What with Christmas less than two weeks away, and the upcoming end-of-year break not far behind, I thought I’d lighten up this week with a series of carefully chosen stocking stuffers for high-tech types. If you’re in a giving mood, you can hand these things out at low expense; if you need some more entries for your Christmas list, you can pick up some affordable ideas that won’t break your benefactors’ banks.
I’ll open with the Atom series of USB 3 Flash Drives from Mushkin. They’re so small that when plugged into a USB port, you can leave them there on a tablet or notebook PC without impeding entry into or exit from a carrying case or sleeve. Capacities range from 8 GB all the way to 64 GB, and they’re reasonably fast (if not on par with top-end UFDs with SSD controllers like Mushkin’s Ventura Ultra line, or even their mid-range Ventura Pro and Ventura Plus lines) and extremely affordable. At Newegg, for example, prices run like this (rounded up to the next dollar): 8 GB/$8, 16GB/$13, 32GB/$15, and 64GB/$25. To my way of thinking, this makes the 32GB version an unbeatable price/capacity tradeoff winner.
With the cap off and plugged-in, the Atom sticks out less than 0.25″ (6mm) from the port it inhabits.
I own this drive in 8 and 32 GB sizes, and regularly use the smaller one as a bootable UFD for installing various Windows versions (most recently, Build 9879 of the Windows 10 Technical Preview). I’ve used it on various Dell and Lenovo notebook PCs to good effect, and on the Fujitsu Q704, Surface Pro 3, and Dell Venue Pro 11 tablets likewise. You can leave it in all the time, and it never gets in the way when packing it into a Targus notebook carrier or tablet sleeve. And the price is definitely right, too. The only downside is these puppies are so small, it would be easy to lose one (but I haven’t had that problem yet, so you or those who get one from you may be able to escape that fate as well).
Since 2011, I’ve blogged at least half a dozen times about various utilities from Nir Sofer, an apparently hyperactive developer with a penchant for building terrific Windows utilities of all kinds. He updates them quite frequently, too: I get at least one dozen notices a month about changes to one or more of his 100-plus tools of all shapes and sizes. If you’d like to try out the whole collection, there’s an easy way to glom onto it, too:
If you grab NirLauncher, you automatically grab the latest versions of all NirSoft utilities in one go.
The control center for NirLauncher is a simple set of buttons that group these tools by category, then list the items associated with each category, according to the title bar headers at the top of each listing. The collection is big enough that it takes a little time to get to know and use, but is well worth digging into. Some of my personal favorites include BlueScreenView, DevManView, DriverView, ProduKey, ShellExView, and USBDeview, but there are many more gems in this collection worth learning about. Here’s a snippet from the System Utilities list:
Grab this free utility from the NirLauncher product page (~20 MB) and check it out for yourself. I’m running it right now on a Windows 10 installation, but I’ve used these tools on Windows XP through 8.1 also, all to good effect.
Thanks to a recent post to the Windows For Your Business blog entitled “MDOP 2014 R2 Now Available,” I’m happy to relay that message to my readership, and to those interested in Microsoft’s excellent collection of virtualization tools. In particular, the Application Virtualization (App-V) and User Experience Virtualization (UE-V) elements have come in for some major changes, particularly in simplifying application and settings virtualizations, in creating groups of virtualized applications that load in concert, and in smoothing out the deployment of Virtualized Office installations. In short, there’s a lot to like about this latest MDOP iteration. Be sure to check it out!
Here’s a tile-based diagram of the various MDOP components, courtesy of the MDOP page on TechNet:
Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V): enterprise solution for desktop virtualization, based on creating, delivering, and managing corporate virtual PC images for Windows-based desktops.
Microsoft Advanced Group Policy Management (AGPM): a system for comprehensive change control, offline editing, and role-based delegation for Group Policy Objects (GPOs).
Microsoft BitLocker Administration and Monitoring (MBAM): enterprise management for BitLocker and BitLocker to Go, including deployment, key recovery, centralized compliance monitoring and reporting, for provisioning and supporting encrypted drives.
Microsoft Diagnostics and Recovery Toolset (DaRT): Provides a set of administrative tools for desktop repair planning and service delivery, including components for analyzing crashes, diagnostic and recovery tools, plus local and remote computer recovery facilities.
