Sorting a stalled Windows Update service

Following a recent family death, I have ended up with the laptop belonging to the deceased and, since it has been offline most of its life, I set to getting it updated. The McAfee security suite was straightforward enough but trying Windows Update produced errors suggesting that it was not working that a system restart was needed. Doing that did nothing so a little further investigation was needed.

The solution turned out to be stopping the Windows Update service and clearing a certain folder before starting it again. To stop the service, I typed in services.msc into the search box on the Start Menu and clicked on the Services entry that appeared. Then I sought out the Windows Update entry, selected it and clicked on the Stop link on the left hand side. After that, I used Windows Explorer to navigate C:\Windows\SoftwareDistribution and deleted everything in there. The, I went back to the Services window and started Windows Update again. That sorted the problem and the system began to be updated as needed.

All of this was on Windows 7, hence the mention of the Start Menu, and the machine is Toshiba Satellite C660 from 2011 with an AMD E-300 APU, 4 GB of RAM and a 320 GB hard drive. Those specs may not be the most impressive but it feels spritely enough and is far better than the lethargic Toshiba Equium A200-1VO that I acquired in 2008 though the HP Pavilion dm4 that I bought in November 2011 probably will travel more often than either of these, if truth be told. After all, it now has 8 GB of RAM and a 1 TB Samsung SSHD along with its Core i3 CPU so it should last a while yet.

Installing FreeBSD in a VirtualBox Virtual Machine

With UNIX being the basis of Linux, I have a soft spot for trying out any UNIX that can be installed on a PC. For a while, I had OpenSolaris on the go and even vaguely recall having a look at one of the BSD’s. However, any recent attempt to install one of the latter, and there are quite a few around now, got stymied by some sort of kernel panic caused by using AMD CPU’s. With the return to the Intel fold arising from the upgrade of my main home PC last year, it perhaps was time to try again.

The recent release of FreeBSD 10.0 was the cue and I downloaded a DVD image for a test installation in a VirtualBox virtual machine with 4 GB of memory and a 32 GB virtual hard drive attached (expanding storage was chosen so not all the allocated space has been taken so far). The variant of FreeBSD chosen was the 64-bit x86 one and I set to installing it in there. Though not as pretty in appearance as those in various Linux distros, the installer was not that user unfriendly to me. Mind you, I have experience of installing Arch Linux so that might have acclimatised me somewhat.

Those installation screens ask about the keyboard mapping that you want and I successfully chose one of the UK options. There was limited opportunity for adding extras though there was a short list of few from which I made some selections. User account set up also was on offer and I would have been better off knowing what groups to assign for my personal user account so as to have to avoid needing to log in as root so often following system start up later. Otherwise, all the default options were sufficient.

When the installation process was complete, it was time to boot into the new system and all that was on offer was a command line log in session. After logging in as root, it was time to press pkg into service in order to get a desktop environment in place. The first step was to install X:

pkg install xorg

Then, it was time to install a desktop environment. While using XFCE or KDE were alternatives, I chose GNOME 2 due to familiarity and more extensive instructions on the corresponding FreeBSD handbook page. Issuing the following command added GNOME and all its helper applications:

pkg install gnome2

So that GNOME starts up at the next reboot, some extra steps are needed. The first of these is to add the following line into /etc/fstab:

proc /proc procfs rw 0 0

Then, two lines were needed in /etc/rc.conf:

gdm_enable=”YES”
gnome_enable=”YES”

The first enables the GNOME display manager and the second activates other GNOME programs that are needed for a desktop session to start. With each of these in place, I got a graphical login screen at the next boot time.

