Windows Enterprise Desktop


April 6, 2013  8:45 PM

Laptop Shopping? Microsoft’s Troubles Could Benefit You!



Posted by: Ed Tittel
Desktops

Just read a fascinating article over at the DealNews website. Entitled “Windows 8 Sales Are Terrible, But That’s Great News for Laptop Deals,” it makes the point that slow Windows 8 uptake in the marketplace continues to exert downward pressure on low-end laptop prices for units that come with Windows 8 pre-installed. And indeed, a quick trip to that site’s Laptop Deals page (set to list laptops by increasing prices, lowest first) reveals more than a dozen interesting items  with Windows 8 installed for $450 or under.

Loads of laptop for low cost thanks to slow Windows 8 sales.

Loads of laptop for low cost thanks to slow Windows 8 sales.

Here’s what I found that comes with Windows 8 installed in the first two screens there (hover over the links for the “spec line” from that site, if you’d like to see more info, or follow the link to get the sales page for each unit):

1. Gateway AMD Dual Core 16″ Laptop $300, free shipping
2. Toshiba Satellite Intel Celeron 16″ Laptop $300, free shipping
3. Refurb Asus Dual Core Pentium 14″ Laptop $300, free shipping
4. HP 2000z AMD Dual Core 16″ Laptop $335 + $10 S&H
5. HP Pavilion Core i3 Dual Core 14″ Laptop $348 after rebate + $11 S&H
6. Lenovo G580 i3 Dual Core 16″ Laptop $358 + $11 S&H
7. Lenovo IdeaPad AMD Quad Core 14″ Laptop $380 + free shipping
8. Dell i3 Dual Core 16″ Laptop $380 + free shipping
9. HP 650 Dual Core i3 16″ Laptop $400 + $8 S&H
10. Lenovo IdeaPad S400 Dual Core i3 14″ Laptop $400 + $8 S&H
11. Dell Inspiron 17R Dual Core Pentium 17″ Laptop (1600×900) $400 + free shipping
12. HP Pavilion Dual Core AMD 16″ Laptop $415 + $10 S&H
13. Sony VAIO Dual Core AMD 12″ Laptop $430 + free shipping
14. Dell Inspiron Dual Core i3 17″ Laptop $450 + free shipping

It’s pretty amazing what $300-350 will buy you, as represented by items 1-6 on the preceding list. You can expect only 1366×768 resolution for that price, 2-6 GB of RAM, and a hard disk of 500 GB or less, but it’s still a very good deal. I jumped on a $300 deal for my son’s school machine last year (2012) and what I got for the money seems downright antediluvian by comparison. It’s an Acer 5552-3691 with a 2.2 GHz AMD P340 Dual Core CPU, and came with 4 GB RAM — since upgraded to 6 GB — a 1366×768 display, and a 320 GB 5,400 RPM hard disk — since upgraded to a 128 GB OCZ Agility 3 SSD, and it runs Windows 8 Professional quite nicely. It looks like that same $300 buys a lot more these days, including Windows 8. The standard resolution is on the low end (1366×768), and the processors are by no means killer models, but if my experience on the older Acer model is an indication, they should work just fine for your kids’ school machines, a couch laptop, or for loaner units at work for temp or contract workers who need something for basic workaday computing.

If you’re willing to extend your budget by $50-150, to the $350-450 range, you can find some pretty powerful big-name machines — albeit with a preponderance of AMD CPUs and continuing in the 1366×768 resolution vein — for the money. In particular, Newegg’s prices for refurb units seem to offer great combinations of low price and strong functionality, so you might want to start dropping in on their site to check deals from time to time, because they come and go very quickly all the time. I’ve also found TigerDirect — the purveyor of my son’s Acer 5552 $300 notebook from last year — sometimes offers some pretty incredible refurb and sales prices as well.

April 5, 2013  11:14 PM

Comedian Loves His Surface Pro — It’s No Joke



Posted by: Diana Hwang
Desktops

After a month of searching for the right person, I finally found him. I had to look under every rock but he’s really out there. It’s the lone guy on the planet who loves his Surface Pro and he doesn’t work for Microsoft!

Truly, it was a huge accomplishment to find someone who could wax poetic all about the Surface Pro and was willing to go on record without making sure any quotes needed to pass through the lawyers.

