Sunday, November 25, 2007

Windows Benchmarking Software

At work right now, we are trying to decide how much and of what type/configurations of memory to buy for upgrading of some "nicer" older systems that just have 256MB of system RAM installed for XP Professional to use.  Sure, it works, but is a bit sluggish even for 2.8 GHz processors.

Being the clever guys and gals we are, we figured we would get several sample combos of memory and then benchmark them on the systems to see which performed best balancing both price and performance (we are diligent and fiscal-mindful State employees, after all).

That led us to uncover the following benchmarking software listed below.

Now, let me say up-front, these are not by any-means a complete list.  There are A LOT of quality freeware benchmarking products and many focus on gaming and video performance.  Because we don't run games and graphic extravaganzas on our workplace systems, I am skipping over those for now...maybe I'll touch on these later.

Additionally, they all (with one exception) are free. Though look carefully to see if they can be used as such in a non-personal (i.e. at work) environment.

Here are what we are playing with, in order of excitement and usefulness:

The Benchmark List

PassMark Performance Test - (free 30-day trial/$) - This software is really great. The reports are very detailed and well explained. The tests are quite fast. It contains twenty-five standard tests and five advanced tests. They cover performance of CPU, graphics, disks, memory, and CD/DVD drives.  Systems with hyperthreading and multiple CPU's are also supported. We are so enamored with this product I think we will be making some licence purchases in the coming month!  It's a really useful product.

Fresh Diagnose - (freeware after required registration) - Analyzes and benchmarks your system. Nice interface and detailed reporting of components.  It is hard to find something to be unhappy with this product.

MemTach 0.93 Alpha - (freeware) - I can't seem to find a live website for this product any longer, so I am linking to the MajorGeeks download site.  If you want to know more, use the WayBack Machine to search the cached pages for the developer's site.  It takes some work but there is info to be found.  This tool does a great job of providing a large number of system memory performance tests. The info is fast and fairly easy to interpret.

CrystalMark 2004R2 - (freeware) - Another nice tool to benchmark the following areas:

  • Memory
  • HDD
  • Graphics (GDI/DirecDraw/OpenGL)
  • BIOS/Mother Board Information
  • CPU (Clock, Cache, Multiplier, System Clock ...)
  • Chipset (North/South)
  • Video (Driver Information/ Video RAM)
  • Network Information
  • PCI Device
  • IDE HDD Information
  • DLL Information (Windows / VisualC++ / VisualBasic / Archiver )
  • Wallpaper

CPUID's PC WIZARD 2008 - (freeware) - Another really nice and well-packed benchmarking tool which appears to have been around the block for a good-long time.  The developer says it " also an utility designed to analyze and benchmark your computer system. It can analyze and benchmark many kinds of hardware, such as CPU performance, Cache performance, RAM performance, Hard Disk performance, CD/DVD-ROM performance, Removable/FLASH Media performance, Video performance, MP3 compression performance."

7Byte : MetaBench - This one looks really, really good, but I never could get it to actually run on any of our XP Pro systems at work for some reason.  If anyone has any tips or is able to get it working, please let me know!  It does seem to work fine on my XP Home system.  I don't know if there are some required DLL files or something missing.  Need to spend more time working on this one as I REALLY wanted to use this one at work on our Windows XP Pro systems.

Want More?

Download site MajorGeeks has a very nice list of software in the Benchmarking category worth looking around in for additional benchmark and system information collection utilities that I haven't mentioned:

Exo Performance Solutions - Very Interesting

Finally, in my failed attempts to track down some benchmark software I had oft seen used on pc testing sites (OfficeBench - anyone have any leads?) I eventually stumbled upon the Exo Performance Network site.

Registration is free, and gets you access to two applications: a real-time system performance monitoring and benchmarking program that uploads results to a server-account for tracking, and a client and server workload simulator to test personal productivity applications and client/server database and workflow messaging connections.

I signed up and expect to be playing with some of these as well down the road.

My Benchmarking Results?

Well, testing is still ongoing.  Unfortunately, working with all this memory and seeing the performance gains when going from 256MB to 1GB of system RAM got me hungry.

Thursday night as I was doing an all-night blogging session on our Vista laptop, the 1GB system memory and 2GB ReadyBoost USB drive I was using just seemed a bit, well, sluggish.  This was especially painful after seeing how Dad's Vista system was loving the 4GB system RAM we configured it with.

