More thinking on travelling without a laptop

When it comes to the technology that I carry with me on trips away, I have begun to start weighing devices on my kitchen scales. The results are a little revealing. The HP Pavilion dm5 that has gone with me to Ireland and other places weighs between 2.5 and 3 kg while my Apple iPad Mini 2 comes in at 764 grams. My 12.9″ iPad Pro with its Logitech keyboard weighs between these at 110 to 1200 grams. The idea of consolidating computing devices for travel has been discussed on here before now and the main thing stopping my just going with the iPad Pro was the viewing of photos without filling up its 32 GB of storage space.

Since then, I just may have found a workaround and it is another gadget, this time weighing only a few hundred grams: a 1 TB WD My Passport Wireless portable hard drive. Aside from having a SD card slot that allows the automatic backup of photos, it also can connect with tablets and phones using WiFi broadband.

WD My Passport Wireless

It is the WD My Cloud app that makes the connections to mobile devices useful and it works smoothly on iOS and Android devices too. Nevertheless, there is more functionality on the latter ones such as DNG file support and an added slide show feature that works with JPEG files. Both of these are invaluable for viewing photos and I feel a little short-changed that they are not available on iOS. Hopefully, that will get resolved sooner rather than later.

Thankfully, my Pentax K5 II DSLR camera can be persuaded to save DNG and JPEG files simultaneously so that they can be viewed full screen on both types of devices without having to transfer them onto the tablet first as you would with Apple’s SD card reader. Usefully, that gets around my oversight in buying iPads with only 32 GB of storage each. That now looks like a false economy given what I am trying now.

Such is the weight difference, just taking along my Apple iPad Pro and the WD device will save around 1 kg and there is less fuss at airport security screening too. While my HTC phone would suffice for seeing photos as slide shows, I am wondering if my battered Google Nexus 9 could come too. The only dilemma then would be how to pack things since I am not sure how a large iPad screen would seem to cabin crew or other passengers during take off and landing. That makes using the Nexus 9 onboard more of a proposition and the iPad might go into the hold luggage to make life a little easier. Still, that choice is a minor concern now that I can try travelling overseas without a laptop to see how I get along.

Pondering travel device consolidation using an Apple iPad Pro 12.9″

It was a change of job in 2010 that got me interested in using devices with internet connectivity on the go. Until then, the attraction of smartphones had not been strong but I got myself a Blackberry on a pay as you go contract but the entry device was painfully slow and the connectivity was 2G. It was a very sluggish start.

It was supplemented by an Asus eeePC that I connected to the internet using broadband dongles and a WiFi hub. This cumbersome arrangement did not work well on short journeys and the variability of mobile network reception even meant that longer journeys were not all that successful either. Usage in hotels and guesthouses though went better and that has meant that the miniature laptop came with me on many a journey.

In time, I moved away from broadband dongles to using smartphones as WiFi hubs and that largely is how I work with laptops and tablets away from home unless there is hotel WiFi available. Even trips overseas have seen me operate in much the same manner.

One feature is that we seem to carry quite a number of different gadgets with us at a time and that can cause inconvenience when going through airport security since they want to screen each device separately. When you are carrying a laptop, a tablet, a phone and a camera, it does take time to organise yourself and you can meet impatient staff as I found recently when returning from Oslo. Checking in whatever you can as hold luggage helps to get around at least some of the nuisance and it might be time for the use of better machinery to cut down on having to screen everything separately.

When you come away after an embarrassing episode as I once did, the attractions of consolidating devices start to become plain. In fact, most probably could get with having just their phone. It is when you take activities like photography more seriously that the gadget count increases. After all, the main reason a laptop comes on trips beyond Britain and Ireland at all is to back up photos from my camera in case an SD card fails.

Apple iPad Pro 12.9″

Parking that thought for a while, let’s go back to March this year when temptation overcame what should have been a period of personal restraint. The result was that a 32 GB 12.9″ Apple iPad Pro came into my possession along with an Apple Pencil and a Logitech CREATE Backlit Keyboard Case. It should have done so but the size of the screen did not strike me until I got it home from the Apple store and that was one of the main attractions because maps can be shown with a greater field of view in a variety of apps, a big selling point for a hiker with a liking for maps who wants more than anything from Apple, Google or even Bing. The precision of the Pencil is another boon that makes surfing the website so much easier and the solid connection between the case and the iPad means that keyboard usage is less fiddly than it would if it used Bluetooth. Having tried them with the BBC iPlayer app, I can confirm that the sound from the speakers is better than any other mobile device that I have used.

