Users should control their computers, not be controlled BY their computers

There has been a steady stripping of power of users to control their computers. I talk mainly about PCs as Mac users have never had much control.

Starting with the BIOS, this used to be easily accessed by a “de facto” standard by pressing F2 or DEL. There was a message on the screen telling you which button to press. Easy!

Later computers, particularly laptops, showed a manufacturer logo and hid the options. However, you could still press the buttons to get access. Recent models have dropped the F2/Del standard and started using other options, such as ESC, F1, F9 F10, and F12. If you are very lucky, you get a splash screen letting you know what key to press, otherwise you have to read the (non-existent) F-ing manual, or Google it.

The latest round of removing power from users is the rise of UEFI bios. What this effectively does is tie the bios to the operating system (which is always Windows.) This prevents you from booting from non-UEFI media, effectively prevents the booting up from DVD or USB stick. You have to dig around in the UEFI BIOS to turn off secure boot, change UEFI to CSM boot in order to boot from anything else. Although this allows for faster booting, and has some security benefits, it makes things harder for users who need to reinstall or install a dual boot system.

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Windows 8 laptop a brick – can’t boot from anything except hard drive

Not so long ago, I was given the job of adding a new laptop to a small network of 20 pcs plus two Windows servers. The only thing was, the laptop came with Windows 8, and they needed a custom application that only runs in Internet Explorer 9 or below (I know, I know…  )

As we have volume licences for Windows 7, I assumed this would just require booting from a USB stick or DVD, wiping the hard drive and installing Windows 7. However, whatever F key I pressed, it started the Windows 8 installation process. After some reading online, it appears that the newer type of BIOS, called UEFI, can be modified by the OS and therefore, the only way to alter this was to install Windows 8, then go into advanced startup options, and choose the USB or DVD.

So, an annoying delay where I had to install an operating system I didn’t want, followed by tweaking the startup options. Still no joy. Just an error message. Tried changing various UEFI setting in the bios to no avail. Then tried modifying various USB sticks to include bootx64.efi and other boot drivers.

More online reading, and it appears that the implementation of UEFI is flawed in some makes of laptop, notably Lenovo and Toshiba. So, laptop returned to supplier.


How to reinstall Windows 7 and get your drivers back

When the worst happens, and your computer won’t boot, and Windows 7 is unrepairable, you are faced with the frustrating task of reinstalling Windows. There is often a recovery partition that you can use to go back to factory settings. However, you might want a clean install of Windows, without all the crapware bundled by the manufacturer, plus you usually have to install Windows 7 Service Pack 1. One of the frustrations of reinstalling Windows from DVD, especially on laptops, is that many device drivers are missing after you reinstall, and you have to go to the manufacturers website to download them again, not so easy if you are missing LAN/WiFi drivers…

Sometimes it is a pain even if you know what you are doing. If you look in device manager, right-click on the device that is missing its driver, click properties, details, and then change the drop-down to hardware IDs, you can see a VEN_ID and DEV_ID value, eg for a missing driver on a laptop I’m working on, it  shows PCI\VEN_168C&DEV_0032&CC_0280. There is a great website to look these up, the PCI Vendor and Device Database. This can be a good way to find drivers when the PC manufacturers website is terrible. For the example I gave, this shows the vendor is Atheros, and the Device is an AR9485WB-EG. In this case, both the Asus and Atheros websites were of no help, so I found another solution.

If you can still get data off your old (or about to be formatted) hard drive, you can also get the drivers. Here is the procedure:

  • Copy the following two folders to a removable drive. I’m not sure both are needed, but both contain driver files.
  • If you are re-installing due to malware, you need to scan this device for malware using a secure fully patched and protected PC, and preferably by using a Linux live CD or Virtual Machine.
  • Reinstall Windows 7
  • Insert the removable drive
  • In device manager, right-click the device without a driver, and choose update driver software. A dialogue will ask if you want to search automatically or browse my computer. Choose browse my computer and look for the removable drive. From there, Windows 7 will cleverly find the right driver from the list. Repeat this until all the devices have drivers.
    In one case, the driver installed failed on the first run, because it depended on another one being installed first, but it installed fine after a reboot.

