Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Targus Laptop Case

Mini-Review: Targus Laptop Case CBT300:

My old laptop bag, which I've had for years, reminds me of a suitcase with 200 pockets and I'm still looking for things I've lost in there. Slinging this behemoth over my shoulders was like carrying an over-sized carpet bag and it was clearly designed for older, thicker machines.

Recently, I replaced it with a Targus-brand case (CBT300). It has just enough pockets for all the other crap you always have to carry but it is not overbearing. The case is thinner than the old one, so it is easier to carry. This model is designed for 14 and 15" laptops. I believe they make a larger one for 17" models.

It has some thoughtful touches:
  • Inside Velcro Strap holds the laptop in case you forget to zip the case closed
  • Inside pockets have a protective tabs over the zipper; keeps from scratching the finish
  • Outside pocket for passports and airline tickets
  • Mid-pocket for power-supply, pens, business cards, etc.
  • Backside pocket for larger papers and a magazine
  • Durable handle and strap; comfortable
Things I wished they changed:
  • I wish it were another inch thinner; as it is, it is still a tad too thick for my XPS laptop.
  • The inside bottom could use a bit more (soft) padding, in case you drop it
This case is recommended.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Laptop Battery Care and Feeding

This article briefly discusses how to best take care of a Lithium-Ion laptop battery.

Lithium-Ion batteries are not the same as older NICAD (Nickle Cadmium) batteries and they should be treated differently for longest life.

Related Article:
Third-Party Replacement Battery for the Dell XPS M1530

In summary:
  • Lithium-Ion Batteries do not have "memory"
  • Avoid numerous deep discharges
  • Ideally, re-charge when at 30 to 40% capacity
  • Re-calibrating a battery / new batteries
  • Avoid heat (hot cars, etc)
  • Consider removing the battery when using AC power for long periods
  • The battery will age and wear out; a fact of life
Unlike NiCad batteries of yesteryear, Lithium batteries do not have "memory" (where the battery "forgets" how to hold a full-charge - NiCads had this problem). Deep discharges will not keep the battery healthy and deep discharges actually damage Li-Ion cells.

Although Lithium batteries do not have memory, they will age and loose capability and this is true of all rechargeable batteries. After 200 charge cycles, the battery will have a noticeable decrease in capacity. After (400-500) charge cycles, the battery will likely need replacing. For most users, this will happen after about 2 to 3 years, depending on your tolerance on recharging.

Abusing the battery (with numerous deep discharges or continuous heat) will hasten its demise, as will keeping the battery fully-charged in a heated environment, such as inside of a laptop. A partially-discharged battery inside of a warm laptop will age better than a fully charged battery under the same conditions.

If your laptop is normally plugged into AC power and seldom strays, consider removing the battery -- mainly to protect it from the heat. (However, if there is a power-outage, the battery will not protect your work). This does not mean you shouldn't use the battery; after all, it does have a purpose in life.

Real-World Laptop Battery Life

My Dell XPS M1530, when new, came with a standard 6-cell Lithium-Ion battery, would last about 2.0 to 2.5 hours; running under Vista's Moderate Power Settings. The larger 9-cell battery gives 3.5-4 hours.

Now that this laptop is 18 months old, the 6-cell battery capacity has fallen to .00005 hrs; a noticeable decline. In other words, batteries age, even when treated with some respect. See this article on buying a replacement battery.

Battery Meter Accuracy
ReCalibrating a Battery

Most Lithium-Ion batteries have an onboard LED meter showing the battery's capacity. This circuitry is also what Windows queries for the System-Tray report.  This circuit can get out of calibration and can report incorrect values.

Recalibrating does not improve the battery's capabilities; it only aligns the meter's reading with the battery's actual charge.  If the meter is out of calibration, Windows 7 will assume imminent failure and will hibernate a battery-powered laptop, even if the battery is "charged."  You will see this problem when you have what you know is a fully-charged battery, but Windows will suddenly report x% power remaining and will warn you to re-charge.

