Very Strange Computer Problem

Written by rob on June 10, 2011 – 12:50 am -

I had a really weird computer problem today, and I figured I would share the symptoms and solutions, since it took me about 4 hours to finally find the answer through Google. Hopefully this posting will get picked up by Google and help anyone else with a similar problem out.

Symptoms:

My laptop computer is usually plugged in to the AC power, my USB mouse, and my ethernet cord. Whenever I use it at the kitchen table, for instance, I unplug all three of those things and move it. Usually this works perfectly, with no issue whatsoever. However, two days ago this is what happened. When I would unplug my computer, it would become extremely sluggish within a few seconds and stay that way until I plugged it back in again.

I determined the cause of the sluggishness was 100% CPU usage (as opposed to high disk activity or RAM exhaustion), but this didn’t help determine the root cause because the culprit process was “System”, which isn’t exactly something I can uninstall or stop from running, as it’s integral to the Windows OS. I should also note some other symptoms. Every 30 seconds or so in this “sluggish” mode, the computer screen would turn black and come back a few seconds later — it turned out that the Nvidia driver crashed. It seemed the longest I let this go without plugging back in, the worst the symptoms would get until the computer was almost completely unresponsive.

Originally I believed the “unplugging” action that caused it was unplugging the AC power cord. That seemed to make sense to me because I figured that going to battery power might cause some weird performance issues. Google revealed people with the same problem as me, who got 100% CPU usage after unplugging power. However, their solution didn’t help — I was already using High Performance mode and all of the processor settings were set to maximum even when on battery power.

However, when I started to troubleshoot, I unplugged each device one by one. First the mouse. That didn’t cause it. Then the power. Oh, wait… that wasn’t the cause after all. And sure enough, when I unplugged the Ethernet, the 100% CPU usage would begin. I plugged the power and mouse back in and the computer was still sluggish. Within 2 seconds of reconnecting the Ethernet, the problem disappeared and my problem was back to normal.

So, how exactly do you solve an issue where unplugging an Ethernet cable leads to 100% cpu usage? I should also mention this was ethernet specific, and didn’t involve lack of Internet, since I had wireless enabled this entire time and could browse the Internet (albeit slowly due to the sluggishness) while the ethernet was unplugged. Well, eventually I found a thread about a somewhat similar problem, where the user had high latency corresponding with network usage.

Solution:

The linked forum thread actually has many solutions in it. I tried all of them and none of them actually worked for me. I finally decided to just use the workaround posted in the thread, which is to simply disable my ethernet adapter (in Network Adapters window right-click on it, select “Disable” ). This solved the problem completely, and it persists across restarts. I should mention that the tools xperf and LatencyMon were invaluable in finding this forum thread, because I never would have known the problem was caused by “ndis.sys” without those two programs.

I still don’t see why this caused the above symptoms. There must be some bug in Windows 7 where certain laptops have this problem. But just like so many curiosities, this one probably has no rational explanation.


Posted in Tech | Comments Off

My Mini-ITX Project (Pics now up!)

Written by rob on May 31, 2007 – 8:53 pm -

My Mini Server

UPDATE (05-31-07): I finally got the pictures up for the Mini-ITX server. Check them out here. If you are interested in the components behind it, read the original post below.

——————————————————————————————-

As you may or may not be aware, there is a certain motherboard specification called Mini-ITX. It was pushed to the market mainly by VIA, though there are many offerings nowadays. Essentially, it follows the ATX standard, but condenses all of the motherboard components down to a 6.75″x6.75″ board. Also, the motherboard has sound, network, video, and CPU all built into it. Even better, most of them contain no fans, and instead use heatsinks to cool the CPU and chipsets… this passive cooling cuts on power usage and also makes the system 100% silent. All that needs to be added to such a motherboard to make a full computer is a form of persistent storage (hard drive, etc.), RAM, and power supply. Optionally, a disk drive and other accessories can be added. All of this uses very little power (think 30-50W, as opposed to modern gaming computers that use around 550W) and runs relatively cool.

When I started my project, I was aiming at making a headless (meaning it has no monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and is instead controlled from other computers over the network using technologies such as SSH and/or VNC) Linux server. I chose Linux for a lot of reasons, but mainly because it can support low-end systems and is highly customizable (and thus can be a large or small as I want it to be). That said, I went and purchased the components on eBay. For the motherboard itself, I picked what was the original Mini-ITX board offering from VIA, the EPIA 5000. It contains a 533mhz C3 processor, plus built-in sound/video/network. I already had a piece of 256MB PC100 Ram, so all I needed in addition to the board was a hard drive and power supply. For the hard drive I chose to go with a Compact Flash card (and thus needed a CF -> IDE adapter to connect it to the motherboard as if it were a real hard drive), and got a 512MB one. It has turned out to be enough room, but things are definitely tight. Finally, for the power supply I went with the Morex PW-60, which as you may be able to tell from the name, is a 60W offering. The power supply itself is about half the size of a modern AGP video card, and it is the only part of the system that makes any noise (it doesn’t have any fans, but it has a slight “hum”).

Once all the pieces that I had ordered arrived, it was as simply as popping in the RAM, connecting the CF card via my adapter, and then plugging the power supply into the motherboard and a power outlet. I temporarily connected a CD drive to install the Linux OS (I chose Damn Small Linux because of my tiny 512MB hard drive limitation and because it is based on my favorite distro: Debian) and also temporarily used my main PC’s monitor, keyboard, and mouse. I installed the OS, then made sure SSH was working correctly. Once that was done, I disconnected all of the accessories and removed the CD drive. I then SSH’d into it from my main computer and went to work.

I have installed a variety of things onto it in the past week. For starters, I installed HoTTProxy, a proxy server that can be utilized by cell phones. It is the only service I know of that gears itself specifically to cell phones, and is ridiculously easy to setup (just create a user, run the program and point your phone to it). Not to mention the fact that it keeps a cache which speeds everything up. This worked with minimal effort, as I used Damn Small Linux’s package system (myDSL) to install the required Perl.

Next I aimed to get VNC working on it. Again, this was a breeze with the myDSL system. I had to make some hacks to get the vncserver to start on bootup (the package didn’t create a nice /etc/init.d/vncserver script, so I manually added a line calling the server process from the local run-at-boot script that DSL utilizes). One additional thing I had to mess around with was getting a static IP address (necessary for router port forwarding so that I could SSH and VNC in from the Internet, i.e. from school/work). The usual Debian way just didn’t work with DSL, so I again solved it by putting the manual “ifconfig” and “route add gw” entries into the local run-at-boot script.

My final goal was getting a web server with PHP support installed. I chose to use lighttpd mainly because of its low memory footprint and its speed. It includes FastCGI, which interfaces very well with PHP4. Anyway, using the myDSL packages for PHP did not work because they were not compiled with FastCGI support. So, I had to resort to the old “wget, tar xvzf, cd dir, ./configure, make, sudo make install” method, which I am well-accustomed to from my old Linux From Scratch days. Nonetheless, I eventually got the two to work together, and it is now running. I also added eAccelerator, the PHP caching tool that caches opcodes among other things, hoping that it may speed up whatever application I eventually deploy on the web server.