Already, it has come with me on trips around England and Scotland. These weekend trips saw me leave the Asus eeePC stay at home when it normally might have come with me and taking just a single device along with a camera or two had its uses too. The screen is large for reading on a train but I find that it works just as well so long as you have enough space. Otherwise, combining use of a suite of apps with recourse to the web does much of the information seeking needed while on a trip away and I was not found wanting. Battery life is good too, which helps.

Those trips allowed for a little light hotel room blog post editing too and the iPad Pro did what was needed though the ergonomics of reaching for the screen with the Pencil meant that meant that my arm was held aloft more than was ideal. Another thing that raised questions in my mind is the appearance of word suggestions at the bottom of the screen as if this were a mobile phone since I wondered if these were more of a hindrance than a help given that I just fancied typing and not pointing at the screen to complete words. Copying and pasting works too but I have found the screen-based version a little clunky so I must see if the keyboard one works just as well though the keyboard set up is typical of a Mac so that affects word selection. You need to use the OPTION key in the keyboard shortcut that you use for this and not COMMAND or CONTROL as you might do on a PC.

Transcend JetDrive Go 300

Even with these eccentricities, I was left wondering if it had any utility when it came to backing up photos from digital cameras and there is an SD card adapter that makes this possible. A failure of foresight on my part meant that the 32 GB capacity now is an obvious limitation but I think I might have hit on a possible solution that does not need upload to an iCloud account. It involves clearing off the photos onto a 128 GB Transcend JetDrive Go 300 so they do not clog up the iPad Pro’s storage. That the device has both Lightning and USB connectivity means that you can plug it into a laptop or desktop PC afterwards too. If that were to work as I would hope, then the laptop/tablet combination that I have been using for all overseas trips could be replaced¬† to allow a weight reduction as well as cutting the hassle at airport security.

Trips to Ireland still may see my sticking with a tried and tested combination though because I often have needed to do some printing while over there. While I have been able to print a test document from an iPad Mini on my home network-connected printer, not every model supports this and that for NFC or AirPrint is not universal either. If this were not an obstacle, apps like Pages, Numbers and Keynote could have their uses for business-related work and there are web-based offerings from Google, Microsoft and others too.

In conclusion, I have found the my iPad Pro does so much of what I need on a trip away that retiring the laptop/tablet combination for most of these is not as outrageous as it once would have seemed. In some ways, iOS has a way to go yet before it could take over from MacOS but it remains in development so it will be interesting see what happens next. All the while, hybrid devices running Windows 10 are becoming more pervasive and that might provide Apple with the encouragement that it needs.

Sorting a stalled Windows Update service

Following a recent family death, I have ended up with the laptop belonging to the deceased and, since it has been offline most of its life, I set to getting it updated. The McAfee security suite was straightforward enough but trying Windows Update produced errors suggesting that it was not working that a system restart was needed. Doing that did nothing so a little further investigation was needed.

The solution turned out to be stopping the Windows Update service and clearing a certain folder before starting it again. To stop the service, I typed in services.msc into the search box on the Start Menu and clicked on the Services entry that appeared. Then I sought out the Windows Update entry, selected it and clicked on the Stop link on the left hand side. After that, I used Windows Explorer to navigate C:\Windows\SoftwareDistribution and deleted everything in there. The, I went back to the Services window and started Windows Update again. That sorted the problem and the system began to be updated as needed.

All of this was on Windows 7, hence the mention of the Start Menu, and the machine is Toshiba Satellite C660 from 2011 with an AMD E-300 APU, 4 GB of RAM and a 320 GB hard drive. Those specs may not be the most impressive but it feels spritely enough and is far better than the lethargic Toshiba Equium A200-1VO that I acquired in 2008 though the HP Pavilion dm4 that I bought in November 2011 probably will travel more often than either of these, if truth be told. After all, it now has 8 GB of RAM and a 1 TB Samsung SSHD along with its Core i3 CPU so it should last a while yet.

Upgrading a 2012 Google Nexus 7 to Android 5.0

Today, I was lured into upgrading my 2012 Google (ASUS) Nexus 7 to the final version of Android 5.0 (also known as Lollipop) by an icon in the device’s top panel. Initially, it felt as it was working OK but a certain sluggish could not be overlooked and there have been complaints about this with some questioning the sense of what Google have done. However, there would have been comments about grandfathering the device if they had not left us have the latest release of Android so there was no victory either way. We humans are fickle creatures and there is an example of exactly that in a well observed double-ended short story by the Irish writer Maura Laverty.

