Broadband speeds – slow progress?

Internet speeds can be quickly determined at this site, the results for my line are:

Line speed

Having just moved house (May 2012) I find i have gone from a Virginmedia connection (formerly NTL fibre optics) to a BT landline (through Sky) and what a difference I notice in download and especially upload speeds!  This subject seems to have disappeared out of the news, but there is still a major issue to be addressed by the government, if they are to make good use of modern internet capabilities within the economy.

The reason for this blog is that I am disappointed with the speed I get from out BT landline, but also because I think this is a typical example of a missed opportunity – a new housing estate with poor internet speeds.  I cannot understand why there is no fibre optic capability on this new estate, nor any sign that there may ever be such a fast connection.  It seems to me this is one place the government could provide regulation (just as they have regulated the energy use of new buildings) by insisting that a new housing estate should be provided with fibre optics and a choice of supplier who can use this facility!

speed4As you can see from the data at the top of this blog, I am only getting 5Mb/s download speed (against a maximum offered speed of 8 Mb/s; although the advertisements suggest upto 14 Mb/s) and an upload speed of only 0.68 Mb/s!  This illustrates the other area that needs government regulation – advertised speeds are theoretical maximums, not actual situations.  This is very misleading and should not be allowed – it is the use of the phrase “upto” with the offered speeds that is particularly misleading.  Although, I could choose another supplier (other than Sky) this is unlikely to help me as they all have to use the BT landline.  I have asked Virginmedia if they plan to lay fibre optics in the area, but they may not be able to gain access to do so!  BT would make no comment about upgrading our area to fibre optics.

So, I imagine that nothing will change in this area, the government simply make noises when they have to, but implement no policy changes.  The suppliers are only competing on price (except for Virginmedia) and there is no coherent policy to introduce fibre optics in areas that could be upgraded without too much disruption – very disappointing!

Skydrive replaces Live Mesh? Maybe not – updated!

I have updated this blog after a week or two of trying to understand the problems of using Skydrive – the comments that are most recent are marked ADDENDUM:

I have used Windows Live Mesh to synchronise my laptops and PC for a few years now, and I have even used Mesh to distribute science notes in our lab environment.  However, recently Microsoft announced the removal of Mesh from Windows Live utilities.  Their suggestion is to replace Mesh by Skydrive and a recent update to the Skydrive application for PCs allowed selection of files to synchronise, but will it accomplish the same tasks as Mesh, will it work?

I hope this blog might answer those questions and provide an insight into the problems that occur.  First, let me explain what I want to do and how well that worked with Mesh.  I have two laptops (mine and my wife’s) and a PC that we both use.  What I want is to ensure that specific folders are the same on all three computers and to back these up to an external source (I used Carbonite until the change to Skydrive was announced).  Mesh was installed on all three computers and you could choose specific folders that would be synchronised between computers (there was also a small space on the Mesh servers to store some files).  You could also share these folders with another person, who had to sign into Mesh, and they would be shared and synchronised when they were signed in.  But, there were two major problems:

  1. Outlook – the data file for the email program Outlook could not be synchronised by Mesh and so emails were only accessible on one computer, which was our individual laptops.
  2. Special folders – Pictures, Videos, Downloads and My Documents are special folders in Windows and synchronizing these on one shared PC was a major problem.
    What happened when trying to synchronise these folders and sharing them, was a new folder was created with the first letter missing – “My Documents” became “y Documents”!

Although this was messy I was able to synchronise files and have all the computers identical.  I was even able to synchronise some files that were not simple documents files such as Favourites and Office Templates.

The Skydrive application, installed on a PC is meant to replace Mesh.  You can upload all of your files to the Skydrive server (purchasing extra space as required) and then link to them by means of the Skydrive application, selecting which folders to synchronise.  However, all the folders must be within a specially created “Skydrive” folder, but you can at least determine the initial location of that folder.  Sadly, that means folders such as Favourites are not synchronised, so already a major difference from Mesh.

So, how did this work for me?  Well, first of all it took a long time to have all my files upload to the Skydrive server (about two weeks for 80 Gb), I also uploaded some folders that would not be synchronised, just to store them.  Then I had to create a Skydrive folder on each PC, but deselect all folders at first.  Then I moved all files/folders into the Skydrive folder on each PC (this was to be quicker than waiting for downloads.  On the PC I also allowed sharing of all of these folders with my wife’s account on that computer.  I then had to ensure all Libraries pointed to the new location (e.g. Pictures, Videos etc) and that links to these files worked.  Then I enabled synchronisation of specific folders via the Skydrive application.
Copying the files to the Skydrive folder was meant to save a lot of download time, but, unlike Mesh, the policy for avoiding overwriting is not clear for Skydrive and what I quickly discovered was that the files already on the laptop (the computer is called Portege) were renamed with “-Portege” appended to the filename.  This meant my hard drive quickly filled up with duplicates and some files (such as outlook.pst needed to be renamed to avoid being out of date!  This is not a great feature of Skydrive and Microsoft need to think about their synchronisation/duplication policy.

