A look at Windows 8.1

Last week, Microsoft released a preview of Windows 8.1 and some hailed the return of the Start button but the reality is not as simple as that. Being a Linux user, I am left wondering if ideas have been borrowed from GNOME Shell instead of putting back the Start Menu like it was in Windows 7. What we have got is a smoothing of the interface that is there for those who like to tweak settings and not available be default. GNOME Shell has been controversial too so borrowing from it is not an uncontentious move even if there are people like me who are at home in that kind of interface.

What you get now is more configuration options to go with the new Start button. Right clicking on the latter does get you a menu but this is no Start Menu like we had before. Instead, we get a settings menu with a “Shut down” entry. That’s better than before, which might be saying something about what was done in Windows 8, and it produces a sub-menu with options of shutting down or restarting your PC as well as putting it to sleep. Otherwise, it is place for accessing system configuration items and not your more usual software, not a bad thing but it’s best to be clear about these things. Holding down the Windows key and pressing X will pop up the same menu if you prefer keyboard shortcuts and I have a soft spot for them too.

New Windows 8.1 Options

The real power is to be discovered when you right click on the task bar and select the Properties entry from the pop-up menu. Within the dialogue box box that appears, there is the Navigation tab that contains a whole plethora of interesting options. Corner navigation can be scaled back to remove the options of switching between applications at the upper left corner or getting the charms menu from the upper right corner. Things are interesting in the Start Screen section. This where you tell Windows to boot to the desktop instead of the Start Screen and adjust what the Start button gives you. For instance, you can make it use your desktop background and display the Start Screen Apps View. Both of these make the new Start interface less intrusive and make the Apps View feel not unlike the way GNOME Shell overlays your screen when you hit the Activities button or hover over the upper left corner of the desktop.

It all seems rather more like a series of little concessions and not the restoration that some (many?) would prefer. Classic Shell still works for all those seeking an actual Start Menu and even replaces the restored Microsoft Start button too. So, if the new improvements aren’t enough for you, you still can take matters into your own hands until you start to take advantage of what’s new in 8.1.

Apart from the refusal to give us back a Windows 7 style desktop experience, we now have a touchscreen keyboard button added to the taskbar.So far, it always appears there even when I try turning it off. For me, that’s a bug and it’s something that I’d like to see fixed before the final release.

All in all, Windows 8.1 feels more polished than Windows 8 was and will be a free update when the production version is released. My explorations have taken place within a separate VMware virtual machine because updating a Windows 8 installation to the 8.1 preview is forcing a complete re-installation on yourself later on. There are talks about Windows 9 now but I am left wondering if going for point releases like 8.2, 8.3, etc. might be a better strategy for Microsoft. It still looks as if Windows 8 could do with continual polishing before it gets more acceptable to users. 8.1 is a step forward and more like it may be needed yet.

Piggybacking an Android Wi-Fi device off your Windows PC’s internet connection

One of the disadvantages of my Google/Asus Nexus 7 is that it needs a Wi-Fi connection to use. Most of the time this is not a problem since I also have a Huawei mobile WiFi hub from T-Mobile and this seems to work just about anywhere in the U.K. Away from the U.K. though, it won’t work because roaming is not switched on for it and that may be no bad thing with the fees that could introduce. My HTC Desire S could deputise but I need to watch costs with that too.

There’s also the factor of download caps and those apply both to the Huawei and to the HTC. Recently, I added Anquet‘s Outdoor Map Navigator (OMN) to my Nexus 7 through the Google Play store for a fee of £7 and that allows access to any walking maps that I have bought from Anquet. However, those are large downloads so the caps start to come into play. Frugality would help but I began to look at other possibilities that make use of a laptop’s Wi-Fi functionality.

Looking on the web, I found two options for this that work on Windows 7 (8 should be OK too): Connectify Hotspot and Virtual Router Manager. The first of these is commercial software but there is a Lite edition for those wanting to try it out; that it is not a time limited demo is not something that I can confirm though that did not seem to be the case since it looked as if only features were missing from it that you’d get if you paid for the Pro variant. The second option is an open source one and is free of charge apart from an invitation to donate to the project.

