The Unthinkable Machines

Around 1993 I bought my first Apple Mac, after using them at University and falling for their simplicity and user friendly design.

My current main computer is also Apple – a MacBook Pro (MBP), that I purchased new in 2008, for around £1400.

That felt (and was!) a fair chunk of money then, but since I was upgrading from my previous 2003 12″ PowerBook G4 that had lasted five years and been such a creative tool for me – as well as an utter joy to use – I couldn’t have considered any other kind of computer.

Plus, £1400 over 11 years works out at about £10 a month, which has to be great value for all I’ve done with it.

Last year, I was at a crossroads with the MBP.

I’d upgraded the original HD to an SSD to expand the storage and speed things up, but it was still not as fast as it used to be, and I was seeing the dreaded spinning beach ball of death a little too often.

Eventually, as I didn’t have a spare £2500 lying around to buy the equivalent new model, I decided to restore the machine to its factory settings, then update the OS from there.

It worked very well, and the machine felt lean and fast again.

However around that time I also came across Google Chromebooks, and in particular, software that can be installed on most PC laptops to turn them into a Chromebook.

I scurried under the bed for my wife’s old HP laptop, which hadn’t been booted up in years at it had a crippling disease called Norton AntiVirus, making everything so painfully slow it was unusable.

With her permission of course, I wiped every remnant of Microsoft and Norton from the HP’s HD, followed the CloudReady install instructions to the letter, and to my delight it worked!

One new Chromebook in a still very respectable old shell – especially a decent 15″ screen and comfortable keyboard.

Some eighteen months on, the old HP is just as quick and nimble as it was when I did the install, and despite being eight years old now, remains a more efficient machine than it ever was with Windows software.

Because the battery on my MBP is next to useless, and it only really works when plugged into the mains, I never take the MBP out anywhere.

With my son attending trampolining three times a week, there’s a few hours available there to write some new posts for 35hunter, so I’ve been taking along the old HP, whose battery lasts around two hours on full charge.

When it came to considering my 11 year old daughter’s first laptop a few months ago, we didn’t think twice.

She’d already used the HP Chromebook and liked it, so we investigated new native Chromebooks, and bought a Lenovo S340 on sale for £179.

Which is what I’m typing this on right now, and have written probably half the words I’ve published on 35hunter in the last couple of months.

Although the Lenovo cost £179, far more than the free CloudReady download I reincarnated the HP with, it remains, in my view, amazing value.

And this is where I find this dedicated new Chromebook – and the reincarnated HP – have become unthinkable machines.

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Even a couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have considered anything other than another MacBook.

But a series of realisations have edged me towards a Google machine.

My iPhone (5C – the only iPhone I’ve had) didn’t last all that long, and then the upgrades were capped by Apple.

After that point, it just slowly ground to a halt. Even using it just as a camera and iPod, it’s sluggish, so I rarely bother.

The Sony Xperia Android phone I replaced it with is, 18 months in, still nippy and actually more efficient to use.

Things like the text prediction with the Sony just seems more intelligent than the Apple equivalent, even to the point where I would rather use it to write brief emails and sketch out a few lines for draft posts for 35hunter, than my iPad, with a much larger screen.

The keyboard might be bigger on the iPad but it’s not as intuitive, and trying to select, copy and paste with an iPad is frustratingly torturous. Why??

The iPad is great to read on and view photographs, but for any typing I find it frustrating and awkward.

(Edit – ironically I came across Google’s Gboard keyboard app for the iPad the other day, installed it and it seems far more logical than the native Apple one.)

Perhaps more important than Apple’s star losing, in my eyes, its once eternally glowing light, is how my needs have changed, and simplified.

When I bought my MBP I used it for music (making my own, and listening via iTunes), video editing, blogging, photography viewing and editing, plus a host of other applications, like uploading webpages via an FTP server, and so on.

These days the dock on my MBP contains just two apps – the Finder and Google Chrome.

The only other apps I use regularly are Image Capture to import photos from memory cards (via one USB card reader, much easier than keeping multiple cables for multiple cameras to plug in) and Preview to view the photos.

Both are set up as the automatic default app, so when I plug my USB card reader in, Image Capture opens and I just click one button to import them all then delete them from the memory card. Which then syncs with Google Drive to back them up.

