Earlier this week, I found one of my Windows 7 test machines in what can only be described as an “interesting state.” For whatever reason (I’d just finished updating a bunch of hardware drivers, and I suspect that one of them bit this OS installation in the hindquarters) the OS would no longer interact with Windows Update, and the file system interface through Windows Explorer was decidedly flaky. To make a long and tedious story short enough to be tolerable, I ended up rolling back to a system image dated just before the December 13 Patch Tuesday updates before that balky test PC returned to a stable and workable state. I found myself wishing for some mechanism to put my system in good order that would be better than a trial-and-error march back in time through restore points and system images until something finally clicked.
Desmond Lee, the program manager for the Windows 8 Fundamentals team, must have often entertained those same thoughts as he went about writing this January 4 post to the Building Windows 8 blog, entitled “Refresh and reset your PC.” Of course, this capability is focused on Windows 8 rather than Windows 7, but in the wake of a trying repair and recovery scenario, it was reassuring to read that my recent situation isn’t unique, and that people do wish for a quick and easy way to make this possible. In fact, Lee’s list of key objectives for the “refresh and reset” initiative are likely to strike chords with you readers, as well as resonating forcefully with me (I quote them verbatim):
- Provide a consistent experience to get the software on any Windows 8 PC back to a good and predictable state.
- Streamline the process so that getting a PC back to a good state with all the things customers care about can be done quickly instead of taking up the whole day.
- Make sure that customers don’t lose their data in the process.
- Provide a fully customizable approach for technical enthusiasts to do things their own way.
In fact, the approach to providing this functionality in Windows 8 was to provide what Lee calls a “push-button” technique for repair and restore operations. This is by no means a new concept but no matter how urgently platform and product providers have hyped such solutions in the past, my own personal experience with such tools has been that they’re invariably simpler in concept than in practice. Sigh.
To that end, Windows 8 will apparently ship with a reset option that returns a system entirely to factory-fresh set-ups and settings, and removes all personal preferences, settings, data, and so forth so that it can safely be turned over to a third party without incurring the risk of unwanted data disclosures. The refresh option is more interesting to me at the moment, in the wake of my recent “Where and when did things go wrong?” adventure. The idea here is to “…get the benefit of a reset – starting over with a fresh Windows install – while still keeping your stuff intact…” In this case the Windows Repair Environment (Windows RE) copies “…your data, settings, and apps, and puts them aside…” before installing a fresh copy of Windows, then carefully restores all of that personal and personalized stuff onto a newly-installed and up-to-date copy of Windows. That said, file type associations, display settings, and Windows Firewall setting are NOT preserved as a matter of conscious design to avoid problems arising from mis-configurations in the previous Windows incarnation.
But alas, there’s a catch: where apps are concerned, Windows 8 will preserve only Metro style apps, “… and require desktop apps that do not come with the PC to be reinstalled manually.” In my own recent personal experience, where installing Windows and getting it ready to use may take two to four hours, re-installing all the applications I use (which varies from a low count of around 50 on test and traveling PCs to a high of 110 on my production PCs) can take the better part of a day to chunk all the way through to completion.
So, while this sounds like a partial answer to my recent problems, it’s still not a 100% solution, either. And, of course, it will be very interesting to learn how these goals translate into practice as the Windows 8 builds make their way into GA status. Stay tuned!
On October 29, 2011, in a blog entitled “Win7, XP Reach Crossover Point,” I reported that StatCounter’s tracking indicated that on or about October 14, the number of PCs on the Internet running Windows 7 exceeded the number of PCs running Windows XP for the first time. Of course, not everybody agreed with those numbers (as evidenced by Ed Bott’s discussion in my November 2 blog “Windows 7 vis-a-vis Windows XP“) where many actually prefer the tracking that NetMarketShare does instead because of its global purview and better detail.
Recently, reports indicate that the crossover point for the two operating systems — that is the now-venerable, 11-year-old Windows XP that simply refuses to die, and the latest production Windows 7 OS that is still finding its legs even as the shadow of the next-and-future Windows 8 OS begins to make itself known — are imminent, according to NetMarketShare. Take a look at these graphs and data points:
If I read the graphs correctly, the NetMarketShare trend lines for Win 7 and XP indicate that the crossover point will occur in late February or early March, as the two numbers converge in the neighborhood of 40% share for each one. And with Win7 on the way up as Windows XP is on a slow but steady downward course, this finally puts Windows 7 in the driver’s seat.
