What laptop should I buy in May 2021

Note: please check the date of this post. If it is more than a month or two old, check my main blog page to see if I’ve posted more recent recommendations.

One of the most common questions I get from customers and friends is, what laptop should I purchase? Since the answers are usually the same for everyone, here are my recommendations. But before I dive into the specs, there are a few important points to mention:

First, this article is for those looking for a Windows laptop. There is nothing wrong with purchasing an Apple product, but I don’t have experience with them and cannot give good purchase advice. The other option when purchasing a laptop is a Chromebook, which runs Google’s Chrome OS. If you intend to use your laptop only for email and web browsing, a Chromebook may be a good choice that can save you money. Just keep in mind you cannot install Windows software on a Chromebook.

Secondly, keep in mind that this article is aimed at a typical user that is not doing anything too demanding. If you’re looking to do a lot of gaming, computer aided designing (CAD), or video editing; you will probably want something that exceeds the specs mentioned below.

Touchscreens

Some buyers incorrectly assume that all new laptops come with touchscreens. That is not the case. Many models do not have touchscreens, and many computer users see no practical use for a touchscreen on a laptop. If you want a touch screen, just be sure you look for that as you shop. If it isn’t mentioned in the specs, it probably doesn’t have one.

Optical drives (DVD and CD)

Most new laptops do not come with optical drives. If you need that, make sure you pay close attention to that as you shop. You can also purchase an external DVD drive that plugs in to the USB port if you need one occasionally.

Brands

I always encourage customers to stick with popular brands and models. That way, if you need to get it repaired there is a greater chance of parts availability.  I prefer HP, Dell, and Lenovo in no particular order. Among those three brands, I just look for the best prices and features.  Acer is another popular brand that I’ve seen a few more problems with. In some cases you can get an Acer for cheaper than the other brands, but if there is not a significant savings, I’d stay away. I have little experience with other brands such as Asus or Samsung, so I cannot offer a solid opinion on those.

Solid State Drive

The days of computers having a crash-prone hard drive spinning at 7200 rpm inside are going away. Instead, most new computers come with an SSD or Solid State Drive for storage, which are much faster. But you need to be careful, because there are still some computers that sell with a mechanical (spinning) hard drive. If it doesn’t specifically state that it has an SSD or Solid State Drive, it probably doesn’t have one, and you should not buy it.

Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, etc)

I still get people who assume that Windows includes licensed versions of Word and Excel. Windows does not include those programs, and this is true regardless of whether you get Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro. All you’ll normally get are trial versions. If you want to continue to use them, you’ll have to pay extra for them. You can either pay Microsoft a subscription fee to use them (Office 365 or Microsoft 365), or you can make a one-time purchase. Some computer sellers (Dell, for example) let you purchase Microsoft Office with the computer, but the fact remains that it is a separate product and will cost you extra. Many users (myself included) find that LibreOffice.org, a free alternative to Microsoft office, suits their needs just fine.

The Details

Here are the specs you should look for:

  • Processor: An Intel i5 or better, or an AMD Ryzen 5 or better. If you’re trying to get something very inexpensive and don’t mind it being a little slower, you can probably get by with an Intel i3 or AMD Ryzen 3.
  • RAM: At least 8 GB. If you can find one with 12 or 16 GB in your price range, go for that instead.
  • Storage: At least 250 GB, and again, make sure it is an SSD. If you’re going to be working with video or tons of photos (like 10s of thousands of photos), you may want 512 GB instead.
  • Windows 10. Obviously, most computers some with Windows, but make sure it says so. Also, if you are using the computer in a business, keep in mind that you will likely need Windows 10 Pro. If you get one that just says “Windows 10” or “Windows 10 Home”, you’ll need to pay $99 after the fact to upgrade it to Pro. If you’re a home user or a business user that doesn’t have a server, you can probably get by with the Home version.

Links

Below are some links to some good laptop deals on Amazon. Keep in mind that the prices are subject to change, so I’ve listed the prices and specs beside the links so you can determine if something has changed with the Amazon listing after these links were posted. These links are affiliate links, so I may earn a commission when you purchase one of these. You can also find good deals at retails stores. Just take along a printed copy of the specs above to help you make the right choice.

Lenovo – i5 – 8 GB RAM – 256 GB SSD – $557.99
https://amzn.to/2SwxNWE

Lenovo – i5 – 12 GB RAM – 256 GB SSD – $588.49
https://amzn.to/3d3jrVq

HP – Ryzen 5 – 8 GB RAM – 512 GB SSD – $606.35
https://amzn.to/3wIwFP9

HP – Ryzen 5 – 12 GB RAM – 256 GB SSD – $629.90
https://amzn.to/3uDy2g6

 

What laptop should I buy in April 2021?

