Category Archives: Windows OS Musings

A Wrinkle Upon Office 365 Subscription

Just before the big holiday season got going, I took the boy — son, Gregory — to one of his favorite haunts: the Microsoft Store at the Domain in Austin. While we were there I picked up a year’s renewal for his Xbox Gold subscription, and at the same time bought myself a one-year extension to my Office 365 Home subscription. This morning, I finally got round to entering the subscription key for another year of use. I was in for a surprise: no sooner did I enter said key, than did the renewal process inform me it couldn’t find the key in its database. WTF?

office-key

A life size scan of the credit card sized plastic key card prompts the thought: why can’t they put a scan code on this sucker?

Of course, my first thought was I’d mis-typed one or more of the five 5-character groups that composes such a key. But a careful comparison of what I’d typed to what was printed there quickly disabused me of that notion. So I opened Google and searched on “Chat with Microsoft Support” and in under a minute I was chatting online with Pravin, my designated MS Support representative.

As he asked me how I’d attempted to renew my subscription, it suddenly dawned on me that I’d tried it in Chrome (my browser of choice these days, for good or for ill). I thereupon asked him if I should try my renewal in IE or Edge instead. Sure enough, that was it: entered the same web page, the same renewal screen, the same key in IE and it all worked like a charm. It just goes to show you that for some tasks, Microsoft still expects you to use their tools and not somebody else’s. Whoda thunk it? Now that you can access the Microsoft Update Catalog and MSDN using Chrome, why should subscription sign-ups or renewals be any different? I have no idea why it’s so, but there it is. If you find yourself renewing an MS subscription in the near future, remember to use IE or Edge and you’ll be more likely to zip through the process faster that I did on my initial attempt with Chrome.

And so it goes in Windows-land!

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Dodged a Bullet on Norton Upgrade

As I was surfing the Web earlier this week, researching a story on a typical network/system administrators anti-malware toolkit, I happened to notice that Norton Internet Security is no more. It has been replaced with Norton Security of which the 2017 version represents its latest and greatest offering. Upon trying to update my software (for which I have 5 PC seats and 1 iPhone seat) I quickly realized this wasn’t something I could do for myself. So I jumped online to Norton Support chat and in short order the following things were done:

  1. My existing Norton Internet Security subscriptions (of which there were 3) were cancelled. Immediately, I got a notification from my production desktop that the license had been revoked.
  2. I was issued new licenses and keys for my available seats, and instructed to use the “Norton Removal Tool” first to remove all traces of NIS before installing Norton Security 2017.
  3. I ran the tool, rebooted my system, and installed the new software. Everything went smoothly and flawlessly.
Norton Identify Safe
Norton Identity Safe is a handy, simple password manager.

Norton Identity Safe is quick, compact, and easy to use.

Then I realized: “Holy crap! Did my Norton Identity Safe get cancelled and cleaned out along with the other old Norton stuff?” In case you don’t already know, Norton Identity safe is one of any number of password management programs out there, and it comes as part of the overall Norton environment. I use it to store account and password information for over 1,000 different accounts. This number comes from to the tool itself, though it counts multiple logins to the same site as separate accounts (for example, I have multiple Twitter logins for different personae, plus guest and admin accounts for many of the websites that I write for, own, or help to operate).

One more salient bit of information: I’ve also been using the Norton Password Generator lately, because it generates strong passwords automatically. They can be of arbitrary length, but the default is a nice, tough 12-character string. I don’t even bother to try to remember passwords any more. Because I can always get to the Norton Identity Safe on the Web from any of my PCs or mobile devices, I can always zip into that tool, search by URL, and cut’n’paste my password string (and account, if needed) into my login of choice. Extremely convenient, but an utter disaster if Identify Safe — or the data it contains — goes MIA.