What’s interesting to me is that different forms of measurement produce the same results (Windows 7 overtaking Windows XP) but at dates as much as half a year apart. It’s all in how you measure, what you measure, and where those numbers come from!
Imagine my surprise when I sat down to my PC late morning on January 1, to see that Microsoft had pushed a security update to address “Vulnerabilities in the .NET Framework…” (MS11-100, rated Critical). This involved as many as three security patches on some of my PCs, depending on how many version of the .NET Framework were installed on those machines (for Windows 7 patches were released for versions 3.5.1 and 4; for Windows XP, patches also appeared for versions 1.1 and 2.0, as well as 3.5 instead of 3.5.1).
Because this update addresses zero-day vulnerabilities in ASP.NET that can lead to elevation of privilege for rogue software and execution requests, this is a patch that admins will want to fast-track through their internal testing and deployment procedures. Ryan Naraine (of the Zero Day ZDNet blog) explains why this one is worth special treatment in his post this morning entitled “Microsoft ships emergency .NET fix to thwart hash table collision attacks.” See KB Article 2638420 for a list of “known issues” related to deploying this particular security patch (basically, it involves updating all servers that use ASP.NET authentication tickets concurrently, because the pre- and post-patch mechanisms are incompatible).
This past summer, I had to rebuild one of my test Windows machines when the original motherboard went south. When doing the rebuild, the machine crashed during the reboot part-way through the install process, and forced me to switch from AHCI to IDE mode for the disk drives I was using, even though they’d worked fine in AHCI on the previous motherboard. I wrote it off to some issue with AHCI and my combination of parts, and simply stayed with the switch to IDE and figured that would be the end of it.
But when I was finally able to get the proper IDE drivers loaded for that machine this weekend I decided to revisit the AHCI issue on this Gigabyte P43-ES3G. I like to tinker with my systems over the holidays, and have just finished a major patch-fix-upgrade-and-repair pass over all my PCs now; the disk controller stuff all started working when I switched the BIOS from “emulate IDE” to “straight SATA” just to see what would happen. IDE kept working, but DriverAgent was suddenly able to help me find the right, current drivers for the Intel ICH10R chipset and the JMicron JMB36X SATA/IDE controller on the P43-ES3G. “What the heck,” I figured, “Let’s try AHCI now, and see what happens.” It still kept hanging during drive detect while booting.
With some assiduous poking around, I discovered that others have had issues with the BIOS hanging during the drive detect just as I have, including a variety of Asus as well as Gigabyte motherboards. As it happens, the reason I had to switch from AHCI to IDE drive mode was because drive detection would hang on the second of the two drives in that system (a Samsung 1 TB HD103UI 7200 RPM hard disk) after correctly detecting the WD 300 GB Raptor that serves as the boot drive, but before detecting the presence of the SATA DVD burner on the system.
Just for grins, I tried a different drive instead of that Samsung yesterday while fiddling with the machine, after which AHCI booted like a charm. Upon further investigation I came across a posting on social.technet.microsoft.comfrom a gentleman named Ivan Filippov –who just happens to work for German-based disk formatting and partitioning company Paragon Software (whose Hard Disk Manager Suite has long been a favorite of mine) that explains a possible cause for this situation. He observes that when the disk geometry data in the first partition on a drive gets munged, it can cause disk recognition at the BIOS Level to fail. The two other drives I tried to replace the original Samsung didn’t have this problem, apparently, and the drives were recognized and the AHCI BIOS loaded successfully–and so did the Samsung itself, after I popped it into a SATA drive caddy on another machine (after backing it up, of course) and repartitioning and reformatting that drive.
Problem solved, and I learned something both interesting and valuable. I should’ve just tried another drive (I’ve always got at least a couple of spares around, sometimes more than that) when I first hit this problem and it pretty much would have solved itself. And so it goes! Another obscure but interesting Windows lesson learned, and another pesky annoyance rubbed out at last…
[Note to readers: I’m taking the rest of the year off, so you won’t see me post again until January 2, 2012. Let me take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy holiday season, and a festive and prosperous New Year!]
Secunia posted Advisory SA47327 earlier this week, which explains that a specially-crafted Web page instantly crashes 64-bit Windows 7 Professional running the Apple Safari Web browser for Windows. According to the advisory “The vulnerability is caused due to an error in win32.sys and can be exploited to corrupt memory via e.g. a specially crafted web page containing an iFRAME with an overly large “height” attribute viewed using the Apple Safari browser.” The bulletin goes onto say that “successful exploitation may allow execution of arbitrary code with kernel-level privileges, presumably in the form of some post-crash recovery executable. The original discovery (and an instance of an “overly large value” appears in a Twitter post from 12/18/2011 by @w3bd3vil aka “webdevil”).
