Saturday, December 29, 2012

Is Windows 8 really worth it? (Part 2)

In case you missed my previous post, I've installed the Windows 8 Pro 64-bit edition.  After a few minor hiccups, installation was complete and it was time to start playing around with Microsoft's latest.  This second part of a three-part series will cover some of the "annoyances" that some users find when upgrading from previous versions of Windows to Windows 8.

The first issue to address is the user interface.  I'd done some research and even played with the Release Preview a few months back, so I sorta knew what to expect. However, even with a bit of background, it still takes a little getting used to Microsoft calls the "Metro" interface.

The lack of a Start button was the first stumbling block.  Since Windows 95 I've mindlessly right-clicked on the Start button and selected some version of Windows Explorer to get to my folders.  It didn't take me too long, however, to discover that moving the cursor to the lower-left corner, right-clicking and selecting File Explorer does the exact same thing!  The same holds true for a number of options you previously saw on the Start menu:  Run, Search, Command Prompt (both normal and elevated) and so on are all in this handy menu. 

Where's the familiar Desktop, you might ask?  You can access it using the exact same menu.  Not only that, once you've gone to the Desktop initially, you can toggle between it and the Metro screen by pressing the Windows key on your keyboard (in addition to a few other ways as well).

One thing that's not on this menu is your Shut Down options.  It took a while for me to find this one, but it's not that complicated.  Simply move your cursor to the upper-right corner of the screen until the sidebar pops out, click on the Settings "cog" and select Power.  Your options for Sleep, Restart and Shut Down are all there.

Actually, that sidebar can come in pretty handy, especially when dealing with native Windows 8 apps.  For example, after installing Skype I had a devil of a time trying to figure out how to change the microphone and speaker settings so that it would use my Logitech headset instead of my computer speakers and Line In.  I was so used to finding those options on a toolbar in the app itself, but Skype for Windows 8 has a very clean interface.  As it turns out, the Settings option on the sidebar was the answer.  Profile, Options, Permissions -- they're all right there!

Finally, a lot of folks (myself included) were a little confused about the lack of the familiar "X" that would close a program in most windows.  Windows 8, by default, leaves all programs running in the background.  However, if you want to close a program completely, go to the Metro screen, move your cursor to the upper-left and you'll see all of the apps that are currently running.  Right-click on one and you'll see the Close option.  Select that and the program closes.

That's all for Part 2.  In Part 3, I'll give what can best be called a review of the OS and go in-depth on some of the features I found interesting and fun (or conversely, tedious and annoying).

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Is Windows 8 really worth it? (Part 1)

As so many spent this holiday gathered together with their families beneath the glowing, festive symbol of their choice, I too indulged in a long-standing tradition:

I installed a new operating system!

Initially, I tried a dual-boot system, retaining Windows 7 while adding Microsoft's newest, flashiest OS.  However, hard drive space limitations quickly killed that idea, so I decided to go all-out, backup everything, wipe the drive and install Windows 8 fresh.

My first roadblock was a minor one, since I was expecting it from my initial Windows 7 install.  Apparently Windows doesn't like my second hard drive (the 2TB jobber that has all of my files) being connected at the same time as my main (boot, apps and games) drive.  Depending on my mood I'll either disable the large drive in BIOS or unplug it from power, but either way that solves the initial problem when done.

Since my Blu-Ray burner died on me, I've been using either virtual drives or USB sticks for my install needs.  Unfortunately, I had a number of problems trying to install Windows 8 from my Kingston 4GB USB drive.

The first was minor and more a result of impatience on my part.  The first screen you will see during a fresh Windows 8 install is of a stylized "Window" with a dark blue background.  No text indicating the installation is progressing and no other indication that anything is happening at all.

I guess I'm used to Windows 7 which is verbose, comparatively and usually gets me to something within 30 seconds.  So, I waited 5 minutes for something to happen before trying the install again.  This resulted in the same issue, so I switched to watching some TV and came back about 30 minutes later to find that I was on a very familiar "language selection" screen.

Shortly after, I was brought to a screen asking for a Mass Storage Driver, which hasn't been a problem since Windows XP.  For some reason moving the USB stick from the USB hub to a port on the PC resolved that issue.

