When your old laptop dies at the perfect time

My old MacBook Air is now not only retired but dead. And it could not have happened at a better time.

I had resolved to donate the 2012-vintage laptop I’d finally replaced with an HP Spectre x360 last fall by donating it to the local Apple user group Washington Apple Pi, whose MacRecycleClinic refubishes still-functional Macs for reuse and scavenges the rest for parts. And since I’m speaking at Saturday’s Pi meeting about the state of computer security–the gathering runs from 9:30 a.m. to noon-ish in Enterprise Hall room 178 at George Mason University’s main campus in Fairfax, with my spot a little after 11 a.m.–I could bring the old Air with me to hand over.

So yesterday afternoon, I made one last backup of the Air’s files, signed it out of its Web services as per Apple’s advice, and rebooted it into macOS Recovery to wipe the drive and re-install macOS High Sierra from that hidden partition. Then I followed the counsel of experts for a USA Today column earlier this month and used Apple’s FileVault software to encrypt its solid state drive all over again.

Several hours later, High Sierra wrapped up that chore. I once again rebooted into Recovery, used Disk Utility to wipe the SSD–and then couldn’t install High Sierra, because the installer reported that the drive’s Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology (SMART) software had found a problem that left the volume unusable.

After a moment’s irritation, I realized that this timing was perfect. It followed not just five years of trouble-free drive performance but a complete erasure, re-encryption and re-erasure of the volume, so there could be nothing left to recover–and therefore no need to apply physical force to destroy the drive. This Mac has failed me for the last time, and I am okay with that.

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Advanced Mac tinkering: performing a drive transplant on a 9-year-old machine

Friday’s work toolkit got a little weird. It included two suction cups, multiple sizes of Torx screwdriver bits, a pair of tweezers, a can of spray air, a microfiber cloth and a lot of patience.

Were Apple a company that updated its computers on a regular and predictable pattern, I would have replaced this desktop long ago. But first it spent years neglecting its desktops, then my laptop needed replacing first, and now the “new” iMac has gone almost a year without an update.

iMac SSD in placeInstead, two other things got to upgrade my desktop the cheap but hard way. First my backup hard drive died without warning, then I noticed that an SSD upgrade kit was down to $200 and change at the longtime aftermarket-Mac-hardware vendor Other World Computing. That would be a cheap price for a vastly faster storage system, and anyway I couldn’t resist the challenge here. So I placed my order… and then waited two weeks as the Postal Service somehow lost and then recovered the package that it only had to run from the nearest UPS to our front porch.

In the meantime, I did a complete Time Machine on my new backup drive, then used Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper to put a bootable copy of the iMac’s entire drive on a second partition of that external volume. With those redundant backups done and my schedule somewhat clear Friday, it was time to risk breaking my desktop computer with the sort of involved tinkering I last seriously attempted around the turn of the century, when I owned a Mac clone in which almost everything inside was user-accessible.

Step one–as explained in a how-to video that would have been more effective as written instructions illustrated with animated GIFs–was to get the iMac’s LCD out of the way. I used the suction cups to lift the outer glass off the magnets holding it in place (you can imagine my relief at not having to battle with any glue), then removed eight Torx screws holding the LCD assembly, using the tweezers to ensure they wouldn’t get lost inside the iMac. I carefully tilted that out and held it away from the rest of the computer, then detached four ribbon cables from their sockets inside the computer–each time feeling a little like I was about to fail to defuse a bomb.

The next step was to extract the old hard drive. After removing another two screws and plucking out a further three cables, I just had to undo four other screws to get the hard drive out of its mounting bracket… which is when I realized that the second screwdriver included in OWC’s kit wasn’t the right size.

iMac LCD attachmentFortunately, the second neighbor I checked with had an extensive set of Torx screwdriver bits. After finding one properly sized to liberate the drive bracket, I used the spray air to knock nine years’ worth of dust out of the innards of the computer, then completed the drive transfer by securing the SSD to the bracket, connecting it to the original cables and fastening the new drive to the computer. I did the same routine with the LCD assembly, wiped it and the glass panel with the microfiber cloth, then finally clicked that outer glass back onto its magnets.

With the computer once again whole, I plugged it in, attached the backup drive, pressed the power button–and was delighted to see it boot properly off that external drive.

Installing macOS High Sierra from the backup drive to the SSD went remarkably fast; running a complete Time Machine restore of all my data and apps did not. But by the end of Friday, I had an old computer that no longer felt so old. And the pleasant sense that I haven’t completely lost my DIY-tech skills.