Who qualifies for MDOP use? Technically, it requires licensing through Microsoft’s Software Assurance program, but it is also available to those with a Premium level MSDN subscription, or who are still hanging on to the vestiges of a TechNet Subscription. It’s definitely worth investigating and getting to know for mid-sized and larger operations that must support Windows desktops for their user base or clientele. If you’re new to MDOP, you might want to start out at the MDOP home page in the Enterprise Products and Technologies silo on the MS Website; otherwise, feel free to dig into any or all of the afore-linked TechNet resources instead.
Those who’ve been through Windows previews in the past have learned to approach their test setups with a certain amount of caution, if not downright trepidation. That’s because MS has traditionally blocked the simple upgrade path from technical previews/betas to final releases, as denoted by the version that gets released to OEMs for installation and delivery after the GA date, and to MSDN and other online release repositories for licensed customers around 30 days prior to general availability. Though there are usually registry hacks promoted to permit upgrades to occur unofficially, the lack of an official path means that tech support can’t help with problems that occasionally occur when trying to upgrade outside the official upgrade source OSes.
In what looks to be an interesting and positive departure from this tradition (which applied to Windows 7 and 8 versions, and even Vista) WinBeta reported a Twitter exchange on this subject between Gabe Aul, an active and outward facing member of the Operating Systems Group at Microsoft (and something of a recent Windows 10 spokesperson for the company). Brevity being a key characteristic of Twitter, I can easily reproduce that exchange right here to report that an upgrade path may be supported when Windows 10 moves to RTM later in 2015:
MS intends to provide an upgrade path from the Technical Previews to the RTM version: will that actually happen? Hope so!
Aul is pretty careful with his language, but it’s clear that this is something MS will try to include amidst the many other new features and changes that Windows 10 will bring to the embattled desktop OS side of “Windows world” next year. It should be interesting to see if this comes to pass, and convenient for those who’d like to keep their test installations up and running after the preview phase ends, and the latest and greatest Windows desktop OS becomes officially available.
Earlier this week, MS released a Windows 10 Update named KB3020114 “Explorer.exe continuously crashes after you upgrade…” Although many Technical Preview users reported difficulties with installation, in the absence of an error message from Windows Update, I assumed my Win10TP machine had digested and added the update without difficulties. I assumed wrong: when I checked that machine this morning after reading Woody Leonhard’s excellent InfoWorld article entitled “Fix arrives for KB 3020114 bug — thanks to a user” and I saw that WU was still proffering the same update to me as if nothing had happened when I attempted the install earlier this week, I realized I too had fallen victim to this issue.
After 5 failed install attempts, the workaround finally results in success.
As described in Woody’s article, and in a story by Paul Thurrott, the workaround needed to get the update to install requires first uninstalling KB items 3019269, 3018943, 3016725, and 3016656 (to do that, choose Programs and Features in Control Panel, then View Installed Updates, then select and uninstall the items listed one-by-one until all are gone: there’s no need to reboot after any of those update items go away, even though the uninstaller prompts you to do so). Next, you’ll return to Windows Update where instead of being proffered the previous four items again, you’ll be proffered three of them plus 3020114 but not 3016656. Install all of them, and you should be all caught up with Windows Update, including KB3020114.
What happened to KB3016656? Nobody who knows anything is saying doodly-squat. But at least, the workaround sets Windows 10 back on the straight and narrow. Sigh.
Now that I’ve discovered an easy way to reliably get to and download the crapware-free “Slim” version of CCleaner, I’ve returned to using it on my PCs. Just recently, Piriform released a new major version of this tried-and-true Windows Utility (the current version is labeled v5.00.5050). It features a slightly different look, with flatter and crisper icons and a cleaner layout, as shown here:
Sure CCleaner v5 looks a little less cluttered, but what really makes it worth downloading is the speed increase.
The most noticeable thing about this latest release also helps to explain why I’m recommending it to fellow Windows utility connoisseurs and tool fanciers — namely, it’s gotten a definite and palpable speed boost. Because CCleaner cruises the file system to look for elements that could (or should) be deleted by way of clean-up, the speed of the tool is important to its users. My informal evaluation of the v4-vs-v5 versions is that the latest CCleaner incarnation is at least 30% faster than its immediate predecessor. In particular, it seems to buzz through the temporary Internet folders that Windows creates for Web browser downloads significantly more quickly than it used to. This makes the latest version entirely worthy of downloading and using, either to update already-installed versions, or to drop another nice new addition into your Windows toolbox.
