Saturday, December 21, 2013

The simplest way to speed up your laptop

I have been going through several interesting projects lately. There were a couple of important ones which required processing large and somewhat twisted SQL databases. The other, "weekend" projects, made me dust off Eclipse and fix some cool Android code to make it work on KitKat. But this article is not about large files or databases. It's about those small but pesky JPEG files we often overlook and underestimate, but which seriously affect performance of our aging laptops.

So here is the story.

About a couple of months ago I went to our local toy Tigerdirect and bought the latest 1TB Seagate hybrid drive for my laptop. I expected it to be better than its predecessor, the Seagate Momentus XT which I used for a couple of years, but which started to show its signs of wear.

I was very happy with the new drive. For about a day or two. Then I noticed that the laptop boots up slower than before the upgrade. But the worst hit was to see web sites load noticeably slower. You know, those that unroll their galleries of high quality photos when you scroll down your mouse wheel. One of my favourite ones is the Autoblog, but it looks like all of them are now going that way in web design.

Well, you may say that the new drive is only 5400rpm while the former one is 7200, but that's not the show stopper for me.

I started thinking and decided to look at how the antivirus software works on my machine. Of course, I have MDF and LDF files excluded from active scan, for obvious reasons. What else? So I gave it a thought and decided to turn off scanning of JPEG, JPG and PNG files. Why? Because they are pictures. I don't care if they have any code in them. I don't rename them to exe and launch just to test. That would be quite foolish.

Well, now my web browser runs faster and smoother. No more stuttering on large web sites like Autoblog and others. And I can live with this new larger but slower drive until Seagate makes the faster version.

Friday, December 6, 2013

How to switch PgUp/PgDn keys with Home/End without breaking keyboard

After adding a bluetooth adapter to my Toshiba laptop, I am fully enjoying the world of bluetooth accessories. In fact, I am getting spoiled by not using the USB ports for a keyboard or mouse. Wireless peripherals and especially bluetooth ones are so much cooler than pulling wires..

Finding a decent bluetooth keyboard was a bit of a hassle for me though. I have relatively big hands, and I am used to those curvy Microsoft keyboards such as Microsoft 2000. But the 2000 model is wired, which defies the whole purpose. It's also quite big. I like my desk tidy. And I don't use the calculator side of the keyboard at all.

The only one bluetooth keyboard I really liked is Microsoft 5000. Positioned as a keyboard for mobile devices, it's lightweight but solidly made, stylish, having large keys with great feedback. It does not come with the calculator keys (you can get the 6000 model for that), but otherwise it covers my needs for 100%.

For some reason, Microsoft does not make model 5000 keyboard anymore, and it's getting increasingly hard to get one new. I recently purchased another one on eBay, it came new in a box, sealed and unopened. Now I have one at home and one at work. They are exactly the same. I do carry my laptop back and forth, and when I turn it on, it would seamlessly connect to them, without any additional clicks or switches.

But... this article is not only about this awesome keyboard. It's about how to fix some of its keys.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Microsoft stopped making the model 5000 is because it was unpopular. It was unpopular probably because it had a few of its keys defined incorrectly. The PgUp and PgDn functions were sharing the same keys with Home and End. While PgUp and PgDn were made default keys, to use Home or End you have to push and hold the Fn (function) key each time to use Home or End.

I work with a lot of text on a daily basis (I am a programmer), but I don't use PgUp or PgDn as often as I use Home and End. In fact, I almost never use page up or page down. I use my mouse wheel to scroll between lines and pages of code.

But.. where there is a will there is a way. This problem didn't stand long against one's programmer's skills. I googled up a few things and came up with two registry files. They can help you too make your PgUp and PgDn keys work as Home and End, or undo those changes, respectively. The best thing is that the PgUp/PgDn don't go away, they can now be used with Fn key. In other words, the PgUp trades places with Home, and PgDn with End. In computer language this method is called changing scancode mappings. Btw, it worked for me on both Windows XP and Windows 7.

