Surface Laptop 3: A new chapter

It was almost eight years ago to the day that I walked into the Microsoft Store in Toronto to purchase the very first Microsoft Surface Pro sold in the world. There was a huge midnight event planned so that on the day of the release – February 9, 2013 – anyone lined up at the Microsoft Store in New York City could buy it at one minute after midnight. A blizzard closed New York City, and while Toronto was also hit by a terrible snowstorm, it was not enough to close the city down. The unboxing videos on my blog (here) are cute to see – I am sitting in the theatre at the store wearing a Microsoft Canada shirt.

Over the next few years I would trade in and trade up that Surface Pro several times – I have had a Surface Pro 2, Surface Pro 3, and I still have my Surface Pro 4 which I purchased on December 9, 2015… making it the longest I have kept a computer in use in many years. I retired it today, February 2, 2021… a little over five years since I unboxed it.

IMG_4379

One of the reasons I kept upgrading the Surface was that I had friends who worked at the Microsoft Store who were willing, when something went wrong with the device, to replace it for me with the newer device. Yes, I had to pay any cost differences, and yes, I had to purchase a new Complete Care warranty for each new device, but it worked, and I was happy to spend the money.

When my friends at the Microsoft Store were no longer able to help me with that (which likely coincided with my no longer being a contractor with Microsoft Canada) I decided to stick with what I had. I did not need to spend the money for new laptops every year.

There is a known defect common with the Surface Pro 4 in that the battery starts to expand (which is likely not safe anyways), warping and then pushing the screen out from the device. While it still works (and very well!) as a docked device, it could no longer be considered a portable computer. It was time, especially with my travels about to start up again.

I gave a lot of thought to what to replace it with. I am no longer affiliated with Microsoft, and I am a little miffed that Microsoft would not do anything about the warped battery issue (which is a very well known issue with the Surface Pro 4). On the other hand, I have all of the accessories for the Surface, including extra power cables, docking stations, and more. I considered buying a competing product, but I kept coming back to the positives – my Surface Pro had a lot of miles on it, both literally and figuratively. In truth, it owed me nothing.

IMG_4378Of course, a lot has changed in eight years. When Microsoft released the Surface Pro, you had the choice of memory and hard drive size. A few years later they released the Surface Book, and I thought long and hard before opting to stick with the Surface Pro. Since then, Microsoft released the Surface Laptop line, and it was a difficult choice. I ultimately chose the Laptop because I almost never used the Surface Pro as a tablet, and the (slightly) larger screen of the laptop was appealing.

  • February 9, 2013: Surface Pro
  • February 13, 2014: Surface Pro 2
  • July 3, 2014: Surface Pro 3
  • December 9, 2015: Surface Pro 4
  • February 2, 2021: Surface Laptop 3

Friday evening I placed the order on Microsoftstore.com. Had I placed the order a couple of hours earlier, I likely would have gotten the computer yesterday. As it was, the UPS delivery came at 4:15pm, and I was excited. I opened the box on camera (as I have done now with each of my Surface devices), and have now been working on it for the last couple of hours. Here are my initial impressions:

  1. This is a gorgeous laptop. I opted for the Cobalt Blue package with 8gb of RAM and a 256gb hard drive. It is a sleek design for sure – I remember envying Mac users for the design that went into their laptops but no more. The is an impressive device to look at, and having a choice of five colours (Black, Sandstone, Cobalt Blue (Alcantara©), Platinum, and Platinum (Alcantara©)) is a nice touch.
  2. There is a Business Bundle that is more expensive that would come with the Windows 10 Professional build of the operating system, but as I own licenses for the more expensive OS I opted to save the money. What did surprise me somewhat was that the version of Windows is 1909. I would have expected at least 2004, if not 20H2. It would take an hour to perform that upgrade, but I was able to work on the device in the background, so I was not really concerned.
  3. I love the keyboard. While I liked the Surface Pro keyboard, I always felt it was a bit flimsy. Not needing to be able to pull off the keyboard as we could on the Surface Pro means they could make this more solid indeed. At the same time, the wrist rest has a material feel to it which I like.
  4. The 13.5” screen may not sound like much, but the extra 1.2” over the Surface Pro makes a real difference. The device also comes in a 15” model, but I opted to stay smaller, lighter (by .6lbs), and yes… cheaper. I opted to save the $200 and spend it on a nice box of cigars.

One advancement of the newer models over my Surface Pro 4 is the USB-C port. The newer Surface Pros have them too, so that was not a factor in my decision.

For reasons I cannot figure out, WordPress is not allowing me to embed my unboxing video, so I uploaded it to YouTube and you can watch it here.

I have had my new laptop for only a few hours so I should be happy with it. As I have told so many people of late, even the lowest end laptop on the market today will be sufficient for most users, so the Intel i5 CPU with 8gb of RAM will likely be enough for my day to day needs. If I need more power then I still have my HP EliteBook with an Intel i7 and 32gb of RAM. I suspect this machine will be sufficient for most everything I do. Next week I will be traveling to deliver a course in Florida, and I will only take this machine. I suspect that traveling lighter will suit me just fine… if I do need more power, I will have Azure VMs to fall back on.

I spent more on this laptop than I needed to, but I earn my living on my laptop so I need the power and reliability. The four year Complete Care warranty cost a little extra, but the peace of mind is priceless… If my laptop dies (or falls off a cliff) in the next few years I will not be out of pocket.

I will report back as I go… Based on the reviews and feedback I heard before making my decision, I do not expect to have anything bad to say anytime soon!

Why You Need a Personal Computer If You Have A Corporate Computer

Last week without paying attention I scheduled this article to publish Monday morning, not realizing that in North America we would be celebrating Labour Day.  Almost none of my readers were in the office, and many (including myself) were relaxing by a beach somewhere.  As I expect the article was largely overlooked in lieu of late mornings and lazy afternoons, I decided to re-schedule it for this slot.  Enjoy the article! -MDG

You have a job that gives you a computer.  Maybe it’s even a laptop that they let you take home with you.  It is probably better than the old computer that you’ve been using… and maybe there isn’t even a policy at work about using your corporate computer for reasonable personal use.  Cool, right?  You can let your old computer at home gather dust and use the company’s computer for everything.

This is a really bad idea.

If you work for a company like any of the ones that I have managed then you have worked with some pretty scrupulous (i.e.: HONEST) IT Professionals.  However like every other profession, there are a lot of bad apples out there.  Here is a scenario that I hope will haunt you… or at least scare you into segregating your personal computer tasks from your corporate laptop.

The Setup

In my last article (Passwords: Beware) I wrote about some of the dangers of passwords, and especially of using catch-all passwords… in other words, the same password for many sites.  Here’s how an unscrupulous IT admin can make all of that irrelevant.

The story:

You get your shiny new laptop from work.  You use it for business… but you also use it to pay your bills, do on-line banking, connect to Facebook, and any of a thousand other tasks you do during the course of a normal week.

‘Don’t worry… your computer is secured with an Active Directory password which we forced you to make complex, and we cannot see your password or log in as you.  Of course, we could change your password… but you would know that pretty quickly the next time you tried to log on to your system and your password didn’t work.’

In most cases this statement is true… and let’s assume for the time being that it is absolute (whether it is or not).

Times are tough all over, and you have not been selling as well as you were expected to.  You are dreading that call into the boss’ office, but as you are preparing to leave the office on Friday you get the call.  ‘Please come see me for a minute.’  You lock your computer (as you have always been taught), and walk over to his office.

Of course, s/he might tell you to finish out the month, but usually this conversation officially ends your employ.  You go back to your desk to clear out your personal belongings, but if you do try to log in to your computer you will discover that your account has been locked out.

What happens next?

An honest IT Admin will back up your data, then wipe your profile and prepare the computer to be given to your replacement.

A dishonest IT Admin will change your password to something that he or she knows.  He will log on as you (and remember, he doesn’t have to sit at your old desk out in the open to do this – he can do it quietly from the comfort of his cubicle).  He will install a password recovery software (maybe the one he used to help you when you forgot your e-mail password last month).  In seconds he will have a list of every website that you have visited, your username, and your password.

