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Computing At Chaos Manor: October 9, 2006

The User's Column, October, 2006
Column 315, part 2
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week.

Experimenting with Vista

If you use Windows, eventually you'll be using Vista, so it's worth the attention it's getting. Even if there's slippage in the shipping schedule, by this time next year you'll have to work hard to buy a new Windows machine without Vista.

The real question is, should you "upgrade" to Vista from Windows XP? And clearly the answer is, not yet, unless you just like playing with new stuff.

If you do install Vista on existing hardware, Vista is considerably more stable if installed clean with disk reformat. We have some notes on that in today's mailbag, and it's all true, at least from my experience. This week I installed Vista RC1 on a dual processor Pentium M system. I let Vista format the disk. It installed easily and has run without problems. Vista with Office 2007 is easily learned, and if you like Windows and Office at all, you'll like Vista and Office 2007 - provided that you have the hardware to support it. By proper hardware, I'd say a dual processor system, a gigabyte of memory, lots of drive space, and at least 128 megabytes of video RAM. I don't have enough cases to make a real generalization, but my experience has been that Vista runs better on Intel systems than on AMD systems.

I do not recommend that you try Vista on production systems. I learned my lesson on that one: I am writing this on Satine, which is the Windows XP version of my AMD dual processor LAN Party machine. Two weeks ago this machine was "Roxanne", same hardware but with Vista RC1. It blew up, I used Norton Save and Restore to bring back the Windows XP system, that works fine, and I am not likely to change over for some time. In future, Vista goes on a test machine.

Vista RC2

As I write this, Microsoft has released a new version of Vista, RC2. It takes forever to download, and I have run out of time, so I don't even have it, much less have it installed. Given my time commitments for the next two weeks, I am not likely to get to Vista RC2 for a while. My advice remains the same: if you want to play around with Vista, by all means go ahead; but take some precautions.

First, get Norton Ghost or Norton Save and Restore or some similar program (those are the ones I recommend), and make a full restoration file for your system before you install Vista. Alternatively, replace the current hard drive with a new one and install Vista on that. And, of course, do not install Vista on a mission critical system.

You can do serious work with Vista and the latest beta release of Office 2007. You probably won't have any problems, but be sure to make frequent backups of all data files, and by backups I mean copies on an entirely different hard drive. Save Office files early, often, and on another drive. Then if Vista blows up - it has for me, twice now - you can get back to where you would have been if you hadn't installed Vista at all: just restore the old system and copy the data files from the external drive where you stored them. Office 2007 is mostly backwards compatible with Office 2003; I have no Office 2007 data files that Office 2003 can't read.

Follow those rules and you should be fine.

Please do not send me mail telling how you did an "upgrade" installation of Vista on your only computer and everything came out all right. Many people will have that experience, particularly with RC2. Microsoft has been gathering failure data and squishing bugs non-stop since last February. They'll have got most of the "mainstream" bugs. The ones that are left will most likely be driver related and specific to the hardware configuration of the system. The closer your system is to a "generic standard" Vista-capable Windows system, the less likely you will be to have problems, which should come as no surprise at all.

I still don't advise installing Vista on a mission critical system unless you are fully prepared to convert back to something more stable, as I did. I lost nothing but time, and not a lot of that.

One place to try Vista is on your games machines. I've been playing World of Warcraft with various macros and extensions (all legal and allowed), and it works just fine, including when I drop out of WOW to the desktop. I can switch from full screen game to desktop and back smoothly and without problems. Of course, I have my character in a safe place before I do that.

World of Warcraft sound and video are at least as good in Vista as under Windows XP. Nvidia has Vista drivers for their video boards, and you'll definitely want the proper Vista drivers for your sound system (on-board or sound card).

Unless I have a huge number of tabs open in Firefox I don't have to close my web browser while playing most games including World of Warcraft. It is possible to have enough other programs running in background to cause WOW to slow down and lag, but of course it will do that with XP as well. I find that I can overload Vista with stuff that wouldn't faze XP, but that's not surprising, since Vista has more overhead than XP. On the other hand, playing on-line games while running lots of other stuff in background is one of those silly things I do so you don't have to. The easiest remedy for that problem is don't do it.

