Why I’m no longer in the PC Repair Business.

Part 1. – Catching up…

I might like to say that I’m retired from the PC business, but it’s also true that the PC repair business went away from me. When smartphone “apps” took over, I saw many PC’s being put aside. People began buying tablets to watch Netflix on and it just didn’t seem worthwhile for users to pay upwards of $150 to repair a PC when many of its functions had been taken over by their phones or tablets. And phones or tablets usually came with some sort of user “Reset” facility, which replaced my “Repair” function in most cases.

Microsoft and Windows must also take much of the blame. I was very much known as a “Windows” expert, so when Windows lost its dominance over the marketplace to Android and IOS, my skills became less required. As I am fond of saying, after MS bailing Apple out in their early history, Apple has apparently, and with finality, won that war – their OS being everywhere and MS being relegated to the sidelines. It’s worthy of note though, that despite years of philanthropy, Bill Gates is still listed by Forbes as the richest person in the world.

I also must accept much of the responsibility myself. I made a conscious choice (due to my age and a declining wish to learn new things) to not learn about Windows 10 as I had about every prior version of Windows. I stuck with Windows 7 on my main PC (considering it the best desktop OS by far) and only “viewed” Windows 10 without actually using it or learning how to repair it. As what was left of PC users rapidly adopted W10, due in no small part to a very aggressive free upgrade program by MicroSoft, I instead got an iPhone and learned about it from a User’s perspective.

My last post to this blog was in June 2015, almost 2 years and a lifetime ago. At one time I managed a home network of 4 PCs, a laptop, a server, a tablet or two, and a network printer. There was also a SlingBox, a device which broadcast our TV signal out through the internet to our enabled phones. Oh, yes. And a couple of iPhones. Due to recent “life changes” I have since re-located to a smaller apartment and also downsized the network.

I moved with 1 PC and a Surface Tablet, as well as an iPhone and the network printer. The de-commissioning of the server meant that I had to reconfigure my storage, which was actually a plus because it required me to re-think my storage needs. I was “grand-fathered” into additional free storage on OneDrive as part of my Hotmail account, and with a couple of exceptions I was able to pare things down and move all my documents and my photos to the cloud, replicating the OneDrive to a local PC for backup. Those exceptions were my Music and my Download folders, which I saved separately on several of the spare hard drives I still have lying around.

In reality, this process saved me when the PC abruptly stopped working about a month ago. Since most of my stuff was “In the Cloud”, I was able to diagnose the CPU fan as the problem and declare the unit “Toast” with little effort and thought about loss of documents or information. Most of the work came to re-configuring the Surface Tablet as my main unit – and that was little more than hooking up an external display and a USB Wireless Mouse/Keyboard combo, and placing shortcuts on the desktop to the various websites that I use on a daily basis. I realized at that time that most of my activities revolved around the web, that there was little doing of things locally. The main “local” installation, besides the printer, was MS Office 2010, a holdover from my TechNet days. Even that pointed OneNote and Outlook to accounts that were actually on the web.

Now I just feel old. I am no longer in the PC business and the world has moved on in many ways. The world today is much different from the one I grew up in. And very different from what I expected. And the people seem quite different also. Like I said, I just feel old…

And now I’m merely a consumer, playing away on my Surface desktop, exploring the world around me, and enjoying thinking of the different gadgets that abound and the uses people have found for them. Now computers are ubiquitous and we mostly don’t see them or they are part of something else and we take them for granted. Many of them have touch or voice enabled interfaces but they’re all just screens and the internet does the real computing.

I still have the iPhone and find I use it more than a PC. I seem to use the Surface as a desktop (except when I take it out to use as mobile, of course) mainly when browsing, reading or editing, or watching videos – things where the 19” external monitor has an advantage. Strangely, when I see a notification on the screen that I have an email, I usually check the email on my phone while I continue what I was doing on-screen. And some things, like Facebook, banking or Blue Cross (I make a claim on my medical insurance by using their phone app to take a picture of the receipt, similarly to depositing a cheque) actually seem easier on the phone.

Many of us have  AI (Artificial Intelligence) assistants like “Siri’, “Cortana”, “Hey Google” or “Alexa “ and we just tell the devices verbally what to do. Despite appearing to be on our Phones, Siri and the like actually exist only on the web, and our requests are sent to the internet for reply. Children are being brought up in a world where a computer playmate, such as “All-Day Elmo” is a common thing. And how young are they teaching them how to use an iPad?  It amazes me to think what effect this will have on the future. And we’ve just found that in some cases, these devices can be subpoenaed and testify against us.

I may be only a consumer at this point, but for now I like to think my past makes me more “technically-aware” than most. Particularly when using a Surface and Windows 10. So I wonder how an ordinary user would handle the following scenario, which befell me last week.

Part 2 – What Happened.

It started with me exploring Paint – a small, very basic utility that has come with Windows since at least version 3.x. I noticed that MS had just upgraded it to Paint 3D, the first major change since that time and I decided to look at it further. The problem was – I didn’t have it. Apparently it was part of the Anniversary Update (1703) released in March, and for some reason that update was shown as “Failed” in Windows Update History on my Surface. Hmmm…

Failure of an update to install is not unusual. Over the years I had seen many such scenarios. Often they resolved merely by installing the update manually, so that is what I tried. After taking almost 2 hours to get to 90%, the update failed and the screen went to “rolling back to your previous OS”.  I expected another 2 hours to get back to where I was, so I went about some business elsewhere. Upon returning, I found the same screen. Watching it closely, I saw that it was actually rebooting, flashing “attempting to recover” very briefly then the “Rolling back” screen for a short time, then again a reboot and the scenario repeated. It was stuck in a “loop”. I let the loop go on while I thought about it for a while, hoping it would finish but it never did – always “recovering” and “rolling back”. Both the update and the previous OS were somehow corrupted and unbootable.

Now I had a problem…

At that point I would normally go to another PC and start researching solutions. Since I had no other PC, only my phone, I was limited as to what I could find. I had once found a means to break out of a similar loop with an XP update by booting to CD and deleting an “xml” file, but even if I were to find such a fix, how could I interrupt the update loop that was confronting me and boot into a repair environment.

All the Windows 10 “diagnostic” starts assumed a functional Windows to invoke it from, so I was limited by the hardware’s ability to interrupt the boot – and I quickly found that the only way I could do that was to force-boot the unit to a Windows 10 Install “Stick” which I had created some unknown time ago. Doing that, I found that the “Repair” and “Reset” functions from the install disk were too old to operate on the newer installed Windows files and the only solution available was a clean install from the Windows 10 stick. This caused me to pause and think again about my data before continuing. But I was comfortable about my data, and I had no choice but to continue the clean install.

The Surface had only a 64Gb main drive, so there was no room to do a “Parallel” installation, and removing the existing partitions and reformatting seemed the only way to go. The install seemed to go smoothly, but I immediately noticed a problem at login – it would only accept a “local” username, not the MS login I was expecting. Looking further I found that no wireless drivers had been installed and therefore internet access was not available. I realized that I had seen this problem before, back when I had previously installed from a newly-created USB Stick (probably the same one) and found that for some reason MS had NOT included the drivers for the wireless chips installed in the MS Surface in the downloadable ISO file provided for re-installation. They were available seperately, so at that time I had used another PC to get them and put them on a USB Stick. Since I had no drivers now, and no available internet to get them from and no other PC to work with, I could think of few options.

