Windows Enterprise Desktop

April 17, 2012  4:49 PM

WTF: Report Pegs IT Worker Confidence at an All-Time High? !#@

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

It’s not often that I get the chance to plug another fellow IT Knowledge Exchange blogger’s post in one of my own blogs, but today sure is that day. Thanks to the news stream from my colleagues over at the Internet Press Guild I picked up a pointer to Robin “Roblimo” Miller’s coverage of a PDF report from Randstad Technologies entitled “IT Worker Confidence Reaches Highest Level on Record.” My reaction to this claim was apparently the same as Rob’s because I instantly questioned the credibility, the survey base, and the very sanity of the organization behind such an outrageous claim.

But no, here’s a list of the companies behind this report: Harris Interactive, a well-known and -respected online survey firm; Randstad Technologies, a huge global human services and resources firm; and TechniSource, Randstad’s IT recruiting and placement subsidiary. About the only thing I can see that might be a little wonky is the survey population, which consisted of 4,341 adults from the USA, of which 253 “are employed in the technology industry.” I’m not really sure what “technology industry” means in this context, and at 5.8% of the total, that segment of 253 workers represents a somewhat different component than information workers vis-a-vis the civilian workforce as represented in Table A-14 of the latest USBLS Employment Situation Summary dated April 6, 2012 (that ratio is 3.7% instead, which has IT pros a bit over-represented in the overall sample, by my reckoning).

Even so, all reservations aside, the contents of this summary are mind-boggling at first blush:

  • Technology professionals’ confidence in the overall economy stands at 40 percent “now believing the economy is getting stronger” — this is up by 18 percent since their Q4 2011 report.
  • About one third (32%) of IT workers believe that more IT jobs are now available, up by 14 percent over the same period.
  • Forty-two percent of IT workers expressed confidence in their ability to find a new job, unchanged from the prior report.
  • Forty-one percent of IT workers say they’re likely to seek new work within the next twelve months, up nine percent from the prior report.

What does closer examination of this data tell me? First and foremost, it says that only the 253 IT professionals who made up around 1 in 20 of survey participants were able to express opinions reflected in this survey. This is still a respectable sample size, but not as good as a population of over 4,000. Randstad and Technisource see these responses as more reflective of a bullish economy, and advise employers to redouble their employee retention efforts, while trying to meet needs for “specialized skills as the job market heats up.”

What I see is less than a majority feeling somewhat better about the employment situation and their prospects for new work, and a lukewarm endorsement of the pace and substance behind the current economic recovery. Now that I’ve looked more closely at the data and the sample, my response is “I think they mean all-time high since the market downturn in 2008, don’t they?” or perhaps “Wake me up when the percentage levels reflect a clear majority for all the various metrics presented.”

But I have to say that pegging IT worker confidence at “an all-time high” reflects too narrow a time horizon, and too ebullient an interpretation of the data collected from the survey. This report might be good for Randstad’s core business, but I don’t think it necessarily reflects a bullish IT employment market in general, nor does it foretell brilliant prospects for IT job seekers or hoppers.

See Robin Miller’s blog over at Climbing teh IT Career Ladder for some follow-up questions he posed to Chris Mader, a Managing Director at Randstad Technologies. There, you’ll find some other interesting prognostications and outlooks on IT employment. I see Mader’s reasoning, but I’m not sure I buy those forecasts, either. But hey: I hope he’s right! If so, things are looking up a great deal more for IT than other recent reports and trends have suggested. Keep your fingers crossed…

April 16, 2012  4:22 PM

Maximizing an SSD Conversion Experience

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

For many Windows 7 (and even some Windows 8 ) users switching over to a solid state disk, or SSD, comes after the OS has already been installed to a conventional drive. The adventure begins — but doesn’t end — with cloning the old HD to an SSD. That’s because although Windows 7 or 8 will happily set themselves up for best behavior with an SSD if you install them to an SSD to begin with, the same is not true when you start on a conventional HD and only later move from that drive to a solid state replacement.

