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Tag: Windows

Painless Windows Installation

I was excited about Windows 8. And even more excited about Windows 8.1. Then I realized last night that Windows 8 has been nothing but a daily annoyance since I purchased the upgrade and installed it.

So last night, I upgraded to Windows 7. But first I backed up my computer. Always backup! Especially if you’re going to change operating systems. I think I have every important document, photo and file. But inevitably I have forgotten something.

I made a backup of my Windows 8 install. I used Clonezilla on a USB key to back up an external hard drive. Now I will have an image I can restore to if I decide to move back to Windows 8. It’s a safety net and security blanket. After I backup, I always verify the backup. The quickest and most reliable way I’ve found is to open three files from the backup.

Choose three different folders and open three files. It doesn’t matter what type of file, just choose three of them. Try a PDF, picture, Word document, text file. Whatever you have on hand, open it and make sure you can read the contents.

After I verified I had a good backup, I installed Windows 7.

First, since I didn’t have any blank DVDs, but I did have a spare 4GB USB key, I used that to install Windows 7. I downloaded YUMI and saved it to my desktop.

This wonderful little program will allow you to save more than one installer/bootable application to a single thumb drive. It doesn’t need any installation so it’s great for portable devices, but it does require administrative rights to install so it won’t work if you’re living in Windows lockdown.

Once launched, scroll to the bottom and you’ll see Windows Vista/7 Installer. Choose this option and point it to your Windows 7 ISO.

YUMI main window
YUMI main window

What if I have my license key but lost my DVD?

I can help with that. This page has links to the Digital River downloads Microsoft uses to distribute Windows 7.

To quote the site,

Are these illegal, cracked or pirated downloads?
Since this is an official download channel, you can be sure to receive setup files that are virus-free, secure, legitimate and untouched. Downloading the files from Digital River is absolutely legal and completely free of charge. Without a legally obtained product key however, any Windows 7 installation will only run for 30 days. Afterwards, it needs to be activated, or the evaluation timer be reset.

This will give you a legit, legal copy of the Windows software. But it will need to be registered to work for more than the trial period.

I have used this site to download Windows 7 Pro and Home Premium when I lost the DVD I had and they work perfectly with my existing license keys.

Now that you have your media and license key, point YUMI at your Windows 7 install and let it go to work. It will extract the files and write them to the USB key. Then you can boot from that USB key to install your files. I like to put a copy of my Windows 7 serial on the USB key so I don’t have to type it into Windows.

This process will take a few minutes and YUMI will tell you when it’s completed.

Now you’re ready to install Windows. Reboot your computer, boot from the USB key. This will bring you to the YUMI menu. If you have more applications installed, you’ll see more options. The Windows 7 installer will run normally. Choose your options and watch the progress bars.

Go get yourself a drink. This will take a while.

Now that Windows 7 is installed. You need to install your drivers and software. But you have no network connectivity. You could go hunting for restore media or combing through driver lists on your computer manufacturer’s website, but I have a better way.

Get connected

Download 3DP Net.

3DP Net detects ethernet card automatically. and provides the newest or the most suitable driver. It supports off-line installation.

3dpnet

What does that mean? It means when you run it, it will automatically detect your network card, wired or wireless, and install an appropriate driver for it. It may not be the best driver. But it will get you online.

I’ve used this countless times on laptops and desktops from HP, Dell, Lenovo and Toshiba and it has never failed me. It always installs a driver I can use.

Now I’m connected. Next up, I need the drivers for the rest of my hardware.

Drivers wanted

3DP has you covered there too. Download 3DP Chip

3DP Chip will enable you to enumerate devices and download the latest device drivers with few simple clicks.

3DPchip

This program will do just what it says, it will detect your hardware and link you directly to drivers for it. Run this to install your video, audio, bluetooth, camera or any other driver for your system. It will even find you better network drivers.

Now you have a network connection and the proper drivers for your hardware. Wasn’t this easier than searching manufacture websites or forums for your specific video card, or those unknown devices that could be anything?

Install software

Now that you have Windows installed and drivers for all the devices, it’s time to actually do something with your computer. You need software. Since Windows ships without many important tools, it’s time to install them.

I used to spend time going to Adobe’s site to install Flash and Acrobat Reader. Then I’d get java from their site. Then install Google Chrome. Then… you get the idea.