Bottom line is that Vista is fun, and if you like Windows you'll love it, but don't use it on mission critical systems.

Should You Have Vista at All?

Robert Bruce Thompson is no fan of any flavor of Windows, and he does most of his work including the complex formatting of his O'Reilly books (Building the Perfect PC, Repairing and Upgrading Your PC) on Linux systems. I recently got this email from him:

Subject: Why would any sane person install Vista?

http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20061004-7898.html

If Vista decides it's an unauthorized copy, it stops working. And we all know about Microsoft's record when it comes to deciding what is or isn't an unauthorized copy.

Microsoft has lost its collective mind, and apparently believes that everyone else has as well.

--Robert Bruce Thompson

This generated heated discussion among my friends and advisors. Roland immediately commented that "This is a great potential DoS vector, if folks can figure out how to fool it, heh." We won't get into that this week, but it is an important consideration.

Peter Glaskowsky, as usual, was specific.

According to the story, if Vista is NEVER supplied with a valid activation key - such as in the case where you buy a DVD-R copy at a flea market-it works for 30 days then turns into what the author of the story calls "a web browsing station," which seems like a fair summary.

If Vista determines that it was falsely activated, the story says:

...It will disable Aero, ReadyBoost, and Windows Defender, and it will display a persistent notice in the lower right-hand corner of the desktop that reads: "This copy of Windows is not genuine."

That's pretty benign compared with XP's behavior or other alternatives. Neither of these responses is compatible with your claim that "it stops working."

Also, I don't think you're really entitled to jump from there to the implied secondary conclusion that Vista will be prone to mistakes in verifying the activation information. Yes, XP is bad about that, but Vista uses a different mechanism and you have no information about the new mechanism.

---png

We do know that Microsoft is concerned about pirate copies. There are indications that a majority of the software being run in China and the former USSR is not genuine. Microsoft's dilemma is how to extract some revenue from those places without so annoying the US and European customer bases that users turn in frustration to some alternative to Microsoft - and there are viable alternatives now. Apple's Mac OS X is not only viable, it's every bit as cool as Vista; and while there's still a lot of software that won't run under Linux, almost everything most of us need to do with computers works very well in Linux. Linux now has major players, including IBM, behind it; while Apple not only has cool hardware and software, but just now the best way to be sure of a good Vista experience is to run it in Parallels on a hot new Intel Core 2 Duo Mac. Leo LaPorte runs Vista on his new 4-Core Intel Mac, and loves it, but a dual core is more than good enough.

Microsoft is attempting to solve the problem of piracy without driving legitimate users loco by tweaking Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA).

Many users have had a less than pleasant experience with WGA. One of them was Bob Thompson:

Having myself been the victim of WGA deciding that my XP license key was an invalid key generated by a warez program, which key had been provided to me directly by Wagg-Ed, I have zero confidence that Microsoft can avoid similar errors in the future.

I also had a commercial OEM copy of XP go wonky on me in the last month. I blew away the contents of the hard drive on my friend Jasmine's notebook computer. I reinstalled Windows XP from scratch, and had to activate it, which I didn't expect. The reactivation process was via a voice-response system and apparently went smoothly. Windows told me it was activated.

Then, the next morning, when I booted the system, it informed me that XP was not activated. I had to spend 20 minutes on the phone talking to some very nice woman from India. I guess I convinced her after giving her all the details, including the model number and serial number of the notebook, that I wasn't trying to install an illegal copy. We spent a lot of time reading long alphameric strings to each other before Windows would agree that it was re-activated.

Nor am I alone by any means. Many of my readers have reported glitches with WGA and product activation. Many of them have simply given up and paid Microsoft for another license.

You say that Vista will be better. I say that I have only the evidence of my own experience with XP and that of credible people who've reported similar problems. The only data we have is what Microsoft has done so far, and I think it's very reasonable to expect more of the same.

Robert Bruce Thompson

Alex adds

I have to share RBT's hesitation here--I've had customers whose XP systems suddenly decided they were Not Of The Body and won't update any longer. However--if Vista is worse, then that will make me worry all the more. At this point, there's enough FUD around the subject that I REALLY am going to stress that Vista is not for production machines until, oh, a year from now.