His name is Dan Nainan. Dan is a techy geek who travels the world billing himself as a clean comedian. The guy used to be an Intel senior engineer and for years gave technical demos with Andy Grove at major events. Along the way, Dan discovered he could make people laugh and now loves his new life as a comedian.

And, by the way, did I mention he loves his Surface Pro?

I asked Dan why he didn’t choose another vendor’s tablet given that the Surface Pro was a first generation device. He got all serious.

“It has to be able to run Windows,” he told me. “I look at Siri as a gateway for voice dictation. Its speaker independent and anyone can talk to an iPhone and iPad. But true voice dictation takes place when you use Dragon Naturally Speaking and that only runs on Windows or Mac.”

By that he means, the full package, not the Dragon Dictation iOS app for email and text messages. (In fact, Dan has written a book using the voice recognition package and is now working on another one. )

When the Surface Pro came out, Dan bought the 64 GB version.

“When I’m on the road, I can replace both my laptop and my iPad,” he recalled. In fact, Dan lightened his load by rolling his mobile content creation and consumption device into one.

I thought Dan would want the Surface Pro that had the most storage on it. After all he is a techy geek and don’t early adopters want the latest and greatest technology with the most storage?

The 128 GB device was sold out at the time, Dan explained. But he’s not too worried about having only a 64 GB unit because of the Surface Pro’s extra microSDXC expansion slot.

Dan has yet to try is loading up his workhorse Adobe Premiere video editing software on the device. The reason? He needs a bigger screen.

Is there anything Dan doesn’t like about the Surface Pro?

“Windows 8 takes time to get used to,” Dan conceded. I guess Dan suffers from the same issues that countless others have panned Microsoft for: The Windows 8 tile interface is a major change for anyone to get used to. (Thank God Microsoft had enough smarts to provide users with the desktop view).

“I like the touch screen and I use the pen once in a while. There is one USB slot and another one built into the power adapter,” Dan said. “But it doesn’t work.” Of course.

“The only thing I need to plug into is a USB headset,” Dan explained. I guess that’s why he hasn’t complained to Microsoft about the USB slot on his power adapter not working. He doesn’t really need it right now.

While there are probably other Surface Pro lovers somewhere out there, Dan is the one who happened to turn up. Microsoft should be grateful to Dan for evangelizing the Surface Pro, especially when the company is getting a very cool response to Windows 8 and Windows RT from the enterprise. I’m waiting for the Surface Pro to make its way into Dan’s act. Who knows what he’ll say about it then?


April 5, 2013  3:20 PM

Windows 8 Touchscreen Displays Affordable, Widely Available



Posted by: Ed Tittel
Desktops

In early 2012, I wrote a two-part series of blog posts on “Buying a Touchscreen for Windows 8,” (Episode 1, Episode 2) as I worked through finding a suitable touchscreen for a Windows 8 test machine in connection with a book on Windows 8 I was researching at that time. While plenty of affordable touchscreens were available at the time, only a very few — and more costly — touchscreens actually complied with the Windows 8 touch requirements for such devices. I determined that somebody insistent on compliance with those requirements would have to spend over $1,000 to meet them, most likely in the form of a very nice 3M M181866PW Multi-Touch Display, if not something bigger. Today, that monitor still costs over $1,100, while bigger models cost even more (3M’s offerings go all the way up to 32″ for a whopping $4,500 or thereabouts).

Looks nice, but where is the hand vis-a-vis the keyboard right now?

Looks nice, but where is the hand vis-a-vis the keyboard right now?

But first, ask yourself this: “Do I REALLY need touch?”
I raise this important question because I’ve now had over one year of day-in, day-out experience working with Windows 8 on desktop, notebook, and tablet PCs. Because I work primarily on the Windows 8 desktop (not running Windows Store/Modern UI apps, in other words, and using a conventional keyboard and mouse) I’ve observed that while touch is nice to have, it’s not absolutely essential unless I’m working on a tablet device or a smartphone, where touch is the ONLY user interface available. Here’s why: when you work mostly on the keyboard and with a mouse, you have to move your hand some distance away from its usual home location to access a touch display. This is disruptive to work flow (my work flow, at least) because it take time to make those moves, and then to get re-set to work the keyboard when returning from the display, or vice-versa. And here’s another thing to consider: you can spend a lot less ($60-80, in most cases) to purchase a touch mouse (both Microsoft and Logitech have nice models) or trackpad instead of a touch display, without disrupting workflow, and still get the benefit of the gestures that touch permits to drive the Win8 interface.