But there is a better way. I use Ninite and so should you. How is it better?

Select. Download. Install.
Select. Download. Install.

First, it will allow you to choose the applications you want from a large list. Everything from Dropbox to Steam is there. Choose what you want and it will download a single installer.

Run that single installer and it will go out and download the newest version of each application. But the best part of all, it doesn’t install any of the extra junk.

You won’t end up with extra browsers or toolbars. There will be no tools or extras that the vendors like to add into their software. You’ll have only what you asked for, nothing else.

Enjoyment

Now I can enjoy my freshly installed computer. I have a nice fresh operating system with all of my drivers. I’ve run Windows Updates or as I call them the rest of Windows.((There is a way to automate this as well but it’s outside the scope of this post since many people don’t find it necessary and if you’re only installing one computer it’s not worth the time it takes to prepare.))

Now that I have Windows setup as I like it, I setup Google Chrome to sync my settings from my account. I’ve logged into Dropbox and let it complete it’s initial sync. Take this time to set up any mail clients or add your printer, scanner or camera software.

Get your computer setup exactly as you’d like it. Then do one last backup of it. Use Clonezilla to make another full backup of your computer.

That way, in the future, instead of having to go through these steps again, you can start from here. With Windows installed and activated, up to date as of your last backup date, with your software and drivers installed.

And if anything were to go wrong, like a virus or hard drive crash, I’ve got my computer setup and can take the time to restore the image instead of installing Windows from scratch.

Living in (Windows) Lockdown

For those trapped in a corporate Windows world, all hope is not lost. Sure, your administrative rights are revoked. There is no way to run your favorite applications. You can’t use the tools you’d like to because it’s forbidden.

But all hope is not lost. Portable Applications are your oasis. What are these portable applications you speak of? They’re the same applications you love and use at home. But instead of running an installer, all you have to do is unzip and run! It means you can run the application you want, without having to install it.

The applications are best run from a USB key. That way they can stay where you are and once you leave work, they leave with you.

I recently asked friends on Twitter and Facebook two questions.
1. What do you wish you could install on your work computer that you can’t or aren’t allowed to?
2. Alternately, what application could you not live without at work?

I’ve attempted to address the replies I got back below, along with a couple of must-haves for myself. While working within the confines of a locked down computer is frustrating. There are things you can do to make it a little better.


Disclaimer: Rules at your workplace may vary. This does not guarantee you will not get into trouble where you work. Read over your IT guidelines before using anything unauthorized on your computer.

Please use your common sense. Don’t get yourself fired over something as stupid as Dropbox or Skype. Your mileage may vary. I make no guarantees this will work where you do. But if you’re feeling brave enough to continue, let’s go!


Chrome and Firefox

Are you trapped on Internet Explorer? There is hope for you. You need Portable Firefox or Portable Chrome. I use Chrome and it works beautifully. I am able to sync my work Google account and all of my extensions and bookmarks sync to the portable browser without issue.

Using your browser of choice in the corporate world is a breath of fresh air.

Phrase Express

If you have a Mac at home, you may be familiar with [TextExpander])(
http://smilesoftware.com/TextExpander/index.html). There is an application for Windows that does the same thing, and it can import and sync to TextExpander.

PhraseExpress is absolutely vital to my work. I spend much of my day telling different people the same things. Working in customer support, I tend to explain the same things over and over. But I don’t write those emails out every single time. I have a series of snippets that save me time and make sure I tell everyone the same thing.

It can be used for simple tasks such as adding a single line to every email I send out. Once I’ve written my reply, I always end with Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns. I can’t tell you the last time I typed that out. I simply type zppp which is my shortcut and it automatically expands to Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

Another example is that I send out an email when I will be out of the office notifying my team of my open issues. So I keep a template for that. When I type zQueue, it expands to.

Team,
When I am out of the office tomorrow, the issues I have open are

Then I type my notes and click send. It’s not much but it saves me time. You may have noticed I start each snippet with a z. That’s my preference to trigger these shortcuts and they don’t show up when I don’t want them to. A co-worker uses a ; before all of his snippets. What you choose doesn’t matter, just make it something you’ll remember.

I also use PhraseExpress to fix typos. Two common words I mistype are suer and thnak. Whenever I type these, they are auto-corrected to user and thank It makes me look smarter and reduces the number of errors when I send emails to customers.