Per PNG's analysis of "different code bases for US vs. foreign sales"--he and I got a briefing on the pay-as-you-go sales model they're pushing in (e.g.) Brazil. I wonder how that's going to affect Vista's overseas plans? (Maybe not at all.)

--Alex Pournelle

And while we are on the subject of activation, David Em says

I've had issues with Adobe's online activation scheme.

A legit copy of Photoshop one day decided it was no longer authorized. This required filling an internet registration form that popped up, which got it up and running again (ten minutes, a small annoyance). This started happening about every three weeks (larger annoyance). Then it happened one day when the internet was down. I had to fix this over the phone with a human being, which took close to an hour (big annoyance).

Finally I nuked the software from that machine.

Then a couple days ago I tried to install Adobe's Premiere Pro 2 on a system that had a beta of it that no longer ran. I got a message saying there's something wrong with my "profile" so I couldn't install it. However, I also can't uninstall the beta due to this "profile" problem.

All other Adobe software on the machine runs fine. I've de-installed every vestige of the beta I can find, but still no go, Premiere Pro 2 cannot be installed on that machine.

On the plus side, at least Adobe software knows when it's been uninstalled from a system, making it easy to port to another machine, which with some software, such as some Autodesk , is either a highly complicated process or outright impossible.

-- David

Microsoft is aware of the problems, and my sources tell me they are "working on making WGA work better."

The Mysterious Misleading Microsoft Message: Part MMXCLVI

My son Alex recently had some Windows computer troubles, which were instructive. Here's his report.

"My main, in fact only, computer is still a Hewlett-Packard Pavilion zd8110us, with a 17" 1440 by 900 screen, which replaced the similarly oversize "USS Inspiron", a Dell 15.4" laptop so large the screen was bigger than the computer base. Yes, I get teased by colleagues and clients alike about carrying a laptop the size of an aircraft carrier, but I've gotten used to having (e.g.) 5 USB slots, built-in SD/MMC/SM/XD and Compact Flash slots, DVD burner, external video and FireWire. The 80-minute battery life and three underside fans are a bit much (though the cat likes the heat), but the 2.4-pound power brick really makes people roll their eyes. Still, I had to buy a new computer that week, and I like having a separate numeric pad and arrow keys.

"The Pavilion (Named "Ariadne", after my dad's old boat) runs Windows XP Media Center Edition, and in fact came with an external MCE tuner/receiver box. I've set the TiVo-type functions up exactly once, but for now I basically have a slightly-portable (Trans-draggable?) desktop computer with a gorgeous screen and a built-in UPS.

"Probably the biggest design complaint is the power connector, which is proprietary HP and in just the right place to hit my right knee when I actually sit the 9-pound monster on my lap. It's actually suffered enough mechanical fatigue that CompUSA's extended warranty had to fix the power plug: fortunately, H-P's newest Pavilions have a different power plug and a half-pound power brick, so anyone buying today will get (1) longer battery life and (2) at least two pounds less to lug.

"Still, it's accurate to say I travel in elephants when toting this machine, which is most of the time. It contains my life, all of which is now automatically backed up at work via EMC/Dantz's Retrospect 7.5 software. (Their "Proactive backup" strategy is the right approach for road warriors; as soon as it's connected to the network it starts backing up, and doesn't slow down the backed-up computer appreciably. Next up, using Server 2003 R2's VPN software to let me 'phone home' and back up from anywhere.)

"That's all background: unreasonably large, but essential laptop, Alex on the road, returns, backups happen, new deadline looming. The rest: I tend to hibernate, not shut down the computer whenever I change locations, and last week I hibernated at home, as usual, intending to awaken the laptop at work. When I tried to log back in, I got the error message "Can not contact domain controller", with the usual suggestion that I contact my system administrator. Note that this system runs Media Center Edition, which isn't supposed to be able to affiliate with domains.

"My first thought was passwords-someone or something had changed the system's login passwords. I tried a Linux-based password-changing utility, which showed no actual passwords. I tried changing them all anyway, and restarting in Windows. No change, still asks for passwords. Reboot in Safe Mode. No change. The Microsoft knowledgebase held no useful suggestions, not unless I was in fact part of a domain. Could the system have somehow become affiliated with a domain?