Preview also opens automatically when I double click on a photograph in the Finder, so I never need to open it manually via the Application folder.

The other needs are just not there anymore.

I don’t have enough interest (or time) to make music. iTunes has been bloated and clunky for at least five years, and I can’t remember when I last opened it. Now I just use Spotify via my phone.

Most other apps I use are web based.

GMail for email – instead of Apple Mail.

WordPress for blogging – instead of writing web pages in HTML then uploading via FTP.

Photo processing via Snapseed on my phone – instead of LightRoom on my MacBook.

And so on.

So the MBP, despite still being a lovely device that I have a wonderful history with, is complete overkill for my needs, and a new one would be even more so by a magnitude of hundreds.

I try to relate most posts I write here back to photography, even if the link is not directly and entirely related.

On this occasion, there are obvious parallels.

I don’t need a cutting edge camera that costs thousands and has 42 megapixels and 672 different modes, functions and features.

I’ve made photographs I love on simple gear like 15 year old digital compacts or plastic Holga film cameras.

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I think it’s important to review whatever gear we use from time to time – at least once or twice a year – to see how well it’s working for us.

As our needs change, what might have been a perfect marriage years ago might have evolved into something unnecessary and unsustainable, that we’re still going along with barely fuelled by the happy memories.

My MBP is still working ok for now, and I’m not one to buy something new just for the sake of it. Mostly! So I’ll keep using it until it breaks.

But the next machine I consider will be one that was unthinkable a few years back.

Which is kind of exciting.

How about you? What gear do you use now that no longer really serves its original purpose? How have your needs evolved over recent years, which has influenced which equipment you use – for photography and other parts of your life?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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23 thoughts on “The Unthinkable Machines”

  1. We have the same problem but have taken different choices in order to improve the experience.

    I noticed and when I used to have a blog, blogged about how Mac OS Lion was like Windows Vista, and at that point I foresaw myself moving to Linux, Google was still in its birthing phase, so was not an option. I messed around for a while with an old MacPro from 2006, but nothing was gelling with me.

    I was reading a blog about photography and somebody made a comment about a program called “Iridient Developer”, so I tested it. At the time I was using a lot of Nikon Raw files since I had bought a second hand Nikon film scanner. Naturally the program would not read those raw files, so I sent an email off to the developer, not expecting anything by way of response. To my surprise, almost by return, I received an email from one Brian Griffifth, asking for more detail and a sample of what I was attempting to read with HIS program (I was talking to the organ grinder here).

    Again, his response was fairly swift, he said he understood and he would probably try to include the particular raw file type to the database. A few more days and there was an email with an updated version including the NEF driver.

    I got used to using this program which is in its third release and is still less than 100mb in size, so no bloat here!

    More than that though, I started to look at other alternatives to the usual suspects with a view to speeding up response times.

    So in terms of photography, I use Iridient as a darkroom, which is what it is intended for, it does not offer the facility to remove a nuclear power station from a given photo, or a telegraph pole from somebody’s head, it is purely for adjustments where necessary, it also compiles raw data into JPG or TIFF files.

    So the “workflow” as the Americans might say, is:

    1: “Finder” to read the SD Card that is (like yours) removed from the camera for reading. Move files to new folder on desktop. iPhone pictures are removed with an app called “Sifter”, JPG’s are then treated in the same way as the rest.

    2: “Preview” to look at the raw files which with my two digital cameras produce, DNG files. I scan film negatives still, and my scanner which is a replacement that scans up to 6×12 @120 frames and produces TIFF files… Again ready for steps 3 and 4.

    3: Adjust and compile the keepers into JPG files and move to an appropriate folder.

    4: Delete anything that is not wanted, which is usually not much, as I am a bit of a hoarder in IT terms.

    5: From that point on, I use Preview (PDF) look at my snaps.

    My data is on separate LaCie Rugged SSD’s and can just be unplugged from their Thunder ports and reconnected to any USB socket. The files are bog standard, so Linux, and Windows file managers can read them, and either Preview or its local equivalent can work with them to an extent, up to where Iridient would be used on Mac, but an alternative would be needed for other OS’s.

