Upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 8 in a VMWare Virtual Machine

Though my main home PC runs Linux Mint, I do like to have the facility to use Windows software from time to time and virtualisation has allowed me to continue doing that. For a good while, it was a Windows 7 guest within a VirtualBox virtual machine and, before that, one running Windows XP fulfilled the same role. However, it did feel as if things were running slower in VirtualBox than once might have been the case and I jumped ship to VMware Player. It may be proprietary and closed source but it is free of charge and has been doing what was needed. A subsequent recent upgrade of video driver on the host operating system allowed the enabling of a better graphical environment in the Windows 7 guest.

Instability

However, there were issues with stability and I lost the ability to flit from the VM window to the Linux desktop at will with the system freezing on me and needing a reboot. Working in Windows 7 using full screen mode avoided this but it did feel as I was constrained to working in a Windows machine whenever I did so. The graphics performance was imperfect too with screening refreshing being very blocky with some momentary scrambling whenever I opened the Start menu. Others would not have been as patient with that as I was though there was the matter of an expensive Photoshop licence to be guarded too.

In hindsight, a bit of pruning could have helped. An example would have been driver housekeeping in the form of removing VirtualBox Guest Additions because they could have been conflicting with their VMware counterparts. For some reason, those thoughts entered my mind and I was pondering another more expensive option instead.

Considering NAS & Windows/Linux Networking

That would have taken the form of setting aside a PC for running Windows 7 and having a NAS for sharing files between it and my Linux system. In fact, I did get to exploring what a four bay QNAP TS-412 would offer me and realised that you cannot put normal desktop hard drives into devices like that. For a while, it looked as if it would be a matter of getting drives bundled with the device or acquiring enterprise grade disks so as to main the required continuity of operation. The final edition of PC Plus highlighted another one though: the Western Digital Red range. These are part way been desktop and enterprise classifications and have been developed in association with NAS makers too.

Looking at the NAS option certainly became an education but it has exited any sort of wish list that I have. After all, there is the cost of such a setup and it’s enough to get me asking if I really need such a thing. The purchase of a Netgear FS 605 ethernet switch would have helped incorporate it but there has been no trouble sorting alternative uses for it since it bumps up the number of networked devices that I can have, never a bad capability to have. As I was to find, there was a less expensive alternative that became sufficient for my needs.

In-situ Windows 8 Upgrade

Microsoft have been making available evaluation copies of Windows 8 Enterprise that last for 90 days before expiring. One is in my hands has been running faultlessly in a VMware virtual machine for the past few weeks. That made me wonder if upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 8 help with my main Windows VM problems. Being a curious risk-taking type I decided to answer the question for myself using the £24.99 Windows Pro upgrade offer that Microsoft have been running for those not needing a disk up front; they need to pay £49.99 but you can get one afterwards for an extra £12.99 and £3.49 postage if you wish, a slightly cheaper option. There also was a time cost in that it occupied a lot of a weekend on me but it seems to have done what was needed so it was worth the outlay.

Given the element of risk, Photoshop was deactivated to be on the safe side. That wasn’t the only pre-upgrade action that was needed because the Windows 8 Pro 32-bit upgrade needs at least 16 GB before it will proceed. Of course, there was the matter of downloading the installer from the Microsoft website too. This took care of system evaluation and paying for the software as well as the actual upgrade itself.

The installation took a few hours with virtual machine reboots along the way. Naturally, the licence key was needed too as well as the selection of a few options though there weren’t many of these. Being able to carry over settings from the pre-exisiting Windows 7 instance certainly helped with this and with making the process smoother too. No software needed reinstatement and it doesn’t feel as if the system has forgotten very much at all, a successful outcome.

