Windows Enterprise Desktop

July 9, 2012  2:38 PM

Is Windows 8 Poised for Success or Failure?

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Regular ComputerWorld Windows Guy and market observer Preston Gralla got me thinking this morning with his article entitled “Early warning signs point to a Windows 8 apathetic launch.” He makes some very interesting observations based on recent reports from Net Applications about the differences between Windows 7 and 8 uptake during their respective beta test periods. Seems that “at the same stage of development, Windows 7 had four times the market share of Windows 8” he notes, observing that only 0.2% of Windows PCs tallied by Net Applications were using Windows 8 about 4 months before GA release (June, 2012), as compared to 0.8% of PCs using Windows 7 in June, 2009 ahead of its GA date of October 22, 2009.

But that’s not what makes his article so interesting. He opines that with Windows 8 targeting tablet use as a primary goal of its UI design and operation, consumers aren’t as likely to buy into the new OS as they are likely to buy an iPad or some kind of Android tablet. This makes an awful lot of sense to me, and may indeed be a reasonable interpretation for the relative differences between Windows 7 and Windows 8 beta uptake. He also observes, quite rightly, that the sublime awfulness of Vista made Windows users a lot more interesting in some alternative, or any alternative to that OS, whereas users’ primarily positive attitudes toward Windows 7 also help to diminish interest in Windows 8.

I’d add a few more factors to this mix as well. When Windows 7 came out, businesses were facing the end of the life-cycle for their aging fleets of Windows XP desktops and notebooks, and were able to start migrating (a phenomenon that’s still underway, and by no means finished) to Windows 7 with more relief than trepidation. Recent reductions in the costs for RAM and processors (even with the spike in hard disk prices prompted by the floods in Thailand last year) have made buying new machines a powerful value proposition in the last two years as well, which has perforce meant many machines shipped out with Windows 7 pre-installed. Business users recognize that adopting Windows 8 means adopting the Metro UI and training users to be productive in a thoroughly recast Windows environment, so they’re hanging back from the upcoming OS as well.

It’s going to be a long, slow road to Windows 8 adoption. And the jury’s still out as to whether or not Windows 8 will be a blip like Vista or a home-run like Windows XP and 7. It will be interesting to watch and wait, to see how the market reacts when they must choose between a PC or a tablet with Windows 8 pre-installed. I’m guessing many, many buyers will opt for conventional desktop and notebook PCs with Windows 7 instead, for some time to come.

July 6, 2012  1:51 PM

MSDN Subscription Terms Vastly Curtailed

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Like many of my professional colleagues who research and write about Windows, I’m an MSDN subscriber. Thanks to some great gigs in the past three years I’ve actually upped my ante to around $1,600 a year for the MSDN Premium-level subscription so as to gain access to developer tools as well as MS Office, and the usual collection of desktop and server operating systems. Late last week, Ed Bott served notice through a blog post entitled “To fight piracy, Microsoft tightens MSDN and TechNet terms again,” where he lays out the following changes to these programs that are bound to have a chilling effect on subscriptions for folks like himself and me:

  • Fewer license keys: For MSDN subscribers, the number of product keys for client software (including Windows OSes) and MS Office drop from 10 to 5 for current versions, 3 for older versions. TechNet subscribers still get 3 keys per version.
  • Fewer keys per day: For both MSDN and TechNet subscribers the total number of keys one can claim daily drops from over 50 to 10. This is intended to curb pirates who have been milking subscriptions to sell illegal OS and application copies as quickly as possible.
  • Fewer products: Today, subscribers can grab any version of MS Office plus standalone programs in the Office suite (that is, Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and so forth). Under the new regime, only full suites will be available, and older versions of software gone (no more Office 97 or Windows 98, for example).
  • No more perpetual software rights: TechNet users lose perpetual license rights to software they download. Today’s subscribers can continue to use software even after an active TechNet subscription lapses. Under the new regime, when the subscription goes, so do the rights to use the software obtained while that subscription was still in effect.

There are some mitigating circumstances, however, that should ease potential pain to legitimate subscribers to these programs. Any valid product key can be activated multiple times, so three to five keys actually cover dozens of installations.  Legitimate subscribers can also ask for additional keys, and MS indicates it should be able to honor such requests in three business days. Should make life more interesting for TechNet subscribers, and more miserable for would be pirates. Arrrrrrrrr!

