As I work with Windows from day to day, I often find myself looking at the way things work inside that OS and wondering why some things can’t be improved. Recently, I’ve tech-edited a book on the Python-based Django Web development environment and have been digging into the Windows Preinstallation Environment and the Windows Automated Installation Kit (aka WAIK or Windows AIK). Both of these projects have required me to edit the Windows path variable, which defines an ordered list of directory specifications that Windows searches when you tell it to find something. In short, this is the capability that lets you enter cmd.exe into the Search box in Vista or Windows 7, and that resolves that request into C:\Windows\System32\cmd.exe which is the actual complete specification for that file.
Alas, editing the path variable in the default Windows environment remains a bit irksome. You can do it at the command line, using syntax like
path = %path%;C:\Example to add a directory spec at the end of the path, or by reassigning an entirely new path value when you want to change the search order. Or, you can click the Windows logo and Break keys at the same time to launch the System window, and then do the following:
- Click on Advanced System Settings in the task area at the upper left of the System window to launch System Properties.
- Click the Environment Variables button at the bottom right of the System Properties window to open the Environment Variables window.
- Scroll down in either the User or System variables panes inside the Environment Variables window until you see the path entry, then click Edit.
- This opens an Edit System Variable or Edit User Variable button, where you can inspect and edit the value for that variable in the Variable value: textbox therein, as shown here:
The problem, of course, is that it’s not unusual for a path variable to get pretty large in Windows (mine is currently 257 characters long, and I’ve seen longer) but the textbox area for display accommodates only around 40 characters. That makes scrolling back and forth inside that box something of a pain. I won’t bother to complain about the vagaries of editing the value at the command line, because the best way to do that already does so eloquently: run cmd.exe, type
set at the command line, use multiple inline editing commands to grab the path variable value, paste it into a text editor for manipulation, then reverse the process to reassign its value.
Fortunately, there is a much better way to do this. Freeware called Redmond Path from Redmond Lab .Net is available to improve and simplify editing path variable values. A single screenshot tells the whole story here.
Click the plus sign to create a new value, or highlight and click the red X to remove an existing value. Highlight a value, then use the up and down arrows to change its place in the search order. All values appear in order as individual entries in a vertical list and can be managed as such.
Simple. Easy. Effective. Free. Why doesn’t Microsoft do it that way?
Although Microsoft does not support an explicit migration path from Windows XP to Windows 7, longtime migration toolsmith Laplink Software, Inc. does offer some interesting options for its PCmover product in this regard. The most interesting and affordable of these is its PCMover Windows 7 Upgrade Assistant product: for a mere $19.95 you get a one-shot move tool that will not only transport your accounts, settings, and preferences from the old OS to the new one on the same PC (as Windows 7 itself also will, thanks to its Windows Easy Transfer utility), but will also migrate most applications from XP to Windows 7 that run under both operating systems.
For those who wish to move from an older PC to a newer one as part of their migration, more advanced Laplink products will be necessary. PCmover Home will handle that task across a network link for $39.95; PCmover Pro includes a USB transfer cable and adds support for domain logins and other workplace-centric features for $59.95. For organizations considering large-scale migrations, Laplink also offers PCmoverEnterprise, which includes its own configurable migration wizard, your choice of various install mechanisms (USB drive, other portable storage, network drive), pre-activate licensing, and post-migration reporting. Pricing varies by quantity: Laplink charges $42 per seat for 10-pack PCMover Professional licenses which sets an upper per seat bound, and mentions on its pricing page that the Enterprise version is available for “as little as USD $10 per license” and thereby sets the lower per seat bound as well.
For a great description and analysis of this product set, check out RJ Dudley’s review “Laplink PC Mover Upgrade Assistant: Almost Perfect.” Note also that he was unable to migrate his Visual Studio 2008 license from XP to Windows 7 using this tool. That makes it one of the few programs I’ve heard of so far that doesn’t make the transition as it probably should.
I may be asking for trouble, but it looks like I’ve finally gotten my production PC to settle down and behave itself. After about 13 weeks of ups and downs I’ve finally fixed all the drivers, gotten the various system components to behave, and have dealt only with very basic Windows and Internet Explorer issues for the past four weeks. Here’s what the weekly view from Reliability Monitor looks like for my primary production PC, all the way back to the original RTM install.
