As fate would have it, I was on an important conference call with clients yesterday at around 2:30 PM my time when I rebooted my machine after installing the recently-issued MS Office 2013 Service Pack 1. I was a bit surprised when the boot-up process hung, but figured something had reset the BIOS to change the boot drive order. And indeed, I had to point the UEFI BIOS at the proper drive to force Windows to access the Windows Boot Manager on that device. But this didn’t solve my problem, which quickly degenerated into a full-blown hardware failure on the motherboard for that system. When I was able to instruct Windows to start booting, it would still fail (with the frowny-face error screen that so unhelpfully indicates that “Your PC ran into a problem” but doesn’t provide much insight) anyway. And when I tried booting from a bootable UFD with the Windows 8.1 installer to attempt a repair, the PC wouldn’t recognize the keyboard (though the mouse kept working) no matter which port I plugged it into (or which of the four keyboards I keep in my office I plugged in).
This is seldom a good sign when rebooting Windows, but sometimes it’s a worse sign than at other times.
I had to go to school yesterday to help out with the robotics club meeting as I do every Thursday afternoon, at which point I described the symptoms and asked for a confirmation of my diagnosis — bad motherboard — from the club leader, who also happens to be the “IT guy” for the school. He concurred that the motherboard was hosed, and agreed with my decision to move my production platform over to my Sandy Bridge i7 test machine (2600K on an ASUS P8Z68-V Pro Gen3 motherboard). “No big deal,” I figured, “All I have to do it install Office, migrate my PSTs, and move the drives, and I’m done.” Moving the drives turned out to be easy, because I have learned to keep my important stuff on eSATA or USB-attached external drives: that simply means moving cables, and not much else. I did also remove the boot drive from the dead machine because I knew I’d need it to grab my most current PST file (and might need access to pictures or other stuff that automatically takes up residence on a Windows system/boot drive).
But I hit an “interesting” snag when I brought up MS Office. For some reason or another, the Windows Search service (SearchIndexer.exe) had quit working, and when I tried to restart it, informed me that the file was missing even though I could see it in …/System32 and the sfc /scannow utility reported nothing wrong with the file. Artful attempts to replace the file also had no impact on its intransigence. I Googled my way into troubleshooting mode, and tried various repairs documented online, including some registry hacks, all without success.
Because I depend heavily on being able to search my Outlook email folders (it’s my primary repository for work information and communication history), I found myself forced into a clean (re)install of Windows 8.1 on my new production machine. I was able to get through this process in under one hour, but of course, following up with all the patches through Windows Update took quite a bit longer to complete. Likewise for the process of reducing the number of out-of-date drivers on the newly reminted system from 18 out of 74 to 2 (of which one, the Intel Management Engine Interface aka MEI is a false positive: it doesn’t create the correct registry entries to show itself to DriverAgent, even though Device Manager shows that the version I’m running is the one they say I should be running; and the other is for some “HID-compliant consumer device” that defies detection sufficient to tell me what driver for which device is involved). Then, of course, I had to reinstall all my standard applications to restore my normal working environment, which easily consumed two hours. And finally, installing Office 2013 plus the 800-odd MB of updates, patches, and yesterday’s SP1, also took just over two hours to complete, including Outlook configuration and importing the necessary PST files.
But hey! I’m back in action, on a faster PC with more memory, storage, a newer, faster CPU with a better graphics card. And I didn’t lose more than half a working day to get back to where I started (though I did keep plugging away until after 9 PM last night). In the wonderful world of Windows, that’s not too bad — but it does make me wish that virtualization and back-up technology were sufficiently advanced that I could just select “run on new machine” and make it so, more quickly and easily. Perhaps when GB Internet links are the norm, and most everything really is virtual, this will seem entirely normal, and not like a wonderful but unattainable fantasy.
The word has been out for a few days now that MS has refreshed (and renamed) its cloud storage offering. What was SkyDrive on Windows 8 devices may now be replaced with OneDrive instead (download link). After installation, the SkyDrive icons and naming remain present on Windows 8 devices (except for smartphones that run Windows 8 Phone), so don’t be surprised when you jump into File Explorer afterwards and see the old nomenclature still present. The only thing that changes for desktop, notebook, or tablet users, really, is what’s on the cloud side of the SkyDrive/OneDrive connection and that’s where the new look and naming come into play.
The logo still looks more or less the same, but the name has definitely changed.
To add some interest to this makeover, MS is offering extra free storage to those who add their camera rolls to the OneDrive environment, and also to those who invite their friends to sign up for OneDrive service (at 500 MB per successful invite, up to 5 GB altogether). To add a camera roll, you must download the OneDrive app to your smartphone or tablet, then backup your camera roll (or Photos, or whatever it’s called) to your OneDrive/SkyDrive storage (by default, this goes into a folder named “Pictures”). The Camera Roll bonus adds 3 GB to your overall storage. Here’s what mine looks like after jumping through these various hoops (I got onto SkyDrive early enough to get the 25 GB allotment for early adopters):
Up to 8 GB of added storage is available for free to those who recruit 10 friends, and backup their camera rolls.
