Penny Dropped

I can’t say I fell in love with Windows 8.0. It is faster than Windows 7 to boot and feels generally a bit more responsive and ‘tight’. But the godawful Start screen method of launching applications was a real put-off: need to open a text editor so you can type some SQL to be pasted into a command window? Here… let me obliterate your screen with an intrusive chunk of purple sprayed with all manner of childishly-large and mostly irrelevant icons and see if you can hunt-and-peck for the application you want:

No thanks.

Of course, I was told I was doing it wrong: just tap the <Win> key and then start typing the name of your program. Windows search would find it and then you’d be able to launch it without hunting for anything… without touching your mouse at all! True, that: except that I might well not remember the name of the program I use to do stuff with. “VMware” I can manage; but having to type “calibre” instead of “ebook” for my e- book reader? Not so hot.

Happily, there were ways out of this impasse: Classic Shell gave me back a usable Start menu, so that it was possible to spend about 99.8% of my time without ever having to invoke the Start Screen at all.

But, you know… Microsoft had a point: poking your way through a large menu of program shortcuts can be a bit of a pain at times. So, I’ve gotten into the habit of pinning commonly-used programs onto the Taskbar (as I expect a lot of us have) and also to using the free Fences program to enable me to have a lot more launch icons on my desktop in manageable groups. In just a couple of hours of fiddling around, I’d end up with a Windows desktop looking something like this:

Granted, you might not like my choice of wallpaper… but at least my programs are readily-accessible and their shortcuts organized in a vaguely meaningful way.

However, there are a couple of things wrong with this. First, the free Fences program is no longer current. The developer, StarDock, now produces Fences 2.0, which isn’t free at all (though there’s a trial version). So hooking myself up to an end-of-life program (which I know already, in fact, doesn’t run well in Windows 8.1) isn’t the smartest move I ever made. Secondly, whilst Classic Shell is free and under active development, should I really trust a third-party developer to replace such core, low-level O/S functionality? For about a year, the answer to that has been a definite ‘yes’, but it’s niggled me a bit at the same time.

But you know what the biggest problem with that last screenshot is? (Apart from my choice of wallpaper, I mean!) It’s the fact that I have very carefully and very deliberately sprayed a bunch of icons all over my full-screen desktop and then organized them into groups. And isn’t that -at least in part- pretty much precisely what the Start Screen does in the first place? And if that’s even partially true, haven’t I just spent quite a lot of time in going out of my way to re-invent exactly what Microsoft already provides?

Well, not quite. Compare my two screenshots above, for example, and you’ll see that the Start Screen is bright purple and that the icons aren’t particularly well grouped or organized. It’s therefore intrusive and difficult to use (for me, I hasten to add). But if you could (a) get the purple to change to something that looked more like my desktop wallpaper; and (b) come up with a way of easily organizing those icons into the same sort of groups as I used Fences to create… well, then wouldn’t I have the desktop and program launcher I currently use, but without the reliance on third party software?

The penny dropped for me this week, in fact, that that’s indeed the case. And the Windows 8.1 RTM version that was finally released on Technet a few days ago provides exactly those two features I needed: you can now set your Start Screen background to be whatever your Desktop is displaying and you can right-click anywhere on the Start Screen, click the Customize button and move your launcher icons around into meaningful groups.

So here’s my actual (i.e., physical) Windows 8.1 desktop:

…and I have to say that it’s already a lot cleaner than before. But (the real test!), how’s my Start Screen look? Like this:

Sharing the same background as my desktop and organized. I’ll even argue that the ‘childish-looking’ icons are rather easier to see, read and use than the traditional icons shown in the second screenshot of this article earlier.

Is it perfect? No, definitely not. For a start, it’s harder to organize those icons than it ought to be, even with the new right-click/Customize option. Second, I could wish for ‘horizontal organization’ of the icons: there are five vertically-defined icon groups in that last screenshot -but the ‘Games’ one only has two icons. Couldn’t I move it to sit underneath the ‘Internet’ group? Not allowed, unfortunately, so things end up being a little less compact than I’d like.