The biggest secret to keeping things on an even keel has proved to be fastidious use of a test machine for installing and running new or unfamiliar software (and then, within a virtual machine until it proves to be something I actually want or need). This has kep the clutter and gunk on my production system to a minimum, where I am now running only software that I actually use to get real work done.
It could just be the benefits of a recent clean OS install and the relatively pristine registry that goes with it that’s responsible. But I’m happy to finally have a well-functioning and reliable system on which to conduct the daily grind. This sure helps me understand why so many people believe that building PCs is no longer an avocation for the faint of heart, nor for those without deep and broad Windows expertise. As I’ve shown with the reliability indexes from my Dell D620 notebook, perfect 10s are a lot easier to achieve when you keep the software simple and the build relatively limited.
Now, all I need to do is figure out why pctsSvc.exe keeps crashing on my primary test machine and I’ll have my PC troubleshooting problems more or less fixed for the time being. And just in time for the holidays…
OK, so I’ve been running Windows 7 Starter on a couple of netbooks and my wife’s mini-ITX Core 2 Duo system for a couple of months now. And while I still like this OS, especially for its slim footprint and modest profile, I’ve discovered a few things I don’t like about it as well — enough so, in fact, that I want to share these items with you, in case you’re thinking about using this OS on a netbook or low-powered PC for yourself or a loved one.
To be fair and positive, Windows 7 Starter is what is says it is: a minimal, low-capability version of the Windows operating system. That said, in working with it on my various systems at home and at work, I’ve found myself wishing for things that it can’t provide. These include the following:
- Remote Desktop access: Windows 7 starter doesn’t support RDP so you can’t remote into a machine running this OS from another machine on the same (or a different) network. Alas, because that’s my preferred method to manage other machines on my network and requires MBWA (management by walking around) instead, I don’t like this as much as I could.
- Memory restrictions: I’m not sure if it’s the MSI mini-ITX motherboard I’m using or some combination of that hardware and the Windows 7 Starter OS, but even though I have 4 GB of RAM installed in my wife’s SFF PC, the OS reports that indeed 4 GB is installed, but that only 2 GB is usable. Everything I can find on Windows 7 Starter says it supports 4 GB RAM, but not on this setup. Of course, all the system requirements say that hardware configurations for Windows 7 pre-installed max out at 1 GB RAM (and I happily run 2 GB on both my Dell Mini 9 and Asus 1000HE). Go figure!
- No DVD playback built in: Sure, you can buy a decent DVD player on the cheap (or find something Open Source for free that works with Windows 7) but it always surprises me each and every time I try to play back a DVD on Windows 7 Starter and get the word that I can’t get there from here.
For me, of course, lack of remote management/access is the real killer and explains why I’ll be upgrading Dina’s system to Windows Home Premium as soon as I find some time (probably over the Christmas holidays). If you can live with those limitations, though, you’ll find it pretty workable indeed.
PS: My son likes to play games on any free computer he can find these days (he’ll be six in February, so his appetite is still pretty tame). We also just ran into a problem with a cheapo game we got for him at half-price books on Friday: it would have required Windows XP Mode to work on her machine. And of course, Windows XP mode only runs on Windows 7 Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise. I can’t really count that against Windows 7 Starter, since it never promised anything close to meaningful VM support in the first place.
- Here’s an interested tidbit from Paul Thurrott’s latest Wininfo Short Takes blog for November 25, entitled “New Windows Every Three Years? Yes, But There’s More…“
A number of publications have picked up on the fact that Microsoft displayed more than one slide at last week’s Professional Developers Conference (PDC) that showed a 2012 date for the next version of Windows Server. This suggests that the next Windows client, Windows 8, will also ship at that time. I can now verify this and even expand on it, after speaking with several sources inside the software giant. The plan is this: New versions of Windows and Windows Server will ship in lockstep every three years going forward. There won’t be major and minor versions as before, just new versions. This plan—in case it’s not obvious—is based on the success Microsoft had in delivering Windows 7 in three years, but it goes deeper than that. Most groups within Microsoft are now emulating the way the company delivered Windows 7 as well, with no promises that can’t be met and few public disclosures about features until everything is clearly established. Is this a good thing? It worked for Windows 7, of course, but then Windows 7 came on the heels of the most overhyped and over-promised Windows version ever. My guess is that in five years or so, Microsoft will also abandon this plan as it figures out that just because something worked for one product—or even one product version—doesn’t mean it’s a universal solution. But for now, this is the new plan.
