Category Archives: rants

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Backup and file history in Windows 8 Consumer Preview: a million options to confuse you

How is backup in Windows 8? Does it have online backup? Do files sync to SkyDrive like Apple’s iCloud?

Reasonable questions. I had a poke around in Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Search for Backup in the Start menu:

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Not that then. Search in Control Panel:

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More promising. So what is File History, is that the essence of Backup in Windows 8?

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The essentials seem to be: File History is off by default. If Windows finds a drive other than the system drive, it will propose it for File History as above, otherwise it invites you to connect an external drive. Here are the Advanced settings:

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You had better make sure that everything you want to save is in a library, because while there is also an Exclude folders option, I cannot see an Include folders option.

But File History is not, to my mind, backup. It will not recover your system or your applications. Oddly, if you want to see all the backup options, do not search for backup; search for recovery.

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This is where things get strange. Go into Windows 7 File Recovery, which sounds like some legacy thing, and there is the old backup – yes, it does backup as well as recovery:

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Note that from here I can also create a system image or a repair disc.

Alternatively there is the new Recovery feature:

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Reset seems clear enough: a clean install, or at least, restoration of the OEM install that came when your PC was new.

Refresh though is more opaque. What exactly happens if you click Refresh?

Refreshing your PC reinstalls Windows and keeps your personal files, settings, and any apps that came with your PC and apps that you installed from Windows Store.

It seems to me that Refresh is essentially a Reset followed by restoration of Windows Store apps, settings, and your files as defined by Windows, probably the same as in File History but who knows? If you have a folder in your C drive called “Important stuff”, my guess is that neither File History nor Refresh will pay it any regard. Don’t do that.

The disappointment of Refresh is that it does not preserve other application installs, you know, like AutoCAD, Photoshop, that custom business app written in VB6 and somehow persuaded to work, and so on. Refresh could be less than refreshing for some users.

Advanced tools includes an option to create a recovery drive. It is not clear to me though what gets included here. On my system I was invited to insert a USB flash drive with at least 256MB capacity, which suggests that not much gets recovered.

Finally, I mentioned SkyDrive and online backup.

There is an online backup service built into Windows Server 8, but which is only available to test if you are in the USA. Might this also be offered to Windows 8 client users? It seems to me possible, but I cannot see it in the Consumer Preview.

What about SkyDrive? Microsoft is promising some strong SkyDrive integration, which will let you:

  • Open and save documents direct to SkyDrive in Metro
  • Have a SkyDrive folder in Windows Explorer
  • Get files from your PC remotely via SkyDrive.com

All good stuff; but I cannot see the desktop SkyDrive app in Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Details are here, where Microsoft’s Mike Torres says:

we aren’t talking about availability right now – but it won’t be available this week.

where “this week” means Consumer Preview week.

I have the Metro SkyDrive app on a Windows 8 slate that is not domain-joined. On my desktop PC, I domain-joined the Windows 8 install. Tried to run SkyDrive and got this:

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Hmm. Does that mean not using a domain-joined PC? I went to Users as instructed. There is no “Switch to a Microsoft account” option, but there is an option to “Connect your domain account to your Microsoft account to sync PC settings”:

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Hang on a moment. What, exactly, does this do? In particular, what does that last option, “Sign-in info”, mean? That if someone hacks my Live ID they have my domain login too?

How are app settings synced if I have different apps installed? What about different versions of the same app, or is this just Metro apps that can be presumed to be kept updated? What about PCs with different hardware that needs different settings, say Aero enabled on one but not another?

Again, reasonable questions, but don’t bother pressing F1. Nothing will happen.

Conclusion? If you want to backup your files or your system in Windows 8, you are in luck; there are a million options. I do not think you can call this simple though, and my guess is that wrong choices will be made and will be costly. 

My choice? Personally I like what Microsoft now calls “Windows 7 recovery”. It does an incremental backup of your entire PC, apps, “C:\important stuff” and everything. And it works. I do not see that any of the newer options replicates this.

Why is MusicCityDownload.exe in my Windows folder?

I had this question, and did not find much on a quick search, so here is the answer.

I figured that MusicCityDownload.exe was probably not malware, since it looks so much like malware. I mean, surely a malware writer would call their executable spladmin.exe or something like that.

This proved correct. The clue was to look at the executable properties, discover that it is signed by MarkAny Inc which has some DRM technology, and then that it gets installed with Samsung’s Kies media management application. I doubt you will miss Kies so you might want to uninstall it, but it is not actually harmful as far as I am aware so you can stop worrying about MusicCityDownload.exe.

Apple iBooks Author aims at school textbook market, but beware the lock-in

Apple claims to “Reinvent Textbooks” with the introduction of iBooks 2 for iPad, along with an accompanying free authoring tool for the Mac.

iBooks Author is already in the Mac App Store and I had a quick look. It is template based, so the first thing you do is to make your choice.

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I picked Contemporary, whereupon the authoring screen opened and I started to make some edits. If you divide Desktop Publishing (DTP) tools into those that are more oriented towards longer books, and those more oriented towards shorter but more graphically rich titles, then iBooks Author is in the former category. You can write the text in Pages or Word, and then import to iBooks Author. You can also add images, charts, tables, hyperlinks, and a variety of widgets including HTML, Keynote presentations, 3D models and more. The format of some of the widgets seems to be Dashcode, as used by the Dashboard in Mac OS X; certainly that is the case for the HTML widget.

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I got a bit stuck on one point. I did not want the astronomy images in the template, but was not ready with an alternative. However I could not delete the image placeholder. It seems that the templates are somewhat restrictive.

Once your work is ready you can preview it. This is interesting. In order to preview, you attach an iPad, open iBooks on the iPad, and then select it in iBooks Author. A nice touch: the book appears on the iPad marked Proof.

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There is also an animation as the book opens. In the grab below, you can spot the busy icon: this is because the smart cover disappears automatically so you have to grab it on the fly.

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What about publishing? You can export your work in one of three formats: iBooks, PDF, or plain text.

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Apple emphasises the licensing agreement right there in the Export dialog. You can only sell your book through the Apple iBookstore. Note also that the book is only for iPad. You cannot read it on a Mac, let alone on an Amazon Kindle, unless you choose PDF and make it available for free.

Here is the agreement in more detail:

B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:
(i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;
(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.

I exported the book in iBooks format and took a quick look at the contents in an editor.

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On a quick look, it seems to have a lot in common with a standard epub, but is nevertheless a proprietary Apple format.

Finally, a few observations. I have no doubt that eBook usage will grow rapidly in education as elsewhere, and the iPad is a delightful device on which to read them, though expensive.

I do have nagging concerns though. In typical Apple style, this is an only-Apple solution for authors or publishers who need to charge for their work. Does it really make sense for schools and colleges to recommend and use textbooks that can only be read on Apple devices? Of course publishers can repurpose the same underlying content for other formats, though they will have to be careful how they use iBooks Author to avoid falling foul of the licensing clause quoted above.

Is there no way to reinvent textbooks without an Apple tax and locking knowledge into proprietary formats?

Android and Carrier IQ: alarming claims, immediate questions

The claims of security expert Trevor Eckhart regarding data collection by Carrier IQ are among the most alarming of any I can recall in the IT industry. I dislike the way Facebook gets you to publish data about yourself almost without realising it, and the amount of personal data collected by Google, for example, but this is more worrying.

Eckhart says:

The very extensive list of Android security permissions granted to IQRD would raise anyone’s eyebrow, considering that it’s remotely controlled software, but some things such as reading contact data, Services that cost you money, reading/edit/sending sms, recording audio(?!??!?) and writing/changing wireless settings seem a bit excessive

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The only choice we have to “opt out” of this data collection is to root our devices because every part of the multi-headed CIQ application is embedded into low-level, locked regions of the phones.

