Monday, September 17, 2007

Shareware Worth Spending Money On

While I usually recommend free software to most of my readers, shareware, reasonable priced try-before-you-buy software, does occasionally produce some precious gems. Here's a list of shareware that is worth every penny you spend on it. If you are using some of these products, please consider buying them. Shareware authors deserve your money for their efforts as much as huge multinational corporations. (All prices accurate on date of post.)

dbPoweramp Reference ($28)
dbPoweramp is a suite of various audio utilities. They include a CD ripper, an audio player, a CD writer and a portable mp3 player manager. It's the dbPoweramp Reference CD ripper that is the standout utility though. It is the fastest and most secure CD ripper on the market and works even better than Exact Audio Copy. Best of all, it comes bundled with the latest version of the Lame MP3 encoder (which is the best available currently) and uses AMG for meta-data and cover images.

Fine Print ($49.95)
Fine Print is a universal print preview program. It works as a virtual printer that intercepts print jobs before they reach your real printer. You can then combine 2, 4 or 8 sheets into one page, scale larger jobs to smaller paper sizes, convert colored text to black, skip graphics, adjust margins, print booklets and a lot of other capabilities.

Isobuster ($29.95)
Isobuster is a CD, DVD, HD-DVD and BD data recovery program. If you've ever felt the pain of losing valuable data due to a scratched or otherwise damaged CD this is the program to use. Other features include creating disc images, cue sheets etc.

Kaspersky Antivirus
($59.95 for 1 year)
This the best antivirus software on the market. It's faster and more accurate than more popular programs like Norton and McAfee and unlike NOD32 has an excellent user interface. Best of all, it's often available almost for free due to constant rebates.

PopCap Games ($19.95 each, 17 game pack for $89.95)
PopCap is the creator of simple, fun and addictive games like Bejeweled, Chuzzle and Zuma. While most of their games are available online, the downloadable full versions have more levels and more features. Procrastination was never so much fun!

SmartFTP ($36.95)
File Transfer Protocol has been around for a long time and there are a lot of programs available which support it. Very few of them have the sheer usability of SmartFTP and that is what make this program worth the money.

SpinRite ($89)
SpinRite is a magnetic data storage repair, recovery and maintenance program. It can repair and recover data from hard drives that have failed. It works independent of your operating system (and file system) and thus works for Windows NTFS and FAT, all Linux filesystems, Mac, floppy, Zip, Jaz and anything else stored magnetically. I've used it a few times and it certainly has helped.

Trillian ($25)
Trillian is a chat program that supports AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo Messenger and IRC. The paid version has support for Google Chat, video chatting and a host of other features. It has a slick skinnable interface and some really unique features like Wikipedia integration.

Ultramon ($39.95)
If you have more than one monitor attached to your computer, Ultramon is a must have. It is a utility that lets you maximize applications across the entire desktop, extends the taskbar to the second monitor, manage wallpapers and screensavers for each monitor and a lot more.

WinRAR ($29)
Why would you purchase a file archiver when there are so many excellent free alternatives? Because it's one of the fastest and has a competitive compression ratio. And only WinRAR can create RAR archives which have unique features like recovery records, NTFS stream support, split volume support and strong encryption. Newer versions are multi-threaded and will work even faster on newer multicore CPUs.

WordWeb ($29)
WordWeb is an offline dictionary, thesaurus and word finder. Why do you need it in this day and age of ubiquitous internet access and Wikipedia? Because it's blazingly fast, can be accessed from anywhere in Windows using a Ctrl-Right Click, supports wildcard search (i.e. searching for yellow bird yields oriole!) and has built in Wikipedia support.

And here's a list of more geeky software that's still worth the price.

Beyond Compare ($30)
Beyond Compare is the best two-way diff tool ever made. Use it and you'll forget you ever used anything else. If only it had three-way diff support.

PowerStrip ($29.95)
The oddly named PowerStrip is display card tweaking utility that lets you do stuff like change refresh rates down to floating point precision.

REAPER ($39.95)
A multi-track audio editor from Justin Frankel, the creator of Winamp.

Visual Assist X ($149)
This brings refactoring support to Visual Studio. Even Visual C++ 6.0! That makes the hefty price tag worth it.

WinSnap ($19.90)
A screenshot utility that supports transparency, drop shadows, PNG alpha and multi-object capture.

