TheONbutton Durham Computer Services

Remote IT Support and Computer & Technology Help in Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh NC

Windows 7 Beta Review

windows-7-media-center-viral-videosI’ve been eager to give the Windows 7 Beta a workout following the demos I saw at CES.

My living room Media Center PC was an ideal candidate.  It’s a three year old Pentium 4 which takes care of all our viewing, media and browsing needs on Windows XP Media Center 2005.  Microsoft has claimed that Windows 7 is a streamlined OS capable of running on lower spec hardware than Vista, it’s time to see if that’s really true…

Test environment

windows-7-performance-indexFor reference my PC is running a 2.93GHz P4 with 3GB DDR400 RAM, 500GB hard disk and a low end Geforce 7200GS.  Not the most scintillating system by modern standards and probably equivalent to a $250 purchase these days from the refurbished inventory of e-tailers.  The version of Windows 7 Beta I have is Build 7000.  I’ll refer to it as W7B in this article.

Installations never go smoothly…or do they?

Installation was initially nerveracking but ultimately painless.  Nerveracking because I had to split a live primary partition into two, to create a boot partition for the new OS.  Painless because once Linux GParted had done its partitioning stuff, Windows 7 Beta installed in superfast time, restarting a couple of times and then it was done.  I had backed up my XP partition to another drive just in case, but fortunately all went according to the masterplan and W7B automatically created a dual-boot environment for me.  XP booted just like before and I so was all set for my W7B test.

windows-7-desktopStopwatch at the ready

The first thing I noticed was a faster boot time.  This could have been due to having a fresh install so I initially reserved judgement on that one.  However now that three weeks has passed and I’ve installed everything I’m likely to for a while, the swift boot-up lives on.  It’s not a life changing improvement but in the region of ten seconds faster than my XP boot sequence once all startup items have completed.

Sounding off

All navigation elements were very responsive: Aero, widgets and snap-to-edge all performed well with no lag.  But then I noticed there was no sound.  W7B had found my motherboard’s SPDIF output but did not configure it correctly.  A quick internet search revealed the latest Vista drivers which duly solved the issue.  In fact I now get proper Dolby transmission and far more signal reaching my amp, which means having to apply less gain within the amp therefore achieving a better signal-to-noise ratio than with my XP setup.

Taskbar implemented cum laude

windows-7-taskbarTaskbar, oh glorious taskbar.  So much has been written of thee already, what can I add?  This really is a great addition in W7B, I can envisage how well it could work once the touch interface gets enabled on the full release.  Seeing thumbnail representations of an application’s open windows is a fantastic browsing aid.  Being able to jump into application functions directly from thumbnail menus takes everything a step further.  Best of all, the thumbnails are dynamic representations so if you are waiting for a window to complete a certain action you can hover over its taskbar icon to view its progress in the thumbnail.

CPU and Resource Management

Having an older spec PC presented a good opportunity to see how W7B would cope with average resources.  windows-7-resource-monitorIn the initial days following installation I noticed some frantic CPU and disk activity, which I traced to Windows Media Player cataloging my music and video collection.  Once that was done, CPU activity became XP-like whilst memory allocation was definitely smarter.

Like Vista, W7B was able to address all 3GB of RAM whilst my 32-bit XP build was never capable of this.  W7B also supports ReadyBoost so I threw in a 4GB SDHC card and dedicated the whole thing to the OS.  That’s a cheap 4GB at $10, although ReadyBoost doesn’t make use of flash cards in quite the same way as conventional RAM.  However the combination keeps my paging file to a minimum and I’ve not experienced memory crunches.

Windows Firewall

The versions of Windows Firewall built into XP and Vista were never taken too seriiously by the security fraternity due their inability to block outbound traffic.  So whilst others had difficulty reaching your computer, your computer could reach others…which is a pretty big risk given the amount of nasty malware out there.  The W7B Firewall changes all that with firewall rules configurable for incoming and outgoing traffic.  This could seriously hurt the likes of ZoneAlarm and others, who have thrived to date on the weakness of Windows Firewall.  I run ZoneAlarm on my XP partition, but I haven’t needed to download it for my W7B setup so far.

