Windows Backup & HDD Migration with Free Veeam Endpoint!

As months go by and those months slowly creep into years, it seems as if the days of backing up your computer seems far less important. With extremely cheap online storage available to just about anyone, why would we still keep files on our local hard disk? With online storage, you’re obviously able to access those files from any device that you own without the need to email them to yourself first or fiddle with USB drives. Okay, so I’m obviously kidding. There are many reasons why someone would still keep files locally on their laptops or desktops. Whatever the case may be though, I’ve noticed that backup software seems about to have peaked in their usefulness where the consumers are concerned. No longer does a backup software advertising a hundred different features are needed or required. These days, its all about simplicity and that’s why I was so excited when Veeam made available their free Veeam Endpoint backup software. I’ve used it numerous times to make a quick full backup of my laptop and PC. More importantly though is being able to use the software to migrate my Windows system to a new HDD. With SSD hard drives being so cheap, it doesn’t make sense for someone to not really have one. In this article here, I’ll go over how you can easily use Veeam Endpoint to migrate your Windows computer to a new hard drive. More awesome is that you’re even able to restore it to a new albeit smaller hard drive then your original!

Keep in mind that when you purchase a new SSD, the manufacturer usually includes some type of free backup utility to actually help you migrate data from your original drive to the new one. For example, Samsung includes their migration utility when you purchase their lineup of consumer SSD drives. Recently, I noticed that my Crucial m.2 SSD drive came with a license for Acronis True Image HD. Therefore, although Veeam Endpoint is not the only solution out there, it is one that I’ve always counted on when doing quick migrations. However, there are extra steps you need to perform when using this method so keep that in mind as you follow along. In this day and age, most casual users are more likely to get ransomware installed on their machines than their hard drive physically failing. Ransomware is no joke and I have seen it wreck havoc upon businesses. Not being able to access your files is not fun at all and although you can either hope that your antivirus software catches it before it gets installed or depending on a reverse decryption software for the ransomeware, I don’t think you’ll want to find last minute that neither worked. Being able to restore your now encrypted files back to its original form from backup is crucial. Therefore, don’t think of backing up your computer is only required to protect you from a hardware failure!

Veeam Installation, Configuration and Backup

You can download Veeam Endpoint from here. Note that at the moment, Veeam requires you to create an account prior to being able to download the program.

Installation is a breeze. All it takes is just two clicks: one to accept the EULA and the second for the actual install button!

Installation

 

Once finished, we’re going to configure our backup job. Your laptop usually only have one physical hard drive and so in most cases, you’ll want to save your Veeam backup files to an external USB drive instead. Create a folder in a USB drive large enough to hold the backup and we’re ready to begin. For the backup mode, select the Entire Computer option.

Backup Mode

 

Under Destination, keep the default at Local Storage.

Destination

 

Next, select the folder you’ve created to hold the backup files on the USB drive.

USB Backup Drive

 

Uncheck the option to create scheduled backups. In our scenario here, we just want a one-time full backup of our computer to restore to the new hard drive.

Schedule

 

Finally, save the configuration to exit out of the wizard. To begin the backup process, simply click on the Backup Now button.

Backup in Progress

 

Once the backup has completed, we are now ready to create our recovery disc. This disc is needed in order for us to boot our computer into the Veeam recovery environment to start the actual restore. Remember that because we are swapping hard drives, we wouldn’t be able to actually boot into Windows because the new drive is empty. This is one of the main reason why I am calling this procedure a hard drive ‘migration’ instead of a ‘clone’. You should see a notification in Veeam Endpoint that you haven’t created a recovery media yet. Clicking on this link will start the process. If you don’t see this notification, simply search for “Veeam Recovery” in your Windows start menu. The actual Veeam Endpoint and Veeam Recovery Media creator are two separate programs.

In the first screen, you should have several options of where to create the bootable recovery media. DO NOT in this screen select your USB drive! You can either insert a blank CD/DVD if your computer has one or select the Image option to have Veeam Endpoint create an ISO file of the recovery media. In the tutorial here, I will go with the Image option because most laptops today does not include a CD/DVD drive. Therefore, I will show you how to create a bootable USB thumb drive with the recovery image afterwards. It’s also very important that you do not deselect/uncheck the two default options of saving your network connection settings and hardware drivers.

Recovery Media Type

 

In the Image Path screen, browse to where you want to save the ISO file. I choose to save it back on the USB drive but it wouldn’t matter too much because we’ll be creating a bootable USB drive from this image file soon. Simply continue on to have Veeam create the recovery image file.

Image Path

 

Image Creation

 

Creating a Bootable USB Thumb Drive

So now that we have our recovery ISO image file created, it’s time to create our bootable USB drive with it. Although this may seem like a daunting task, there are several utilities out there that does all the work for us. One such tool is Rufus USB. With this awesome utility, all we really need to do is point it to our USB drive, select the image file and it does the rest!

You can download Rufus USB from here. My personal preference is to download the portable version.

Simply fire up the utility and leave the default settings alone. The only two setting you really need to change is selecting the right USB device and selecting the right image file to use by clicking on the little disk image icon and browsing to our ISO image.

Rufus USB

 

Before clicking on the Start button, remember that this will completely format your USB device and erase any and everything within it!

Once the process has completed, we should now have everything needed to restore our Windows installation to the new drive. In my scenario, I will be restoring to a smaller hard drive than my original. This works ONLY if the actual amount of data used on your source drive is smaller than your new drive. For example, although my original drive was 60GB, I’ve only used 20GB out of that chunk of space. My new drive will be 50GB so in this instance, the restore process should work out just fine.

The Restore

For the restore, we need to first boot our computer via the USB drive we’ve just created with Rufus. Eventually, you’ll come to the home page of the Veeam Recovery environment.

Veeam Recovery Start Page

 

From this page, select the Bare Metal Recovery option. Veeam will then scan your connected devices to automatically find the newest Veeam backup file. If it can’t find it, then manually browse to it on your USB drive.

Backup Location

 

Next, select the restore point. If you’ve only made one full backup, then there should only be one restore point.

Restore Point

 

In the Restore Mode page, select Entire Computer.

Restore Mode

 

At this point, if your new hard drive is as big as the original, hitting the Next button will present you with the Summary screen and the restore process will kick off. However, because my drive is smaller in size than the original, Veeam will complain about this and present me with an error message about needing to use the ‘Manual Restore’ mode instead. This mode is needed because we need to manually tell Veeam how to restore the original partitions onto the smaller drive.

Original Disk Partition Layout

 

From here, I’ll have to click on the ‘Customize Disk Mapping’ link at the lower right corner. Here you can see my 50GB drive that is currently blank and unallocated.

Unallocated Drive

 

What I would now do is right-click on the unallocated disk and choose the partitions I would like to restore from the backup file.

Partitions to Restore

 

As I begin to select each of the partitions, Veeam will alert me that my C:\ partition is larger than the specified destination and if I would like to shrink it to fit. Hitting the OK button will allow Veeam Endpoint to work its magic to analyze exactly how much disk space is actually required.

Shrink to Fit

 

Finally, below is how my destination drive looks like after the mapping has been done.

Final Layout

 

All that’s left to do is sit back and let the restore finish. Once done, unplug your USB drives from the system and reboot. If all goes well, you’ll be right back inside Windows.

Restoring

 

I did stumble upon an issue once where the laptop would boot after the restore but it would boot directly to the F8 prompt screen, the one where it would ask you if you’d like to boot into Safe Mode, etc etc. Choosing the option to boot normally would result in a reboot cycle or a blue screen. Turns out the fix was to select the “Last Known Good Configuration” option. This resulted in the computer booting up normally from then on. I believe this happened with one of the earliest versions of Veeam Endpoint and I haven’t encountered this error since using the newer versions.

Wrapping it Up…

There are definitely many ways to clone or migrate your existing Windows installation onto a newer and bigger drive. What I’ve shown here with Veeam Endpoint is just but one of the methods that I’ve been using for a while now. In fact, some readers might have realized that using Veeam Endpoint to do the migration seems no different than using Windows built-in system image backup utility! You backup to a USB drive, create a recovery media to boot from, swap out hard drives and then restore the backup file over it.

I personally like Veeam because they are the most popular VM backup application in the enterprise today. If your business runs on virtual machines, then chances are very high that your IT staff is using Veeam to do its daily backups. Even if you’re not using it to migrate hard disks, it’s still a very good and easy to use stand-alone backup application for Windows. It has more options builtin than the barebones Windows backup utility and their level of compression is probably better as well. Depending on how you use your computer and how much data gets changed on a daily basis, daily incrementals might be overkill. But if you’re like me and the many others out there whom believe in having a good full PC backup from time time, then Veeam Endpoint definitely is a winner.

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Windows 10 Quick Assist: Move Over TeamViewer?

No matter how simple it is to use a new Windows operating system with each new release (at least that’s how they want you to believe), there’s no escaping the fact that there will still be a lot of users out there that just need help! If you’re the one providing said help, you’ll know that it’s much easier to just show someone how to remedy a problem rather than explaining it over the phone, email or SMS text message. Hopefully by doing so, the end user will have remembered what you did and not bother you the next time around! I’m sure we all love helping another family member or friend but it can get pretty tiring sometimes. With the Windows 10 Anniversary update comes a very awesome yet not much talked about feature that aims to make getting/providing remote support assistance that much more easier. This is especially important because as the individual requesting assistance, the process needs to be quick, easy to perform and in that it just works without any special configuration or tweak needed on their end. As the person providing the support, you can definitely appreciate a feature that was actually baked into the operating system. This requires less work on your part on getting the actual remote support session up and running and instead use that time to actually help fix whatever problem the end user is having. With the release of Quick Assist by Microsoft, we finally have a quick and easy way to provide remote assistance to whomever needs it without much fuss. Let’s take a look.