Labels: ,


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hard Drive Failure: Various Types

Recently I've been around a lot of failing hard drives and a lot of different modes of failure. Here's the story of four different hard drives that died. (Note: File System Failure isn't really hard drive failure but it's an interesting story anyway.)

File System Failure

A customer shipped back a Dell Precision workstation that had been running Windows XP SP2. This machine would sit on the factory floor and run our custom image analysis application, 24x7. It had started blue-screening on boot up.

We powered it up and it blue screened. The error was STOP 0x00000024 NTFS_FILE_SYSTEM. This meant that the ntfs.sys driver that Windows uses to access the NTFS file system had crashed. We decided to rule out physical bad sectors on the disk first.

We booted into the Dell Utility Partition. Kudos to Dell here. This is very well made GUI utility with full mouse support and an extensive array of tests for all the hardware on the machine. We ran all the low-level disk tests and they indicated that at least physically, the disk was in great shape.

Then we popped in a Windows XP CD and booted up to the Recovery Console. Unfortunately, running chkdsk from the recovery console caused the same crash again! Ouch! Then we decided to install it as a slave on a different machine. That machine crashed on boot up now!

What was happening was this: the file system had become corrupted and it had become corrupted on such a way that it was causing ntfs.sys, file system driver, to crash every time it tried to access the hard drive.

Finally, we booted using a freshly-burned copy of Ubuntu 7.04. The NTFS drivers in Ubuntu worked like charm and we were able to recover all the necessary data from the drive. Then we repartitioned and reformatted it and it worked fine from then on.

Recoverable Disk Failure

This happened to a laptop at work. Like most disk failures, this too began with an ominous crash. On rebooting the system was extremely slow and the drive started making the noises. It was the dreaded click of death!

Unfortunately, this Toshiba laptop didn't come with any recovery utilities and they wouldn't have helped in this case as they would have to run from the same physical drive which was making noises. Luckily, we have a copy of SpinRite at work. I booted into SpinRite and started a Level 2 recovery. For the longest time, the drive kept making the clicking sounds and the progress indicator moved very slowly indeed. And then just like that, after 4% the sounds disappeared and progress indicator moved at a much faster speed. SpinRite finished its check and didn't report any problems. I booted back into Windows and backed up all my data. The hard drive didn't give me any more trouble but I decided to replace it with a newer Seagate drive anyway.

Unrecoverable Disk Failure

This happened to my own Compaq laptop. The system locked up while browsing. Thinking it was a typical Firefox hang, I forced a reboot. Sadly, my system never did reboot. I brought the laptop in to work and tried SpinRite again. No dice! The drive wasn't even recognized by the BIOS. This drive happened to be a Death Star and it clicked like one by this point. (Well it was a TravelStar actually.)

After trying for a couple hours, I decided to try some non-traditional remedies. I tried whacking the hard drive. Didn't work. I tried freezing the hard drive. Didn't work. Finally, I gave up and started over.

Unrecoverable Disk Failure with a twist

This happened today on Dell Precision workstation that we use on our lab floor for prototyping. I came in to work in the morning and noticed that the machine had bluescreened with a failure in ftdisk.sys. I tried to reboot and the machine stalled saying it couldn't find a hard drive. And started making clicking sounds. (Yes, this was a DeskStar too.)

Learning from my past experiences, I decided to jump straight to SpinRite. I rebooted, pushed the CD tray button, popped in the CD and tried to press F12 to get me to the boot menu. No dice, the machine returned with a keyboard failure. I tried rebooting a few times but the problem continued. Then I turned it off, removed all extraneous connections to the machines (cables going to custom frame-grabber boards etc.), changed the keyboard and mouse and rebooted again. Keyboard failure. This was a very special machine wasn't it?

I then opened up the machine and removed the master drive which was failing. I put it in a different machine (an HP) as a master drive, popped in the SpinRite CD and tried again. Again, keyboard failure. There was something wrong with the circuitry on this drive that was causing the motherboard to return with a keyboard failure! At this point, I gave the bad news to my boss and basically set the drive aside and put all the open machines back together.

Then after lunch, on a whim, I decided to try again. But this time instead of pressing any buttons after rebooting, I just waited it out. And went to get a coffee. When I returned, the hard drive had stopped making noises and SpinRite had started. I ran a Level 2 scan and it finished with no problems. It's like the problem just hadn't happened at all. I told my boss the good news and backed up all the data onto a different hard drive. We're not taking any more chances with it. It gets replaced with a brand new drive tomorrow.

Lessons Learned

Labels: , ,