It won’t take long for him to order a new credit card in your name… and maybe buy some goodies on eBay with your PayPal account.  I don’t know what else he might do, I am not that kind of guy.  But I have met people who were… and they scared me straight.

So what happens now?

Any website that is business-related won’t matter… once you have left the company they have a right to whatever data you would glean from them anyways.  If the IT Admin does anything on those sites with your credentials it will be easy to prove – ‘Hey, I was let go at 3:45pm on Friday the 13th, and that malicious post was written from my corporate laptop on Tuesday the 17th… four days after the laptop was taken from me.’

Anything that’s personal… well my friend, you should not have been using your business laptop to do your eBay shopping, or your on-line banking.  You could file a criminal complaint and you might get your money back… but by the time the cops come to investigate (and they will almost certainly never do that) they dishonest but not stupid IT Admin will have wiped the laptop clean and there will be no record of wrongdoing.

So what do I do?

Once you are in the position you are already too late; what you need to do is separate business from pleasure at the very beginning.  If you are already using your company computer for personal use then a) stop now, and b) from a personal computer change all of your on-line passwords now.

But would he really…?

I don’t know your IT Admin… Maybe he’s a good guy (or a good girl) who would never do anything like this.  But why put yourself at risk?  Take the temptation away from him or her and just don’t use your corporate computer for personal activities.

…Or you can take the risk, and then find out how frustrating it is to have to cancel credit cards and swear affidavits that the offending transactions were not yours in the faint hope that your bank will reverse the charges Smile

Surface Pro 3: Two weeks later

Are there problems with it?  Yes.

Do I absolutely love it? I love my kids and my dogs… but I suppose I do like it as much as I have ever liked a laptop or tablet… and I have had quite a few of them over the years!

What are the problems? There is really only one that you should be aware of if you are thinking of going out to buy one.  It’s the patches and the battery.

How, you may ask, do patches and batteries wind their way into a single problem?  Simple… as you probably know, everything in computers is managed by software drivers… and that includes the battery to some extent.  When you buy the device (or any device) you are prompted to apply patches, and at this point a couple of them for the Surface Pro 3 are firmware updates.  You apply the first one, and then you have a problem…

…Windows tells you there is no battery detected.  Worse, if you unplug the device it shuts off immediately.  The firmware update actually tells the computer that there is no battery installed.

BUT THERE IS! Wait a minute!  I was using it unplugged just a few minutes ago!  Where did it go?  Oh… I get it!  The pesky firmware is what screwed me up.  Let’s check to see if there is ANOTHER firmware update.  Plug it in, connect to the Internet, run Windows Update… By Jove, there it is!  Install it, and presto changeo, there’s my battery!

…and what a battery it is!  My original Surface Pro probably gave me 3 hours of battery (with Hyper-V and a bunch of other things draining it).  The Surface Pro 2 was probably closer to 5.  The Pro 3? I haven’t had it run dry on me yet… for the first time in my laptop-owning life I am not afraid to leave the house in the morning without the charger.

THE SCREEN BOSS, THE SCREEN!
(Imagine the voice of Hervé Villechaize if you would…)

Yes, there are a lot of improvements over the Surface Pro 2, but wow I never would have imaginged that the 1.4″ difference in screen size (12″ over 10.6″) would make that much of a difference.  As I told you recently I have an external 16″ screen that I keep in the trunk of my car so that I can have the dual screen experience on the go.  I don’t know that I have pulled it out once since I got the Pro 3… the combination of the slightly bigger screen and the much improved screen resolution make the extra screen redundant… at least when I am on the go.

Don’t get me wrong… the day the Pro 3 docking station is available I am buying it – I have pre-ordered it from the Microsoft Store, and I have the voucher for it (from something else I returned).  All I need is the e-mail saying it is in… and I expect that to be around the same time the remaining Surface Pro 3 models (with the Intel i3 and i7 CPUs) are released, sometime in August.  When I am at home (or an office) I will still want the multi-screen experience.  On the go?  Not necessary anymore.

A lot of people are saying I should have waited for the Intel i7 version, but the reality is I have not found myself lacking.  The Surface Pro 3 runs everything I need it to with 8GB of RAM and the Intel Core i5 CPU, and frankly I don’t want to spend the extra money (the i7 version will come in two models – 256GB storage for $1,599, and the 512GB model for $1,999.  Too rich for my blood, but thanks!

Conclusion

I am asked pretty often (including 3 minutes ago, as I sit at the Microsoft Store in Square One Mall blogging) whether the Surface Pro 3 is really a laptop replacement.  The answer, as with everything, is that it depends.  I would think that for the vast majority of people the answer is yes.  If you are a true hard-core gamer? Maybe not; there are some gamers who need more than 8gb of RAM.  If you are a coder? I have a friend who is a programmer who needs to run virtual machines running more than 8gb of RAM at all times.  (Did I mention that I LOVE the fact that it runs Hyper-V?  Well I do…). Aside from them?  I don’t know too many users – even power users – who need more than 8gb of RAM ever, not even occasionally.  For them (like myself) I would say that this is the device for you.

If you are in the Greater Toronto Area come down to the Microsoft Store at Square One or Yorkdale Malls to check it out! 🙂

Surface Pro 3 and Windows 8: Not everybody’s cup of tea

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… I do like my Surface Pro 3.  With that being said, I know everyone has different tastes, and some people are not going to like it.  A couple of months ago my sister, a long time Mac user (and Apple Fanboi) told me that her new job would be giving her a Pro 3, and asked what I thought of it.  I told her – it predated my realizing the extent of the network issues – that I loved it, and expected she would too.

Last week she e-mailed me to tell me that she really hated it.  It crashed a number of times in the first week, and she does not have the patience for these errors – she said her Macs (all of them) just work, and don’t have blue screens of death or other issues.

Now to be fair to the Surface team, a lot of the issues she outlined had to do with Windows 8.1, Microsoft Office, OneDrive, and the Microsoft Account.  I understand her frustration – if you take the device out of the equation, those are four different products from four different teams that are all supposed to work together seamlessly… but don’t.  I respect that Microsoft has a lot of different products, but if you are going to stop talking about products and start talking about solutions then you should make sure your teams work together a lot closer to make sure that seamless really is seamless.

I probably know Windows better than 99.5% of the population, and work very fluently across these four products… but one of the reasons for that is because I have come to understand that sometimes the seams between them are going to show, and like a Quebec driver I have learned better than most to navigate the potholes.  However if Microsoft really wants to stay at the top in an era where customers do want things to just work, they had better get off their butts, come down off their high horses, and start making sure that seamless really is just that.

I want to be clear… I am not trading in my devices for Macs (or Linux).  While I do have an iPhone (See article) I would just as soon have an Android or a Windows phone.  I love Windows 8.1, and even now at my office I cringe at having to work with Windows 7 (Ok, cringe is a strong word… I just wish it was Windows 8.1!).  However I have worked with iPads, Androids, Macs, and more, and I know that those solutions do make for a better experience with regard to some features than the Microsoft ecosystem.  I hope that under Satya things get better… but nearly a year into his tenure and I don’t see much progress.

In the meantime I am strongly considering going to open an account at one of the banks that is currently offering free iPad Minis to new account holders!

What’s in My … Messenger Bag?

As I have written previously I recently picked up a Microsoft Surface Pro 3, and despite a couple of minor annoyances it truly is a wonderful device.  Because I have not been traveling as much as I did over the past few years, I have taken the opportunity to downsize my carry-load. 

My sister called me a couple of weeks ago with the news that her new company device would be a Surface Pro 3, and asked me what accessories she should make sure she picks up.  We had a conversation about the keyboard, battery life, and so on.  Jennifer and I don’t speak all that often, and it was a nice excuse to talk.

