Sunday, February 28, 2010

Windows 7 and Flower

I suppose Microsoft didn't intend for me to laugh every time the login screen comes up on Windows 7. It's just that it reminds me of the splash screen to Flower, for Sony's PlayStation3.

(No, I'm not saying that Microsoft modeled their login screen from Flower. Windows 7 and Flower came out within months of each other, so they were definitely in development at the same time. I just find the coincidence a bit humorous. Laugh.)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Windows 7 first impressions

I've only used Windows 7 for a short time, but it's time to share some first impressions.


The desktop has gotten a facelift from Windows Vista. Overall, it seems eerily similar to KDE 4 on Linux, except for the obvious stuff like the clock and the specific window decorations (the red "X", etc.) I think it's fair to call the Windows 7 GUI a clone of KDE 4, especially since KDE 4.0 was released 11 January 2008 (KDE 4.0 Alpha1 was released 11 May 2007) and Windows 7 launched on 22 October 2009.

Don't believe me? Let's compare:
I say this because if you are a hard-core Windows user, and you find yourself thinking "I could never try Linux, it's too different" - think again. Linux isn't that different from Windows.

Or maybe I should say, Windows isn't that different from Linux.


Aside from the GUI, the Library concept is a bit confusing. It's a deviation from previous versions of Windows, where there were definite locations to save your data. Now with the "Library", that's changed. I'll have to re-train myself to use the "Library".


Something I noticed last night when I went to shut down the laptop - there doesn't appear to be a simple way to quickly shut down the system without installing a bunch of patches. I've discussed before that Windows wants to force users to install updates as they shut down. (In contrast to Linux, which lets you install updates any time you like, and you can keep using your system during and after installing patches.)

In theory, it's a good idea. You're shutting down your PC, probably going home (or to bed, if it's a home PC) and that means you won't need the computer for a while. So letting Windows Update install a bunch of patches would be a good idea, right?

Except we live in an age filled with laptops. And when I shut down my system to go home, I take the laptop with me - or risk having it stolen or lost. That means I need to be able to quickly shut down the system.

In Windows 7, if you click the "Windows" icon, there isn't an item in the menu to just shut down. Instead, the "shut down" link has a little "shield" icon on it, and if you hover over that you get the message "Installs updates and then shuts down your computer."

Last night, I left the office a bit late, around 6:30PM. I didn't want to wait for Windows to install a bunch of updates - I needed to leave immediately. In the end, I had to log out, then shut down the system from the login screen. Not exactly "easy".

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Moving to Windows 7

My Windows Vista laptop got nailed by a virus the other day. My Vista session went all funny, so I called our friendly desktop support folks, described what I saw, and they said it was almost certain I had been nailed.

Turns out, I'm not alone. A local newspaper's web site served me a third-party ad with a malware payload. Lots of other people in the area also got infected.

Thank you, Windows UAC. You did nothing to help me. Great.

Unfortunately, that means I've been moved to Windows 7. Even though I advised against Windows 7, at least the move provides me an opportunity to compare Linux against the current version of Windows.

Like before, I'll be curious to see if this fixes any of the problems I've seen in Windows since Windows XP and Windows Vista: printing, confusing dialogs, broken ctrl-backspace, to list a few. We'll see.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bluetooth on Linux

My laptop (Dell D430, purchased 2008) doesn't have a Bluetooth card. This hasn't been a problem until recently, when I decided it would be nice to use a regular-sized wireless mouse when using the laptop at home. (Normally, I use a wired "travel" mouse, which is a bit small and so makes my hand cramp if I use it for any length of time.) So I needed a Bluetooth adapter.

My criteria were simple: (1) it shouldn't cost a lot, and (2) it shouldn't be too obtrusive. I asked our desktop support guys at work, and they pointed me to the Belkin #F8T016 USB adapter, which I ordered elsewhere for about $15.