With all the software taken care of, I now look at my semi-completed Mini-ITX Server. I face one last hurdle… that of a case. I purposely chose not to buy a case, both for monetary and DIYish reasons. So, hopefully some time in the next few weeks I will come up with a good idea for how to house the components. A 7.5″x7.5″x3.5″ container of some sort would fit everything and then some. I don’t, however, want to simply use one of the oft-used cop-outs like a cardboard box or a cigar case. I want something original. I’m currently looking into a hermit crab cage or small fish aquarium, but they’re a little too pre-made for me. We’ll see what I come up with.

In the mean time, I am going to be slowly adding pictures of the currently caseless build to my Coppermine photo gallery that has been long neglected, which can be reached here. I am not, however, making any promises on when those will be up.


Posted in Tech | Comments Off

Using Virtualization to Protect from Internet Malware: Part II

Written by rob on April 1, 2007 – 1:54 pm -

The following screenshots were taken under Vista with the new beta version of VMware. The guest system, however, is still Windows XP. This shows one strength of virtualization: it doesn’t matter what version of Windows you have… you can still install any other version virtually.

The first step, after acquiring VMware in one way or another, is to create a new virtual machine. After opening VMware, you do this by File -> New -> Virtual Machine, or simply by pressing CTRL+N. Press Next, and then Next again. Now ensure that Microsoft Windows is selected in the Guest Operating System combo box. Under the Version drop-down box, select the version of Windows you intend to install (I chose Windows XP Professional).

Press Next. For the Virtual Machine name, call it “Internet Browser”. The name doesn’t matter, but it will make things more clear later on if you keep to the same naming scheme as me. The location will default to the My Virtual Machines folder under My Documents (or the Virtual Machines folder under Documents in Vista). I left the default. Press Next. Then press Next again to accept Bridged Networking.

This next screen allows you to choose the size of the virtual system’s hard drive. This value isn’t as important as it looks because you can change it later. Also, the virtual hard drive file on your host computer is only going to be the size of the used disk space. Therefore, if you simply install Windows and Firefox, yet have a 100GB virtual hard drive, the virtual hard drive file will still only be 1.5GB or so because that is all that is taken up on the drive. I’ll just stick with the default 8.0GB, but if you plan on putting a variety of applications on the virtual machine to facilitate your browsing experience, then you could increase it. Remember, you can always change this later on if you need to. Just make sure you don’t have the “allocate all disk space now” box checked, as it will needlessly waste space on your host system. Press Finish when you’re done. (You may receive a hint after pressing Finish. Just press OK to get out of it.)

You will notice that the virtual machine you just created has been added to the Favorite list on the side of VMware’s window. It is also currently selected and ready to use.

The last thing we want to do before starting the virtual machine is edit the RAM that the virtual machine has access to. You can do this by pressing the “Edit Virtual Machine Settings” button. The entire right side of the window that comes up is dedicated to controlling the RAM. Right now the RAM is probably set somewhere near the Green arrow, which is the recommended value. I personally prefer to set it higher; remember that more RAM will make the virtual machine work faster (not unlike with a real computer). If you have 512MB of RAM or less, you probably only want to use the recommended. But if you have over 512MB, then you should give it more. As a general rule of thumb, set the RAM to 50% of your host system’s RAM. That said, I wouldn’t give it over 640MB because XP really doesn’t ever need that much unless you do serious gaming (which you cannot do under VMware). I have 2GB, so I set my virtual system’s RAM to 640MB and it moves as speedy as I need it to. If for whatever reason what you set here is causing problems for you, you can come back and change it later. You can also edit the hard drive space in this same dialog box. Finally, if you have a dual-core processor, you can allow the guest system to use two processors here. Close out of that dialog box and then we are ready to begin the fun part.

Now you can insert your Windows installation disk into your CD drive. The virtual machine uses the same CD drive as the main system. Now press “Start this Virtual Machine” (or you can use the green Play button on the toolbar). As soon as you see the VMware logo, click inside the virtual machine’s area so the keyboard and mouse are captured. Then press ESC. After the system briefly loads, you will be shown the Boot Menu. Use the arrow keys to move to CD-ROM drive and press Enter. Your install CD will then begin to boot (if it is Windows XP or Vista, you may need to press any key to start the disc, as prompted). From here, you should be right at home, as it will look the same as any Windows installation.

If you have not installed Windows before and are unsure of what to do, click here to get to a pretty good (off-site) guide to installing Windows XP. In that guide, you can skip to step 2 of the step-by-step instructions, as we already covered everything else. If you want it to look exactly like what you are used to, press the Full Screen button. Remember that in order to release your mouse/keyboard and to exit full screen mode you need to press CTRL+ALT. One scary part is when you have to format a partition for Windows to install on. Remember that the virtual hard drive is in NO WAY connected to your real hard drive, and reformatting it will NOT delete any of your host computer’s files.

Once you have Windows installed, you should be at the desktop of the user you setup during installation. You may now remove the Windows installation CD from your CD drive. We need to take care of something right away called VMware Tools. Installing this allows you to drag and drop files between virtual machine and your regular computer. This will be a must, as you may need to transfer e-mail attachments to your main system or something like that. Installing the tools is simple. While the virtual system is running, press CTRL+ALT to release the mouse, and then go to the VM menu in VMware, and choose “Install VMware Tools”. Press Install in the box that comes up. After a few seconds, the installer will start inside your virtual machine. Click inside it to capture the mouse and then go through the install wizard. You may get a few unsafe driver prompts (one such window is pictured below); just press “Continue Anyway”. After it is done, the installer will automatically restart the system.

After the system reboots, VMware Tools has been successfully installed. The reason we installed this is because it enables you to drag and drop files between your host computer and your guest computer (and vice versa). Try it! Simply create a new file in Notepad or something from inside the guest machine. Then drag it toward the outside of the guest window… it will let you continue dragging onto your desktop or into a folder of your host computer. You can also drag files from your host computer to the guest using the reverse approach. This obviously won’t work if the gust computer is in full screen or guest mode, but it allows you to very easily copy files between your systems.

This can be useful if you need an e-mail attachment or something from the Internet to be transferred to your host system. An even better example is music files downloaded from Limewire; once they are finished downloading in the safe environment of the virtual system, copy them into a folder on your host system and put them into iTunes.

It is, however, important to note that this dragging and dropping of files between the virtual and host system is the single security risk involved with this approach. It is for this reason that I HIGHLY recommend that you do not copy any executable files from your guest to your host, until you test them out on the guest computer for a few days. The wonder of virtualization is that you now have a place to test programs for spyware without risk; make sure you use the guest computer to its full potential, and never copy any untrusted files between systems. Doing so will compromise the very idea of using the virtual machine for Internet use.