Post-upgrade Actions

Just because I had a working Windows 8 instance didn’t mean that there wasn’t more to be done. In fact, it was the post-upgrade sorting that took up more time than the actual installation. For one thing, my digital mapping software wouldn’t work without .Net Framework 3.5 and turning on the operating system feature form the Control Panel fell over at the point where it was being downloaded from the Microsoft Update website. Even removing Avira Internet Security after updating it to the latest version had no effect and it was a finding during the Windows 8 system evaluation process. The solution was to mount the Windows 8 Enterprise ISO installation image that I had and issue the following command from a command prompt running with administrative privileges (it’s all one line though that’s wrapped here):

dism.exe /online /enable-feature /featurename:NetFX3 /Source:d:\sources\sxs /LimitAccess

For sake of assurance regarding compatibility, Avira has been replaced with Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security. The Avira licence won’t go to waste since I have another another home in mind for it. Removing Avira without crashing Windows 8 proved impossible though and necessitating booting Windows 8 into Safe Mode. Because of much faster startup times, that cannot be achieved with a key press at the appropriate moment because the time window is too short now. One solution is to set the Safe Boot tickbox in the Boot tab of Msconfig (or System Configuration as it otherwise calls itself) before the machine is restarted. There may be others but this was the one that I used. With Avira removed, clearing the same setting and rebooting restored normal service.

Dealing with a Dual Personality

One observer has stated that Windows 8 gives you two operating systems for the price of one: the one in the Start screen and the one on the desktop. Having got to wanting to work with one at a time, I decided to make some adjustments. Adding Classic Shell got me back a Start menu and I left out the Windows Explorer (or File Explorer as it is known in Windows 8) and Internet Explorer components. Though Classic Shell will present a desktop like what we have been getting from Windows 7 by sweeping the Start screen out of the way for you, I found that this wasn’t quick enough for my liking so I added Skip Metro Suite to do this and it seemed to do that a little faster. The tool does more than sweeping the Start screen out of the way but I have switched off these functions. Classic Shell also has been configured so the Start screen can be accessed with a press of Windows key but you can have it as you wish. It has updated too so that boot into the desktop should be faster now. As for me, I’ll leave things as they are for now. Even the possibility of using Windows’ own functionality to go directly to the traditional desktop will be left untested while things are left to settle. Tinkering can need a break.

Outcome

After all that effort, I now have a seemingly more stable Windows virtual machine running Windows 8. Flitting between it and other Linux desktop applications has not caused a system freeze so far and that was the result that I wanted. There now is no need to consider having separate Windows and Linux PC’s with a NAS for sharing files between them so that option is well off my wish-list. There are better uses for my money.

Not everyone has had my experience though because I saw a report that one user failed to update a physical machine to Windows 8 and installed Ubuntu instead; they were a Linux user anyway even if they used Fedora more than Ubuntu. It is possible to roll back from Windows 8 to the previous version of Windows because there is a windows.old directory left primarily for that purpose. However, that may not help you if you have a partially operating system that doesn’t allow you to do just that. In time, I’ll remove it using the Disk Clean-up utility by asking it to remove previous Windows installations or running File Explorer with administrator privileges. Somehow, the former approach sounds the safer.

What About Installing Afresh?

While there was a time when I went solely for upgrades when moving from one version of Windows to the next, the annoyance of the process got to me. If I had known that installing the upgrade twice onto a computer with a clean disk would suffice, it would have saved me a lot. Staring from Windows 95 (from the days when you got a full installation disk with a PC and not the rescue media that we get now) and moving through a sequence of successors not only was time consuming but it also revealed the limitations of the first in the series when it came to supporting more recent hardware. It was enough to have me buying the full retailed editions of Windows XP and Windows 7 when they were released; the latter got downloaded directly from Microsoft. These were retail versions that you could move from one computer to another but Windows 8 will not be like that. In fact, you will need to get its System Builder edition from a reseller and that can only be used on one machine. It is the merging of the former retail and OEM product offerings.

