Brenden Schaaf / August 9, 2009

Windows 7 Release Candidate

Wow!  Summer sure is flying by.  Only a few weeks away from the Great Minnesota Get-Together and then we’re into autumn.  My summer has been so packed that I haven’t had much time to write things here, but I just have to report on my experience with the Windows 7 Release Candidate that I installed on my laptop a couple weeks back.

First off, my Dell E1505 is 3+ years old.  It came with Windows XP, which came out to great fanfare way back in 2001.  Eight years is a long time in terms of technology.

About once a year I wipe my laptop clean and reinstall Windows XP because if I don’t do that it becomes slower and slower until I am so frustrated that it is virtually unusable.  I last wiped it clean in November 2008 and it seemed like it ran really well for a few months but by summer I had been experiencing significant slowdowns once again.  Given that it had taken me 12+ hours last time to wipe/reinstall Windows and then reinstall all my applications and updates (dozens of updates plus reboots after many of them) not to mention having to backup and copy back all my data, this was not a task I was really rushing to perform if you catch my drift.

In fact, I even considered buying a new laptop but decided instead to get a Toshiba NB205 Netbook and milk my existing larger laptop for as long as I could stand it.  Given my issues with Windows XP slowing down, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to stand it for very long!

In late June I was reading about the upcoming Windows 7 release set for October.  It was hailed as the Windows that Vista should have been, which didn’t mean much to me because I’ve had virtually zero experience with Vista other than helping my wife with a couple tasks on the new laptop that she got in May.  Still, the reviews made Windows 7 sound like a pretty sweet operating system and the Release Candidate (the last version before it goes on sale) sounded pretty stable.

After confirming that my Dell E1505 could run Windows 7 (I ran the Microsoft tool to check this and also found some posts online by folks that had already taken the plunge), I downloaded the OS from Microsoft and made a DVD that would allow me to format/install Windows 7 to my laptop.  In a sad twist of irony, I had to use the DVD burner on my wife’s laptop (running Windows Vista) to actually create the DVD because my own laptop kept creating coasters…so I guess Vista and/or HP were better than XP and/or Dell in this case!

This time, backing up my data before wiping my laptop clean was a non-issue since I now use Windows Live Sync as I reported on earlier.  My bookmarks are backed up using Xmarks so that wasn’t an issue either.  Not having to spend 1-2 hours finding and copying all my data files was a great relief and made the start of the upgrade process that much easier.  I gathered up my application CDs and install files (Microsoft Office 2007, Camtasia, and Snagit being the main ones) and began the process of installing Windows 7 to my laptop.  I figured the worst that could happen is that it wouldn’t work and then I’d need to install Windows XP, which was something that I had intended to do anyway.

I’m happy to report, though, that my Windows 7 install went great!  I had a lot fewer issues with missing drivers than I had the last time I reinstalled XP (video drivers and DVD software were a huge obstacle last time) and everything that didn’t work right away when Windows 7 booted up the first time (screen resolution was limited, for example) worked just fine after I ran Windows Update once.  DVDs even played in Windows Media Player without the need for me to install any special software/codecs/drivers to make it happen and the wifi was a snap to configure/use.  Despite a few hiccups along the learning curve (I, like many others, really miss having an “up” button in Windows Explorer to get to the parent directory, for example) after two weeks of running Windows 7  it feels like I have a brand new machine and I wish my other XP machines were running it too.

Screenshot of Windows 7 RC Desktop running on my Dell E1505
Screenshot of Windows 7 RC Desktop running on my Dell E1505

I fully intend to purchase the retail version of Windows 7 in October on the basis of my experience installing the RC on my laptop.  I may even buy a 2nd copy to upgrade my netbook since Toshiba appears to be actively embracing Windows 7 and has already released several drivers to make the switch possible.  The main obstacle there is that the NB205 doesn’t have a DVD drive so I’ll probably let some other early adopters tackle this chore first and then I can follow their advice online for booting from a flash drive once I’m comfortable that installing that way will be relatively trouble-free.  Or maybe Microsoft will release Windows 7 on a flash drive which is something that would allow me to upgrade my desktop too (also running Windows XP and also without a DVD drive).