My impressions of how the upgrade had lumbered the tablet had me wondering about replacing the thing with either an Apple iPad Mini 2 or a Google (HTC) Nexus 9 but a much less expensive option came to mind: doing a full factory reset of the device using its recovery mode. That may sound drastic but much of what I had on there was in the cloud anyway so there was nothing to lose. So these are the instructions from Google themselves and I will leave you to use them at your own risk:

  1. If your tablet is on, turn it off.
  2. Press and hold the Volume Down button, then press and hold the Power button at the same time until the tablet turns on. You’ll see the word “Start” with an arrow around it.
  3. Press the Volume Down button twice to highlight “Recovery mode”.
  4. Press the Power button to start Recovery mode. You’ll see an image of an Android robot with a red exclamation mark and the words “No command.”
  5. While holding down the Power button, press the Volume Up button.
  6. Use the volume buttons to scroll to “wipe data/factory reset,” then press the Power button to select it.
  7. Scroll down to “Yes -- erase all user data,” then press the Power button to select it.

Note: If your tablet becomes unresponsive at any point during these steps, you can restart it by holding down the Power button for several seconds.

Once that was completed and the tablet restarted, the set-up routine began and took around an hour to reinstate the various apps that had been lost by the rest. Much of that was down to the time taken for re-installation rather than that taken by the actual downloads themselves over a wired broadband connection. The wait was worth it because the Nexus 7 feels more responsive again. While there times when little lags are noticeable, they are nothing next to the slowdown that I had witnessed before the rest. It might have been a better option than attempting to return to Android 4.4.4 using a factory image, which was another option that I was considering. So long as there is no deterioration in speed, the effort expended to do a reset will have been worthwhile.

Wiping of hard drives with Linux

More than a decade of computer upgrades and rebuilds can leave obsolete kit in your hands and the arrival of legislation controlling the dumping of electronic goods during this time can leave one wondering how anyone can dispose of them. Thankfully, I discovered that the local council refuse site only a few miles away from me accepts such things for recycling and saw me a good few times over the last summer with obsolete and non-working gadgets that has stayed with me far too long. Some were as bulky as a computer monitor and a printer but others were relatively diminutive.

Disposing of non-working and utterly obsolete equipment is an easy choice but I find this is harder when a device still works as intended and even might have a use yet. When you realise that computer motherboards still come with PS/2, floppy and IDE ports, things get trickier. My Gigabyte Z87-HD3 mainboard just has one PS/2 when predecessors would have had two and the same applies to IDE sockets and there still is a floppy drive socket on there too, a surprising sight for anyone used to thinking that such things are utterly outmoded these days. So, PC technology isn’t relinquishing backwards compatibility just yet since that mainboard is part of a system with an Intel Core i5-4670K CPU and 24 GB of RAM on there.

Even with that presence of an IDE port, I was not tempted to use leftover 10 GB and 20GB hard drives that I have had for just over a decade. Ten years ago, that sort of capacity would been respectable were it not for our voracious appetite for data storage thanks to photography, video and music. Apart from the size constraints, the speed of those drives cannot compare well with what we have today either and I quickly saw that when I replaced a Samsung 160 HD of a similar age with a Samsung SSD.

The result of this line of thought was that I was minded to recycle the drives so I started to think about wiping and Linux has a good tool for this in the form of the dd command. It can overwrite data on the disks so as to render the information virtually irretrievable. Also, Linux has a number of dummy devices that can supply junk data for overwriting purposes. They are like /dev/null which is used to suppress the issuing of output to the command. The first is /dev/zero which supplies octal zeros and I have used this. However, there also is /dev/random and /dev/urandom for those wanting a more random element to the overwriting.

To overwrite data on a disk with zeroes while having feedback on progress, the following command achieves the required result:

sudo dd if=/dev/zero | pv | sudo dd of=/dev/sdd bs=16M

The whole operation needs to be executed with root privileges and the if parameter of dd specifies the input data and this is sent to a pv command that shows a progress bar that dd would not produce by itself while sending the output on to another dd command with the disk to be overwritten specified using the of parameter. The bs parameter in that second dd command specifies the block size for the disk writing job. Unfortunately, pv is not installed by default so you need to add it yourself. On a Debian, Ubuntu or Linux Mint system, the command is the following:

sudo apt-get install pv

That pv sandwich also is invaluable for those times when dd is needed to copy partitions between different physical or virtual (in a virtual machine) disks. Without it, you might wonder what exactly is happening in the silence and that especially is concerning when you are retrying an operation that failed previously and it takes a while to complete each time.