Rambling thoughts: Windows 7 service pack 1, full drive encryption, mounting virtual hard disks, and a PC rebuild

Every now and again, a whole heap of stuff “happens” to me that I think would make a good blog post, if only I had the time to do a little more research and pull it all together. This time, I haven’t done the extra research and I don’t have an answer, but I’ll publish my thoughts anyway. Maybe, someone else can fill in the gaps, if they think it might help.

It all started out in 2009, when one of my colleagues left the company and I inherited his (slightly newer than mine) notebook PC, complete with a 250GB hard disk (I was pushing the limits of my 120GB disk at the time). Transferring my data was easy – I just used Symantec Ghost (or something similar) to image my 120GB drive onto the 250GB disk, but someone had created the original system with the Windows 7 system reserved partition at the end of the disk, leaving me with the following layout:

  • C: System
  • D: Data
  • System Reserved
  • Free Space

I could probably have moved the reserved partition and expanded D: but, in the interests of time, I created a new partition (E: Extra) and used that instead.

Fast-forward a couple of years and I wanted to install Windows 7 service pack 1 on my machine. Unfortunately the installer needed 8GB of free space on C: and I only had 7GB, even after housekeeping. My intention was to shrink D:, move it, expand C:, and maybe even move the reserved partition, merging D: and E: to come up with a sensible layout.

There was just one problem – in the meantime my organisation had started to use a full disc encryption product (not Microsoft BitLocker, because deployment commenced whilst most of the organisation was still on Windows XP), so I couldn’t use third-party disk partition editors (like GPartEd) as booting from a Live CD left the disk locked.

One possible answer lay in a complete system image, which, helpfully, creates some virtual hard disks for my multitude of drives. Then, I thought, I could mount the VHD copy of D:, remove the letter from the physical drive D: and reboot, to use the virtual disk instead (before removing the original D: and expanding C:). Still with me? Even if you’re not, it didn’t work…

It seems there are two problems with mounting VHDs:

“No worries”, I thought, I’ll reassign drive letter D: from the virtual hard disk, back to the original physical partition. That worked, but I still couldn’t load any user profiles – only the administrator could log on, and they were given a new profile based on system defaults. Oh dear.

I couldn’t find any obvious advice on viewing/restoring whatever identifiers Windows was looking for in order to find the correct partition for my domain user account, so I decided to restore the partition from backup. Except that the full disc encryption software seemed to prevent it, not just when booted from a recovery disc or from a boot time selection to repair my computer, but also when attempting the restore from within Windows Backup.

In the end, the simplest solution was to have my machine rebuilt onto the latest corporate build, and then to restore my data by mounting the VHDs in my backup set (which are no longer identical to my physical disk partitions and so do not cause problems). Perhaps it really is time for me to stop being a geek, and to concentrate on using my PC as a business tool…

A couple of potential fixes for Windows 7 system image backup failures

I’ve been trying to back up my notebook PC in the form of a Windows 7 System Image (which will, helpfully, create some VHDs for me) but kept on coming up against the following error:

Create a system image

The backup failed.

The operation failed due to a device error encountered with either the source or the destination. If the source or the destination volume is on a disk, run CHKDSK /R on the source or destination volume and then retry the operation. (0x8078012D)

Additional Information:
The request could not be performed because of an I/O device error. (0x8007045D)

I’m pretty sure that my disks are OK but it struck me this might be a side effect of using a third-party full disk encryption product (BeCrypt DiskProtect) so I checked to see if colleagues were able to back up their systems (they were).

Unfortunately, it takes a couple of hours to reproduce the error, so I didn’t take the usual, logical, step by step approach to resolving this one.  It was either:

  • 0x8078012D – Bad sector, fixed with chkdsk /r (which takes an age to run on an encrypted volume)

or

  • 0x8007045D – Manually starting the Volume Shadow Copy service.

Either way, these to changes let me complete the backup successfully – and this post may help someone else in the same situation on day…

Hyper-V R2 service pack 1, Dynamic Memory, RemoteFX and virtual desktops

I have to admit that I’ve tuned out a bit on the virtualisation front over the last year.  It seems that some vendors are ramming VDI down our throats as the answer to everything; meanwhile others are confusing virtualisation with “the cloud”.  I’m also doing less hands-on work with technology these days too and I struggle to make a business case to fly over to Redmond for the MVP Summit so I was glad when I was invited to join a call and take a look at some of the improvements Microsoft has made in Hyper-V as part of Windows Server 2008 R2 service pack 1.