Next, I received an error that an Install.esd file was missing.  I started the install over twice (this time babysitting the initial sequence which, as it turns out, took about 6 minutes to get to the Language select screen), but nothing changed.  Did some research and discovered that using Microsoft's own install tool (found here) to create the bootable USB install was not the best option.  Oddly enough, just directly coping the contents of the image file I was using to the USB drive was the trick I needed to get this working.

Finally, the install started and in this Windows 8 was impressive.  I think it took about 5 minutes from Language selection to a working operating system!

That's a good place to stop this first part of my adventure with Windows 8.  In part two, I'll expound on the various virtues and pitfalls on this new operating system.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Laptop shopping

One of the many disadvantages to being out of work is the inability to invest in new toys.  My 6-year old self-built PC is really starting to show its age!  So I was practically giddy when I was approached by two friends over the weekend who were looking for laptop buying advice.  If I can't upgrade my own rig, I can live vicariously through others who are making the leap.

As we enter the final stretch of the holiday season, the promises of big box, brick-and-mortar retailers and their online counterparts are dancing in consumer's heads like so many sugar plums.  However, a bit of preparation is required before clicking that Checkout button (or entering that exceedingly length checkout line).

First and most important:  you need to know your main purpose for using the laptop.  Do you just need something to check e-mail, surf the web and play Facebook games or is this going to be a true desktop replacement capable of running the latest First-Person Shooter with all of the bells-and-whistles turned on?

If it's the former, a simple netbook might be in order.  Web-surfing is what these little wonders were made for and it doesn't hurt that they're a bargain for the budget-conscious.  Acer is a popular brand and they offer many models in the sub-$300 price range.

At the high-end, I highly recommend Alienware, a company that has been building custom PCs since the mid-90s.  Becoming a subsidiary of Dell hasn't hurt their stellar reputation, either.  However, the allure of having a high-end rig in portable form doesn't come cheap and you'll be lucky to find a beefy Alienware model for less than $2,000.

One caveat before we move on:  you simply can't swap out laptop parts when it's time for an upgrade.  Only RAM is upgradeable (and it's effectiveness beyond 4GB is debatable), so don't expect to replace the motherboard, CPU or GPU a year or so down the road when you experience slow performance in the latest app you need to run.  I mention this because when you do finally take the plunge, make sure your chosen machine meets or exceeds your requirements with some room left over for the future.

Many consumers opt for a laptop that fits between the two extremes of basic and powerhouse.  Here are a few points I'll mention for those who are hoping to have a machine that does everything, but don't have the budget:

1) Recent desktop AMD processors have been disappointing and this applies to their mobile counterparts as well.  Although there will be naysayers, I always recommend Intel CPUs, with i3, i5 and i7 processors being the most common.

2) If you're trying to stay in the $500 - $700 price range, your choice will most-likely have an Intel video chipset onboard (the 4000 HD is pretty common).  This isn't necessarily a bad choice, but don't expect to run, say, Far Cry 3 with all of the detail settings at maximum.  On the other hand, games with lower requirements should run fine.

3) 4GB of RAM is now pretty much the standard.  If you have specific requirements for more, adding a second SODIMM module is fairly painless and inexpensive.

4) 15.6" displays are the norm for units in this price range.  Unless you have a particular reason, avoid touchscreens which are often more trouble than they're worth and tend to increase the overall price of the unit.

5) Laptops are notorious for poor audio fidelity.  If audio quality is important to you (and you're willing to sacrifice a bit of portability), some inexpensive external speakers might be an option.

6) Hate it or love it, Windows 8 is installed on almost every new laptop.  Downgrading to Windows 7 should always be an option, but I'm just an unemployed tech and not a bigwig at a major PC provider, so that decision is outside of my purview.

7) Don't skimp on important accessories!  If you're going to be traveling a lot, invest in a quality laptop case/bag.  Also, there's nothing worse than getting a Low Battery message and being miles away from an electrical outlet, so I often recommend a second battery.  Just make sure you charge it first before leaving for the day!