If you still want a touch display or a notebook with a touch screen, you’ll be pleased to learn that…
Prices have fallen dramatically, and the number of purchase options have increased likewise, for touchscreen displays that comply with Windows 8 Touch requirements (now under the umbrella of the Microsoft Hardware Certification program, as the former Windows Logo program has been renamed). With just a little trolling online, I found recent articles from ComputerWorld, PC World, and PC Advisor that provide buying advice and product reviews on offerings from numerous well-known vendors, including Acer, Dell, LG, and Viewsonic, among others, and a carefully-crafted Google Shopping search turns up more company names, including Planar, ELO, TouchSystems, HP, NEC, Samsung, and others.

The good news here — as the afore-cited review articles from PC World and ComputerWorld attest — is that you can find any number of Windows 8 hardware certified touchscreen monitors in a size range from 21 to 23″ for $700 or less. Hooking up these monitors does mean giving up a USB port (for the human interface device, or HID, communication that touch itself requires) in addition to a VGA, DVI, HDMI, or DisplayPort link for the video (and audio where applicable), but that’s a modest additional resource requirement that these devices demand. Conventional wisdom remains that it costs about $100-200 more to add touch to a monitor of a given size (bigger monitors require larger touch surfaces, so the cost differential tends to rise in tandem with display size), so that’s the cost increment for replacing an existing monitor (or for adding a touchscreen as an additional monitor, as many users choose to do instead).

So now that there’s no question that you can find a reasonably priced touchscreen for Windows 8 use (and double ditto for Windows 8 laptops or ultrabooks), the real question still remains: Do you really want to go the touchscreen route, or try a touch-friendly mouse or trackpad instead? My suggestion: start with the mouse or trackpad and see if you can live with it (I do myself, every day). Only if you can’t should you spring for the added expense (and desktop real estate) of a Windows 8 hardware certified touch monitor.

[Note added 4/5/2013: No sooner had I posted this blog, than I found a fantastic article over at Ars Technica on the general subject of touch displays: it's entitled "From touch displays to the Surface: A brief history of touchscreen technology" and it's a great read on the history, present, and future of touch displays and their many and increasing applications.]


April 4, 2013  2:47 PM

Everything Must Go! MS Store Cuts Win8 Tablet/Hybrid Prices



Posted by: Ed Tittel
Desktops

Make of it what you will, but prices at the Microsoft store are being slashed. I found the best coverage of this phenomenon at C|NET where Brooke Crothers’ story recites details on discounts for various makes and models from (in alphabetical order, by maker) Acer, Asus, HP, Samsung, and Toshiba. From what I can see, discounts range from $50 to $400, with a median value of about seven percent. The real stand-out is the Toshiba Satellite U925T-S2130 Convertible Ultrabook, whose price has been cut from $1149 to $799 (a whopping 34.8%!). Here’s the Tablets and Convertibles page where you can see all those items in the store, and which ones are being discounted.

Various articles on these discounts speculate that Microsoft seeks to reduce excess inventory, and get these products moving off its store shelves. That doesn’t sound like an unreasonable interpretation to me, and it’s doubly interesting to observe that the specific Toshiba modeled pictured at left in this post is available exclusively at the Microsoft Store — so presumably, it’s also got the biggest margins at which MS can chip away in its efforts to get them into customer’s hands. CNET’s video review of this unit mentions that its list $1,149 price comes at a premium over similarly-equipped non-convertible ultrabooks (i5, 4 GB RAM, 128 GB SSD, 1366×768 touchscreen). Presumably, the fairly serious price cut on this unit puts its prices on par with such ultrabooks and makes it a much better deal to those inclined to accommodate its unusual slide-over design (when used as a tablet, and for transport, the display slides over the keyboard).

Other discounted items of potential interest to buyers might include a couple of Samsung models: the ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T tablet and the ATIV Smart PC 500T Tablet with AT&T 4G LTE (the 700T includes an i5, the 500T an Atom Z2760) have both been reduced by $200 — the 500T from $899 to 699 (about 22.5%), and the 700T from $1199 to $999 (about 16.7%). Alas, both garner lukewarm reviews (of the 700T, C|NET says that it “…walks the line between ultrabook-level laptop and tablet, but doesn’t truly excel at either”).