A sick Spectre returns, apparently healthy

About a month after it fell ill, the HP Spectre x360 laptop I bought in November seems once again fine–thanks to a little cybernetic surgery bracketed by free air travel.

Spectre hinge close-upI thought repair might be necessary after my last post on this subject, when even reinstalling Windows from a clean recovery image failed. I jumped on HP’s tech-support chat (I’ve never had to call for help, which is nice), and after a quick recap of my situation to date (the rep didn’t ask me to reboot the computer, which is nice), my remote interlocutor agreed that the laptop would require hands-on care.

The next morning, FedEx delivered a box, prepaid return label included, in which I could ship the x360 for repair. The laptop was on its way back that afternoon, and the next day I got an e-mail predicting a return on April 26th. It came back on the 24th, something I found out first from a phone call from FedEx the evening before.

Parts of this machine have been replaced, but I’m not entirely sure which. A printout in the box reported the following details:

“Operating System Reloaded: NO”

“Parts Replaced: LCD DISPLAY”

“Other Repair Actions: PART REPLACED”

Well okay, then! But I do know that the laptop has been working properly since, so I am going to tell myself that the PART REPLACED was, in fact, a part that needed to be replaced.

My Windows laptop doesn’t seem to want to run Windows anymore

A week ago, I was sure I could cure the squirrelly behavior of the laptop I bought less than six months ago the hard way–by wiping the hard drive and reinstalling Windows from scratch. And for at least two days, that worked.

But then the laptop failed to wake from sleep, and when I force-rebooted it, the machine got stuck in the same “Preparing Automatic Repair” state that left this HP Spectre x360 unusable for a few days last month.

And this time, the laptop was back to refusing to recognize the USB recovery drive I’d created on it–even while it did boot up my ancient ThinkPad.

A chat session with HP’s tech support didn’t unearth any fixes for the problem, so the rep said he’d send me a second USB recovery drive. To HP’s credit, that drive arrived the next day.

But while this “Recovery Media” can erase the hard drive and reload all the necessary installation files on its recovery partition, the computer can’t then load Windows off that partition. At some point into the installation process, it gets stuck at a blank screen that features only Windows’ spinning circle of dots.

The Kafkaesque angle to all this: Installing Ubuntu Linux off a flash drive was no problem at all. Alas, this distribution of the open-source operating system doesn’t seem to recognize my laptop’s touchscreen, fingerprint sensor or Windows Hello facial-recognition cameras, so it’s not a long-term solution.

My next attempt will be to create a Windows recovery drive from the disc image you can download off Microsoft’s site. But if that doesn’t work either, this laptop’s next business trip will involve it going back to HP in a box.

A non-automatic repair of a mysteriously-hapless HP laptop

I went a few days without using my laptop, but that wasn’t actually part of the plan for our kid’s spring break. Having this HP Spectre x360 inoperative did, however, teach me valuable lessons about computing preparedness, which I will now share so that you may benefit from my experience.

(And so that Mac fans can dunk on me for my latest laptop purchase. I know what I’ve got coming…)

As far as I can tell, things started going sideways with the laptop last Wednesday. That’s when it failed to wake from sleep, I force-rebooted it, and it started into a screen saying Windows was “Preparing Automatic Repair.” There it stayed through multiple reboots until I set it aside for a few hours and finally saw it had returned me to the Windows “Recovery Environment.” From there, I could order up a System Restore that brought the PC back to health.

HP laptop stuck on repair

Except the same “Automatic Repair” message reappeared two days later and kept coming back. By then, I had learned that I was not alone in seeing this alleged repair stall a startup.

I gave up and did a “reset” of Windows Sunday. That clean reload of the operating system left my files intact but required reinstalling every app, re-typing every saved Web login, and even redoing things as basic as apps pinned to the taskbar and the Start menu–it reminded me too much of factory-resetting an Android phone three years ago. Alas, that evening, the laptop again failed to wake from sleep, then after another forced restart got stuck on the now-dreaded “Preparing Automatic Repair” screen.

I had thought to create a Windows recovery USB flash drive while my laptop was working Sunday. But the laptop ignored it every time I tried to boot from it.

After two days of fruitless troubleshooting–during which I did work in an incognito window on my mother-in-law’s MacBook Air, as if it were an overpriced Chromebook–I thought to try booting the HP off a USB flash drive loaded with Ubuntu Linux. That got the machine back online, so at least I knew the laptop’s hardware remained sound.

