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Posts Tagged ‘XP’

Windows Media Center 2005 woes

July 23, 2008 Leave a comment

I managed to acquire, for the price of a nice lunch, a brand new Elonex media center Artisan LX a couple of days back. I was initially very excited because up to then I had still been running my first media center was really just an experiment, built from scratch containing mostly old components I had around my place. A year and a bit on, I am firmly hooked on a PC based PVR system the cornerstone of my entertainment system. It contained an Athlon 2600+ processor with 512Mb of DDR coupled with a DVB-T Hauppage tuner and an 80Gb drive for recordings running the open source MediaPortal software. So as you can see, there was plenty of room for improvement.

This was the first time I have really had a tinker with the Windows Media Center range of Operating systems that Microsoft produce and I went in with few expectations, apart from wanting at least as comparable an experience in terms of functionality and flexibility as I have enjoyed with MediaPortal.

The first thing that struck me was how fickle Windows Media Center 2005 was, even with all the roll ups (essentially what Microsoft call Service Packs for Media Center OS) installed. Wikipedia sums up the ‘capabilities’ of WMC 2005:

‘Media Center originally had a limitation of 1 analog tuner, but was raised to 2 analog tuners with Media Center 2005. With Update Rollup 1 for Media Center 2005, support for a digital tuner was added, but an analog tuner must still be present for the digital tuner to function. With Rollup 2, up to 4 TV tuners can be configured (2 analog and 2 HDTV). All the tuners must use the same source, for example they must all be off an aerial or a set-top box using the same guide data, you cannot mix Sky Digital and DVB-T for example.’

XP Media Center really shows its age here – I do not watch any analogue transmissions, so for a Media Center to require a legacy piece of hardware just to be able to access DVB (digital) seems preposterous. But that was not the worst thing! Windows Media Center 2005 is not capable of pulling EPG data OTA (over-the-air) instead requiring an overly elaborate system that relies on a permanent, always on Internet connection. This also raises some privacy concerns as ‘anonymous’ data, which is not entirely anonymous as Microsoft asks for your postcode during set up, is fed back to Microsoft which can include recording / watching trends and general EPG usage. Hitherto my media center system has not been networked. Considering it is in the opposite corner of my house, and I do not stream my recordings or have formal media shares, I never felt the need to network it. It was nice to just have a static, secure system without any security programs or periodic updates – now security monitoring of my media center has been added to my list of digital chores.

None the less, I was determined to give it a fair go, so I added a wifi adaptor, added some plug-ins and configured everything. After spending eight hours getting everything working, playing around and testing… I went back to my custom build. Not all the problems can be put squarely at Microsoft’s feet however. Elonex declared bankruptcy shortly after launching this range and the malicious part of me can see why, if this mediacenter is the sum total of their expertise.

Whilst the case looked rather nice from the outside, the hardware and the design of the internals is what really lets it down. The only element Elonex got right was the noise (or lack thereof) – the media center barely gives out a murmur when idle due to only a since fan which is housed inside the power supply. It runs at 690rpm, which draws air over the CPU heatsink (which has four heat pipes) and directly out the side of the case. However, I stressed ‘at idle’ before for a reason. When the media center does anything the incredibly noisy hard drive starts very audibly clicking and crunching away and it completely lets the machine down.

However that’s not the worst thing about this mediacenter. Due to the fact that there is only one very slow fan the airflow in the case is restricted to circulating around the motherboard tray, the processor then out the power supply. The harddrive and PCI / AGP cards are completely neglected. This point was slammed home when the harddrive consistently reported temperatures of high 50s to 62 degrees Celsius!!! Worse still, when I idled the system, that heat didn’t dissipate. The hard drive is locked into place with a pretentious plastic locking mechanism which neither improves the accessibility of the drive bay nor decreases the vibrations from the drive. There is no thermal (or thermally viable) contact between the hard drive and the case and as such, the hard drive is left smouldering away with no way to cool down predictably with next to no drop in temperature. There is a valid point that maintaining electronic components at a set temperature prolongs their life by avoiding constantly repeating thermal differentials (i.e. heating and cooling) however the fact remains that 60+ degrees centigrade is far too hot for a hard drive. Although my brief research on this did not yield any definitive threshold, most sources agree that 50-55 degrees Centigrade is about the absolute maximum recommended operating temperature.

