Electronics Archives

September 20, 2006

Macbook - Connect to everything, mini-review

intel core duo macbook

It is amazing to me how much the purpose of a laptop has changed over the past few years. These changes shaped my choice of a new laptop and I ended up with a bottom-of-the-line Macbook. When I first started using a laptop they were pretty much stand-alone devices. Sure, you could get a modem and a network adapter, but the floppy drive got a lot more use. Today, almost all data comes in over a wireless connection and rather than being a "word processor" or something like that, I primarily use it as a communication device. It is a device for reading, viewing, listening and writing/publishing.

With that as a sole purpose, the Apple Macbook seemed as capable (or more) than any other alternative. Wireless access is quick and easy compared to other windows-based laptops I have used. Many of the intricacies have been smoothed over - for example instead of asking for a WEP key to access my wireless network, it asks for a password - and while this initially made me nervous not to see the bloody details, it turns out that "just working" is a pleasant thing.

The form factor is also fairly pleasant. No wierd designs and shapes like dell always seems to inflict upon its users, and the smooth and rounded case slips more easily into a bag than the black IBM/Lenovo bricks. Connector are placed along the side where they belong, and the magnetic powercord attachment (cousin to a similar attachment found on my zojirushi hot water pot) is both a strain relief and a more positive way to start working than the typical power adaptor cord.

On top of this, or I should say underneath this slick package and the brightly colored software which runs on it, is the ability to open a terminal window and use the machine just like any other Unix box. Thoughtfully they included SSH so I can log in here and back-up the site or whatever. If you are feeling nostalgic you can even fire up VI like nothing has changed since you graduated from punchcards.

But there are some rough spots. Learning the keyboard shortcuts takes a while. Some of my favorite software is just not available and there is the occasional website which just won't work with any browser byt Internet Explorer. I also was totally perplexed about how software is installed and am wondering what I'm going to do when it is time to de-install it. Navigating though the different windows is taking a bit of time to become proficient at, but I think over time I'll figure it all out.

Just a few words on why I bought the bottom of the line machine. For me laptops are about portability and connectivity. For image editting or other heavy computational or visual tasks I use my desktop machine. So there is no need to write DVD's from a laptop or have a large and bulky screen or losts of storage. In addition, it appears that the processor wars have become re-ignited after the death of megahertz and lower power is becoming the order of the day. This means that change in the laptop space will be more rapid than it has been in the recent past and with rapid obsolescence it makes sense to buy the cheapest one today, and another cheap one in 2 years, rather than spending for the top model today. The Intel Core Duo chip is more than capable for what I am throwing at it. It is simply the best chip on the market at the time this is being written.

January 23, 2007

Upgrading a Macbook

Don't even stop to think about it. Just get 2GB of 200-pin SO-DIMM RAM (NewEgg is a good source for this) and a bigger HD and your lowly white bottom of the barrel MacBook will be running with the best of them. After doing this my machine which used to come to a crawl when I opened Excel and Firefox at the same time, now has Firefox, Word, Excel open and Windows Vista running under parallels desktop and it is still speedier than before.

It is pretty simple to do. Here are the steps:

Read the Instructions

First go to Apple's website and read about replacing memory: This will tell you how to remove the MacBook battery and show you a diagram about the metal "L" shaped bracket that you need to remove. It doesn't say much more about that, so I will. To remove it you need a small philips head screwdriver. There are three screws in the long side which attach it. There are NO screws on the short side. The screws are captive, which means they don't come out of the metal piece. Loosen them, but don't try to pull them out. You will appreciate this fact when it comes time to put them back in.

