WinTab: How near is the end?

I was browsing the Web with my Wintab last night and received a notification about an updated graphics driver (Intel 10.18.10.4653); after installing and rebooting, I kept on browsing only to see the tablet switching off after a while with a “paf” sound. I switched it on, kept using the tablet and the same thing happened again. It happened once more and then I went to bed – no need to bother about that so late.

Next morning, I booted and was greeted with the Windows troubleshooting screen; it was frustrating, because the touch screen was misbehaving as it used to do after upgrading to Win10 for the first time. I swiped on the right and the cursor went on the left (and vice-versa) so it was tricky to find the proper spot. In the end I gave up and just switched off the tablet.

I hope that the problem will be as simple as a driver issue, so that I can revert back to the old one. I like the tablet (functionality-wise, not quality-wise) so I will miss it if it stops working…

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Can a cheap Windows tablet replace your laptop?

In my case, yes. For more info, just read below.

I am a avid supporter of portability and lightness, so I always try to do my work (and live) with the less and lightest possible. My laptop arsenal consists of a huge and bulky 17-inch Toshiba Satellite (was used as a desktop in my previous work, so I rarely moved it away from the desk, and a low-end 15-inch Acer laptop, with basic specs (4GB of RAM, Intel N2940 @ 1.83GHz, 500GB HD), to be used mostly at home (by my wife and kids) and during trips, when my serious work had to be done. I needed something more portable, light but efficient, to save me from dragging these laptops around the house, where space is really limited – i.e. no desk available.

There are some related articles on the Web, authored by those who tried to get things done with a tablet, replacing their laptop. See for example

I am using a cheap 10.1-inch Windows tablet imported by a Greek tech company (Plaisio Computers), so it is practically a Chinese model with the Turbo-X (Plaisio’s brand name for my electronic devices) brand on it; a common practice among related electronics suppliers. It features (like almost all similar tablets) the following specs:

  • RAM: 2 GB
  • Storage: 32GB flash (expanded through the microSD slot)
  • CPU: Intel Z3735F @ 1.33GHz
  • Screen: 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800
  • Cameras: Front (2MP) and rear (5MP) cameras (both low quality). Practically useful only for Skype calls.

An interesting spec is that it charges both from its microUSB port and from its proprietary port (pin cable) so I can charge it and use its microUSB cable at the same time.

Modifications

Update to Windows 10: The table came originally with Windows 8.1 and no drivers were available by the supplier/manufacturer. After a couple of months, the free upgrade to Windows 10 started rolling and knocked my door, so I went for it. I had serious issues after upgrading (touch screen not working at all or misbehaving), cameras not working etc. so it took me days of researching for solutions, drivers and getting some support from Plaisio. Now it’s working like a charm with Windows 10.

Keyboard: The tablet came with a detachable keyboard, but after about after one year the plastic gaps of the tablet part, where the keyboard’s hinges plugged, broke and so the keyboard will not fit without causing issues to the tablet’s plastics. I soon replaced it with a Logitech K480 bluetooth keyboard because: (a) it doubles as a stand for the tablet (otherwise I would also need a stand) (b) it can be paired to 3 devices max and instantly switch between them by rotating a dial knob so I could also use it with my smartphones and other tablets and (c) it was bluetooth, so it would save me the only full-size USB port of the tablet (the second one was on its original keyboard part, which was now unusable) from a USB RF adapter of a wireless keyboard.

Storage: The tablet’s 32GB are mostly occupied by the OS and other app files, leaving less than 15GB for the user. I went for a 32GB microSD card, to be used as a storage so all apps would be installed on the tablet’s storage.

Peripherals
Mouse: After the original keyboard incident, I was left with no touchpad, so while I use the touch screen sometimes I need the precision of a mouse. I have a travel USB mouse with a retractable cable at hand, along with a bluetooth Microsoft mouse as a backup.
USB: I have a microUSB to USB adapter for making use of the tablet’s microUSB port.
HDMI: I bought a microHDMI to HDMI cable for hooking the tablet to TVs or larger screens. In most hotel rooms the ports (and TV menu options) are locked but sometimes I get lucky.

