Time for some PC forgiveness

Blue screen of death parody
Not a real blue screen of death (BSOD) but I’ve seen too many worrying ones this week.

It never rains but it pours, so the saying goes. On top of a chest, throat and ear infection and general exhaustion (more on that, perhaps, in a future post) my desktop PC has now started to play up. It’s time for some PC ‘forgiveness’, reformat the C drive and start again.

With most other versions of Windows that I’ve used (98 second edition, XP, 7, 8 and 8.1) I have performed a full ‘factory reset’, a clean install of Windows, every nine to twelve months.

For me though, Windows 10 has been the most stable version of Windows to date—at least, this side of Windows 3.11 for Workgroups. I have had very few issues with it, and until last week very few blue screens of death: fatal system error messages that suddenly bring your workflow to a crashing halt.

Backup

So, when my PC started acting up a few weeks back I reached for both my trusty Trello board that documents for me what software I have installed, what order things need to be installed, and notes about any installation woes, and my external hard drive to check that everything was backed up okay.

Then my external hard drive died.

Over the last three or more years I’ve been running a nightly back-up, using SecondCopy, to a Seagate Backup Plus drive (1TB USB 3.0).

I have extracted the 3.5″ SATA hard drive from the enclosure to check if the drive itself has failed or just the power supply. But in the meantime I ordered myself a Seagate Backup Plus Slim portable drive (2TB USB 3.0) and have spent the weekend progressively backing up everything: drivers, application files, game progressive backups, music, videos and photos.

As I write this, I’m currently virus-scanning the backup on my laptop to ensure data integrity.

Once that is done I can start the reinstall.

Reinstall

Here’s my general order of doing things:

  1. Reformat the hard drive(s).
  2. Install Windows 10.
  3. Motherboard drivers (including chipset driver, Intel management engine interface, network card, and diagnostic tools).
  4. Graphics card drivers.
  5. Windows 10 updates.
  6. Google Chrome.
  7. .NET Framework.
  8. Soundcard drivers.
  9. Keyboard drivers.
  10. Mouse drivers.
  11. Webcam drivers.
  12. Scanner drivers.
  13. Laser printer drivers.
  14. Gamepad drivers.
  15. Install software…

I generally start with a few system tools and accessories before moving on to the bigger guns like office applications and graphics, multimedia, web development, and lastly games.

Essential tweaks

Over the years I’ve learned a lot from Koroush Ghazi’s TweakGuides tweaking companion documents. But Windows 10 is the most complete Windows operating system that I’ve used to date. I now have to make very few, if any, tweaks at all.

I still rely on the following applications to give me additional functionality:

  • Agent Ransack
    I use this instead of the default Windows search. It’s much faster and more configurable.
  • allSnap
    This makes windows snap together and to the edge of the screen, as though they are magnetic.
  • f.lux
    F.lux adjusts the colour of my monitor depending on the time of day. It helps me sleep better at night by reducing the blue light in the evening, which is what keeps you awake.
  • Pixel Ruler
    This allows you to measure stuff on your screen, in pixels.
  • PrintFolder Pro (paid)
    This allows me to list folders within a directory. It can be really useful.
  • PureText
    This converts any text on the clipboard to plain text, removing all formatting. It’s the quick equivalent to pasting something into Notepad, then selecting all and copying it back to the clipboard.
  • TED Notepad
    This is my Notepad replacement of choice. It has some really nice features like sorting, case changing, trimming spaces, etc.
  • TreeSize Free
    This is really useful for checking the size of directories, say for backing up or pre-zipping.
  • WinSplit Revolution
    This has been discontinued, but I still use the old version. It allows me to quickly move windows around my desktop, for example, align two windows side-by-side, or one to be one-third and the other two-thirds.

I’ll see you on the other side (unless I blog before then from my laptop).