Also, Microsoft brings up the Start Screen with a subtle animation that, despite its subtlety, annoyed me: pressing the <Win> key (or clicking the newly-restored Start button), it felt like something was being drawn over the top of the desktop, rather than it just being an invocation of a full-screen application launcher. Happily, that one is fixable: Control Panel → System and Security → System → Advanced System Settings → Advanced → Performance Settings and disable the option Animate controls and elements inside windows. Now invoking the Start Screen makes it appear instantly, as I think it should.

So, I guess my point is that when I read about Windows 8.1, the big story was ‘the return of the Start Menu’. Or at least the return of the Start button. Fine: I find clicking it or pressing <Win> about equally productive, so it’s no big deal for me one way or another. But finally grasping how to organize the Start Screen in a way I’ve been doing on my desktop for years; and not having a lurid purple pop-up appear, but rather a continuation of my desktop wallpaper theme… well, that for me is the big story in Windows 8.1.

I’ve therefore finally ditched Classic Shell and Fences, and feel I’ve lost nothing of what I was functionally doing before. I am left with that tighter, sharper, faster O/S that version 8 always was when compared to Windows 7, and the Start Screen is no longer the bugbear it once was. Search is much improved (without the arbitrary classification into Apps, Settings and Files), and the ability to boot direct to the desktop is also welcome. I am still utterly underwhelmed by the new-fangled ‘Modern Apps’, and their design æsthetic seems to me just peculiar. I accordingly wish there was a one-click way of associating file types with their old-fashioned desktop programs so that I’d never have to meet a Metro App in the flesh again. But there isn’t, so it’s a question of making your file/program associations one by one as they arise. Annoying, but not a show-stopper.

Anyway, I think this week I finally ‘got’ what Windows 8.x was all about, and 8.1 makes it a lot easier to use. I would certainly recommend it as a client desktop O/S, anyway.

Windows (&) Me

Hold the front page! Shock, horror! I find I actually like Windows 8! Not your common-or-garden stock Windows 8, you understand: the interface formerly known as Metro (TIFKAM) is definitely a dog’s dinner and I can’t stand it or its applications. Both look ghastly and are, it seems to me, an impediment to productivity (if I ever get a Windows-based tablet, though, I am certain to find TIFKAM a great idea. Just not on my desktop, thanks all the same).

Fortunately, a quick install of Classic Shell immediately after Windows 8 installation makes TIFKAM go away, almost completely. It’s free, too. (There are other Start menu replacements, but most of them cost a few dollars. Classic Shell, though, does all I need it to do for none at all). You may need to do a few ‘open with’ tricks on various file types to stop them being opened with the new ‘Modern Apps’, but otherwise, once Classic Shell is in, it’s pretty much a Desktop Experience a la Windows 7: bearable!

Pro Tip: Classic Shell also works fine on Windows Server 2012, and is a god-send there, too.

Firefox 20 is a better privacy-protecting browser than Internet Explorer (at least in part because Plus, Noscript and Ghostery will run in the former but not the latter), so that bit of the Windows experience immediately got a makeover, post-installation, too.

I’m using Windows 8 Pro, and that comes with Hyper-V (I mean that it comes with the ability to install Hyper-V, because it’s not implemented by default). This is not available in basic Windows 8, but the Pro and Enterprise editions include it. The last time I used Hyper-V was back when Windows 2008 (1st release) was new, and I didn’t much like it, largely because on the desktop PC where I tried to use it, the presence of NVidia graphics drivers meant the entire PC stuttered and stammered badly (unable to play a little bit of audio without choking, for example).

Well, that problem is fixed. If your CPU uses Second Level Address Translation (SLAT, or Extended Page Table in Intel-speak; or Rapid Virtualization Indexing in AMD-speak), then that sort of performance stutter is completely gone. Most i3, i5 and i7 processors do include SLAT, and my one, happily, is on the list. So now I can bare-metal virtualize and play Mozart without wincing.

This means I can park my VMware Workstation license where the sun don’t shine; and I won’t be needing VirtualBox in a hurry either. The Hyper-V management tools are slick and well-integrated and a very nice step up from those desktop virtualization offerings, too. I particularly like the way Hyper-V makes displaying a VM entirely separate from running one. It’s true that you can switch a VMware VM to run in the background after you’ve started it; and if you run your VirtualBox VMs from the command line, they can run-but-not-display, too. But this capability is baked-in to Hyper-V and requires no post-startup or command-line shenanigans to get working, so I noticed it and liked it immediately.

