Random Access Memories

I recently noticed that all the laptops I have owned so far were made by Acer. My guess is that you simply get a bit more bang for your buck when buying those, and I had never been disappointed by the hardware in place at any time. I did however hit a little snag when it comes to software made by Acer that shipped with the devices. Actually, ‘a little snag’ isn’t doing the problems any justice, since all the laptops I have owned had major issues due to software.

My very first model in 2005 was an Acer Extensa 3000 with an Intel Pentium M Single Core CPU, 512 MB of RAM and a dedicated AMD Radeon GPU. Performance was good enough for my early programming needs and most of the games I was interested in. It only experienced some RAM shortages with Eclipse’s IntelliSense which is probably the source of my deep and true hatred towards Java and every thing that comes with it. My very first contact with software development was the considerable amount of time that I spent with the C&C Generals World Editor, where I started scripting enemy AIs for my custom maps. That led to writing mIRC user scripts and ended in PHP web development on LAMP systems. The only thing holding me back was that darn LaunchManager.exe that came with the laptop and that is supposed to control the media keys on the device. After a few weeks it would act up on system start up, eat all the CPU and my activities would grind to a halt. Restarting the launch manager service would help for a few minutes. The only real solution was to restore the system to a back-up or reinstall Windows from scratch, which would help for just a few weeks. Needless to say that I learned to live without media keys. Shame on you Acer, better fix that thing for future generations.

The year 2009 meant an upgrade to a new device, just in time for that old brick to die. The day I ordered the Acer Aspire 7738G was the day the Extensa refused to do any serious work and kept BSODding on me. The upgrade gave me a full 4 GB of RAM, a much more powerful GPU and my very first 64-Bit CPU. I have some fond memories of hundreds of hours of playing games that could never run on the old computer, including a few hundred thousand kilometres in racing simulators. My very first installation of Visual Studio was on that thing and I got into C++ and – more importantly – C# programming using this laptop. It’s also where I began writing the code that eventually became Nuclear.Net and the very first version of Nuclear.Test emerged along with it. When I got the laptop I was really thrilled and one of the first things I did was to enable that CPU monitoring gadget that came with Windows 7. That’s because the only thing better than having a quad-core is watching a quad-core churn along. I did develop a monitoring obsession and eventually replaced the gadget with Rainmeter which gave me a lot more meters to play with. It showed occasional spikes in CPU usage right after start-up, which blocked two of my cores for roughly two to three minutes. Investigations led to a familiar looking executable named LaunchManager.exe being responsible for the spike. Naturally I used my programming skills to calculate hashes of that file and the Extensa’s version I found in old backups. As it turns out, the exact same software that regularly killed off my old laptop tried the same with the new one. Another laptop without usable media keys thanks to outstanding software quality. At least they went through the trouble of having the service use separate threads, so it could clog two cores instead of just one once the system has degraded enough for both to enter a race condition.

The many years of running laptop #2 while permanently connected to an external power supply finally reduced the usable battery capacity to less than a minute of runtime. When the original PSU died, and I couldn’t get a replacement due to the odd plug size, I simply stopped using it and did everything on the gaming rig. This went on for a few years until my fiancĂ© got increasingly annoyed with me coding along in the evenings, leaving her alone on the couch. We decided to get a new laptop, so that we can spend our evenings together while I could still code along happily. The new device should have an Intel CPU with at least four logical cores, 16 GB of RAM, an SSD and a battery time of eight hours or more. We settled for an Acer Aspire 3 A315-54-52SF for about 600 bucks that fulfils all the requirements and is also very light, making it a perfect couch device. It can run Visual Studio for roughly ten hours before needing a recharge, and it has enough performance for surfing the web including Google Maps, playing videos and running office applications. At some point KeePass refused to synchronize the password database with our local samba share and a little later that month, reading from and writing to the share resulted in endless waits. Surfing the web became a pain as well after some more time had passed. A few minutes after starting the browser, page requests would load super slow or time out entirely. A few more minutes after that and loading would go back to normal, then get worse again and so on. Skype’s video quality was horrible from the beginning and I blamed it on the really cheap webcam. One late evening when skyping with friends they told us how our video quality just increased dramatically pretty much exactly at 21:30, so we figured it’s a software problem. I finally found the time to have a look into the matter and found a bunch of installed programs that I didn’t need, including roughly half a dozen by Acer. Naturally I removed all of them and things got better for a week or so until the performance degraded once again. In the end, I wiped the drive and reinstalled Windows from scratch. This has helped a lot and the laptop is going stronger than ever without any lag at all. I can’t point out the exact problem, but it feels as if it had a lot to do with that Acer software it had installed. Luckily, the laptop doesn’t have any media keys like its predecessors, so we’re not missing out on anything this way. I just wish that Acer will either stop making software or get a lot better at it.

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