A reappraisal of Windows 8 and 8.1 licensing

With the release of Windows 8 around this time last year, I thought that the full retail version that some of us got for fresh installations on PC’s, real or virtual, had become a thing of the past. In fact, it did seem that every respecting technology news website and magazine was saying just that. The release that you would buy from Microsft or from mainstream computer stores was labelled as an upgrade. That made it look as if you needed the OEM or System Builder edition for those PC’s that needed a new Windows installation and that the licence that you bought was then attached to the machine from when it got installed on there.

As is usual with Microsoft, the situation is less clear cut than that. For instance, there was some back-pedalling to allow OEM editions of Windows to be licensed for personal use on real or virtual PC’s. With Windows & and its predecessors, it even was possible to be able to install afresh on a PC without Windows by first installing on inactivated copy on there and then upgrading that as if it was a previous version of Windows. Of course, an actual licence was of the previous version of Windows was needed for full compliance if not the actual installation. At times, Microsoft muddies waters so as to keep its support costs down.

Even with Microsoft’s track record in mind, it still did surprise me when I noticed that Amazon was selling what appeared to be full versions of both Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Pro. Having set up a 64-bit VirtualBox virtual machine for Windows 8.1, I got to discovering the same for software purchased from the Microsoft web site. However, unlike the DVD versions, you do need an active Windows installation if you fancy a same day installation of the downloaded software. For those without Windows on a machine, this can be as simple as downloading either the 32-bit or the 64-bit 90 day evaluation editions of Windows 8.1 Enterprise and using that as a springboard for the next steps. This not only be an actual in-situ installation but there options to create an ISO or USB image of the installation disk for later installation.

In my case, I created a 64-bit ISO image and used that to reboot the virtual machine that had Windows 8.1 Enterprise on there before continuing with the installation. By all appearances, there seemed to be little need for a pre-existing Windows instance for it to work so it looks as if upgrades have fallen by the wayside and only full editions of Windows 8.1 are available now. The OEM version saves money so long as you are happy to stick with just one machine and most users probably will do that. As for the portability of the full retail version, that is not something that I have tested and I am unsure that I will go beyond what I have done already.

My main machine has seen a change of motherboard, CPU and memory so it could have de-activated a pre-existing Windows licence. However, I run Linux as my main operating system and, apart possibly from one surmountable hiccup, this proves surprisingly resilient in the face of such major system changes. For running Windows, I turn to virtual machines and there were no messages about licence activation during the changeover either. Microsoft is anything but confiding when it comes to declaring what hardware changes inactivate a licence. Changing a virtual machine from VirtualBox to VMware or vice versa definitely so does it so I tend to avoid doing that. One item that is fundamental to either a virtual or a real PC is the mainboard and I have seen suggestions that this is the critical component for Windows licence activation and it would make sense if that was the case.

However, this rule is not hard and fast either since there appears to be room for manoeuvre should your PC break. It might be worth calling Microsoft after a motherboard replacement to see if they can help you and I have seen that it is. All in all, Microsoft often makes what appear to be simple rules only to override them when faced with what happens in the real world. Is that why they can be unclear about some matters at times? Do they still hanker after how they want things to be even when they are impossible to keep like that?

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.

A little more freedom

A few weeks ago, I decided to address the fact that my Toshiba laptop have next to useless battery life. The arrival of an issue of PC Pro that included a review of lower cost laptops was another spur and I ended up looking on the web to see what was in stock at nearby chain stores. In the end, I plumped for an HP Pavilion dm4 and it was Argos that supplied yet another piece of computing kit to me. In fact, they seem to have a wider range of laptops than PC World!

The Pavillion dm4 seems to come in two editions and I opted for the heavier of these though it still is lighter than my Toshiba Equium as I found on a recent trip away from home. Its battery life is a revelation for someone who never has got anything better than three hours from a netbook. Having more than five hours certainly makes it suitable for those longer train journeys away from home and I have seen remaining battery life being quoted as exceeding seven hours from time to time though I wouldn’t depend on that.

