Monday, December 17, 2007

Hardware Incompatibility

I have a co-worker's HP ScanJet 6350 on my desk, connected to the office XP machine that is my "daily drive". I've not had to load any HP drivers—XP supported it from the moment I first plugged it in—and have been testing it with the built-in scanning support tools. It works very nicely.

Here's the Vista angle: the reason my co-worker is letting me use it is because her home system (running Vista) can't support it. When we tried it on a Vista test system at the office, the same thing happens: Vista can't find drivers for this unit, and HP isn't planning on writing any. This is stupid.

It was, and has been my understanding that the USB specification includes (as does SCSI) base drivers for specific classes of hardware. In practical, every day terms, this hardware class support permits the use of drives (solid-state and spindle-based) and interface devices (e.g., keyboard or mouse) without the need to install vendor-specific drivers. Of course, if you install the vendor driver you may find additional functionality, but the idea behind the class drivers is to gain the basic functionality that is expected from that class of hardware.

That said, the situation with the ScanJet implies that there isn't an "image capture" hardware class for USB (even though Windows lumps them together for use with the 'Scanner and Camera Wizard'). Here we have a perfectly good scanner (with document feeder!) that was acquired about 7 years ago for over $300 (in 2000 dollars; don't forget about inflation), and now we're forced into purchasing new hardware to get the same functionality under Vista.

(Note: This scanner is both USB and SCSI capable, but we've only tried it under Vista with the USB connection. The SCSI support in Vista may include scanner class drivers, but I don't have a SCSI-equipped Vista machine to check this out.)

Add to the annoyance: I have an HP ScanJet 6250 at home, which is the older sibling of the 6350. It is connected to my wife's XP machine using SCSI (which is faster than using the 6250's USB v1 port) and it has been functioning nicely for us since 1998. Of course, if the 6300 series isn't supported, it's a safe (and confirmed) bet that the 6200 series isn't.

This is a critical piece of hardware for my wife, so now I can't upgrade her system to Vista (which it would otherwise run well, as it is identical hardware to my Vista desktop test system) until I get a new scanner for her. Grrr!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Vista Movie Maker and DVD Maker

Okay, here's the deal.

I had been and still am unhappy with the frequent crashes that occur in the XP version of Movie Maker.

Back when Version 9 of Pinnacle Studio was the latest/greatest version, I paid real dollars for it, and found that it a) couldn't open the AVIs that I'd already captured using Movie Maker, and b) couldn't capture new video because the drive test failed. And no, I didn't get much help from Pinnacle support, as my system was using nVidia's RAID0+1 (which actually has phenomenal throughput), and they don't support hardware RAID. Phooey.

Fast forward to now. My office machine is still running XP because I have some Vista incompatibility issues on several important tools, especially Enterprise Manager for SQL 2000.

I've been working for several hours to capture, edit and publish videos for internal use, and Movie Maker keeps crashing on me. The main headache is the inability to save the final product as an AVI; it is fine for short chapters (5-6 min), but anything longer won't complete.

So I pull the source AVIs and the Movie Maker project over to my Vista laptop that I've brought into the office, and voila, the Vista version of Movie Maker doesn't even burp.

And rather than installing Nero to author a DVD based on the new AVIs I've generated, I used DVD Maker to do it. I'm a little disappointed that I was unable to give titles to the "chapters" I created, but the key thing is that it worked. Score another one for Vista.

Of course, I'm still hopeful that XP SP3 will include bugfixes for Movie Maker that will bring some stability and usability back to my XP boxes.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Ultimate Image Backups

As part of my upgrades, I had the opportunity to play with several new Vista features. Because I had already had a copy of Ultimate installed when the new hard drive arrived, I used the Vista Backup and Restore Center to create an image backup of the laptop on an external drive that I already own.

I then swapped the old HDD for the new one, booted from the Ultimate install CD and requested that the image on the external drive be used to install the OS instead of clean-installing it.

It worked perfectly.