Note: please check the date of this post. If it is more than a month or two old, check my main blog page to see if I’ve posted more recent recommendations.

One of the most common questions I get from customers and friends is, what laptop should I purchase? Since the answers are usually the same for everyone, here are my recommendations. But before I dive into the specs, there are a few important points to mention:

First, this article is for those looking for a Windows laptop. There is nothing wrong with purchasing an Apple product, but I don’t have experience with them and cannot give good purchase advice. The other option when purchasing a laptop is a Chromebook, which runs Google’s Chrome OS. If you intend to use your laptop only for email and web browsing, a Chromebook may be a good choice that can save you some money. Just keep in mind you cannot install Windows software on a Chromebook.

Secondly, keep in mind that this article is aimed at a typical user that is not doing anything too demanding. If you’re looking for a gaming computer to help you waste your time, don’t read any further. Find somebody who actually plays computer games to see what kind of computer you should get. Also, if you do a lot of computer aided designing (CAD) or video editing, you will probably want something that exceeds the specs mentioned below.

Touchscreens

Some people incorrectly assume that all new laptops come with touchscreens. That is not the case. Many models do not have touchscreens, and many computer users see no practical use for a touchscreen on a laptop. If you want a touch screen, just be sure you look for that as you shop. If it isn’t mentioned in the specs, it probably doesn’t have one.

Optical drives (DVD and CD)

Most new laptops do not come with optical drives. If you need that, make sure you pay close attention to that as you shop. You can also purchase an external DVD drive that plugs in to the USB port if you need one occasionally.

Brands

I always encourage customers to stick with popular brands and models. That way, if you need to get it repaired there is a greater chance of parts availability.  I prefer HP, Dell, and Lenovo in no particular order. Among those three brands, I just look for the best prices and features.  Acer is another popular brand that I’ve seen a few more problems with. In some cases you can get an Acer for cheaper than the other brands, but if there is not a significant savings, I’d stay away. I have little experience with other brands such as Asus or Samsung, so I cannot offer a solid opinion on those.

Solid State Drive

The days of computers having a crash-prone hard drive spinning at 7200 rpm inside are going away. Instead, most new computers come with an SSD or Solid State Drive for storage, which are much faster. But you need to be careful, because there are still some computers that sell with a mechanical (spinning) hard drive. If it doesn’t specifically state that it has an SSD or Solid State Drive, it probably doesn’t have one, and you should not buy it.

Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, etc)

I still get people who assume that Windows includes licensed versions of Word and Excel. Windows does not include those programs, and this is true regardless of whether you get Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro. All you’ll normally get are trial versions. If you want to continue to use them, you’ll have to pay extra for them. You can either pay Microsoft a subscription fee to use them (Office 365 or Microsoft 365), or you can make a one-time purchase. Some computer sellers (Dell, for example) let you purchase Microsoft Office with the computer, but the fact remains that it is a separate product and will cost you extra. Many users (myself included) find that LibreOffice.org, a free alternative to Microsoft office, suits their needs just fine.

The Details

Here are the specs you should look for:

  • Processor: An Intel i5 or better, or an AMD Ryzen 5 or better. If you’re trying to get something very inexpensive and don’t mind it being a little slower, you can probably get by with an Intel i3 or AMD Ryzen 3.
  • RAM: At least 8 GB. If you can find one with 12 or 16 GB in your price range, go for that instead.
  • Storage: At least 250 GB, and again, make sure it is an SSD. If you’re going to be working with video or tons of photos (like 10s of thousands of photos), you may want 512 GB instead.
  • Windows 10. Obviously, most computers some with Windows, but make sure it says so. Also, if you are using the computer in a business, keep in mind that you will likely need Windows 10 Pro. If you get one that just says “Windows 10” or “Windows 10 Home”, you’ll need to pay $99 after the fact to upgrade it to Pro. If you’re a home user or a business user that doesn’t have a server, you can probably get by with the Home version.

Links

Below are some links to some good laptop deals on Amazon. Keep in mind that the prices are subject to change, so I’ve listed the prices and specs beside the links so you can determine if something has changed with the Amazon listing after these links were posted. These links are affiliate links, so I may earn a commission when you purchase one of these.

