrences of this issue. Several people are experiencing that problem, with no other solution than contacting Lenovo’s technical support and get the laptop replaced… when it is under warranty. It seems more and more that when warranty is over, a laptop is now a piece of crap that is just good to be thrown away, which annoyed me quite a lot. Fortunately, after a couple of attempts, removing the battery, putting it back in, rebooting again, again and again, I got past the frozen Lenovo logo. After that hurdle, I was able to install Windows 10.

Windows 10 asked me to connect to a Microsoft account. I used mine in order to perform the installation, but I knew I would need to do something to hook up my sister’s account, so she could login without me having to give her my main password.

Activation working without efforts? Strange…

After I finished installing Windows 10, I noticed from the system properties it was activated. Cool. However, I found that without even asking me, the system used the same product key as my own Lenovo Idepad Yoga 13 ultrabook. I was worried that the Microsoft’s tool creating the USB medium customized the installation USB key with my product key, so I was attempting to activate Windows on multiple computers with the same key. Maybe at some point, Microsoft will detect that and deactivate one of the two copies, either mine or the one of my sister, after she got her laptop back.

After significant amount of wasted time searching on Google, I figured out that this situation happened to others. It seems that the product key is used by several laptops of a given brand. Either the key is hard-wired somewhere in a read-only store of the machine, maybe the trusted platform module, or there is a registry at Microsoft of OEM machine ids mapped to product keys. Anyhow, my sister got a fully activated Windows 10 without any effort from me.

I was worried I would need to have her purchase a new license key or reactivate her current license via phone. Or maybe even worse, the current license would work for Windows 8, not Windows 10, and my sister would prefer to get back Windows 8. All my concerns went away with this effortless activation, but keep in mind things will not always be as smooth.

Looping Windows Update

That one caused me a lot of wasted time. There was a bug with one of the updates that failed to install. However, the update was partially installed. The failure caused Windows to retry installing the update each and every time the computer was shut down or rebooted. This pretty much wiped out the benefits of having a SSD because of increased shut down, reboot and even boot time, since at boot, Windows was finalizing the installation of the faulty update and failing!

I searched a long time for that one, tried to manually install the update to no avail. Some forum posts were referring to that problem without a known solution. Sometimes, it worked at some point after a lot of attempts. Other times, it required reinstallation. I even read a post from a user who called Microsft, got a new ISO image of Windows 10, installed that and the update worked! But then, why is there a medium creation tool if we need to get an ISO from elsewhere? Will everybody reinstalling Windows 10 from scratch need to call Microsoft to get that alternate ISO? Really? That is a serious bummer in my opinion. I thought about asking a link to that ISO, but that would have given me the English version while my sister wanted the French one.

At some point, I got so pissed off that I started searching a way to disable the automatic updates. This is possible by changing group policies… on the Pro version of Windows 10. My sister had the Home version. But the problem didn’t happen on my systems, probably because I started from Windows 8, then got 8.1, then 10. Maybe I’d need to go that same route on that Thinkpad?

Fortunately, there is a tool from Microsoft called Show or hide updates. I installed that tool, and told it to hide the offending update. That fixed the issue without having to tentatively reinstall, call Microsoft or try to install Windows 8, then upgrade to 8.1, then upgrade to 10!

Short-term laptop to be replaced after warranty?

What happened after the installation of Windows 10 pretty much lead me to believe what the section’s title states. I was really shocked and annoyed and questioning my trust against Lenovo. A PC is not like a simple appliance you just plug in and start. It has settings, it has applications installed, there is sometimes even a physical configuration to get used to. I cannot afford having to fully replace that configuration every year or two! That’s a serious non-sense, and not counting the very bad ecological impact of such a short-sighted offering. I know, it was not my laptop, but my next laptop could very well suffer from these more and more common flaws.

The freezing at Lenovo logo was just the tip of the iceberg! I then discovered that only Windows 8 drivers were offered for that Thinkpad G500 on the Lenovo website, no Windows 10 drivers at all. However, the preinstalled drivers coming with Windows 10 allowed the machine to pretty much work. Later on, I also found out that the DVD drive was also broken, not detected at all by Windows. Moreover, the Webcam was broken, showing a black screen.

