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.

Some things that I’d miss on moving from Linux to Windows

The latest buzz surrounding Windows 7 has caused one observer to suggest that it’s about to blast Linux from the desktop. My experiences might be positive but there are still things that I like about Linux that make me reluctant to consider switching back. Here are a few in no particular order:

Virtual Desktops (or Workspaces)

I find these very handy for keeping things organised when I have a few applications open at the same time. While I think that someone has come with a way of adding the same functionality to Windows but I’d need to go looking for that. Having everything cluttering up a single taskbar would feel a bit limiting.

Symbolic Links

If you have come across these before, they are a little hard to explain but it’s great to have to have the ability to make the contents of a folder appear in more than one place at a time without filling up your hard drive. It’s true to say that Windows 7 gets Libraries but I have a soft spot for the way that Linux does it so simply.

Lack of (intrusive) fidgeting

One of Windows’ biggest problems is that it’s such a massive target for attacks by the less desirable elements of the web community. The result is a multitude of security software vendors wanting to get their wares onto your PC and it’s when they get there that all of the fidgeting starts. The cause is the constant need for system monitoring and it eats up resources that could be used for other things. I know some packages are less intrusive than others but I do like the idea of feeling as if I am in full control of my PC rather someone else taking decisions for me (unavoidable in the world of work, I know). An example of this is Norton’s not allowing me to shut it down when it goes rogue, even when acting as Administrator. I can see the reason for this in that it’s trying to hamper the attentions of nefarious malware but it ends up making me feel less than empowered and I also like to feel trusted too. Another thing that I like is the idea of something awaiting my input rather going away and trying to guess what I need and getting it wrong, an experience that seems typical of Microsoft software.

Command Line

This is less of a miss than it used to be but there is now a learning curve with PowerShell’s inclusion with Windows 7 and it’s not something that I want to foist on myself without my having the time learning its ins and outs. It’s not a bad skill to have listed on the proverbial CV but I now know my way around bash and its ilk while knowing where to look when I want to take things further.

After these, there are other personal reasons for my sticking with Linux like memories of bad experiences with Windows XP and the way that Linux just seems to get on with the job. Its being free of charge is another bonus and the freedom to have things as you want makes you feel that you have a safer haven in this ever changing digital world. I am not sure if I’d go acquiring the final version of Windows 7 but I am certain that it will not be replacing Linux as my main home computing platform, something that come as no surprise given what I have said above.

Running Windows 7 within VirtualBox

With all the fanfare that surrounded the public beta release of Windows 7, I suppose that the opportunity to give it a whirl was too good to miss. Admittedly, Microsoft bodged the roll-out by underestimating the level of interest and corralling everyone into a 24 hour time slot with one exacerbating the other. In the event, they did eventually get their act together and even removed the 2.5 million licence limit. I suppose that they really need to get 7 right after the unloved offering that was Vista so they probably worked out that the more testers that they get, the better. After, it might be observed that the cynical view that the era making people pay to “test” your products might be behind us and that users just want things to work well if not entirely faultlessly these days.

After several abortive raids, I eventually managed to snag myself a licence and started downloading the behemoth using the supplied download manager. I foresaw it taking a long time and so stuck with the 32-bit variant so as not to leave open the possibility of that part of the process using up any more of my time. As it happened, the download did take quite a few hours to complete but this part of the process was without any incident or fuss.

Once the DVD image was downloaded, it was onto the familiar process of building myself a VirtualBox VM as a sandbox to explore the forthcoming incarnation of Windows. After setting up the ISO file as a virtual DVD, installation itself was an uneventful process but subsequent activities weren’t without their blemishes. The biggest hurdle to be overcome was to get the virtual network adapter set up and recognised by Windows 7. The trick is to update the driver using the VirtualBox virtual CD as the source because Windows 7 will not recognise it using its own driver repository. Installing the other VirtualBox tools is a matter of going to Compatibility page in the Properties for the relevant executable, the one with x86 in the file name in my case, and setting XP as the Windows version (Vista works just as well apparently but I played safe and depended on my own experience). While I was at it, I allowed the file to run under the administrator account too. Right-clicking on executable files will bring you to the compatibility troubleshooter that achieves much the same ends but by a different route. With the Tools installed, all was workable rather than completely satisfactory. Shared folders have not worked for but that might need a new version of the VirtualBox software or getting to know any changes to networking that come with Windows 7. I plan to stick with using USB drives for file transfer for the moment. Stretching the screen to fit the VirtualBox window was another thing that would not happen but that’s a much more minor irritation.

With those matters out of the way, I added security software from the list offered by Windows with AVG, Norton and Kaspersky being the options on offer. I initially chose the last of these but changed my mind after seeing the screen becoming so corrupted as to make it unusable. That set me to rebuilding the VM and choosing Norton 360 after the second Windows installation had finished. That is working much better and I plan to continue my tinkering beyond this. I have noticed the inclusion of PowerShell and an IDE for the same so that could be something that beckons. All in all, there is a certain solidity about Windows 7 but I am not so convinced of the claim of speedy startups at this stage. Time will tell and, being a beta release, it’s bound to be full of debugging code that will not make it into the final version that is unleashed on the wider public.

Onto Norton 360…

ZoneAlarm cut off VMware’s access to the internet so it was time to reinstall it. However, I messed up the reinstallation and now there seems no way to reinstate things like they were without tampering with my Windows XP installation status and I have no intention of doing that. The thing seems to think that it can start a TrueVector service that does not exist.

I have to have some some security software on board so I made a return to the Symantec fold with my purchase of Norton 360. That does sound extreme but I have been curious about the software for a while now. You get the usual firewall, antivirus and antispam functions with PC tuning, antiphishing and backup features available as well. It is supposed to be unobtrusive so we’ll see how it goes from here.

Update: PC Pro rates the software highly while Tech.co.uk accuses it of being bloatware. Nevertheless, the only issue that I am having with it is its insistence on having Microsoft Update turned on. I am sticking with Shavlik’s NetChk Protect, especially seeing what Microsoft have been doing with its update service. Take a look at Windows Secrets.com to see what I mean. Other than that it seems to working away in the background without intruding at all.