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2011-04-10 10:53 Reluctant upgrade gives jello-like windows

posted Jul 24, 2011, 6:18 PM by Boyce Crownover   [ updated Feb 9, 2012, 7:13 PM ]
Originally posted as a facebook note.
I bought a computer just over three years and four months ago from a guy that was selling it on craigslist. It was a decent computer, just a couple years out of date and it had Windows Vista which I needed for the new job. It has had several monitors and a hard drive switched or added along the way, but it was pretty good. It started locking up on rare occasions about a year ago, and despite different graphic cards and lots of trouble shooting, I couldn't seem to solve the problem permanently. That combined with needing to get Windows 7 made me aware that it was time again to upgrade.

Naturally I did nothing.

I don't like to spend money on computer stuff. I have oodles of computer parts around the house, but I do have a few basic needs that only my main desktop can serve, even if I have to reboot more and more often as it locks up. Last week that machine died. When I say "died" I don't mean that it started freezing up, or that something went wrong when I tried to sign in, those things I take in stride or fix. I mean that that the all important beep that happens when you push the power button didn't happen any more.

If a computer doesn't do anything when you push the power button, often that means that you can replace the power supply. I might have one that would work, or I might buy one inexpensively. On the other hand, if it beeps, then something goes wrong, that's usually some part that can be replaced or software that can be reconfigured. I'm no stranger to replacing parts or reinstalling software right up to and including operating systems.

When the power button works, but the beep doesn't (POST for the techies) that is bad news. It means that something basic isn't working. Maybe you can get away with replacing one of the cards, or RAM or hard drive, but often it is the motherboard and that's pretty much what I consider the most basic part of the computer. I upgraded a motherboard once and that was enough to ensure I'd never try it again.

In other words, it was time to upgrade to a new computer, however much I preferred to procrastinate. Some parts could be salvaged of course, but the old desktop was enough out of date that most wouldn't. Plus, I needed to get Windows 7 to keep up with my work experience and that meant that it was time to buy a new one.

Today I got the parts working from the old machine where I could and got the system configured and I'm happily up and running, typing this in from my new machine. Some updates are still pending of course, but the important stuff is done.

With all that background in mind, I have learned a few things along the way which I'll share for your awe, amusement, disdain or skipping over as you see fit.

Windows 7 home doesn't do password security the way I am used to. At work of course, we have a domain and use Pro, which may account for the difference. I'm still somewhat shocked, yet pleased to discover the average home user doesn't need to know a password for daily use if they don't want to.

I also am using the 64bit bit version, which we don't use at work even when it is an option due to the software world being a little slow to catch up. Since I haven't been using it at work (I did try it when Windows 7 was still in the testing phases) there was a pleasant surprise waiting for me, Internet Explorer 9.

Now close friends will have heard me say bad things about Internet Explorer probably more often than I say bad things about Windows or Microsoft and they all test my patience on a daily basis. Why then would I be excited to try IE9? I've heard good things about it and I'm here to attest they're true. IE9 is the first browser from Microsoft that I actually can endorse. It represents the first time I've felt like Microsoft turned their massive resources toward giving the consumer rather than governing bodies and marketing partners what we really want: Fast, Simple and Safe.

Xmarks installed so I have all my favorite bookmarks, and LastPass installed so I have my saved passwords and would you believe it, I can stand to use IE as a regular part of my day without complaint for the first time EVER.

Of course I still downloaded and installed Firefox 4, my browser of preference, Chrome Beta, my second choice, and Opera since I really like to have options when I'm working with web stuff.

Right off the bat, I uninstalled everything that had Symantec's fingerprints on it since I've grown to distrust and dislike pretty much everything they do. I installed Microsoft Security Essentials as my anti-virus and set up the Windows firewall to my taste and with Windows 7, I am finding that my distaste for Microsoft products is slowly ebbing away.

Windows 7 is fast, fast, fast on this machine. Of course coming from Vista, it would seem fast and coming from a machine four or five years out of date to one with literally four times the memory and cores, not to mention switching from 32 to 64 bit in the process, it should seem that way. Still, I'm using the 32 bit version of Windows 7 at work and have been since well before it was available for sale, and this system impresses me.

Hardware moved - check
Windows 7 configured - check
IE9 update applied (and other less interesting updates applied) - check
Symantec's Norton and other junk software removed - check
Good free antivirus (from MS!) installed and firewall configured - check
Software for work installed - check
System rescue CD created and recovery partition backed up to thumb drive - check

Naturally, this is where the good stuff starts, it is time for Linux. I briefly considered some other versions of Linux, but there is much to be said in favour of using a desktop that millions of other people have already ironed the bugs out of, plus it is really geared toward daily main desktop use.

The USB version didn't work for me, but that may be a problem with the thumb drive I have so Your Mileage May Vary.

I downloaded and created a Live Ubuntu CD and booted from it. It supported my dual monitor configuration without needing any special tweaking. That's a bit of a relief since I can, and have, made it work before when it wasn't, but having a point and click configuration is a time and frustration saver.

