November 15, 2013 1:20 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
I found myself on the phone this morning, talking to my former MCSE trainer, Herb Martin, who also happens to be something of a PowerShell and .NET programming whiz as well. I’ve gotten far enough into my Powershell script to know I’ve got something potentially useful. Now it’s time to bring in a real professional to turn it into something ACTUALLY useful instead. So that’s what I’m doing. Here’s what the output from the script looks like at the moment:
It’s the same info as reported in earlier WEI versions, with the same general layout, and a “close enough” format to be instantly intelligible.
In the course of our discussion, I found myself explaining to Herb why I’m doing this, and taking a “next step” beyond my own abilities to turn the work into something worth sharing with the world at large. Here’s how I justified the extra effort and expense involved in doing things right: I told Herb that anybody can complain or whine about Microsoft, or point out how something that MS is doing (or not doing, as seems to be the case here) isn’t right, fair, of sufficient merit or quality, or whatever other stimulus may be causing the complainer to hold forth. But once I understood that anybody could grab and use this information I realized that given my knowledge of HTML, XML, and PowerShell, I could put something together that anyone could use. So rather than rail at Microsoft for leaving WEI out of Win8.1, I’m simply going to offer a simple, straightforward tool to remedy that lack.
Herb made some great suggestions about this tool in our initial discussion, which we’ll follow up on next week. Independently, he also suggested converting the code to a small C# program that could then be compiled into an .exe file to make it into a “real program.” That sounds like absolutely the right ticket to me. But whether it stays a script, or turns into a program, I hope readers will find the approach of building something that’s missing better than waxing wroth because MS didn’t include it in the 8.1 System control panel applet. If you’re really dying to play with this before I’m ready to set it free on the Internet, drop me an email at ed at edtittel dot come with “Send WEI Script” as your subject line. You can play with it before it’s finished, too, if you like.
Stay tuned for further news on this software development. I’ll let everybody know when the final version is completed, and the resulting tool becomes freely available to any and all interested parties.
[Note added 11/15/2013 2:20 PM: A near-final version of the build-wei.ps1 script is now complete, and apparently working, so I can provide that file and operating instructions to those who send e-mail requests for same. Don't forget to put "Send WEI script" in the subject line, and send it to ed at edtittel dot com, please!]
November 13, 2013 11:18 AM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
Woody Leonhard has been one of my ongoing sources for tips, tricks, and inside Windows (and MS Office) information for over 20 years now. That’s why I was delighted to find an unusually tasty nugget of Windows insight and information in a recent Slideshow he put together for InfoWorld. Entitled “The hidden fangs of Windows 8.1 — and how to avoid them,” he includes an item on how to obtain the information that recent versions of Windows up through Windows 8 (source of the following screencap, in fact) have presented under the heading of the “Windows Experience Index,” often abbreviated as WEI.
Widely reported as no longer available in Windows 8.1, MS simply chooses not to report data that it still gathers.
As it happens, reports to the contrary notwithstanding (namely, that Windows 8.1 no longer compiles data to calculate the WEI), Woody points out that you can indeed obtain this data from Windows 8.1 if you’re willing to jump through some command line action and inspired data access to do so. Here’s how, in step-by-step form
1. Launch a command window in Windows 8.1: A search on cmd.exe will do nicely for this task; right-click the item and select “Run as administrator” from the resulting pop-up menu. On an unaltered Win 8.1 desktop, right-click the Start menu button and select “Command Prompt (Admin)” from the resulting pop-up menu instead.
2. Enter the command string winsat formal at the command line.
3. Use File Explorer to navigate to C:\Windows\Performance\WinSAT\DataStore
4. Right click the first Formal.Assessment file you see (or the most recent such file, if your file listing criteria don’t show most recent files first), click Open with, then use Internet Explorer to view the contents of this XML file (the full name of this file on my PC was 2013-11-12 18.06.44.438 Formal.Assessment (Recent).WinSAT.xml)
5. Look for the section in the XML document labeled <WinSPR>; everything inside that block up to the closing </WinSPR> tag provides the data that used to appear in the old Windows Experience Index display shown earlier (and then some).