Last week a friend and fellow MVP told me that his device was being delivered shortly.  He knew that I had downsized my carry load, and with that knowledge, and knowing that we have the same device, he hoped that I would take the opportunity to write a new article in my ‘What’s in Your Laptop Bag’ series. 

The first article I wrote on the subject does back to 2009, when I wrote ‘What’s In Your Laptop Bag?’  It is amazing the difference a few years made… as my priorities changed so did what I carried with me.  Back in 2009 I was carrying a full sized laptop in addition to a netbook, which at the time I thought was a good idea, and to an extent it was.  I had to carry two power supplies, mice, a power bar, external hard drives, a travel router, a headest, a digital camera… and a pack of lozenges.  Twenty-five pounds or so is the estimate I put down in that article; if truth be told it was probably a bit more than that.

A few years later – when I had a Surface Pro – I wrote the article ‘How Surface changed my thinking… and helped my shoulder.’  In it I discuss how I realized that downsizing my load could really do wonders for me… and it did.  Of course, when I went to Japan last year for nearly four months I upsized again, but only because I would be setting up a permanent system in my hotel room, and brought things like docking stations, speakers, and more.

I now find myself in August of 2014, nearly eighteen months later, and I am living a more sedentary life than I was.  As I am not traveling as much, my basic requirements are probably a lot more in line with what others need. 

We should actually start with what the bag actually is… In July of 2013 I wrote and article called ‘What IS your Laptop Bag?’  I am no longer in the business of shilling for other companies, so rather than use the branded freebies I had so many of I invested in a couple of proper cases… for the time being I am exclusively using a Briggs and Riley Messenger bag (black) that they refer to as a ‘Small Slim Vertical Brief’.  It is not exactly the one shown, but is quite similar.  It is made of a ballistic nylon fabric and has a lifetime guarantee. 

I downsized my bag for a couple of reasons, but the main one is simple… the smaller the bag, the less likely you are to pack useless crap (that will weigh you down).  As I sit as the pub with the contents of the bag emptied before me I would not go so far as to say there is nothing useless in there… but it’s still better than it was.

Device: Obviously (based on the opening of the article) I am carrying a Surface Pro 3.  I was a little worried when I bought it… the Surface Pro 2 fit perfectly, and I was worried that the larger form factor (12” instead of 10.6”) would not fit.  Fortunately it does – but barely.  Otherwise I would have to have changed out my bag, and I didn’t want to do that.

In case you are curious, yes I carry the keyboard and stylus with me, and no, it does not increase the weight noticeably when I carry the bag.

Additional Device: It’s not what you think… I said the Pro 3 was a great laptop replacement, and it is.  The additional device that I usually carry with me is a Kobo Glo e-book reader, including the magnetic case.  Of course I could read my e-books on the Surface Pro 3, but I see value in having both devices.

Cables: I carry a few different cables with me, primarily in the front pocket:

  • Micro USB cable to charge my Kobo, as well as my Nokia Lumia 920 when I am in the USA.
  • iPhone 5 cable to charge… well… yeah.
  • Mini USB cable, which is a legacy but I still carry it.  It is to connect the external USB screen that I use occasionally and which lives in the trunk of my car.
  • FitBit One Cable which charges that device.

Dongles: The downside of a smaller device is fewer ports built in, and an entire new industry – the industry of dongles – was created.

  • HDMI dongle
  • VGA dongle
  • Ethernet dongle

Logitech Wireless Presenter R400.  It’s not the newest, but it still works and is very comfortable in my hand.  If you spend any time presenting PowerPoint from your computer you will want one of these.  The newer ones all seem to be too light or two small.  I wish the R400 were Bluetooth instead of USB, but I’ll survive.

USB Keys: I currently have four of them in the bag – three for storage and when I need to transfer data, and one Windows to Go key (Windows To Go: This is going to be a game changer!).  If you wonder why I have four, I can’t answer… and in my defence, one of them is a bottle opener too 🙂

Mouse: The only problem that I had with the Microsoft Arc Mouse Touch was that it had a dongle, and took up the only USB port on the Surface.  Solution: Microsoft Arc Mouse Touch Surface Edition… Bluetooth connection, and it still folds flat for easy storage!

Ear buds: A couple of years ago I found myself in an airport without ear buds, and I picked (blind) a pair called a-JAYS Four.  I had never heard of the company and I am not quite sure why I picked them, but boy am I glad that I did.  They are comfortable, and more importantly the plug is flat (look at the picture and you’ll understand) so when I am on an airplane plugged in and stand up without paying attention I don’t wreck them.  They sound great too!

Pens: Yes, I carry pens… and use them all the time.  The nicer of the two is made of (or made to look like) a printed circuit board, and was a gift from my friends Rick and Isolina.

…and that’s it.  I have a few papers, I usually have some guest passes for Taekwondo to give out, and maybe a cigar… but there’s nothing else.  It makes for a much lighter load than I used to schlep… I remember dragging my Lenovo Carbon X1 behind me when I was in Japan… it was not that much bigger (14” instead of 12”) but because I had the bigger bag I always stuffed more into it than I needed, hence the shoulder pain.

But what’s missing?  You may have noticed (or not) that I did not list a power supply on the list… I don’t carry it with me.  I charge it overnight, but I have only run out of juice once in the last month.  Now it is worth mentioning that I am have been between contracts since I picked it up, and have been able to work at either Starbucks or the Niblick Pub for six to seven hours before having to go home.  I am starting a new contract next week, and if I end up using my own device then I will bring the power supply with me… or more likely the docking station which is coming out in the next couple of weeks (yes, I have pre-ordered one… first time ever).  I do have a power supply in the car, but it is still sealed in the box, and I might just return it because I never use it.  We’ll see!

What does it weigh? Honestly I don’t know… but probably around 6lbs… or roughly equivalent to the weight of the primary device I carried when I wrote the first ‘What’s in Your Laptop Bag’ article.  One thing is certain, I don’t worry about it hurting my shoulder as I used to, and I never worry about airlines making me gate-check it 🙂

Conclusion

The truth is that I need very little with this device… the dongles are important, and the USB keys, cables, mouse, and ear buds are really all I need.  Everything else that I might need in a hotel room – external speaker, VGA cable, and so on – can go in my suitcase when I travel.  What do you need?  I don’t know… but I hope this article will help you with the bare essentials!

Battery Up: Windows 8.1 on the Surface Pro 2

IMG_0031I have already bragged about the Surface Pro 2, and I still love it and that has not changed.  It took a lot for it to supplant my Lenovo X1 Carbon as my primary device (my original Surface Pro was always simply a companion device).  The device rocks, simply put.

One thing that I don’t particularly care for (and this is an issue with Windows and not with the Surface) is that the battery life indicator is wonky.  For example, a few minutes ago it told me that I have 10% of my battery left, or 25 minutes.  By that simple math, the theory is that the battery is good for 250 minutes – or a little under five hours.

IMG_0088That means I’ve already gotten five hours out of it, and there’s a bit under 30 minutes to go.  By my math that’s 5.5 hours right there.  I also know that I used it last night for an hour and did not charge it since… that makes 6.5 hours, not to mention that I have also used it today to charge my smartphone as well as my Kobo book reader.

I did not list my X1 Carbon for sale on eBay because I don’t like it… I really do, it is a spectacular device.  (If you would like to buy it by all means the bidding is open! http://www.ebay.com/itm/201053760576?ssPageName=STRK:MESELX:IT&_trksid=p3984.m1555.l2649)  I am selling it because I do not need two nearly identical devices (as far as specs go).  The Lenovo has a 14″ multi-touch screen, and the keyboard does not detach.  I have the docking station for the Surface Pro, and when I am at my home office it automatically connects to two 21″ monitors.  When I am on the road (I am almost ALWAYS on the road) it is still a comfortable high-definition screen that will double as a tablet when I detach the keyboard.

My Lenovo came along with me wherever I went… along with it came whatever else I would pack into my Briggs and Riley rolling laptop bag… my ultrabook that weighs less than 4lbs ended up weighing in at 25-30lbs on a regular basis, just for what went with it.  My Surface, on the other hand, goes into a much smaller messenger bag, which in turn weighs less than 10lbs when completely filled… and carries everything that I need, rather than everything I think I might need.  Smaller bag, less weight, better on the back.

Add to that the battery life of over six hours, and that it runs Windows 8.1 with Hyper-V and all that entails, and I don’t see the need for another device… at least not now.  I am sticking with the Surface Pro, and hope to recuperate the entire price of the device when I sell off the Lenovo!

Mitch… Disconnected

So you are one of the world’s most hyper-connected individuals, known for having the Internet at your disposal 24/7.  You are scheduled to work with a customer overseas on their connected system via live link, and you have dozens of other things that you usually do / plan to do / want to do during your five day stay in Montreal… and you realize too late that you forgot all of your computers at home.  What do you do?

In my last article, Disconnecting Mitch, I outlined how it happened.  That was the situation – I was halfway from Toronto (Oakville) to Montreal when the realization hit me, and I was scrambling to figure out how I was going to manage.  The initial reason I had pulled off the road was to send an e-mail, but that was easy enough to do from my smartphone.  The rest was going to be challenging. 

As you probably suspect I don’t simply use my computer in one place… I carry it with me, and pull it out in places such as cafés (as is the case right now).  I also had my Kobo e-reader in my messenger bag, so I was not only disconnected, I was missing my books as well.

My first thought was to call Theresa and ask her to ship it to me overnight.  I couldn’t imagine how much that would cost, but it would not be nearly as much as losing two days of work.  However I knew that Theresa was in meetings all day, and to ask her to drop everything to run home, get my computer, run to FedEx, and ship it would have been asking a lot… not to mention the fact that it still would not help me with that evening’s meeting.  Okay, that was not a viable option.

I had to think.  I would be staying at my parents’ place in Montreal… not helpful; my mother does have a laptop, but it was in Florida with her for the winter.  My father had previously discussed buying a computer or tablet for himself, but not very seriously, and anyways that would not happen in time for my 8:00pm meeting.  He had one at his office of course, but I am reasonably sure it was a desktop, and there was no way I would ask him to bring it home with him.  I still have friends in Montreal, many of whom would gladly let me use their computers.  However I would need it for 6-7 hours overnight, and unless they were going to let me take it back to my parents’ place with me that would be a real imposition.

Of course I immediately posted my predicament on Facebook… for some reason that is where nut jobs turn to complain when they do something stupid these days, so why should this nut job be any different?  I wrote that I had forgotten my system at home, and did any of my Montreal peeps have a system they could loan me for my stay?  I did not hold out hope for this – for the simple reason that I have never seen anything posted to Facebook actually solve a problem.  It turns out, as it happens, that one friend did see it and offer to help… only it was on the week-end, well pas the required date.

I took a step back and examined the situation.  What exactly did I need a computer for during my stay in Montreal?  I would say that first and foremost my computer is usually for e-mail, Twitter, blogging, and the like… but I could live without blogging for a few days (I know I know, you had already noticed that), and I could use my phone for e-mail and Twitter (along with Facebook, sporadic web surfing, and even reading on my Kobo reader).  The main reason I needed a computer was for those collaborative web meetings I would have with Tokyo.  Of course I might want to do a little writing while I was there…

…It occurred to me that I didn’t really need any software on the computer, I only needed to have a computer running Windows.  It would not have to be big and powerful, it did not have to have 8 GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD or the latest Intel CPU… it needed to run Windows, period.

Naughty thoughts started racing through my head.  It occurred to me that in this day and age a lot of stores have very liberal return policies.  I felt dirty and dishonest… was I really the type of person to go into a store to buy an item knowing I was planning on returning it four days later?  I really didn’t want to… but what choice did I have?

I was going to write that I planned to compromise.  I was going to write that I was going to buy a system at one of the big box stores, and if it was everything that I wanted I would either keep it, or sell it, or whatever.  In short, I was going to lie.  The truth is that I knew as I stood at the electronics counter at Wal-Mart that my tenure of ownership of the Acer laptop that I was buying would not outlast many cricket matches.  I asked the clerk about several features of the computer that she could not possibly have known (does this model include Windows 8.1 U1, which was not yet publicly available), and was the touch screen capacitive (the screen was not a touch screen), and was the USB port LPT-compatible (really? c’mon!)).  After three or four ‘Uhhhh…’ answers I simply said ‘I’ll tell you what… just let me know what the return policy is, and if it doesn’t do everything I need I will bring it back.’  I paid for it (No, I don’t think I will need the extended warranty coverage…) and headed back to my parents’ place.

The 17” monster was reasonably light, but that was irrelevant, as it was to be a stationary desktop for the next few days.  I didn’t have an external mouse for it, and as it did not have a touch screen I knew I would be stuck with the dreaded track pad all week-end.  No matter, it was better than not having it at all.  I installed Skype and LiveMeeting (one of which proved ineffective due to bandwidth limitations), and that was it… for the first time that I could ever recall I bought a computer and did not apply patches, I did not download Windows Essentials, I didn’t even install anti-malware. 

For any site on the Internet that I would authenticate to (e-mail, etc…) I used InPrivate Browsing.  For everything else I honestly did not care if it tracked my cookies or my browsing patterns.  It wasn’t a very comfortable experience – I hated the computer, missed my touch screen, mouse, and everything else I love about my own devices – but I was able to do everything that I needed to do… if not everything that I might have wanted to do.  It did not come with me to cafés… in fact, when I left the house I did so with empty hands.  My friend Jessica, with whom I had dinner and then coffee Saturday evening, commented that it was refreshing to see me without a device.  Of course I had my phone…  but that was about it.

Sunday morning I repacked the computer into the original box, made sure I had the original receipt, and trudged back to Wal-Mart.  I was relieved that there was no line at the Customer Service counter, and the young lady who assisted me asked if I was going to try to find another computer, or if I just wanted my refund.  I told her I was going to hold off, so if she could just refund my credit card I would appreciate it.  After checking that all of the pieces were what they were supposed to be and that there was no physical damage she did just that, and wished me well.  I thanked her, and commended Wal-Mart for the hassle-free experience.

I felt bad that I had taken advantage of the major retailer, and decided that before leaving I would at least spend a few dollars there.  I bought a pack of green-apple licorice and a case of water for the ride home, and that was it… I headed out, poorer by one computer and richer by about $500 and some licorice than I had been.  My work with my customer in Tokyo had been a success, and I was able to focus on my drive back to Oakville.

When I got home I was greeted at the door by two rambunctious dogs who always miss me, whether I am gone for an hour or a month.  Past the dogs I got to spend a couple of hours with my sons.  It was great to be home.  However once they were in bed, I secreted down to my office and pulled out my Surface Pro 2.  It was not only because I had a meeting – I did.  However after five long days without my technology, it was nice to be reunited with a device I called my own.

Am I a geek?  You bet I am!

Neither a Snob Nor an Elitist…

Briggs In response to a series of articles I wrote recently about my laptop bags (What IS your laptop bag) and about my luggage (The Price of Quality) I was recently called an elitist snob.  “Mitch, it is fine that you want to spend hundreds of dollars on your laptop bags, but in all fairness you are given most of your bags, and most of your readers have to buy their own, and investing hundreds of dollars for Briggs and Riley, Ogio, and Brenthaven is just not worth the money to most of us.’

I obviously understand how this reader feels.  I am not ignorant to the costs, and do realize that even $100 is a lot to spend on a laptop bag.  With that being said, shortly after writing those articles I decided to buy two new laptop bags – both Briggs and Riley – for my trip to Japan.  For one thing I knew that I wouldn’t be able to simply switch out my bags as desired here – I didn’t want to bring more that I had to – and also I wanted to come into my client’s office without blatantly advertising for Microsoft – or for anyone else for that matter.