So I popped over to and downloaded/ran their memory advisor utility.

I was amazed to find that two 1GB sticks of RAM for the laptop (I needed to buy 2) to upgrade it to its paltry 2GB RAM system max was just $55.  I pulled out the credit card and placed my order in minutes.  The price had dropped considerably since the last time I checked.  So this week it should arrive and hopefully the Vista laptop will be a bit quicker.



OpenCD --> OpenDisc

A long time ago, in a land far, far away a battle took place.


OpenCD was a great little project that aimed to freely distribute great and popular free and open source (FOSS) software to the masses (who used Windows).

The ISO file image could be downloaded, burned to CD, and when inserted into a Windows pc, ran a beautiful auto-run menu to guide folks though the alternatives.

It was almost a Martin Luther kind of experience.

The last version came with applications that covered a number of software category needs:

This CD was quite popular around our shop for a while.

Unfortunately, events conspired to bring the OpenCD project to a grinding halt, probably not at all most critical was the departure of project lead Chris Gray.

OpenCD - Wikipedia


Fortunately for the masses of Windows software slaves, Chris wasn't happy just sitting around, he immediately sprang into action and has now released an new project that better fits his vision, OpenDisk. (Which still runs a pretty nice auto-run menu.)

OpenDisk comes in both Original Recipe and OpenEducationalDisk versions.

The OpenDisk contains the following categorized software installation files:

More detailed application descriptions here.

The OpenEducationalDisk version focuses on students 11+ and contains additional software applications (nearly 50 in total) of interest to them:

  • Office and Design:  Open Office, Dia, Scribus, GanttProject, FreeMind, PDF Creator, Sumatra PDF
  • Internet:  Firefox, Thunderbird, Pidgin, NVU, RSSOwl
  • Art and Graphics:  GIMP, GIMP animation, Inkscape, Blender, Tuxpaint
  • Multimedia:  VLC, Jashaka, Audacity, Infra Recorder
  • Science and Mathematics:  NASA Worldwind, GraphCalc, Celestia, Stellarium
  • Games:  TuxTyping 2, The Battle of Wesnoth, Winboard Chess, Qianhong
  • Utilities:  GTK+, 7zip, Abakt, Clamwin, HealthMonitor, Workrave
  • Advanced Internet:  Httrack, Tight VNC, Filezilla, Azureus

OpenDisc - Wikipedia

For more information on project developments, scuttlebutt, and general entertainment, check out Chris Gray’s Weblog.

WorkRave - Neat New Find!

Workrave - (freeware) - I saw this neat little program listed in the CD collections, but hadn't heard about it. So I checked it out.  It is pretty clever for over-focused keyboard surfers like myself (at work and at home).

This little utility pops up periodic reminders and timers to take micro-pauses, rest-breaks, and sets daily limits on computer usage (in a friendly way).

Screen shots

The settings for these events can be manually set and configured to adjust to your needs.

Have fun and spread the word!

Grab a hammer and some nails and burn some OpenDisc CD's and go find some doors...umm..on second thought... just hand them out in person to the masses instead.


Free PDF Readers (and then some)

What would a post about PDF printer drivers be without mentioning free PDF readers.

Having a PDF reader allows you to view a multitude of documents available on the web or from friends.

The Gorilla in the Market

Adobe Reader - (freeware) - I suppose I would be remiss by leaving out what is arguably the #1 most popular free PDF reader there is.  And it is from the folks whose name is synonymous with PDF's; Adobe.  While this application has a lot going for it, compatibility, freeness, and (with version 8) a much faster launch-speed, the 22.3 MB download package is one big cinder-block of an application to download and install, just to open and view a PDF file.

So, consider skipping that one and turning to one of several smaller, lighter, faster PDF readers.  Many have additional options that can make them very feature-rich.

