More thoughts on Windows 10

Now that I have left Windows 8.x behind me and there are a number of my machines running Windows 10, I have decided to revisit my impressions of the operating system. The first Technical Preview was something that I installed in a virtual machine and I have been keeping an eye on things have developed since then and intend to retain a Windows Insider installation to see what might be heading our way as Windows 10 evolves as now expected.

After elaborating on the all important upgrade process earlier, I am now moving onto other topics. The Start Menu is a big item but there are others as you will see below.

Start Menu

Let’s start with an admission: the prototype Start Menu that we got in the initial Windows 10 Technical Preview was more to my liking. Unpinning all the tiles allowed the menu to collapse back to the sort of width that anyone familiar with Windows 7 would have liked. If there was a setting to expunge all tiles at once and produce this state, I would have been well happy.

It was latter that we got to learn that Microsoft was not about consign the Windows 8 Modern interface entirely to history as many would have wanted. Some elements remain with us such as a Start Menu with a mandatory area for tiles and the ability to have it display full screen. Some are live but this can be turned off on a tile by tile basis and unneeded ones can be removed altogether. It is even possible to uninstall most apps by right clicking on a tile or other Start Menu entry and select the required option from the resulting context menu. For others, there is a command line alternative that uses Powershell to do removals. After this pruning, things were left in such a state that I have not been moved to restore Classic Shell so far.

The Start Menu settings used be in the same place as those for the taskbar but they are found in the new Settings tool. Some are in the Personalisation section and it has its own Start subsection for setting full screen mode or highlighting of new apps among other things. The equivalent Colours subsection is where you find other settings like assigning background colours based on those in a desktop background image, which itself is assigned in it own subsection in the Personalisation area.

Virtual Desktops

Initially, I failed to see the point in how Microsoft implemented these and favoured Virtuawin instead. My main complaint was the taskbar showed buttons for all open apps regardless of the screen in which they are opened. However, that was changed so your taskbar shows different buttons for each virtual desktop, just like the way that Linux and UNIX do things. Switching between desktops may not be as smooth of those yet but the default setting is a move in the right direction and you can change it if you want.

Cortana

This was presented to the world as a voice operated personal assistant like Apple’s Siri but I cannot say that I am keen on such things so I decided to work as I usually do instead. Keyboard interaction works fine and I have neutered things to leave off web searches on Bing to use the thing much in the same way as the search box on the Windows 7 Start Menu. It may be able to do more than that but I am more than happy to keep my workflow unchanged for now. Cortana’s settings are available via its pop-up menu. Collapsing the search box to an icon to save space for your pinned and open applications is available from the Search section of the taskbar context menu (right clicking the taskbar produces this).

Settings

In Windows 8.x, the Control Panel was not the only area for settings but remained feature complete but the same is not the case for Windows 10 where the new Settings panel is starting to take over from it. The two co-exist for now but it seems clear that Settings is where everything is headed.

The Personalisation section of the tool has been mentioned in relation to the Start Menu but there are plenty of others. For instance, the Privacy one is one that definitely needs reviewing and I found myself changing a lot of the default settings in there. Naturally, there are some other sections in Settings that need hardly any attention from most of us and these include Ease of access (accessibility), Time & language, Devices and Network & Internet. The System section has a few settings like tablet mode that may need review and the Update & security one has backup and recovery subsections that may be of interest. The latter of these is where you find the tools for refreshing the state of the system following instability or returning to a previous Windows version (7 or 8.x) within thirty days of the upgrade.

Migrating to Windows 10

While I have had preview builds of Windows 10 in various virtual machines for the most of twelve months, actually upgrading physical and virtual devices that you use for more critical work is a very different matter. Also, Windows 10 is set to be a rolling release with enhancements coming on an occasional basis so I would like to see what comes before it hits the actual machines that I need to use. That means that a VirtualBox instance of the preview build is being retained to see what happens to that over time.

