For the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing that my son’s 3rd grade class had the use of two extra laptops I had laying around unused for daily use in surfing the web, taking reading tests, visiting math and science resources online, and more. This prompted a story I wrote for EdTech Magazine that bears more or less the same title as this blog does (expect to see it showing up online sometime in July or August, I’d guess).
EDTech Focus on K-12 provides information, news, and resources of interest to K-12 teachers, school administrators, and interested parents.
The ultimate points of the story rest on two assertions:
1. Most classrooms have only one or two PCs at their disposal, and anywhere from 15 to 30 kids to share them.
2. More computers at kids’ disposal means more opportunities for learning and study.
I’d urge families and small businesses with surplus PCs to loan to schools to consider doing just that to help classrooms out with additional computing resources. Computers for classroom use don’t need to be new, powerful, or support lots of storage. Nearly all the applications that are used run through a Web interface, so it’s not out of line to view such machines more as a kind of thin client rather than as a full-fledged standalone computer. There is one essential element for such use however — namely, wireless networking. Nearly all school campuses now support guest networks running on 802.11g or 802.11n, so any loaner PC must be able to access such wireless networks (this won’t be an issue for most laptops, which routinely come equipped with wireless; but it may require purchase of a $15-20 USB wireless interface for desktops that typically lack wireless connections built-in).
Prepping a machine for classroom use requires system clean-up, and I’d recommend replacing hard disks to avoid the possibility that any data that ever resided on those drives might be sniffed out thanks to ever-more sophisticated data recovery tools for deleted files that once resided upon them. You’ll find the complete details required to do the prep work in my upcoming EDTech K-12 article, where you’ll also learn that those who loan their equipment should also be prepared to donate some time for the upkeep (and occasional tech support) of those machines throughout the school year. But it’s definitely worth it, to help our students make the most of their schooling.
The upcoming release of Windows 8, formerly known as Windows Blue, is now (drum roll, please) called Windows 8.1.
Windows 8.1 will be delivered as a free update to Windows 8 and Windows RT and it will be accessible from the Windows Start Screen through the App store, said Tami Reller, Microsoft’s Windows division Chief Financial Officer said during the J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media, & Telecom Conference in Boston today. Enterprise customers will have the option of how often and when they deliver the Windows 8.1 update to their end users, she explained.
Microsoft, which has already delivered 739 updates, will preview Windows 8.1 at the Microsoft Build Conference on June 26 in San Francisco, Reller said.
Customers who want to purchase a Windows 8 device today can upgrade their devices for free when the software is available, she said.
Companies have been slow to adopt Windows 8 so far. Although many businesses wait for the first update of an OS before doing an upgrade, Windows 8.1 probably won’t make a huge impact on enterprise plans. The Windows 8 learning curve and additional cost for touch screen devices makes it a hard proposition to upgrade all users to the new operating system at this time.
Reller noted two thirds of enterprise desktops today deploy Windows 7. Microsoft recommends that enterprises continue on the Windows 7 deployment path, evaluate the Windows 8 tablets and other new device types coming out, and look at the line of business applications, she said.
Asked about the next version of Surface and what future products would look like, Reller smoothly deflected the question to talk about the generalities of touch-based convertibles and detachable products. Reller also reiterated support for Windows 8-based 7- and 8-inch tablets without spilling the beans on what those devices might actually include.
With Microsoft executives dribbling out Windows news at every conference, I’ll be interested to hear what’s next on the agenda.
Lately, there’s been lots of interpretation and speculation swirling about the general topic of Windows “Blue” (aka Windows 8.1, scheduled for release to the world sometime before the end of 2013). The best take on this emerging phenomenon so far comes from ZDnet, in Mary Jo Foley’s occasionally brilliant and always interest All About Microsoft blog. Entitled “With Windows Blue, Microsoft may (finally) do the right thing,” it talks about what’s driving Microsoft’s recently discovered intentions — thanks to leaks and analyses of Windows “Blue” builds of late — to provide what MJF calls “an optional Start Button” and “boot-to-desktop capability.”