Dynamic memory

There was a time when VMware criticised Microsoft for not having any Live Migration capabilities in Hyper-V but we’ve had them for a while now (since Windows Server 2008 R2).  Then there’s the whole device drivers in the hypervisor vs. drivers in the parent partition argument (I prefer hardware flexibility, even if there is the occasional bit of troubleshooting required, over a monolithic hypervisor and locked-down hardware compatibility list).  More recently the criticism has been directed at dynamic memory and I have to admit Microsoft didn’t help themselves with this either: first it was in the product, then it was out; and some evangelists and Product Managers said dynamic memory allocation was A Bad Thing:

“Sadly, another “me too” feature (dynamic memory) has definitely been dropped from the R2 release. I asked Microsoft’s Jeff Woolsey, Principle Group Program Manager for Hyper-V, what the problem was and he responded that memory overcommitment results in a significant performance hit if the memory is fully utilised and that even VMware (whose ESX hypervisor does have this functionality) advises against it’s use in production environments. I can see that it’s not a huge factor in server consolidation exercises, but for VDI scenarios (using the new RDS functionality), it could have made a significant difference in consolidation ratios.”

In case you’re wondering, at my notes from when this feature was dropped from Hyper-V in the R2 release candidate (it was previously demonstrated in the beta). Now that Microsoft has dynamic memory working it’s apparently A Good Thing (Microsoft’s PR works like that – bad when Microsoft doesn’t have it, right up to the point when they do…).

To be fair, it turns out Microsoft’s dynamic memory is not the same as VMware’s – it’s all about over-subscription vs. over commitment. Whereas VMware will overcommit memory and then de-duplicate to reclaim what it needs, Microsoft takes the approach of only providing each VM with enough memory to start up, monitoring performance and adding memory as required, and taking it back when applications are closed.

As for those consolidation ratio improvements: Michael Kleef, one of Microsoft’s Technical Program Managers in the Server and Cloud Division has found that dynamic memory can deliver a 40% improvement in VDI density (Michael also spoke about this at TechEd Europe last year).  Microsoft’s tests were conducted using the Login Virtual Session Indexer (LoginVSI) tool which is designed to script virtual workloads and is used by many vendors to test virtualised infrastructure.

It turns out that, when implementing VDI solutions, disk I/O is the first problem, memory comes next, and only after that is fixed will you hit a processor bottleneck. Instead of allocating 1GB of RAM for each Windows 7 VM, Microsoft used dynamic memory with a 512MB VM (which is supported on Hyper-V).  There’s no need to wait for an algorithm to compute where memory can be reclaimed – instead the minimum requirement is provided, and additional memory is allocated on demand – and Microsoft claims that other solutions rely on weakened operating system security to get to this level of density.  There’s no need to tweak the hypervisor either.

Microsoft’s tests were conducted using HP and Dell servers with 96GB of RAM (the sweet spot above which larger DIMMS are required and so the infrastructure cost rises significantly).  Using Dell’s reference architecture for Hyper-V R2, Microsoft managed to run the same workload on just 8 blades (instead of 12) using service pack 1 and dynamic memory, without ever exhausting server capacity or hitting the limits of unacceptable response times.

Dynamic memory reclamation uses Hyper-V/Windows’ ability to hot-add/remove memory with the system constantly monitoring itself for virtual machines under memory pressure (expanding using the configured memory buffer) or with excess memory, after which they become candidates to remove memory (not immediately in case the user restarts an application).  Whilst it’s particularly useful in a VDI scenario, Microsoft say it also works well with web workloads and server operating systems, delivering a 25-50% density improvement.

More Windows 7 VMs per logical CPU

Dynamic memory is just one of the new virtualisation features in Windows Server 2008 R2 service pack 1.  Another is a new support limit of 12 VMs per logical processor for exclusively Windows 7 workloads (it remains at 8 for other workloads).  And Windows 7 service pack 1 includes the necessary client side components to take advantage of the server-side improvements.

RemoteFX

The other major improvement in Windows Server 2008 R2 service pack 1 is RemoteFX.  This is a server-side graphics acceleration technology.  Due to improvements in the Remote Desktop (RDP) protocol, now at version 7.1, Microsoft is able to provide a more efficient encode/decode pipeline, together with enhanced USB redirection including support for phones, audio, webcams, etc. – all inside an RDP session.

Most of the RemoteFX benefits apply to VDI scenarios but one part also benefits session virtualisation (previously known as Terminal Services) – that’s the RDP encode/decode pipeline which Microsoft says is a game changer.

Microsoft has always claimed that Hyper-V’s architecture makes it scalable. With no device drivers inside the hypervisor (native device drivers only exist on the parent partition) and a VMBus used for communications between virtual machines and the parent partition.  Using this approach, virtual machines can now use a virtual GPU driver to provide the Direct3D or DirectX capabilities that are required for some modern applications – e.g. certain Silverlight or Internet Explorer 9 features.  Using the GPU installed in the server, RemoteFX allows VMs to request content via the virtual GPU and the VMBus, render using the physical GPU and pass the results back to the VM again.