Wi-fi started to go bad, the mouse pointer started to move erratically, the machine just became totally unusable. I had to plug in that laptop to an external keyboard, mouse and even an Ethernet cable.

Again, for the DVD drive and Webcam, the only solution was to contact Lenovo and get replacements, IF the laptop was still under warranty. At this point, I was stuck. Without another idea, I would have had to give up and tell my system the best solution is to throw that laptop away.

Pulling some things off

I noticed a black tape at the place of the Webcam. Maybe that tape is not supposed to be there and can be removed. I removed it and started the Camera application again: I got an image, yeah!

I then found out that some people were having issues with both the DVD drive and the freezing at boot. Could these two be related? If the DVD drive is flaky, it can slow down or even prevent boot as the BIOS/UEFI will try to query it in order to figure out if a disk is inserted.

The solution was quick and simple: just remove the optical drive from the machine, yes, really, pull it off. After I did that, the laptop booted flawlessly. I tested it several times, also tried to reboot, without any freezing issue. It also seemed, although I didn’t benchmark it formally, that the boot was faster. There would be a hole in the laptop casing instead of the DVD drive, because I didn’t have any other drive or something dummy to go into the bay. But at least, it would work.

Transferring ownership without my password

A small but significant step remained: how to allow my sister to log in to her “new” laptop without giving her my personal password in order for her to create her Microsoft account, or me getting her password to connect to her account? There are two ways to solve this cleanly, and I implemented both to be sure.

  1. Create a new account based on a known email address linked to a Microsoft account. I knew my sister’s email address and was sure she used that to create her Microsoft account, so I just had to create the account with that address; no need to enter the password until logging in. There are two pitfalls though. Firstly, the person needs to be connected to Internet for the first login, and not sure wi-fi will work, maybe just wired Ethernet since you need to be logged in to set up wi-fi! Secondly, the created account is not Administrator by default; I had to fix that so my sister would be able to install new programs on her machine.
  2. It is still possible to create a local account, so I did it and set a dummy password my sister can change after, or remove the local account altogether. Again, I needed to make sure the local account was in the Administrators group; by default it is not!

My sister was amazed at the speed increase we achieved by replacing the hard drive with a SSD. She thought that laptop was good for the thrash can before I fixed it. Even funnier, later on her boyfriend got an HP 15-bw028ca that although more recent, happened to be slower than that old fixed Thinkpad!

Eventually that HP piece of junk will benefit from a similar treatment. Maybe that will deserve another post.

Categories
Bug Configuration

Bumpy Ableton Live session

Yesterday, I tried upgrading to latest Ableton’s Live, the 9.7.1 version. Everything went well, but I got other issues, not related to Live, that made my work session quite bad and frustrating.

S/PDIF not working great

A month ago, I got a new audio interface: the Focusrite’s Scarlett 18i20. This amazing device provides eight analog audio inputs and 10 outputs. This is far from the advertised 18 inputs and 20 outputs, but these include S/PDIF and an add-on card that plugs into the optical ports of the interface. Anyway, 8 inputs is more than enough for my needs. I have difficulty playing one instrument reliably, so I won’t start playing multiple instruments at the same time, at least not now!

I didn’t have enough long audio jack cables to plug my Novation’s Ultranova (two channels), my Korg’s EMX (two channels) and my Nord’s Drum (1 one channel), so I decided to try hooking my Ultranova through S/PDIF instead. For this, I used a RCA cable I had got somewhere I don’t remember. I plugged the S/PDIF coaxial output of the synthesizer to the appropriate input of the audio interface, then fiddled with MixControl to figure out HOW to enable S/PDIF. Easy, I thought: just set up one entry in the Mix 1 to route S/PDIF L to left channel and S/PDIF R to right channel. The Mix 1 mix was already routed to the two monitor outputs of the interface. With that, I should have obtained sound from my Ultranova into my audio monitors. No, nothing! I verified that the S/PDIF output was enabled from my Ultranova: it was.

