Introducing Windows Server 2008

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Windows Server 2008 logoWhen I logged on to the Microsoft Connect site this morning, I noticed that the beta program for Windows Server codenamed Longhorn has been renamed… it seems that I should have checked in on more details from Bill Gates’ WinHEC keynote, where he announced that the product will be called Windows Server 2008 (no surprises there then).  Actually, dull as it sounds, I think that’s the right name - it’s clear and unambiguous (although I expect the product bundling will be confusing as always).

Reinstalling Windows Home Server

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

After replacing a failed hard disk yesterday, I needed to rebuild my Windows Home Server (WHS).  The process was surprisingly straightforward – having suffered a total disk failure, I had no data to worry about (in any case, the server only contained client PC backups), so all I needed to do was re-install the software (although I’m not sure what the effect of product activation would have been as I hadn’t activated WHS when the disk crashed) and re-establish my configuration changes (firewall changes, language settings, date and time, etc.).  One item I had expected some trouble with was the remote access address but because this is linked to my Windows Live identity, it was re-established automatically and so the only concern was reconnecting my client computers.  I had to recreate the user accounts manually but to reconnect an existing client computer, it was as simple as running %programfiles%\Windows Home Server\discovery.exe (thanks to GordonTGopher and Ken Warren for helping me out on that one at the WHS forums).  This added the computers back into the WHS console and that night, the backups ran as normal.

One more item that may be useful (it certainly saves using the Windows Home Server client connector CD), is to note that the client software is available at \\servername\software\Home Server Connector Software\setup.exe (via Optika’s workaround to beta feedback request 262981).

Windows Home Server will be available in both hardware and software form

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

In a recent post, I commented on Microsoft’s early indications that Windows Home Server (WHS) will be an OEM-only product – a great shame for many users who would like to put an old PC to use as a home server.  The topic has been raised as a beta feedback request 272635 as well as on the WHS forums and, following Bill Gates’ announcement at WinHEC, it would seem that WHS will be available both as a hardware appliance and in (OEM) software form.  That means that registered system builders will be able to install the software on a customised PC… I’m not sure if that extends to people like myself who intend running WHS on a repurposed PC (a configuration which is now running well with the latest CTP build).  There will also be various ISV-supplied add-ins for protection against viruses and malware, media sharing capabilities, home security, and home automation.

That’s some consolation (I’m sure I will be able to get a system builder copy somehow) but it will also be interesting to hear the price point at which Microsoft intends to pitch WHS.

Struggling with SATA

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

One of my PCs includes a Serial ATA (SATA) controller (Silicon Image SiI3112A SATALink – BIOS v4.2.83 and 32-bit Windows driver v1.3.68.0) together with a Seagate ST3500641AS (500GB SATA) disk. Both these devices were added in preparation for installing Windows Home Server (so I haven’t tried them with any other operating system, although I suspect the results would be similar) and I’ve been having trouble with the system’s stability – suffering occasional crashes (sometimes followed by an inability to find the disk) and frequently seeing the following errors in the event log:

Event Type: Error
Event Source: si3112
Event Category: None
Event ID: 9
Date: 13/05/2007
Time: 12:22:25
User: N/A
The device, \Device\Scsi\si31121, did not respond within the timeout period.

Event Type: Error
Event Source: Disk
Event Category: None
Event ID: 11
Date: 13/05/2007
Time: 13:54:00
User: N/A
The driver detected a controller error on \Device\Harddisk0.

MaplinThe first message doesn’t mean much but following the link from Event Viewer to the Windows Help and Support Center indicated that the disk event ID 11 means IO_ERR_CONTROLLER_ERROR and can be caused by a loose cable. The controller card (bought last week) was supplied with a power cable but not an interface (data) cable, so I bought one at Maplin for £4.99. When I got home I found that the data cable connector housing made the connection too tight against the power cable, making it a slightly incorrect fit (although probably good enough). Armed with this new advice, I set off to buy another cable – this time for £2.99 from a local computer services company… a perfect fit, with a latching connection and less expensive (that’s why it pays to shop locally!). Unfortunately though, this new cable didn’t resolve my disk errors.