What I have been reading is that the market for full retail versions of Windows was not a big one anyway. However, it was how I used to work as you have read above and it does give you a fresh system. Most probably get Windows with a new PC and don’t go building them from scratch like I have done for more than a decade. Maybe the System Builder version would apply to me anyway and it appears to be intended for virtual machine use as well as on physical ones. More care will be needed with those licences by the looks of things and I wonder what needs not to be changed so as not to invalidate a licence. After all, making a mistake might cost between £75 and £120 depending on the edition.

Final Thoughts

So far Windows 8 is treating me well and I have managed to bend to my will too, always a good thing to be able to say. In time, it might be that a System Builder copy could need buying yet but I’ll leave well alone for now. Though I needed new security software, the upgrade still saved me money over a hardware solution to my home computing needs and I have a backup disk on order from Microsoft too. That I have had to spend some time settling things was a means of learning new things for me but others may not be so patient and, with Windows 7 working well enough for most, you have to ask if it’s only curious folk like me who are taking the plunge. Still, the dramatic change has re-energised the PC world in an era when smartphones and tablets have made so much of the running recently. That too is no bad thing because an unchanging technology is one that dies and there are times when big changes are needed, as much as they upset some folk. For Microsoft, this looks like one of them and it’ll be interesting to see where things go from here for PC technology.

A belated goodbye to PC Plus magazine

Last year, Future Publishing made a loss so something had to be done to address that. Computer magazines such as Linux Format no longer could enclose their cover-mounted discs in elaborate cardboard wallets and moved to simpler sleeves instead. Another casualty has been one of their longest standing titles: PC Plus.

It has been around since 1986 and possibly was one of the publisher’s first titles. It was the late nineties when I first encountered and, for quite a few years afterwards, it was my primary computer magazine of choice every month. The mix of feature articles, reviews and tutorials covering a variety of aspects of personal computing was enough for me. After a while though, it became a bit stale and I stopped buying it regularly. Then, the collection that I had built up was dispatched to the recycling bin and I turned to other magazines.

In the late nineties, Future had a good number of computing titles on magazine shelves in newsagents and there did seem to be some overlap in content. For instance, we had PC Answers and PC Format alongside PC Plus at one point. Now, only PC Format is staying with us and its market seems to be high home computer users such as those interested in PC gaming. .Net, initially a web usage title and now one focussing on website design and development, started from the same era and Linux Format dates from around the turn of the century. Looking back, it looks there was a lot of duplication going on in a heady time of expanding computer usage.

That expansion may have killed off PC Plus in the end. For me, it certainly meant that it no longer was a one stop shop like Dennis’s PC Pro. For instance, the programming and web design content that used to come in PC Plus found itself appearing in .Net and in Linux Format. The appearance of the latter certainly meant that was somewhere else for Linux content; for the record, my first dalliance with SuSE Linux was from a PC Plus cover-mounted disk. The specialisation and division certainly made PC Plus a less essential read than I once thought it.

Of course, we now have an economic downturn and major changes in the world of publishing alongside it. Digital publishing certainly is growing and this isn’t just about websites anymore. That probably explains in part Future’s recent financial performance. Then, when a title like PC Plus is seen as less important, then it can cease to exist but I reckon that it’s the earlier expansion that really did for it. If Future had one computing title that contained extensive reviews and plenty of computing tutorials with sections of programming and open source software, who knows what may have happened. Maybe consolidating the other magazines into that single title would have been an alternative but my thinking is that it wouldn’t have been commercially realistic. Either way, the present might have be very different and PC Plus would be a magazine that I’d be reading every month. That isn’t the case of course and it’s sad to see it go from newstands even if the reality was that it left us quite a while ago in reality.

Why the delay?

The time to renew my .Net magazine came around and I decided to go for the digital option this time. The main attraction is that new issues come along without their cluttering up my house afterwards. After all, I do get to wondering how much space would be taken up by photos and music if those respective fields hadn’t gone down the digital route. Some may decry the non-printing of photos that reside on hard disks or equivalent electronic storage media but they certainly take up less physical space like that. Of course, ensuring that they are backed up in case of a calamity then becomes an important concern.

