Not to blame for Windows 7

In contrast to the wonders of the recent Microsoft advertising where everyone is trying to claim responsibility for Windows 7 (is it just me that sees this, along with the terrible launch party idea, as a desperate attempt to build the sort of community that open source software has?), I would like to make it publicly known that Windows 7 is not my fault. I’ve been working on installing it recently, and really don’t want to be associated with the palaver involved in doing so!

First off, it totally fails to recognise the controller my hard disk is attached to, so I have to add it in on install. This is a Silicon Image 3512 based SATA PCI card, and it also failed to recognise the ITE 8212 PATA card I tried. Once I’d installed I found that it seemed to think I had a USB2 CDROM drive attached, which I don’t, I don’t have one (well, bar a case in a box that is waiting for an ATAPI DVD-RW to be installed!). It also failed to detect my network card.

So after a reboot, just in case, I decided to take a further look. It seems that Windows 7 lacks drivers for my NIC (SIS 900), SCSI card (Adaptec 2940) and sound card (AC’97, either Realtek of SiS, depending on whether you believe the Gigabyte website or lspci!). The NIC and sound are on the motherboard, whilst the, admittedly old (it was purchased when I built my first 486!) SCSI card is PCI,

So, after some fun with Google, and a bit of downloading, I installed a Windows XP driver for the SiS900, and tried Windows Update. This found 22 updates, totaling around 155M give or take, and proceeded to install. Sadly, 5 updates failed to install properly, including the updated SiS900 driver and the AC’97 audio driver!! The others were the SiS AGP driver, Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool and updates for Windows Defender. Nothing critical then, just network and sound drivers and protection from anything nasty (which you won’t need with no network will you!).

Thankfully, after a reboot, another run of Windows Update, and another reboot, I seem to have a basic install of Windows 7 that works. I just need to decide what to do about the SCSI card, sort out anti-virus, and adjust my network settings (for some reason I seem to have been connected to two when I only have one, and I need to change the workgroup). Then I can start looking at getting some actual software installed to make the machine useful.

Anyone who claims Windows is easier to install and has better driver support than Linux really needs to think again!

BIOS fun

Isn’t playing with a computer BIOS fun? No? Of course it is!

I’m rebuilding my main desktop system at the moment. It isn’t anything spectacularly new, in fact it is based on a Athlon XP 2800+, but it runs Linux (Ubuntu 9.10 currently) with ample performance for my day to day tasks. Windows XP runs on it adequately, when it actually works (I clearly use it too little because it sulks and ‘blue screens’ every few months, requiring a repair or reinstall).

Anyway, as part of this rebuild I decided that it made sense to get everything bang up to date, including the BIOS. The board is obsolete now, so the BIOS was a few years old and should be stable enough – wrong! The board is a Gigabyte GA-7S748-L (GA-7S748 with on board LAN), and was running the F5 revision. Updating was simple enough, just boot of my DOS USB key (yes, I have a USB key with DOS installed!) and run the utility. This brought things up to revision F9, which was the latest, and is where things started to go wrong.

The first thing I noticed was that my Windows 7 installation couldn’t see the HD, so I reached for a driver (Vista was the most up to date) to add during the install process. This didn’t work, and further investigation showed that the BIOS of the PATA PCI card the drives were connected to wasn’t active. It turned out that enabling USB legacy support disabled the card BIOS. Unfortunately, in order to configure the card BIOS you needed a keyboard, and since mine was a USB one, USB legacy support was required to use it – catch 22!! After trying a PCI SATA card instead I found that this was clearly a motherboard issue and not specific to one card or chipset.

So the next thing to do was to back off to the previous BIOS (F8 in this case) to see if the bug had been introduced in the latest BIOS upgrade. Unfortunately it seems that the F8 BIOS was completely bug ridden (so it is a shame it is still available for download). After installing it the computer wouldn’t boot at all, although it would allow use of the BIOS itself. This board has a facility to flash the BIOS from a BIOS based utility (Q-Flash), which sounds pretty handy in this case. Sadly it didn’t work, although thankfully, the failure didn’t damage the installed BIOS any further. After a bit of research with Google, I found that if you disable USB support completely you can boot to a floppy and re-flash the BIOS using a DOS based utility (will DOS ever die?!).