But now I did have a functional Windows (no wireless, but I did have USB) and I was able to find, on one of my “Backup” disks, an image of the Surface taken in September 2015. Since the device was USB I was able to access it from the Surface. There was a moment when I realized I would have to boot from the stick and then remove it to insert the drive with the Image on it, but the routine accepted the change, found the image, and the restore process went smoothly from there..

Now thanks to restoring a previous fully-functional image, I had wireless, and thus the internet, on the Surface. But it was from 2015. I still wasn’t anyways near where I started. I again started the update process on the Surface and all were successful until it came to the “Version Update to 1607” where it failed the update again. And again I waited while it “rolled back”. And then I tried it again just to be sure. And it failed again. And rolled back again.

But now that I had a fully-functional Windows to play with. I was able to download the “iso” for the latest version (1703) and save it on the Stick (overwriting the previous Install files). After taking care to download the wireless drivers first, I began the clean re-install with Version 1703. However, I was pleasantly surprised when the drivers were included with the iso this time and my backups were not needed.

Now I had the 1703 version of Windows 10, including the Anniversary Update and, finally, Paint 3D. All I had left to do was reconfigure the Surface with my desktop shortcuts and replicate my OneDrive. I also copied the music over onto the 64GB MicroSD drive installed in the unit for additional storage and did some other minor re-configurations. I was surprised how much of the Windows customizations were saved automatically via my OneDrive and returned to the Surface just as automatically. After re-installation, I used an adapter to explore the SATA drives that used to be in the PC. I found where I had saved my Download folder and was able to re-install Office 2010 and activate it without problem. I then marked and saved the version 1703 Stick, and performed an image backup of the current setup – the Windows 7 Backup program is included with Windows 10. Now, I think, I’m ready for next time.

I wonder how a normal user would fare with the above.

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The Hard Drive in my Laptop Fails

I think I missed a class somewhere, but it’s too late now.

A few years ago (mid 2012 or so) I found a 320 GB WD “Black” (designation for a series of fast 7200 rpm 2.5 inch drives from Western Digital) laptop hard drive in my supplier’s Reduced bin. It had been “Recertified” by WD, and they were selling it at a then-incredible price of $40. Since the drive in my laptop at the time was only 160 GB and almost full, it was a no-brainer. After installing it and restoring the laptop via Windows Home Server (WHS) Backup, the drive worked flawlessly. At a later point I shrunk the existing partition and installed Windows 8.x in the newly-created space, and more recently upgraded that to the Windows Technical Preview, which we can now refer to as the Windows 10 Beta. During the time since, I have used the WHS Backup Restore function several times to overwrite one or the other partition when I had encountered a problem. Booting different versions of Windows, even in separate partitions, results in a known issue where booting one OS removes any “restore points” saved by the other OS (it sees them as corrupted) effectively disabling System Restore for both OS’s. WHS essentially replaced that function by allowing me to easily restore a partition from a previous backup. However, since I had installed the Win8/10 dual boot setup I had never tried to replace the drive itself.

Fast-forward to last week. I started having problems with updating Win 10 on the laptop to the latest release (10130), which was running fine on my desktop test system. On the laptop however, the update failed no matter how I tried to apply it. I had had similar problems with the prior update, but had managed to get around them. Looking deeper this time I found some “disk” errors in the logs, and when I tried to boot into the Windows 7 partition to look at the logs there Windows 7 also started behaving oddly. The first time it booted to the desktop, but several services didn’t start and Windows seemed to re-detect old hardware and prompted a reboot. The 2nd time it failed to boot – throwing a “Bad Config” BSOD (Stop Code 0x74). After trying a few things to get past or around the BSOD, I ran the Dell Diagnostics from the BIOS, which failed the HD. Since I had the time, I then reformatted the drive and reloaded Windows just so I could download and run the WD Diagnostics, which also failed the drive. At that point, I declared the drive officially failed. In my eyes, that’s not bad for a “recertified” drive – I have seen new drives fail quicker than that. And at no time was I concerned about data loss due to WHS and my local setup.

I found a new WD “Black” 500GB drive locally for $79 and installed it in the laptop. The new drive was physically thinner than the old one, so I used a few business cards as spacers to prevent any accidental movement. I then booted WHS Restore and restored both the System Reserved and the Windows 7 partitions. I did not attempt to restore the WTP partition, since I considered it already broken and my intent was to reload Windows 10 cleanly from an ISO file. The fun started when the system thereafter refused to boot.

I was actually prepared for a problem on the reboot. In previous restores, not only from WHS but also from the Windows 7 “Repair My PC – Restore from Image” function, I had often seen instances where the wrong partition had been set to “Active” and I had had to restart the PC  and run the “Repair My PC” function (or Startup Repair) to set the correct partition as Active. Unfortunately, this problem was more complicated that that. Without going into a lot of detail, the following day was lost trying to repair the boot. While I was unable to successfully repair the boot, I did learn much, but not enough, about the process. When Windows 8 (or 10) is installed on a system already having a Windows 7 installation, it actually replaces the boot files on the Active partition – which would be the “System Reserved” partition in a normal Windows 7 installation. It also seems to redirect at least part of the boot (the new Boot Manager?) to the newly created Win8/10 partition. The Windows 8 boot function is quite different from the Windows 7 function, as it allows changes to boot settings and UEFI BIOS from the Dual Boot Menu – essentially loading part of Windows before presenting the boot menu. If you change the default OS to Windows 7, it goes back to a completely different “Boot Option” screen. And a Windows 8 “Restart” is not really a restart in the classic sense. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much documentation about how all this works (especially with the WTP) in a dual boot situation, and none of the fixes I could find would enable my system to boot. I do not understand the Win8/10 Boot Process sufficiently, especially as it applies to a dual-boot situation. The WHS restore process might have worked had I restored all 3 of the partitions at the same time – might being the operative word – but I still wouldn’t understand what went wrong. Instead, I decided a complete reload was in order. I’ve done that for many clients, but for the most part the WHS has allowed me to avoid reloading on my own systems. At least it does have backups of any user files – most at risk was my Outlook *.pst file, which was stored locally on the laptop and also contained my Calendar.

Location of User files was part of my considerations during the reload. After loading Windows 7 SP1 itself (along with some 270+ updates) and the Office 2010 package, I realized there were few other applications that I needed to install locally. I installed Microsoft Security Essentials of course, and the network HP AIO printer. Google Earth and Chrome were next. And inSSIDer (for inspection of wireless networks) as well as Recuva (for recovering lost files) were about all that I needed on the laptop. As I browsed my most recent backup for user files, I was pleased to see how little I had actually saved to the laptop itself. Windows 7 Professional has the ability to “cache” shared folders from Windows Server (which WHS is) as “Offline Files”, so I use that feature to redirect my Documents and Downloads libraries, which actually live in shares on the WHS. Even as cached copies, the files take up almost 100GB on the drive but the function allows me to take all the files with me on the road and automatically re-sync when I return to the server with no effort on my part. When I’m at home working on my Windows 7 Home Premium desktop those libraries are redirected to the server folder also, so my user files are the same no matter which device I’m using at the time.

