State of the Game: Playstation 3

Written by rob on April 10, 2007 – 11:26 pm -

UPDATE (04-13-07): Sony has officially axed the 20GB model in North America. No longer will those models be shipped to any retailers. For the reasons stated below in the original article, this is absolutely ridiculous. This single move may mark the end of Playstation 3. I know you thought you’d never hear me say this, but Sony is dead wrong. What they have essentially done is taken the easy way out. While they could have launched a huge marketing campaign to educate the general public about the 20GB PS3 (it would be seen as a price cut, since most people claim the PS3 is $599 while it can [or could have been, before this shocking move] be had for $499) and in the process improve their current bad public image, they instead decided to just can the whole thing.

Because sales were low, they made the move that I predict will have huge consequences. $599 is a ridiculous price for a gaming console (especially when said console has so few good games), while $499 is only $100 away from the technologically-inferior Xbox 360. In a perfect world, Sony’s announcement would tell of the dropping of the 60GB SKU instead of the 20GB one. I look to the future with woe and hopelessness; MGS4 and Home may not be able to cure this damage. I can safely say, all Sony fanboyism aside, that I would not buy a PS3 if I were currently in the market. That extra $100 makes a huge difference, especially considering the fact that there are only one or two good exclusive games, a number that won’t grow to anything substantial for at least a year.

Note that this announcement makes the second rant/argument in the following article (about the 20GB version’s superiority) pretty irrelevant, considering buying one in the near future will be impossible.

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I have decided to start a new type of column that would allow me to focus more on gaming, something that I have gotten away from in the recent posting. Dubbed “State of the Game”, it will focus on various aspects of gaming and discuss the latest news about it. All of this will of course be bundled with my commentary on the many issues.

First up is a subject of so much controversy and debate that it is almost scandalous: the Playstation 3. Released in Japan and the United States in November of 2006, the system has been selling relatively well. It was released in Europe, although in a modified form (no Emotion Engine inside, meaning no hardware PS2 emulations, which in turn means less PS2 games work on it) on March 23, 2007, and it’s launch cannot be seen as anything other than a success. There are many videos and pictures floating around on the Internet that show stores with tons of the systems on the shelves. While they are authentic pictures, the context must be considered.

Europe has never been a huge consumer base for gaming, and it doesn’t seem like it can ever catch up to the US and Japan. Unfortunately for those who do live there, this lesser demand means that almost all of their games are released months, if not years, later. This is seen with the PS3, as it was released over four months after the original US release. That said, this relative lack of gaming consumerism in Europe means that the sale of any system on launch day and the few weeks following will usually pale in comparison to US figures. Even so, the numbers for Europe are not at all measly. In all of Europe, the system sold 600,000 units during its launch weekend, about 150,000 of which were in the UK. This is pretty much equivalent to the US numbers, showing how well the system did considering the fewer consumer base. Interestingly enough, as those many Internet photos didn’t hesitate to point out, there was a surplus of systems. The game system did not sell out at launch, so everyone dubbed it a failed launch. That couldn’t be further from the truth, as the PS3 launch numbers in the UK dwarfed both the Wii and 360 launch. In fact, it was the largest launch in the country’s history for any video game console.

Aside from the Sony haters erroneously claiming that the European launch was a failure, there has been a recent retail trend that I care to point out and comment on. As you are likely aware, the Playstation 3 is available in two models: the $499 version that includes a 20GB hard drive in addition to the system itself and a wireless controller, and the $599 version that includes a 60Gb hard drive, the system itself, a wireless controller, a wireless internet adapter, media card readers for various types of flash media (MS, SD, CF, etc.), and of course the all-important chrome trimming on the exterior. While it may initially seem that the $599 is obviously better choice, you must consider what exactly it is that it gives you. All chrome trimming aside, it gives you 40GB more of hard drive space, the wireless internet adapter, and the media card readers. All of that is for $100. I, however, believe that the $599 version is a complete rip-off and that any gamer, no matter what their situation, should purchase the $499 version.