Here’s a novel workaround for those concerned about this vulnerability until Apple comes out with a fix: turning on Developer Tools in Safari apparently eliminates iFRAME support (see this Apple Support Communities discussion: “iFrame works until I turn on developer tools in Safari…” for more information and instructions). OTOH, hackademix.net states that “Safari can’t be secured 100% against clickjacking” so one had better hope that this workaround truly turns off iFRAME altogether (hurry up testing on my three PCs with Safari installed appear to confirm this, albeit in a very small sample).
OK, so lately I’ve been both a little miffed, and more than a little curious, because my Windows 7 problem reporting hasn’t been working properly. The error message information to explain why not is pretty darn cryptic and turned up a big, fat goose egg — precisely nothing, that is — when I attempted to run the problem down. Here’s what I mean:
The diagnostics program helpfully offers the options to change error reporting settings, but they’re all greyed-out because they’re not user accessible. So off I go, haring into gpedit.msc, to see if jacking around with Local Computer Policy will help. Following tips on the Internet apparently related to this problem (‘Windows Error Reporting Doesn’t Work” or “Group Policy error on Windows error reporting”) I try changing settings in Administrative Templates \ Windows Components \ Windows Error Reporting. Nothing helps.
More Internet research tells me that the start-up and troubleshooting management tool, Soluto (which I use and have blogged about here repeatedly), might be at fault. Because a new update to the Soluto software is now available — which makes it smart for me to uninstall the old version before trying out a new one, as I’ve learned to do from previous major revs of their software — I try running the “Check for Solutions” item in System Center \ Maintenance with Soluto installed, and then again, without it installed.
Bingo! That difference also makes the difference between Windows error reporting (and Check for Solutions) working when Soluto is absent, and presenting the Group Policy error screen when Soluto is present. Very interesting! I certainly hope Soluto is aware of this issue and planning to fix it soon–hopefully in their upcoming first commercial release, scheduled for later this year.
[Follow-up note 12/22/2011: Checked a couple of 64-bit Windows 7 machines also running Soluto, but not the latest version: one rev back. No issues with MS problem reporting or solution lookup on any of these machine. Even more interesting! I’m going to update one of these machines and see if the problem is specific to the 32-bit version only, or affects both 32- and 64-bit machines.]
[Second follow-up 12/23/2011: Just installed the latest rev on two of my 64-bit test machines. Prior to the rev, MS Problem reporting and solution lookup worked fine. After the rev, it showed the same group policy error that also appeared on my 32-bit machine as well. Ladies and Gentlemen: we appear to have a genuine culprit!]
On December 15, 2011, Paul Thurrott of Supersite for Windows appeared on Windows Weekly 239 with Mary-Jo Foley (another regular commenter on Microsoft and Windows operating systems and technologies). My specific area of interest here is the company’s release of iOS apps for Skydrive, Lync, and an update for OneNote 1.3 for the iPad (iOS apps for Kinectimals, Bing, and an iOS connector for email are also available as well).
Of course, it’s still the case that the deepest and most effective support for MS applications occur on Windows Mobile platforms (but because this occurs at the OS level) sometimes the non-Windows mobile platforms get such support sooner than major Microsoft releases can manage. As Thurrott points out, Microsoft is not to tightly aligned that it can push out mobile OS releases in synch with features under development in various part of the company. Some Windows enthusiasts (bigots?) have expressed displeasure that iOS in general (and iPad in particular) have gathered features and functions that might not yet have appeared on mobile Windows platforms. That’s why it’s still the case that Xbox Live is better integrated into Windows mobile platforms, as is the entire Windows Office suite.
It’s going to be interesting to see how this unfolds. Given the increasing importance of mobile apps, and the proliferation of platforms (and the inescapable popularity of iOS) it’s ever more likely that MIcrosoft will reach out to competitive platforms at the same time as it makes apps to run on those selfsame platforms.
On Thursday, December 15, MS released a hotfix to “optimize the peformance of AMD Bulldozer CPUs…” for Windows 7 or Windows Server 2008 R2 (KB2592546). Seems that the original code base wasn’t properly set up to take full advantage of multi-threading in the Bulldozer architecture. According to some hurry-up benchmarking work from X-bit Labs, the hotfix could boost performance anywhere from 2-10 percent, depending on the actual application involved — but only if that application is designed to run in multi-threaded fashion.