Unfortunately I missed the boat buying Windows 7 at the discounted “get people excited” price (didn’t realize the timeframe was so limited) but I have preordered the upgrade version on Amazon and will have the DVD in hand in October when it is released.  It sounds like I’ll need to do another clean install (something Walt Mossberg has made  out to be a bigger deal than it really is in my opinion), but that shouldn’t be very problematic given my experience with the RC.  Walt may be right that performing a clean install is beyond the capabilities of most people, but I also believe reading his column is beyond the capabilities of most people and he still keeps writing it regularly.  I guess I can forgive his sense of alarm on the Windows 7 upgrade given that he and I largely share the same opinion on my new netbook.  Stay tuned for my take on that topic soon after I get some time to use it more.

Brenden Schaaf / June 19, 2009

Windows Live Sync: Hallelujah!

livesynclogoI posted previously about SyncToy, a great tool that I use to keep files up-to-date between my USB flash drive and my laptop computer. A limitation of SyncToy, however, was that it didn’t work too well sharing the same folder with two separate destinations. I tried, for example, to maintain the same files on my laptop computer, USB drive, and desktop computer and SyncToy didn’t handle that very well so I have since gone to using SyncToy only to maintain my files between my laptop and USB drive and I occasionally copy folders from my laptop to my desktop over my home network.

This means that if I want to edit a file on my desktop computer I need to jump through some hoops for several reasons:

  1. The version on the desktop computer is out of date.
  2. If the file is relatively new, I may not have copied it to the desktop yet (since I only copy files from the laptop when it occurs to me to do so).
  3. Once I have created or edited a file on the desktop, I have to remember to manually copy it to my laptop since that is my “primary” storage location, especially if I made changes to an existing file.
  4. Throughout this process, it is very easy to end up with two versions of a file that are different even though they have the same name.

I was at a class last week where the instructor spent a few minutes talking about Microsoft Groove, an application that is part of the Microsoft Office family of products that allows sharing/synching of files between computers and users.  This sounded like what I needed, but I balked at spending the $115+ to buy Groove as a stand-alone product.  And I really didn’t feel like buying Microsoft Office Ultimate since I already own Microsoft Office Professional Plus and the only things I would gain appear to be Groove and OneNote.

After digging around online for a while for a different solution and nearly biting the bullet and purchasing Groove,  I remembered an article I read a few years ago by Walt Mossberg that discussed some tools that could sync files between computers over the internet.  I was reminded when I found the article (which also mentions Groove, as it turns out) that I had tried BeInSync at that time and I didn’t have much luck with it so I quickly deleted it.  I decided to take a look at Foldershare, the other product Mossberg mentioned in the article and was surprised to wind up at a Microsoft site instead.  It turns out that Foldershare has become Windows Live Sync and after using this product for just a few days I can already say that it is the answer to my dreams.

A tiny download is all that is needed for each computer (running Windows or Mac OS X) that you want to sync and most configuration takes place through the Live Sync website.  That is where you identify the “source folder” on the first computer and the destination folder on the second (and any subsequent) computers.  Once that is done, the computers copy files to each other in a peer-to-peer fashion and any file additions/deletions/edits are automatically mirrored to the other machine(s) through your network or the internet when the machines are online.

If a machine is offline (like if you are traveling with your laptop) any changes you make to files in your shared

Windows Live Sync menu
Windows Live Sync menu

folders will be made to the other locations when your computer goes online the next time.  Best of all, this activity takes place in the background so you really don’t know that it is happening unless you click on the livesync icon in the status bar of your computer.  If you are really curious, you can click on the icon and be taken to any of the shared folders on your PC, the live sync website, or you may view the status of files including those that have recently been changed/shared.

In addition to synchronizing files, a byproduct of using Windows Live Sync is that you now have backups of (likely) your most important and often used files.  Once you have the folders up and running on more than one computer, there are copies of all of the files in those folders on each machine so you have effectively backed up your data without even thinking about it.

In short, Windows Live Sync, does exactly what I need it to do without much interaction from me once it was set up (and that was very easy as well).  Interestingly, Microsoft offers a similar application called Live Mesh that might be worth a look, but I’m going to hold off investigating that for now since Live Sync is 100% aligned with my needs and Live Mesh is currently in Beta so it could be buggy.