Windows Enterprise Desktop

January 12, 2011  3:58 PM

Old Hardware, New Uses

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

In my continuing efforts to turn a balky and failing 2000/2001 vintage Dell C610 notebook into a slow but still viable Windows XP machine for my sister, I’ve been learning some interesting things about Dell hardware and drivers (see my previous blog “Hooray: USB-to-IDE/SATA Converter is a Cheap, Effective Hardware Item” for other misadventures with this machine). It turns out this laptop came out just when Windows was shifting from 2000 to XP, and right about the time that Wi-Fi interfaces changed their status from “nice but pricey add-on” to “standard equipage” on such machines.

Because this box contains a Broadcom BCM94309MP 802.11 b/g interface, when Windows XP failed to recognize the card and supply a driver, I found myself at a bit of an impasse in getting the device working on the C610. The device itself is readily accessible through the bottom hatch, secured only by three small Philips-head screws, but it contains no Dell label nor a Dell-specific part number.

Why am I telling you this? Because the Dell drivers themselves are available only through their Dell designations, which for these Broadcom devices take the form of “Dell TrueMobile 1xxx” where valid model numbers span a range from 1150 to 1450, and perhaps beyond (I didn’t look further than what was needed to install a working driver on this machine). But finding that driver took a bit of luck, some perseverance, and calls to a neighborhood PC technician at my local Mr. Notebook outlet, and to a pool-playing buddy of mine who’s a former third-level notebook support technician for Dell.

As it turns out, DriverAgent correctly identified the model number for the Broadcom Device as a Dell TrueMobile 1400 but it supplied me with what it claimed was a valid driver that produced an installer error on the machine (“incompatible hardware” was its gist) when I tried to get it up and running. After going through another half-dozen drivers on a trial-and-error basis and getting nowhere, I resorted to my network to get some insight on what to do next. Chris (my Mr. Notebook) contact admitted that those drivers can be hard to identify and volunteered to fix it for me when I bring him the unit to have its top deck hinges replaced. Jason (my Dell tech support wizard) told me the unit was either a TrueMobile 1300 or 1400, since the Broadcom part number indicated 802.11 b/g support.

I couldn’t find a working driver through DriverAgent, but when I searched Dell support for a TrueMobile 1300 driver and installed it (the 1400 driver doesn’t work but the unit now identifies itself as a 1400 unit — go figure!) the device finally came up and started working properly. Some forms of PC knowledge can only be acquired the hard way, it seems, so this is one experience I’m glad to have behind me instead of still ahead. Just goes to show that not everything that seems obvious, or that in fact should be obvious, is not necessarily obvious at all. But trial and error, and a little expert advice, finally steered me into the right software. Whew, what a relief!

January 10, 2011  2:58 PM

Hooray: USB-to-IDE/SATA Converter is a Cheap, Effective Hardware Item

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Last spring, my sister announced to me that she’d purchased her son a Dell Latitude C610 notebook on eBay for around $200. “Did I do the right thing?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I said, “let’s see how it works out.” The box ran for about four months, after which it got horribly infested with malware and stopped booting. So she shipped it to me for repairs. I upgraded the memory from 384 MB of RAM to 1 GB, replaced the 30 GB HD with a 160 GB Seagate model, installed a new battery and PSU, then installed Windows XP SP3 (I don’t think this Pentium 3 model is up to Windows 7), then sent it back to her (I didn’t worry about the malware, because I removed and junked the affected drive).

But then, about four more months later, the unit stopped booting. It took a bit of sleuthing around, but I eventually determined that the hard disk was having problems. But I was stymied for some time by the PATA drive itself, and it was only after cobbling together a couple of adapters (one from the Dell internal interface pinouts to standard PATA, the next from PATA to USB) that I was easily able to hook the drive up to another system, troubleshoot its issues (a corrupted MBR), repair the damage, and put the system back together. For a few months, in fact, I got nowhere at all.

