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Posts Tagged ‘Vista’

Up in the cloud

October 1, 2008 Leave a comment

Microsoft has a number of core business revenue streams – otherwise known as cash cows. Despite strong indications that regardless of the recent lightweight application paradigm shift to the ‘cloud’ Microsoft have remained staunchly of the view that the operating system, as we know it today, will still be present in the future. So todays announcement indicating a potential branching from the desktop application centric philosophy is quite astonishing. According to ComputerWorld, Microsoft are looking to unveil a version of Windows codenamed  ‘Windows Clouds’ within a month. It will be very interesting to see the approach Mircosoft take with this project considering they are were quite keen to emphasise this will not detract from the ongoing Windows 7 work which is the planned successor to Windows Vista.

I previously weighed in on my opinion on cloud computing and very little has emerged to change my mind so far. I recently tried gOS v3 codename Gadgets which is the lightweight Linux distribution formally its own flavour based on the Enlightenment DR13 window manager and I am not that impressed. I found the integration between Google services (presented via barely concealed HTML widgets) and the operating system felt very amateurish. This coupled with the fact that version 3 is based on the more feature rich Gnome window manager, any assertion of this being a ‘stripped down’, light weight operating system for ‘netbooks’ sounds rather strained.

I do not doubt that one day, a certain percentage of desktops and laptops will be light weight (or thin client) systems accessing storage, applications and processing power from a ‘mothership’ in much the way cloud computing is evolving now. However it seems to make much more sense for a family or household or even a group of people to buy a central ‘home server’. This will however be very different to Windows Home Server and will resemble more the old style dumb terminals where multiple clients connect to one central machine.

Well that is my prediction, we will talk in ten years! For now, long live monster power rigs! :) As a final note, it will be interesting to see where Apple fit into this in the coming years. iSlim? iWeb? iJot?

Windows ‘Mojave’ Experiment

August 21, 2008 Leave a comment

I have been saying it all along and this just confirms it. Microsoft took (presumably) a random group of people and showed them the Windows ‘Mojave’, the purported successor to the ‘current’ Windows. So, forget about 7 and take a look for yourself.

I can’t really say too much more without giving the game away, although part of me wonders just how random this actually was. Without wishing to be offensive, these people do look to be fairly PC-illiterate and it wouldn’t be too hard for Microsoft to manipulate the outcome. On the other hand, with the amount of ill conceived rubbish being circulated about Vista it doesn’t take too great a leap of the imagination.

EDIT: Just did a bit of reading and found out the test bed for this experiment was a HP dv2000 laptop with 2Gb of RAM. I had a dv2799 (for a short duration) and I know they are very capable machines (although the workmanship is terrible – I have 4 go wrong but never-mind), however not outside the realms of the ‘average’ consumer system. This is good as it at least makes it a fairly fair demonstration.

Another Vista Oddity

June 25, 2008 3 comments

Remember the classic Win9x / NT / XP Windows themes? Of course you do, many including me are still running such operating systems. One of the largest differences between these old themes and the new Vista Aero theme (apart from transparency effects and desktop compositing) is the lack of a control icon in some dialogs and Windows. This in itself is unremarkable, after all, new theme, new design right? Wrong.

I appears Windows Vista Aero still has an invisible icon in the top left hand corner of the window. Windows without control icons like Windows Explorer still have this invisible area where, if clicked (or double clicked) will react. Try it yourself!

Of course this is not particularly useful. We have not been double clicking control icons to close windows since the days of Windows 3.x, even still I find it amusing that the functionality remains if only to support the legacy themes that can be used in Windows Vista.

Ubuntu on the A1650

June 23, 2008 1 comment

Despite some rather exciting progress made of late getting Linux to work on the Fujitsu Siemens Amilo A1650, regretably after three weeks of using it, I am back to Vista. The reason for this is my conclusion that running Linux (more specifically, Ubuntu) on the A1650 is a painful process due to the maturity of hardware support. Its (finally) possible to get all the hardware working, unfortunately doing so feels cumbersome and unnatural. The biggest culprits are the graphics card (an ATi x200m) and the wireless (Broadcom 4318 mini PCI) card.

The ATi graphics card has long been criticised as being ‘defective by design’. Getting any hardware accelerated graphics on this laptop formerly required running XGl with a long series of complicated hacks and even then it was not possible to run desktop compositing effects like Beryl or Compiz. Eight (or so) Months ago, that changed with a redesign of the X Server (in X.org 7.0) when XGL back rendering was no longer required for hardware accelerated rendering. More than that, it greatly simplified the process meaning even the most inexperienced Linux user could have beautiful desktop effects, in some cases, out of the box. However, due to an annoying glitch somewhere, the ATi restricted drivers caused diagonal tearing whenever a window rapidly refreshed itself.

