Creating soft and hard symbolic links using the Windows command line

In the world of UNIX and Linux, symbolic links are shortcuts but they do not work like normal Windows shortcuts because you do not jump from one location to another with the file manager’s address bar changing what it shows. Instead, it is as if you see the contents of the directory at another quicker to access location in the file system and the same sort of thinking applies to files too. In some ways, it is like giving files and directories alternative aliases. There are soft links that point to the name of a given directory or file and hard links that point to actual files or directories.

For a long time, I was under the mistaken impression that such things did not exist in Windows until I came across the mklink command, which came with the launch of Windows Vista at the start of 2007. While the then new feature may not be an obvious to most of us, it does does that Windows did incorporate a feature from UNIX and Linux well before the advent of virtual desktops on Windows 10.

By default, the aforementioned command sets up symbolic links to files and the /D switch allows the same to be done for directories too. The /H switch makes a hard link instead of a soft link so we get much of the functionality of the ln command in UNIX and Linux. Here is an example that creates a soft symbolic link for a directory:

mklink /D shortcut target_directory

Above, shortcut is the name of the symbolic link file and target_directory is the destination to which it links. In my experience, it works best for destinations beyond your home folder and, from what I have read, hard links may not be possible across different disks either.

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.

All Change?

Could 2011 be remembered as the year when the desktop computing interface got a major overhaul? One part of this, Windows 8, won’t be with us until next year but there has been enough happening so far this year that has resulted in a lot of comment. With many if not all of the changes, it is possible to detect the influence of interfaces used on smartphones. After all, the carryover from Windows Phone 7 to the new Metro interface is unmistakeable.

Two developments in the Linux world have spawned a hell of an amount of comment: Canonical’s decision to develop Unity for Ubuntu and the arrival of GNOME 3. While there have been many complaints about the changes made in both, there must be a fair few folk who are just getting on with using them without complaint. Maybe there are many who even quietly like the new interfaces. While I am not so sure about Unity, I surprised myself by taking to GNOME Shell so much that I installed it on Linux Mint. It remains a work in progress as does Unity but it’ll be very interesting to see it mature. Perhaps a good number of the growing collection of GNOME Shell plugins could make it into the main codebase. If that were to happen, I could see it being welcomed by a good few folk.

There was little doubt that the changes in GNOME 3 looked daunting so Ubuntu’s taking a different approach is understandable until you come to realise how change that involves anyway. With GNOME 3 working so well for me, I feel disinclined to dally very much with Unity at all. In fact, I am writing these words on a Toshiba laptop running UGR, effectively Ubuntu running GNOME 3, and that could become my main home computing operating system in time.

For those who find these changes not to their taste, there are alternatives. Some Linux distributions are sticking with GNOME 2 as long as they can and there apparently has been some mention of a fork to keep a GNOME 2 interface available indefinitely. However, there are other possibilities such as LXDE and XFCE out there too. In fact, until GNOME 3 won me over, LXDE was coming to mind as a place of safety until I learned that Linux Mint was retaining its desktop identity. As always, there’s KDE too but I have never warmed to that for some reason.

The latest version of OS X, Lion, also included some changes inspired by iOS, the operating system that powers both the iPhone and iPad. However, while the current edition of PC Pro highlights some disgruntlement in professional circles regarding Apple’s direction, they do not seem to have aroused the kind of ire that has been abroad in the world of Linux. Is it because Linux users want to feel that they are in charge and that iMac and MacBook users are content to have decisions made for them so long as everything just works? Speaking for myself, the former description seems to fit me though having choices means that I can reject decisions that I do not like so much.

At the time of writing, the release of a developer preview of the next version of Windows has been generating a lot of attention. It also appears that changes are headed for the Windows user too. However, I get the sense that a more conservative interface option will be retained and that could be essential for avoiding the alienation of corporate users. After all, I cannot see the Metro interface gaining much favour in the working environment when so many of us have so much to do. Nevertheless, I plan to get my hands on the developer preview to have a look (the weekend proved too short for this). It will be very interesting to see how the next version of Windows develops and I plan to keep an eye on it as it does so.

It now looks as if many will have their work cut out if they are to avoid where desktop computing interfaces are going. Established paradigms are being questioned, particularly as a result of touch interfaces on smartphones and tablets. Wii and Kinect have involved other ways of interacting with computers too so there’s a lot of mileage in rethinking how we work with computers. So far, I have been able to deal with the changes in the world of Linux but I am left wondering at the changes that Microsoft is making. After Vista, they need to be careful and they know that. Maybe, they’ll be better at getting users through changes in computing interfaces than others but it’ll be very interesting to see what happens. Unlike open source community projects, they have the survival of a massive multinational at stake.