With FreeDSB being a VirtualBox Guest, it was time to consult the relevant FreeBSD manual page. Here, there are sections for a number of virtual machine tools so a search was needed to find the one for VirtualBox. VirtualBox support for FreeBSD is incomplete in that there is no installation media for BSD systems though Linux and Solaris are supported along with Windows. Therefore, it is over to the FreeBSD repositories for the required software:

pkg install virtualbox-ose-additions

Aside from the virtual machine session not capturing and releasing the mouse pointer automatically, that did everything that was needed even if it was the open source edition of the drivers and their proprietary equivalents. To resolve the mouse pointer issue, I needed to temporarily disable the GNOME desktop session in /etc/rc.conf to drop down to a console only session where xorg. conf could be generated using the following commands:

Xorg -configure
cp xorg.conf.new /etc/xorg.conf

In the new xorg.conf file, the mouse section needs to be as follows:

Section “InputDevice”
Identifier  “Mouse0”
Driver      “vboxmouse”
EndSection

If it doesn’t look like the above and it wasn’t the case for me then it needs changing. Also, any extra lines from the default set up also need removing or the mouse will not function as it should. The ALT+F1 (for accessing GNOME menus) and ALT+F2 (for running commands) keyboard shortcuts then become crucial when your mouse is not working as it should and could avert a panic too; knowing that adjusting a single configuration file will fix a problem when doing so is less accessible is not a good feeling as I discovered to my own cost. The graphics settings were fine by default but here’s what you should have in case it isn’t for you:

Section “Device”
### Available Driver options are:-
### Values: <i>: integer, <f>: float, <bool>: “True”/”False”,
### <string>: “String”, <freq>: “<f> Hz/kHz/MHz”
### [arg]: arg optional
Identifier  “Card0”
Driver      “vboxvideo”
VendorName  “InnoTek Systemberatung GmbH”
BoardName   “VirtualBox Graphics Adapter”
BusID       “PCI:0:2:0”
EndSection

The next step is to ensure that your HAL settings are as they should. I needed to create a file in /usr/local/etc/hal/fdi/policy called 90-vboxguest.fdi that contains the following:

<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”utf-8″?>
<!--
# Sun VirtualBox
# Hal driver description for the vboxmouse driver
# $Id: chapter.xml,v 1.33 2012-03-17 04:53:52 eadler Exp $
Copyright (C) 2008-2009 Sun Microsystems, Inc.
This file is part of VirtualBox Open Source Edition (OSE, as
available from http://www.virtualbox.org. This file is free software;
you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU
General Public License (GPL) as published by the Free Software
Foundation, in version 2 as it comes in the “COPYING” file of the
VirtualBox OSE distribution. VirtualBox OSE is distributed in the
hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY of any kind.
Please contact Sun Microsystems, Inc., 4150 Network Circle, Santa
Clara, CA 95054 USA or visit http://www.sun.com if you need
additional information or have any questions.
-->
<deviceinfo version=”0.2″>
<device>
<match key=”info.subsystem” string=”pci”>
<match key=”info.product” string=”VirtualBox guest Service”>
<append key=”info.capabilities” type=”strlist”>input</append>
<append key=”info.capabilities” type=”strlist”>input.mouse</append>
<merge key=”input.x11_driver” type=”string”>vboxmouse</merge>
<merge key=”input.device” type=”string”>/dev/vboxguest</merge>
</match>
</match>
</device>
</deviceinfo>

With all that set, it is time to ensure that the custom user account is added to the wheel and operator groups using this command:

pw user mod [user name] -G wheel operator

Executing the above as root means that the custom account can run the su command so that logging in as root at the start of a desktop session no longer is needed. That is what being in the wheel group allows and the anyone in the operator group can shut down or restart the system. Both are facilities readily available in Linux so I fancied having them in FreeBSD too.

Being able to switch to root in a terminal session meant that I could go on to add software like Firefox, Libreoffice, GIMP, EMACS, Geany, Netbeans, Banshee and so on. There may be a line of opinion that FreeBSD is a server operating system but all of these make it more than passable for serving as a desktop one too. There may be no package management GUI as such and the ones that come with GNOME do not work either but anyone familiar with command line working will get around that.

FreeBSD may be conservative but that has its place too and being able to build up a system one item at a time teaches far more than getting everything already sorted in one hit. So far, there is enough documentation to get me going and I hope to see where else things go too. So far, the OS hasn’t been that intimidating and that’s good to see.