Couple this practically zero thermal conduction with a lack of airflow and you have a recipie for a very short hard drive life. Even worse, this thermal issue was not limited to HDD, the south-bridge and GFX heatsinks were equally poorly cooled and get unpleasantly hot to the touch.

Worst of all, it is just slow. CpuID and the BIOS disagreed with each other about the exact Intel processor that powers the system. I believe it to be either an Intel Pentium 4 530 (at 3.06Ghz) or a Celeron D 345. There is no way the much older Athlon 2600+ processor with the same RAM should be out performing this setup and yet it does so without breaking a sweat.

All in all, very disappointing. A remarkable demonstration of technical ignorance on the part of Elonex. But hey, I didn’t pay for it and now I have an extra DVB-T tuner back in my original, self built machine.

Design (cosmetic) : 8/10 - Pleasing, with a nice Hi-fi look.

Design (technical) : 2/10 – Poor components poorly arranged.

Cooling : 6/10 - Great CPU and powersupply cooling, but everything else is woefully neglected.

Acoustics : 6/10 - Silent until it has to touch the harddrive, still a good effort though

Connectivity : 8/10 – Lots of connectors for digital Audio and Video

Capacity : 5/10 - 200Gb harddrive with a portion taken for recovery. I wouldn’t trust it though and by modern standards it is rather anemic.

Overall : 2/10 – Great for free, if I paid anything for it I would have been annoyed.

Post XP SP3 Update problem

July 18, 2008 2 comments

Despite all the problems circulating the web about Windows XP Service Pack 3, I thought I would go ahead anyway on a new installation. The installation part went fine and the system restarted properly with no lock ups, stops or looping restarts. So far so good, unfortunately I celebrated my good fortune too soon – Windows Update stopped functioning. Whilst updates were being downloaded, Windows XP would fail to actually perform the update.

I did a bit of googling and whilst I didn’t find any accounts exactly matching my problem, I decided to follow the advice on this Microsoft KB article.

First of all, stop the automatic update service from the command prompt.

1. Open up Start Menu > Run

2. Type “cmd” and press Enter.

3. In the command box, type “net stop wuauserv”, should should get the following confirmation:

Now we need to reregister the DLL involved in the Windows Update process.

4. Type in “regsvr32 %windir%\system32\wups2.dll”. The following control box should pop up after a moment:

Now we need to start the update service and hopefully all should be well again.

5. Type “net start wuauserv” which should yield this confirmation:

Thats it, updates started working for me immediately afterwards. If this didn’t do the trick for you, follow the alternative methods on Microsoft’s KB article linked above.

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

PC Recovery How-to

April 30, 2008 Leave a comment

This started off a reproduction of a leaflet I wrote for the company I work for. It basically attempts to answer the question : “How do I recover my computer” or “How do I run a system recovery” (and permutations there-of) in as few lines as possible. Because I am not constrained for space on here, I have expanded on it somewhat and will continue to do so, if you have any questions, feel free to comment and ask.

The reason for this procedure is simple – recovering your system to the ‘shipped’ or factory settings is the best way to clean your system. Over time Operating Systems (Windows is the worst for this) accumulate lots of rubbish. This can be in the form of zombie or orphan dependencies (e.g. .DLL or .OCX files in Windows that are no longer needed) miscellaneous and or useless configuration or drivers and even damaging or misinstalled components. Some retails can not take in laptops or computers for warranty repair unless a full system recovery has been performed first due to the high occurrence of non-supported software related problems being futily sent to manufacturers for hardware repair.

Please note, a full system recovery is NOT the same as a Windows Restore / System Restore point recovery or a partial system recovery. In some cases, Windows Recovery Environment (only on Windows Vista) can solve the issue although I mostly have found it time consuming and unhelpful.

Step 1: Back up all your data

When done correctly, a full system restore will completely wipe your computer. This means all your data (e.g. photos, documents, music) and settings (e.g. ISP / Internet, Web Passwords etc) will be removed. Please make sure you have a complete copy of all the data you wish to save on a external source (e.g. a USB Flash drive, USB Harddrive, CD/DVD, NAS etc) before you continue.

Step 2: Determining what recovery method your PC / Laptop uses.