It was remarkably easy to get working under Linux:
  1. Insert the USB adapter
  2. Boot the laptop using Linux
My desktop's top bar then sported a Bluetooth icon, up next to the wireless network icon. Clicking that, and selecting "Set up new device..." I was able to quickly "discover" my Bluetooth mouse, and pair it with my laptop. Easy!

For the curious: this works exactly as you'd expect if you boot Linux first, then insert the adapter. Linux loads support for the adapter behind the scenes, and the Bluetooth icon appears on the desktop, like magic. You can remove the adapter at any time, if you are done using it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Where's my stuff?

Stop and think for a moment - Where is your stuff? Your data, your photos, your games, your music? If you run Windows, I'll bet it's on the "C:" drive.

But what does "C:" really mean? Why does Windows put your important stuff on a drive named so cryptically, "C:"?

This is because of drive letter assignment. It's a process by which Windows picks letters to represent a drive (such as a CDROM or USB fob) or a partition on a drive. Drive letters date back to the days of MS-DOS and CP/M.

The first two drive letters ("A:" and "B:") are reserved for floppy disk drives. I'd be really surprised if your computer still has a floppy drive. Dell stopped selling systems with floppy drives in 2003, for example, and other vendors quickly followed. But Windows reserves letters for floppy drives anyway, for backwards compatibility.

So "C:" is the first hard drive that's on a Windows computer, which is why Windows always boots from "C:". If you have more than one hard drive on your system, and any CDROM or DVD drives, you'll see them show up as "D:", "E:" and so on.

Plug in a USB fob drive, and it will show up in the first available drive letter. Maybe that's "F:" or "G:".

If you are on a managed network (like, at the office) you likely connect to a shared network server, and Windows assigns drive letters to these spaces too. In our office, my network "Home" directory is the "H:" drive. We keep other things on the "O:" and "S:" drives.

One thing becomes clear - all these drive letters make it really hard to keep track of my documents. Where's my stuff?

But Linux makes it really easy to find your data. Drive letters simply don't exist under Linux. Instead, USB fob drives, DVD drives, and shared directories on the network are all referred to by a path in the filesystem. And the GUI makes it all easy to find.

Let's say I plug a USB fob drive into my Linux computer. Linux identifies the drive for me, makes it available to me, and creates a desktop icon so I can quickly access the files there:

These screenshots were taken using a "demo" user I set up on my laptop, hence the "demo's Home" folder.

Easy, isn't it? This USB fob drive happens to have a volume name of "My stuff", so that's the name Linux gives it.

If I'm in an application, this USB fob is always accessible as "My stuff". It's also conveniently located under the "Places" menu:

That screenshot shows the "My stuff" USB fob drive, but also a few other drives that are on my system because Windows is installed on the hard drive - my laptop actually boots Linux from a fob drive. On a system that just runs Linux, you wouldn't see the "Bitlocker" or "2.6 GB Filesystem".

Also in that list is something else that's cool with Linux - bookmarks to servers. You can easily create a connection to another server over a standard network protocol (Windows share, SSH, FTP, etc.) In my case, I've set up a bookmark ("Project web site") to access the web site for a project I run outside of Linux in Exile. If I click on that item, Linux opens a file manager window right to that location.

In a managed Linux desktop (say, an office that runs Linux) the administrator can set up access to network servers. I used to be a Unix/Linux systems administrator, long ago, and we set up file access to central servers in a very transparent way. For example, your home directory might look like it's on /home, but really it's on a central file server. And we had network shares available under /net.

You can do the same thing under Linux today, but a desktop administrator would also set up bookmarks for you automatically so you always have a quick way to access those resources. To me, a shared file area called "Software projects" (which points to /net/projects, on a network server) is more meaningful than calling it the "P:" drive. And my home directory in /home makes more sense than the "H:" drive.