Small, Fast and Nimble PFD Lemurs

Foxit Reader - (freeware) - This application remains my favorite PDF reader. I have it installed on all my home pc systems (and keep it handy at work).  It is just 2.1 MB in size, launches very fast, allows for annotations and markups on PDF's, captures and coverts text in a PDF for copy into other documents, and doesn't hit the Net unless you set it to search for updates.  And yes, it will Auto-update and install the updates seamlessly without the user having to manually download and unzip a new file.  Very Portable on USB sticks.

eXPert PDF Reader - (freeware) - Another popular PDF micro-reader. View, print, edit, and annotate your PDFs.  It has a very generous usage license which allows for not just home use, but also posting on corporate networks, distribution on CD's or other media, and pre-loading on OEM pc builds. Just under 8MB in download size, it is still much smaller and faster than Adobe Reader.

Cool PDF Reader - (freeware) - I like this one very much.  Not only is it just over 650 KB in size, it allows you to covert PDF files into BMP, JPG, GIF, PNG, WMF, EMS, and EPS formats.  Extract a PDF to text. Oh.  It also comes in three tasty flavors: Standalone (download, unzip and run the exe), Unified Installer (installer and exe file in one file), and a Standard Installer (wizard-based installation).  Very nice indeed!  Also known to be portable on USB sticks.

PDF-XChange Viewer - (freeware) - Like most, it also supports PDF markups, commenting, annotation and direct PDF in-document typing (regardless if Adobe forms were set up on the original). Exportation into several alternative file formats, text extraction, a full Javascript engine, and JPEG2000 compression support.  Not quite as small, the zip file is over 13MB (though the company reminds us that 5.5MB of that is for helpfiles and documentation).

Sumatra PDF viewer by Krzysztof Kowalczyk - (freeware) - If you just need a very tiny, and very simple PDF reader, this is what you have been searching for.  It doesn't do most of what all the other PDF readers do. It does open and allow PDF's to be viewed and printed.  Zoom, rotate, page forward, page backward, print.  That's about it. The two different installation files (take your pick zip or exe) are between 820 MB and 870 MB in size.

Additional Resources

Here are some extra tips for working with PDF files/applications:

Firefox and fixing PDF madness, + Bonus Firefox Links - (tips) - Grand Stream Dreams post - How To on setting one of these alternative PDF readers as the default PDF reader for Firefox.

PDFTK Builder and other PDF Resources - (freeware) - PDFTK Builder is a free graphical interface to the Windows version of PDFTK (included in the download, for more details see next item below) making it much easier to use.  Pretty nice utility for "advanced" work with PDF files: Collation (rearrange, delete, duplicate) pages in a PDF document, splitting of PDF's into several pages/files, backgrounding, rotation, and password protection.

pdftk - the pdf toolkit - (freeware) - "If PDF is electronic paper, then pdftk is an electronic staple-remover, hole-punch, binder, secret-decoder-ring, and X-Ray-glasses. Pdftk is a simple tool for doing everyday things with PDF documents. Keep one in the top drawer of your desktop and use it to:
    * Merge PDF Documents
    * Split PDF Pages into a New Document
    * Rotate PDF Pages or Documents
    * Decrypt Input as Necessary (Password Required)
    * Encrypt Output as Desired
    * Fill PDF Forms with FDF Data or XFDF Data and/or Flatten Forms
    * Apply a Background Watermark or a Foreground Stamp
    * Report on PDF Metrics such as Metadata, Bookmarks, and Page Labels
    * Update PDF Metadata
    * Attach Files to PDF Pages or the PDF Document
    * Unpack PDF Attachments
    * Burst a PDF Document into Single Pages
    * Uncompress and Re-Compress Page Streams
    * Repair Corrupted PDF (Where Possible)"
Runs on Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, FreeBSD and Solaris.

Adobe Reader SpeedUp - by Joseph Cox - (freeware) - "Adobe Reader SpeedUp is a simple application that was created to help make the loading time of Adobe's Acrobat/Reader software bearable for everyday use. AR SpeedUp only needs to be used once (a process taking only a few seconds) and then your 'Reader will be transformed forever. There are also some tweaking options available. "w00t!", as the young kids say." - Gotta love that!

DWTIPS » How to speed up PDF loading with Adobe Acrobat - (tip) - Make Adobe Reader a bit faster by following this tip to remove unneeded plugins.  Load times are increased quite nicely.

Tweaks: Speed up Adobe Reader 8 - (tip) - This post from Lifehacker recommends just a particular plugin to remove instead of the whole bag of cats Adobe Reader ships with.

Hope you find this useful!


