Using an unlocked USB 3g dongle on a mac

The cellular telcos regularly have deals where they give away 3g/4g usb modem dongles for free or very cheap. I seem to have collected one from every network over the last few years. I also tend to churn networks pretty regularly, in an effort to keep data costs down.

At the moment, Optus Connect4Less gives me blocks of 500Mb for $5. Annoyingly, it bills in 1Mb increments, so I am flying through my quota pretty fast, but it is otherwise ok.

I have also recently come into a MacBook Air. Nice laptop, but since I haven’t use MacOS since about the end of last century, it is taking a bit to get used to.

One issue was getting a 3G connection working. The optus branded dongle sticks straight out , I much prefer the old Telstra Turbo stick with a hinged USB plug that points up. Fortunately, these are easily unlocked to take any SIM, and the drivers are available at ZTE’s site – as it is actually a ZTE MF626, specifically a MF626i to indicate the Telstra branded model. It includes dialling software with Telstra NextG logos that helpfully hides almost all useful config options. Don’t use it.

Instead, head to Network Preferences in the OS, select the ZTEUSBModem entry and enter *99# as the calling number. In advanced, under “Model” select GPRS (GSM3G). Now you can enter your network APN. For Optus, it is usually “internet”, for Voda it used to be “vfinternet”. Whirlpool has the latest details if you are not sure.

That’s it. Click apply to save the settings then Connect to try it out. Mine takes a minute or so before it is connected and the DNS is properly applied, so be patient. You can select “Show modem status in menu bar” to have a little phone icon to easily connect/disconnect in future.

Acer Aspire Bios bug is a pain

Apologies for the techy nature of this post, but I found many  people online with this issue that were clearly ignorant of how computers work, what UEFI and legacy BIOS’ do, and how they all interact. The info below has enough detail for somebody with access to a second machine and the Internet to restore an Acer laptop suffering the legacy BIOS F2 not working bug. If you stumble across it and it is too complex, rest assured your data is safe, you don’t have to reinstall everything, and you shouldn’t do that. Instead, point your helpful techy friend here to help you get working again.

