Windows 7 (Part 1)

One question: is it the bees knees??? Yes it is.

At this point every other review is going wax philosophic about how great Windows 7 is, how its what Vista was supposed to be. And then go on to debate whether it should be a Service Pack instead.

I’m going to try avoid all those issues. But I will say this. Microsoft think that it should stand alone as it own OS, and that’s how I’m going to review it.

Its running on a Dell Inspiron 6400, 1.72Ghz dual Core with 1gb RAM.

First off. the problems I’ve had with it have been few and far between.

Now, every time a close the lid and then re-open it, the screen refuses to display the screen again. Its really annoying and requires a restart. The fix is simple – change the power options to do nothing when I close the lid. And it works like a charm now.

Second, IE8 RC wont install here. Don’t ask. But and earlier version of IE8 is installed. No solution as far as I know and I use Firefox anyway.

Third, iTunes runs quite well. Its faster. but not much else. however, it hangs on exit when its saving the iTunes library. And there’s not much choice here but to kill it with task manager.

You can get around this problem, perversely, by running iTunes as an Administrator. I suspect that the UAC tweaks are  the culprit here.

Fourth, every now and again 7 will hang at the shutdown screen (when it says “Shutting down”). This is annoying because you’re not quite sure what’s going on.

Finally, and i don’t know why this happens, the Adobe Bridge Photo Downloader no longer has the “Convert to DNG” option.

Adobe

Before everyone leaves comment, I have installed all the updates delivered to me. And Adobe Bridge tells me its version 2.1.1.9. Since I convert everything to DNG on import, this is really a disaster.

Most programs, actually run in Windows 7 quite well. I did have a problem with Windows Live and Visual Studio 2008 SP1 but hey, all installed eventually.

The Taskbar

7 is done right in a number of ways. The taskbar is particularly important as its the primary focus of any interaction with the OS.

On first use, telling the difference between pinned and active icons can be difficult. Its a very subtle UI cue there.

Taskbar

 

The Icons and notifications are better and never become too cluttered. Handling overflow is done particularly well.

At the bottom right of the taskbar, a little area sits on its own, separated from the rest of the taskbar. Clicking on this shows the desktop. However its not immediately obvious what this is for.

The taskbar itself stays transparent even when viewing a maximised window. I’m not sure about this. There is an argument to keeping the Vista behaviour of a solid taskbar when working with a maximised window.

The Start Menu

The Start Menu isn’t visually different from Vista’s. There are subtle UI cues however, that give away further functionality.

Programs that have been used have arrows next to them. Clicking on this arrow give the documents recently used by this program. the time saving nature of this cannot be over stated.

Taskbar2

The search box now says “Search programs and files” instead of start search. Its more obvious about the function of the search box, and encourages users to use it more. This is one of my favourite features of the Vista-esque UI ( i.e since Vista)

Taskbar search

The Shutdown button is quite blunt as to what it does, differing from Vista’s Off icon. It is possible to change the functionality of these buttons in the power settings and this always confused me. text makes it so much easier to distinguish  what’s going on.

Paint and Wordpad

Both Paint and Wordpad have the new Ribbon toolbar. this makes them much better as applications.

Paint

I tend to use paint quite a lot for situations when its not worth firing up Photoshop or Illustrator. Even in the few times I’ve used it, the Ribbon toolbar makes it so much better to use. and its not crappy old paint anymore either.

A few nice additions include the ability to Zoom right out ( right click to zoom out). This jumped out at me as being new.

Edit: Jordan Hofker pointed out on Freindfeed that its Wordpad not note pad. Many Thanks.

Personalization

The changing backgrounds have been around for ages in third party programs or as part of the Power Toys stuff. however this time its baked right into the OS.

The themes feature is very powerful. Of course I can still remember how Microsoft offered Plus for windows 95. I was too much of a cheapskate to get it, but the idea of a theme has been around for a while.

This marks the first time (that i can remember, anyway) that themes are actually files you can share rather than an amorphous collection of settings.

Whereas before (pre-vista, anyway) settings and dialogs had to be navigated with a map ( literally), important dialogs such as for the mouse pointers, screen resolutions, screen saver and sounds are literally a click away. This will encourage people to get more out of their computers (even the not so computer literate ones).

More later this week as i continue exploring Windows 7.

Windows 7

Yep. I’m writing this from my Windows 7 VM (on Virtual PC 2007 SP2).

Performance wise, The setup inside of the Vm is making it sluggish. But of the gig of RAM its got, its only using 32%. Which is notable. Vista beta 2, on the other hand) on the same machine in a dual boot configuration used up 80% (of one gig of RAM) standing still.