I tried, checked many times, searched on the Web, ok, set the sync source to S/PDIF instead of Internal, from MixControl. Did it, no result. I spent at least half an hour trying, checking, trying again, to find that the volume of my Ultranova was turned all the way to minimum. Turning up the volume solved it!

BUT I started to hear cracking sounds from time to time. This happens especially when playing long notes with pad-style sounds. That means S/PDIF doesn’t work well out of my Ultranova, in my audio interface, or that requires a special cable I don’t have. But then WHY is the S/PDIF the exact same shape as an RCA connector?

There is no solution for the moment, except using the analog jacks and not being able to plug my EMX, Ultranova and Drum at the same time.

Jumpy mouse

While trying to work with Ableton’s Live and the MixControl, I had to cope with too small fonts all the times. I ended up using Windows zoom (Windows key plus +). But regularly, the zoom was jumping all around. I figured out that this was the mouse pointer that was regularly moving around without obvious reason. Ah, this is why I am now literally constantly loosing the pointer, forced to bring it back at upper left corner of the screen almost each time I want to click on something! The pointer is really jumping around, I’m not getting crazy! This made working with the mouse a real pain, similar to what I experienced with the old Mac my brother’s wife gave me a year ago. I thought about running Live on that Mac, because many people pretend that Mac’s are more stable for music production, but the machine is way way way too slow for that, I just forgot and never tried!

I ended up trying with another mouse, that seemed to be a bit better, but I realized that the right button was completely non-working!!! Why the hell did I keep this stupid mouse then? I threw it in the thrash can and put back the first one. Then I figured out that putting the mouse on a piece of white paper helped, making it a lot less jumpy.

Windows update restarting computer while I’m using it

Windows 10 sometimes automatically restarts the computer to apply some updates. Up to now, this only happened while the machine was idle. Well yesterday, it happened right in my face, while I was working with Live! I got so pissed off by this that I tried to disable this really bad functionality. I fortunately figured out a way to disable these forced updates. It was relatively easy, although it caused me trouble because my Windows is in French and the procedure was in English. If this procedure doesn’t work and spurious reboots happen too often, this may force me to downgrade to Windows 8 or Windows 7, or switch to Mac and have constant trouble with too small fonts. This could be a dead end case leading me to stop using my computer, at least stop trying to make music with this.

Slower and slower machine

My main computer is on a desk while my music gears are on a table on the opposite wall. I tried to link them together using a long USB cable and a hub, but that failed with crashes from Ableton’s Live. However, my attempts were with the audio interface built into my Ultranova. Maybe I’ll have more luck with my Focusrite, if the cable and hub are stable enough. Why an hub? Well, this is to get a keyboard and mouse next to my music table. I will also transport video through an HDMI cable and get a screen nearby as well.

But for now, I ended up having to use my Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yoga 13 ultrabook for attempts at music production. This worked relatively well, but the machine is starting to be slow since I updated it to Windows 10. Searching on forums gives no result, except other people are experiencing performance problems, sometimes on Windows 10, sometimes on Windows 8.1. Starting Live is now taking almost 45 seconds on this machine. Fortunately, the program is responding correctly for now, until of course I add enough tracks and effects to my Live set to make it choke up like crazy. I guess this will happen if I go far enough in music production.

Difficulties with music production itself

Creating the track I had in mind caused me great trouble. While not super complex, it is not a trivial repeat drum beat. I managed to play it a couple of times, started the recording on my EMX and messed it up completely. I tried again, messed it up again. I cannot play it reliably unless I try 25 times and more. The workaround is to correct notes, but this is quite tedious on the EMX. Tired of this, I tried to record MIDI using my Ultranova as a source and Live as a sequencer. But even from Live, fixing the incorrect notes was a real pain. I experimented with the quantization which also didn’t work correctly.

There is no well-defined workflows and no comprehensive tutorials about music production. All I can find is case-specific pro tips, sometimes involving plugins I don’t want to install yet. I’m just overwhelmed with Live itself, having to constantly check and redo what I am doing, this is not a great time to complicate stuff with plugins.

Conclusion

Although I am having less and less fun with all this for the moment, I feel I can manage to get something good out of it. If I gave up because of difficulties, I would not have been able to get a Ph.D, to keep my job for more than seven years and to create a modded Minecraft map.

