Dreaming of a Windows XP CD that recognizes almost all known hardware?

For about a month after a new version of Windows is released, it supports just about any hardware you’re likely to throw at it. And after that, you’re on your own to find drivers for stuff.

I stumbled across Driverpacks back in March, and I’ve finally had a chance to spend some serious time working with them. What they mean is that if you’re willing to do some work, you can make a disc that will install Windows with functional drivers for virtually any computer in existence.

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Upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7 with USB media

I wasn’t in any hurry to switch to Windows 7, but when several places put the Windows 7 family pack on sale for $125 or thereabouts, I figured I’d better get it. The normal price on three upgrades is $100-$110 a pop. And you know how it goes. Once you get something, you really don’t want it to just sit on the shelf. Why let the software collect dust while I wait for 64-bit Firefox to arrive?

So I want to install it off USB. It’s easy, right? Well, it’s easy if you’re running Vista. But the instructions floating around for making bootable Windows 7 installation USB media don’t work if you’re running XP. At least they didn’t work from any of my XP machines. Read more

How to clean viruses off other people’s systems safely

What should you do when someone hands you a computer, tells you they think it has a virus, and asks you to clean it?

Proceed carefully, that’s what. You don’t want to infect your other computers with whatever it has.

To get it gone safely and effectively, you really need two things: an antivirus live CD, and a spare router.
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Weekly roundup: 6 Oct 2010

I used to do a weekly roundup every so often, just doing short takes on stuff that interested me as I found it. I haven’t done that in years; I thought I’d give it a whirl again. I don’t know how often I’ll do it, but it was fun.

Ars Technica says Intel’s neutral stance on Atom in servers is a mistake. Absolutely. A dual-core Atom gives plenty of power for infrastructure servers like Active Directory DCs, print servers, and other similar roles. Atoms could even handle many web server tasks.

Xeons are appropriate for database servers and application servers, but throwing them at everything is severe overkill. A lot of server tasks are more disk-bound or network-bound than CPU-bound.

I worked in a datacenter facility for several years that was literally at half capacity, physically. But they didn’t have enough power or cooling capacity to add much more to it.

The only way anything can be added there is to take something away first. Right-sizing servers is the only way to fix that. If they would yank a Xeon, they’d be able to replace it with several Atom-based servers and get a net gain in functionality per square foot and BTU.

Virtualization, a la VMWare, is an option, but one isn’t necessarily a drop-in replacement for the other.

Or, of course, Intel can sit back and wait for ARM to come in and save the day. ARM provides even more functionality per watt. And even though ARM doesn’t run Windows, it does run Linux, and Samba has reached the point where it can stand in for an Active Directory domain controller.

Is there a market out there for a domain controller that fits in a package the size of a CD/DVD drive and consumes less than 20 watts? I’m sure there is. And if Intel doesn’t want to deliver it, ARM and its partners can.

There may be some resistance to ARM, since some decision makers are nervous of things they haven’t heard of, but it should be possible to overcome that. Maybe you haven’t heard of ARM, but guess what? Do you have a smartphone? It has an ARM CPU in it. That PDA you carried before you had a smartphone? It had an ARM CPU in it. It’s entirely possible that your consumer-grade network switch at home has one in it too. Not your router, though. That’s probably MIPS-based. (MIPS is another one of those scary RISC CPU architectures.)

Put a solid operating system on an ARM CPU, and it can run with anything. I have ARM devices that only reboot when the power goes out. If it weren’t for tornado and thunderstorm season causing the power to hiccup, those devices could run for years without a reboot or power-down.

And speaking of ARM, I have seen the future.

Pogoplug is an ARM-based appliance for sharing files. You plug it in, plug USB drives into it, and share files on your home network and the Internet with it. At least, that’s how it’s marketed. But you can hack it into a general purpose Linux box.

Inside, there’s a 1.2 GHz ARM CPU, 256 MB of RAM, and another 256MB of flash memory. Not a supercomputer, but that’s enough power to be useful. And it’s tiny, silent, and sips power. You can plug it in, stash it somewhere, and it’ll never remind you that it’s there.
I’ve actually considered picking up a Pogoplug or two (they go on sale for $45 occasionally, and the slightly less powerful Seagate Dockstar is available for about $30 when you can find them) to run this web site on. Considering how surprisingly well WordPress runs on a 450 MHz Pentium II with 128 MB of RAM (don’t ask me how I know), I think a Pogoplug could handle the workload.