Quick Assist is NOT a remote desktop solution. It is meant to quickly provide remote assistance to another individual rather than being able to access your personal computer at home.

To be fair, Microsoft did have the Remote Assistance feature available for some time now. It was similar to Quick Assist in that it was baked into the operating system but the similarities ended there. It wasn’t really user friendly and not to mention, it can be a pain to make it work at times. Connection issues is definitely not something you want to deal with when trying to provide remote support. Most typical end users have no idea what a router or firewall is and so having them configure this just so that the connection can be established is a real time waster. That’s where TeamViewer and other third party solutions came to the rescue. It was extremely easy to use in that the user just had to run a small piece of the program, provide you with some security code and off you go. Not only was it easy to configure but the most important part is that it just works. As long as both user had internet access, the connection went through. With Quick Assist, Microsoft finally and I mean finally took a page out of this and ran with it.

Getting Started

The biggest limitation at the moment is that Quick Assist is available only for Windows 10. Not only that but I believe both systems will need to have the big Windows 10 Anniversary update installed. I’ve tried upgrading one of my systems with the latest and greatest Windows updates except for the anniversary one but the Quick Assist feature was nowhere to be found. Here’s to hoping that Microsoft will be providing the Quick Assist feature for Windows 8 and at Windows 7 in the near future. I highly doubt it but one can hope. With that out of the way, both parties are ready to connect with each other. Oh and of course, an Internet connection is required for both parties.

In this example, I will be taking on the role of the individual providing the remote assistance. Therefore, I will first create the session and then have the other party establish the connection afterwards.

To launch Quick Assist, I simply search for it in the Start Menu.

Quick Assist in Start Menu

Next, as I am the one providing the support, I will choose the “Give Assistance” link.

Options

Next, you’ll have to sign in with your Microsoft account be it your *@outlook.com, *@hotmail.com or whatever you currently are using to sign in for Microsoft services. Once done, a security code will be presented on screen along with a 10 minute countdown timer. As you can guess, you have exactly 10 minutes to get the other individual to enter in the code to establish the connection. The good news is that not only can you email the code to the end user but it will also provide very simple instructions on how the user can open the Quick Assist app on their computer. If not, you can easily communicate the code via whatever method is available to you such as over the phone, SMS text message, etc. The user just needs to open the Quick Assist app, select “Get Assistance” and enter in the security code you’ve given them. Once they have allowed the connection to be established via the security prompt, the connection between both computers will have been established and you will be able to view and control the remote computer.

Security Code

Connection Established

Usage

Although I’m glad for the Quick Assist feature, I’m also disappointed in the lack of features. Quick Assist is very barebones. You can control the individual’s computer as well as use the Annotate feature, which I think is buggy. With it, you are able to free draw on the screen with different colors for the other person to see. While testing, I was not able to select another pen color besides red. By default, the remote computer screen is shrunken when presented to you. Therefore, it might make it a bit difficult for you to see and control things but you are able to select the Original Size option. However, doing so will most likely bring in scroll bars. This makes for a very poor user experience for the individual providing the remote support. I’m not sure why but there is a Task Manager button where it will allow you to quickly bring up the Task Manager on the remote computer.

I’ve tried a couple of connections to some of my computers and I was unimpressed with the speed. There was a bit of lag and controlling  the remote computer wasn’t as smooth as when I used TeamViewer or AnyDesk. I’ve also tried connecting to my laptop that was connected to my 4G TMobile hotspot just to see if there would be any connection limitation but there were none. That’s one thing that can be praised for Quick Assist. It just needs to work regardless of how both individuals are connected to the Internet.

As it stands, the Quick Assist feature is a long shot away from being compared to TeamViewer or other third party remote assistance solutions. It’s just too barebones at the moment. There is no file transfer option, resolution scaling and chat features. I just can’t understand why not much more effort was put into Quick Assist. It’s definitely a bonus for all users as it’s truly free and builtin to Windows 10, which is what most people care about anyways, but I was seriously hoping for something more advanced since you know, it’s the year 2016. But hey, it’s a good start and I can say for sure that it’s a lot better than the previous Remote Assistance feature. That surely counts for something, right?!

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Lenovo’s ThinkPad 13 Review!

Finally! After having to suffer a shipping delay of about a month or so, my new Lenovo ThinkPad 13 laptop has arrived at my doorsteps! To add insult to injuries, Lenovo forgot to add my apartment number on the shipping label! I will always remember to now put my apartment number on the same address line! Luckily, the UPS delivery personnel was nice enough to ask a neighbor of mine and got things sorted out. Anyways, I’m just glad that the laptop is finally in my hands! In today’s crowded market of Ultrabooks, tablets, smartphones and HDTVs, companies from all over are doing their absolute best to get you to plop down your hard earned cash in exchange for using their products. Just what made me choose the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 over the many other rivals of portable laptops? It certainly isn’t the best looking out of the bunch nor does it allow you to customize it to your hearts content. It definitely isn’t the lightest Ultrabook on the market nor does it have a crazy screen resolution to drool over. Being such a picky individual myself, just what was I thinking?! Well, after having weighed all of my options, I came to the conclusion that this laptop was indeed the perfect companion that hopefully will stay with me for the next couple of years as my daily driver and I will go over all the details here in this honest review.

First off, I hate when people waste my time and therefore, it would be a shame if I did the same to you! Here I will briefly go over the intended audience for this laptop and who should stay away from it. First, let’s go over the latter. If you find many of the below applying to yourself, then it is my recommendation that you stop right here and look for another laptop besides the ThinkPad 13!

DO NOT consider this laptop if these apply to you:

  • Must have the latest and greatest hardware possible
  • Looking for the thinnest and lightest Ultrabook on the market
  • Require a touchscreen
  • Require a backlit keyboard
  • Being able to play the latest video games on a high resolution
  • Requiring a high resolution screen along with a sharp and color accurate display

DO consider this laptop if these apply to you:

  • On a budget with anywhere from $600-$800
  • Do a lot of typing and require a good and comfortable keyboard
  • Need to perform your everyday basic tasks without hiccups
  • Prefer a matte display over glossy
  • Laptop upgradability is important
  • Require a sturdy and rugged device

From what you can judge so far based on that list, the ThinkPad 13 seems like any other mediocre laptop out there on the market. How is it able to separate itself from the rest of the pack and does it even deserve to be a candidate in your next laptop purchase? Let’s begin!

My Configuration

My ThinkPad 13 consist of the following configuration: 13 inch FHD IPS panel, Intel Core 15 6200U, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD and Windows 10 Pro. There’s not much options to choose from when configuring your ThinkPad 13 on Lenovo’s website. Options such as upgrading to a bigger battery, dedicated graphics, touch and glossy screen are all nonexistent. Two no-brainer upgrades include upgrading to the FHD IPS display panel for $50 extra and the fingerprint reader for $10 extra. Although this is a budget laptop where you’ll normally want to forgo all the fancy options, you’d never forgive yourself if you opted for the lower resolution screen. Yes, a fingerprint reader is definitely not necessary but it’s a damn luxury to not have to retype your password each and every time!

Update (7/28/16) – I can 100% confirm that the Lenovo Thinkpad 13 can handle more than the manufacturer suggested maximum RAM of 16GB! I have purchased and installed a 16GB DDR4 SODIMM memory module and the system recognized all 20GB of RAM without any need for BIOS upgrade! Technically, it should therefore handle 32GB. However, do realize that Lenovo may refuse support to a laptop that is configured with more than 16GB of RAM.

Price Factor

I was one of the many fortunate souls to have been able to snag this laptop up from Lenovo’s website during their Memorial Day sale of 2016. Final price for my ThinkPad 13 came out to $663 after tax. I believe the base price started at around $570 or so. Having been a ThinkPad fanboy for some time now, I always knew that they didn’t come cheap! They were built mainly for the enterprise sector. ThinkPad laptops scream business and anyone caught using one meant they were getting serious work done. Well, Lenovo definitely branched out and have tried to capture the consumer market. They made products that tried to pretend or pass off as a ThinkPad but real users knew that nothing out there compares to the real one. Yet the one thing that haven’t changed in so many years still was the price. Although ThinkPad’s are now more consumer friendly than ever, their price tag usually was anything but that. Until now.

With the arrival of the ThinkPad 13, Lenovo is making an attempt to lure consumers once again into the ThinkPad brand of laptops and smartly enough, they are targeting them where it has the most effect: their wallets. By pricing the ThinkPad 13 at a low starting price point, they are hoping to attract consumers such as myself into being able to get their hands on a laptop that finally has the ThinkPad branding on it. Make no mistake about it. The ThinkPad 13 is truly a ThinkPad laptop for all intents and purposes and is not some sort of imitation or offshoot. Yes, it is the lowest ThinkPad model you can get but as you’ll see during this review, this is perfectly fine for average users that just want a semi premium laptop but without wanting to spend a fortune in doing so. In fact, there are actually two things I’ve noticed about the ThinkPad 13 in that although it is the cheapest in the ThinkPad family lineup, it actually includes a couple of things that its older and more expensive siblings don’t have!