    This is repeated for music and films, it is simple…. Avoid being owned by any of the big IT companies. For me the concept is always use a standard that is common first, only specialise if there is no alternative.

    iTunes doesn’t exist any more, but I use its replacements only in order to interact with the Apple TV, nothing changed to their format, nothing is stored in their own accompanying databases, Apple preferences still allows a user to do that. For my music, I store it in the usual manner and it is streamed using proprietary Linn Software, which is free and until recently, very lightweight in terms of cludge. That company has agreements to include Spotify, Tidal and Qobuz (the one I use) as services.

    1. Stephen, that’s great to hear of software like Iridium that not only works well for what you need without any excess, but that the creator was wiling to modify it to help further users out.

      I also use a couple of external HDs, one backs up via Time Machine every couple or weeks or so, and the other I just manually drag and drop my overall photography folder and it replaces the previous one. I use Google Drive, but don’t count this as a permanent back up, at this point. Also I have all my best photos in Flickr, so if I lost everything else I’d have some resort there too.

      In one way it’s good that others have caught up with Apple – like I said I find my Sony Android phone better to use than the iPhone it replaced, and than my current iPad – but it’s still sad that Apple products don’t seem to offer the wonderful experiences they used to.

  2. I’ve been through the same thing with my little 11″ Lenovo Yoga laptop which I use when travelling. The laptop was crippled by Windows 10. Like yourself I installed Cloudready & was mostly very happy with it but it did have some problems. Again I too am an OSX fan but I’m not willing to pay Apples crazy prices so my desktop is a Hackintosh. I decided to make my laptop into a hackintosh too but I ran into lots of problems & gave up in the end. Having dabbled with Linux many times over the years I decided to give that a go. I went for the Elementary Distro with the KDE desktop (I think!) which allows me to set it up to look exactly like OSX & I love it, Its ultra fast, booting up & shutting down in seconds as opposed to 10’s of minutes & I can find all the apps & programmes that I ever need for life on the road when travelling. You should install Linux or Cloudready on your Macbook which would give it a whole new lease of life, it would then probably be worth giving it a new battery too.

    Great article, thank you.

    1. Nigel, many thanks for your thoughts here.

      Reincarnating my MacBook as a Chromebook or even Linux machine (I have no experience of Linux) is not out of the question, and the screen is still lovely and the keyboard the best I’ve used on any computer. It would just seem rather disloyal – Steve Jobs would be turning in his grave at the thought!

      Yes a new battery might make it more mobile, though the last one I bought at best only gave me maybe 90 mins – the little Lenovo Chromebook seems to run for hours and barely put a dent in the battery percentage. Plus it’s very small (but not too small in either screen or keyboard) and light compared with my MBP… We’ll see how it lasts, I somehow doubt it will still be going in 10 years.

  3. What does your eleven year old use her laptop for? My twelve year old has been hinting that he’d really love having his own laptop, this despite we have a pretty good desktop set-up in a common area of the house. Maybe it’s just not private enough. He likes writing stories on it (although I’ve been strongly encouraging him on a regular basis to write longhand for now since he hasn’t become an efficient typist). He’s also a budding musician and I get the feeling he’d like to hook up a computer to the electric piano in his room and mess with things like GarageBand or similar. He’s also really gotten into tinkering with graphic arts sorts of things on my computer (he has gone into my Adobe cloud subscription and done some trials with modeling and related 3d design software on there). I’m not always sure how much access to what programs is appropriate for a boy his age but I love the initiative he has been taking to explore on his own. Obviously, one logical barrier for some of these things is money. One of the programs he has been using to design androids and space ships is a 7 day trial and I’m worried his heart will be broken by the end of the weekend when we have to investigate how much of his allowance he would have to spend to use it. On the other hand, he has rescued his luddite father from many computer problems with his new-generation problem-solving skills so there’s that to take into consideration. Hope this finds you well, Dan. Enjoyed your thoughts in the essay above even though I’ve gone off on a tangent, here.
    -Jason

    1. J, thanks for your reply, as always.

      I think first I’d recommend you look at what applications your son might want to use, then see if they are available as online apps, Chromebook apps, or only on Windows/Mac OS as a stand alone application. This will then influence your options device wise. We’re in a good age in that so much is available online without needing to buy software like a few years ago. I remember not all that long ago people not buying a new laptop or desktop without also getting Microsoft Office and some kind of Norton anti-virus software, and these costing hundreds! I starting using OpenOffice years ago, then moved on to Google Docs, Sheets etc, just so much easier.