My current laptop, an Acer Aspire V5 431p, is a Win8 machine that uses the UEFI standard that has superseded the BIOS firmware system used in PCs for the past few decades.
Changes to the UEFI settings are managed via Windows and necessitate a reboot into a special mode. All well and good, presumably this allows a bit more of a lock down of the system, to prevent installation of unsigned drivers, for example.
This machine has an option for backward compatibility called legacy BIOS support, so you can install an operating system that isn’t windows, or an older version of windows.
One feature that I haven’t seen well documented is the ‘secure boot’ facility that stops the machine booting into Windows 8 unless the UEFI is enabled.
I presume the rationale here is to thwart malware that targets the BIOS, although I’m not 100% clear on how completely disabling the computer is meant to assist the owner should they have a malware issue.
No doubt it helps Microsoft and the ISPs that suffer from botnet problems though, I guess.
In any case, I had cause to learn about this yesterday when I was trying to load some unsigned drivers for an unbranded China phone.
As Windows ever-so-helpfully denies installing them, with the message to visit the hardware suppliers website for signed drivers by default, with no option to override, I was faced with a computer refusing to do what I required thanks to Microsoft’s obstinence. A tip online suggesting there was a UEFI option to turn off ‘drivers must be signed’. I dived in to turn it off and decided to skip using UEFI as a boot loader as well, so I could have the old reassuring “Hit F2” option on boot up if I wanted to change anything like this again.
Sadly, due to a bug in Acer’s BIOS firmware, this was my undoing.
The PC booted through POST, displayed the “Hit F2 to enter BIOS or F12 for boot options” then ran through the boot order preference.
Of course, both the hard drive and the SSD in my machine have bootable partitions, but both happened to be Windows 8, which refused to load with an error saying No Operating System Found.
Mixed in was a brief display of some errors related to network cables/media. Hmm. That was the boot over the network option in my boot list so could be discounted. So why wouldn’t the system boot?
Hence my lesson about Secure Boot not allowing legacy BIOS boot loading.
Nothing for it by to turn UEFI back on.
Restart, hit F2. Nothing, just the same boot error message.
Try again. Restart, hit F2. Nothing, just the same boot error message.
Sometimes it can be a really short time window to hit F2, as little as 1/5th of a second I read somewhere. So I tried again. Still no good. I tried F12, and got the boot order list, so the keyboard was working.
Hmm. Google.
Many people describing similar issues, most of the threads with no answer or a description of somebody doing a complete FDISK and reinstalling. That doesn’t sound good.
I grabbed another PC and made a Unetbootin rescue disk.
Some success! The USB stick showed up in the boot list and let me boot to FreeDOS. I could also access the C: drive file system, it was still intact, so I just had to get around this secure boot issue. Which meant access to the BIOS, which meant hitting F2, which wasn’t working, thanks to a bug in Acer’s Phoenix sourced firmware.
I made a Win8 rescue disk from a spare machine. Again, it booted to the recovery tools, and allowed me to drop to a CMD and see the disk contents. I have good back ups, but at this stage I took the opportunity to copy over the last couple of files I had been working on for a presentation that evening!
How about flashing a new BIOS, I thought.
Excellent, the Acer support site shows three BIOS revisions for this machine.
Problem is, they are delivered as Windows EXE files. You need a working Windows install to run them to flash the BIOS. The support manual available online suggests the bare ROMs can be installed via a USB drive, but gives no details, presumably those are only available to Acer techs.
So I have now reached the point where I have spent several hours trying to restore a system I can see is intact, thanks to an evil combination of a BIOS bug and Microsoft’s pedantic ‘don’t trust the user’ policies.
I have a bit of inspiration and pop a working Windows 7 HDD out of another laptop and boot from it in a USB sled. It boots!
Ignoring the pleas to install drivers and the ridiculous display resolution I run the BIOS flash program.
Version 1.2 is too old. version 2.17 flashes. Thanks, BTW Acer, for the complete lack of *any* documentation on the BIOS revisions. I am literally tinkering with the base level of my systems software, with the ability to nuke the PC forever if it fails, with a file supplied by the company whose bug got me into this place to begin with, using a file that has no documentation besides run update.bat while plugged into AC.
The machine reboots, the Win 8 spinning dots come up. Phew.
It takes many minutes and a few counts up to 100% before it is all working again, but the re-flash restored UEFI as the default boot loader and everything is good again.
Of course, I will have to go fishing in there again to load those unsigned drivers, but at least I can boot my PC.
So the lessons:
– Acer has woeful online support. Many users are complaining about this issue in the last few months, Acer response is invariably “Hitting F2 works”. It does not. It is a bug.
– Microsoft nanny-state security controls make it harder for you to do legitimate stuff with your computer, and lack of support for legacy BIOS booting wasted most of my day.
– It is this kind of thing that drives people to Linux! Might be time to check if WINE is supporting the Win progs I need yet…

Gigabyte m1405 screen repair/replacement

So my nice 14in Gigabyte notebook has been humming along, until I picked up the satchel and it slid out – falling 50cm onto the floor edge first.

This caused a crack along the left most 10% of the screen. I lived with it for a week or so, then bit the bullet to replace it.

A place on ebay sold me a screen for $100 shipped from the USA. After doing the swap I see the part number indicated the same screen is used in some SONY and Dell notebooks, so if I break it again I’ll be using a $75 part. The part number is b140xw02 V.1 (You can buy one here from Amazon. Note I get a dollar or two if you use that link).

I couldn’t find any instructions online, so I began with a bit of trepidation. The key things to know if you are going to do this yourself:

– the screen can be replaced without disassembling any of the laptop base.

– there are four screws under the rubber plugs at the corners of the silver screen fascia.

– The silver frame can be unclipped very gently. I used guitar picks to carefully prise it forward.

– The wedge shaped hinge covers can be removed by ripping off the mirror stickers on the outersides and removing a screw. I did this, but it may be possible to leave them in place if you are very careful.

– Once the front frame is off, there are only four screws holding the screen to the red metal lid.

– The wiring harness just pushes into place with a piece of tape to hold it.

– Now put it all back together!

Just pull it free and push in the new one.
The silver screw is one of four holding the screen tabs in place. No need to remove the black ones.