Talking of performance, I’ve backed the VM up to Windows Home Server. It took all of 20 minutes. Which frankly surprised me. given the fact that this was a new OS running under a VM.

So I’m inclined to wonder exactly how similar to Vista is 7, file wise? Since WHS only copies to the server files which it does not have a copy of (or a version of). Or, it could be that 7 is optimised for WHS to backup (Which makes sense on a number of levels, but not to the European Union).

The other thing i notice is the new taskbar. I’ve grown used to the Vista taskbar for some reason or other, but this is a pleasant change. The fact that the  task bar items can be configured to show application names or not, is really neat.

They do, however get confused with the buttons in the Quick Launch bar quite easily.

The UAC logo has changed colour, to yellow and blue, in keeping with the OS colour scheme. The UAC prompts themselves are worded differently.

The absence of a sidebar is nice. And I hope that the performance hit that running Sidebar produced is gone too. Gadgets are still there, just in the background and way less conspicuous.

Its quite a please feel to the whole OS. Does it feel like Vista?? A little. Its familiar territory. But In truth, I’ve yet to explorer the OS thoroughly. So that answer will have to wait.

One thing that is defiantly different is that Google Chrome 1.0 looks different.its a dark Blue instead of alight blue.

Talking of web browsers, i decided to install IE8. Which didn’t install. It didn’t recognize the OS for some strange reason. Must try again cause I hear that a few people have managed to do it.

I must say that I’m impressed enough to be considering upgrading one of my Vista machines to Windows 7.

This Beta 1 makes me look to Beta 2 and Release with a lot of hope that Microsoft have learned their lesson of the Vista Release debacle.

The one thing that no ones said anything much about is the WinFS file system that Vista was supposed to ship.

With Sun’s ZFS redundant file system, Microsoft are lagging behind. Even OSX has ZFS built in ( it has to be enabled with some obscure command line tricks, but its there).

Even if Microsoft released a separate beta version with WinFS, I’d be happy. 

NTFS is old. Time to innovate it.

Bad Design, Illustrated

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So here I am. Sick as a dog. And I need to renew my tvtv subscription. Which mean I need to re-select my device (why I need to do this in the first place is a mystery to me).

So I get to the above screen. What does it say? Read it: Select Device Password. Which leaves me wondering.

Call it stupid ( or not, depending on you point of view – but remember that this is seen through the fog of a muddled brain), but I check all my instruction manuals in vain. I spent a few hours scouring various forums. Only then did it dawn on me that since there was nothing on this mythical device password, there must be none.

So I went back and checked ever so carefully the help section of TVTV’s website for the 21st time. And there it was “Please re-enter your password for security reasons”. Since this is not part of the shopping bit, I can’t imagine why all the security.

My point being that a little clarity on the above page would have saved me loads of time.

In 20/20 – hindsight, the page does make some sort of sense. “Select” is never used in conjunction with a textbox. But the style of both the headings (since they are indeed supposed to be separate) is the same – font, weight, colour, size. And they are right underneath the other, as if following on. Separation of these two headings in some way – certainly i terms of style or better yet, in spacing – would clear any confusion.

“Please retype your password” makes sense in the light of know that its your password they want. But given the design miscues above, looked out of place and perhaps referred to when I’d actually have to retype this mythical device password .

There is no obvious help button or icon, or even tooltip that is visible on this form – bad practice in any situation. A tooltip/label saying “Please enter you TVTV password here” would do wonders. I’ve seen websites that actively display help in a side bar, explaining the purpose of each and every form field. A “what does this do” explanation never hurts either.

Even when one is confronted with readily intuitive fields such as credit/debit card forms online, help makes the process a whole lot less daunting ( one is after all, dealing with real money. Making mistakes is not the way forward).

The point is that as winforms, webforms, WPF, Silverlight –developers and UI designers, making our users happy is the number one priority. That means designing good, intuitive UI’s and helping them to use it, too.

I’ve had my share or websites that the thought of using them gets me angry. There are others that I think are a little too liberal with their help information, coddling their users in wool. But I’ve never ever had an issue with those websites, ever.

The iPhone is, I think, the canonical expression of a good UI. My very tech-limited mother likes mine so much that she is getting one herself ( she’s had her current phone for two years and still hasn’t figured out how to text/SMS, yet has almost total command of the iPhone). Its a combination of UI touch screen that makes the difference. touching, pointing, dragging, pinching. These are all actions we use naturally every day – no mice to move and click, no keys to press. Its the intuitiveness of the whole experience that makes it so successful as a UI.

