Why I love Windows 8 (but don’t have 8.1 yet)

Update to Windows 8.1 for free on the Windows 8 app store... or so they say

Update to Windows 8.1 for free on the Windows 8 app store… or so they say

On Thursday Microsoft released Windows 8.1 into the wild. Hmmm… there be dragons!

The upgrade hasn’t gone particularly smoothly for a lot of people (including me) judging by this thread (“Couldn’t update to Windows 8.1 – 0xC1900101 – 0×40017″) on the official Microsoft Community Windows forum and this article (“Windows 8.1 launch weekend plagued by some show-stopping installation issues”) on PC World.com.

The Windows RT upgrade (for Surface tablets) was removed from the app store until they could figure out what was going on. Microsoft released a “recovery image” yesterday to try to address the issue. Time will tell if it has worked, I can’t see past the search engine results noise of it having been removed.

The Windows 8.1 upgrade disappeared from my Windows 8 store for a day or two as well, but re-appeared last night. I’m still not going to try to upgrade again until I know for sure that it will work.

Windows 8

Windows 8.1 was meant to address some of the criticisms of the original Windows 8 release, particularly the removal of the Windows start button and that Windows 8 boots to the new Modern/Metro UI start screen, rather than to the desktop.

I have to say that I have been a huge fan of Windows 8 since the beta. I had the beta installed on my laptop right until the RTM edition was launched. Since then I’ve defended Windows 8 to everyone and anyone.

Windows 8 has been, by far, the fastest, most stable, most secure version of Windows I’ve used (since my standalone, not-connected-to-the-internet version of Windows for Workgroups 3.11 in the mid-90s). My desktop PC boots up and is working within about 20-30 seconds. Compare that with my Windows 7 Dell beast of a PC at work which can take about 10 minutes to start up and become fully responsive.

Start button

As for those two criticisms about the lack of start button and not booting directly to the desktop, well Start8 from Stardock (USD $4.99) addresses both those issues.

Start8 gives me back my start button and Windows 7-like start menu

Start8 gives me back my start button and Windows 7-like start menu

Firmly ticked is the configuration option in Start8 that reads “Automatically go to the Desktop when I sign in“.

I rarely use any of the Metro UI applications (occasionally TV Catch-up, the Steam tile app, and a couple of games with the boys) so it makes sense for me to jump straight to the desktop. This application saves me a click.

To be honest I installed Start8 mostly to make the PC more accessible to my wife Jane, who uses it occasionally. I didn’t want her to have to bother with the convoluted Windows 8 nonsense of Win+C > Settings > Power > Shut down, or Win+C > Settings > Control Panel to access the Control Panel. I reality though, I use those features most.

Start screen

I also have to confess that I really like the Windows 8 start screen. My grumble about the traditional Start menu in XP, Vista, 7 is that it’s a mess. It lists everything that is installed and gives everything equal status.

The Windows 8 start screen allows me to customise it for my own needs, my own priorities.

And if I want to see everything: Win + Q takes me there.

I can pin to the taskbar those applications that I use most frequently, the rest I can pin to the start screen and arrange into named groups. It’s so easy my four year old boys can use it.

The Windows 8 start screen on my PC.

The Windows 8 start screen on my desktop PC.

I used another paid-for application from Startdock to customize the background of my start screen: Decor8 (USD $4.99).

A desktop-centric Windows 8 PC

This gives me the best of both worlds: the speed and stability of Windows 8 coupled with the desktop-centric focus of Windows 7.

In each version of Windows that I’ve used I’ve tweaked it and wrestled with its user-interface to give me the experience that works for me. With Windows 3.11 I used Calmira, in Windows 98 it was power toys and TweakUI, in XP I created my own toolbars. Why should this operating system be any different? Surely that’s one of the beauties of Windows.

I really don’t understand these grumbles of “I hate Windows 8 and the Modern/Metro UI!” To be honest, I don’t notice the juxtaposition of desktop vs Modern/Metro UI much. I ignore most of it. I don’t have a touch screen, I have all the Windows desktop applications that I need and only occasionally dabble with the odd Modern/Metro app. And Start8 and Decor8 allow me to quickly tweak the rest

Windows 8.1

And so back to Windows 8.1. I would rather like to upgrade sometime soon.

I tried it on Friday.

It all seemed to be going well until the second boot when it halted the screen that Windows 8 shows when it’s booting up. The little spinner just kept on spinning… for about 30 minutes. So I rebooted the PC… and it did the same until it quickly flashed up a blue screen of death (BSOD) and about 10 minutes later returned me to Windows 8 and a message similar to this one but with error code 0xC1900101 – 0×40017.

