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My EliteBook FAILs, back to the Mac (long)

In the first week of July I received in a bunch of machines off my company's UPS technology subsidy. The story of the subsidy is probably worth a post all its own, but suffice to say, UPS basically gives the company a bunch of PCs every so often based on how much we ship with them. One of the machines we got this time was a laptop that I thought might replace my aging desktop at work and be usable at home since I've often got to access our network from offsite. My personal Macbook, one of the early all-aluminum chassis 13" models from late 2008 is also aging and I was hoping this HP would make a nice upgrade / replacement for home use as well and I'd just give my old Mac to my brother as I've done with my last two Mac laptops. I'm sure he was looking forward to that possibility as well. When the HP came in, I was in love. It took only four short months for this relationship to sour.

The HP EliteBook 8460p was bulkier than the MacBook, certainly not as well designed or constructed but it had a similar feel. It was obviously a MacBook-like design (after all it was called "EliteBook" an obvious allusion to the Mac models) but it came with a bigger screen, a wide screen webcam, an SD card reader, 802.11n wireless, a right touchpad button (dreamy - no more control clicking since Macs still eschew any button at all - you click the touchpad itself), a 320GB drive (more than twice the size of the one in my old Mac), more memory (4GB as opposed to 2), and an iCore5 as opposed to the (sluggish by comparison) Core 2 Duo in the MacBook.

The only thing I couldn't deal with was Windows. I did attempt to set it up (desribed in this story) just for the experience (actually I was thinking about doing dual boot at first) and an entire 5 hours later I was still mucking around in Windows setup land! I usually image machines using Ghost, so this was a more rare "actual user experience" setting up a machine out of the box. I forget what happened initially but it took foooorreevvver to setup. I've never seen anything so slow. Apparently the OS is kept compressed or something and it had to unpack first? Something idiotic that others online complained about - unusually long time to get through setup. Then when I finally got to the actual setup part, began the long and annoying process of stupid selections and dropdowns, rebooting, select more stupid things, rebooting, applying a zillion updates... whatever. This is what sysprep is for, right?

I had no patience and wanted to have a working machine to take home that night so I cancelled the Windows install and threw Ubuntu 11.04 on it - done in 40 minutes and everything worked (wireless and all!). I was shocked at how different 11.04 was from my trusty 10.04LTS desktop. Thankfully learning my way around the strange landscape of the Elitebook like a blindman slowed me down to a crawl long enough to actually learn how to navigate around with Unity otherwise I probably would have just given up and used the "Ubuntu classic" gnome 2 selection at startup and been done with it. I added my voice to others running Ubuntu on the EliteBook at: http://www.linlap.com/wiki/hp+elitebook+8460p

However, the honeymoon is over. I hardly touched my Mac after I got the EliteBook. Checking the logs on the Mac it looks like I last used it on Sept 8th, then again on the 18th for something, and then not again until just this week. I took the HP to meetings, I quickly got all my utilities set up on it - things like Oracle SQL Developer, the VPN (which was a bit kludgier and required command line after we moved away from PPTP but worked fine), cervisa, meld, wuala, etc. I started bringing it to band practice and using it to do all the things I used to use the Mac for. For some reason I didn't want to give up the Mac just yet though. Something in the back of my head...

Maybe it was what I now recognize as classic literary foreshadowing. I had the new EliteBook for all of a week when one of the assemblers from electronics came by my office. Seeing the laptop on my desk, she shook her head.

"I wish you more luck than I had with mine," she said. "What?" I said, my eyes narrowing. "Oh, I had that same exact HP. The motherboard fried in the first month, we sent it in to get fixed, got it back and it fried again in 2 weeks. I'm never buying another HP again."

At the time I dismissed this. Electronics sometimes fail, and if they're going to fail, its usually when they're new. Once they make it past the initial burn-in period they may go for a very long time till mechanical failure (usually hard drive or fans) takes the machine down. Of course, looking back now I'm not so sure.