I was not going to respond to comment.  After all, it was said to me by someone in passing, and mostly tongue in cheek.  However this afternoon, as I walked from my hotel the my office, I was reminded why I would rather spend money on a good bag then buy a cheap one.  As I walked through the bus terminal in front of my hotel a gentleman was walking the other way, laptop bag over his shoulder.  When we were about fifteen feet apart when I saw the strap of his shoulder strap snap – more accurately, the clip that connected the bag to the strap did.  The gentleman was walking at a bit of a clip, and try as he might to catch it, we both watched on helplessly as his bag smashed to the pavement and bounced a couple of times.

He picked it up, and just as I would have he opened it up to see what damage was done to his laptop.  As I expected the screen was shattered, and that was even before he could check to see if the hard drive or motherboard were damaged.  I felt bad for the guy, and hoped that a) it was a corporate laptop, and b) that there would not be any severe repercussions to damaging it.  I do know that losing a corporate laptop is a severe offense, but that is primarily because of corporate data.

The deja vu was immediate, strong, in my face.  I was transported back to the day that my customer’s daughter asked me for a favour.

Nearly ten years ago I was still an SMB consultant in Montreal, and I had a client that manufactured suits.  At the time they were one of the most respected names in men’s suits in Canada – although I was glad to have them as a client, I could never have afforded one of their suits.  Michael, one of the two brothers who owned the company had hired me to review their infrastructure.  However on this particular day his daughter was in with her brand new laptop that she had spent the last week infecting with malware.  She was livid that her $3000 laptop was running so slowly.  I couldn’t blame her… except I knew what the problem was. After consulting with her father she asked if I would mind taking it with me to clean up from my office.  No problem.

She packed the laptop away in her carrying case and handed it to me.  I headed to my car because I had another appointment – a meeting with a colleague.  We were going to meet at the Place Vertu Shopping Centre for coffee.  I arrived at the mall early, and decided that I would take the laptop with me, both because I hated leaving anything of value in the car, but also because since I was early I could start working on it while waiting for Adam.  I locked the car and slung the very inexpensive carrying case over my shoulder.  As I was walking through the mall towards the cafe it happened… without warning my shoulder became much lighter as the strap broke and the laptop bag crashed to the floor.

I was mortified.  I knew not only how proud she was of her laptop, but also how much she (read: her father) had spent on it.  They had both made a point of calling attention to the fact when I was in the office, either to show off (more likely) or possibly to remind me to be careful with it (less likely).  I immediately snatched it up and ran to the cafe.  When I opened it up my worst fears were realized… the screen was smashed and shattered.Broken Screen

While they have come down in price since, at the time the replacement cost of a 17” laptop screen was well over $1000.  I know this because after my meeting with Adam I went back to my office and called the manufacturer, who quoted me the price.  It would take me several days to earn back that money, and I was living on a shoestring budget as it was (this was when I was still supporting myself AND my ex-wife).

That afternoon was quite unproductive.  I spent most of the time in my office lamenting the predicament I was in.  But then I realized the dichotomy: Why would someone spend $3000 on a laptop, only to carry it around in a $15 case?  This was a very delicate (and relative to modern laptops heavy) piece of expensive equipment.  Why wouldn’t the owner (who needed all of that horsepower like a fish needs a bicycle) not spend the extra $75-$100 to get a proper case that was meant to support it.

Two phone calls that day saved my bacon.  The first was to the company that imported the bag.  They were a local company, and somehow I got in touch with someone there who had the authority to realize that they might be liable.  They agreed to work with me to cover at least some of the costs.  The second call, once that was done, was to the manufacturer.  I told them what happened, and when I read off the serial number they told me not to worry, the owners had bought the complete care warranty.  In the technician’s words, ‘If someone throws their laptop off their balcony into the swimming pool and then shoots it through with a 12-gauge shotgun, it would still be fixed or replaced at no cost.’  He scheduled a technician to meet me at the client’s offices the next morning.

I was relieved.  I was thrilled.  I was elated!  I also decided, right then and there, that forevermore I would never again skimp on carrying cases for laptops.  I wouldn’t throw them in a gym bag, I wouldn’t buy cheap crap.  I would always make sure that I bought high quality bags, and recommend to others that they do the same.

So to my friend, colleague, and reader I say this: I am not an elitist, nor am I a snob.  I am a pragmatist who knows that spending a little more can save you a lot more in the long run.  For me it has never been about style, fashion, or bragging rights – anyone mildly familiar with my wardrobe would laugh at those options anyways – but rather about practicality – how comfortable and utilitarian the bag is, as well as how well protected, and most importantly how well made.

With that my friends, it is Friday and I want to wish you all a great day, and a wonderful week-end.

What IS your Laptop Bag?

**NOTE: The links in this article have been fixed. -M

I have been in a bit of a ‘writing rut’ of late and I am sorry for that.  This week I sat down and decided to write something… anything.  While I am working on a few technical issues these days none of them are very inspirational, so to break my rut I decided to write a piece about something completely different! -M

Forrest Gump: Those must be comfortable shoes, I bet you could walk all day in shoes like those and not feel a thing.

Nurse: My feet hurt.

Forrest Gump: My momma always said you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes, where they go, where they’ve been. I’ve worn lots of shoes, I bet if I think about it real hard I can remember my first pair of shoes.

In this day and age of mobility it is easy to imagine an alternate version of the opening scene of the classic movie:

Forrest: That looks like a comfortable laptop bag.  I bet you could carry that laptop bag all day and not feel a thing.

Nurse: My back hurts.

Forrest: My momma said you could tell a lot about a person by their laptop bag… where they go, where they work.  I’ve carried a lot of laptop bags.  I bet if I think about it real hard I can remember my first laptop bag…

I am spoiled… I admit it.  I have indeed carried a lot of laptop bags, and to the best of my recollection I have never paid for one.  The first one I had was a leather Targus bag that came with my very first laptop (a Gateway 486 model that I bought second-hand) and was completely mismatched to my circumstances… it must have looked amusing to people to see me traveling on the train with an M-16 assault rifle and a leather laptop bag – back in the days when most people did not have laptops!

My second foray into mobile computing was with a Toshiba Satellite A70.  It was (at the time) blindingly fast, with a Pentium 4 processor.  It was also purchased used, and fittingly was going to go right into the old Targus bag when a friend stepped in and gave to me a TechNet branded laptop bag that he had won at an event.  I was thrilled – at the time I thought there was a cool factor associated with carrying the Microsoft branded bag!  I was so proud of it, not realizing it would be one in a long string of bags…

That was in 2005, and in the eight years since I have likely gone through three dozen bags.  Some of them were event-branded (WPC 2012 & six consecutive TechEd North Americas), others were product-branded (you can imagine the number of Windows bags I have gone through, including Windows Server, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, SBS, Microsoft Office, and more).  A few of them were branded by different teams or divisions within Microsoft (Microsoft Learning, System Center, MSN, MSDN, TechNet) and a few were branded by other companies (HP and Dell have given me bags, but one of my current favorites is Veeam).

The Microsoft MVP program has contributed more than a few to the collection, including a messenger bag I rather liked (but whose shape was not entirely compatible with the laptops I owned), a nylon briefcase-type bag that I think my wife is currently using, and most recently a backpack branded Microsoft as well as the MVP logo, this time in red (instead of the usual blue) and a Canadian maple leaf. 

I have, as a STEP presenter as well as a Virtual Technology Evangelist, been given bags to give away… they are always a popular giveaway item, and the branding is almost as important as the design/style.

With all of the discussion about branding one might think that all I care about is that the bags are free or cool.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Functionality and comfort are frankly the only things that really matter to me in a laptop bag… and while it may sound strange, I have narrowed my ‘everyday use bags’ down to four, depending on where I am going and for what.  The winners are:

1) Ogio Module (branded Windows 8)

I am not going to say that my Microsoft Surface Pro saved my back, but it really did go a long way to my rethinking my load, down to the bag that I carried.  The messenger bag that one of the product teams gave me a few months ago has room for two Surfaces (the Pro and the RT) plus a ring binder (I still take notes by hand, and having the notebook with me ensures that I can continue to do so even when told to turn off my devices.  In addition I carry a single power charger for the two devices (one might run out of juice, but never two at a time), a Microsoft Wedge Touch Mouse (not my favorite mouse, but compact and Bluetooth), a stylus, my video dongles, a micro-USB cable, and my a-Jays Four earphones.  That’s it.  The fact that the bag doesn’t have room for anything else ensures that this slung messenger bag will never weigh more than 5lbs… a relief when I am on the go!