Some might call it incautious but I have taken the plunge and completely moved from Windows 8.1 to Windows 10. The first machine that I upgrade was more expendable and success with that encouraged me to move onto others before even including a Windows 7 machine to see how that went. The 30-day restoration period allows an added degree of comfort when doing all this. The list of machines that I upgraded were a VMware VM with 32-bit Windows 8.1 Pro (itself part of a 32-bit upgrade cascade involving Windows 7 Home and Windows 8 Pro), a VirtualBox VM with 64-bit Windows 8.1, a physical PC that dual booted Linux Mint 17.2 and 64-bit Windows 8.1 and a HP Pavilion dm4 laptop (Intel Core i3 with 8GB RAM and a 1 TB SSHD) with Windows 7.

The main issue that I uncovered with the virtual machines is that the Windows 10 update tool that is downloaded onto Windows 7 and 8.x does not accept the graphics capability on there. This is a bug because the functionality works fine on the Windows Insider builds. The solution was to download the appropriate Windows 10 ISO image for use in the ensuing upgrade. There are 32-bit and 64-bit disk images with Windows 10 and Windows 10 Pro installation files on each. My own actions used both disk images.

During the virtual machine upgrades,most of the applications that considered important were carried over from Windows 8.1 to Windows without a bother. Anyone would expect Microsoft’s own software like Word, Excel and others to make the transition but others like Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom made it too as did Mozilla’s Firefox, albeit requiring a trip to Settings in order to set it as the default option for opening web pages. Less well known desktop applications like Zinio (digital magazines) or Mapyx Quo (maps for cycling, walking and the like) were the same. Classic Shell was an exception but the Windows 10 Start Menu suffices for now anyway. Also, there was a need to reinstate Bitdefender Antivirus Plus using its new Windows 10 compatible installation file. Still, the experience was a big change from the way things used to be in the days when you used have to reinstall nearly all your software following a Windows upgrade.

The Windows 10 update tool worked well for the Windows 8.1 PC so no installation disks were needed. Neither was the boot loader overwritten so the Windows option needed selecting from GRUB every time there was a system reboot as part of the installation process, a temporary nuisance that was tolerated since booting into Linux Mint was preserved. Again, no critical software was lost in the process apart from Kaspersky Internet Security, which needed the Windows 10 compatible version installed, much like Bitdefender, or Epson scanning software that I found was easy to reinstall anyway. Usefully, Anquet’s Outdoor Map Navigator (again used for working with walking and cycling maps) continue to function properly after the changeover.

For the Windows 7 laptop, it was much the same story albeit with the upgrade being delivered  using Windows Update. Then, the main Windows account could be connected to my Outlook account to get everything tied up with the other machines for the first time. Before the obligatory change of background picture, the browns in the one that I was using were causing interface items to appear in red, not exactly my favourite colour for application menus and the like. Now they are in blue and all the upheaval surrounding the operating system upgrade had no effect on the Dropbox or Kaspersky installations that I had in place before it all started. If there is any irritation, it is that unpinning of application tiles from the Start Menu or turning off of live tiles is not always as instantaneous as I would have liked and that is all done now anyway.

While writing the above, I could not help thinking that more observations on Windows 10 may follow but these will do for now. Microsoft had to get this upgrade process right and it does appear that they have so credit is due to them for that. So far, I have Windows 10 to be stable and will be seeing how things develop from here, especially when those new features arrive from time to time as is the promise that has been made to us users. Hopefully, that will be as painless as it needs to be to ensure trust is retained.

Migrating a virtual machine from VirtualBox to VMware Player on Linux

The progress of Windows 10 is something that I have been watching. Early signs have been promising and the most recent live event certainly contained its share of excitement. The subsequent build that was released was another step in the journey though the new Start Menu appears more of a work in progress than it did in previous builds. Keeping up with these advances sometimes steps ahead of VirtualBox support for them and I discovered that again in the last few days. VMware Player seems unaffected so I thought that I’d try a migration of the VirtualBox VM with Windows 10 onto there. In the past, I did something similar with a 32-bit instance of Windows 7 that subsequently got upgraded all the the way up to 8.1 but that may not have been as slick as the latest effort so I thought that I would share it here.