Shell swapping in Windows

Until the advent of PowerShell, Windows had been the poor relation when it came to working from the command line when compared with UNIX, Linux and so on. A recent bit of fiddling had me trying to run FTP from the legacy command prompt when I ran into problems with UNC address resolution (it’s unsupported by the old technology) and mapping of network drives. It turned out that my error 85 was being caused by an unavailable drive letter that the net use command didn’t reveal as being in use. Reassuringly, this wasn’t a Vista issue that I couldn’t circumvent.

During this spot of debugging, I tried running batch files in PowerShell and discovered that you cannot run them there like you would from the old command prompt. In fact, you need a line like the following:

cmd /c script.bat

In other words, you have to call cmd.exe like perl.exe, wscript.exe and cscript.exe for batch files to execute. If I had time, I might have got to exploring the use ps1 files for setting up PowerShell commandlets but that is something that needs to wait until another time. What I discovered though is that UNC addressing can be used with PowerShell without the need for drive letter mappings, not a bad development at all. While on the subject of discoveries, I discovered that the following command opens up a command prompt shell from PowerShell without any need to resort to the Start Menu:

cmd /k

Entering the exit command returns you to the PowerShell command line again and entering cmd /? reveals the available options for the command so you need never be constrained by your own knowledge or its limitations.

A bigger screen?

A recent bit of thinking has caused me to cast my mind back over all the screens that have sat in front of me while working with computers over the years. Well, things have come a long way from the spare television that I used with a Commodore 64 that I occasionally got to exploring the thing. Needless to say, a variety of dedicated CRT screens ensued as I started to make use of Apple and IBM compatible PC’s provided in computing labs and other such places before I bought an example of the latter as my first ever PC of my own. That sported a 15″ display that stood out a little in times when 14″ ones were mainstream but a 17″ Iiyama followed it when its operational quality deteriorated. That Iiyama came south with me from Edinburgh as I moved to where the work was and offered sterling service before it too started to succumb to aging.

During the time that the Iiyama CRT screen was my mainstay at home, there were changes afoot in the world of computer displays. A weighty 21″ Philips screen was what greeted me on a first day at work but 21″ Eizo LCD displays were set to replace those behemoths and remain in use as if to prove the longevity of LCD panels and the validity of using what had been sufficient for laptops for a decade or so. In fact, the same comment regarding reliability applies to the screen that now is what I use at home, a 17″ Iiyama LCD panel (yes, I stuck with the same brand when I changed technologies longer ago than I like to remember).

However, that hasn’t stopped me wondering about my display needs and it’s screen size that is making me think rather than the reliability of the current panel. That is a reflection on how my home computing needs have changed over time and they show how my non-computing interests have evolved too. Photography is but one of these and the move the digital capture has brought with a greater deal of image processing, so much that I wonder if I need to make less photos rather than bringing home so many that it can be hard to pick out the ones that are deserving of a wider viewing. That is but one area where a bigger screen would help but there is another and it arises from my interest in exploring countryside on foot or on my bike: digital mapping. When planning outings, it would be nice to have a wider field of view to be able to see more at a larger scale.

None of the above is a showstopper that would be the case if the screen itself was unreliable so I am going to take my time on this one. The prospect of sharing desktops across two screens is another idea but that needs some thought about where it all would fit; the room that I have set aside for working at my computer isn’t the largest but it’ll need to do. After the space side of things, then there’s the matter of setting up the hardware. Quite how a dual display is going to work with a KVM setup is something to explore as is the adding of extra video cards to existing machines. After the hardware fiddling, the software side of things is not a concern that I have because of when I used laptop as my main machine for a while last year. That confirmed that Windows (Vista but it has been possible since 2000 anyway…) and Ubuntu (other modern Linux distributions should work too…) can cope with desktop sharing out of the box.

Apart from the nice thoughts of having more desktop space, the other tempting side to all of this is what you can get for not much outlay. It isn’t impossible to get a 22″ display for less than £200 and the prices for 24″ ones are tempting too. That’s a far cry from paying next to £300 (if my memory serves me correctly) for that 17″ Iiyama and I’d hope that the quality is as good as ever.

It’s all very well talking about pricing but you need to sit down and choose a make and model when you get to deciding on a purchase. There is plenty of choice so that would take a while but magazine reviews will come in handy here. Saying that, last year’s computing misadventures have me questioning the sense of going for what a magazine places on its A-list. They also have me minded to go to a nearby computer shop to make a purchase rather than choosing a supplier on the web; it is easier to take back a faulty unit if you don’t have far to go. Speaking of faulty units, last year has left me contemplating waiting until the year is older before making any acquisitions of computer kit. All of that has put the idea of buying a new screen on the low priority list, nice to have but not essential. For now, that is where it stays but you never know what the attractions of a shiny new thing can do…