Sunday, November 3, 2013

Mercedes-Benz SLK R170 (late-mid-life-crisis edition)

So, if you've read any of the other motoring related posts in this blog, you may know that I've had some pretty uninspiring cars in recent times.

It has not always been so, in fact for many years I had something 'interesting'... if not exactly good. But in recent times I have had a series of dull cars, and in fact the last two have been diesels. Ouch.

Last year I started to get very itchy feet about this, and started looking around for a nice ride.
I started my quest  by looking at the obvious choices, MG TFs and MX-5s. But neither inspired me, though especially the Mazda would be a sensible choice. Boxters were too much, and I was struggling. Then a local garage had a Chrysler Crossfire. I quite liked the look of it, but they got such bad reviews. Further reading on them revealed they were based on the Mercedes Benz SLK, which did not get bad reviews. Aha.

I started looking at these cars, and discovered there were loads of them. They varied in price of course, but the cheap ones were pretty cheap. I'd never really noticed them before, but the more I looked, the more I liked. The obvious appeal of the electric roof. They are handsome beasts. They are German built. Hmmmm.

Well, after much looking, I spotted a nice looking one locally, but before going to view it I rang a friend who I knew had had an SLK in the past, to ask what to look for. Turns out he still had his Merc, but it was SORNed. "Come and have a look at it..." I did. Next thing I knew it was in my drive. Love at first sight.

Guilty as charged then, of not looking into the fine print of the car before purchase, not having it professionally checked out, not even looking at it particularly carefully, and certainly not of having thought it through. But what the heck, it was only £2k. I say only... that's quite a lot to me, but it's not a lot for all the stuff I got.

It's a M-B SLK Kompressor 230, 1997 pre face lift R170 model, i.e. the original first 'pure' SLK before they started fiddling with them. Some say destined to be termed a 'classic' in a year or two. 195BHP, 0-60 in 7.5 seconds, top speed over 140mph. 5 speed auto with a supercharger. And a 'Vario' electric roof.

So far, so good. Nothing much to report. Everything works. It's a blast to drive with the roof down, really lovely. I haven't dared fully exploit its performance yet, but you can tell it's all there, under your right foot.

I will write more of my experiences with the car in time. One thing I have learned from hanging around the SLK World forums, is that the car is a complex thing, and I'm pretty lucky that nothing has gone wrong. Yet!

Update - read what has happened over the first two years of ownership, click here.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Acer Aspire One D255 - To Linux and Back Again

But I'd read a magazine article about how Linux can transform the performance of a netbook, so what the heck, I thought I'd give it a go. Fortunately I'm immortal, so losing a few days from my life won't matter, will it?

Oh, if you want to you can read a post I did a while back about the lil' Acer, here.
So I had a surf around and the wisdom seemed to be that Linux Mint would be a good choice. I experimented by making a bootable Mint DVD and running the netbook off that, just to see what would happen. Well... it mostly worked, but you couldn't tell about speed in that configuration.

The install of Mint went smoothly, and was quite quick, so far so good. But there were problems to come. The webcam wouldn't work with Skype. The microphone wouldn't work at all. Only one speaker worked. But above all, the battery life plummeted. It more or less halved, and the poor little Acer got very hot underneath. Some of these issues I may have been able to resolve given enough time, but to be honest I was put off when frequently the advice on forums was to open up a Terminal window and type stuff in that made no sense. Come on... Linux, are you serious? That's like going back in time to Windows 98... maybe even before. I gave it a day or too, but enough was enough. Admittedly it did indeed seem slightly more sprightly, but not fantastically so. So... back to Windows 7. This was where then 'fun' started.

Now I could bore you with how tricky it was to get Windows 7 back onto this netbook, but instead I'll just say this. Despite being in the computing industry since 1975 I am still amazed at how unutterably crap some programmers are - there is little excuse for the litany of stupid problems I faced trying to do something that should have been easy. I had gone to the trouble and expense of buying a USB DVD drive, and making the restore DVDs as per Acer's instructions, so it should be easy, right?

I'll give you an example - this was after I had spent a lot of time just getting the Acer to the point where I could run the restore. So, I was restoring Windows 7 using the Acer recovery disks. It got stuck on step 37 out of 40 something. There was no way around this, as the twerp who programmed this routine made sure as soon as you swapped out to Windows (which was there, working okay 'underneath'), you were flicked back to his full page recovery program... with just a glimpse of the underlying desktop before you got back. Well duh. Rebooting didn't help, as it just went back to where it was, stuck.

The cure for this, which I thought of myself but dismissed as insane, but then I found another poor sap had achieved and recommended, was to get the task manager up using Ctrl-Alt-Del, and then try to click on that window in the millisecond you had before returning to being stuck. I had to get the mouse just in the right place to be ready to click, then swap and click really fast. It took me 20 minutes, but eventually I managed to kill the recovery process. Looking back I can't believe I sat there and did it, but there was no other way.