Couldn't update to Windows 8.1

Couldn’t update to Windows 8.1

I’ve been closely following, and contributing to the thread on the Microsoft Community. People have had limited success it would appear with certain workarounds working for some but not others: uninstall graphics card drivers, uninstall SteelSeries Engine software, unplug everything, etc.

I have a SteelSeries mouse. I could uninstall it and try the upgrade again, but do you know what? It’s 2013. Why should I have to? Modern operating systems should just work and upgrade without any kind of hardcore hardware geekery.

I’m going to wait until either Microsoft have figured out a way for the operating system to work around or quietly remove incompatible device drivers or until Steel Series have made their drivers compatible with Windows 8.1. Which in my opinion they should have done by now.

Windows 8.1 was code-named “Blue”. It looks like they omitted “…Screen of Death” at the end of it.

Disappointing, and at a time when Microsoft is fighting to stay relevant this seems to me to be a terrible blow to its reputation. As I said, I’ve been almost evangelical about the stability and reliability of Windows 8. I’m not at all confident about upgrading to 8.1 now. That’s not a good thing.

The trial continues…

Wunderlist — UI peculiarities

Wunderlist—a beautiful and simple to-do list

Wunderlist—a beautiful and simple to-do list

As part of a money-saving exercise, at the moment I’m looking to move away from using a hosted Microsoft Exchange account for my email, calendar, contacts, notes and tasks. I know that I won’t get one application that will cover all five elements, but I’m okay with that.

My two main criteria are that the applications I choose should be:

  • Free
  • Able to synchronize between PC, Android and the web

For tasks I’m now beginning to trial the free version of Wunderlist, a to-do list application for iPhoneiPadAndroidWindowsMac and Web. It’s really rather good.

Being involved in web design professionally, and often called on to assist with web application user-interface (UI) designs I frequently find myself analysing other people’s application interfaces and asking myself why certain elements have been laid out in a particular way.

I found myself considering these things when using Wunderlist for the PC this morning. I wanted to change where new list items were added, from the bottom of the list to the top.

Curiously, on the application menu I selected “Preferences” (4th item down):

wunderlist-preferences

But it opened a dialog window called “Settings”. Why not keep the two terms consistent?

Wunderlist settings: add new items

Wunderlist settings: add new items

On the first panel, which is open by default, I found the option I wanted: where to add new items. However, I was a little surprised by the order.

Why is “Bottom of List” at the top of that two option list, and “Top of List” at the bottom?

I would have thought it would be more intuitive to users—in a Steve Krug ‘don’t make the think’ kind of way—to list them in the order that the words themselves suggest:

  • Top of list
  • Bottom of list

What do you think?

Transfer saved LEGO games to another PC

LEGO Something

LEGO… something for Windows

In a few weeks time I’ll be migrating my data to a new PC and since my two older boys, twins Reuben and Joshua, love playing

  • LEGO Star Wars I & II: The Complete Saga
  • LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars
  • LEGO The Lord of the Rings

I was keen to make sure I knew how to reliably transfer their current saved games to the new computer when it arrived.

Current v future setups

My current PC setup sees me dual booting between Windows 8 Professional 64-bit (on C:) and Windows 7 Professional 32-bit (on D:).

The first partition is my main day-to-day setup for web development, email, writing, image editing, sound recording, etc. The second is simply known as “the games computer”: it has a very clean installation of Windows 7 with only the essential drivers installed plus a few games.

I’ve yet to decide exactly how to configure my new PC, but I expect that I’ll drop the dual boot and simply run everything under Windows 8 Pro 64-bit.

So over the last couple of days I’ve installed these three favourite games of the boys and trialled copying the saved games over. And I’m delighted to report that it worked.

Process

What I did was:

  1. Back-up the files (as detailed below) on my Windows 7 installation.
  2. Install each game on my Windows 8 installation.
  3. Run the game, so that it could create new save locations.
  4. Back-up the default save location files.
  5. Overwrite the Windows 8 save location files with the ones I’d backed-up from Windows 7.

And it worked!

LEGO Star Wars I & II: The Complete Saga

Here is the directory that I found all the files that I needed to copy, where {USER} is the name of your Windows Vista, 7 or 8 account:

C:\Users\{USER}\AppData\Local\Lucasarts\LEGO Star Wars - The Complete Saga\

It contained the following directory and files, as we had used only one save slot:

  • \SavedGames
    • \SaveGame0.LEGO Star Wars - The Complete Saga_SavedGame
  • \Mappings.dat
  • \pcconfig.txt

As far as I can tell the SaveGame0.LEGO Star Wars - The Complete Saga_SavedGame file stores the actual game progress: characters unlocked, canisters found, bonus levels accessed, etc; Mappings.dat stores any customisations made to keyboard and gamepad controls; and pcconfig.txt stores information such as screen resolution, graphics and sound customisations.

LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars

Saved files for this game can be found in

C:\Users\{USER}\AppData\Roaming\LucasArts\LEGOStarWarsIII\

It contained the following directory and files again we had used only one save slot:

  • \CachedShaders
    • (1,100 files with hex address filenames, e.g. 0x00ae4b5d.shader)
  • \SavedGames
    • \Slot1
      • \GAME1.LEGOStarWarsIIISaveGameData
  • \Mappings.dat
  • \pcconfig.txt

I didn’t copy over the CachedShaders files, but I let the game build the cache again afresh. The other two files were the same as above: games controls plus video and sound configurations.

LEGO The Lord of the Rings

Lastly, I copied over our progress in the Lord of the Rings by access these files:

C:\Users\Games\AppData\Roaming\Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment\LEGO The Lord of the Rings\

which consisted of these files:

  • \CachedShaders
    • (278 files with hex address filenames plus .shader, .pcode and .vcode suffixes)
  • \SavedGames
    • \Slot1
      • \game1.legothelordoftheringssavegamedata
    • \Slot4
      • game1.legothelordoftheringssavegamedata
  • \Mappings.dat
  • \pcconfig.txt

Again, I didn’t copy over the CachedShaders files, but I let the game build the cache again afresh. The other two files were the same as above: games controls plus video and sound configurations.

Upgrading my PC’s PSU

My old PSU sitting on my desk, post-operation.

My old PSU sitting on my desk, post-operation, alongside Reuben’s toolkit.

Early on Sunday morning I switch on my PC and nothing happened. Nothing. Not a sound. Not a spark. Nothing. All a bit worrying really given that I wanted to get some prayers off my hard drive for use in the 08:00 service that morning.

Troubleshooting

I tried not to panic and think about it logically. What could the problem be? Okay, the power comes into the power supply unit which then feeds the motherboard and the various components (DVD, hard drives, graphics card, soundcard, USB devices, etc.) But the PSU is in standby mode until it’s supplied with a load which only happens when I push the on/off switch. There are my first two candidates: PSU and switch. And it it’s not them then I guess it could be the motherboard?

I took a look at the switch. It looked and sounded fairly solid. I then hunted down another power cable and swapped that out. Maybe the fuse had gone, I reasoned. And remarkably, my PC started (after two or three failed attempts). That immediately ruled out a dodgy motherboard.

It was looking more and more likely that the PSU was the source of the problem.

Review

So I searched online for the make and model of my then-current PSU: EZCOOL ATX-600JSP and was astonished to read a review on Amazon UK which described something very close to the problems that I had been experiencing for the last couple of years.

For the last couple of years I’ve had a intermittent issues whereby I’d switch on the PC and it would start only to switch itself off a few seconds into the boot sequence. I’d put it down to my not pressing the button hard enough, or even thinking that perhaps there was a problem with the button itself.

Here is what Bukkithead said on Amazon:

For the love of all things holy, don’t buy this power supply. Hamsters on running wheels are a more reliable source of power than this.

Fortunately, I didn’t buy this. I borrowed it from a friend as my old PSU was only 450W and couldn’t handle my new NVIDIA 8800 GTX graphics card.
For about a month, everything was fine. Admittedly sometimes the computer wouldn’t turn on, but it did after pressing the button again and I attributed that to the case rather than the PSU.
However, after this time of false happiness, I was using my computer one day and the power just died. I was surprised but assumed it was a power surge or something similar. Then after a while it would cut out as the computer was turning on or within the first few minutes of running. It was fairly annoying having to have two or three attempts to turn my computer on, and this happened more often than not.
After getting used to this for another couple of weeks, the thing really started to die, a few days ago it turned itself off twenty times, accompanied by a worrying fizzing sound. I tried switching power cables but this made no difference whatsoever. Now it’s more useful as a doorstop and I look forward to destroying the damn thing.
In the last few days I have bought and installed a new Corsair HX series PSU, which never turns off, drastically improved the performance of my computer and is actually silent, unlike this one which claims to be but is far from it. An added bonus is that the inside of my computer no longer looks like a jungle thanks to the modular cabling. The Corsair is highly recommended and is well worth the money, albeit a fairly large sum.
Cheap things are cheap for a reason. Please save yourself the trouble.

New PSU

I ordered a new PSU, the Corsair GS800 80 Plus Bronze Certified Power Supply 2013 Edition which arrived this afternoon.

Reuben helped me to fit it; what a sweetie! You can see from the photo above that he brought his own toolkit to my desk to help.