The other factor in my user files consideration is my increasing usage of Cloud Storage, specifically OneDrive from Microsoft which comes with a Hotmail or Microsoft Account. Aside from my “Downloads” Library which holds most of my “Stuff”, my “Tech” files are now primarily in OneNote format on OneDrive, which means they’re accessible to my iPhone and the Android tablet as well as the laptop and desktop stations. With my “Loyalty Bonus” and the bonus for adding camera backup I have 40GB of free storage available on OneDrive, of which I’m currently using 15. That’s plenty of room to store all of my photos and most of my documents too as an additional backup. Since I have lots of space on the new HD, I also set the OneDrive Application to “sync” the OneDrive files to the Laptop as well as to the Desktop – also providing additional backup copies with no effort. The result of those factors is that I need very few user files stored locally on the systems, saving the time to restore them – all I really needed to do was to configure the libraries (along with Off-Line Files) and OneDrive and the laptop was ready to go – the user files stayed where they were. I did have to leave it for a while to allow the Offline files to cache from the server – automatically.

I may have mentioned before, I really like the OneDrive Camera Backup feature on my phone – whenever I come home (to my own wireless) after taking some pictures, it automatically backs up any new photos to a folder on the OneDrive. The OneDrive apps then “sync” those files back to the workstations, the result being that without any effort on my part, any new photos automatically wind up on my desktop within a few minutes of my return. I like things that happen automatically.

At this point, I have the laptop back up running Windows 7. After caching and syncing I find I’ve used about 175 GB of my new 500 GB drive. And I still want to load Windows 10 onto the laptop. I considering that doing so will limit my options for System Restore and Image Backup to the Server, but since I keep no important user files on the device itself, I decide to install the WTP anyway. Worst case scenario, I can always do a manual reload again.

Since I have lots of space on my new drive, I decide to dedicate 150 GB to the Windows 10 side, leaving 350 GB for my main Windows 7 partition. Accordingly, I went into Disk Management from Windows 7 and “shrunk” the partition by 150 GB. Now I’m back to where I wanted to be last week – ready to install the latest build of Windows 10 onto the laptop.

In preparation, I had previously downloaded the ISO file of Build 10130. I used the strangely named “Windows 7 USB DVD Download Tool” which allowed me to create a bootable USB Thumbdrive directly from the Windows 10 Preview ISO file. Even though my Laptop actually came from the Vista era, it booted directly from the Thumbdrive and went into the WTP setup process. After selecting “Custom” install, Setup found the empty 150 GB space on the HD and proceeded without issue. Even though 10130 was the latest build, there were still some updates after Setup finished.

On first login, I used my MS Account as I had on the desktop system, and almost immediately I ran into a problem accessing the files on the server. I remembered the problem from the WTP Desktop, where the MS Login seemed to preclude any direct access to the Server shares, which used local login names and passwords. In earlier versions of Windows 8.x and WTP I had been able to get around the issue by manually specifying the username and password to login to the share, selecting to “Remember Credentials” usually ended the problem at that point. Not so with later versions of Windows 10, the manual process did not seem to be available. With the Desktop, I had installed a “Launchpad” utility from the Server – one of its functions was to remember such credentials and allow automatic login to the Server even if the local username was different. Even as it stands today, the Launchpad allows seamless access to the Server Shares from the WTP Desktop even though I am using a MS Login.

So I decided not to “connect” the laptop to the server. That process is necessary for backup, but not for server access which is determined by username and password. I also decided to switch to a local account for the Windows 10 Preview on the laptop, which would allow me automatic login to the server shares from the laptop. However, I would have to deal with individual logins to the various MS Services such as Hotmail and OneDrive after Windows Login – this is actually still the recommended practice for Server Clients running Windows 8.x. In any case, I also have the Windows 10 Preview on the Desktop test system, where I use the Microsoft Account Login process, so I can continue to use and explore both options.

As an aside, this process gave me a better understanding of a new question that began popping up during setup of recent builds of the WTP. After installation, when the Login Screen is first presented the user is given the option of a local login or using a Microsoft Account (Recommended). That prompt has been there since Windows 8.1 but later builds of WTP first ask “Who Owns This PC?”. If a corporate system, then a “Local” login screen is presented, if “The Device Belongs to Me” is selected, then an enhanced version of the MS Account login screen is presented. If a MS login is used, the OneDrive integration is obvious as its configuration is presented along with Cortana as part of that first login, although you can “Skip” either or both options.

Despite what the “Who Owns This PC?” Screen says – “Switching Later may be Difficult” – I found the process to switch to a local account relatively easy. I had to confirm my intentions, but very quickly I was prompted to logoff, then login again with the local account. Afterwards, my local folders were unchanged, but I had automatic access to Server Shares based on my local credentials. WTP supports Off-Line Files and OneDrive, so the configuration was much the same as with Windows 7. The laptop dual boots into Windows 7 or Windows 10, and my files are the same on either side, with no further effort on my part.

Windows 10 is starting to look finished, as it should – Microsoft has announced July 29 as Launch Date. Although the look and feel is very much like Windows 8, the Start Menu is back, apps run in re-sizable Windows and even some of the “Aero Glass” look is back. Many of the little things that we associate with Windows are back, but the PC era has come and gone – and things will  never be the same again. Today it’s all about the data (the “Cloud” is taken for granted) and what we have are interchangeable “Screens” with which to access the data.

Posted in Computers and Internet | 2 Comments

An experiment with Android

It’s been a long time coming. Since the iPhone morphed into the iPad the rest of the world has been trying to play catch-up. Once Apple showed us, it became obvious that the way of the future was small, connected mobile devices supported by giant databases capable of responding to whatever we ask of them, much like Star Trek Communicators were linked to the main Enterprise Computer. The required infrastructure had arrived in the form of the Mobile internet created by the cellphone networks, and the “App Market” which was initially created by Apple to sell music and videos (eventually TV Shows, Magazines, Webcasts and all manner of content), but which also began to sell small 3rd party programs written to run on IOS, the Operating system for the iPhone and the iPod Touch (the same device without the phone). Those “Apps” ported very easily to the iPad – essentially a larger iPod Touch – and sold quickly to users who enjoyed viewing the larger iPad screens while lounging around the house or even in the bedroom. Models with wireless only were just used in one or a couple of locations, such as home or work where such wireless was available. Other models had Cellular Radios built in, and could connect to the internet from almost anywhere, usually requiring their own Cellular Data Plan. Those were obviously designed for staying connected while moving around.

Apple showed us “always connected” screens of various sizes, depending on how and where they were used and supported by “Apps” which could and would do whatever we could think of for them to do. “Location Awareness” and “Position Sensitivity” were added to allow the device to know where we are, and sometimes what we are doing – such as exercising or travelling or entering a specific location. Modern Phones or Tablets are actually far more powerful computers than NASA used to fly to the Moon or than even many PCs. They can learn our routines (where is work or home, how do we get from one to the other and how often), what we do and where we go otherwise, and can even remind us to pick up milk when we enter Sobeys.

This spelled the end of the PC era. Windows had brought compatibility to computing in the ‘80s and put a PC or more in every home, which eventually connected us to the internet. Now the internet is assumed, and Apple has shown us that we can do anything from anywhere – physical location seems irrelevant (only the device knows). From a consumer viewpoint, the PC has almost disappeared – only being required by people who need to type or actually create content. The current driver is the internet itself. Content consumers have found it much easier to access and share information, including music and videos, via Facebook or other Social Networking Apps on whatever screen they have handy. Movies and much of what used to be shown on “Broadcast” TV is now also available via the internet. In some ways Karen, who has always been addicted to TV, seems to prefer watching on the tablet’s smaller screen – but usually Netflix Movies or other reruns. Her viewing habits don’t seem to have changed, but I think the difference is the “on-demand” nature of Netflix, and also the more “Personal” nature of viewing on the tablet – Karen will often put on headphones to be in her own space while watching. Being interrupted by an email or other notification doesn’t seem to bother as much, as the content stops and waits while we tend to the interruption. As more generally useful information becomes available via the internet, apps are able to access that info and provide it to us at a relevant time via notification mechanisms. From checking the weather, advising of adverse traffic patterns or important breaking news, reading magazines or reserving a book at the library, doing our banking, even telling us when we need to leave for our next appointment and how to get there, using location awareness, and access to your daily patterns, the devices (along with the internet) can often provide the information before we even realize we need it.

