Technology Today, November 2009
Yes it is here and as you read this, you will be able to go to nearly any store and get a copy or have it bundled with your new computer. It is different, it works really well, and I like it. If you are buying a brand new computer, and will be getting all new software to go with it, then Windows 7 will be just fine.
The problem we run into is trying to make things work with old hardware and software. That is where you will run into the problems and frustrations and the bottom line here is that it probably shouldn’t be done.
I have used Windows 7 for several months now having nuked my old (three years old) work horse computer and installed first the beta copy and then the release candidate on it. The good news with older hardware is that Windows 7 has many more native drivers built into it than did Vista and actually, Vista did a pretty good job of getting you up and going without really needing to install very many hardware specific drivers. Good news because finding Windows 7 drivers for something that is three years old just doesn’t work and fortunately, it will take most Vista drivers for the hardware you have and use it just fine. My only real quibble with the hardware I had was that I couldn’t use a USB phone I had been using with Skype because there were no Windows 7 drivers and the Vista drivers just wouldn’t work with it. Had an older card scanner that I had the same problem with.
Same might be true with some software. I use Symantec’s Norton Internet Security again after all the problems they have had with performance and bloat in the software but that is another matter as well. The 2009 version was simply wonderful by comparisons and runs like a speed demon on my Vista machines and is finally the product it was meant to be. But when I try to install it on my Windows 7 machine, it promptly quit the install process saying the operating system was not recognized. The funny part was their website said to wait till Windows 7 was released to get the update to work but the update expects you to already have the program installed on the machine. Seems they need to figure that one out as well. What their solution ended up being was to install the 2010 version and use my existing 2009 product key.
Another program I had a problem with was Nero 9. New version does not like my copy of Windows 7. I had started the software installation and after 20 minutes was only 50% completed when the crashes started. Had to use the Task Manager to finally kill the installation. But kill it, it did, and they do a good job of looking for solutions to the problems.
We have been really pounding this machine quite a bit, I have several user accounts setup for family members who have been using it a lot and we have been using different account level controls to manage them to allow only certain programs to run for particular users and it has been working well. In the past six months, I have had only one time where I have had to hit the power button to shut down the computer because we could not log into one of the users and even then, I am not convinced it was a Windows problem as I had been having some problems with a KVM (Keyboard, Video, Mouse) switch I had been using. So, for a new computer, I highly recommend it which is strange coming from someone who normally recommends installing Windows XP.
I am a very long time proponent of keeping the computer backed up, and have had a chance to try out a number of different solutions over the years. My current backup plan is to use Symantec Norton Ghost 14.0 to back up my main Vista system over the network to a network attached storage unit that is configured in a RAID 5 format. I backup my system to the network, and the network backs itself up using the RAID technology. A double layer of protection. But, it had been a while since I made sure it was working so it was time to dig into it and see that all was right. First checked the storage system, an older Intel SS4000E box that has 4 hard drives configured in the Raid 5 format and that was working just fine. I have to say that when I bought the box, it came with a backup software package that I discovered would not work very well with Vista and so had to give up on it and go with the Norton Ghost. I check the Ghost and it is backing up everything just fine on the network so that looks good. So the next thing to test was to see if I could get to the backup in the case that the computer dies and I need to replace the hard drive. To do that, you boot from a recovery CD that you create, and then are supposed to be able to restore the backups. My CD boots just fine but I discovered that it doesn’t see the network. In fact, you have to go through hoops and several trial and error CDs in order to finally make it see the network. When you boot the CD, it refuses to find the network adapter so what is needed is the .info file for the network adapter. Under Vista, Intel will allow me to download the program from the website with the latest Lan driver but you can’t extract out the .info file from the package, you can only install the entire thing. The next thing to do is to figure out what .info file I really need. I think I finally figured out after looking through the properties and drivers of the network card, and to be sure, did a google search on what the Device Manager says the Network Card name is. So then, I do a search on the computer (and Vista search function really stinks), I think I have found the file, and copy it to a work directory so I can add the network adapter to the Ghost recovery CD build but of course that doesn’t work probably because it needs something else besides the .info file. So far, I have burned and thrown away three Ghost recovery CDs. Back to the Intel website, and through Google, I find an obscure Intel document that tells me how to extract the files out of the downloaded drivers without installing them. Dump it all to a work folder, rebuild the Norton Ghost recovery CD one more time, and oh by the way, it takes about two hours time to build that recovery CD, and finally, I can see the network. You still have to start the network services manually from the CD but it finally works. Now that it works, I think I will go find a simpler solution and take a look at Acronis.