Of course, having longer battery life would be pointless if the machine didn’t do what else was asked of it. It comes with the 64-bit of Windows 7 and this thought me that this edition of the operating system also runs 32-bit software, a reassuring discovering. There’s a trial version of Office 2010 on there too and, having a licence key for the Home and Student edition, I fully activated it. Otherwise, I added a few extras to make myself at home such as Dropbox and VirtuaWin (for virtual desktops as I would in Linux). While I playing with the idea of adding Ubuntu using Wubi, I am not planning to set up dual booting of Windows and Linux like I have on the Toshiba. Little developments like this can wait.

Regarding the hardware, the CPU is an Intel Core i3 affair and there’s 4 MB of memory on board. The screen is a 14″ one and that makes for a more compact machine without making it too diminutive. The keyboard is of the scrabble-key variety and works well too as does the trackpad. There’s a fingerprint scanner for logging in and out without using a password but I haven’t got to checking how this works so far. It all zips along without any delays and that’s all that anyone can ask of a computer.

There is one eccentricity in my eyes though and it seems that the functions need to be used in combination with Fn for them to work like they would on a desktop machine. That makes functions like changing the brightness of the screen, adjusting the sound of the speakers and turning the WiFi on and off more accessible. My Asus Eee PC netbook and the Toshiba Equium both have things the other way around so I found this set of affairs unusual but it’s just a point to remember rather than being a nuisance.

HP may have had its wobbles regarding its future in the PC making business but the Pavilion feels well put together and very solidly built. It commanded a little premium over the others on my shortlist but it seems to have been worth it. If HP does go down the premium laptop route as has been reported recently, this is the kind of quality that they would need to deliver to just higher prices. Saying that, is this the time to do such a thing would other devices challenging the PC’s place in consumer computing? It would be a shame to lose the likes of the Pavilion dm4 from the market to an act of folly.

Pondering storage options

The combination of curiosity and a little spare time had me browsing online computing technology stores recently. A spot of CD and DVD burning brought on by a flurry of Linux distribution testing reminded me of the possibility. Because I have built up a sizeable library of digital photos, ensuring that I have backups of them is something that needs doing. A 2 GB Samsung external hard drive is brought to life every now and again for that purpose but the prospect of using Blu-Ray discs has appealed to me. After all capacities of 25 GB for single layer discs and 50 GB for dual layer ones sound not inappropriate for my purposes. However, they aren’t a cheap option at the time of writing with each disc costing in the region of £3-4 at one place where I was looking. The cost of BD writers themselves seems not to be so bad though with a few in the £60-100 bracket; any lower than this and you could end up with a combo drive that reads Blu-Ray discs and writes to DVD’s and CD’s so a modicum of concentration is needed. As attractive as the idea might be, the cost of BD media means that I’ll wait a little while before deciding to take the plunge. The price premium at the moment is a reminder of the way that things used to be when CD and DVD writers first came on the market. It is very telling when discs come packaged in jewel cases, something that you won’t see too often with CD’s or DVD’s.

Another piece of storage excitement that hasn’t escaped me is the advent of SSD hard drives. With no moving parts like in conventional hard drives, they bring a speed boost. Concerns about their lifetimes and the numbers of read/write events per drive would stall me when it comes to storing personal data on them but using them for the likes of operating system files sounds attractive, especially with my partiality to Linux perhaps not hammering drives so much. As with any new technology, there is a price premium though a drive big enough for hosting an operating system can be acquired for less than £100. As with many of my hardware purchase brainwaves, there’s no rush but this is an option that I’ll keep at the back of my mind.

Another appealing notion is the idea of getting a NAS so that files can be shared between a few computers. While I have seen prices starting at just above £70 for single disk enclosures, these generally are a more expensive option than external drives and that’s before you consider the cost of any hard drives. Nevertheless, the advantages of a unit containing more than a single hard drive while operating as a print server for any compatible printer too. When you get to 4 or 5 hard drive trays, then the cost has mounted but that could be when they pay their way too. What reminded me of these was a bookazine on home networking that I recently found at a branch of WHSmith’s and their attractions are subject to the networking side of things being made to work without a drama. Once that’s out of the way, then their usefulness really does appeal.

Mulling over all these brainwaves is one thing but it doesn’t mean that the purse strings will become too loose in this age of economic constraint. In fact, pondering them may serve to staunch any impulse purchases. Sometimes, a spot of virtual shopping serves to control things rather than losing the run of oneself.