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Vista SP1 – A reflection

March 23, 2008 2 comments

It is interesting how perusing or glancing at the popular tech topic currently doing the rounds on wordpress can give an insight into the impact such announcements (or software/game/hardware/press releases etc) are having on the general public. Its all well and good reading about something (in this case Vista Service Pack 1) from recognised tech insiders such as Paul Thurrott, it is far more telling to read about the experiences everyone else is having.

Here are a selection of headlines from the last few days,

Vista wreaks havok on some PCs, users complain (anti Vista blog), My Nightmare trying to upgrade to SP1 (Insightful look into incompatible drivers), Vista SP1 update not showing up is for your own good (Reasons why SP1 may not be available yet for some people), SP1 Now available, Delayed, Delayed, Delayed, SP1 Day two (interesting positive feedback from a user), Hell has frozen over (overexcited user).

And guess what? Its not (entirely) the usual doom and gloom and has become almost ubiquitous when it comes to reports about Vista. Vista Service Pack 1 has come a long way since internal betas handed out to the Microsoft beta testers. These poor guys must have been feeling particularly abused this time round if the early write ups are anything to go by. With several restarts required to complete the process (and a few hours) these so-called tech elite reported back their thoughts on the process and as you can imagine, even the most staunchly pro-Microsoft of them has a few ‘choice’ comments to make.

But anyway, fast forward to now and you will see in your Windows Updates Vista Service Pack 1 waiting patiently for you to let it into your digital home. Software and hardware compatibility is good and the lengthy installation process has been slimmed down dramatically to a single reboot after completion. Inevitably it won’t go that way for everyone with some users reporting issues with certain drivers. To Microsoft’s credit, a fairly comprehensive list of drivers that have issues has been published and I have reproduced the list below.

Realtek AC’97

For x86-based computers: Alcxwdm.sys – version 6.0.1.6242 or earlier
For x64-based computers: Alcwdm64.sys – version 6.0.1.6242 or earlier
SigmaTel

For x86-based computers: Sthda.sys – version 5.10.5762.0 or earlier
For x64-based computers: Sthda64.sys – version 5.10.5762.0 or earlier
SigmaTel

For x86-based computers: Stwrt.sys – version 6.10.5511.0 or earlier
For x64-based computers: Stwrt64.sys – version 6.10.5511.0 or earlier
Creative Audigy

For x86-based and x64-based computers: Ctaud2k.sys – version 6.0.1.1242 or earlier
For x86-based computers: P17.sys – all versions (This was originally a Windows XP-based driver.)
Conexant HD Audio

For x86-based computers: Chdart.sys – version 4.32.0.0 or earlier
For x64-based computers: Chdart64.sys – version 4.32.0.0 or earlier
Display drivers

Intel Display

For x86-based computers: Igdkmd32.sys – versions between and including driver 7.14.10.1322 and 7.14.10.1403
For x64-based computers: Igdkmd64.sys – versions between and including driver 7.14.10.1322 and 7.14.10.1403

Unfortunately, I am the (not-so) proud owner of a Ac’97 soundcard in my primary laptop so it looks like I may have to fish around for drivers (AGAIN!!) to get my laptop to work properly with Redmond’s latest offering. The issues here are not Microsoft’s fault. Infact, as several tech insiders have noted, Microsoft was beating the drum about drivers to ODM/OEMs for months prior to Vista’s (and SP1’s) release but when the moment came to deliver, most manufacturers did not come to the party.

The reason is simply, it is not really cost effective. Take a computer you bought in the last few years (or Motherboard) and goto the manufacturer’s website and check the date of the ‘latest’ drivers (or BIOS.) Whilst these companies are fairly diligent during the product’s lifecycle, when they move onto something else, they stop putting out bugfixes or updates because it no longer makes commercial sense for them to pay their software engineers to do so. When Vista came out, many people had equipment (like me) that was designed for XP but could, with a fair amount of tweaking, run Vista very comfortably. The problem I (and many others) faced was a complete lack of native driver support for this hardware. I understand the problem, but I still think it is ridiculous. Microsoft did try to smooth this over by building in a compatibility layer into Vista to allow the loading of some XP drivers and while this helped a lot, there were performance penalties.

For now, I am not particularly fussed about SP1 so I will be sticking to vanilla Vista until either these driver issues are resolved (unlikely) or I get the time to find replacement drivers for my laptop.