You now have everything setup that you need for the basic functionality of the virtual system. From here, I installed Firefox and also the Macromedia Flash plug-in for Firefox. I also installed Microsoft Office, as I often use Word to prepare blog entries and other online posts before posting them online. You can install whatever you want at this point, though I highly recommend installing Firefox, if only to preserve the life of your virtual machine. Also to preserve its life, I installed Avast Anti-Virus (a free anti-virus program that works just as well if not better than Norton and others).

Only install what you will need to use the Internet (unless you want to test an untrusted program before copying it to your host machine) or to perform other temporary services. After all, you will only use this virtual machine for the Internet, and nothing more. Installing too many things won’t necessarily be a problem, but it will tend to make you use the virtual machine for more than Internet. We don’t want that. The whole point of this project is that you want to have a virtual machine to use for Internet access, and that’s all. Due to the fact that you may have to completely restore the virtual machine if you get infected with spyware, you don’t want anything important on the virtual system.

Once you have all of your programs installed, it is time to make the snapshot. A snapshot remembers all of the files, settings, etc. that were on the virtual machine at a particular time. Right now, we know the system doesn’t have spyware, and we want to create a snapshot so that we can come back to this point in the future if necessary. This is the part of the tutorial that will differ majorly from those using Virtual PC — you will have to find some other way to restore your system if it gets infested.

Even though you don’t have to be, I recommend you shut down the guest computer. When it is turned off, you will be returned to the main screen of VMware. Go to VM->Snapshot->Snapshot Manager. “You are here” will be selected; press the “Take Snapshot…” button. I called this particular snapshot BASE so I would not confuse it with further snapshots, and gave it a good description (I recommend you give all your future snapshots good descriptions so you know what each one includes).

Press OK when done naming it, and then press Close in the Snapshot Manager window. That’s all there is to taking a snapshot. We will now test it by having fun and destroying the virtual system.

Start up the virtual machine. When it is completely booted, disable any anti-virus or anti-spyware programs. Now you can trash your computer in any way you wish. Either download obvious virus files from Limewire, or simply delete random files from C:/Windows/system. Another choice may be to download and install obvious spyware like Bonzi Buddy, Kazaa or Gator. You should be in pop-up hell in no time. If you are unsure of what to do and simply want to test the effects of the snapshot restoral without killing the virtual machine, just make a new file on the desktop. When we restore the snapshot, that file should be nonexistent. I used the command prompt to delete everything from the C: drive, which removed everything except certain system files and running programs.

The result when I restarted my computer:

When you are content that the system was destroyed or otherwise changed from the snapshot, shut it down (if you kill it bad enough and it can’t shut down, use the red square stop button in the toolbar to force a power off). Now it is time to restore a snapshot. Go to VM->Snapshot->Snapshot Manager. This time, you will see the BASE snapshot but it won’t be selected. Go ahead and select it. At the bottom of the window, near the Close button, is a button called Go To. It will ask you to confirm. Press “Yes”. In only a second, the virtual machine will be restored to the snapshot we made earlier.

Boot up the system to confirm the restoration. My system was no longer destroyed! You should now realize how powerful virtual machines are. By creating a snapshot every time you make a major change to your system, you allow yourself to revert back to that at any time.

Now that you understand how to create the virtual machine and utilize snapshots, I want to give a general overview of how a general day would go by utilizing the virtual machine in conjunction with the host. You will obviously develop your own formula eventually, but this should get you started. The biggest thing is to make sure that you NEVER run the Internet on the host machine; this will prevent it from being infected by spyware and other nasty malware.

Let’s say you just came home from school or work. You would turn on your real computer. Maybe you have a report to type. You would open Microsoft Word as normal, and start typing away. Now let’s say that you need to research something on the Internet. In order to prevent yourself from accidentally using the internet on the host machine, I recommend uninstalling Firefox and removing any icons to Internet Explorer or other browsers. It is now time to start up your virtual machine, so open VMware and start your virtual machine. Once it boots, you can start Firefox and start researching. You can switch back and forth between the virtual machine and your host computer, typing the various things in Word that you researched.

Now what if you need to include a picture from the internet? It’s very simple. You can just drag it from the Firefox window in the guest machine to the Word window, just as we did with files earlier. Try it! What if you need to cite the URL for the picture? Simply copy the URL in the guest machine and paste it in the host machine. The wonder of VMware tools is that it lets you drag and drop files between systems, and also lets you copy and paste between them.

Now you are done researching on the internet. There is no sense in keeping the virtual machine running, as it will take up a lot of RAM (half of it if you listened to my recommendation when delegating RAM to the machine). You don’t, however, have to shut it down. If you constantly had to start up and shut down the system, it would rid you of productivity. Instead, you can Suspend the system. What this does is save all of the things you were doing and places it in a temporary snapshot. The next time you start the system, you will be right back where you left it. Press the yellow pause button on the toolbar to test it (or press CTRL+Z). It takes only a second or two to save the state, and only about 30 seconds to restore the state (likely less on a faster computer). Therefore, you can suspend the system any time you aren’t using it to save RAM. Given today’s Internet-focused society, I expect most of you will keep the system up at all times. Remember, though, that suspending it works even if you turn off your host computer.

You use the above method for a week or two. Then, while browsing the Internet, you want to make a new avatar for yourself on a forum, but you forgot to install Photoshop. You can install Photoshop, but then what if we need to restore a snapshot? Photoshop will be gone. The answer is to create another snapshot after you install Photoshop. I recommend that you call it “With Photoshop (maybe unsafe)”, and in the description make sure you state that it may be unsafe. However, after using your virtual system for another week or so without any spyware problems, you may go back and change the name and description to “Known to be Safe”. Then, if you do in fact get any spyware, you may revert to the “With Photoshop” snapshot instead of the BASE snapshot. By following the renaming policy, you will ensure you always know if a snapshot is safe or not. Either way, you always know that the BASE snapshot is spyware-free, if worse comes to worse.

The above procedures give you an idea of how to include virtualization in your computer life. It will vastly improve the security of your host computer, making it physically impossible to get infected with spyware ever again (as long as you follow the rules of only using the Internet on the virtual system).

One last thing I would like to mention is using a virtual machine as your main system. This way, you could use Word, Photoshop, iTunes, etc. all on a virtual machine. The only things that wouldn’t work well are very graphically-intensive applications such as games; those would require the host machine. However, by creating a series of rolling snapshots you could effectively backup everything on your virtual system so that reverting to a snapshot in the case of spyware infection wouldn’t result in a major loss. What I mean by rolling snapshots is this. You would create one snapshot every week. When creating one for the current week, you would label the previous week’s snapshot as safe. At the end of a month, you could delete all of the safe snapshots except for the latest. This lets you save on hard drive space (because each snapshot takes up a decent amount of space, so you wouldn’t want over 20 of them), while still keeping a good amount of snapshots (at least 4) in reserve in case spyware is found later on. Once every three months, another BASE snapshot could be made. I recommend that you NEVER delete the original BASE, but you can use the rolling method to only keep one or two known-safe BASEs at any one time.