Why I love Windows 8 (but don’t have 8.1 yet)

Update to Windows 8.1 for free on the Windows 8 app store... or so they say
Update to Windows 8.1 for free on the Windows 8 app store… or so they say

On Thursday Microsoft released Windows 8.1 into the wild. Hmmm… there be dragons!

The upgrade hasn’t gone particularly smoothly for a lot of people (including me) judging by this thread (“Couldn’t update to Windows 8.1 – 0xC1900101 – 0x40017”) on the official Microsoft Community Windows forum and this article (“Windows 8.1 launch weekend plagued by some show-stopping installation issues”) on PC World.com.

The Windows RT upgrade (for Surface tablets) was removed from the app store until they could figure out what was going on. Microsoft released a “recovery image” yesterday to try to address the issue. Time will tell if it has worked, I can’t see past the search engine results noise of it having been removed.

The Windows 8.1 upgrade disappeared from my Windows 8 store for a day or two as well, but re-appeared last night. I’m still not going to try to upgrade again until I know for sure that it will work.

Windows 8

Windows 8.1 was meant to address some of the criticisms of the original Windows 8 release, particularly the removal of the Windows start button and that Windows 8 boots to the new Modern/Metro UI start screen, rather than to the desktop.

I have to say that I have been a huge fan of Windows 8 since the beta. I had the beta installed on my laptop right until the RTM edition was launched. Since then I’ve defended Windows 8 to everyone and anyone.

Windows 8 has been, by far, the fastest, most stable, most secure version of Windows I’ve used (since my standalone, not-connected-to-the-internet version of Windows for Workgroups 3.11 in the mid-90s). My desktop PC boots up and is working within about 20-30 seconds. Compare that with my Windows 7 Dell beast of a PC at work which can take about 10 minutes to start up and become fully responsive.

Start button

As for those two criticisms about the lack of start button and not booting directly to the desktop, well Start8 from Stardock (USD $4.99) addresses both those issues.

Start8 gives me back my start button and Windows 7-like start menu
Start8 gives me back my start button and Windows 7-like start menu

Firmly ticked is the configuration option in Start8 that reads “Automatically go to the Desktop when I sign in“.

I rarely use any of the Metro UI applications (occasionally TV Catch-up, the Steam tile app, and a couple of games with the boys) so it makes sense for me to jump straight to the desktop. This application saves me a click.

To be honest I installed Start8 mostly to make the PC more accessible to my wife Jane, who uses it occasionally. I didn’t want her to have to bother with the convoluted Windows 8 nonsense of Win+C > Settings > Power > Shut down, or Win+C > Settings > Control Panel to access the Control Panel. I reality though, I use those features most.

Start screen

I also have to confess that I really like the Windows 8 start screen. My grumble about the traditional Start menu in XP, Vista, 7 is that it’s a mess. It lists everything that is installed and gives everything equal status.

The Windows 8 start screen allows me to customise it for my own needs, my own priorities.

And if I want to see everything: Win + Q takes me there.

I can pin to the taskbar those applications that I use most frequently, the rest I can pin to the start screen and arrange into named groups. It’s so easy my four year old boys can use it.

The Windows 8 start screen on my PC.
The Windows 8 start screen on my desktop PC.

I used another paid-for application from Startdock to customize the background of my start screen: Decor8 (USD $4.99).

A desktop-centric Windows 8 PC

This gives me the best of both worlds: the speed and stability of Windows 8 coupled with the desktop-centric focus of Windows 7.

In each version of Windows that I’ve used I’ve tweaked it and wrestled with its user-interface to give me the experience that works for me. With Windows 3.11 I used Calmira, in Windows 98 it was power toys and TweakUI, in XP I created my own toolbars. Why should this operating system be any different? Surely that’s one of the beauties of Windows.

I really don’t understand these grumbles of “I hate Windows 8 and the Modern/Metro UI!” To be honest, I don’t notice the juxtaposition of desktop vs Modern/Metro UI much. I ignore most of it. I don’t have a touch screen, I have all the Windows desktop applications that I need and only occasionally dabble with the odd Modern/Metro app. And Start8 and Decor8 allow me to quickly tweak the rest

Windows 8.1

And so back to Windows 8.1. I would rather like to upgrade sometime soon.