Windows 7 ‘leaked’ video

January 28, 2008 1 comment

It appears Engadget have picked up on the suspected Windows 7 video doing the rounds. However, on watching the video, looking at the pictures and digging for more details on the originating website, I am less than convinced this is, in-fact Windows 7. Registry and resource editing can change just about anything in XP and Vista along with theming and photoshopping.

 

The video appears to show a very Vista-like UI with a few of the propery pages claiming to be Windows 7. Infact, fraud or not, it is Vista for now rather than 7, Vista’s version number is 6, this video appears to show a build with version 6.1 not 7. This however does not suggest it is a fake – anyone who remembers seeing the early longhorn builds remembers seeing an essentially XP like interface with some new code running underneath.

User interfaces traditionally are added towards the end of the development cycle (as illustrated by the Longhorn Milestone 3 screenshot courtesy of Winsupersite below.) Inconsistent version numbers and the complete lack of focus and details makes me cynical about it’s authenticity.

However there has been more leaked than just a blurry video, this blog has a series of interesting pictures purportedly showing various management tweaks, from a seemingly reworked control pannel to a new simplified text size control which moves away from the size by DPI settings of XP and Vista. Innovations and improvements from version to version are to be expected, however in Windows Vista the control panel was changed quite a bit, it seems odd that Microsoft would already be retweaking it to make it similar to the ‘classic’ control pannel. Of course, I could be way off and this could just be an additional filter that can be applied.

Of particular interest to me was the ‘powershell’ version of the command prompt. Whether this is a power tool or a program that is intended for release with Windows 7, the change in syntax from the Windows time honoured ‘DIR‘ to the Unix ‘LS‘ makes for a curious change. I may be way off the mark, but if Windows 7 is actually adopting a smart user privilege level system (like *nix has had for years and Vista made a poor attempt at) the PS prefix could be indicative of some type of super user level privilege (equivalent of su or sudo) for running commands. The question is, why would you need a command prompt (or powershell) if you are not performing power user level maintenance? Command prompts have been disused for simple file transactions since Windows 3.x / 95.

We should get more details during the WHEC – until then, I learned an interesting tit-bit, Microsoft are currently developing Office 14 (Office 12 was 2007) – they skipped Office codename 13 due to superstition :)

 

The Vista Start Button

January 19, 2008 Leave a comment

I was randomly came across a document on Microsoft’s website details hardware compliance for a new type of super key. Vista appears to have the option of allowing manufacturers to replace the plain boring Windows (super) key on the keyboard in favour of a more esthetically pleasing option.

“The Hardware Start Button, an update to the Windows Key for keyboards, is designed to be an attractive and discoverable actuator for launching the new Start menu and search experiences in the Windows Vista family of operating systems.”

The document is very detailed, even containing dimensions and material requirements for a variety of designs, finishing up with a proposed ‘Hero Hardware Button’.

“…is a transparent dome that contains a full-color Windows Start Button Logo and composes the surface of the Hero Start Button”

Given the trouble Microsoft’s hardware teams have evidently gone to, its surprising that we have not seen keyboard or other input devices with such ‘special’ Windows keys.

Microsoft glares at the iPhone

December 19, 2007 Leave a comment

Before the iPhone started gaining traction, Steve Balmer is on record as saying that there was no way for the iPhone to achieve the same market share as Windows CE. A few short months on and it appears Apple’s foray into the portable devices market has led them to a position of dominance in terms of market share over all of Windows CE products.

In response to this, Ars Technica has a great summary of the new version of Windows (CE 6.1) which is Microsoft’s attempt to redesign the interface. Whilst on first glance it is impossible to tell if it removes existing limitations / annoyances that have plagued Windows CE since its inception, what is plain is that the Vista-esque design looks simply awful. It might be due to smart phones becoming more mainstream, but the transition to simpler and less informative window-spaces (despite increasing screen size) is something that annoys me.

That is not to say that there have not been fundamental (and much needed) core level design changes / optimisations, however as the iPhone has proved, people look at the interface first and then get to the annoyances typically once they have bought the product.

Lets hope that Microsoft get their act together for their upcoming Windows CE 7.0.

Free (legal) Vista? – Follow up

December 12, 2007 2 comments

OK, so out of curiosity I registered for this to see how it works, opting to complete regular surveys rather than have my computing habits spied on. I however did have time to read through the FAQs in more details along with some of the EULAs. I would like to just highlight a few lines which I should have mentioned last time.