I’m not ready to interpret these discounts as an overall devaluing of the Windows 8 touch experience, but it does look like not all of the PCs that flock inside the Microsoft Stores are eagles. I perceive that at least some of these are not moving as briskly as Microsoft would like, and that it is taking steps to cull some turkeys from the denizens of this aviary. I’ll be more inclined to take this as a sign of something more significant if MS extends those discounts to more of the models on sale at its stores — especially if any Surface models start attracting knock-offs. As it is, I don’t expect any such discounts to appear until next-generation Surface models make their debut, and MS seeks to flush older units from its inventory.


March 31, 2013  8:50 PM

Don’t Forget Windows 8 “Health Check”



Posted by: Ed Tittel
Desktops

In Windows 7, Microsoft introduced a canned report from the built-in Windows Performance Monitor — renamed to the Resource and Performance Monitor — sometimes known as the Windows “Health Check” or “Health Report.” From a search box or the command line, you can enter perfmon /report to produce this survey of any Windows 8 system and its current health and resources. This produces a window that looks something like this on Windows 8:

You want to see that row of 5 "green lights" for a clean bill of system health.

You want to see that row of 5 “green lights” for a clean bill of system health.

If any of the indicators are red, you can use the plus signs at the far left to drill down into underlying information more deeply. Thus, for example, the first time I ran this tool to produce the screen shot for this blog post, I discovered I’d accidentally turned off the Windows Search service (which some Windows pundits decry, but which I have come to appreciate, thanks to its ever-improving built-in capabilities so readily available through the File Explorer search box, and other search boxes elsewhere in the system — as in the old Win7 position when using the Stardock Start8 Start Menu replacement tool, as I so often do). I had just finished fooling around with the latest version of Iolo’s System Mechanic (v11.7 Pro) on the system, and had apparently and inadvertently turned off the Windows Search service as part of their recommended “tune-up” settings. A quick jump to services.msc to restart the service and restore it to Automatic status, and I was back in (normal) business.

The other tabs in this report are also worth exploring, so here’s a little bit of explanation for what you’ll find there:

1. Performance provides an overview of resource utilization for CPU, Network, Disk, and Memory.
2. Software Configuration provides oodles of information from OS Checks, Security Center, lots of details on System Services, and Startup Programs.
3. Hardware Configuration covers various Disk Checks, System details, desktop performance rating data (from Windows Experience), BIOS info, and key Device Manager details.
4. The CPU heading provides information about running processes and their resource consumption (Image Statistics), Service Statistics, active/running services, and a raft of system performance counters and data.
5. The Network heading tracks protocol-related counters and data for TCP, the physical interface (data link layer), IP, and UDP, and provides great detail on network traffic levels and activity.
6. The Disk heading provides information on so-called “Hot Files” (major files that Windows uses heavily at run-time), disk activity, physical disks, and NTFS performance.
7. Under the Memory heading, you can examine RAM consumption by process, along with working set size, total commit charges, and distribution between shareable and private memory, along with all the major memory counters that Performance Monitor supports.
8. Report Statistics ties the report content to a specific PC and OS installation, with information about files run and created to generate the report, and events processed to obtain the report’s contents.

Not only is this a useful report when checking up on a system, it’s also a quick and easy way to obtain (and even to retain) system state, health, configuration, and components/devices information for any PC on which it’s run. Worth getting to know!


March 29, 2013  9:28 PM

MS Bows to the Market, Alters Win8 Specs to Permit 7″ Tablets



Posted by: Ed Tittel
Desktops

A recent spate of stories on the Web (The Verge, Ed Bott/ZDnet, and so forth) disclose Microsoft’s interesting alteration of its minimum hardware requirements for Windows 8 devices. Whereas tablets had been limited to a minimum of 1366×768 in the past, Microsoft has dropped that number to 1024×768 (which old-timers like yours truly recognize as the old XGA monitor standard that’s been around since the early 1990s). This matters because it opens the door for seven- and eight-inch display form factors on Windows 8 tablets, which has naturally also led to speculation that a “Microsoft e-reader” could be in the offing, as well as a Windows Phone 8 based competitor to the wildly successful Galaxy tablet/phablet designs from Samsung.