Part of my uneasiness may have been because we've been an HP shop for a while now. We used to buy only IBM stuff and Thinkpads, but when that got spun off to Lenovo in China we started looking around and decided to go with HP. They were cheap, and had some problems (more than the normal number of power supply failures, mysteriously turning off when no one was looking, etc.) but for the most part pretty decent for the low end stuff in the office. The engineers always got beefier Workstations anyway and they were higher quality. Shortly after the Subsidy order was received, news broke that HP was going to spin off its PC business (to whom?) and while that seemed to have worked for IBM -> Lenovo, who knows what would happen with HP.

Given my misgivings about HP (now from anecdotal evidence, personal experience, and HP business strategy concerns) to say nothing of my over-cautious nature when it comes to backing up, you might think that I would be diligently backing up my data. Actually, I had not been. When I moved out of the Mac, I had copied about 120GB of stuff to the HP. On the HP I had downloaded new images, re-arranged my recordings folder, made several Youtube movies, mixed and edited a bunch of recording sessions, well - I had a crapload of work on there.

I came home from work last Thursday and opened up the machine to dive in again and was greeted by a technicolor rainbow on screen. The fireworks display of colors which reminded me of an old 8 bit arcade game boot up sequence would not settle down, so the 5 second power button salute was called for. Attempting to restart it, all I could get was a quick flash of the lights on the keyboard and then they'd dim out again. I pulled the battery, hit the power button to drain any caps, plugged it into AC only and got the same thing. Although it really looked like a motherboard failure, I was still pretty worried that my hard drive might be fried, so I pulled that out. The EliteBook is well designed from a service standpoint - remove one cover on the bottom of the unit and you have quick access to all the components for replacement or upgrade. I have a Coolmax IDE/SATA cable that I use to connect spare hard drives up via USB so I grabbed that. Imagine the tense minutes before I figured out that the SATA side of my cable was broken.

I have an old IBM Thinkpad that the kids use for games and homework and I knew that was SATA, so I stuck the HP's drive in that. I figured that I could boot it up with a live CD, mount the drive and copy the data off at least. I had no idea that the drive would not only boot in this completely different machine, but be fully functional! I considered just co-opting the Thinkpad and continuing on using that, but that wouldn't be fair to the kids ;) I suppose they both have Intel boards and so it wasn't much of stretch to boot on this other machine, but I doubt I would have gotten even as far as booting had the OS been Windows (or Mac).

Luckily I had decided to upgrade the hard drive on the Mac (to 500GB) before the HP came in. I used SilverKeeper to image my old 120GB drive to the 500GB drive at the time. I copied all my data back from the HP drive (now in the Thinkpad) onto a USB drive (using the -p option to preserve time stamps) and moved it back onto the Mac. Once on the Mac, I used rsync to synchronize the data directories since they were now duplicated (for example: the old Pictures folder and the "new" one from the EliteBook had a lot of the same files). The whole data rescue operation took about 7 hours including the manual fiddling that had to go on since I had spent time reorganizing directories and so simply merging them wasn't quite smart enough. I still have a lot of duplication to go through, but at least I'm up and running again. The whole experience got me seriously thinking about online backup solutions even though they can get pretty expensive for the amount of data I've got.

The EliteBook has been sent back to HP for repair. I'll update this post with whatever happens but I doubt I will be moving back into it when it comes back. I'll probably set it up in the conference room to the projector or something low priority. I just don't trust it anymore.

So I'm back using the Mac. I had been thinking about putting Ubuntu on it when I was still using the EliteBook and could spare to take the machine down and go through the hassle of getting all the hardware enabled, and I really do like it more than OSX, but I just can't see doing it now since the downtime would kill me. Maybe I'll swap in the old hard drive again (or boot to it over USB if I can get a Coolmax cable that actually works) and install Ubuntu on that old drive instead to try it out.

Oh, and by the way: