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XP update causing BSOD

February 12, 2010 Leave a comment

If, like me, you’re still trudging along with Windows XP, you may be concerned to hear that a security update is apparently causing havoc with a number of XP computers. Update KB977165 has caused a Blue Screens of Death for some XP users, which prevents them from booting into Windows. It is also alleged by some that there have been similar issues for the update in Windows Vista and 7, but this is unclear. Since not all those who have installed the update have encountered a problem, the trigger for problems remains unclear, it is alleged by some to be malware causing the error, whilst others suggest a hardware fault.

A lengthy support forum has been created on Microsoft’s support website, with these instructions for removing the update being provided:

1. Boot from your Windows XP CD or DVD and start the recovery console (see this Microsoft article for help with this step)

Once you are in the Repair Screen..

2. Type this command: CHDIR $NtUninstallKB977165$\spuninst

3. Type this command: BATCH spuninst.txt

4. When complete, type this command: exit

IMPORTANT: If you are able to uninstall the patch and get back into Windows, in order to stay protected you can use the following automated solution which secures your PC against the vulnerabilities that are resolved with KB977165 until you can successfully get the update installed without the blue screens.

Please see the link below for the article describing the vulnerability that is fixed with KB977165 and how you can get protected without installing the actual KB update: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/979682

Backup and restore drivers with DriverBackup 2

December 29, 2009 Leave a comment

We’ve probably all been there at some point. Something’s gone majorly wrong with your PC, and you’re left with no choice but to reinstall Windows. If you’ve not backed up your files, you’ll weep for a while at their loss, before summoning the strength to slam that installation disk into the drive and watch as the progress bar crawls across. However, an issue you’re likely to encounter, especially if you’re still using XP, is missing drivers. I know from experience that XP never seems to find all the drivers I need, resulting in hardware not working, and the display only accepting a tiny resolution until I hunt down the disks or download the necessary drivers using another PC. With XP approaching its ninth birthday, it’s likely to become harder and harder to find the drivers you need next time you have to reinstall, so keeping a backup of them would be a rather smashing idea. Luckily there are a few smashing bits of software that will do just that for you. I’ve been testing out one such utility, called DriverBackup 2, and it’s rather jazzy. 

Once you've picked what drivers to back up, there are a few simple options to choose before starting.

 The first thing to note is that it doesn’t need to be installed, which is a nice timesaver, though I would rather just be able to run an installer and be done with it. Instead, you just need to grab the files, and run the .exe called ‘DrvBK’ once they’ve downloaded. If you’d rather have it installed like all other software, just make a new folder in your C:\Program Files\ directory, and then copy or move all the files over. You can then make a shortcut in your Start Menu or desktop to the .exe file and access it like any other bit of software. Dull  bits out the way, let’s delve into the thrilling world of backing up drivers. 

If you’re using XP, you’ll just need to start the software like any other, but Vista and Windows 7 will likely want you to right-click and choose ‘Run as administrator’. DriverBackup will then scour your installed drivers, before presenting a lengthy list of them under their relevant categories: ‘Processors’, ‘Keyboards’, etc.  A small but nice touch is that the software will display the default Windows icon for each item, making it easy to visually distinguish between the multitude of different types. Little ‘+’ icons appear to the left of each category and device, allowing you to expand and hide devices and individual drivers for each device. 

 There is also a checkbox by each entry, allowing you to pick and choose which drivers you want to backup. Whilst Windows will find a good number of the drivers by itself  at install – particularly for important devices like the processor, hard-disk, and graphics card – I’d rather have them all backed up so I know I’ve got them all safe and ready to use if something should go horribly wrong. In addition, clicking on a device or individual driver file will give you more information about it, such as manufacturer and release date, which may help you decide whether you need to include it in your backup. 

Once you've picked what drivers to back up, there are a few options to choose before starting.