Internet TV & Media Center

windows-7-media-center-internet-tv-guideEver since the touchscreen demo of W7B Media Center I saw at CES, I’ve been aching to try out the integration of Internet TV in the EPG.  Until now we’ve needed to open a browser, navigate to NBC’s website, find the news page, find the video page and then start streaming the news.  W7B changes this by putting content from (and many others) right into the EPG so it’s accessible from within Media Center with the remote control.

The demo of this looked awesome and it’s just as good in my living room.  Content takes a little while longer to access than regular TV channels, but it’s a heck of a great feature and the integration is seamless.  News, concerts, full episodes are all available and free to access with occasional advertisements for some content.


windows-7-snap-to-sideThrowing a widow to the side of the screen results in W7B automatically resizing it to fill half the screen.  This makes comparing documents or images super easy.  Throwing to the top maximizes the window.  Again it’s easy to see how these small but useful enhancements will make life easier once the touch version gets released.

What’s needs work?

Hmmm…I haven’t found anything yet inherent in W7B which consistently fails.  My sound sometimes cuts out following a video call, which could be a driver issue.  My computer wakes from standby mode much more often than it did in XP, probably due to some strange service which I might not need to be running.  Skype is not yet fully compatible.  There’s also a registry fix out there for .msi installers which fail – I had an issue installing Office 2007 and when the installer failed W7B automatically downloaded the fix article from Microsoft’s knowledge base…finally intelligent context sensitive help has arrived.  After following the instructions in the article to update the problematic registry entry the installer worked.

A game-changer for Microsoft?

Apart from that the whole experience has just worked superbly and I’m happily running W7B as my everyday environment now.  The Beta version expires on August 1st, so perhaps this hints at the possible release timing of the full version.  Remember that the release version will hopefully be touch-enabled, so that will be a whole new ball-game, and from what I’ve seen so far Microsoft could hit a home run with this one.

Neil Berman

Feb 1, 2009 Posted by | CES, Computing, Microsoft, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Taking the hassle out of living room computing: Logitech diNovo Mini

Microsoft ‘n the gang have been asking us to hook our computers into our living room TVs for a while. Products like Windows Media Center and Apple’s Front Row are designed to work with a remote control and both have slick interfaces.

That’s all good, but what happens when you want to do some web surfing too? The scene descends into a balancing act of keyboard in one hand, mouse in the other and coffee mug somewhere in the middle…often missing the coffee table!

Logitech is hoping its new diNovo Mini bluetooth wireless controller is going to change all that when it hits the stores in late February. The clamshell Mini conceals a Qwerty thumboard, Media Center remote and ‘ClickPad’ in a rechargeable wireless package. The playback controls are also Playstation 3 compatible.

The thumboard is very usable and has a good feel. The ClickPad is equally responsive and in can turns into a four way directional controller. Backlights help you see what you’re doing when the lights are down.

Practically, the folding cover protects the device from crumbs, spills and other coffee table menaces. Best of all, when not in use the Mini can be hidden away with ease. Even sitting on a table, it just looks like a make-up compact or sunglasses case.

The Mini is an essential accessory to help with reducing living room computer clutter. However it also comes with a $149 price tag, so some may choose to persevere with their clutter for a little longer.

Neil Berman

Feb 4, 2008 Posted by | Computing, Hardware, Home Theater, Photo & Video, News | , , | Leave a comment

Market Share: Who’s winning and losing in Windows vs Mac vs Linux; IE vs Firefox

Ten thousand choices. Ten thousand opinions. What do my last ten thousand page hits tell us about our Macs on Safari and Vistas of people Fire-ing Internet Explorer?

Internet Explorer vs Firefox:

Is Firefox really challenging IE’s market share?

In a word, yes. 31% of the page hits came from Mozilla’s Firefox, with 61% coming from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. That is a staggering statistic, given that IE is shipped in the vast majority of all computers sold. The other players – mainly Safari and Opera – fought it out for the remainder. I have started using Firefox myself on my MacBook after getting frustrated with Safari’s compatibility issues with some sites.

