Windows Enterprise Desktop

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.

June 9, 2012  8:45 PM

Microsoft Sells Over 600M Copies of Windows 7

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Earlier this week (June 6) at Computex in Taipei, Taiwan, Microsoft Corporate VP Steven Guggenheimer announced that Microsoft has sold over 600 million licenses for Windows 7. Hmm. Let’s do some calendar math: This OS shipped on October 22, 2009. That means 3 months in 2009, 12 each for 2010 and 2011, plus 6 for 2012, for a total of 33.5 months of sales all told. That translates into average monthly sales of just over 17.9 million copies per month for every month since the product hit the streets.

I can remember months when total copies sold ranged between 20 and 25 million per month earlier in the sales cycle, but that’s still pretty darned impressive. Considering that 400 million copies of XP were in use in January 2006 and that Microsoft stopped selling this incredibly popular Windows version in January, 2009, it’s possible that there may be more than 600 million copies of XP still in use today, but I’d be surprised if there were more than 800 million overall. These waters are also muddied somewhat by Microsoft’s Windows XP Mode giveaway, which puts a free copy of a Windows XP VM into the hands of any owner of Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate who decides he or she wants one.

Last month’s Desktop Operating System Market Share numbers from (May, 2012) seems to bear out my analysis. It still shows XP with a 3.34% edge in marketshare over Windows 7, with all other OSes combined comprising less than 15% of all desktop seats:

NetMarketShare Distribution for May 2012 For Desktop OSes

NetMarketShare Distribution for May 2012 For Desktop OSes

Windows 8 will certainly make all of this extremely interesting, probably right about the time that Windows 7 celebrates its third birthday this October. My guess is that Windows 7 will surpass, and quite possibly even eclipse, Windows XP, sometime in the next two to three years. Whether Windows takes off and runs in Windows 7 fashion, or limps along as Windows Vista did instead, is still anybody’s guess. But even though most of the experts I respect have learned to appreciate Windows 8 (especially Paul Thurrott and Ed Bott) though I don’t think anybody is expecting it to be as successful as Windows 7 has been, is right now, and will continue to be.

June 6, 2012  4:15 PM

The More Things You Change, The More Attentive You Must Be!

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

File this one under the heading of “Another Windows war story.” It dwells on strange shenanigans, and lessons learned, in switching over from an old, familiar, and reasonably stable desktop to a newer and snappier, almost unknown, and possibly stable replacement desktop. My biggest reason for making the switch comes from increasing use of virtualization, where 4 GB of RAM just doesn’t cut it any more. And then, too, there’s always the chance to get a bigger, faster, more powerful machine any time you make such a move.

Right now, I’m almost through migrating from my three-year old production PC (Gigabyte X38-DQ6 mobo, QX-9650 quad-core CPU, Windows 7 Ultimate x86, Intel 80GB SSD, and 4 GB RAM) to my year-old former test machine (Asus P6X58D-E mobo, i7 930 CPU, Windows 7 Professional x64, OCZ Vertex 3 SSD, and 24 GB RAM). I had overclocked the test machine to see how fast I could push the i7 930 Bloomfield processor it contains. Rated at 2.8 GHz, I got it to 3.8 GHz with what I thought was a reasonable degree of stability, and pushed the 667 Mhz memory to 800 MHz without any signs of instability as well.

But alas, those conditions persisted only until I switched the machine from test to production duty, and really started hammering away at it. And of course, I started hanging the typical plethora of peripherals most production machines tend to acquire (and with which very few test systems must ever contend): two 27″ monitors, a laser printer, USB keyboard and mouse, USB media card reader, 2 USB external drives (1 USB2, the other USB3), 2 eSATA external drives along with two more internal 1 TB+ conventional hard disks, and a high-end Axiom audio output rig to  my speakers.

