Category Archives: rants

When Google Maps is wrong

When I arrived in Bologna yesterday I was well prepared. I had found my hotel on Google Maps and printed out the map. I had plenty of time, so rather than take a taxi from the airport I decided to take the bus and then a short walk to the hotel.

All went well, I thought; I got off at the right stop, crossed the river, and walked to where the hotel was on my map. It a sizeable hotel and is even marked on the map.

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Oh dear. No hotel. I was on the right road, but instead of a welcoming hostelry there was a high fence behind which was a residential area.

I sought directions. Unfortunately I don’t speak Italian, but I pointed at the hotel on my Google Map. My helpers did not speak English but helpfully pointed me back the way that I came.

I turned on my smartphone. Bing Maps could not find the hotel at all, a fact confirmed by the full browser version.

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I tried Nokia Drive. That could find the hotel, but placed it in the same wrong place as Google Maps. I walked there anyway. I was standing right next to the finish flag, no hotel.

Again I sought directions. This time my helper spoke good English. “It is the other side of the river”, he said. Only about 10-15 minutes walk, but still.

He was right. Here is the hotel’s map on its site, again a Google map but note with its own pushpin.

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Google maps thinks it is east of the river, but in fact it is west of the river, approximately 1.5km away from Google’s location.

The hotel is not particularly small.

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No surprise I guess that Google Maps has errors, but I am surprised that a prominent hotel in a well-known city is so significantly misplaced. And that Nokia Drive has the same wrong information, suggesting a common source.

The lesson: local knowledge is best.

It gives me pause for thought though. On the web, if Google cannot find you, traffic drops alarmingly. Could the same be true in the physical world? Could there be future lawsuits over lost business from missing or incorrect information on IT systems on which we rely?

Fortunately I was still in good time for a nice plate of pasta before bed.

Postscript: The hotel told us that it is aware of the issue and has told Google “many times” but has been unable to get it corrected.

Another point worth mentioning: in order to find the right bus I had consulted with Tourist Information at the airport. They had worked out my route using … Google Maps. It shows the extent Google’s service is embedded into our way of life, increasing the significance of errors.

Amazon AutoRip: great service, or devaluing music?

Or possibly both. Amazon’s AutoRip service means that when you buy one of a limited, but considerable, range of CDs, you get an MP3 version in your Amazon cloud player for free. Even past purchases are automatically added, which means US customers have received emails informing them that hundreds or in some cases thousands of tracks have been added to their Amazon cloud player.

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The service adds value to CD purchases in several ways. You get instant delivery, so you can start listening to your music straight away, and when the CD comes in the post, you can enjoy the artwork and play it on your hi-fi for best quality.

Amazon is differentiating from Apple, which only sells a download.

An infernal creature lies in the details though. Here are a few comments from Steve Hoffman’s music forum:

Got Auto-rip Pink Floyd’s DSOTM 2011 mastering of the DSOTM SACD that I bought in 2003.

and

I now have autorips of cd’s I no loner own…..interesting concept.

and

I now have autorips of CDs I bought as gifts.

These customers have done nothing wrong. They bought a CD from Amazon and gave it away or sold it, but it is still in their Amazon history, so now they have the MP3s.

Another interesting point is that Amazon appears to treat all versions of the same recording as equal. This is why I have included the comment about the Pink Floyd album above. Record companies have done well over the years by persuading fans to buy the same CD again in a remastered version, sometimes with bonus tracks. The Beatles 2009 remastered CDs are a well-known example. But if customers with unremastered CDs are now getting remastered MP3s automatically, this type of sale is harder to make.

The gift issue is more serious. The terms and conditions say:

Albums purchased in orders including one or more items marked as “gifts” at purchase are not eligible for AutoRip.

and intriguingly:

If you cancel your order or return this album, our normal order cancellation and product return policies will apply regarding the physical version of this album. However, if you download any of the tracks on the MP3 version of the album from your Cloud Player library (including if you have enabled auto-download to a device and any of the tracks on the MP3 version of the album auto-download), you will be considered to have purchased the MP3 version of the album from the Amazon MP3 Store and we will charge your credit card (or other payment method) for the then-current price of the MP3 version of the album (which will be non-refundable and may be a higher price than the physical version of the album).

