Windows Enterprise Desktop

January 17, 2011  3:31 PM

Interesting Meta-Update Hits Windows Update, Confirms Impending SP1 Release

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

When I logged onto my primary desktop this morning, I noticed a new out-of-band (OOB) update from Microsoft had hit the update center. Normally, such updates are reserved for security fixes sufficiently hot to mean that waiting for the next patch Tuesday (February 8, 2011 in this case) is not a good idea. But today’s OOB is something different: an update for the Windows Update code that’s designed to do something with how updates get handled in the future.

Here’s how the governing Knowledge Base article for this particular update describes what’s going on this time around (interestingly, this same KB article number has been reused many times in the past, and is apparently invoked any time updates affect how Windows Update or the Microsoft Installer software themselves behave):

Updates to the Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 installation software are included in this update. The installation software is the component that handles the installation and the removal of software updates, language packs, optional Windows features, and service packs. This update is necessary to successfully install and to remove any service packs to all versions of Windows 7 and on Windows Server 2008 R2.

The italicized emphasis in the preceding quote is mine, and ties back to my Friday blog Rumors of Windows 7, Server 2008 R2 SP1 Point to Imminent Release. If you’re looking for proof positive straight from the only unimpeachable source in this matter — namely, Microsoft itself — look no further: here it is in indisputable form.

Now, the only real question remains: how soon will MS release SP1 for Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7 (which share a common code base, after all)? The timing on this preparatory update argues that they won’t wait for the February Patch Tuesday for SP1 either, but we’ll just have to wait and see. Stay tuned!

January 14, 2011  3:16 PM

Rumors of Windows 7, Server 2008 R2 SP1 Point to Imminent Release

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

I always love seeing images like this one (attributed to Alex Kibkalo in this blog from Matthew Jones entitled “Rumour: Windows 7 Service Pack 1 to be released to OEMs tomorrow“) when rumors of upcoming software releases start to swirl in cyberspace:

Pretty convincing mockup if fabricated

Pretty convincing mockup if fabricated; probably the real thing

Face it: Microsoft has been talking about the first service pack for Windows 7/Windows Server 2008 R2 since early last summer, and the service pack has been working its way through beta test since July of 2010. Though Microsoft has been characteristically coy about when the final release would start making its way to OEMs, partners, and the general public, it’s not too incredible or suprising that leaks are pointing to something pretty soon (you don’t get to see a “About” window sans beta disclaimers unless things are pretty darn close). Given that OEMs may receive SP1 any day now, look for it to hit MSDN some time in February, with general availability through Windows Update in March or April.

That said, Microsoft has promised all along that SP1 won’t introduce major changes or very much significant new functionality into Windows 7 (though the story is somewhat different for Windows Server 2008 R2). Apparently, the main addition for Windows 7 users will be an improved remote access protocol that’s supposed to offer better performance, and a richer graphics and media environment when running remote access sessions. Other than that, SP1 represents mostly bug fixes and, of course, a roll-up of all the many updates and fixes that have preceded its release through Windows Update since Windows 7 went final in July (to OEMS) and reached the general public in October, 2009.

January 12, 2011  3:58 PM

Old Hardware, New Uses

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

In my continuing efforts to turn a balky and failing 2000/2001 vintage Dell C610 notebook into a slow but still viable Windows XP machine for my sister, I’ve been learning some interesting things about Dell hardware and drivers (see my previous blog “Hooray: USB-to-IDE/SATA Converter is a Cheap, Effective Hardware Item” for other misadventures with this machine). It turns out this laptop came out just when Windows was shifting from 2000 to XP, and right about the time that Wi-Fi interfaces changed their status from “nice but pricey add-on” to “standard equipage” on such machines.

Because this box contains a Broadcom BCM94309MP 802.11 b/g interface, when Windows XP failed to recognize the card and supply a driver, I found myself at a bit of an impasse in getting the device working on the C610. The device itself is readily accessible through the bottom hatch, secured only by three small Philips-head screws, but it contains no Dell label nor a Dell-specific part number.

Why am I telling you this? Because the Dell drivers themselves are available only through their Dell designations, which for these Broadcom devices take the form of “Dell TrueMobile 1xxx” where valid model numbers span a range from 1150 to 1450, and perhaps beyond (I didn’t look further than what was needed to install a working driver on this machine). But finding that driver took a bit of luck, some perseverance, and calls to a neighborhood PC technician at my local Mr. Notebook outlet, and to a pool-playing buddy of mine who’s a former third-level notebook support technician for Dell.

