Monthly Archives: August 2012

The one thing missing from Windows 8 tablets announced so far: simplicity

This week at IFA in Berlin PC manufacturers have been showing off their shiny new Windows 8 tablets. Vendors are competing for who has the cleverest way of combining touch-screen, tablet, trackpad and keyboard into a single portable device. Here is the HP Envy:

image

or take a look at this PC Pro preview of the Toshiba Satellite U920T:

Ratchets stretch up and down the panel’s rear, with a central puck keeping the action light and smooth, and the screen flips up and back with a fluid action.

Sony has a Surf Slider, Dell XPS Duo slots into a keyboard dock.

I do understand the reason for all these gimmicks. Sometimes you want a tablet, sometimes you want a laptop, and the idea is to combine them into a hybrid device, just as Windows 8 itself lets you flip between Modern UI (formerly known as Metro) and Desktop.

At the same time though, there is a risk that these vendors are not learning from the past. Two things in particular:

  • The failure of Microsoft’s first Tablet PC. Most models had twist screens and keyboards and styluses. The styluses were prone to getting lost, the twist screens and keyboards were expensive, and tablets became premium-priced devices that were inconvenient to use. Faced with the choice between Tablet PCs and cheaper, simpler laptops, most customers chose laptops.
  • The success of Apple’s iPad. A keyboard is an optional extra, but most manage without it. The screen has a single button, there are a couple of switches and a volume control on the side, it has a dock connector, and that is it. Nor is it premium-priced, at least, not in the context of Apple’s range.

Looking at the effort Microsoft has put into the touch-friendly Modern UI it is obvious that Microsoft has made provision for tablet-only users. Start screen, big icons, easy install and removal of apps, most of the frequently used settings available without going to the Desktop. It is also obvious that Microsoft intends Windows to go further in this direction. Office 2013 just has OneNote MX in the Modern UI, but more is coming.

Where then are the devices that focus on the simplicity of a single slate, with a wireless keyboard on offer if needed, priced to compete sensibly with Apple and Android tablets?

Maybe there will be some of these; but the messaging coming out of IFA is all wrong and I predict that once again many customers will opt for “just a laptop” once again and for the same reasons as before.

This of course will do nothing to disrupt the tablet/iPad market.

One other thing. The IFA unveilings make Microsoft’s forthcoming Surface look better than ever. This does have an optional keyboard, but it is built into a touch cover, and from what I can tell Microsoft has successfully avoided rachets and gears.

If Surface succeeds and flipping hybrids fail, you can be sure there will be a ton of Surface-a-likes at the 2013 IFA.

Free competition: Win a Kingston DataTraveler Locker+ secure USB Flash Drive

Ever worry about exposing confidential data by losing a USB Flash drive? Easy to do; but worry no more. A DataTraveler Locker+ secure drive is password protected, and after 10 failed attempts the data is wiped.

image

Read our full review here. Then get one for free by entering our competition. Just answer the question and fill in your details below. One entry only per person or address please. Competition open to UK residents only. One winner will be chosen at random from those who answer correctly. Winner will be announced here and informed by email.

Closing date 14 September 2012

Note on privacy: Your details will NOT be retained after the close of the competition. You will not be added to any mailing list, nor will your details be shared with any third party.


Competition Question

Which of the following is NOT a well-known encryption algorithm (required):
 AES Blowfish Cryptic DES RSA

Your Name (required)

Your Email (required)

Your Address (required)

Simple anti-bot test: six minus two equals:(required)

Understanding Windows 8 Storage Spaces: confusing but powerful

Early users have been running into trouble with Windows 8 Storage Spaces. The same technology is used in Server 2012. I posted about the issues here.

Storage Spaces is a way of virtualising disk drives. You manage physical drives in a pool of storage, and allocate virtual drives from that pool. The virtual drives can be bigger than the actual space available; this is called “thin provisioning”. When you are running out of physical space, you can add additional drives.