Whether or not you choose to convert your entire computer workflow into a virtual system is up to you. I highly recommend, however, that you at least give the Internet Browser concept a try. It will save you a lot of reformatting and almost completely remove the hassle of spyware. If you have any questions about virtualization in general, or if you have any problems implementing this method, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments.


Posted in Howto's, Tech | 4 Comments »

Using Virtualization to Protect from Internet Malware: Part I

Written by rob on April 1, 2007 – 10:30 am -

Spyware is a huge threat for modern Windows PCs (see my separate article on spyware here). Sometimes, even when using Firefox, you can still be infected with spyware. This usually happens when some program you install (that includes some form of basic spyware) launches Internet Explorer in the background, thus allowing spyware back into the system. There is no fool-proof method to eradicate spyware once and for all, unless you carefully screen all of your downloads and never run any untrusted programs. Few computer users want to be bothered with the task of researching and confirming the safety of every single program they run on their computer, so that means the vast majority of people will be potential targets of spyware. Using Firefox consistently is the single most effective prevention method for spyware, but it is not by any means 100% guaranteed to stop all of these pesky threats from invading your system.

Introduce PC virtualization. Essentially, virtualizing a PC is the act of using software to simulate hardware. The products that allow you to “virtualize” have been around since the conception of computers themselves. Put in simple terms, if you have the correct software, you can simulate another computer that will run on top of your current system. Even if you have one computer, you can simulate dozens of computers (assuming you have enough hard drive space and RAM to harbor all of them) with virtualization. You still may be confused as to what I mean, so I am going to introduce virtualization using a series of screenshots and descriptions. The software that I use to accomplish virtualization is called VMware, but an alternative is VirtualPC. Both work fundamentally the same and their only differences are irrelevant to most normal computer users. The reason I use VMware is because of the snapshot feature that makes this particular anti-spyware method easier to implement.

Before I get started, I just want to introduce two popular vocabulary words. A “host system” is the system that runs the virtual computers inside it; in other words, it is your “real” computer. The “guest system”, on the other hand, is the virtual system itself (the “fake” computer). I will use the host/guest words to refer to the different systems from now on, instead of real/fake.

Beginning the VMware program works the same as any program. I simply click the icon on my host computer’s desktop (this was setup when I installed VMware).

When the program is opened, it looks like follows:

I chose to open a virtual machine. If I wanted to, I could have previously put the desired virtual machine in the favorites panel you can see in the screenshot above. I didn’t because I wanted to show you that this virtual machine is simply a file on my host computer.

The following screenshot shows the main screen you get after opening any virtual machine file. If I were to close the program at this point and reopen it, it would bring me right to this screen. VMware remembers your last virtual machine and will show you the main screen for that machine whenever you start the program.

Because I want to simply demonstrate what a virtual machine is, I just pressed “Start this virtual machine”. I won’t bother with the other buttons for now, and you will rarely have to worry about them at all. What then occurs is the VMWare program displays its logo as it is starting up the Virtual machine. This is the same as Dell or HP displays its logo when you power on your actual computer.

After the VMware logo is displayed, the virtual machine then proceeds to boot, just like any computer would boot. Because this virtual machine has Windows XP Pro on it, the screen shows the Windows logo that all of you XP users will be familiar with.

From here, the computer finishes booting. I have automatic logon enabled on the guest system, so I don’t get the Windows XP logon screen that some of you probably are familiar with. Instead, it goes straight to my desktop. This is a pretty fresh Windows install so it still has the green pastures as the desktop, and I have yet to turn off the automatic updates notifier. The only thing I did was install Firefox (something anyone who cares about spyware prevention should do).

Now, to actually use the guest system, I have to click anywhere inside the area that it is being displayed. This causes VMware to “capture” the keyboard and mouse of my computer. Now if I press the Windows key (which brings up the start menu), it will do so inside the virtual machine and not on my actual computer. Anything I type will appear inside that window. Also, my mouse cursor will be restricted to that small area and cannot leave the virtual area. The way you release your mouse and keyboard so you can use your underlying (host) system again is by pressing CTRL+ALT. That instructs VMware that you want your keyboard and mouse back in your real system.

Working inside that little box is no fun. It is even worse if you have the same screen resolution on your virtual machine as you do with your main system, as then the box that displays the virtual machine will have scrollbars and some of the screen will not be showing. To combat this, VMWare has a full screen mode. By pressing the button that is highlighted in the below screenshot, the virtual machine expands to the entire screen. When you are in full screen mode, you can fool anyone, as the virtual machine will look exactly like a real computer. You can escape full screen mode by using the same CTRL+ALT key combination.

Going to the start menu and pressing shut down within the virtual machine will proceed to shut the system down. When it is finished, you will be back to the main screen of VMWare shown a few screenshots up.

That’s all there is to using a virtual machine. You should now have a more clear idea as to what a virtual machine is. Just think of it as a fake computer that is inside your main computer and you will rarely get confused. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that it is a completely separate computer. As far as the local area network goes, it will appear to be a separate machine. Also, it shares no files or settings with your actual underlying system. That is an important concept to grasp before we move on.

All of this talk of virtualization may have you confused. What does it have anything to do with spyware? Virtualization can be used for many things. For example, IT professionals use it to test software before using it on production machines. Help desk personnel use virtualization to have various versions of Windows a mouse click away so they can give exact instructions over the phone without having more than one computer. Virtualizing servers is also becoming popular nowadays because it is more secure and easier to recover from a disaster. After all, if your virtual computer is taken over, it doesn’t do any harm to your main system. With proper firewall rules, virtual servers can be completely contained from a network. The same idea can be applied to home users, except instead of hosting a server all we will be virtualizing is an Internet computer.

That is, we can setup a virtual computer that has nothing but Windows XP and the Internet on it. Then, we can browse the Internet to our heart’s content. Even if some spyware slips between the cracks, it will never affect our underlying system with all of our files and important data. Far too many times are people required to reformat their hard drives and reinstall Windows because they caught a bad case of spyware or were infected by some nasty virus. If the same thing happened in a virtual machine, it would require you to do the same thing… except virtually. That means that reinstalling Windows in your virtual machine will have no effect on your files on your main system.

VMware also has a new feature called snapshots that rids the need of reformatting even the virtual system. Simply put, if your virtual computer gets all kinds of spyware or viruses, you can simply revert to the latest snapshot (before all the spyware showed up). It works sort of like Windows Restore should work, but I think we all know that Windows Restore doesn’t help the spyware problem. In the next post I am going to give step-by-step instructions to implement this snapshot system with VMware.


Posted in Howto's, Tech | Comments Off

You Know You’re Obsessed with VMWare When…

Written by rob on January 25, 2007 – 8:25 pm -

You get an error message that looks like this:

Can't Run a Virtual PC inside a Virtual PC!