Seagate Backup Systems
Another option for backing up your system is to look at the drives with the built in backup software already connected and one of the best options here is the Seagate Replica hard drives. They way they work is to connect the USB External drive to your computer (via a USB 2.0 Port which nearly every computer built in the past two years has) and then when it finds itself via either Vista or XP, it launches the Replica software. And in theory, it looks great. Launch the software, and it will start to back up your system automatically. If you have a severe crash, the boot CD that comes with it will be your lifeline into the unit to restore your hard drive.
What happens is slightly different and you need to watch out for a couple of things. First of all, Seagate tells you that you must plug it into a USB port that is directly connected to the mainboard. Not on the front panel USB port of most computers. What we found was that sometimes the unit would be recognized and sometimes not and it would give us flaky error messages so we ended up having to call Seagate to find that out. And calling them is a royal pain. You have to start via the web and register the product before you can even get to the phone numbers to call them and phone support is only free for installation issues in the first 30 days. After that you can use the paid phone support or via the web. Want the shortcut, call them at 800-732-4283 between 8:am to 6:pm weekdays. But be sure you have the product serial number handy and you will have to register it over the phone. Still, a recommended product for a very simple backup solution.
High Speed Internet
How fast is fast? I had a call the other day asking about switching to another Internet Service Provider (ISP) because they were tired of fighting with the cable company, phone company, and internet company and wanted to simplify life. They were ready to switch to an AT&T plan that offered Satellite, phone, and DSL. When I asked them what they do now for the internet, he told me that they used cable and I told him, I hope you don’t use it a lot because with DSL, your speeds will drop quite a bit. That turned out to be the deal breaker. But it made me think about how fast can you go with the different options available around here and so I started to look and of course, your mileage will vary with the time of day, day of the week, general health of your computer, processor, memory, hard drive, and phases of the moon. But what I found is in the table below and the speeds are in mega bits per second. Up to now, the fastest downloads you get will be from cable but look at fiber optic.
One of the nifty tools you can get with Vista or Windows 7 is the sidebar gadgets that you can have on your desktop. I have a number now that I don’t want to do without. One of them is a performance monitor that tells me how much of the processors are being used and how much memory. On my Vista machine, it looks like a speedometer and it hums along nicely in the single digits sometimes jumping to 30 plus percent when an application gets loaded. The memory dial is another thing nearly always hung at well over 80% so I decided to upgrade the ram on that system from the 2 gig to 8 and see what happens. Other than the current shock of memory prices being higher than I would like them to be, installing the new memory was not a problem. My mainboard has 4 memory slots and I put a 2 gig stick into each slot. And, it made a difference, the utilization went down under my full load to around 60% which gives me a lot of spiking room for when things start. Hopefully, I will be able to notice a difference.
Windows 7 snags
One strange snag is I am working along, and I used Alt+Tab to switch to another application from a full screen application I was running. The screen switched out, but then just froze there. Any Windows key I hit was ignored (or so to seem), could not click on any icon or do anything else. Couldn’t even bring up the task manager with Ctrl+Alt+Del though it would bring me up to the screen where I could switch user so I did that, switched to another user account, logged in and out, then logged back into my account and all was well. If I hadn’t thought of doing that, I was ready to hit the reset button.
I suspect that there will be more to come so stay tuned.
Robert Sanborn is a technology analyst for PC Lifeline. You can reach him through the net at firstname.lastname@example.org
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