Welcome to the QA Tech-Tips blog!

Some see things as they are, and ask "Why?"   I dream things that never were, and ask "Why Not".  
Robert F. Kennedy

“Impossible” is only found in the dictionary of a fool.  
Old Chinese Proverb

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Never Buy Another Hard Drive!
How to Get Replacement Hard Drives for Free

Hard drives are expensive.

Large hard drives are very expensive.

Replacing a failed hard drive is not only expensive, but it's also a pain in the tush.

How would you like to be able to replace a failed hard drive virtually instantly, and not have to pay for future replacements?

Did I just hear everyone scream "YESSSSS!!!!"?

Believe it or not, it's not that difficult.  The magic word here is "warranty".  As in "hard drive warranty".

One of the little known facts about hard drives is that they usually come with rather nice warranty periods - especially if it's a newer drive, or something they're trying to push.  More importantly, typical hard drive warranty periods run from three to five years, depending on the drive.

Unfortunately, most people do not realize that their hard drive might still be under warranty, or they don't even think about hard drive warranties, so they end up needlessly spending a lot of hard-earned cash paying for drive replacements they shouldn't have to pay for.

Since YOU just happen to be one of those clever folks who don't like to pay extra, and are willing to make the hard drive manufacturers stand behind their products, this is how you do it.

Of course, being the clever person you are, YOU already know all about this, right?  Now you can send this to all your friends so they become even MORE impressed with your God-like expertise!

  • First, you should decide on what hard drive size is most commonly used by you.  In my case, I use a lot of two terabyte drives.
  • Go buy one on sale somewhere.  Look in the internet, price match if you can.  This one purchased drive is your "in stock" spare.  Of course you want to do this before a drive fails, but even if you didn't - go get a new version of the drive you need.

    With a little bit of luck, (or forethought), you already have a backup of what you had on the failed, (or failing), drive, so that you can restore to the new, "spare", drive you just purchased or had "in stock".

  • Go to the manufacturers web site and download their disk diagnostic tools disk, which is usually an .ISO image of a CD.  Burn it to CD, pop it in your system, boot it, and then run the diagnostics on your failed drive.  There's a good chance you won't have to run anything more than the "quick test" to uncover the problem.
  • The disk test will give you an error code - write it down somewhere - this is important!
  • Remove the drive from your computer, and either install the new drive that you've cloned from the old one, or go to another computer.  (Or, boot a live Linux disk, and use the web-browser there. :-)  )
  • With the drive out of the machine, go to the manufacturers web site and find the "return" or "warranty" link - it's usually under "Support".
  • Enter the drive's model number and serial number and it should give you the warranty status of your drive.  If it's not older that three or four years - and many aren't - it will tell you that the drive is "in warranty"
  • The site should then give you the option to process a warranty return.  Here is where you will need the error code(s) you copied down before.  You might have to enter the model and serial numbers again.
  • Once it accepts the return, it will ask for your name and postal address to ship the new drive to - and it will probably ask for a credit card.  They do this just in case you don't return the old one.  Normally this is free of charge, or they might ask a nominal fee for shipping an advance-replacement to you.
  • In about a week or so, you get your new drive in the mail, and it usually includes a pre-paid return label for UPS or FedEx.
  • If you've already replaced the failed drive, open the box, remove the new drive, (keep it in the static bag!), and set it aside as a spare.  Otherwise, swap drives.
  • Put the old drive in the static bag, put it back in the box the same way the new one was packaged, seal it up, stick on the label, and send it on it's way.  Make sure you get a receipt for the shipment, just in case it gets lost.

VoilĂ !  A shiny new hard drive - with a full manufacturer's warranty - free!  (Or almost nearly so.)

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Linux After Dinner "Mint"
A First Look at Linux Mint 13

A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to visit the local Micro Center in Cambridge, and while I was there I was able to pick up one of the latest issues of Linux Format magazine.  Issue #162 of Linux Format was their annual "Distribution Grudge Match" issue where they tossed a dozen or so Linux distro's into one of the WWF's "cage match" wrestling cages, sat back, popped a cold brew, and watched the fireworks!

When the dust cleared, (and the bodies were removed), the distribution left standing at the end of it all was Linux Mint.  This was a bit of a shock to me since Mint went head-to-head with some of the heaviest of the heavyweight distributions; defeating distro's like Ubuntu and Fedora who normally send opponents scrambling for cover.  Mint went head-to-head with the best distributions out there, they were all compared based on a whole host of differing criteria, and at the end of it all Mint had really made a name for itself.

As to the "why" of it's victory, I can't do much better than refer you to the statement made by the folks at Linux Format, when they said, (something like), "Linux Mint isn't about new or flashy features, it's about stability and usability."  They went on to say that Linux Mint would often avoid the whizz-bang features of other distributions, concentrating on what they know works and works well.

What really differentiates Mint is the fact that they base their distributions on Ubuntu's "LTS" (Long Term Support), releases instead of whatever flashy new release was just tossed at an unsuspecting public.  Even with that, they carefully pick-and-choose what pieces of the latest LTS release they want to include, skipping anything that they don't believe offers real value to their users.