It sounds great and it probably is (I am reserving judgement to some extent depending on long-term reports from the field) but it can be confusing, especially if you use Parity for resilience. This user setup a Parity space with three drives, 1TB, 2TB and 320GB. Storage Spaces told him that 2TB would be available (less than the total capacity because it is resilient against drive failure). However the space was exhausted at less than 1TB. Worse still, at this point the drive vanished from his system.

This is all working as designed, though it seems to me that there is plenty of potential for confusion. Here is how I understand it.

1. A Parity space writes data over three or more drives. Therefore, if you only have three drives available, it will be unable to add more data once the smallest drive is full. One small and two large drives is a bad case for a Parity space. It is better either to have four or more drives, or else drives of equal size.

An alternative is to use a mirrored space. This works by duplicating data on two drives. In the example, that should yield 1TB + 320GB of space by mirroring the data on the 2TB drive – more than was available with Parity. With a larger number of drives though, or equally sized drives, Parity is more efficient.

2. When the storage space is full, Windows takes it offline. This is to protect your data. Once you have fixed the problem by adding more drives, you can bring the space online again.

What if you have no drives handy and you NEED access to your data? You try bringing the space online, but Windows immediately takes it back offline because the error condition still exists (and Windows or its applications can be chatty about writing data).

The solution is to mark the space as read-only which you do with PowerShell. Then you can bring it back online and access your files.

Why so confusing?

Storage spaces comes from the server team and is also available in Windows 8. It is possible that the management interface is less helpful than it could be because of that, on the grounds that IT admins are more willing to plough through documentation.

For example, it would be helpful if the spaces manager would calculate the actual capacity available with the currently attached drives and the selected resilience, and tell you that, rather than giving a nominal figure which means “this is the space which these drives can provide though you might have to add more drives to make use of it all”.

Next, there is the question of alerts. The Windows Action Center should alert you if the space is nearly full. However the value of the notification area in Windows was reduced when the Windows 7 team decided to hide most notifications by default, thanks to abuse of the system by third-party software.

Incidentally I always set the notification area to Always show all icons and notifications. If I don’t like a third-party notification, I remove the application or prevent it from running automatically. Right-click the notification area and choose Customize notification icons to make this change.

image

Returning to storage spaces, I have seen several users say they did not see alerts which suggests they are not tuned quite correctly; or maybe users are just in the habit of ignoring notifications.

Third, why doesn’t Windows mark full spaces as read-only when full, instead of taking them offline? Vanishing drives are unsettling for users. Make them read-only would be easier to understand. My space is full – I cannot add more data.

Further reading

Detailed MSDN article about Storage Spaces

Post by Darren Moss with PowerShell examples for taking a space read-only or offline/online. Darren Moss is a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft.

Uh-oh, here come the OEM improvements to Windows 8

Reports from a Samsung event today indicate that the company is implementing its own version of the Windows 7 Start menu, which it calls the S Launcher.

The all-in-one PCs Samsung unveiled this morning are the first Windows machines to sport the S Launcher, a simple widget that acts just like the old start button: Click, start typing (say “keyboard”) and it instantly shows you the settings and apps that relate to your term. There’s also a separate settings icon for quick access to the most commonly needed controls.

On the face of it that sounds like a good move. The general reaction to the removal of the Start button in Windows 8 has been mixed at best. Why not put something like it back?

It is hard for Microsoft to object to this. The official line is the Microsoft’s partners add value to Windows with customization and software unique to each vendor, enabling them to differentiate. There is also the matter of fees paid by third-parties such as browser or security software vendors, to pre-install their stuff and win lucrative traffic or subscriptions.

This is a big one though. Microsoft must care about its new Start menu, to have resisted all pleas from its customers to reinstate the old-style version as an option.

It is also obvious that this is not just about usability. The Start screen is the gateway to the new Windows: Modern UI, Windows Store, tie-in with Windows Phone, Windows Tablets and Xbox, and more.

