G3-Optimized Firefox

Written by rob on December 31, 2006 – 3:01 pm -

After realizing that some people actually make use of my G3-optimized Firefox builds (other than me), I decided to make a habit out of releasing a build for each Firefox release. I am posting this entry from my newly built Firefox optimized for G3. This time, since I simply updated the source tree and recompiled as opposed to compiled from scratch, it only took about two hours and forty-five minutes, as opposed to five hours. Dedicating about three hours to create these builds with every Firefox release isn’t a big deal at all, especially if people make use of them.

You can download the new build by clicking here.

Posted in Optimized Firefox | 5 Comments »

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.

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Playstation 3 is the Devil

Written by rob on December 8, 2006 – 4:34 pm -

Maybe it’s just my inner fanboy coming out, but what is the deal with all the negative Playstation 3 press? There are countless articles stating “Wii and 360 beat PS3 sales”, “PS3 sales not meeting expectations”, and just general “PS3 disappoints” articles. And the sad thing is that most of the articles are using ideologies that are completely unwarranted and devoid of reason.

One article concludes that the Nintendo Wii is the best console because it sold more units than the Playstation 3. I’m sorry, but less sales does not mean less demand. The problem with the PS3 is that the manufacturing was a lot later and slower than imagined, and thus only about 200,000 units shipped to the United States. On the other hand, about 600,000 Wii units shipped. While those numbers may be off, it is irrelevant for the point. Just because more units were shipped, and thus sold, does not mean anything about the console’s quality or the demand for it. Also keep in mind that Nintendo’s launch estimates were not met either, so the media has no right to negatively report on the Sony shortages.

If three million each of Wiis and PS3s were shipped, I guarantee you that all of them would sell. It is not until the units are in stock for more than three minutes that people will be able to deduct the winner in terms of popularity. Simply put, every unit that is shipped in the next three months is going to be sold within a few hours at the max. There is an insatiable demand for both systems, despite the vast disparity between their prices and intended audiences.

That being said, there are also negative articles regarding the latest PS3 firmware release, dubbed version 1.30. This firmware was released with the major focus on fixing a problem with 1080i (a particular high definition variant) televisions and particular games. The problem resulted in content being downscaled to 480p (equivalent to a current-gen DVD, and is not considered high-definition). Sony’s rather rough fix merely reordered the priority of the screen resolutions. This solved the 1080i problem, but created issues for 720p owners (which is the vast majority). While I am not defending Sony, because I will probably be affected by this ill-conceived patch, I think it is irresponsible for the media to decimate Sony for releasing a patch that doesn’t necessarily fix things all the way. Microsoft does it all the time with Windows, and to be fair so does Apple.

More importantly, Nintendo also has a problem, but it is with the accessory and not the software. Their controller strap seems to be too weak, and may snap given undue stress that some enthusiastic gamers put on it. The problem with this is that when the strap breaks, the controller often goes flying across the room and may break something (including your TV). This problem that I consider to be a lot more earth-shattering (or TV-shattering, as the case may be) has received little to no mainstream media attention, while the PS3 720p hiccup (that can be easily worked around, I might add) is being bashed by everyone with a blog.

Yes, this is a little rant. I just wanted to express my opinion. I think it is ridiculous that everyone is taking sucker-punches at the PS3 when the Nintendo Wii is suffering from similar ills. Before the release of the two systems, people were ganging up on the PS3. Now, it seems to have come to fruition. However, it doesn’t stop the hoards of people from buying the PS3s as soon as they are released onto Best Buy’s floors, even if those PS3s are in sparse numbers.

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