Though online tutorials show the usage of either of these to be straightforward, my experiences were not all that positive at the outset. In fact, there was something that I needed to do and that is why this post has come to exist at all. That happened even after the restart that Conectify Hotspot needed as part of its installation; it runs as a system service so that’s why the restart was needed. In fact, it was Virtual Router Manager that told me what the issue was and it needed no reboot. Neither did it cause network disconnection of a laptop like the Connectify offering did on me and that was the cause of its ejection from that system; limitations in favour of its paid addition aside, it may have the snazzier interface but I’ll take effective simplicity any day.

Using Virtual Router Manager turns out to be simple enough. It needs a network name (also known as an SSID), a password to restrict who accesses the network and the internet connection to be shared. In my case, the was Local Area Connection on the drop down list. With all the required information entered,  I was ready to start the router using the Start Network Router button. The text on this changes to Stop Network Router when the hub is operational or at least it should have done for me on the first time that I ran it. What I got instead was the following message:

The group or resource is not in the correct state to perform the requested operation.

The above may not say all that much but it becomes more than ample information if you enter it into the likes of Google. Behind the scenes, Virtual Router Manager is using native Windows functionality is create a WiFi hub from a PC and it appears to be the Microsoft Virtual Wi-Fi Miniport Adapter from what I have seen. When I tried setting up an adhoc Wi-Fi network from a laptop to the Nexus 7 using Windows’ own network set up capability via its Control Panel, it didn’t do what I needed so there might be something that third party software can do. So, the interesting thing about the solution to my Virtual Router Manager problem was that it needed me to delve into the innards of Windows a little.

Firstly, there’s running Command Prompt (All Programs > Accessories) from the Start Menu with Administrator privileges. It helps here if the account with which you log into Windows is in the Administrators group since all you have  to do then is right click on the Start Menu entry and choose Run as administrator entry in the pop-up context menu. With a command line window now open, you then need to issue the following command:

netsh wlan set hostednetwork mode=allow ssid=[network name] key=[password] keyUsage=persistent

When that had done its thing, Virtual Router Manager worked without a hitch though it did turn itself after a while and that may be no bad thing from the security standpoint. On the Android side, it was a matter of going in Settings > Wi-Fi and choose the new network that have been creating on the laptop. This sort of thing may apply to other types of tablet (Dare I mention iPads?) so you could connect anything to the hub without needing to do any more on the Windows side.

For those wanting to know what’s going on behind the scenes on Windows, there’s a useful tutorial on Instructables that shows what third party software is saving you from having to do. Even if I never go down the more DIY route, I probably have saved myself having to buy a mobile Wi-Fi hub for any trips to Éire. For now, the Irish 3G dongle that I already have should be enough.

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.

Adding a Start Menu to Windows 8

For all the world, it looks like Microsoft has mined a concept from a not often recalled series of Windows: 3.x. Then, we had a Program Manager for starting all our applications with no sign of a Start Menu. That came with Windows 95 and I cannot anyone mourning the burying of the Program Manager interface either. It was there in Windows 95 if you knew where to look and I do remember starting an instance, possibly out of curiosity.

Every Windows user seems to have taken to the Start Menu regardless of how big they grow when you install a lot of software on your machine. It didn’t matter that Windows NT got it later than Windows 9x ones either; NT 3.51 has the Program Manager too and it was NT 4 that got the then new interface that has been developed and progressed in no less than four subsequent versions of Windows (2000, XP, Vista & 7). Maybe it was because computing was the preserve of fewer folk that the interchange brought little if any sign of a backlash. The zeitgeist of the age reflected the newness of desktop computing and its freshness probably brought an extra level of openness too.

Things are different now, though. You only have to hear of the complaints about changes to Linux desktop environments to realise how attached folk become to certain computer interfaces. Ironically, personal computing has just got exciting again after a fairly stale decade of stasis. Mobile computing devices are aplenty and it no longer is a matter of using a stationary desktop PC or laptop and those brought their own excitement in the 1990’s. In fact, reading a title like Computer Shopper reminds me of how things once were with its still sticking with PC reviews while others are not concentrating on them as much. Of course, the other gadgets get reviewed too so it is not stuck in any rut. Still, it is good to see the desktop PC getting a look in in an age when there is so much competition, especially from phones and tablets.