I tried it on Friday.

It all seemed to be going well until the second boot when it halted the screen that Windows 8 shows when it’s booting up. The little spinner just kept on spinning… for about 30 minutes. So I rebooted the PC… and it did the same until it quickly flashed up a blue screen of death (BSOD) and about 10 minutes later returned me to Windows 8 and a message similar to this one but with error code 0xC1900101 – 0x40017.

Couldn't update to Windows 8.1
Couldn’t update to Windows 8.1

I’ve been closely following, and contributing to the thread on the Microsoft Community. People have had limited success it would appear with certain workarounds working for some but not others: uninstall graphics card drivers, uninstall SteelSeries Engine software, unplug everything, etc.

I have a SteelSeries mouse. I could uninstall it and try the upgrade again, but do you know what? It’s 2013. Why should I have to? Modern operating systems should just work and upgrade without any kind of hardcore hardware geekery.

I’m going to wait until either Microsoft have figured out a way for the operating system to work around or quietly remove incompatible device drivers or until Steel Series have made their drivers compatible with Windows 8.1. Which in my opinion they should have done by now.

Windows 8.1 was code-named “Blue”. It looks like they omitted “…Screen of Death” at the end of it.

Disappointing, and at a time when Microsoft is fighting to stay relevant this seems to me to be a terrible blow to its reputation. As I said, I’ve been almost evangelical about the stability and reliability of Windows 8. I’m not at all confident about upgrading to 8.1 now. That’s not a good thing.

The trial continues…

Decoding driver versions

I’ve never had a great deal of success with my PCs at work. I’m currently on my 5th machine and even this one isn’t behaving itself.

Graphics cards issues

The issue appears to be to do with my graphics cards.  I have two running under Windows 7 Professional (64-bit):

  • NVIDIA Quadro FX 1400
  • NVIDIA Quadro NVS 285

And every couple of days when I boot up my PC at the start of the day I get a Blue Screen of Death complaining that there is an issue with my graphics card.

Of course, it took Windows 7 about 6 months of doing this before it gave me a clue that it was related to my graphics card.

So this morning I took the plunge and upgraded my graphics card drivers. After the post-install reboot everything appears to be OK; even the NVIDIA Control Panel is working again, which is good.

Versions

But the thing that often confuses me is the numbering system of a lot of hardware drivers.

For example, today I downloaded “Quadro driver release 265”, which also describes itself as “version 267.17” but once installed Windows reports that version “8.17.12.6717” has been installed.

Which is a bit like running the installer for version “banana” and then discovering that version “coconut-chipshop-apple-hamster” has been successfully installed.

Why do hardware manufacturers do this? Aren’t computers complicated enough? All I wanted to do was to make sure that the drivers had updated successfully.

It took a minute or two of staring at the two groups of numbers and a little Googling to discover this:

  • Installer version 267.17
  • Installed version: 8.17.12.6717

There are the installer version numbers at the end of the installed version numbers.

How obvious!

Dates

At least the dates should be the same, shouldn’t they?

  • Installer release date: 02 March 2011
  • Installed driver date: 17 February 2011
  • Release notes date: 22 February 2011

Maybe I should just go back to using my Psion 5mx for everything.

Twin monitor bonus

Two monitors - one normal screen, one blue screen of death

One bonus of having two monitors at work is that if you suddenly get a Windows XP Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) — my first in maybe five years — then at least you can see your pretty Windows desktop image and the BSOD!

You can also see from that photo that I got myself a Microsoft Digital Media Pro keyboard for work too — it just feels so good to type on, and I love the extra buttons — they make me so productive. And I’m still using my mouse of choice: the Microsoft Intellimouse Optical — I love its five buttons (from left to right: back, left-click, double-click (wheel), right-click, forward).