If know what to do, and where to look, Windows 8.1 continues to provide WEI data as shown right here.
WEI is a rough-and-ready tool for assessing Windows performance and system capability. It’s not on a par with more serious performance evaluation suites like SiSoftware Sandra, PCMark, Passmark Performance, and so forth (see this great slideshow from Tom’s Guide for a list of 15 PC benchmarking programs including commercial and freeware offerings). But WEI is something familiar and comfortable that Windows users have had at their disposal since the XP days. By following these simple steps, you can see how a Windows 8.1 PC ranks on this rating scale, too.
November 11, 2013 11:25 AM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
Thanks to old friend, occasional co-author, and MS Security MVP Deb Shinder, I’m now aware of a snazzy little utility named 8GadgetPack that restores those ever-so-handy-and-informative desktop gadgets to Windows 8. For those who don’t recall, gadgets were stripped out of Windows just over a year ago because of security concerns, more or less in synch with the release of Windows 8 (here’s an undated MSDN article entitled “Desktop gadgets removed” that provides MS’s official rationale for that decision). Given that Ms. Shinder is a ten-year recipient of the MVP with a focus on Enterprise security — see her bio for more details — I feel even more comfortable adding back Gadgets to Windows 8 than I did before, in stubbornly refusing to give them up on Windows 7 (all of my surviving Windows 7 machines still run them).
The screen capture you see to the left of this text material shows what the default install of 8GadgetPack looks like on my production Windows 8.1 PC. It appears in the old-fashioned (but very handy) fenced-in sidebar area reserved on the right-hand edge of the screen that was introduced with Windows Vista, and removed in Windows 7. Those who elect to put their gadgets elsewhere, or do away with the fenced in area completely, need only right-click inside the sidebar and manipulate the program’s Options settings to arrange things more to their liking. I like these defaults (at least for now: it’s still only my second day with the program installed on my Windows 8.1 deskop) so I’m going to leave them alone for a while.
I’d more or less resigned myself to living without gadgets on Windows 8, resorting instead to a handful of other favorite tools to glean similar information from the OS to what’s show to the left of this text. But with the ability to regain access to both Network Meter and CPU Usage (both from AddGadget.com, and my two very favorite Windows gadgets because they show me what my PC is doing locally and on the network at all times with only a quick glance) I’m happy to put those items back on my Windows 8 and 8.1 desktops. The information they provide is simply too useful and informative to live without, when I don’t have to. And with dual layers of firewalls around my local network, and reasonably strong endpoint security software on all of those machines in addition, I’m willing to shoulder the security risks of compromise through those gadgets, given that my understanding is that it’s pretty minimal under these conditions.
I still need to find a reliable source for one more old favorite gadget, simply known in its own information block as the “Shutdown Gadget.” It provides a simple control bar with three icons: shutdown, restart, and logout current user. Like the other gadgets I use, it offers great convenience and easy access to functions I like to keep immediately at my fingertips (that goes double on those Windows 8 systems I own with touchscreens, where a fingertip is all that’s needed to activate those controls). By tracing it back to the name of the gadget file itself on one of my Windows 7 machines, I learned that it is named shutdown_v2.gadget, and remains available for download from Microsoft. The last time I went looking for this, I found several sites that purported to offer this item were in fact offering malware-infected payloads. The original from Microsoft remains entirely safe, so feel free to use the foregoing download link yourself, if you like.
To those who never really got into gadgets, I apologize for the “happy dance” tone of this blog post. Personally, I have always found some of these simple and tightly focused programs quite helpful, so I am delighted to see them return to my Windows 8 and 8.1 desktops. If this has been nothing more than a big ho-hum for you, after asking “Why are you still reading this?” I can add “So sorry for going off about something so apparently insignificant.” In my own case, however, the information the foregoing items provide to me (especially as I have to ponder whether or not to restart an apparently hung PC, or wait for some oddball resource consumption spike to work its way through my system) makes a certain amount of celebration entirely worthwhile. Woohoo!