      Our daughter has only just got her Chromebook, well, in September. We’re gradually exploring what she can use it for (in terms of what she would like, and what we are comfortable with her using as her parents). Currently it’s just writing (Google Docs), she’s experimenting with spreadsheets (Google Sheets – I have a budget tracker and she was curious about what I did and how it worked), GMail (very limited, just three friends and immediate family currently), plus a few websites, most ones the school uses and recommends. We’ve made some initial forays into coding too, via a website (they do this in school too). And she occasionally browses a few shopping sites, like Claires Accessories. Under supervision we’ll let her get up a YouTube video when she wants to learn something, most recently like baking, or knitting. We expect this to grow as she does, but we’re keeping a tight rein on it.

      Hope that helps, let me know if I can answer anything else.

  4. I’m running Linux on a 10 year old Gateway 15″ laptop I bought for my wife when she had her first car accident and needed to be able to keep up with work while in hospital. The HD and memory both failed on it after a few years, so I got her a new one (and subsequently another) and refitted it for myself. I don’t do a lot of computer work, whether writing or photos, so I don’t need a lot. If this one fails again I’d be faced with buying some dumb Win10 machine and immediately ditching the factory OS because I’ve seen it (her new one uses it) and it’s crap.
    You might guess I’ve dealt with a lot of computers over the years, starting with an Apple II which I augmented back in the 1980s. A couple of years ago I took a dozen old PCs to recycle, most of them no longer able to boot or the HD wouldn’t read (I have the drives yet). That’s how many the accounting business had piled up. Strange that I moved them up here with us back in 2009 instead of disposing of them down there. I think there’s still two more in the shed, along with my no-longer functioning netbooks. I loved the netbooks. Doubt I could see the screen on one now.
    I have a couple of “back up” laptops I got from my Dad’s just in case, but they lack SD card readers. That’s my preferred method of photo transfer; they can keep their blue tooth and wifi rubbish. I also have a tablet. Have not yet found anything its actually good for. So much promise, so little realization. :p

    1. Marc, I did actually consider buying a used Windows laptop, one with a good screen and keyboard and battery, then immediately reincarnating as a Chromebook like I’ve done with our old HP one. I always like the idea of repurposing. The Lenovo we bought our daughter is very impressive though. The screen isn’t amazing when you compare to my MacBook Pro or even the old HP. But perfectly fine for most apps. If I was heavily into photo processing, I wouldn’t want to use just the Lenovo for that. But for general writing online it’s ideal. And so light and fast, and the battery last something like 12 hours. All just very appealing, a nimble, light machine.

      Re SD card readers, none of our machines have this I don’t think, I’ve always used a USB reader. Mine cost something like £6 on eBay and does SDs and CFs, for the occasional times I need that.

      I agree with you about tablets. I bought my iPad mostly as an experiment a couple of years back to see if it could replace my MacBook. It doesn’t come anywhere near. The screen is lovely, and for browsing photos and reading blogs it’s probably the ideal device. But anything that involves typing I find very frustrating. I use keyboard short cuts like select all, copy and paste, open new tab etc all the time on a laptop and the equivalent on an iPad is painful. Just selecting a bit of text, copying and pasting is unbelievably fiddly, I find. I have neither the dexterity or the patience.

      So I do use my iPad for reading and browsing photos, as mentioned, but when I have a MacBook, a Chromebook and access to my daughters Chromebook, which is as quite and convenient and portable as the iPad, it’s a superfluous device. And actually, though I said the iPad is good for reading on, unless you have a cushion or something to prop it up if you’re sitting down with it, a laptop with its tilting screen is actually easier to set up in a convenient and comfortable position. And to be honest, I’m still not a fan of swiping. I often use an app on the iPad that autoscrolls for reading, but prefer a laptop where you just press the space bar to scroll down a page at a time. Again there’s no equivalent on the iPad, or indeed any touchscreen tablet I assume. Ha ha, I like it even less than I thought!