Posted in Tech | Comments Off

New Versions of Everything

Written by rob on January 24, 2007 – 1:43 pm -

So, there now seems to be a new version of everything under the sun coming out.

First of all, WordPress 2.1 is immediately available as of yesterday. I already updated. Though I can’t really notice much different, it does seem a lot faster when going to write a new post. It does have some new features (see full changelog here), but not really anything that will affect me (like spell check… Firefox 2.0 did that a while ago). It also lets you post things without a category, and let’s you set any page to the home page of the blog (so it will not necessarily show the latest posts). This is important for me, especially, since I use WordPress as the homepage of my overall site. I don’t know if I’ll ever use the feature, but it represents a powerful step forward… WordPress can now be considered a pretty decent content management system, aside from just a blogging engine.

They also changed how you make posts… now you view it in HTML (minus the BR and P tags). I don’t really mind this, except the new interface for adding links doesn’t give you any options (other than the URL). Previous versions let you “open link in new window” and put in a description of the link, features that I used. I am disappointed to see this, and hope they change it back. One other new feature that is pretty nice is the auto-saving of the post as you type. Now no more killing people when your 1500 word post is lost!

The next big update came today for PS3. Although still not listed on Sony’s official site for such things, Ars Technica has written about the new fixes. The largest thing is the alleged fix to backwards compatibility. Sony haters have taken every chance to point out that PS2 games look poor on PS3, and some even have bigger problems (such as audio glitches). The blog post states that the graphical problems have been almost completely fixed. They also note faster Playstation Store speeds, which is very good considering it was almost unusable. The Store is still rather lacking in the content department though (the same demos have been on there since day one, with few exceptions). I’m still hoping for a huge update to add the covetted Dashboard feature from 360. I don’t care if the haters call it copying… it is a feature that any console aiming to be a media center should have.

Finally, the largest of the three updates that I am bringing up in this post, is coming out January 30, 2007, which is less than a week away. It is the much anticipated and also much delayed update to Microsoft’s flagship product, the Windows operating system. The update of which I speak is Windows Vista, which will come out with myriad versions and likely require most users to upgrade their computers to fully enjoy it. I happen to be running Vista Ultimate already (and eventually plan to shift to Vista Enterprise when my 30-day trial runs out), and I’m enjoying it. The biggest set-backs are compatibility with my iPod and the fact that games don’t run too well. I am pretty sure the game issue is due to the beta, and thus not optimized, video card driver.

I’m excited about the launch because I know that Apple will soon roll out a Vista-compatible iTunes/iPod driver, and that ATI will hopefully upgrade their driver. When Vista goes mainstream, big developers (both hardware and software) are going to have to address it, which means all the shortcomings that I experience now will be gone. Though Vista isn’t revolutionary or necessary, it has some much-needed features that you shouldn’t be left without. While I still prefer Mac OSX (and look forward to Leopard on my future MacBook Pro), I’m a PC gamer and thus need Vista in order to experience the next-gen (Direct X 10… Crysis, anyone?).

That’s it for now. Once Vista is launched, I plan on updating everyone on whether or not the iPod issues are addressed. Also, I will make a brief write-up about Vista Enterprise once it comes to that. It is in some ways even better than Ultimate, minus the Media Center. Without a TV tuner, though, I won’t be missing the Media Center too much. As for PS3, I’m still waiting for the dashboard (and rumor has it that February will bring with it the location-free-esque Remote Play for PSP).


Posted in Gaming, Tech | Comments Off

Apple Announces New Products

Written by rob on January 9, 2007 – 8:00 pm -

Today at the MacWorld Expo in San Francisco, Apple announced a few new notable products: the iPhone, Apple TV, and a new version of the Airport Extreme. For a full breakdown of each, you can click their links to be taken to the section of Apple’s site discussing them.

Starting at the least impressive… the new Airport Extreme is Apple’s response to Linksys’s (other manufacturers do it now, too) wireless-N-enabled routers that have superior range and speed to normal Wi-Fi connections. It uses the same technology as the Linksys’s do, the 802.11n standard. It isn’t really anything new, and so it isn’t much to get excited over. I personally feel that the only innovative thing Apple did with respect to wireless is the Airport Express (that lets you stream music wirelessly to a stereo, and also easily share a USB printer).

Next up is the Apple TV. This device, much like the above mentioned Airport Express, lets you wirelessly stream media from your iTunes-enabled wireless-equipped computer to your television. The idea is that any video available to iTunes on your computer can be downloaded and subsequently streamed to your TV. It sounds like a great idea, except it is $299. I don’t know about you, but there are plenty of other devices that offer similar functionality for less of a price. Also, “stream” is used relatively. You actually have to sync files to the devices hard drive first before you play them, which simply means that you wirelessly transfer videos to be played from an internal hard drive. For some reason I think Tivo can do that, though I’m not positive. (EDIT: You actually can stream… I just watched the keynote and it turns out that you can stream from up to five computers, and can sync with one.) I should also note that PS3 can stream and sync media if you install Linux (it can do the playing media files part out of the box, but to be able to transfer from a computer to the PS3 wirelessly you would need to setup a file server of sorts, which is only available through Linux as of now; to stream you would need VLC).

Beyond that, this device requires videos to be in iTunes first before being streamer. That means that the videos will have to be encoded in MPEG-4 format, likely using H.264. Not that it is a horrible format, but DivX and XVid are the chief file formats used nowadays for video. The Apple TV also has 720p output at the TV end using either Component or HDMI cables. Yet, the videos downloadable on iTunes are 640×480 the last time I checked. I don’t know how nice 640×480 content will look upscaled to 720p. It probably won’t be horrific, considering DVDs are 720×480 and they seem to be upscaled pretty good. Nonetheless, playing upscaled content on your new $300 piece of hardware seems a little ridiculous. Maybe that is a sign that Apple will have HD content available on the store soon? You’d think you could play true HD files for that price. Also, I hope the 40GB drive can be upgraded later on (either officially or otherwise), since I know real home theatre media center users will require a lot more than that. (EDIT: It can support 1280×720 files, but they must be H.264 as originally imagined. I don’t think iTunes has those files available yet, but I’m sure it will soon to keep up with the HD era. Until then, you can encode your own.)

Last, but certainly not least, is the iPhone. Do yourself a favor and go to Apple’s site for the iPhone (linked to at the start of this article) to check out the gallery of pictures. What this thing looks like is utterly amazing. It is essentially just a screen in a shiny black bezel that shows on-screen buttons that activate to your touch. This is, for all intents and purposes, the widescreen/touchscreen Video iPod everyone was expecting. Except it is a phone, too. And a web browser. And an e-mail client. And it runs OSX. The point is, this device does a lot. It is akin to the Treo devices offered by Palm, the Blackjack offered by Samsung/Cingular, and the Q from Motorola. Except, like all things Apple, looks and feels a million times sleeker than everyone else’s products. It also helps that it has uber-cool sensors built in that automatically detects when you rotate it from portrait to landscape mode (and adjusts the on-screen image accordingly). It can also detect when you bring it up toward your ear to talk, and will automatically turn off the screen to save power and prevent you from accidentally hitting the touch-sensitive on-screen buttons. These nifty features sound like something out of a sci-fi magazine.