Once you’re ready to begin, click the ‘Start Backup’ button near the bottom right of the software. You’ll then be confronted with a window that looks a bit daunting. You can just ignore most of it, except ‘Path’, which instructs the software where to save the backup. I prefer to create a folder on my PC for the backup, and then copy it manually to an external disk, USB, or hard-disk, but if you’d prefer, you can just make the backup directly to an external device like the ones listed above. Wherever you’re sticking the files, click the ‘Browse’ button, and navigate to that location. The second and final thing that you need to alter on this screen is the checkbox down at the bottom left: ‘Generate files for automatic driver restoration’. Ticking this will ensure that the software creates an additional file that allows you to restore the drivers using DriverBackup 2, which means you won’t have to use Windows’ built-in Device Manager to install them all manually. In addition, it might be a good idea to keep the DriverBackup 2 files around on a disk, since you might not be able to connect to the Internet to download the software again until you’ve got your drivers sorted. Irony, eh?

Drivers can also be automatically restored using the software.

Finally, let’s venture into the dangerous, disturbing hypothetical world of doom. Your hard-disk had just exploded in a small ball of flames, or a less disastrous but equally disturbing error has befallen your beloved PC. You’ve gotten it fixed or replaced the faulty part, and now you’ve reinstalled Windows. However, some of your devices aren’t working correctly. So long as you can find the dust-covered disk you stored the drivers on, you can restore them in one of two ways. The first is the slower, more nerdy way – manually using Windows device manager. The second is the faster method, which involves using DriverBackup. Since you won’t have it on your cleanly installed PC, if you copied it to your driver backup disk, you can just copy it back onto your PC, or if you didn’t, you’ll need download it on another PC if you can’t access the Internet, and then transfer it over. You can then run the software as before, but this time change to ‘Restore mode’ using the second button at the top of the software, and select the backup file (provided you opted to create one when you backed up your drivers.)  Click the ‘Open backup file’ button, navigate to and select the relevant file. As with the process of backing up, you can then tick and untick those that  you want to restore, before finally clicking the ‘Restore’ button at the bottom right to pop the drivers back onto your PC.  DriverBackup will then beaver about, restoring your drivers to their rightful place. You’ll probably need to restart before you can check that everything’s working okay.

Since the download available on SourceForge is, by default, in Italian, and it take a bit of hunting to find the multi-language version, I’ve uploaded the English-only version to MediaFire, which can be accessed here: http://www.mediafire.com/?rwawglidj1z. I’ve zipped up the file to make it smaller, but Windows should be able to extract it using its built-in tools. In summary, DriverBackup is a smashing little bit of kit that could help save you a great deal of time next time you need to reinstall Windows or something goes wrong with your drivers. It just falls short of a 5-star rating due to the kerfuffle of having to look through the folder for the right file to run the software, and the lack of automatic method of installation for the software. 

Another look at Windows 7

December 25, 2009 2 comments

Windows 7 comes with revamped software, faster performance, and features to speed up your work.

Those of you who’ve been visiting the blog for a while may remember that I tested out the Release Candidate of Windows 7 back in June. At the time, it was running on a virtual machine inside Windows XP. I was impressed, but not blown away. However, I’ve now grabbed the final release, thanks to the hefty student discount that I’m entitled to thanks to the good chaps over at Software 4 Students. Since it’s now all up and running and I’ve been using it for a few days, I thought I’d share my experiences of upgrading, and pick out a few features that I’m rather liking.  

I opted to do a clean install rather than an upgrade since I have a nasty habit of installing too much software and having too many files, which ends up slowing down the operation of my PCs. This was a nice excuse to clean out all the junk and start afresh with a shiny new operating system. After popping the disk in, I had to opt for either upgrading – which would mean that all my files and software would be kept – or a clean install – the route that I chose. This process was simple enough, but I did have to choose the drive to install it on – so if you’ve got multiple disks or partitions, you’ll have  to have a quick look through the options to choose the one that your current OS is installed on. I fear this might prove a bit tricky for some; I can imagine my Mum calling for help if she were forced to make a decision as to what section of the drive to install her snazzy new OS on.  