"At Dan Spisak's suggestion, I then tried Commander (Emergency Recovery Disk), from Winternals (link). This superb tool includes a much simpler password-changing utility ("Locksmith") than the freeware program I had tried. Thinking perhaps the Linux-based utility wasn't working correctly, I changed the passwords yet again, and rebooted in Safe Mode. No change.

"The good news: the Winternal ERD's system explorer utility (think Windows Explorer, compact model) showed all of my important information intact, and in fact I copied my newest files over the network to our company server. ERD Commander boots under the Windows Pre-Installation Environment (Windows PE) shell, and is complete enough that you can run most anti-virus applications.

"It was about then I got a hint for what had actually happened: ERD has a System Restore utility, very much like the Windows built-in restoration utility but rather more user-friendly. When trying to restore the system settings from last Friday, I got a message that the security hive was corrupted and couldn't be completely restored. Background: The Windows registry is divided into "hives", collections of system information divided into (e.g.) HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE, HKEY_USERS and HKEY_CURRENT_CONFIG. The Security hive contains the login and security information for the system's users. This suggested that the original error message was referring not to an Active Directory domain, but (of course) the local computer's domain.

"I didn't make this connection until after (again) rebooting in Safe Mode and (again) not being able to log in. ERD Commander's System Restore made me undo the changes I had done, and then reboot, and then would let me restore to the previous Wednesday's restore point. That restore point worked fine: No unknown passwords, I logged right back in, machine unharmed."

Moral of the story:

"Lessons learned: The Microsoft knowledgebase is far from complete. The usual alternative, asking Google, only turned up a few people with the same problem, not anyone with a solution. It was only by reasoning through the situation (Can't contact domain; problem actually as advertised; problem is on local computer; problem is security database; restore from previous restore point) that I solved it.

"Now, we can argue about how thorough the Microsoft knowledgebase should be: Anyone getting this error message, who was also smart enough to figure out how to ask the question, should maybe have been smart enough to remember that all Windows NT 4.0 and later machines have a local domain, and the error message was referring to a situation that obviously could arise on a local domain, not just a multi-computer one. But: There wasn't even a hint about this on any of the Microsoft knowledgebase search hits. And: typing in the exact error message, in quotes, into the Microsoft support box yielded no hits. I've found this happens far too often, where an exact search doesn't match anything.

"Observation: Back in the mainframe days, every textual error message had an accompanying numeric error code, which you could then look up in the ten feet of three-ring binders you kept for the purpose. Windows doesn't have those. I'd hope Microsoft would have a completeness checker for the knowledgebase, where every language version of every error message would have to appear in some form (at least, cross-referenced), preferably for all known occurrences. It appears they don't. This of course would require them to admit they didn't know every possible cause for every error message (since there are an astronomical number of possible Windows failures, as with any large OS), but such an admission shouldn't surprise anyone after two minutes' reflection.

"Other lessons: I'm not the only one who loves ERD Commander. Microsoft loved what Winternals did so much they bought the company, and it's not clear that the products will continue to be available in their current form. The website shows a price for "Administrator's Pak", which bundles ERD Commander and nine other tools, of $1,200, well worth it for large companies. There's no immediately obvious link for buying ERD only, but their contact info still appears accurate. Everyone should also be well aware of the Winternals freeware site, Sysinternals (link), which has such essentials as NTFSDOS (read NTFS partitions from DOS), Process Explorer (See exactly everything that's running on your system), and Remote Recover (Access dead systems over a TCP/IP connection). Expect Microsoft to release some updated (Winternals-inspired) tools Real Soon Now, and to work their newest (and fourteenth) Technical Fellow, Mark Russinovich, pretty hard."

I can add another moral to this story: Always save a good restoration point. The proper place to save that is on an external drive such as the Seagate USB 2.0 "Pocket book" drives: Link

Readers will recall that Mark Russinovich was instrumental in discovering the Sony Root Kit threat. I still take some pride in being one of the first columnists to report on the significance of this threat. (November 2005 Column)