My rationale is simple. The chrome trimming is obviously worthless, and in some opinions even looks less attractive than the pure black model. The media readers are also pointless, as many cameras will work on the PS3 via USB; even if they don’t, who really wants to view their SD card on their PS3? USB thumb drives are a much more practical form of flash storage, since everything supports it (including the 20GB PS3). As for the hard drive space, I don’t think the average person will need 20GB any time soon. The Playstation Store has very little content overall, so there isn’t much to fill up that drive. Save games don’t even begin to scratch the surface of one gigabyte, let alone twenty.

The only thing that could use so much space is extensive music or video collections. However, I believe that if someone would fill 20GB with music and video, then the likelihood is that they will also fill 60GB. Therefore, the size of the disk is irrelevant because none of the pre-installed drives are enough for those who want to truly use them. In their case, they can upgrade the hard drive (which Youtube shows us is very easy to do) to a 250GB or greater drive. After all, the PS3′s video format, MPEG-4, makes HUGE file sizes for HD content. A few movies would fill the 60GB drive in no time (not to mention you’d spend half a lifetime converting the files to HD MPEG-4). Therefore, someone will either be content with 20GB or would require way more than 60GB, meaning that either way the 20GB model would suit them (the latter instance would simply remove the 20GB drive and replace it with a larger one; BTW, the $100 saved from getting the cheaper version of the PS3 can buy a 200GB drive last time I checked).

The final difference between the versions is the wireless internet adapter. This is the only feature that I consider to be very important in some cases. Simply put, some people cannot connect their PS3 to their Internet without wireless. The system may be in their living room, while the computer/router is in their bedroom. Whatever the case, it is a fact that some people require wireless. But the extra $100 is hardly worth it… luckily, in a recent system update for the console (something that Sony consistently does to improve the overall features and usability of the system), the PS3 enables the use of an external wireless adapter. It was originally known that Sony would support this, but most naysayers believed that adding wireless in this way would exempt you from using the PSP Remote Play feature; this is NOT the case, and the PS3 w/ external wireless adapter has been confirmed to work with PSP.

Now that I have hopefully established that the $499 20GB version of the PS3 is clearly the better choice for any non-ridiculously-wealthy-and-wasteful gamer, I will get back to my main point about a newly developing trend in retail. The 60GB, more expensive version, is outselling the cheaper one by vast proportions. In fact, an article over on the GI.biz site posted earlier today tells how certain retail locations and even some online locations (including Sony’s own SonyStyle!) are dropping support for the $499 version. It simply isn’t selling, according to Sony spokesman Satoshi Fukuoka.

The fact that retailers are dropping support is simply them following procedure. If something isn’t selling well, they drop it from inventory to cut needless costs and boost profit. They’re in the business to make money, just like everyone else. It isn’t the retailers’ fault that the 20GB version is failing; they simply provide an outlet through which consumers can buy something. Rarely do they advise on what to buy, and consumers don’t expect them to (though I’m sure many retailer employees would tell PS3 shoppers that the 20GB version is inferior; they get more money that way). The lack of demand shows how American consumers are obsessed with anything that has the word “Premium” in it. The lack of knowledge about the two versions leads consumers to wrongly conclude that the cheaper version is inferior. After all, cheap things must be of lesser quality, right?

Perhaps this is in part due to the Xbox 360 launch a year earlier. The consumers were exposed to the two version system, and it was clear that everyone went with the Premium package. In 360′s case, however, the Core package is horrifically crippled, to the point where getting one is doing yourself an injustice (no HD = no XBL downloads, which means missing half the fun of XBL). No hard drive in that Core system ruins everything for the consumer (and also for developers who cannot assume a hard drive is present due to Microsoft’s publishing terms). When consumers viewed the 360 situation, they probably assumed the PS3′s lesser version was equally as worthless. However, that is not the case as I’ve explained above hopefully in clear detail.