The operation was pretty straightforward:

  1. Unplug everything from the back (and front) of my PC.
  2. Remove the two side covers.
  3. With anti-static wristband on, carefully remove the existing power connectors: the motherboard had two (24-pin and 4-pin), graphics card (6-pin), soundcard breakout box and floppy drive (small 4-pin), DVD drives (molex 4-pin), SATA hard drives (SATA connectors).
  4. Unscrew and remove the old PSU.
  5. Fit new PSU.
  6. Carefully attach the new cables.
  7. The Corsair website was useful in discovering that I had to split the new 8-pin connector marked “CPU” so that it could fit the 4-pin ATX 12V socket on the motherboard.
  8. Screw the PC sides back on.
  9. Connect the cables again,
  10. Switch on… and pray that it works.

It did! My PC is now disconcertingly quiet. It starts up with a whirring flurry of noise before almost immediately dropping down to an almost inaudible whisper. So quiet was it the first couple of times that I thought my PC had switched itself off. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the screen flicker into life and I watched the power-on startup test (POST) begin.

Next…

Having recently upgraded my RAM too—doubling it from 4GB to 8GB—which involved some first class customer service from Crucial, my PC is slowly getting a new lease of life. Not had for a machine that I bought about five or six years ago:

  • Asus P5N-E SLI motherboard
  • Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 CPU
  • Crucial 8GB DDR2-667 RAM
  • NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT 512MB graphics card

Next up, I want to upgrade the graphics card from an NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT (still a remarkably capable graphics card) to something more powerful. I’ll be sure to report back.

Comparison of my work PC, home PC and laptop

For a while I’ve thought that my PC at work (which I acquired in February 2008) was flagging a little. An upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 certainly helped but subjectively I felt that compared with my home PC and my laptop it wasn’t running particularly quickly, as I was waiting quite a while for files to open or applications to start.

So I used the AusLogics BenchTown benchmarking application to put all three computers to the test:

  1. Work (Dell Precision 690, Xeon 5120 @ 1.86 GHz, 4GB RAM, 64-bit OS)
  2. Home (Cube 247, Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 @ 2.40GHz, 4GB RAM, 32-bit OS)
  3. Laptop (Acer Aspire 5630, Intel Core 2 T5500 @ 1.67 GHz, 2GB RAM, 32-bit OS)

Now, I’m not particularly familiar with the various benchmarking applications available, or which one is better than the next but I felt it important simply to use the same application on all three computers so that it gave me a fair comparison.

These were the results, and compared with fastest results submitted to the BenchTown website, from some seriously overclocked, high-spec machines:

Work Home Laptop Fastest
CPU 840 2179 786 10073
Memory 346 494 551 2130
HDD 365 625 311 5161
Graphics 2D 168 272 131 804
Graphics 3D 202 1253 98 4504
Overall 325 645 255 2619

2011-10-01-benchtown

As you can see my suspicions were justified: my work PC isn’t that much faster than my laptop.

I got a phone call on Thursday to say that I’m getting a new PC ordered for me at work.

Set up a cheap network storage with a USB flash drive and a BT Home Hub 2.0 in 4 steps

This evening I put the finishing touches to my new cheap-and-cheerful network storage: a USB drive attached to my BT Home Hub 2.0 (the shiny, black one).

Step 1: USB drive

The first step was to buy a new USB flash drive. I went for this one from 7DayShop.com. It’s a 32GB USB 2.0 drive and cost me £20.99. Usefully the swivel cap comes off quite easily.

20110610-32gb-usb-drive

(When I tried this out at first I used an old 256 MB flash drive that I had in my Big Boy’s Drawer of Interesting Things™.)

Step 2: BT Home Hub 2.0

Round the back of the BT Home Hub 2.0 is a USB port. They’ve even, conveniently labelled it “USB”. Plug the USB drive into the port.

20110610-bthomehub-rear

(The dust is optional.)

Step 3: Connect with Windows Explorer

Assuming that you’re connected to your BT Home Hub, open a Windows Explorer window and enter the following network address in the address bar: \\BTHUB\Disk_a1 then hit Enter.

20110610-BTHUB-Disk_a1

Step 4: Map a network drive

To save you having to type in the network address every time you can map a network drive to that location.

In Windows 7, open My Computer and click on the “Map network drive” button on the toolbar at the top:

20110610-map-network-drive

A dialog windows will pop-up. Select a drive letter and enter the network address, as before, in the Folder input box:

20110610-map-network-drive-dialog

Then click Finish.

You now have a network drive:

20110610-network-location

Security

I’m going to use mine for backing up a few files and as a useful location for sharing documents between PC and laptop.

I imagine that this isn’t the most secure of solutions, as anyone with access to the network could gain access to the files, if they know the network address, but as a cheap and cheerful way to share files across multiple computers without the other PCs needing to be switched on this is ideal.

Update

Oddly, after a couple of weeks of this working fine I can no longer connect to \\BTHUB\Disk_a1, the PC just tells me that it cannot find the hostname.

It appears that this is not an exact science.