To re-calibrate:

1.  Allow the battery to fully discharge, letting the laptop shut-down.

New batteries sometimes will not charge properly, stopping at (15% or similar number), because they are in an "unformed" state.  Symptoms:  The battery may stop charging before fully-charged.  If this happens, power off the computer, remove the battery and re-insert.  The charge cycle should begin again. This may happen several times during your first charge.

2.  Remove the battery and re-install.

3.  Allow the battery to fully-charge; confirm the system tray shows "charging."
Once fully charged, confirm by checking the meter on the back of the battery (most batteries have this feature).

4.  Do this cycle twice for new batteries and about every 20 or 30 partial cycles (4 to 5 months) for older batteries. Yes, this violates the recommendation above against deep discharges.

If a battery shows fully charged after only a few minutes, when you know it is not, re-calibrate. If this is still a problem, the battery may need replacing.

Long Term Storage:

For long-term storage, discharge battery to 40 to 60% and store in a cool location, such as a refrigerator, not a freezer. Use a plastic bag to keep moisture at bay. A (room temperature) battery looses about 2% of its charge per week due to environmental and chemical changes.  Because of this, an idled battery can deep-discharge without your knowledge an Li-ions do not like this.

Periodically, every two or three months, a stored battery should be re-charged and partially discharged before being placed back into storage.  This is nuisance and may be a good reason not to have too many spare batteries.

Rapid Chargers
From personal experience, rapid (Fast) chargers kills Lithium-Ion batteries; much heat is generated. This would be true with those AA-battery chargers, as well as larger equipment, such as laptops and power-tools.

Other Sources and topics:
Third-Party Replacement Battery for the Dell XPS M1530
Battery University (very interesting)
Online Laptop Batteries
MIT Develops new Rapid Battery
HP Extends Laptop Battery Life 24 hrs.
Wikipedia: NiCad

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Streamline Vista/XP StartMenus

This article describes how to re-organize your Start Menu icons so they are easier to use. This works with both Windows Vista and XP but not for Windows 7. It recommends using the "Classic" Start Menu, although the ideas presented here do not require this.

Quick Peek: If you are looking for the folder 'all-users start menu'; look here:
XP: Documents and Settings\All Users\Start Menu
Vista: C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu

For Windows 7, see this article: Windows 7 Streamline Start Menu

The Problem with Clutter:

When you click the Start Menu, do you get frustrated?
Is it a nuisance to find a program?
Do icons seem to move around?
Does your Programs Menu look like this?:

Consider the following changes, which includes a change in how the Start Menu itself looks, as well as steps on how to organize the icons.

I recommend switching the Start Menu to the "Classic" style. Although it is not as pretty as the default start menu, you will find it easier to navigate and easier to read. (Note, starting in Windows 7, the "Classic" menu is no longer available -- however, the rest of this article still is valid; see this article for Windows 7 Start Menu Cleanup steps)

Changing the StartMenu Style

To change the Start Menu to the "Classic" style, follow these steps (this option is not available in Windows 7).

1. Find an unused (grey) area on the task bar (between two buttons).
2. Other-mouse-click and choose "Properties"
3. Click the Start Menu tab (top row)
4. Click "Classic Start Menu" (not available in Windows 7)

Customize the Start Menu:

Changing these options further improve and enhance the menu and these are recommended for both Vista and XP users.

5. While still in the Start Menu top-tab, click the "Customize" button
6. In the Advanced Start Menu Options list, make these changes:

[x] Display Logoff (check)
[x] Display Run / Run Command (check)
[ ] Scroll Programs (uncheck for speedier scrolling)
[x] Show Small Icons in Start Menu (check)
[ ] Use Personalized Menus (uncheck)

Leave all other options, as-is. Click OK and return to the desktop

Turning off "Personalized Menus" keeps the icons from moving to new positions (by default, Microsoft places the most recently-used icons near the top and it will re-shuffle the icons).

Adding Common Programs "above the line"

By default, there are no icons above the Start Menu's "Programs" choice. You can add your most commonly-used programs "above the line," which makes them reachable in two mouse clicks. For example, I have my AddressBook, Windows Explorer, Excel, WordPerfect and other programs listed here, "above the line:"

Do the following to place icons. This works on both the Vista/XP Standard and "Classic" menus.