Remove the SO-DIMM Memory

Now pull the metal piece out starting at the top of the "L". Be gentle, there is electro-static shielding on the back side of it. But don't worry, it would be hard to break. When this is removed you see two levers, one for each bank of memory. Flip the levers towards the left to eject the existing memory. Apple recommends that you should replace memory in pairs, but data I've seen doesn't show much performance loss if you don't. In other words, if you only have enough money now for 1GB of RAM, buy a 1GB SO-DIMM and pair it with one of the 256MB ones already in there. When you get some more spending money buy another 1GB and replace the 256MB. Buying two 512MB chips would be a waste of money. Back to removing them, Flipping the lever is all there is to it. Carefully note the orientation of the chips, particularly the little notch. It is easiest if you have your new memory ready, then eject the old, and immediately put the new stuff in. That way you won't forget and have to read the tiny diagram. Push the new memory in until it is firmly in there, 1GB chips seem to use a thicker substrate (maybe more layers on the PCB for routing or shielding?) so it takes some effort. If you are happy with your Hard drive you can stop there.

Upgrading the Hard Drive

Why do they fill up so fast? 60GB is just too small. I got a 160GB drive and sooner or later it will be too small. Anyway, HD's are pretty cheap. You are looking for a 2.5" SATA notebook drive. NewEgg has these as well. While you are at it, buy an external HD enclosure which has Firewire or USB2. Your MacBook can boot from either of these. Initially I thought, I'd just do it once, put the new blank drive in the Mac and the old drive in the enclosure, but then I thought that sometimes drives are DOA so I took a slightly longer route. Put the new HD in the enclosure, Hook it to your mac. Go to Applications/Utilities/Disk and run it. Erase the drive and partition it if you want. Give it a name., and most important set it to be bootable. Then Get a copy of "Carbon Copy Cloner" and clone the old disk onto the new one. This will take some time. An hour or more. Just let it run. It might be a good idea to clean old files and empty the trash BEFORE you do this (maybe next time...). When the cloning is done the fun starts.

Removing the Hard Drive

The HD lives behind the short leg of the "L", so do this at the same time you are doing the memory. You will note a small white plastic tag. Pull on it. The old HD will slide out. Be prepared with a TR9 torx screwdriver. This is a pretty small size. If you don't think you have one, buy one before you start. As with the memory, note the position of the connector. When you pull things out, keep them in the same orientation (left side to the left, top side to the top) so you don't get confused. Remove the 4 black screws on the side that hold the stainless steel caddy to the old disk. Replace it with the new one. Slide it back in. That is it!

Put the MacBook back together

From here, put the "L"metal back, starting at the end of the short leg. You have to press a bit on the long leg to hold the memory levers in, but it shouldn't be too difficult. I got the screws started, then went back over them for a final tightening. After this pop the battery back in and you are done! You can now take your old HD and put it in your new enclosure for a back-up external drive. Nothing wasted at all (well except the ridiculous 256MB memory which you can sell on Ebay or keep in a drawer just in case your new memory has issues.

I'm pretty familiar with computers, but this really was easier than I thought it would be. Well worth the effort.

September 2, 2007

Sanyo Eneloop Rechargable Battery Review

Eneloop rechargable batteries

I'm so glad to see that Sanyo finally delivered what I really want, rechargable batteries that work when I want them to. Often I want them to work weeks or months after I last charged them, but most NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) rechargables self discharge pretty fast and there is no charge left when I need it. With the eneloops, you can charge them after you last used them and chances are there will still be charge left weeks or months later.

I've put them in flashlights and camera flashes, both items you don't use often, but you want them to work when you need them. And I've very happy with their performance and shelf life. They come pre-charged from the factory so you can even start using them right away. The self discharge rate is dependent on ambient temperature, so they will hold a charge longer when stored in cooler temperatures. I'm not sure they are what you want if you leave a flashlight in your car trunk all summer, but they are perfect for things like flashlights, remote controls, cameras, clocks and other things which require a low self-discharge rate.

With the price of non-rechargable batteries and the toxic materials they contain, it only makes sense to use a battery which is capable of being re-used a number of time. I highly recommend the eneloops.

I've seen them available both with and without a charger. You can use any 1-5 hour battery charger to charge them so if you already have a charger, you can probably use it. The eneloop charger is a slick white thing which matches the battery design and it is not that expensive. High speed chargers (1/2 hour) are likely to create a lot of heat in the cells - that is not usually a good thing.

They are available in AA and AAA sizes.

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