Vista Tip: Install a PDF Printer Driver for Free

Dad didn't need a driver to allow him to produce PDF files so I didn't consider installing one at the time we set up his new Vista pc.

I, however, produce quite a lot of PDF documents at work, and use Adobe Acrobat Professional 8 to get the job done there.  There are a few twists, but basically what I do is create the document in my original application (Visio/Office/etc) then select Print --> Adobe PDF from the printer listings.

The Adobe PDF virtual printer driver then takes over and creates the PDF version that I "printed." Then I will open it in the full Adobe Acrobat software to do additional tweaking and document preferencing.

At home, I like to print documents I distribute to family and friends via PDF as well.  The files are much smaller and considerate of other user's bandwidth usages...and I don't usually have to worry if they have a compatible version of an office program to view them.

But I don't have $449 laying around to put a copy of Adobe Acrobat Professional on one of my home systems.

Use a Free PDF Printer Driver

While I was working on the Vista laptop the other day at the in-law's home, I had need to capture a web-page for an order I had placed.  Since we have never hooked up a printer to it (surprised?) I was left with using Vista's default XPS Document Writer to print/save the document.

It worked, but was VERY slow generating the output file and I wasn't impressed when it was all said-and-done.  And most people probably don't have a copy of the XPS Viewer installed on their system, but likely have Adobe Reader

So I added a free PDF printer driver instead...and it was fast and worked like a charm.

CutePDF Writer - (freeware for both personal and commercial use) - I went with this one on the Vista laptop.  It is highly rated by users, has a lot of options to tweak the output with before PDF format creation, and supports Vista (along with all the other Windows OS's. You do need to download both this application as well as a separate and free GPL Ghostscript 8.15 which is linked on the site.  Install that one first, then CutePDF and away you will go!

PDFCreator - (freeware for both personal and commercial use) - This is the application I have been using on my XP Home desktop system for a long, long time with beautiful results.  It supports encryption, sending of created files via emai, creation of output in additional formats (PNG, JPG, TIFF, BMP, PCX, PS, EPS), AutoSave of files to folders/filenames based on Tags, PDF file merging.

BullZip PDF Printer - (freeware for both personal and commercial use) - Another Vista-compatible pdf printer driver.  Also requires the separate Ghostscript download before installing the main program. Lots of features that make PDF creation a joy.

doPDF5.3 - (freeware for both personal and commercial use) - Another Vista-compatible pdf printer driver.  This one does not seem to require a Ghostscript download before installing the main program. Claims to have a new text compression algorithm to reduce the size of PDF files.  Not quite as many features as the others, but still worth considering.

PrimoPDF v3.2 - (freeware for personal use) - This application allows optimization of PDF outputs for screen (on-line) viewing, print, e-books, and pre-press. Like some of the others, it does support password encryption of the file, allows setting of document information to the PDF file, non-TrueType font support and the ability to merge/append PDF files upon conversion.

BTW, all of these support both the 32/64 bit flavors of Vista now.

Find one and install it, I promise at some point you will be glad you did!


Quick Virtual PC Tips: 3rd Edition

I wouldn't consider myself a Microsoft Virtual PC guru by any means.

I have been spending more time of late in it again, and continue to bookmark useful tips for working with VPC2007 as I expand my knowledge.

GSD Virtual PC Tips: Editions 1 and 2

Yesterday afternoon I spend a MAJOR block of time working to get Dad's imaged old system up and running in a virtual PC session.

It didn't turn out good, but I learned a lot more in the process....but more on that in a later post.

GSD Virtual PC Tips: Edition 3

So here are some new links, if you are interested:

Virtual Box

VirtualBox - (freeware) - is a relatively new addition to the long list of virtualization software that can run on Windows.

What I don't like about Virtual PC 2004/2007 is that it doesn't support USB devices/connections, printers, and quite-a-few Linux Live-CD builds (which seem to wig-out on the virtual video hardware).

What I do like about Virtual PC is that it doesn't install as "deep" into the host system (like VMPlayer) and is very stable with Windows OS's that I tend to use most often.

What I do like about VirtualBox is that it is very robust and does support USB controllers so you can attach portable USB devices (sticks/drives) to your system and get the virtual machine to recognize and access them.  The interface is nice and it has lots of wizards and helps.  You can also build a library of ISO files you often access so you can quickly switch between them.