Trembling with trepidation, I tried opening Identify Safe after setting up my new Norton software. Luckily enough, changing the anti-malware solution didn’t have any discernable impact on my honking huge collection of URLs, accounts, and passwords. Ideally, this is the kind of thing one should think about and prepare for ahead of time. The Identity Safe even offers an export function, so you can save its contents in the form of a CSV file, and import it back into a new safe (or use it as a backup for your existing safe). I’ve got one of those now, too, sitting on an encrypted flash drive here at the house. Having already dodged one bullet, I feel like I should get ready for more to come!

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New Tablet/Notebook Storage A-Comin’

 

Now that I’m the proud owner of a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (SP3), I’ve taken the plunge to buy into the largest microSDXC component currently available. These days, that’s a whopping 128 GB, which is an amazing amount of storage to cram into a device that’s about the same size as my pinky nail. I plunked down about $120 at Newegg for a SanDisk Ultra model that’s rated as a UHS-1/Class 10 device, which is supposed to make it the fastest device of its type around. Given that the device I’m currently using in the SP3 is rated the same — it’s “only” 64 GB in size, however, from the same maker — I’m not expecting blazing fast performance by any stretch of the imagination. This CrystalDiskMark output tells why, in its own inimitable way:

64sdxc

These speeds are on par with a 5,400 RPM conventional hard disk. Sigh.

But I can use the extra 64 GB of space, primarily because I’m using File History and my Outlook files weigh in at around 11 GB all by themselves nowadays. My total file history space is running at about 13 GB at the moment, per snapshot. You don’t need much history at that rate to suck up 100 GB (or more) in a hurry. I’ve set the file history space cap at 20% of the drive’s space (the most File History will allow), which means I can go two versions back, at most.

I’ve also purchased a couple of 128 GB conventional sized SDXC cards from PNY as well (for $70 a pop, somewhat cheaper than the $120 that the micro format costs right now, owing to “newness and scarcity”). These will replace the 32 GB SDXC cards in my Lenovo X220 and T520 laptops, likewise to extend storage there as well. The performance results for that media will probably be even slower than that for the SanDisk media on display in the preceding screenshot, but that’s life in the storage game right now. A USB3 flash drive is undoubtedly faster, but they still don’t have the 64 GB (or bigger sizes) in the teeny-tiny “Atom-style” format familiar to those using Bluetooth or minimalist 802.11n (or older networking technologies) in their notebooks nowadays. When they become available, and I can leave them plugged in all the time, that’ll probably be my next flash storage purchase for these hard-working portable PCs.

[New material added 11/12/2014 late afternoon]

The mail lady dropped off the new 128 GB microSDXC late this morning, and I had a chance to run some more benchmarks on the Surface later today. Here are some resulting screenshots, which I follow with some commentary:

surface-ssdsurface-128

The Surface SSD on the left; 128 GB microSDXC on the right

The results show that the 128 GB SDXC device is a tad faster than its 64GB counterpart, and that both are significantly slower than the built-in Samsung MZMTE256 SSD. I’ll report on the full-size SDXC devices when they show up in the next few days as well.

[New material added 11/12/2015, one year after this post went up]

Out of curiosity I decided to check on prices for 256 GB micro SDXC cards, one year after the first instances made their appearance, and one year after this post went live. I’m pleased to report that most 128GB devices of this kind now go for under $50, and you can find 256 GB [putative, it’s actually more like 240GB of actual storage inside Windows] devices for upwards of $65 to around $100 for all but the fastest such cards. Good news all around on the price front, then, especially those seeking to extend the capabilities of tablets with limited built-in storage (which I define as 64 GB or less, as is typical for most low-cost devices).

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Machine Crash Prompts Lots of Learning, Especially for Intel Rapid Start

OK, so I’m on the phone last Friday, and I’ve just installed Service Pack 1 for MS Office 2013. After the obligatory post-install reboot, I discover the system won’t boot because it can’t find a boot drive. A long bout of troubleshooting ensues, after which I reluctantly conclude my motherboard’s gone south. My immediate efforts concentrate on moving over to my back-up desktop system, and I put an order into Newegg for a new Z87 motherboard, with a i7 4770K processor.