What stops me? I can build an Atom-based PC for less than $150, depending on what I put in it, and run Turnkey Linux on it. Under a worst-case scenario, Turnkey Linux installs in 15 minutes, and it doesn’t take me any longer than that to drop a motherboard and hard drive into a case. So I can knock together an Atom-based webserver in 30 minutes, which is a lot less time than it would take me to get the LAMP stack running on an ARM system.

But if I had more time than money, I’d be all over this.

A device similar to this with an operating LAMP stack on it ready to go is probably too much to ask for. A ready-to-go image running the LAMP stack, similar in form to the DD-WRT or Tomato packages that people use to soup up their routers, might not be. I think it’s a good idea but it isn’t something I have time to head up.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned Turnkey Linux before. I’ve played with it a little, and I’m dead serious that it installs in 15 minutes or less. Installing off a USB flash drive, it might very well install in five.

And it’ll run pretty happily on any PC manufactured this century. More recent is better, of course, but the base requirements are so modest they aren’t worth mentioning.

I’ve built dozens of Linux servers, but this is fantastic. Spend a few minutes downloading an image, copying it onto installation media, and chances are the installation process will take less time than all of that does.

It’s based on Ubuntu LTS, and comes in literally 38 flavors, with more to come after the next refresh is done.

They haven’t built their collection based on the current version of Ubuntu LTS yet because they’ve been distracted with building a backup service. But that’s OK. Ubuntu 8.04.3 still has a little life left in it, and you can either do a distribution upgrade after the initial install, or build a new appliance when the new version comes out and move the data over.

And if Ubuntu isn’t your thing, or you really want 10.04 and you want it now, or worse yet, Linux isn’t your thing, there’s always Bitnami (bitnami.org).

Linux appliances took a little while to get here, but they’re here now, and they work.

Installing Windows off USB

I sure wish I’d seen Wintoflash a few weeks ago.

It’s simple. Insert a Windows CD or DVD (anything from XP to Windows 7). Plug in a blank USB flash drive (or one you don’t mind erasing). Answer a couple of questions, and after a few minutes, you have a bootable USB stick that installs Windows. It will be much faster than CD or DVD because flash media has much faster seek times.

So what could be better? Well, slipstreamed and customized Windows of course.First, go get ctupdate and run it to get all the current hotfixes and service packs for whatever version of Windows you use.

Next, use Nlite to easily slipstream in all those service packs and hotfixes. While you’re at it, you can remove whatever non-optional inessentials you want. All the games, Media Player, Movie Maker, Outlook Express, and stuff like that are fair game. If you feel brave, you can even (horrors!) remove Internet Explorer.

Rebuilding a PC used to take most of a weekend to do, but with an up-to-date installation on a USB stick, I think the task could take an afternoon, as long as the target computer is new enough to support booting off USB.

And to a tinkerer, it could be very nice. Speeding up installation and modification would allow a tinkerer to be more aggressive with Nlite in terms of changes. Make a fatal change, and it’s no big deal–just back out of the change and reinstall, and in about 15 minutes you’re up and running with a new configuration.

Firefox 3 is out

I downloaded and installed Firefox 3 today. I didn’t try any of the release candidates, so today is the first I’ve seen it.

So far, I like it.Appearance-wise, it looks a little more slick and polished. I can’t exactly quantify it. Looking good isn’t as important as running well, but appearance is the first thing you notice.

Installation is lightning fast, especially off flash media. If you have multiple computers, put the installer on a USB flash drive and install from there.

It imported everything, and I mean everything, from my old 2.x configuration.

The "Awesome bar" is the most touted feature. Given that it imported my (extensive) browser history, its guesses where I want to go aren’t exactly awesome yet. But I like how I can start typing the title of a page I viewed and its URL will appear. As it learns more about my browsing habits and I learn more about it, I’ll like it.

Overall it does seem faster than its predecessor. It renders my blog considerably faster. We’ll see how it fares on Friday when I throw 20-30 addresses at Google Maps for my Saturday ritual. Firefox 2.x really bogged down when I did that.

