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May 22, 2005

Laptop Setup Secrets

Gain space, security, and performance with these time-tested tricks for setting up a portable PC

Courtesy of InformationWeek

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Hats off to successful mobile PC users! Using a portable PC--notebook, laptop, whatever type or nomenclature--can be daunting: Not only do road-warrior PC users have all the same issues faced by their deskbound brethren, but they also have a whole range of special concerns ranging from issues of physical and online security; connectivity issues; extreme power-management problems; performance issues; and more. Although anyone can use a portable PC, using one well, to its fullest capabilities, takes a little forethought.

We've covered some of the special concerns of laptop users in this space before, and it might be good to start today with a quick refresher: For example, we covered some security issues in Traveling With Laptops In The Post-9/11 World; looked at wireless security in Wireless Poachers, Wireless Guests; discussed Curing Laptop Overheating; examined power-management technology in To Sleep, Perchance To Hibernate...; and looked at ways of solving physical connection problems in USB-To-Whatever.

Some of our past broader topics also apply well to laptops. For example, System Setup Secrets, Ten Ways To Make Windows XP Run Better and 10 More Ways To Make Windows XP Run Better apply to any system -- stationary or portable; as do Make Windows XP Self-Maintaining and Managing Your Windows XP Passwords. You'll also find still more information via the index page for this column.

I had all the above information at hand because I just bought and set up a new laptop for myself. I eventually used that information to tune and tweak the setup extensively, but had to take somewhat of a detour first. Perhaps my experience can save you time and trouble:

Huge Amounts Of Disk Space, Wasted
You see, like so many systems today, the new laptop came preloaded with tons of software I had no use for and no interest in. The laptop was preconfigured to offer me special deals from the vendor's marketing partners -- canned ads, in effect -- trying to get me to sign up with this ISP or that photo service or a particular antivirus site.... All that software (gigs of it!) was eating up hard drive space and would make my backups far larger than they needed to be. Plus, once I layered in my own software, I'd end up with a needlessly complicated, bogged-down system containing both the original equipment manufacturer software and mine; in some cases, I'd have two kinds of software on the laptop to perform the same task. That's just dumb. Plus, as we all know in computers, needless complexity brings needless trouble. I wanted a clean, simple setup where I could control what went where.

Plus, the vendor had two hidden partitions on the hard drive, which combined to eat almost a third of the disk space I'd paid for. This isn't unusual: Many vendors now ship PCs with a special hidden partition on it that contains the recovery data, diagnostic software, and perhaps a kind of disk image of the as-delivered, factory-fresh software setup. The idea is that when you get into trouble, you can restore this pristine image, and get things back exactly the way they were on day one, when the PC rolled off the assembly line.

Vendors love this because it reduces their support costs: They can undo any user- or software-caused problems simply by having you roll your system back to a controlled, known-good, factory-perfect state.

Trouble is, the hidden partition cannot be used for anything else; it can eat up a truly huge chunk of your total hard-drive space, even if the recovery files are of no use or interest to you. And if you do use the recovery tools, they're still not a panacea: Restoring your PC to the state it was in before you bought it means (obviously) that everything you did to the PC after you got it -- all your data, user-installed software and customizations -- may be wiped out. (This is another reason why making frequent backups, and storing them outside your PC [not on the hard drive, with everything else] is so important. See this page.)

So, if the hidden partition isn't all that great a solution to system restoration, why not just wipe it out and gain back the space? Well, in some PCs, the hidden partition also may control how the system boots: If you simply delete the partition, you may also make your PC unable to boot from the hard drive until or unless you alter the boot process, which may involve some deep-geek tweaking.

And here's another major gotcha: In systems that ship without an operating system setup CD, your only copy of the operating system setup files also may be in a hidden partition. If you remove the recovery partition(s), you may make it impossible to reinstall the original operating system; or may make it very difficult to install new hardware, because the drivers that normally would be on the setup CD are instead found in a (now missing) recovery partition.

Recovery partitions clearly are a flawed solution, but -- because they give vendors a fast, cheap (albeit crude) way to fix many kinds of problems -- they nonetheless have become an essential part of many vendor's support process: In fact, some vendors set things up so that if you remove the factory-supplied recovery tools and data, you may void your warranty. Why? Because you've taken away the vendor's simplistic (but inexpensive, for them) way to "put things back the way they were at the factory."

Ideally, you want a more flexible way to retain any recovery data, software, or setup files that may have been put in hidden partitions, while also gaining control over your PC -- and gaining access to all the hard-drive space you paid for: That is, a way to keep the contents of the Recovery Partitions, without having them actually on your laptop's hard drive.

And, if you're like me, you'll also want a way to get a streamlined, clutter-free, fresh install of the operating system on your laptop, without all the excess baggage, marketing tie-ins, and useless software that so often comes bundled on a new PC.

We'll discuss two methods, one that's a little harder to implement, but that will work on virtually any system from any vendor; and the other that's easier, but that will work only on systems with a CD or DVD writer built in.

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