In the end I got it back working under Windows 7, and its performance is once more acceptable. This time next year when it starts slowing up again, maybe I'll just bin it!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Four IT Gripes...

Just to get things off my chest... four IT related gripes, knowing these things just might help you.

Much as I like 1&1 hosting - unlike Fasthosts I've never had ANY trouble with them at all - I do find their documentation and Help service is a little lacking from time to time.

I was recently asked to set up a simple contact form on a web site, and looking throught the 1&1 help files, there was a lengthy explanation of how to use FormMail, a public domain bit of Perl code that would do the job with minimum effort.

Except... having spent quite a lot of time messing about with it, I couldn't get it to work. Much head scratching and searching through help files later, I finally cracked the reason. It wasn't my stupidity or a software glitch, or finger trouble or anything like that - it was simply that the account I was trying to get this working on was the cheapest 'Starter' flavour... and it turns out that it didn't support Perl scripting. Arggghhh. This is made a somewhat obscure shortcoming, you have to delve deep into the hosting features to spot this, and at no point did the documentation about how to implement FormMail mention this. Another hour of my life I'll never get back. (I ended up writing myself a PHP script, the results of which are a lot better, IMHO.)

A few months ago I purchased a Seagate Freeagent Goflex Desk 1TB USB drive, and it has worked well and I'm very happy with it. Part of its appeal at the time I purchased is was that it sits in a cradle that, as Seagate put it is "a unique adapter that lets you upgrade instantly or change the drive’s interface for faster transfer speeds". I.e. you can upgrade from the USB2 I have to the new USB3, with its promise of 10x faster transfer rate.

So... I've recently purchased a new Lenovo laptop (see below) which sports 2 USB3 ports, whoopee. I therefore have a look on t'internet for the USB3 cradle for my drive. They are very hard to track down. I could find a cradle and PC card combo, but I don't want that. Eventually I found one on Amazon, though not sold by Amazon themselves, for 45 quid. Now... I can buy a complete USB3 external hard drive for that much... so I emailed Seagate asking where I could buy them from at a reasonable price (I speculated at about 20 quid). They replied promptly, thus:

"I apologize for the inconvenience this may have caused you.
You will have to get it from Amazon or through the internet. The reason some or most retailer or distributors might not have it is because the drives that came after are all USB 3.0."

So, polite though that was I think I've just been told to bugger off and not bother them. Not very helpful, and of course that's the last time I'll be buying from Seagate.

As mentioned above, I have purchased a Lenovo laptop recently, which is jolly nice, and I will be writing a review of it once I've been using it for a little while. It's a G580, and cost a very reasonable £400 from PC World.

However, there was, as could be expected, quite a bit of Crapware on it out of the box. (For those not in the know, crapware is software manufacturers stick on their products presumably sponsored by the authors to do so, and it's pretty much always complete... well... crap - or if not exactly crap it's certainly not Free software, it's trial versions mostly).

So, expecting this the first thing I did was uninstall it all... I didn't even run most of it to find out what it was, life is too short.

Having then loaded the machine up with lots of my stuff, I was asked to reboot, and I did, and Windows (8) started updating. Only it failed. It got to 15% and then said there was a problem and gave up, specifically it said "failed configuring windows updates reverting changes". Bit of a worry. And there I was, stuck, cos it just wouldn't do the updates.

I finally tracked down the problem (more lifetime lost never to return) on a Lenovo forum. Turns out that the glitch was caused by one of the bits of crapware. The advice was to go to the crapware and change some settings, but of course I'd uninstalled it!

I finally solved the problem by doing some messing about with the services manager in windows, and finally got through it. But I'm an IT professional who wasn't taking no for an answer.

I wonder how many normal folk out there are sitting in front of Lenovo laptops that will not update vital malarkey in Windows because Lenovo installed crap crapware on their nice new machines?

Bit of an outrage really, but as I said the laptop is (so far) very nice, so maybe I'll just need to move on from this initial setback. Watch this space.

 And finally, I've always been a little bemused by the spam checker incorporated into Gmail. It has frequently dumped perfectly good emails from Google themselves into my Spam folder, which seems extraordinary.

As mentioned above I was writing a contact form for a web site, and in the time honoured way with programmers, I inserted the 'Ipsum lorem' text into my first test. (For those happy individuals who are not programmers, this is a bunch of Latin words that are used as fake input for testing porpoises.) So, I sent the email, and lo, it did not arrive. More head scratching, until I realised it had ended up in my Gmail spam folder. Why? Well it's hard to say, but on investigation there is a Gmail spam rule that states that if the email isn't in the language you are using, then it gets marked as spam. Hmmm. Maybe they ought to introduce a  caveat to that rule to allow Latin?