Then, I discovered an adapter that’s widely available for under $10 from many sources (*@#!!) that helped me ferret out my issues. And in fact, because it works with both SATA and PATA (IDE) interfaces, it seems tailor-made for troubleshooting notebook drives — at least, as long as you’ve got another computer into which you can plug the offending unit, after you’ve removed it from its customary housing. This item is called a “USB 2.0 to IDE/SATA Converter cable” and purchase info pops up readily in your favorite search engine if you submit that string for lookup.

USB to IDE/SATA cable

USB 2.0 to SATA/IDE converter cable elements

The unit even includes a small plug-in PSU to supply power to the external drive, as well as the various cables necessary to get from the driver to the adapter itself. A terrific bargain for under $10, I must say!

Although it’s not as fast or effective as the SATA drive caddies I routinely use for messing around with 3.5″ drives of that type, it does the job and can handle both SATA and PATA/IDE interfaces with ease. As you go poking around inside notebook PCs — especially older ones with IDE drives — you’ll find that this little gem pays for itself the first time you use it. A vital part of any well-equipped PC toolkit, I don’t know why I didn’t learn about this device sooner, nor why I haven’t owned one for years instead of months.

January 7, 2011  8:04 PM

Windows 7 Crosses 20 Percent Share Line

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Reports are popping up all over the Web that Windows 7 broke the 20 percent market share barrier last month, according to figures released by Internet tracking firm NetApplications over the New Year’s weekend. The company pegs Windows 7 online usage for December 2010 at 20.9% of all desktops counted. This is up 1.2 points from the preceding month, and represents a usage share level that Windows Vista never, ever reached.

Vista’s current usage level has dropped to 12.1%, which is on par with its usage rate in July 2008 (eight months after its initial business release, and six months after the GA release in January of that year). At the same time, Windows overall usage rate is down to a “mere” 90.3%, which is down almost two percent for 2010, according to this ComputerWorld story (1/3/2011). From November to December, Windows XP’s losses exactly matched Windows 7’s gains, as it declined by 1.2 percent to 56.7% for December 2010.

What does all this mean? The migration momentum from XP to Windows 7 (or Vista to Windows 7 for those intrepid enough to have moved to Vista in the first place) is clearly picking up. I expect 2011 to be a big year for enterprise Windows 7 adoptions and migrations. Net Applications predicts that Windows 7 will peak in October 2012 at a rate of 44.7%, though that time is still more than 18 months out. It will be interesting to see if the current numbers that permit them to guesstimate such future trends are borne out by real events. Only time will tell!

January 5, 2011  4:04 PM

Unlocker Utility Removes File Delete Frustration

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Especially when updating Adobe Flash Player components (for example, Flash10k.ocx) at Secunia’s behest after updating that software for security reasons, I have to jump through some hoops to delete the offending file. Until recently, this meant shutting down Secunia altogether (it uses Flash, too, and thus locks the very file it seeks to have removed) so that I could delete that file, then restarting it to restore my system to normal operation.

This also pops up occasionally in other situations, either because a file is locked by the OS, in use by an application, or otherwise declared off-limits for deletion. I’ve even resorted to booting my system into Linux, then running an NTFS file system driver, to hunt down and remove the most stubbornly insistent of Windows files. No more!

I stumbled across a great, free utility called Unlocker this weekend (here’s a link to the FileHippo download, but you can grab this puppy from any or all of the major shareware sites including CNET, SoftPedia, and so forth, as well). I found myself facing the need to delete some orphaned Windows Update files left behind by Vista or XP on my Asus EeePC 1000HE notebook this weekend, and found reference to this utility in forum posts that explained how to root out and remove these items. Here’s a screencap of the soon-to-be-deleted items from the Recycle Bin after Unlocker worked its magic:

Unlocker at work
Unlocker moved the 2e242ef69985… directory and all of its contents into the Recycle Bin

The software installs quickly and easily (warning: Unlocker Assistant works fine with XP, but with neither Vista nor Windows 7), and you can invoke the program through the Start button menu hierarchy (Start Unlocker) or right-click on an object inside Windows Explorer to take advantage of the program’s shell extension. After that, you can choose to delete any object you want inside the Windows file system. Obviously this means you’ll need to proceed with caution because the tool will cheerfully and compliantly trash key Windows files as well as other items perhaps more worthy of deletion. A great tool, even so!

