Monday, October 27, 2014

5 Helpful Software Tips for Your Computer

I have many software tools at my disposal, some I use very little but find irreplaceable, some I use a lot and of equal value. But many times people are unaware of certain tools, or add unnecessary tools thinking they somehow help. Today I want to explain some of my favorites and why you may or may not need them.

Compression Apps
Everyone who uses a computer has come across a .ZIP file one time or another. It is a file container that attempts to shrink one or more files in size to a single file that can be later opened. There a variety reasons to do this, such as sending one file instead of many through an email. Needing to send or transport many files and hoping to get a smaller file size out of all them while doing so. And even just needing to password-protect some important information.

The Rub
If you have used any iteration of Windows since 1998, Mac OS X since version 10.3, or certain Linux distros, you already have a .ZIP utility included in your OS! There is no need to install other programs to get them to open or need to be zipped. Many make the mistake that a third-party program is required and install that when first getting a new PC.

The Drawback
While the preinstalled software is great for .ZIP files, other (now) common compression extensions cannot be opened. Some of these include .RAR or .7z, both quite popular nowadays. 7-zip is freeware and can open .7z files. It can be easily downloaded and will also give you the option to integrate to right right-click menu on Windows, as well as open .RAR or .ZIP files. In addition, it supports most popular OS's. WinRAR is another favorite, but the free version will always have a pop-up (not adware or malware-based) trying to get you to buy the program. This will perform .ZIP or .RAR files, includes password-protection, settings for how to compress the file, and even a well-known benchmark. If you do not purchase the product, the only time it will become a nuisance if it trying to open multiple .RAR or .ZIP files at once.

Check this article to see when WinZip (an old, but not recommended application), 7-zip, or WinRAR is best to use depending on the circumstances. While it is a bit old, I doubt compression has progressed to the point to make it invalid.

Update: I just read this short article detailing how .7z compressed files are the best choice. It is from a couple of days ago and notes the downside is that no OS comes with 7-zip pre-installed, so you would need to download it regardless of your system choice. Keep in mind, the only items they compressed were games, so it is somewhat biased in that regard.

Adobe Reader
This has been a huge staple for many of us in the past. PDF's are here-to-stay, and we need something that can read them. While I still install Adobe Reader on new computers, sometimes I find that the download receives an error and will not continue.

The Rub
If you use newer versions of Firefox or Chrome browsers there's no need to install Adobe Reader. Internet Explorer also has this capability, but there have been reports of issues from time-to-time. All these browsers can easily view PDF documents, but you will need to notify the PC to set one as your default viewers for PDF's. To do this on Windows, right-click a PDF and click "Open with", choose the option to "Choose default program..." if necessary. Then choose your browser from the list. If your browser is not in the list your will have to browser and find its .EXE application in your "Program Files (x86)".

The Drawback
There really isn't much of a drawback here. Adobe Reader has a few extra functional features that most common users will never miss. And if you're into editing PDF's, Adobe Acrobat is the program you will need (or OpenOffice for the daring!). 

Microsoft Office 2013 can view PDF's natively. If you don't have that, OpenOffice has long had the ability to view (and manipulate) PDF's, however it sometimes does not view them as perfectly as it should.

Registry Cleaners
Many people do not know what the registry is letalone that they may need a cleaner for it. Windows OS' have had a registry since version 3.1, and it moreorless stores configuration settings for applications from and for the system. Knowing this, have you ever wondered - after installing tons of software, possibly uninstalling just as many - why your computer slows down? Sure, it could be a RAM issue, or a storage issue, but what about when it just happens out-of-the-blue? Sometimes, it is a registry problem.

The Rub
Most of us will never know the importance of a registry cleaner. But these cleaners can often save lives! Having a clean registry can often be the difference between installing a program and getting errors and getting it to install perfectly. There are numerous other reasons about old unneeded files, browser issues, etc., but the main concern is that the more errors the more unseen problems that will arise. There are free registry cleaners available. CCleaner is well-known and a favorite. It is simple to use and has a rather simple GUI, there are better versions available but at a cost. Wise Cleaner is also fairly well-known, and I believe has a better GUI for ease-of-use.

The Drawback
This can really only help you. You can go without one, but it does nothing horrible if you do get one. The most I could say against it is that they can require you to close your browser, which if you have a lot of tabs open, will likely disappear upon reopening. It will also take out the trash, so if you have something in there that shouldn't be, take it out first!