By the time I got my standby system promoted to production status, and prepared my T520 notebook for backup status (which means it’s got all the apps I use installed, and is ready to play host to my Outlook PSTs and all my usual data files and stuff), the parts arrived from Newegg. Wednesday, I started putting pieces together, and managed to get all the way through the build process for my first shot at a new backup system. But that’s where my first lesson of this adventure came into play: I struggled mightily to get the Corsair CWCH cooler to mate properly with the MSI Z87-G45 mobo I’d selected (good price, with mSATA drive slot), but ended up having to switch for the stock Intel cooler because I had to keep fiddling with the CPU to get it to work.

Turns out my #10 Torx screwdriver came in really handy, because torqueing down the front screw to clamp down more tightly onto the processor was the only way to get things working. This necessitated three tries before I was able to boot into the BIOS. Getting the Corsair cooler in place ONCE was more than enough for me, so I’m using the stock cooler now, watching temps, and plan to drop in a Zalman CNPS95 (had good luck with these before in various earlier builds) if the stock cooler doesn’t cut it. At present, CPU temps mostly fall in the range from 40-50 degrees Celsius (about 10 degrees hotter than on the i7 930 CPU I just replaced, but I think that’s normal when scaling down from 45 to 22 nm technology). The Antec 902 case in which the build is housed is well ventilated, with four 120 mm fans, plus a 200mm venting warm air out the top.

My next big challenge came from a Windows licensing snafu. MS didn’t inform me until one day after the initial install that my key was a duplicate (why couldn’t they check that at initial validation, I wonder?). I wasn’t able to get tech support to issue me a new key (even though I’ve got an MSDN subscription and two unused Windows 8.1 keys, the activation utility would accept neither one of them). After trying every trick I know of, I elected to re-install, as much because I wanted to switch to RAID drivers and try out the Intel Rapid Start Technology, as because I got tired of trying to fix the licensing snafu I’d caught myself in.

rapstar

The GUI doesn’t show much, but it takes several contortions to get it working.

That’s where my next big learning adventure began. I quickly learned that I needed an SSD “hibernation partition” in which to shadow memory contents to make Rapid Start work, and I chewed through several sets of instructions before I figured out how to make it work on my MSI-based system:

0. I number this step zero because it occurs when Windows isn’t running (yet): you must get into your system BIOS to enable Intel Rapid Start Technology (and set the hibernation value to “Immediate” if present) before you can get the Rapid Start installer to work properly. You’ll have to catch and set this at an opportune reboot before attempting to install the software.

1. I set up the Intel mSATA 80GB SSD (nominal size; 76.29 GB actual) with a 42 GB partition, to leave 34 GB for the hibernation partition that Rapid Start uses to snapshot or copy memory contents. I used Disk Manager to set up a 42 GB GPT partition, leaving 34 GB unformatted for the series of diskpart commands I figured out I would need. Any SSD will do for the snapshot, and you should leave slightly more space in the hibernation partition than you have memory installed on your PC (mine has 32 GB; hence, a 34 GB partition). Interestingly, while the hibernation partition is visible in Disk Management, it is invisible to Windows Explorer (aka “File Explorer” or explorer.exe in Windows 8.*).

2. Next, I fired up diskpart following the instructions in the Intel Rapid Start Technology Guide for UEFI Mode, with special emphasis on the section entitled “Create a Primary Store Partition on a non-OS drive SSD.”

3. I skipped the convert gpt step, because the format I created in diskmgmt.msc was already GPT-formatted (in Step 12). I followed the create partition step as shown, using 34816 as the size of the hibernation partition in megabytes (34 GB * 1024 (megabytes per gigabyte) = 34816).

4. I jumped over into Intel Rapid Storage Technology, clicked the Performance tab, and made sure the acceleration features were enabled (this turns out to be an essential step in the process, though not very well documented).