French developer Cedrick Collomb did a nice job with this tool. But it will inform you that a more recent version is available when you first run it, even though activating the supplied link for  same triggers a 403 (Access forbidden) HTTP error. I’ve e-mailed him to see if this can be fixed, but in the meantime you’ll need to stand pat with version 1.9.0 which, as I’ve already mentioned, is widely available on major shareware and download sites. Enjoy!

January 3, 2011  8:43 PM

Interesting BIOS Flash Experience

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

I’ve got an Asus EeePC 1000HE netbook, and this weekend I went through a machine refresh for the Windows 7 Professional installation on that machine (I could run Windows 7 Starter on this box, and very well might if I had to pay retail for my Windows OSes, but I like the ability to use RDP to remote in from my primary desktop when I’m working at home). I finally got around to reading the Asus Windows 7 “Self-Upgrade” guide and learned that I should update my BIOS and some drivers to get the best performance from this unit. Along the way, I also learned some interesting lessons, and made some equally interesting observations.

Asus offers a ROM-driven EZ Flash utility on its notebook and netbook PCS — and for all I know, for its motherboards, too…goes off to look, and yes it applies to some, but not all Asus motherboards as well — that lets you simply copy a BIOS update to the root of a UFD and use it at boot time to flash the BIOS. Interestingly, this utility only works with UFDs formatted in the FAT16 format. I tried a FAT32 formatted UFD, and while the utility found the file and said it was reading it, it hung without changing anything until I switched the formatting over to FAT16 (described simply as FAT in the Microsoft Format tool)


How the Win7 Format Utility Reports FAT16: It Appears as Plain “FAT” format

And, of course, to format a UFD to FAT/FAT16, it must be 4 GB or smaller in size (Windows won’t let you format a larger UFD to FAT16 because 4GB is its absolute file/volume size limit). Once I figured this out, everything went pretty smoothly with the BIOS update, and when installed it did shave about 22 seconds off my previous boot time, as reported in Soluto for that machine.

I also learned that while some 1000HE models support AHCI for speedier SATA access, my machine isn’t one of those (and that dampens my enthusiasm for installing an SSD in that box because it will limit its performance as well). I went through a few interesting contortions to get all the right drivers installed too, particularly the x86 PC ACPI driver that the 1000HE needs to enable use of its various control and function buttons. The “key” to that problem was to find and install a Windows 7 “EeeInstantKey” utility which not only provided programmatic access to key management functions, but the necessary Windows 7 driver as well (it doesn’t show up in Device Manager so it’s not directly accessible for update through more conventional techniques).

For a while, during the period when all the new drivers and software changes were taking root, my boot time zoomed from around 2:35-2:45 to a whopping 8 minutes. But after all the installs and refreshes took hold, the boot time dropped to 2:08-2:15. I’m not sure the results justify the efforts that went into obtaining them, but I did get to learn quite a bit along the way.

December 30, 2010  3:50 PM

Holiday Diversion 4: Microsoft Research Goodies

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Check out this TechNet blog: “Microsoft Research – free holiday booty.” It profiles and depicts five very cool, free tools you can download and play with from Microsoft Research:

  • Kodu comes from the FUSE labs team. It’s a visual programming language built specifically for creating games that’s also simple and fun enough to appeal to kids, and let them get right to work.
  • AutoCollage is a program that uses computer vision and image processing to make collages from a collection of photos. It uses face detection, various relevancy and saliency filters, and other cool MS technologies to grab interesting parts of pictures, and then employs object selecting and blending technologies to combine images into an AutoCollage. Neat!
  • Photosynth takes photos and combines them to create a 3D scene from their visual content, and provides a POV (point of view) engine that then lets you view and move around inside that virtual world. This technology has been used by organizations that include National Geographic, NASA, and the Obama inauguration team to create “synths,” among  thousands of other such environments also available online.
  • WorldWide Telescope provides tools for viewing our universe but also enables developers to produce customized visualizations for astronomical and planetary data. It’s a real tour-de-force illustration of effective data use, and should become a popular and powerful educational tool at all levels.
  • Team Crossword is another FUSE labs goody — namely, a Web-based collaborative tool for creating and sharing crossword puzzles with your friends. Use it to start a puzzle, and then invite friends and colleagues to work together to solve it!

I hope you get time to look at and play with at least one or two of these items as you while away the hours before we all go back to the grind next Monday. Happy New Year!!

December 29, 2010  10:45 PM

Holiday Diversion 3: It Beats “The dog ate my homework!” Stone Cold

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

In keeping with my wont to look for and report on the lighter side of IT during that fallow period between Christmas and New Year’s here’s a terrific slide show from Entitled “Kroll Ontrack’s Top 10 Data Storage Disasters of 2010.” Like the old Letterman Top 10 Lists, it’s numbered in reverse order and includes the following items:

10. A Square Peg in a Round Hole: a laptop gets fried when the wrong charger gets plugged into its power port
9. Double Data Recovery: A foolproof redundant backup scheme fails when somebody accidentally overwrites data on a set of six drives stored in a fireproof safe
8. Keeping the memories alive: Kroll saves precious memories when they recover the only photos remaining of a now-deceased family member from the wiped drive on a stolen (and recovered) laptop
7. Meat the experts: hard disk meets cured ham but data recovery is a complete success
6. Up in the air: a frequent flyer leaves a laptop in an airport coffee bar; subsequent detonation by the bomb squad prevents any data recovery
5. The flying squash: a woman in a hurry to get to work puts her notebook on top of her car to buckle her child into its car seat; when she backs out of the garage, the laptop flies off the car and she runs over the HD; no recovery possible
4. Laptop kitty disaster: when a young kitten uses a laptop for a litter box, Ontrack recovers the HD contents anyway
3. Fire drop: When running out of his burning apartment to escape a fire, a photographer drops his notebook; Ontrack still manages to score a complete recovery of precious photos for charity work
2. The Ants Go Marching In: After a flood in Europe leaves a PC submerged for over two days, its drive is sent to Ontrack for recovery, where an ant is found clinging to a drive head. The data survives, but the ant is a goner.
1. Laptops underwater: To protect his laptop during a beach visit, a man stashes it inside a plastic bag and takes it swimming with him. The bag leaks, but Ontrack manages to recover the data anyway.

I’m glad I’ve never left a laptop atop my car: I’ve sure sent plenty of cups and bottles flying, though. Nice to know occasional moments of lunacy or thoughtlessness never go completely unnoticed. Here’s a case where 80% of incidents result in recovery of some or all the potentially lost data, albeit at considerable cost. Happy New Year!

December 29, 2010  8:34 PM

More Details on Windows 7 Troubleshooters

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

In researching a vexing IE problem on one of my Windows 7 desktops, I stumbled across a treasure trove of troubleshooting tools that are readily available to all Windows 7 users and admins. I had never run across many of these, and am glad to have a new place to turn when trouble pops up and is in need of shooting. Here’s what you can do to see Windows 7 long and impressive list of troubleshooting tools (aka “troubleshooters”).

1. Click Start, Control Panel.

2. If in icon view, click “Troubleshooting;” if in category view type “Troubshooter” into the search box.

3. Either way, click “Troubleshooting.”

4. Click “View All” in the left hand column of the Troubleshooting window to produce a complete list of troubleshooting utilities.