As well as the cost of a weekly magazine that I didn’t read as much as I should, it was concerns about space that drove me to go the electronic route with New Scientist a few years back. They were early days for digital magazine publishing and felt like it too. Eventually, I weened myself from NS and the move to digital helped. Maybe trying to view magazine articles on a 17″ screen wasn’t as good an experience as seeing them on the 24″ one that I possess these days.

That bigger screen has come in very handy for Zinio‘s Adobe AIR application for viewing issues of .Net and any other magazine that I happen to get from them. There’s quite a selection on there and it’s not limited to periodicals from Future Media either. Other titles include The Economist, Amateur Photographer, Countryfile, What Car and the aforementioned New Scientist also. That’s just a sample of eclectic selection that is on offer.

For some reason, Future seem to wait a few days for the paper versions of their magazines to arrive in shops before the digital ones become available. To me, this seems odd given that you’d expect the magazines to exist on computer systems before they come off the presses. Not only that but subscribers to the print editions get them before they reach the shops at all anyway. This is the sort of behaviour that makes you wonder if someone somewhere is attempting to preserve print media.

In contrast, Scientific American get this right by making PDF’s of their magazines available earlier than print editions. Given that it takes time for an American magazine to reach the U.K. and Eire, this is a very good thing. There was a time when I was a subscriber to this magazine and I found it infuriating to see the latest issues on newsagent shelves and I still waiting for mine to arrive in the post. It was enough to make me vow not to become a subscriber to anything that left me in this situation every month.

Some won’t pass on any savings with their digital editions. Haymarket Publishing come to mind here for What Car but they aren’t alone. Cicerone, Cumbrian publishers of excellent guidebooks for those seeking to enjoy the outdoors, do exactly the same with their wares so you really want to save on space and gain extra convenience when going digital with either of these. In this respect, the publishers of Amateur Photographer have got it right with a great deal for a year’s digital subscription. New Scientist did the same in those early days when I dabbled in digital magazines.

Of course, there are some who dislike reading things on a screen and digital publishing will need to lure those too if it is to succeed. Nevertheless, we now have tablet computers and eBook readers such as Amazon’s Kindle are taking hold too. Reading things on these should feel more natural than on a vertical desktop monitor or even a laptop screen.

Nevertheless, there are some magazines that even I would like to enjoy in print as opposed to on a screen. These also are the ones that I like to retain for future consultation too. Examples include Outdoor Photography and TGO and it is the content that drives  my thinking here. The photographic reproduction in the former probably is best reserved for print while the latter is more interesting. TGO does do its own digital edition but the recounting of enjoyment of the outdoors surpassed presentation until a few months ago. It is the quality of the writing that makes me want to have them on a shelf as opposed to being stored on a computer disk.

The above thought makes me wonder why I’d go for digital magazines in preference to their print counterparts. Thinking about it now, I am so sure that there is a clear cut answer. Saving money and not having clutter does a have a lot to to with it but there is a sense that keeping copies .Net is less essential to me though I do enjoy seeing what is happening in the world of web design and am open to any new ideas too. Maybe the digital magazine scene is still an experiment for me.

A collection of lessons learnt about web hosting

Putting this blog back on its feet after a spot of web hosting bother caused me to learnt a bit more about web hosting than I  otherwise might have done. Here’s a selection and they are in no particular order:

  1. Store your passwords securely and where you can find them because you never know how a foul up of your own making can strike. For example, a faux pas with a configuration file is all that’s needed to cause havoc for a database site such as a WordPress blog. After all, nobody’s perfect and your hosting provider may not get you out of trouble as quickly as you might like.
  2. Get a MySQL database or equivalent as part of your package rather than buying one separately. If your provider allows a trial period, then changing from one package to another could be cheaper and easier than if you bought a separate database and needed to jettison it because you changed from, say, a Windows package to a Linux one or vice versa.
  3. It might be an idea to avoid a reseller unless the service being offered is something special. Going for the sake of lower cost can be a false economy and it might be better to cut out the middleman altogether and go direct to their provider. Being able to distinguish a reseller from a real web host would be nice but I don’t see that ever becoming a reality; it is hardly in resellers’ interests, after all.
  4. Should you stick with a provider that takes several days to resolve a serious outage? The previous host of this blog had a major MySQL server outage that lasted for up to three days and seeing that was one of the factors that made me turn tail to go to a more trusted provider that I have used for a number of years. The smoothness of the account creation process might be another point worthy of consideration.
  5. Sluggish system support really can frustrate, especially if there is no telephone support provided and the online ticketing system seems to take forever to deliver solutions. I would advise strongly that a host who offers a helpline is a much better option than someone who doesn’t. Saying all of that, I think that it’s best to be patient and, when your website is offline, that might not be as easy you’d hope it to be.
  6. Setting up hosting or changing from one provider to another can take a number of days because of all that needs doing. So, it’s best to allow for this and plan ahead. Account creation can be very quick but setting up the website can take time while domain name transfer can take up to 24 hours.
  7. It might not take the same amount of time to set up Windows hosting as its Linux equivalent. I don’t know if my experience was typical but I have found that the same provider set up Linux hosting far quicker (within 30 minutes) than it did for a Windows-based package (several hours).
  8. Be careful what package you select; it can be easy to pick the wrong one depending on how your host’s sight is laid out and what they are promoting at the time.
  9. You can have a Perl/PHP/MySQL site working on Windows, even with IIS being used in place instead of Apache. The Linux/Apache/Perl/PHP/MySQL approach might still be better, though.
  10. The Windows option allows for ASP, .Net and other such Microsoft technologies to be used. I have to say that my experience and preference is for open source technologies so Linux is my mainstay but learning about the other side can never hurt from a career point of view. After, I am writing this on a Windows Vista powered laptop to see how the other half live as much as anything else.
  11. Domains serviced by hosting resellers can be visible to the systems of those from whom they buy their wholesale hosting. This frustrated my initial attempts to move this blog over because I couldn’t get an account set up for technologytales.com because a reseller had it already on the same system. It was only when I got the reseller to delete the account with them that things began to run more smoothly.
  12. If things are not going as you would like them, getting your account deleted might be easier than you think so don’t procrastinate because you think it a hard thing to do. Of course, it goes without saying that you should back things up beforehand.

Ditching PC Plus?

When I start to lose interest in the features in a magazine that I regularly buy, then it’s a matter of time before I stop buying the magazine altogether. Such a predicament is facing PC Plus, a magazine that I been buying every month over the last ten years. The fate has already befallen titles like Web Designer, Amateur Photographer and Trail, all of which I now buy sporadically. Returning to PC Plus, I get the impression that it feels more of a lightweight these days. What Future Publishing has been doing over the last decade is add titles to its portfolio that take actually from its long established stalwart; Linux Format and .Net are two that come to mind and there are titles covering Windows Vista and computer music as well. Being a sucker for punishment, I did pick up this month’s PC Plus and the issue is as good an example of the malaise as any. Reviews, once a mainstay of the title, are now less prominent than they were. In place of comparison tests, we now find discussions of topics like hardware acceleration with some reviews mixed in. Topics such as robotics and artificial intelligence do rear their heads in feature articles and I cannot say that I have a great deal of time for such futurology. The tutorials section is still there but has been hived off into a separate mini-magazine and I am not so sure that it has escaped the lightweight revolution. All this is leading me to dump PC Plus in favour of PC Pro from Dennis Publishing. This feels reassuringly more heavyweight and, while the basic format has remained unchanged over the years, it still managed to remain fresh. Reviews, of both software and hardware, are very much in evidence and it manages to have those value-adding feature articles; this month, digital photography and rip-off Britain come under the spotlight. Add the Real Word Computing section and it all makes a good read in these times of behemoths like Microsoft, Apple and Adobe delivering new things on the technology front. I don’t know if I have changed but PC Pro does seem better than PC Plus these days.