Here it gets interesting. Although Microsoft and Samsung are both selling Windows, the objectives of the two companies are not altogether aligned. Samsung is a big Android vendor; and even within the Android world, it is promoting Galaxy as a brand and links to its televisions. Samsung also sells Windows Phone, but you would hardly know it.

You can think of it as two separate ecosystems, one based around Windows and Microsoft, the other based around Samsung, which happen to intersect in the area of desktop operating systems.

Samsung then does not care whether the Modern UI, Windows Store and Windows Phone are hits. In fact, when it comes to Windows Store and Windows Phone, it may prefer that they fail.

It is not even that simple. If the Microsoft and Windows ecosystem continues to decline, who can take on Apple? It is in Samsung’s interests as an OEM Windows vendor for Microsoft to succeed, as the same time as other parts of its business would prefer that it fails. Complex.

If nothing else, the S-launcher show how little Microsoft and its hardware partners are aligned when it comes to Windows marketing strategy.

What about the users though? Will they not benefit from having a more familiar way to launch their applications? Personally I doubt it. The problem I have with utilities like this is that they break the design work Microsoft puts into Windows, introducing inconsistency and often working less well than what is baked into the operating system.

I will add too that the Windows 8 Start screen is actually not the monster it is made out to be. It is richer than the old one, with its Live Tiles and large icons, and once you have learned how to organise it in the way you want, it is an effective launch manager. The fast incremental search in the Start screen works brilliantly.

It would benefit Samsung’s users more if the company focused on helping them learn how to get the best from Windows 8 and its new user interface, rather than encouraging them to avoid some of its key features.

Now you know why Microsoft is doing Surface and the Microsoft Store with its Signature PCs, tweaked (or untweaked) to run as designed.

Review: Kingston DataTraveler Locker+G2 secure USB Flash drive

Ever lost a USB Flash drive? Do you even know? There are so many around now that it would be easy to drop one and not to notice.

Most of the time that does not matter; but what if there is confidential data on there? This can be hard to avoid. Perhaps you want the drive for backup of your most important stuff, or to exchange data with a business partner.

The obvious solution is to encrypt the data. There are a variety of approaches, but the advantage of the Kingston DataTraveler Locker+ G2 is that you (or your staff) have no choice: if you do not set a password, you cannot use the drive.

image

The actual drive is a smart metal affair which is surprisingly weighty for its size. You can attach it to a key ring with a supplied loop. Stick it into a Mac or PC (no Linux support sadly) and two drives are detected, one a tiny 10MB drive and the other apparently empty. In order to setup the drive or access the data, you have to run Kingston’s DTLocker utility.

image

The password requirements are a minimum of 6 characters with at least three of upper case, lower case, numeric and special characters.

While 6 characters seems weak it is not too bad considering that after 10 wrong attempts the device will block access and require a password reset. When the password is reset the device is automatically reformatted. In other words, if a bad guy gets your Flash drive, he will be able to reset the password and use the device, but will not see your data.

If a good guy finds your device, he can read your contact details and get in touch to return it to you.

image

The general approach seems reasonable, and is a great improvement over sticking confidential data on a Flash drive and hoping for the best. However I did encounter an issue where the utility refused to run. Another drive which also appears as two drives was already connected, and somehow this tripped up the DTLocker utility. When I disconnecte the other drive, all was well. It is something to do with available drive letters, even though I still had plenty free.

Once set up, the DTLocker stays resident and offers a context menu in the Windows notification area.

image

The device formats as FAT32 but I successfully reformatted it as NTFS, just to see if it would work. It did. I also had success using the DataTraveler on a Mac.

With five year warranty and an inexpensive price, the DataTraveler Locker+ is easy to recommend. There are a couple of caveats. Kingston’s firmware could do with a bit of work to overcome occasional drive letter problems. Second, I would like to see more information about the type of drive encryption used. What if a determined data thief stripped down the drive and read the data? The absence of more information suggests that Kingston is aiming this at those who want casual data protection, not the highest level of security. In normal circumstances though, it is more than enough.