Googling the error messages hadn’t turned up much; however searching for the disk model number told me that my disk is actually 3Gbps-capable and that, even though SATA/300 devices should be compatible with SATA/150 controllers, there can be issues with legacy controllers when a technology called spread spectrum clocking (SSC) is enabled. Seagate supplies a utility to enable/disable SSC on their SATA drives bit it won’t run under Windows, so I created an MS-DOS 6.22 boot floppy disk (thanks to and ran the utility from MS-DOS. As it happens, SSC was already disabled on my disk but it was worth checking out. Another potential issue is the autonegotiation between SATA/300 and SATA/150 and, following the Seagate SATA troubleshooter, I found this advice:

“Some older 1.5Gbits/sec SATA cards do not support auto negotiation with newer 3.0Gbits/sec drives… Seagate Barracuda 3.0Gbit/sec drives can be forced to 1.5Gbits/sec to allow support with these older SATA cards.

To force the Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 drive to 1.5Gbits/sec mode, apply a jumper to the outer most pins of the jumper block…

This jumper block uses a 2mm jumper. This is the smaller of the standard jumper sizes.”

Seagate knowledge base article 3116

After digging around in my “box of PC bits and bobs”, I found a suitable jumper and applied it; however I followed the diagram in Seagate knowledge base article 2850 (which relates to certain Maxtor SATA drives):

Maxtor Serial ATA jumper options

Instead of this, subtley different one (which I found afterwards in the ST3500641AS Product Manual):

Seagate Barracuda Serial ATA connectors and jumper options

After having applied the jumper to the wrong pins, there were no more disk event ID 11 errors and, as it seems that those pins are for factory use only, I have no idea what they meant; however, after a few hours, I saw the si3112 event ID 9 errors return, so I decided to switch the jumper to the location in the second diagram. I won’t go into the details of what heppened next, suffice to say it resulted in a blue screen of death, followed by a hard disk that no longer spun up and a warranty call… oops!

After receiving a replacement disk, I rebuilt the system (without any jumpers on the hard drive) and confirmed that the errors still occurred with a new disk (ruling out a faulty component as the cause). Then, I shut down the system (always a good idea before performing hardware maintenance) and fitted the jumper to the outermost two pins. Since powering on the computer, there have been no errors, so (fingers crossed), it looks as though the problem was down to a SATA/300 drive and a SATA/150 controller.

I’ve since come across a low-cost SATA controller with an eSATA port, based on a VIA VT6421A chipset (which could actually provide me with some more flexibility – and I can still return the first controller for a refund); however, having got a working driver and hardware combination, I’m reluctant to switch to another chipset (and another set of problems)… maybe that’s something to consider if I experience any more problems later.

If only all warranty calls were like this…

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

A couple of years ago, I had the misfortune to require warranty support from Dell (a frustrating experience). Then, problems with my IBM ThinkPad left me stuck between a 3-year hardware warranty and a 90-day software warranty. Well, thankfully my recent experiences with HP have been considerably better.

Last year I had some warranty repairs carried out on a couple of my notebook PCs – the warranty cover was for a back-to-base repair: a courier arrived from DHL and packaged the computers, then a few days later they were returned with the faulty components replaced.

Then, yesterday, one of my hard disks failed. I checked the warranty status on the Seagate website (one of the reasons that I use Seagate drives is the 5-year warranty) but it wasn’t valid as the component was originally supplied by HP. So, I called HP, who were happy to take my word that a few whirrs and clunks from the disk, then nothing (except a system that was stuck attempting to boot from drive C: ) meant that this device was broken and needed to be replaced (even if I did have to explain to an overseas call centre operator that I work for a company with 20,000 employees and I couldn’t check every address they had on their system for that company name, but that my home address certainly wouldn’t be there). Half an hour later, HP (or one of their agents) called me to check the part number and promised me a replacement within 24 hours.