If you had the same problem I had, and if you want to switch your keys on your keyboard the same way, simply copy (verbatim!) the portions of text below into Notepad, separately, and save them as two separate .REG files. Take twice a day... I mean, run the first one to swap the keys, and the second one to reset the keys back to default layout.

Use this to switch PgUp/PgDn with Home/End:

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Keyboard Layout]
"Scancode Map"=hex:00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,05,00,00,00,47,e0,49,e0,49,e0,47,e0,\

This will reset keys back to default:

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Keyboard Layout]
"Scancode Map"=hex:00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,01,00,00,00,00,00,00,00

Disclaimer: the purpose of this article is to give a solution, not to force you to change anything in your computer be it hardware or software. Always wear gloves.. er.. I mean, always pay attention and utmost care when dealing with Windows registry. Back it up, etc. Improper actions or a misspelled command may result in unstable work or even unresponsive computer. I can only show you the way, you are the one to walk it, which means I don't guarantee this method to work on your particular computer, neither may I be held responsible for any problems caused by user actions.

Credits: Remapping Windows Keys by Preston Hunt

Thursday, November 14, 2013

AT&T vs T-Mobile, iPhone vs. Android, and more


It's now more than a month since I left T-Mobile for AT&T. The overall impression is good. But let me tell the whole story.

My major problem with T-Mobile was its spotty coverage. It worked ok where I live, worked ok when I drove, but it didn't work when I'm at work. People were asking me why you don't have your phone on when we call you. The problem was that the phone had to be placed next to a window when I am at work, and we are in an office area with good outside reception. The phone only worked in a certain corner of my office, when placed on a bookshelf. Even so, when I got a call, I was able to pick it up, but generally it would drop after a few seconds. After that, a new call cannot be placed until nearly 3-5 minutes after the drop, as the line would be blocked completely. Zero bars and no internet.

I first thought it was my phone. So I changed phones several times, used Samsung Galaxy, Nexus 4, iPhone 3GS, some older Samsung flip-phone. Same results. It's great to be on GSM network. I could switch phones by popping in and out the same Sim card. Later I ordered a new Sim card from T-Mobile, but with the same results.

Being a computer programmer, I have a clue how databases work. The whole behaviour of T-Mobile handling my Sim card would be as an old customer I was placed in the very bottom of the Users' table. Perhaps even in some sort of an ArchivedUsers table. I just can't explain the huge lag in the connection other than being on the bottom of the Users list, and the database index not being updated properly.

Another interesting problem with T-Mobile, which is probably only interesting to technical types, is that it was dropping my Internet connection every 2-3 days. As I was hitting a certain data allocation at a time. After a day or two of Internet use with my Nexus 4, most of which was e-mail and occasional use of Google Maps, the phone would stop obtaining the IP address completely. The only cure was to shut down and reboot. (Think Android issues? nah! read through..)

But despite the lags and poor connection, I was willing to stay with T-Mobile until the end of days. Mostly because they are inexpensive, and my contract was long gone. Nothing beats T-Mobile prices with the service they have. They are good.

The last drop happened when my daughter started attending college. Needless to say, we asked her if she wanted a new phone. She said no, as she wanted to save money. I respect that. The problem however showed up where it was less expected. Guess what, the T-Mobile reception in her area was next to nothing. So.. we started shopping for a new phone, a new calling plan, and ended up with AT&T.

As part of the new plan with AT&T, they sent us two brand new iPhone 5s's. I've never owned an iPhone before. (A used 3GS for testing our app don't count.) We've always been Android people, sort of a geeky type.

After two weeks of everyday use of iPhone 5s, I ordered myself a nano-to-micro sim card adapter. I could barely wait until it arrived so I could go back to my Nexus 4. You may ask why.

Is the iPhone bad? Oh, not at all. Very light, slick looking device, all nicely machined from an aluminum cast. Fast? yes. Reception? good.
So, what was the problem?

The short answer would be that the Nexus 4 is better. It's a bit wider, yes, but the wider screen is so much better, I won't even compare them. The 150 pixels make so much difference. That's not all though. Most of the advantages come from Android niceties. The totally awesome Back button, Multitasking, and clever use of the Multicolor LED indicator. Here is an example.