I also doubled up the memory in the unit–this mobo uses tri-bank memory, so I’d inserted 3×4 GB DIMMs for 12 GB of total RAM for testing. Another trio of the same memory modules (G.Skill F3-12800C19-4GBRL units that run 9-9-9-25-34 at 667 MHz) brought the total RAM configuration up to 24 GB, now running quite nicely on my new production desktop.  Here’s a snap of CPU Monitor showing the new clocking and memory size:

Back to default clocking, up to 24 GB RAM

Back to default clocking, with over 24 GB RAM

On Sunday morning, when I sat down to the machine to search out and install Samsung’s own latest driver for its ML-2851ND laser printer it started shutting down on me when I’d finished my task and tested how well it was working. Because the Devices and Printers widget in Control Panel appeared to have returned to normal operation, I didn’t think it was driver-related. My suspicions that the print driver wasn’t the culprit were confirmed when (a) I succeeded in printing test and other pages without difficulty and (b) when the machine continued to shutdown and crash intermittently over the next two hours as I got into troubleshooting mode.

Having seen weird behaviors in the past on Gigabyte Motherboards (in the ICH3 – ICH7 era) when all memory slots were populated, I first tried removing half the RAM to see if the system would stabilize. No joy. Next thing I did was to jump into the BIOS, turn off the overclocking for both CPU and the memory channel, and presto! Everything settled down to its usual rock-solid behavior, so I made a disk image. After installing a bunch of useful but not mission-critical utilities to give the system a workout, I realized that stability was restored. And in the 20 hours or so it’s been since I re-inserted the 3 new RAM sticks, the machine has continued to run without any serious hiccups (other than a disconnected wireless mouse transceiver that fooled me into a forced shutdown), as shown in my current Reliability Monitor graph:

5/28-6/5 represent my "shakedown period"

5/28-6/5 represents my shakedown cruise for this PC

Before I started migrating on 5/28, the test machine showed nothing but solid “perfect 10” performance. Once I started installing new devices and driver on 5/28 (the first big dip in the curve) I shook things up with a Windows hang, and a couple of major issues with my Dell AIO968 drivers (that printer is now happily attached to my wife’s PC upstairs, where we now use it only for printing color output). Configuring various applications — Outlook, mostly — got me dinged once, and realizing that the ML-2851ND driver I downloaded from DriverAgent was hosing my machine cost me a couple more hickeys as well.

Yesterday, I got dinged when trying to remove the old ML-2851ND driver caused a system crash, and then again when the system started spontaneous shut-downs immediately thereafter. I still have issues with the video driver for my GeForce GTX 460 shutting down right after system startup, but the PC recovers quickly and without discernible side effects, so I’m OK with waiting to identify and install a more stable driver for that graphics card.

Otherwise, returning to safe clock settings for CPU and RAM seem to have brought things to a quiet, steady level — just the way I like them. And now, the new production machine is starting to feel like a real production machine, indeed.

June 4, 2012  3:42 PM

After the Weekend, More on Windows 8 Preview Release

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

OK, so now I’ve got a few more hours with the latest Windows 8 release under my belt, and so far, so good. My biggest initial beef with the latest release is that it seems not to have absorbed too many new drivers in the time between the Customer Preview and the Preview Release. Now that I reflect back on my experience in bringing the latest release up to snuff as compared to the previous one, driver clean-up is still a little to intense unaided. Of course, now that I’ve done it once I can use Sysprep to building a reference installation and then add those hard-found drivers so that I don’t have to go looking again. I wish somebody would tell me about how to do that across minor releases for Windows, or clue me into some automagic tool I have yet to discover on my own.

The current release definitely boots up, resumes from sleep or hibernation, and shuts down more quickly on the same hardware than it did for the previous release. It also seems more responsive to “edge gestures” on the touch screen — a big relief to me — than the previous release felt as well. And in general, the touch interface seems easier to use (though I’m not sure if that’s because I’m more familiar with the Windows 8 UI by now, or if it’s a real change to my systems’ touch behavior).