This situation is particularly common for notebook or laptop PC owners who may — like me — choose to take whatever comes standard on such PCs that they buy from a vendor or reseller, only to install an SSD once the unit has been delivered, and the software and setup (and drivers) tweaked to where they really need to be. I do this because vendors and resellers tend to mark SSDs up by $50 or more from what you can purchase the same units from online e-tailers such as Newegg or Provantage (two very good online sources for rock-bottom SSD prices, particularly during their regular special promotions), and I suspect I’m not alone, either.

I am writing today to recommend two extremely good resources to help people switch over from an HD to an SSD (or to set up such a switch for their users at work). One is the “SSD Tweaks and Optimizations in Windows 7” tutorial at Windows SevenForums by member lightningltd. The other is a software package from Elpham.soft called SSD Tweaker (available in a more limited free edition and a $13 pro edition). These two items go together quite well, because the vast majority of what the tutorial explains how to do manually, one tweak at a time, in great and glorious detail (fascinating to a Windows geek like myself, perhaps less so to other less technically obsessed readers) the SSD Tweaker tool does automatically through a longish laundry list of settings and configuration checkboxes.

For those who’ve made the switch and haven’t followed up with painstaking optimization, or those who are contemplating or preparing to make the switch, these items are real nonpareils. Be sure to check them out, and use them when you can.

April 11, 2012  2:44 PM

There’s more to UEFI than meets the eye!

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

In previous blogs I’ve written about the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface, a 21st century, mostly 64-bit replacement for and upgrade to the 16-bit BIOS (Basic Input-Output System) that goes all the back to the first IBM PC, circa 1981 or thereabouts. Now that Windows 8 is embracing UEFI technology to help secure and manage the boot process, and fend off pre-boot-based malware and attacks, it’s time for lots of people — including me — to get more serious about UEFI and start putting it to work.

I’m learning, slowly but surely, with lots of trial and error, that using UEFI as Windows 8 wants it to be used, isn’t quite as easy as I’d hoped or thought it might be. As I’m learning and figuring things out, here are some interesting realizations I’ve uncovered along the way:

1. If you want to use UEFI with Windows operating systems (including Windows 7 and Windows 8 ) you must perform a UEFI install of the operating system. This requires a completely different install approach and disk layout from taking the BIOS route. So far, I’ve purchased two UEFI-based notebooks (both from Lenovo) and both continue to come with BIOS based Windows installs rather than UEFI install. Switching over to UEFI disk layout essentially blows away the built in recovery layout and capability, and probably voids the warranty, too. When Windows 8 goes commercial, that’s gonna have to change! For a sense of what’s going on, see this TechNet Blog post “Installing Windows 7 on UEFI based computer.”

2. Although the UEFI supports a pre-boot command shell with a rich set of commands and capabilities, getting to that shell is proving a little more difficult than I’d expected it to be. Despite numerous claims about required directory structures and specific files (for example shellx64.efi as the right name for the shell file) I’m still grappling with booting into UEFI and gaining access to the shell. My next move is to buy and read the Intel publication “Harnessing the UEFI Shell” which purports to be both a reference and how-to for all things related to the UEFI shell to figure out exactly what to do and how to do it.

3. Once I master these basics I should then be able to start digging into Windows 8’s UEFI security features, and understand how they are invoked, and how they may best be used. Hopefully, getting past items #1 and #2 won’t take too terribly long, so I can start digging into these meatier topics.

Count on me to keep reporting on this subject as I learn more, along with how-to’s on how to grab and use this stuff for yourself. Nothing irks me more than when seemingly straightforward things turn more tortuous in practice than in theory, so it will be my pleasure to try to make this material more approachable and understandable. Stay tuned!