Want a free Data Traveler Locker? Look out for our competition coming soon.

   

Review: Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12. Stunning accuracy, a few annoyances

I am writing this review, or should I say dictating, in Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12, the latest version of what is in my experience the most accurate speech recognition system out there. Accuracy has got to the point where the great majority of words are recognised perfectly. There are a few intractable problems though. How is a dictation system meant to distinguish between nuances and Nuance’s, for example? The answer is generally that it cannot, but in mitigation Dragon has an excellent correction box. You speak a command to select the intransigent word, and either select the correct spelling from a list or in the worst case spell it out. After a bit of practice you can progress quickly and easily.

image

First, a few quick facts about the system. Your first task after running setup is to set levels and check the quality of your microphone. Nuance supplies a microphone in the box, which is worth it because the average user is unlikely to have a suitable microphone of good enough quality. That said, I was unhappy with the quality of the microphone supplied this time around and will return to this issue later. There is a handy fold-out reference card supplied, a nice touch.

Once set up, Dragon walks you through a quick training exercise during which it sets up a profile with some knowledge about your particular voice. I remember spending ages training early voice recognition systems and it was a tedious procedure. This is no longer the case and Dragon can be set up effectively in just a few minutes.

Dragon runs by default with a menu bar across the top of the screen and a contextual sidebar which lists common commands for the particular application you are using. The sidebar also gives a quick reference to global commands such as those to wake or sleep the microphone, move the mouse, or even post to Twitter or Facebook. Once you have learned all the commands, you can close the sidebar to get your screen space back.

image

Dragon works best in applications which are supported, which includes the obvious ones like Word and OpenOffice. In other applications you can use a dictation box which lets you dictate into a Dragon window and then transfer your text in either plain or Rich Text Format. Microsoft Office support depends on an add-In. Unfortunately I am currently running the Office 2013 preview and the add-in currently causes Word to crash. No doubt this will be fixed when the final version of Office is released. As an alternative I used OpenOffice which worked fine. I was also able to use Word 2013 with the dictation box.

While the accuracy is impressive, I did find that recognition slows down on occasion for no obvious reason, which is annoying and slows down your work.

Dragon is not limited to text input. You can run your entire Windows session with speech, using it to switch between windows, move and click the mouse. I found that Dragon works well in dialogs, using the Tab command to switch between fields, and Click … to click buttons and checkboxes.

If you have the Premium edition, you can also use Dragon to transcribe recordings and to read back editable text. Do not get your hopes up too much. If you create a recording of your own voice using a high quality recorder, you can get good results. I tried transcribing a telephone call though, and got gibberish.

So what is new in Dragon 12? It has to be said that version 11.5 was already very good. Accuracy is perhaps slightly improved, but not as much as 11.5 improved over 11. You do get the Dictation Box. You also get browser extensions for the Web-based Gmail and Hotmail provided you use a supported browser, which includes IE9, Firefox 12 or higher, and Google Chrome 16 or higher. I tested this with Gmail in Chrome and it does make a big difference to usability. Go to a Google Doc though, and it is back to the Dictation Box.

Also new in version 12 is the ability to disable voice commands that you do not use to boost performance. The full list of new features is available on the Nuance website.