A need to update graphics hardware

Not being a gaming enthusiast, having to upgrade graphics cards in PC’s is not something that I do very often or even rate as a priority. However, two PC’s in my possession have had that very piece of hardware upgraded on them and it’s not because anything was broken either. My backup machine has seen quite a few Linux distros on there since I built it nearly four years ago. The motherboard is an ASRock K10N78 that sourced from MicroDirect and it has onboard an NVIDIA graphics chip that has performed well if not spectacularly. One glitch that always existed was a less than optimal text rendering in web browsers but that never was enough to get me to add a graphics card to the machine.

More recently, I ran into trouble with Sabayon 13.04 with only the 2D variant of the Cinnamon desktop environment working on it and things getting totally non-functional when a full re-installation of the GNOME edition was attempted. Everything went fine until I added the latest updates to the system when a reboot revealed that it was impossible to boot into a desktop environment. Some will relish this as a challenge but I need to admit that I am not one of those. In fact, I tried out two Arch-based distros on the same PC and got the same results following a system update on each. So, my explorations of Antergos and Manjaro have to continue in virtual machines instead.

To get a working system, I gave Linux Mint 15 Cinnamon a go and that worked a treat. However, I couldn’t ignore that the cutting edge distros that I tried before it all took exception to the onboard NVIDIA graphics. systemd has been implemented in all of these and it seems reasonable to think that it is coming to Linux Mint at some stage in the future so I went about getting a graphics card to add into the machine. Having had good experiences with ATi’s Radeon in the past, I stuck with it even though it now is in the hands of AMD. Not being that fussed so long there was Linux driver support, I picked up a Radeon HD 6450 card from PC World. Adding it into the PC was a simpler of switching off the machine, slotting in the card, closing it up and powering it on again. Only later on did I set the BIOS to look for PCI Express graphics before anything else and I could have got away without doing that. Then, I made use of the Linux Mint Additional Driver applet in its setting panel to add in the proprietary driver before restarting the machine to see if there were any visual benefits. To sort out the web browser font rendering, I used the Fonts applet in the same settings panel and selected full RGBA hinting. The improvement was unmissable if not still like the appearance of fonts on my main machine. Overall, there had been an improvement and a spot of future proofing too.

That tinkering with the standby machine got me wondering about what I had on my main PC. As well as onboard Radeon graphics, it also gained a Radeon 4650 card for which 3D support wasn’t being made available by Ubuntu GNOME 12.10 or 13.04 to VMware Player and it wasn’t happy about this when a virtual machine was set to have 3D support. Adding the latest fglrx driver only ensured that I got a command line instead of a graphical interface. Issuing one of the following commands and rebooting was the only remedy:

sudo apt-get remove fglrx

sudo apt-get remove fglrx-updates

Looking at the AMD website revealed that they no longer support 2000, 3000 or 4000 series Radeon cards with their latest Catalyst driver the last version that did not install on my machine since it was built for version 3.4.x of the Linux kernel. A new graphics card then was in order if I wanted 3D graphics in VWware VM’s and both GNOME and Cinnamon appear to need this capability. Another ASUS card, a Radeon HD 6670, duly was acquired and installed in a manner similar to the Radeon HD 6450 on the standby PC. Apart from not needing to alter the font rendering (there is a Font tab on Gnome Tweak Tool where this can be set), the only real exception was to add the Jockey software to my main PC for installation of the proprietary Radeon driver. The following command does this:

sudo apt-get install jockey-kde

When that was done I issue the jockey-kde command and selected the first entry on the list. The machine worked as it should on restarting apart from an AMD message at the bottom right hand corner bemoaning unrecognised hardware. There had been two entries on that Jockey list with exactly the same name so it was time to select the second of these and see how it went. On restarting, the incompatibility message had gone and all was well. VMware even started virtual machines with 3D support without any messages so the upgrade did the needful there.