CaptureAll seemed well until I started to use the PC, my first problem arose when I tried to open Outlook – I pointed the program at the new location for my PST files, which opened fine and seemed well, but after signing my wife on to do the same, a problem arose on my desktop, I was unable to open Outlook as I was not allowed access to my PST file!  I checked the sharing setting and that indicated I was the owner and it was shared with my wife!  A mystery that was solved when I used the properties tab of the file to enable Home Users full access.  But, why am I not able to open a file I am owner of?
This problem of Administration of a shared computer has turned out to be more than just a bug bear, but in fact, a major issue!  I am not sure I really understand the real nature of the problem, but I will summarise what I think is happening.
It seems to me that when you first set up a shared computer the first owner, who automatically is classed as an Administrator, has a different set of ownership rights over files.  So when I set up my account on my wife’s PC and created a Skydrive account, I ran into issues of file ownership that I was not expecting.  In fact, I quickly discovered that Skydrive was not synching on my desktop and that I could not open my online account.  However, when I created the Skydrive account (using my login details) within my wife’s account not only could I access my online files, but the Skydrive folders were now synching.  As a consequence I have closed the Skydrive application within my account on this shared PC!  Not a very satisfactory solution to be honest, which also relates to the fact that Mesh allowed sharing of files that could also be downloaded automatically, but Skydrive shares the files online only – they cannot be synched unless you have the Skydrive account working!
A few weeks later, now, I have all the files synchronised, but I cannot open the online Skydrive from my account on this shared computer, only when logged on as my wife can I access the online files – something of a nuisance!  I also found that Media Player would not load the music files in the shared Library until I enabled as an administrator and asked it to restore the library – it seems okay now.  Finally, I find that many programs, that need access to the shared folders (e.g. Internet Explorer for picture saving) need to be run as an administrator, even though I have administrator rights for my account – this issue is much more complex than it seems!  Recently, I have found a better solution to this problem and that is to go to the root folder of each synchronised folder, open properties and then Security and then use the edit button to add the other user’s name to the list of names allowed full rights.  This seems to solve the sharing problems.

The problem of not being able to open the online Skydrive account is interesting and I tried to find out more about it recently.  What happens is that instead of opening the list of folders when you sign into your Skydrive account, the IE page cycles or repeats trying to load.  I discovered a forum description of this that said you should check the privacy setting for Internet Explorer to make sure is not one of the trusted sites.  I checked this and I had indeed added to the trusted site list and when I removed it the online folders opened as expected!

This ownership problem was repeated for a number of files I needed to access – one was an MNY file I use with MSMoney to keep my accounts – one common denominator seems to be the files autosave.

So, I am now waiting to see what problems we run into and to see if I can understand the nature of these problem.  What is my conclusion?

  1. Skydrive ONLY allows synchronisation of folders within the created Skydrive-folder, which means any system files cannot be synchronised; whereas, Mesh allowed favorites and Office Templates to be synchronised, but this is not now possible.
  2. Skydrive duplicates existing files to avoid overwriting, so care must be taken about loading files into the Skydrive folder, this is best done from the online source either manually or automatically using synchronisation, rather than copying them across folders on the computer.
  3. Sharing files that are to be synchronised presents some issues, especially with key folders such as the default Pictures, Videos and My Documents folders that have to be moved to the Skydrive folder.  However, this was also a problem with Mesh.
  4. Administrator rights influence how Skydrive works on a shared computer and this situation is complex – the best solution is that the computer owner (first user) should install Skydrive and synchronise files that are the shared to other user, but there may still be problems.
  5. Uploading is fairly slow and the system does not synchronise as fast as Mesh.

Therefore, my overall feeling is that this system is neither as good nor as versatile as Mesh and Microsoft will have to rethink how this works for it to solve the problem of synchronizing computers, especially computers with shared accounts.

Loss of Windows Update facility

I had an interesting problem on my Toshiba Portege from mid December 2011 – I lost the ability to get Windows Update to install recent updates.  Running the Windows Update program resulted in an error code – 80246008.  I followed the link to the Microsoft help on this error and it indicated that I needed to activate a service called  Background Intelligent Transfer Service (BITS).