Due in no small way to the unique genius of Steve Jobs, Apple has so far managed to dominate this market, and keep users paying a premium to be a part of the “Apple World”. This has been done by keeping everything tightly integrated and controlling production and therefore quality. The whole user experience is created as a single unit but only works fully on Apple devices. Fortunes have changed as Apple’s old rival Microsoft is seeing the PC market dwindle away. MS is still hanging on with Business users and with it’s “Surface” tablet offering, but has not yet been able to attract consumers in any meaningful way – Windows 8 flopped, they’re trying to rebuild with Windows 10 and integration with the Windows Phone and Cortana, but they’re lagging way behind.

On the other hand, Google could also see where the future was going and had a vision of its own – and it could see the disarray in the market trying to attract users away from the Apple World.  Google also had tons of money and resources to spend. Over the next few years, Google set about actively trying to attract users away from the Apple stranglehold, by creating an alternative infrastructure complete with “Google Play Store”, and by creating the Android OS to run on those “non-Apple” devices, very like MS did in the ‘70s. Unlike Microsoft however, they made it Open Source so any manufacturer could use it. Then they bought Nexus and put Android on their Phones (and tablets) to scale up the enterprise. By using 3rd party apps, and allowing the OS freely on other hardware, they have enabled developers to create and market devices and apps outside of the “Apple World”, in effect creating a “Google World”. And a common platform for both vendors and consumers looking for an alternative to Apple.

Fast forward to today. Or last week actually. The true test lab for marketability of a consumer device is Walmart, and on a recent visit I had noticed some tablets with price tags under $100. The displayed models were not very impressive, and of course there was no-one around to answer questions. It got me to thinking though, so when I got home I went to the Walmart website to look further.

The website allowed me to sort by price, and revealed more than 20 tablets priced under $100. I spent a little time checking out the details of the units offered, and selected a “Flare 3” model from HipStreet, a brand I have never otherwise heard of, as having the best specs. It’s a 9” (Diagonal) tablet, with an A9 “Quad Core” Processor, 1GB RAM and 8GB of internal storage (expandable via a microSD card). It has wireless (but no cellular), locational and positional awareness, and comes equipped with front and rear cameras, connections for headphones, USB and HDMI, and the latest version of Android (KitKat – 4.4.x). At $98, it sounded like an ideal test unit. It was time to find out what things were like in the Google World, as compared to the Apple World, where we currently live with our iPhones. At home, we are still firmly entrenched in the Microsoft camp with 6 Windows PCs in the house (but that’s starting to feel passé) and we both use Hotmail for our primary email address, along with OneDrive for cloud storage.

The purchase experience was typical Walmart though. Looking closely at my chosen test unit on-line, I noticed it specified “Not available On-line” but also indicated “In Stock at My Store”. Even better, I thought as I began driving out to Bayer’s Lake. When I got there though, I was presented with the same selection I had seen on my previous visit. There was nothing on display on top of the counter, but I could see a stack of “Flare 3” boxes in the locked cabinet below. There was no price tag shown for that model, but some nearby were marked $126 and $189. I had printed off the on-line details of the Flare 3, so I went in search of someone in a blue shirt – the 2 gentlemen in black shirts could only talk about cellphones. I found a blue shirt in the Photo section and enticed him back to Electronics, where he looked doubtfully at my ad but went ahead and got his price gun and key. The price gun confirmed the $98 price and I took the device home with me – $115.36 with tax and environmental fee. I told BlueShirt they could probably sell a lot more of them if they had some on display… but it’s Walmart.

So now I had an Android Tablet. I don’t actually have a $500 iPad to compare it to, but I have seen enough to know what they can do (and we both have iPhones) and now I can test to see if Google and Android have been able to create a viable alternative. I have played with a Surface Tablet, Microsoft’s entry into the tablet field, but I wasn’t much impressed – it seemed more like a tiny laptop running Windows 8, and nothing like the iPad or Android tablet – the only Surface user I know hooks it up to a keyboard, mouse and monitor at the office (essentially using it as a laptop) and uses it as a tablet only at home.

I already had a Google ID, so I was able to sign right into the device. The Google Store immediately recognised my ID, and the prominent “GMail” icon took me directly to my GMail without any additional configuration. I easily added my Nerd email account (which is powered by Google) and then touched the generic “EMail” icon to set up my Hotmail account – I gave it my email address and password and it configured automatically. When I browsed the Google Play Store, I was pleased to find that most of the free apps I run on my iPhone are also available free for Android from the Google Store. And a lot more it seems.

Some are even better. After installing “OneDrive” from Microsoft as part of my Hotmail account, I found that MS is distributing free edit-capable versions (not viewers) of Word, Excel and PowerPoint as well as a “Beta” of Outlook via the Google Store. I didn’t download the Outlook, but the Word and Excel apps both provide means to edit MS docs in an albeit limited way. MS is getting some flack for this, as they have released free editors for both IOS and Android, but not for Windows. The One-Drive installation offered to backup the Camera on the device (as it does my iPhone) so I let it.

The Netflix installation was obvious, and I found apps for A&E and the History Channel, as well as Global and both CTV and CBC News Apps. I also found an app from Eastlink (my cable TV Provider) which would allow me to view some of my TV shows directly on the device. The same would appear to be available for Shaw users, and some apps will allow for logins from other providers. These “Apps” provided much of what I want from Broadcast TV. In some cases, the tablet allowed me to pull up information supplementary to what I was watching on TV – such as monitoring the leaderboard on the tablet while I watched the race itself on TV.

I downloaded the Facebook app, as well as both Chrome and Firefox browsers and the “Metro” newspaper app – unfortunately I wasn’t able to do the crossword on the tablet, but I couldn’t do that on the iPhone either. I installed and tested Skype (unfortunately not as nice as “FaceTime” but more compatible, and I found the cameras in the <$100 device a little inadequate). At the Google Store, I also found ES File Explorer, which allowed me to browse other systems on my local network. With some digging, I also found Plex which allowed my to setup my desktop system as a Media Server (using Network Libraries) and the tablet as a player for the Music, Videos and Photos available from the server. iTunes for Android is available from the Google Store, but with limited on-device storage I declined that option in favour of using Plex to play network content.

I was able to download an App for Credit Union Atlantic which worked well, but I was surprised to find that RBC offers apps only for IOS and Windows 8. However, I was able to do the banking I needed to do by using Chrome on the tablet to browse to the RBC on-line banking site and log in that way. I also found I could log into my Home Server (which requires IE for full support) through the web using Chrome, and was able to download and view a pdf manual from there on the tablet.