I prefer PC Tools Registry Mechanic, or RegCure. I found both in combination work quite well. I use Registry Mechanic for the brunt of the cleaning, and RegCure finds anything leftover. These are both paid applications, but they will do wonders for your computer.

Windows Explorer Tabs
This is a new feature for me, but I do think it is useful (at times). On Windows 10, this should be an integrated feature (if the build versions are of any telling). If you remember a time before web browsers had tabs, you can probably recall a time when you had 10 or more browser windows open cluttering the desktop and confusing yourself. When tabs were first implemented by Firefox, everyone knew it was the future for web browsers. So why not have them as part of Windows Explorer (the browser of files for Windows)?

The Rub
While all web browsers now have this function, Windows Explorer does not. Do not fret, there are a couple of free programs that can help fix this. Clover 3 is modeled after Chrome tabs and looks beautiful. It does use Chrome browser shortcuts such as CTRL+T and CTRL+W. It supports Windows XP, 7 & 8. I have not tested this on Vista or 8.1, so do so at your own risk. QTTabBar integrates into Windows Explorer, and it works flawlessly. It does not have the beauty Clover 3 has, but other than that, it has many of the same shortcuts. If you delve into its options, which does take a bit of time, it becomes a great asset to any (commercially available) Windows OS. QTTabBar supports Windows 7 & 8, but may work with others.

The Drawback
Clover 3 looks spectacular but it's biggest drawbacks are almost all function-related. One that is not is that it does not integrate with Windows Explorer, but simply gives you another application to use. The shortcuts worked only once for me, and I have noticed that it can get really buggy. Recently it got so bad that I had to uninstall it. QTTabBar has great functionality without nearly no hiccups. The only problem is that the learning curve and time needed for customization make it a bit of a burden for those who want to just download and go. One minor issue the seemed to appear out-of-nowhere was being able to movie windows. For some reason I could barely drag a window, or it would assume I was double-clicking to enlarge... Essentially, if both were combined, it would be the perfect program. Alongside these problems is the addition of no formal support for either application.

A third choice is TabExplorer. While it may not rank as highly as the other two mentioned, it does support Windows 2000/XP/Vista/7 for those on older Windows operating systems. It also has a support team. Whether they will be of any help (if needed) is not something I am privy to.

Detailed Media Information
This is more for those who work with or use a lot of video/audio files and need to find media details quickly. Sure there is always the clicking on a file's properties and checking its details, but there are often very little if any.

The Rub
MediaInfo is a light-weight, freeware application available for Windows, Mac, and many flavors of Linux. It will give you many details including bitrates, formats, frames-per-second (FPS), and much more! Once installed, you simple right-click on a media file and select "MediaInfo". It will then produce a windows with all the information for that media file.

The Drawback
It adds a tiny bit to the hard drive? I'm not sure what to put down for this. Unless you absolutely don't need it, it can become extremely helpful. Maybe if you have numerous things on your context menu, then it will just be that much more cluttered...

It does recognize newer codec types like VP9, so if you have a file that won't play, you can first investigate as to what file-type it is. Then you can determine if your default player can actually view it, or if you need to download a different player (or supplemental codec-pack).

Here We Are
So, you may never need any of these tips to help you. Yet, chances are you will at least find them helpful in one day for one reason or another. And if nothing else, a few may help free up some storage, if only by the tiniest bit. Keep in mind these are mostly items that will help Windows users, but some do apply for other OS's.

Friday, October 24, 2014

USB 3.0 Hub Driver Fix & How to Bypass USB Hub Size Limit!

In my last article, I explained how I had just purchased two Toshiba Canvio 3TB external HDD's. Part of my learning process involved getting a new USB 3.0 hub that could take advantage of their speeds. Therein my journey took place to fix my USB 3.0 problems.

USB 3.0 Hub
I have been looking for a good USB hub for quite some time, and buying the two Canvios prompted me to purchase one since only two of my four USB 3.0 motherboard ports currently work. I had bought some USB 2.0 hubs on clearance a while back, but the first started having problems whenever it was moved. This indicated a cable irregularity, but nothing could be done since it was part of the product. It is now a toy for my young daughter who likes to chew on things (disconnected of course!).