July 5, 2012  2:54 PM

Great Windows Resources: SevenForums and EightForums

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Thanks to a request from some colleagues at Dell recently, I’ve dug back into a pair of nonpareil websites to revisit their standout coverage and tutorials for all things Windows related. I’m talking about SevenForums and EightForums, two Websites that are the brainchild of John Fairbrother and ably assisted by Microsoft Windows Desktop MVP Shawn Brink, amidst a cast of hundreds of other savvy and knowledgeable Windows wizards and volunteers. There’s a Windows Vista site, too,  but it doesn’t figure that much into anybody’s plans nowadays, nor register on too many radars, though it is every bit as good as its more modern counterparts.

Windows Seven Forums logoWindows Eight Forums Logo

Logos for the Windows Seven and Eight Forums sites

What will you find on these sites if you decide to visit them? In addition to a plethora of Forum areas that include news, general discussions, and a “Chillout Room,” you’ll also find discussion areas (forums, get it?) devoted to a laundry list of interesting OS and related topics that include the following:

Drivers Backup and Restore Media Center
Hardware & Devices Windows Updates & Activation Music, Pictures & Video
Graphic cards Crashes and Debugging Microsoft Office
Sound & Audio Software System Security
Network & Sharing Browsers & Mail Virtualization
Installation & Setup Customization Overclocking and Case Mods
Performance & Maintenance Gaming Tutorials

Please note that the final entry at the lower-right, Tutorials, is in boldface. That’s my emphasis, and where much of the amazing value of these sites resides. This is also where MVP  Shawn Brink’s amazing command of modern Windows versions is also on full display (you’ll find several hundred, short, instructive and well-illustrated examples of his work spread across the Windows 7 and 8 Forums sites, and they’re uniformly interesting, on-target, and sometimes incredibly useful as well). There’s constant chatter on all of the forums, and lots of good information scrolling through them at a pretty ferocious rate. Lots of good stuff all around here, in fact.

If you don’t know about these sites already, be sure to check them out. If you do know about them already, be sure to share them with your friends, colleagues, and family members. There’s really and truly something for everybody here.

July 2, 2012  3:15 PM

Windows 8 RTM Should Hit Sometime Soon

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

I generally don’t spend a lot of time following the rumor mill for Windows 8, but if Windows 8 is going to ship in October of this year — and I’m still pretty convinced it will be out before Halloween — it’s about time for the Release to Manufacturing (RTM) version to head out the door so the OEMs can start prepping their systems for the eventual general availability (GA) release. To that end, I did tune into the usual sources for such information to see what was circulating around the rumor mill and found some degree of unanimity among some usual suspects (Mary Jo Foley, Gregg Keizer, Ed Oswald, and so forth). Most people think that the RTM will hit the week of July 16, across all of the sources that I recently polled and trolled.

The big push, of course, is to get the OS done in time for holiday pre-sales. Thus, even the end of October is pushing things out as far as they can go to hit this oh-so-necessary sales window. That’s the only way to get the machines with the new OS pre-loaded into buyer’s hands soon enough to take advantage of holiday buying. The real question then becomes: “Does anybody really WANT a Windows 8 PC — or even a Windows 8 Surface tablet, of the RT/ARM or Intel persuasion — under their tree?” I’m sure lots of folks in the Redmond area are having trouble sleeping at night fretting over that very question.

Hence my intention, and your possible look-out: to watch for an announcement of an RTM date soon. Might be as early as the end of next week, but probably not until some time the week after. But only time will tell, so stay tuned.

June 29, 2012  2:56 PM

MS Telemetry Tells Some Unexpected Tales About Windows PCs

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

If you allow Windows to track and report on errors, every time your PC experiences some kind of problem it “phones home” to Redmond,  and reports on what’s happened. It also promises to send you information about any related solutions that may come up as a result, but for most of us, a much more typical response to seeking solutions for such problems looks like this in the Action Center interface:

Seems like problem reporting hardly ever produces usable fixes

Seems like problem reporting hardly ever produces usable fixes

As it happens, however, Microsoft also researches the causes for and sources of such problems, thanks to the telemetry that delivers all this information to their tracking servers. They’ve just published their first-ever report on this data. It’s called “Cycles, Cells, and Platters: An Empirical Analysis of Hardware Failures on a Million Consumer PCs.” The summary for the report is both interesting and informative enough to be worth verbatim reproduction, so here goes:

We present the first large-scale analysis of hardware failure rates on a million consumer PCs. We find that many failures are neither transient nor independent. Instead, a large portion of hardware induced failures are recurrent: a machine that crashes from a fault in hardware is up to two orders of magnitude more likely to crash a second time. For example, machines with at least 30 days of accumulated CPU time over an 8 month period had a 1 in 190 chance of crashing due to a CPU subsystem fault. Further, machines that crashed once had a probability of 1 in 3.3 of crashing a second time. Our study examines failures due to faults within the CPU, DRAM and disk subsystems. Our analysis spans desktops and laptops, CPU vendor, overclocking, underclocking, generic vs. brand name, and characteristics such as machine speed and calendar age. Among our many results, we find that CPU fault rates are correlated with the number of cycles executed, underclocked machines are significantly more reliable than machines running at their rated speed, and laptops are more reliable than desktops.