While I would be lying if I said I didn’t want one of these, the device, still unreleased, has some obvious problems. The most obvious is the price. Available in two models, the iPhone can be $499 or $599. Sounds kind of like something else (*cough*PS3*cough*). That said, the two different models differ in only one aspect, storage space. This brings me to the next inherent problem with the device. It comes in a 4GB and 8GB version, respective to the prices above. The reason this is a problem should be obvious… this thing does everything. It is a widescreen iPod capable of playing video, music, photos, etc. It can organize your life with Contacts, a Calendar, Notes, etc. It acts as an e-mail client and thus allows you to store all your e-mails on it. All of this takes up space, but none more than the iPod functionality. I am already using 8GB of space on my iPod Video 30GB. That includes just my music and three videos. And I only have 1500 songs, something that most people would laugh at. The point is… there is no way you can expect a device that will hold videos to have sufficient storage in 8GB. Am I going to pay $600 to have maybe five movies and some music in my pocket? I don’t think so. Keep in mind that the $600 price is only if you get a 2-year contract with Cingular, and obviously doesn’t include the service costs of this Internet-enabled device. This is going to be reserved for those of us with a lot of cash… that much is certain.

I really wish they would have an iPod with the touchscreen feature, and an 80GB hard drive like the current-gen $349 iPod Video has. I would like all of the features of the iPhone in an iPod-like device, but you can keep the phone functionality. With the steep price and the small storage space, the iPhone becomes pretty useless to the average consumer. It will definitely be a gadget that could “wow” anyone in the room, but I don’t think it is worth the money. That thing needs a hard drive.


Posted in Tech | Comments Off

Howto: Dual-Boot Windows Vista and XP

Written by rob on December 23, 2006 – 11:50 am -

From what I’ve heard, the easiest way to dual-boot Vista and XP is to let Windows XP remain on its partition (assuming you already have XP installed and want to keep that installation), and then install Vista on another partition. Vista automatically creates the boot menu for you, and it works perfectly.

Unfortunately, I installed Vista when none of my other hard drives were connected (to try to prevent data loss). I also didn’t have any XP installs on the other hard drives that were worth booting. This left me with no automagically-working boot menu. So, I installed XP on a second hard drive, and then restored the Vista boot record by using the Vista install disc (so the computer wouldn’t just boot to XP). This got me back into Vista, but still no boot menu. What is a guy to do? Hit up Google.

I went through some of Google’s top entries. Most of them were complex procedures dealing with a utility called “bcdedit” that is run from the command line under Vista. Despite the complexity, I still tried it, but to no avail. Some more searching led me to a utility called VistaBootPRO, which promised to take the bcdedit procedure and make it easier. While it did make it as easy as a drop-down menu and the click of a button, it still failed to create a working boot entry. I also was led to a Microsoft Knowledge Base article that is dedicated to this particular topic (click here). It, however, did not help. It seems that few people actually understand the voodoo behind the new BCD that Vista uses instead of boot.ini. After browsing more forum posts and trying a combination of everything, I seem to have found the working formula. Below is the step-by-step guide to getting Vista and XP to dual-boot if you installed XP after Vista like so many of us did (especially when we realized that Vista can not sync with iPod).

  1. When you turn your computer on, does it boot into XP or Vista? If Vista, you can skip to step 7. If XP, then continued with step 2. (Note that even if it does boot Vista, no harm will be done by following the below steps, and you might as well do them if you want to make sure this procedure works. I haven’t tried doing the procedure without steps 2-6.)
  2. Insert your Windows Vista DVD into the computer. When prompted to press any key to boot from CD/DVD, do so. A Vista boot menu will come up asking you to select either the x86 or x64 installation; choose the one that pertains to your Vista install. From there, the setup will load, until you are finally presented with a box asking for language information. Confirm your language, then press OK. A new box will come up with the option to Install Vista Now. Do not choose that; instead, select Repair Installation at the bottom. It will search for Windows installs. It may or may not recognize the XP install, and it may or may not tell you that the install needs to repair. Cancel any box asking you to “repair and restart”, and simply choose your Windows Vista install in the box. Press OK, and then select “Command line” from the dialog box to open up the command line.
  3. In the command line, you should be in a directory on the CD. For example, I was in some directory like H:/sources/vista/x86 (or something along those lines). The important thing to note is that your drive letter may be completely different. (One way to make sure you are indeed in the Vista drive is to use the “dir” command. If you hear the CD drive spinning, then you are in the right drive. If not, you can change to it by typing “H:” or whatever your drive letter is and pressing enter.) To go up a directory from the command line, you must use the command “cd ..”. Type in that command and press enter. Continue to type the command until your current directory is only the drive letter. In my case, the prompt would look like “H:\>”, but again, your letter may vary. We now want to change to the “boot” directory, so type the command “cd boot”.
  4. Now we are in the boot directory of the Windows install DVD. This is where the fun begins. We first need to restore the MBR. This is the part of the hard drive that tells the computer what OS to boot. When you installed XP, XP overwrote the MBR and this caused the computer to ignore Vista completely. We can fix that with one simple command. Type in “bootrec /FixMbr” and press enter. It should tell you that the operating completed successfully. Also, issue the command “bootrec /FixBoot”. With those two commands, Vista should be ready to boot when you restart the computer.
  5. Before we restart, there are a few more things we can do to ensure the success of the next few steps. The reason we went into the “boot” directory of the CD is to access a utility called “bootsect”. This restores the boot code. I don’t think this is extremely necessary, but Microsoft includes it in the knowledge base article I linked to from above, so it must have some use. To use the tool, just type the command “bootsect /NT60 all”. It should say operating successfully completed for each of your partitions. I also like to use “bootsect /NT60 C: /force” just for good measure, so use that as well.
  6. Now we are ready to start the real magic. Type “exit” and press enter. In the dialog box that you are brought back to, press Restart. Either remove the DVD from the drive or just don’t press any key when prompted to on the restart. Let it boot from the hard drive. You should now be able to get into Vista.
  7. Here is where the fun begins. Instead of following Microsoft’s procedure of using bcdedit, we will use a program that makes everything easier. I initially used VistaBootPRO, but I recommend EasyBCD… it just seems more user-friendly. Download and install that.
  8. With EasyBCD started up (Windows UAP will require you to Allow it), select “Add/Remove Entries” on the side bar. This brings up a few options. The only one we need to concern ourselves with is the “Add an Entry” menu at the bottom of the screen. Windows is already selected, so that doesn’t need to be changed. Select “Windows NT/2k/Xp/2k3″ as the version. For the drive letter, type the drive letter of your Windows XP install followed by a colon and a backslash. My XP install was D, so I typed in “D:\”. Name it whatever you want; I used “Windows XP Pro” as the name. Finally, press Add Entry.
  9. What we now have is a boot menu that let’s you choose either Vista or XP Pro. However, if you try to restart now and select XP, you will get an error. The same thing would happen if you followed Microsoft’s knowledge base article. The part that everyone seems to omit is that you must copy three files from your Windows Vista drive to your Windows XP drive. I give credit to “Computer Guru” (the creator of EasyBCD), because he directed someone to copy these files on the NeoSmart forums.
  10. Before the files can be copied, you must be able to see them. Unfortunately, they are hidden since they are important OS-related files. To view them, open up Control Panel within Vista and go to Folder Options. In the view tab, there is a list of options with checkbox. Uncheck the box next to “Hide protected operating system files”. A dialog box will confirm, so press Yes. Now you can press Apply and close the window.
  11. Now open up Computer from the start-menu. Double-click your Vista system drive. Now go back to the Computer window and double-click your XP system drive. With both open, you are ready to drag-and-drop the files. The three files we need are: “boot.ini”, “ntldr”, and “NTDETECT.COM”. Select the first one in the Vista drive window, hold down the control key, and then select the other two. When all three are selected, make sure you have both the Vista and XP drive windows visible so you can drag and drop the files from the Vista drive to the XP drive. Windows UAP will require you to confirm the operation, so do so. Vista will then copy those files to the XP drive.
  12. Now, after all that, you should have a working boot menu. Restart your computer and test booting into both XP and Vista. It should work like a charm!