Regardless whether the unit is a PC or a Laptop, it would have been shipped with a method for recovery. This can be in the form of backup CD/DVD(s) or preinstalled on the computer in a hidden ‘partition’ on the computer’s hard drive. You may have been required to create the recovery discs yourself when you first switched on the computer. If this was the case you normally would have been prompted. If you have not created recovery disks or something has happened to render your recovery partition useless, see troubleshooting #4.

Step 3a: Performing the Recovery with Recovery Discs

If your machine has (or came with discs) read on, if not, skip to the section 3b.

Put the (first if applicable) recovery disc into your machine and restart the computer. When the computer switches on, you may be presented with the option to ‘boot from Optical / CD / DVD / Media’, press enter (or the key specified) to do this.
The disc should now boot into the recovery mode. (If not, see troubleshooting #1.)

Follow the on screen instructions. When imaging / recovery is complete, your computer will restart. Remove the recovery disc from the drive when prompted.

Recovery should be complete, follow any remaining instructions on the screen.

Step 3b: Performing the Recovery from a Recovery Parition or Image.

If your machine has backup software installed on the hard drive, please read on.

The process is very similar to the one discussed in section 3a, except there will be a short time window where a certain key combination will need to be pressed BEFORE Windows XP / Vista starts to load. If you see Windows XP / Vista start to load, you have missed the window of opportunity and should restart and try again. A PC or laptop system will go through the following steps whilst booting:

1) Video card POST *

2) Main BIOS Post (CMOS and Ram check)

3) Secondary BIOS POST (for RAID cards or some legacy 13h network equipment) *

4) Cycle through boot device order. At this point you might see a small white icon flashing in the top left corner for a moment.

5) Transfer execution to boot sector (MBR) of specified harddrive.

6) Windows starts to boot.

* Only applicable to some systems.

This key combination changes depending on the model and manufacturer but will be something along the lines of [alt]+[shift]+[F10] (for Acer PCs) or [F12] (for some Toshiba and HP models) etc. More confusingly, different manufacturers check for this key combination in different places. Acer tend to check for the keypress predominantly during stage 3 to 4 although some models exist which check for the key combination during BIOS POST (stage 2), HP base units normally check during stage 2 whilst their laptops wait until stage 3 to 4. The general rule is start pressing the keys when the BIOS shows up and keep pressing them until you get to the recovery partition. If your operating system starts to boot, simply restart and try again. CHECK with your manufacturer the key combination your system looks for.

When done correctly, it will take you to the recovery section of your computer. Follow the on screen instructions selecting, if asked, the full system recovery option. If this fails, please see troubleshooting #3.

Recovery should be complete, follow any remaining instructions on the screen.

Troubleshooting
For more detailed information relating to your specific model, please consult the manufacturer’s website or helpline.

#1 - Can’t Boot from Recovery Discs
If you are trying to run a recovery from a CD/DVD but it is not loading (booting) from the disc, you will need to make sure the CD/DVD drive is checked before the hard drive (containing the software issue) is read by the BIOS.

You will need to go into the BIOS by pressing a button almost immediately after the computer is turned on. This can be [F2], [F8], [F10] or [Del] depending on the specific model you have.

CAUTION, do not touch anything other than what is directed here.

When inside the BIOS, check the ‘boot order’ to make sure the CD/DVD drive is booted first. These drives can be called a number of different things, when in doubt consult the manufacturer. When you have changed the boot order, save the configuration into the CMOS and let the computer reboot.

#2 - I have lost my recovery discs / I didn’t back up my recovery software
Some manufacturers have a facility to send you replacement discs if you have failed to keep or create your recovery software. There may be a charge related to this service, please contact the manufacturer. (See #4)

#3 - Can’t Boot from Recovery Partition / Recovery from recovery partition fails
Some software problems (e.g. malware / viruses) can corrupt the built in software recovery. If this has happened, there will be no way to complete the software recovery and you should contact the manufacturer for further instructions. (See #4)

#4- Recovery partition destroyed / useless or no recovery option.
There is a more advanced way to perform a system recovery than using the built in recovery method. I would only reccommend this for more advanced users as it involves manually installing and setting up Windows (XP or Vista) and installing drivers by hand. You may also need to be comfortable manually partitioning your hard drive. This method will give you a better, more responsive system free of crapware / bloatware preinstalled be the manufacturers as well as potentially utilise wasted hard drive space.