With iPhone, if an email arrives when you are not around, or you didn't hear the beep, you won't know until you pick the phone up and look at the screen. With Nexus, the LED indicator on the front panel, the same place where iPhone has its main button, starts slowly blinking with one of the 4 colors. I assigned various colors to different email accounts, and could instantly spot an important message.
Another cool thing is having a Google Talk or any other background app run and notify you when someone is calling you, without having it on the front page all the time. It may drain the battery a bit more, but Nexus never gave me any battery problems. It's fairly good with battery even after a year. I rarely had less than 1.5 days on one battery charge with my normal use (4-6 hours of book reading, dozens of emails and a few calls a day). I don't watch movies and I don't play war games on the phone.

Now, back to the AT&T service. The reception is great so far. I mean, it's just awesome. It works everywhere. I'm back to my Nexus with the AT&T SIM card in it, and I finally feel like I am actually using a real phone, and not a dumb pager with diode-like reception. So far, no IP address drops after 3 days, not even after a week of use. (Hey network engineers, any thoughts?)

By the way, a nano-sim card adapter made my transition from iPhone 5s to Nexus completely easy. I rebooted my new Android phone, and it picked up the AT&T network right away, including HSPA internet service. I'm a happy camper so far.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why you shouldn't buy VW assembled in Mexico

Below is the photo of the tube going from the engine head to the brake cylinder. The pipe cracked in 3 places, due to bad quality of the plastic material. And no, it's not rubber.

This pipe creates vacuum in the brake cylinder to make car brakes work. If the pipe breaks, the vacuum will not be sufficient enough to stop the car.

Luckily, I caught this before leaving the garage, and replaced it with the $1.50 tube from our local Autozone. 10 minute of work saved lives..

While I may buy a VW in the future, I will never buy a VW from Mexico.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Dear Amazon developers, please fix sorting!

Someone tell me how those guys can still make money..

Firstly, the sorting doesn't work. Have you tried shopping for some brand, then sort by price? It doesn't work. In fact, it never works.

Now, it appears the selection criteria is broken as well. Specifically, the price range. I'd rather not have the price range option rather than have it work incorrectly. See the picture...

If you start clicking checkboxes on the left hand side, then it will lose part of the query. Such as if you enter Seiko in the search box above, then after it finds Seiko watches, try to refine the selection results, then it will lose the Seiko criteria completely and start showing totally unrelated items. Ridiculous.

And on the other note, after 1984 saga, I won't ever buy Kindle.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Carpal tunnel syndrome, or how to reduce weight of computer mouse

By the nature of my occupation (I'm a programmer) I use mouse and keyboard quite heavily. I'm no stranger to wrist and arm aches.

A while ago I noticed that the pain is often related to mouse weight. The heavier a mouse is, the sooner I get wrist pain.

Now, after I got my laptop fixed with the internal bluetooth module, I naturally decided to refresh my quite a big collection of keyboards and mice with something bluetooth-capable. Strangely, there is not a lot of really good bluetooth mice in stores in our area. I vaguely remembered that the Microsoft mouse 5000 is a bad choice. I tried one a couple of years ago and had to return it, because it costs dearly, but had crappy ergonomics. I stopped by the store to check the new MS Sculpt touch mouse, it's a bit better, but too flat for me.

After a few visits to various stores, I bought a brand new mouse. It's a Kensington Suretrack mouse. Amazon sells it for a bit cheaper than our local stores, hence the link.

That's a pretty decent thing. Matte black, with rubber side grips, solid looking. Very accurate. Works perfectly on all of my desk surfaces, never skips. It's a bit bigger than an average laptop mouse, which should be good for people with larger hands.

It has one big disadvantage for me. It's heavy. Why? It requires two AA batteries. Needless to say, I hated it from the first moment, because of its weight.

The solution came pretty quickly though. I went to eBay and searched for a battery adapter from AA to AAA. After a few minutes of browsing, I bought a pack of 10 battery adapters for $7 with free shipping. I only needed two, but smaller amounts were all in China, and I wanted quicker shipment, so I bought it right out of the first seller who was located in the US. Well, turned out he is in China too. The good thing is that the package took only 3 days to come, from which I can deduce the item was located stateside.