In this maelstrom, Microsoft has decided to do something dramatic with Windows 8. It has resurrected the Program Manager paradigm in the form of the Start screen and excised the Start Menu from the desktop altogether. For touch screen computing interfaces such as tablets, you can see the sense of this but it’s going to come as a major surprise to many. Removing what lies behind how many people interact with a PC is risky and you have to wonder how it’s going to work out for all concerned.

What reminded me of this was a piece on CNET by Mary Jo Foley. Interestingly, software is turning up that returns the Start Menu (or Button) to Windows 8. One of these is Classic Shell and I decided to give it a go on a Windows 8 Enterprise evaluation instance that I have. Installation is like any Windows program and I limited the options to the menu and updater. At the end of the operation, a button with a shell icon appeared on the desktop’s taskbar. You can make the resultant menu appear like that of Windows XP or Windows 7 if you want. There are other settings like what the Windows key does and what happens when you click on the button with a mouse. By default, both open the new Start Menu and holding down the Shift key when doing either brings up the Start screen. This is customisable so you can have things the other way around if you so desire. Another setting is to switch from the Start screen to the desktop after you log into Windows 8 (you may also have it log in for you automatically but it’s something that I believe anyone should be doing). The Start screen does flash up but things move along quickly; maybe having not appear at all would be better for many.

Classic Shell is free of charge and worked well for me apart from that small rough edge noted above. It also is open source and looks well maintained too. For that reason, it appeals to me more that Stardock’s Start8 (currently in beta release at the time of writing) or Pokki for Windows 8, which really is an App Store that adds a Start Menu. If you encounter Windows 8 on a new computer, then they might be worth trying should you want a Start Menu back. Being an open-minded type, I could get along with the standard Windows 8 interface but it’s always good to have choices too. Most of us want to own our computing experience, it seems, so these tools could have their uses for Windows 8 users.

Moving a Windows 7 VM from VirtualBox to VMware Player

Seeing how well Windows 8 was running in an VMware Player virtual machine and that was without installing VMware Tools in the guest operating system, I was reminded about how sluggish my Windows 7 VirtualBox VM had become. Therefore, I decided to try a migration of the VM from VirtualBox to VMware. My hope was that it was as easy as exporting to an OVA file (File > Export Appliance… in VirtualBox) and importing that into VMware (File > Open a VM in Player). However, even selecting OVF compatibility was insufficient for achieving this and the size of the virtual disks meant that the export took a while to run as well. The solution was to create a new VM in VirtualBox from the OVA file and use the newly created VMDK files with VMware. That worked successfully and I now have a speedier more responsive Windows 7 VM for my pains.

Access to host directories needed reinstatement using a combination of the VMware Shared Folders feature and updating drive mappings in Windows 7 itself to use what appear to it like network drives in the Shared Folders directory on the \\vmware-host domain. For that to work, VMware Tools needed to be installed in the guest OS (go to Virtual Machine > Install VMware Tools to make available a virtual CD from which the installation can be done) as I discovered when trying the same thing with my Windows 8 VM, where I dare not instate VMware Tools due to their causing trouble when I last attempted it.

Moving virtual machine software brought about its side effects though. Software like Windows 7 detects that it’s on different hardware so reactivation can be needed. Windows 7 reactivation was a painless online affair but it wasn’t the same for Photoshop CS5. That meant that I needed help from Adobe’s technical support people top get past the number of PC’s for which the software already had been activated. In hindsight, deactivation should have been done prior to the move but that’s a lesson that I know well now. Technical support sorted my predicament politely and efficiently while reinforcing the aforementioned learning point. Moving virtual machine platform is very like moving from one PC to the next and it hadn’t clicked with me quite how real those virtual machines can be when it comes to software licencing.

Apart from that and figuring out how to do the it, the move went smoothly. An upgrade to the graphics driver on the host system and getting Windows 7 to recheck the capabilities of the virtual machine even gained me a fuller Aero experience than I had before then. Full screen operation is quite reasonable too (the CTRL + ALT + ENTER activates and deactivates it) and photo editing now feels less boxed in too.