November 8, 2013 12:22 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
Yesterday, I got on the phone with Jim Thomas and Anna Pankratova of Paragon Software, to dig a bit more deeply into the issues inherent in creating images for GPT boot drives on Windows 8 (and 8.1) UEFI systems. Thanks to their explanations, and a Paragon white paper they pointed me to (“Significant Booting Challenges on EFI Systems when Upgrading to Windows 8“) I now understand that when the Windows Boot Manager sets up a boot volume in a UEFI-GPT environment, it creates a unique ID for that volume that incorporates the following data that is then stored in EFI NVRAM (firmware, basically) as part of the boot-up configuration:
1. A GUID that maps to Boot Configuration Data (BCD), and contains unique data about a specific Windows installation on a specific host device (HD or SSD)
2. An ID for the storage device upon which the volume resides that includes the SATA port number to which the drive is attached
When you move a boot device to a different SATA port, the device ID is no longer correct, and the Windows Boot Manager will not boot from wherever that drive may actually be attached (essentially, it’s looking for that device only on its original port address). This explains why you see an entry in the UEFI BIOS under boot control for “Windows Boot Manager,” rather than a specific drive name or ID. This drove me wild in trying to change boot order to fix my problems, until I understood that “you can’t get there from here” is a natural consequence of this kind of boot organization and structure. Changing this requires editing BCD data, and may be accomplished at the command line when booting from Windows PE but is neither easy nor terribly straightforward (see the Windows and GPT FAQ on MSDN for more information).
When you migrate an image from one drive to another drive, be it HD or SSD, the GUID information that corresponds to BCD data for Windows boot-up stored in the EFI NVRAM cannot match the BCD information on the new target drive, because it incorporates device identifiers from the old device while the target drive incorporates different device identifier data from the new one. The Windows Boot Manager keeps looking for the old drive, even if you plug the new one into the same SATA port that the old one previously occupied. The boot record in Windows Boot Manager needs to be changed to fix this problem.
The brute force method for making such changes is simply to reinstall Windows to the new target drive. This creates a whole new (and correct) set of BCD information that points the Windows Boot Manager where you want it to go. But this technique requires a new OS install, a complete set of updates to make that OS current, then installation of whatever applications are needed to create the desired user configuration. A search on “BCD edit to change boot drive” reveals that partition labeling (using Diskpart or some equivalent partition management tool) is important, as is the bcdedit command line utility. Those interested in following this route are advised to check into Bo Yans’ very nice Visual BCD Editor instead, because it makes working with boot configuration data so much easier, and shields users from all the tricksy details of using bcdedit at the command line.
The Paragon tool knows how to create the proper BCD entries to make the Windows Boot Manager keep working after a drive swap.
I have now confirmed that the latest version of the $20 Migrate OS to SSD 3.0 utility from Paragon Software automates this task completely, and does a bang-up job of addressing potential partition alignment issues on SSDs that might affect IO performance on Windows OSes in certain situations. I actually prefer to think of this as a more general-purpose tool for migrating a UEFI-GPT Windows boot image from one drive to another, in fact, because the tool works well with HD or SSD drives as either source or target for such moves. To my way of thinking, $20 is a small price to pay for a quick, easy, and painless move from an old Windows 8 UEFI-GPT drive to a new one. Note: you must still retarget the new boot drive at the BIOS/UEFI level when you reboot from the replacement drive, but selecting “Windows Boot Manager” will indeed behave as you expect (and want) it to. If you try it for yourself, I think you’ll concur.
November 7, 2013 2:37 AM
Posted by: Diana Hwang
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer believes the cloud is going to change the way IT professionals work – like it or not.
Ballmer addressed IT professionals this week in a fireside chat session in the U.K. during Microsoft’s three-day Tech Days Online event.
“New skills will add more value to businesses and the world economy rather than putting together OS stacks,” said Ballmer. With application deployment in the data center and the ability for IT pros to tailor their jobs and solve enterprise problems, he thinks IT professionals can add more value to a company as technology helps transform the way businesses work.