  5. I’ve been drafting up a similar post to this but who knows if it will ever see the light of day!

    I reassessed my device needs after I became frustrated trying to use my iPad Pro as a productivity device. I wanted something that I could take handwritten notes on that would sync easily with my other non-Apple devices and that would allow me to use full versions of apps, in particular Microsoft’s OneNote. My HP laptop, not even a year old, also sounds like it’s trying to take off sometimes, even when using it for basic web browsing, so I wanted something that could semi-replace it too. I ended up selling the iPad and getting a Surface Pro 6.

    I contemplated getting an Android tablet like the Tab S6, but I realised it was really important to me that I could have something that could be a fully-fledged laptop as well as a tablet for handwriting or for entertainment. In an ideal world, I would only have 1 device. I am mostly keeping my HP just so I have something to play Sims 4 on 😀

    Also Samsung and Microsoft now have a partnership that means there should be better integration between Samsung devices and Microsoft’s operating systems and software, so since I have the Note 9 (and will probably stick with Samsung once it dies!), it made even more sense to stick with getting a Windows 10 device. The Your Phone app means I can receive and respond to messages and notifications from my phone on my computer as well. I think I’m in the minority here as I actually really like W10. Yes it could definitely do with some UI changes but I prefer it to Mac OS.

    I’m really happy with my decision. I could see the Surface becoming my main device now, with my HP just being my gaming (i.e. Sims 4, I don’t play any other games!) laptop. I love its versatility.

    1. Thank Mel. See my reply to Marc for my own frustrations with using an iPad! They do promise to be wonderful, but fall short in many ways, compared with a “proper” laptop, for me.

      Your Surface Pro sounds like it’s really working out well for you. Given my decades of frustration with Microsoft devices and software, I avoid them all costs. A while back, I discovered one of the top IT guys at my work used a MacBook as his own computer. I commented and said I was surprised, as he was used to Windows machines in his professional role. “Exactly”, he replied, “I have to suffer the tortures of Microsoft all day long, why would I submit myself to that even further once I got home at night!”

  6. I have been using Apple desktop computers since I bought an Apple ][ in the late 70’s. Until last year, each time I replaced one with a newer model it was because one or more software applications I wanted to use did not work well, or was not supported at all, by the earlier model. But a recent move of my “office” from another part of the building to a corner of our bedroom made continuing with the 27″ iMac an impractical proposition. I borrowed a first-generation MacBook Air from a local independent Apple repair shop and found the screen size surprisingly usable for my photo applications. But it was impossibly slow to load RAW scans into either Iridient X-Transformer or Affinity Photo. Taking a little bit of a chance, I bought a new MacBook Air and it works a treat.

    (I have a blog entry about the advantages of a smaller computer screen for a hybrid film/inkjet workflow in the queue.)

    1. Doug, as with film cameras, I am such a relatively recent user of Apple gear compared with you!

      I like a decent sized screen for viewing photos, but if, like most people (I’m not including you here of course), you either don’t print at all, or only make modest sized prints, a standard 13 or 14in laptop with a quality screen is sufficient.

      Photos look pretty great on my iPad, which is “only” 9.7in.

      1. I find that looking too closely at files destined to become 8×12 or smaller inkjet prints tempts me to play with the sharpening controls in post processing. And my experience has been that software sharpening and high resolution scans of 35mm black and white film negatives don’t play nicely together. Limiting my screen size to the actual print size has greatly reduced that temptation. (Now if I could only find a way to disable the zoom control.) 🙂

      2. Very wise about limiting screen size to print size.

        I often wonder about what size (MP) to shoot at with cameras that have higher MP. I don’t even think 6MP is necessary sometimes.

        Take images made with a consumer Lumix TZ2 I had, which was 6MP. The size of the resultant images are 2816 x 2112 pixels. Viewed at 100% on my 15in MacBook, they’re much bigger than the screen size (1440 x 900), in fact about twice the size in each direction, or 4 x the area.

        So if I only want the equivalent size prints (roughly 12 x 8 in), then do I need to shoot at this full res? Could I use the camera at only 2MP and get 12 x 8 in prints that looked as good, or rather, good enough?

        Another factor of course is viewing distance. If you have a 6 x 4 in print, most likely people will view these in their hand from the same sort of distance as you hold a book to read. If you make a 12 x 8 in print, people will step back more, maybe an outstretched arms length away, so the resolution will not be so under the microscope, as your viewing from further away (like zooming out, if the image was on a computer screen). A 30 x 20 in print would be viewed from further away still, it’s unlikely anyone would look at with their nose pressed against it.

