Friday, September 25, 2009

Dell XPS M1530 Battery Replacement

Commentary: Dell's XPS M1530 Laptop Battery is not performing and needs to be replaced. Should an off-brand battery be ordered? The answer is Yes. I ordered from BatteryEdge.com and after several months, I am still pleased with the results.

My Dell XPS M1530 is still my dream laptop and after 18 months, I still love the machine. But the battery has not lived up to expectations. The 6-cell battery, which used to run a about 2 hours at "best performance," went to 1.5hrs and is now down to 5 minutes.

Related article: Dell Slim Power Supplies Also details the proprietary nature of Dell AC adapters.

I expect the batteries to degrade with age, and at first, I was disappointed with the battery. But I have now come to the conclusion that the battery worked hard and simply died. It was not treated well because in the first year of its life, it spent most of its time plugged into the charger. As described in this article, Battery Care and Feeding, this was not the best thing to do. As I've researched on the web, a twelve to eighteen month battery-life seems to be the norm and all agree this is too short. But there are only 6 little batteries in this case, and it has to drive a large, power-hungry device. None-the-less, the decline of the battery was precipitous.


$140: About 13% of the original Laptop Price!

Here is the real pain: Dell wants $140 for a replacement (ctrl-Click to open new window). This makes for expensive on-going maintenance. Because of this, I've begun searching for a more reasonable way to replace the battery pack. It is a shame I have to do this because I would prefer to log onto Dell's site, click a few buttons and have a new battery on the way, paying with my existing Dell credit. A message to Dell: Happy customers are repeat customers; we expect batteries to fail but don't want to be robbed when they do.



The question comes down to this:
Are Off-brand batteries as good as Dell's?

In my opinion: Dell does not make their batteries -- they buy them like everyone else and the insides are standard. As long as you are buying from a reputable company (and are not buying low-ball price with rebuilt/recycled batteries), you should be getting identical equipment.

BatteryEdge.com

-Author's note:  BatteryEdge.com is no longer in business.  Since this article was written, I have purchased two other batteries from third-parties and have been pleased.

Because of Dell's high replacement costs, I have decided to buy a third-party 6-cell battery through BatteryEdge.com (now defunct - no longer selling batteries)Formerly, I had also suggested PacificBattery.com but even though they seem to have a good reputation on the net, they have been unresponsive to several emails and phonecalls.The website was clear and easy to use
Total cost: $56 + 5 Ground ($61)
Shipped UPS Ground, arriving on time (5 business days)

(This is from BatteryEdge)
New replacement laptop battery for Dell XPS M1530/D1530 TK330
$56.00 plus $5.00 Ground Freight (Dell is $140 + Freight)Condition: Brand New OEM Equivalent
100% New Cells; never rebuilt or recycled
Voltage: 11.1 Volts
Capacity: 4800 mAh
Battery Type: Li-ion 6 Cells
Warranty: 1 Year Warranty, guaranteed to meet or exceed the original OEM specifications.

The battery is a near-exact replacement of the original Dell, including the rubberized foot pad, arriving 90% charged. After a brief top-off, the battery on Balanced power-mode shows 3 hours total time (screen dimmed), 2.75hrs (with the brighter-screen setting). Although it will take a few days to re-calibrate the battery and confirm, these values match a new Dell battery.

A Close, but not Perfect Fit:

The new battery fits *tightly* into the XPS slot, taking noticeable pressure to lock the battery into place. Although this was acceptable, it could be improved.

I wondered why it was tighter. I measured various dimensions using a .001" metal micrometer and compared the old battery with the new. Most measurements were the same, within the limits of where the tool could measure, but I did find two possible differences. Both batteries have a lip on the inside edge. On the BatteryEdge, the lip extended a consistent 5000th of an inch wider than the Dell (this is the thickness of a sheet of paper). This could be normal manufacturing variance, but I believe this edge touched the case-slot and prevented the battery from fitting as well as it should.


I milled the edge by hand using a long metal file. I am not necessarily recommending you need to do this -- but I filed the edge because I knew how and wanted to see if the fit improved, which it did, but the battery still takes some pressure to lock into place.  (Update:  A second purchased battery, from another vendor - now forgotten - fits better - TRW 2015.)

