Saturday, July 28, 2007

More Tales from the Windows Pit

PCLinuxOS screenshotPCLinuxOS was key to saving a Windows PC. Read how below!

Or perhaps I should say "Windows-less" pit? Yes, it is time once again for me to document some of the more recent issues I have been having with Windows. For those wondering, yes - I am referring to the Microsoft operating system that so many people seem stuck on.

The problems started just a few weeks ago (well, shortly after I got iTunes working - again). Perhaps the best sign of impending doom was my wife's ability to access her e-mail using Outlook, the Microsoft e-mail client (well, one of them). Every time she tried to pull down her e-mail, Outlook would choke on it about halfway through and throw an error. She had to resort to checking her mail via a web interface. We had used that in the past with this problem when there was a "bad" e-mail in the queue. In the past, deleting that e-mail usually restored Outlook to proper functioning. That was not occurring in this case, indicative of some deeper problem. I had started to do some research on it, but had not found a good solution yet.

My son was playing some game and as usual, Windows locked up. Upon trying to restart the computer, we discovered that it was stuck in a repeating loop of booting, but as soon as it reached the "Windows is starting up..." screen, it would reboot. I tried several solutions at that point, like booting into safe mode. Unfortunately, no luck.

Next was to find the Restore CD that came with the PC. That was a feat considering the computer is quite old now. Fortunately, I possess some packrat-ish superpowers. Popping that in presented me with three different Restore options. I tried the first which indicated it would just go through, find any bad files, and replace them. Non-intrusive and would supposedly leave everything else in place. That sort of worked. It stopped the endless reboots. However, I was the only user who could log on. Anyone else logging on would just be cycled back to the login screen of Windows. Even my account was useless though as functions as basic as Windows Explorer were not functioning along with virtually all programs.

The fact that Explorer was not working was especially problematic. A while back I had installed a second hard drive in the computer to relieve space problems. I had successfully "moved" my "My Documents" directory over to the new drive, but I had not yet done the same for my wife's or kids' accounts. Before attempting the next "Restore" option, I wanted to get all of their data moved over to the new drive so it would be easier to preserve (you know, the whole separate your data from the os from programs). Without a working Explorer program though, I could not do that.

Linux to the rescue!!! Luckily, I'm fairly handy with Linux now. So, I popped in a PCLinuxOS CD and loaded the live version of that. For those not familiar, a "live" version is a copy of the operating system that loads from the CD. Without installing anything to the hard drive, it is a nice way to test drive an operating system. With PCLinuxOS up and running, I was able to access all my hard drives. I did run into a little problem though because the hard drives were all formatted with Microsoft's NTFS file system and "out of the box" PCLinuxOS did not support write capability on NTFS drives. A quick Google revealed that I needed to install an application called ntfs 3g. Using the Synaptic package manager, a quick search found that and I had it installed (not without some work on repositories - an issue PCLinuxOS needs to address). From there, it was a matter of just copying the files over.

With that out of the way, it was on to the next Restore option which basically reinstalls (as I understand it) the entire operating system without reformatting the hard drive. First it makes a copy of all your files. I noted it made copies of files even in the Program Files directory and other places. Maybe that served some purpose, but given how things are so tied into the registry (which with a restore is effectively wiped clean), I'm not sure what that purpose may be. That did get me to thinking though. One of the "basics" of configuring a PC that I always heard was to separate data, programs, and the operating system onto different hard drive partitions. It was always one of those things that I always knew I should do, but rarely did. As I've become more conversant in Linux though, I find myself more adept at that. Perhaps because it has some real benefits with Linux - I can reinstall a whole new distro and preserve all my data or any unique programs I had running. With Windows there is some benefit in saving the data files. Otherwise, it seems useless to pursue that strategy.

Anyway, that restore went smoothly and I ended up with - tada - a fresh install. Now, this made things quite a bit snappier. Actually a whole lot snappier on the PC. Amazing how much that Windows rot had slowed the thing down. The downside is that I had to download and reinstall all the Windows updates and patches along with setting up some of the hardware and drivers.

In the course of setting up the users again, I also went ahead and got everyone's data on the spare drive (properly this time). I did some cleaning up of the files that had been copied during the restore as well. Interestingly, there were a few files that could not be deleted. A couple of them were related to Adobe products - the Flash player I think, a couple that just indicate "messages[]" even though I could find no such files, and an iWon file. I'm really not sure how you can end up with a file on your computer that cannot be deleted. I did some research and no one else could resolve the problems either. So thanks for leaving some trash in place Adobe, iWon, and Microsoft.

The tally thus far is about 8 hours spent on reinstalling and configuring stuff. This has included at least 9 reboots. The good news is the PC is running a lot faster and I was able to get my wife switched over to Thunderbird for her mail client. As it sits right now, I have installed, but no MS Office. My wife has struggled with the switch to, so I may have to install MSO later. But for now, with OOo being her only option, perhaps she'll do better. Other than the productivity suite, email client, Firefox web browser, and my AV/anti-spam/firewall package, I haven't even gotten around to installing other applications. No telling how long that may take.

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