Consolidation

For a while, the Windows computing side of my life has been spread across far too many versions of the pervasive operating systems with the list including 2000 (desktop and server), XP, 2003 Server, Vista and 7; 9x hasn’t been part of my life for what feels like an age. At home, XP has been the mainstay for my Windows computing needs with Vista Home Premium loaded on my Toshiba laptop. The latter variant came in for more use during that period of home computing “homelessness” and, despite a cacophony of complaints from some, it seemed to work well enough. Since the start of the year, 7 has also been in my sights with beta and release candidate instances in virtual machines leaving me impressed enough to go popping the final version onto both the laptop and in a VM on my main PC. Microsoft finally have got around to checking product keys over the net so that meant a licence purchase for each installation using the same downloaded 32-bit ISO image. 7 still is doing well by me so I am beginning to wonder whether having an XP VM is becoming pointless. The reason for that train of thought is that 7 is becoming the only version that I really need for anything that takes me into the world of Windows.

Work is a different matter with a recent move away from Windows 2000 to Vista heavily reducing my exposure to the venerable old stager (businesses usually take longer to migrate and any good IT manager usually delays any migration by a year anyway). 2000 is sufficiently outmoded by now that even my brother was considering a move to 7 for his work because of al the Office 2007 files that have been coming his way. He may be no technical user but the bad press gained by Vista hasn’t passed him by so a certain wariness is understandable. Saying that, my experiences with Vista haven’t been unpleasant and it always worked well on the laptop and the same also can be said for its corporate desktop counterpart. Much of the noise centered around issues of hardware and software compatibility and that certainly is apparent at work with my having some creases left to straighten.

With all of this general forward heaving, you might think that IE6 would be shuffling its mortal coil by now but a recent check on visitor statistics for this website places it at about 13% share, tantalisingly close to oblivion but still too large to ignore it completely. All in all, it is lingering like that earlier blight of web design, Netscape 4.x. If I was planning a big change to the site design, setting up a Win2K VM would be in order not to completely put off those labouring with the old curmudgeon. For smaller changes, the temptation is not to bother checking but that is questionable when XP is set to live on for a while yet. That came with IE6 and there must be users labouring with the old curmudgeon and that’s ironic with IE8 being available for SP2 since its original launch a while back. Where all this is leading me is towards the idea of waiting for IE6 share to decrease further before tackling any major site changes. After all, I can wait with the general downward trend in market share; there has to be a point when its awkwardness makes it no longer viable to support the thing. That would be a happy day.

Never undercutting the reseller…

Quite possibly, THE big technology news of the week has been the launch of Windows 7. Regular readers may be aware that I have been having a play with the beta and release candidate versions of the thing since the start of the year. In summary, I have found to work both well and unobtrusively. There have been some rough edges when access files through VirtualBox’s means of accessing the host file system from a VM but that’s the only perturbation to be reported and, even then, it only seemed to affect my use of Photoshop Elements.

Therefore, I had it in mind to get my hands on a copy of the final release after it came out. Of course, there was the option of pre-ordering but that isn’t for everyone so there are others. A trip down to the local branch of PC World will allow you to satisfy your needs with full, upgrade (if you already have a copy of XP or Vista, it might be worth trying out the Windows Secrets double installation trick to get it loaded on a clean system) and family packs. The last of these is very tempting: three Home Premium licences for around £130. Wandering around to your local PC components emporium is an alternative but you have to remember that OEM versions of the operating system are locked to the first (self-built) system on which they are installed. Apart from that restriction, the good value compared with retail editions makes them worth considering. The last option that I wish to bring to your attention is buying directly from Microsoft themselves. You would think that this may be cheaper than going to a reseller but that’s not the case with the Family Pack costing around £150 in comparison to PC World’s pricing and it doesn’t end there. That they only accept Maestro debit cards along with credit cards from the likes of Visa and Mastercard perhaps is another sign that Microsoft are new to whole idea of selling online. In contrast, Tesco is no stranger to online selling but they have Windows 7 on offer though they aren’t noted for computer sales; PC World may be forgiven for wondering what that means but who would buy an operating system along with their groceries? I suppose that the answer to that would be that people who are accustomed to delivering one’s essentials at a convenient time should be able to do the same with computer goods too. That convenience of timing is another feature of downloading an OS from the web and many a Linux fan should know what that means. Microsoft may have discovered this of late but that’s better than never.