By 9:00 this morning, I had a package containing a new drive in my hand (even if the courier didn’t know anything about collecting the faulty component) and a few minutes later I had installed it in my system. By lunchtime, everything was up and running again. Then, I found the instructions that told me to package the failed drive in the box used to ship the new replacement and peel off the label, underneath which was a pre-paid returns label. All that was needed then was a call to UPS to arrange collection and a few minutes ago, the same UPS driver returned to collect the package.

Overall, it was a positive experience (as positive as a wrecked hard drive can be) – less than a day of downtime on a standard parts-only warranty. Thank you HP.

Windows Home Server – first impressions, mass storage drivers and clients that won’t connect

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Windows Home Server logoIn my post about Microsoft’s Vista after hours event, I mentioned Windows Home Server (WHS). Over the weekend, I installed the April CTP of Windows Home Server (build 1371) on a PC at home and I’m pretty impressed.

WHS is based on Windows 2003 Small Business Server and consequently has a pretty solid codebase. In the April CTP, the product’s lineage is very visible, with a the title Windows Server 2003 for Small Business Server Setup during text-mode setup, a Windows Server 2003 splash screen and the desktop displaying the version information as:

Windows Server 2003 for Small Business Server Evaluation copy. Build 3790 (Service Pack 2)

I installed the product on an aging Compaq DeskPro D500SFF (Pentium 4 1.5GHz CPU) upgraded to 768MB of RAM (I’m sure 512MB would have been fine but I’d already upgraded it) with a Sony DWG120A DVD±RW dual layer recorder, white-box Serial ATA (SATA) controller (Silicon Image SiI3112A SATALink BIOS v4.2.83) and a Seagate ST3500641AS (500GB SATA) disk.

Rather than reviewing WHS (as other people are better at that than I am – Paul Thurrott has a review of the WHS April CTP and APC has a review of WHS beta 2), I’ll just highlight a couple of issues that it took me a while to resolve:

  • The WinPE 2.0-based installer didn’t recognise my SATA controller (but it did give me a straightforward interface for loading the correct drivers) – I know that SATA support in Windows is still patchy, but I would expect a new product to have been updated with current mass storage drivers for a common chipset (ironically, Windows Update pushed some updated drivers after installation)! I downloaded the latest SiI3x12 32-bit Windows base driver (v1.3.67.0, dated 30 March 2007) and, when prompted by the installer, I supplied them on a USB key; however this failed setup once it entered text-mode (it couldn’t see the USB key) so I tried again using a CD. Again, text-mode setup failed as it will only accept updated drivers (after pressing F6) from drive A: so I ran the whole process again, this time using a floppy disk (which felt like a return to the 1990s). Even though the GUI-mode and text-mode setups both require their own drivers to be loaded, it seems that they have to be from the same media.
  • I had a few issues with my media (file copy errors), despite downloading the ISO twice (on two different machines) and writing the DVD (using two different drives) at the slowest possible speed; however I decided to skip the files that couldn’t be read (mostly non-English language files but also one hotfix for Microsoft knowledge base article 929644, which is not available publicly). This may have been the cause of a later error – Windows Home Server setup error. Updating Windows Update Redirector failed: cannot complete this function. (error code 0x800703eb) but after setup consequently failed, I restarted the computer, after which it resumed installation, updated the Windows Update Redirector and ran the rest of the setup routine with no further issues.
  • When installing the client connector (on a Windows XP SP2 PC), I was unable to connect to my home server. As product intended for home users, WHS expects all devices to be on the same subnet; however my home network is split across multiple subnets (I also elected not to use the default server name). The WHS help text refers to this as an advanced network configuration and WHS requires that a manual connection is made. Unfortunately, connecting directly via IP (or name) also failed, informing me that A network error has occurred. Please verify that your network connection is active and that Windows Home Server is powered on. Then, I found a very useful troubleshooter for WHS client joins which let me ascertain that all was well with my server so I started looking at firewalls. After enabling firewall logging on the WHS network connection, I could see connections being dropped from one of my own subnets. I then edited the firewall exceptions list, changing the scope from my network (subnet) only to a custom list of subnets for the following services (any externally-accessible services were left at their defaults – i.e. HTTP on TCP 80, HTTPS on TCP 443 and Windows Home Server Remote Access on TCP 4125) and successfully joined the client to my WHS:
    • File and printer sharing (TCP 139 and 445, UDP 137-138).
    • HTTP (TCP 88).
    • HTTPS (TCP 444).
    • Remote Desktop (TCP 3389).
    • Windows Home Server Computer Backup (program exception).
    • Windows Home Server Diagnostics (TCP 5247).
    • Windows Home Server Transport Service (TCP 1138).
    • Windows Media Connect (TCP 10243, UDP 10280-10284).
    • UPnP Framework (TCP 2869 and UDP 1900).

