Friday, June 05, 2009

Another Windows 7 update

This is not going to become a computer software blog. I'm not qualified to write such a thing. However, the topic of Windows 7 has been very much on my mind recently, if only because I've been wrestling with the OS in beta form.

If you value your sanity, don't play with betas. In fact, you may not want to immerse yourself in any new OS until after the first service pack has come out.

Windows 7 is terrific, when it works. But there are problems.

1. As I noted earlier, the OS does not assign administrator rights to you. W7 thinks that you are an idiot. The program thinks you have no right to see hidden files or to change your hosts file. (On XP, seeing hidden files is easy. But don't even try it on W7. Bad things will happen to you.)

Without admin rights, you cannot install many programs. You cannot even use the root directory of a secondary data disc!

Nor is there any easy way to sign in as administrator -- you must, in essence, play a trick on the system (going in through the C prompt) before you can do so. Ony then can you assume your secret identity as SuperAdmin-Man.

This "admin rights" business gets annoying. REALLY annoying. Believe me.

2. Occasionally, you will see the dreaded pop-up message telling you that you need administrator privileges to proceed -- even if you are already logged on as an administrator. This happened to me when I tried to install a version of DBPoweramp Music Converter.

In fact, that's the very imbroglio which immediately preceded my recent crash. The very next boot, I got the horrifying message that NTLRD was missing. I am still not sure what NTLRD is, but without it, you can't start your OS.

3. Windows 7 has an image backup and restore function, very much like Norton's Ghost. Everyone should have a thing like this -- and everyone will, once Windows 7 is ubiquitous. That's a good thing.

The best policy is to put all of your programs on the C drive and all (ALL) of your data on one or more secondary drives. Once the C drive is perfect and pristine -- all of your programs installed, thoroughly cleaned and free of malware and defragged -- save an image of the whole thing to another (larger) drive. If you develop a problem, you can simply restore that image, placing it right back onto your C drive. Once more, it will be pristine. If need be, you can put that pristine image onto a brand new hard drive. However, you must never, ever place that image onto a friend's C drive (giving said friend free access to expensive high-end imaging programs) because, as Tricky Dick once put it, that would be wrong.

I made an image just as soon as I had my C drive the way I liked it.

With W7, there's no need for a third party image backup solution. It's all right there. And the thing backs up your image while you're still in Windows, which is very nice. With good old Norton Ghost, you had to restart the computer and work in DOS and the whole process took a long time.

But there's one small issue and two big issues afflicting the W7 image backup system.

The small issue is that the damn thing won't let you save an image preciesly where you want it to be saved. The program always heads for the root directory of a secondary drive and says: "There. I'm putting it there. Don't argue with me. It's going there."

The big issue occurs when it comes time to restore.

W7 would not find my image, even though it was right there!

The image was on a secondary hard drive which I use for data. W7 said: "Huh? I see no image here. You're crazy if you think there's an image file in here."

What I had to do was yank the data drive out of the computer -- physically -- and place it in a separate external enclosure, attached to the computer via USB cable. Those things cost 20-40 bucks, and not everyone has one. (I was able to borrow one.) Then and only then did W7 perk up and take notice of the image.

That's the first big issue. The other, even huger problem is this: By default, when you try to restore your system, W7 copies that image not just onto your C drive but onto every drive in your whole damned computer.

I should make clear (to those of you who have never done this sort of thing before) that when you restore from an image file, you will wipe out everything that previously was on your drive. That is, you will wipe out everything that was on the drive you are restoring to. Everything that was on the drive playing catcher, so to speak. VOOM! It's gone.

That's what you want to happen when you are restoring a C drive gone bad. But W7 places that image not just on your C drive but also on your E, F, and G drives. All the alphabet will become C.

This is a recipe for tragedy. I can see it happening: Users who have no previous experience of playing with image files will turn every damned drive in their system into copies of the C drive. All of their data will be gone, gone gone.

A lot of people have three or four or more drives (old and borrowed and retreived from the neighbor's garbage) hooked up, because, you know, all of that downloaded porn takes up a lot of space. Well, if you do the image restore thingie wrong, it's bye-bye porn. Bye-bye family pictures and document files and downloaded music.

As it happens, you can fiddle with the image restore settings to make sure that only your C drive is affected. But a lot of newbie users will not see those settings. The default mode is to put the image on everything. This decision was just plain bug-ass crazy. Why did Microsoft do it that way? Why on earth?

Even if you see the settings, it's hard to feel safe. I physically disconnected every drive except for the C drive and the external drive -- and even then I was, you should pardon the expression, shitting bricks, worried that something might happen to all of the data stored on that external drive.

4. In my case, even the new image did not solve my problem. I still saw the awful words "NTRLD missing," which is Microsoftese for "You're boned." So I used the CD disc that came with the hard drive (don't throw those things away or use 'em as coasters!) and reformatted the drive.

Then, just to be safe, I decided to forego imagery altogether. I re-installed everything. From scratch.

Which puts me where I am right now. The whole process took me away from my blog for a day. I had to forgeo all of my usual activities. I still have not seen the news.

So what's been going on? Has there been a coup? Did the Martians invade? Did a tsunami put the east coast under water? Did Dick Cheney explode the Washington Monument with the power of his mind? Did Barack Obama announce that, yes, there will be martial law, but it will be a kinder and more humane form of martial law than George Bush would have imposed? Did Britney shave her head again? Did Michael Jackson and Britney shave each other? That would be cool...


Stan D. Freeman said...

It's not so much that Win7 thinks the user is an idiot, it's that the 'user' could be a virus or other malware. I'm sure you're familiar with the lessons learned about allowing email attachments to execute with administrator privileges. Allowing users to log in and run everything with full administrator privileges has proven not to be the safest way to operate a networked computer, so there *shouldn't* be an easy way to do it. Sorry, but the 'admin rights' issue is here to stay unless we go back to ROM-based operating systems like the Commodore 64 had, or we move to something like the iPhone, where the OS provider decides what and how software can be installed in your hardware and there are no admin rights available to the user.

That said, it does sound from your description that work needs to be done to allow for more convenient administration before the final release. Sudo (used in most Unix and Unix-like OS's) is a good example of convenient authenticated temporary privilege escalation for administrative tasks.

NTLDR (NT Loader) is boot code. As I'm sure you've seen, the OS won't boot without it. It is called from the MBR (master boot record - the first block on a hard drive). My guess is your MBR got corrupted since restoring a known-good image didn't fix it (the MBR is not usually part of the 'C:' partition that gets imaged, but NTLDR is). Here is a link which describes NTLDR issues fairly well. Should you encounter that trouble again, you may be able to fix it without complete re-install or even partition restore.

And yes, don't install a beta OS on a computer you plan to rely on. With Microsoft, that usually means wait until Service Pack 2 (or as you suggest, at least SP1). Some of the problems you describe (restoring an image to all attached hd's by default makes no sense whatsoever) arguably shouldn't have made it to a public beta release.

Did Barack Obama announce that, yes, there will be martial law, but it will be a kinder and more humane form of martial law than George Bush would have imposed?

LOL!!! You had me rolling with that one -- so true!

Gary McGowan said...

About that admin hassle. Have a look here.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure there's a very good reason you haven't considered OS X...

I mean, the whole admin thing. OS has a real shell, and whenever you need to do something administrative, you just become the admin momentarily with the sudo command...