Weight and Feel

The ThinkPad 13 comes in at a very respectable 3.2lbs. That may sound like a lot when you start comparing it to other Ultrabooks and that was certainly what I thought to myself at first. However, I can confidently say that this is practically a non-factor. I am still able to hold the laptop with one hand via the bottom right corner and it is still extremely light when I have to carry it around either in my backpack or via the more traditional method of just carrying it from place to place in my arms. I believe part of this has to do with the quality of the laptop build itself. While holding the laptop with one hand with the screen opened, I didn’t feel too much flex or bending. The ThinkPad 13 does feels very rugged and durable yet it doesn’t weigh you down too much because of that. In fact, the ThinkPad 13 passed the Mil-SPEC standards and can withstand harsh punishment such as temperature changes and vibration tests. Lenovo simply could have dismissed the ThinkPad 13 when it came to these durability and reliability tests due to its price point but I’m very glad that they didn’t! This again drives home the fact that the ThinkPad 13 is very similar to its more expensive siblings.

thinkpad 13!

The front lid of the laptop definitely is made of better materials than on the bottom cover, which is plastic. I also love that the front lid has a matte/rubbery like finish and feel to it. However, there’s obviously going to be some screen wobble but I had hoped it wasn’t as pronounced as what I have experienced here. It’s not earth shattering but I just wished there would be less of it. The ThinkPad 13 is not one of those laptops where you can open the lid with just one hand. You’ll have to hold the body down before being able to flip open the screen. Definitely not a deal breaker for me as most of my previous laptops operated in a similar fashion but it’s just something worth mentioning nonetheless. Overall, I am quite satisfied with the weight and feel of the laptop. The main important fact is that it is definitely travel friendly. Do not let the 3.2lb weight factor put you off unless you really are looking for something that weights next to nothing.

thinkpad 13 with closed lid

bottom

Aesthetics

When it comes to the look of the ThinkPad lineup of laptops, you’re either going to hate it or love it and this was always the case for as long as I can remember. Being that this is still meant to be a business/educational laptop first and foremost, the ThinkPad 13 continues the tradition of having that “boring” look as ThinkPads of old. However, you have many users, myself among them, that believes the ThinkPad is actually very sleek looking! The ThinkPad was never in my opinion a laptop you’d want show off to while in public and to me, that in itself has its own allure. Being that this is actually my second ThinkPad, I knew exactly what I was getting into as soon as I heard about this model. Lenovo has been quite consistent in making their ThinkPad lineups all have that business look to it and I think they have achieved that goal. Why change?

To spice things up just a tiny bit though, Lenovo made the LED for the letter I on the Thinkpad logo both on the back lid and on the bottom right corner light up red when the laptop is powered on. This is a simple yet much welcome change and I like it a lot! Other than that though, the ThinkPad 13 resembles very much like all other ThinkPads before it in that it is a black rectangular device. But hold up. The ThinkPad 13 actually comes in two different colors! You can either get it in black or silver. Personally, I think a silver ThinkPad is just plain wrong and makes the laptop look cheap. The interesting point here is that Lenovo offered this color choice on their lowest ThinkPad model. Silver is not a choice on higher ThinkPad models and I don’t believe it ever was. Although I personally don’t like silver, I’m sure many out there do. So, for Lenovo to offer that option on its lowest model only can be quite infuriating to users who wanted that same choice but was denied even though they spent almost twice if not more on a higher end ThinkPad model!

front LED light

lid LED light

The Ports

The ThinkPad 13 comes with a very decent amount of ports. If you’re a bit of an old timer like myself, then you still believe in the idea that a laptop should have a good amount of ports built-in for connectivity rather than relying on external adapters like how many other laptop manufacturers are trying to do nowadays due to the increasing need to build a laptop with a slim profile. If you’re a road warrior, I’m sure you’d want your laptop to be as flexible as possible out of the box. Purchasing and using external adapters is fine in my eyes only if it is considered as a secondary option. Besides, I doubt you’d want to lug around another item in your bag while you are travelling. The tradeoff though will usually be a slightly heavier laptop like what we see here. Choose wisely.

On the left side of the laptop, you have your power port, Lenovo’s OneLink+ connector, a USB 3.0 port and a fan grill. Personally, I’m not a fan of their OneLink+ connector. It’s a proprietary port so the only docking products you’ll be able to use it with are Lenovo’s own. I doubt I see myself purchasing one ever and so I would have liked it if we were given the option of either having the OneLink+ port for those that do want it or for those who don’t, opt for another common port in place of it such as another USB port or even a dedicated Ethernet port if possible!

left ports

On the right side you have your standard Kensington lock port, a USB-C Gen 1 port, a full size HDMI port, two USB 3.0 ports, combo headphone/microphone port and finally, a 4 in 1 card reader ( SD, SDHC, SDXC and MMC). I did wish for the headphone/mic port to be located on the left side instead. What’s interesting to note here though is the USB-C port. It is a Gen 1 port so the speed is going to be slower than the newer Gen 2 but the fact that the ThinkPad 13 even comes equipped with a USB-C port at all is amazing! Why? Because like the silver color option, Lenovo chose to not equip this port on their more expensive and popular product lineup! This includes the X-1 Carbon which is their slimmest form factor laptop, the T series which is their main bread and butter when it comes to the enterprise sector and even their Yoga lineup which is their popular 2-in-1 convertible laptop model! Weird right?

right ports

front

I really don’t understand why Lenovo would do this because although USB-C is not that much of a big deal at the moment, it most likely will be down the road and having this port makes a laptop that much more future proof. Some users may brush this off as they believe no one really needs to transfer data at such high speed to a local device anyway since so much of our data is stored online nowadays but USB-C is much more than just a high speed data transfer port. It can also serve as a video out display port and can also provide the capability to charge your laptop as well! I do believe the ThinkPad 13’s USB-C port can serve as a video out port but I’m not sure on whether it can provide the charging capability and Lenovo doesn’t make this clear on their product web page. Having this charging capability means you no longer have to bring along your power brick adapter when you travel (although you’d still need to bring along a USB charging adapter, obviously) and more importantly, you no longer need to purchase a proprietary charger when your original one is dead or lost. Not only do they usually cost more but they can be hard to track down once your laptop model gets discontinued down the road.

Overall, port availability is not too shabby on the ThinkPad 13. A full size HDMI port is very nice as you no longer have to worry about you or someone needing to have a mini to full HDMI cable. Finally, the addition of the USB-C connector feels very much like an added bonus to us special ThinkPad 13 owners even though it is only Gen 1!

The Screen

The ThinkPad 13 gives you the option of either a 13.3″ TN 1366×768 display or a 13.3″ IPS 1920×1080 display. For about $50 more, get the full 1080p display! It makes absolutely no sense to go for the base option unless you truly were trying to save every single dollar possible. The matte display is much welcomed over the glossy type since it doesn’t have touch screen capabilities, although I do remember seeing a laptop that has both from Lenovo. The glare reduction is a true blessing and I usually throw on a matte screen protector on my personal devices as well just for this very purpose. Running at the native resolution, I had to set the Windows DPI scale to about 115% otherwise texts were just a tad bit difficult to see. To my eyes, I believe the colors on this screen are decent and vibrant for a matte display. Lenovo however are not really known for their prowess in producing gorgeous screens on laptops so I doubt a true graphic designer would choose a ThinkPad laptop as their main workhorse anyway. But if you are, then I really don’t think this laptop is for you. You’ll most likely also need something with a much higher resolution and pixel density than this 1080p display. Being that there is no touch screen option at all, you’ll have to resort to using either your good ‘ol trusty mouse or the trackpad. Personally, this is fine for me and most likely anyone else who probably wouldn’t use the touch screen feature in the first place on a laptop that isn’t a 2-in-1.

Being that this a productivity laptop first and foremost, there will still be times when I use it for my anime/Netflix/YouTube/Amazon sessions over my iPad mini. So far, 1080p content on this screen looks very good! Being able to enjoy the video content on screen with minimal glare due to the matte display is just friggin awesome! Many believe matte displays aren’t good for consuming video contents but I’d have to disagree. It comes down to preference. However, if you do video or photo editing and need an accurate color display, I’m thinking this shouldn’t be your laptop. I’m not using any utilities to gauge or benchmark the screen like other more professional reviewers so you’ll definitely have to take my opinion with a grain of salt. I just like to use my own pair of eyes to do the judging! But of course, I do happen to have watched and read many reviews on the ThinkPad 13, many done professionally, and it does boil down to the fact that the screen on this laptop is not what you’d call the best. But you have to always keep in mind the price that you have paid for it in terms of the performance you are getting back.

screen display

Screen brightness was another issue I’ve read about concerning the ThinkPad 13. This screen is rated at just 220 nits of brightness. I have no idea what nits are but I just compared that number to other laptops I’ve seen before and compare them that way. The popular Dell XPS 13 is rated at almost 400 nits, a little less than double of the ThinkPad 13 here. To put it in laymen terms, if see yourself doing a lot of work while out in sunny areas, you’d typically want a screen with a high brightness level (high nit number). If you mostly see yourself using this laptop while indoors, the maximum brightness level is not much of a concern because normally under such conditions, you wouldn’t have a need to crank up the brightness. The brightness level was somewhat of a gamble for me because although I will mainly use this laptop indoors, I didn’t want to have to crank up the brightness level just get a decent view of the screen. This will ultimately lead to faster battery drain. Currently, I have my brightness set to about the 40% mark while typing this review in my room and it is plenty enough. My table is farthest away from the window where the sunlight is the weakest. Sitting outside my living room where there is more direct sunlight on my screen, I found myself cranking the brightness level a notch or two and everything was fine. The screen brightness now seems to be a non-issue for me and so you’ll just have to ask yourself under what conditions will you mostly be using this laptop in.