Wow! Shades of the old days of central planning in the Soviet states, where everything worked around a 5-year schedule. But if we look at the timing of Windows releases since NT 4, here’s what you see
- Windows NT: 1996 (client and server)
- Windows 2000: 2000 (client and server)
- Windows XP: 2001
- Windows Server 2003: 2003
- Windows Vista: 2006
- Windows Server 2008: 2008
- Windows Server 2008 R2: 2009
- Windows 7: 2009
We sit a bit of up-and-down, or back-and-forth in release timings. I think it’s probably smart to understand this three year calendar as explaining how Microsoft wants things to be, but also to recognize that unforeseen events and issues can get in the way, and might occasionally speed things up but more probably slow them down from such a fixed interval approach.
But hey, at least we know more about what Microsoft wants to do and when to start planning for their next desktop and server OSes. If this is a newer, kinder, and more transparent Microsoft, I think I like it.
In the wake of my latest blog on bargain Win7 versions, I got an e-mail from a former student and regular corresponent, asking about some problems with an install from a Windows 7 OEM version. Seems that he couldn’t get the install to run correctly on his target machine, no matter what he tried. This can be a real problem because the company that builds systems that use OEM versions of Windows is supposed to provide first-line technical support for Windows on those machines. When you build your own machine and run an OEM version of the OS, you’re technically on your own hook for system support and troubleshooting.
I recommended that he start troubleshooting by running the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor on his target machine and see what it reports. It may very well be the case that the hardware fails to meet minimum requirements, and something is impeding the usual warnings and error messages to that effect that would normally appear inside the install process itself.
Next, he might try booting from the install media (after burning an ISO if he is working from a download), or perhaps using the ultra-snazzy new (and free) Windows 7 USB DVD Download Tool. By booting from an installable image, he may be able to sidestep whatever is hampering his install difficulties in the present circumstances (assuming, of course, that the Win7UA doesn’t flag issues that need to be addressed before an install can complete, or even begin–in that case, he must first remedy those issues before trying again).
But this, alas, is the real nub of the potential problems with a quasi-legal version of Windows 7. While MS will cheerfully and thoroughly support upgrade or full retail install problems by phone or Web chat, you won’t get a peep out of them on OEM versions. That means you’ll need to turn to somebody else who knows more about Windows than you do for help instead, and hope they’ve got the time to assist you in figuring out what wrong, and how to fix it.
Everybody who reads this blog is probably on the clock for an IT job of some kind. But let’s face it: that means you’re probably handling systems off the clock as well, for family and friends. Everybody can benefit from money-saving tips for software, and Ed Bott has put together a real nonpareil of a blog for Windows 7 savings entitled “Seven perfectly legal ways to get Windows 7 cheap (or free).”
This blog makes passing mention of the promotions that let buyers of PCs with Vista installed qualify for free Windows 7 upgrades (as long as they purchased on or after July 1, 2009, that is). It concentrates the savings deals available in the form of upgrade offers, student/teacher discounts, and via subscriptions designed for technical professionals and developers.
Of these the best deals include:
- Windows 7 Home Premium Upgrade Family Pack: covers up to 3 PCs for $150 or less. Killer deal. Here’s one still available at Staples ($150).
- Buy a new PC, upgrade the old one for half off (at this rate Home Premium goes for about $50, Professional for about $100, and Ultimate for $120). Ask your retailer, and use this MS Web page if you must.
- Students who can prove enrollment at an accredited institution qualify for a single copy of Win 7 Home Premium or Professional for a mere $30. Unbeatable. Apply at this Windows 7 Web page to see if you qualify.
Check out Ed’s blog to get all the details, and links to the deals.
The obvious use for the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor (W7UA) program is to evaluate and report on hardware running some earlier version of Windows to help professionals prepare for an upgrade to that OS. But it’s also the case that if you run the W7UA on a machine already running Windows 7, it will still identify potential issues with installed hardware or software even after the fact.