The disk then whirred about for a while as the installer worked its magic, extracting the files from the disk, restarting, expanding files, and copying them. I was concerned in the final stages of installation that something had gone wrong; it sat there for a good 20-30 minutes in the last stage, which were the final preparations, but it sorted itself in the end, and was ready for me to put in the usual information that is demanded; software key; computer name; user name; keyboard layout; time-zone and so on. After that, it restarted once more, and was then ready for me start using it.  

A pleasant surprise was the fact that drivers for hardware and devices all sorted themselves. When I’ve installed and reinstalled XP on my desktop, I’ve gained some strange enjoyment from hunting down and installing drivers. However, I didn’t need to do this with Windows 7; everything worked fine – even the laptop’s built-in web-cam functions, which helps to save time and ensures that users who aren’t quite so sad as I am don’t have to waste time with drivers, or calling for their resident IT person, concerned that nothing seems to be working.  

I only encountered one problem, and that was with McAfee. The first thing I do with fresh installs is to load on McAfee Security Centre software, but during the process of doing so, Windows popped up a disconcerting message that slapped me in the face and reported that the driver for McAfee firewall was incompatible, and had therefore been disabled. Naturally, my first reaction was rage at McAfee. Thankfully, the software then set about updating itself to a more recent version, and after a few updates and restarts, it got to a version that had made friends with Windows 7, and the two played nicely together thereafter. I was then met with a barrage of Windows updates, which is fine by me. One of them seemed to get stuck – the malicious software removal tool for December, so I cancelled this, allowing the others then kick in and sort themselves. The failed update can be beaten into submission by forcing it to try to reinstall again if I desire.  

Something else that I was surprised to see was that during the install Windows grabbed all my files from Vista and plonked them into a new folder on the C: drive called ‘Windows.old’. This meant I didn’t have to restore back my important files from my off-board hard drive. However, it’s best not to rely on this feature though, since something might go wrong during the install and your files could vanish in a puff of metahporical smoke. Aftering nabbing my important stuff from this folder, I deleted it using the disk cleanup wizard, since it was taking up over 60GB (!) of space, which is a fairly hefty chunk out of a 250GB Hard Disk.  

I’ve only installed two other software packages: Office 2007, and Adobe CS4 – incidentally, both of which I got a massive discount on from Software 4 Students – I love that company! As expected, they both installed without hitch and work absolutely fine.  

Having previously gone into more detail about features in my Release Candidate review, I won’t babble on much about the new features, but I’ll just pick out two or three favourites and briefly write about them.  

Hovering on an item will show a live preview

The new and improved taskbar is likely to the first thing that you notice has changed about Windows. Large icons are now used, which has the positive effect of creating more space for programs. Each icon then contains all instances of that software open: so multiple Word document would all be accessed from that one icon, and all your open Internet Explorer tabs and Windows would be shown when hovering on it. Previews of open windows were first used in Vista, but these have been improved in Windows 7 by making them larger and clickable, as well as causing the window to float to the front of the screen when hovered on its thumbnail. In addition, the item on the taskbar are clever enough to change their appearance

Right-clicking on an item on the taskbar brings up a selection of useful tools.

depending upon what the software is up to. For instance, when copying, moving, or deleting files, the Windows Explorer icon gains a green background that moves along, similar to a status bar. This saves you opening the window to see the progress, as well as allowing you to keep a beady eye on it to make sure it’s doing what you’ve told it to. 

In addition, further functions are accessible for some software by right-clicking on the icon. This will pop out a list of common functions or documents, allowing you to access them without having to open the window first. For example, the Internet Explorer icon gives access to recent sites and such features as ‘New tab’ from its context menu. In addition, the taskbar can also act as a dock – meaning you can pin icons there to quickly launch software, like the old quick launch toolbar, but more useful. 

Some software includes an area that expands, giving you access to features or files.