Does the software impact the performance of my PC?
“… the Windows Feedback Program software [has been designed] to limit the amount of computer resources it uses to collect data. You may see a minor change in performance when you first log in to Windows; however, this typically only occurs during the first few minutes…”

” In general, the data is shared once per day.”

“Unfortunately, you will not be able to look at your specific data. We designed the Windows Feedback Program software specifically to avoid any interference with your work or how your computer functions”

“Yes, we have a unique identifier for your data”

Mind you, who is to say Microsoft don’t have a similar ‘feedback’ (read spying) software ‘service’ (read unnecessary memory hog) in Vista already?

Categories: News Tags: , , , , , ,

Free (legal) Vista? .. how can I loose?

December 12, 2007 Leave a comment

Microsoft have (quietly) started up a Feedback Program supported free version of Windows Vista Ultimate as well as other ‘popular’ software including Microsoft Office Ultimate 2007, Microsoft Money Premium, Microsoft Student with Encarta Premium 2008, or Microsoft Streets and Trips 2008. In order to qualify, you must agree to either one or both of the following programs:

The survey feedback program. When you join the survey feedback program, you’ll be invited to take a survey on a regular schedule. If the survey arrives at a time where you are busy, you skip that one and take the next one instead. You will not receive more than a survey every two weeks.

The automated feedback program. When you choose to participate, most of the work is done behind the scenes, with no additional effort, time requirement, or inconvenience to you. Occasionally, we might send you an invitation to participate in a survey or another feedback program to get additional information about your use of computers but, in general, you only hear from us if we make significant changes to our data collection method or if we want to offer another feedback program to you that you might be interested in.”

Source

I have not had a chance to go through the program to see if there are any limitations other than periodic usage reports / surveys from Microsoft however if you are interested in upgrading to any other these pieces of software, it might be worth considering as a ‘demo.’ This idea is not a new one, versions of Microsoft Office have had voluntary opt-in usage statistics since Office 2000 as well as MSN Messenger. I don’t know about you, but the prospect of my operating system sending back ‘anonymous’ usage reports to a third party does not fill me with confidence.

Of Service packs and continued disappointments…

December 5, 2007 Leave a comment

The blog of exo.performance.network contains some fascinating pseudo-real world benchmarks of the release candidates of both Vista (SP1) and XP (SP3). The, now aging, Windows XP managed to outpace Vista in the benchmark by competing it in almost HALF the time!

The Microsoft Vista team were quick to pass judgement to the benchmark adding more fuel to the synthetic vs real world benchmarking argument calling the Exo team’s benchmark a “window-open, window-close” exercise. In an interesting counter, the team revealed exactly what their benchmark entailed:

a. Reformat all section headers and subheads in Word.
b. Generate multiple chart objects in Excel.
c. Generate complete multi-slide presentation in PowerPoint.
d. Multi-page scroll w/copy paste of chart objects into Word.
e. Slide sort/apply multiple templates in PowerPoint.
f. Multi-page scroll/print preview/print-to-file in Word.
g. Multi-chart print preview/print-to-file in Excel
h. Global search/replace in word (multiple).
i. Multi-slide preview/print-to-file in PowerPoint
j. Navigate simulated research web site in IE (multiple).

It seems to be a fair representation of ‘real world’ usage. The results are curiously at odds with one of Microsoft’s key ‘features’ of Vista, especially if the test is repeated a number of times to get a consistant result.

Windows SuperFetch helps improve PC responsiveness and helps make system performance more consistent. Windows SuperFetch tracks which applications you use most often and when you use them—and then it preloads those applications into memory to ensure quick access.

Source

It would be interesting to see these tests re-run with some of Microsoft’s new ‘features’ disabled. For example, services like shadow copy and indexing might be interfering with the process. Still, if nothing else, from the looks of things my XP systems are going to get a 10% boost (in some circumstances) with SP3 and that is something to celebrate.

Vista Piracy half that of XP (allegedly)

December 5, 2007 Leave a comment

It is unlikely to be true given how easy Vista’s version of WGA is to get around (without being detected by MS) but also due to the lethargic adoption amongst power and intermediate users. It is hard to claim a victory over Vista piracy when demand for the product is so low.

Ever since the release of Vista, Microsoft has been plagued by a fairly hostile reaction from the press and the blogosphere to the sixth release of Microsoft’s flagship – Windows. Vista’s copy protection enjoyed more of a gleeful reaction reaction as it was actually (initially) easier to circumvent than XP . This way due to the ‘feature’ which allowed Vista to be installed without entering a product key. This meant later on when the ‘RTM Stop Clock’ hack came out, Microsoft could not ban an individual product key (like they did en mass with XP) as the installation would permanently believe it was in the initial activation grace period without a Product Activation Key.