5. I cut-and-pasted the exact value for the set id command from the documentation, namely “D3BFE2DE-3DAF-11DF-BA40-E3A556D89593” as shown in the Intel User Guide, then exited diskpart as directed.

6. Before you can get the Intel Rapid Start installer to work, you need to reboot the PC. After that, provided your chipset (Intel 8-series chipsets or better, with spotty 7-series coverage) and setup are copascetic, the program should install nicely and do its thing. One more observation: I had to reboot my machine two more times after installing Rapid Start to start observing the effects that the software promises — that is, a more rapid start. Apparently, it takes two reboots before the hibernation file gets set up and starts working properly, so be patient, please!

My PC now boots to the login prompt in under 10 seconds, which is at least 10 seconds faster than it used to boot before installing the Rapid Start stuff. Is it worth it? The real answer is that it depends on how often you reboot your PC. I mess around with mine all the time, so I think it’s worth giving up 34 GB of SSD space for this purpose. If you don’t reboot often, or you don’t have the SSD space to spare, you may not feel the same way.

But now, at least, I’ve figured out how to install and use Rapid Start on a home-brew PC, and I’ve got a RAID-based disk setup going for this UEFI Windows 8.1 install. The machine currently clocks at 8.1 in the WinAero version of WEI (Windows Experience Index, with the Intel 530 SSD the slowest link in the collection of subsystems measured) so I can’t be too unhappy with the results. By a slim margin (8.10 to 8.05 for my other desktop’s SSD), it’s now the fastest system I’ve got.

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Interesting USB Access Issue on Fujitsu Q704 Worked Around

I’m still breaking in — or rather, getting to know in depth — my latest Windows 8.1 tablet. Somewhat annoyingly, the Fujitsu Q704 stops “seeing” a USB flash drive (UFD for short)  plugged into the keyboard dock once the machine has been idle for half an hour or longer. Continue reading Interesting USB Access Issue on Fujitsu Q704 Worked Around

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Interesting Adventures with New Fujitsu Q704 Tablet/Convertible

Having secured permission from the Chancellor of the Exchequer (aka, “The Boss” — namely, my wife Dina) I recently purchased a new Fujitsu Windows tablet convertible, model Stylistic Q704 Hybrid Tablet PC with the keyboard dock/extra battery option. The price came in at over $2K, which is kinda painful for a 12.5″ tablet, but when the Boss said I could go for it, go for it I did. Now I’m learning to live with it. Here’s a snazzy publicity still:

fujitsu-q704jpg Continue reading Interesting Adventures with New Fujitsu Q704 Tablet/Convertible

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Customization and Control: Does the OS Really Matter Anymore?

I’ve got 4 laptops, 1 all-in-one, and three desktop computers on the roster at home, and another couple of laptops, a mini-ITX desktop, and a Chromebook on my “school loan” program right now. At this point, all but one of those machines — the Chromebook — is running Windows 8.1. I have added either Classic Shell or Start8 to all of the Windows machines, to make using and working from the desktop easier and faster, but otherwise I haven’t really mucked with the OS itself all that much. Many of those machines boast a “perfect score” in DriverAgent (no drivers out of date, that is) with the “worst score” on any machine showing three drivers outdated (two of which are bogus in each case, the other sufficiently mysterious and apocryphal to resist my occasional efforts at update/repair).

Even Windows 8.1 shows a plain-vanilla Windows 8 logo in the system info widget from control panel
Windows 8.1 shows a plain Windows 8 logo in the system info widget from control panel.

In short, everything is humming along nicely and all but one of the machines is rock-solid stable with a perfect 10 score in the Windows Reliability Monitor (and even the odd PC out — my production desktop, ironically enough — is sufficiently stable in day-to-day working practice that I don’t worry about losing work or productivity on that machine). All of this adds up to an interesting observation or realization on my part — namely, that the OS running on those machines doesn’t really matter all that much any more. By hook or by crook, I’m able to keep things working, and I’m not being stymied or feeling overly frustrated about maintaining my computers, and keeping them working properly over time.