In light of MJF’s discussions and disclosures, the co-mingling of Windows 7 and 8 visual elements actually makes a perverse kind of sense.
In addition to these widely reported updates planned for Blue, MJF also calls on unidentified “tipsters” to report some additional UI tweaks potentially in the offing:
- changes to the Charms designed to make them more mouse-friendly
- changes to the Start screen specifically aimed at desktop users (presumably, only with mouse and keyboard at their disposal)
- new tutorials and context-sensitive help information to help newbies make better sense of Blue than they’ve apparently been able to make of the current Windows 8 release
Her take is that this might just be enough to move experienced users off of Windows 7 and into Windows 8, including her own production gear, given the reduction in learning curve and ease of use such changes would entail. I’ve already learned on my own 5 Windows 8 systems that by installing either Start8 or Classic Shell you can bypass most of the “UI friction” experienced users grouse about, and in so doing, have observed that Windows 8 is modestly faster, more compact, and quite stable in everyday test and production use.
My favorite part of this occurs when she quotes former Windows division president Steven Sinofsky’s “damned if we do; damned if we don’t” blog post (the actual title is “disrupt or die“) wherein he quite rightly observes that MS has no choice but to push the envelope on touch and tablet features in Windows versions from here on out. If they don’t do, somebody else will — and they’ lose market share; and if they do do it (or perhaps it’s appropriate to say “when they do it” at this point, what with Windows 8 out for 7 months-plus now), they’re going to disgruntle users who don’t want to deal with change, or who don’t like their changes or design ethos. There’s actually some of all of those things in what’s been happening with Windows 8 and its market reception and analysis since the consumer preview starting circulating in February 2012, and it doesn’t appear to have any end in sight.
The key point here is that Microsoft had to do something, and that is what they did. With the next version (“Blue”) they can make some corrections, but it’s not going to change either Microsoft’s or the technology world’s migration path from static, non-touch, deskbound devices to mobile, touch, hand-held and portable ones. Please check out the original article, and ponder its conclusion: “I believe Microsoft can stay its Metro-centric, touch-centric course with Windows Blue, while still making some changes that will make the OS more usable and comfortable for a bigger pool of users. While it would have been great if Windows 8 debuted this way last October, I say better late than never.” Amen and indeed, I say in reply. Good work, MJF!
Just saw a very interesting bit of “build detective work,” by Rafael Rivera over at the Within Windows blog. It’s entitled “Windows 8.1, PowerShell 4.0, and new cmdlets.” For those not already in the know, cmdlets are PowerShell scripts, usually designed to lift the burden of repetitive maintenance, configuration, and management tasks for Windows admins. Rivera takes the time to list out all of the new cmdlets he finds in the recently-leaked Build 9374 of Windows 8.1 aka “Windows Blue.” This makes for very interesting reading, so I’m going to reproduce them in tabular format here, and then comment on what I see afterwards.
|Windows 8.1 “Blue” Cmdlets By Category|
|VPN Configuration||Windows Defender||Start Screen|
|Get-KioskLockdown||Add-NetNatExternalAddress||Trusted Platform Module (TPM)|
|Set-StorageTier||Systems Mgmt Bus (SMB)||Start-PCSVDevice|
Here’s some more information and speculation on the categories and their applets, from left to right and top to bottom in order of appearance:
- VPN Configuration: a great many more cmdlets for managing Virtual Private Network connections, triggers, routes, and DNS make an appearance
- Windows Defender: make it possible to automate management of Windows Defender across an entire Windows network
- Start Screen: provide the ability to customize the Windows 8 Start screen
- DISM has been at odds with PowerShell syntax in the past; these cmdlets hide the differences inside standard structure and syntax
- Kiosk: enables setting up Windows 8 to run a single application (for a museum, store, or special-purpose kiosk PC)
- NAT management: enable automated handling for Network Address Translation elements in the Windows Routing and Remote Access (RRAS) infrastructure found in Windows Server
- Trusted Platform Module (TPM): provides access to important TPM info without having to work through a TPM API or access the TPM Management Console
- TCP/IP: a “net compartment” is new terminology, so we’ll have to wait and see what this means/is for
- Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI): manages information in WMI schemas and instances
- Systems Management: provides access to the new Physical Computer System View (PCSV) information to be found in next-generation Windows systems in the enterprise
- Storage: management for storage roles in Windows Server “Blue”, interacts with Storage Pools on both clients and servers
- Volume: miscellaneous volume management utilities
- SMB: something inside which to wrap the Systems Management Bus APIs from Microsoft
- Printer: these items reference NFC (“near field communications”) so Rivera speculates — and I agree — that this is an intimation of support for NFC printers, possibly for asset management or tracking
In his story Rivera includes a screen capture from the Registry Editor that clearly shows a new PowerShell 4.0 version reported in Windows 8.1 “Blue,” indicating another version change is pending. It will be interesting to see what new language changes and features this brings to the table. I’m going to contact some of my PowerShell buddies and see if they can give me a preview of coming attractions. More information on that as and when it comes my way!