So, with this information I managed to get back to the F5 BIOS and all was working again. Out of curiosity I then tried the F6 BIOS and found that the USB legacy support clash with the PATA card BIOS was introduced there, so presumably exists in F7 too. Back to square one again then, with the original F5 BIOS and a working PC!

Microsoft to provide default Ubuntu search?

A while back I noted from Popey’s blog that Canonical are changing the default search engine in the next version of Ubuntu to Yahoo!. I don’t think I’ve been particularly impressed with the Yahoo! search since the 90’s sometime, when I switched to Google because it provided much easier access to the search results I wanted. This was largely because it was at that time unencumbered by advertising results being engineered into high listing placements. Sadly that isn’t the case today, and I have the same annoyance with Google providing endless ‘search noise’ in the form of links to price comparison sites, or links into a site search for the terms you’ve used on Google, generally with results that are totally irrelevant. That is beside the point for this post though.

I note from recent news that Microsoft and Yahoo! have been given the go ahead for their search deal, which means that Microsoft Bing should be providing the search results for Yahoo! by the end of the year.

Interesting times, since that would appear to indicate that the average new user of Ubuntu will be using a Microsoft search engine, and one that may not be as good for searching for information on Linux and Open Source software – although it has to be said I’ve not experimented with this myself.

Protext now free

Nearly two years ago now, back in December 2007, I blogged about Protext. Protext is a word processor that started out life on the Amstrad CPC range of 8 bit micro computers, but also found homes on the Amstrad PCW, Atari ST, Acorn Archimedes, Commodore Amiga and PC running DOS. It also appeared on the Amstrad NC series of portable computers.

Anyway, the primary reason for that post was to provide a link to the new home for the website as I’d had a little fun tracking it down since Google links hadn’t updated (likely due to the site not having been removed by the ISP!).

There are two reasons for this follow up. Firstly to provide a track back to the original post and a link to the new location, since it has moved once more. I’ve been in touch with Mark Tilley again (who provided the link for me) and the Wikipedia page has been updated, which should help Google find it.

The second one is to make note that it is now a free download. It isn’t open source, but as a nostalgia point, and for those that still enjoy using it, the last version for the PC, Atari and Amiga is available as a binary download.

Oh, and again, I guess I should put the link in:

Windows crashed

OK, that’s not a particularly unusual occurrence, but this has been one of the more unusual crashes for me. Earlier this morning I went to the Windows machine to burn an ISO image. It’s not that Linux isn’t capable, or that Windows does it better, just that unfortunately at the moment most of my machines are in pieces and the one with the CD burner has an old and flaky Windows XP install on it.

Anyway, I had misplaced the Knoppix ISO file that I was going to use, got distracted and only got back to the machine later in the afternoon. Not a major problem, bar the fact that this machine tends to sulk if it is left unused and crash (its days are numbered once I get my other machines built!). This time all initially seemed well though, bar the fact that there was a message telling me that other users were logged on and was I sure I wanted to shutdown. Well, I was the only user logged on and I hadn’t asked for a shutdown. In addition to this I only download updates, so nothing should have happened automatically (although after a recent run in with Windows Genuine Advantage and several exchanges with Microsoft I did find their ‘fix’ had enabled automatic updates as a side effect a while back!).

So I told the computer not to continue and proceeded to locate the ISO. Unfortunately the computer was apparently still shutting down as each application vanished in turn and I was then logged off. That would have been merely annoying and resulted in an investigation as to what had triggered the shutdown, but I was left on the login screen. Well almost the login screen anyway. There was no ‘turn off the computer’ button (this is a family machine and hence uses the login screen with the picture for each user – great for kids). The other problem was that, even with valid passwords, I could not login to any account.

Well the machine got left for a while, another distraction, and when I returned there was a very old style password prompt to unlock the screen. Once I had done this I simply had a desktop background with nothing else, but I was able to bring up the task manager and reboot from there.