I was forcibly reminded of this the other day, when I ran the program to refresh my memory about its operation to answer a question from a student in a class I’m teaching right now. At the time, I noticed several programs that needed updates, including Acronis True Image Home (now available in a Win7-friendly 2010 version) and also Norton Internet Security (also now available in a 2010 flavor as well). The only program still showing–Alex Feinman’s handy little ISO Recorder utility–is actually also updated to version 3.1 (which supports Windows 7 and works fine on my system), but mis-reports itself as vesion 3.0 (which predated Windows 7 and didn’t support the new OS 100%).
Contrary to what you might expect, it may be worth running this tool again on systems you upgrade to Windows 7 after the upgrade is complete, just to make sure all the software is up to snuff as well.
I’m a long-time fan of PC Tool’s highly-regarded Spyware Doctor antispyware products, and have run at least one version of this product family on a like number of test and production machines for going on four years now. In the last month, I’ve had problems with their latest and greatest combined antispyware/antivirus offering (Spyware Doctor with Antivirus 2010, version 220.127.116.118 to be specific) on a couple of my Windows 7 machines. To be specific, the primary service module pctsSvc.exe experiences an application crash at least once a day (my record for any one machine is 7 times in one day) with detail like this screencap from Reliability Monitor to match:
I’ve already switched from this product to Norton Internet Security 2010 on my primary production machine (I didn’t want to leave the machine in an uncertain state while working through this problem), but I’ve left it installed on one of my test machines and am working with PC Tools technical support to try to understand and resolve this issue.
Last Thursday, I conducted a Web chat to report my problems and ask for some advice. The support tech had me stop the Spyware Doctor run-time environment (right-click the icon in the notification area, then select ShutDown from the resulting pop-up menu), uninstall the running version of Spyware Doctor, download a fresh clean copy from their Web site, and reinstall the program. After three days with no problems I was starting to hope that my failure to halt the previous version of the app before doing the first install of the current version caused the problems, but when I logged into my test machine first thing this morning, I found the pctsSvc.exe app crash message waiting for me on that machine when I checked in.
I’ve forwarded the information to PC Tools, along with the same screen cap you see in this blog, and will be curious to see what happens next. The tech I worked with last week said they would e-mail me a copy of the Belarc Advisor, and have me install and run it, so they can examine its output to understand more about my PC. Just for grins I visited the Belarc website to download and run the free version of the Belarc Advisor on a different PC, and here’s what popped up:
It looks like a pretty informative tool, but I didn’t see anything in the output from the free version that would help me or anybody else tackle the Spyware Doctor issues, so I’m guessing the commercial version that PC Tools will send me will provide a bunch more detail, especially on security -related matters. One big concern for many such software companies is the presence of malware that could inhibit or block correct behavior on a PC (which I’m 99% sure is NOT true for this machine, having scanned it with Trend Micro Housecall and the Norton Security Scan and come up clean on both), while another has to be the presence of other programs, drivers, or runtime environments that interfere with the PC Tools runtime environment’s proper operation.
This promises to be an interesting and educational adventure as I work with PC Tools to figure out what’s bollixing Spyware Doctor with Antivirus on my test machine. I’ll keep you posted as things develop further.
[Note added 11/21/2009]: I never heard back from PC Tools Tech Support despite an e-mail follow-up on 11/17. I guess I’ll have to start a new trouble ticket tomorrow. Count on me to keep following up as more info becomes available. In the meantime, pctsSve.exe crashed again on 11/18 and 11/19.
On November 11, 2009, MS released version 2.51 of its Security Compliance Management Toolkit Series through the Microsoft Download Center. Though not all organizations or users will need all of the elements in this offering (a single ZIP file is available with all of the documentation and components; it’s named all.zip) individual elements are also available on a one-off basis.
Here’s a screenshot of what WinZIP finds inside all.zip:
As a quick perusal of the contents illustrates, you’ll find components that target Microsoft operating systems, including Windows XP, Vista, and 7 on the desktop side, as well as Windows Server 2003 and 2008 (including R2) on the server side. You’ll also find elements for Group Policy Objects, Office 2007, and Internet Explorer 8, as well as a general introduction and overview that explains these various items and describes their contents and capabilities.
Suffice it to say that anybody whose responsibilities touch on information security for Windows desktops, servers, or networks will probably benefit from some exposure to this collection of tools and documents — if not rolling up their sleeves and digging into one or more components on a more serious footing.