For the record, here are my previous UEFI blog posts
9/23/2011: Great UEFI Post Appears on “Building Windows 8″ blog
12/2/2011: UEFI Rears Its Lovely Head Once Again for Windows 8

April 9, 2012  3:03 PM

Drivers are slowly catching up with Windows 8

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

In my previous post “Interesting Windows 8 Issues on Lenovo X220 Tablet” I delved into some Windows 8 driver shenanigans as they related to that machine. In the past few weeks I’ve performed over two dozen Windows 8 installs on several notebook and desktop PCs, and have started getting comfortable with post-install driver catch-up as well as the surprisingly fast and reliable OS installer itself. At the same time, I’ve observed an increasing influx of Windows 8 drivers as device makers start gearing up for the OEM Release Candidate in July 2012, and the General Availability release in October 2012 as well. Here’s my most important point of this post, new and exciting driver and software updates notwithstanding: In the vast majority of cases, Windows 7 drivers and software work FINE with Windows 8! But around the edges of the computing industry lots of interesting new developments are also underway…

Thus, for example, you can now find a Windows 8 Beta Drivers page amidst the Lenovo support pages, and you are starting to see Windows 8 discussions (but still with lots of disclaimers) on the related forums at the HP (forum post search) and Dell (community search) sites. Other vendors are no doubt working feverishly on Windows 8 to prepare for the upcoming OEM/RC release but most are being much more cagey and less visible about their Windows 8 efforts at the moment, however.

One interesting ray of sunshine comes from nVidia, which is now including Windows 8 in its lists of recognized operating systems. Alas, the site couldn’t recognize my video card to tell me I’m running the current Windows 8 friendly release (296.17, released March 6, 2012) though it was happy to let me navigate to that driver manually:

Notice the Windows 8 64-bit option in the driver search setup

Notice the Windows 8 64-bit option in the driver search setup

I’m expecting to see an increasing number of Windows 8 specific drivers popping up all over the place in the weeks and months ahead, as release dates draw closer. As if to confirm my expectations, Gabe Topala has just released a beta version of his excellent System Information for Windows program (SIW) that’s named SIW-X64 v2012.04.08. It now recognizes the Windows 8 OS and its runtime environment:

Released just yesterday the latest SIW is Windows-8 aware

Released just yesterday the latest SIW is Windows-8 aware

Just the beginning of a huge wave to come. Stay tuned: I’ll report other updates and goodies as I find them!

April 6, 2012  4:48 PM

Interesting Windows 8 Issues on Lenovo X220 Tablet

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

All in all, I’ve been pretty impressed with the X220 Tablet PC from Lenovo. It ran Windows 7 like a champ with good performance and touch response. Once I learned that a clean install of Windows 8 actually works better than an upgrade install from 7 to 8 in terms of drivers and touch, I have come to feel the same way about this machine running the Windows 8 Customer Preview as well.

But I have hit several interesting glitches on this machine, some merely annoying others somewhat more serious. After several long half-day sessions dealing with drivers, I realized that the best approach to bringing the system up to snuff works like this:

  • Install Windows 8 from the ISO (I used the Windows 7 USB DVD Download Tool to take the Windows 8 ISO and create a bootable USB Flash Drive aka UFD from which I installed the OS).
  • Run Windows Update until no new updates are available (easiest way to do this is to enter Windowkey-R to open the Run box, then type “wuapp” into that box to launch the program).
  • Download and install the latest Intel chipset utility files (for the nonce that’s version, though Lenovo now has a Windows 8 download page up where you can grab version, along with other Windows 8-specific goodies.
  • Use a driver scanner/update service to catch and fix other missing or outdated drivers. Five items show up as missing drivers after Windows 8 install: the Ricoh card reader, three items related to the Intel Management Engine Interface (which uses a Serial on LAN, or SOL, connection to do sideband communications with devices that can’t even boot into an OS successfully), and the Integrated Web Camera. Between DriverAgent’s recommendations (that the driver scanner service I use) and the downloads available from the Lenovo support pages, I was able to find and fix pretty much everything.