So while we may still depend on mice and keyboards, intuitiveness in our UI is something that our users will be grateful for.

Hard Drive Troubles

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This picture was taken using WinDirStat to image the drive. Great utility, by the way. Its part of my Software Keychain now.

See that yellow area over there? Its 3.5Gbs of space that are used, but not accessible via Exploder and thus the Windows API.

Before you ask, I already tried RootkitRevealer from SysInternals, but it doesn’t work on Vista.

It was 63Gbs yesterday. Here’s what I did:

Then I decided that if I restore from a Windows Home Server backup, the unknown space shouldn’t be there as its effectively invisible to the Backup service at the time of making a backup.

Which I did. After booting up, it didn’t work.

However, this morning chkdsk started as part of the boot sequence, no idea why. And the hole in my hard drive is gone  reduced.

Whew. I was contemplating a complete rebuild of my laptop.

Out of curiosity I ran WinDirStat on my Desktop.

Here’s what I got:

desktopwindirstat

Again, there’s a 30Gb hole in the hard drive.

I ran chkdsk.exe and got a slightly tidier picture, but with the 30Gb hole still there.

Looks like I’m going to have to restore it from WHS as well.

Quote of the Day

Echoes’ outlines Microsoft’s biggest challenges: the inordinate amount of time they spend on developing products that are either a platform or a suite forces them to make too many compromises. One can’t blame the company whose DNA is Windows (Platform) & a Suite (Office.) This is a malady which makes them unable to move ahead and define the future.

Om Malik

Normal posting resumes shortly.

WHS: Virtual Server

As I promised, I’m posting a How To for installing Virtual Server on WHS.

A word to the wise:

I’ve a 2.8Ghz Celeron D with 2GB RAM to run this on. Virtual Server can provision processor usage to an extent, but it uses RAM like there’s no tomorrow. Don’t forget that it has to play nicely with WHS (specifically DEmigrator.exe that burns CPU cycles) and other stuff like defrag passes and anti-virus.

Since WHS is built on top of Small Business Server,  the underlying OS is essentially the same. Hence no compatibility issues.

Installing Virtual Server is relatively straight forward.

First, download Virtual Server 2005 from here.

Then Download the Service Pack from here.

Open a Remote Desktop Session or use the Advanced Admin console tab to access the WHS desktop.

Now, its up to you whether you want to install the program files to C drive or D drive. Its worth noting that the Virtual Machines are stored separately in a location you specify on a per VM basis.

Once the install( including that of the service pack) is completed go to Start -> All Programs -> Microsoft Virtual server and hit the Administration Website shortcut.

You get this:

image

Note: I was accessing this remotely so had to prefix the user name with “server\”.

Otherwise, these are your WHS credentials that you use to access the console or remote in to WHS.

This is the webpage you get to (click for a larger version):

image

As you can see I have two virtual machines listed. One of which is currently  running.

I find that its easier to manage the server remotely, so copy the web site shortcut from the Start Menu to a network share. This now allows you to reach the web site from any connected PC.

If you’ve done this, close Remote Desktop and try it. The Default IIS settings that the install configures for you should be OK.

Setting up a Virtual Machine couldn’t be simpler:

First we want to set the default location of our Virtual Machines. Go to Server Properties at the bottom of the Sidebar and click on Search Paths. Change the Default virtual machine configuration folder to your desired location. I’ve been using a network share with replication turned off.

image

You can also set default paths for ISO’s that you will use. These will show up when you configure the VM’s Cd/DVD drive.

And press Ok when you’re done.

Hit Create under the Virtual machines section of the sidebar:

image

Enter all the info on the screen.

The RAM that the Virtual Machine is assigned is occupied as soon as the VM starts up. So be careful when doing this.

You have a choice of creating a new Virtual Hard Drive or attaching an existing one. make sure that the size of the hard drive is enough for your needs. Expanding it later can be a little difficult.  And choose a SCSI bus if you intend to have multiple VHDs attached to the same machine.

The VHD actual file size increases as you add data to it. It stops at the logical size of the VHD. So a 80Gb VHD can no be larger than 80Gb on disk.

You can also choose to create the VM without an attached hard disk.

Pressing “create” takes us to the Vm config page:

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You can also reach this page by selecting your VM from the Configure menu under the Virtual Machines Section of the Sidebar.

This is where you change items such as memory, hard disks, CD/DVD ROM drives, Networking, SCSI Adaptors, COM and  LRP ports.