Someone therefore has thought about the problem, though I predict unhappy customers, if they buy a faulty CD, return it, and find they have been charged anyway thanks to an auto-download feature of which they might not understand the implications.

Note also that many CDs are purchased as gifts without being marked as gifts in Amazon’s system. The idea of marking items as gifts is that you can have gift wrapping and get an item sent to another address, but if you plan to do your own wrapping, it is not necessary.

Here is something else. Audio enthusiasts are not happy with MP3s, preferring the real and/or psychological benefits of the lossless CD format for sound quality. For many people though, the audio is indistinguishable or they do not care about the difference.

What do you do if you receive a CD in the post, having already downloaded and enjoyed the MP3 versions of the tracks? I imagine some customers will figure that they have no use for the CD and sell it.  Provided they do not return the CD to Amazon, I cannot see anything in Amazon’s terms and conditions that forbids this, though I can see ethical and possibly legal difficulties in some territories.

The consequence is that someone may lose a sale.

Subscription is the future

My view on this is simple. The only sane way to sell music today is via subscription – the Spotify or Xbox Music model. The idea of “owning” music (which was never really ownership, but rather a licence tied to physical media) is obsolete with today’s technology.

Amazon’s new initiative demonstrates how little value there is in a downloaded MP3 file – so vanishingly small, that it can give them away to past customers for nothing.

Google: a search engine, or affiliate site?

According to my current web stats, 95.6% of those using a search engine to find a post did so using Google. That represents market dominance, and power to make or break a business which depends on web traffic.

Google’s search engine is the best in my experience, but I am increasingly concerned about the quality of the results, which are noticeably worse today than they were in the early days.

Ideally (from the user’s perspective) its search results should be objective as far as possible; for example, it should not favour sites which spend more money advertising with Google, nor should it favour Google’s own web properties above rivals.

I noticed an article in the Guardian stating that this is not the case:

A Google search for credit cards returns with an advert at the top of the screen, far bigger than the rest and bigger than any other website link. Adverts of this size and prominence will attract a high click-through rate. This will prevent searchers going via other affiliate sites or applying directly for a credit card.

I tried it. Here is what I got:

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The most prominent results is the one with the images, admittedly marked “sponsored” but in a grey, small font that you could easily miss. This is actually an ad for Google’s own affiliate site for credit cards, just click Apply:

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I do not get the same issue with Bing, although I do think the designation of which results are ads is too small:

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Still, at Bing has not awarded itself a large ad with images that links to its own affiliate scheme.

Of course I can choose not to use Google. Unfortunately though, businesses cannot choose what search engine their customers or potential customers use to find their sites.

I am one of those who believes regulation should be as light as possible, but considering the power Google currently exerts and the lack of fairness in examples like this, it seems to be that some kind of regulation is needed.

Disclosure: this site uses Adsense, a web advertising scheme operated by Google

Apple looks mortal

This has been a bad week for technical journalism. Everything was going according to script; new iPhone announced on 12th September; not really much new but oh, the design, oh, the performance, oh, the small touches. Then those with early access to devices poured forth their reviews: “probably the most beautiful smartphone anyone has ever made,” said The Telegraph, while Walt Mossberg on the Wall Street Journal said that “Apple has taken an already great product and made it better.”

Mossberg did say that the new Maps app in the iPhone5 was “the biggest drawback” though the faults he found were, in retrospect, minor. He observes the lack of public transport information, and add that “while I found Apple’s maps accurate, they tend to default to a more zoomed-in view than Google’s, making them look emptier until you zoom out.”

When iOS 6 was rolled out generally this week though, the public had a different take on the subject. One factor was that they looked at the maps in their own location, whereas early reviewers tend to be located in major cities. The big issue is not the lack of public transport routing, though that is an issue, but the poor quality of the data. It is simply not of release quality. One small example. Birmingham Airport is a significant destination in the UK, but if I search for it here, I get mysteriously directed to Aldridge Airport, 20 miles north.