Windows 7 was (and remains) great, but Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 have also done right by me, too. Does this mean I’ve been lucky? Perhaps so, as I read about and hear from others who’ve run into snags with Windows 8, or the 8.1 update/upgrade, or who are struggling with hardware and driver issues. But I’m also inclined to observe that both hardware and software seem exceptionally stable and troublefree of late, and to have experienced fewer Windows headaches in the past four years or so, starting with the release of Windows 7 in October 2009. I’m not even terribly inclined to knock on wood so as not to tempt fate overmuch with my words, though that thought immediately crossed my mind as soon as I wrote them!

Here’s hoping that 2014 will continue humming along, as 2013 did for me, to my great surprise and delight. May your experiences be the same, too, if not better than that!

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Interesting Outlook 2013 and iCloud Adventures Happily Concluded

On October 22, I posted a blog here entitled “Interesting Adventures with iCloud and Outlook 2013” wherein I recounted some difficulties with making those two software components play nice with each other in the immediate aftermath of my upgrade from Windows 8.0 to 8.1 on my production machine. Having now waiting a little over two weeks for more collective wisdom to coalesce online, I’ve found my way to a solution of those difficulties.

Continue reading Interesting Outlook 2013 and iCloud Adventures Happily Concluded

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Interesting Adventures with iCloud and Outlook 2013

I’m now using the iCloud service, trying to get better synergy between my desktop and notebook PCs running Windows (8 or 8.1) and my iPhone and iPad (now both running iOS 7). By and large things are going reasonably well, but I noticed some glitches in the past few days after upgrading my production desktop to Windows 8.1 GA (from the September version of the 8.1 called RTM). I wasn’t expecting too much to change between RTM and GA, and mostly that’s been a sustainable supposition, but a few things have changed in surprising ways. And alas, some of those changes have not been for the better…

Case in point: I recently installed the iCloud Control Panel applet on my production desktop, when that system was running Windows 8.1 RTM. To my immense suprise, when I next went to visit My Contacts in Outlook 2013, the contents of the local My Contacts folder was empty. But because I could access the same information online through the iCloud folder instead, I thought to myself at the time “Good thing I’ve got a backup” and also “I can’t believe they decided to remove local data altogether instead of synching local and remote copies.”

That’s why I wasn’t completely bollixed when, in the wake of the 8.1 RTM-to-GA update, iCloud stopped working in Outlook 2013. Instead of accessing the cloud version of my contact data, when I click on iCloud in the Contacts view in Outlook, I get an error message window that reads: “This set of folders cannot be opened. The information store could not be opened.”

icloud-missing

So what did I do? I went to my backup PST file and used the Import command to grab the Contacts folder from that file and bring it back into the local copy inside the resident PST file on my production desktop. I got my contacts back without too much fuss and bother, but I still can’t help wondering, yet again: Why did Apple decide to take the only copy of the data and put it in the cloud, so that if you lose access to the Internet (or in this case to the necessary “information store” on the Internet) you can’t access your contact data, either. Not at all.

I have trouble understanding how a software designer could cobble together a system that could so easily deprive a person of his or her contacts. For those of us who, like me and countless others, depend on that information for their livelihoods, that kind of catastrophic loss of access is simply not acceptable. In my case, I knew exactly how to work around it. But I know many others who would be crushed by this loss, and who might not have a backup PST file from which to pull the information. It’s still accessible, by the way, through a login to iCloud.com on my account there — it’s just no longer programmatically accessible to Outlook, for whatever arcane reason broke the Outlook to iCloud connection.

Sure hope Apple or MIcrosoft, or the two of them in tandem, get this fixed sometime soon! I’d also suggest that they give users the option of creating a local backup during the iCloud install process, with some instructions on how to restore that backup should it become necessary. It wouldn’t take much extra effort, though it could confer considerable increased peace of mind.