7. From the Desktop, "other-mouse-click" the Start Menu
8. Select "Explore All Users" (not "Explore"). If you have Windows 7, see Windows 7 Streamline Start Menu

In the Directory Tree, the "Start Menu" folder represents the icons that can live "above the line" (see illustration above). Icons created (or copied) from other areas and pasted here become visible "above the line." Icons placed in the "Programs" folder are visible in the "Programs" menu.

Copy Icons from Other Areas:

9. Directly below the "Start Menu" folder
Single-Click the "Programs" folder.
In the detail-side, other-mouse-click an icon
(for example, Microsoft Excel)
Select Copy.

10. Re-highlight the "Start Menu" folder; other-mouse-click the folder and select Paste.

If you are running Windows Vista, it will ask for permission (UAC). See my article "Stopping Vista's most Annoying UAC Nags" to turn these specifically off.

Click the start menu to see the results: (Excel) will show above the line when the Start Menu is clicked.

When Copying and Pasting icons, don't hesitate to tunnel down the StartMenu, Programs menu, into sub-folders that other vendors have built. Copy those icons and paste them either in the Start Menu folder, or if they are used less-often, paste them in the "Programs" folder. Often I put copies of the icons in both places.

Other Vendor's Messes

Vendors often create folders within folders in the StartMenu. For example, Acronis True Image Home makes tunnel through 5 clicks in order to start their program This is mostly advertisement.

Streamline the mess by following these steps. This example uses the above Acronis illustration as an example.

A. While still in the (Explore All Users" directory tree; step 7 and 8 above), tunnel into the "Programs" folder, until you find the vendor's icons. In this example, tunnel to Programs, "Acronis", "Acronis True Image Home", then look to the detail side.

B. From the detail side, copy or drag the icon(s) you want to keep into either the "Programs" or the "Start Menu" folder (see illustration, above). In this case, only one of the three icons are necessary -- "Acronis True Image Home".

Drag or copy-and-paste the icon into either the Start Menu (if you want the icon "above the line" or into the Programs folder (if you use the program less-often).

(When deleting and copying, Vista will prompt with a variety of UAC nags. Pummel your way through them until your work is done. You may get multiple prompts for the same icon.)

Consider building a "Programs\Util" folder and pasting the icon there. Or for other types of programs, paste them into the Accessories folder, if you want to keep them around, but out of the way.

C. Once you salvage the icon(s) you want to keep, delete the remaining (Vendor's) folder and all contents within. The Help and Website icons are reachable from within the program and there is no reason to allow them to clutter your Start Menu or your life. Delete them!

The Results:

View your handy-work by clicking Start Menu, Programs: Note the Acronis icon is easily visible in the Programs Folder, right where you want it to be. The other Acronis folders are gone, and the menu is one item shorter.

Delete Even More:

If your Program Menu is cluttered like this illustration, consider weeding through the entire menu, consolidating and deleting folders and icons. It is perfectly safe and acceptable to do this and the underlying programs cannot be harmed by these changes.

This is my actual Start Menu on my main production computer. I am ashamed I haven't moved "CyberViewX_MF" into the Accessories folder, but I will as soon as this article is posted!:

When looking at a Program folder, I often delete most of the icons and folders installed by vendors, leaving only the ones I need to launch their program. For rarely-used programs, I often tuck them inside of the Accessories or a Utility Folder.

Only those programs that I use on a daily basis are visible at the front of the menu. All others are deleted or moved further down. Icons such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, Windows Calendar, Windows SideBar, Backup Programs, and the like, are all tucked away in sub-folders. With this, I seldom have to hunt for a program and my Start Menu is short and sweet.

I always ask myself, "When was the last time you clicked this icon?" If the answer is rarely or never, delete it. De-clutter your life.

As you work in these folders, Vista's, UAC nags will be horrendous. Consider disabling them temporarily (see links, below).

Related articles:
Stopping Vista's most Annoying UAC Nags
Vista Spiffs
Cleaning Startup Programs
Windows Folder Locations