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Note: “Aldridge Airport” closed in the sixties and is “Now an open space used for football, dogwalking and the buzz of radio controlled aircraft.”

Birmingham airport itself seems missing.

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This search is no challenge for Google Maps.

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Maps are important on a mobile device, and this was an instance where the technical press, labouring as usual under short deadlines and the unrealistic challenge of perfectly encapsulating the qualities of a complex product with a few days of skimpy research and a few hundred words, let the public down.

More significantly, it is the biggest PR disaster for Apple that I can think of in recent years, certainly since the launch of the iPod in 2001, which was in a sense the beginning of Apple’s mobile adventure. When a tube station puts out a notice mocking Apple’s maps you know that this is a problem that everyone is talking about, not just the Twitterati.

Why has Apple done this? It is paying the price for escaping Google dependence, a real problem, but one that you would have thought could have been better addressed by licensing maps from Microsoft or Nokia, both of which have better maps; or by sticking with Google a little longer while putting its own effort out as an alpha preview while it fixes the data.

Apple will no doubt fix its maps and the decision to break with Google may eventually look good, but it is hard to see how it can fix them quickly.

The big reveal here is how Apple is prioritising its long-term industry strategy ahead of the interests of its users. Apple has done this before; but never with such obvious harm to usability.

It is still, no doubt, a beautiful phone, and the maps issue will be solved, if only by using Google’s web maps instead.

Apple looks mortal though, and the script is not playing back as planned. People who once would only have considered Apple will now be more aware that alternatives are in some respects better. The longer the maps issue continues, the more significant will be the effect.

Apple should withdraw its broken maps, go back to Google at least temporarily and reinstate the old maps app.

This may be why your computer is crashing

I was asked to look at a PC which was misbehaving. Sometimes it worked, but increasingly it was freezing or crashing. Sometimes the hard drive would corrupt and needed Windows repair before it would boot.

I took a look. I ran the drive manufacturer’s diagnostics, which reported no drive errors. I ran memory tests. I removed each of the two RAM sticks alternately to see if one was faulty. I tested the power supply. The PC was still not stable.

Then I took a close look at the motherboard. The only visible sign of possible trouble was that two capacitors close to the RAM sockets were bulging slightly at the top.

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I removed the board and replaced the capacitors – not that easy a task, though the actual capacitors are cheap enough. You need a powerful soldering iron and plenty of patience.

Since the replacement though, the PC has been perfectly stable.

Of course the owner had presumed a Windows problem and spent ages updating drivers, looking for viruses, and so on.

The capacitors are branded Tk and since making the repair I discovered that others have similar tales. It is not just these specific capacitors though. The bad capacitor problem remains a common fault with PCs that are a few years old.

The economics of the repair is marginal unless you can do it yourself. A replacement motherboard costs so little that it does not pay for much professional service time. However if like me you get some satisfaction from repairing rather than disposing of old but good electronics, it is worth it.

The other point: if your PC is crashing a lot, take the back off and check the capacitors. Any bulges or leaks, and you can stop wasting time trying to fix a hardware problem by tweaking Windows.

Backup and file history in Windows 8 Consumer Preview: a million options to confuse you

How is backup in Windows 8? Does it have online backup? Do files sync to SkyDrive like Apple’s iCloud?

Reasonable questions. I had a poke around in Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Search for Backup in the Start menu:

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Not that then. Search in Control Panel:

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More promising. So what is File History, is that the essence of Backup in Windows 8?

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The essentials seem to be: File History is off by default. If Windows finds a drive other than the system drive, it will propose it for File History as above, otherwise it invites you to connect an external drive. Here are the Advanced settings:

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You had better make sure that everything you want to save is in a library, because while there is also an Exclude folders option, I cannot see an Include folders option.