But I have hit a few less tractable snags on the X220 Tablet. First and worst, the built-in Windows Backup doesn’t work on this machine. I tried half-a-dozen different remote storage options (multiple USB external drives, network drives on other hosts in the same homegroup, and so forth) during each of which I would get the error message that “Windows backup skipped backing up system image because one of the critical volumes is not having enough free space. Free up some space by deleted unnecessary files and try again.” All of the target machines I chose to store the backup had at least 0.5 TB of storage available, so I knew that wasn’t the problem. I am using an SSD as the primary drive in this test machine, and it currently has about 80% free space, so I’m mystified as to how it might be the problem, either (but that could be it). The system drive has a couple of other partitions on it: first, the Lenovo Recovery Partition is 9.45 GB of which 8.8GB is in use; and second, there’s an SYSTEM_DRV partition as well: it’s more or less invisible to Windows, though you can see this 1.17 GB partition with the Windows Disk Management utility. Right now, I can’t use either Windows Backup (through the Windows 7 File Recovery control panel item, where it lurks under a misleading item identifier) or Lenovo Rescue and Recovery backup on this machine. Fortunately, Acronis True Image Home 2012 works fine, so I’m using it instead.

I also had to do some dithering about to get the Wacom pen working properly on the X220 tablet. The Lenovo ThinkVantage utilities have enjoyed mixed success on this machine running Windows 8, too. The console works, and so do the system scans. Rescue and Recovery doesn’t work (nor backup, as already mentioned), nor does the built-in software and driver update utility named ThinkVantage Update. I am sure this simply reflects the lack of catch-up to Windows 8 at PC Tools, which is the company that builds the ThinkVantage stuff for Lenovo as far as I can tell. So, I’ve put a call into my contacts there to see if I can learn more about what’s up.

[Follow-up Note: 2:00 PM 4/6/2012]:More research into the error code 0X81000033 (thrown by my failed backup in Windows 8 ) shows that a too-small first physical partition on the hard disk can provoke this error condition. I used WinDirStat to check the contents of the SYSTEM_DRV partition and, sure enough, it contained three huge WIM (Windows Image) files for various repair and recovery scenarios. What I needed was more free space in this partition, but Disk Management wouldn’t let me expand the partition, only shrink it!

But after a quick Skype session to my friendly and supportive Paragon Software press person, Katia Shabanova, who works for them in Germany (fortunately for me she was still at her desk), I obtained a copy of that company’s Hard Disk Manager 12 Suite. In 15 minutes, after downloading and installing the software, I was resizing the initial partition from 1.7 to 3.9 GB (I doubled its size, figuring that would be enough for scratch files during backup). On my next attempt, Windows Backup completed successfully and all was well I hope the Lenovo guys are reading my blog because they apparently need to change the disk layout for their Windows 8 builds, to increase the size of the SYSTEM_DRV partition somewhat. It may not be necessary to grow it to nearly 4 GB as I did, but I’m sure they can figure out exactly how big to make it. I just didn’t want to bother with the trial-and-error or experimentation necessary to set the size more precisely. Nevertheless, I’m glad to have another bump in my Windows 8 road out of the way!

April 4, 2012  6:25 PM

Windows 8 Exposure Without Killing Older Windows Installs

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Everybody’s curious about Windows 8. But unless you work in a test lab, or have extra PCs to burn, you may not have a spare machine lying around on which to run the latest controversial Windows OS (or the budget necessary to buy another PC for that purpose). What to do? What to do?

The parade of Windows Logos, 8 on Top!

The parade of Windows Logos, 8 on Top!

Glad you asked. There are two very good, and pretty easy options for loading Windows 8 up on a PC already running Windows 7 or Vista (XP machines may be a bit more dicey because of their probable age, and the CPU and graphics power — or lack thereof — that goes along with it):

1. Create a Virtual Machine and load Windows 8 into its own VM. You can then run this “guest OS” within your current desktop OS whatever it may happen to be (and I’ve even found lots of instructions on how to do this on a Macintosh running OS X Snow Leopard or Lion). Other popular choices include Oracle’s VirtualBox, VMware, and even Microsoft’s Virtual PC. Set up a search string that matches your chosen scenario, and you’ll find at least half-a-dozen videos or how-to’s stepping you through the install and use processes. There are some downsides to this approach: you need LOTS of memory to run Windows 8 in a VM with comfort (I wouldn’t do it on a machine with less than 8 GB of RAM, and wouldn’t allocate less than 2 GB to Win8), and you won’t get the same kind of touch experience from Windows 8 that you’d get running it natively and directly on PC hardware. But it still works nicely to give you a sense of how it looks, behaves, and runs. And you can turn it off when you don’t want to use it, or even get rid of it quickly and easily, by tossing the virtual drive on which it runs, and the virtual state and configuration files it uses. No muss, no fuss.