So what does Carrier IQ gather? Eckhart lists webpages visited, location statistics, media statistics, SMS texts, keys pressed, apps opened and focused, and even text sent over SSL (HTTPS) in browser sessions that you thought were secure.

If these claims are correct, then nobody who deals in confidential information should use an Android mobile with this installed. Since most of us have online bank accounts or other secure logins that we use on our mobile, that makes an Android phone a risky proposition for almost anyone.

My immediate questions:

  • Which Android devices have this software installed?
  • How soon will the affected operators give us a way to remove or disable it?
  • How can a concerned user discover whether or not his mobile is leaking private information?

Finally, now is the time for rivals such as Apple, RIM, or Microsoft and its partners, to explain in plain English how their devices compare in terms of privacy. What data is gathered in the interests of:

the Carrier IQ solution gives you the unique ability to analyze in detail usage scenarios and fault conditions by type, location, application and network performance while providing you with a detailed insight into the mobile experience as delivered at the handset rather than simply the state of the network components carrying it.

as Carrier IQ puts it.

Hassles with Intel RAID – Rapid Storage Technology

I have recently fitted a new Intel DH67CL motherboard and decided to use the on-board RAID controller to achieve resiliency against drive failure. I have four 1TB Sata drives, and chose to create two separate mirrors. This is not the most efficient form of RAID, but mirroring is the simplest and easiest for recovery, since if one drive fails you still have a complete copy ready to go on its mirror.

I thought this would be a smooth operation, especially since I have two pairs of identical drives. Everything was fine at first, but then I started to get system freezes. “Freeze” is not quite the right word; it was more an extreme slowdown. The mouse still moved but the Windows 7 64-bit GUI was unresponsive. I discovered that it was possible eventually to get a clean though time-consuming shutdown by summoning a command prompt and waiting patiently for it to appear, then typing shutdown /s. After reboot, everything was fine until next time, where next time was typically only a few hours.

I was suspicious of the RAM at first and removed 8GB of my 16GB. Then I discovered that others had reported problems with Intel RAID (also known as RST) when you have two separate arrays enabled. The symptoms sounded similar to mine:

When the second RAID array is enabled (tried both RAID1 and 0), Windows (Win 7 Ultimate 64bit) will freeze after 10+ minutes of use. This initially manifests itself as my internet “going out”. While I can open new tabs in the browser, I cannot connect. I can’t ping via CMD either. I can’t open Task Manager, but I can open Event Viewer (and nothing really is shown in there re: this). If I try to Log Off or Restart the PC via Start Menu, Windows hangs on the “Logging Off” or “Shutting Down” screen for at least 10 minutes, up to several hours (or indefinitely).

There is no solution given in the thread other than to remove one of the arrays.

The system is 100% stable when I remove the second RAID1.

says one user.

I broke both of the mirrors and used the system for a while; everything was fine. I found an updated driver on Intel’s site (version 10.8.0.1003, dated 17th October 2011) and decided to re-try the RAID. Now I had another problem though. Note that I was using the Windows management utility, not the embedded utility which you get to by pressing a special key during boot, since it is only with the Windows utility that you can preserve your data when creating a new array. My problem: I could not recreate the arrays.

Problem number one was that the drive on Sata port 0 disappeared when you tried to create an array. All four drives looked fine in the Status view:

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but when you went to create an array, only three drives appeared:

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Following a tip from the Intel community discussion board, I removed and reinstalled the RST utility, following which I also had to reinstate the updated driver. Now the drive reappeared, but I still could not recreate the arrays. I could start creating one, but got an “unknown error.” Looking in the event log, I could see errors reported by IAStorDataMgrSvc: FailedToClaimDisks and FailedVolumeSizeCheck. Curious, especially as I had used this very same utility to create the arrays before, with the same drives and without any issues.