But File History is not, to my mind, backup. It will not recover your system or your applications. Oddly, if you want to see all the backup options, do not search for backup; search for recovery.

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This is where things get strange. Go into Windows 7 File Recovery, which sounds like some legacy thing, and there is the old backup – yes, it does backup as well as recovery:

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Note that from here I can also create a system image or a repair disc.

Alternatively there is the new Recovery feature:

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Reset seems clear enough: a clean install, or at least, restoration of the OEM install that came when your PC was new.

Refresh though is more opaque. What exactly happens if you click Refresh?

Refreshing your PC reinstalls Windows and keeps your personal files, settings, and any apps that came with your PC and apps that you installed from Windows Store.

It seems to me that Refresh is essentially a Reset followed by restoration of Windows Store apps, settings, and your files as defined by Windows, probably the same as in File History but who knows? If you have a folder in your C drive called “Important stuff”, my guess is that neither File History nor Refresh will pay it any regard. Don’t do that.

The disappointment of Refresh is that it does not preserve other application installs, you know, like AutoCAD, Photoshop, that custom business app written in VB6 and somehow persuaded to work, and so on. Refresh could be less than refreshing for some users.

Advanced tools includes an option to create a recovery drive. It is not clear to me though what gets included here. On my system I was invited to insert a USB flash drive with at least 256MB capacity, which suggests that not much gets recovered.

Finally, I mentioned SkyDrive and online backup.

There is an online backup service built into Windows Server 8, but which is only available to test if you are in the USA. Might this also be offered to Windows 8 client users? It seems to me possible, but I cannot see it in the Consumer Preview.

What about SkyDrive? Microsoft is promising some strong SkyDrive integration, which will let you:

  • Open and save documents direct to SkyDrive in Metro
  • Have a SkyDrive folder in Windows Explorer
  • Get files from your PC remotely via SkyDrive.com

All good stuff; but I cannot see the desktop SkyDrive app in Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Details are here, where Microsoft’s Mike Torres says:

we aren’t talking about availability right now – but it won’t be available this week.

where “this week” means Consumer Preview week.

I have the Metro SkyDrive app on a Windows 8 slate that is not domain-joined. On my desktop PC, I domain-joined the Windows 8 install. Tried to run SkyDrive and got this:

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Hmm. Does that mean not using a domain-joined PC? I went to Users as instructed. There is no “Switch to a Microsoft account” option, but there is an option to “Connect your domain account to your Microsoft account to sync PC settings”:

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Hang on a moment. What, exactly, does this do? In particular, what does that last option, “Sign-in info”, mean? That if someone hacks my Live ID they have my domain login too?

How are app settings synced if I have different apps installed? What about different versions of the same app, or is this just Metro apps that can be presumed to be kept updated? What about PCs with different hardware that needs different settings, say Aero enabled on one but not another?

Again, reasonable questions, but don’t bother pressing F1. Nothing will happen.

Conclusion? If you want to backup your files or your system in Windows 8, you are in luck; there are a million options. I do not think you can call this simple though, and my guess is that wrong choices will be made and will be costly. 

My choice? Personally I like what Microsoft now calls “Windows 7 recovery”. It does an incremental backup of your entire PC, apps, “C:\important stuff” and everything. And it works. I do not see that any of the newer options replicates this.

Why is MusicCityDownload.exe in my Windows folder?

I had this question, and did not find much on a quick search, so here is the answer.

I figured that MusicCityDownload.exe was probably not malware, since it looks so much like malware. I mean, surely a malware writer would call their executable spladmin.exe or something like that.

This proved correct. The clue was to look at the executable properties, discover that it is signed by MarkAny Inc which has some DRM technology, and then that it gets installed with Samsung’s Kies media management application. I doubt you will miss Kies so you might want to uninstall it, but it is not actually harmful as far as I am aware so you can stop worrying about MusicCityDownload.exe.

Apple iBooks Author aims at school textbook market, but beware the lock-in

Apple claims to “Reinvent Textbooks” with the introduction of iBooks 2 for iPad, along with an accompanying free authoring tool for the Mac.

iBooks Author is already in the Mac App Store and I had a quick look. It is template based, so the first thing you do is to make your choice.