I went through our local shops and priced a few USB 3.0 hub brands. I found the cheapest and it did look aesthetically pleasing. I bought it and brought it home. I connected the hub only to find it would not recognize my drives. On the fine writing on the hub itself it states that it cannot support drives higher than 2TB! True to form, my Canvios were not recognized when inserted and turned on.

USB 3.0 Hub Driver Fix!
The easiest thing to do is ensure that you have checked the motherboard's manufacturer's website, downloaded and installed any USB 3.0 drivers (I'll explain why later). The next would be to check the cables and try different ones, as well as different USB items. If that doesn't work, continue on...

The first thing to do is go into Windows 7's Device Manager and open the USB items. I found the generic hub and right-clicked to access Properties. I clicked on the Drivers tab and noted the Driver Provider, WHICH IS IMPORTANT!

I then found this site: USB3.0 Drivers
I should note that I had a 4-port hub, not a 2-port hub. Yet, I installed the 2-port driver for AsMedia. I uninstalled the driver (also under the Driver tab) for the generic hub within the device manager, but YOU SHOULD NOT TO DO THIS UNLESS YOU HAVE TO!!! Installing the downloaded driver, if it has a setup executable file, should work fine. If you do uninstall the driver, make sure you have drivers for your motherboard from the manufacturer.

Once the driver was installed the hub immediately found both of my drives. If you do not have a setup.exe file, you will need to have Windows browse to the folder where the USB 3.0 drivers are and hope that it sees them. (Check the subfolders option just in case.)

USB Hub Limit Fix!
If you're USB 3.0 hub does happen to state it does not allow external HDD's higher than 2TB (or possibly some other amount), you're not out-of-luck yet. I fixed it by installing the drivers above. It was able to recognize the 3TB Toshiba Canvios, BUT this may only be a viable solution for USB 2.0 hubs as described directly below...

Fake USB Hub!
I did some tests with AS SSD, and yes, it does work with HDD drives. My findings were unacceptable, but not that shocking for a generic Chinese brand. The speeds I was getting is indicative of a USB 2.0 hub, not a USB 3.0 hub. I tested each drive directly connected to my PC and to my hub, and the results were too large to be a mistake. So, I went back to the shop I bought it from and traded it in for another, slightly more expensive, 4-port model.

Driver - Different Amount of Ports?
My new hub worked, but I thought that the USB hub could be faulty, since only two of the ports were working. I then remembered that the driver was meant for a 2-port hub, so I thought I would seek out another driver and try my luck before returning that model too.

I found a newer version of the AsMedia drivers here on a French site that had a ton of drivers for whatever you can think of. I used the executable setup file to install the drivers and tested the two ports that had not been working. Voila! The USB 3.0 hub is now fully functioning on all 4-ports. BUT, after testing the drive speeds again, the transfer rates have been downgraded to USB 2.0...

So, at this point in time, I had the option of using two USB 3.0 ports at full speeds; or all four USB 3.0 ports at USB 2.0 speeds.

Note: These drivers may work for other hubs of different providers, or you may need to look elsewhere as I had to.

Motherboard Manufacturer USB 3.0 Drivers
When I originally uninstalled my USB generic hub drivers, I inadvertenly took away the ability for Windows to recognize my Seagate external HDD which is connected directly to my PC via USB 3.0. This created a lot of trouble, hence why I learned about all the driver information here!

Uninstalling the last set of drivers I installed for USB 3.0 forced my computer to do a reboot. (You can double-click the setup.exe file - if you got one - and it should hopefully give the option to remove the drivers in addition to repairing.) It hanged on booting, but a restart quickly fixed that. Once in my PC I reinstalled my motherboard drivers (which I had not been able to do before for unknown reasons), and the USB 3.0 hub immediately recognized my drives. On further testing, the speeds are what they should be, so the USB 3.0 hub is now fully functioning.

Motherboard vs. Provider Drivers
If you read through the horrors above, then you're probably thinking, "There's no reason not to use the motherboard manufacturer drivers." However, there are a couple reasons. The most obvious are that your motherboard manufacturer doesn't offer any with your computer, or, like me, you were unable to install them.