Vista Black Edition – this is counterfeit, avoid

In the last 48 hours, I have had two customers come to me with computers with Vista “Black Edition.” This is a hacked version of Vista, aimed at gamers and hackers. It is not genuine, is not supported by Microsoft and if you have paid for a copy, you should go back to whoever sold it to you and ask for your money back. There can be problems with Windows Update and this can leave your computer wide open to viruses and other malware. As the software is modified by someone from outside Microsoft, there is always the risk of some dubious third-party code being put in, such as a “backdoor” allowing the computer to be exploited by a remote attack. A genuine licence for Windows 7 only costs around £80, and if you have a product key printed on the computer, you can install a genuine copy of Windows for that key anyway, so there is no reason to go counterfeit. If you have counterfeit Windows installed, give me a call on 01646 602248 to find out how to remove it and install genuine Windows.

Why not use counterfeit Windows software?

I sometimes stumble across computers running counterfeit copies of Windows Vista, 7 and less commonly XP. In most cases, these are machines that have been upgraded by a friend who “knows a lot about computers.” Whether this is because the original machine needed its hard disk wiping due to virus infestation or the hard drive itself had failed. In many cases, a genuine copy of Windows is replaced by a more “premium” counterfeit copy, usually Vista or 7 Ultimate. I can only guess at the reasoning bethind this. It must be because the “friend” has downloaded this cracked copy and can install it on multiple computers. At first glance, this sounds appealing, as it is usually done “on the cheap” and you get enhanced features.

The advantages offered by Ultimate editions over the standard “home premium” or “Business/Professional” editions are seldom used by the average user. For Windows 7, this is:

  • BitLocker – whole drive encryption (the freeware TrueCrypt is highly regarded if you need this functionality)

So in 99% of cases, you can install your genuine copy of Windows and it will do what you need without using counterfeit software with the risks detailed below.

1) Windows updates. Counterfeit Windows software generally works by preventing Windows from activating or by preventing the process detecting activation. You can run into trouble downloading updates, which will render the computer vulnerable to exploits often found on malicious webpages, such as phishing sites (these are sites that appear to come from the likes of Paypal or a bank etc and get you to enter your password so they can steal it)

2) Malware – often cracked copies of Windows come with sneaky malware (viruses or trojans) attached. Often these are undetectable to antivirus software, as they are installed first, with Windows and then they hide themselves very well.

Many end users are grateful to their friend for helping them out of a spot, and I can’t blame them. I would blame PC vendors for not providing installation DVDs for people who need to reinstall. Its all very well to provide a recovery utility on the hard disk, until the hard disk fails! In most cases, you can contact the tech support of the PC supplier and buy a replacement disk (usually for much less than a new copy of Windows e.g  £20) This is one way to stay safe and legit. Another is to contact a PC technician like me, who keeps a set of disks, and can install using your genuine licence key.

Reinstalling vista nightmare

If you are ever unfortunate enough for your laptop’s hard drive to fail, and you don’t have a recovery DVD for Vista, you could be in for a rough time. You would think the suppliers would provide a Windows Vista DVD, but no, this is a rare thing these days. Instead, they put a recovery partition on the hard drive which allows you to return to factory settings. Not much good if the hard drive is dead! The better companies also advise you to make a recovery DVD, but the reality is that few people do this.
You would think you could borrow someone else’s DVD and install from that using the licence key you purchased – but no, each manufacturer has their own disk. Unlike Windows XP, these disks are hard coded to the laptop’s hardware.
This is so typical of the way of thinking by certain companies. In the name of “fighting piracy” they make life extremely difficult for the honest joe’s who are only trying to do things the proper way by reinstalling with their licence key, but in fact the pirates easily avoid these measures. You can go on bitttorrent sites and download cracked versions of vista that have no problems with licence keys. Its like video piracy, the pirates edit out the annoying “copyright warnings” – so only the people who have bought genuine DVDs have to put up with watching those warnings every time.