The new RemoteFX encode/decode pipeline uses a render, capture and compress (RCC) process to render on the GPU but to encode the protocol using either the GPU, CPU or an application-specific integrated circiut (ASIC).  Using an ASIC is analogous to TCP offloading in that there is no work required by the CPU.  There’s also a decode ASIC – so clients can use RDP 7.1 in an ultra-thin client package (a solid state ASIC) with RemoteFX decoding.

Summary

Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 service pack is mostly a rollup of hotfixes but it also delivers some major virtualisation improvements that should help Microsoft to establish itself as a credible competitor in the VDI space. Of course, the hypervisor is just one part of a complex infrastructure and Microsoft still relies on partners to provide parts of the solution – but by using products like Citrix Xen Desktop as a session broker, and tools from Appsense for user state virtualisation, it’s finally possible to deliver a credible VDI solution on the Microsoft stack.

The wait is over – almost: the first service pack for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 is ready to ship

You know that old saying with Windows: “wait for the first service pack”? Well, some might say that, in these days of continuous updates, it no longer applies (I would be one of those people).  Even so if you are one of those people who has been holding out for the release of the first service pack for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2, it’s nearly here – and you’ve been waiting for a while now (in fact, it’s been so long I could have sworn it had already shipped!)…

Today, Microsoft will announce the release to manufacture (RTM) of Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 service pack 1 (but general availability is not until 22 February 2011).  I’m told that OEMs and technology adoption program (TAP) partners will get the bits first – MSDN and TechNet subscribers will have to wait until closer to the general availability date. I’ve had no word on availability for volume license customers so I’d assume 22 February.

As I wrote back in March 2010, there is a single service pack for both client and server (just as with Vista and Server 2008); however the features that it unlocks are different for the two operating systems.  My next post goes into some of the technical details of the improvements that are made to Hyper-V in Windows Server 2008 R2 service pack 1.

Hardware lineup for 2011

This is a bit of a copycat post really but I saw Mike Taulty and Phil Winstanley‘s hardware lineups and thought it was a good idea. So, here it is, a summary of the technology I use pretty much every day and how I see that changing this year.

Car: Audi A4 Avant 2.0 TDI 170 S-Line

Audi A4 Avant 20 TDI 170 S-LineMy wife and I have been Volkswagen fans for a few years now (we find them to be good, solid, reliable cars that hold their value well) so, a couple of years ago, when I heard that Volkswagen and Audi were being added to our company car scheme, I held back on replacing my previous vehicle in order to take advantage. I did consider getting a Passat but the A4 (although smaller) had a newer generation of engine and lower emissions, so it didn’t actually cost much more in tax/monthly lease costs.

After a year or so, I’m normally bored/infuriated with my company cars but I still really enjoy my A4 – so much so that I will consider purchasing this one at the end of its lease next year. My only reservations are that I would really like something larger, sometimes a little more power would be nice (although this has 170PS, which is pretty good for a 2 litre diesel) and I do sometimes think that the money I contribute to the car might be better spent on reducing the mortgage (I add some of my salary to lease a better car than my grade entitles me to).

Either way, it’s on lease until I hit 3 years or 60,000 miles, so it’s a keeper for 2011.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Phone: Apple iPhone 3GS 16GB

Apple iPhone 3GSI actually have two phones (personal and work SIMs) but my personal needs are pretty basic (a feature phone with Bluetooth connectivity for hands free operation in the car) and I recycled my iPhone 3G when I was given a 3GS to use for work.

After having owned iPhones for a few years now (this is my third one), I don’t feel that the platform, which was once revolutionary, has kept pace and it now feels dated. As a result, I’m tempted by an Android or Windows Phone 7 device but neither of these platforms is currently supported for connection my corporate e-mail service.

The main advantages of this device for me are the apps and the Bluetooth connectivity to the car (although I needed to buy a cable for media access). I use Spotify and Runkeeper when I’m running but there are a whole host of apps to help me when I’m out and about with work (National Rail Enquiries, etc.) and, of course, it lets me triage my bulging mailbox and manage my calendar when I’m on the move. Unfortunately, the camera is awful and it’s not much use as a phone either, but it does the job.

I could get an iPhone 4 (or 5 this summer?) but I’d say it’s pretty unlikely, unless something happened to this one and I was forced to replace it.

Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadAfter several weeks (maybe months) of thinking “do I? don’t I?”, I bought an iPad last year and I use it extensively. Perhaps it’s a bit worrying that I take it to bed with me at night (I often catch up on Twitter before going to sleep, or use it as an e-book reader) but the “instant on” and long battery life make this device stand out from the competition when I’m out and about.

2011 will be an interesting year for tablets – at CES they were all over the place but I’ve been pretty vocal (both on this blog, and on Twitter) about my views on Windows as a tablet operating system and many of the Android devices are lacking something – Android 3 (Gingerbread [correction] Honeycomb) should change that. One possible alternative is Lenovo’s convertible notebook/tablet which runs Windows but features a slide out screen that functions as an Android tablet (very innovative).

I may upgrade to an iPad 2, if I can get a good resale price for my first generation iPad, but even Apple’s puritanical anti-Adobe Flash stand (which means many websites are unavailable to me) is not enough to make me move away from this device in 2011.

Verdict 8/10. Hold.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 250GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220My personal preference for notebook PCs is a ThinkPad – I liked them when they were manufactured by IBM and Lenovo seem to have retained the overall quality associated with the brand – but, given who pays my salary, it’s no surprise that I use a Fujitsu notebook PC. Mine’s a couple of years old now and so it’s branded Fujitsu-Siemens but it’s the same model that was sold under the Fujitsu name outside Europe. It’s a solid, well-built notebook PC and I have enough CPU, memory and disk to run Windows 7 (x64) well.

Unfortunately it’s crippled with some awful full disk encryption software (I won’t name the vendor but I’d rather be using the built-in BitLocker capabilities which I feel are better integrated and less obtrusive) and, even though the chipset supports Intel vPro/AMT (to install the Citrix XenClient hypervisor), the BIOS won’t allow me to activate the VT-d features. As a result, I have to run separate machines for some of my technical testing (I’m doing far less of that at work anyway these days) and to meet my personal (i.e. non-work) computing requirements.

My hope is that we’ll introduce a bring your own computer (BYOC) scheme at work and I can rationalise things but, if not, it’ll be another two years before I can order a replacement and this will soldier on for a while yet.

Verdict 6/10. Holding out for a BYOC scheme at work.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10In its day, my netbook was great. It’s small, light, can be used on the train when the seatback tables are too small for a normal laptop and I used mine extensively for personal computing whilst working away from home. It was a bit slow (on file transfers) but it does the job – and the small keyboard is ideal for my young children (although even they could do with a larger screen resolution).

Nowadays my netbook it sits on the shelf, unloved, replaced by my iPad. It was inexpensive and, ultimately, consumable.

Verdict 2/10. Sell, or more likely use it to geek out and play with Linux.

Digital Camera: Nikon D700

Nikon D700After a series of Minoltas in the 1980s and 1990s, I’ve had Nikon cameras for several years now, having owned an F90x, a D70 and now a D700. I also use my wife’s D40 from time to time and we have a Canon Ixus 70 too (my son has adopted that). With a sizeable investment in Nikon lenses, etc., I can’t see myself changing brands again – although some of my glass could do with an upgrade, and I’d like an external flash unit.

The D700 gives me a lot of flexibility and has a high enough pixel count, with minimal noise and good low-light performance. It’s a professional-grade DSLR and a bit heavy for some people (I like the weight). It’s also too valuable for some trips (which is when I use the D40) but I always miss the flexibility and functionality that the D700 body provides. Maybe sometimes I think some video capabilities would be nice but I won’t be changing it yet.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 320GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)It’s been three years since I bought my MacBook and, much as I’d like one of the current range of MacBook Pros it’ll be a while before I replace it because they are so expensive! In fairness, it’s doing it’s job well – as soon as I bought it I ungraded the hard disk and memory, and whilst the the CPU is nt as fast as a modern Core i5 or i7, it’s not that slow either.

For a machine that was not exactly inexpensive, I’ve been disappointed with the build quality (it’s had two new keyboard top covers and a replacement battery) but Apple’s customer service meant that all were replaced under warranty (I wouldn’t fancy my chances at getting a new battery from many other PC OEMs).

I use this machine exclusively for photography and the Mac OS suits me well for this. It’s not “better” than Windows, just “different” and, whilst some people would consider me to be a Microsoft fanboi and an iHater, the list of kit on this page might say otherwise. I like to consider myself to have objective views that cut through the Redmond or Cupertino rhetoric!

So, back to the Mac – I may dive into Photoshop from time to time but Adobe Lightroom, Flickr Uploadr, VueScan and a few specialist utilities like Sofortbild are my main tools. I need to sweat this asset for a while longer before I can replace it.