Maybe more importantly was the information I got from the tests I ran. While only one of the drivers above worked for USB 3.0, it did have an amazing speed increase on write-to-disk. I gained about 10-15MB/s on each Toshiba Canvio. However, the motherboard drivers gives my USB 3.0 Seagate a push of around 5MB/s for read-from-disk, and 2MB/s on write-to-disk.

So the toss up for me is having all four ports functional as USB 3.0, with a bit slower Toshiba Canvios and a slightly faster Seagate; or having only two functioning USB 3.0 ports with faster Toshiba Canvios. I have opted for the latter since I could really use the extra ports, and I did pay for four.

Note: I am using a motherboard that no longer gets updates from the manufacturer, so a newer motherboard may still be getting updated USB 3.0 drivers which may increase your transfer rates.

What Have We Learned
The knowledge set forth should allow you to get a USB 3.0 hub working (partly), or at the very least, have the knowledge on how to go about trying to fix one. In addition, it is possible to breach the limit of a USB hub, for better or worse. These things never seem important until they actually are, so if you feel you have wasted your time, trust me, you haven't. Will you remember what I have written is another matter.

Toshiba Canvio: Sleep Function & Unallocated Space Fixes!

I recently ordered two used Toshiba Canvio 3 terabyte (TB) external hard disk drives (HDD) from Amazon. I made the decision after noting that a new Seagate 5TB external HDD would cost the same price. But what you get is what you pay for...

Toshiba Canvio
There seems to be a lot of different versions of the Toshiba Canvio with portable sizes and different storage amounts. Toshiba has never been my first go-to manufacturer for anything. I had a Toshiba Satellite laptop many years back, and it did right by me. However, I do recall that I had a different laptop with an internal CD-writer made by Toshiba that lasted a very short time. So, I decided that I would see how their external HDD's fared since I already have an external USB 3.0 Seagate.

Warranty Registration
A couple of notes on the 3TB model. It was first introduced to market in 2013, and has since been plagued by varying issues. The first being that there is no way to sign up for a product warranty through Toshiba's website. It will return an error as if you input the wrong serial number, but it won't matter in either case. You can contact Toshiba and they will tell you it is not possible online. This is despite having a 3-year warranty! Which is an additional reason I bought this since Seagate external HDD's normally have 1-2 year warranties depending on the model. Oddly enough, it is considered a NAS device if you check the first three serial number characters. This is in no way a NAS device by normal standards...

To remedy this, you will need to keep your receipt and just wait for a fateful day when you actually need to RMA it. Hopefully you never will, but there were many horror stories about how many of them died after a couple weeks of use. I bought this through Amazon, which keeps my order history (as does NewEgg, and many other large companies); so I just have to open my account for a receipt.

Once you need a RMA, and have the receipt, go to this link and click the "Start" button to begin the RMA process.

Sleep Function
This is the biggie that had all the Canvio users up in arms. Evidently, a lot of people bought this to make Windows backups. I do not use any type of Windows backup except for System Restore Points. I manually backup items to all my external drives, of which I have many. Putting that aside, it should still not be an issue to perform a Windows backup on one of these drives, but the fact is to the contrary.

The implemented sleep function on the Canvios is unable to be switched off. Toshiba has a sleep tool, but it is meant for older drives. And while Toshiba is well aware of the problem, they have yet to address the issue anywhere as these drives continue to be sold. This has impacted Windows backups by abruptly going to sleep during the procedure! Luckily, the problem has been around long enough that fixes have emerged from users.

Sleep Function Fix!
There are a few different techniques that should fix the sleep function issue. The most common fixes are software programs that will disable the sleep function. It seems that most, if not all, do not work. There is a registry hack, but this does not have any feedback and novice users should always stay away from the registry.

There are two working solutions: One is to have an empty file written (and then deleted) to the Canvio drive every so many minutes to ensure it stays on. The only problem here is that the drive is doing unnecessary work, and essentially using it up for nothing. The more practical method is using CrystalDiskInfo.

CrystalDiskInfo Method
Download the free CrystalDiskInfo program here (Standard .EXE edition). Install the program and you can make use of such things like how many times your hard drives have been turned on, and how many hours they have been ran. (This is quite useful for someone like me who took a risk and purchased used external HDD's!) More useful for this situation is the APM feature, which will help ensure the sleep function does not occur:

  1. Check off "Function > Resident".
  2. Check off "Function > StartUp".
  3. Go to "Function > Advance Feature > AAM/APM Control".
  4. Choose your HDD from the dropdown menu.
  5. Set APM to 80H (or 60H).
  6. Click Enable.
  7. Check off "Function > Advance Feature > Auto AAM/APM Adaptation".
  8. Go to "Function > Advance Feature > Auto Dectection > 30sec", you can make this faster if you like.