Samsung CLP-300 bargain colour laser printer

Colour laser printers have a lot of benefits over inkjets, but the latest models have computer chip enforced toner contracts (so you can only buy expensive “genuine” toner). I picked up a Samsung CLP-300 2nd hand for $20 that allows generic toner. Low cost non-OEM cartridges are $20 per set on ebay delivered for 3 colours + black. This particular model, and it’s network enabled sibling the CLP-300N, suffer an annoying paper feed bug that means they are readily available for sale 2nd hand. The pick-up roller gets dirty/worn, and the paper feed fails, often sporadically. This link includes some instructions for fixing this error, and I’ve reprinted the key section below:

1- turn off and remove power cable;
2- remove paper drawer;
3- remove image unit – don not let it under sun light. cover it.
4- put the printer upside down;
5- look at the axle of the big central rubber roller:

5.1- you will see both sides have a plastic balancer and locker.
5.2- left one has a small “finger” that locks it from slide.
5.3- take your cellphone and do a photo of the present position of the axle and the pieces as you will need to remember it after.

6-light and carefully, lift this small finger from the axle and slide the locker half inch to the center;
7- after this, you have the axlee in a so so free way. You can move (rotate) it, if you lift and free the inside gear at left end;
8- at the central drum, there is two locks, one each side. If you release them, you can remove a type of a plastic shell with the rubber belt attached to.
8.1- to unlock the shell you need to rotate the axle and position the locks in a convenient way. So, rotate it again, and so, remove the shell.
9-I removed the rubber belt, washed it with water only.
when repositioning the belt on the shell, observe it and put in a different position, as the slick area fits inside the shell, so a new surface is out.
10- mount it a reverse order.

The pick-up roller itself is available as a spare part on ebay from around $9. Search for clp300 roller.

A 10 minute fix makes these good as new.

I also came across the service manual. It can be downloaded here.

High Interest Savings Accounts for Kids

So Bankwest offers the headline rate of 10% interest on their kids saver account. I’ve got kids who are of the age to get pocket money, so I chaecked it out.
There are some terms and conditions. Basically, you only earn 10% if you make deposits and not withdrawals, and only if each month you deposit between $25 and $250. After 12 month, the account resets to $1 (and the balance is shifted to a lower rate account).
You can’t start with more than $250, and you can’t deposit more than $250 a month.
So what looks pretty nice to start with, 10%!!, actually is somewhat less. If you had $3000 and trickled it in to the account to make the $250 a month maximum deposits, the total interest would be $167.56, or about 5.5%.
Of course, there is no reason you couldn’t keep that money in a higher rate saver account before you deposit, but most also have withdrawal penalties. If you used ubank for the balance, it would pay 6.0% on the declining balance. If you started with $3000 and transferred it into bankwest $250 a month, after a year ubank would pay you $82.50.
Obviously, both these deals are predicated on marketing – you will be ill disciplined in your payments, and once you have an account you will go on to use them for loans/mortgages/credit cards etc.
But if you are smart and organised, you can get a pretty nice return, a touch over 8%, or $250 interest a year on $3k. For me, I’ll be trying to scratch up $3000 to deposit in a kids name and see if we can achieve the rates suggested. I’ll post in a year or two to report back.

Gigabyte m1405 review

I purchased a nifty little laptop last month, and could find no review on the web, so I thought I would remedy that.

First up, my requirements. I need a notebook light enough to cart around on the train (I have a long commute) but with a big enough display to be able to do some work. A requirement I didn’t realise until last year is I need a Directx compatible video card to play a few undemanding games (Humble Bundle, I’m looking at you).

These were pretty well met with my BenQ u121, but it’s 11.6″ screen was on the smaller side, and the graphics chip was not up to scratch for the games I want to play once in a while (it did have awesome battery life and was super light).

I saw the ‘thin and light’ notebooks emerge a couple of years ago, and suspected one would be in my future – they have the feature set of past top of the range portables (I’ve had several Toshiba Porteges) but much less expensive by shipping a value processor.