Around the same time a ‘Brute Force’ crack was created. This was a new approach which tried to randomly generate keys and see if they activated. Potentially it would have created a big problem for Microsoft as people using this method would potentially be activating genuinely owned Product Keys. However it was revealed by the author to be a hoax, it did actually work as advertised, however the success rate was so statistically insignificant as to be worthless. Various local and alternative remote activation servers were also used to authenticate copies of Vista, however since any copy activated by this method would require reactivation within 180 days it was not as useful.

More recently a spate of OEM activation cracks have appeared. These seem to be the ‘big daddy’ of Vista activation techniques since they employ the ability of OEMs to ship pre-activated products.This method seems to emply manufacturer based digital certificates which can be installed on any corresponding laptop from the manufacturer and used to activate Vista offline.
The point I am trying to make with this post is that there have been and still are a variety of techniques used to activate Windows in an almost transparent fashion. With Windows XP, the main way for activating (or get around activating) Windows would be to install the so called Corporate versions which came with a XP key pre-embedded and pre-activated. This made it fairly easy for Microsoft to detect as a small number of keys were used by such a high proportion of individuals. With Vista, the copy protection systems have become far more technical and so to have the manners in which they are circumvented, the question of whether Microsoft can even detect the majority of these pirated installations needs to be asked.

As an interesting aside, Microsoft have announced they will be removing their ‘feature’ which allows them to badger non authentic (or non activated) copies of Vista and even disable said systems. An interesting side effect is it means that, after SP1, Vista would become (essentially) freeware. Someone wishing to pirate Vista would be able to run it indefinately without being either nagged or having their system disabled. Is Microsoft that desperate to increase market share that it is handing Vista out on a plate?

Of course I should chalk onto the end of this post that I neither support nor encourage piracy, I am citing references for academic completeness.

MiniWin – A Windows Kernel in 4Mb

December 4, 2007 2 comments

Whilst most of the details of the upcoming ‘Windows 7′ (or Blackcomb / Vienna depending on which codename MS are currently using) are still shrouded in Mystery. Microsoft recently revealed they intend to power Windows 7 with a brand new minimalistic core. At present Microsoft support a wide range of kernels across their products and it must be resource consuming maintaining all these codebases. After all, its not just desktop kernels but Mobile and PPC based systems as well:

‘Longhorn Based’ – Server 2008, Vista

‘Whistler Based’ – Server 2003, Windows XP, XP embedded, XP Media Center 2003/4/5, Tablet PC, XP Fundamentals, Windows Home Server

NT 5 / Asteroid Based’ – Windows 2000 Sever / Professional

‘Talisker Based’ – PPC OS, Smartphone OS

Magneto Based’ – Windows Mobile 5

‘Crossbow / Yamazaki Based’ – Windows Mobile 6

So the idea is to consolidate all supported architectures into one makes perfect sense in terms of longer term support. Of course, in order to be fit for purpose, the MiniKernel needs to be so flexible as to be used for embedded mobile applications as well as desktop AND enterprise grade server applications. The idea of a streamlined, optimised kernel is a welcome departing from Vista’s Bloat, I just hope Microsoft do not embed DRM into this mini kernel and bloat it unnecessarily.

The new kernel is purportedly to be 4Mb in size and uses only 100 files. Of course this precludes any GUI, however when run in a virtual machine with only 40Mb of RAM, the kernel (running a basic http server) used just 33 MB of the allocated RAM and booted in 20 seconds. This is a project fairly early in its life, and short-term will only make things worse (by adding yet another code-base) however it will be interesting to see what other optimisations can be made. Of course this kernel does not include all the parts needed for a fully fledged operations system like a graphical hardware layer and proper driver loading, however the implementation of a networking stack is promising. It shows what can be done when not implementing a broken IPv6 system that almost no-one presently uses..

It is one thing to show a prototype in an idealised virtual machine (ahem ReactOS :p) and quite another to provide an infrastructure that allows heterogeneous hardware support, however I am very interested in this new approach and like many others shall be watching this closely.

As a brief aside, I just want to say that my dig at ReactOS was precisely that, a playful dig. The project is one I have been following since 0.2.x and the work the guys are doing over there is extremely impressive, implementing an NT based F/OSS clone is alot of work (it too Microsoft ~15 years to get there after all!)

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