“Guest Additions” are available for CentOS/Red Hat/Scientific, too, so those OSes are able to make best use of their virtual environments. Admittedly, there is no support for Solaris on Hyper-V, which might be a problem for me down the track. We’ll see.

In short, there’s a lot of Windows 8 hate about (the comments on this article are a nice snapshot of that sort of thing!); but I think much of it is overblown. Stick Classic Shell on it and you have a practically-pure 100% desktop experience, devoid of all Metro taint. On the other hand, you get very nice, very capable virtualization built-in for nothing, which has to be a plus. And to top it all off, it performs nicely, too (rather better than Win7 on the same hardware, I think, anyway).

It’s early days, and it could all end horribly in tears any moment now… but so far, at least, the trip back to Win8 has been ‘not bad’.

Invisible Mending

Just by way of a little test, I upgraded ToH’s PC to Windows 8 yesterday (from Windows 7), without actually getting approval beforehand.

You might have thought a change like that would have been noticed. But 36 hours later, and still not a word to indicate that “something’s different”! That’s 36 hours with things like Photoshop and Microsoft Money being used pretty intensively. Apparently, a change of O/S makes not one noticeable difference to that particular user experience!

This is as near as I can get to the “An O/S your mother could operate” test -and Windows 8 would appear to pass with flying colours. I really do wonder what all those screaming, ‘What an abomination! The end of Microsoft! A Disaster!!’ have actually been using all this time. As someone who took about 2 years to vaguely feel OK about Windows 7, I’m experiencing precisely nothing in Windows 8 except “faster, snappier, efficient”. This is certainly no Vista…

Various commentators have also moaned about different aspects of Windows Server 2012 and/or Office 2013, but I’m using both very happily. Server 2012 feels leaner than before and runs Oracle perfectly well (though I did have to manually install the .Net 3.5 framework first).

There is an issue with using Internet Explorer 10 to access Enterprise Manager, though. You’ll get the usual warnings about invalid security certificates, but you’ve previously been offered a chance to ‘continue to this site’, import the certificate and thus work around the issue. In Internet Explorer 10, however, there is no link to let you continue to the site, so there’s no way to import the self-certified certificate. My workaround was, therefore, to open a command prompt (Win+R, then type cmd and press Enter), and issue the following four commands:

set ORACLE_SID=orcl
set ORACLE_HOSTNAME=localhost
emctl unsecure dbconsole

It’s important to use “localhost” for the ORACLE_HOSTNAME value, rather than the “proper” name for your server, whatever it might be. Otherwise, feel free to substitute in the correct name for your instance if it isn’t actually “orcl”. The effect of the last command is to allow you to connect to Enterprise Manager by a plain http URL instead of an https one. For example, I can now connect to http://localhost:1158/em -and by not using secure http, you completely negate the need for security certificate in the first place, so there are no dramas getting it to work.

No doubt when Oracle 12c finally appears (my bet is on December 12th: 12c on 12/12/12 has a certain symmetry about it), IE10 will work perfectly… but until then, that’s the best I can offer. Of course, it’s not ideal from a security point of view, but that’s the state of the workaround at present.

Oh, and don’t forget to add 1158 as a new rule to the server’s firewall if you mean to connect to Enterprise Manager remotely. (Win key → type “firewall” → launch Firewall with Advanced Security → right-click Inbound Rules→ New Rule → Port → Next → 1158 → Next → Allow the connection → Next → Next → type ‘Enterprise Manager rule’ as a name → Finish).

Windows 8 fiddling

There are a few issues I have found with Windows 8 (64-bit) as my main desktop. In no particular order:

  • I wanted to uninstall Java, because of recent security scares (and because I use nothing that really depends on it, as far as I know). But I was unable to uninstall Java without first disabling the User Access Control feature. I set it back to its default setting afterwards, of course.
  • Both VMware and VirtualBox are flakey/unstable. I tried the VirtualBox beta, but that didn’t improve matters much there. I felt obliged to download the new VMware Workstation version 9, and that’s running really well… but it is an awful lot more expensive than it used to be, and I don’t know that I can justify the price to myself:

Interestingly, despite VMware’s best geolocating efforts to prevent me from visiting the US version of their store, I can tell you that the US retail price for the same thing is $249… which is most odd, given that currently one US$ buys you more or less one Aussie dollar. I wonder why the Aussies are therefore being over-charged by something in the region of 50%??! Definitely a case for a US-based VPN, methinks.