Anyway, the mouse is now about 30% lighter, and works great from two AAA batteries. See the photos below.

Friday, February 22, 2013

How to add Bluetooth to Toshiba R705

If you own a Toshiba Portege R705, you know that it does not come with a built-in bluetooth. If you search Toshiba forums, most people would recommend buying a USB bluetooth plug.

This is not our way. Toshiba laptops, and especially the higher-end ones like the Portege series, have one of the best designs in the industry. I'll show you how to take advantage of that great design and add a bluetooth module to R705.

First, you need to purchase the actual module. That's probably the hardest part of the project, since there are not so many of them currently on eBay. To be specific, you need part number PA3814U-1BTM or BTU1040-D4 made by Broadcom.

Make sure it comes with a 6-wire connector. Here is what it looks like superimposed to the motherboard connector. The bluetooth circuit board is only a bit bigger than a quarter.

Next, if the module does not come with an antenna, you will need to get one. That's an easy buy. There is plenty of those on eBay at any given time. The antenna is a thin screened wire minimum 10-15 inches long with a gold-plated connector on one side. For this particular application it does not matter what is on the other side of the antenna.

Disclaimer. Everything that is said and explained in this article, is for information purposes only. While this method worked for my laptop, I am not responsible for any damage to any equipment intentionally or unintentionally done by you or anyone else.

Step 1.
Remove the metal screening from the end of the antenna wire which is opposite to the gold-plated connector. I only removed about 1.5 inches of the screening, leaving the plastic insulation covering the central wire.
I then rolled a small piece of Scotch sticky tape around the remaining piece of metal screen, to insulate the remaining metal "hairs".
This is how the antenna wire looks before wrapping in Scotch tape.

Step 2.
Unclip the right plastic silver-plated hinge cover, the one with the hole. This will greatly improve access to the screen hinge. We will later insert antenna wire into the hinge opening.

Remove the back (bottom) panel. There are screws of 3 or 4 different sizes holding the back panel. You will need to remove the small docking connector cover. You will also have to remove the memory cover to reach one of the F4 screws underneath it. Check out a quick video illustrating the back cover removal .

After the back panel is removed, it might be a good idea to disconnect the hard drive at this point, since it's not fastened to anything and may fall out when you move the assembly.

Step 3.

Try to pass the antenna wire carefully through the clips so it is not pinched or jammed. See the picture:
 Push the taped end of the wire into the screen hinge opening, same way as other wires go. Don't force it too much. If it jams, pull it back out and try again. It should go inside relatively freely, until about 2 inches of the wire is inside the screen. Ideally, it would be nice to open the screen panel and properly arrange the antenna inside the screen assembly, but it worked for me without removing the screen panel.

You may ask a question why we need to push the wire into the screen. The answer is simple. The screen is the only part of the laptop covered with plastic. All other parts are made from magnesium alloy or other metal, which insulates radio frequencies, and would prevent the antenna from sending and receiving RF signal.

Step 4.
Plug the antenna into the bluetooth module, and plug the module's 6-pin connector into the white plastic connector on the motherboard. The 6-pin connector should go flat side up, wires down.

Step 5.
Place the bluetooth module inside the computer body so it does not jam against any parts, and allows for sufficient air go through all parts of the body. Make sure none of its exposed metal connectors touches any alloy or metal parts inside the computer body or wiring.
Make sure the antenna wire is not jammed or pinched by other parts inside the assembly.

I used sticky tape to affix the module to the side of the DVD drive.

This is the overall view of the entire assembly, with the re-connected hard drive, bluetooth module and the antenna installed.

Step 6.
Now the easiest part. Download a driver from Toshiba web site.
Go to, select one of the Portege R700 (not 705!) and download the Bluetooth Stack driver for your operating system. I picked R700-S1310, and for my Windows 7 64-bit this one worked perfectly:
The setup program will make your computer reboot a couple of times, and after it's all done, you have a working bluetooth in your laptop!