I have, by the way, gotten more than a few comments about this bag.  Whatever its advantages may be, there is one downside… it looks like a murse!  I have had to explain to numerous people that it was actually a messenger bag, and I was not trying to make any sort of metrosexual statement with it… not that there’s anything wrong with that 😉

2) Brenthaven Prostyle Lite Expandable SC (branded Microsoft Learning)

Unlike many of the laptop bags that I have gone through, this is a subtler, classical briefcase-type bag, rather than the larger backpacks that are very popular these days.  I got it as a present from Microsoft Learning at WPC in 2012, and love it for the subtlety of it (the branding is black on black, so hardly noticeable), as well as the size – while it easily fits my 14” X1 Carbon laptop, its size and design are not conducive to carrying much more than the necessities.  It has space for a mouse (currently a Microsoft Explorer Touch Mouse), the charger cable, and not much else (unless I want/need to expand it by unzipping… which I seldom do).

When I am close to home and need the power of the X1 Carbon over the compactness of my Surface Pro I will carry this bag, although it is not uncommon for me to take both with me… the two combined still weigh less than my old laptop bags, and I can distribute the weight across both shoulders.

3) Wenger Swiss Army Scan Smart Backpack (co-branded Windows Server 2012 and Veeam)

The backpack is bigger than my previous two choices, and when I am traveling this can be important… when getting onto an airplane I may not need my external hard drives and other sensitive equipment on board, but at the same time I will never again trust an airline to check my fragile equipment (thanks to a mishap in Saskatoon) so I make sure that anything delicate is in my carry-on.

The laptops that I carry with me may not change, but when I travel I carry a lot of things that I wouldn’t need at the office… a docking station, speaker and cables to connect to watch movies in the hotel (as well as an external DVD player), cameras, and a bunch of other stuff.  I also put a couple of non-IT related things in the bag – namely my Black Belt and Taekwondo uniform top (I can easily buy a pair of track pants, but replacing the top and belt is impossible).

Depending on the length of my stay in one place, once I get to the hotel I usually unpack the backpack and continue on with the messenger bag or briefcase (which I will have packed into my suitcase).  One advantage of this system is that by emptying the bag every time I can reevaluate the importance of the odds and ends in the bag, allowing me to shed unwanted weight.

4) Ogio Terminal (branded Windows & Microsoft MVP)

This really is a ‘last but not least.’  In truth it is (by far) the largest of the four, and is only used for one specific purpose: My traveling datacenter.  When I am teaching my Private Cloud class (or one of the many IT Camps that I deliver for Microsoft Canada) I need to carry a pair of 15” laptops with me, plus the chargers and other cables needed for the deliveries.  Each laptop weighs about 9lbs before the massive chargers are taken into account, and while checking these systems is unconceivable, so is any bag that is not on wheels.

The fortunate bit is that I usually have enough space in this bag to place all of the extras that I would usually need the backpack for, so I will often travel with this bag and my Ogio Module bag.  Because it is designed to fly it fits into the overhead space of most airplanes, and for the exceptions I am glad to gate-check it because I will see it being loaded on and then off-loaded from the baggage area.

Brands

My laptop bags may all be freebies (as was my golf bag and a few others lying around) but when it comes to actual luggage I am a lot pickier… although this is a reasonably new phenomenon.

I remember one of my suitcases falling apart after a long tour.  My wife was in the US visiting family and I asked her to pick up a new suitcase for me while she was down there.  When she told me what she had spent I was floored… until I realized that there really are better suitcases.  What she came back with were two Briggs and Riley Baseline suitcases.  My friend and colleague Jay Ferron had bragged about his before, how they were not quite indestructible but it didn’t matter because the company would fix or replace any suitcase (even if it was damaged by an airline) for free. 

Since then I have decided for myself that I will never go back to cheap luggage.  The quality is obvious, and for the number of miles I travel in a year (over 100,000) whether by plane, train, automobile, or boat, I do not want to have to worry about any luggage failures.  After nearly four years both cases have a couple of dings, and before my next big trip I will likely have to send them in… but not to worry, I know it won’t cost me anything to have them restored to nearly-new condition.

Impressions

The bags one carries says a lot about a person.  When I tweeted that I was working on this article a colleague commented that the contents say more… but unless the person is willing to let you rifle through the contents of his bag, it is the bag itself that will give you the impression.  What impression you want to give is up to you. 

When choosing a bag you should remember that it will be a part of you – and your appearance – for years to come.  Do you want to look practical, professional, stylish?  Do you want to look ergonomical or economical?  Do you have to carry a heavier load… remember that even if you are strong and in good shape this may have long-term effects on your back and posture.  However if your bag is too small it might require you to replace it.

Protection – don’t leave home without it!

Fashion versus practicality is an interesting conundrum for many, but as I am seldom seen as a fashionable guy I don’t worry about colours or style, only look and feel (and practicality).  Although I would never tell someone to buy a $90 brand name shirt over a $40 no-name shirt, I will say that there are cheap laptop bags that feel cheap, and end up costing you in the end because you have to replace it. 

It is also important that the bag you select protects your gear.  Several years ago I had a customer who bought his daughter a $3000 laptop and a $15 laptop bag.  She asked me to take it to my office to clean it out (it was severely infected) so she packed it all up in her bag and gave it to me.  As I walked out of their office to my car the carrying strap snapped, the bag fell to the ground, and aside from a few dents on the screen I suspected the hard drive might have been damaged; unfortunately we couldn’t verify this because the 17” screen was smashed into little pieces.  It cost $1500 to fix, and would never have happened with a decent bag.

Conclusion

When I got my first laptop in 1996 there wasn’t the same variety in laptop bags that you have today.  They were black or grey, and essentially came in one general size.  Today with laptops outnumbering desktop PCs (and tablets set to overtake laptops in the not-so-distant future) there is a bag for everyone – colour, design, style, whatever you want.  However when you go shopping for your bag remember that it will be a part of you whenever you take your system with you.  Most of us do not change our laptop bag every time we change our clothes, so buying a bag because ‘it goes well with that outfit’ may make sense right now, but unless you can afford (and want!) a bag to match every outfit then practicality should win the day.

You might buy something that matches your personality… there are designer bags of course.  I would worry less about a bag going out of style in a year or two because that may be the lifespan of the bag anyways.  Buy something that you like, that holds (and protects) your gear, and that you won’t be uncomfortable carrying wherever you go.  If you opt for wheels remember that your laptop doesn’t like all of the jarring vibrations of city streets so you might buy an extra protective sleeve to double-up.

In short just make sure it works for you… good laptop bags are not cheap and should not be looked upon as disposable.  Give it the same consideration you would a pair of every day shoes… try it out, make sure it fits and is comfortable, and make sure it is what you like.  Nobody else has to carry it!

How Surface changed my thinking… and helped my shoulder

I travel heavy.  When going through airport security it is not uncommon for me to pull three or four laptops out of two laptop bags.  In addition to that I will have external hard drives, a plethora of cables, and all sorts of other junk.  It has resulted in very strong – albeit often aching – shoulders to be sure.  It is a habit I have been in for a couple of years because of the way I work.  When touring for IT Camps I often have to add two seventeen inch laptops weighing in at over ten pounds each (plus the power bricks for same, a network switch and such), that I take with me in a roller-board suitcase.

I never gave much thought to how heavy my laptop bag really was because I didn’t really have a choice.  It’s just the way things were – a reality of life.