But when you talk to the IT pros, they may be a little bit more skeptical about Ballmer’s view on how the cloud will change their job description.
The data is just being stored virtually in the cloud, said Mike Drips, an IT consultant based in Houston. “How will it make people think more strategically?” he wondered.
Ballmer believes the cloud can impact jobs like software development, too. He wants those developers to think 10 years into the future and write applications that run on top of Microsoft’s Azure.
Perhaps Ballmer shouldn’t think about how the cloud will evolve IT’s role but rather how IT can be a leading proponent toward putting into place the ability for changing a worker’s life style with mobile technology. It’s not just about taking a notebook and accessing a file to work from at home. It’s about being able to do work anytime, anywhere on any device. It’s about how to incorporate mobile technology into an enterprise and the cloud just becomes an enabler.
In this respect, IT can now play a strategic role in studying the way end users work and how their work behavior has changed over time. Ballmer even said as much during the chat, noting that IT can focus more on a solving an enterprise’s workflow and application needs to provide more value to the company.
As Ballmer makes his rounds on his way out as the retiring CEO, he offered three lessons for IT pros– ideas matter, passion matters, and remain tenacious.
“You need to remake yourself and this is what people need to do,” he said.
It’s sound advice for someone who will need to find his next role after running a $78 billion company.
November 6, 2013 5:02 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
In getting several (5) systems up and running on Windows 8 and 8.1 recently, I’ve had the chance to learn a great deal more recently about the way that UEFI systems work and behave, particularly when it comes to moving SATA drives around, and when seeking to switch a system over from a conventional spinning hard disk to a faster purely digital SSD equivalent. This learning has been surprising, occasionally painful, and quite illuminating.
I got my first clue that something was up when I used Acronis True Image Home 2014′s “Clone Drive” utility to create a bit-for-bit copy of a WD Scorpio Blue 750 GB conventional disk onto a Samsung 840 EVO SSD this weekend. As I ran the program, it informed me that I would not be able to use the resulting drive image to boot a system. “Hmmmm,” I said to myself upon seeing this, “I wonder what’s up with this? I hope I can find a way to work around it.”
My search for enlightenment led me to the following pithy and dense paragraph of information on Paragon Software’s “Migrate OS to SSD 3.0” web page (I reproduce it verbatim here, because it makes numerous points I need to unpack and explain a little further, fractured English notwithstanding):
Introduced back in 2005 by Intel to lift restrictions of the old MBR (Master Boot Record) and PC BIOS (Basic Input/Output System), uEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) is now a recommended platform for new 64-bit Windows 8 computers. And the reason is easy to catch – besides other unique features impossible for the traditional tandem of BIOS+MBR, only a uEFI-based platform enables to accommodate Windows OS on a partition larger than 2.2TB. Despite all uEFI advantages however, it has one quite naughty issue: A pretty standard operation with a bootable device for instance involving its connection to another SATA port results in unbootable Windows. You’ll get the same result if trying to boot from a cloned system hard disk. All these problems originate from the way uEFI+GPT bundle is organized. Microsoft provides how-to guides to tackle this type of problems, but they demand a great deal of experience from the user, involving the use of the cmd, diskpart and bcdedit tools. [Emphasis mine; content Paragon Software's.]
Here’s what I’ve learned that this really means, thanks to some initially puzzling trial and error, and subsequent more deliberate experimentation
1. You can’t move the boot drive from one SATA connector to any other connector on the motherboard on a UEFI-based install. Once it’s plugged into a port, it has to stay there forever, workarounds and shenanigans nothwithstanding. I learned this the hard way when I took my wife’s new mini-ITX machine apart a couple of times to play with an mSATA drive in that machine. As I plugged the HD and DVD SATA connectors back into the motherboard, the only thing that produced a bootable configuration was when placing those two plugs into the very same receptacles they’d occupied when I performed the initial OS install.
2. You can’t boot from a cloned system disk (this applies equally to targeted hard disks or SSDs). Apparently, some kind of unique ID is created when the initial install occurs, with a pointer to a unique and specific drive/deviced ID. That information does not work if any hardware (such as the system/boot drive) or connections (home SATA port) change for any reason.