Despite these problems, I want to stress that WHS is shaping up to be a great product. It is beta software and that means that problems are to be expected (I have filed a few bug reports already, as well as a couple of feature requests – namely that I would like to be able to join WHS servers to a domain and apply group policy and that I would like to be able to access WHS on my own domain name, rather than via a Microsoft-supplied address).

There’s more information about WHS at the Windows Home Server blog.

Corrupt Firefox profile preventing access to the WordPress visual editor

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

For the last few weeks (ever since one of the all-to-frequent Firefox crashes that I experience) I’ve been unable to use the WordPress visual editor to write my posts.  If I switched to another machine then everything was fine – the problem only existed in Firefox on one machine.  After seeking help on the WordPress support forums, someone tactfully suggested that I ask for help on the Mozilla forums… I wasn’t hopeful (as this problem seemed to be specific to WordPress); however the advice I was given was spot-on – it turns out that my issue was a corrupted Firefox profile.

After creating a new profile and copying key settings from my old profile (I copied bookmarks.html, certs8.db, cookies.txt, formhistory.dat, history.dat, hostperm.1, key3.db, mimeTypes.rdf and signons2.txt), I was able to relaunch Firefox and everything was back to the way it should be, complete with browser history, bookmarks, cookies, stored password, etc.  It should also be possible to copy items such as user preferences, search plugins and extensions but that’s not recommended if there were problems with the previous profile, so I reinstalled the couple of Firefox add-ons that I do use (the British English Dictionary and Web Developer extensions).

Mac vs. PC (vs. Linux)

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

A few months back, I wrote a post about the Mac vs. PC ads (which, funny as they are, as a user of Macintosh, Windows and Linux PCs, I find to be a little misleading sometimes and downright untruthful others) before following it up when I heard an amusing Mac vs. PC parody on BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show. It was interesting to hear that Mac Format magazine judged the ads as ineffective because the largest group of consumers to whom they appeal are already Mac users (although Apple’s continuation of the Get a Mac campaign would suggest that it is working for them) and, in the comments on my recent post about some of the consumer-targeted features in Windows Vista being just as good as the functionality offered by Mac OS X, I was criticised for saying:

“Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch, splashed out on the (admittedly rather nice) Apple hardware and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side.”

Regardless of the effectiveness (or honesty) of the original ads, late last night, whilst researching for my rebuttal of those comments, I came across some more Mac vs. PC ads:

I’ve said before that the whole “my operating system is better than your operating system” nonsense is quite ridiculous really but the TrueNuff guys have it all just about summed up:

“Why would you love a Mac? Computers are computers. Macs are great. So are PCs. So are toasters – what’s your point? It’s just a computer – get over it.”

I’m enjoying the spoof ads though!

Recovering data after destroying the Mac OS X partition table

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I’m not a religious man but every once in a while I do something stupid and find myself hoping for some divine intervention. Yesterday, I excelled in my stupidity with what was probably the single most careless thing that I have ever done in my entire computing life, accidentally re-initialising my external hard disk (containing, amongst other things, my iTunes library and irreplaceable digital photos of my children) and the backup disk.