Categories
Configuration

Windows 10: a new hope or not?

Since I moved to Windows 8 two years ago, I experienced several issues with my system. There was nothing major, and only suspicions that the cause was Windows 8 itself, so I was worried about finding the same issue after downgrading to Windows 7. I thus kept that Windows 8 installation and lived with the hurdles.

In particular, Windows 8 broke NTFS support in Ubuntu, periodically preventing my hard drive to show up. I had to disable the new hybrid startup to get rid of this problem. However, a few months later, the issue showed up again until I completely disable hibernate using an obscure impossible to remember command. That had a strange side effect of shutting the computer down after the computer was in standby for too long, so I had to disable automatic standby as well.

One day, all of a sudden, system completely stopped working, I had to refresh the PC, which completely destroyed all my configuration. Instead of reinstalling all drivers and applications, I just restored a CloneZilla image.

Sometimes, login becomes slow. The computer starts at normal speed, I reach the login screen, then I have to wait 30 seconds between the time I type my password and reach the desktop. Usually, I’m not experiencing this ridiculous delay, but it happens often enough to bother me. I have a Core i7 with a SSD, so I find this quite bad that Windows compensate the hardware efficiency without software delays!

There is also that intricate audio issue making computer-assisted music a pain: computer refuses to shut down after a session in Ableton’s Live, Live suddenly refuses to start and requires reinstallation of Visual C++ libraries, sound starts to be choppy when using ASIO for playback or recording, S/PDIF distortion with my M-Audio Fast Track Pro when hooked to my UltraNova synthesizer, etc.

The only “solution” I was getting was to downgrade to Windows 7, because Microsoft is releasing one good version of Windows out of two. But I was worried that downgrading would cause me activation issues and didn’t want to come back with my old Windows 7 problem of low contrast between selected and unselected menu items. I have this issue at work and the only fully working patch is to completely disable Aero theme, falling back to classic theme.

The upgrade

Rather than letting Microsoft decide for me when I would get this upgrade to Windows 10, I downloaded the Windows 10 setup tool and ran that in order to download the new system and transfer it on a USB key. I put this USB key aside for the day I would be ready to attempt this upgrade.

I tried the upgrade on Saturday, August 22 2015, a few weeks after the official release. Before my attempt, I checked that all my main applications and device drivers would be available. I also backed up all my data and created a new CloneZilla image of my SSD containing Windows 8.1 and Ubuntu 15.04 in dual boot.

My first idea was to completely wipe Windows 8.1’s partition and install Windows 10 fresh, eliminating all quirks and issues that could arise from this old and possibly altered Windows 8.1 setup. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as straight as I expected. I was certainly able to boot from my Windows 10 USB stick, reached an installer, but I was blocked at the step requesting a product key. None of my Windows 8 and Windows 7 keys worked. There was a button to ignore the step, I thought about trying that and attempting the activation later, maybe an update would allow my old product key to work, or maybe the validation of the product key required Internet connection which was not available because my network interface wasn’t supported or initialized at this time.

Instead of running the risk of not being able to activate my freshly installed Windows 10, I turned on my ultrabook and searched on the Internet. I first got a forum post suggesting to call Microsoft, maybe they would be able to perform the activation by phone even though it doesn’t work by Internet. No way! I didn’t want to spend frustrating minutes trying to enter a validation key that the operator would dictate me, one hand on the keyboard, one hand to hold the phone, just because Microsoft cannot evolve. Fortunately, I searched a bit more and found out that the upgrade process allowed to wipe out pretty much everything: installed application and user’s configuration.

I thus decided to try this instead of fiddling with activation issues I tried to avoid since two years by refraining from downgrading to Windows 7! I thus restarted into Windows 8.1 and executed the setup program on my Windows 10 USB key.

I had the choice between preserving all my applications and data, only the data or nothing at all. I first thought about the third option, to start as fresh as possible, but I was worried that Windows could destroy all my partition layout, including my data drive. I didn’t want to reinstall Ubuntu and uselessly restore all my data from backups so I chose the second option: preserve data but remove applications.