As it turns out, DriverAgent correctly identified the model number for the Broadcom Device as a Dell TrueMobile 1400 but it supplied me with what it claimed was a valid driver that produced an installer error on the machine (“incompatible hardware” was its gist) when I tried to get it up and running. After going through another half-dozen drivers on a trial-and-error basis and getting nowhere, I resorted to my network to get some insight on what to do next. Chris (my Mr. Notebook) contact admitted that those drivers can be hard to identify and volunteered to fix it for me when I bring him the unit to have its top deck hinges replaced. Jason (my Dell tech support wizard) told me the unit was either a TrueMobile 1300 or 1400, since the Broadcom part number indicated 802.11 b/g support.

I couldn’t find a working driver through DriverAgent, but when I searched Dell support for a TrueMobile 1300 driver and installed it (the 1400 driver doesn’t work but the unit now identifies itself as a 1400 unit — go figure!) the device finally came up and started working properly. Some forms of PC knowledge can only be acquired the hard way, it seems, so this is one experience I’m glad to have behind me instead of still ahead. Just goes to show that not everything that seems obvious, or that in fact should be obvious, is not necessarily obvious at all. But trial and error, and a little expert advice, finally steered me into the right software. Whew, what a relief!

January 10, 2011  2:58 PM

Hooray: USB-to-IDE/SATA Converter is a Cheap, Effective Hardware Item

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Last spring, my sister announced to me that she’d purchased her son a Dell Latitude C610 notebook on eBay for around $200. “Did I do the right thing?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I said, “let’s see how it works out.” The box ran for about four months, after which it got horribly infested with malware and stopped booting. So she shipped it to me for repairs. I upgraded the memory from 384 MB of RAM to 1 GB, replaced the 30 GB HD with a 160 GB Seagate model, installed a new battery and PSU, then installed Windows XP SP3 (I don’t think this Pentium 3 model is up to Windows 7), then sent it back to her (I didn’t worry about the malware, because I removed and junked the affected drive).

But then, about four more months later, the unit stopped booting. It took a bit of sleuthing around, but I eventually determined that the hard disk was having problems. But I was stymied for some time by the PATA drive itself, and it was only after cobbling together a couple of adapters (one from the Dell internal interface pinouts to standard PATA, the next from PATA to USB) that I was easily able to hook the drive up to another system, troubleshoot its issues (a corrupted MBR), repair the damage, and put the system back together. For a few months, in fact, I got nowhere at all.

Then, I discovered an adapter that’s widely available for under $10 from many sources (*@#!!) that helped me ferret out my issues. And in fact, because it works with both SATA and PATA (IDE) interfaces, it seems tailor-made for troubleshooting notebook drives — at least, as long as you’ve got another computer into which you can plug the offending unit, after you’ve removed it from its customary housing. This item is called a “USB 2.0 to IDE/SATA Converter cable” and purchase info pops up readily in your favorite search engine if you submit that string for lookup.

USB to IDE/SATA cable

USB 2.0 to SATA/IDE converter cable elements

The unit even includes a small plug-in PSU to supply power to the external drive, as well as the various cables necessary to get from the driver to the adapter itself. A terrific bargain for under $10, I must say!

Although it’s not as fast or effective as the SATA drive caddies I routinely use for messing around with 3.5″ drives of that type, it does the job and can handle both SATA and PATA/IDE interfaces with ease. As you go poking around inside notebook PCs — especially older ones with IDE drives — you’ll find that this little gem pays for itself the first time you use it. A vital part of any well-equipped PC toolkit, I don’t know why I didn’t learn about this device sooner, nor why I haven’t owned one for years instead of months.

January 7, 2011  8:04 PM

Windows 7 Crosses 20 Percent Share Line

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Reports are popping up all over the Web that Windows 7 broke the 20 percent market share barrier last month, according to figures released by Internet tracking firm NetApplications over the New Year’s weekend. The company pegs Windows 7 online usage for December 2010 at 20.9% of all desktops counted. This is up 1.2 points from the preceding month, and represents a usage share level that Windows Vista never, ever reached.

Vista’s current usage level has dropped to 12.1%, which is on par with its usage rate in July 2008 (eight months after its initial business release, and six months after the GA release in January of that year). At the same time, Windows overall usage rate is down to a “mere” 90.3%, which is down almost two percent for 2010, according to this ComputerWorld story (1/3/2011). From November to December, Windows XP’s losses exactly matched Windows 7’s gains, as it declined by 1.2 percent to 56.7% for December 2010.

What does all this mean? The migration momentum from XP to Windows 7 (or Vista to Windows 7 for those intrepid enough to have moved to Vista in the first place) is clearly picking up. I expect 2011 to be a big year for enterprise Windows 7 adoptions and migrations. Net Applications predicts that Windows 7 will peak in October 2012 at a rate of 44.7%, though that time is still more than 18 months out. It will be interesting to see if the current numbers that permit them to guesstimate such future trends are borne out by real events. Only time will tell!