Snippets can be extremely powerful and can be used for anything you can think of. How many times are you typing out nearly the same email or the same information? You could make a template and change your long emails to a few quick keystrokes. I can also insert the current date and time, or a date three days from now without looking at a calendar.

PhraseExpress keeps statistics and today, I have expanded 53 snippets, (6446 characters) and saved me 50 minutes of typing today. what could it save you?

Dropbox

Portable Dropbox is just what it sounds like. It’s Dropbox that doesn’t need installation. It will run from a folder or USB key Technibble has written a great post on setting up and using Dropbox Portable. I Would recommend using the selective sync to only sync what you need to your portable Dropbox.

A Warning: Dropbox is wonderful. It’s absolutely vital to keeping my digital life in order. However, many places have very strict rules about what data can be kept on servers outside of the company’s control. So be careful about what you put in that Dropbox folder. Utilize the selective sync feature, especially if you keep music or movies in your Dropbox folder. Dropbox can be blocked at a network level. So even if you do get the application running, you may not be able to use it.

Skype

Skype is the gold-standard for audio and video communication around the globe. Used by everyone from podcasters to families keeping in touch with loved ones across the state or across the world.

There is a great portable version which can run from a USB key. I’ve used it when my wife was in India and we were able to chat without spending a fortune on phone bills. It was great to see her face while she was gone.

A Warning: Many network block the ports Skype needs to run, so even if you have the portable application, you may not be able to connect to the Skype servers. But it’s always worth a try if you won’t get into trouble.

Scrivener

Scrivener is your complete writing studio. It’s got the tools for managing complex research papers or entire books built-in.

Because of this, the draw to keep everything inside of Scrivener’s world is important and it’s not possible to have it everywhere. Or is it?

While not supported, it is possible to install Scrivener on a portable Flash drive. From the Windows manual.

4.5 Installing Scrivener on a Portable Flash Drive While it is possible to make a copy of your Scrivener application folder on flash drive, at this time we do not recommend doing this for performance reasons. Flash drives are considerably slower than their hard drive counterparts, but if portability trumps performance, it is safe to do so. We recommend installing Scrivener on your hard drive following the instructions given, and then copying the Scrivener folder from Program Files (or your user folder) to the stick drive using Explorer, and not using the installer directly on the stick drive. While possible, this method is not currently supported.

So while it’s possible, it will be slow and if you run into trouble you won’t get support from the vendor, but it’s still possible. Before you do this, I would highly recommend to back up your Scrivener files so nothing happens to your words.

MadCap Flare

While you cannot run MadCap Flare from a flash drive the license does allow you to install it on multiple machines, as long as it’s not in use on more than one at a time.

So while you can’t run it portable, you may be able to run it from another location.

Minecraft

This is not an addiction I’ve given into so I can’t vouch for this one. However, if you’re willing to try it you can play Minecraft from a USB key.

Civilization 5

Who doesn’t want to run their own world? While Civ 5 can’t run off a USB key, there is FreeCiv Portable which can. So all hope may not be lost for your world-building desires.

If you’re interested in Portable Apps there are a large number of them found there. IF you’re looking for one I didn’t mention, search for “Portable ______” and there may be a portable version of your favorite text editor, browser, or application you can’t live without. Living in Windows lock down doesn’t have to be a prison sentence.

Simplify Windows Logons with the Dot Slash trick

One of my biggest annoyances in the move to Windows 7 is the loss of the drop down box for whether to login to a local account or a domain account. When you spend your life as a computer technician and constantly need to get access to local administrator accounts in addition to domain-based accounts, this is very irritating.

For a computer bound to a domain in Windows XP the login box looked like this:

When I need to login as the local computer’s administrator it was as easy as changing the Log on to: box.

Now I can login as a local administrator and complete the work I need to do.

For a computer bound to the domain in Windows 7 you get this:

There is no longer a quick way to login to the local account. Unless you know the computer’s hostname 1 you had to click the “How do I log on to another domain?” link.

Then write down or remember the name.

I have found a faster way. If you type .\ in front of the user name, it will automatically set the Windows 7 computer to login to the local PC.

For example, .\administrator will give you localcomputer\administrator instead of domain\administrator.

Now, instead of having to remember a long, convoluted name, you have this:

This is easier than trying to recall hostnames or making little notes at every computer I access where I need to login locally.