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Goodbye Gadgets, Goodbye!

Since the introduction of Windows Vista in 2006, Windows Gadgets have made colorful and useful additions to Windows desktops everywhere. At this moment, Windows Gadgets work on Windows 8 as well as on Windows 7 and Windows Vista. But a planned discussion of profound security vulnerabilities in the Gadget architecture at the upcoming Black Hat DEFCON Conference(July 21-26, Caesars Palace) appears to spell doom for these desktop denizens.

Gadgets from a Windows 8 Release Preview desktop
Win8 Gadgets

What you see in the screen capture to the left comes from one of my Windows 8 test machines running the Release Preview: my Lenovo X220 Tablet with touchscreen. I’ve found the CPU Usage and Network Meter gadgets from AddGadgets.com to be particularly useful over the years. I also use the analog clock that’s built into the Windows base gadget set, and a handy little gadget called Shutdown as well. That last item is useful because I tend to remote into my test (and other family member) PCs over the network, and it gives me the ability to shut down or restart those machines quickly and easily through a remote desktop session.

But as security researchers Mickey Shkatov and Toby Kohlenberg have discovered (as reported by Ryan Naraine “Security flaws signal early death of Windows Gadgets,” ZDNet), the gadget interface is rife with points of vulnerability that could lead to attack. Hackers could, in fact, take over a system through a malicious gadget foisted on unsuspecting users, or by direct attack on gadgets already running on a Windows desktop. From there, a successful exploit could lead to the attacker obtaining the same level of system privileges and access that attaches to the current logged-in user account. Because so many users routinely log in with system admin privileges, this effectively transfers complete system control to the attacker.

The details aren’t completely clear yet — I guess we’ll have to wait for the presentation and demonstration at DEFCON — but Microsoft has already issued a security advisory (Vulnerabilities in Gadgets could allow remote code execution). This web page includes two “Fix It” tools numbered 50906 and 50907. Because MS fails to describe what these tools do, I learned by experimentation that 50906 disables gadgets (and the Windows Sidebar in Vista), while 50907 turns them back on again.

It might be simpler for users with admin privileges who manage their own systems to simply remove all gadgets from their desktops, and not to add any new ones. I’m not sure it’s necessary to disable underlying support for gadgets if none are running. Apocalyptic warnings aside, I’m going to leave my gadgets up and running until more information emerges from the upcoming DEFCON conference. I need to better my understanding of the nature of the vulnerabilities that already-installed gadgets can pose before I do anything more. Frankly, I’m not sure that a gadget I’ve been using for years actually poses a security risk on my heavily firewalled home network, so I’m willing to wait and learn more about the potential risks of ongoing exposure before I wipe my desktops clean of these helpful bits of software.

It is interesting to understand that Microsoft will do away with the gadget interface, rather than attempting to repair its security issues. The company had already indicated it was deprecating gadgets in Windows 8 (though I discovered to my relief that they still worked on the Developer Preview release late last year, and have continued to use them anyway). However, it now seems likely that they will disable the Gadget interface in the upcoming RTM and GA releases for Windows 8. Thus, production versions of the new OS cannot fall prey to whatever security vulnerabilities gadgets might pose. It should be interesting to mull over what these researchers have learned, and what they’ll reveal, to decide if even trusted gadgets must go on Windows Vista and 7.

I am sorry to see this happen to gadgets. If it turns out they must be removed from my desktops, I’ll also be sorry to see them go. I’ll report back again later this month after the word on gadget vulnerabilities comes out in more detail.

[Note added on 11/18/2013: Thanks to an article I read recently by Deb Shinder, as recounted in a recent post to my Windows Enterprise Desktop blog entitled “Say! You CAN user Gadgets in Windows 8…” I’m very pleased to report that, thanks to 8GadgetPack, you can restore and use Gadgets in the Windows 8 and 8.1 environments. Whoopee! You may do this at your pleasure; I am doing it on several of my Windows 8 and 8.1 machines already.]

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