All this seems suspicious activity, but my anti-virus / anti-malware / anti-etc. software is up to date, and scans using it and online tools don’t show up anything. I also don’t use Internet Explorer or Outlook Express and am patched right up to date bar 3 items from Windows / Microsoft update. The three items are .Net 3.5 which fails to install because it fails the pre-requisite of .Net 3.5 being installed (?!), Internet Explorer 8 (which for some reason is a high priority update and not an upgrade), and Silverlight. This last one is both of no interest and incompatible with my CPU! I know it is incompatible because it is a requirement for viewing some of the information Microsoft told me look at regarding my WGA problem, so I did actually try to install it.

Oh well, all the more reason to replace the machine and use Linux 🙂

School IT education

I’ll start this post off by stating that I’m not having a go at any specific school with my comments here, least of all the one that my son attends, and that I attended too many years ago to mention. My sons school is, in fact, a very good school, and I’m not just saying that because I am now a governor 😉

That said, let’s move on…

The other day my son came home and asked if he could use the computer. Nothing spectacularly unusual there, but shortly after logging on he came back to me asking if we had “the big blue W” on it somewhere. After a brief to and fro I ascertained that what he meant was Microsoft Word and that he wanted to show me something that he had done at school.

There’s a few points here. Firstly there is the comparison with when I was his age (he is seven). Back then I still had around 6 years until the ZX81 was launched and I got my first taste of computers. Now they are not only everywhere, but interconnected to the point where it didn’t even occur to him that the work he had been doing at school wouldn’t be accessible from home – bless him.

Secondly there’s the annoyance that from such an early age the ‘big blue W’ and Microsoft Word are synonymous with word processing. I keep trying to tell myself that he is only seven and they need to keep things simple, but it is still irritating. The end result of this was that I sat down and explained what a word processor was, and that even though I didn’t have the one he used at school I did have another one. I was encouraged by the fact that, when presented with OpenOffice he set straight to work trying to reproduce the same sort of document he had at school, and did so with no help at all – beyond a brief grumble that there wasn’t much clipart! (actually I did show him where that was).

The next question baffled me a bit, “do we have the internet?”. My response was to tell him that we did, and that he used it regularly! Then we headed down a familiar road, “no I mean the big blue e” 🙁 So off we went down the explanation of what a browser was and that he was already quite comfortable using both Opera and Firefox, as was his younger brother (who is 3). In fact they are both rather too good at some of the games on the CBeebies, Nick Jr and BBC Dr Who websites! Still, they are also quite happy playing with Frozen Bubble or Tux Paint 🙂

Firefox 3 first thoughts

Well I’ve only been using Firefox 3 for a very, very short while, but thought I’d make a few notes on my initial thoughts. I’ve not tried the beta or release candidate versions at all, so this is a real first impression.

To start with it is worth noting that I’ve only installed the Windows version, since I’m suffering using Microsoft on the desktop for a while. This is partly due to a couple of hardware failures, partly office reorganisations that are as yet unfinished, and partly forcing myself to keep my hand in – unfortunately I have to.

The first thing I noticed was that it was much faster and more responsive. Firefox 2 has, particularly in the past few weeks, been pausing for periods for no apparent reason. The second observation was that the memory footprint was much, much smaller, so this may well be linked. I tend to use a reasonable number of tabs when browsing and have been keeping an eye on the memory usage recently. I’ve been trimming things down to around 12 open tabs at a time and was amazed that Firefox was using between 200M and 260M, with no sign of reducing when tabs were closed. After installing Firefox 3 I checked and found that it was running at pretty much exactly half that, around 100M to 130M with the same 12 tabs as before the upgrade!