Note: If you have the desire to keep some file synchronized between your XP and Vista installed (like, say, your iTunes folder), it seems that Microsoft has an incredible fast and powerful tool for just that called SyncToy. Give it a shot!


Posted in Howto's, Tech | 7 Comments »

Windows Vista: The Future?

Written by rob on December 21, 2006 – 8:57 pm -

I acquired a retail version of Windows Vista and installed it on my main computer. I knew if I put it on a spare I wouldn’t use it nearly enough to test it out to the full extent. I’m essentially using Vista as my main OS now. I don’t even have a dual-boot setup for XP (though I’m going to set that up over the weekend… you’ll read why soon).

My first impressions were very praising. The installation is much more polished. You are in the “blue screen” (just text, no pictures) a lot less than in the XP install. It wastes no time getting you to a beautiful-looking installer. The process is exactly the same… you specify a partition on which to install, choose some language and time zone settings, and input your CD key. Nothing new, but a lot more attractive.

Once I rebooted into the system for the first time, I was in for a pleasant surprise. The first thing I do whenever I install a fresh copy of Windows is open up Device manager. I guess you could call it a habit, but it was for really good reason. In XP, I usually had about 8-10 “yellow exclamation marks”, each of which represented a device that was not recognized and needed drivers. The pleasant surprise that I referenced was the fact that there were only two such unrecognized devices in Vista: my video card, and an “unknown device” (this device is unknown to me even now, and was unknown to XP as well. I honestly have no clue what it is… I assume it is some built-in component to my motherboard that I don’t know about). In reality, then, there was only one driver I had to install. Opening up Internet Explorer 7, I quickly headed over to “getfirefox.com” and downloaded Firefox 2.0. Then I used Firefox to download the ATI Vista Beta drivers. It felt great to get on the Internet without any configuration. In XP and all previous Windows OSes, I had to put in my motherboard CD and install ethernet network drivers. Once that was done, I restarted and enabled Aeroglass.

The first thing I wanted to learn how to do in Aeroglass was the cool 3D window changer thing. I can’t really explain it any other way, but I soon learned that the keyboard shortcut was Windows+Tab (as opposed to the Alt+Tab most gamers are aware of in XP and other Windows OSes). What it does is show you all your open Windows, but all of them are slanted and stacked one behind each other. If you keep the Windows key suppressed and then press tab again, it switches to the next window. You can use this method to change to whichever Window you wish. This really helps when you have over a dozen windows open and want to, for example, change your song in iTunes without dealing with the crowded taskbar or finding the buried window under everything else. Beyond this 3D effect, Aeroglass has a couple more. Any time a window or dialog box comes up or is closed, it basically fades into nothing. Closing a window isn’t particularly cool, but the effect looks really neat when opening a window. The best thing is Firefox, because as soon as it fades in, it loads the homepage. It’s hard to describe, but it makes you feel like the Internet just pops onto your monitor. The transparency of some windows and the title bar is minimal… you definitely notice it, but it doesn’t really faze me either way.

Going back to the Device Manager I mentioned before, or rather any Control Panel. Vista has the two Control Panel display modes like XP does… the “modern” and “classic” views. I continue to use classic. However, it is notable that a lot of settings are in different areas, even famous and commonly used ones. For example, Add & Remove Programs has been renamed to “Programs and Features”. Also, Display changed to “Personalize”. The names are probably better, but it takes some getting used to, since you get lost when a commonly used feature is moved. If you are the kind of person who doesn’t learn fast, you might have quite a learning curve ahead of you for Vista.

One thing you will notice immediately with Vista as you begin to use it, aside from the obvious visual changes, is the constant pop-up messages asking for your permission to do things. Windows Vista has employed a new technology called User Account Protection (UAP). Basically, every time you do something “outside your sandbox (home folder)”, Vista asks you about it. For example, renaming a file in Program Files would require you to say “Continue” at a prompt. Beyond this, when you run a program that requires administrative powers over your computer, you must press “Allow” to let it do its thing. This may sound like a waste of time and a general annoyance. For day-to-day use, it probably is. However, assume that you got a virus in an e-mail. Using an unknown exploit in Outlook, the virus runs without you knowing. BUT, before it can run, Windows would pop up one of these messages. If you get in the habit of reading the name of the program that wants to run, and NOT pressing Allow when it is an unknown program, then the virus would be useless and unable to do anything. That means that even when your Anti-virus program fails to find a virus, Windows would still let you know that some program is trying to do something. This makes it theoretically impossible for spyware and viruses to exist in Vista. Surely some hackers will find ways around this, but this UAP business seems to be a good step forward. I just fear that most home users will get annoyed by it and subsequently press Allow to anything. (One other thing to note is that most legacy [Windows XP and older] applications require Administrative privileges to run. Not a big deal for a home user, but a serious inconvenience for multi-user network environments where Admin privileges aren’t given out like candy.)

Some other features of Vista are available in the new programs included. Windows Mail is equivalent to Outlook Express, but in my opinion is more sleek and feature-filled. There is also Windows Calendar and Windows Contacts, which are nice answers to Apple’s included programs (iCal and Address Book respectively). There is a program called Windows Photo Gallery, which is a surprisingly deep photo album management application (think Picasa or iPhoto). I use Adobe Lightroom Beta, but I may soon switch to Photo Gallery after my Lightroom beta expires simply because of the easy integration with the Windows operating system. Finally (there are a lot more, but I don’t find them that earth-shattering), there is Backup and Restore. It may not sound as nice as a cool Photo Gallery program, but this is something that Windows XP and others have always lacked: a good and built-in (free) way to backup files. I had been using various Linux options to image my system in the past because I didn’t want to pay for something like Symantec Livestate (formerly Ghost), but Vista includes something equally as well. While the interface is simple, you can do full image backups or just file/folder backups, all within Windows without restarting or anything. Plus, you can setup schedules. It makes it easy to backup, which is a huge step forward as information security and integrity becomes more and more of an issue.