Now about that microphone. The headset that came in my box is called the HS-GEN-C, and include an adaptor so it can be used with the combined earbud/microphone inputs now common, especially on tablets and laptops. However I had difficulty getting this to work well. It failed Dragon’s built in microphone test at first, though with some effort and speaking more loudly than usual I managed to get it reported as “acceptable. This could be because of a poor microphone preamp on the PC, though I got the same results with another machine. I did not want to test the software with doubtful microphone input, so I used a the Plantronics Bluetooth headset that came with Dragon 11.5 instead. This passed the microphone check first time.

image

I also tried Dragon NaturallySpeaking with Windows 8. The news is mixed. On the plus side, Dragon worked fine in the Windows desktop and with applications like Google Chrome and OpenOffice Writer. When I switched to the Modern UI (formerly known as Metro) though, I could not get Dragon to work at all. This does not surprise me since the Windows Runtime environment is different from the desktop. I do not see how the Dragon sidebar will ever work, for example, since all apps run full-screen. Nor is the Dragon bar available in the Modern UI. Microsoft does claim an accessibility story for Windows 8, and I am asking Nuance what if anything  is planned for Dragon NaturallySpeaking in this respect.

Do not try to use Dragon with Microsoft’s Office 2013 preview; wait for the final version and proper support.

Conclusion

Dragon NaturallySpeaking combines a high standard of accuracy with strong correction tools. If you are wondering whether speech recognition is a viable and productive technique for text input, have no doubt that it is.

There is still scope for improvement. If I can make sense of my recorded telephone call, then in principle voice recognition should be able to do so as well. It will get there.

Is Dragon now more productive than keyboard and mouse, if you have the choice? It may be in some scenarios, but probably not for expert typists. If you are in the habit of frequently switching applications, for example to research an article you are typing, Dragon can get in the way.

Is Dragon 12 worth the upgrade? From 11.5, that is doubtful unless one of the new features matters a lot to you, perhaps because you use Gmail frequently, for example. From older versions, it probably is.

I am puzzled why Nuance supplies what in my experience was a poor headset for the purpose, though you may be luckier (and the box says “actual model may vary”). I preferred the Plantronics headsets that used to be bundled, but guess that the cost was higher. If you do serious amounts of dictation, do not skimp on the headset as it soon pays for itself.

  

Can you trust Windows 8 Storage Spaces?

I have been watching a few Storage Spaces threads on Microsoft’s support forums with interest. Storage Spaces is a new way to manage disk storage in Windows 8 and Server 2012. It lets you create a pool from two or more drives, create virtual drives on them with an option for RAID-like resilience, and add or remove physical drives as needed when drives fail or more storage is needed.

image

A great feature, and particularly since it comes from the server team you would expect it to be solid. Nobody can afford to use storage that is unreliable.

Look at this thread though, based on Windows 8 Enterprise Evaluation which should be the RTM code:

I had three empty discs which I used for it: 320 GB, 1 TB, 2 TB. The manager told me that the maximum capacity for this setup would be ~2 TB.

I then proceeded to fill the space up, resulting in a horrible write speed of ~20 MB/sec. Okay, that can be accepted, it is a software solution, after all.

Here’s the kicker, though: Upon reaching ~0.9 TB, the storage space vanished! Yes, vanished.

After invoking the Storage Space Manager, I discovered that the space was deemed “full” and that I was to add another disc. I also took a look at the volumes itself. Hmmh. The 320 GB disc was 100% filled, the 1 TB was at 32% and the 2 TB at 16%. And what are 32% of 1 TB and 16% of 2 TB? Why, 320 GB!

So, instead of creating a Parity storage space, it simply downsized every hard disc to the lowest denominator, i.e. 320 GB.

Which means that there are two massive problems here:

  1. It’s lying about the remaining capacity (which is confusing in itself: The manager talks about the storage space having a 2 TB capacity, but directly above it talks about a 3.01 pool capacity?)
  2. It also gives no warning when the real capacity is reached and the pool is deemed “full”. It simply takes the pool offline (instead of, say, reverting to a “read-only” mode with a warning) and you have to bring it online manually. Not fun.

and later, from another user:

Today while I copied data over to it, it once again reached “full” status and turned itself “offline” – but this time it won’t come back “online” – it changes right back to “offline” as soon as I try to bring it online…  So essentially I cannot access any of the data on the drive anymore.

or this (which likely refers to the RP) – the article to which it comments is worth a read too.