Dell – Ryzen 5 – 8 GB RAM – 256 GB SSD – $499.98
https://amzn.to/3dJFYWs

HP – i5 – 8 GB RAM – 256 GB SSD – $571.99
https://amzn.to/3t8S5Ti

Lenovo – i5 – 12 GB RAM – 256 GB SSD – $573.80
https://amzn.to/3d3jrVq

HP – Ryzen 5 – 8 GB RAM – 512 GB SSD – $599.93
https://amzn.to/3wIwFP9

HP – Ryzen 5 – 12 GB RAM – 256 GB SSD – $614.99
https://amzn.to/3uDy2g6

 

How to disable the lock screen in Windows 10

The following registry patch will disable the lock screen in Windows 10. After applying this patch, your computer will boot directly to the sign-in prompt. The download is a ZIP file, so you’ll need to extract it before you can merge the .reg file into your registry.  This file comes without warranty – use at your own risk.  If you want to disable the background image on the sign-in screen, I’ve created a post about that as well.

Download: Win10_DisableLockScreen.zip

How to remove the sign-in background image in Windows 10

The following registry patch will remove the background image from the Windows 10 sign-in screen. The download is a ZIP file, so you’ll need to extract it before you can merge the .reg file into your registry.  This file comes without warranty – use at your own risk.  If you want to disable the lock screen (the screen that displays before the sign-in screen), I’ve created a post about that as well.

Download: Win10_DisableLoginBackground.zip

 

Registry Tweak: Display standard desktop icons in Windows 10

The following reg file will cause the standard desktop icons to be displayed in Windows 10.  These icons include This PC, Network, Control Panel, and the user’s home folder. You can also configure these icons to display in the Themes settings, but  sometimes when you’re signed in as a domain administrator, you are not able to access those settings. The download is a ZIP file, so you’ll need to extract it before you can merge the .reg file into your registry.  This file comes without warranty – use at your own risk.

Download: Win10_Add_All_Std_Desktop_Icons.zip

Note:  In most cases after applying the registry patch, you must press F5 to refresh the desktop before the icons will appear.  In rare cases a computer restart is required before they show up.

 

Windows 10: How to fix Error Code 0x800F081F when installing .NET Framework 3.5

Problem

When you select to install .NET Framework in the Windows Features list in the Control Panel, it does not complete. After asking if you’d like to use Windows Update, it then gives you an error code 0x800F081F

Solution

  • Insert Windows 10 installation CD or mount the ISO
  • Open an administrator command prompt
  • Type the following command (substitute correct drive letter)
    Dism /online /enable-feature /featurename:NetFx3 /All /Source:D:\sources\sxs /LimitAccess

Getting USB Drive Redirection to work with LTSP, xFreeRDP, and Windows Server 2012 R2

Problem

You’re using LTSP (Linux Terminal Server Project) and xFreeRDP to allow computers to boot from the network and connect to a server running Windows Server 2012 R2.  You add the parameters in LTS.CONF to allow USB redirection, but you still cannot get the USB drives to show up.

Solution

In my experience, these are the two steps that are often missed:

Step #1: Enable sound redirection

When using LTSP to connect to a server running Windows Server 2012 or later, you MUST enable sound redirection first, or USB direction will not work. This step isn’t necessary in Windows server 2008.

For example, instead of using the following line in LTS.CONF:

           SCREEN_07 = "xfreerdp -f --no-nla --ignore-certificate --plugin rdpdr --data disk:usbdisk:/media/root --
           192.168.11.22

Use this one:

           SCREEN_07 = "xfreerdp -f --no-nla --ignore-certificate --plugin rdpsnd --data alsa -- --plugin rdpdr
           --data disk:usbdisk:/media/root -- 291.168.11.22

Obviously, you’ll want replace the IP at the end of the lines above with the IP of your own terminal server. Keep in mind that if you’re using a newer version of xFreeRDP, the format of the options may be different. There have been changes made in the later versions. More information can be found here

Step #2: Set the policy on the server

You also need to be sure you have the ‘Do not allow drive redirection’ policy disabled on the Windows terminal server. This setting is found in the group policy editor at:

Computer Configuration\Policies\Administrative Templates\Windows Components\Remote Desktop Services\Remote Desktop Session Host\Device and Resource Redirection

Once you take care of these two items, you’re typically good to go!

Review: MGCool Explorer Pro 4k Action Camera

About a month ago I was contacted by MGCool and invited to do a review of their Explorer Pro 4k, an action camera similar in size to the popular GoPro series of cameras.  I received a courtesy unit a few days later and have been giving it a good workout for the past several weeks.  Now it is time to share my thoughts and observations.

What comes in the box

The camera comes packaged in a nice waterproof case that allows access to all of the controls when the camera is enclosed. Also in the package are several accessories. These include a USB charging/transfer cable, a camera bracket and clip, a bicycle mount, two adhesive mounts (helmet, dash, etc), one 90 degree directional change adapter,  and a user manual. A big surprise was the fact that it came with a second battery, something I would not expect from a low-cost action camera – or any camera, for that matter.  What it does not include is a class 10 micro SDHC memory card that will be necessary to use the camera.  I already had one of these from another action camera, so I was set to go.