This morning, however, VR-Zone posted a story entitled “Microsoft Pulls Down the AMD Bulldozer Multi-Threaded Patch,” citing reports of user problems and peformance decreases for the reversal in course. While you can visit the Hotfix page for KB2592546, you’ll immediately notice that the download links on this page are no longer live.
I’m guessing that a development team is working feverishly to address whatever gotchas popped up following the inital drop of this release onto the Microsoft Support pages. I imagine we’ll see a round two on this stuff as soon as it’s judged to be “really working this time.”
[Note on 12/19: HardOCP has since explained that the initial hotfix was incomplete, and got pulled because it demonstrated a negative effect — that is, decreased performance — on enough Bulldozer systems that MS apparently decided it was better off pulling the code than leaving it up for download.]
As anybody who reads this blog regularly knows, I use and endorse Secunia’s excellent Personal Software Inspector (PSI) software on my notebook and desktop PCs. This program takes a look at the OS, applications, and helper software components to check release versions and dates, then compares it to its voluminous database of current OS patches and fixes, application updates, and more, to determine what elements of a particular install are out-of-date and need to be made current. It’s a peachy program (a corporate version called CSI is also available for business and commercial use) and one that I regard as essential in helping me keep my machines secure and up-to-date.
This morning, when I logged in I saw various security update bulletins that induced me to run the PSI scan on my primary desktop, it reported that my Microsoft Silverlight installation (and Google Chrome) needed updates. This struck me as odd because Patch Tuesday just hit yesterday, and I’d already updated that system. As it happens, Silverlight has just been updated to a new major version (5), but this update is not yet being distributed through Windows Update itself. Here’s what clued me into the situation:
It’s weird to find oneself in a situation where a piece of Microsoft software displays this kind of warning, even in the face of Windows Update. That’s how I figured out that Silverlight 5 hasn’t yet fallen under the WU umbrella (as also happens with OS Service Packs, which must be manually downloaded and installed until some time after their official release).
So now that I knew what I was dealing with, I jumped over the the Silverlight page at www.microsoft.com/silverlight, where I beheld the following welcome:
So indeed an upgrade was needed. And once it was applied no more warnings, and everything was once again up-to-date. This is just what PSI is designed to do, and this time it made me extremely happy for it it do it for me: otherwise, I might not have realized Silverlight needs a manual update until after some no-doubt heinous exploit had already been foisted!
In my last blog — entitled “Heck No, We Won’t Go! (from Windows 7 to Windows 8, that is)” — I argued that given how happy most folks are with Windows 7, and how little non-touch machines gain from the upgrade, that many satisfied Windows 7 users are unlikely to upgrade existing machines to the new OS after it ships. Unsurprisingly, not everybody agrees with me: I’ve received email (and one comment) from a handful of readers advancing these arguments:
- A certain class of PC user is inclined to use the latest and greatest, no matter what it may be in the interests of keeping up
- Another class of PC user (including your humble author) is required to work with (and in some cases like mine, write about) the latest Windows version even now, as it’s in pre-beta status
I have to concede that some people will indeed do the upgrade for all kinds of good reasons. But my argument is more along the lines of “those who don’t HAVE to probably won’t” rather than “nobody’s going to do it at all.” Of course, I also cheerfully confess that my previous post’s headline is a bit lurid and exaggerated, so I am probably overdue for a little “constructive feedback.”
For another interesting take on the interested in upgrading side of this discussion, check out Matt Egan’s very nice article for PC Advisor this morning (12/12/2011) entitled “Why 2012 will be the year of Windows 8.” His argument is worth reading, but my thumbnail sketch is that he believes that users are more interested in shared and common access to services and data, and that Windows 8’s ability to integrate apps and info across tablets, smartphones, and desktop is an unbeatable proposition that is also necessary to keep MS In the same league as Apple and Google.
FWIW, I agree. But I also observe that the only way you get these advanced Windows 8 features is on new PCs with UEFI BIOS and with iX class CPUs with SLAT (or the AMD equivalent). Thus I believe this is a case where I can have my cake and eat it, too — because my previous argument is about UPGRADING from Windows 7 to Windows 8, not about buying new systems that support the full panoply of Windows 8’s advanced features. I stick by my argument having now had more time to realize that without these razzle-dazzle features, users will either stick with Windows 7 on older hardware or bite the bullet and buy new Windows 8 capable systems. I’m already speccing-out one such system myself! I’ll probably upgrade (or dual boot) some of my older systems with Win7/8 just to see how that works, and to better understand how far behind the curve pre-2010 PCs will be in a Windows 8 world.