I’m a little disappointed to understand that the Windows 8 desktop doesn’t change as a result of going through the upgrade to OneDrive. The only real tangible evidence of the change that I can see is when logging into OneDrive on the Web, and on my iPhone, where I now have a OneDrive app that I can use any time I like.
With Windows 8.1 Update 1 now confidently predicted for March/April of this year, the rumor mill is grinding ahead into the next major planned release for Windows. Usually called Windows 9, this next release is said to provide remedies for many of the beefs that old-line mouse-and-keyboard Windows users have tallied against the Windows 8.* family of operating systems.
One view of the Windows 9 logo, courtesy of techtimes.co
Numerous sources now indicate that a Release Candidate for whatever Microsoft ends up calling “Windows 9” is likely to appear between late August and sometime in September, 2014, including Wzor (as reported at WinBeta.org). Among the various enhancement and improvements said to be included in this release are:
- Modern UI apps inside desktop windows, much like Stardock’s ModernMix utility
- The return of a genuine, built-in, desktop start menu, much like Stardock’s Start8 or Classic Shell (Paul Thurrott says this will be a user-electable option)
- Windows 9 (or other distinct OS) branding seems pretty likely, as MS tries to distance the next release from the generally poor-to-lukewarm reception for Windows 8. The current MS code name for this next version is “Threshold”
- More consolidation across Xbox, Windows, and Windows Phone is likely for Windows 9, so watching SKUs should be interesting (as should be the fate of Windows RT). Mary Jo Foley reports there will be a “modern” consumer version, a traditional PC version, and an enterprise version. Details remain sketchy
- Most reports (or speculations about the future) put the release date for Windows 9 into Q2 2015 (which squares up against the RC date mentioned earlier, given a typical 6 month lag from RC to Customer Preview (CP; usually at mid-point) to General Availability (GA) releases.
Please note that this also holds to Microsoft’s newly adopted Rapid Technology Update approach, wherein they release new versions on a more or less annual schedule. It’s too early to tell how many of these rumors may show up in the various code releases, but this paints an interesting picture of regrets addressed, and missteps retrodden.
USB Flash Drives — aka UFDs — represent one Windows install medium of choice nowadays, particularly on newer PCs with USB 3 ports when matched up with USB 3 rated flash drives. These speedy little storage devices can deliver a complete Windows 7 install in under 20 minutes, and I’ve been able to install various versions of Windows 8 even faster than that on occasion.
In fact, I’ve started to maintain bootable UFDs with install images for various Windows operating systems to make installation or VM creation as fast and easy as possible. I now have 32- and 64-bit bootable UFD images for Windows 7, Windows 7 SP1, Windows 8, and Windows 8.1 all squirreled away on one of my big 3.5″ SATA drives ready for use on relatively short notice. I used to use the Windows 7 USB DVD Download Tool to create such bootable UFDs using Windows OS .iso files, but have lately switched to the even better Rufus utility instead.
But with 8 images in all, and only 4 small-capacity USB 3.0 UFDs, I needed some way to rotate images to and from those UFDs on an as-needed basis. (FYI, I’ve got 2 Mushkin 8 GB, and 2 Corsair 16 GB UFDs for this purpose, because it’s a waste of space to dedicate anything bigger to such use, given that a complete install image for these OSes runs somewhere between 3 and 5 GB, before you start adding drivers or slip-streaming applications into that mix. My production Win8.1 image is about 9.57 GB as you’ll see in the following examples.)
Pick the UFD you want to back up or restore, then specify a source or destination, and you’re in business.
I discovered that Acronis True Image would make image backups from UFDs a couple of years ago and at first, took this approach to backing up and restoring UFD bootable images for Windows install work. Just recently, however, I discovered Alex Beug’s excellent USB Image Tool (Version 1.64 is the most recent implementation of this nice little “donationware” program). It’s extremely easy to use and works quite nicely. For a USB 2 scenario the program is significantly slower than USB 3: over 18 minutes versus under 6 minutes to back up 9.57 GB of data from my production Windows 8.1 UFD; and over 33 minutes to restore that same backup on USB 2 versus around 11 minutes on USB 3 (that’s because it takes longer to write to a UFD than it does to read from one).
For those Windows sysadmins who sometimes (or often) turn to fast UFDs for Windows installation, UB Image Tool is a very nice additions to one’s toolbox. If you do take advantage of this nice little utility, please do what I just did and send Alex a $2-5 donation (the price of a cup of good coffee, which I arbitrarily decided was 2 Euro in my case) to say “Thanks!” for his good work.