Ethernet: The tablet did not come with an ethernet port, so I got a USB to ethernet adapter for those rare (nowadays) cases where WiFi is not available but I have the option for a wired connection (while in other cases there are both but wired is usually faster and more stable 😃 )

Typical use

I mostly use my tablet at home, when I need to browse for something and I need a screen larger than my Lumia’s 4.7-inch one. It boots quickly, can be used single-handed and acts like a small-form laptop. I also use it for working with documents, reading ebooks, checking my emails and social media etc.

At one time, I decided that carrying my 15.6-inch laptop around during my business trips was an overkill so I started using my WinTab instead. And I haven’t regretted it. It is much lighter, flexible (e.g. I can use the tablet only when reading a document or reviewing my slides during a flight, where space is limited, and attach the keyboard when I am at the hotel room or during the meeting / workshop that I am attending, for working on my slides, keeping notes, sending emails, sharing outcomes through social media etc.

In both cases, WinTab is a great laptop substitute: It is capable of handling light multitasking, e.g. a few browser tabs open along with a couple of MS Word files, a PPT presentation etc. It can decently play YouTube videos and MP4 files without stutters. It is really sufficient for such light tasks and makes me wonder about the crappy netbook I once owned (an Acer Aspire One 751h), which was a real nightmare to use, even with lightweight Linux distributions – how badly designed it was…

Issues faced

Battery: The battery lasts much less than advertised. I haven’t tested it thoroughly but it won’t keep charge for more than 3 hours, which is really low (and less than I need), depending on the usage. For this, I decided to buy a 2m microUSB cable so that I can access any available power outlet.

Lack of Miracast support: It would be lovely for the tablet to support Miracast, so that I could wirelessly mirror its screen on a Smart TV or large screen. Its hardware does not allow it so I need to hook it through the HDMI port. It cannot be used as a larger screen for other devices, so e.g. I cannot project my smartphone’s images or videos to it – wirelessly.

Screen quality: I do not mind about the low resolution of the screen, and it’s size is adequate most of the times. However, I recently noticed some flickering of the screen, which is really annoying.

Storage: I use the remaining internal storage of the tablet for installing apps and the microSD card for storing stuff (music, movies, images etc.). However, my work is much larger than that and I need to keep files synced. In order to address this, I keep my archive on an external HDD and work directly on it, when it comes to real work. I also have a selection of movies and music there, so that I do not exhaust the microUSB capacity. I’d love to have more than 128GB of internal storage, so that I could avoid this.

Heat: The tablet is fanless and shouldn’t raise the temperature but maybe due to bad design (and lack of air flow), it gets really hot behind the CPU. It may affect the battery life, but it’s not really a problem.

So to make a long story short, one can replace a laptop with a basic Windows tablet, but this surely depends on the expected use and requirements. A typical Windows tablet with a Z3735f CPU and 2GB of RAM can do much more than I expected and costs less than a low-end laptop.

Attempting a clean install of Windows 10 to WinTab

It seems that there is no rest for the wicked; especially when the wicked use a Turbo-X WinTab! To make a long story short, just before my last business trip, I realized that the cameras of my tablet were not working – so I could not take photos or video call anyone…the former is not that important as the cameras are nothing special but the latter is – especially when I need to Skype call friends, customers or colleagues. So I decided to fix the issue – a few hours before my trip!

I first tried to find drivers for the camera from Intel (the manufacturer) but it was not possible. Then, I searched for generic drivers from other sources, such as fora and other online sources. This led me to a driver package for Lenovo tablets featuring the same camera. I downloaded on of them. I even installed it. And then I started getting Blue Screens Of Death! I tried rolling back the driver but it did not solve the problem; the package had installed other drivers as well. I even tried deleting some of the affected drivers and tried reinstalling them but this did not work either.