After testing it for a bit without installing anything (that's normal now, but I still find it cool as beans) I decided it was time to install. I had plenty of free space on my hard drive but needed to make some of it unused so that Ubuntu would have a place to live. I decided to give it 30 GB, which used to be huge but is now pretty minor. With a right-click on My Computer (aka just "Computer" in Windows 7) to choose Manage, I was able to access the hard drive controls and choose to shrink my partition. It worked immediately and intuitively, which I have to tell you is awesome compared to the days when I had to print out commands and hope for luck.

I rebooted into the Live CD and set my monitor preferences (it does mirrored screens by default) and add on Flash (which doesn't come with the CD) and started a video to pass the time. How cool is that, I can watch Penn and Teller on Veoh while installing an operating system?

During the install, I choose the expert options and made sure the install was going to the free space I'd set aside for Ubuntu. I just chucked everything in one base directory since I understand all the usefulness of partitioning and don't need it for this machine. Now came the tricksy bit.

I did NOT allow Ubuntu to set a boot manager in the Master Boot Record of the hard drive. Doing that gives you some nice booting menu options but means that you're replacing what comes naturally with the Windows installation and since I need to work with that stuff, my preference is to leave the Windows stuff with the default tools it came with. Instead, I installed the boot manager to the partition where I'd be installing the Ubuntu installation. This means that Ubuntu cannot start until you get the Windows bootloader configured to do it.

Windows Vista wouldn't replace your bootloader if you upgraded from XP but did use a different one if you installed it as a fresh install. Windows 7 comes with and pretty much demands that new bootloader. I have to be familiar and able to test working with it, which is why I didn't let Ubuntu do the easy set up in the first place.

The downside is that you need to make it do something that Microsoft doesn't really like to talk about: You need to make the Windows bootloader load Linux. To do this, you grab the section of the bootloader from the Linux install which is responsible for telling the computer what to put in memory and get started with. That works easily enough with the program dd, which you can get for Windows, but I already had handy with the Ubuntu Live CD, so while in the Live CD Ubuntu system, I browsed to the System part of the hard drive then I ran the commands:

sudo su -
cd /media/SYSTEM
dd if=/dev/sda4 of=/ubuntu.bin bs=512 count=1

.. or at least I would have if I had gotten it right the first time. That series of commands does the following:

sudo su -
gives you a root console, which is to say complete authority to tell the computer what to do

shows you what systems are active

cd /media/SYSTEM
from the previous command, I could see where the system part of the hard drive was available and move there

dd if=/dev/sda4 of=/ubuntu.bin bs=512 count=1
since I know where I installed Ubuntu, I grabbed the first 512 bytes of the system and created a file from it

Of course I had to look this stuff up online first, but the Internet is very cool about that stuff. Unfortunately, I started off by putting the ubuntu.bin file in the OS partition rather than the SYSTEM partition, but booting back into the Live CD and moving the file to where I should have put it was simple and corrected the error.

Once the file is in place, you go to an administrative console in Windows and use bcdedit, the new and hideously complicated boot manager tool for Windows 7. A half dozen commands later, Windows is set up to pause for three seconds during the booting process to give the menu option to select Windows or Ubuntu. I have it set to default to Windows but can easily switch that later and the three second pause is plenty if I prefer to boot Ubuntu at that particular time.

Once booting Ubuntu was working, I was off to update that system. Ubuntu makes this dead easy and with a couple clicks I was able to include extra software sources and update everything.

Let me repeat that last bit: update everything.

In Ubuntu (and most versions of Linux) you don't have to update your programs one by one and when you remember to check or when they remind you. Windows Updates will do a decent job of updating Windows, but you still have to update Microsoft Office, Libre Office, Adobe Flash, Adobe PDF reader, Adobe Acrobat, and whatever other software you have ONE BY ONE. Microsoft Update is slightly better, and they recommend it, but it still doesn't do anything but Microsoft.

With Ubuntu, you set your updating preferences and it updates everything that needs updating for you, no muss, no fuss. If you do something really odd, you can still need to do updating on a one by one basis, but you have to really work at it.

This to me is the greatest remaining problem with Microsoft Windows systems. It is nearly impossible to keep a herd of workstations current with all the needed security patches without the help of some special (non-microsoft) software. Linux has had this process solved for years and MS still hasn't got it together. I'm hopeful that Windows 8 will solve the problem, but not overly optimistic.

Finally with everything updating in the background, I got to play with the settings. Now that gives me an option to enable effects I've heard about but never had the opportunity to put on my own computer. When I move a window, it drags along like it is made of jello, wiggling and bouncing around like a friendly object. I didn't have to know anything special or do anything unusual, just check a box and I get nifty effects like that.

Now I need to install Opera and Chrome, add Xmarks and LastPass and I'll be completely back where I was, only with a faster and more beautiful machine than I've ever had before.

I'm kinda excited.