Hearing of someone doing two PC graphics card upgrades in a weekend may make you see them as an enthusiast but my disinterest in computer gaming belies this. Maybe it highlights that Linux operating systems need 3D more than might be expected. The Cinnamon desktop environment now issues messages if it is operating in 2D mode with software 3D rendering and GNOME always had the tendency to fall back to classic mode, as it had been doing when Sabayon was installed on my standby PC. However, there remain cases where Linux can rejuvenate older hardware and I installed Lubuntu onto a machine with 10 year old technology on there (an 1100 MHz Athlon CPU, 1GB of RAM and 60GB of hard drive space in case dating from 1998) and it works surprisingly well too.

It seems that having fancier desktop environments like GNOME Shell and Cinnamon means having the hardware on which it could run. For a while, I have been tempted by the possibility of a new PC since even my main machine is not far from four years old either. However, I also spied a CPU, motherboard and RAM bundle featuring an Intel Core i5-4670 CPU, 8GB of Corsair Vengence Pro Blue memory and a Gigabyte Z87-HD3 ATX motherboard included as part of a pre-built bundle (with a heatsink and fan for the CPU) for around £420. Even for someone who has used AMD CPU’s since 1998, that does look tempting but I’ll hold off before making any such upgrade decisions. Apart from exercising sensible spending restraint, waiting for Linux UEFI support to mature a little more may be no bad idea either.

Update 2013-06-23: The new graphics card in my main machine is working as it should and has reduced the number of system error report messages turning up too; maybe Ubuntu GNOME 13.04 didn’t fancy the old graphics card all that much. A rogue .fonts.conf file was found in my home area on the standby machine and removing it has improved how fonts are displayed on there immeasurably. If you find one on your system, it’s worth doing the same or renaming it to see if it helps. Otherwise, tinkering with the font rendering settings is another beneficial act and it even helps on Debian 6 too and that uses GNOME 2! Seeing what happens on Debian 7.1 could be something that I go testing sometime.

Best left until later in the year?

In the middle of last year, my home computing experience was one of feeling displaced. A combination of a stupid accident and a power outage had rendered my main PC unusable. What followed was an enforced upgrade that use combination that was familiar to me: Gigabyte motherboard, AMD CPU and Crucial memory. However, assembling that lot and attaching components from the old system from the old system resulted in the sound of whirring fans but nothing appearing on-screen. Not having useful beeps to guide me meant that it was a case of undertaking educated guesswork until the motherboard was found to be at fault. In a situation like this, a deeper knowledge of electronics would have been handy and might have saved me money too. As for the motherboard, it is hard to say whether it was a faulty set from the outset or whether there was a mishap along the way, either due ineptitude with static or incompatibility with a power supply. What really tells the tale on the mainboard was the fact that all of the other components are working well in other circumstances, even that old power supply.

A few years back, I had another experience with a problematic motherboard, an Asus this time, that ate CPU’s and damaged a hard drive before I stabilised things. That was another upgrade attempted in the first half of the year. My first round of PC building was in the third quarter of 1998 and that went smoothly once I realised that a new case was needed. Similarly, another PC rebuild around the same time of year in 2005 was equally painless. Based on these experiences, I should not be blamed for waiting until later in the year before doing another rebuild, preferably a planned one rather than an emergency.

Of course, there may be another factor involved too. The hint was a non-working Sony DVD writer that was acquired early last year when it really was obvious that we were in the middle of a downturn. Could older unsold inventory be a contributor? Well, it fits in with seeing poor results twice, In addition, it would certainly tally with a problematical PC rebuild in 2002 following the end of the Dot Com bubble and after the deadly Al Qaeda attack on New York’s World Trade Centre. An IBM hard drive that was acquired may not have been the best example of the bunch and the same comment could apply to the Asus motherboard. The resulting construction may have been limping but it was working and I tolerated.