I recalled that I had installed a driver backup app for sending my drivers to another poor guy who had issues with his WinTab so I tried to restore the drivers but no luck. In the end, I booted into Safe Mode, did some work and then managed to make the tablet booth without BSOD. So I thought that everything was ok. However, during the flight I noticed an extremely quick battery drain so that I only got less that half of the typical battery runtime. This caused me issues during my business trip, as I was forced to use my 15-inch laptop all the time – which proved to have a battery lifetime of more than 5 hours with WiFi open!

As soon as I got back home, I decided that it was time for refreshing my Windows 10 installation: I created an image of the system using the built-in functionality of Windows 10 and I even got a copy of some of the files so that I could copy them back to the tablet if all went well. I went for refreshing the installation (not formatting) without keeping the files and settings and expected that everything would run normally. Alas; the touch screen was for once more so misaligned that the tablet was not usable. Since I wanted to avoid getting back to the previous situation by restoring the image, I tried a driver back up tool I had for restoring the previous version of the touch screen driver but for some strange reason, this would not work either – it seems that the current drivers were newer than the previous (working) ones, so the app would not restore them!

In the end, I had to go through restoring the previous version of the OS through the image restore and it seems that the battery lifetime issue is not that severe – the BSOD are also a thing of the past. However, the cameras still don’t work and I need to find a way to make a clean install of Windows 10 without such issues. Only time will tell how much patient I will need to be with this nice but still ill-fated transformer…

Διακοπές 2014: Ταχύπλοα vs. Συμβατικά πλοία, σημειώσατε 2

Φέτος αποφασίσαμε να πάμε και πάλι στη Νάξο μετά από 3 χρόνια. Χωρίς αυτοκίνητο, αλλά με τα δύο πιτσιρίκια. Από Ραφήνα.

Για να γλυτώσουμε τη γκρίνια των μικρών μας από το μεγάλο ταξίδι με συμβατικό πλοίο, είπαμε να δώσουμε κάτι παραπάνω για να πάμε με ταχύπλοο: το κάτι παραπάνω ήταν 52 ευρώ έκαστο για κάθε ενήλικα αντί για 36,50 με το Blue Star (στις αεροπορικές, μπορούσαμε και με 32 ευρώ έκαστος στο κατάστρωμα ή σε σαλόνι)  – ευτυχώς τα πιτσιρίκια μιας δεν πληρώνουν ακόμα ειστήριο γιατί είναι μικρά.

Το FlyingCat4 ξεκίνησε στις 3/8/2014 στις 08.00 από Ραφήνα και έφτασε στη Νάξο στις 12.20 αντί για 11.25 που ήταν προγραμματισμένο. Χωρίς προφανή λόγο. Χωρίς ενημέρωση. Συνολική διάρκεια 4 ώρες και 20 λεπτά. Κόστος 104 ευρώ (για να πάμε μόνο).

Το Blue Star Ithaki από Ραφήνα ξεκινούσε στις 07.40 και έπιανε Νάξο στις 13.30. Συνολική διάρκεια 5 ώρες και 50 λεπτά. Από την εμπειρία μου τόσα χρόνια, τα Blue Star είναι συνεπή στους χρόνους τους, αλλά το συγκεκριμένο δεν ξέρω αν καθυστέρησε την ημέρα που ταξιδεύαμε. Κόστος 73 ευρώ.

Τα ίδια και στην επιστροφή: Το FlyingCat4 ήρθε στην ώρα του στη Νάξο και ξεκίνησε στις 16/8/2014 στις 14.00 περίπου αλλά και πάλι φτάσαμε στις 18.20 στη Ραφήνα. Πάλι 4 ώρες και 20 λεπτά… τυχαίο? Δε νομίζω… με έκανε να αναρωτιέμαι αν τελικά το FlyingCat4 έχει κάνει ποτέ τη διαδρομή Ραφήνα-Νάξος & Νάξος-Ραφήνα σε 3 ώρες και 20 λεπτά που υπόσχεται…

Επιπλέον οι τουαλέτες μύριζαν από μακρυά και ευτυχώς δεν χρειάστηκε να τις χρησιμοποιήσουν τα μικρά μας. Το bar δε, χρέωσε 2,95 ευρώ μια τυρόπιτα (με τυρί Φιλαδέλφεια, όπως μας είπαν, γιατί δεν είχε απλή)