In a mild state of panic, I called my friend Alex who gave me two excellent pieces of advice:

  • Do nothing with the corrupted disks. Sit tight. Calm down. Wait and see what turns up from researching similar scenarios on the ‘net.
  • Submit a post to some of the Mac forums (Mac OS X Hints, Apple Discussions, Mac Geekery) and see if anyone can recommend a suitable course of action.

Thank you Alex.

And thank you Stanley Horwitz, debaser626, Tom Larkin and Joe VanZandt for coming back to me with recommendations almost straightaway. Almost everyone suggested running a tool from Prosoft Engineering called Data Rescue II.

In addition to its primary role of recovering lost data on hard disks, this $99 utility (a small price in comparision to professional data recovery fees) has two especially important features: it is non-destructive as all restoration has to be to another volume; and it can be run in demo mode first to check that data is recoverable before having to be registered.

A quick scan turned up no recoverable files but a thorough scan was more useful. After a few hours reading 6 billion disk blocks and another couple analysing the data, it found my files. Unfortunately the progress bar gives no indication as to how many files might be recoverable whilst the scan is taking place, presumably because files may be spread across many disk blocks but it found my files!

The recovered files were marked as orphans, CBR (whatever that is) and then a whole load of them actually had their original file names and other metadata. After successfully recovering a single file, I bought a license and set about recovering the entire contents of the disk to another volume. Unfortunately it hung after failing to read one of the files but I repeated the operation (this time saving my scan results so that I can exit and relaunch the application if necessary) and successfully restored my digital photos. The relief is immense and I’m presently running a full restoration of the entire disk contents (I imagine that a large part of tomorrow will be spent working out which files I need, and which were actually deliberately deleted files recovered along with the lost data).

Other potentially useful tools, which I didn’t try but which might be useful to others, include:

  • GRC Spinrite – for proactive hard disk maintenance and recovery of data from failing hard disks (disk recovery – not partition recovery)
  • Alsoft DiskWarrior – for damaged directory structures (file system recovery – not partion recovery).
  • SubRosaSoft File Salvage – another partition recovery tool.

Note that I haven’t tried any of these tools myself – I’m simply alerting any poor soul who stumbles across this page to their existence.

I was lucky. Very lucky.

The moral of this story – don’t rely on a single backup that is overwritten nightly and permanently connected to your computer. I really must take more frequent DVD backups of crucial files and store a disk backup offsite.

I should know better.

Get a Mac? Maybe, but Windows Vista offers a more complete package than you might think

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I’ll freely admit that I have been critical of Windows Vista at times and I’ll stand by my comments published in Computer Weekly last November – Windows XP will remain in mainstream use for quite some time. Having said that, I can’t see Mac OS X or Linux taking the corporate desktop by storm and the move to Vista is inevitable, just not really a priority for many organisations right now.

Taking off my corporate hat one evening last week, I made the trip to Microsoft’s UK headquarters in Reading for an event entitled “Vista after hours”. Hosted by James Senior and Matt McSpirit it was a demo-heavy and PowerPoint-light tour of some of the features in Windows Vista that we can make use of when we’re not working. Not being a gamer and having bought a Mac last year, I’ve never really paid attention to Microsoft’s digital home experience but I was, quite frankly, blown away by what I saw.

The first portion of the evening looked at some of the out-of-the-box functionality in Windows Vista, covering topics like search, drilling down by searching within results, using metadata to tag objects, live previews and saving search queries for later recall as well as network diagnosis and repair. Nothing mind-blowing there but well-executed all the same. Other topics covered included the use of:

  • Windows Photo Gallery (which includes support for the major, unprocessed, raw mode formats as well as more common, compressed, JPEG images) to perform simple photo edits and even to restore to the original image (cf. a photographic negative).
  • Windows Movie Maker to produce movies up to 1080p.
  • Windows DVD Maker to produce DVD menus with support for both NTSC and PAL as well as 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios.
  • Windows Media Player to organise media in many ways (stack/sort by genre, year, songs, album, artist, rating, recently added, etc.) and share that media.