The only other area which could account for the snug fit are the two locking posts (interior dimensions) and because of positioning, I could not accurately measure. My bet is there is variance along this dimension. Only having a sample of 1 makes this hard to generalize.

What about Rebuilding yourself?

After much research, it seems like too much trouble to rebuild the battery. The battery cases are welded shut and can't be opened without mutilation. Replacing the batteries involves careful soldering and there are circuit boards to worry about. The batteries will explode if you accidentally cross polarities or get the soldering iron too hot. The cost for the parts is about $35, approaching an off-brand purchase. Here is a DIY link.

The batteries are 3.7v Li-Ion (these are not standard AA batteries),
Sony EnergyTec US18650GR;
Panasonic CGR18650,
LG ICR18650,
Samsung. ICR18650, and others.



(Illustration: www.notebookreview.com)

AC Power Supply Issues:

Dell (especially on the XPS M1530) has a proprietary AC adapter, which is generating a lot of ill-will throughout the user community. Both the standard Dell 90-watt power supply and the Dell Slim Power Supply (Keyliner reviewed), has a "center data-communication pin" on the business-end of the plug. The pin is a hair-thin wire that is easily damaged or broken and its purpose has not been disclosed. Although this is not the case with my battery, when the pin breaks, the laptop will not charge. Most think this is a way to keep third-party manufacturers from duplicating the power supply, but I now believe they legitimately needed to transmit wattage information along this circuit -- although they could have done this in a less proprietary manner.

In a separate article (not posted here), a tech at batteryedge.com said most of the batteries returned to their company are perfectly good - it is the AC adapter that was malfunctioning. This website offers suggestions on how to test the AC adapter: www.laptopparts101.com, see links on right-side. The website is somewhat superficial and does not speak directly to the XPS, but it has a variety of information about laptops and parts and you may find it interesting.


My overall impression of BatteryEdge.com:
BatteryEdge is a reputable company selling a quality product and I would do business with them again. As of late-April 2010, I have had the battery for several months and it is performing marvelously. I am still pleased with the purchase.

Update:
In June, 2010, I noticed the battery was failing. Symptoms: discharged after a few minutes of use; a 100% recharge only took 10 minutes, but total performance was lost. Windows 7 suggests I should "replace the battery". I sent a polite note to BatteryEdge customer support. The next day, I got this reply:
"I am sorry you are having problems with the battery. I have issued RMA #XXXX for the return of the battery. A UPS prepaid shipping label will be emailed to you. Please note that it can take up to 3 days for the label to arrive in the email. Once you receive the prepaid shipping label , print it out and tape it to the package. Drop it off at a UPS drop off location. As soon as we get it back we will send you a replacement battery. Be sure to use the label within 10 days."
You can't complain about this type of service. This was a good company to order from, and when something went wrong, they stood behind their product. I am still pleased. Replacement Review here.

Update: 2011.06: For another laptop I ordered a new set of batteries. Delivery was about 4 days later than expected (they were moving warehouses), but other than that, no issues.
Related Articles:
Dell Slim Power Supplies Also details the proprietary nature of the AC adapters
Dell XPS M1530 Windows 7 Drivers
Laptop Battery Care and Feeding
Original Review Dell XPS M1530
More on the Dell XPS M1530
Link: Disassembling the XPS M1530 (Dell)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Fixing Slow Computers

General thoughts on the causes of a slow computers; high CPU utilization. These steps fix most slow computer problems. Many solutions will direct you to other articles with more details (such as Virus cleaning).

If you have a slow computer, one that boots slowly, or runs slowly, here are some broad diagnostic steps you can take. For most computers, these steps will fix the problem. Linked articles show how to resolve various issues. These steps will work with both Windows XP and Vista.

See also this article on "Slow Keyboard Response in Windows 7"

Slow Boot Times:

1. Look in the System Tray (Taskbar's lower right corner).

If there are a lot of icons (a subjective number, say more than 8 or 9 icons), then you probably have may have too many startup programs -- many of which are expendable.

I consider this a healthy System Tray:


See this article on how to remove unnecessary startup programs:
Cleaning Startup Programs

2. Look for hidden startup programs.

Although a cluttered System Tray is an obvious indication of a problem, there are probably three-times as many hidden startup programs.