Last week I wrote that I picked up my new Surface Pro tablet.  I was excited that I would be taking it with me for my first business trip of the year – a couple of days in Edmonton for an IT Camp followed by a week in Redmond for MVP Summit.  As I prepared for the trip I grabbed my backpack, filled it with my usual kit PLUS my two Surfaces.  As usual I decided I needed a second laptop bag; I transferred my HP EliteBook tablet to that bag, and added whatever else I needed.  I then thought to myself that my Surface Pro was almost as powerful as the EliteBook, and with my recent back and shoulder issues (resulting from a recent motor vehicle accident) I decided to leave the EliteBook (plus its cables) behind.  I saved nearly nine pounds when you count the cables and docking station that I always take for trips of over three nights.

On the way to Edmonton I started writing a review of the Surface Pro, but had a lot of trouble doing so.  Why?  Over the course of my career in IT I have gone through a series of laptops of increasing power and performance as my needs increased and the prices dropped.  Although I have always had and used a number of them simultaneously I have always had one that was my primary – the most recent of which was my HP EliteBook 2740p.  It has 8GB RAM, an Intel Core i7 CPU, and a 256GB solid state drive.  The best compliment that I can give the Surface Pro is that it has thus far adequately replaced that device for all but my most intensive needs – tasks for which I need more than 4GB RAM.  The device is comfortable and easy to use.  For a hardcore user like myself the greatest compliment I can give it is that it is adequate to my needs, thank you very much.  So much of the failed piece I wrote was about the size, and how it lightened my load… somewhat.

Sitting in my hotel room that night I looked at the two bags as I rubbed analgesic gel into my shoulder.  One of my bags was lighter… I decided to try an experiment.  I emptied both laptop bags onto the desk, making sure all that was left in either of them was a pile of business cards.  I examined the contents, and then went to work.  I started by putting the Surface Pro into its individual case and stopped… the case has weight, and the Surface is well protected in the bag anyways.  Of course the power adapter went with it, followed by a 4-port USB hub, an external hard drive (1.5TB – I could have saved a few ounces by downsizing to a 500GB… a thought for when I get home).  I then put in my video dongles – DV to VGA, DV to HDMI – and my Jabra Puck (because I watch a lot of movies in hotels).  An external mouse – not necessary but certainly makes life more comfortable, but I removed the wireless notebook presenter mouse and replaced it with a lighter Microsoft Arc Mouse Touch which folds flat.  I will only use it when I have the USB hub plugged in because if the dongle – I wish it was Bluetooth!  My sunglasses, an eyeglass cloth (great for glasses AND touch screens!) and that was it.  I put everything else (including the Surface RT in the case) into my backpack, which I left in the hotel when I went into the office the next day.

At the airport check-in counter this morning I decided to weigh the two bags.

Brenthaven briefcase with the essentials: 7lbs.

Ogio backpack with the extraneous: 14lbs.

Could I really cut my travel load by 20lbs by swapping out my HP for the Surface and then eliminating the extras? I was shocked… and thrilled!  The Surface might really save my shoulders and back.

Of course there will still be times when I will have to take my heavier laptops with me… I am not retiring the roller board just yet because sometimes it really is needed.  However by cutting the waste I will have an easier time getting to – and through and from – the airport, office, and so on.

A few years ago I wrote an article detailing what I carried in my laptop bag at the time (https://garvis.ca/2009/07/20/what%e2%80%99s-in-your-laptop-bag/).  Looking back at what I carried then versus what I carry today is amazing.  I only wish I had weighed that bag so I could see a real comparison with my new lightened load.  I never realized it, but I was carrying a load equivalent to a toddler everywhere I went.  Now my bag weighs the same as a newborn… only nowhere near as cute Smile

The Surface made me sit down and evaluate needs versus wants and nice-to-haves.  It is probably a good idea to do that every few months – you never know how much you can save!

Office 365–Complex or Options?

Last week Microsoft officially launched its cloud-based infrastructure offering, Office 365.  As a virtual insider I have been using this solution for the past six months for my IT consulting firm, and frankly had forgotten that it was a beta offering.  That is because while the packaging may be new, all of the applications – both client- and server-side – are mature products that released to manufacturing long since.

I am not surprised by the number of negative reviews; the different offerings and price points are complicated to understand, owing to the sheer number of them.  For the do-it-yourself guy who is not very technical it may be difficult setting up the DNS records properly.  Some of the features available in the rich client versions are not available in the on-line applications.

While I may disagree with some of the criticism I want to be clear that I share your pain; this morning I finally opened the e-mail that essentially said that ‘The Office 365 beta program is over; we hope you have enjoyed using it… now it’s time to start paying for it!’ I was disappointed that there was no link in the e-mail that would lead me to where I could do that.

When I did log into my management site (portal.microsoftonline.com) I was greeted with a simple, discrete line up top reminding me that I had 42 days remaining in my free trial subscription.  I was pleased by this because it takes the pressure off somewhat… until I click ‘Buy now’ and am told immediately that I need the E3 level subscription for my company. 

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Fortunately a closer read let me know that I had other options… I have already purchased the Office Professional clients for my computers, so that would save me a ton of money.  So now I had to look at my other options:

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These are the bundles available… but there are so many components, what if I only want to pick and choose the ones I want?

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What… there’s more?  Wow, keep scrolling!

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Ok at least I am near the end… all I have to do is expand Additional Services and I’ll know everything…

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All of a sudden this is looking daunting and expensive… maybe I should just buy a license of Windows Small Business Server 2011 to run my infra… wait a minute!  I had one of those ‘smack my forehead’ moments.  Doesn’t Microsoft usually put together special packaging and pricing for small businesses?  Certainly the six of us who use our corporate e-mail (and SharePoint, and and and) would qualify as an SMB… let’s see if I can find that anywhere on the page…

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Okay, let’s click here and see what turns up…

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Now wait a minute… $6/month per user?  There has to be a catch… scrolling down I see this plan offers me all of the services I need (and still many that I don’t)… I am still looking for a catch!

I haven’t found one… If you have the Office client (which I do) or are willing to use on-line apps (which have most but not all of the functionality, and have the pesky disadvantage of not being available on airplanes) then smaller organizations are in luck. $72 per user/year is not a lot considering the time I would have to spend installing, configuring, and maintaining my own Exchange and SharePoint servers.

So what about the confusing options for Enterprise?  There are absolutely a lot of choices.  There are people who will always say that Microsoft can’t get anything right, and the people who poo poo these editions and tiers are the same people who would complain that if they had fewer choices they would be restricted in their options.

For smaller businesses it is a no brainer, and for larger organizations they will have to sit down and plan what options they need.  Does Office 365 need more thought than competitive options?  Sure… but it also offers more choice.

Mitch Visits One Police Plaza

A couple of weeks ago one attendee was a detective with the NYPD, and he offered to take me behind the scenes at One Police Plaza so that I could take a look at a few of the units that use information technology (IT) for a lot more than just paperwork and filing.

I had read about Detective Travis Rapp and his involvement with the Real Time Crime Center, which was our first stop.  Respectful to the television portrayals of this and similar units, it really is something to see.  From here police from anywhere in the city can call in and get information and support tracking suspects.  Imagine a thirty foot monitor controlled by a pit of computers manned by detectives who are expert in tracking suspects, licenses, cell-phones, weapons… and more importantly how these all fit together – where a suspect’s car and cell-phone are the suspect is surely not far, and if he (or she) has a history of weapons and/or violence may be the difference between officers being injured or coming away from an arrest safe.  I couldn’t help but think that if I was a ‘perp’ I wouldn’t want these systems (and the people who make it work!) on my trail…

Next we stopped in Computer Crimes, and I got to meet some of the skilled detectives who handle computers confiscated during arrests or seizure.  For obvious reasons I won’t disclose any of the tools of the trade that they use (many of which are discussed in some of my classes but some are not!) but as a veteran of the forensic side of IT I am suitably impressed by the professionalism of the team.  It is easy to imagine a room filled with geeks with thick glasses and pocket protectors.  The first thing I noticed when entering the back room was that they were first and foremost cops… badges, side-arms, and all.  Later I asked Detective Rapp as we discussed some of the stars of the team (of which he is a veteran) if the NYPD trained most of them from scratch, or did they look for officers with a background in IT.  I couldn’t imagine having a high success rate trying to train beat-cops to do what these people do.  At the same time I want to reiterate that these are all professionals, and there are no ‘former criminal hackers’ in the group.  Sorry Kevin, you’ll have to look elsewhere for your next job J

The last stop we made (I’m skipping a few floors) was the garage where we took cruiser Unit 1956 out for a spin – not a ‘ride-along’ that some people would crave, but a spin of the Panasonic Toughbook laptop that each cruiser has, and the software and communications tools they use to give every mobile unit another advantage on the job, whether chasing down suspects or issuing traffic citations.