Each option takes you to a new page were you configure settings specific to that area.

Its worth noting here that the VM needs to be Shutdown for some operations. But you can still change the location of the media that the CD/DVD ROM drive captures while the VM is running.

You can also set the VM to start up automatically with WHS by going to the Server properties.

image

With my Windows Server 2003 VM running constantly, the WHS automatic restarts could be a problem. All I do is check the box, input the account details, set a delay ( in my case, 600 seconds) and tell Virtual server to save the VM’s state when WHS shuts down. The delay is actually a pretty nifty feature as it allows WHS to initialise itself, bringing all its processes online, before starting the VM.

One more thing I have to cover for running this on WHS is Resource Allocation:

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You’ll find it the bottom of the sidebar.

As you can see my VM has 50% Max Processor capacity to play with. This protects the WHS processes from being starved of resources.

Once you’ve got your VM set up and you’ve installed you software all you have to do is remote in using the Remote Control facility the web site provides you with ( its good for the initial setup such as enabling Remote desktop Connections and so forth). All you do is double click on the VM icon  on the front page.

I also recommend installing VM Additions (the ISO for it comes with Virtual Server and is a default option for the CD/DVDROM drive) that will improve the way the VM behaves within the Virtual Server environment.

Additionally, this post probably scratches the surface of what’s possible with this.

And I’m sure I’ve got a few things (unintentionally) wrong along the way so its not fool proof, so YMMV ( Your Mileage May Vary).

Happy Hacking…

Windows Home Server: Resource Deconfliction

As more and more Windows Home Server Add-Ons are introduced, WHS becomes more and more like an appliance than a piece of software (and hardware).

More and more Add-ons mean that we ask more and more of our systems. These demands mean that finite resources have to allocated and shared with the WHS software itself.

DEMigrator.exe comes to mind ( the magic behind folder duplication). Since DeMigrator does not actually have a front end ( short of turning off folder duplication), it is impossible to pause or stop it when its running in favour of something more urgent. Granted we could change our backup window, but this is not always convenient or possible.

What WHS needs is some way of managing resources on a much more granular level than process priorities. By that I mean that WHS makes  a logical guess as to what process(es) need to run now  and what processes are less immediate.

So if I use SageTV to record show x at time y and a defrag ( or other processor intensive program) is scheduled to run at the same time, we need resource deconfliction to kick in and sort it out. We can do this in one of two ways: either throttle back the proccessor intensive process or re schedule it ( if the drive isn’t very fragmented a missed defrag pass wont make much of a difference).

Naturally, we can’t expect this souped up task scheduler to be able to handle every occurrence of every program. this means that WHS would simply notify the offending process(es) of the situation and it would be up to the program to implement a responsible and reasonable strategy to handle that.

If you’ve got a high end system running WHS, this discussion isn’t very dramatic. But between backups, defrags, virus scans, DeMigrator, SageTV  and others ad nauseam  ( even automatic Windows Update needs to be able to safely restart) jockeying for resources, something needs to manage this safely and well.

Essentially, this is bringing WHS closer to the headless system originally envisioned. It would save me a lot of Remoteing in every day.

Before we finish, let take a look at the specs for the WHS systems commercially available from HP, etc to get an idea of exactly what resources are available.

The Microsoft minimum spec is 1Ghz and 512Mb RAM and 1x 70Gb drive.

The recommended spec is 64-bit Compatible Intel Pentium 4, AMD x64 or newer with 512Mb Ram and 2x hard drives with a 300GB primary disk.

  CPU RAM Hard Drive
HP Media Smart AMD 1.8 GHZ 64-bit Sempron 3400+ processor 512Mb 2x 500Gb
Norco DS-520 Intel Celeron M 1GHz 1Gb 1x 250Gb
Piranha Home Server Intel Celeron 430 (1.8GHz, 512KB, Conroe) 1GB 2x250Gb
T2-WHS-A3 Harmony Home Server Intel Celeron 220 1.2GHz 512Mb (1Gb Optional) 1 x 500Gb (1Tb/2Tb Optional)
T7-HSA Harmony Home Server Via C7M “Esther” 1.5Ghz 512Mb (1Gb Optional) 1 x 500Gb (1Tb Optional)
My own homebuilt system (Dell  Poweredge SC440) Intel Celeron D 2.8Ghz 2GB 1x160Gb
1x400Gb
2x750Gb

I think this is a pretty representative sample of the entire range. You can get the reviews on these servers and others from We Got Served Hardware page.

NB. The extra possibilities of multi-core  64 bit machines allowing true concurrent execution are mind boggling.