About the CCleaner “Slim” Version
Late last August (8/27/14), I posted a blog right here entitled “Goodbye CCleaner, Hello Wise Disk Cleaner?” that explains that the standard version of CCleaner includes some additional third-party software, among which is a well-known advertising module called OpenCandy (see also Malwaretips.com “How to remove PUP.Optional.OpenCandy“). Users who wish to avoid bringing such tag-along software to their Windows machines can download the “Slim” version of the CCleaner program instead, providing they know how to do so. Here’s a recipe for grabbing that version:
1. Visit the Piriform CCleaner update page, then scroll to the bottom of that page.
2. Click the “No thanks” button at the bottom right of the page, to get to the Download page.
3. Scroll to the bottom of that page, and click the Builds link.
4. Click the Download button in the CCleaner – Slim box as shown here:
What’s the delta that the 3rd-party software adds? About 1.07 MB of “stuff!”
Assuming that the difference between the standard installer version and the slim version is the third-party software included in the former and missing from the latter, there’s about 1.07 MB of material involved in that delta. I, for one, am perfectly happy to work through this process each time I must upload a new CCleaner version, because while I appreciate its capabilities I have no interest in the tagalong software that might otherwise make its way onto my desktop.
Here’s an interesting graph to ponder, more than 7 months after Windows XP reached “end of life” status on April 8, 2014: StatCounter’s GlobalStats chart for Top Desktop, Tablet and Console OSs shows that Windows 8.1 instances detected online have finally exceeded those for Windows XP as of the end of November, 2014.
The count for Windows 8.1 crosses over that for XP as of 11/30/2014
[click above to see full-size image; Source: StatCounter].
The numbers behind the top 3 lines on the graph — for Windows 7, Windows 8.1, and XP, respectively — are also pretty illuminating. Windows 7 rules the roost with a whopping 50.3%, followed by Windows 8.1 at 10.95% and XP at 10.69%. Given that XP is now more than half a year older than its end-of-life date, does that mean it now qualifies as a “zombie OS?” Just for grins, let me also mention that the original Windows 8 release clocks in at 4.9%, With OS X at 8.11%, iOS at 6.61%, Vista at 2.7%, Android at 2.68%, and Linux at 1.41% (to add all items that register above 1% in the StatCounter data behind the graph).
I’m encouraged by this inflection point for several reasons:
- It provides some indication that users are indeed starting to move up from XP to other Windows OSes.
- It shows that Windows 8.* is finally starting to get some traction.
- I also believe it shows hope for Windows 10 which has done quite a bit to address the various causes of upset that Windows 8 introduced, and Windows 8.1 has mitigated in part.
It should thus be very interesting to observe how the Windows 10 release fares next year, and what kind of slope its uptake curve exhibits. My best guess is that it will be more like that for Windows XP and 7 rather than that for Vista and 8, given not just the “every other release” effect that seemingly pertains to Windows but also the extreme effort that MS is putting into the next release to try and save its bacon.
Hey! It’s the holiday weekend so I’m departing from my usual more serious look at Windows platforms, tools, and technologies to dig into a vexing issue that momentarily impeded my pursuit of more usual Thanksgiving weekend activities last night — namely, shopping! For those of you who don’t already know, the MS “Music Deals” app (a Windows Store item available only to those running Windows 8 or higher) has been out since October, and has been offering major “album deals” every Tuesday since it went online. You can read about this app, and an additional add-on deal just for the Thanksgiving weekend in Brandon LeBlanc’s 11/25 post to Blogging Windows entitled “Massive Music Deals promotion just in time for the holidays.” This offer encompasses music compilations from some pretty amazing artists (including John Lennon, George Harrison, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Elton John, the Eagles, the Grateful Dead, Radiohead, Nirvana, and more — over 50 in all) that the company calls “boxed sets” and is selling for the jaw-dropping price of $1.99 each until midnight on Sunday, November 30.