January 5, 2011  4:04 PM

Unlocker Utility Removes File Delete Frustration

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Especially when updating Adobe Flash Player components (for example, Flash10k.ocx) at Secunia’s behest after updating that software for security reasons, I have to jump through some hoops to delete the offending file. Until recently, this meant shutting down Secunia altogether (it uses Flash, too, and thus locks the very file it seeks to have removed) so that I could delete that file, then restarting it to restore my system to normal operation.

This also pops up occasionally in other situations, either because a file is locked by the OS, in use by an application, or otherwise declared off-limits for deletion. I’ve even resorted to booting my system into Linux, then running an NTFS file system driver, to hunt down and remove the most stubbornly insistent of Windows files. No more!

I stumbled across a great, free utility called Unlocker this weekend (here’s a link to the FileHippo download, but you can grab this puppy from any or all of the major shareware sites including CNET, SoftPedia, and so forth, as well). I found myself facing the need to delete some orphaned Windows Update files left behind by Vista or XP on my Asus EeePC 1000HE notebook this weekend, and found reference to this utility in forum posts that explained how to root out and remove these items. Here’s a screencap of the soon-to-be-deleted items from the Recycle Bin after Unlocker worked its magic:

Unlocker at work
Unlocker moved the 2e242ef69985… directory and all of its contents into the Recycle Bin

The software installs quickly and easily (warning: Unlocker Assistant works fine with XP, but with neither Vista nor Windows 7), and you can invoke the program through the Start button menu hierarchy (Start Unlocker) or right-click on an object inside Windows Explorer to take advantage of the program’s shell extension. After that, you can choose to delete any object you want inside the Windows file system. Obviously this means you’ll need to proceed with caution because the tool will cheerfully and compliantly trash key Windows files as well as other items perhaps more worthy of deletion. A great tool, even so!

French developer Cedrick Collomb did a nice job with this tool. But it will inform you that a more recent version is available when you first run it, even though activating the supplied link for  same triggers a 403 (Access forbidden) HTTP error. I’ve e-mailed him to see if this can be fixed, but in the meantime you’ll need to stand pat with version 1.9.0 which, as I’ve already mentioned, is widely available on major shareware and download sites. Enjoy!

January 3, 2011  8:43 PM

Interesting BIOS Flash Experience

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

I’ve got an Asus EeePC 1000HE netbook, and this weekend I went through a machine refresh for the Windows 7 Professional installation on that machine (I could run Windows 7 Starter on this box, and very well might if I had to pay retail for my Windows OSes, but I like the ability to use RDP to remote in from my primary desktop when I’m working at home). I finally got around to reading the Asus Windows 7 “Self-Upgrade” guide and learned that I should update my BIOS and some drivers to get the best performance from this unit. Along the way, I also learned some interesting lessons, and made some equally interesting observations.

Asus offers a ROM-driven EZ Flash utility on its notebook and netbook PCS — and for all I know, for its motherboards, too…goes off to look, and yes it applies to some, but not all Asus motherboards as well — that lets you simply copy a BIOS update to the root of a UFD and use it at boot time to flash the BIOS. Interestingly, this utility only works with UFDs formatted in the FAT16 format. I tried a FAT32 formatted UFD, and while the utility found the file and said it was reading it, it hung without changing anything until I switched the formatting over to FAT16 (described simply as FAT in the Microsoft Format tool)


How the Win7 Format Utility Reports FAT16: It Appears as Plain “FAT” format

And, of course, to format a UFD to FAT/FAT16, it must be 4 GB or smaller in size (Windows won’t let you format a larger UFD to FAT16 because 4GB is its absolute file/volume size limit). Once I figured this out, everything went pretty smoothly with the BIOS update, and when installed it did shave about 22 seconds off my previous boot time, as reported in Soluto for that machine.

I also learned that while some 1000HE models support AHCI for speedier SATA access, my machine isn’t one of those (and that dampens my enthusiasm for installing an SSD in that box because it will limit its performance as well). I went through a few interesting contortions to get all the right drivers installed too, particularly the x86 PC ACPI driver that the 1000HE needs to enable use of its various control and function buttons. The “key” to that problem was to find and install a Windows 7 “EeeInstantKey” utility which not only provided programmatic access to key management functions, but the necessary Windows 7 driver as well (it doesn’t show up in Device Manager so it’s not directly accessible for update through more conventional techniques).

For a while, during the period when all the new drivers and software changes were taking root, my boot time zoomed from around 2:35-2:45 to a whopping 8 minutes. But after all the installs and refreshes took hold, the boot time dropped to 2:08-2:15. I’m not sure the results justify the efforts that went into obtaining them, but I did get to learn quite a bit along the way.