OK, so yesterday was “Patch Tuesday,” and MS posted a couple of interesting compatibility updates along with a number of security updates, and the latest version of the Malicious Software Removal Tool.
One version for new installs of Windows 8.1, the other for existing installs: both address the same set of application compatibility issues.
In particular, I’m talking about the following items:
- KB 2917929 “Compatibility update is available for Windows RT 8.1, Windows 8.1, and Windows Server 2012 R2…” This one covers a huge list of applications (65 or so, including well-known items such as 7-Zip, Acrobat X1 Pro, Audacity, the DivX Converter, Evernote, FileMaker Pro, Omnipage, Open Office, Opera, Safari, and WinRAR, among many others) to make older versions play more nicely with Windows 8.1. This particular patch applies only to those who upgrade to or install Windows 8.1 on a PC.
- KB 2917929 “Compatibility update is available for Windows RT 8.1, Windows 8.1, and Windows Server 2012 R2…” This one covers the same huge list of applications, and will be offered to those whose PCs already have Windows 8.1 installed (normal consumers of Windows Update on 8.1, in other words).
It’s probably worth exploring the list of applications covered by these compatibility updates to see if your PCs might benefit from its application. Visit either of the two KB articles linked above to see that list in its entirety.
A great recent post from Sergey Tkachenko over at WinAero explains how to recover the Desktop tile on the Modern UI Start screen for Windows 8 and 8.1, should it ever go missing. That post is entitled “[Fix] Desktop Tile is missing on the Start Screen in Windows 8.1,” and provides step-by-step instructions for those in need of same. Here’s a screen snap with that tile nowhere in site, courtesy of Sergey’s WinAero.com website:
Look Ma! No Desktop tile…
The Desktop tile can go missing for any number of reasons, of which the most common include corruption or loss of its associated .lnk (link) file, or inadvertent removal of the tile from the Start screen. To fix the latter problem, visit the Apps view in Windows 8, find the Desktop item, and right-click (or double-tap) so you can select the “Pin to Start” menu option. If the link file is missing you’ll need to grab a replacement copy (here’s a handy download link) and save it to the C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs directory. Providing you apply the proper fix to address the current situation, you’ll be able to get the Desktop tile back quickly and easily.
Thanks, Sergey: great tip/fix!
My 10-year-old son is a cheerful and active computer user, and is already able to download and print homework assignments from the fourth grade pages on his school’s website. He’s also a pretty interested gamer, and occasionally winds up installing unwanted software, toolbars, downloaders, and other forms of crud on his machine. He’s learning the basics of safe computing, and so far we’ve managed to avoid bringing anything into the home network that requires aggressive clean-up, remediation, or an outright machine wipe. When he tried to check our local school district website last night to see if a threatened winter ice-up would lead to delayed opening or outright closing of the Round Rock schools last night, he came to tell me that “something was stopping him from access the website.”
How does a Web Application Firewall decide when to block domain names? That’s why I’m trying to find out right now…
At first, I thought he’d installed some kind of toolbar or browser add-on that was messing with domain name resolution. I checked “Programs and Features” in Control Panel first, but found nothing new nor alarming there. Ditto for for add-ons to IE 11 on his Windows 8.1 desktop. That’s when I started searching for “remove Incapsula” and “how-to remove Incapsula” on Google, and quickly realized that this was an effect of software outside my son’s machine and in fact also outside our local network. I was able to fix the problem, which resulted from Incapsula’s decision to block access to the roundrockisd.org domain (for reasons I am still trying to elicit from them), by entering the domain into the “Trusted Sites” list from the Security tab in Internet Options in IE. I didn’t have the same issues when using Chrome or Firefox, either.
The whole situation is a little bit mysterious and interesting because I can no longer provoke the error response from Incapsula on his machine (nor on any of my other PCs, either). All I can tell is that somebody in the chain of devices between our local home network and the Round Rock ISD network blocked domain access last night. I’ve launched inquiries with the vendor, and the school district, to see if they can shed any light on this. Though I may never be able to run the whole thing down, it’s absolutely fascinating to me that a configuration setting, or a domain name whitelist/blacklist entry, somewhere in the IP chain between “here” and “there” can wind up (temporarily) blocking access to a publicly funded and supposedly publicly accessible government website.
I recently wrote an article with my old buddy Earl Follis for SearchVirtualDesktop entitled “Vendor options for VDI deployment — sans Microsoft.” In response, Rick Mack, an SME at Dell based in Australia was kind enough to remind me that I’d left one very important product out of the mix — namely, Dell’s capable and redoubtable vWorkspace product.