After the setup program restarted my computer, I got stuck with a boot error message. I first thought Windows installation messed up and I would have to attempt the clean install and then work around activation hurdles, but I quickly found out that the error was related to GRUB. A bit annoyed by the fact once again, Windows broke GRUB which is needed to boot Ubuntu, I restarted my machine and changed the boot option to start Windows instead of Ubuntu. I was then able to resume Windows installation, which went well after this small hick up.

Cannot login!

After upgrade completed, I got the new welcome screen, very similar to Windows 8.1’s. I entered my usual user name and password and got an error message: invalid password. I tried many times, same issue. I first thought about this stupid annoying insane caps lock: no, caps lock was off. I then thought there was a networking issue. Since I am using a Microsoft account to login, my password is stored both on my local machine and on Microsoft’s server. The format of the password cache may have changed between Windows 8 and 10, so a first login in Windows 10 could require network access. Maybe, I thought, the network interface is not detected or requires a driver that I would have to install in safe mode. Quite bad, definitely Windows installation is harder and harder and we will soon have to forget about any upgrade, unless we get a new computer with preinstalled OS.

Fortunately, the problem was simpler, far simpler, almost shockingly simpler: Windows 10 reset keyboard to France French AZERTY! I found an icon that allowed me to set the keyboard at login time back to Canadian French, then my password worked!

Good news

After these initial issues (cannot clean install, killed GRUB and login problems), I was able to reach the desktop and things went quite smoothly. Windows 10 desktop is quite similar to Windows 7.

Capture d'écran 2015-08-29 13.55.45

The start menu, which was removed from Windows 8, is back again and works pretty well.

Capture d'écran 2015-08-29 13.56.02

The contrast issue between selected and unselected menu items didn’t come back. The new start menu is a bit easier to use than Windows 7 one.

I didn’t care about the personal assistant Cortana and the new Web browser Edge, but I really liked the fact that the Alt-Tab finally works correctly. Since Windows 7, when I was pressing Alt-Tab and holding Alt, pressing Tab to toggle between opened windows, I always had to be careful not to select the desktop which was listed in the proposed targets. I did this mistake again and again, especially when struggling with problems, and that makes things annoying. The only workarounds was to stop using Alt-Tab and fiddle with the mouse instead, or alleviate with solutions such as Virtuawin. Windows 10 helped with that by removing this fake desktop window from the targets proposed by Alt-tab switcher.

Capture d'écran 2015-08-29 13.56.21

Even with that small improvement, there is still a need to group windows into virtual workspaces for efficient navigation. Windows 10 finally addressed this through builtin virtual desktops. This feature is activated by pressing Winows-Tab, then it is possible to pick another desktop or create a new one.

Capture d'écran 2015-08-29 13.57.08

I was worried that Microsft would, like Apple, implement this in a poor way, making it totally useless. On some implementations of virtual desktops, namely the Apple one, but also on some versions of GNOME 3, Alt-Tab shows opened windows from all desktops, making the grouping totally useless for me. Virtual desktops is then useful only for people able to have multiple windows opened side by side on the screen. In my case, I almost all the times have a maximized window because with the larger fonts I need to use, I cannot stuff as much information in windows than with most other users. I was happy that Windows 10 correctly honored the grouping of windows when pressing Alt-Tab.

However, I’m still unsure this will be efficient for me to use. For now, I didn’t find any effective way to go from one desktop to another. I had to press Windows-Tab, then Tab, then arrow keys, then Enter. I will probably always mess up in the sequence, e.g., press arrow keys before Tab. However, the ackward user interface may be compensated by better reliability since the feature is builtin rather than hacked using windows hiding like Virtuawin does. I hope I will get less random issues like keyboard not working after switching to a new desktop, Virtuawin offering to close itself when pressing Alt-F4, instead of closing the current window, etc.

Another improvement is the possibility of disabling DPI scaling for 64 bits application without fiddling into the registry. Up to Windows 8.1, this was possible only for 32 bits applications, so for Ableton Live, which causes issues with DPI scaling, I had to use a registry tweak. This is annoying, hard to remember and prone to disasters. What if by mistake I remove a registry key?