Monday, February 8, 2010

When backwards compatibility bites you

Microsoft likes to talk big about backwards compatibility in Windows. Those Windows apps you bought for the previous version of Windows, they'll say, will work fine in the current version of Windows. Programs you buy for this version of Windows should be ok for the next version of Windows.

The problem is: when does backwards compatibility become a hindrance, rather than an advantage? At some point, isn't it just better to move on, and put the past behind you?

Not for Microsoft. They work hard to maintain that backwards compatibility. IMO, this will one day be their downfall.

Take, for example, the discovery of a 17-year old Windows bug, which Microsoft is only now addressing in February. Reported to Microsoft in June 2009, the bug is in code that supports old, legacy 16-bit applications. The effect: an attacker can run any code on your system. The exploit has been verified on XP, Vista, Windows 7, Server 2003/2008.

I'll go easy on Microsoft about their response in releasing a patch .. this time. 7 months (June 2009 to February 2010) is probably an appropriate amount of time to unwind a bug that's been in the operating system for 17 years. Probably.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

OpenOffice gains market share

A study from Germany reveals that OpenOffice now holds 21.5% of market share, for users in Germany. That's an increase of 3 points compared to last year. Considering the hold Microsoft Office already has, seeing OpenOffice installed on 21.5% of computers is amazing!

The study analyzed fonts in documents published over that time. For example, OpenOffice documents include the Open Symbol font, making them easy to recognize. However, I don't know how precise by analyzing fonts - especially since it's not hard to install Microsoft's fonts on Linux, and configure OpenOffice to use them by default (this is what I used to do when I ran Linux at work, for example.) So I consider this to be at least 21.5%, not an exact number. The study itself puts its margin of error at ±10% for correctly detecting Microsoft office.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Why can't I print?

I am stymied why Windows occasionally decides I should not be able to print anything. This is really getting in the way of my work!

Previously, I'd discovered that if my USB printer was connected but turned off, Windows would decide my network printer was "offline" (despite it still being usable by others.) I reported I'd "have to unplug the USB cable to the local printer until I get a new ink cartridge." That didn't solve my problem. But I eventually got a new ink cartridge from our desktop support folks.

At random intervals, Windows just decides the network printer definition is "offline". That is happening to me right now. I tried to print out a (long) document to our network printer, but Windows tells me the printer is "offline". Maybe it's just Office? I convert the file to PDF, then try printing from Adobe's PDF viewer. Same problem, Windows says the network printer is "offline".

The network printer is just outside my office, and as I write this someone from two cubes down from me just sent a job to the network printer, and picked it up. But I'm not able to print.

I guess I'll have to have someone else print that document for my meeting today.

Even our desktop support is confused by this. Please help me. What "fix" can I do to get Windows to let me print to the network printer?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Windows 7 on laptops?

Are you running Windows 7 on a laptop? You may be interested to know that there's a problem with Windows 7 on laptops, where Windows effectively kills your battery. And I don't mean, "my battery just got drained to 0%, time to recharge." Instead, Windows 7 may permanently damage (2) (3) (4)your laptop battery. Even if you roll back to Windows XP - which many people have done.

Microsoft Technet has a forum thread on this topic, where users report problems with many different brands of laptops. The thread dates back to June 5 2009 - when Windows 7 was still in "Beta" - and continues to be updated with more comments. That's at least 8 months, and no fix yet from Microsoft! (Sound familiar?)

Microsoft is convinced the problem relates to a BIOS problem, but several comments in the forum suggest not.

I hope you bought a spare laptop battery.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Enough is Enough

I had this link to LinuxLock sitting in a bookmark folder, meaning to post it last year when it was originally written. Enough is Enough. Higher Education..? Wake up. But it is just as relevant today as it was a year ago. Even moreso since we recently discussed a NZ school moving entirely to open source software.

The LinuxLock post (more of a "rant") brings up several good points about Linux on the desktop. We've discussed this at Linux in Exile before, and it's the main reason I started this blog. Linux isn't just for the server, it's also a fine desktop operating system.