Windows Troubleshooters
Windows 7 Complete List of Troubleshooters

The one that caught my eye was entitled “Internet Explorer Performance,” where you’ll find a tool to check for defective add-ons (a common cause of IE issues on my own and many other machines). There are quite a few others worth exploring there, too: check it out!

December 29, 2010  7:46 PM

Is the Windows 7 Tablet Frenzy Justified?

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Wow! I just scanned through the Windows 7 news reports on Google, and found myself inundated with information, plans, and announcements related to Windows 7 on tablet PCs. Topics covered under this general heading include everything from rumors and reports of planned changes to the Win7 OS itself to support ARM and other non-traditional processors, to mostly CES-related announcements from numerous notebook PC vendors with so-called Windows 7 tablets in their futures (including MSI, Asus, HP, ECS, Toshiba, Samsung, IN Media, and many others).

Aside from seeking to address a bad (and richly deserved) case of “iPad envy,” what’s really going on here? After just traveling with a 15″ notebook PC (an HP dv6) in coach on Delta, I think I can understand the desire for a light and compact machine that makes working on the plane less of a travail, but I’m not sure that a tablet is the answer for those interested in more than reading e-mail, catching up on Facebook, and surfing the Web.

Looking beyond home and consumer situations, where tablets are sure to be a big hit (for many of the same reasons that the iPad continues to rule the touch-based “thin and light” machine realm), the only place I really see touch-based units succeeding is in special-use applications: the signature pad and tracking devices that both UPS and FedEx use; the tracking and reporting handhelds that nearly every service and utility tech seems to carry nowadays; ditto for rental car check-in devices; and so forth. I could see an entirely usable replacement for medical staff who routinely carry a clip-board with tracking, status, and other forms, but I’m not sure there’s enough other stuff like that going on in the corporate world to justify a big influx of tablets for more general applications.

If you think I’m wrong, or have other examples of situations and applications tailor-made for tablet use, please share them here. Otherwise, I’m thinking that conventional desktop and notebook PCs will continue to function as the corporate information consumption and creation tools of choice for the foreseeable future.

December 20, 2010  6:35 PM

A Windows 8 Prescription in Two Parts

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Those who read my blog regularly know that Paul Thurrot and his SuperSite for Windows often provide grist for this particular mill. Today I’d like to point at two of his recent and stellar efforts in exploring how Microsoft can improve on what it did right with Windows 7, and do even better with Windows 8 — namely:

In the first item in this two-part series, Thurrot makes the point that Microsoft defines “…user state virtualization as a way to ‘separate the user’s data and settings from the physical device and replicate it centrally…'” and then goes on to observe that “…Windows should be configured in such a way that these things are separated in separate hard drive partitions or, preferably, on separate physical disks. Furthermore, the user data and settings should be replicated to some central location for redundancy and data recovery reasons.” In the second part, he clearly and cogently lays out why so many third-party vendors (Zinstall, Prowess, and others) and Microsoft itself (Windows XP mode) have been chasing the rainbow involved in grabbing and virtualizing the Windows XP environment with older, incompatible-with-Win7 applications installed as a way of delivering continued access to important apps and services even when current Windows environments can no longer do that directly.

Put these things together, and you have the foundation for a user computing experience that remains accessible on any of the possible platforms where a user might wish to compute, including smartphones; tablets, netbooks, and other touch devices; and more conventional desktop and notebook PCs. You also have a user computing experience that provides an easy way to continue running outmoded legacy apps inside clean, portable envelopes that will also be accessible across that same continuum of computing devices. Put them all together, and suddenly, you’ve got a prescription for a Windows 8 that’s as much an improvement over Windows 7, as Windows 7 proved to be over XP and Vista.

Let’s hope somebody heavy and insightful at Microsoft is reading Thurrott’s musings and taking them very seriously indeed. This sounds like just what the doctor ordered, and very much what MS needs to do not only to keep itself on top of the OS pecking order, but also to deliver the kinds of cloud-based and device-independent computing that users everywhere are coming to expect.

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