Because of my positive experience with the pre-release variants of Windows 7, I am very tempted to get my hands on the commercial release. Because I have until early next year with the release candidate and XP works sufficiently well (it ultimately has given Vista something of a soaking), I’ll be able to bide my time. When I do make the jump, it’ll probably be Home Premium that I’ll choose because it seems difficult to justify the extra cost of Professional. It was different in the days of XP when its Professional edition did have something to offer technically minded home users like me. With 7, XP Mode might be a draw but with virtualisation packages like VirtualBox available for no cost, it’s hard to justify spending extra. In any case, I have Vista Home Premium loaded on my Toshiba laptop and that seems to work fine, in spite of all the bad press that Vista has gotten for itself.

8?

It now seems that we have a new version of Photoshop Elements from Adobe for every year unless you’re a Mac user. Version 7 convinced me to splash out and that gained me Camera Raw recognition of my Pentax K10D along with subtly enhanced image processing power that I have been putting to good use to get more pleasing results than I ever got before. What can be achieved by using levels, curves and the shadow/highlight adjustment tool for exposure correction has amazed me recently. Quick selection functionality has allowed me to treat skies differently from everything else in landscape photos, a flexible graduated filter if you like. It seems to work on Windows 7 along with Vista and XP so I plan to stick with it for a while yet. As you may have gathered from this, it would take some convincing to make me upgrade and, for me, version 8 doesn’t reach that mark. All in all, it seems that it is a way of giving Mac users a new release with added goodness after having to stay with 6 for so long; yes, there are new features like autotagging in the image organiser but they just don’t grab me. Given that they already have Aperture from Apple and Windows users seem to get more releases, it’s a wonder that any Mac user would toy with Elements anyway. Maybe, that’s Adobe’s suspicion too.

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.

An introduction to Wubi

The Toshiba laptop that I acquired at the start of the year is a Windows Vista box and it isn’t something with which I want to play too roughly because the OS came pre-installed on it. I still want to continue to see how Vista goes at close quarters so removing it to put Ubuntu or some other Linux distribution on there wasn’t ever going to be an option that I was willing to take either. Neither was the option of setting up a dual booting arrangement using disk partitioning; I have plenty of experience of doing that to set up dual booting machines over the years and I don’t needed any more than what I already have. So, I was happy to leave it as a Windows box and only as a Windows box.

That situation has changed and the cause was Canonical’s decision to go for something novel when it brought out Ubuntu 8.04. The premise is as follows: a Windows style installation that popped an entry in the Windows boot menu that allowed you to fire up Ubuntu without ever having to do disk partitioning or other similar rough play. For those who are less than enamoured with the Linux option, it’s even easy to remove too, as easy any other Windows program in fact. Removal of Linux is very definitely not what I’d do and that’s even without the pain and upheaval of more more customary means for setting dual booting machines. In these days of virtualisation and hypervisor technology, I have my ideas as to what has been used to give us that easy way in.

Being an Ubuntu user anyway, the possibility of having Ubuntu on the laptop and the interesting opportunity that Wubi offered for getting it on there was too tempting for me to give it a miss. A small download from the Wubi website is all that is needed to set things off. You get a number of options up front like where to put the (large) file to be used to house the Ubuntu world and how large you might want it. Setting a user name and password for the thing gets included among other items. The next stage is to download the files to be used to perform the installation. Once that is completed and it took me a few goes to get the whole lot (thankfully, it stores things up to the point where the downloading operation cuts out so you didn’t start from scratch each time; even so, it’s still annoying and could put some off), it is time to restart the computer and boot into Ubuntu to complete the set up of the operating system itself; it is at this point that the familiar very much returns. A reboot later and you are into a world that does its level best to fool you into thinking that Windows is another universe and never existed on that machine at all.

So, a machine that seemed destined only ever run Windows can run Linux now as well. Wubi comes across as a neat and clever way to get a dual booting computer and I hope to leave mine as I now have it. No feathers were ruffled on the Windows side and I saw no sign of any destruction. That makes Ubuntu’s way of doing things a much better option than other distributions that make you go down more invasive routes when creating a dual booting PC. A question remains in my mind. Could this approach take off?