The Gigabyte m1405 is one of these. You have probably seen Gigabyte before as a supplier of motherboards and other PC ‘guts’, but they seem to be new at complete laptops. The m1405 has a core duo chip, a generation behind intel’s current “i” family, but quite speedy compared to netbook Atom chips I had been using. Mine shipped with 2Gb of ram in a single DDR3 SODIMM, but there is a second slot free to install a 4Gb chip, which I expect to do soon.

The 320Gb HDD is on the smaller side, but it is a standard esata, so can be upgraded later if it gets cramped. Note it has some odd partitioning – there is a Windows 7 32-bit install, a separate Win7 64-bit install and a third partition for data. This is to allow you the choice to boot into 32 or 64bit windows, should you need to for compatibility reasons. Except for an old laser printer, everything I have tried has been fine in 64bit, so I plan to scrub the 32bit partition and reclaim the space.

This 32/64bit dual personality could be quite handy, though, if you have something you need to run under 32bit regularly. Another curious feature is the USB/eSata port on the right side. It accepts either cable, although I have yet to use it with an eSata drive. The system also powers the USB ports while asleep, allowing a phone or ipod to charge, even if the laptop is unplugged (you can configure a lower charge percentage when this will stop, say 50%, so your phone won’t drain your laptop if you mistakenly leave it charging via USB but not plugged into the wall).

Nice to have features are 3 USB ports (but all on the right side, urgh!) HDMI and VGA out, SD multi card reader, 1.3mb webcam and a fingerprint reader. I’ve been using the last for my Windows login (as opposed to no password) and it is fairly reliable once you have learnt the speed it likes to read at.

Battery life is a little over 3 hours with a 3G wireless stick in use, and the unit is a nice, light 1.6kg – not bad for a 14in screen and built in DVD writer.

There is a slot and internal antenna for a 3g wireless modem, but I haven’t played with this, similarly, there is a second battery available to replace the optical drive, but the only source I have found so far wants $150 for it, so I’ll pass. The accompanying documentation and original press releases show a nifty docking station which in meant to hold an nVidia graphics card – the idea being you can play demanding games when you are docked to a bigger monitor. I like the idea, but as far as I can tell, the device never got released to retail (correct me if you find one!).

In the box comes a fake leather slipcase and a screen cleaning cloth (the screen is shiny and does pick up prints). It has a 3.42a 18v 110-240v universal power supply, the same type used by BenQ and Acer laptops we have around, and readily available as a non-OEM purchase for about $20 on ebay. The outer case has a bright red metallic surface on top, with sort of a brushed matte finish – quite attractive, but a matter of personal taste. The underside is matte black plastic and the screen and keyboard bezel are brushed aluminium. Build quality is good, and the unit feels solid, but the aluminium bezel is not precisely flush around the base so it flexes a little bit. Not a big drama.

The keyboard is fair. It is close to full size, but the keys aren’t raked at an angle, they all sit flat, and they don’t have much travel. There are real home, pgup and pgdn and arrow keys, a pet hate of mine is when these are lost to function keys.

The built in speakers are quite good, as these things go, and boast some sort of THX signal processing. The result is they are loud enough to use for watching a DVD, a feature not always good enough on many notebooks.

Overall, I find this a great laptop, and extremely good value. I could be convinced to add a second battery if the price was more reasonable, but the current power is adequate. It is pretty snappy with Win7 and the plethora of little value add features make it a nice versatile machine. The screen is nice and large for a very portable machine.  I got mine at for about $500, but I have seen them since for $50 less on Catch of the Day.