Bezel wise, it’s not too bad. Both left and right bezels measure in at about 1.2cm while top bezel is around 1.5cm. You have a standard 720p front facing camera smack in the middle of the top bezel. Bottom bezel is around 2.8cm with the word “Lenovo” etched on the left edge and the number 13 on the right.

The screen hinge is very important but I don’t believe Lenovo used aluminum or whatever material was used for the hinges on their Yoga lineup. It seems like some sort of hard plastic coated in silver was used but it does feel rigged and sturdy, at least for the time being. Here I will have to rely on Lenovo’s reliability factor and hope that it won’t fail me years down the road. There’s obviously going to be some screen wobble and I think it’s a bit ridiculous to expect a laptop to come with a screen that doesn’t. The real question is how well will it stand the test of time. Usually it will get worst over the years as you constantly open and close the lid but as long as it doesn’t come to a point where I need something to actually prop up the screen, it’s not too bad. The ThinkPad 13’s screen actually allows you to fold it backwards to the point it rests flat on the table and parallel to your keyboard. There’s only a couple situations I can think of that might require someone to do this such as in a meeting and you want to quickly show your screen to a bunch of surrounding people but other than that, it’s a nice feature to have but not much useful for me.

Keyboard and Trackpad

Ladies and gentleman, I will now present you one of the key reason on why I have decided to go with the ThinkPad 13 laptop: the keyboard (no pun intended). Yes, it is true on what you may have heard by now in that Lenovo ThinkPad’s have one of the best, if not the very best, laptop keyboard in the market today. It is just that damn good and until you’ve actually typed on one, you wouldn’t understand. If you’re going to be typing a lot on your laptop like I am, it stands to reason that you’ll want to get one with a good keyboard that have keys with a good amount of travel distance. Because so many laptop manufacturers are slimming their laptop to make it ever more portable and lightweight, the one tradeoff for that is flatter keys. Since the base of the laptop is so slim, it’s very hard to tack a keyboard on it with keys that travel deeply as there just isn’t enough room. Well, the ThinkPad 13 fortunately for me didn’t go that route! The 2mm key travel on the ThinkPad 13 is just heavenly to type on and will not tire out your fingers even during those long typing sessions.

thinkpad 13 keyboard

Although I’m still not fan of the chiclet/island style keyboards of today, it’s almost impossible to find a laptop today that doesn’t employ one. The one exception to this rule is of course the ThinkPad laptops because they are just so comfortable! Being that this is a ThinkPad branded laptop, it stands to reason that Lenovo decided to put its famous keyboard found on higher end models right here on their budget version as well and not cut corners. This continues to reiterate the fact that this is a true ThinkPad laptop through and through and not a imitation or knockoff. The smiley shaped keys not only have a deep travel distance but it also provides very good feedback as well. Also, there is very little keyboard flex. Although I loved my old ThinkPad R61 which had the older styled key layout (not chiclet), their keys had a “mushier” feel to it unlike the ThinkPad 13 here, which is much more tactile. I am still able to pump out about 103 WPM when typing on this keyboard. As far as key placement goes, I only wished that the Fn and Ctrl keys at the bottom left corner were swapped with each other. By default, the keyboard function keys on top allow you to quickly access/toggle settings such as volume and screen brightness levels. However, you could press the Fn+Esc combination to enable function lock mode. This turns the function keys into the normal function keys of F1, F2, etc. The one problem I am having is related to the power button. I can forgive the fact that it looks and feel out of place due to the glossy plastic material used for the button itself but I can’t forgive something if it doesn’t work as expected. Multiple times now, I have experienced an issue where pressing the power button down does not power on the laptop. I initially thought that I haven’t fully pressed the button but that simply wasn’t the case. The laptop obviously would eventually power on after a few more tries but this is really one of the only concerns I have at the moment. I believe I have read elsewhere that a user also experienced this very same symptom so it is definitely something I will have to monitor more closely.

power button

At this point, I need to point out that the keyboard on the ThinkPad 13 is not backlit! After reading many user comments on this product, I’m surprised to see that many of them actually require this functionality on a keyboard otherwise they won’t even consider purchasing it. I obviously believe that having a backlit keyboard is better than not having one but I personally can live without it. Besides, even in a completely dark room, I am still able to make out the keys due to the light emitting from the screen, if only barely.

A ThinkPad laptop is not truly a ThinkPad laptop unless it has the iconic stiff little red joystick nub between the G and H keys! Personally, I’ve never used it in the past on my old ThinkPad as I found it to be a bit difficult to control and that continues to be so on the ThinkPad 13. However, I do have to say that it can help you save lot of hand movement when you do need to quickly control the mouse pointer. Not having to lift my right hand to either reach for my external mouse or the touchpad is definitely a time saver in certain situations. Right below the spacebar and above the touchpad itself are dedicated left, middle and right click buttons to use with the joystick nub. I’m really starting to think that I should learn to use this feature more to save time! As for as the actual trackpad itself, I’m not sure how else to put it but that it just works. Some users thought it was a bit jumpy or not as responsive but I honestly don’t see anything wrong with it. It could be that instead of the usual Synaptic driver/technology being used, the ThinkPad 13’s trackpad is powered by Elan. The couple of mouse gestures I use work as expected so I have no real complaints.

The fingerprint reader so far has worked flawlessly. It has rarely failed to read my fingerprint despite it using the older swiping method. The reader fully integrates with Windows Hello and the initial laptop setup upon first power on helped registered my fingerprint for use with Windows 10. From there on, I was just a short finger swipe away from being logged in to Windows. For a measly $10, I highly suggest you get this add-on item!

trackpad

Performance & Sound

I didn’t perform any benchmarks because quite frankly, it is not necessary on such a  mediocre device that has pretty much the same internal parts as every other laptop on the market. I’m also positive you’re not going to be purchasing this laptop expecting to see breakthrough numbers in any benchmark tests. If you’re interested though, definitely check out other more professional reviews of the ThinkPad 13 floating around on the Internet.

Equipped with a Core i5 Skylake processor, 4GB of RAM with the built-in Intel HD 520 onboard graphics, the ThinkPad 13 was able to handle any chores I threw at it. Keep in mind however, that I am treating this laptop for what it is and that is a productivity workhorse first. Therefore, everyday tasks such as web browsing, PDF reading, Word document editing, Outlook for work email, FTP duties, watching educational videos, and OneNote all performed without any hitches simultaneously. In fact, all modern laptops on the market today should be able to perform the above mentioned tasks without any real issues. Even with a lowly equipped Core i3, you should be able to breeze through any productivity tasks that comes your way. Just make sure you’re also equipped with an SSD hard drive too. With that being said, it is also of my opinion that you should never, ever pick up any computing device today with anything less than 4GB of RAM. The price difference between 2GB and 4GB of RAM should be very miniscule. This is a moot point considering the minimum the ThinkPad 13 allows you to configure is 4GB but if you ever do run across a laptop that gives you 2GB, avoid it like the plague unless you are able to upgrade the RAM yourself. I’m also happy to report that the laptop never really got hot during normal usage. This was a big difference compared to my HP Envy m6. I do plan on also running a couple of virtual machines simultaneously using VMWare Workstation although I haven’t installed 16GB of RAM just yet. Running just one Windows 10 VM with 2GB of RAM on it though was fine and I don’t expect the laptop to give me any problems when I do run a couple more after the ram upgrade in the near future.

When it came to media consumption, I again have no complaints. HD video streaming was on point and stutter free over my home Wi-Fi. The one thing I noticed was the poor performance of the Google Chrome browser when it came to not only 4K video playback but also in terms of battery life, which I will get to in a while. Streaming sample 4K video content on YouTube produced quite a bit of stutter and lag. I was absolutely positive that buffering was not the issue here while on my home Wi-Fi. Streaming 1440p (QHD) and 1080P (Full HD) content was not a problem. So, I next downloaded a 4K video rather than streaming it. Clocking in at around 1.5GB, the laptop also had issues with getting it to play stutter free. I thought it had to be with the way the video was encoded that was at fault here so I next tried streaming again but this time, with the Microsoft Edge browser instead. To my surprise, the same 4K videos on YouTube played back flawlessly without any noticeable hiccups or frame stutter. Shame on you Chrome.