Most computers have too many things running in the background. Things like printer driver updates, Adobe Acrobat updaters, Java schedulers and others all conspire to clog your computer with crap. The same article, "Cleaning Startup Programs" will diagnose theses issues and I typically get significant boot and run-time improvements.

Same article: Cleaning Startup Programs

Slow Run Times:

If, after booting, the computer still runs slowly -- where launching programs always has long hour-glasses and the computer just "feels sluggish," consider these steps.

1. Test the amount of RAM

Start the computer and launch your normal programs, such as word processors, browsers, spreadsheets, etc. As the programs load, look at the computer's hard-disk light (even laptops have a hard-disk activity light). If the hard-drive has a lot of activity -- say 15 or 20 seconds of solid drive-light, then you are probably out of physical memory (RAM). Consider upgrading the computer's memory.

2. Look at the total Memory:

To see how much RAM is installed in your computer:
  • Launch Windows Explorer
  • Locate "My Computer"
  • Other-mouse-click and choose Properties
  • Total RAM is listed
Recommended RAM

Windows XP:
Minimum Recommended 1G RAM
Ideal: 2G RAM
Maximum: 2GB RAM (additional memory is wasted with XP)
Tolerable: 768K (for browsing and light word processing tasks)
Insufficient: 512K (time to buy more)

Windows Vista:
Minimum: 1G RAM (for light browsing and word processing tasks)
Ideal: 2 to 4GB
Maximum: 4GB (assuming Vista 32-bit -- most common)

Windows 7:
Minimum Recommended: 2GB RAM
Ideal: 2 to 4GB
Barely Tolerable: 1GB (for light browsing and word processing tasks)

How to Upgrade:
Memory is relatively cheap. I like to buy from Crucial.com. The site will help you choose the correct RAM to purchase and how much to order. Before buying, open the computer's case and look at the current memory slots to see if any are available. You will also find full instructions on the site. Memory is easy to install and even inexperienced people can do the upgrades.



Do not panic if you are out of physical memory slots; order all new memory and discard the older, smaller chips. When buying memory, always buy in pairs. For example, if you need 2GB, buy 2 (1-GB) chips. If you would like 4GB, buy either 4 (1GB) chips or 2 (2GB) chips.


VIRUSES and SPYWARE

Viruses and Spyware account for many slow computers. Infected computers are so busy spying on your keystrokes and sending reports back to the mothership, that there is often little time for legitimate activities. Sleuthing takes considerable time.

3. Test CPU Utilization
(See also this related article with similar steps: CPU Utilization Diagnostics)
  • Close all running programs, including music players, spreadsheets, and others. (You can leave this browser window open but make sure you are not playing a video or something in another window).

  • Other-mouse-click a blank area on the task bar and choose "Task Manager". At the bottom of the panel, note the CPU usage. CPU percentages of 1 to 3% are ideal.


Idled computers with CPU utilizations of 5% - 35% indicate something is suspect and it may or may not be serious. In this case, clearly a single browser-window should not tax a computer's resources. This can be caused by a number of different things, with more details below. For now, continue with the additional steps.

CPU utilizations of 50% or more means your machine is undoubtedly infected with viruses. Continue with the additional steps.

4. Disconnect and Test CPU Percentages

Although this is not a definitive test, disconnect the Network Cable or turn off the Wireless (Laptops have an Fn Key to disable wireless) and reboot, making sure you are not connected to the network as you reboot. If the high CPU values drop to lower numbers, then the machine is likely infected with viruses (many viruses go dormant if they can't see the Internet).

5. Assuming spyware and viruses, follow the steps in this article:
Win32/Cryptor Virus Removal.

Although it deals with a specific virus, the steps here are generally useful for all viruses and spyware. Follow all the steps, using ComboFix instead of RootRepeal. This will take several hours to complete the steps recommended.

If spyware and viruses are a problem, seriously consider changing from Internet Explorer to Firefox or some other browser. These browsers, by their very nature and design, are less susceptible to picking up viruses (they do not run ActiveX programs).



Other Software Issues

If an idled machine's CPU utilization is low (2 - 7%), but the computer is still sluggish, consider these thoughts:

* Symantec (Norton) AntiVirus:

If you have Norton/Symantec AntiVirus, versions 2009 or older, do these steps:

a. Un-install the software using the Control Panel's "Add Remove Programs" (Vista: "Programs and Features"). Uninstall all Symantec products, including the Symantec Updater.

b. Reboot.

c. See if the machine behaves and "feels" faster.