Note I: The reason we have chosen 80H for amount is that CrystalDiskInfo states that this is the minimum amount of power required to disallow a disk from going into standby (or in our case, sleep mode). I have tested and noticed that that lowest amount applicable is 60H. The different between those two amounts is the amount of power being used. So, 60H may be best in terms of saving power and disabling the sleep function.

Note II: The sleep function is there for a reason. Apparently these drives are fanless, so I believe the sleep function allows them to not overheat. This may also be why Toshiba does has not taken responsibility for the sleep function as an issue. Both of my Canvios heat up to around 50 degrees, however, one seems to always run a little hotter. Take heed that the sleep function is not always a bad thing!

Note III: To reenable sleep mode, just exit out of CrystalDiskInfo.

Reformatting a Toshiba Canvio
What many people will recommend when you first get an external drive is to reformat it. This will wipe out the preloaded manufacturer software, which is rarely needed, and usually found on their website.

I normally don't do this as I have never felt the need, but I decided to do so with the two Toshiba Canvio 3TB models because I had nothing on them yet. After all was said and done, I did notice a slight increase in the transfer rates, but nothing to get excited over. The said and done part was what really mattered here...

Unallocated Space
If you use Windows, you can reformat the drive by just going into (My) Computer and right-clicking on the desired disk. Then choose Format, and format as you like. But if you want to create partitions on the drive, or just prefer a more professional formatting feel, you'll want to use Disk Management.

What I discovered was truly odd. My mission for reformatting the drives was to see if I could find any way in which to perform a software RAID (in which I have not found one viable solution without hardware assistance). So, I deleted both volumes to begin the process.

The unallocated space, which is what that drive will then become, was separated into two parts: A one and two terabyte partition for each Toshiba Canvio. And no matter what I did I could not get the partitions to come back together.

Unallocated Space Fix!
I wasn't about to let two full terabytes go to waste, so I went ahead and use third-party software to resolve this issue.

I used EASEUS Partition Manager, which is free, and I prefer the interface. However, I would recommend against this as even if you choose custom installation and opt-out of all the extra software it wants to install, it will still install a piece of software that continues to pop-up on your desktop to advertise their programs. I ended up having to use the latest version of ComboFix to get rid of most of it. The last lingering part was going into the Program Files (x86) > EASEUS Partition Manager > bin and deleting the folder named "TrayPopup" (where you might need to reboot your computer first before doing so).

Another free program, which will not install adware, is MiniTool Partition Wizard (Home Edition). This will do the same thing as the aforementioned program, and is quite well-known in the Android community.

Using either software you will want to create a new partition, label it and add a drive letter, then apply the action. Ensure that you have allocated all the disk space so you get the full amount, otherwise you will need to go through this again. And even if you go through all the steps and it looks like everything should now be working, unless you have applied the action [button at the top], the actions you have performed have yet to be taken.

Note: The partition table is set as MBR, so it can only support up to 2TB when initially formatted. Another way around this problem is to use DiskPart and convert the drive to GPT, but this is not recommended for novice users as you can easily make mistakes and there are no safeguards.

Used From Amazon
As a finalalizing piece, I wanted to throw in that the used drives I got have been working fine. I have had no real troubles other than those mentioned above. With CrystalDiskInfo I found that one drive had been used for a little over 3 months, while the other was used for less than a day. The one that runs a bit hotter is the one that was hardly used. So, they both have their trade offs in terms of which is better. Had I been able to wait a couple months, I could've bought brand new ones at almost the same prices, but I couldn't, so I didn't. Used products is fine if you have tools to measure how they run, but if you don't, then used is really only preferable when affordability comes into play.

This Is The End
You should now know how to properly use a Toshiba Canvio, or be fully prepared if you plan to buy one (as it is the cheapest option for a 3TB on Amazon!). Other external hard drives are usually plug-n-play, as long as you have the appropriate drivers already installed. But the price for these Canvios is enough to sway many.