The second feature I used was the built-in partition manager. When I installed Ultimate to the 80GB drive, I set aside 64GB for the OS/boot/system partition, and the remainder was created as a data partition. With the drive upgrade, I had an additional 20GB available. Given that this is a very new laptop, I could've simply deleted the data partition and recreated it with the 30GB+ free space. However, that wouldn't have helped me test the graphical partition tools built into the OS.

"Diskpart", the command-line partition manager for Windows, has been around a while; I use it regularly on SAN-attached systems to handle partition offsets, etc. It's also available on Vista, but there is also diskpart-type functionality in the Disk Management MMC snap-in. I was able to right-click on the small Data partition and select "Extend Volume..." from the popup menu.

After a few seconds, the partition was resized to ~30Gb, and I was done with the setup.

Of course, the MFT and metadata for the partition wasn't optimal for the new volume, so I ran PerfectDisk against it in both offline and online mode.

Laptop Upgrades

Along with upgrading to Ulitmate, I also threw more hardware at my new lappie:

I upgraded the hard drive and memory (to 100MB and 2GB, respectively) and the performance specs bumped up as follows:
  • Memory: 5.2
  • Graphics: 3.0
  • Hard disk: 5.0

The disk I installed is a 100GB/7200RPM Seagate Momentus 7200.1 ST910021AS (OEM). The RAM was 2 x 1GB Kensington KTH-ZD8000A/1G. Less than $200 from Newegg.

May seem like an excessive expense for a $500 laptop, but the perceptible improvements in performance have been worth it, IMO.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Second Vista system

I've just acquired an HP/Compaq F572US laptop from MicroCenter for less than $500, which I will continue to use with Vista.

System Specs:
  • AMD Athlon 64 X2 TK-53 processor (dual core, 1.7GHz)
  • nVidia nForce Go chipset, including G0 6150 graphics
  • 1GB DDR2 (2 x 512MB SO-DIMM)
  • 15.4" widescreen WXGA display (1280 x 800)
  • 80GB 5400RPM SATA HDD
  • DVD+/-RW DL
Vista Home Premium performance metrics out-of-box:
  • Processors: 4.6
  • Memory: 4.5
  • Graphics: 2.9
  • Gaming graphics: 2.4
  • Primary HDD: 4.8
I'm not satisfied with the hardware on this just yet; it really needs a 7200RPM drive, and Vista craves 2GB or more RAM. I'll be upgrading everything in the next few days, and will post again with the results.

While I'm focusing more on the Vista-related aspects, another fellow has been keeping a blog about the hardware side of this laptop, which you can check out if you're more interested in that side of the equation:

Monday, August 20, 2007

Trouble in Paradise

Over 6 months into Vista-ville, and I've discovered that PerfectDisk 8 (a Vista-compatible NTFS defragger, one of the highest rated) and nVidia nForce 4 (for AMD) RAID don't play nicely with each-other when using RAID 0+1. I had similar issues with XP, so I believe that the issue is more related to the drivers for the chipset than OS, so I've re-built my main system as a pair of RAID-1 volumes instead of one big RAID 0+1.

The symptoms are (and have been) warnings from the "MediaSentry" (the nVidia name for the RAID alert feature) that one of the drives in the set has failed. Rebooting the system shows a degraded state for the array, plus a second array (with a single drive) as failed.

Turns out that destroying the failed single-drive array and putting it back into the degraded array is all that the system needs to get back to nominal.

However, as I experienced with XP, if you wait too long to do the repair, a second drive from the array can "fail", and if it happens to be the mirror-partner of the first failed drive, then you loose the entire RAID volume.

And the reason I suspect involvement by PerfectDisk is that the symptoms only occurred after I went to nightly defrag runs. When I stop those automatic runs, the symptoms completely disappear.

I've run regular, overnight PerfectDisk runs on other configurations (single drive and RAID-1) without ever having an issue, so I don't blame it for the problem; I just think that the amount of drive activity being shoved down the throat of the nVidia driver causes it to choke—literally—and miss one or more timing periods for the array.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Vista Remote Access

Although the free VNC still hasn't been updated to support Vista, the folks at LogMeIn have a free product that gives an acceptable alternative (in my opinion).
The disadvantages are:
  • Proxy through LogMeIn
  • Web-based clients (Java, ActiveX and 'plain HTML') don't feel as fast
Advantages (in addition to remote control of Vista):
  • Screen scaling
  • better security/password support than VNC authentication

Thursday, February 8, 2007

VNC vs Vista

In the good old days of insecure computing, a wonderful tool emerged from AT&T labs: VNC (Virtual Network Computing). On the Windows platform, it provided remote control of the active console session.