2. Create a dual-boot configuration and load Windows 8 into its own system/boot partition. At boot-time, you decide whether you’re running Windows 8 or something else, and everything else happens accordingly (Lifehacker has a nice “how-to” on this very subject, and you can find countless other stories on this topic as well). The upside here is a native Windows 8 experience, which can be important if you want to experience touch in all its features and manifestations, and very little stress or difficulty in performing the Windows 8 installation and post-install tweaking and clean-up (you’ll still need to do most or all of this for option 1 anyway after setting up a VM infrastructure). The downside is that you have to allocate a disk or disk partition to Windows 8, and deal with all that stuff if and when it’s time to move onto the commercial release or simply to get rid of the customer preview.

And don’t forget: if and when you decide to move to the final release of Windows 8, the Customer Preview and other beta versions must go. There’s never been an upgrade path from pre-release (beta) versions of Windows to the following commercial release so far, and I’ve seen or heard nothing from MS or its partners to suggest anything will be different this time around, either.

April 2, 2012  2:56 PM

Windows 8 Start Button Still Off the Table (or Tablet…)

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

I’m not completely sure that the status of a Start Menu in Windows 8 isn’t a tempest in a teapot, but the controversy around this topic continues unabated. The Microsoft Pri0 (MS-speak for “Top Priority”) column at The Seattle Times (a frequent source of “inside scoop” on all things Microsoft and Widows related) ran a piece last Friday entitled ‘Nomura on Windows 8: “Microsoft will not be adding back the Start Button.”

The item that ran comes from meetings that finance firm Nomura Securities held with investors that week, along with Tami Reller, head of marketing and CFO for the Windows and Windows Live Division at Microsoft. Reller did address issues related to user distress and confusion about desktop navigation in Windows 8. The piece also states that “…though Windows 8 users can go into the familiar, traditional desktop mode, they have to first go through the OS”s new Metro user interface and continue to use some of the new Metro commands to get back to the Start screen, which has replaced the Start button.”

According to sources at Nomura, “… the Start Button will remain gone…” but Microsoft will provide a tutorial to instruct keyboard and mouse users about new commands they can use to get around in the new OS, so they won’t feel lost when first getting to know Windows 8. I’ve been working with it for over a month now myself, and still need to find ways to get to programs and utilities I wish to use from time to time. This should be an interesting issue to watch, as continuing UI kinks get worked out.

March 30, 2012  3:14 PM

“Touch hardware and Windows 8:” Must-Read Blog

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

On Wednesday, Building Windows 8featured a post from Jerry Koh, group program manager, and Jeff Piira, test manager, both from the Windows 8 Human Interaction Platform team. The blog post is entitled “Touch hardware and Windows 8” and includes the best discuss of touch-based Windows interfaces and interactions I’ve seen anywhere to date.

The piece also features this terrific diagram of basic touch interactions in Windows 8 (see the full-size original):

Windows 8 chart of fundamental gestures

Windows 8 chart of fundamental gestures

As the blog post says, “the fundamental gestures require no more than 2 fingers,” but also observes that this “can be very limiting for a variety of applications,” by way of explaining “why Windows 8 PCs require digitizers that support a minimum of 5 fingers” (or, more accurately, 5 simultaneous touch points).

Here’s another fascinating snippet from the post:

New UI concepts in Windows 8 also impact touch hardware design. This is another area where Windows 8 PCs will be more capable than existing Windows 7 PCs. For example, the edge swipe required to reveal the charms and app bars fundamentally changes all the assumptions made on touch hardware. Traditionally, the edges of the screen are where touch sensitivity drops off, and it’s a place that hardware manufacturers have traditionally not placed much emphasis on. The center of the screen received all the innovation, while the edges have suffered. If you have seen or experienced the Windows 8 user experience, the edge swipe is a critical part of using Windows. 