The figures for Mac and Windows Firefox take-on are similar on each platform, with around 30% of each user group Fire-ing the Apple and Microsoft offerings according to my stats. Firefox seems to have the Linux visitors well under its wing with almost 90% coverage.

Windows vs Mac:

Is it war?

Yes and no. In 2004 the W3C internet activity stat for Mac usage was just under 3%. My last ten thousand page hits registered 5.5% Macs and over 90% Windows. So from a global perspective it’s no…or at least it’s a very very slow war.

From a regional perspective, the story is different. For North America the page hits registered as 10% Mac and 83% Windows, for Europe this dropped to 6.5% Mac vs. 86.5% Windows, whilst in Asia over 94% of the hits came from Windows PCs.

We know that Apple lost the corporate sales war a long time ago. So the North America stat suggests that Mac penetration as a home computer in the region is pretty strong. This is probably the one market where an Apple vs. Windows war is now on, albeit contained within the upper end of the price range. Europe seems to have a decent amount of Mac users, although they are almost equalled by Linux hits at over 5%. In Asia, Windows appears to be almost unchallenged.


Is it a viable alternative?

Yes for sure, and with hit products like the Asus EEE taking the market by storm the amount of Linux users should be rising. From my last ten thousand page hits though, only 3% were Linux users. It will be interesting to see if this percentage grows as more products are launched with Linux distros. The Everex Cloudbook is due to go on sale tomorrow.

Neil Berman

The data in this article is based upon page views registered on this site as tracked by Google.

Jan 24, 2008 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Computing, Microsoft, Software | , , , , | Leave a comment

Silence is Eco-friendly, Vivid and Fanless

I just upgraded my living room PC’s video card from being VGA only to a dual monitor DVI and VGA NVIDIA card. Crikey what a revelation! My projector image is now so bright and vivid from the DVI PC output that we have to turn down the lamp strength to avoid eye fatigue! In fact this upgrade will have turned out to be a really cost effective way of saving energy and increasing lamp life.

I was already impressed with my MacBook’s DVI output but this NVIDIA card makes the XP Media Center image look so vibrant that sometimes it seems like it’s jumping off the wall. In fact it’s made me question the quality of the MacBook’s DVI output, although to be fair built-in outputs rarely compare favorably to dedicated hardware.

I chose a fanless card, which are becoming more and more rare. The result? A near silent PC…it turns out the fan in my old card was actually generating pretty much all the internal noise in the computer. Better still the new card installled itself in minutes. Silence s eco-friendly, vivid and fanless!

Neil Berman

Dec 16, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Viiv la Cable

So Viiv is dying. Slowly. The Intel brand which signified a multimedia powerhouse PC never really captured the imagination of the livng room masses. On a similar note, Windows Media Center has now been included as an application built into Vista rather than as a separate release. I haven’t met anyone who has Apple TV.

Why don’t we want to put computers in our living rooms?

Price is probably one factor. Given that many people already have some kind of set-top box, persuading them to buy another item is challenging even though it might provide more functionality. Most people considering this discretionary purchase might have much of the functionality already in a laptop.

Watching TV on PCs can also be a weaker experience than using cable. The Media Center interface is superb to use for TV but it’s difficult to hook hundreds of channels (cable/satellite) into it. This means being restricted to over air channels, so the viewer’s experience is less satisfying. On-demand downloads have started but it’s a small market at present. Perhaps when a cable company releases a PC TV card then we might see more penetration.

Recognising that Viiv was struggling in the living room, Intel has decided to concentrate on the extremely strong Core brand. So future multimedia PCs will be branded Core with Viiv.

I say well done to Intel for trying and I’m sure tht one day this concept will get mass market approval. I’ve got a feeling though that when it does, the concept will actually be sold to the masses by cable TV companies.

Neil Berman

Jul 24, 2007 Posted by | Apple, Microsoft | , , | 1 Comment


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