Ed Bott reports further that this change appeared in the March 12 (2013) Windows Certification Newsletter, which provides information for hardware OEMs interested in selling systems — tablets, in this case — that meet Microsoft’s requirements for obtaining an official Windows Logo designation (this program had been known as the Logo Program in the past, but is now called the Windows Certification Program, not to be confused with credentials offered to IT professionals through Microsoft Learning).

A 7" tablet opens all kinds of interesting possibilities for the MS Surface product line.

A 7″ tablet opens interesting possibilities for the MS Surface product line.

There is a catch, however, and it’s not a pretty (or convenient) one: the lower resolution does indeed disable the Windows 8 “snap” feature, which permits two Modern UI/Windows Store apps to appear side-by-side on a Windows 8 display. OEMs will be required to warn buyers in advance that this particular screen resolution does NOT support this feature. Bott goes on further to discuss the on-year anniversary of a patent settlement between Barnes & Noble and Microsoft, and a possible partnership between those two companies to produce an e-reader based on the upcoming “Blue” version of Windows 8. The most interesting aspect of this partnership, which Bott obtained via Mary Jo Foley (another ZDnet Windows maven) is “…the formation of a joint Microsoft/B&N company (Nook Media, LLC, called ‘NewCo’ in the SEC disclosure, with this tantalizing language in the agreement: ‘Microsoft Reader.

If Microsoft creates such an e-reader, Microsoft may include an interface to the NewCo Store in that reader and may surface in that reader all Content purchased by customers from the NewCo Store.’” Veeeeeeeeeeeeeeery interesting, sez I! If, as Bott speculates, such a item could hit the market at a price under $300, there could be a whole new game in town, not only because of the B&N relationship, but also because a Win8-based 7″ tablet could also run any of a number of other PC-ready e-reader programs, including the Amazon Kindle app.


March 26, 2013  6:15 PM

Demise of the Win8 Desktop Highly Unlikely, Rumors Nothwithstanding



Posted by: Ed Tittel
Desktops

Le desktop c'est mort. Vive le desktop!

Le desktop c’est mort. Vive le desktop!
[Image credit: Shutterstock 131795768]

One of my favorite Windows curmudgeons has to be the one and only Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (who understandably mostly goes by his initials, SJVN). He’s been waxing bilious and profane about the Modern UI in Windows 8 pretty much since it first came along, and maintains special reserves of both spleen and ire for the difficulties it can impose upon the ignorant or unwary when it comes to finding one’s way to the desktop in that operating system. But even he is taking issues with some reporting in the wake of recent BitTorrent leaks of the upcoming Windows “Blue” release (an annual release that may do away with boxed or less frequent “major OS releases” sometime in the Windows future). That reporting — which involves long-time and well-respected Windows guru Paul Thurrott  and long-time Windows industry and technology watcher Preston Gralla– makes the proposal that Microsoft may be planning to do away with the desktop completely in future Windows versions.

My reaction to this reporting is the same as SJVN’s (and when we agree on something Windows-related, you know it has to be pretty inarguable, because otherwise we’d be arguing about it instead). “No Windows desktop mode!? No!” is the title of his reaction piece to such supposing, to which my only amendment would be: “Not only no, but heck NO!” SJVN also makes mention of “…hundreds of thousands of desktop applications that will take years, if not longer, to migrate to WinRT API-based apps…” necessary to make them work in a Modern UI-only Windows world. I just don’t think that business users will tolerate complete and utter disposal of the desktop, since that’s where most of them (including me) spend their days as they do their jobs on their computers.

SJVN also observes that Microsoft could “… move all its business apps to the cloud and make them software as a service (SaaS) apps,” a migration that he says fits nicely with Ed Bott’s “… vision of Microsoft’s future as a cloud-based service provider with its own hardware line, Surface.” This causes SJVN to pause and scratch his metaphorical head, to opine that “if moving its business applications to the cloud really is the plan, then Microsoft could indeed leave Windows 8′s desktop mode behind…” True or false though this may be, it still leaves orphaned the hundreds of thousands of commercial and custom-built applications that business users run on the desktop daily, and would have to wait for their migration from desktop to the great beyond (my tongue-in-cheek reference to their cloud-based, Modern UI friendly replacements) before they could assume the happy and virtuous state of desktoplessness, as it were.