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I picked Contemporary, whereupon the authoring screen opened and I started to make some edits. If you divide Desktop Publishing (DTP) tools into those that are more oriented towards longer books, and those more oriented towards shorter but more graphically rich titles, then iBooks Author is in the former category. You can write the text in Pages or Word, and then import to iBooks Author. You can also add images, charts, tables, hyperlinks, and a variety of widgets including HTML, Keynote presentations, 3D models and more. The format of some of the widgets seems to be Dashcode, as used by the Dashboard in Mac OS X; certainly that is the case for the HTML widget.

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I got a bit stuck on one point. I did not want the astronomy images in the template, but was not ready with an alternative. However I could not delete the image placeholder. It seems that the templates are somewhat restrictive.

Once your work is ready you can preview it. This is interesting. In order to preview, you attach an iPad, open iBooks on the iPad, and then select it in iBooks Author. A nice touch: the book appears on the iPad marked Proof.

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There is also an animation as the book opens. In the grab below, you can spot the busy icon: this is because the smart cover disappears automatically so you have to grab it on the fly.

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What about publishing? You can export your work in one of three formats: iBooks, PDF, or plain text.

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Apple emphasises the licensing agreement right there in the Export dialog. You can only sell your book through the Apple iBookstore. Note also that the book is only for iPad. You cannot read it on a Mac, let alone on an Amazon Kindle, unless you choose PDF and make it available for free.

Here is the agreement in more detail:

B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:
(i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;
(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.

I exported the book in iBooks format and took a quick look at the contents in an editor.

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On a quick look, it seems to have a lot in common with a standard epub, but is nevertheless a proprietary Apple format.

Finally, a few observations. I have no doubt that eBook usage will grow rapidly in education as elsewhere, and the iPad is a delightful device on which to read them, though expensive.

I do have nagging concerns though. In typical Apple style, this is an only-Apple solution for authors or publishers who need to charge for their work. Does it really make sense for schools and colleges to recommend and use textbooks that can only be read on Apple devices? Of course publishers can repurpose the same underlying content for other formats, though they will have to be careful how they use iBooks Author to avoid falling foul of the licensing clause quoted above.

Is there no way to reinvent textbooks without an Apple tax and locking knowledge into proprietary formats?

Android and Carrier IQ: alarming claims, immediate questions

The claims of security expert Trevor Eckhart regarding data collection by Carrier IQ are among the most alarming of any I can recall in the IT industry. I dislike the way Facebook gets you to publish data about yourself almost without realising it, and the amount of personal data collected by Google, for example, but this is more worrying.

Eckhart says:

The very extensive list of Android security permissions granted to IQRD would raise anyone’s eyebrow, considering that it’s remotely controlled software, but some things such as reading contact data, Services that cost you money, reading/edit/sending sms, recording audio(?!??!?) and writing/changing wireless settings seem a bit excessive

and

The only choice we have to “opt out” of this data collection is to root our devices because every part of the multi-headed CIQ application is embedded into low-level, locked regions of the phones.

So what does Carrier IQ gather? Eckhart lists webpages visited, location statistics, media statistics, SMS texts, keys pressed, apps opened and focused, and even text sent over SSL (HTTPS) in browser sessions that you thought were secure.

If these claims are correct, then nobody who deals in confidential information should use an Android mobile with this installed. Since most of us have online bank accounts or other secure logins that we use on our mobile, that makes an Android phone a risky proposition for almost anyone.

My immediate questions:

  • Which Android devices have this software installed?
  • How soon will the affected operators give us a way to remove or disable it?
  • How can a concerned user discover whether or not his mobile is leaking private information?

Finally, now is the time for rivals such as Apple, RIM, or Microsoft and its partners, to explain in plain English how their devices compare in terms of privacy. What data is gathered in the interests of:

the Carrier IQ solution gives you the unique ability to analyze in detail usage scenarios and fault conditions by type, location, application and network performance while providing you with a detailed insight into the mobile experience as delivered at the handset rather than simply the state of the network components carrying it.

as Carrier IQ puts it.