Για να κλείσουμε το θέμα: Το FlyingCat4 δεν έκανε τη διαδρομή στο χρόνο που είχε υποσχεθεί. Δικαιολογίες υπάρχουν πολλές, αλλά δεν πληρώνουν το ταξί που αναγκαστήκαμε να πάρουμε επειδή χάσαμε το λεωφορείο στη Νάξο. Η διαφορά δε στην τιμή με το Blue Star (και προφανώς και με άλλα συμβατικά πλοία) δεν δικαιολογεί πλέον τη διαφορά στο χρόνο που χρειάζεται για να φτάσουμε στη Νάξο. Συνολικά πληρώσαμε 208 ευρώ με το FlyingCat4 αντί των 146 με το Blue Star.

Πάμε και στα άλλα τα καλά: Διαδρομή Ίος-Νάξος (13/8/2014) με το SeaJet 2. Περιμένουμε στο λιμάνι τις Ίου στις 12.35 που ήταν προγραμματισμένο να μας πάρει (και να μας σηκώσει…). Έφτασε με το πάσο του στις 13.15, μέχρι να φορτώσει πήγε 13.30 – Μία ώρα καθυστέρηση σχεδόν, χωρίς καμία ανακοίνωση ή δικαιολογία. Φτάσαμε στη Νάξο μετά από 40 περίπου λεπτά – 14.10 αν θυμάμαι καλά. Κόστος: 2 Χ 28,30 οι ενήλικες = 56,60 ευρώ και 14,20 ευρώ ο μικρός, άρα 70,80 ευρώ – προφανώς για το SeaJet δεν ισχύει αυτό που αναγράφεται στην πίσω πλευρά του εισιτηρίου σχετικά με τα παιδιά κάτω των 4 ετών, αφού το σύστημα δεν μας έβγαζε μηδενικό εισιτήριο. Η δε καθυστέρηση σε σχέση με το συνολικό χρόνο της διαδρομής ήταν τραγική.

Στην αντίστοιχη διαδρομή Νάξος-Ίος (9/8/2014) με το Blue Star Ithaki, το καράβι ήρθε με μικρή καθυστέρηση (περίπου 20 λεπτά) και φτάσαμε σε περίπου 1 ώρα. Κόστος: 14,50 Χ 2 = 29,00 ευρώ οι ενήλικες και μηδενικό εισιτήριο ο μικρός, άρα 29,00! Φαίνεται ότι στη Blue Star δεν είναι τόσο έξυπνοι για να χρεώνουν και τα βρέφη…

Συμπέρασμα: Πολύ άσχημες οι εμπειρίες μας φέτος από τα ταχύπλοα. Αν αποφασίσουμε το χρόνου να πάμε πάλι στη Νάξο, μάλλον θα προτιμήσουμε κάποιο συμβατικό πλοίο που είναι πιο συνεπές στους χρόνους του και με τη διαφορά στην τιμή θα μπορέσουμε να πάρουμε και το αυτοκίνητό μας. Αν αποφασίσουν να αλλάξουν τροπάρι τα ταχύπλοα, θα το μάθουμε από κριτικές και θα δούμε τι θα κάνουμε, αλλά μέχρι τότε θα κάνουμε κράτει…

Trip to Bucharest

Some notes from my recent trip to Bucharest:

  • I was disappointed to see that smoking was allowed inside closed spaces, like the hotel lobby, the restaurants etc. I was almost sick and the existence of smoke just added up to my bad experience.
  • Romania uses Lei (RON), so I had to exchange some currency. My previous experiences both at the Athens airport and at the Henri Coanda in Bucharest were bad (bad conversion rates), and I was advised to use my debit card at one of the ATMs available at the airport. I did so, and I decided to leave the conversion to my (Greek) bank instead of having the ATM define the conversion. I got 310 RON in 3 notes of 100, which I found rather hard to use for small buys (e.g. ice-cream, water, snacks etc.).
  • Due to the fact that I had plenty of time before the project meeting, arriving early at the airport, I decided to take the bus 783 to the city center. You just have to follow the signs and get to the lower level of the airport. The automatic machine was only available for re-filling existing ticket cards, so I went to the desk next to the bus station (you cannot buy tickets from the driver, inside the bus). I got a two-way ticket for 8,60 RON (including the cost of the card).
  • Last time, I got a taxi from the Bucharest airport to the city center; it appeared to be a “pirate” one. I cannot remember how much it costed but I felt glad to arrive safe and receive a receipt as well (even though the driver seemed disappointed to receive the payment in RON instead of EUR).
  • The bus included a telematic system and informed the passengers about the next bus stop, both in Romanian and English; I really wish we had such thing in Greece as well.
  • Life and goods in Bucharest are still rather cheap; for example, a soft drink at the mini bar of the hotel costs 4 RON (about 1 EUR), you can have a 500mL glass of beer for about 9 RON, and eat at a good restaurant (including drinks and dessert) for about 60-70 RON (less than 20 EUR).
  • It is common to add at least a 10% of the total amount of the receipt as a tip for the service; if not, the service is not considered good. However, this amount is not available in the bill nor anywhere else, so it becomes a non-eligible cost for business trips (where you have to provide receipts for all expenses).
  • Taxis (at least the yellow ones, with the 1.39 LEI/km sign) tend to be rather cheap; you can go around the city for less than 20 RON (about 5 euros) and calling a taxi is really quick and precise, even from coffee shops and restaurants. A trip from the old city center to the Henri Coanda airport costed about 40 LEI (10 EUR)
  • The park near the Arcul de Triumf is amazing; a huge park within a large city, with ponds, canals, bridges, a lot of recreation space, statuses, cultivated ornamental plants, place to have a snack and a drink etc. People jogging, couples carrying babies with strollers, people of all ages cycling and walking, everyone relaxing away from the noise of the city. However, due to the rains of the previous days, some of the paths were full of mud and pools of water; it was a good thing that the numerous benches were dry.
  • The weather was constantly changing, like in Athens; starting from warm and really humid, with (almost annoying) sun, to chilling in the afternoon, drizzling and even raining. Maybe that was reason behind my constant headache during my stay in Bucharest – one moment you start seating and the next minute you get a refreshing breeze which gets colder and colder, leading to you getting a nice cold in the end!
  • The old city center is worth visit; it took about about 15 minutes from our hotel and 10 RON with taxi to get there. There is a wide variety of shops and goods available at low prices (you have to check this out though), as well as nice places to eat and have a drink, traditional buildings and other sights. Pay attention to the beggars in the streets, as they tend to be really stubborn and insist on you giving them money. The streets there as also crowded, so I paid special attention to my back pack, in order to avoid having it opened by pickpockets.

Home network update Part 1: Modem/router replacement

I have been having issues with the network at home for quite some time now. I suspected that the cause of the disconnections was not the laptop but the modem/router; the old and probably worn Thomson TG585 v7 was my first one and obtained through my DSL provider back in 2009. It has been working almost 24/7 since then and I found it normal to start malfunctioning. Even a firmware update to the latest available version (8.2.7.8) did not help; my devices kept disconnecting from the home network every now and then.

After doing some online research, I decided to get myself a LEVEL ONE WBR-6603A 150MBPS WIRELESS ADSL2+ PSTN MODEM ROUTER, which I found on sale for 24,90EUR + 3,00 EUR P&P. It seemed like a decent replacement of my existing modem/router with advanced features (many of which I may never use). I have to admit that setting it up was not the easiest part since I found the user interface to be poor and not helpful (nowhere near the Thomson one); however, after some hours of testing I managed to get all the info provided by my DSL provider correctly in the settings of my new router and had my home network up and running again.

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It has been about three weeks since then and everything seemed to be functioning smoothly…apart from the home laptop itself (an entry-level Lenovo G550); it kept freezing sometimes and became the bottleneck of the network. So I had to do something about that too!