I restored my favorite desktop gadgets, too, only to learn that one of my personal favorites — it’s called Vista Shutdown Control 2 — is munged on C|NET where it shows up as only 227 bytes there. It’s 425 Kbytes in actuality: the best working link remains on the old Vista-era Microsoft Desktop gadgets page which had been taken off-line some time back, but is now up and available again (there was a period late last year when MS said “No more gadgets!” and took the page down, but they’ve definitely reversed course on this for Windows 8, so gadgets are back in full force, and I’m very glad about this: they remain pretty handy desktop status or quick access indicators, Metro or no Metro notwithstanding).

Latest Windows 8 desktop, complete with gadgets

Latest Windows 8 desktop, complete with gadgets

Next, I’ll start playing with the much-touted improvements to the Metro apps. Looks like I’m going to have to sign up for Exchange-based e-mail (been wavering on this for some time for lots of other reasons, but I can’t see any way to fully explore what Win8 can do with mail without this capability). Had to hit the Escape key to get the bottom-of-screen menu to show up in SkyDrive (so I was a little non-plussed until I recalled that essential detail).

I keep running into some interesting desktop behaviors that surprise me from time to time, too. For example: I can’t just right-click an  Explorer item to call up its associated menu. I must first left-click to select the object, then right-click to provoke the options menu for that object. Thanks to a new touchpad driver, however, my issues with accidental UI element tear-offs has stopped (that was a true PITA).

I’ll keep digging, and keep reporting back. Again, my current opinion remains: so far, so good.

June 1, 2012  10:46 AM

Windows 8 Release Preview Hits the Street

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Just after lunch yesterday, I got the word that the Windows 8 Release Preview was out (you can download your own copy from whenever you like, but be warned: there’s enough download traffic to those servers right now to make the download process take an hour or longer, even over a fast connection. As with previous Windows 8 downloads, you start with a smallish (5.5 MB) download bootstrap, and then it goes and grabs the real thing (about 18 GB) on its own after that.

There’s no upgrade from the Customer Preview to the Release Preview, either. The installer gave me only the option of starting over with a clean install, so I knew I’d have some cleanup work to do on my Lenovo ThinkPad X220 Tablet to get all the drivers and software right. But where the Customer Preview left me with 18-20 drivers to update, the Release Preview left me with 12 that DriverAgent could “see” right off the bat, though I did also have to provide a driver for the Ricoh multi-memory card reader so Device Manager could lose the yellow question mark that denotes an “Unknown Device” and gain a valid entry (and driver) for that card reader instead. Here’s what the final results looked like in DriverAgent after a couple hours’ work following the hour or so it took me to download (45 minutes) and install (15 minutes) this latest Windows 8 version:

Two-part shot of all the active drivers on my X220 Tablet

Two-part shot of all the active drivers on my X220 Tablet

Having now been through Windows 8 installations a dozen or more times, this one seemed to go pretty smoothly. I knew where to go to get all the drivers, and all of the tricks needed to get them to install properly (running infinst.exe -a -P target directory ) gave me access to the driver files in the latest Intel chipset download, so that I could go patch up the various PCI Express Root Port, Enhanced USB Host Controller, and DRAM Controller entries that the Intel update program failed to handle on its own. Then, after a quick visit to the Lenovo Windows 8 Beta Drivers page, I was more or less up-to-date with everything.

I do notice some slight visual changes in the UI, but probably not as far as the next release will go. This time I still see slight drop shadows on Windows, and some modest Aero/glass effects, but flatter colors, a flat taskbar, and squared-off corners on all desktop windows. I also ran into some interesting tear-off behaviors all over the desktop (and in IE) but a swap for the most recent Lenovo Synaptics trackpad driver seemed to take care of that pretty handily. The Windows Experience Index still includes a Windows Aero metric, however, and I’ll be curious to see if that survives and translates all the way into the GA release in October.

May 27, 2012  7:10 PM

Dealing with the “Bezel Issue” and Windows 8

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Almost any of the touchscreens you might buy today (especially those offered at more reasonable prices) will have bezels around the edge. By definition, a bezel forms a raised edge around the boundaries of monitor. When you try to slide from beyond the edge of the monitor onto the display surface, there’s a slight gap that is unavoidable as your finger falls off the bezel and onto the display.