One of the other main reasons on why I opted for the ThinkPad 13 was due to its expandability. Although laptops are getting ever slimmer, a common headache or tradeoff is the inability to expand/upgrade the laptop’s internal hardware. In many situations, what you purchased in the store or have configured to order on the manufacturer’s website is final. What that usually means is that the amount of RAM and hard disk space you go for as well as the internal laptop battery is all non-upgradable unless done professionally since they are soldered onto the motherboard. With the ThinkPad 13 however, I was shocked to see that this was not the case! You are able to upgrade the RAM on the ThinkPad 13 to 16GB on two slots. Some have said that this was upgradeable to even 32GB. The M.2 SSD hard drive and laptop battery are also replaceable. Why is this important to me? First, I save money. By not being forced to configure the laptop to its maximum configuration at purchase, I don’t get gouged by the higher prices set forth by the manufacturer for those parts. For example, I configured my laptop with the absolute minimum of 4GB of RAM and a measly 128GB hard drive. However, I am now able to purchase two 8GB SODIMM sticks along with a higher capacity hard drive from Amazon and save a bunch of money by purchasing and installing them myself. The second advantage for being able to upgrade your laptop internals is to extend the life of your laptop itself. By having the RAM, hard drive and battery soldered directly onto the motherboard, if any of these parts go bad in the future, you better hope that you had purchased that extended warranty. I plan on keeping this laptop with me for at least a minimum of 5-6 years so being able to upgrade these internal parts is a blessing. The one bad news I’ve read so far about the ThinkPad 13 is the difficulty in removing the bottom cover to get access to its internals due to the barrage of clips that you’d have to pry off. Because of that, I will be upgrading both my RAM and hard drive in one sitting rather than separately!

As far as the audio goes, it does as good a job as any other laptop. The speakers are actually placed on the bottom of the laptop towards you on both the right and left side. The odd placement I believe actually allows the sound to bounce off solid surfaces when the laptop is placed for example flat on a desk or table. However, the sound does get muffled a bit when the laptop is placed on your bed. I’m guessing they were trying to make these tiny speakers produce sounds that sound louder to the user than for what it really is. These speakers will never set your world on fire as they always lack the bass but for your average media consumption needs, they should serve quite adequate. Quite frankly, I’ve always used a good pair of headphones with my laptop but if you need something more, you can always pair the ThinkPad 13 with good external speakers via Bluetooth. As I briefly mentioned earlier, I sincerely wished that Lenovo placed the audio port on either the left side or even in the front instead of on the right. Being a right-handed person, my headphones often get in the way of my mouse movement. This was easily resolved by simply using a trackball but I guess this was also a sign to me to start getting used to using the trackpoint nub/joystick on the keyboard!

sound

Battery

I’ve gotten pretty average results where battery life was concerned. I easily got an average of about 6.5-7.5 of hours doing my everyday normal tasks while listening to Spotify via speakers at about 40% brightness. This is with Wi-Fi on and Bluetooth off. I lost about 25% juice after streaming a full 1080p movie that was exactly 2 hours in length (40% brightness as well). What’s disappointing though is that my browser of choice, Google Chrome, is an absolute battery drainer. I actually couldn’t believe at first why my battery life was not on par with what Lenovo stated. I thought it was due to my plugins but it seems that this issue has plagued Chrome for quite some time now even though I’ve read that there was an update that fixed this issue. This ultimately lead me to using the Edge browser full time during my testing of the battery on the ThinkPad 13. The disadvantage is that although the browser has much potential, it is just too barebones at the moment with no plugin support. Also, I highly recommend trying out the Adguard software as not only does it block advertisements in Edge but it can do so for all your other browsers as well!

Another battery drainer was the process labeled “System and compressed memory”. Long story short, if you have little amount of RAM and have used it all up, Windows 10 will begin to compress unused memory pages rather than swap them to your hard disk to make room for the more active programs you are using at the moment. This is great but if you are on battery, this compression process takes up CPU cycles and that means faster battery drainage. Rebooting usually fixes the problem as you’ll start with a clean slate in regards to your RAM but I usually hibernate my laptop and rarely do I reboot. With only 4GB of RAM to work with at the moment though, I just may need to do so until I have the time to install my 16GB of RAM. With that being said, I’m satisfied with what I’ve got. Obviously we all want more battery life but 6-7 hours is respectable if not average. Like a lot of users, I expected the 6th gen Skylake processor to live up to its hype of giving us major energy savings but truth be told from what I’ve seen and read so far regarding this, it is a pretty big disappointment.

The good news is that the battery brick for the ThinkPad 13 is quite small and lightweight. This makes throwing the charger in your bag not seem that much of a hindrance as other bigger chargers do. If the USB-C port is able to charge the laptop, then this is even greater news as manufacturers begin to create USB-C charging adapters. These will most likely be even more lightweight and you’ll be able to purchase just standard USB-C cables to connect your laptop to it. Another great feature regarding your battery is using the built-in Lenovo Settings app to set a maximum charge threshold. This is useful for users who use their laptop mainly while plugged in all the time. The idea is that you don’t want to keep charging the battery at 100%. Therefore, the app will allow you to configure it so that instead of 100%, you can set it to a lower percentage such as 85-95%. By doing so, your laptop will actually stop charging once it reaches the threshold you have set. The obvious drawback is that for times when you do need to use your laptop while on battery, it would not be fully charged. The minimum threshold you can set is 40% but I think that’s being a bit too dramatic. I have mine currently set to 90%. Since the battery is replaceable, you could be of mind that you should just stop babying the battery and use it however you want to. Of course, there are others who wouldn’t feel comfortable replacing the battery themselves and so making it last for the longest possible time is a nice option as well.

charging adapter

charging threshold

Final Conclusion

I admit that the ThinkPad 13 was not my initial laptop of choice. I’ve had my eyes set on a couple of others and in fact, I actually purchased an HP laptop from the Microsoft store only to return it a few days later. Most of you have definitely heard, saw or have used the Dell XPS 13. It won many laptop awards and rightly so. I was very close to getting one myself. 2-in-1 laptops/convertibles have also piqued my interest (the HP I returned was actually of this type) due to its flexibility in being able to do work when needed but then turn it into a tablet at the end of the work day when you just want to relax and consume media. Many slim laptops were also considered. In the end though, I’ve finally made a clear headed decision to go with the ThinkPad 13 and the major reason for that is, the keyboard! It may seem silly at first, especially for those who’ve never typed on a quality laptop keyboard before but it was really the best choice given my situation. Not only do I love the keyboard but also the anti-glare matte screen, port availability, battery life, expandable internal parts, the price, the lightness of the laptop and not to mention the durability and reliability as well! It was one of the most well rounded laptops of all the one’s on my consideration list.

In the beginning, I raised a couple of interesting points on who this laptop caters to and who it doesn’t. I think I made a pretty strong argument that the ThinkPad 13 definitely caters to me! A weight of a laptop is definitely important but since I’ll be typing a lot more often than actually lugging the laptop around, it made perfect sense to get one with a more comfortable keyboard than one that weighed next to nothing at the expense of a flat keyboard. A beautiful 4K resolution screen definitely makes one drool but if I really think about it, I’d much rather watch a 4K movie on a bigger monitor instead. Being just 13 inches at 1080p, I have to scale the screen to 115%. At 4K, I’d have to go a lot higher and for what? The only time I would get to truly enjoy that high resolution is when I’d be watching 4K videos or viewing/editing super HD resolution photos. Since I watch videos more often on my iPad than on my laptop, that point is moot. I don’t edit photos at all so that’s another task I don’t have to worry about. Have an almost bezel-less screen is nice but is that a worthy tradeoff for not being able to swap out the RAM, HD and battery components of the laptop? This was a hard one as I was that much closer on pulling the trigger on the Dell XPS 13 but in the end, I remembered what was most important to me and the ThinkPad 13 is as perfect of a laptop as I could find for myself. There’s only a couple of sore points I have with it but nothing enough to make me regret the purchase.

Sadly, I have a feeling that the ThinkPad 13 will still go unnoticed to the general public despite it being a very solid overall laptop. Although the base price for the ThinkPad 13 is not too high, you’ll rarely order the base configuration model. After tacking on another $200 or so, you’ll begin to realize that you actually could get a much more nicer looking and powerful laptop than the ThinkPad 13 if you are willing to spend just a bit more. In the end, you’ll just have to decide whether the ThinkPad 13 is a worthy tradeoff. For me, it was a definitive yes!

 

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Rating: 5.0/5 (5 votes cast)

Remote Wake on LAN via Router

When I talked about Wake on Lan (WoL) in a previous article, I also wrote on how it was possible to do it over the WAN. Although being able to magically wake your computer up from its slumber state while within the local network is pretty handy, it’s when you actually get to do it while outside of your LAN that makes the most sense. Previously, you’ve had to configure port forwarding in order for the “magic packet” to be able to reach the computer you intended to wake up. While port forwarding is very easy to set up, things get a bit weird though when that packet needs to reach a computer that is powered off. Many users have discovered that although they may have gotten it to work initially, the magic packet eventually fails to reach its destination and thus, the computer will be unable to wake up.

Due to me recently wanting to really get this to work, I decided to re-tackle the issue. Not surprisingly, the solution was right in my face but I decided to ignore it in that it was finally time to get a new router that was capable of performing WoL!

If you’re dead set on not wanting to throw any money into solving this issue, then please DO NOT read any further!

The Problem

This problem can largely be blamed on your router. In order for the router to send the magic packet, it needs to know the MAC address of the computer’s network card. The MAC address is the hardware address of the card and is different than the IP address of what you’re normally familiar with. One of the biggest differences is that in normal use cases, the MAC address does not ever change and is unique to each network card out there. Your router learns of the MAC address when the computer is powered on and communicating on the network. The MAC address is likely to be stored in the memory of the router. When you power down the computer, after a while, your home router will most likely erase this address from its memory. Therefore, while sending a magic packet over the Internet to the computer within the LAN via port forward may work initially due to the IP-to-MAC mapping in the router’s memory, it will later cease to work once the mapping is cleared from the router. And here is where so many users frustration stems from.