Considering possible work-related usage, I downloaded and tested a WiFi Analyser which  showed me all the nearby WiFi networks along with their channels, signal strength and other useful info. I also successfully logged into my Router and the network HP Printer’s web interface using Chrome on the tablet. Firefox also tested with no problems seen. I downloaded the Android equivalent of the Square Register, which I currently use to accept credit cards with my iPhone. The register recognises when I plug the Square into the headphone jack, and everything appears to work normally indicating that I could use the tablet to receive Credit Card payments if I needed to.

I downloaded another free MS App – Remote Desktop client for Android, and was able to RDP into my Home Server from the app on the tablet – very impressive. MS has recently announced their strategy of giving away the utilities and limited versions of Office to keep users dependant on MS and that seems to be evident – whether that translates into retaining the desktop and server markets is another thing, we will have to wait and see.

One of the “big” things about the iPad/iPhone is Siri, the ever-present virtual personal assistant who can answer simple questions like the time and weather, internet queries and perform basic tasks like send a text or schedule a meeting or an alarm. As time goes by, we can expect Siri to acquire more abilities and become better at understanding our requests. Apple has been working on and refining Siri for some time so you would expect it to be further ahead. MS has just barely entered the virtual assistant arena with Cortana – part of the Windows 10 Technical Preview, and now included with Windows Phone 8.1. Google Now was tested with Google Glass, and has been available as part of Android since version 4.x. Google Now is the only one current offering able to configured as “always waiting” (for you to say “OK Google”) and not requiring the press of a button. Cortana is untested, and not currently available on a tablet in any case.

All I could do by way of testing was to try out various things and see what worked. I don’t use Siri a lot on my phone, except to make calls, set alarms or occasionally to book an appointment. I’m aware it can do many other things. Whatever I try (that’s not phone related) works on the tablet – pulling up apps, asking questions and so on, so we’ll  have to go to other opinions for which is best. From what I can find browsing the web, Siri seems best at understanding what we say (believe it or not), apparently is programmed with a sense of humour and can be fun. Some even think Siri has a “Soul” and have fallen in love. Google Now is Google – the best results but no joking around, and definitely no “Soul”. Google Now gets “Context” and will respond better to follow up questions. It can also remind you of things you didn’t ask it to if you let it read your email or know where you are. It can even remember where you parked your car.

Battery life was very acceptable. After the initial charge, I could go 2-3 days of occasional usage between charges. When Karen used hers almost constantly for Netflix, she could still go all day on a single charge.

All in all, I have to say I was very impressed with the Android tablet. As a wireless only model, it’s not made for travelling around with, although it is certainly portable – our usage is mostly around the house. Karen is glued to the “Netflix while lying on the bed” and a version of Tetris she found. I have recently taken on some cooking, and I have found the tablet an excellent way to display my recipes (which exist as OneNote pages saved to my OneDrive) in the kitchen when I’m actually making something.

From a hardware perspective, the camera and sound systems were cheaply sourced, and the display was ok, but definitely nowhere near Apple quality. At <$100 you don’t expect the fit and finish of a $500 iPad, but all in all the unit performed very well. The A9 processor and 1GB RAM out-spec’d most of the similarly priced units, which had lesser processors and only 512MB RAM. That made using the tablet smooth, and it responded to touch fluidly and without seeming to bog down. While the iPad has limited connectivity, this tablet can use expanded storage up to 32GB via a microSD and can access many standard USB devices via an included “mini-USB” to standard USB adapter. We did purchase a mini-HDMI to standard HDMI cable for an additional $15 which allowed output to the TV.

The Google Ecosystem has matured in later years, and there are now apps available to do almost anything you can imagine. The total numbers of apps available in either the Apple Store or the Google Play Store is overwhelming – I could find everything I wanted, and most major content providers have apps available for all platforms. If you have a need for a specific App though, it would be wise to check out the availability for your chosen OS – as Windows usage goes away, compatibility issues can return.

I couldn’t find much that one device could do that the other couldn’t. The Apple experience is much more tightly integrated, and everything is designed from the start to work together – much like Apple has always done. The Android experience is looser, and requires more work to put the pieces together and get them to function they way you want – but it’s more customizable along the way – much like the Windows experiences of the past.

All the major players want you to opt into their version of cloud services – in order to get the best of the Apple World, you should have an Apple email address, or at least an Apple ID. Windows users should have a Hotmail address, and Android users need a GMail account. That doesn’t mean you have to change your email address. They all seem to support the others’ services on their device to some extent. Android automatically configured my Hotmail address for its supplied email client, and I set up many “Apps” to use my OneDrive, part of the MS Cloud – as we had previously done on our Apple iPhones. Currently, I download and use only free items, but if I wanted to purchase items from the Google Store, then I would need to associate a payment mechanism with that account. But at the moment, signing into the android (and Google Plus) are the only things I use my GMail address for – if I wanted, I could automatically forward incoming GMail to my Hotmail. And with each of those accounts come a little bit of Cloud Storage. My primary Cloud Service is OneDrive from Microsoft, and I do store much of my stuff in their Cloud – As with OneNote, many of my Apps point to the OneDrive to save or open docs. Since I use a Google ID (attached to a Gmail address and some complimentary cloud storage) to sign into the tablet, some configuration from Android and/or the Google Play Store is stored in Google’s Cloud. Similarly my Windows 8 or WTP profiles are stored with Microsoft, and my Apple ID history and information is stored in Apple’s cloud.

The other thing they all have in common, is that they will want you to grant them access to virtually all information on the device, including your location! This is more a sign of the times, in that the “Virtual Assistant” can only help you if he/she/it has access to all your information. This is how “remind me when I get to work/home to ” or “Next time I’m in Sobey’s remind me to get….” works. In most cases (on my phone), and particularly in this experiment, I have allowed whatever access has been requested – doing otherwise will only limit what the device can do for me, and I have long ago reconciled the privacy issues involved – in reality, “Human Assistants” have been known to wilfully go out and blab secrets to the whole world. Siri would never do that. And Google would only do that for advertising purposes, and only in aggregate.

So, the bottom line. If you’ve been wanting to try out a tablet but not wanting to give Apple $500+ to immerse yourself in their world, an Android tablet may be just the thing. I found it very useful, and it quickly earned a permanent place in my life. It may take a little more work, but the results may surprise you.

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Windows Technical Preview – First Look at Windows 10

Previously, I performed 2 installs of the new WTP: an upgrade from Windows 8.1 and a clean install on a Dell desktop system. As mentioned earlier, Microsoft has indicated that there will be no “9”, they are going straight to Windows 10. They like the number 10 better, they say, and I don’t disagree with them. I remember back to when Apple re-hired Steve Jobs and they moved from OS9 to OSX, using the Roman Numeral X to represent what Steve didn’t want to call OS10. From then until now they have updated OSX and are, with the “Yosemite” release, at 10.10.x – where will they go next?

So the WTP is installed, and we begin by logging in with our Microsoft ID. Windows is supposedly smart enough that, detecting a keyboard and mouse, it boots straight to the Desktop. In fact, we never saw the “Start Screen” so familiar to Windows 8 users. There is an option in the Taskbar properties, Navigation Tab (already checked and greyed out in this case) to boot to the Desktop instead of the Start screen. In the same place, the “Start Menu” Tab has an option (also already checked, but changeable) to use it instead of the Start Screen. If no kb/m is detected, Windows will supposedly boot to a “Touch Friendly” interface but MS states that that interface is still “rough and unfinished”. We previewed only the kb/m interface.