Verdict 5/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, iPhone 3GS, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers)

Apple Mac MiniMy Mac Mini was the first Intel Mac I bought (I had one of the original iMacs but that’s long gone) and it’s proved to be a great little machine. It was replaced by the MacBook but has variously been used in Windows and Mac OS X forms as a home media PC. These days it’s just used for iTunes and Spotify, but I plan to buy a keyboard to have a play with Garage Band too.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs, but it’s more than up to this kind of work and it takes up almost no space at all.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI’m not a gamer – I sold my Playstation a few years ago because the driving games that I enjoyed made me feel ill! Even so, I was blown away by the Xbox with Kinect when I saw it last month. I bought myself a 250GB model and now Kinect Adventures and Kinect Sports have become family favourites (with a bit of Dance Central thrown in!). I can’t see myself getting into first person shooters, but I can see us doing more and more with the Xbox, particularly if I can use the Connect 360 application to hook into my media library. The final piece of the jigsaw would be BBC iPlayer on Xbox – but that looks unlikely to come to fruition.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Atom-based PC, Dell PowerEdge 840, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo

As my work becomes less technical, I no longer run a full network infrastructure at home (I don’t find myself building quite so many virtual machines either) so I moved the main infrastructure roles (Active Directory, DHCP, DNS, TFTP, etc.) to a low-power server based on an Intel Atom CPU. I still have my PowerEdge 840 for the occasions when I do need to run up a test environment but it’s really just gathering dust. Storage is provided by a couple of Netgear ReadyNAS devices and it’s likely that I’ll upgrade the disks and then move one to a family member’s house, remote syncing to provide an off-site backup solution (instead of a variety of external USB drives).

Verdict 6/10. Hold (perhaps sell the server, but more likely to leave it under the desk…).

Getting hands on with Windows Touch and an HP 2310ti LCD Touch Monitor

S, hee I am, typing thefrst few jwords ofthis blopost usng Undow’s on-sreen keboard caabiluties, jus asI might ifI were usng m iPad…

[Translation, typed on a proper keyboard: So, here I am, typing the first few words of this blog post using Windows’ on-screen keyboard capabilities, just as I might if I were using my iPad…]

Need I say any more?

When HP offered to lend me some personal computer equipment to review, I was very keen to get my hands on a touch-screen capable monitor so that I could test the Windows Touch capabilities in Windows 7. I have to say that I was sadly disappointed. Not with the monitor – it’s clear, crisp, bright, worked with Windows straight out of the box (although there were some driver issues… more on that in a moment), was supplied with ICM profiles for accurate colour management – in short, it does everything I expect a display to… but Windows is not designed for touch. Sorry Microsoft, I love the fact that Windows has become ubiquitous; I love the fact that it has touch screen capabilities for apps that can exploit it; but I really believe we’re on the cusp of a revolution in human-computer interaction (on the same scale as WIMP was in the 1980s/90s), and Windows is just not ready…

Allow me to explain…

Windows is a general purpose operating system. At its core is Windows NT – an operating system kernel that dates back to the early-mid 1990s and has served us well. In recent years, we’ve seen an increasing emphasis on componentisation of Windows and, despite there being umpteen different editions of Windows 7, Windows Touch is a core capability for most of them – there is no more “Tablet PC Edition”. Ask me a couple of years back if Windows should be split into consumer and business editions and my response would have been a vehement “no” – but ask me now if it needs to be redesigned to embrace new computing paradigms and the answer is a definite “yes”. One example of operating system functionality that currently appears to be held together with sticking plaster is Windows Touch.

Despite what Ballmer says, this is not about “big buttons” – sure, big buttons might help in some scenarios but Mark Sumimoto perfectly describes the problem when he says:

The problem with touch on Windows 7 […] is that it reads round finger presses as pinpoint cursor clicks. When your finger touches an area, Windows reads it as a tiny cursor click. That unavoidably leads to accuracy problems

By contrast, iOS, Android, webOS, and every other touch-optimized OS reads finger presses as circular areas, more comparable to your actual fingertip surface. That€™s why even my fat fingers can manipulate things on those tiny screens. When my finger engulfs a button, it registers as me pressing that button, just like a physical button. By contrast, on a Windows touchscreen PC, that same situation could register the touch outside the button. Hence, making buttons bigger than fingertips could address this symptom, but it doesn€™t fix the underlying problem. Furthermore, you can’t ‘big button’ the Internet.”

The Windows Touch Pack gives some great examples of the types of application that can be created to exploit the touch capabilities but touch really needs to be promoted to become a first class citizen within the operating system (incidentally, that’s not just a Windows issue – I also believe it’s something that’s lacking from Mac OS X and desktop variants of Linux).