I also liked that the Explorer now groups the favorites and libraries in the same list rather than having two separate lists. Since Windows 8.1, i have to spend almost 20 seconds each time I want to reach my Dropbox folder. When I start Explorer with Windows-E, the Dropbox shortcut isn’t shown so I have to scroll up. Mouse wheel doesn’t work so I have to locate the too small scroll bars and use that, or try with my touch screen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it moves stuff around!

Capture d'écran 2015-08-29 13.56.12

Software compatibility

I read quite a bit of concerning forum posts about broken programs in Windows 10. In particular, several people had issues with Ableton’s Live 9.1, the program I use for computer-assisted music. I’m underusing it quite a bit for now, but I would like to continue exploring it. My hope is to make better use of it at some point in my personal progression in musical creation. Some people were saying Ableton’s Live 9.2 Beta version worked better. Fortunately, that Beta became final before I upgraded to Windows 10 and Ableton didn’t charge upgrade fees, so I got the new version without any hesitation. For now, it works correctly, but I didn’t try to push it hard yet: no ASIO, no multitrack recording, etc. It will come, and hopefully it will have less issues than with Windows 8.1.

I didn’t install the driver for my M-Audio interface yet. I’m still using the interface built into my UltraNova, for which Windows 10 compatibility is official as opposed to M-Audio’s Fast Track Pro. My concern is that the installation may mess things up and cause issues that will be entangled with other problems. I will thus make sure everything is stable before dropping this driver in, and probably even be as paranoid as creating a new CloneZilla image before installing that piece of software. If the M-Audio interface is flawed with Windows 10 as with Windows 8.1, I will have to consider purchasing a new one: minimum four inputs, maybe eight if that’s not over-expensive, I’ll see. If Live is also unstable, I may have to try my luck on a brand new Mac and probably end up setting a lower resolution than my LCD native one because fonts are too small on Mac OS X and cannot be enlarged in a consistent way.

Ninite installed most of my main applications: LibreOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, etc. GNU Emacs still works, same for Minecraft, both FTB Monster and Agrarian Skies 2 packs. I also installed the latest version of Bandicam, which seems to work, but I didn’t perform any gameplay recording since my upgrade.

I don’t know about Corel’s VideoStudio yet. I am using this sometimes flaky tool to perform basic editing on my Minecraft gameplay videos. I am planning to upgrade this thing to the latest version, which hopefully will address potential Windows 10 issues. I didn’t read any positive or negative reports about this software program on the new Windows.

I’m a bit concerned with VirtualBox, whose version 5 has issues with Windows 10. They don’t tell anything about version 4.3, which I chose conservatively because I was putting up a virtual machine at my work place shared with colleagues. Fortunately, I don’t absolutely need VirtualBox for my personal use now. It may just be useful as a backup solution if I work from home one day and my work laptop fails, but I still have to check that Cisco’s AnyConnect VPN correctly works wih Windows 10. Anyway, i still have the option to boot into Ubuntu, where Cisco’s VPN and VirtualBox work!

Ubuntu threatened once again

The day after my Windows 10 upgrade, I tried to repair my Ubuntu boot. First, I booted back into GRUB, hoping it would work. Windows 10 should have only changed its stuff in the ESP, leaving GRUB intact. No, no luck. I was sent to a rescue prompt. I tried to enter commands without success. I tried “help”: still no luck. I would thus have had to check on the Internet to figure out what basic rudimentary commands this tool accepts. Why didn’t it offer online help?

Tired of fiddling with Ubuntu, I rebooted into Windows 10, now ready to delete its partition, enlarge Windows 10 partition and install a fresh new Ubuntu in a VirtualBox virtual machine. I was a bit sad to downgrade Ubuntu from being a first class operating system to a Microsoft’s slave, but I felt it was better for my mental health to do it sooner than later.

However, I got blocked by multiple unknown partitions preventing me from just enlarging Windows 10 space. I would have to remove my Linux partitions and then move these unknown partitions, unless I knew for sure I could delete them as well. To figure this out, I had to reboot into a Ubuntu Live DVD. I then found out that I never downloaded any Ubuntu 15.04 ISO! I ended up trying with 14.10 and got confirmation that the unknown partitions contained Windows recovery data: better to preserve them.