Note: I have seen while this software is installed, CPU utilization still only shows about 3% -- but the machine still behaves poorly, as if it were at 90%. I have worked on dozens of otherwise healthy computers and uninstalling all Symantec software has been the #1 solution for slow computers (I kid not).

This means you will need to find another anti-virus vendor and yes, you may have wasted your money. The number of times this has fixed a slow computer has been remarkable. This assumes the scanner is not downloading updates or is running a background full-system scan.

I am not on friendly terms with most commercial virus scanners -- especially the consumer-grade "suites." They seem to do too much, consume too many resources, and are overbearing when the subscriptions expire. I no longer recommend Norton/Symantec and am leery of McAfee.

Reportedly, Norton 360 behaves better, but I have not tested it or seen this with my clients. In this article you can find reviews of various anti-virus vendors:
Article: Cleaning a Virus

* AVG 8.5:

If you have AVG's virus scanner, and are seeing CPU utilizations of 25% or more, see this article on how to correct the problem. Other free virus programs are also recommended in this article:
Article: AVG CPU.


* Printer Drivers:

I have seen several machines with multiple printer drivers installed. For example one laptop had 9 separate printers installed -- but they only owned two printers. Over the years they had retired numerous printers, leaving all of the old drivers and software installed. I only noticed the problem because all of the printer-driver icons were still in the control panel. If you have a history of buying a lot of printers, consider this possibility.

Even though the printers were from the same vendor (Canon, HP, etc.), each printer installed its own set of programs. The computer spent all of its time asking each of the 9 printers, "are you there... hey, where are you? How's the ink level? Yo!, why don't you answer me? I'd best check even more often...."

To solve: Delete the printers from the Printer Control Panel, then go into Add-Remove Programs and uninstall all of the monitoring software. It may be a challenge to find all of the programs that a printer may have installed. For example, an average HP printer seems to have a half-dozen programs. It may be easier to de-install *all* printers and printer-related software, then re-install the printer you own.

When I install printers, I always go to the vendor's support site and download the "Drivers Only" driver; I seldom want to install all of the junk that most printers come with. I have not had enough experience with multi-function printers to have a strong opinion about what needs to be installed; your comments on this are welcome.


Slow Browsing Speeds

If the computer is generally fast but browsing speeds are slow, then you are likely infected by spyware. To properly test this, turn off all other computers in your (home) network -- just to make sure they are not causing bandwidth issues. Then follow the Virus and Spyware steps listed above.


Hard Disk

If your hard-disk "thrashes" (lots of disk activity on seemingly minor tasks), then do the following:
  • Check total Free Disk Space
  • Consider Defragging the Hard Disk
A PC needs about 20% free disk space in order to operate properly. If you are consistently pushing against this, this will cause problems with surfing (insufficient cache space) and with overall system performance.

Follow these steps to recover space, including un-installing unneeded programs and flushing your email-cache. If this fails to gain enough space, it is time to buy a larger hard drive -- which half-jokingly means a new computer. If you have a laptop, be aware those hard drives are easily upgradable.
Article: Disk Cleanup Steps

Defragmenting has small performance benefits, but do not expect miracles. See Windows XP Help for steps on how to do this. I recommend defragmenting Windows XP about once per quarter. Vista will automatically defrag if the machine is left on during its normal defrag-schedule (see Help for more details).


Cluttered Start Menus:

If the start-menu is cluttered, it can be streamlined with these steps. This will not make the computer faster, but it does make it more pleasurable to use:
Article: Streamlining Start Menus


Old Computers:

It is easy to say that old computers should be replaced. But with many of my clients, all they do is surf the web, check email, play solitaire and run a word processor. Even a 5 to 7 year-old computer can handle these tasks -- and look at the new Netbooks; these are not the most powerful machines on the block and yet they are still adequate.

Admittedly, a new, low-end computer is only about $400 -- and it is leaps-and-bounds faster than some of these old dogs -- but it is still significant work to move software and data.

There is no doubt that a faster computer can help, but if the user has systemic problems with viruses and tons of installed and de-installed software, then a new computer will not fix these issues.