For the past few weeks, the Windows pundits and mavens have been enjoying an extended “I-told-you-so” moment with Microsoft’s latest desktop OS, as detailed investigation of the upcoming revision to Windows 8 — still code-named “Blue” — has been revealed to restore the Start button, and to give users a configuration option of booting directly to the desktop. This bypasses a serious apparent obstacle to Windows 8’s acceptance: namely, the tile-oriented “Windows Store” “Modern UI” or “Metro” interface, depending on how far back into the label bin you would like to dig for your choice of monikers.
Looks like Windows Blue is intended to dispel the Windows 8 Blues, rather than to pump them up.
[Image Credit: Softpedia]
At the same time, MS has also indicated it has sold over 100 million Windows 8 licenses, presumably as of the end of April, keeping sales more or less on par with those for Windows 7. At 5 months plus 5 days out on April 30, that translates into average sales of between 19 and 20 million per month, which ain’t bad even for an operating system as castigated and sometimes reviled as Windows 8 has been. It’s certainly way ahead of Vista, to which Windows 8 is often compared.
In a famous epigram about remarriage in the wake of divorce, satirist and playwright Ben Jonson called it “the triumph of hope over reason.” Where Windows 8 is concerned, it’s starting to look like an opposite situation, where Microsoft’s hope to reinvent the desktop paradigm by forcing exposure to a touch-0riented interface is being trumped by a more reasonable and open-ended approach to meeting user’s need and wants, particularly for those users who don’t have touch-enabled PCs to work on. According to the New York Times, Tami Reller, Chief Marketing and Financial Officer for the Windows Division as MS, “revealed that Windows Blue will be released this calendar year and will include modifications that make the software easier to learn, especially for people running it on computers without touch screens.” In a direct quote from an IGN story, Ms. Reller herself said: “The Windows Blue update is an opportunity for us to respond to the customer feedback that we’ve been closely listening to since the launch of Windows 8 and Windows RT.”
More details about Blue will be disclosed at Microsoft’s upcoming Build conference, to be held in San Francisco from June 26-28 at Moscone Center. Perhaps that’s why the conference sold out in three hours the same day registration opened. Until then, we’ll have to rely on analysis of leaked builds of Blue to try to puzzle out the shape of the new vision for Windows 8 that Microsoft still has under construction.
Windows To Go is Microsoft’s name for a portable, flash-based implementation of Windows 8 on a USB Flash Drive (aka UFD, in MS-speak). Windows To Go works with BitLocker encryption to protect the contents of the traveling Windows image on the USB drive, and works on any Windows (or Windows-compatible) PC that can boot from the UFD.
What makes these UFDs special is that they typically integrate an SSD controller along with their flash chips so they behave (and perform) more like an SSD than a UFD in everyday use.