With almost all Vista PCs (I will cover XP in a moment) you will receive a Vista Installation DVD. This DVD contains every version of Windows Vista and you can use it to wipe your computer and reinstall Windows Vista. The process to using the disk is the same as is outlined in Section 3a substituting the recovery discs for the Vista disc. Simply select the version of Windows Vista that came with your machine (you can install any edition of Vista e.g. Home Premium / Basic, Business or Ultimate but it will be limited to a 30 day demo) if you are unsure which version you have, check the side of your PC (or under side of your laptop) for your Microsoft Certificate of Authenticity (sometimes called CoA.) This brightly coloured certificate will not only have the version of Windows you are entitled to use written on it, but your Product Serial key as well – this will be important as it proves you are entitled to run the particular version of Windows and will be required during the installation.

Alternatively, if you are using Windows XP (or another Operating System like 98/95, NT, 2000, Server etc) you may need to obtain a Windows CD. I am not sure of the legality of this, but if you find a download somewhere online for a Windows CD image (I won’t provide a link) and install it using the Product Serial key provided on your certificate of authenticity, strictly speaking you are not committing piracy as you are entited to run that operating system on that machine. Because I am not a lawer, I do not know if such a proceedure would be legal and as such can not recommend it. You can always buy a new CD (OEM version) or go directly to the manufacturer for a replacement.

Once Windows Vista/XP (etc) has installed, you will have the basic framework for your PC / laptop. What will still be missing is the drivers and software. Drivers can be downloaded from the manufacturers website and should be done prior to reformating your computer. Some operating systems (XP and prior although to a lesser extent Vista as well) will need security software loaded onto them before you allow the computer to be exposed to the Internet. There are a number of free alternatives as well as commercial options.
Useful Contact Numbers (for the UK)

Sony 0870 240 2408
Acer 0870 853 1002
HP 0870 010 4320
Toshiba 0870 220 2202
Fujitsu Siemens 0870 243 4390

Vista Bashing = Cheap Traffic!?

April 5, 2008 12 comments

It seems the web (and certainly the blogosphere) is full of posts damning Vista for various reasons and I do not believe all this harsh criticism is justified. It all came to a head when I read a particular blog entry tonight. I started writing a brief reply in order to express my feelings on the matter, but it turned into a semi-lengthy rant which I would like to reproduce in a somewhat tweaked / editing form here.

What worries me is that it is very fashionable to bash Vista. It feels like any self proclaimed Tech expert thinks it is almost their prerogative to write long anti-Vista articles based on and citing other anti-Vista articles – does anyone else see a pattern emerging here?!

For the record I should say I am a huge fan of Linux, I run more Linux boxes than Windows, but of those windows boxes, the majority are XP and only one is Vista. I am very happy with Vista as well as XP but it is about managing your expectations. It is completely unrealistic to assume Vista will run on hardware that is a couple of years old (or even some budget machines.)

Surprise surprise, it won’t, Vista has been plagued by hardware and software incompatibilities – what does this tell us? Simply that Microsoft was not lying when it said Vista is a major update to the Windows platform. Historically all major updates have had driver and software compatibility issues (anyone remember XP 5/6 years ago?!?) Drivers are the responsibility of the manufacturer NOT Microsoft, for years prior to release Microsoft were talking to hardware companies, asking them to update their drivers but most ignored them. Why!?? Very simply because they will sell more hardware if people have to go out and buy Vista certified equipment. It is not in their interest to revisit hardware they released 2 years ago – it does not make them any more money and the consumer be damned.

Saying that, there are a number of platforms / situations when Vista is clearly not suitable and for those I still run XP – it is more responsive on such hardware and has the added bonus of comfort factor (i.e. I have been using it for years and I am very familiar with it,) but lets not forget, this is old technology that has not really been worked on since 2005 (sp2.) SP3 is nothing more than a security roll up with a few extra Vista developed features added. The desktop rendering in XP (called GDI+) is based on a software stack that is several years old and incapable of hardware accelerated desktop compositing – the same thing Mac OSX and Linux have been capable of for years.

The problem is, noone seems to have a long enough memory to remember the Windows 2000 / 98 saga, or the Windows XP / 2000 saga that followed that…

There is nothing wrong with Vista*, similarly nothing wrong with XP*, nor is there nothing wrong with Linux*, and even with OSX* – it depends on what hardware you have and what you want to do with it.