It says something about the maturity of hardware support under Linux when Vista, commonly (and unjustly) thought of a resource hog, runs better. Anyway, this is all academic now as I have retired my Amilo A1650. Its been a great laptop but after three years it was time to move on. I will play with Linux on my new laptop soon and post the results.

Changing the Vista (and Windows 7) RSS Gadget

June 13, 2008 1 comment

Its unusual to see such a user-unfriendly way of managing (or changing) the default settings in a program. Windows Vista ships with Vista Sidebar, a gadget/widget engine which brings limited but extensible functionality to Windows Vista.

The main criticism I had initially was with the RSS widget – there seemed to be no way of changing the default feeds that shipped with Vista from the default and fairly bland MSN rss feeds. Despite tinkering with the widget and sidebar program, I eventually conceded defeat and did a bit of digging.

It turns out, rather counter-intuitively that the way to change the RSS feeds is via Internet Explorer. Fire up  Internet Explorer and hit “Control+J“, this is the keyboard shortcut to bring up the feed window.

Once here, you can add / delete / modify the RSS feeds that Vista shows to your heart’s content. In doing so, you expose the greatest weakness of Vista’s default RSS widget, it does not scale very well. Whilst in “at-a-glance” RSS perusal for a few feeds works rather well, its over simplification is its greatest downfall.

There is no easy way to change between RSS feeds / groups (it has to be done via a menu each time) nor is there a way to dismiss headlines which have been read. This greatly limits the usefulness of this widget for any serious RSS subscriber.

I had a brief look, but I could not find a 3rd party, general purpose RSS feed widget on the Microsoft Live Widget site. Whilst this gadget is certainly of use, its limitations greatly diminish its usefulness.

UPDATE: Just a brief note to say this works in exactly the same way for Windows 7.

Choosing your next PC’s Operating System (the 64bit fiasco)

June 5, 2008 4 comments

I am in the process of building a new gaming PC. Well, I should come clean, I have been in the process for almost 5 months now – I am mostly decided on the specifications but minor incompatibilities / annoyances cause me to stall. When this happens, real life typically takes over and by the time I look at my ‘final’ specification again, I normally rip it up and start from scratch due to new hardware being released or price drops. *exhale* I am finally on the verge of finalising the specification, the only things still holding me back are the graphics card (after news of ATi’s 4xx0 series) and the amount of RAM to put into my machine. The latter is heavily influenced by the Operating System I plan to run.

There are two crucial elements to any computer system which must work in harmony, the software and the hardware. Whilst this hardly an earth shattering announcement, I never cease to be amazed at the backlash in the form of blog / forum posts from people who forget this. Realistically when building (or buying) your next Gaming PC at the moment your choices are limited to Windows XP or Vista. Both Linux and Mac OSX suffer from platform compatibility issues with major new games and whilst the former enjoys fair server support for online gaming, neither really has much traction in the desktop gaming market.

The difference between Vista and XP is far more than cosmetic, whilst many are quick to criticise Vista for a number of reasons, I am actually a fan of Microsoft’s latest Operating System for a variety of reasons. Sure, it is feature-poor compared to initial designs and has it’s own annoyances, but the number of extra features and advances make it decisively the better Operating System. There is a caveat, for Vista to run comfortably for gaming purposes needs at least 1 Gb of RAM for itself. This on its own is no big deal – RAM is extraordinarily cheap at the moment, however the issue of platform (32bit/64bit) is now rearing its ugly head.

64 bit computing is nothing new, infact AMD processors have had 64bit extensions (called x86-64) for a number of years since the K8 platform back in 2003. Intel did not catch up (despite starting earlier than AMD) and produce viable 64bit chips until the Pentum 6xx series (late 2004), having stumbled initially with their IA64(T) specification developed for their Itanium platform.

Given this was four years ago, why are we not all running on 64bit XP or Vista? The answer is simple, in the same way that driver support initially crippled Vista’s adoption, 64bit drivers are fairly few and far between. What this means, is a lot less hardware will run properly under a 64bit Operating System. Given this situation, why do we even care about 64 bit computing? Why is it not relegated to high end computing and server farms? Mathematics.