December 30, 2010  3:50 PM

Holiday Diversion 4: Microsoft Research Goodies

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Check out this TechNet blog: “Microsoft Research – free holiday booty.” It profiles and depicts five very cool, free tools you can download and play with from Microsoft Research:

  • Kodu comes from the FUSE labs team. It’s a visual programming language built specifically for creating games that’s also simple and fun enough to appeal to kids, and let them get right to work.
  • AutoCollage is a program that uses computer vision and image processing to make collages from a collection of photos. It uses face detection, various relevancy and saliency filters, and other cool MS technologies to grab interesting parts of pictures, and then employs object selecting and blending technologies to combine images into an AutoCollage. Neat!
  • Photosynth takes photos and combines them to create a 3D scene from their visual content, and provides a POV (point of view) engine that then lets you view and move around inside that virtual world. This technology has been used by organizations that include National Geographic, NASA, and the Obama inauguration team to create “synths,” among  thousands of other such environments also available online.
  • WorldWide Telescope provides tools for viewing our universe but also enables developers to produce customized visualizations for astronomical and planetary data. It’s a real tour-de-force illustration of effective data use, and should become a popular and powerful educational tool at all levels.
  • Team Crossword is another FUSE labs goody — namely, a Web-based collaborative tool for creating and sharing crossword puzzles with your friends. Use it to start a puzzle, and then invite friends and colleagues to work together to solve it!

I hope you get time to look at and play with at least one or two of these items as you while away the hours before we all go back to the grind next Monday. Happy New Year!!

December 29, 2010  10:45 PM

Holiday Diversion 3: It Beats “The dog ate my homework!” Stone Cold

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

In keeping with my wont to look for and report on the lighter side of IT during that fallow period between Christmas and New Year’s here’s a terrific slide show from Entitled “Kroll Ontrack’s Top 10 Data Storage Disasters of 2010.” Like the old Letterman Top 10 Lists, it’s numbered in reverse order and includes the following items:

10. A Square Peg in a Round Hole: a laptop gets fried when the wrong charger gets plugged into its power port
9. Double Data Recovery: A foolproof redundant backup scheme fails when somebody accidentally overwrites data on a set of six drives stored in a fireproof safe
8. Keeping the memories alive: Kroll saves precious memories when they recover the only photos remaining of a now-deceased family member from the wiped drive on a stolen (and recovered) laptop
7. Meat the experts: hard disk meets cured ham but data recovery is a complete success
6. Up in the air: a frequent flyer leaves a laptop in an airport coffee bar; subsequent detonation by the bomb squad prevents any data recovery
5. The flying squash: a woman in a hurry to get to work puts her notebook on top of her car to buckle her child into its car seat; when she backs out of the garage, the laptop flies off the car and she runs over the HD; no recovery possible
4. Laptop kitty disaster: when a young kitten uses a laptop for a litter box, Ontrack recovers the HD contents anyway
3. Fire drop: When running out of his burning apartment to escape a fire, a photographer drops his notebook; Ontrack still manages to score a complete recovery of precious photos for charity work
2. The Ants Go Marching In: After a flood in Europe leaves a PC submerged for over two days, its drive is sent to Ontrack for recovery, where an ant is found clinging to a drive head. The data survives, but the ant is a goner.
1. Laptops underwater: To protect his laptop during a beach visit, a man stashes it inside a plastic bag and takes it swimming with him. The bag leaks, but Ontrack manages to recover the data anyway.

I’m glad I’ve never left a laptop atop my car: I’ve sure sent plenty of cups and bottles flying, though. Nice to know occasional moments of lunacy or thoughtlessness never go completely unnoticed. Here’s a case where 80% of incidents result in recovery of some or all the potentially lost data, albeit at considerable cost. Happy New Year!

December 29, 2010  8:34 PM

More Details on Windows 7 Troubleshooters

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

In researching a vexing IE problem on one of my Windows 7 desktops, I stumbled across a treasure trove of troubleshooting tools that are readily available to all Windows 7 users and admins. I had never run across many of these, and am glad to have a new place to turn when trouble pops up and is in need of shooting. Here’s what you can do to see Windows 7 long and impressive list of troubleshooting tools (aka “troubleshooters”).

1. Click Start, Control Panel.

2. If in icon view, click “Troubleshooting;” if in category view type “Troubshooter” into the search box.

3. Either way, click “Troubleshooting.”

4. Click “View All” in the left hand column of the Troubleshooting window to produce a complete list of troubleshooting utilities.

Windows Troubleshooters
Windows 7 Complete List of Troubleshooters

The one that caught my eye was entitled “Internet Explorer Performance,” where you’ll find a tool to check for defective add-ons (a common cause of IE issues on my own and many other machines). There are quite a few others worth exploring there, too: check it out!

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