I tried working on building a virtual pc image of Dad's old machine in both Virtual PC 2007 and VirtualBox.  Virtual PC seemed to boot the WinPE 2.0 image ISO I was using much faster and get to a desktop state quicker.  But while Virtual Box was a bit slower out of the gate getting to a desktop state, once there, it performed formatting and imagex reimaging duties dramatically faster than VirtualPC and was just as stable once up and running.

So, since it is free and has quite a few added features over Virtual PC, I'd recommend at least downloading and installing VirtualBox to play with alongside Virtual PC.  Besides the two virtual hard-drive formats not being compatible with each other (not that I expected them to be) I am really liking what I am seeing in this product!


Microsoft XP SP3: Betas, Bits, and Pieces

The other day, I posted a reference to a registry hack that allows you to access, download and apply the latest XP SP3 Beta version via Windows Updates.

Get XP SP3 (via a registry hack) and other MS miscellany

I can now say with certainty that this hack (as of right now) to obtain the BETA XP SP3 version does least on a Virtual PC build of XP.

Testing XP SP3

Not willing to risk my own XP "live" system, I loaded up the Internet Explorer Application Compatibility VPC Image in Virtual PC.

This free image is a time-limited build (expires in 12-2007) of XP Pro and works great for most of my software testing purposes at home and work.  Hopefully they will release a new dated version when this one approaches its end-of-life date.

I first ran Windows Update to bring the virtual system to current patching levels.

I confirmed in the Windows Properties that it was XP Pro, SP2. I then downloaded and applied the registry hack. I went back and ran the Windows Updates again, and lo-and-behold...there it was: "Windows XP Service Pack 3 (32-bit x86) Release Candidate 1" being offered.

I downloaded and installed it. Then rebooted. When I checked again Windows Properties showed it had been successfully updated to Service Pack 3 v.3244.

So far it has been running fine in/on the virtual machine XP version....only thing I ran into is that when I rebooted, Windows File Protection came up and notified me that key system files had been replaced and asked if I wanted to restore them. I responded  "no" and that has been all I've seen of that.

So far so stable.  According to the Exo-Blog team, performance on Windows XP SP3 Yields Performance Gains when benchmarked in comparison to XP SP2, though there appears to be a bit of discussion on this.

I really don't recommend anyone try putting this on their own live-and-stable XP system. But it has been an interesting exercise.

What Does XP SP3 Deliver?

After playing more with XP SP3 beta in VPC2007, I did some research to find out just what I was getting.

Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows has a light synopsis of current info on XP SP3:

According to this article it contains :

1.  A roll-up of previously released fixes and patches along with new enhancements.

2.  XP SP3 contains all the bits from XP SP1 and XP SP2 so you won't need to install those first (if for some reason you still haven't).

3.  Contains four (primary) new "features" to XP:

Windows XP Service Pack 3 will not include any major new features, but it will include four minor new features that improve the system's reliability and security. Contrary to reports, Microsoft has been very up-front about these functional additions for quite some time now.

These new features include:

Network Access Protection compatibility. Announced years ago, this feature allows Windows XP machines to interact with the NAP feature in Windows Server 2008. This functionality is built into the RTM version of Windows Vista as well.

Product Key-less install option. As with Windows Vista, new XP with SP3 installs can proceed without entering a product key during Setup.

Kernel Mode Cryptographics Module. A new kernel module that "encapsulates several different cryptographic algorithms," according to Microsoft.

"Black hole" router detection algorithm. XP gains the ability to ignore network routers that incorrectly drop certain kinds of network packets. This, too, is a feature of Windows Vista.

4.  IE7 and Windows Media Player 11 are included and some features are gone, for instance the taskbar-based Address Bar.

PC Magazine also has a good article which expands on the technical details noted above ass well as adds the following interesting information:

You'll also notice (if you look hard enough) new and clearer descriptions of some settings in the Control Panel Security Options applet, changes designed to help users avoid configuring system security incorrectly.