Apple Macintosh users will think “yeah, I have iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and iTunes to do all that” and they would be correct but Apple says (or at least implies in its advertising) that it’s hard to do these things on a PC – with Vista it’s just not… which moves me on to backup – not provided (at least in GUI form) by the current Mac OS X release (only with a .Mac subscription) and much improved in Windows Vista. “Ah yes, but Leopard will include Time Machine!”, say the Mac users – Windows has had included the volume shadow copy service (VSS/VSC) since Windows XP and Windows Backup includes support for multiple file versions right now as well as both standard disk-based backups and snapshots to virtual hard disk (.VHD) images, which can then be used as a restore point or mounted in Virtual PC/Virtual Server as a non-bootable disk. Now that does sound good to me and I’m sure there must be a way to make the .VHD bootable for physical to virtual (P2V) and virtual to physical (V2P) migrations… maybe that’s something to have a play with another day.

Regardless of all the new Vista functionality, for me, the most interesting part of the first session was Windows Home Server. I’m a registered beta user for this product but must confess I haven’t got around to installing it yet. Well, I will – in fact I’m downloading the April CTP as I write this. Based on Windows 2003 Small Business Server, it provides a centralised console for management of and access to information stored at home. Microsoft claim that it has low hardware requirements – just a large hard disk – I guess low hardware requirements is a subjective term (and I figure that my idea of low hardware requirements and Microsoft’s may differ somewhat), nevertheless it offers the opportunity to secure data (home computer backup and restore, including scheduling), provide centralised storage (a single storage pool, broken out as shared storage, PC backups, operating system and free space), monitor network health (i.e. identify unsafe machines on the network), provide remote access (via an HTTPS connection to a defined web address) and stream media, all controlled through a central console. Because the product is aimed at consumers, ease of use will be key to its success and it includes some nice touches like scheduled backups and automatic router configuration for remote access. Each client computer requires a connection pack in order to allow Home Server to manage it (including associating account information for secuirity purposes) and, in response to one of my questions, Microsoft confirmed that there will be support for non-Windows clents (e.g. Mac OS X 10.5 and even Linux). Unfortunately, product pricing has not yet been released and early indications are that this will be an OEM-only product; that will be a great shame for many users who would like to put an old PC to use as a home server.

Another area covered in the first session was parental controls – not really something that I worry about right now but maybe I will over the next few years as my children start to use computers. Windows Vista includes the ability for parents to monotor their child’s activities including websites, applications, e-mail, instant messages and media. Web filters can be used to prevent access to certain content with an HTTP 450 response, including a link for a parent to approve and unblock access to the content as well as time limits on access (providing a warning before forcing a logout). Similarly, certain games can be blocked for younger users of the family PC. The volume and diversity of the questions at the event would indicate that Vista’s parental controls are fairly simplistic and will not be suitable for all (for example, time limits are on computer access as a whole and not for a particular application, so it’s not possible to allow a child access to the computer to complete their homework but to limit games to a certain period in the evening and at weekends).

If session one had whetted my appetite for Vista, session two (Vista: Extended) blew my mind and by the time I went home, I was buzzing…

I first heard of Windows SideShow as a way to access certain content with a secondary display, e.g. to provide information about urgent e-mails and upcoming appointments on the lid of a laptop computer but it actually offers far more than this – in fact, the potential for SideShow devices is huge. Connectivity can be provided by USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth – Windows doesn’t care – and the home automation possibilities are endless. I can really see the day when my fridge includes capabilities for ordering groceries via a SideShow display in the door. There is at least one website devoted to SideShow devices but James Senior demonstrated a laptop bag with a built-in SideShow controller including a cache for media playback. Typically used to expose information from a Windows Sidebar gadget, SideShow devices will wake up a sleeping computer to synchrosise content then put it back to sleep and can be secured with a PIN or even erased when logged off. Access is controlled within the Windows Control Panel and there is an emulator available to simulate SideShow devices.