Unfortunately, with a 32 bit Operating System, there is a mathematical limitation to the amount of memory the system can address. At most, Vista (or XP) in 32bit will only address 4Gb of total RAM. This includes both the graphics card and the main system memory. This brings my point about Vista comfortably using one Gb of RAM all by itself to sharp focus. Whilst Yes, the price of RAM is cheap there is something about me that dislikes buying 4Gb of RAM (to enable dual channel mode) only to have a quarter of it not accessible by the system. I wrote about this in detail in a previous post.

So what is the solution? Whilst I am huge fan of Vista (and have recently bought a Vista laptop) I do not think it is suitable for desktop gaming. With Windows XP, I have had fairly bloated a driver / runtime loaded installs using no more than 300Mb of RAM which realistically enables most PC gamers to get away with 2Gb of system RAM with no perceptible loss in gaming performance. This unfortunately would not be the case for a similar system running Vista and as such, unfortunately scuttles Vista for this market in my humble opinion.

Categories: Gaming, Linux, PC, Rant, Windows Tags: , , , , , ,

Vista SP1 and the Red Herring (+ breaking the 32bit 4Gb limit)

May 29, 2008 6 comments

We all knew it was looming, the mathematical limit to address referencing in 32bit computing. A 32Bit number can only be between 0 and 4,294,967,295 which neatly adds up to 4Gb and what this means is, using existing architectures, a program (or Operating System) will not be able to address more than this number of bytes of system RAM via the existing system called byte addressed memory allocation.

What this means for those among us who do not speak geek, is a system which is built or shipped with 4Gb of RAM (and some other cases*) will not be able to fully utilise all of that space.

Lets take a trip back in history and imagine a room with a cupboard containing 256 drawers. Each drawer could hold one bit of binary information and was administered by a librarian. Anytime anyone wanted a piece (or pieces) of information, they had to ask the librarian. What I am describing here, is the era of 8bit computing circa late 1970/ early 80s with the cupboard representing system memory and the librarian representing the Operating System’s memory management system. During day to day running of the system the librarian takes data in and returns data to people (program threads) from the corresponding drawers where the information is stored. Everything works, everyone is happy.

Now what happens if we introduce a second cupboard containing another 128 or 256 drawers? The librarian can only keep track of information stored in the first 256 drawers and as a result, nothing can be stored or retrieved from the newly added cupboards; in effect, they do not exist. Time to get a new secretary i.e. goto 64bit computing (or in this example, replace the 8bit librarian with a swanky 16bit one – who will even ever use 65536bits of RAM? :D )

But wait, there is more… I read today that Windows Vista SP1 changes (depending on hardware configuration) the total amount of displayed RAM from 3.5 Gb (current the RTM limit when 4Gb is put in the machine) to the full 4Gb, although this still does not help, given the limitation previously discussed. But this made me curious, if the Operating System could see RAM, then surely it was not a BIOS / mathematical fundamental limitation. Turns out I was at least half right …

You see, although the fundamental mathematical limitation can not be breached, there is a rather interesting technique called Physical Address Extension. Using this process, a 32bit Windows system can address more than 4Gb of RAM upto a (present) maximum of 128Gb. To explain what Physical Address Extension (PAE) is, lets go back to the previous example and introduce a new figure – an administrator.

The role of this new entity, is to allocate and manage the time of their underling. Lets also assume we are still running a 8bit system (with the 256bit limit) and have 1024bits of memory i.e. four times the mathematical limit. On the face of it, the extra memory is invisible to the librarian however the administrator is smart enough to both know about the extra memory and who (i.e. what program) is currently using what amount of it. As such, any person (program) can request the full mathematical limit 256 drawers for their own use at the same time as another person (and another …etc) requests more memory.The administrator can instruct the librarian which series of drawers to use per person (program).

This is loosely referred to as 36bit computing and, as the non power of 2 number suggests it is a bit of a tweak. The physical address size was increased (on a 32bit processor) from 32 to 36bits back during the days of Pentium Pro (circa 1997) and most modern CPUs have maintained this legacy. It is important to point out, this does not make all 32bit processors 36bit processors as the change happened in the MMU (memory management unit). Modern Operating systems use page tables to store information about the Virtual Memory system and allocate it based on processes requirements. In effect they act like the administrator from my trivialised example and allow multiple processes to benefit from a pool of memory which traditional 32bit systems (without PAE) would not.

I know what you are thinking, you are rejoicing at being able to avoid the negative aspects of migrating to 64bit computing, but hang on, there are a couple of important caveats. Firstly, each thread (person in our example) can only access a maximum of the mathematical limit of RAM. That means, in a system with 16Gb of RAM, you could quite easily have 3 or 4 processes each taking up 4Gb, but no one process taking up 8 or 16Gb. The other bad point is, it is not supported** in Vista or XP. In-fact, to use such a feature, you would need to be running a Server Operating System from Microsoft or a Linux equivalent. Interestingly enough, Linux contains support for PAE since kernel version 2.6 although I will not discuss it further in this post.