In some cases, it might be best to reformat the disk and re-install the operating system. Of course, this is a boat-load of work:
Article: Re-Installing Vista (XP) from Scratch

Your comments on this article, as well as other suggestions are welcome. Symantec lawyers need-not reply.

Related Articles:
"Slow Keyboard Response in Windows 7"
Cleaning a Virus
Removing Virus and Spyware
Cleaning up Startup Programs
AVG CPU Utilization
Disk Imaging and Cleanup Steps

Simplifying Startup menus

Optimizing Swap Files (very geeky)
Rebuilding Vista from Scratch
Vista Spiffs and General Improvements

Monday, September 7, 2009

Using FotoSizer

HowTo: Using Fotosizer to resize photographs. Reviewing version 1.25. 

My digital camera builds JPEG pictures that hover around 2 to 4MB each (3872 x 2592 pixels) . If I were to email these to friends, there would be revolts. For example, after a recent backpacking trip, I had 58 photographs, totaling 194MB and when opened in an email, you only see the upper-left corner and a really-wide scrollbar.

With digital photographs, the more pixels, the better. But when it comes to sharing with friends, resize the images or loose them as friends. You could use a photo-editor, opening each image, resizing, then doing a save-as. This is tedious and could take hours.

Or you could use a nifty program called "Fotosizer" and have it "batch" resize all of the images. You can download, install, and successfully use this program in about 2 minutes. Here are the recommended steps:

Using FotoSizer


Download the program from here (Shift-click for a new window)
http://www.fotosizer.com/download.aspx

This is a straight-forward install and the program is free.
They ask for a $10.00 paypal donation -- why not drop them a few bucks?

When the program opens, click the "Add Image" icon along the the bottom edge of the screen.
  • A Windows Explorer window opens.
  • Locate your photos; click-and-drag the images from Explorer to the gray box.
  • Optionally, click "Add Folder".


Fotosizer accepts JPG, TIF, BMP, PNG, GIF, and TGA (it does not accept RAW image formats, such as Pentax's PEF).

SETTINGS:

In the Settings area (illustrated), make these changes:


1. Choose a preset size.

When emailing, I typically choose (600 x 480) or (800 x 600).

A variety of other standard sizes are available, including (320 x 200) up through (2048 x 1536) with every size between. You can also choose ipod, widescreen, PS2, as well as custom sizes and by percentages.

2. Always click "Reverse Width and Height by Orientation"

This keeps your landscape and portrait shots at the same relative sizes.


In the Destination Settings:

3. Set the Destination folder to any new, empty data-folder.

For example, I usually use "C:\Data\Temp" -- this way the new, smaller photos are not mixed in with the originals.

Optionally: Build a new folder:
- Click the Yellow-folder icon,
- "Make New Folder"

4. Recommend setting a ' filename mask.'

I use this literal string: "%F_Small" (no quotes)

where: "%F" is a variable representing the original filename. With this, you will be able to tell the original, full-sized image from the smaller image by just glancing at the name and should they be accidentally intermixed with the original photos, it will be obvious. Other variables are available in the help screen.

For example, "IMGP1075_Small.jpg"

5. Click Start.

Results:

My 58 files took about 20 seconds to resize.

Total New Size: 3.2MB (originally 194MB)
FileSize: 50K average (originally 2 - 4MB each)

The new files will look fine in a preview window and the file sizes will be manageable. Attaching these files to an email or to a blog will be effortless. Here is a 60K example:



When Not to Use Fotosizer:

Do not use Fotosized images if you need enlargements / printing or for photographic critique or other technical work. The translation from 4MB to 60K is not free and quality is lost -- but for casual viewing, few will notice.

Although fotosizer admirably compresses photographs, do not let the compressed photos become your only copy; preserve the original files in your permanent archives. Just to be safe, I do not allow Fotosizer to write in the original source directory.

Wish List:

I have two enhancements that I'd like to see with the program: I wished it could handle DSLR Raw Formats (PEF and others) and I wished one of the output options was to a ZIP file -- where all of the photographs could be stored in a single file; this would make emailing a batch of photos a cinch.

Related Articles:
Desktop Wallpaper Cropping
Pentax and Fotosizer (original review)


Keywords: photosizer foto sizer photo sizer