  • Microsoft Security Essentials does not work on Windows 8. That’s not an issue in itself, because Win8 ships with a capable “Windows Defender” equivalent. Unfortunately, there is no way to scan an individual file or folder with this tool (there is no right-click and select ‘scan now’ or its equivalent, for example). You can do it via the command line, but it’s not pretty:
"C:\Program Files\Windows Defender\mpcmdrun" -scan -scantype 3 -file "C:\users\hjr\Downloads\VirtualBox-4.2.0_RC3-80444-Win.exe"

(Obviously, replace the specific path/filename with whatever is required). There are articles out there saying it’s possible to get a right-click option back if you create a couple of registry keys, but they didn’t work for me (most were written before the Win8 code was finalised, of course). A third-party anti-virus application might be the better option, therefore. If only I knew which one to use…

  • Oracle installs on it fine and without incident. However, it spews a lot of pretty ugly-looking icons all over the Start screen. Nothing you can’t unpin and sort out manually, of course; but a pain, nonetheless. A lot of older programs are going to wreak the same sort of havoc, I fear.
  • There is no desktop clock (my eyesight means I can’t read the little clock down in the system tray area from a distance, so I really need one!) Fortunately, a free one looking very much like the one I described creating on CentOS a while back is available for free from here. It works well, but I have to warn you that the installer tries desperately to get you to install extra packages or agree to have your browser home page changed. It is, frankly, appalling but if you take the time to actually read the various screens and decline the various offers of licenses, it is possible to have the desktop clock/gadget without any nasty extras. I’d really like to find an equivalent that isn’t so burdened with crapware, though.
  • The Task Manager in Windows 8 is a lot more useful than its Win7 counterpart (and the graphs are nicer!). You can get to the list of Services here, and also the list of applications which will auto-start at each reboot. Very handy.
  • I mentioned last time that there was no apparent way to switch off sound effects or the 3-card deal in the Metro-ised Solitaire game. There is: you have to do a Win+C when it has focus. That key combination brings up a “Charms Bar”, one of whose options always contains a “Settings” option. When you click that in desktop mode with nothing particular running, you get options to visit the Control Panel or personalise the desktop theme. Click it when using a Metro app, however, and the Settings option will instead take you to app-specific configuration options. I can’t say that’s entirely intuitive: it’s taken me a day or two to discover it, after all! But now I know it’s there, it will make a big difference to how useful some of those Metro apps really can be.
  • It’s not yet possible to install the Media Centre component, so I haven’t been able to upgrade my Win7 Media Centre, currently doing TV recording and video playing duties. Apparently, it will be available on the day the OS is officially released to the public, but not having it available even though the OS has been released to manufacturing seems a bit dumb to me.
  • Windows 8 support for FLAC (i.e., it doesn’t) is disappointing but not unexpected. Unfortunately, the workarounds for previous versions (Shark Codecs, WMP Tag Plus, etc) seem to be broken in Windows 8. This is a deal-breaker for me… I can always use Foobar2000, of course, but a native Windows player for one of the commonest codecs around would have been a nice gesture from Microsoft!
  • There are lots of references at various points when you’re doing something to “tap here…” when, from a quick look at my hardware, the OS should know “click here” would be more appropriate. Irritating, a very little…

Nothing that’s a complete show-stopper, though the FLAC stuff is a real pain (as I say, Foobar2000 is the saviour there). I have just bought myself a new 128GB SSD, so this weekend, I think I’ll do a fresh Windows 8 install on that and see how I get on. I never thought in-place upgrades of MS O/Ses was a great idea, though this one’s gone a lot smoother than I thought possible.

Windows 8… meet Desktop

I am having the day off and so, naturally, I thought I’d replace my O/S with something new and exciting. And then I got out the RTM of Windows 8. In for a penny, in for a pound, so no messing around with VMs: this one got installed straight over the top of my workaday Windows 7 (which shares dual-boot capacity with whatever Linux distro I happen to be playing with that day).