Why am I telling you this? Because Windows 8 uses edge-in gestures of all kinds to provoke the charms (slide in from the right), for app-switching (up from the lower left), for split-screen (from the center left), and so on and so forth. On touchscreens with a bezel, “grabbing an edge” so to speak, can be a problem and will negatively impact the user experience (as in “drive you crazy”).

There is, however, an easy fix. For example, if you take a look at the controls in the NVIDIA control panel, you’ll see that it includes an entry labeled “Adjust desktop size and position.” If you’re willing to sacrifice some pixels around the edge of your display, you can easily beat the edge detection issue by moving what Windows 8 sees as the edge of the display inward, far enough away from the physical edge (and bezel) to prevent the finger drop-off issue from hampering the edge detection process.

By adjusting the scan to less than maximum you create room for edge detection

By adjusting the scan to less than maximum you create room for edge detection

By fooling around with the settings in the NVIDIA Control Panel widget (AMD/ATI Catalyst offers similar capabilities, and I have to imagine the Intel 2000/3000/4000 controls work likewise), you can move the edges of your display 20 or so pixels in from the absolute edge (I found my 1920×1200 monitor worked nicely at 1900 by 1188, for example) and give Windows 8 some room to detect your finger sliding across the edge boundary past the bezel.

A slight reduction in scan boundaries (underscan) makes edges easier to detect.

A slight reduction in scan boundaries (underscan) makes edges easier to detect.

Sure, you’ll lose some display pixels on your monitor that way (and see a small black band all the way around the edge). But gosh, it sure beats struggling to get touch to work properly, or being forced to switch to the mouse to get the UI behaviors you’re after.

May 25, 2012  8:04 PM

Missed F8 to Provoke Boot Options Gets Added Wrinkles in Win8

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Anybody who’s worked on Windows PCs regularly knows the drill to obtain an alternate “Safe Boot” screen instead of allowing the normal boot sequence to grind to its normal conclusion: wait for the POST/BIOS bootstrap phase to end, then start banging the F8 key (or whatever your platform or motherboard vendor requires instead) like mad to get its attention. With luck, you’ll be able to pull up the safe boot menu on your first try. I’ve sometimes had to try two, three, or even four times before I got my timing right on some PCs.

With Windows 8 machines that use the Uniform Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) instead of BIOS to boot, this can apparently be even more of a problem (if not downright impossible), as explained in a recent Building Windows 8 blog entitled “Designed for PCs that boot faster than ever before.” Seems that when UEFI enables fast booting, there’s simply not enough time for it to detect the keystrokes necessary to invoke alternate boot behavior. On machines that take only seven seconds to boot, goes the blog post, individual boot component runtimes are too simply too short to interrupt.

Msconfig.exe has always let you force safe boot-up before rebooting

Msconfig.exe has always let you force safe boot-up before rebooting

To handle this situation in Windows 8, Microsoft has created a single boot options menu that works equally well with touch or with mouse input. A new Windows Startup Settings item in the Windows 8 Advanced Options pane lets users provoke boot options ahead of time as well, if they want to use the boot options. Also, any time the Win8 OS detects potential or real issues during the boot process, it will also produce that screen so users may partake of its options, tools, and facilities. This comes from the Advanced startup on the General Tab of PC Settings, whose options depend on whether or not your Win8 comes from a UEFI- or BIOS-based install. You can pick settings from the Charms, then More PC Settings, then General, then scroll the right-hand elements until you see Advanced startup — but be warned, if you decide to “Restart now” you will reboot your PC. Or you can search “Settings” for Advanced startup, and get there quicker.

Kind of makes me wish I could find detailed instructions on performing a UEFI install of Windows 8 on my Lenovo X220 Tablet. That machine has UEFI, but it installs the OS in BIOS mode by default. I’d love to try this new functionality out, and will do so as soon as I figure out how to make this happen on that machine. If anybody else knows of any resources to help with this, please point me at them (and thanks!).

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