The WinVNC server that has been a long-time friend of system admins is no longer usable in the "run as service" mode under Vista—at least, not until it's rewritten to take into account the new model for interactive sessions on Vista (It has been suggested that language in the XP and Vista EULAs restricting remote control of those operating systems to the Remote Desktop function will keep any updates from being done for Vista support).

It appears that Microsoft leveraged their experience with Terminal Services to help create the new separation between the so-called "Secure Desktop" and the interactive user sessions.

Under Vista, the secure desktop runs as "Session 0", while the first interactive user to logon will run under session 1. If a second user is logged-in using fast-user-switch (which is now possible even in a domain-attached system), he/she runs in Session 2. If yet another user logs in using fast-user-switch, he/she gets Session 3 (and so on.).

The problem with the "run as service" mode for VNC is that it attaches itself to Session 0. This creates problems for Vista, as Session 0 is reserved for the Secure Desktop, and no interactive users can do anything on that session (or so it seems).

The apparent work-around (although I've never used it) is to run VNC as a user-mode program (e.g., from the startup group) instead of as a service. I don't think it's much of a work-around, so I'm waiting for the folks who maintain VNC to come up with a solution.

The flip-side of the problem—using the VNC Viewer in "listen mode" to other people can initiate the remote control session from their end—seems to work fine; this will permit admins running Vista to use VNC to control non-Vista machines.

Monday, February 5, 2007

No joy with QuickTime

Although it seems to be working fine with file management and audio playback, iTunes ( and QuickTime (7.1.3) can't handle live video in Vista. My suggestion: get the VLC Media Player. The helpful folks at Apple simply recommend that you wait to install iTunes until they have the "next version" available. Maybe, maybe not!

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Customizing the Start Menu

One of the first things I want available on a PC is my trusty copy of JP Software's 4NT. As a replacement for CMD.EXE, 4NT is a powerful and versatile console application that is one of the primary weapons in my administrative arsenal; although Windows (whatever version) is a nice GUI application, I get many tasks done faster and easier using 4NT. Although the folks over at JPSoft don't exactly approve of my installation method, it hasn't failed me, so I stick with it.

Basically, I have a copy of the application on the network, and I copy it to my local boot drive, then create a shortcut with a hotkey for it. I also like to replace the default 4NT icon with one that I created some time ago and update as new versions of 4NT are released.

Copying the folder from the network was no different than previous versions. I like to install 4NT off the root of the system drive in a "utility" folder, and UAC didn't give me any prompts as I created a new folder in root, nor when I copied the 4NT folder from the network. So far, so good.

The bigger problem came next. In Windows 2000 through XP, you have this concept of the "Documents and Settings" folder. This has been deprecated in Vista, although the folder exists there on the drive. That arrow-overlay on the image would mean that you're looking at a shortcut in an older version of Windows; with Vista, that means you're looking at an NTFS junction. Our friends at Microsoft have replaced "Documents and Settings" with the "Users" folder.

Well, this is also fine and dandy, but the "All Users" folder that's under C:\Users isn't really there; instead, it's a symbolic link (a la *nix) to yet another location: C:\ProgramData. There's another redirection hidden in here, too: the old C:\Documents and Settings\Default User folder has been retained, but as an NTFS junction to C:\Users\Default.

I bring this all up because I'm still trying to figure out how to put a shortcut into the Start Menu that will then be available to anyone using my machine.

Once you look in C:\ProgramData, you see that the Start Menu is really an NTFS junction to C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu.

And the only way I was able to figure this out? Good luck trying to browse the contents with Windows Explorer!

I used 4NT, but CMD will work as well. Just make sure you do your directory listings with the /a: switch, which will force the listing to include hidden and system files. Both CMD and 4NT will indicate whether the directory is a DIR, JUNCTION or SYMLINKD and include the actual volume or folder to which the junction or link really represents.