Features

The Explorer Pro 4k is equipped with a 170 degree wide-angle lens, and somehow manages to only display a very slight amount of fish-eye.  This is quite impressive, considering that my more expensive Xioami Yi has a narrower 155 degree lens and has a much more pronounced fish-eye effect unless I enable the lens rectification feature.  Also unlike my Xioami Yi, this camera has a two inch screen on the back of the camera, which serves not only as a viewfinder, but also allows you to navigate and change a wide variety of settings. There are number of different resolutions and frame rates to choose from.  You can also configure the camera for “driving mode”, which starts recording automatically when it receives power and shuts down when the power is lost. This, along with the auto-loop function, makes it suitable for use as a dash camera. In addition to taking standard photos and videos, it also has the ability to take slow motion shots and time-lapses. You can take slow motion shots in 720P, 120 fps (resulting video is 25% of normal speed), or 1080P, 60 fps (50% of normal speed). With time lapses, you can set it to capture a frame at intervals of anywhere from a half-second up to one minute.

All of the settings available on the camera can also be set using the mobile app, which connects to the camera using WiFi. The app also serves as a view finder if you want to control recording remotely.

Quality

You probably knew by the price of this camera that it was not going to be excellent at everything. Well, quality is probably the place where you see some difference between this camera and ones costing twice as much.  That’s not to say the quality is bad.  Considering the cost of the camera, there is little to complain about. Under optimal lighting, the quality is very good.  When you start to introduce challenges such as poor lighting or a lot of light variation (bright and dark areas), the quality suffers a bit.  I have noticed, on rare occasion, a small about of “jello effect”, or waviness, when the camera experiences vibration and it is enclosed in the waterproof case.  This is quite common among cameras in this price range.  On the other hand, a more expensive camera without image stabilization will still be shaky, but will not have the “jello effect”, thus making it easier to do some stabilization in the post-production process.  With the white balance mode set to the default setting of auto, I also notice that some shots have a slight “blueish” color tone, at least to my eyes.  However, the camera offers an option to manually set the white balance to one of several different modes to help with this.  Also, white-balance adjustments are pretty easy to make in post-production if you need to do that.  Please review the following photographs and YouTube clips to see the quality of this camera.

https://youtu.be/Y0XcvbRMdjY – Sample video captured at 4k, 30fps
https://youtu.be/JVstYF8ThgE – Time lapse with reasonably good lighting conditions
https://youtu.be/cXNvjp1KzEM – Time lapse with bright sun coming over the horizon

 

I also will be making a full review video soon and will link it here when it is complete.

Summary

The two best words to summarize my opinion of this camera are “Great value”. If you are a professional looking for an action camera to take top-quality footage, this camera may not be the one for you. But you probably knew that when you looked at the price tag.  On the other hand, if you want an inexpensive, feature-rich action camera with everything you need to get started, this camera is a great choice.

Fixing Windows 10 “printer is in error state” when connected via parallel port

Problem:

You’ve just installed or upgraded to Windows 10, and your printer connected via parallel port refuses to work, giving an error message saying “printer is in error state”.

Solution #1:

Go to the device manager, find the parallel port and double-click it to bring up the properties sheet.  Click the “Port Settings” tab and then select “Use any interrupt assigned to the port” and click OK (see Figure 1 below).  The printer should be detected and work properly.

(Update on 09/27/2017) Solution #2 :

In some cases, solution #1 seems to work but the problem returns when the computer is rebooted.  In that case, changing the setting described above back and forth will cause it to work again, but only until the next reboot. After a significant amount of time troubleshooting this on a few computers, we’ve concluded that Windows 10 just doesn’t print reliably with parallel ports.  In stubborn cases like this, we’ve resorted to getting a StarTech USB-to-parallel cable, which essentially makes the printer look to Windows like a USB printer. In all the cases we’ve ran into, that has always solved the issue permanently. However, the brand of cable could make a difference. We used a TrippLite cable in one situation like this and it did not work, but the StarTech cable has worked every time.

Notes:

Please give us feedback if you have more insight into this issue.

Figure 1

Figure 1

How to disable registration reminder on Quicken 2003

Problem:

After installation Quicken 2003 nags you to register each time you launch it (see Figure 1), but if you click “Register Now”, it gives you an error (see Figure 2).

Solution:

While holding down the CTRL & SHIFT keys on your keyboard, select the “Online” menu and click on “One Step Update” (see Figure 3).  You’ll get a message saying “You will no longer be prompted for registration” (see Figure 4).

Notes:

This procedure probably works on other versions of Quicken.  If you’ve tried it on another versions and can verify that it works, please let us know so we can update this post.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4