        This is why it all seems a bit silly when camera forums are full of images made with high MP cameras then zoomed in to 100%. Unless you’re making billboard posters, who needs that??

      3. We’ve made some very good 8 x 12 inkjet prints from 4.1 MB pictures taken with a Sony DSCS90. I’d be surprised if 8 x 12 prints from 2 MB files weren’t pretty good too. It’s only a 1.4x linear difference. An inexpensive way to find out would be to crop a few of your good 2 MB images to 50% and have 4 x 6 prints made.

  7. When the biggest Apple fan boy I know started recommending Chromebooks, I knew something was up. I bought one a year ago, but the screen was so small I couldn’t read anything on it, so I gave it to my housemate, and he swapped me his windows laptop that he hated, so we are both happy for now. I have been happy with my iPhone se for the last few years, especially as I only paid $100 for it, but I’m not a heavy phone user. The Sony phones like everything Sony are very expensive here, Iv’e never seen one in the wild. All the young people here insist on Samsung phones and no other will do. I have known more than a few people that cursed iTunes up and down, so I was never tempted to try it, it sounds like a real boondoggle.

    1. What size was the Chromebook Jon? I know there are quite a few 11in screen models, which I personally wouldn’t get. Our converted HP laptop is 15in, and our daughter’s Lenovo is 14in, and both are more than fine for writing and viewing photos, for me.

      I don’t know what happened with iTunes, and maybe it’s symptomatic of Apple as a whole. I first used it maybe 12 years ago or something when Apple did a bundle called iLife, with iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie etc with their new laptops.

      iTunes was simple, logical and efficient in organising and playing your music. It just did a good job. iMovie I used a fair bit for my own stuff back then and it was similarly logical and simple I recall. With each upgrade, they seemed to add more features I didn’t need, remove those I did (with the original iMovie I had it was easy to take any section of footage and slow it down – they removed this entirely from subsequent versions, I was very disappointed) and make it all more bloated, clumsy and complicated.

      Using a Chromebook now doesn’t have that old magic I use to feel using my MacBook (and PowerBook before) but it does very much remind me of the same kind of light, simple, fast and friendly user interface Apple built their reputation on. You just open it up, and it works, no faffing about.

      Sony are one of the more expensive brands here, but not excessively, phone wise. I think when I bought my Xperia coming up for two years ago it was around £300, and at the time the equivalent iPhone was about double that, and the top iPhone over £1000. I’m sure they’re even more now! I bought the Sony as a cheaper, if not cheap, option as I couldn’t justify that much on an iPhone.

      We recently bought a Sony TV, more pricey than some brands, but I’ve had good experiences with them over the years (probably since having Sony Walkmans and Discmans in the 80s and 90s!) and they make great quality devices worth the little extra you pay. We have a Sony DVD player that we only stopped using a couple of months ago as we had a spare smaller one, that was maybe 15 years old and worked perfectly.

      Oh and thanks for teaching me a new word today, boondoggle. Wow, how much stuff that’s sold these days falls under this definition!!

      1. Most welcome Dan, we have been getting a lot of use out of that word around here lately with the present situation in Washington. I believe the Chromebook is an 11″ model, I don’t know what I was thinking. My house mate is ten years older and even less familiar with computers than I, and he loves it, and has used it a lot. As far as I know he hasn’t had any trouble with it at all, which is amazing really. Sometimes my desire to save money gets the better of me. Anyway, I can’t complain about the Cheap HP windows machine I’m using, except that every time I pick it up it feels like it might fall apart in my hands. When it dies I will probably replace it with a larger Chromebook.

      2. Yeh my eyes are ok in that I don’t need glasses for reading a book etc, but I wouldn’t want an 11″ laptop. Everything just gets squashed up too much on screen, text is too small etc.

        Maybe you could convert the HP to a Chromebook once it starts struggling with Windows…

  8. After reading this and then remembering and old computer in a cupboard, I did the same thing. I used neverware.com and it was very easy. I have the same issue with the battery, but I now have a spare computer that works very effeciently. Thanks for the prompt.

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