Indeed vWorkspace has a lot of useful and important characteristics necessary for a VDI or terminal server solution to endear itself to enterprise and business users. In particular it aims to provide effective access to computing resources whenever and wherever they’re needed, without imposing too much complexity on the users, and without taxing corporate coffers overmuch to provide usable tools and technologies.
Turns out that Dell vWorkspace hits the sweet spot between user access plus ease of use versus overall cost and complexity.
In particular, I liked Rick’s admonition to “Do your research properly, get your facts right, and give credit where credit is due. Otherwise you’re just adding to a bunch of useless marketing that could be best described as a biased piece of disinformation.” This is the real problem with any quick survey of a general market category or niche. That’s why I’m always glad to learn about products or platforms I might have overlooked in putting a story together, or in reporting on “what’s out there” in some particular area of the IT, technology, or certification landscape.
I’m especially grateful that he took the time to share his superior knowledge of the overall landscape and some of its denizens with me, and to help me see a bigger and hopefully better picture of the world I attempted to portray than I could see on my own. That’s why all feedback is always welcome, and all input gratefully accepted. Please keep those comments and emails coming: my work (and the information and occasional insight you might glean therefrom) can only improve as a result.
When I started seeing the news online this morning about recent discounts on various Windows 8.1 tablets, I couldn’t take them seriously. But upon traipsing over to the Microsoft Store online (the digital counterpart to Microsoft’s brick-n-mortar stores around the USA and in other locations), I discovered the following items and prices on their Discount PCs page:
1. $699 for the HP Envy Rove 20″ touchscreen tablet/PC.
2. $499 for a 4 GB RAM/128 GB SSD Ivy Bridge model Surface Pro.
3. $229 for a Dell Venue 8 Pro (32 GB) and $299 for the 64 GB model.
4. Toshiba Encore 8″ tablet (32 GB) for $249.
5. Lenovo Miix 2 8″ tablet (32 GB) also $249.
There are lots of good discounts on Win8 Tablets at the Microsoft Store right now, but this Dell Venue 8 Pro offer is especially hot.
For those interested in trying out a small format tablet at low cost, the Dell, Toshiba, and Lenovo items are especially compelling. The old-model Surface Pro is also a lot more palatable with its 4-hour battery life and limited storage capacity at $500 than it was at $900. Given the great reviews the Dell Venue 8 Pro has been collecting of late (despite its 1366×780 screen resolution) it’s almost too good a deal to pass up. I may have to find an excuse to pass by the Microsoft Store about 6 miles from our house sooner rather than later myself!
There are those who speculate that the depth of these discounts indicates problems in selling Windows 8 PCs in general, and Windows 8.1 tablets in particular, into the consumer market. My 9-year-old son loves our local physical Microsoft Store, so we’ve spent more time in there over the past year or so than many people. I have to say that if the size of the crowds and the amount of foot traffic is any indication of interest, there may be fewer passers-through and more buyers at these stores over coming weeks, thanks to better buying incentives in the form of lower prices. With margins on PCs and tablets already razor-thin, MS can’t be making much profit from such deep discounts — that’s for sure.
OK, so the latest Windows 8.1 Update 1 rumors are out, and they’re reporting something nearly everybody who’s ever used a Windows 8 version of any kind on a PC already knew, be that version beta, 8.0, 8.1, or whatever — namely, that most users work from the desktop with a keyboard and a mouse, and couldn’t care less about the tiled, touch-friendly interface and the Windows Store apps that go with it. Here’s how Tom Warren at The Verge reports on what’s driving a major upcoming change to the Windows 8 UI in the upcoming next release for Windows 8.1 aka “Update 1:”
The Windows Store continues to grow with applications, but we understand that Microsoft has been paying close attention to telemetry data that shows the majority of Windows 8 users still use a keyboard and mouse and desktop applications. This same telemetry data was used to justify the removal of the Start button shortly before the Windows 8 release, and contributed to its eventual return in Windows 8.1. Microsoft may have wanted to push touch computing to the masses in Windows 8, but the reality is that users have voiced clear concerns over the interface on desktop PCs.
Other sources indicate that the next update being tested changes default system behavior to boot to the deskop, and to make Modern UI applications (and the tiled Start screen) available through explicit navigation. Also, as reported in many other places, it will be possible to run Modern UI apps inside windows on the desktop, and even to pin them to the taskbar just as with desktop applications since the Windows XP days.
Hence, my title for this blog post, which recalls the title of a once well-known 1979 Supertramp hit song in speculating on the basis for this possible change of course from Microsoft. Of course, it’s still not a done deal, and it will be interesting to see how it all pans out when Update 1 starts to become available to a wider range of users, be that on March 11 as current predictions claim, or through earlier leaks onto the Internet.