The hardware

The monitor I tested was an HP 2310ti – 23 inches of HD loveliness capable of working at up to 1920x1080px @60Hz. The display seems pretty good to me, with a good viewing angle (+/-160 degrees), 40,000:1 contrast ratio and a typical response time of 3ms (Based on HP’s figures, not verified in my test). Power consumption is cited as typically 47W and maximum of 56W although the 2W standby is a little disappointing in this day and age. My other criticism was that there are a lot of connectors to hook up with separate audio, video (VGA or DVI), USB, and power – surely there is scope for some consolidation here?

I did have some software issues as, after Windows Plug and Play (PnP) had detected the new hardware, it was still using the monitor.sys driver as a Generic PnP adapter (with the full-screen resolution available) and I found that the supplied instructions to install HP’s own drivers were inaccurate (indeed, the installer did not work correctly on my x64 system.) Eventually, I installed the correct driver by telling Windows exactly where to find HP_2310t.inf, after which it correctly recognised the monitor.  Frankly, this shouldn’t be necessary and I expect better from a major OEM (although this is not an isolated incident with HP device drivers on 64-bit Windows).

As for touch drivers, these are provided for Windows XP (I didn’t test them) but are not required for Windows Vista or Windows 7. HP also provides an adjustment pattern utility for analogue connections (VGA) but I was connected using DVI, so that was not tested. There was no evidence of any Mac OS software although I had no problems using it connected to a Mac either (albeit as a dumb monitor without touch input capabilities).

In short, with a list price of £209+VAT, it’s not hugely expensive (but not cheap either) but the device driver installation could be improved and I would have been perfectly happy if HP hadn’t asked for it back!

So, what was it actually like, using a touchscreen monitor?

My children using Windows Touch with the CBeebies websiteSome people (indeed, I think Steve Jobs may have been one of them…) have been reported as saying that touch is not a suitable interface for a desktop computer as it’s uncomfortable to reach forward. They may have a point but, just as I need to adjust my posture for a notebook PC, I did something similar for touch on a desktop.  Standing (or using a high chair/stool), with the monitor angled to slope backwards, it was a really comfortable experience – and my children love being able to interact with the computer using touch.

The main problems I found were with the software.  I’ve already written that Windows Touch was a disappointment, so here are some examples:

  • Touching user interface elements was imprecise and, at times, very difficult.
  • It took me a while to work out how to right-click.  Eventually, I got there, but it shouldn’t need me to Google basic functionality like this!
  • The onscreen keyboard is obtrusive – it doesn’t seem to appear/disappear when required and, although it can float, or be docked, it seemed to always be in the way until I increased the screen resolution, after which the user interface elements are too small. It couldn’t keep up with my typing either – I’m no touch typist, but Windows made a right mess (as can be seen at the head of this post), whereas I can type reasonably well on my iPad’s soft keyboard.
  • At the extreme edges (typically the right) of the screen, I found I couldn’t touch pixels (e.g. a scroll bar) because the screen bevel was preventing physical access and so my fingers were not registered.
  • UAC prompts that invoke a secure desktop required a physical keyboard as the software keyboard was unavailable!

On a more positive note, because I was using a multi-touch display, I could also use a pen as a stylus (e.g. for those hard-to-reach points at the extreme edge of the screen).

It’s also possible to adjust the size of screen elements within the display properties (but some of them then become almost too big). And increasing the DPI can help too (certainly with ClearType) – although some applications based on Adobe Flash (e.g. TweetDeck) seemed a little fuzzy afterwards.

There are also several Control Panel applets that can be used to adjust the touch experience:

  • Pen and Touch includes a variety of settings
  • Tablet PC can be used to calibrate the display
  • Display can be used to adjust the resolution, DPI, etc.

The distribution of these settings across so many applets indicates that Touch is very much an afterthought in Windows 7, rather than designed into the overall user experience as it is for Windows Phone 7.

In summary

Touch is an increasingly important means of interacting with our devices and devices such as the HP 2310ti Widescreen LCD Touchscreen Monitor are a great way to make use of existing PC assets.  Sadly, Windows Touch is not yet ready for mainstream use and is only really suitable for applications that have been written specifically for touch.  Even so, this is one area of functionality where Windows leads the competition (who currently don’t have any touch capabilities) and I look forward to seeing the improvements in future versions of Windows.

How Steve Ballmer told me what to do with my iPad!

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to see Steve Ballmer speak to two audiences, first at Microsoft’s Partner Briefing on transitioning to the cloud (#pbbcloud) and then at the UK TechDays Special Event on the future of cloud development (#uktechdays).

