Friday, October 19, 2012

$250 Laptop

There was another presidential debate this week, and it was clearly evident that no matter how different the views were on most issues there was one issue that both candidates could agree on. Our economy has gone through some rough times in recent years. While most people are willing to spend an ever-growing percentage of their budget on technology, the fact is that most people simply don't have a lot of money to spend on anything right now. In light of this fact, Samsung and Google have collaborated and announced Thursday that their new $250 laptop will begin shipping on Halloween.

The first question that comes to mind is “How good can this thing be for $250?” The answer may surprise you. While the new Chromebook is admittedly not going to replace your desktop computer anytime in the near future, it is surprisingly capable of handling most day to day tasks for the average user. As the name implies, the Chromebook is loaded with Google's Chrome OS. As one would expect from a Google product, this platform is geared towards web usage. However, it also comes with a variation of most of the applications that you'd expect to find on any other laptop. Web browsing is handled by the popular Google Chrome browser. Google Docs handles the text editing and spreadsheet functions. It also comes preloaded with calendar, notepad and media player applications. It has a webcam for video chatting and is available with WiFi and 3G chips installed for Internet connectivity.

The hardware is not what you'd find on a $1,200 MacBook Pro, but with Google's light weight applications it performs admirably at 17% of the price. Samsung used an ARM processor in place of an Intel chip. What this means is that the computer runs extremely efficiently allowing for 6.5 hours of battery life and does not need a fan. With no moving parts the computer is absolutely silent. While there is no optical drives for CDs or DVDs there are two USB ports to allow for external peripherals.

Of course there are always trade-offs. Otherwise every laptop would only cost $250. With the Chromebook you have the processing power to play 1080p high definition movies, but you can forget about playing the latest and greatest video games. Being a Linux based system, you also can't install most software that is made for Windows. However, you can download and install software from Google Play, the same app store that is used on Android devices.

While this new laptop isn't going to replace your desktop workhorse, if you are one of the 90% of people that spend 90% of their time online or on email this might be a great fit for you. At $250, it is also an option for families that want to get a second computer for their kids but don't have the income to spend on a Windows-based system. It could also be useful for people that aren't technologically inclined as the Chrome OS is wonderfully simple to use, and isn't vulnerable to malware and viruses that plague Windows and Apple products. Another group that could find value in this system would be students. At 2.5 lbs. and 8” across, the Chromebook will easily slide into a backpack for easy travel. Whether or not you fit into any of these categories, the Chromebook might be worth a look for you.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Speed Up Your Start Up

One of the more common services that we perform is to optimize start-up programs. This is also one of the services that our customers seem to find the most surprising. However, when we look at a computer that is running slowly and bogging down under heavy loads unnecessary start-up programs are one of the most common culprits.

Start-up programs are exactly what they sound like. They are programs that start when you boot into Windows. They usually run in the background, and for the most part are not malicious. The most recognizable start-up programs are anti-viruses. Odds are you have an anti-virus running right now, and it started automatically when you booted into Windows. It's a background process, which means that there's no window that opens to tell you that you're running your anti-virus. There's usually just a little icon next to your clock that lets you know that you're being protected.

In the case of an anti-virus, we want that program to start every time we log onto the computer. It prevents incidents where we forget to protect ourselves before going online or checking our email. However, in many cases start-up programs only serve to draw off of system resources and bog down our system. Most of the times these programs are put out with good intentions by software developers, and individually they don't have much affect. The thing to remember is that your system has a limited amount of processing power and a limited amount of memory. Any program that is running pulls from that central pool and leaves less resources for you to use as you go about your tasks. Think of the water pressure in your home. If you're taking a shower and somebody decides to wash their hands in the kitchen, no problem. However, if every faucet on the house is turned on, the washing machine is running, and you're watering the garden you might be in some trouble when it comes time to rinse the shampoo out of your hair. The same is true of start-up programs. Having a couple programs constantly running in the background isn't going to be noticed, but when they start to add up you start to have problems.

I'm going to use the computer I'm on right now as an example of what I'm talking about when I say that start-up programs aren't malicious just unnecessary. I'm writing this article on my home computer that is used by my entire family. I have a smartphone that I plug in occasionally to load the pictures that I've taken so that I can back them up. We also connect our digital camera for the same reasons. We have a GPS that gets connected for map updates once every six months. My daughter has an electronic book reader that gets connected to download new material. Each of these actions requires us to download and install a program to let the device interact with the computer. Knowing that people don't want to try to find the proper application when they plug in a device, the manufacturers of these products have their programs start in the background when the computer is booted. That way, when we plug a device in it magically pops up the correct software. Because of this Samsung, Canon, Magellan, and Leapfrog all have programs that are set to constantly be running on this system. This doesn't even include the three different programs that HP has set to constantly run to keep track of my printer. You can see how this can quickly add up.

While the device manufacturers have good intentions, the thing to remember is that most of these devices are connected less than once a month each. In order to avoid the hassle of opening a program once a month I now have 7 unnecessary programs running constantly. This is in addition to the programs that I actually want to automatically run. Overall, on this machine I have 20 programs that are set by default to start on boot up. The other 13 are made up of software updaters, anti-malware, and utilities I use to track various metrics on my machine.

As you can imagine, having 20 programs running in the background may have some affect on the performance of my machine. When I have an email program, web browser and word processor open as I do now I've upped that number to 23. This is actually a pretty mild case, as it's not uncommon for us to see systems with 40 to 50 start-up programs. Therefore, it's not to surprising when the customer tells us that the computer is slow even though they only have a web browser open.

What we do when we perform a start-up optimization is to actually go through the start-up programs one by one and determine if it's something that needs to be run every time the computer is booted up. We can then deactivate the programs that are only used occasionally, thus freeing up your system resources. I have been able to cut my start-up programs down to 13 by eliminating the device helpers I mentioned earlier, thus freeing up nearly half of the resources drawn by my background processes.

I have to mention that some of the start-up programs are needed by Windows to operate properly. While it is possible for you to perform a start-up optimization yourself, deactivating the wrong programs can leave your system inoperable. A good example of this is Windows Explorer, which provides the taskbar and start menu. If you deactivate this you will have some trouble navigating your system. If you have any doubts about what a program does, play it safe and leave it activated.