In contrast, last year’s episode had me launched into using a Toshiba laptop and a spare older PC for my needs with an external hard drive enclosure used to extract my data onto other external hard drives to keep me going. It felt a precarious arrangement but it was a useful experience in ways too. There was cause for making acquaintance with nearby PC component stores that I hadn’t visited before and I got to learning about things that otherwise wouldn’t have come my way. Using an external hard drive enclosure for accessing data on hard drives from a non-functioning PC is one of these. Discovering that it is possible to boot from external optical and hard disk drives came as a surprise too and will work so long as there is motherboard support for it. Another experience came from a crisis of confidence that had me acquiring a bare-bones system from Novatech and populating it with optical and hard disk drives. Then, I discovered that I have no need for power supplies rated more than 300 watts (around 200 W suffices). Turning my PC off more often became a habit friendly both to the planet and to household running costs too. Then, there’s the beneficial practice of shopping locally and it can suffice even if what PC magazines stick on their hot lists but shopping online for those pieces doesn’t guarantee success either. All of these were useful lessons and, while I’d rather not throw away good money after bad, it goes to show that even unsuccessful acquisitions had something to offer in the form of learning opportunities. Whether you consider that is worthwhile is up to you.

Still able to build PC systems

This weekend has been something of a success for me on the PC hardware front. Earlier this year, a series of mishaps rendering my former main home PC unusable; it was a power failure that finished it off for good. My remedy was a rebuild using my then usual recipe of a Gigabyte motherboard, AMD CPU and crucial memory. However, assembling the said pieces never returned the thing to life and I ended up in no man’s land for a while, dependent on and my backup machine and laptop. That wouldn’t have been so bad but for the need for accessing data from the old behemoth’s hard drives but an external drive housing set that in order. Nevertheless, there is something unfinished about work with machines having a series of external drives hanging off them. That appearance of disarray was set to rights by the arrival of a bare bones system from Novatech in July with any assembly work restricted to the kitchen table.There was a certain pleasure in seeing a system come to life after my developing a fear that I had lost all of my PC building prowess.

That restoration of order still left finding out why those components bought earlier in the year didn’t work together well enough to give me a screen display on start-up. Having electronics testing equipment and the knowledge of its correct use would make any troubleshooting far easier but I haven’t got these. There is a place near to me where I could go for this but you are left wondering what might be said to a PC build gone wrong. Of course, the last thing that you want to be doing is embarking on a series of purchases that do not fix the problem, especially in the current economic climate.

One thing to suspect when all doesn’t turn out as hoped is the motherboard and, for whatever reason, I always suspect it last. It now looks as if that needs to change after I discovered that it was the Gigabyte motherboard that was at fault. Whether it was faulty from the outset or it came a cropper with a rogue power supply or careless with static protection is something that I’ll never know. An Asus motherboard did go rogue on me in the past and it might be that it ruined CPU’s and even a hard drive before I laid it to rest. Its eventual replacement put a stop to a year of computing misfortune and kick-started my reliance on Gigabyte. That faith is under question now but the 2009 computing hardware mishap seems to be behind me and any PC rebuilds will be done on tables and motherboards will be suspected earlier when anything goes awry.

Returning to the present, my acquisition of an ASRock K10N78 and subsequent building activities has brought a new system using an AMD Phenom X4 CPU and 4 GB of memory into use. In fact, I writing these very words using the thing. It’s all in a new TrendSonic case too (placing an elderly behemoth into retirement) and with a SATA hard drive and DVD writer. The new motherboard has onboard audio and graphics so external cards are not needed unless you are an audiophile and/or a gamer; for the record, I am neither. Those additional facilities make for easier building and fault-finding should the undesirable happen.

The new box is running the release candidate of Ubuntu 9.10 and it seems to be working without a hitch too. Earlier builds of 9.10 broke in their VirtualBox VM so you should understand the level of concern that this aroused in my mind; the last thing that you want to be doing is reinstalling an operating system because its booting capability breaks every other day. Thankfully, the RC seems to have none of these rough edges so I can upgrade the Novatech box, still my main machine and likely to remain so for now, with peace of mind when the time comes.