I’m sorry I didn’t catch the name of the guy who asked Mr Ballmer a question about Windows tablets in the TechDays question and answer session, but I was certainly very interested to hear the Microsoft CEO’s reaction:

Question: “We haven’t had a Windows tablet come out yet […] we do see the prototypes coming out all the time but I do remember you saying that it’s going to run full Windows 7. […] are we going to have like a tablet version of Windows Phone 7 or a tablet of Windows Embedded 7 coming out? […] To me, although [Windows 7] is touch enabled, I don’t think it’s great for a small 7″, 9″ device.”

Mr Ballmer’s response: “Yeah, what you’ll see over the course of the next year is us doing more and more work with our hardware partners creating hardware-software optimisations with Windows 7 and with Windows 7 Media Center […] Media Center is big and, when people say ‘hey, we could optimise more for clients’ I think what they generally mean is ‘Big Buttons’.  Big Buttons that’s, I think, a codeword for Big Buttons and Media Center is Big Buttons not Little Buttons. I’m not trying to trivialise that – it’s a real issue.

We’re not going to do a revamp of Windows 7 over the course of the next year for that purpose.  Whether we should, or we shouldn’t, we’ve put all our energy around doing a great job on that and other issues in the next version of Windows so we will do optimisations to have devices that look really good, that run Windows, that are very good for touch applications which we will encourage people to write. We will do things that improve – it turns out that if we just optimise settings and the configuration of Windows it can be a lot more usable through touch, even on today’s systems – we’re doing that work with the OEMs. We’re doing work with the OEMs to make sure that they treat ink also as a first class citizen.  None of our competitors products actually do a very good [job]. I saw a poor guy in a speech I did out down the hall, he had one of our competitors’ devices and he was sitting there crouched over with this thing on his knees, bent and there’s no keyboard – and he was in torture using that poor non-Windows slate device [audience laughs].

And for some of you, [you] do the same but I think we can make life a little simpler for people, if we do the right job.  Can we do better by optimising – yep – guy’s got one at the back – you can bend over too, I’ll tell ya!  [audience laughs]

The truth of the matter is the laptop weighs less – you can set it on your lap, it doesn’t weigh anything at that point and then you can type.  I’m not trying to say there’s not a place for touch-optimised slate-based devices, obviously we have shown enthusiasm about that before but you’ll see some optimisations coming in the course of the next year and some of the devices that convert, that have a keyboard, that flip around – I think some of those will be also pretty useful for people in the course of the next year.”

[I’ve tried to get the text word-perfect here but I was at the back of the room and the audio recording was not fantastic… this is certainly what it sounds like to me].

The thing is, I was that “non-Windows slate device” user down the hall (and I was the guy at the back of the room when he said this) and the only reason I was in “torture” (which, of course, was a slight overdramatisation for comedy effect) was that I was squashed into a row of seats between two other guys and I was bending forward so that we weren’t sitting there with shoulders pressed together like sardines in a tin can.  I was also juggling a camera (on my Nokia phone), a voice recorder (on my iPhone) and taking notes/tweeting on the iPad whilst listening to Mr Ballmer.  Ironically, the reason I took my iPad to the event was that my Windows devices are so bad for portability (to be honest, so is my MacBook – this is not about Windows but about the device form factor).  My netbook has to be coaxed through the day with Wi-Fi switched off in order to get more than a few hours out of the battery; my 15″ laptop only goes 2-3 hours between charges (newer models may be better, but I can’t change laptops at the drop of a hat); meanwhile, I find the iPad easy enough to type on in landscape mode, it turns on/off instantly and, after 8 hours taking notes and tweeting yesterday, it still had an indicated battery charge of 55%.  If Microsoft produced a slate that did that, I would have been using it but they don’t and, based on what Ballmer had to say yesterday, it may be some time before they finally “get it” (I wrote last month about what I think Microsoft needs to do to keep Windows relevant in the mobile computing space).

As Mary Jo Foley wrote yesterday, this year’s Windows 7 slates won’t be under my Christmas tree.

Clearing the readonly attribute on write protected media in Windows

Years ago, when floppy discs were the norm, I was used to having to flip the write protect switch (or cover over the notch on older discs) but I was a little surprised today when I couldn’t write to my USB removable hard drive because Windows 7 told me that the media was write protected. I tried adjusting the properties on folders but the actual disk was showing as write protected – very strange.

I still don’t know why this occurred but this was the disk that I use to keep personal items separate from work on my company-supplied notebook, which runs BeCrypt DiskProtect – and I suspect DiskProtect may be part of the issue. Nevertheless, I did find an apparant solution, courtesy of a post at Windows Seven Forums that refers to a post on the T3chworks site.