Presently, the only Operating Systems with suitable (or rumoured) PAE support are :

Windows 2000: Datacenter Server and Advanced Server Editions

Windows Server 2003: Enterprise and Datacenter Editions

Windows Server 2008: Enterprise and Datacenter Editions

As you can see, non are particularly home desktop friendly. So, despite Vista displaying the correct amount of RAM in Service Pack 1, it is still fundamentally limited to the 32bit mathematical limit despite Microsoft having the technology to at least improve on the functionality of such systems.

On a side note, I brought this up with a few people at my head office. I work for a large UK retail company that sells PCs and Laptops. I was surprised to see when our first 4Gb models came into the stores a few months ago that they were running Vista 32bit Editions. The UK is not a litigious as the United States, but I can’t help wondering how long it will be before the lawsuits start flying. After all, it is misrepresentation in my book to sell something that, due to a software shortcoming, can never be fully utilised to the specification it was advertised at. Particularly since an alternative is available to OEMs and yet, all retailers not just the one I work for seem to be taking a cavalier attitude towards this.

*The total amount of addressable space inside a 32bit system must add up to 4096Mb, this includes system and Video RAM, so if you have an all singing, all dancing SLI graphics card with 2Gb of Graphical RAM, the total amount of system RAM you will be able to address is around 2Gb.

**Actually this is not true, ever since Windows XP Service Pack 2, Microsoft has used PAE for security purposes coupled with the NX bit. This is a hardware security feature built into a processor which allows program and system developers greater control over what they designate to be executable and non-executable user/memory space. Microsoft has set a fundamental limitation of the amount of RAM being used by home versions of 32bit Operating Systems to 4Gb regardless of the fact the technology to increase this is in place.

The 2k bug

May 12, 2008 1 comment

Whilst it seems the Internet enjoys a good Microsoft Vista bashing (see previous post on topic) research today came out suggesting Windows 2000, an eight year old operating system that recently entered long term support phase by Microsoft, is more ‘secure’ than Windows Vista. (Cue fanboy and antiboy posts.)

But this is rather misleading, let us not forget, Windows 2000 was released in February 2000, a dark era where firewalls, security software and Windows Update were treated with suspicion previously reserved for black magic. Ok, so maybe I am exaggerating slightly, but back then the average PC had either a Pentium 2 or 3 processor between 600Mhz – 1.2Ghz, between 32-128Mb of RAM and a 20Gb hard disk and was aimed at the business market not consumers who had the privilege of running Windows ME (let the justified ME bashing commence.) But we are still missing the point here, now the only users that run Windows 2000 (which accounted for about 2% of all Internet traffic in March 2008 ) are those who are comfortable power users (like Steve Gibson) or those with old hardware (e.g. Third world etc.) As such, it is not worth the malware authors’ time to target such a small percentage of the userbase when they are more likely to snare the vulnerable XP or Vista users.

Worse still, serious doubts have been raised over the validity of this study given PC Tools did not scientifically determine the states of key security within the operating like Windows Vista’s UAC or even which service packs were installed on the computers. As noted by Ars technica, often the first action by typical malware is to download the target package(s) onto a system immediately after it has been compromised with the usually relatively small initial exploit. This could mean that their numbers are greatly misleading when three or four ‘infections’ could actually be a single instance of malware.

The only way to scientifically conduct such a test, would be with three virtual machines, one running Windows 2000, one with Windows XP and finally one with Vista each running a with a comparable set of security tools and the latest patches. That way, after each exposure, the virtual machine could be examined to determine if the exploit was successful and if so, the degree to which the target machine was compromised. At the end of the experiment, the virtual machine is ‘switched off’ without writing the changes to it’s virtual disk and restarted to test the next exploit. Using this methodology, all exploits can be tested equally and methodically and various configurational permutations can also be tried (e.g. Operating systems with only default security measures etc.)

Let us also not forget, there is no way to tell whether these threats are serious silent drive by download style exploits (which would constitute a serious threat) or as a result of user ignorance which even the most secure operating systems and security applications can not guard against. Playing Devil’s advocate, I can see a case that unscientific tests like these better represent real world conditions, however it can not be used to judge to reliability or security of Operating Systems nor the users using them as no conditions nor variables have been made constant. As such, unfortunately, these results have no validity as far as I am concerned.