I’ve run into a major problem with storage spaces. My storage space is full. Having a full storage space puts it into an error state, and it goes offline. You can click “Bring online” but it immediately goes offline again.

So, I can’t free space on it, because I can’t get it online to delete stuff. And, more importantly, I can’t get anything off of it because it won’t stay online.

It seems my only option is to add three drives, as I had it set to parity. The only problem? I don’t have three more drives to add.

Even bugs in in the RP worry me. Storage is so fundamental that I would expect a feature like this to be 100% solid early in the release cycle, or pulled.

Update: It now seems to me that Storage Spaces is working as designed (phew!) though it is understandable that users are confused. See the new post here.

Review: X-mini KAI, a Bluetooth audio dock you can put in your pocket

X-mini makes a popular range of what it calls Capsule Speakers, the latest of which doubles as a wireless speakerphone for your mobile, thanks to Bluetooth connectivity. Essentially, your smartphone sees it as a Bluetooth headset.

image

First though, a word or two about the distinctive design. In the box you get the X-mini KAI, a USB charging cable that also has an audio cable for play-as-you-charge, a handy soft drawstring bag, and a tiny instruction manual.

image

The X-mini KAI measures around 6cm in diameter and 8cm high when expanded. However, you can also push down the concertina and twist left to lock, whereupon it is just 5cm high. You can play it in this mode, but it sounds pretty bad. Still, easily small enough to put in your pocket.

Fit and finish is OK but could be better. Locking the unit shut takes some force and is slightly awkward because of all the switches. The multiple switches and ports do slightly spoil the appearance of the device and are somewhat fiddly to use.

image

So how does it work? First, charge it via any USB connection. It takes at least 2.5 hours to charge fully, for which you get up to 8 hours of playback.

Once charged, you can use the KAI in several different modes. There is a three-position switch. Centre is off, or push left for wired audio, or push right for Bluetooth.

In wired mode, you can use the short 3.5mm jack connector which is coiled neatly in the base to connect to a SmartPhone, iPod, MP3 player or any audio device, and play your music. There is no volume control on the KAI in this mode, just control it from the audio device.

image

The sound is mono of course, but not bad at all. You have to be realistic about what you can get from such a small speaker, but it is far better than the tinny sound you will hear from built-in speakers on phones and tablets.

I used it with the Google Nexus tablet with success. The Nexus is excellent for portable entertainment, particularly if you hack it a little to support Adobe Flash. Combine it with the KAI and you get much better sound from Google Music, BBC iPlayer, YouTube and the like.

X-mini quotes speaker power of 2.5w, frequency response of 100 Hz – 18 kHz, and distortion of less than 0.3%. Unfortunately these figures are meaningless without qualification; frequency response for example should be quoted as plus or minus 3dB or some such.

Still, with devices like this it is the experience that counts, since we are not talking hi-fi exactly. The KAI is a lot of fun, punchy and clear, you can hear a little bit of bass, and transforms the sound on your mobile device into something you can actually enjoy without earphones.

I compared the KAI to my trusty Creative Labs TravelSound. I give the nod to the TravelSound on sound quality, though the KAI was not embarrassed. However, bear in mind that the TravelSound has two speakers, is too big for the average pocket, and eats batteries unless you also carry a mains adaptor with you. KAI wins on convenience.

You can also wire two or more KAIs together for better sound, though I was not able to try this.

Wireless sound

The KAI also works over Bluetooth as mentioned above. To get this working, you slide the Audio key to the right. Then go to your mobile device, enable Bluetooth, and search for available devices. All going well, it will find the KAI and connect. This worked fine for me on the Nexus and on a Nokia Lumia 800 Smartphone.

Once connected, audio plays back through the KAI. It is as simple as that, and although there is some theoretical loss of quality, I did not find this audible on a casual comparison. Your battery will run down a little faster on both devices, but other than that it works just the same.