The reason why the magic packet works without the mapping if sent within your LAN is due to the packet being broadcasted out. All network cards will actually receive the packet and looks to see if they own that MAC address. If so, it will process it. If not, it discards it.

Things you have tried included but not limited to:

– Finding a way to create a static IP to MAC address mapping (this is different than a DHCP reservation based on a MAC address identifier)
– Upgrading the router firmware
– Finding a way to port forward the magic packet to the broadcast address of your LAN
– Reading up on flashing router to either DD-WRT or Tomato firmware

The Solution

I’ve tried all of the above but none of them worked. It also didn’t help that my router was not compatible with either DD-WRT nor Tomato. However, that got me thinking. If I’m going to purchase a new router to flash it with either firmware, would there already be a router out there that can natively perform WoL with its built-in firmware? I’m not into the wireless router game and so I have no idea how advanced they have become in the recent years. But I was confident nonetheless taht there must be one out there that can provide home users with decent advance settings to play with. The answer to my WoL problems ladies and gentlemen, after a bit of research, turns out to be the wireless routers from Asus equipped with their ASUSWRT firmware.

The exact model I purchased was the ASUS 802.11ac Wireless-AC750 (RT-AC52U). This model is one of the more lower end models but it perfectly suited my needs because it wasn’t the crazy hardware or amount of antennas it had that attracted me but more so the firmware it was rocking, which Asus calls ASUSWRT.

Asus RT-AC52U

You can check out all of ASUSWRT’s features from here. Here is a list of Asus routers that DO NOT support the ASUSWRT firmware.

There are many, many features that got incorporated into ASUSWRT’s firmware as I’m sure many other modern home routers do as well in this day and age. I’ll only be talking about two of them here as it was the main selling point of the product. The first, of course, is the built-in WoL functionality. The second is its VPN server feature.

The Setup

To be perfectly honest, this isn’t truely WoL “over the Internet”. The magic packet never gets routed over the Internet to your computer at home. In a way, this still can be labeled Wake on “LAN”. Why? Because it’s your router that actually sends the packet to your computer. For that to happen though, you need to be able to log into your router from the public Internet. This does lower your security a bit so be sure to use a very strong and random password! Unfortunately, the router didn’t allow me to use my ultra long password as the characters got cut off in the interface. That was disappointing to say the least. The other thing you can do is to enable HTTPS so at least your traffic is encrypted over the Internet. Next, you can decide to change the default port. By default, this would be port 8443 with HTTPS enabled. This doesn’t help you if someone is doing a port scan of your device but I still think it’s better than using the default. Lastly and probably the most secure of all is locking down which IP is able to login to your router. However, you’ll obviously need to know ahead of time which public IP you’ll need to login in from and the firmware does limit you to only four entries.

Administration Settings

Once you have your router secured for public access, you’ll now need a method to actually reach your router from anywhere on the Internet. Most of us have a dynamic public IP from our Internet Service Provider and so accessing your router via this method is definitely a no-go. You need something that is static and never-changing. For this, we turn to a special service called Dynamic DNS. This service helps you map a name to an IP address, similar to regular DNS. It’s dynamic in that once configured, the service from then on will automatically update this mapping for you should your public IP change. Key word here is automatically. By default, the Asus router comes with a couple of the more popular DDNS services out there baked in by default. I just chose the one straight from Asus themselves: *.asuscomm.com. All you have to do is specify a name and if it’s available, it’s yours for the keeping. From then on, you can access your router’s login/administration page by going to myawesomename.asuscomm.com. It’s that simple. No signup of any kind is required prior to you being able to use this service.

DDNS

It’s WoL Time

Once you’re able to login to your router from the Internet, the WoL setup is a breeze. Simply head over to Network Tools –> Wake On LAN, give it a PC name to MAC mapping, saving it and that’s it. Anytime you want to wake the PC remotely, simply login to your router, head back to the Wake on LAN page, click on the MAC address and press the Wake Up tab. If configured correctly and barring any weird scenarios, your PC of choice should receive the magic packet and because it has the MAC address as specified in the packet, it will process it and wake itself up. The rest of your home PCs will simply ignore it. Because the router is technically inside your LAN, no advance configuration is needed such as port forwarding.

WoL Tab

It’s VPN Time

Another very cool feature that sold me on this Asus brand of router was how easy it is to get your own VPN server up and running in no time. Literally, all you do is enable the VPN feature by flipping a switch, giving it an DHCP pool range (10 maximum devices), creating your accounts and that’s it! There are some advance settings but I didn’t have to touch any of them at all. To connect, you’ll use the same DDNS name that you registered with as the server endpoint. From my limited testing, the speeds weren’t all that great while I was connected to my Asus router at my work PC but it does get the job done. Having your own VPN server is great if you’re always connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots while on the go as traffic between you and your VPN server is encrypted. Rather than paying for a VPN service that accomplishes the same thing in encrypting your traffic, you can now do it for free. This does have drawbacks however, in that while your traffic is encrypted, the bad guys will still be able to see “where” your VPN server is located at. If they really wanted to mess with you, they could then attack your home router. If you had a paid VPN service, I doubt you’ll care about someone doing the same to one of their VPN servers located who knows where.

VPN Server

One issue I did encounter with the VPN service was getting it to work on my Samsung Galaxy S6 phone connected to T-Mobile’s LTE network. By default, the APN Protocol was set to IPv6 and because of that, I wasn’t able to connect to my home VPN. After configuring a new APN with all the same settings as the IPv6 one but with the APN protocol set to IPv4, I was then able to successfully connect while on T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network. Another issue was getting my iPad Mini 2 to connect to my wireless network. The Asus router comes equipped with both a 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency network that you can connect to. During setup, I made it so that both frequencies/networks would use the same SSID thinking that the different password is what would determine which frequency the device would use. However, the iPad didn’t like this at all and so I had to change the SSID on the 5GHz frequency to something different. Once done, the device was then able to connect.

In the End

What felt like such a draining and puzzling problem was solved by simply the good ol’ fashion way: throwing a little money at it. Although the model I got was of the lower end, I feel that the firmware greatly makes up for it. In fact, this router is very appealing to users on the fence about either DD-WRT or Tomato. Obviously it’s not an apples to apples comparison but there is simply too much features packed into this guy such as QoS, bandwidth monitoring, WoL, VPN server, DDNS, parental controls, URL and keyword filtering, IPv6 support, dual frequency support, multiple guest networks for each frequency, cloud support, USB port for printer and hard drive sharing plus a host of others and it’s easy to see how attractive this router can be right out of the box. You can definitely do worst for $60. In my limited testing so far, it has been rock solid. WoL works every single time while I’m a work and my VPN connection to the router has yet to give me any hiccups. Time will obviously tell. At the moment though, all I need the router to do is solve my problem of remote WoL and it’s been a champ at doing that.

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Rating: 5.0/5 (3 votes cast)

Control Volume Slider in Windows with Keyboard

Want to know what grinds my gears? Ever wonder why something you’d think be so easy to configure is actually not? Yes, I’m talking about you, Mr. volume slider in Windows! Don’t try and look away. I’m sure a lot of us wondered on how to go about with controlling the volume slider in Windows with our keyboard. Oh that’s easy you might say! Just buy a media keyboard that already have the volume up/down keys! Yes, that would definitely solve the issue but what about people who don’t wish to buy a new keyboard just for this feature or for those who wish to use their current keyboard because they like it best? Are we out of luck? Turns out that we are not. This seemingly simple feature actually helps me out a lot as I use it pretty much during every computer session. If you’ve ever used a media keyboard at home where the volume control was just a push of a button away, you’ll understand my point, especially if you’re now stuck with using a plain jane keyboard at work.

Why So Hard?

Here is the keyboard that I am using at work:

While it does have volume control, I actually have to press and hold the FN (function) key first. Other multimedia keyboards like Logitech have dedicated volume control buttons. So as you can see, although I can control the volume on my keyboard, it wasn’t the most ideal. I then found out that I can actually toggle the Function key on that specific keyboard so that controlling the volume didn’t require me to hold the Function each and every time as well. This was awesome but what if I wanted to map another key for that dedicated feature?

Here is the keyboard I’m using at home:

As you can see, this is a very basic, no frills keyboard with no multimedia keys whatsoever. My ideal setup is to be able to assign two keys of my choosing and map them to the volume up and volume down function in Windows. At first I wanted to see if this was possible to configure in Windows itself but I came to the conclusion that you can’t. Such a shame because this is a much needed feature. Many people I’m sure need to be able to easily control sound volume output various times a day while working at their computer. If you have external speakers, then yes, you obviously could just control the volume knob from there but again, this is a hassle to perform multiple times a day. We could control the volume with the volume slider in the system tray but come on, that gets old very quickly.

AutoHotkey to the Rescue

AutoHokey is a small utility that allows you to configure all sorts of functions and macros that you’d then map to a key on your keyboard of your preference. Sounds perfect right? Indeed it is. You can do so much with this utility that assigning two keys for the volume control as I am showing you here is literally like a drop of water in an ocean. Macros are very useful for making your daily computing that much more easier and not to mention faster. Think of it as “automation”. You write a script to perform various actions, bind it to a key of your choosing and once activated, those actions will be performed automatically for you. While it’s true that gamers and programmers benefit the most from keyboard macros, regular users can also use it to perform mundane tasks that needs to be performed at regular intervals throughout the day. I guarantee that once you learn how to use AutoHotkey, you’ll never want to use another computer without it.