Similarly, the Start Menu has been improved. Most noticable are the menus that slide out from some programs when hovered on. This can help to speed up the process of opening recent documents, and gives you quick access to common features. Software that supports this feature can have items pinned to keep them there permanently – you might like to use this for a commonly used template, or you can remove items that you don’t want listed. In addition, the search feature that Vista users will be familiar with is now much faster and more efficient, allowing you to find files, programs, and Windows settings & tools super fast. 

Multitasking is also sped up by the ability to snap windows to different sides of the screen. Dragging a window to the left  edge makes it fill that half of the monitor, and dragging one to the right does the opposite. Moving it to the top makes it maximise. This simple feature comes in handy by saving you moving and resizing windows when you’re doing such things as trying to read a website whilst making notes in a separate document. 

Overall, my impressions of Windows 7 have been very positive. However, I would say that if you’re not able to get a discount on it, there’s no real reason to rush out and grab your copy. It’s a good improvement over both Vista and XP, but I don’t know if it’s enough to justify spending your hard-earned money on. Having said that, if you’re looking to purchase a new PC any time in the future, you should definitely make sure that it’s coming with Windows 7 – there are a number of small but useful features that help to save you time. If you’re currently stuck with Vista, you’ll probably find that Windows 7 is a big improvement in terms of performance – especially if you do a clean install; but if you’re still using XP and it works fine for your purposes, I see no reason to bring yourself up-to-date until you get around to buying a shiny new computer. 

All that remains is to wish you an enjoyable festive season – hopefully you’ve received some nifty new software, games, or gadgets from friends or family.

Improve clipboard functionailty with 101 Clips

We’ve probably all done it – copied something useful that we needed to paste elsewhere, and then forgotten and copied something else. This’ll result in losing the first thing that you have copied, and unless you can find the original source again, it’s destined to float in the abyss forever. However, Windows clipboard is capable for holding more than one item at a time; you just need a bit of software to bring out the full potential. This exists in the form of 101 Clips.

101 Clips shows a preview of each clipped item when hovered over.

101 Clips shows a preview of each copied item when hovered over.

After installing, the first thing I noted was the simple and fairly dated interface. I soon discovered however, that it’s enough to get the job done that it’s intended for. There are a number of small rectangles, each of which can become filled with an item which is on your clipboard. It’ll place the most recent in the first space, and the others will get pushed backwards. It would be nice to be able to customise the number of rows and columns provided. A minor issue, but being able to alter this may be a useful addition.

101 Clips will reside in your system tray – down by the clock. It’ll then store up all the items that you copy without making a fuss. These copied items can then be seen by clicking the icon to open up the software. Hovering over one of the listed items will bring up a small preview window which shows the copied text, image, or file link. Clicking on the item will then place it back at the front of the clipboard, allowing you to paste it to another location. One limitation I found was that if you copy a file or shortcut, clicking it in 101 Clips won’t allow you to paste it into Windows explorer as you would expect. Instead, it saves the location of the file as text.

If you find that there are items on the clipboard that you no longer need, they can be right-clicked to delete them. Doing this will prevent the number of items getting cluttered, and clips should be easier to find. There are also a few options as to which buttons are displayed in the software, which can be accessed from the menus at the top of the window. Something to be aware of is that closing the window will close the software completely, including the system tray icon. If you want to keep using it without having the window on the screen, minimizing the window will zip it back into the tray, patiently waiting for you to call on it again.

Being the fool that I am, I shut my computer down before realising that I hadn’t taken a screenshot of the 101 Clips software showing the functionality. Duty-bound, I switched it back on expecting to have to begin my copying frenzy again, but was pleasantly surprised to see that it had remembered the copied items from before it was shut down. This meant that everything stored there could be clicked to allow me to paste it if I needed to; a helpful feature that could prove very useful if your PC crashes.

Whilst the software has a simple purpose and an uninviting interface, it’s incredibly useful and likely to leave you wondering how you survived without it. 101 Clips can be downloaded from http://101clips.com/freeclip.htm.