Part of this reduced footprint may be down to the few extensions that are now disabled due to incompatibility. With a major upgrade it is probably time to take a look through the extensions I’m using to see if any are no longer relevant. A few quick highlights of my extension usage are…

Bookmark Sync and Sort – sadly this is no longer compatible, and from a quick investigation it hasn’t been updated for a good while now, and the referenced home page has gone. Time to look for an alternative it seems. All this was doing was backing up my bookmarks to a WebDav folder on my intranet server, and at first glance there seems to be no obvious alternative. With a bit more digging I’ve found two, or perhaps just the one, options:

  • Foxmarks – I ignored this first time round since it was linked to a service, but further investigation shows that you can use it with either WebDav or FTP, as well as install a server component. The original Foxmarks was based on the OSAF Cosmo server, but it looks as though this has been replaced by the Chandler project, so a little more investigation is required.
  • Sitebar – another one I passed over when finding Bookmark Sync and Sort. Again it is linked to a service, but it seems that you can download the server component if you want to. Sadly, according the the Mozilla Addons site it doesn’t currently support Firefox 3, but it does have the advantage of being open source which Foxmarks doesn’t seem to be. Again, more investigation is required.

Firebug, IE Tab (remember this is on Windows!), It’s All Text!, Speed Dial and Web Developer are all available for Firefox 3, so that just leaves…

Tab Mix Plus – not having this one is a bit painful, although partly because I’m not sure what features I’m missing that were part of it and what may now be officially available that I haven’t found yet! That said, I’ve just noted that there is a newer version, just not listed on the Mozilla Addons site. I’ll have to give it a try and then work out what options I’m using that it provides – the session manager, the new tab button and undo closed tabs spring to mind.

There are a couple of other incompatible ones listed on my install. Google Photos Screensaver I think I had disabled anyway and RealPlayer Browser Plugin I hadn’t noticed before – although is probably responsible for blindingly easy downloads from YouTube etc. 🙂

That’s what leaps out at me, bar the slight interface changes. No doubt more differences will become obvious over time.

Bizarre Windows bug of the day

Windows is weird. I know any software can have the odd bug and behave in an unexpected fashion, but Windows really does do bugs and glitches better than anyone else. It is exceptionally good at doing something strange that you can’t quite fathom, and after the traditional helpdesk fix of rebooting you’ll possibly never see it again – in spite of the fact that the error in the code is still there. From my personal experience with the other operating systems I’ve used, when you find a bug situation it is generally repeatable and a reboot doesn’t fix it, but I’m rashly generalising there!!

Anyway, the oddment for today went something like this:

I’ve been in Windows XP doing some work for most of the day without problems. Well, other than the horribly cumbersome and unfriendly user interface that is, but that’s another issue! I then locked the screen and headed of to pick up my son from school. On returning I unlocked the screen with a view to carrying on with some work, but all was not well…

I run a dual screen setup, and the left screen seemed fine. The right screen was not so happy though. The icons along the left hand side of the screen had moved across about a quarter of the width and any windows that were maximised only used the right three quarters of the screen. Oddly the Start menu came up in the correct place at the bottom right of the screen, and any windows moved between screens still used the left quarter of the screen.

I’m afraid I couldn’t be bothered to investigate further and simply rebooted. I’ve long since given up on trying to solve Windows problems that don’t survive a reboot or repeat easily. It just isn’t worth the hassle. Conversely if I get a bug in Linux I want to know why. I guess I’ve just grown to expect Windows to crash and present bugs on a semi regular basis. Has Microsoft created a culture of accepting sub standard products? Thought for another post perhaps!

Damn the spam

Don’t you just hate spam. It is bad enough having to filter out spam that is being sent to you, but last night I was the unfortunate recipient of another wholly more annoying form of spam. That’s the sort when your email address has been used by a spam bot somewhere as the sending address for a batch of junk mail. Now sadly there is absolutely nothing you can do to prevent this. You could not tell anyone your address and never use it, then, so long as it isn’t one that may be tried at random, it probably won’t be used by anyone sending spam. That sort of defeats the object though. If your email address ends up in somebody’s address book (and we are pretty much talking Windows and Outlook here), or is referenced on a public website, then there is a risk of it being harvested.

So last night I received just over 1000 bounce messages in one of a variety of formats and languages – from mailbox full, through notifications that the person has left the company, to requests to validate the message manually, and others. With my current ‘in limbo’ mail setup I also ended up with another 1000 or so frozen messages in my mail queue. I really must sort that out. I guess it would be worth looking into the spam filtering too, since surely if the message is included in the return then it should be possible to filter it out automatically – another thing for my mail revamp to consider!