I have to believe that sheer inertia dictates that a desktop of some kind will remain available in Windows until the vast majority of business developers have themselves made the move to the Modern UI, or whatever name the “next big touch- and mobile-device-friendly UI” might happen to take. I can’t see this happening in less than 10 years, though I would be delighted to be proved wrong. But as always, in matters of dispute like these, time will tell!

[PostScript Added 3/27/2013:
This morning, I found another story from Preston Gralla for Computerworld entitled "Three reasons Microsoft wants to kill the Windows Desktop." In short, his three reasons are: 1. To help Windows Phone and Windows tablets gain market share; 2. to unify the operating system (by supporting only a single interface, to eliminate tension between the old-fashioned desktop and newfangled Modern UI); and 3. to lock enterprises into future versions of Windows (if enterprises build Modern UI apps, this locks them into Windows moving forward).  My response is that 1 is inarguable, that 2 is questionable, and that there's a mighty big "if" involved in number 3. No matter what I think (or anybody else outside Microsoft, for that matter), this is turning into an interesting discussion, with a bizarre take on Microsoft's methods and motives emerging. Does the conversation say more about the analysts, or the analysand? I wonder... ]


March 24, 2013  11:04 PM

RDP Imposes Some Gotchas on Remote Win8 Computing



Posted by: Ed Tittel
Desktops

My home office set-up includes a pair of 27″ Dell monitors (2707 WFPs) on my primary production desktop. I say this by way of explaining why one of my favorite working techniques is to stay logged into that machine, and to use Remote Desktop Connection (and the RDP protocol) to reach out from that desktop to other machines I want to work on here and there around the house. In particular, I’ve got 2 Windows 8 test machines that I work on quite regularly — a Lenovo X220 Tablet with an i7-2640M and 12 GB of RAM, and a home-built desktop with an Asus P8Z68V-PRO GEN3 mobo, an i7 2660K CPU, and 32 GB of RAM — where my preference is to remote into those machines and work on them.

But alas, that doesn’t always work, because not all applications are 100% (or even a little bit) compatible with RDP. And figuring out what’s compatible and what’s not can be interesting, too. Until some time in 2011, Microsoft offered a free tool called the RDS Application Compatibility Checker. But in 2011 they handed off this functionality to a Dell-owned software company formerly known as Quest Software, whose ChangeBASE product includes a variety of tools, including automated application compatibility testing that incorporates a variety of remote access compatibility checks. I’ve launched inquiries to find out more about this capability, because I have to imagine that many IT professionals (and network/data center/virtualization admins) will want to know what’s safe to use with RDP and what’s not, particularly when it comes to custom applications of the mission critical variety, as well as any number of common desktop tools and utilities.

What spurred this blog post from me was the discovery, upon installing and learning to use StarDock Software’s ModernMix utility (which permits Modern UI apps to run in Windows on the Windows 8 desktop, instead of taking over the whole screen — or part of it, if you’re inclined to run multiple Modern UI apps in tandem) that it worked wonderfully when I was sitting at the real physical keyboard for those PCs, but not at the remote keyboard. The issue is that it uses the F10 function key to instruct the program to switch from filling the entire display to displaying inside a window, and function key presses are notoriously tricksy to transport across a remote link.  However, after setting up one app in a desktop window, all other apps would then appear via remote access. Nevertheless, I had to make that happen at the real physical keyboard to enable the remote connection to work properly. Here’s a screencap of the Skydrive app running in a window, after the initial set-up was handled on the actual machine:

All it takes is one successful use for set-up, then remote access works just fine.

All it takes is one successful use for set-up, then remote access works just fine with ModernMix.

I have discovered other apps that are even less well-behaved when using remote access to my Windows 8 desktop. On the Lenovo machine for example, Lenovo System Update v5 works perfectly when run from the local keyboard; if you launch the program from a remote connection, nothing ever appears on the display to indicate that the program is running (nor does an application entry appear in Task Manager, either). The only way to get the program to work remotely is to fire it off before starting a remote session, after which it stays up and running in the remote window that Remote Desktop Connection opens to that machine. I assume the same conditions might hold for programs that operate on hardware at a low level, too: that’s why I’d be leery of trying a disk partitioning program through a remote connection, for example, or nervous about other, similar low-level hardware configuration or set-up tools.