Organisation with Chandler

July 30, 2009 2 comments

I love organising things. Anything that involves putting bits of paper in different trays according to content or importance; putting work into folders; or planning my day, is bound to cause me to get slightly heady with excitement at the prospect. You may have already read about my love affair with Soshiku when it comes to organising educational work, but I’ve stumbled upon a piece of software which aims to organise my entire life, rather than just my work. I’ve been putting the smashing application through its paces to see if it’ll become part of my regular rotation of organisation. It goes by the name of Chandler. “Could it be any more organised?”

The Dashboard page shows all current task in a convenient list.

The Dashboard page shows all current task in a convenient list.

First impressions weren’t too good. It’s written in a programming language called Python, which, whilst being extendible and apparently smashing for cross-platform software, seems to be a bit clunky and slow loading. I have to wait for what feels like too long for an out of place looking ‘loading’ splash window to finish shoving a bar across itself to show me how close it is to finished shuffling about. This is a bit of a let down since you’re likely to want your to-do list to pop up quickly so you can view and edit it in a short amount of time.

Putting this aside, the first thing which stood out was the ability to separate tasks and events into categories. I therefore set about creating one for each school subject, followed by a few others such as ‘Wedding’  and a category called ‘Revnews’. Within these categories tasks you can create tasks by typing a name for it in the text box at the top of the window, and then pressing enter. You can then edit and add extra details about the task and set when it must be completed by. This seemed a bit limited since I would like to be able to set specific dates, or even times, for when something must be completed by. It is possible to create calendar events which specify an end time, but this isn’t implemented for tasks. Therefore there’s no page which sorts your tasks in the order that they need to be completed, but simply shows them by whether you’ve selected – ‘now’, ‘later’, or ‘done’ for each task. This also needs to be manually updated by clicking the ‘Clean up’ button which will sort the tasks into the aforementioned completion categories; it won’t do it automagically when you change a task’s status, another example of how the software felt a bit clunky at times.

I was, however, happy with the different categories for the tasks. Whilst I would place each task in its relevant category, I am also able to see all currently outstanding tasks on the ‘Dashboard’ page, which sorts them by their completion categories. This is good for organising a whole day (or longer) by seeing all tasks which need to be completed that day, rather than just those in one category. If particularly important tasks aren’t standing out enough, you can put a star by them, and then choose the option to show only the starred items. This might be helpful for prioritising a multitude of tasks.

Chandler also has email functions which allow you to send notes or events to others – they can either view them in Chandler if they have it or add it to other calendar applications. I haven’t tested this feature because I have no intention of emailing my to-do list to other people, but at least the feature is there, ready and waiting to be set up in case you can make use of it.

Despite the negatives it’s still a very good bit of software. I think it’s going to become my standard organiser, though Soshiku still has a much simpler interface and is generally better for the purpose of organising work for school, so I’m likely to stick with Soshiku as my primary organiser for school work. You can download Chandler from www.chandlerproject.org.

Run other operating systems with VirtualBox

As promised in the Windows 7 review, I’ve penned (or more accurately, typed) a review of Sun VirtualBox. This software allows you to install multiple OSes without overwriting or risking your current setup. Being the cautious fellow that I am, this prospect sounded appealing since I wasn’t willing to install it in a separate partition for fear of causing my files to implode. Therefore, Sun VirtualBox sounded like a smashing way to test out Windows 7.

Running Windows 7 on an XP host

Running Windows 7 on an XP host

After downloading and installing, you’re greeted with a window which allows you to add new operating systems. Clicking ‘New’ launches the wizard which guides you through adding one. You’ll need to fill out such things as name and type of operating system (eg, Windows XP, Ubuntu Linux, etc.) In addition, you’ll need to select how much RAM and video memory to devote to the virtual machine. I’d suggest not going past half, or you might end up with your host OS getting a bit upset. In addition, you will need to set up a virtual hard disk to store the operating system on; this will put by a defined amount of storage space for the virtual machine to use. Once you’ve walked through all the steps, you’ll probably want to check the settings of the OS before you run it. Click the newly listed item and then click ‘Settings’ to check everything is dandy. If you weren’t asked to do it during the setup process you’ll need to tell the software where to find the OS file. This is a .iso file which contains the stuff needed to run your OS. Choose ‘CD/DVD-ROM’ in the settings, and tell VirtualBox where to find the iso file. This will either be a downloaded file, or a disk. You can find much more in-depth help through the help menu within VirtualBox itself.