On login the desktop looks very like Windows 8. From prior experience with MS Betas, this is not unusual. When Microsoft releases preview or beta software they often reuse the existing software codebase and add-in the code for the functionality they are trying to test or preview. The “Flat” look of  the Win8 Common User Interface is continued and there is none of the “Aero Glass” effects seen with Win7. The icons all have a very basic look about them, but this may be no indication of what the final code may look like as we are very early in the development cycle and most of the “Window Dressing” would normally be added in later in the process.

Closer examination finds some new or different icons on the taskbar. There’s the “Store” icon which was actually placed there with the 8.1 update, and just to the right of the “Windows” button there are 2 new icons – a “Search Everywhere” icon and one for the new “Task Switcher”. “File Explorer” has a more basic, less detailed icon than its Windows 8.x counterpart, replacing “Windows Explorer” in Win7. File Explorer itself looks much the same as in 8.x.

The “Search Everywhere” Taskbar tool looks useful and will clearly search Social Media and Internet for results as well as local files and folders. Searches are conducted by Bing, and there does not seem to be a way to change that in the current release. In a quick test, it was able to find a file in the local “Documents” folder, but did not find one included in a local library but actually located in a Server Share. The tool as currently presented has the feel of a work in progress, and is likely inconclusive as to final coding. The Task View tool also looks interesting as part of the new “Virtual Desktops” functionality which I will play with and cover in a later post. It looks quite useful and I have worked with 3rd party virtual desktops in prior versions of Windows. But this is a new function and will bear deeper investigation. It’s true functionality and usage may not become apparent until later code updates supplement it.

Tentatively, I click the Windows icon at the far left of the Taskbar, which looks the same as it did in Win8. There, it would take you to the dreaded Start Screen but here, thankfully, it brings up a Start Menu. Same result from hitting the “Windows” key on the keyboard – the Start Menu comes up. Familiar, but different.

The Start Menu at this point looks like a mash up of the Windows 7 Start Menu on the left and the Windows 8 Start Screen with its live tiles on the right. This may be a good time to mention that Microsoft has again changed their nomenclature – Win8 Style Apps were originally called “Metro” which was changed to “Modern” at release time. Now these are referred to as “Universal” apps. In this preview of the Start Menu, “PC Settings” with it’s “Universal” style icon looks out of place on the left, as does the “Games” icon, which leads to a Universal style “XBox Games” app. Both sides seem to be very customizable, with Windows 7 style “Taskbar – Properties – Start Menu” controls over what can be included on the left. The Win8 style “Tiles” on the right can be re-sized or enabled “Live” by right-clicking. Clicking “All Apps” on the left side shows, as expected, all installed apps and programs, and items can be “Pinned” or “Unpinned” from there. “Open file location” is also on the right-click menu which I found useful in Win8. There are also the usual MRU and Recent lists. There is another “Search Everywhere” box at the bottom of the Start Menu – typing there seems to bring up local results (programs and files) quicker (as you type) and easier than the Taskbar Search Tool. This again seems like a work in progress and I would expect better integration in the final code.

I have to admit that, as a long-time Windows user, I missed the Start Menu in Windows 8, and found moving from the Start Screen to the Desktop and back “jarring”. I have often referred to the OS as “schizophrenic”. Since Windows 95 we have been working on the Desktop and that analogy still works for many. To me it just seems more like home. On a PC at least. Windows 8 seems to have the same status in my brain as Apple’s OSX – I’m comfortable enough working there and doing what I need to do, but it’s not where I go when I leave work. I often have to stop and think where a command is found, or how to do something, and there’s not as much depth to my knowledge of the OS. Sort of like a 2nd language I think.

In a kb/m environment I found no trace of the “Charms” bar that would slide out from the right in Win8 – from what I read there may still be vestiges of it while in a “Touch” environment. In “Universal” apps, the Charms bar has been replaced by a new “App Commands” menu, represented by 3 tiny dots just right of the very top left icon, and including Search, Share, Play, Print, Project, Settings and Full Screen.

As an aside and just because I remember, all versions of Windows have always had an icon at the very top left of each Window, which exposes the Restore, Move, Size, Minimize, Maximize and Close commands. It’s referred to as the Windows System Menu which is not very descriptive, and I realize that probably very few people actually use this icon or menu. That being said, this component has been present in every version of Windows that I have used, going back to at least Windows 3.0 and it was probably in version 2.2 (I only used 2.2 once, to resolve a mouse problem). In later versions of Windows, the icon is taken from the Application but earlier versions (3.x) used a “space bar” as the icon, since it was activated by keying <Alt><Space>. This keyboard shortcut still works and is useful even today. I sometimes get asked to recover a Window which for one reason or another is opening “Off-Screen” and unreachable, and remembering that position whenever the program is closed and re-opened. I do that by first using the Taskbar to ensure that the off-screen Window is the Active Window, then I press <Alt><Space> followed by “m” for move and use the left or right arrow keys to bring the Window back on screen to where I can grab it with the mouse. For the curious, that scenario can happen by having a 2nd monitor connected and disconnecting it with open Windows still displayed, or by moving items to the edge of the screen and then changing to a lower resolution. Users have also been known to somehow move things out of reach and not know how to bring them back.

I’m sure that it will be billed as a “New Feature”, but “Universal” or previously immersive apps now run within movable, resizable Windows on the Desktop, with the familiar “Minimize, Maximize and Close” buttons on the top right. Just like all the other traditional Windows Programs. Traditional programs still work like they always did, but the “common user interface” calls to create and display the Windows components around them, as always, reflect the “flat” look of the OS. “Snap” (<Alt> combined with an arrow key) still works to place up to 4 Apps “Snapped” to the corners, but they then move and resize by dragging just like they always have.

Internet Explorer is unified again. Windows 8 had an “immersive” version and a desktop version. WTP has only a single version of Internet Explorer which bears more likeness to the desktop version, lacking the “starkness” of Universal apps, as well as missing the aforementioned “App Commands” menu and having the “Gear” icon displayed top right. On the other hand, the included version of Skype is the “immersive” version, but lacking a mike and camera on the system I am unable to test it. The problem I have seen with the “Modern” Skype app in Windows 8.x is that it often fails to properly detect and control the audio or video from the installed hardware. Windows shows the hardware as properly installed, but the “Modern” Skype App refuses to detect and use it. There is a separate “Skype for Desktop” version for Windows 8 available from the Microsoft Download Center and in all cases where I’ve used it, it has detected and worked with the same hardware that the immersive version has refused to. Go figure. It’s not likely to get fixed at this point, Windows 8.x users are encouraged to download Skype for Desktop.

I’m a big fan of the “Libraries” function introduced in Windows 7. I keep most files on the Server for easy access and use Libraries on the local systems as a means to re-direct users Documents or Pictures folders. On the “Properties” tab of the users folders there is a “Location” tab which appears to allow the folder to be moved, and there are known registry hacks that will re-direct those folders using System Variables. Unfortunately, there have sometimes been problems resulting from re-directed user folders, including one that famously caused the 8.1 update to crash. Using Libraries allows the “hard-coded” user folders to remain untouched while redirecting user content to/from another source. I use libraries to display combined content from the Server and from my local OneDrive folders in the same place and manner as local user content. On my Win7 Pro laptop, I direct my Documents and Downloads libraries to the Server, and then use “Off-line Files” to cache the libraries on my laptop when I’m away from the Server.