8) Finally, we'll talk a bit about warranties.  Some people like the peace of mind that warranties provide and some think they're a complete waste of money.  I tend to fall somewhere in the middle (they were the bane of my existence when I worked retail -- see my first post for my feelings on selling things).  Admittedly, an extended warranty has its advantages, particularly from a store that provides in-house service or has a repair shop on site.  Think of them as insurance policies for your electronics:  if you never use it, you'll think it was a waste, but the first time something fails and you end up not having to pay a repair bill that totals more than the cost of the laptop, you'll be grateful you made the investment.

Well, that about wraps it up!  As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch.  As for me, I'm looking forward to having the distinct pleasure of helping some friends go laptop shopping next month.  No, really, I get into this kinda thing!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Missing Windows 8 drivers

With the recent release of Windows 8, many PC users are discovering that some of their older hardware is no longer functional.  A quick review of Device Manager shows the notorious "!" next to the entry for the device.  Although the built-in driver database for Windows 8 contains the needed files for most hardware, some more esoteric components don't have the needed files available. 

The first resource to check would be the manufacturer's website, specifically the page for downloads or drivers.  If a Windows 8 version isn't available, a Windows 7 equivalent may work.  I've sometimes found even Vista drivers can be a useful substitute.

Of course, this may just be a temporary workaround until newer drivers are available so return to the website occasionally to check for updates.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Firefox not loading pages

DavyB from the UK asks:

"If I enter an address [ for example] in the address box and click it does not work.  What should I do to fix it.   Is it a glitch that has arisen in Firefox?  It does work in Internet Explorer!"

This is a question I get frequently, both with Firefox and Internet Explorer.  Fortunately, it has a very simple solution.

A browser-specific problem like this is almost always related to an installed plugin that is interfering with the browser (in this case, Firefox).  Disabling all add-ons temporarily is a good start.  In Firefox, selecting Help > Restart with add-ons disabled will being with a clean slate.

This doesn't really fix the problem, though.  The next step would be to systematically restore each add-on individually until the problem reoccurs which will isolate the plugin that's causing the issue.  Once it's isolated, other action can be taken, such as using a developer-suggested workaround or even replacing the plugin with an working alternative.

Let's Post That Blog!

What is this blog all about?

Well, you have to start somewhere.  That's a simple bit of conventional wisdom and appropriate for what will be the first post of my first blog.

Since my teens, I've helped hundreds of computer users.  Some had barely touched a keyboard before and others knew just enough to get themselves into trouble.  I am good at what I do for three main reasons:  I'm patient, detail-oriented and tenacious.

Patience is required because computer issues can be frustrating and doubly so when the expert you rely upon seems rushed or unsympathetic.  This virtue is particularly important in phone or e-mail support where you aren't physically interacting with the device.  Convincing other to follow simple instructions is not as straight-forward as you might think.

Having an attention to detail is critical.  Your PC works through a complex interaction of components:  CPU, memory, video, software and so on.  Tracking down a particularly elusive problem takes not only time, but also often requires extensive preparation and research.  I never skimp on the details, however trivial they may seem.

Which brings us to what I feel is so often overlooked by computer technicians these days:  tenacity.  In other words, you don't give up... ever... until the job is done.  There is a certain mindset, especially in the retail repair environment, to take shortcuts; getting a paying customer out the door and a new customer in the door by any means necessary.  Too often a novice tech (or even an experienced one) will jump to the quickest, easiest solution to resolve a problem.  Wiping a hard drive when a software fix would suffice or encouraging costly upgrades when basic maintenance is required are often first steps when they should be the last.

I got out of the retail tech game for one reason and one reason only:  I hated the constant pursuit of profit at the expense of the customer.  Well, that and working those wacky hours!

So this gets us back to the purpose of this blog.  The advice you will read here is free.  In the spirit of complete disclosure, you may see advertising or links to sites that sell useful products, but only if I truly believe in them.  Ask anyone who knows me:  I'm a lousy salesperson!

Please contact me if you have a particularly thorny issue that needs to be resolved.  Odds are what you need is good advice and not an expensive trip to a tech or frustrating call to support.

To get things started, my first real post follows.  Let's fix that PC!