A Twitter conversation with my friend Ed Bott reminded me to try the Windows recovery USB drive on another computer, where it did boot–and on my next try using that in the HP, it finally started up the laptop. (This is not the first time I’ve needed to borrow somebody else’s device to breathe life into an uncooperative bit of circuitry.) Command-line tinkering found no issues with the HP’s solid-state drive or the Windows installation, so I did yet another system restore and finally had my computer back.

I’m typing on the same machine seven hours later, so hopefully things took. But if not, I now have two flash drives that I know can boot the machine. If you have a Windows PC, please learn from my ordeal and take a few minutes today to create a recovery flash drive for your machine.

And if that PC insists over hours that it’s preparing an “Automatic” repair, remember that when Windows keeps using that word, it may not mean what Windows thinks it means.

CES 2018 travel-tech report: Ethernet lives!

I survived another CES without having my laptop or phone come close to running out of power during the workday, which is worth a little celebration but may also indicate that I did CES wrong.

One reason for this efficient electrical usage is that I showed up in Vegas for a new laptop for the first time since 2013. The HP Spectre x360 laptop that replaced my MacBook Air couldn’t get through an entire day without a recharge, but plugging it in during lunch and any subsequent writing time freed me from having to think about its battery for the rest of the day.

The Google Pixel phone I bought last summer was thirstier, mainly because I could never really put that down even after dark. But I still never needed to top off the phone with the external charger I bought.

Having both the phone and laptop charge via USB-C delivered an added bonus: Whenever I was sitting near an electrical outlet, I could plug either device into the laptop’s charger.

CES telecom, however, got no such upgrade. The press-room WiFi worked at the Mandalay Bay conference center but often did not in the media center I used at the Las Vegas Convention Center. And having to enter a new password every day–what looked like a misguided episode of IT security theater–did not enhance the experience.

Fortunately, the cheap USB-to-Ethernet adapter that my MacBook had inexplicably stopped recognizing a few years back worked without fuss on the HP so I often reverted to using wired connections. The irony of me offering an “it just works!” testimony to a Windows PC is duly noted.

T-Mobile’s LTE, meanwhile, crumpled inside the Sands and often struggled to serve up bandwidth at the LVCC. More than once, this meant I had to trust my luck in CES traffic when Google Maps coudn’t produce any road-congestion data.

I packed two devices I’ve carried for years to CES but only used one. The Belkin travel power strip I’ve brought since 2012 avoided some unpleasantness in a packed press room Monday but wasn’t necessary after then. The Canon point-and-shoot camera I’ve had since 2014, however, never left my bag. The camera in my Pixel is that good for close-up shots, and I didn’t come across any subjects that would have required the Canon’s superior zoom lens.

I also didn’t come across a worthy, pocket-sized successor to that “real” camera at any CES booths. But with some 2.75 million square feet of exhibits at this year’s show, I could have easily missed that and many other solutions to my travel-tech issues.

Recommended Precision Touchpad settings

I’ve yet to ease into a new computer without having to fuss with some of the default settings, and the HP Spectre x360 laptop sitting on this desk has fit right into the pattern.

Most of the tweaking has involved its touchpad, because I’ve always found the defaults in Windows to be too jumpy. (I’ve said the same about some Mac touchpad defaults.) But after a few days of clicking around the stock Synaptics software, I realized I should first dump that for drivers supporting Microsoft’s more elegant Precision Touchpad software.

The directions I found on Reddit (embedded here after the jump) worked, and then I could easily shut off the touch behaviors I couldn’t stand.

  • “Touchpad sensitivity”: I changed this from the default “Medium” to “Low” because, again, jumpy touchpads bother me. I may try turning it back off to see if disabling the following two options made the standard sensitivity acceptable.
  • “Tap with a single finger to single-click”: This is the one setting I change on every laptop. If I want to click, I’m more than happy to press down so the touchpad makes an audible click; having it treat a stray touch as a click leaves me randomly dumping the cursor into documents and windows and feeling generally stabby as a result.
  • “Press the lower right corner of the touchpad to right-click”: I disabled this because it’s easier for me to remember to tap with two fingers to right-click than to keep track of which side of this invisible line I’m about to tap.

I hope this advice–which should also work on any other laptop running Microsoft’s Precision Touchpad software–makes for a more pleasant laptop computing experience. If you have other suggested settings changes, please share them in the comments.

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