Libraries still appear to be supported for the moment, but as in Windows 8 they are “hidden” by default. You can re-enable them by going into File Explorer with This PC as the focus, and with the View Ribbon selected clicking on “Navigation Pane”, which will reveal “Show Libraries’. Once visible, libraries worked the same as in Win7. I just hope being “hidden” in both Win8 and this WTP doesn’t mean they’re being abandoned. I will be watching this in future releases.

File Explorer has now a “Home” destination in the Navigation area, and slightly different menu options when OneDrive or Network or This PC is selected as the focus. Otherwise this looks much the same as in 8.x but as mentioned earlier, file management is often not addressed until later builds. Similarly, Control Panel is showing signs of integration with PC Settings and in this release many of those functions and menu items are confusing. While writing this blog the WTP code updated to build 9860, and the “Control Panel” icon disappeared from where it was in File Explorer and was replaced by a gear icon called “Open Settings”. The Control Panel itself (Win7 style) can still be accessed. For now.

One new function that bears watching is found when creating a new user. You can designate a user (using a Microsoft ID) as “Admin”, “Standard” or now as “Child”. If user is designated “Child”, this ties in with the Family Safety Options (which were available with Windows 8) as part of a Microsoft ID. This tie-in to creating a “Child” user in Windows is new, and if properly implemented could be quite useful along with multiple logins in a family network situation. Windows Home Server is no longer supported, but the process to connect the WTP PC to WHS worked as always, and backups are being made. I did test the restore process with Windows 8.x with no issues, but have done no such test with WTP yet.

In summary, in this Preview we do see some backing away from Windows 8 and the Start Screen with the return of the Desktop Paradigm and the Start Menu. Microsoft is still saying that they want the same code to run on PC, Tablets/Phones and the XBox and it’s apparent that they can’t do that without re-thinking (again?) the PC Operating System and the legacy that they have built there. We can see the beginnings of new features or functions in the increased visibility and use of the “Microsoft Store”, in the new “Switcher” and “Virtual Desktops”, and in the enhancements to Family Safety. It will be interesting to watch this process and see how these functions are developed into the final code.

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Windows Technical Preview – The Installs

So I have a plan to install Windows Technical Preview, Microsoft’s preview of the OS to follow Windows 8.x. Microsoft has announced that it will be called Windows 10, but that name is not reflected in the WTP, and its code is listed merely as “Build 9841”.

The first system is my Desktop, currently dual-booting Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. I have each partition backed up as a separate system in Windows Home Server, so I do another backup of each side just to be safe. No important data is stored locally, it’s all password protected (to “Local” accounts) on the Server. The Restore process has been tested previously.

Prior to downloading and installing the WTP, you must join the Windows Insider Program which requires a Microsoft ID – a Hotmail address or any Microsoft Account should do. They will then send a link to “Install Tech Preview”. This will give you options to install on-line or to download an “iso” file. Clicking one of the links on my Windows 7 desktop installed an update, which made the WTP show up as an Optional Windows Update. I removed it and also the update that put it there.

Since the plan for the Desktop was an Upgrade of the 8.1 partition, I began by booting into Windows 8.1 and opening the email there. I clicked on “Install Tech Preview” and chose to download an iso file. Since 8.1 can directly mount such I did so and began the upgrade from there. It gave me some options on what to keep – since I was upgrading from 8.x it said I could keep everything – and away it went. As per current MS style, the next while was spent watching a screen “Installing Windows Technical Preview”, showing a % progress and a single “Cancel” button. It rebooted several times, hiding the normal boot menu and forcing the continuation of the upgrade. At the end, the login screen looked the same as before and I logged in using my Windows Live ID.

This was no change – at some point in the life of Windows 8, MS began pushing users to sign into Windows with a Windows ID (the same as Apple has always required users to sign in with an Apple ID – then they buy “Apps” from the “Store”). I can see where it’s going, so I did not resist and began using the MS ID early – it really does make it easier, the email, store and other things are automatically configured, and those settings will migrate to any other 8.x systems you log into. After the 8.1 update, while “Local” logins were still supported, to avoid using a Microsoft account required many clicks before finding “login into my app separately (not recommended)”. Since this upgrade was done from within Windows, no change was perceived and I just logged right in.

It’s worth noting that the boot menu was (sort of) restored – a similar thing happened during the original Windows 8 install. Win 8+ changes the boot such that a newer style boot menu (with mouse support) is inserted later in the boot process, and that menu was restored after the WTP install, with WTP as the default. As before, once I changed the boot menu to specify the Windows 7 as the default, the boot menu went back to the old “text” style, displayed earlier in the process and without mouse support as before.

Logging into WTP, I found my desktop theme, libraries, email, One Drive and Media Player settings all migrated properly, and the libraries were still pointing at the Server as I had configured them. It was necessary for me to enter my “Local” login name and password (with the option to remember my credentials) to the Server before access was granted. The network HP printer would print, but the HP Solution Center would crash and a network scanner could not be found. Major players like HP (and Apple) do not support unreleased software and “beta” upgrades will often break those applications. Surprisingly, iTunes still worked, as did Google Earth. From an upgrade point of view, at least from Windows 8.x, it seemed relatively painless. I’ll cover the WTP itself in a later post.

The other target – a Dell Inspiron 530 with an E2180 processor and 3Gb of RAM – was going to be a clean install. The only problem was that it did not have a workable DVD Drive.  It currently housed a legitimate W7 installation which I wanted to keep for future use, and I did have a spare hard drive to use for the WTP, but I didn’t particularly want a Dual Boot setup. Which meant I had to boot from the install media.

I installed the spare HD into the Dell as a 2nd drive, keeping the existing W7 drive attached for the moment, and then I booted into Windows 7 and brought up Disk Management. Making sure to select the spare HD, I removed the existing partitions and created a new 5Gb partition, marking it as active (bootable) and leaving the remaining drive space empty. Since W7 cannot natively mount an iso file, I downloaded a free utility to do so and then copied the complete contents of the mounted WTP iso into the newly created 5GB partition. I could then shut down, disconnect the W7 drive, and then boot the new partition, which contained the boot files from the DVD, and setup began automatically.

This time Setup did not detect a previous OS, so it offered to do a clean install to the empty space. Naturally it did not ask if I wanted to save anything. The install screens themselves looked exactly like the screens in Windows 8. At this point, much of the underlying code is likely identical to 8, with the only changes being what MS is trying to “Preview” for the next version. The latest updates for Windows 8.x have replaced the “Close” and “Minimize” buttons at the top right of screens, re-engineered the ability to run multiple Windows at one time, and re-enabled booting to the desktop. With WTP, the Start Menu returns, but “re-imagined” as Microsoft likes to say. Over the next bit I will look deeper, to try to find what else MS is trying to re-do. Or un-do.

Upon completion of Setup, the WTP prompted me to login with a MS Account. There was a place to create a MS Account, and from what I read the 8.x workaround (clicking to create, where you can still find “Sign In without a Microsoft Account – not recommended”) is still operative for the time being. I just continued logging in with my live id and was pleased to find that many of my settings had been brought over from the desktop installation. This is supposedly one of the benefits of using the MS Login – your setting are saved “in the cloud” and will migrate to whatever devices you log into. The WTP default “Save” location for most apps is now One Drive.

By logging in with my live ID, there was no need to set up email or to login to apps. When I went into the Store, I found the apps that I had installed in Win8 were already marked for installation here if I chose to do so. And yes, the Start Menu is back.

Next up is to explore around and see what differences I can find.