Just as an experiment, I booted into Windows XP 64-bit, which I still have available using Windows multiboot. I installed the latest version of the Intel storage driver and utility, and tried to create a mirror. It worked instantly. I created the second mirror. That worked instantly too. Then I booted back into Windows 7 and checked out the RST utility. Everything looks fine.

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The further good news is that I have been running with this for a few days now, without any freezes.

Is it possible that the latest driver fixed a problem? There is no way of knowing, especially since Intel itself appears not to participate in these “community” discussions. I find that disappointing; community without vendor participation is never really satisfactory.

Postscript: Note that I am aware that Intel’s embedded RAID is not a true RAID controller; it is sometimes called “fakeraid” since the processing is done by the CPU. Using Intel RST is a convenience and cost-saving measure. An alternative is Windows RAID which works well in my experience, though there are two disadvantages:

1. Intel RAID performs slightly better in my tests.

2. Windows RAID requires converting your drives to Dynamic Disks. Not a big problem, but it is one more thing to overcome if you end up doing disaster recovery.

How not to ship a hard drive

I ordered a hard drive from play.com and was taken aback by the way it was shipped to me – in a flimsy padded envelope with no additional protection.

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In case you are wondering how to ship a hard drive, this is the illustration from the Western Digital support site:

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which adds:

Place in sturdy cardboard box. Do not use chipboard, as it is not strong enough to withstand the rigors of transit. Please make sure the corrugated carton is free from defects and is structurally sound. Note: Returning a WD hard drive in an envelope, will void the warranty.

I protested and play.com offered to take the drive back but gave me no explanation for the incorrect packaging. Surprisingly the drive checks out OK, although hidden damage is a concern.

An ugly dialog from Spotify

I am a big fan of Spotify, mainly because it works so well. Search is near instant, playback is near instant.

I understood when, under pressure from the music industry, it limited the value of the free version by restricting the hours of play and the number of times you can play a specific track.

This is ugly though:

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Spotify says:

From today, all new Spotify users will need to have a Facebook account to join Spotify. Think of it as like a virtual ‘passport’, designed to make the experience smoother and easier, with one less username and password to remember. You don’t need to connect to Facebook and if you do decide to, you can always control what you share and don’t share by changing your Spotify settings at any time.

Why care? Privacy? Because you might want Spotify but not Facebook?

I would put it another way. I am wary of putting Facebook at the centre of my Internet identity. If others follow Spotify’s example and the Web were to become useless unless you are logged into Facebook, that would give Facebook more power that I would like.

If for some reason you want to withdraw from Facebook, why should that affect your relationship with Spotify? It is an ugly dependency, and I hope that Spotify reconsiders.

See also Cloud is identity management says Kim Cameron, now ex-Microsoft.

Amazon.com offers U2 band members for sale

The last throes of physical media for music has spawned the appearance of fabulously expensive box sets which include a little bit of what fans want – like rare concerts, outtakes or new surround mixes – and a lot of what they probably will look at once and put away for ever, like paper memorabilia, badges and trinkets. In many cases vinyl records are included. It is all in the box, so if you want that little something, you have to get the lot, even if you do not have a turntable.

An example is David Bowie’s Station to Station box set, currently £96.92 at Amazon’s UK site, which has badges, vinyl, cards and a fan club certificate, and is also the only official source for a 5.1 mix of Bowie’s classic album on DVD.

Another is the Who’s Live at Leeds 40th Anniversary Special Edition, which includes vinyl album and single, poster and book, along with the only release on CD of the Who’s 1970 performance at Hull. Originally released at around £80, it sold out and now commands high prices on the collector’s market.

Now it is U2’s turn, and the band or its label seem determined to out-do the others in both unnecessary packaging and extravagant price. The Achtung Baby 20th Anniversary Über Deluxe Box Set, due in October, is £329.99 in the UK or $588.57 on Amazon’s US site. You get a magnetic puzzle box, 6 CDs, four DVDs, 5 vinyl singles, 16 prints, a book, a magazine, badges, a sticker sheet, and a pair of sunglasses.