So this article comes to you from a real, live genuine Windows 8 desktop… and I thought I was going to write about how awful it was etc. etc. etc., but in fact, I have to write that “It isn’t anywhere near as bad as it’s been cracked up to be”. Colour me surprised.

First thing I should get clear is that the loss of the Start “orb” isn’t a big deal. For example, if I wanted to launch the calculator in Windows 7, I might well have clicked Start → All Programs → (scroll down a bit) → Accessories → Calculator. (Did you realise it was so many clicks for something so trivial? I certainly didn’t!) In Windows 8, I click Desktop → the calculator icon I pinned to my taskbar earlier. Dramatically fewer mouse clicks! OK, I cheated, because you have to: once you are in the traditional desktop mode, there’s no obvious way to launch any programs at all, unless you have the relevant icons festooned on your taskbar or desktop. So, knowing this, you make sure those icons are to hand before you go to Desktop mode… which is, of course, a bit of a nuisance, but once it’s done, you really do use less mouse-clicks than before …or, at the very least, no more than before.

My point is that having no Start button doesn’t necessarily mean things are more difficult to find or launch -just that you have to do things in a slightly different way, but that new way isn’t actually too bad.

If you are red-hot with your Windows key shortcuts, for example, you might already know to do Win+R to bring up the ‘run command’ dialog. Worked in Windows 7, still works in Windows 8. So you could simply type Win+R then “calc” and press Enter in either version. Again, the loss of the Start orb doesn’t make doing that any harder than before.

Discoverability of things in Windows 8 is a bit more of a problem, I will agree.. but, after a bit of thought, I’ve decided that a lot of things which seem impenetrably difficult to find are really just in a new place and it’s no big deal: we learnt where the stuff used to be, thinking it was a bit odd. We’ll learn where the stuff has been moved to …which, whilst decidedly different, isn’t actually any more logically insane.

For example: we all know that to log out or switch off a Windows 7 PC, we click the Start button. Now, in Windows 8, you have to know to bring up the “Charms Bar” (Win+C or hover your mouse in the right-hand top-most corner of the screen), click Settings then Power: there are your options to sleep, restart or shutdown. Log out is somewhere else again: the Start screen (so press your Windows key or hover in the bottom-left corner of your desktop), click your photo/icon, then select “Sign Out”. I mean, it’s definitely different, but there’s a certain logic to it and not that many key presses extra, if any. It’s just a matter of climbing a learning curve for something new. In other words, it’s not worse than before, particularly; just different.

I know a lot has been written about the split-personality thing, too: on the one hand, Windows 8 looks remarkably like a de-Aero-ified Windows 7 (in Desktop mode); on the other hand, it looks like a tablet interface (in its Metro-esque guise). A lot of people on assorted forums seem to dislike this immensely. All I can say is that I’ve been tapping away in Desktop mode for about an hour and a half… and I haven’t seen sight nor sound of Metro (or whatever we have to call it these days) once. The thing doesn’t keep flipping between the two modes: if you stick to running “desktop apps” (VMware, Chrome, Word, Outlook, Handbrake, Stellarium, MuseScore etc etc), then you’ll live in the desktop and you’ll hardly notice anything has changed. If you happen to start using more “tablet-like apps”, then you’ll spend more time in the Metro area. Personally, I don’t find the dichotomy annoying, simply because they are so different. It’s not like two similar things that are easy to confuse, for example: that definitely gets annoying. This is more like speaking French in Paris and sticking to English in London: you adjust to whichever world you want to move in at that time. It’s certainly not difficult.

Funnily enough, I think if you own a tablet or smartphone of any description, you’re going to wish you could spend more time with the Metro interface. The idea of a small, cheap app dedicated to doing one thing is certainly something a Galaxy/Nexus/iPad user is going to be familiar with… and having to put up instead with huge, monolithic, hundred-dollar-plus software packages like Office or Photoshop is going to seem a bit odd in time, I feel sure.

Anyway, for me, I find that I’ve got an un-Aero-ized version of Windows 7 that has Metro available to me if I need it, but isn’t in my face (hardly at all, in fact) unless I do. It’s certainly a hybrid approach, but it’s not as crazy as I’ve been reading it to be for months past.