Solution to the Vista DVD issue

Borrow a DVD for the exact company and version, eg Dell Vista Home Basic, Toshiba Vista Home Premium, or if you are technical enough, you can extract the contents of a retail Vista DVD and insert the /souces/oem specific files for that laptop into the extracted install, then use vlite or similiar to rebuild the ISO image and burn to DVD.

In conclusion, why tell us we only own a licence, and make us go through hoops of activating and validating, installing Windows genuine advantage, and then not allowing us to reinstall with the same licence key in the case of hard drive failure?
My advice, make that recovery dvd and keep it safe…

Let’s stop knocking Microsoft

For over 15 years, Microsoft has held dominance in the personal computer arena and has made plenty of enemies along the way. They took over many companies and sold other people’s products, and gained a reputation for being copycats with little creativity of their own. Meanwhile, Apple and Linux both made great strides in innovation. Even now, no-one is really threatening Microsoft in its core areas of the operating system and office products, in the home and business markets.
Wrt operating systems, Microsoft still holds a dominant position with 93.1% of market share for 2009 compared to 95.6% for 2006 mainly at the expense of the Mac, from 3.5% in 2006 to 4.9% now. However, this is still a small minority.
More important are the perceptions of many that Microsoft is struggling. This is because in the peripheral areas, such as browsers, media player, the Zune player, email programmes, MSN, and Bing, they are losing market share. In most of these cases, Microsoft has worked hard to improve and innovate their products. Internet Explorer 7 and 8 are a vast improvement on IE6, but still people are switching to Firefox and Chrome. The Zune player has received warm reviews, for example by Leo Laporte on the TWIT network. Bing has also been seen as quite innovative, trying to find a niche in a market dominated by Google.

Window 7 has also been warmly received by many in the tech community. Leo Laporte, a long time Mac user (fanboy?), is a big fan of Windows 7.

Now, the office products are under threat from free alternatives such as OpenOffice and GoogleDocs, in spite of being superior (especially in the case of Excel) to the alternatives.

Micrsoft also make one of the best file backup / sync tools called SyncToy. Having tried half a dozen different tools to back up files, I have found SyncToy to be the most reliable. I found Acronis True Image to be unreliable, often failing to make a backup for some unknown reason freezing after 30 minutes or so. I also suffered the misfortune of a disk image saved to a USB hard drive being corrupted. Getting the files back was tricky.
They have also now made Microsoft Security Essentials, a totally free lightweight anti virus. A product that has been warmly received.

So why are people knocking Microsoft still, and not saying a word against Google, who are possibly the new big monopoly?
I think it boils down to two things.
First, Microsoft is notorious for its security vulnerabilities in its products with 1000s of security holes in its products that require regular patches to fix. Although there are operating systems out there that are more secure than Windows, I believe the main reason Microsoft software is perceived as insecure is because they are the obvious target for crackers/hackers/malware writers when over 90% of the world are using Windows. This, however, is changing. Both Vista and Windows 7 are more resilient than Windows XP. I have found numerous XP systems that are so badly infected by rootkits, and other malware, that reinstallation has been the only option. Against that, I have yet to find a Vista or Windows 7 machine that couldn’t be cleaned up. (although reinstallation is always advisable) This is because the Vista/7 kernel is protected and User Account Control mean that users are not running in administrator mode. Many of the bad guys are now targetting other software such as Adobe reader, or the Mac, but mainly relying on social engineering, ie tricking people into installing bad stuff by pretending to be a genuine product (such as the scareware that pretends to be an antivirus)

Secondly, Microsoft’s costing model is to charge people for its products, rather than beig funded by advertising. This means, they have to release new versions of their products in order to pay the wages of their employees and survive as a company.

It remains to be seen if Google’s chrome operating system will dent Windows’ dominance. However, I contend it is time to stop knocking Microsoft, they have improved their act in so many ways. If we should be scared of anyone, it should be Google.