Broadband smoke and mirrors

I’ve just been reading an article titled Broadband Britain cheaper and faster than ever on the Silicon website. Whilst it is true that prices have fallen and speeds have increased it started me thinking about how far things had progressed since I first got an internet connection.

I was quite a late starter for home internet, I didn’t get my first dial-up account until 1996. I had been using it at work since around 1990, but the urge to get it at home didn’t hit until later. By this time there was already talk about ‘broadband’, and I signed up with Demon Internet with the hope that the promised cable modems would be available quite soon – well, that’s what Nynex were promising. Sometime in the next 6 months they said. Nynex were taken over by Cable & Wireless and the 6 months promise was kept going through until 2001, so that’s about 5 years later! During that time I survived on 56k dial-up. In 2001 my employer paid for an ISDN line to be installed and things got a little better, although primarily due to the extra line and no online charges rather than the speed.

In late 2001 my employer decided to cease trading (a whole different story!), so I had the prospect of returning to dial-up. Thankfully this was about the same time as the ‘wires only’ trials started, so I switched from Demon to Nildram and went ADSL. This was at the beginning of 2002, so finally, 6 years later, I had a speed boost to 512k. The key thing about being ‘wires only’ was that I didn’t have the hassle of the nasty USB ‘frog’ that came with ADSL up until then, so it was an altogether more pleasant experience with Linux.

At that time the cost was a little over £30 a month, not cheap, but orders of magnitude cheaper than an equivalent ISDN package, and only a little more than dial-up with a flat charge instead of paying per minute – and with the added advantage of not tying up your phone line. If we fast forward now to 2007, about 5 years on, I was still with Nildram, I was still paying £30 a month and the speed was still 512k. Checks with BT indicated that the line, which runs for 2.89km from my local exchange, can only handle 512k. I was warned that if I switched to the new ADSL services that offered ‘up to 8Mb’ the line might ‘rate adapt’ to a lower speed than the 512k. Now in 2008 things haven’t changed on that line. My how far we have come with broadband speeds in the past 6 years!

To be fair you can get broadband cheaper now. This has been done in two ways as far as I can see. Firstly there’s the reduced specification packages – most people don’t want fixed IP addresses, etc.. Secondly there’s the bundled packages that are pretty much ‘lost leaders’ or ‘sweeteners’ for other services. I have also abandoned Nildram and moved to another supplier making a significant saving and getting 8 IP addresses instead of just the one (although I’ve not yet revamped my network to take full advantage of that).

Speed wise things have only really changed a little, and then only if you are pretty close to the exchange. Annoyingly, whilst I am 2.89km from my ‘local’ exchange, only a couple of hundred yards up the road people are 1.79km away from their ‘local’ exchange – a different one! My speed has improved though, by virtue of taking advantage of the old ISDN wiring for a second, business line. For some strange reason this is rated at 3.5Mb instead of the 512k of the line next to it on the wall. I know the cable from the telegraph pole is identical since it was replaced when the ISDN line was installed. Presumably there is something drastically different in the cable quality or route to the green box just down the road!

My home line has switched to a bundled service. I’m a little concerned that this may be ‘unbundled’ at some point, since I’ve read that it can be very difficult to re-bundle it if you need to. Unbundling would appear to have no real value to the end user, since it is the quality and length of the BT cable from the exchange that dictates the speed, and this is still the same, bundled or unbundled. I’ve noted that Newnet, a local company, are doing some unbundling and offering up to 24Mb, but having spoken to them I don’t see any likelihood that my 512k line will be any faster. Until BT upgrade their cabling things won’t improve. Ironically, nipping back to 2002 again briefly, I got a phone call from NTL offering me cable broadband a matter of weeks after going live with ADSL. As soon as they were honest enough to drop the ‘6 months’ promise they finally delivered – a bit late though. Cable would seem to be the best option for faster speeds, but sadly in my area we are on Nynex cabling, which apparently is of poor quality, and NTL had no plans to upgrade it. It remains to be seen what Virgin Media will do with it.