The first time you start your virtual OS, you’ll probably notice that the size is very small, and your devices might not work quite right; this could include audio or video cards not functioning correctly, and it’s also very likely that your Internet connection won’t work in the virtual machine yet. These mild catastrophes because the drivers for your PC haven’t been installed. Luckily, VirtualBox will do this automatically for you if you click on the ‘Devices’ menu, followed by ‘Install Guest Additions’. This will then mount a virtual CD which can then be run in the usual way in the guest OS which installs drivers to make things work properly. After a restart, everything should work smashingly; unless you’re using Linux, where getting your devices to work might be a little bit more a struggle.

Naff instructions aside, the software itself is rather smashing. You have the choice of running the machine in a few different ways. The first being in its own window like any other programme. This allows you to move it around, resize, or maximise it. The second is running it in full-screen mode, which gives the illusion of being the only running OS on your system. Finally, you can run it in in ‘Seamless mode’, which allows you to use both simultaneously – for instance it will place both taskbars at the bottom and you’ll be able to work with applications from both OSes on one desktop.

Performance seems pretty good, but this is primarily dependant upon the specification of your computer. You can alter the settings later until you achieve the right balance – such actions as upping the RAM allowed or enabling 3D acceleration show improvements when using the virtual OS. You can download the software from www.virtualbox.org.

Watch media files with VLC

Whilst Windows Media Player suffices for most video files, it’ll refuse to play some without installing numerous codecs. These codecs can cause slowdown, and some video types don’t have codecs that work with Media Player. Therefore, you’re going to need an alternative if you want to play some odd video files. VLC Media Player allows you to this, and best of all, free of charge.

Playing a .vob file in VLC

Playing a .vob file in VLC

When running the software you’ll be greeted  by a simple interface. VLC lacks the media library and such features that Media Player sports, but it seems to be intended for a slightly different purpose. Media is opened from the ‘Media’ menu, where you can then browse through your folders to find the file, folder, or disk that you want to play. You can even open media streams from a local network through the same menu.

The quality of the playback seemed to be pretty good; possibly better than Windows Media Player’s offering, but with no obvious differences between them. However, it’s difficult to judge since Media Player won’t play most of the files which VLC will, so I can’t compare. The interface, whilst not being the most attractive offering, is feature-rich and customisable if you’re willing to explore the menus and options within. I was very impressed with the various choices which are available; everything from audio output to network proxies can be set. This plethora of options lets you customise just about every detail of the software, allowing you to make it work exactly the way you want it to.

If you think of yourself as being one of those artsy types, you might not be impressed that VLC doesn’t, visually speaking, look quite right when compared to most of your other software. Luckily, like-minded people have come to the rescue by creating skins which can be downloaded from the VLC website. These can be downloaded and applied to your player to change the way it looks. You might want to consider the Media Player theme, which makes it look the same as Windows Media Player – the software you’re probably used to grappling with. Or, if you’re a fan of Apple’s brushed aluminium style, you might wish to opt for an iTunes or Quicktime lookalike. However, all these themes seem to take it upon themselves to hide the menus away, making them difficult to access, and unless I’m missing something, making some of them impossible to access until you revert to the default theme. This is fine if you just want to open files, but I like to have easy access to the menus at whim.

VLC is a smashing little bit of software for playing obscure video and audio files. It’s also very small in size and pretty lightweight, so it won’t be a drain on your hard-drive or system resources. You can download it from www.videolan.org.