Memory usage right now is a reasonable 72 megs, which is probably about where Firefox 2 would be after an hour. I’ve kept Firefox sessions open for weeks, so we’ll see how 3.0 looks in a month. The session I’m using right now will probably still be open, knowing me.

These are all just first impressions, but so far I like it. It’s familiar, but some of the improvements are obvious pretty early.

A Readyboost alternative for XP

I found a reference today to Eboostr, a product that adds Readyboost-like capability to XP. Essentially it uses a USB 2.0 flash drive to speed up your system, although it’s unclear whether it’s using it for virtual memory, a disk cache, or both.

I found a review.I don’t have a machine that’s an ideal candidate for this. The product, from everyone else’s comments on the blog, works best on machines that have less than 1 GB of RAM. If you’ve maxxed out the memory on an aging laptop, this product will extend its usefulness.

My ancient Micron Transport laptop would be a good candidate, since it maxes out at 320MB of RAM and none of the 256 MB sticks I’ve tried in it work, so I’m stuck at 192 MB. But there are two problems: It’s running Windows 2000, and it doesn’t have USB 2.0 slots. Any machine that came with USB 2.0 slots and Windows XP probably can be upgraded pretty cheaply to 1 GB of RAM or more.

I could put XP on the laptop, get a PCMCIA USB 2.0 card for it, and a $20 USB stick so I can use a $29 product to give me Readyboost. But by the time I bought all that, I’d be more than halfway down the road to a newer laptop.

I think a better solution for me would be to replace the hard drive with a solid-state drive. It would cost less than $200, boost the reliability (the latest I’ve heard is that solid state IDE drives will last about 10 years, which is about double the expectancy of a conventional drive), and then everything is on a device with a fast seek time. Plus the drive in that machine is getting old anyway and probably ought to be replaced. I could probably get a solid state drive for about the cost of a conventional hard drive, a USB stick, and this software.

I’m not going to dismiss the software entirely, since it clearly is helping some of the people using it. If you run lots of heavy applications side by side and you’re running up against your memory limits, it can probably help you. And if you can get a good deal on a flash drive (either you have one, or grab one on sale for $20), then there’s little harm in downloading the demo and trying it out for 4 hours. Make sure you stress the system before and after installing to see if you can notice a difference.

If you don’t see much difference, you’re not out much. USB flash drives are incredibly useful anyway. Use it as a cheap and fast backup device. If you do see a difference, then you’ve extended the useful life of your machine.

The mixed results don’t surprise me, frankly. Vista’s Readyboost gives mixed results too. It really helps some people. It has no effect on others. And in rare cases it may actually make things worse.

If you want to try to get some of the benefit for free, you might experiment with redirecting your browser cache, Photoshop scratch disk, and temp files to a USB flash drive. It almost certainly won’t hurt, and could help a lot.

Nlite and Windows XP

Well, I had my first major experience with Nlite and Windows XP tonight. I installed a new 160 GB Seagate hard drive into Mom’s Compaq Evo 510 and I used Nlite to slipstream SP2 into Windows XP, since SP2 is necessary to properly use a drive that big.

The resulting image was far too big to fit on a CD, so I started pulling stuff out.Mainly I pulled out stuff like Outlook Express, MSN Explorer, and Media Player. I thought about removing Internet Explorer, but since Mom is going to use MS Office, I thought twice about that. Office uses IE for some things. If I’d been building the system for me, I’d pull that too.

I also removed most of the international support. I saw no need for anything other than US English and maybe Spanish, so I pulled the rest.

Installation went fast. Really fast. I laid down Windows XP, Office 2000, and Firefox in less than an hour. I used the Nlite CD to install the OS, and I installed Office and Firefox from a USB flash drive. All I need now is antivirus software and the system would be usable.

It boots lightning fast–we’re talking 20 seconds from POST to a desktop with no hourglass. Installing antivirus software will slow that down, but it’s impressive. Part of that is due to the new hard drive, but it’s a Seagate 7200.10. It’s newer and faster than the five-year-old Western Digital drive the system came with, but the 7200.10 isn’t exactly new technology anymore.

Memory usage isn’t bad either–100 megs at boot. That’ll double or triple once I install antivirus software, but at least I’m starting lower than usual.

I didn’t check disk usage, but I’m sure it’s much lower than the typical 1.5 GB.

I’m a believer. The results make me wonder just how old and slow of a computer I could get away with XP on.

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