All of this, of course, confirms the notion that testing of applications in a corporate environment must include checking them through a remote access window as well as on the local desktop. It will be even harder for help desk or tech support folks to get their jobs done if the tools they’d like to use don’t work that way: far better in fact, to find tools that are amenable to remote control and operation, to ensure that when those hard-working IT pros must reach out to a user’s desktop their chosen tools will work  as needed and expected.


March 22, 2013  7:33 PM

A Recovery UFD Plus Refresh Image For Ultimate Win8 Restore Capability



Posted by: Ed Tittel
Desktops

Windows 8 includes a Control Panel widget called “Create a recovery drive,” that you can use to create a USB flash drive to boot up and repair your system should anything go wrong with the boot or system partitions. And if your PC includes a custom-built recovery partition (something you’ll have at your disposal when the machine comes from an OEM, or the system builder has taken the trouble to build a recovery partition as part of the initial system install), you can even move it from its present location on the system/boot drive to the flash drive to free up space. This can be especially helpful on tablet, notebook, or other PCs with smaller (less than 256 GB) system/boot drives, where every GB of storage space really counts. A typical recovery partition might be as big as 10-15 GB: on a 64 or 128 GB SSD, that’s a significant amount of storage space.

Building such a recovery drive is very easy. Type “Create a recovery drive” in the Windows Start screen (Modern UI method) or into the search box in a Start menu replacement such as Start8 or Classic Shell, then follow the prompts as they appear. Depending on whether or not you have a recovery partition to transfer, the process takes as little time as under a minute (no recovery partition) to as long as 10 minutes (15 GB recovery partition) to complete. You’ll know what you’re up against depending on whether or not the checkbox and text that reads “Copy the recovery partition from the PC to the recovery drive” is available and in dark text, or unavailable in greyed-out text on the initial Recovery Drive screen as shown here:

The first screen for Recovery Disk lets you know if you've got a recovery drive to copy or not.

The first screen for Recovery Disk lets you know if you’ve got a recovery drive to copy or not.

I built one of my Windows 8 test machines from scratch, and installed Windows 8 over Windows 7 on the Lenovo X220 Tablet, so neither of those machines had a recovery partition for me to copy. However, after setting up a recovery drive for my desktop Windows 8 machine, I then turned to RecImgManager to create a refresh image for that machine on the same 32 GB flash drive where the initial recovery drive materials were deposited. Since the base level files consume only 223 MB of disk space (this proved to be the same for both desktop and notebook PCs, so I must believe that this holds true for all 64-bit Windows 8 PCs). The refresh image for my X220 Tablet is 8.5 GB, while the one for my i7 2600K desktop is 7.5 GB so you could easily use a 16 GB flash drive, instead of the 32 GB unit I employed for this maneuver.

The combination of the recovery drive functionality and a refresh image means you can start up Windows 8 from the USB flash drive, but some additional work is required to re-create a usable environment on a target PC. You must basically convert the .wim into an install image, so that you can then install that image to rebuild your machine. The good news is this custom install will include your drivers and applications; the bad news is, you must jump through a few hoops to make this happen. Fortunately, it is all nicely explained in a forum thread over on the Windows Eight Forums entitled “recover Windows 8 from a .wim file.” I’ll be fooling around with this in my spare time over the next week or two, and will report further as I learn more.

[Note: Although the recimg utility itself didn't help me troubleshoot this problem, I was able to Google my way into understanding that you cannot capture a refresh image onto an SD Card or a USB Flash drive. The utility insists on writing to a full-fledged disk of some kind (works with both SATA or other direct-attached SSDs or conventional drives, and with USB attached SSDs or conventional drives). I don't have any USB3 high-speed/high-capacity UFDs around right now, but I plan to try some out as soon as I can lay hands on one that's big enough -- 32 GB or better -- and affordable. This means you can still build the kind of Recovery UFD I'm talking about in this blog post, but you can't use that UFD as the target when recording the .wim image you'll convert to another form as described in the utilities mentioned in the Win8 Forums blog posts above. Again: more on this as I keep digging deeper.]