As recommended I ran Administrative Tools > Services, but BITS was not even listed, so I could not start the service as recommended by Microsoft.  I started to search the Microsoft Blogs for more information and eventually came across help in a Forum referring to  Background Intelligent Transfer Service .  However, the solutions pasted there by Microsoft either did nothing (System Restore) or didn’t work (System File Checker), but I did notice a simple posting that recommend running a program from The Command Window:

sc create BITS binpath= “c:\windows\system32\svchost.exe -k netsvcs” start= delayed-auto

I tried this, it ran OK and when I restarted the computer, lo and behold I had BITS and Windows Update worked!

So, I thoroughly recommend this fix!

But, I have to ask, why did BITS disappear in the first place?

Keeping your laptop cool

Recently I had a problem with an overheating laptop, which kept closing down when it got too hot.  So to solve this problem I purchased a Belkin Laptop Cooler:

Belkin cooler

This useful piece of technology, which just plugs into the USB port of the laptop, solved the problem immediately and I bought this version because of a need to use it on a flat surface – a desktop or a table – and the sloped surface works well for that.  However, there is also a drawback with this design and that reflects the shape, there is a tendency for the laptop to slip downwards despite the grips on the upper and lower surfaces.  The laptops I use are lightweight 12” Toshiba Portege and the lack of weight increases the tendency to slip!  The other drawback with this design is that it cannot be used on your lap, the shape totally precludes this!

Antec coolerTo overcome this problem and to enable me to use the laptop on my lap (impossible before the cooler and with the Belkin design) I was fortunate to obtain an Antec Laptop Cooler.  This is a flat version of the Belkin, but has additional features that I think are very useful:

  1. The USB plug has a “pass-through”, which allows the port to still be used for a memory stick etc.
  2. There are two fans, which seem to be very quiet (so far – after 5 months).
  3. The fans have two speeds, which can be controlled by a switch at the side.
  4. A light indicates the cooler is powered and running (mind you it is a bit bright blue!).

The Antec Cooler is very quiet; although the Belkin is fairly quiet, but noticeable in a silent room, even when on full power it runs smoothly and quietly.  Recently the Belkin has developed a “knock” in the fan at start-up, which may indicate a developing problem, but this goes when it is restarted.  The Antec works very well on the knee and on the arm of our settee, which makes it very useful, while the Belkin needs a flat surface under it.

Overall, I think the Antec is the better buy, but the Belkin is both cheaper and useful on a desk.

Which laptop?

The last few laptops I have owned have been Toshiba Portege models, which are marketed as lightweight laptops with both connectivity and storage.

The first was one of the M-series, but, while it was light, it still weighed well over 2Kg and with the power supply it was quite a bundle to carry around on my aging shoulders!    I was buying these laptops for use at work, so I needed something well-built and reasonably robust – the portege is both; although the very thin lid of the R-series is very flexible and could be damaged with too much man-handling.

However, my current Portege is a R600 and I love this laptop, primarily because of the lightness (which still surprises people even after 4 years), but also because it has everything I need.  Perhaps the most impressive feature is the DVD/CD player (see below), which is really thin but also easy to use.  In addition, there are two USB ports, an internet connection and a VGA output.  There is also a SATA output, which I have never used so no comment, microphone in and speaker/headphone output.  The volume control is very useful as it can sometimes be tricky to adjust speaker volume quickly using software (especially in an exam when invigilating!).  Also the on-off switch for wireless connection is useful.  I used this laptop both when travelling – for presentations at conferences – and when teaching – running both movies and PowerPoint presentations – and I have had no problems with it.  It is also small enough to just about fit on those ridiculous shelves on airline seats!

I also use the laptop to score cricket games I attend and the beauty for that job is the battery life, which, without WiFi switched on, is about 6 hours and with a slower speed on the processor can be stretched to 8 hours.  I never push this at a game, so I bought a spare battery and I swap batteries at the breaks in the game, but four hours is easy to get.

So, what are the down points?  Well, it does get quite hot and it is not advisable to use it on a lap without a cooling stand.  It is not the fastest processor and the laptop does struggle when many applications are open, which is something I inflict on all my laptops!  Perhaps the biggest drawback is that you pay for this light build and these machines are not cheap.  But, I still find it very usable and would not be without it – oh, and I rarely am.  The R600 is able to run DVDs without any problem (this was not the case with the earlier M-series model), but I recommend upping the available RAM using the memory card accessory if you are a heavy user.

This is not a replacement for a desktop, but it is a very easy to transport laptop, which makes travelling a pleasure.  I have “played with” the new model – the Portege Z830 – and I think that is also a beautiful lightweight laptop, which I really recommend to anyone; although the solid-state storage is limited, so make sure you pick the right portege model for what you need.