3. All these problems originate from the way the UEFI + GPT bundle is organized. I’m still in process of digesting and understanding this, to the point where I’m talking to a senior support specialist and a development engineer from Paragon tomorrow morning so they can explain this to me further. I though I understood the basics of the GUID partition table (GPT) an dhow partitions are handled in this kind of environment, but in looking over the kind of problems that people have reported in integrating MBR disks into a UEFI environment (superuser.com) or when upgrading to Windows 8 (EDNnetwork), I quickly realized the situation is more complicated than it used to be in the BIOS/MBR 32- or 64-bit era of computing, now largely supplanted by UEFI/GPT 64-bit computing. See the EDNnetwork article for some highly informative diagrams that explain where the problems come from, and why they can be vexing to fix. Paragon offers a “Boot Correction Wizard” to deal with these issues, which is why I’ll be talking to them further about this tomorrow.
All I can say is that certain issues in working with UEFI and GPT are now somewhat clearer to me, and I think I understand what went south on my various migration shenanigans this weekend. I’ll follow up later with more information, and no doubt clearer explanations, after I have a chance to review this with the folks from Paragon.
November 4, 2013 12:55 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
I learned an interesting if somewhat painful and time-consuming lesson this weekend — namely, the Windows 8.x “Refresh your PC” mechanism will not permit you to restore a backup from Win8.x one install on a computer to another Win8.x install on the same computer. I have to believe that’s because each time you install (or re-install) Windows, it gets a unique Security Identifier (SID) that tags the OS installation. I had hoped otherwise, because I had to reinstall Windows 8.1 on a miniITX PC when switching it from a conventional WD Scorpio Blue drive to a faster Samsung 840 EVO SSD drive this weekend. I started by cloning the WD drive onto the Samsung SSD, but the machine refused to boot no matter what shenanigans I tried in the motherboard’s BIOS, nor would a UEFI boot UFD repair the SSD’s apparently invalid boot-up disk layout.
The default refresh rolls you back to factory or clean install defaults, but a custom refresh lets you return to a last known good working OS state — in most cases, anyway…
“Aha!” I thought, “I’ll do a base-level Win8 install, then use last night’s RecImg data to overwrite the new install with my complete and up-to-date refresh data instead.” At first, I was encouraged to see the refresh operation proceed to 100% completion and then reboot my PC. But as soon as the reboot turned control over to Windows 8, it informed me that the refresh was invalid, after which it rolled back all of the changes automatically. “Rats!” I observed, and then went about the process of rebuilding the PC on the new SSD from scratch, which took me about four hours all told (I’m 90% of the way back to where I started, with a handful of drivers still to troubleshoot, and a somewhat greater number of tried-and-true utilities to install, including WinDirStat, CCleaner, Norton Internet Security, CPU-Z, SIW, Chrome, FileZilla, and Revo Uninstaller).
If anyone can shed more light on how I could’ve better managed the HD to SSD transition, I’d be happy to learn from that information. I’m thinking perhaps I should’ve used my copy of Paragon’s Migrate OS to SSD (doh!) when the initial drive clone operation through Acronis True Image Home 2014 failed to produce a bootable SSD. That I can still (and probably should) try. [Note added 11/5/2013: my current version of Migrate OS to SSD returns an "Unknown windows version" error message when I try to run it. I can't make the program provide version information and it's not included in the Properties for its .exe file either, which shows a 7/18/2012 creation date, well before the GA release of Windows 8. I also see on the Paragon website that a new 3.0 version is out, and it's labeled "Windows 8 Compatible," so I've requested them to send me a review copy. I'll report back later, as soon as I've obtained the program and completed my testing.]
Other ideas or approaches to making the move on Win8 would be greatly appreciated: I’ve never encountered these kinds of issues on prior Windows versions, going back to Vista (the first version of Windows I ran on an SSD). Heretofore, drive cloning has worked just fine to produce a bootable drive when moving from HD to SSD. But that does not appear to be the case on Win8, so I’m guessing it uses a different drive layout for HD and SSD drives.