The new DataMaxx software package that each unit has revolutionized the mobile unit, and seeing it in action was interesting; however the part that most appealed to me was that Detective Rapp would be making a video, user manual, and PowerPoint deck to train officers in the tool.

I should mention that Mo, who is responsible for deploying these ToughBooks, has done a brilliant job of locking them down.  He uses Microsoft Deployment Toolkit to create, manage, and deploy the images, customizing them and locking them down – both in the CMOS (blocking USB and such) and in the image itself.  He knows that a locked-down user environment not only prevents users from installing software – by definition in a secure, well-managed infrastructure unsanctioned – but also prevents tampering; both of these result in a more stable environment over the long term. 

In order to create the training materials that were required we used one of my favorite must-have tools – TechSmith’s SnagIt.  Even though you can screen-shot individual app windows with Windows 7, the SnagIt tool adds incredible functionality – editing, resizing, adding effects, and much more – before sending the image directly to either Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, or an e-mail (either as an attachment or an embedded image).

For the document Detective Rapp was creating he needed the screen shots sent to Word, but would eventually be creating the PowerPoint deck as well.  SnagIt maintains the screenshots in memory so that you can reuse them over and over – after exporting them to Word we could then export several captures shots to different slides or, even better, to a build-slide with animation.  The images will be properly sized and positioned automatically, all thanks to SnagIt and without having to resize and adjust any of the images in PowerPoint (which is not difficult, only more work).

The next step of building the training material will likely be to record training videos of the system, for which Detective Rapp will likely rely on another TechSmith tool, Camtasia Studio.  Unfortunately that will happen after I have left, but I know that he will have no problems with it because I have used the tool before and you have heard me rave about how easy and powerful it is.

As I walked back to my hotel from 1PP I couldn’t help but think that when they talk about ‘New York’s Finest’ they are not only talking about the bravest… they have some of the finest IT forensics and cyber-crimes people, some fine Windows Deployment guys, and use some fine tools all around.  For security reasons I only mention two of them in this piece (Microsoft Deployment Toolkit and TechSmith SnagIt).  I felt safer knowing that if they had taken the time to make sure they used the right tools for their IT, they were probably using the right tools for feet-on-the-ground law enforcement as well. 

Stay safe out there guys… New York’s Finest indeed!

Troubleshooting MDT Scripts

I have a Windows 7 Deployment Point DVD that I created using the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2010 for a client, and it has been a godsend during the past ten days.  Because the client wants to make copies to send to their remote locations around the country, I spent a couple of hours scripting as much as I could so that the process would be as simple as possible for the end-users, and so that the corporate computers around the country would all meet my (their) guidelines.  I tested the deployment media on physical hardware and there were absolutely no problems.  Now all that was left was for me to create a document to go with it.  To do this, I created a virtual machine within my Hyper-V laptop so that I could use TechSmith’s SnagIt tool to capture my screen shots.

…and I started getting an error telling me that ‘Windows could not parse or process unattend answer file [C:\Windows\Panther\unattend.xml] for pass [specialize]. The answer file is invalid.’

image

ARGH!

What am I to do?

Why did it work on physical hardware, and is not working in the virtual machine?

What’s different?

During my Troubleshooting LiteTouch Deployment using MDT session at TechDays Canada I remind my audience that if they get an error they shouldn’t close down the system when they get an error… there is so much to be learned from the files that might simply disappear if they are on the RAMDrive.  I pressed <Shift-F10> and looked for the guilty file, and sure enough, under the Specialize Pass section there was the error… the ComputerName field was FAR too long!

When scripting the deployment point one of the rules I included was the following lines to script the computer name to be the same as the serial number:

SkipComputerName=YES
computername=%SerialNumber%

The serial number for the Vostro laptops that the company bought is an 8 character Asset Tag.  This works perfectly because the maximum computer name can be is 15 characters.  Unfortunately the serial number of my Hyper-V virtual machine was much longer – in this case the string read:

<ComputerName>4524-0809-8640-9363-4363-6582-37</ComputerName>

Because of that the deployment was failing. 32 characters!  Of course this is not going to be limited to virtual machines.  Some vendors have longer serial numbers than others.  If you created a deployment point that works fine with your HPs that you want to use to deploy Windows 7 on a white-box PC, you may encounter the same issue.  If you have many systems that you are going to encounter the problem on then you probably will want to go back and recreate your deployment point, whether that be a USB key or (as was the case here) the ISO file.  However if you have a one-off machine that is outside the norm – say, a lab PC that you use to test applications – then for those of you who are adventurous, the following will work, and will save you doing all of that:

  1. Restart the machine as you did previously, initiating the deployment.
  2. Go through all of your screens until you get the ‘Ready to Begin’ screen, and click Begin.  The Task Sequence will start, and will go through the first few tasks pretty quickly.  When the Installing Windows… window comes up, your screen should look like the screenshot below.  At this point the Unattend.xml file that the deployment uses will have been generated and copied to the C Drive, into two distinct locations.
  3. image
  4. Press F8 to open a command prompt.
  5. Navigate to the first file location (C:\$Windows.~BT\Sources\Panther).
  6. type notepad Unattend.xml.
  7. In the Notepad window search for the string <ComputerName>.
  8. Change the string between <ComputerName> and </ComputerName> to an acceptable name (fewer than 15 characters).
  9. Save the file and exit from Notepad.
  10. Navigate to the second file location (C:\MININT)
  11. Repeat steps 6-9
  12. Type exit.

(NOTE: Typing EXIT is crucial, as the open command prompt window will prevent the Windows Installation from rebooting the system.)

Now: In the event that you get an error that the deployment is suspended, you might have to wipe the disk first… use these steps only in a clean install scenario, because it will wipe any data on the drive!

  1. Restart the virtual machine from the DVD.
  2. When Windows PE comes up, press F8.  When the command prompt (will you people finally realize this is NOT DOS!!) comes up type diskpart to start the Disk Partition tool.
  3. Within the Disk Partition tool type list disk.
  4. Make sure you pick the disk that you are installing Windows on and type Select Disk # (where # is the number of the disk).
  5. Type CLEAN

As soon as the partition is wiped you can reboot the computer and restart your deployment.

I hope this helps… now go forth and deploy, and script-sin no more!

Laptops and laptops!

Many of you have pinged me in the last few days to tell me you are still waiting to read a review of my new laptop… the HP Envy 14 (Beats Edition).  and let me tell you, it is one kick-arse machine!  The review has been somewhat delayed due to a couple of professional obligations that have kept me somewhat busier than usual in the last two weeks.

One thing I had almost forgotten is the vastly different experience between consumer laptops and corporate laptops, and what reminded me of this was firstly the differences between my old laptop and my new HP Envy.  The old machine was definitely built for business, and the Envy is definitely meant for the consumer.  The very few things that irk me about the Envy are very clearly chalked up to that.

With that in mind, I asked a contact at HP to hook me up for a few weeks with a shiny new HP EliteBook, a truly business-class laptop.  Within the next week or so you will be reading two different reviews of two very different laptops – both excellent machines and their purpose, both definite buy recommendations.  However I will outline the differences between the two so that when it is time for you to buy your next laptop – whether it is completely professional and you need that functionality, or if you want the cool factor with the high-end sound and graphics – you will be able to do so from an informed position!

Stay tuned…