Monday, 18 January 2010

On Upgrading - or "what were they thinking?"

My desktop machine at home has had creeping software sickness for a long time. It was new about 4 years ago and has gradually got less and less likely to succeed at any given task. Visual Studio crashes quite often, which I've never seen anywhere else. Google Earth kind-of runs but is pretty much unusable. And so on. I've no idea why these things happen, there's no logical reason why software should wear out, but it seems that it does.

I resisted Vista for all of its sorry lifetime, wisely as it turned out. But everyone seems to be saying nice things about Windows 7, so I decided it was time to upgrade. At the same time I decided to swap the 250 Gbyte hard drive for a brand new 2 terabyte one. Not that I have anything that will use up that much disk space, but 250 GB was getting full.

The machine is something called an HP Media Center. It was a distress purchase, my previous machine had scrambled its hard drive and I had exactly 10 hours to get something important done, so I just rushed out to Fry's and bought what they recommended. Until now, I'd never had any reason to take the covers off. When I did, I found that the hard drive was totally, utterly inaccessible, hidden inside the machine, and mounted vertically (rather than horizontally as usual). No normal screwdriver could access any of the mounting screws. I tried undoing various other things, but nothing gave access to the screws. Eventually I figured I could just put the new drive loose on the floor of the box. But, since I don't give up easily, I wondered how the factory had ever managed to assemble the machine. More on that later.

So, having swapped the drive cables over to my brand-new, unformatted 2 TB disk, it was time to install Windows 7, which I had (legitimately) on a USB memory stick. (As an aside, in about 1994 I worked on one of the very first video-on-demand projects, at DEC. Part of the system was a 1 TB drive farm, which occupied four full-size racks. Of course the whole project was more than a decade ahead of its time, and flopped completely).

Since I had a new disk, I actually wanted to do an install from scratch. But still there is a great mystery here. Microsoft built Windows 7 because the adoption rate of Vista was so low - I've seen estimates of 20%. Yet you can only do an in situ upgrade from Vista. So if you're one of the 80% who never moved from XP, you're out of luck. Or rather, Microsoft is, because that's who loses money if people don't upgrade. XP is a perfectly fine system, I would not have upgraded but for my "software wear-out" problem. Most not-very-technical users will be completely put off by the complication of a from-scratch installation, followed by reinstalling all of their apps, and in all probability just won't bother. So what was Microsoft thinking when they made this decision?

So, I booted from the memory stick, Windows 7 started and everything seemed fine. Then it put up a screen asking me which disk I wanted to use. When I selected my new drive, I got an error, "cannot create system partition". That's dumb, I thought, surely a from-scratch installer should be able to partition and format a disk? Still, I was able to rig things up so that I booted from the old system, with the new disk connected. That way I could format the new disk from XP. Then I restarted the Windows 7 system again. The same thing happened.

It took a lot of frustration, much bad language, and a lot of googling before I found the solution to this. It turns out that since the early days of Vista, the installer has not been able to cope with having more than one drive or partition visible to it. If it does, it gives this misleading error message which gives absolutely no clue as to the problem, and which will certainly stop most people dead in their tracks. Yet MS had at least a year to fix this, preferably so installer could handle multiple connected drives, but failing that at least to give a better error message. Once again, what were they thinking?

Once I had this figured out and unplugged everything except the target drive, everything went fine. The system installed remarkably quickly, and subsequent reinstallation of all my apps went smoothly too. It took quite a while for further problems to emerge.

Meanwhile, I hadn't given up on the disk mounting problem. I picked up various tools - stubby screwdriver, offset screwdriver - from my local TrueValue, but none of them could get all of the hidden screws. Finally a trip to Fry's got me a tiny ratchet offset screwdriver with interchangeable bits. Using that, and a lot of missing flesh from my hands, I was able to remove the drive and install the new one. Still I wondered how on earth they did this at the factory? Then by chance I tidied my office and found the original hardware manual for the machine. This revealed the secret latch which allows the whole drive bay to be dismantled and removed. Of course it is much easier that way, but there would be no way to identify the secret latch without the manual.

Windows 7 ran smoothly for a while, but then I ran into a very odd problem. Double clicking on certain system-ish folders gives the message "Access Denied". Now, I am the only user of the machine, and of course have Administrator privilege, so what is going on? I tried changing access rights, but of course since I didn't have access in the first place, that didn't work. Finally, some extensive googling found a way round this, which involves going into the deepest depths of "advanced options" in the security screen, and changing ownership of the parent directory. It's at times like this that Linux is so attractive - although the commands are arcane, it is always reasonably easy to figure out what is going on. With Windows, it's either easy or next-to-impossible. The dumbed-down user interfaces give you few alternatives when things are partly broken.

So now, my new system seems to be working fine, and does very nearly everything my old one did. (There are still a few things to reinstall). One mystery is a system-created "shortcut" (i.e. softlink) which points to itself. This confuses Explorer no end, but since I have no idea what the folder is for, I daren't delete it. I also still haven't managed to find the cache directory for IE8 - I've found one of them, but only some files show up there. That's another mystery.

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