Lest you be inclined to pooh-pooh this report and its contents, it’s probably worth observing that it received the “Best Paper” award in the ACM’s (Association for Computing Machinery, a leading computer-science professional organization, to which I have belonged since 1982) Proceedings of Eurosys 2011 conference publication.

Joel Hruska from ExtremeTech overviews its findings in an excellent story entitled “Microsoft Analyzes over a million PC failures, results shatter enthusiast myths.” I’ll summarize the high points here:

  • The longer a CPU runs, the more likely it is to crash. Machines with less than 5 days of active use over an 8-month period (what MS calls Total Accumulated CPU Time, aka TACT) have a 1:330 chance of crashing. Machines with over 30 days of TACT over the same 8-month period have a 1:190 chance of crashing.
  • Once a hardware fault appears, it is 100 times more likely to recur after that. 97% of machines tend to crash from the same cause within a month of the first such crash.
  • Over-clocking (no surprise there) is likely to cause crashes, while underclocking makes them less likely. Figure 3 from the report summarizes overall overclocking findings. For underclocking CPU failures go from 1:330 for stock to 1:460 for underclocked; DRAM one-bit flip errors drop from 1:2000 (stock) to 1:3600 (UC); and disk issues drop from 1:380 to 1:560. This also confirms conventional wisdom that underclocking improves PC reliability (it definitely reduces heat output, which is probably related).
The odds of a crash zoom with overclocking (2nd and 3rd lines represent chances of a second and third crash respectively)

The odds of a crash zoom with overclocking (2nd and 3rd lines represent chances of a second and third crash respectively)

  • Surprisingly to some (but not to me, based on lots of hands-on experience) laptops proved to be more stable than desktops, countering the researchers’ own expectations.
  • PCs from major systems vendors (such as Dell, HP, Asus, Lenovo, and so forth — defined as the “Top 20 computer OEMs” in the report) proved more reliable than those from all other vendors, with 1:120 for CPU problems (OEMs) versus 1:93 (everybody else), and 1:2700 (OEMs) for RAM one-bit flip problems versus 1:950 (everybody else).

All in all the report makes for some interesting reading and suggests that MS may be learning more from this data in the aggregate, however unresponsive their forwarding of problem solutions through the Action Center might seem. Should be interesting to keep an eye out for future such findings.

June 28, 2012  2:49 PM

So-called “Fanless Heatsink” Promises Cooler PCs, Higher TDP, Lower Energy Consumption

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

An interesting story appeared in Extreme Tech earlier this week. Entitled “The fanless heatsink: Silent, dust-immune, and almost ready for prime time,” it digs into a recent invention from the eggheads at Sandia National Laboratories called the Sandia Cooler heatsink. The reason why I designated the fanless heatsink terminology as “so-called” in my blog title is because calling this technology fanless is something of a misnomer. Actually, the heatsink’s heat dissipator IS a fan, so no additional fan is needed to provide cooling for this particular device, as shown in the photo below (reproduced from the Extreme Tech story cited above):

The Sandia Cooler heatsink turns the radiator into its own built-in fan

The Sandia Cooler heatsink turns the radiator into its own built-in fan

According to the Extreme Tech story, there are lots of interesting wrinkles to this invention, which sounds pretty much like a “gotta-have-it-yesterday” PC technology to me. First,  it’s reportedly 30 times more efficient than current heatsinks. Second, it uses a “cast metal impeller” that floats 0.03 mm above a metal heat pipe spreader, and is powered by a brushless DC motor integrated into the unit itself. Third, the impeller is extremely quiet (no sound measurements provided, but even the quietest of fan-based coolers emit at least 30 dBA, so I’m guessing it’s in the lower 20s if not quieter than that — basically inaudible, especially in typical household or office environments which usually feature ambient noise levels in the 35-45 dBA range). There’s a video in the linked story (above) that shows how quiet it is, and that’s pretty quiet indeed. Fourth, the impeller has been designed to resist dust build-up owing to a constant rotation at 2000+ RPM, and use of centrifugal force to drive dust out of the air gap between the heatsink (the impeller) and the heat spreader (the metal heat pipe spreader attached to the processor package). Fourth, the Sandia folks estimate that “if every conventional heatsink in the US was replaced with a Sandia Cooler, the country would use 7% less electricity.”