Inside shot of a 64 GB Kingston Datatraveler Workspace, courtesy of The SSD Review
Here’s a list of hardware requirements prospective Windows To Go hosts must meet:
1. USB boot must be enabled (because Windows To Go’s OS lives on a UFD, and that’s whence it boots)
2. The CPU must support the image that’s installed on the Windows To Go UFD
3. Does not work through an external USB hub: the Windows To Go UFD must be inserted into a socket on the host machine
4. CPU speed must be 1 GHz or faster
5. PC must include no less than 2 GB RAM
6. Graphics capabilities must support at least DirectX 9 graphics and WDDM 1.2 or higher
7. The USB port into which the Windows To Go UFD is inserted must be USB version 2.0 or higher; 3.0 is preferable for performance reasons
8. Only a limited number of drives are certified for use as Windows To Go devices (see the WTG Overview page for a complete list); currently certified models include the IronKey Workspace (no size info available), Kingston DataTraveler Workspace (32, 64, 128 GB models), Spyrus Portable Workspace (no size info available), SuperTalent USB Express RC4 and RC8 models (RC4: 32, 64, 128, and 256 GB models; RC8: 50 & 100 GB models), and Western Digital MyPassport Enterprise (conventional HD, 500 GB).
The minimum size of a Windows To Go UFD appears to be 32 GB, and the solid state models top out at 256 GB, with most available in a range from 32-128 GB in size. Prices can be high (the SuperTalent RC8 drives cost around $200 for the 50 GB model and $350 for the 100 GB model, here’s a note about RC4 pricing, and the 64 GB Kingston model goes for $130 – 170; Spyrus and IronKey models must generally be purchased directly from the vendor, often in concert with other software and services). Even considering the expense, the Windows To Go solution is a great way for people to take their normal working environments with them on the road, if only to use on personal notebook PCs, or on loaner units when they arrive at some temporary work location. And because WTG never stores any data on the local host, and isolates the entire contents of the WTG UFD cryptographically using BitLocker, you don’t need to worry about inadvertent disclosure of, or access to, a WTG UFD’s contents. Good stuff!
Due to hit stores as soon as June, 2013, Toshiba has jumped back onto the Win8 tablet market with a new model — the WT310 — that appears to target the Microsoft Surface Pro directly. The unit is described as being “optimized for business use” by Toshiba (PC Advisor, 5/2/13) and includes the Intel Anti-Theft and Trusted Platform Module (TPM) hardware security features.
Although it looks a lot like the Surface Pro, it’s a little bit lighter and includes a few more features, too.
Otherwise, the specs sound remarkably similar to those for the Microsoft Surface Pro including:
- 11.6″ 1980×1020 Full HD touch display with Intel HD Graphics 4000
- an ultralow-voltage i5 Intel processor like the i5-3317U found in the Surface Pro
- a digitizer pen stylus
- SSD storage, probably 128 and/or 256 GB
- USB 3.0 port (at least one, possibly two)
- micro-HDMI for graphics and audio output
- SD card slot (probably SDXC capable, to support up to 128 GB of added high-speed solid-state storage, and more as bigger cards become available into 2014)
- SIM card for 4G HSPA+/LTE WWLAN support
- The various stories I’ve found don’t say so specifically, but I’m guessing with some degree of confidence that these units will include 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth wireless modules as well (the PC Advisor story already cited also states that the unit will include Wi-Di support as well)
- A docking cradle will also be available to provide additional USB ports and GbE wired Ethernet
- Dimensions are reported at V3 as 229x189x12.4mm (9.02″ x 7.44″ x 0.49″) and weight at 825g (29.1 oz/1.82 lbs)
There’s no information available yet about battery life nor about pricing, either. But so far, this is one of the most interesting current-Intel-generation processor Windows 8 tablets I’ve seen. I’m curious why Toshiba is coming to market with this unit so late in the game, and have to wonder why they just didn’t wait to release a Haswell-based model later this year, presumably with more CPU and graphics power and improved battery life. I’m hoping I get a chance to check this puppy out, nevertheless!