You can download AutoHotkey from here.

The utility is extremely small and installation is a breeze. Installation is your usual Next, Next finish type. Upon first run of the utility, you will be asked if you want the utility to help you create your first script file and to drop it in your Documents folder. Hit Yes to continue.

The script file will then be loaded on screen. How AutoHotkey works is that once the utility is launched, it will load this script file into memory and all of the key bindings that you specify will be activated. It’s pretty simple. But of course, getting the script to work to your liking is the hard part. If you read the sample script file, it will tell you that it has already configured two keyboard bindings for you as a test. At this point, reload AutoHotkey again and press your Windows key + Z. Your default browser should then launch and go to the AutoHotkey website.

Our volume up/down key script is extremely simple. I chose to use my Page Up and Page Down key to map to the volume up and volume down function, respectively. These are two keyboard keys that I rarely use and they made the most sense as far as the keys went for this function. I initially used the numpad “-” and “+” key but didn’t like it after a while. Once you find the two keys that you want to map, it is now time to figure out how to write out the script and this is where it can get a little challenging. Luckily, the guide below presents us with everything we need:

http://www.autohotkey.com/docs/KeyList.htm

Open up your script file by right-clicking the AutoHotkey system tray icon and selecting “Edit This Script”.

At the end of the file, I would type this two scripts to bind my two keys:

PgUp::Volume_Up
PgDn::Volume_Down

You’ll obviously want to substitute your own two keys if you don’t want to use the Page Up and Page Down keys like me.

Once that is done, I’ll need to reload the script by right-clicking on the icon again and choosing the appropriate option. And just like that, I can now control my volume up/down function with the two keys of my choosing! It’s that simple. All this without needing to purchase a media keyboard. As you can tell from that list, you can map a whole bunch of other media functions such as pausing and stopping your media as well, which also can be very handy. I do noticed that AutoHotkey does not launch automatically with Windows so you’ll need to manually place the AutoHotkey program shortcut in your Startup folder:

For Windows 7 users: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/run-program-automatically-windows-starts#1TC=windows-7

For windows 8 users: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/2806079

If you haven’t noticed by now, you can actually turn that boring keyboard you’re using right now into your own media keyboard with just AutoHotkey. Most of us rarely use the F1-F12 keys as well as keys like Home and End. You can essentially use AutoHotkey to make these keys do all your bidding!

In the End…

I hope this article helps you out because I simply cannot function without these two simple functions on my keyboard as I listen to music every time I’m on my computer. Now that I can control the volume on my keyboard, I now am able to leave my external speaker’s volume knob in the same location and control the volume via my Page Up and Page Down key. No more turning the volume knob or using my mouse to control the volume slider within Windows. You’ll most definitely want to check out their forum section if you want to learn to do much more with AutoHotkey than just these simple media function bindings as discussed here.

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Dude, Where’s My Tabs?

You know what grinds my gears? Windows/File Explorer, that’s what. For the longest time, people have been saying that Microsoft just doesn’t get it and that they don’t listen to their customers. Whether you agree with this or not is completely irrelevant. However, I’m sure that the majority of us have stumbled upon an issue at one point or another that just drives us crazy not because it doesn’t work but more so because of how it works. You see, for most of us, we like to be organized. We dump our files in directories and organize them so we know where everything is. Sure, everyone works differently but no matter the case, we all create folders to help us more easily locate our files and whatnot. Well that is exactly the problem. We create many folders and directories but File Explorer has always functioned more or less the same throughout its iterations. One much requested feature is for the ability to open new directories in a new tab within the same File Explorer window much like how we can now open up a new webpage under a new tab within our favorite browsers. As we need a way to manage multiple websites under a single browser, we also have a need to work with multiple directories under a single Explorer window. Why can’t Microsoft just give us this feature?! Luckily we don’t have to rely solely on Microsoft to implement this feature because an excellent third-party plugin gives us just exactly what we want, and then some.

The Problem

File Explorer as of right now, meaning the version in Windows 8, leaves a lot to be desired. Sure they’ve given us the nice pretty ribbon interface which in my honest opinion I like a lot. It does take some time to get used to, provided that you even give it a chance in the first place. But the ribbon interface I can do without. Many users including myself no doubt would have preferred for Microsoft to give us a tabbed interface instead. As it stands, working with File Explorer feels like working with Internet Explorer 6 when you’re used to working with Chrome, Firefox and even Internet Explorer 7+.

The biggest issue is when you want to work with many different directories at once. You’d have to open up each directory in its own window. This is exactly how past Internet Explorer browsers have worked. Each new website you opened resulted in a new window of its own. Yes, it worked but it was hardly the most efficient way to multitask. I remember Firefox and Opera being the browser of choice for many because working with 10 tabs was so much more easier to deal with than 10 separate windows. Got a small monitor? Well, good luck.

What About Jumplists?

A pretty neat feature added to Explorer since Windows 7 is the Jumplist feature. To sum it up, you’re basically allowed to pin some of your most favorite and most often used folder locations within the Explorer icon located on your taskbar. Whenever you want to jump to that directory, you simply right click on the Explorer icon and you’ll be able to access your Jumplist. This does wonders if you want to have a clean desktop but still allow you to easily and quickly access your favorite folders. However, the problem still persists in that each folder opened via the Jumplist feature still results in an entire new Explorer window popping up on your screen.

So, What Gives?

Up until now, all I did was give you a rant about one of the biggest issue when dealing with File Explorer within Windows. I guess the whole point I’m trying to make is that rather than having to juggle and “manage” multiple windows on your screen, doesn’t it make more sense for you to be “managing” your data instead? Isn’t that the whole point of opening multiple directories? Having 10 separate windows on your screen at the same time during work hours does make you look like you’re hard at work when your boss glances over to see what you’re up to but other than that, it’s hardly the most efficient way to work.

Therefore, our solution is simple. If Microsoft doesn’t want to listen, then we’ll just have to get things done ourselves! Luckily, a Chinese developer has made an excellent plugin/extension for File Explorer that aims to “drag Explorer into the modern era” by finally giving us the ability to create tabs. Best of all? It’s completely free and the amount of time/hassle this simple feature will save you definitely warrants a donation of some kind. I usually don’t push too hard when it comes to encouraging others to donate money to freeware developers but I gotta say, this guy definitely deserves some beer money from you.

Clover 3

Enter Clover 3. If you love the Google Chrome browser, you will absolutely love Clover 3 because it aims to bring the tabbed interface of Chrome right into File Explorer. This includes everything from the visual interface to the keyboard shortcuts you’re so familiar with in Chrome. If you’re not a Chrome user, then that’s okay as well because the developer did a good job in integrating the plugin right into File Explorer in Windows that you’d swear it was actually a part of the operating system itself!

You can download Clover 3 from here.

Installation is simple. Download, install, enjoy! The install proceeded so quickly that I didn’t even have time to process a screenshot. Once finished though, a new window will be presented and you’ll quickly realize that you’re looking at a File Explorer window and not a tab within Google Chrome!

Default Clover Tabs

Notice the familiar wrench icon? You can access a small amount of Clover’s settings through here. For the most part, they can be left alone.

Clover 3's Settings

One of the awesome things about using Clover is its ability to give you bookmarks! You can favorite your most frequently accessed folder locations right at the top so that they are just a click away.

Bookmarks

One of my personal favorite is having the ability to middle-click a folder! Once again, Clover 3 not only looks like Chrome but acts like it as well. I simply cannot live without the middle click button of my mouse to open new tabs within my browser and I’m sure neither could you. Here, middle-clicking a new folder will immediately open it within its own tab in the same File Explorer window. This is definitely something that will used on a daily basis when I have to manage multiple folders. But what about managing my data? How does Clover 3 help in that regard? Well, Clover 3 supports drag and drop between tabs. So, you can easily move files from one tab to another simply by dragging it from the source folder, hovering it over the destination tab for about a second or two and then releasing the file inside the directory. Although Clover gives an indication that this will be a copy operation, it’s actually moving it (cut/paste). In the below example, I’m simply moving a PDF file from a folder to my Desktop. This feature once again proves how useful having tabs within File Explorer can be! It definitely can save you a lot of time.

Moving Data Between Tabs

If you open a lot of folder tabs due to the structure of your work, there are bound to be some that you use more frequently than others. While bookmarks help you open them faster, it doesn’t help with tab management. Just like with Chrome, you can actually pin your most used folders to the left area. This simple feature allows you to quickly access your most important folders without having to hunt for them. Well, sort of, unless of course you actually pin a lot of folders! The bad news is that you cannot use the drag-and-drop feature to move files from a regular tabbed directory to one that is pinned.

Pinned Tabs

Without a doubt, you should by now have noticed how useful Clover can be. In fact, just by having tabs alone in File Explorer should make you that much more productive with your work because it’s no longer about managing your folder windows on screen. There is one File Explorer window to rule them all! With that being said though, it will take time getting used to due to the many years of not having the ability to use tabs within the Explorer interface. If Microsoft doesn’t bring tabs to the Explorer interface in Windows 9, I’m not entirely sure they ever will. It obviously will bring some confusion to many of the casual users but at this stage where the desktop is losing its dominance, something just have to change and I don’t know of a bigger change in boosting a user’s productivity level than having a tabbed interface in File Explorer.