Hardware Upgrades- Vista and WHS

I just upgraded my main PC from XP to Vista  Business. And stuck a new graphics card in.

Before we discuss the Windows Experience Index, the only down side of the upgrade is that there are no Vista drivers for the front ports ( USB, SD, etc)  or the built in sound card from Compaq. None. Their driver downloads page for the model ( SR1629 UK) essentially says “best of luck” for those upgrading to Vista.

In fact, I suspect that the model number of my PC is different to that on the page as the picture does not show the front card reader and the drivers don’t show up for it. Any Suggestions???

This is extremely inconvenient, as you might imagine.I’ve lost 3 USB ports and  a 9-in one card reader. The sound issue was fixed by buying a cheap SoundBlaster Creative card.

I bought a  Radeon HD 3650 PCI- Express card.  512MB of GDDR3 RAM (that has a 1.73GHZ clock). A 790Mhz engine clock. Crossfire X support as well as full HD. The graphics that come out of this thing are amazing.

I bought it mainly to play Flight Simulator X on it and it rocks ( though I’m still adjusting the settings to get the best combination of  graphics and speed/playability).

Here’s the System information page with the Windows Experience Index:

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And here’s the breakdown:

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I must say I was expecting a dramatic improvement, but not by THAT much. Can’t remember what the original score was before I put the card in, but it was pretty dramatic.

There is a pretty in-depth discussion of the Index on the Vista Team blog here.

Moving on.

My Windows Home Server has been screaming for the last week that the USB drive had failed ( its connected and turned on and has been tried on multiple USB ports on multiple PCs). I’m not sure precisely what happened but I’m a hard drive short and have 200Gbs of space left.

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So I’ve ordered two Samsung SpinPoint F1 750GB SATA-II drives. One to replace the failed USB hard drive and the other to replace the aging 80Gb IDE drive. Since there is the hard drive replication feature, I’ve gone down the path of more drives rather than higher drive capacity.  This should take my total drive capacity to about 2 TB, which is plenty. I go through hard drive space rather fast, mainly cause I use SageTv to record Tv and virtual server to run the occasional VM ( I have a 44 GB VM, to give you an idea of size).

I got all this great hardware from a UK company called Overclockers UK. Great customer service. They have no problem dealing with returned items (I had to return a AGP card because my system was PCI-E). They are quite reasonably priced and have some really amazing specials quite often.

My hard drives were shipped 40 minutes after my confirmation arrived in my inbox. And that really is amazing service. If i need hard ware, they’re my first port of call. Well done guys!!

WHS and Smugmug 1

The first thing I looked for after signing up for SmugMug was a WHS Add-In since there is one for Flikr. Lo and behold, there isn’t one.

So last night I started writing an application architecture post when it occurred to me that the best way of explaining it was to write a program from scratch.

Enter the SmugMug Add-In idea. So I’ll be doing that in a short series of posts.

First things first, I haven’t decided whether to use Visual Studio 2005 or Express 2008.

Second, the WHS SDK is already in your servers’ Program Files\Windows Home Server folder, so don’t bother looking online for it. You’ll need these two files added as references in Visual Studio ( or Express):

  • HomeServerExt.dll
  • Microsoft.HomeServer.SDK.Interop.v1.dll

Third, the Smugmug API can be downloaded from SmugMug.com. And it looks to be rather straight forward to write code against it (Note – I always say that looking at an API for the first time, then regret it later). And you’ll need an API key from SmugMug. And you’ll need to add the API in as a reference in Visual Studio or Express.

For a quick look at it, Evan Leventhal’s .NET wrapper SmugMug.NET, is a good start.

Fourth there the way the program will work is pretty straight forward :

  • The folder name can be the name of the gallery OR an XML file in the folder will identify which gallery it corresponds to (that is the SmugMug Gallery ID) ala SyncToy.
  • Since I keep far more photos than I post in \\Server\Photos,  it would be a good idea to create a separate folder containing all the gallery folders for syncing.
  • As far as checking the folders themselves, the .Net 2.0 has a FileWatcher object ( or something to that effect).
  • A settings tab will have a list of folders in the gallery folder that will be synced by default unless you uncheck it.
  • As far as a console tab goes, I have no idea – stats, gallery browser, etc.
  • And scheduling of some sort, could do somthing ala SyncToy (and no, I’m not french).

I’m writing this primarily for myself  as I’m fed up with having to Remote in and use the Send To SmugMug shell app but it will be packaged neatly and on Codeplex once its finished, I imagine.