This is the fourth entry in my recent “MyFaves” series: a collection of short and pointed appreciations for various hardware components of particular interest or value for Windows desktops, notebooks, and tablets. In this particular offering, I would like to recommend purchase and use of Secure Digital (SD) High Capacity (SDHC) or Extreme Capacity (SDXC) memory cards at sizes of 32, 64, or 128 GB for use in Windows notebooks, laptops, or tablets with suitable receptacles to accommodate those cards. These memory cards provide a terrific means to extend the storage of such units anywhere from modestly to significantly, especially on tablet or ultrabook systems that may have only 128 or 256 GB of SSD storage installed.
SDHC and SDXC cards come in many forms and in many sizes, but 32 GB or larger works best for extending portable notebook or tablet storage
[Image source: Tom’s Hardware]
Until recently, I’ve routinely used 32 GB SDHC cards — which generally retail for around $20 these days — to extend and expand storage on my Lenovo, HP, and Dell notebooks, all of which I’ve converted from 300-500 GB conventional hard disks to SSDs in the 128 to 256 GB range (a mix of Intel and OCZ drives mostly, with a mixture of offerings from other vendors including Corsair and Samsung as well). Given tighter space on those machines as a result, a bit of added drop-in storage often proves very handy, especially on those systems where adding a second mSATA SSD is not an option.
But with the recent introduction of extreme capacity (SDXC) memory cards, available today in capacities up to 128 GB, 64 and 128 GB add-ons to compact portable systems are now achievable. Price ranges for these cards look something like this (abstracted from a total of 161 products available at Newegg.com):
- 32 GB: $28-30
- 64 GB: $37-150
- 128 GB: $85-180
The reason for the wide range of pricing for the higher-capacity models comes from different speed ratings for those respective memory cards. The most expensive offerings are generally labeled UHS Speed Class 1, followed in order by Class 10, and 400X speed ratings. According to the afore-cited Tom’s Hardware story (see link beneath image), maximum data transfer rates for these technologies are roughly as follows: 104 MB/sec for UHS Speed Class 1, 80 MB/sec for Class 10 (which actually guarantees a minimum 10 MB/sec rate), and 60 MB/sec for 400x devices. Ultimately, data rates as measured in their benchmarking tests show up at significantly lower values (here’s a sample table of combined streaming reads and writes, for example) with early UHS Speed Class 1 devices clocking in at between 13 and 20 MB/sec, and Class 10 at between 7 and 18 MB/sec).
To try this newer technology, I purchased a brand-new SanDisk Extreme Pro 64 GB SDXC card, having observed that the SanDisk Extreme memory card models generally come in at or near the top of all the comparative performance ratings. Here’s what CrystalDiskMark reported for that card in my Lenovo T520 notebook PC (Windows 7 Professional x64, i7-2640M, OCZ Vertex4 128GB SSD, 12 GB RAM):
Blazing fast results for the SanDisk 64 GB Extreme Pro memory card! As fast as my SSD, or faster…
Of course, I did have to pay through the nose for this memory card: it cost me $126.40 through a Newegg affiliate partner. The SanDisk Extreme Pro models are among the most expensive SDXC cards currently available, but they appear to offer a storage extension that is close to par with an SSD than most other memory cards do. As a true “storage extension” this is very desirable to me (this capability is primarily intended to serve on fast cameras where video recording or burst mode still photography puts pretty high demands on memory write bandwidth). Whether or not it’s sufficiently desirable to you to make the cost justifiable is between you and your checkbook!
Thanks to a great post from Ed Bott on ZDNet I just learned that Soluto’s announcement of its new Soluto for Business subscription/service was also accompanied by a very interesting report on April 24 as well. Entitled “Soluto’s PC Purchasing Guide for Small Businesses” (and its subtitle: “Monthly Report, April 2013” and URL suggest we’ll be seeing more of this kind of data possibly on a monthly or quarterly basis), this report crunches data from what the company calls “long term, ongoing analysis of a huge number of PCs, taking into account events such as application crashes, application hangs, blue-screens-of-death, long boot times and excessive number of background processes.”
Soluto finally starts to share some results from its massive PC stability and performance monitoring of its large current user community.
In reporting on the top 10 PCs, Soluto incorporated a large data set, including the following information:
Data points considered included counts of crashes, hangs, BSODs, boots, and overall boot time.