What’s nice about the wireless connection is that you can move your mobile device around the room and playback is not interrupted. The range is given as up to 10 metres, by which time you will hardly hear the KAI whether or not it is maintaining the connection. I tested this by walking around and the results were good.

In wireless mode an additional control on the KAI comes into play. Press down to play or pause. Move briefly right or left for previous or next track. Move and hold right or left for volume adjustment.

image

You can also use the KAI as a speakerphone, and I tested this with an incoming call. When you hear the ring, press down the control above to answer. The music will pause, and you will hear your caller through the KAI. You can end the call by pressing the same control.

The snag with the call though was that my caller said I was hard to hear. I could fix this by holding the KAI close to my mouth but this was disappointing.

There is a mute button on the device, but note that this does not mute your voice when in a call. Rather, it mutes the speaker in the same way as during any audio playback.

Summing up

This is a great little device, ideal if you want a very small and portable travel speaker that still sounds decent. Bear in mind though that the X-mini capsule speaker is also available in a wired-only form for around a quarter of the price, so you are paying a lot for the Bluetooth and speakerphone features.

The wireless audio works really well, but the microphone seems insufficiently sensitive when used as a speakerphone and I would not want to use it for conference calling. That is a shame since this is otherwise a compelling feature, unless I was unlucky with my sample.

The review unit was supplied by Phone4U and you can find it here, price at the time of writing £79.99.

Building a cheap PC, and why it still beats tablets and laptops for value

I thought the Google Nexus tablet was good value, and compared to an Apple iPad or most other tablets out there it is, but for sheer capability on a budget a desktop PC has it beat.

Needing a cheap desktop I went along to Ebuyer and purchased the following:

  • Asus P8H61-MX SI Motherboard bundled with Intel Pentium G620 and 2GB DD3 RAM
  • Extra Value Micro ATX case with 500w PSU (unbranded)
  • Additional 2GB RAM

The total cost was £128.54 with free delivery. I then plucked a Sata DVD drive and a 200GB hard drive from a dead server, and put it all together, which took less than an hour. Next installed Windows 7 64-bit, for which fortunately I have a subscription license. Plugged in spare keyboard, mouse and monitor.

image

I was impressed by the Windows Experience Index of 4.9, and Gaming graphics of 5.6 achieved by Intel’s integrated graphics. The board has VGA and DVI ports and supports dual displays. It also has HD audio and of course ethernet networking.

image

What would it cost if I had not had spare DVD and hard drives? A 500GB drive is £42.70 and a DVD drive £11.94 currently, making £183.18, or £152.65 without the VAT.

Need Windows? You are a system builder, so you can get Windows Home Premium with SP1 64-bit for £75.99, or Professional for £104.98. Total cost with the cheaper option is £259.17, now more than a Google Nexus tablet (£159.00 for the 8GB version).

Add a screen, keyboard and mouse for £65.97 (BenQ LCD 18.5” 1366 x 768), and the complete system is £325.14, or £249.15 if you stick Ubuntu on in place of Windows 7.

Still, I’d bet that the average household has at least some reusable bits lying around.

The real point is how capable even a budget box like this turns out to be. The RAM is upgradeable to 16GB.

The dark side to all this is that the value of your old PC has plummeted since you bought it three or four years ago, and faults beyond the trivial are hardly worth repairing.

Finally, I should mention Raspberry Pi. The board complete with CPU, networking and graphics is £25.92. Add case, 4GB storage, power, keyboard, mouse, and HDMI monitor though, and my quick price for the complete system is £147.81, mostly for the monitor (Benq 21.5” HDMI). Of course there are many creative uses for a Raspberry Pi without buying a monitor.

My vote still goes to the PC for the best productivity on a budget.

PS let’s not forget the cheapest Mac, currently a Mac mini at £529. OS comes with it, but only 2GB RAM, no mouse, keyboard or monitor. Add those and it is over £600.