While booted into Ubuntu Live DVD, I decided to restore GRUB. This went well, but I had to use the contorted method consisting of making a chroot environment with my Ubuntu installation and reinstalling GRUB from there

Surprise: the nasty pig once again wasn’t finding out my Windows partition! I had to search on my blog posts to figure out how I addressed this in the past. Last time, my ESP wasn’t set up with the Boot flag. But this time, my ESP was correct. Oh no, don’t tell me Windows 10 messed up with things so this time I will have to manually add it to the GRUB menu, and redo it each time something upgrades the kernel! Before resorting to do and redo that, I rebooted into Ubuntu, which worked, tried to rerun update-grub, and this time, Windows loader got detected! Phew!

Why does standby and hibernate work only on laptops?

The day after the upgrade, I left my machine unattended for some time. When I came back, it was in standby mode. I turned the computer back on, things seemed to work right, then poof, blue screen. According to the error message, there was a corrupted driver. System had to reboot once again. This is not the first time I have to reboot the whole system to get out of standby or hibernate, and that happens only on desktop computers. On laptops, standby and hibernate wok correctly. I got more issues on Linux with this than on Windows, but it also happens on Windows, without any clear solution other than trying random things and reinstalling pretty much all drivers, without any chance of success. Maybe standby and hibernate should just be disabled by default on desktops, this is just too annoying to have to reboot to get out of this state! After that issue, I just disabled the automatic standby, so it won’t happen again until I decide to give it a new shot later on. I didn’t get other blue screens after this.

Seems NTFS-3G requires a patch that doesn’t come up

As I wrote above, since Windows 8, I am having issues with mounting my NTFS partitions under Ubuntu. The partitions just don’t mount, until I reboot into Windows, then reboot back into Ubuntu. NTFS-3G, the driver used by Linux to read/write NTFS, would definitely need to be patched to deal with incorrectly unmounted partitions. This is far from great, but this is needed because Microsoft is doing messy stuff with NTFS. Before we get this patch, all we can do is disable hybrid startup.

This time, the issue was more severe. Rather than just not mounting NTFS drives, Ubuntu refused to boot completely. I don’t know exactly why, and wasn’t able to perform any diagnostic, because the rescue prompt that came up was shown with too small fonts. I ended up rebooting, which just froze things up, no way to start up Ubuntu, even in single-user rescue prompt!

When this happened, next Tuesday after my upgrade, I rebooted into Windows to make sure at least my SSD wasn’t dead, then rebooted back into Ubuntu… with success!

Later on, I disabled this hybrid startup once again, and that seemed to have fixed things. I didn’t get other Ubuntu issues since then.

How about my ultrabook?

The situation on my Lenova IdeaPad ultrabook was a bit complicated. First, the machine had Windows 8.1 home edition, so unless I upgraded it to professional edition first, I had to download another installation medium instead of reusing the USB key I created for my main PC. Moreover, I got no prompt offering me to upgrade to Windows 10 like the ones that showed up on my main PC, so it was possible the machine runs a special Lenovo version of Windows 8. If I upgrade to Windows 10 in such a case, it may either just fail, either I will get flaky behaviors.

In particular, when I flip my ultrabook into tablet mode, the mechanism disabling the keyboard is software-based. Some people who tried Ubuntu on this model reported that the keyboard was still working when the machine was flipped into tablet mode. Without Lenovo’s customizations and drivers, I may get this incorrect behavior in Windows 10. Even worse, the touch screen may just not work. I thus had to be careful when upgrading this machine, and make all possible backups before, and be mentally ready to fight against this machine and then downgrade back to Windows 8.1.

On September 19, 2015, things changed slightly: I got the notification about upgrade being available for my ultrabook. I proceeded with the upgrade on Saturday, October 3, ater I backed up the machine using CloneZilla. The upgrade happened without issue, except the machine seemed slower after. However, things settled after a few days and the system is responding correctly.