Okay, so now I'm on my way to finding the "All Users" start menu so I can create my shortcut: C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Accessories\System Tools. No problem launching a copy of Explorer from 4NT or CMD (explorer .), but try as you might, there's no way that Explorer is letting you create a shortcut in that location: the right-click popup only includes "Folder" in the New option, and trying to do a copy/paste shortcut ends up with an error:

This seems stupid, but then it hits me: I must be dealing with UAC, and I need to run Explorer (or 4NT, which I used to launch Explorer) "as Administrator." Rather than document the details, I'll just tell you directly: it doesn't work. I must've spent 30 minutes trying to figure this out when I gave up and used 4NT to create its own shortcut in that folder, which is permitted (I also discovered that you can move a pre-existing shortcut into that folder).

When trying to handle the per-user Start Menu, that's also hidden away in the C:\Users folder behind a symbolic link: C:\Users\username\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu

Missing Drive Letters

UAC has another interesting side effect. It's not a simple elevation of priviledges or tokens that's happening; you actually have some separation between the limited and admin user programs while UAC is active.

This is readily demonstrated in the following fashion
  1. Map a drive letter to a network share from the limited user account; it can be done several ways, including using logon scripts.
  2. Open CMD (or your preferred shell; mine is JPSoft's 4NT) as a limited user.
  3. Enter "net use" at the prompt.
  4. Open CMD (or your preferred shell) as an admin user.
  5. Enter "net use" at the prompt.
Note that you get drive letters in one console, but not in the other.

I've been able to get around this problem by using 4NT; it can handle using a UNC path as the current working directory. Want even more fun, however? Try the same test using Windows Explorer instead of CMD. More on that later...

Friday, February 2, 2007

Initial setup

First things first: get the new Vista install on the domain.

I run a Windows Active Directory domain at home, including an Exchange server. This works nicely when you host your own domain, and also comes in really handy for learning things that you'd never be able to "play with" at work due to time or other constraints (like Vista!).

Unfortunately, this was my first stumbling block. Adding a machine to the domain under XP and earlier is pretty straightforward, but it's pretty easy to get distracted by all the "eye candy" in the OS, not to mention the frequent popups as Vista discovered updates to components in my system (this will become a frequent issue as I have discovered...).

Vista Install

Given that I struggled with beta2 and RC1 of the 64-bit versions, eventually giving up after the Vista install trashed the partition table of my array, forcing me to recover everything from backups, the first thing I did was take a backup of all my partitions using Drive Snapshot (for those who care, I used a USB 2.0 external drive that I built from a new drive and an external case that I got "on the cheap" from woot). After verifying the snapshots, I restarted the machine and went into the BIOS setup to rearrange the boot order of my devices.

Finally, with my system looking to boot first from the IDE CD-ROM (dvd, actually), I crossed my fingers and restarted...

Nothing uneventful or even remotely interesting happened through the install, I'm happy to report. The drivers for the nVidia SATA RAID were included in the RTM release, and it immediately "saw" the virtual drive and the pre-existing partitions.

Given the size of the Vista install, I ended up wiping out three primary partitions (0: DOS/System Commander; 1: Windows XP (32GB); 2: Windows XP 64-bit (32GB)) in order to have 64GB to offer Vista.

After a couple of reboots, I was ready to start playing!

Getting started...

This post will simply stand as a reference for the hardware that I'm running.
  • Gigabyte GA-K8NF-9 (nForce4 for AMD, no SLI)
  • AMD Athlon64 X2 4400+ (Toledo)
  • 2GB DDR-400 SDRAM
  • Intel PRO/1000 PT server adapter (finally! a use for that 1x PCIe socket!)
  • Plextor PX-716AL DVD+/-RW
  • Plextor PX-708A
  • Gigabyte GV-NX66T128D GeForce 6600GT (128MB)
  • 4x 320GB Western Digital WD3200SD "RAID Edition" SATA drives in RAID1/0 (0/1?) using onboard nVidia raid.
  • Dell 2407FP widescreen LCD