  1. Usually something like the machine’s serial number, user’s last name or some other long, hard to remember set of characters 

15 Minutes to Critical

Critical ticket comes in 15 minutes before I’m scheduled leave work. Computer won’t boot. I cringe. I debate. I call the customer. He is there. I act nice even though I’m secretly disappointed. I agree to see him. I race upstairs.

Windows 7 greets me. Looking cranky as ever. “Inaccessible Boot Device” flashed across the screen.

I cringe again. This could be fast or this could be days. I say a silent prayer as I calmly reboot and talk to the customer. Reassuring him everything will be OK.

Inside I pray louder. It shuts down.

A pause.

It starts up again. Black screen. Blank. No beep. No messages. Yet.

I wait. Milliseconds seem like eternity as the machine decides my fate.

It sings to us. I see blue. Not a sickly error blue but a soothing corporate blue.

Windows Starts Up.

Press Ctrl + Alt + Del to Logon.

Success.
Inside I cheer.
Outside I’m calm and smiling confidently.

My customer thanks me for my quick response. I thank him for his patience.

He logs in.
I leave.

Victorious.

Tech Support Triumvirate: Keeping Windows Updated

I work as a computer technician and half of my battle is keeping computers running happily. The other half is keeping them updated and secure against potential threats. There is a triumvirate of software I’ve found and employed throughout the years to make keeping Windows installations up to date painless.

Ninite

The first is Ninite. This fantastic little site is perfect for fresh computer builds. It saves time having to download and install the latest versions of browsers, media players and plugins.

The idea could not be easier. Go to the web site on your Windows or Linux computer and select the applications you want to install. Download the single, small installer.

The installer is small because when it runs, it goes out to the web sites of the application’s you’ve selected and downloads the newest versions. This assure you always get the newest version of the software every time.

Ninite will install software that’s not already present or update existing software to the newest version. If it detects the software is already updated, it will skip the application and move to the next one on the list.

The installer is small and perfect for thumb drives or network shares if you’re using a standard computer build. It saves me from having to remember exactly which applications I need to install and which I haven’t. I run Ninite and when it finishes, I know I am up to date and ready to move on.

If you have a large organization, then Ninite Pro is your go-to tool. It offers the same trouble-free updates along with silent installs, no nag screens, centralized management and a pile of other great features.

FileHippo

I was introduced to FileHippo by a friend and my life has never been the same. FileHippo is a repository of nearly any free application you could ever need.

I used it recently to retrieve an older version of Safari when I encountered a bug in Windows XP with the Safari 5.1.x versions. It’s been an invaluable resource for rolling back software updates to combat bugs, incompatibilities or if a customer simply upgraded and didn’t mean or want to.

In addition to hosting older versions of thousands of applications, they have a free Update Checker that can be installed or run standalone from a USB key. The Update Checker will scan the computer and present a list of all the software out of date that FileHippo support and provides links to the latest versions.

FileHippo will not automatically download the applications like Ninite will, but it supports a larger number of applications.

PatchMyPC

PatchMyPC is a new tool in my kit I recently found via the excellent Technibble. This application can be installed or run off a USB key and will scan the computer for the updates to the most vulnerable and often updated applications and install their updates silently in the background with a single click. This means keeping Flash, Acrobat Reader, Skype, Java and around 50 other applications up to date with little effort.

Along with keeping vulnerable software up to date, it can also install other applications and keep them up to date in the future. It is possible to always ignore a certain application and it will never be checked nor updated. This is particularly useful if an important application uses a specific version of Java or another application that can’t be updated or changed.

PatchMyPC combines the auto-checking of FileHippo with Ninite’s auto-installation for the best of both worlds. It will even check Windows Updates for available updates and include those in the update making it nearly perfect. The trade-off being a smaller list of applications supported but the developers are adding applications as they go so it will get even better as time goes on.

Customer Service

I spend a lot of my time updating software, patching vulnerabilities and making sure my customers are running the most up to date software and this can be very tedious and time-consuming. These three applications make my job easier and allow me to dig through error logs or perform other research or maintenance while the applications are updating.

Anything I can do to save time is a benefit to myself and my customers because it’s my job to get them up and running again as quickly as possible so they can get the work done they need to do.

I am constantly in the pursuit of better tools to get my job done faster, and correctly every time so I can offer better service to my customers. These three applications allow me to do that and they are indispensable parts of my toolkit.