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.

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 little look at Windows 8

It has been a little while but I have managed to set up a VirtualBox virtual machine in order to take a look at the Developer Preview of the next version of Windows, something that I and others continue to call Windows 8 though Microsoft has yet to confirm the name. When I tried the installation before, it failed on me but that may have been due to having an earlier release of VirtualBox on my machine at that time. 4.1.14 has a preset for Windows 8 and I also happened to notice that it can create virtual hard disks that can be used with competitors like VMWare, Parallels and Virtual PC too. It’s an interesting development but I am left wondering why you’d need to do that when VirtualBox runs on most platforms anyway.

To get back to Windows 8, the installation ran near enough without any intervention apart form stating the language you wanted to use, U.K. English in my case. Starting up the operating system gains you a lock screen that you need to get out of the way so you can log in. It can be dragged out of your way or you can double-click on it or use the carriage return key to get rid of it. Quite why someone thinks it’s a good extra is a little beyond me when a log in screen would suffice. Logging in gets you the new start menu or, as I prefer to think of it, screen. By default, there are a good few Metro apps installed though I decided to rid myself of most of them.

Regarding those apps, one irritation could be that there isn’t that obvious a way to switch away from them to something else. Thankfully, ALT+TAB does seem to work and it has the most instantaneous effect. Otherwise, using the Windows key or hovering over the bottom left corner of the screen to get the menu that brings up the start screen. From the PC user’s point of view, I could see this needing a little more thought because it took a little while for me to figure out what to do. Closing Metro apps isn’t an option either unless you resort to the Task Manager to do so. Microsoft appears to want to leave them open from the point at which you start them until the PC is shut down. It’s a design decision that leaves me unconvinced though, particularly when thoughts of rogue apps running riot on a system come to mind. Then, a stop button could be handy.

There is no start menu as we have come to know it anymore with the start screen replacing it. However, it is possible to limit what’s on there to the software that you use most often an rearrange panels as you’d like them to be. Apart from hosting shortcuts for starting applications, it also acts as a task switcher like the task bar in Windows 7 and there is one of those in Windows 8 too when you jump to the desktop; handily, there’s a panel for that too. Installing Firefox added a panel to the start screen so a little thought has gone into such a common situation and that’s just as well. Still, there’s more work to be done because, currently, there’s no way of changing the background colour of the start screen without resorting to a hex editor or third party tools. Still, you can pick your own picture for the lock screen so things are not all locked down on you.

A preview of IE 10 is included and, apart from the occasional artifact when displaying one of my websites, it seems to work well enough as does Windows Explorer. However, apart from these and a smattering of Metro apps, the Developer Preview does feel barer that previous versions of Windows. However, it does appear that applications like Notepad, PowerShell and the Command Prompt are on there but you need to search for these. That also means that you know about them too so I’d suggest a better way of browsing the applications that are available too. This is one of the weaknesses of Ubuntu’s Unity interface and you need to search in the Dash to find them. Just starting to type in the Metro start screen (and other screens too, it seems) in Windows does trigger the completion of a search box much like what happens in the GNOME Shell Activities screen on systems with GNOME 3. While it’s good to see good ideas being reused from elsewhere, Microsoft might do well to note that you still can browse lists of applications in GNOME 3 too.

Shutting down Windows 8 also seems to be more convoluted than is the case with Windows 7. Logging off and then powering off from the log in screen is one approach and that was my early impression from GNOME 3 too. With the latter, I later was to discover a status menu plugin that added in the option where it was accessible or that using ALT key when clicking the status menu when the plugin wouldn’t work would do what I needed. Without logging off from Windows 8, you can do a shut down using the sidebar that appears on selecting Settings from the menu that pops up on hovering near the bottom left corner of the start screen or the Start button of the task bar of the desktop. Then, look for the power icon and select what you need from the menu that clicking on this icon produces. Of course, you may find that the ALT+F4 key combination when issued while on a clean desktop is the cleanest of all.

All in all, the Developer Preview of the next release of Windows looks fairly usable. That is not to say that there aren’t things that need changing. Apart from this being an early sight of what may be coming to us Windows users, it isn’t unknown for Microsoft to roll back on a radical move to make it more palatable to the user community. After all, it has to watch how it treats the corporate market too. The strong possibility of there being alterations is one thought that needs to be shared with those who are inclined to be losing their tempers at the moment and I have comments with unpleasant language out there on the web (none of that here, please, by the way). As for me, I like to look ahead in order to be forewarned about what’s coming my way in the world of computing. What I have seen so far of the next Windows release is reassuring though there are roughnesses such as PC shutdown and Metro app switching but Microsoft cannot commit commercial suicide either so these have to be fixed. It seems that the world of Microsoft operating systems is in flux with the company’s keeping a firm eye on the world of mobile computing with tablets being a major concern. Others may disagree but I can see Windows 8 working well on conventional PC’s and that’s no bad thing.