As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center

Next up was Windows Media Center. Unlike with the Windows XP Media Center and Tablet PC editions, Microsoft no longer provides a separate SKU for this functionality, although it is not enabled in all Vista product editions. Media Center is a full-screen application that offers a complete home media hub – sort of like Apple Front Row but with support for TV tuners to include personal video recorder (PVR) functionality. As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center – multiple TV tuners can be installed (e.g. to pause live TV, or to record two items at once, as well as the elctronic programme guide (EPG), controls, etc. being displayed as an overlay on the currently playing content. As with Windows Media Player, visualisations are provided and in theory it ought to be possible to remote control a Media Center PC via Windows Home Server and set up a recording remotely. Individual programs, or whole series, can be recorded and many TV tuners include DVB-T (digital terrestrial) support (i.e. Freeview), with other devices such as satellite and cable TV decoders needing a kludge with a remote infra-red controller (a limitation of Sky/Virgin Media network access rather than with Windows). Other functionality includes RSS support as well as integration with Windows Live Messenger and some basic parental controls (not as extensive as elsewhere in Windows Vista but nevertheless allowing a PIN to be set on certain recordings).

The event was also my first opportunity to look at a Zune. It may be a rather half-hearted attempt at producing a media player (no podcast support and, crucially, no support for Microsoft’s own PlaysForSure initiative) but in terms of form-factor it actually looks pretty good – and it includes functionality that’s missing from current iPods like a radio. If only Apple could produce an iPod with a similarly-sized widescreen display (not the iPhone) then I’d be more than happy. It also seems logical to me that as soon as iTunes is DRM-free then the iTunes/iPod monopoly will be broken as we should be able to use music purchased from the largest online music store (iTunes) on the world’s favourite portable media player (iPod) together with Windows Media Center… anyway, I digress…

I mentioned earlier that I’m not a gamer. Even so, the Xbox 360‘s ability to integrate with Windows PCs is an impressive component of the Microsoft’s digital home experience arsenal. With its dashboard interface based around a system of “blades”, the Xbox 360 is more than just a games machine:

As well as the Xbox 360 Core and Xbox 360 Pro (chrome) systems Microsoft has launched the Xbox 360 Elite in the United States – a black version with a 120GB hard disk and HDMI connectivity, although it’s not yet available here in the UK (and there are also some limited edition Yellow Xbox 360s to commemorate the Simpsons movie).

Finally, Microsoft demostrated Games for Windows Livebringing the XBox 360 Live experience to Windows Vista-based PC gaming. With an Xbox 360 wireless gaming receiver for Windows, Vista PC gamers can even use an Xbox 360 wireless controller (and not just for gaming – James Senior demonstrated using it to navigate Windows Live maps, including the 3D and bird’s eye views). Not all games that are available for both PCs and the Xbox will offer the cross-platform live experience; however the first one that will is called Shadowrun (and is due for release on 1 June 2007) bringing two of the largest gaming platforms together and providing a seamless user experience (marred only by the marketing decision to have two types of account – silver for PC-PC interaction and gold for PC-XBox).

Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch… and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side

So, after all this, would I choose a Mac or a Windows PC? (or a Linux PC?) Well, like so many comparisons, it’s just not that simple. I love my Mac, but Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch, splashed out on the (admittedly rather nice) Apple hardware and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side. In addition, Apple’s decision to delay the next release of OS X whilst they try to enter the mobile phone market makes me question how committed to the Macintosh platform they really are. Linux is good for techies and, if you can support yourself, it has the potential to be free of charge. If you do need support though, some Linux distros can be more expensive than Windows. So what about Windows, still dominant and almost universally despised by anyone who realises that there is a choice? Actually, Windows Vista is rather good. It may still have far too much legacy code for my liking (which is bound to affect security and stability) but it’s nowhere near as bad as the competition would have us thinking… in fact it hasn’t been bad since everything moved over to the NT codebase and, complicated though the product versions may be, Windows Vista includes alternatives to the iLife suite shipped with a new Macs as well as a superior media hub. Add the Xbox integration and Windows SideShow into the mix and the Microsoft digital home experience is excellent. Consumers really shouldn’t write off Windows Vista just yet.