Using diskpart.exe to clear read-only attributes from a volumeBy running diskpart.exe from an elevated command prompt (cmd.exe), I was able to issue a few commands to remove the readonly attribute on the media and write files to it again:

list volume
select volume volumenumber
attributes disk clear readonly

Only time will tell if this is a permanent fix (the post also talks of modifying a registry entry at HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\StorageDevicePolicies\WriteProtect but that’s not present on my system) but I’ve never seen this before, and it seems to have done the trick for the time being.

Upcoming events (including special #uktechdays) event

We’re having difficulties scheduling WSUG events right now. Without going into all the gory details, Microsoft’s funding for rooms, etc. is not available in the way that it has been in the past, so we need to find another way to do things…

Now that the summer holidays are over, I’d like to organise a “virtual” user group meeting, over Live Meeting – and have had some conversations with Microsoft about a session on “Azure for IT Pros” (how can we integrate our on-premise infrastructure with Windows Azure, etc.). Please leave a comment if you think this will be of interest.

In the meantime, I wanted to tell you about a Microsoft-hosted event that may be of interest, although it may also be a bit “developery” for some Windows Server admins.

In any case, Steve Ballmer will be the guest speaker at a special UK TechDays “Future of Cloud Development” event in London’s Docklands on 5 October.

The site has not gone live yet but you can registration on the event page or at 0870 166 6670, quoting event reference 9886 – you’ll also need the invitation code: 6D4723.

More details of the session content can be found below:

  • A lap around Windows Phone 7 (Mike Ormond) – In this session Microsoft will take a look at Windows Phone 7 and the developer ecosystem, from the capabilities and unique features of the platform to the development frameworks and tools you have at your disposal. Along the way they’ll build a simple application or two and explore how people can purchase your finished masterpiece.
  • A lap around the Windows Azure Platform (Eric Nelson) – Hear how the Windows Azure Platform provides a scalable compute and storage environment with Windows Azure, secure connectivity with Service Bus and Access Control Service, and a relational database with SQL Azure. Learn about these new services and see demos that show how to build applications that run in and take advantage of Microsoft’s new cloud platform.
  • We’re Not on XP Any More – A Windows 7 Application in 60 Minutes. (Mike Taulty) – In this code-only session Microsoft will use Visual Studio 2010 and any .NET assembly that we can beg, borrow, steal or even build in order to put together a simple, modern Windows 7 application from scratch using the journey to provide pointers on how your applications can shine by using features that Windows XP only dreamt about ( when it wasn’t dreaming of electric sheep in its world limited by 2 processor cores, 4GB of RAM and GDI based graphics).
  • Keynote: New opportunities and compelling experiences – Microsoft’s Chief Executive Officer, Steve Ballmer, will talk about new opportunities to deliver seamless experiences across many screens and a cloud, and why now is such an exciting time for developers
  • IE9 The Best Browser for Windows (Martin Beeby) – In this session Microsoft will use IE9 and a sprinkling of JavaScript and HTML5 to show you how to create an integrated and immersive experience maximizing the full power of your visitors Windows 7 PC.

[A version of this post also appears on the Windows Server User Group blog]

Enabling Aero glass in a Windows 7 Virtual Machine

The notebook PC that I use most days runs Windows 7 Enterprise Edition (x64) and I have a virtual machine running the 32-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate Edition for things that I don’t want on my work PC (installing personal software, etc. that would otherwise break organisational security policies).  Incidentally, the reasons this virtual machine runs a 32-bit version of Windows are that Virtual PC does not support 64-bit guests, Microsoft does not have a client-side hypervisor and Citrix XenClient will not install on my machine (I have VT-x enabled but I can’t enable VT-d in the BIOS).  Of course, I could use VirtualBox or VMware Workstation to run 64-bit guests but I already have Virtual PC installed for Windows 7 “XP Mode” and there’s no reason to run yet another virtual machine manager.

The host system has Windows 3D graphics effects (Aero) enabled, but the guest did not seem to be recognising them, even after I installed the Virtual PC Integration Components and restarted.  This gave me some decent choices for display settings, and my mouse could move freely between the guest and host operating systems, but there the graphics were plain and dull, even after selecting an Aero-enabled theme.

The trick (as highlighted by Redmond Pie) is to select the option to Enable Integration Features from Windows Virtual PC’s Tools menu.  In order to do this, I needed to supply some credentials and, because I was not running as Administrator (nor should anyone be on Windows 7), I needed to add the relevant user to the guest’s Remote Desktop Users group first (don’t be confused by the message suggesting that Remote Desktop requires a firewall exception – it does, but Virtual PC’s integration features do not).

Once my account had been given the necessary permissions and integration features enabled, my virtual machine was able to make full use of the graphics capabilities provided by the host PC – including “Aero glass”.