* Of course it is not as black and white as this, all platforms have their inherent strengths and weaknesses.

I wish we would move beyond this fanboy like bashing, if there is merit to a discussion I am all for it, but I am getting fed up of reading the same FUD constantly. Most of it is simply fishing for cheap traffic.

/Rant :)

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.

Installing Vista on ‘legacy’ machines

February 18, 2008 Leave a comment

I have a two year old laptop which came with Windows XP. XP unfortunately is getting a bit old especially given that noone at Microsoft has worked on the code since 2005 (aside from security fixes.) There is almost no information as to how to go about upgrading from XP to Vista so I decided to summaries some of the steps as well as a few tips and tricks I learnt along the way.

Fore-mostly, decide if it is practical to move to Vista on your hardware. There is no denying Vista has much steeper hardware requirements than XP and it should be noted that there are some machines (even ones which quote that they are ‘Vista Capable’) which will not work well with Vista.

This can be a difficult decision as the realistic requirements for Vista are difficult to quantify. Many people from Bloggers, forum lurkers to Microsoft Engineers quote a variety of minimum and recommended hardware requirements. I do not wish to add to this rampant opinion base, instead I am going to outline how to make your decision.

1) Does your system have a minimum of 708 (Yes 708 no 768) Mb of RAM AFTER deducting any shared graphics card RAM? Ideally to run Windows Vista comfortably you should have 1Gb but my laptop behaved well with 708Mb. It should be noted that if you can tweak the amount of RAM a shared graphics card uses, its worth setting it to as low an amount as possible (Normally done in the BIOS.) Vista requires between 32-64Mb of Graphics RAM so if yours is set to 128Mb and you are short on main system RAM, free it up. If you have enough RAM, continue onto the next point. If not, your adventure ends here :)

2) Does your system manufacturer supply official Vista drivers? If so, its a good chance your system will behave well with Vista and you can save yourself a lot of work, however if you can not download Vista drivers for your laptop – do not despair. Most manufacturers are very lazy about updating drivers in general but thankfully the vast majority of components are modular and used by other laptop manufacturers. It is likely that most of the drivers can be found from difference sources.
It varies on a case by case basis, but a lot of XP drivers / utilities can be used in Windows Vista however this should only be used in a last case situation. The reason for this is the fact that your mileage will vary. Most XP drivers will run in a type of compatibility/emulation mode which will reduce your system’s performance. Some drivers can cause far greater problems like not releasing resources in a reliable way leading to memory leaks, lockups and / or causing Vista to fail from standby/hibernation or failing to shutdown.

The first thing to do is to make a list of the hardware on your system e.g. Graphics card, Audio card, Wifi/Wired networking equipment, PCMCIA, Memory card reader etc. Once you have done this, Google is your friend. For example, I have listed my laptop (Amilo A1650) specs and what I did to make each part work.

CPU : Athlon 3400+, No driver required for Vista.

GFX : Ati x200m GPU, No driver required for Vista, but updated version available from ati.amd.com

Wireless : Broadcom 4318 , Did a google search for a laptop with this chip, downloaded the native Vista driver from the manufacturers website and it works well. Well actually it took two or three different attempts to find one which worked well.
LAN : Realtek RTL8139/810x Family Fast Ethernet NIC. Again can be found by the same method as above, although this is not strictly needed as Vista pre-installed a good driver for this.

PCMCIA : Texas Instruments PCI-xx21/xx11 CardBus Controller with UltraMedia – XP version causes laptop to fail to shutdown in some cases, driver installed by Vista Update.

Modem : SoftV90 Data Fax Modem with SmartCP – Driver installed automatically by Vista update.

Card Reader : Texas Instruments based – not supported by Vista – Still working on this one :)
Software (Launch Manager) : Installed XP version (using compatibility mode XP SP2) – works well

Make your own list and do some google searching / trawling. Be aware you may need to reinstall Windows Vista a few times before you find the winning driver combination – it took me almost eight to get it right. Just be careful and install drivers incrementally at first so you can roll back if you start to see unexpected behaviour and / or performance issues.

Categories: Microsoft, Windows Tags: , ,
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