As a last reminder, if you find that using Clover 3 definitely helps in your every day usage of the Windows operating system, I highly encourage you to donate some funds to the developer of this great project!

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Verifying File Authenticity via Hashing

Whenever I am stuck on deciding what to write for my next article, I usually can depend on some of my friends to give me some ideas albeit they themselves won’t know of this! A lot of times I do get ideas on some topics but decided to skip on them because I keep thinking that it’s simple stuff and that most people will know of it already. So, when a friend emailed me asking on how they can go about verifying a file they receive hasn’t been tampered with during transit, I immediately found my next article write-up. My friend is a semi technical individual so when he asked for this favor, I was a bit shocked that he didn’t know what a MD5 or SHA1 hash is. If you personally have a need to verify that what you’ve downloaded is the exact same match as the original, running that file through a hashing algorithm can do just that. Most users will never need to do this throughout their time on the Internet as many of them immediately believe that what they downloaded is the same bits and pieces as the original file. This may or may not be the case and for many of users, they really don’t care. However, for more important documents and whatnot, you definitely want to check whether the file you have on your computer now is the same as the one you downloaded from.

Just Why?

So, why in the world would you actually need to verify a piece of file that you’ve downloaded? If something is wrong, can’t I just simply redownload it? The answer is yes, you simply can. However, how would you know that the file you have right now has the same bits of 1’s and 0’s as the original file? That is a bit more challenging because if the file is not the exact match, there is no popup box or warning message that tells you so. The file or program may still open and function as expected even if a couple of bits are corrupted and that is why most users don’t care about this kind of stuff. If it works, then that’s all I need to know. In other situations and scenarios, however, you have a need to verify that everything and I mean everything is the same as the original. Not one single bit is corrupted, missing or altered.

For example, what if you had to sign a very important document that was sent to you by a lawyer? Wouldn’t you want to have a peace of mind that the document you received via email is the exact same document as the one your lawyer sent you and that nothing has been altered between the time he/she sent you that email and you signing it? If you downloaded a program and somehow it’s not working as expected, you’d normally be asked to verify whether or not the download was “corrupted” and you’d check that by running the file through a hashing algorithm and comparing the results to a known good hash of the same program.

MD5 and SHA1

In order to perform the actual verification, we need to run our files through a hashing algorithm. The two most popular one’s today are MD5 and SHA1. What’s the good news? The good news is that you yourself do no necessarily have to be concerned with how these algorithms actually work behind the scenes. Just place your trust in the mathematical geniuses that came up with these algorithms. SHA1 actually was created by the National Security Agency of the United States government. Don’t trust our government? Not a problem. I have no doubt that SHA1 has been closely inspected and dissected by many advance security researchers around the world and I’m sure they approve of it as well.

Think of these hashing algorithms as more like a formula or some sort of machine that has both a input and output end. Whenever you want to verify a file, you’d throw the file into the input end of the “machine”. This machine will then perform its calculations on the file. The larger your file, the longer it will take to compute. The faster your CPU is the less time it will take. But one thing is for certain and that is the outcome. When the machine has finished with its calculations based on the hashing algorithm or “formula”, it will spit out what would seem like a whole bunch of random letters and numbers. However, these numbers and letters are anything but random. In fact this is how verification takes place.

Let’s take a look at the SHA1 hashing algorithm. The beauty of the algorithm is that anytime you run a file through it, the output will always give you a string of 40 characters. No more and no less. 40 characters. This is set in stone I believe and it doesn’t matter if your file is 1KB is size or 1GB. The second more important part to understand is that any time you run a file of any kind through this algorithm, the output characters will always be the same provided that nothing has been altered. This means that if you run a file under the SHA1 algorithm, you’d get the expected output of 40 characters. If you run the same file again under SHA1 but using a different computer or system, as long as it is run under the same algorithm, the result should always be the same 40 characters. If even just a tiny change has been made on the file, running that file again under the SHA1 hashing algorithm will produce a totally different output of characters. The only similarity is that the output still consists of 40 characters. That never changes.

Hashing Diagram

As you can see, an individual can easily verify a file or document with the original owner by simply asking him or her to run the file under the same hashing algorithm. If both 40 character outputs are an identical match, then you can have complete confidence that both files are exact duplicates and nothing has been altered on either side.

Hashing is a one way function. This means that it is very hard to reconstruct the original document based on the given hash results itself. This is different from encryption because encryption is usually a two way function. When you encrypt a document, you or someone else is able to reverse the process and decrypt it back to its original form. It’s usually not necessary to verify all 40 characters. In most cases, you can just compare the last 5-6 characters. With these algorithms, a single change can alter the resulting hash in a big way and so if the last 6 characters or so are identical, there’s a massive good chance that the other characters will be identical as well or vice-versa. Other utilities also allow you to simply paste in a resulting hash and compare it with a file. It will then notify you if the two hashes are identical or not without you having to “eyeball” it.

HashTab

So how do we go about verifying our files? Simple. All we need is an utility that allows us to use the SHA1 hashing algorithm! There’s no doubt in my mind that many of them exists but one of my personal favorites is a utility called HashTab by Implbits. This nifty utility, once installed, will seamlessly integrate itself with Windows Explorer. Any time you right-click a file and head over to its Properties menu, you’ll find yourself with an extra tab called File Hashes. As soon as you click on this tab, the utility will immediately begin to run the file you’ve right-clicked under the SHA1, MD5 and CRC32 hashing algorithms by default. Once finished (again, the time this takes depends on the size of the file and your processor’s speed), the results will be displayed right in that same tab! No messing around with the command line and typing of any kind.

You can download HashTab from here. Personal use of the software is completely free but use of the software in a professional environment is not.

Below are two screenshots. The first is a sample text file and the other is the file’s SHA1 output using HastTab:

Sample TextOriginal SHA1

I mentioned earlier that even a single minor change to the document will produce a totally different SHA1 output. Below, I make a tiny change to the same document. I simply deleted the first comma in the first line of text. This is after the word “amet”. As you can see for yourself, the SHA1 output and not to mention all the other outputs of different algorithms as well are very different from the first:

Altered TextAltered Hash

If you want HashTab to calculate hash results for other hashing algorithms, simply select the Settings link and you’ll have the ability to add/remove the other algorithms. For most use cases, SHA1 and MD5 is usually the most popular and that is what most users will go with.

HashTab Settings

Please folks, do not be gullible enough to upload your documents and whatnot to an online service that “promises” to calculate the hash for you! Once you upload your important documents, you have no idea whose hands will get to them. When it comes to these important functions, its imperative that you perform them locally right on your own personal computer.

So What Now?

Well, now that you know how to verify if two files are an exact match, it’s up to you on how to use it. For example, if you’d like to distribute some kind of file to other public users, you can simply run the file through an algorithm and post the hash on your website. If a person downloading your file chooses to run the same hashing algorithm on the file for verfication, they’ll know whether or not the copy they have is an exact duplicate.

If you’re simply just going to trade files with your friends or colleagues, you can easily just attach the file along with the hash result in the same email. You’re probably then wondering well gee Simon, can’t an attacker simply intercept the email during transit, alter the original file, run the altered file through the same hashing algorithm and replace it with the one you’ve original written down in the email? While this scenario is highly unlikely to happen, you can definitely choose to not put all your eggs in one basket. Simply attach the file and email it to your friend. Instead of attaching the resulting hash result in the same email, simply send the results via a different communications channel such as SMS, Twitter or Facebook. When you do this, you’ll immediately know that the file was altered because the hash you got from the original sender does not match up. Once again, you can make the hash results public for all to see because as mentioned earlier, hashing is a one-way function. Other people will not be able to piece together what your original file consists of simply by having the hash results alone.

There are also a couple of other things you should be aware of:

Hashing does not equal encryption= Hashing a file results in an output of letters and numbers that allows you to verify its authenticity by comparing it with another good copy. There is no confidentiality built in because the original file does not get altered in any way, shape or form. What hashing allows you to do is figure out whether or not the file is authentic and whether or not it has been changed by the original owner.

If encryption is what you fancy, then I have written two previous articles on just that. One teaches you how to encrypt your emails with OpenPGP. By doing so, not only does the email gets transferred cryptically but a hash is also run on your email message to prove to the recipient that the message has not been altered in any way, similar to what I showed you here with regular files and documents. The other article shows you how to encrypt individual files and documents so that only the recipient you chose have the ability to decrypt and open it.

Hashing does not mean a file is malware free = Just because an anonymous uploader on the Internet gives you a hash result of the original file he uploaded means that the file is safe! The hashing algorithm does not care what gets thrown in or who uses it. It’s main job is to calculate the hash results and give that to you. Therefore, the file you download can still be malicious in nature even though the given hash results are known. What this can prevent is dubious copies of software. For example, a lot of users download the Microsoft operating system ISO images for testing purposes via Torrent. If the original image created by Microsoft has a hash result of say 1234abcd, then an ISO image uploaded by another individual claiming to be the same as Microsoft’s ISO image can have a different hash result of say abcd1234. This immediately lets you know that the second copy is bogus and not to be trusted.

With this information at hand, it’s up to you on whether to use it or not and when. Hashing can serve a very important purpose and if used at the right times, it can actually help prevent a lot of headaches down the road.

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