Another differentiating feature of Mint is their new desktop manager, Cinnamon.  They saw that many Ubuntu users, (including Yours Truly!), were getting heartily tired of the Gnome vs KDE desktop wars, their dissatisfaction with the bizarre desktop that Ubuntu calls "Unity," and Canonical's seeming deaf ear to user suggestions or complaints.

Seeing their disgust, the folks at Mint developed an in-house desktop called Cinnamon.  Cinnamon is a light-weight desktop following the basic Mint premise of eschewing flash and glamor in favor of a stable, working, desktop manager that does everything you need, and nothing you don't.

The distinguishing feature of Mint's implementation of Cinnamon is the absence of "features."  They don't throw IM clients, e-mail clients, and other assorted horse-hooey at you.  They don't clutter your desktop with various kinds of "super-bars", or other unessential cruft and bloat.  It's remarkable in its muted color-scheme as opposed to the garish colors of Ubuntu's Unity desktop.

In fact, the "it just works" design philosophy of the Cinnamon desktop has become so popular that other Linux distributions have begun using, or offering, the Cinnamon desktop with their own releases.

The Linux Mint "Cinnamon" desktop,
notable for it's clean, open appearance and muted color scheme.

Aside from the lack of clutter on the desktop, (the only two icons that appear by default are the "Computer" and "Home" folders), the task bar / system tray at the bottom is the only real tool-bar on Mint's Cinnamon desktop.  This provides a big working surface that is easily configured to your own personal tastes.

The Mint "task bar" has icons for the "Start" menu, (the gear and "menu"), 
Reveal Desktop, (the green box), Mozilla Firebird, 
a Terminal window, and the Nautilus file manager

The Mint "System Tray" has only the few icons needed 
to give you a quick "heads up" on the status of your system.

My only real beef with Mint's task bar is that it's a bit too thin for my taste.  Since I have just started messing with this myself, I may well find a setting that allows me to change it's size.

The initial view of Mint's Cinnamon desktop at first login, 
showing the "Welcome" window and selections.

Normally, I really hate having a pop-up screen shoved into my face, be it at first boot or otherwise.  Strangely enough, Mint's initial dialog isn't really "in-your-face" as it blends in nicely to the rest of the desktop.  Its message is polite and respectful, and the various options offered are actually useful.

Though you have the option to avoid seeing this dialog at start-up, I have found it sufficiently useful that, at least for now, I keep it there for my own reference.

An enlarged view of Mint's "Welcome" window, 
showing a number of useful and interesting links.

I really like both the design and layout of Mint's default Cinnamon desktop.  Most other desktops, (at least in my opinion), look like something designed for hawk-eyed 20 year old eyes.  Either the color choices are too bizarre, or the control elements are way too small for my own eyesight.

Likewise, Cinnamon's organization of both the desktop and the various window controls is strikingly similar to the Windows desktop, which makes the transition from one to the other a much less painful process.

Mint is one of the easier distributions to install and use.  This makes sense as it is one of the many Ubuntu re-spins out there and the whole Ubuntu heritage was built on usability.

Linux Mint, in the true spirit of Ubuntu's tradition of offering choices, creates several different spins of each distribution, with the Gnome, KDE, or Cinnamon desktops preinstalled.  You want Gnome?  No prob!  You download the "Gnome" version and away you go.  Likewise with KDE or Cinnamon.

Mint 13 includes the usual plethora of applications and other "stuff" that seems to be expected in a desktop system, including things like the Gimp image editor, and Libre Office.

Additionally, their standard distribution comes with all the codecs and viewers that you normally have to go hunting for, and it also includes, pre-installed, Adobe Reader and Flash.  The result of all this effort is a distribution that is ready for prime-time, right out of the box.

Of course, if you are a distribution purist, they also create distribution spins without all the limited rights stuff installed.  It's your choice.

In the same vein, unlike Ubuntu and other clones, all of the useful repositories are pre-selected by default.  This means that you don't have to re-configure the update manager to include the repositories you need.

The other side of all that effort in your behalf is that after you finish the installation, you should go check for updates.  When I checked for updates after my own install, there were something like 450 updates listed.  However the total size for all the updates was less than 500 megs, and they were all done - soup to nuts - in less than a half-hour.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of updates and download speeds. . . . . .

One of the nicest touches I found was an option within the update manager's configuration settings that would test each of the Linux Mint mirror sites, and then offer you the best and fastest mirror site based on where you are.

The bottom line is that Linux Mint 13 is an eminently usable distribution.  If you are used to the way other distributions organize things, there might be just a bit of a learning curve here.  However I don't think this will be much of a problem since things are conveniently placed where you would reasonably expect to find them.

Likewise the open and uncluttered desktop allows you to organize your workspace in whatever way you are most comfortable with.

I think it's worth your time to go take a look.  If you've become annoyed with all the flash-bang cruft in other distributions, I think you will be pleasantly surprised with Linux Mint.  You can go find it here.  (Though be patient, sometimes the site's a bit slow to load. . .)

What say ye?

Jim (JR)