When the file extension… is not the file extension.

May 8, 2008 Leave a comment

I was bemused to read on bbc news earlier that a trivially simply ploy stung half a million file sharers. The concept is nothing new having been started a fair few years ago by virus / malware writers and adopted by Copyright enforcement agencies in recent years. Do the anatomy of a decentralised file sharing system, anyone can seed a file. Once this seeded file is made available to the peer-to-peer network it either becomes advertised to a localised central file distributor (referred to as a Super Node or Server) or is found during a spider search query run by another user logged into the peer to peer network. If these files are topical or sought after, they can be transferred onto a different node (client) rapidly. There they are stored in the second user’s ‘shared’ directory where more people can download it.

Once a seeded file has been downloaded and spread over a few tens of nodes the rate at which it can be downloaded by others increases almost exponentially with a cascade like effect. Other people of the peer to peer network are lured into downloading this file based on the number of people who have it therefore assuming it must be genuine and would be comparatively quick to obtain. Couple this with a topical or sought-after song / album or file aimed at the masses (who statistically would contain a fair percentage of PC-illiterate users and those with a penchance for agreeing to all the pop ups they come across) means these files explode across networks.

This malicious file in question appears to have masqueraded as a MP3 by Girls Aloud. Given the fact that on running the file pops up a message saying the computer requires a codec to play the song and tries to direct you to a website in order to download it, most computer users would stop and reexamine what they had just downloaded. People that brazenly proceeded and downloaded the malicious ‘codec’ package had spyware installed on their system which would ‘bombard’ users with pop ups. Also, the download file would spawn copies of itself within the User’s shared folder under different names to try to make itself attractive to a greater audience.

But what happened? How were people tricked into downloading an MP3 file but ended up running a malicuous program? The answer to this lies in the file type. Broadly speaking, there are two ways in which a file can be opened:

1) via script or binary execution (e.g. .exe, .com, .vbs, .java, .scr … and some others)

2) via program read from an external application (e.g. .txt, .doc, .wav, .mpg, .avi …. and MANY more.)

MP3 files (Moving Picture Experts Group version 1 audio layer 3) are the latter, upon execution, Windows searches through its list of known file extensions stored in the registry to see what it should do. It instantly finds the entry for MP3 and sees this type of file is handled by a media player like Windows Media Player, WinAMP, iTunes etc etc. Windows then executes the media player which, on loading, opens the MP3 file specified in the command line argument, decodes a block, fills its buffer and starts to play. Unless a clever trick like a buffer overflow is used, which have historically been responsible for security breaches in various Windows programs as well as console homebrew development, this renders all ‘program read’ type files harmless*. As such we have to look elsewhere for the source of this problem.

That brings us nicely to the point I wanted to raise in this post, file extensions and more specifically, security vulnerabilities in their implementation. Recent versions of Windows from XP (and possibly earlier, I can not remember) have automatically hidden the file extension by default leaving the user to distinguish between file types by iconographic representations. Whilst at times this is both cleaner looking and more functional, it does present an interesting security problem, what if there are two file extensions? Window will quite happily truncate the file .xxx from a file name leaving the first extension, despite the fact Windows ignores anything before the final .xxx . As a result, if you name a file SomethingInteresting.mp3.exe, in its default state, Windows will happily display the file as SomethingInteresting.mp3 but will execute the file as an EXE when double clicked. Obviously, if you quieried the file by right clicking on it and selecting properties you would be immediately told what type of file it is, but most people will take the file at face value.

Luckily there is a very simple way to gaurd against such black magic, in Windows XP and Vista** in the file browser, goto the Tools menu and select Folder Options.

In this dialog, uncheck ‘Hide extensions for known file types’ and click Apply followed by clicking Apply to all folders.

And that’s it! A simple check box and some common sense now separates you from being lured into downloading fake or malicious files.

* Some files like some movies can have containers which direct the media player or operating system to web pages. It is not just media files which are vulnerable but this is a completely different topic.

** In Vista you may have to enable the classic menu

The Wow is here! (With some tweaking)

April 30, 2008 1 comment

I just came across a great site called MyVistaBoot.com . As the name suggests, it is dedicated to sprucing up that fairly boring Vista boot screen. Each new boot screen is packaged with an installer so it is trivial to get them on your system without resorting to the use of third party applications as was necessary with Windows XP. Take a look, there are some very elegant ones on there to suit every taste.

UPDATE: My mistake, the file downloaded replaces the winload.exe.mui file directly. It is not as simple as just replacing the Windows file but the instructions are clear and concise.

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