As I’ve said, the retailers dropping of the 20GB version is simply them doing their job and trying to maximize profits. The consumers not knowing what to purchase is not their fault — their lack of knowledge on the subject is the fault of Sony’s marketing. I cast all blame regarding this trend on Sony itself. The fact that Sony is dropping the product from their online SonyStyle store shows how little commitment they have to the success of the product. Never before have I seen a company turn their back on their own product. It seems from the very beginning the 20GB version was setup to fail. It initially was going to come without HDMI and with a wired controller, which likely would have sent the version the way of the 360 Core package. But then when the announcements came that the 20GB version included all the features of the full version minus the minor features detailed above, gamers everywhere should have gotten excited. After all, buying a PS3 would mean $499 instead of $599. But nope… the $599 version eclipsed its cheaper brother. It seems that the general public was never properly educated about the fundamental equality of the two systems. Where is Sony in all of this? They’re nowhere! I believe Sony should make a major effort to educate the consumers about the validity of this cheaper version instead of simply cowering away at the sight of slumping sales figures.

The only reason I can think of for Sony to let the 20GB version fail is because it causes them to lose so much money. Having essentially all the same hardware as its more expensive variation, it costs $100 less. The differences between them clearly don’t add up to $100 from the manufacturer’s standpoint; I’d be surprised if one cost $20 more than the other. Even if this is the case, and Sony fears losing more money per unit than they do with the more popular $599 version, it is still not an excuse. They need to realize that selling the PS3s is absolutely essential for the future of their gaming platform. Developers need to see that making a multi-million-dollar game project exclusively on the PS3 will be worth it — this can only be the case if there are millions of potential buyers for that game, something that will only come to fruition if Sony gets its act together. More PS3s in people’s homes is what Sony needs to succeed, something that would be easier to accomplish if consumers realized that the cheaper version was a viable option and in no way hampered.

It is no secret that one of the biggest problems with PS3 is its price. Most people simply cannot swallow the $599 require to purchase one. But what everyone needs to realize is that it is actually $100 less (assuming the 20GB version doesn’t vanish completely at some point soon). The $499 number may still be high for most people, but once the inevitable price cut does come, that $100 difference may just put the less-than-premium PS3 in the price range of many more people. Say that Sony gives PS3 a $50 price drop in a year or two. Is $549 really that much more of an attractive number? $449, however, would be within one game’s price of a 360 Premium, and by that time the PS3 should have the games to make getting one worth while.

The bottom line: The PS3 is the best selling console in Europe’s history, and its European launch equaled its US launch. Considering it still had a surplus of systems does not mean demand was low, but only that Sony actually met launch demand (something that rarely happens during a console launch) and thus should be applauded for their manufacturing fortitude. As for the two versions of the system: If you are in the market for a PS3, do yourself a financial favor and get the cheaper version. If the 20GB drive gets too small, spend the money and upgrade later to something larger. Don’t be fooled into paying $100 for a 40GB hard drive upgrade or for a wireless internet capability; both can be had for half the $100 difference using third-party add-ons.


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Nintendo DS Save Converter

Written by rob on April 5, 2007 – 3:59 pm -

I received my awesome black-colored DS Lite in the mail on Monday and I’ve been playing it ever since. I’ve been experimenting with various programming tasks for creating programs that run on the DS itself — let’s just say that I’m not doing too well. My biggest plan is to make some way that will allow me to cheat on ROMs. The combination of my flash cartridge with ROMs makes it impossible to do what I want with any pre-existing methods. Hopefully I’ll make progress soon, but as of now things are looking bleak; I barely understand how to access the DS’s memory, let alone how to hook certain functions and modify memory dynamically at runtime (which I will need to do to be able to cheat in the games).

That said, I have accomplished at least one thing. It turns out that most of the save game files available on internet message boards and sites such as GameFAQs are in the format created by an Action Replay DS (they are .duc files). The problem is that my flash cartridge does not support these kind of saves, and instead uses a 4-mbit raw SAV file format. In order to combat this, I made a program in Visual Basic that converts between the two formats. Also, I made it so you can also convert to 2mbit raw SAV files, which is what most flash cartridges other than mine use.

You can see the entry for it on the My Programs page of this site, or you can simply click here to download it directly. I tested it with Windows XP and Vista, but it should be compatible with any Windows as long as you have the runtime file available here.

Enjoy. If you have any trouble using it or have a feature request, let me know in the comments section.


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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.


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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.


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