All in all, this is a worthwhile manifesto on what drove the touch design for Windows 8. Here’s another couple of tidbits of information that readers might find interesting. Form factor and touch sensor technologies break down as slates (tablets) 14%, all-in-one 30%, convertible (notebook/tablet combo) 40%, touchscreen monitors 16%. Touch technologies in use: capacitive 66%, optical 28%, and other 6%. There are also some interesting diagrams on the success of various kinds of Windows 7 touchscreen operations (working with tiles, snap view drag, right edge swipe, and so forth). Lots of interesting info, and worth at least a once-over.

March 28, 2012  2:56 PM

Windows 8 Keyboard Shortcuts

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Anybody who’s put much time in with Windows knows that keyboard shortcuts can really speed up system navigation and interaction. This is as true for Windows 8 as it has been for earlier versions, only perhaps more so for those of us seeking quick ways to get around in (or even minimize use of ) the Metro Tiles side of the Windows 8 GUI. Here is a compact distillation of the initial shortcuts from Kent Walter “Getting around in Windows 8” from the Windows Experience Blog that I expect other intrepid Windows 8 explorers will find useful.

Ken Walter's keyboard/mouse basics

Ken Walter keyboard/mouse basics

There’s something even better in store for download from this blog, too — namely, a tabular layout called “Keyboard shortcuts for Windows 8.” You can grab it in graphical format (PNG), PDF, or XPS, as you see fit. Even on my 27″ screen, I need to blow it up to read it easily, so you may want to fool around with it on your own displays to find a magnification or resolution that works for you. Here’s a snippet from that table, just so you can see what it delivers:

Just a snippet of a very useful shortcuts chart

Just a snippet of a very useful shortcuts chart

March 26, 2012  3:56 PM

Interesting driver status for clean Windows 8 installs

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

When moving from an older Windows version to a newer one where an upgrade path exists, the upgrade install option picks up and carries as much of the older environment into the newer one as it can. This usually includes any or all device drivers that remain compatible from old to new versions as well, along with preferences, settings, and even such tools and programs as remain viable in the new target environment. But what about a clean install for Windows 8 and device drivers? I have tried this out on a handful of machines now, and have observed a new approach from Microsoft in setting up such installs — namely, much more widespread use of generic and current device drivers to create installations that work quite well from initial boot-up under the new OS.

Thus, for example, here’s what my go-to driver scanning tool reports for my X220 Tablet PC immediately following a clean Windows 8 install:

Notice the recurring standard word in drivers listed here

Notice the recurring standard word in drivers listed here

There are 18 drivers listed here, and the machine worked more or less well immediately following installation and application of standard updates. I had to force load the Intel chipset drivers for this machine (the latest Series 6 infinst.exe file from the Intel Driver Download Center, and I did find four “question mark drivers in Device Manager () and after finding and fixing those items, here’s what my final Driveragent scan looked like including drivers for all currently disconnected devices:

Final driver scan

Final driver scan

This is what turned up at the end of my driver odyssey, after installing the Intel Chipset drivers, finding and fixing all the question mark entries in Device Manager, visiting the Lenovo driver downloads on the company Website, and repeatedly running DriverAgent until everything finally showed updated. The complete time to finish this exercise was between two and three hours, mostly because of the repeated reboots required when installing many Windows drivers. I’m a little curious why some devices show up in the Disconnected category (such as the numeric coprocessor and the programmable interrupt driver,  which you’d think would be used all of the time, and especially the OCZ-3 Agility drive, which is home to this system’s Windows 8 OS) but other than that, everything now seems pretty ship-shape.

But right after clean OS install, MS did as good a job, or better, of putting a working and workable system in my hands as for any clean Windows install I’ve done since NT 4.0. So maybe there is something else to like about Windows 8, aside from snazzy Metro graphics and a touch oriented interface? On the other hand, it just might be my having chosen from the recommended platforms for testing Windows 8 also means that the drivers are already known to be stable and working! We can’t really know more until the GA release comes out and gets old enough to have to deal with new hardware it never saw when the OS was built, and the driver libraries assembled.

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