This blog post has an embarrassing PS. A combination of you should never do important things late in the evening, and mistakes only a “tech” can make.

After finishing up the clean install on the Dell, I found that it had in fact created a “dual boot” setup, showing “Windows Setup” along with the default WTP. I used msconfig to remove the setup entry from the boot menu and it was gone on the next restart. When I went into Disk Management, however, the 5GB partition was still there and marked “Active” but not assigned a drive letter and not otherwise visible. The “C:” partition was marked as “Boot”. Not thinking totally correctly, assuming that I could make the C: active and then later remove the setup partition. I changed the active partition and rebooted. To nowhere. Black screen with blinking cursor, eventually “no boot device available”. It seems that even though the “C:” partition was marked “Boot”, there were some part of the boot process not there, likely still on the setup partition. Once I realized what I had done, I went to bed. In the morning, I reconnected the W7 drive, rebooted and re-assigned the active partition and went back to exploring the WTP. You need to have a plan for cases of unexpected results.

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Windows Technical Preview–What to Do?

The tech world was all abuzz last week over Microsoft’s announcement that the next version of Windows would be called Windows 10. It seems they’ve decided to skip “9” in an effort to get as far away from “8” as possible. That seems eerily similar to when they brought out “Windows 7” and abandoned Vista as quickly as they could. To me at the time, it was more related to PR and media promotion than to the OS itself – People hated Vista but they loved 7, not a lot of difference underneath, just a little window-dressing, but it’s all in the perception. Similarly to Vista, Windows 8 seems to have garnered a lot of negative press so MS has an incentive to move on as soon as possible.

Also eerily similar to the Vista situation, I myself have installed Windows 8 (updated to 8.1+) in a dual-boot configuration on 2 of my systems but never found a reason to actually use it on a regular basis. I boot one or the other every now and then to update and backup, and I might look around if I’d read about a feature or something but mostly I just reboot into 7 and go back to “normal”. Occasionally, while at a client’s site, I would boot the Win8 partition on my laptop to demo something. I have worked on 8.x in the field, and am confortable enough using and supporting it (as I was with Vista) but at this point it’s pretty well complete so there’s not much incentive for me to work there. And the business world never accepted 8.x, still preferring to order OEM systems with Win 7 pre-installed.

To add to this, Microsoft have now released a “Preview” of the new OS, which I take as an effort to get the tech world back on the Windows track. The MS plan for the next version is  still to have the same OS on a PC, Phones and the XBox. But first they need to get the desktop OS back into favour by giving it away to techies to play with – a plan that has worked before (but famously not with Windows 8). Not being very attached to 8.x myself, it’s an easy call to dump at least 1 Win8 setup and upgrade it to the “Windows Technical Preview” which we’ll refer to hereafter as WTP. Note that the official name given by MS does not contain a version name or number. The underlying code is listed as “Build 9841”.

First of all some warnings – Do not try this at Home! WTP is early Beta software and as such could crash your system or even eat your data, and the only support is the Microsoft Community Forums. Best Practice is to install on a test system only, and not on a production machine. I have complete and multiple backups of all my systems and data and I know how to use them. My data lives on a Server and the systems are configured to use that data and to not store anything important locally. I am prepared, and have a recovery plan should anything unexpected happen.

After some consideration, I have a plan to install to 2 systems. My main desktop currently dual-boots Windows 7 and 8.1. First, I will do an upgrade on the 8.1 partition leaving the Windows 7 partition intact and retaining the dual-boot configuration. I will leave the 8.1 partition on my laptop (which also dual-boots Windows 7) to allow me to still demo 8.1 if needed. Secondly, I have an old Dell on which I will attempt a clean install. The latter I may keep booted to see if having it more available will result in more usage.

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An Unusual backup story

A few days ago, I was called in to help a client who was unable to print from the internet on his laptop. Resetting IE to defaults resolved that problem, but while I was there he mentioned that the hard drive in his desktop was giving a problem but Dell would be in later in the week to replace it.

I asked if he would like me to look at it, and he said that he “had followed Microsoft’s instructions carefully” and backed it up, so he thought he was OK. That set off quite a number of alarms in my brain so now I had to look closer.

Backups have always been problematic, most users just don’t do them. Many of those that do, don’t know they have a problem until they attempt to restore. The more Windows got easier to use, the harder backing up got. We quickly outgrew the floppies and CDs but the amount of data we had just kept growing. As PCs became a commodity, non-technical users became frustrated – they relied more and more on the PC and its data, but there was no easy way to back it all up.

Windows XP had a “pretty good” backup program included. It could be automated, and it was capable of backing up the entire system, the program was difficult to configure, even incremental backups were slow and there was always the problem of where to store the backups. Storing them on the only internal HD was pointless, and CD’s and even DVD’s were too small, plus the user needed to continuously swap them as needed and manage them in order to know what was backed up where. Eventually the USB external HD came along to provide ample storage at reasonable cost and convenience. The NTBackup program included with XP could be configured to backup an entire PC automatically to an external drive providing the drive was plugged in and ready when the backup was scheduled. Restoring individual files and/or folders was slow but fairly straight forward, but in the case of full drive failure, after replacing the drive it was necessary to reload Windows before you could restore the backup.

Windows 7 greatly improved the backup experience. While the XP backup program would work, the management part of the process was closer to what system admins would do to backup their servers – fine for the technically minded, but way too much work for the average user. And many techs had already moved to “image-based” backups for individual servers or workstations. “Image” backups would capture the entire state of a particular system, and allow the full restoration by booting from a specially prepared disk containing the image program. Image backups could be saved on or restored from external or network drives, as configured by the “user” – techie skills were required. The Windows 7 Backup program moved to bring image backups to the average user.

If you plug an external HD into Windows 7, it will offer (among other choices) to use the drive for backup. You can accept the choice there, or run the Windows 7 “Backup and Restore Wizard” manually at a later time. By default, it will create a complete image the first time, and then create a “differential” backup on a weekly schedule. To conserve space a “Single Instance Storage” protocol is used so that only unique clusters are saved. At restore time, the proper clusters are re-assembled according to the restore date.

This process is extremely easy, even for the non-technically minded, and has for some time been my recommended practice. Restoration of individual files and/or folders is as easy as “browsing” the backup file and selecting the folders to be restored, but the program shows it best feature when a whole drive needs to be restored. To do a “Bare Metal Restore” as we call it, after replacing the drive we need only to boot Windows 7 install media and select “Repair Your Computer” instead of “Install Now”. The “Repair” menu offers a selection to “Restore From An Image Created Earlier” – once selected it should find the image on the external drive and restore everything to the date selected.

Somehow, this user had found this Wizard and allowed it to create a full image backup of his (now failing) drive. With a failing drive, often the backup will not be able to continue if it hits a “hard error” but in this case the backup appeared to have completed successfully. Not only did the user not know exactly what he had done (except that he had followed Microsoft’s directions), but of course he had no idea how to restore.

The tech that would come to replace the drive would have no idea either – they are told to merely replace the defective drive, boot the Windows 7 media to begin re-installing Windows and to tell the client to call the Dell Support Line for further assistance. At this point, I gave the client explicit instructions for restoration of the image and told him to ignore the re-install instructions.

The payoff came last Friday, when the client called me back to say that he had followed my instructions, and that everything had been restored to exactly as it was before the error started – he was mightily impressed that he didn’t have to re-install or even update anything – everything was exactly as he had left it. Gotta like it when things just work.


Halifax, NS

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