In addition, in publishing the guide, Soluto filtered its results to include only Windows laptops that are currently for sale through various commercial outlets, including online, from the manufacturer, in big-box stores, and so forth. Interestingly the highest-scoring machine wasn’t a PC at all: The Ivy Bridge MacBook Pro (vintage mid-2012) took the pole position, closely followed by a $429 budget notebook from Acer, the Aspire E1-571. Dell notched up 5 out of the top 10 slots, with Acer and Apple each picking up another spot themselves, and Lenovo barely squeaking into tenth place with its Thinkpad X1 Carbon. Even more interestingly, units that cost at or under $700 dominated the list, racking up six spots overall.
Soluto’s Top 10 puts a MacBook Pro in top position, with Dell sweeping “overall best by total count.”
In their reporting on the Top 10 units, Soluto observes that PCs from vendors who traditionally load their machines up with third-party software, often called “crapware,” do not appear in this list. Such machines often experience lower stability and longer boot times as a result of this practice — which OEMs defend as a way to reduce PC pricing, since the companies that provide the added software help to subsidize the cost of PCs that include their warez — so it’s no big surprise that this would cost them position on Soluto’s list, given the metrics they use and the way those metrics get weighted. One of the reasons Soluto attributes to a MacBook landing in the top spot “is the fact that every Windows installation on it is clean.”
To me, what makes this report interesting is the data that drives it, and what that data tells us about how things work out there in homes and workplaces as measured empirically. This paints a very different picture from the reviews we see at the major online PC publications (PC Magazine, PC World, CNET, and so forth) and even at more focused laptop oriented sites (NotebookReview.com, NotebookCheck.com, LaptopMag.com, and so on). There, reviews concentrate most heavily on features and functions, and a “how fast can it go” kind of review philosophy that doesn’t always incorporate stability or reliability considerations (let alone the kind of database that Soluto can bring to bear).
This is extremely interesting stuff, not just because of what this single dataset and analysis has to say — which is pretty valuable and informative all by itself — but because of the ways the Soluto can (and promises to) be sliced and diced in future reports as well. Soluto already plans to report on stability differences between OEM installs and clean reinstalls on the same hardware; given their observations on the impact of crapware on overall stability and reliability this, too, promises to make for some fascinating reading and learning. It also already argues pretty forcefully that re-imaging new machines with clean installs may repay the time and effort required to replace an OEM image with a clean image of one’s own may repay itself quickly, and offer users a better overall computing experience as well.
Riverbed Technology is a networking technology company that’s been around for over a decade, based in San Francisco. It’s probably best-known for its WAN optimization and performance management products, but it has a presence in other market spaces as well including storage and application delivery, network planning and simulation, and a growing list of cloud-based services and appliances. Riverbed also owns CACE, the organization behind the WinPCap promiscuous mode Ethernet and wireless drivers, and the always-excellent Wireshark software-based protocol analyzer.
Riverbed offers cert credentials for its WAN optimization, network performance management, and application delivery products and platforms.
What many people don’t know (including me, until fairly recently) is that Riverbed also operates a certification program, one that offers associate and/or professional level credentials on the following Riverbed platforms (the associate credentials are abbreviated RCSA for Riverbed Certified Solutions Associate, and RCSP swaps the (A)ssociate for (P)rofessional instead):
- Riverbed Steelhead Appliance Deployment & Management:
- Riverbed Cascade Network Performance and Management products:
- Riverbed Stingray product family and ADC200 Application Delivery Controller:
All of these items may also be accessed through Riverbed’s Certification page, which provides news and information about recent program chances and announcements as well as links to currently available credentials and their requirements. The company’s cert information is generally available in PDF form on a per-credential basis (see the links included in the preceding list for an example) and is clear, concise, well-organized and informative (every question I thought to raise about these credentials was addressed therein, included their exam center partner — VUE — cost of exams –$150 — exam coverage and related references — links provided, where appropriate — plus lots more). If you work with Riverbed Technologies products covered by any of these credentials, further investigation — and possible participation in the program — is probably warranted. Good stuff!