Other than the extra time it took to restore the affected system to proper operation, it’s not really that big of a deal. But it is important to recognize that you can’t use “Refresh your PC” except when all aspects of the source and target Windows installation (specifically, the OS SID) remain the same. That is one important aspect in which it differs from a more standard backup/restore scenario. This may actually be one case (different source and target OS SIDs) where restoring a conventional file-by-file backup works, but an image backup does not.
November 1, 2013 4:33 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
Numerous outlets are reporting about Windows 8.1 usage figures online, generally based on NetMarketShare numbers (see “Windows 8.1 Market Share on Desktop” for an illustration). Baldly stated, Windows 8.1 “market share” (which really reflects its percentage of the overall clients that bang the Web on servers to which NetMarketShare.com pays attention) has jumped from 0.87 percent in September to 1.72 percent in October. This 0.85 percent jump represents a near-doubling of the number of 8.1 clients in active use (98%, actually) on the Internet. In the grand scheme of things these percentages are small potatoes indeed, but they also present a steeper growth curve than that for Windows 8, which didn’t hit the same level until two months after its GA (general availability) release.
The graph from NetMarketShare shows a nicely steep growth curve for Windows 8.1 out of the gate.
Does this mean that Windows 8.1 is bound for success and other forms of glory? It’s still too early to tell. But what with Windows XP nearing it’s “drop dead date” in April, 2014, and a huge mass of PCs in need of some kind of upgrade, it looks like perhaps more of those machines may wind up running Windows 8.1 rather than Windows 7 SP1 as conventional wisdom might otherwise dictate.
An interesting analysis from Alex Wilhelm at TechCrunch entitled “Windows 8.1 Doubles Its Market Share in October to 1.72%, Handily Beating Winodws 8′s Initial Rollout,” also provides further analysis of the distribution of Windows 8.1 licenses. Through means not disclosed in the story, Mr. Wilhelm attributes half of that market gain to sales of Windows 8.1 OSes (mostly OEM licenses on new computers, I would presume) and the other half to upgrades from machines with Windows 8 already installed. He also observes that Windows 8′s market share hit its high of 8.02 percent for September 2013 and says “it won’t ever reach a higher level than that,” though that number does exceed the 7.73 percent of all PCs that run one kind of Apple OS X version or another.
October 28, 2013 5:19 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
The much-awaited and anticipated Surface Docking Station from Microsoft gets a once-over in a recent piece from Paul Thurrot. The piece is entitled “Surface Docking Station: First Impressions and Photos,” and it’s chock-a-block with interesting observations and details. His subtitle really speaks to the meat, tenor, and tone of the story: “A high-quality accessory that turns your Surface Pro or Pro 2 into a desktop workstation.”
A rear shot of the docking station shows all its various ports and connectors.
[Image Credit: Windows Supersite]
Surprisingly, the Docking Station is already shipping in limited quantities, even though MS materials have led many to believe — including both Mr. Thurrott and myself — that the device wouldn’t be available at all until January 2014. According to this story “…it will occasionally pop-up as available at Microsoft Store locations as well as online.”
More details on what’s coming in this device:
1. A single mini DisplayPort jack limits direct monitor connections to 1 (though USB will work to add more)
2. Only a single USB 3.0 port and 2 USB 2.0 ports are provided
3. Users can keep on using the typing cover with the dock if they like
4. Price is $200 ($199.99 actually)
5. Unit features neat-o, keen-0 locking sick tabs that extend to permit the unit to be docked (or when the unit needs to be removed) but which otherwise lock the unit into the dock with all connectors firmly seated
6. The dock is dark plastic that matches the VaporMg finish on the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 units.
7. The Ethernet port, quite surprisingly, is 10/100 not 10/100/1000 (GbE)
User reaction is mixed, where some take issue with the lack of GbE and others with support for “only” a single external monitor. Others are lining up to buy the docking station, looking for a way to use the Surface Pro (or Surface Pro 2) as a genuine “travel-and-desktop” PC.