March 20, 2013  6:50 PM

Worth Considering: Paul Thurrott Praises the Win8 Desktop



Posted by: Ed Tittel
Desktops

There’s a terrific piece over on Paul Thurrott’s Supersite for Windows that posted yesterday, entitled “In Praise of the Windows 8 Desktop.” In that story, he calls out all the new features on the old-fashioned but still extremely usable desktop in Windows 8 that deliver new or vastly improved functionality. Those items are worth perusing and pondering, as they do provide some real and tangible reasons why business might consider permitting Windows 8 to find a spot on their users’ desktops. And FWIW, I mostly concur with his observations and analyses, and even add a special favorite item of my own.

Among many utilities, Task Manager gets a major and welcome overhaul in Win8 (see my story on this updated tool at SearchEnterpriseDesktop)

Among many utilities, Task Manager gets a major and welcome overhaul in Win8
(see my story on this updated tool at SearchEnterpriseDesktop
)

He calls specific attention to the following elements or aspects of Windows 8 in the story:

  • Aero and its resource-hungry “glass effects” have given way to a more spare, square, and opaque Window display on the desktop. Aero was banished because of its negative impact on battery life, which makes the new look also more battery friendly.
  • Windows Explorer — actually called “File Explorer” in Windows 8 to distinguish it better from IE — gets a ribbon-based UI (that power users can banish from the File Explorer window, if they so choose). Other improvements include the ability to mount ISO files and virtual hard disks (vhd and vhdx files) right in File Explorer, in the form of volumes with drive letters and everything. I also like the speed improvements to file copy and move operations, and the added details on progress boxes that tell you what’s going on. If only MS would add the ability to resume interrupted file move/copy operations as well…
  • Task Manager gets a big increase in capability, including a vastly improved look (which Thurrott correctly attributes to Sysinternals’ excellent Process Explorer utility, the brainchild of Windows guru Mark Russinovich, who’s been a Microsoft Fellow for almost a decade now), the ability to manage startup items (no more msconfig.exe, yippee), services, app history, and more.
  • Improved security thanks to a beefed-up Windows Defender and Smartscreen technology. Given recent reviews have found these free MS built-ins less secure than other free (and commercial) alternatives, I’m not sure I buy into this 100%. But I do confess to using Windows Defender on test systems and VMs because it installs by default and is at least adequate at keeping things secure.
  • For power users, Thurrott points to Storage Spaces fast and simple support for JBOD and data redundancy without — as he puts it — “…a master’s degree in RAID required.” He also mentions BitLocker, BitLocker to Go, and improved support for multiple displays as boons to those who want to give Windows a real work-out.
  • Finally, he calls on fast boot (and shutdown) times and the ability to reset a Windows install to factory reset conditions (he calls this “nuke from space”) as great improvements over earlier Windows versions, with reports of 6 second boot times and the ability to run a reset in 6-7 minutes. My times aren’t that fast — more on the order of 30-50 seconds — but mine are better than Windows 7 on the same systems across the board, too.

Of course, I’ve got some items I’d like to add to this list, too:

  • The “Refresh your PC” capability is also great, but even better is the built-in recimg (record image) command that lets you capture a complete Windows install image after you’ve updated all the drivers and installed all of your favorite applications (especially desktop applications and installer-based device drivers) and use it as the source for the refresh operation. Slimware Utilities’ free RecImgManager tool makes this facility especially easy and convenient to use, too.
  • Because Windows 8 supports the same hypervisor that Windows Server 2012 uses (Hyper-V Manager v3.0), using VMs in Windows 8 beats the pants off Virtual PC or Virtual Server in Windows 7: you get support for bigger virtual disks (VHDX format), faster VM load/unload times, more VMs, and lots more.
  • I like Windows 8′s ability to use the Microsoft Live ID login for system access, and the ability to synchronize multiple Windows 8 user environments that share a common Live ID. I use this on multiple Windows 8 installations very gladly.
  • Windows 8 adds improved support for the Universal Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) and provide the ability to secure the boot-up process before the OS is loaded. Though I’ve had occasional issues with this facility, it does provide better low-level diagnostics and troubleshooting for PCs, and will protect boot-up from malware and break-in attempts.

I do see Thurrott’s point — that there are things about the Windows 8 desktop that users and admins will like — but I also get the backlash against the removal of the Start Menu from the base OS, and how little business users like being forced to boot into the Modern UI tile-based Start screen, rather than the old, familiar Windows desktop. Nevertheless, there are real, positive reasons to look further and deeper into Windows 8. Whether or not this leads to wider adoption still remains to be seen.


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