BenQ u121 Eco Joybook and Option GTM378 – playing nicely now

So my new netbook is a BenQ u121. It has a lovely 11.6″ screen, 2GB RAM, 250GB HDD and great battery life, all in a 1.3kg package. In a step forward for the environment, it also uses the same power supply as my old Acer netbook, so I didn’t need to buy an extra one (19V 3.42A)! A bargain at $399.
In Australia, these machines don’t come with 3G installed, as they do in some markets, but under the sticker that says removing it voids my warranty is a mini PCI-E slot laying empty along with two antenna pigtails. Talk about taunting me.
The problem is, there is almost no information about making use of it. I followed some tips from a forum around installing a 3G modem on an Acer netbook, and figured I would give it a go.
A trip to Ebay got me a second hand Option GTM378 3G modem – it does HSDPA at 7.2Mbps on a bunch of network frequencies, including the Voda/Optus and Telstra ones. $50 and a 7 day airmail trip from Hong Kong and it was mine.
Plugged it in and XP recognises the device. Pointed it to the drivers downloaded from Option’s site (version and … nothing happens. Installation fails with a message stating appropriate drivers couldn’t be found.
Very aggravating. I spent several hours searching and trying different things, to no avail.
I even emailed Option support, although they publish no contact details and claim to offer no end user support, just OEM. Needless to say, no reply.
Eventually, I tracked down an older driver – version 3.313 and like magic it works. So, thumbs down to Option’s support and website for providing the wrong drivers, but a big thumbs up to BenQ for supporting on board 3G!

Vivitar K mount lens with Pentax digital SLR k100d

Old manual focus lenses are super cheap, and very compatible with current Pentax digital SLRs.
Because the CMOS sensor in digital SLRs are not as larger as a 35mm film cell, you end up with the lens delivering 1.5x the focal length it would on a film camera, which is kind of nice on a telephoto lens, but a hassle with wide angle.
Anyway, some old Vivitar lenses won’t fit on new Pentax digitals, the little guard for the aperture pin is too wide. I got myself a very cheap ($20!) Vivitar 70-210mm zoom off ebay, and needed to trim down the guard so it would fit.

1) here is a pic showing the enlarged guard. The kit lens with my k100d is about a third the length, only a centimeter or so.
I am going to cut the guard back to just after it reaches its full height.

2) Remove the two *tiny* screws that hold the ring in place. Don’t lose them!
You might want to do this in an environment less dusty than my workshop, but I like to live dangerously.
3) Clamp the ring securely in a vise. Be careful, the metal is quite brittle and more likely to snap than bend.4) Carefully saw away the superfluous guard metal. I found the waste piece easily snapped off when the cut was long enough. It is necessary to support the ring while you are sawing – I held it firmly with my fingers next to where the blade was cutting. I also only used the draw stroke so the cutting was more gentle.

5) Re-attach the ring. You can see the silver arc where the guard was cut away. I was intending to file the rough edge, but it is not too bad, so didn’t bother. Now would be the time to find the screws you lost earlier.

7) All done. Here are some snaps showing the zoom range:

For more details on using manual lenses with Pentax digital SLRs see here.

0x0000007B Inaccessible_boot_device fixed

I spent most of Sunday trying to sort out a super weird error.
I was trying to get some info back off a dead disk (and the DVD back-ups are showing errors too – grrrr) so I added the dead disk as a slave off my desktop.
It took me a couple of attempts to get the jumpers right on my main disk as it was ambiguous about which setting to use for master, and whether that setting would limit total drive capacity to 32GB. So after a few reboots I get the bootloader screen that says loading windows, but then bang!, BSOD with the error 0x0000007B Inaccessible_boot_device and a load of advice around disk management, viruses and hardware conflicts.
My first thought was I had booted off the dead disk, so I removed it but got the same error. Now my dead disk was poisoning others!
Lots of frustration followed, taking the disk out and checking it in another PC, flipping jumper and bios settings, as that had been the last things I touched, but eventually the system booted fine. Hmmm. No errors to be found on checking the disk.
Later, I decided to try a final time to get the data off that dead drive. I knew the jumper settings now so it would be fast. I plugged in the dead slave again, hit thepower, both drives show up fine in the BIOS check, but BANG! 0x0000007B Inaccessible_boot_device.
The conversation went something like this “I thought you had fixed that computer” “I did, but now I’ve fixed it a little bit more and its broken again.”
Removing the slave didn’t fix it this time, nothing would, but the disk checked out fine in another system.
Eventually, I decided to pack it up and come back to it. I slid the drive back into the chassis, which requires taking out the system RAM,and gave it one last flick of the switch – SUCCESS! I discovered that the IDE ribbon must have a dry joint somewhere. When it was twisted with the drive not in the chassis – like when I was trying the dead slave, the contact is good enough to load the MBR, but dies straight after. Very non-intuitive. So it might be worth eliminating hardware as a potential failure if you hit this error yourself.