Actually, whilst on the subject of Aero, I’d like to say, “Good riddance to bad rubbish”. It’s a relief to see it go. I frankly never understood the attraction of semi-transparent (and semi-readable) window title bars, so their loss is a return to sanity as far as I am concerned. There is instead a reasonable choice of colour schemes and on the whole, they work quite well. It’s just like having a theme-able “Classic” skin in XP, really: it feels efficient and effective, without looking like it’s been dragged screaming and kicking out of the 1990s. I can certainly live with it.

There are plenty of niggles, all the same. A simple case in point: I occasionally play a game of Solitaire whilst waiting for something to install or build, but no such game exists in Windows 8. Oh, I can certainly go to the Start page and click Games… but I am then launched into something that demands my Hotmail credentials before admitting me to an online store. Solitaire is available for free download, but it’s 196MB and plays very slowly in full-screen with no apparent way to turn off dumb sound effects (or to stop dealing three at a time!) Same thing for photos: yes, the Metro app will pick up the contents of your Pictures library and display them quite nicely, but there’s no (apparent -it’s early days!) way to tell it to import pictures from a network share… whilst multiple tiles encourage you to link your Facebook or Skydrive accounts. The Metro Music app is similarly forever pushing you to sign in (hotmail credentials, I guess, though it mentions the Xbox on-screen… why?!) and displaying loads of web content for me to buy (strangely, there’s not one Beethoven album on display!)

The Internet is crawling all over this particular O/S, and it’s annoying. You are prompted for your Windows Live/hotmail credentials as part of the basic O/S installation process -and it’s by no means obvious that you aren’t required to part with them (but you aren’t). I don’t have the best of Internet connections at the best of times, so an O/S that starts behaving as if it’s permanently connected to the Internet or assumes that you want to connect yourself up to everything all the time is not great news for me.

But that’s all the Metro stuff; back in the Desktop world, things chug on much as they always have, I am relieved to say!

And that brings me to the much-discussed issue of “touch”: this is the O/S that assumes you’ve got touch-enabled monitors and so on, isn’t it, and is hopeless unless you have? Nope. Not in my (limited) experience. The worst I can say is that the Start screen (and a lot of the Metro apps) splurge their contents horizontally across the screen… so I am forever having to use the scroll bars to see everything. It is obvious at this point that life would be a lot easier if you could just flick things sideways by touch, as I’d do on my Nexus. But as I’ve tried to emphasise: the Metro stuff is something you definitely don’t have to interact with much if you don’t want to. I am certainly not overwhelmed by a feeling of “must upgrade my hardware to touch-sensitive kit”, anyway.

A couple of serious issues arose that I should mention. VMware Workstation 8 refused to run my virtual machines after the O/S upgrade. I had to manually edit the .vmx file for a VM and change the vmci0.present = “TRUE” setting to be “FALSE”. After that, the machine would boot but the network interface still refused to work. In the end, I uninstalled VMware and re-installed… and everything came good.

Perhaps most seriously, I have to report that Angry Birds in Space doesn’t work at all, complaining that OpenGL renderers of various versions aren’t supported or installed. I haven’t researched this issue yet (!), so I’ve no idea if there’s a workaround. I’d expect one sooner rather than later!

All my other favourites (Stellarium, MuseScore, Exact Audio Copy, Photoshop, Office 2010) work just as they always did. The upgrade is, from their point of view, perfectly painless.

Anyway, I’m sure we’ve all read what a disaster Windows 8 is and how it will ruin Microsoft… but I’m pretty sure it won’t. I’m likewise sure we’ve all read how Microsoft always alternates good OSes with terrible ones (98 → Me →Windows XP → Vista → 7)… and so we’re due for a terrible one. But this release, I think, proves that “rule” false: it’s a perfectly good OS. I reckon the Metro stuff is a bit under-cooked, to be honest, but it’s certainly intriguing for what it might become.

Would I rush out to upgrade a perfectly good Windows 7 machine? Well, I did… but no, I don’t think there’s sufficient goodies to justify it if I hadn’t already paid for it via my Technet subscription. But if you’re buying new kit and the new OS ships with it; or if you’ve got some ancient XP machines that are in need of a refresh… then I don’t think there’s anything here to be particularly afraid of or concerned about, and I’d not hesitate to do the deed (because it runs smaller and lighter than Windows 7 on older kit, basically).

And that is definitely something I wasn’t expecting to write at the start of the day!