However, it seems someone at Amazon has a sense of humour. Check the last words of the editorial description:

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Curiously those words do not appear in the UK description.

Apple’s RAM upgrade prices are extortionate. Save money by buying elsewhere.

Last week I purchased a Mac Mini from the Apple online store.

The Mini comes with a minimum of 2GB RAM, but you can upgrade at purchase. 8GB of RAM adds £240 to the price, 20% VAT included.

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That struck me as expensive, so I purchased an 8GB Kit from Crucial, 2 x 4GB SODIMMs, DDR3-1333 PC3-10600, from Crucial. It cost me £55.19 including VAT though I should have waited: the price today is £49.19.

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If you purchase the upgrade from Apple, you just get 8GB. If you purchase the upgrade elsewhere, you end up with two spare 1GB sticks that you might be able to use or sell for a few pennies.

Upgrading the RAM on a Mac Mini used to be somewhat challenging, involving a putty knife, a certain amount of stress, and likely a few marks on your case. Now it is just a matter of twisting a cover on the underside and takes a couple of minutes.

The ex-VAT price is £200 from Apple versus £40.99 from a third-party. That can be expressed as a 487% mark-up. Of course we need to allow for the skilled engineering work in twisting off the cover and testing the RAM; or maybe Apple does this at the factory and has a pile of pre-configured machines; but then again I am sure Apple gets a better price on its volume RAM purchases than the rest of us can manage.

I would not blame anyone for going the safe route and ordering their upgrade from Apple, so as to be sure it is the correct part, correctly fitted. But Apple is taxing these customers heavily. The Mini is no longer good value with the official upgrade.

One thing in Apple’s favour though. I imagine it could have put some little chip into its official RAM that prevented standard parts from working. At least it has not done that.

Warring models of music distribution

How should we pay for the music we listen to? In the digital, internet era, it seems to me that there are three business models.

In the first model, you pay for a lifetime right to each album or track you want to add to your collection. This is the most similar to what we are used to from purchasing physical media like records or CDs. You do not own the music of course; all you have ever purchased is a licence to listen to it.

Until now the digital equivalent has been downloads as offered by Apple iTunes or Amazon’s MP3 store. However, Apple has now announced iCloud, which extends this model to de-emphasise the actual download. You download a track to play it on your device, but there is no problem if you have more licenced tracks than you have space for; you can just download the ones you want to play. You can also “upload”, but when you do this, you do not really upload the tracks, but rather just inform iCloud’s database that you are licenced for them.

The second model is where you subscribe, giving you the right to play anything that your music provider has to offer. The most successful example is Spotify, which has a superb client for Mac and PC that offers near-instant playback of any of 13 million tracks.

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An advantage of this approach is that it is naturally social. Since everyone has access to the same library, you can share playlists easily.

The third model is where you do not pay at all. In pre-digital days, you could listen to the radio or swap tapes with friends. Now almost anything is available, legally through Spotify (though now restricted to 2.5 hours per week and 5 times per track), or illegally through countless sites easily found through Google, or through copying your friend’s hard drive stuffed with music.

Personally I am a fan of the second model. I think musicians should be rewarded for their work, and that all-you-can-eat licencing is the best and fairest approach, taking advantage of what technology enables. Buying a lossy-compressed download with a restrictive licence is also poor value compared to buying a record or CD.

I get the impression though that the music industry is set against the subscription approach. Apple seems reluctant to embrace it, hence iCloud is still tied to the first model. Spotify still has it, but the company now seems to be putting increasing emphasis on downloads and locally stored music, which is strange given its original concept, as well as making its ad-supported free streaming account less attractive.

The business reasoning, I guess, is a belief that selling music piecemeal is more profitable, and exploits the collecting instinct that has served the industry so well in the past.

The risk is that the third model will sweep it aside.