I have gone through the features that stick out to me as major new features and nice additions. There are hundreds more of improvements and new features, but I either have no discovered them yet or find them unworthy to mention. Either way, don’t hold what I said above as the be-all end-all list of new Vista features. That said, I have only gone over the good. As with anything, there is the other side… the bad. So, let’s dive into it, shall we?

The first real issue I noticed was game performance. Now, the only game I have tried so far is Need for Speed: Most Wanted. If you are unaware, this high-speed racing game is fairly modern in terms of graphics, and is somewhat demanding in terms of system resources. That said, my old computer (before upgrading) ran it fine without a single frame drop (granted I was on 1024×768 with medium settings). With my new computer, I was able to crank it up to High with everything but AA and AF. However, with Vista, things don’t go too well. I was running the game at 1024×768 with medium settings (like the old computer), but it has consistent framerate issues. In a super-fast-paced racing game like it is, where the background blurs due to your speed, a drop in framerate is blatantly obvious (more so than say, a strategy game like Civ 4). I even put the settings on low, but to no avail. It just seems to have a low overall framerate. This is probably due to the fact that Vista uses Direct X 10 and probably doesn’t support Direct X 9 to the fullest. It may also be the beta video card drivers that are not fully optimized for Vista. I don’t know the true reason, but the result is obvious… current, modern games may have issues on Vista. This is one reason why I am going to soon have a XP dual-boot option (gotta play that Splinter Cell Double Agent soon).

The games issue is pretty huge, but since I recently got Playstation 3, I’m not really playing PC games often enough for it to bother me yet. That leads me to the thing that really kills me, and makes a dual-boot almost a necessity. Are you ready for it? Just wait… OK, take a deep breath. Vista does NOT support iPods. That’s right. No iPod. iTunes installs and runs perfectly (I’m listening to music on it now). However, the iPod is a no go. Plugging it in charges the iPod, but the “Do not disconnect” screen never comes up, iTunes never recognizes it, Windows never recognizes it, etc. Windows does show iPod under Device Manager, but it doesn’t mount as a hard drive and is never visible under iTunes (or even Windows Media Player, which is known to recognize iPod in XP). Looking on the Apple Discussion boards, it seems to be a problem for everyone. Not very good at all :( It seems unlikely that Apple will even begin to care about the issue until Vista is released to the public. That means that by the time most people get Vista, the iPod will probably be working. However, us early adopters are going to have to live without iPod syncing (which isn’t really possible). So… better get that XP Pro disc back out.

In conclusion, Vista is pretty great. It has a lot of forward-looking features such as UAP and excellent device recognizability. Aeroglass is nice eye-candy for those of you with capable 3D cards, but it’s nothing to write home about (and it will probably take awhile before the 3D window switcher becomes second-nature). As expected, there ARE a lot of changes, and a lot of things people will need to get used to. All of that said, there are certainly problems at this point. Game performance is weak as of now, and the lack of iPod support will turn a lot of music lovers off (Zune support was originally lacking as well, but Microsoft quickly solved that). By the time February rolls around and Vista hits store shelves, I expect the operating system’s drivers and software support to be a lot better. Until then, I’ll be using XP for game and iPod, and Vista for everything else.

Note: If you have Vista and are interested in dual-booting XP, see my other article about it here.


Posted in Tech | Comments Off

MediaCoder Review

Written by rob on October 15, 2006 – 11:25 am -

I saw a program Friday on Lifehacker called MediaCoder. When Lifehacker raves about a program, it is usually a very good thing. I was hoping MediaCoder would be no exception. This is a program that aims to allow someone to convert any type of video or audio to pretty much any other type of video or audio. But, you may say, there are hundreds of programs that do that. While you are correct, not all of them are free. More importantly, not all of them are easy to use. One program I have used before is River Past’s Video Cleaner. While it works, it requires a lot of messing around to actually produce working video. I used it mainly to convert XVid to Premiere-importable video, and it took a long time to get it working. The point is that Video Cleaner is both hard to use and costs money, in contrast to MediaCoder’s free and easy-to-use interface. (I do want to add that River Past’s Audio Convertor is probably the best around and I highly recommend it.)

Claims are all well and good, but how does MediaCoder actually perform? I put it to the test by performing a task that I do often, and one that I cover on this site often: iPod Video conversion. While Videora is free, it is lacking that “easy-to-use” aspect. While I debunked most of the difficulty, there are still a lot of difficult settings to work with in an interface that makes you jump from screen to screen. MediaCoder claims to make the process very easy, so I put it to the test by converted the movie Fearless with Jet Li.

I installed MediaCoder using all of the default installation settings. I noticed Mplayer was installed with the program, which is how I suspect the program does the actual transcoding. Anyway, I opened up the program. The first thing that I noticed that was particularly strange is that it opens up in your web browser, showing a window that is basically asking you to donate. That’s nice. I scrolled down and pressed the button to “Start MediaCoder”. The actual program then started. I right-clicked on the open white area and was presented with a large context menu. The only thing I did was press “Change Output Directory”, and then set it to my Desktop. I recommend you do the same. After that, I simply drug my AVI file into the white area, and an entry appeared. I clicked once on the entry to select it, and then went over to the Devices menu. I chose plug-ins from the drop-down, and finally “Digital Media Player”. Why they call it Digital media player as opposed to iPod Video, I have no idea, considering they have a picture of an iPod in the screen that comes up.

In that screen, I changed the bitrate to 384 kbps just because this was a test and not a real important video for me. The default values would be appropriate for most situations, which is something I like a lot. Then I simply pressed the “Start” button, which I feel was much too small. Despite this, the transcoding process then began. I waited.

About thirty-six minutes later, it was done. I don’t know about you, but 36 minutes of transcoding for a 100 minute movie is pretty good. It’s about the same as Videora with comparable settings. I haven’t tried doing the same movie with both, so I can’t tell for sure if either one is faster than the other. It definitely isn’t slower, though. Anyway, I drug the video into iTunes. Or at least I tried to. It wasn’t working. I then tried to play it in VLC Player and it also did not work. Hmm.

So, I tried to redo everything, and this time I chose to use the H264 encoding as opposed to the MP4. This took longer, at 74 minutes, but still did not work. For now, I have given up on using it for iPod converting. I already know how to use Videora, and at least Videora works. I will try to convert my next Premiere video file with MediaCoder and will update this review. However, right now it seems like the program is a lot more dificult to use than originally stated. I really don’t feel like messing with it now simply because I have other programs that do the same thing and work (Video Cleaner and Videora).


Posted in Tech | Comments Off