This sounded like a good deal to me, so I tried to take advantage of it. But although I looked for “Music Deals” in the Store app, I couldn’t find it. Shortly afterward, my son came to me to ask to purchase an item through the Microsoft Store, and that unrelated request led me to figure out what was wrong and ultimately, to fix the problem. The credit card I use for payment at the Store expired last month, and I’ve been updating my card info with all of my various creditors since then slowly but surely as auto-payments or payment data fail because of that outdated info. But when I went into the Store account to try to change my CC info, it wouldn’t accept my mailing address and told me my 5 and 9 digit ZIPs were “not valid postal codes.” That’s when I took a closer look at my account and saw that my country of location was identified as the UK not the USA. A quick online chat with the MS Store support team produced an immediate answer: I had to resort to the Location tab in the Region widget in Control Panel and change the Home Location setting from “UK” to “United States.” I’m not sure how this item got changed or set-up in the first place, but it is clearly an anomaly introduced in the wake of my system rebuild of two weeks ago that I hadn’t yet had cause to bang my head against.
Back in the USA: turns out location is important to Store offers of all kinds.
Turns out the “Music Deals” app is only available to folks in the USA right now, probably for reasons related to resale agreements and/or copyright deals or restrictions. Once I got my location straight, I was able to find and install the app immediately thereafter (it isn’t available in the UK, as my initial experience attests). After that I snarfed up so-called “box sets” (an amusing label, since these all digital downloads require no boxes of any kind) from Johnny Cash, John Coltrane, John Lennon, and others not named “John,” exercising my holiday yen to shop until I dropped right at my very own keyboard. Happy holidays, everybody!
As of Monday, MS has made ISOs available for the latest Windows 10 build, 9879 — and apparently, the final complete build for 2014. Grab it from this Windows Insider Program Web page entitled “Download Windows Technical Preview November Update.” A variety of versions is available, including 32 and 64 bit builds for English (US and UK), Simplified Chinese, and Portugese (Brazil). Download servers are reasonably snappy, too: I was able to glom onto the x64 English (US) version in just over 4 minutes, averaging download speeds of 20-50 MBps.
MS even provides helpful instructions for turning the ISO into a bootable installer on a UFD.
If you’ve been holding off on testing Windows 10 Technical Preview because of the hassle involved in downloading and updating through the series of TP builds released so far, you can use this ISO for a clean install to bare metal (or to overwrite an existing install with this one). It’s definitely worth playing with and getting to know. Even though 9879 is somewhat less stable that earlier builds have shown themselves to be, Windows 10 is also showing itself to be an interesting and appealing Windows version, far more so than Windows 8 ever did.
In researching a story for SearchWindowsServer late last week, I came face-to-face with some horrifying numbers. The first is a set of statistics from various sources that indicate more than 10 million servers are still running Windows Server 2003 in production mode in companies and organizations around the world (see, for example, these discussions in Redmond Magazine and in Greg O’Connor’s AppZero blog). The second is the looming date for end of life for that same software on July 15, 2015, where EOL is defined as the “day after Microsoft terminates extended support” for that OS version. You can look this up for yourself at the Microsoft Product Lifecycle Search page, where keying in “Windows Server 2003 R2 Standard x64 Edition” produces the following results (remember: the Extended Support End Date precedes EOL by one day):
I deliberately focused in on the most popular WS03 version to produce a tiny table.
Searching on “Windows Server 2003 R2” instead will cover the whole product family.
Turns out there’s lots of work to do to prepare for a server migration — some of the most important aspects of which I’ll document in my upcoming SearchWindowsServer article for Techtarget (I’ll provide a link to that story right here as soon as it goes live) — so I’m simply stunned to realize that somewhere around 10 million servers in need of migration are still up and running some version of Windows Server 2003 right now.
If this applies to you or your organizations, it’s past time to get going on migration planning. Even with the end-of-year holidays almost upon us, somebody needs to get to work immediately on planning for this effort. The biggest stumbling block is likely to be application compatibility, according to those companies, organizations and enterprises who’ve already been through the exercise. With seven months left to go before the EOL date hits, that doesn’t leave much time to analyze compatibility issues and implement changes, workarounds, or replacements for the applications that so often provide the rationale for using servers in the first place.
If there’s a silver lining to this story, the necessity for change comes with two powerful potential improvements. First, it makes sense to rationalize and consolidate physical Windows Server 2003 server installations in some kind of virtualized form (which means some kind of hypervisor based virtual server environment, or some kind of virtual container for same). Second, it may also make sense to move those virtualized (and consolidated) servers that survive the migration process into the cloud. This will involve considerable work, certain expense, and solving numerous interesting and perhaps even challenging technical problems. But with the end of Windows Server 2003 now clearly in view, hopefully migration will also provide the opportunity to improve and strengthen IT operations along the way.