The first step was to export the virtual machine as an OVF appliance and I used File > Export Appliance… only to make a foolish choice regarding the version of OVF. The one that I picked was 2.0 and I subsequently discovered that 1.0 was the better option. The equivalent command line would look like the following (there are two dashes before the ovf10 option below):

vboxmanage export [name of VM] -o [name of file].ova --ovf10

VMware have a tool for extracting virtual machines from OVF files that will generate a set of files that will work with Player and other similar products of theirs. It goes under the unsurprising name of OVF Tool and it usefully works from a command line session. When I first tried it with an OVF 2.0 files, I got the following error and it stopped doing anything as a result:

Line 2: Incorrect namespace http://schemas.dmtf.org/ovf/envelope/2 found.

The only solution was to create a version 1.0 file and use a command like the following (it’s a single line though it wraps over two here and there are two dashes before the lax switch):

ovftool --lax [name of file].ova [directory location of VM files]/[name of file].vmx

The --lax option is needed to ensure successful execution even with an OVF 1.0 file as the input. Once I had done this on my Ubuntu GNOME system, the virtual machine could be opened up on VMware Player and I could use the latest build of Windows 10 at full screen, something that was not possible with VirtualBox. This may be how I survey the various builds of the operating that appear before its final edition is launched later this year.

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.

Initial impressions of Windows 10

Being ever curious on the technology front, the release of the first build of a Technical Preview of Windows 10 was enough to get me having a look at what was on offer. The furore regarding Windows 8.x added to the interest so I went to the download page to get a 64-bit installation ISO image.

That got installed into a fresh VirtualBox virtual machine and the process worked smoothly to give something not so far removed from Windows 8.1. However, it took until release 4.3.18 of VirtualBox before the Guest additions had caught up with the Windows prototype so I signed up for the Windows Insider program and got a 64-bit ISO image to install the Enterprise preview of Windows 10 into a VMware virtual machine since and that supported full screen display of the preview while VirtualBox caught up with it.

Of course, the most obvious development was the return of the Start Menu and it works exactly as expected too. Initially, the apparent lack of an easy way to disable App panels had me going to Classic Shell for an acceptable Start Menu. It was only later that it dawned on me that unpinning these panels would deliver to me the undistracting result that I wanted.

Another feature that attracted my interest is the new virtual desktop functionality. Here I was expecting something like what I have used on Linux and UNIX. There, each workspace is a distinct desktop with only the applications open in a given workspace showing on a panel in there. Windows does not work that way with all applications visible on the taskbar regardless of what workspace they occupy, which causes clutter. Another deficiency is not having a desktop indicator on the taskbar instead of the Task View button. On Windows 7 and 8.x, I have been a user of VirtuaWin and this still works largely in the way that I expect of it too, except for any application windows that have some persistence associated with them; the Task Manager is an example and I include some security software in the same category too.

Even so, here are some keyboard shortcuts for anyone who wants to take advantage of the Windows 10 virtual desktop feature:

  • Create a new desktop: Windows key + Ctrl + D
  • Switch to previous desktop: Windows key + Ctrl + Left arrow
  • Switch to next desktop: Windows key + Ctrl + Right arrow

Otherwise, stability is excellent for a preview of a version of Windows that is early on its road to final release. An upgrade to a whole new build went smoothly when initiated following a prompt from the operating system itself. All installed applications were retained and a new taskbar button for notifications made its appearance alongside the existing Action Centre icon. So far, I am unsure what this does and whether the Action Centre button will be replaced in the fullness of time but I am happy to await where things go with this.

All is polished up to now and there is nothing to suggest that Windows 10 will not be to 8.x what 7 was to Vista. The Start Screen has been dispatched after what has proved to be a misadventure on the part of Microsoft. The PC still is with us and touchscreen devices like tablets are augmenting it instead of replacing it for any tasks involving some sort of creation. If anything, we have seen the PC evolve with laptops perhaps becoming more like the Surface Pro, at least when it comes to hybrid devices. However, we are not as happy smudge our PC screens quite like those on phones and tablets so a return to a more keyboard and mouse centred approach for some devices is a welcome one.

What I have here are just a few observations and there is more elsewhere, including a useful article by Ed Bott on ZDNet. All in all, we are early in the process for Windows 10 and, though it looks favourable so far, I will continue to keep an eye on how it progresses. It needs to be less experimental than Windows 8.x and it certainly is less schizophrenic and should not be a major jump for users of Windows 7.