OK, I’m sold, but apparently it’s going to be a while before this technology makes it into a commercial cooling product. According to the story, a company has licensed the technology for PC cooling, but that company hasn’t been identified nor any such products announced. Rats! I was hoping to rush right out and buy some immediately. Let’s hope it doesn’t take toooooooooo long to come to commercial fruition. Gotta have it!!!

June 25, 2012  9:21 PM

On Becoming an mSATA Believer

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Last February, in getting ready to work on a Windows 8 book — now abandoned, alas, in favor of other work — I purchased a couple of Lenovo notebook PCs. My X220 Tablet has become my go-to touchscreen Windows 8 test PC, and my T520 notebook has proved itself to be a solid and dependable traveling PC as well. In learning all about my Lenovo units, I’ve become familiar with a class of compact solid state SATA drives that use a special Mini-SATA or mSATA connector, not least because both of these notebooks will accommodate an mSATA SSD in the same slot into which you might otherwise plug a WLAN card.

mSATA does skips the housing around flash chips inside a 2.5in drive

Naked RAM: mSATA skips the housing around flash chips inside a 2.5in drive

(Photo from Wikipedia entry, Wikipedia commons, Author Bdortiz1076)

mSATA is essentially the same form factor as mini-PCIe (PCI Express Mini Card interface) and is becoming increasingly popular for SSDs. Right now, all of the major vendors — including Intel, Samsung, OCZ, SanDisk, ADATA, Transcend, SuperTalent, and so forth — offer mSATA SSDs in capacities from 20 GB to as large as 256 GB. They tend to be more expensive than their 2.5″ packaged counterparts, and some care must be exercised in picking units compatible with the chosen host PC. But I’ve had good luck with both of my Lenovo units in using an 80 GB Intel 310 mSATA drive, even if one must perform a clean install of the OS to get the machine to recognize the mSATA SSD as the boot drive.

For notebook PCs, the great thing about mSATA is that, when available, it provides an extra drive slot that’s perfect for a smaller (60-80 GB for a PC with 4-6 GB RAM; 120 GB or larger for a PC with 8 GB RAM or more) boot drive, which leaves at least one slot open for  a conventional 2.5″ hard disk or SSD, depending on performance needs and budgetary constraints. What I really like about my T520 Lenovo notebook is that I can (and did) buy a $40 swap out, snap-in replacement for the optical drive module that lets me add another hard disk, for a total of 3 drives in that machine. Right now, I’ve got two 750 GB 7,200 RPM drives for storage, and a snappy 80 GB mSATA boot drive, for a pretty winning combination of speed and storage capacity.

But here’s another interesting news flash to consider as well: a growing number of motherboard makers — including at least Asus, Intel, Jetway, Gigabyte, and Zotac (see this Google search) — are selling modern mobos (mostly socket LGA1155) with built-in mSATA interfaces. These are smart enough to recognize mSATA devices in UEFI or BIOS, and to propel them to the top of the boot hierarchy by default. I’m starting to think that I might know what kind of motherboard I’ll be buying for my next desktop build, in fact…

June 25, 2012  2:06 PM

Interesting Windows 8 malaises surface

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Windows guru Paul Thurrot has posted an interesting and disturbing story about some problems he’s encountered recently with Windows 8 Release Preview. It’s entitled “Broken Windows? Two Serious Issues That Make Windows 8 Release Preview Almost Unusable (For Me).” In that story he recounts issues with:

  • Hard Crashes — or what I would call freeze-ups — of the Windows 8 runtime environment. Anybody who’s worked on Windows for any length of time is familiar with this phenomenon, where for some reason, Windows simply stops responding to input. Sometimes, you can move the cursor around for a while but the system won’t respond to anything, not even CTL-ALT-DEL or CTRL-ALT-ESC. The only fix is to cycle the power on your PC and perform what Reliability Monitor calls an “abnormal” or “unexpected” shutdown. I’ve experienced this phenomenon many times myself, including once or twice on the Windows 8 Release Preview on my desktop test machine (but never on my Lenovo X200 Tablet).
  • Networking failure: Thurrott reports an issue with large file transfers where the file copy window never closes or indicates copy complete (though the copy does conclude successfully), followed by network issues for the affected PC. It can’t access web sites, transfer other files, or access the network properly. The problem remains active even after resetting the network connection, switching cables, resetting local routers, and even after rebooting. After a while the problem goes away, but then recurs intermittently afterward. Weird. Disturbing. Scary, even. And Thurrott reports that several hundred other users have responded to his article with reports of similar experiences themselves. Thank heaven I’ve never experienced this issue as he describes it (though I have seen large file transfers seemingly stall for a while, they’ve never been followed by the litany of symptoms he describes in his story, and has had confirmed by fellow sufferers).
Though we’ve all gotten used to occasional Windows weirdness, I agree with Thurrott that both of these problems are disturbing and upsetting. For those of use who make our livings from our PCs, it’s simply not acceptable to have them “go away” occasionally, for no good reason, and then to have to try to carry on despite any trepidation we might have about recurrences. I sure hope MS can get to the bottom of this and fix it before the OEM release goes out next month. Who need such “features” in a production  (or any kind of) OS?

June 21, 2012  3:31 PM

Interesting Power/Stability Problems Force Embarrasing Realization

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

In the past month, I’ve replaced my previous production desktop — a still powerful and more than adequate QX9650 quad-core based machine that I installed with a 32-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate, long, long ago whose memory limits had simply become intolerable for me — with a new production desktop — it’s built around an i7-930 Bloomfield (45 nm) CPU, but has a fast OCZ Vertex 4 180 GB SSD and 24 GB of RAM. At the same time, I also moved an old Dell All-in-One 968 printer up to my wife’s office upstairs, and plugged in a newish Samsung ML-2851ND laser printer in its stead.

Ever since I’ve swapped the printers out, my production desktop has occasionally hung or shut itself down automatically from time to time. Even more curiously, those events correlate pretty much directly with the use of the printer, and are more pronounced for long or demanding print jobs. I’d been scratching my head about this and wondering what was up until the solution dawned on me and I fixed the problem with the switch of a single power cord plug-in. All the information you need to solve this puzzle is included in this photo of the cable maze under the desk in my office.

I have a couple of dozen devices plugged into my APC 1500W UPS.

I have a couple of dozen devices plugged into my APC 1500W UPS.

My Smart UPS 1500 is an older UPS, but still works with the latest APC PowerChute Business Edition software (v9.0.1). But when I switched the old printer for the new one, I neglected to take into account the difference in power draw between the two units. The Dell is an inkjet which sips a very modest peak of 32W. The Samsung, though much smaller than the Dell unit, is a laser and pulls a much less modest 400W at peak consumption times.

I had literally pulled the plug for the AIO 968 and inserted the power cord for the Samsung ML-2850ND into the same receptacle. I hadn’t stopped to think that a laser draws significantly more power than an inkjet, because of the high-temperatures the fusing wire must generate to melt the toner and get it to stick to the page while printing. As soon as I pulled the plug from its receptacle in the octopus you see with the yellow plug ends at the right hand side of the photo, and plugged it directly into the wall outlet, all my problems were solved, solved, solved.

And guess what? The UPS is no longer beeping at me every hour or two (which it was doing each time the printer woke up, and apparently coursed some voltage through the fuser), either. I just wish the PowerChute software had been smart enough to tell me that it was getting excess voltage demands instead of just making noises. But that’s the way it goes sometimes when troubleshooting mysterious and intermittent system problems.

June 13, 2012  1:11 PM

Killer SSD Deal Today Only

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Among all of the many speedy SSD drives out there, the Samsung 830 drives are close but not at the top of the pack (see, for example, the Tom’s Hardware SSD Hierarchy Chart which puts it behind the OCZ  m4 and the Intel 320 series). But when this Newegg deal hit my inbox this morning, I just had to share it with my readers because it’s a genuine “Killer Deal:” $90 for a nominal 128 GB drive (actually, more like 120 GB is reported in Windows Explorer as the drive size, thanks to the difference between 1 billion bytes in decimal and 1 GB in binary).

About $0.75 per GB remains pricey but a great deal for a pretty fast SSD

About $0.75 per GB remains pricey but a great deal for a pretty fast SSD

It’s a great add-on to just about any PC, be it a boot drive for a desktop, or a general replacement drive for a notebook. If you’re in the market, and have the cash to spare, this really is too good a deal to pass up. Follow this Newegg link to get to the Samsung 830 128GB product page, and don’t forget to use the Promo Code EMCYTZT1751 as you work through the payment process.

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