Hassles with Intel RAID – Rapid Storage Technology

I have recently fitted a new Intel DH67CL motherboard and decided to use the on-board RAID controller to achieve resiliency against drive failure. I have four 1TB Sata drives, and chose to create two separate mirrors. This is not the most efficient form of RAID, but mirroring is the simplest and easiest for recovery, since if one drive fails you still have a complete copy ready to go on its mirror.

I thought this would be a smooth operation, especially since I have two pairs of identical drives. Everything was fine at first, but then I started to get system freezes. “Freeze” is not quite the right word; it was more an extreme slowdown. The mouse still moved but the Windows 7 64-bit GUI was unresponsive. I discovered that it was possible eventually to get a clean though time-consuming shutdown by summoning a command prompt and waiting patiently for it to appear, then typing shutdown /s. After reboot, everything was fine until next time, where next time was typically only a few hours.

I was suspicious of the RAM at first and removed 8GB of my 16GB. Then I discovered that others had reported problems with Intel RAID (also known as RST) when you have two separate arrays enabled. The symptoms sounded similar to mine:

When the second RAID array is enabled (tried both RAID1 and 0), Windows (Win 7 Ultimate 64bit) will freeze after 10+ minutes of use. This initially manifests itself as my internet “going out”. While I can open new tabs in the browser, I cannot connect. I can’t ping via CMD either. I can’t open Task Manager, but I can open Event Viewer (and nothing really is shown in there re: this). If I try to Log Off or Restart the PC via Start Menu, Windows hangs on the “Logging Off” or “Shutting Down” screen for at least 10 minutes, up to several hours (or indefinitely).

There is no solution given in the thread other than to remove one of the arrays.

The system is 100% stable when I remove the second RAID1.

says one user.

I broke both of the mirrors and used the system for a while; everything was fine. I found an updated driver on Intel’s site (version 10.8.0.1003, dated 17th October 2011) and decided to re-try the RAID. Now I had another problem though. Note that I was using the Windows management utility, not the embedded utility which you get to by pressing a special key during boot, since it is only with the Windows utility that you can preserve your data when creating a new array. My problem: I could not recreate the arrays.

Problem number one was that the drive on Sata port 0 disappeared when you tried to create an array. All four drives looked fine in the Status view:

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but when you went to create an array, only three drives appeared:

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Following a tip from the Intel community discussion board, I removed and reinstalled the RST utility, following which I also had to reinstate the updated driver. Now the drive reappeared, but I still could not recreate the arrays. I could start creating one, but got an “unknown error.” Looking in the event log, I could see errors reported by IAStorDataMgrSvc: FailedToClaimDisks and FailedVolumeSizeCheck. Curious, especially as I had used this very same utility to create the arrays before, with the same drives and without any issues.

Just as an experiment, I booted into Windows XP 64-bit, which I still have available using Windows multiboot. I installed the latest version of the Intel storage driver and utility, and tried to create a mirror. It worked instantly. I created the second mirror. That worked instantly too. Then I booted back into Windows 7 and checked out the RST utility. Everything looks fine.

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The further good news is that I have been running with this for a few days now, without any freezes.

Is it possible that the latest driver fixed a problem? There is no way of knowing, especially since Intel itself appears not to participate in these “community” discussions. I find that disappointing; community without vendor participation is never really satisfactory.

Postscript: Note that I am aware that Intel’s embedded RAID is not a true RAID controller; it is sometimes called “fakeraid” since the processing is done by the CPU. Using Intel RST is a convenience and cost-saving measure. An alternative is Windows RAID which works well in my experience, though there are two disadvantages:

1. Intel RAID performs slightly better in my tests.

2. Windows RAID requires converting your drives to Dynamic Disks. Not a big problem, but it is one more thing to overcome if you end up doing disaster recovery.