Proceed with Caution And what about compatibility? Devices running Windows Embedded or Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PCs will not be able to install SP3. Updates to those OS versions will be available later. And if you're running Windows XP Starter Edition, don't install SP3—you won't be able to log on. But Windows XP Media Center machines, of which there are thousands, raise the biggest concern. The SP3 beta stopped these PCs from receiving Media Center updates (this was certainly the case on my own PC) and often prevented connections to Media Center Extender devices, including the Extender for Xbox. These issues should be addressed by the time Microsoft releases SP3 (the company hasn't committed to a date; my guess would be early 2008), but keep checking PC Magazine for news about the problem being resolved. In particular, if you see a fully public beta download of SP3, check for compatibility before giving it a try.

Slipstreaming XP SP3 (Beta)?

I have no doubt that the final version of XP SP3 will be able to be slipstreamed with existing XP setup disks.  However I was curious what I could find out in the meantime.

I did some digging back on the now SP3'ed virtual pc drive and found SP3 files which were unpacked/expanded located under the following directories:

  • C:\Windows\Driver Cache\I386
  • C:\windows\ServicePackFiles\i386
  • C:\SoftwareDistribution\Download\(randomized number)

A copy of "sp3 cab" was also found in three locations.

However, these were not sufficient to allow a successful slipstreaming based on my attempts.

I could have downloaded the full file (windowsxp-kb936929-sp3-x86-enu.exe) had I chosen to locate it on a torrent site.  But since I wouldn't know immediately if that was the latest version of XP SP3 and Microsoft has been working hard to kill these links as they get posted, I have put the plans to make my own slipstream XP SP3 beta version on hold for now until the final "official" release comes out from Redmond.

Suffice it to say...others have done so and appear to have been successful with earlier versions.

HOW TO: create a bootable XP SP3 CD | APC Magazine

In the meantime, I may still poke around some more with the unpacked SP3 files I did manage to uncover....just to see if anything else interesting is in there.

Bonus Find: BBIE

I prefer to do my slipstreaming "manually" using Paul Thurrott's method.  I've used and mentioned other methods before here, but I just like the hands-on-approach Paul uses.

He (and I) have successfully been using Smart-Project's ISOBuster (freeware/$) for a long time to extract the boot-image file from the Microsoft Setup CD's.  It works great and is an awesome product.

I did find an oldie-but-goodie that works pretty well also, and is much, much smaller and targeted just for this purpose: BBIE - Bart's Boot Image Extractor

You might want to give this one a try as well.

In the meantime...I am now getting a bit excited for the XP SP3 final release.

I think I will enjoy adding this one to my systems....


Friday, November 23, 2007

Get XP SP3 (via a registry hack) and other MS miscellany

UT is getting pounded smacked down by the Aggies.

Dearest wife is telling me to start packing up for the trip home from "the sticks".

Alvis is tired of me hogging the laptop all day in the in-laws' family room.

Sounds like it is time for a quick linkfest:

Beta Service Packs, Get your hot Beta Service Packs....from a MS home-office escapee...

Hack Attack : Get Windows XP SP3 Through Windows Update - Don't know why anyone would want to do this since it is still in beta status...but if you you go. -spotted on Download Squad

Download Windows Vista SP1 with a registry hack - Download Squad - since we were on the subject.

From the "I didn't realize Vista could actually be helpful" home office:

Windows Vista Search and Preview Pane - Conrad Agramont's Blog - Great post that details all the wonderful features to be found in the Vista Search and Preview pane.  I didn't realize just how powerful this tool was!  Lots of quality screen-shots.

From the "Why get Vista Ultimate" home office:

DeskScapes 2.0 = DreamScene for the Vista masses - Josh's Windows Weblog - Windows Vista Ultimate really does have some great additional "power-user" features that Windows Home Premium doesn't have.  Sure, you can work around most of them with various freeware alternatives, but the biggest thing most home users would like get sold on would be the DreamScene eye-candy.  This basically allows your desktop wallpaper to run animations. Cool, but not worth the extra $ in my book.

Now Stardock has announced it will be releasing both free and $ versions of it's next DeskScapes software release.  This is pretty cool.

More via Long Zheng's blog: Stardock to announce DeskScapes 2.0 – animated desktop backgrounds no longer just a Vista Ultimate Extra

From the "How to Remove Useless Vista Stuff" home office:

Kristan Kenney: Confessions of a Windows Enthusiast : Hide "TV + Movies" in Windows Media Center 

"Don't have a TV tuner installed in your computer but still enjoy using Windows Media Center?  If so, there is a simple registry modification that you can make to disable the "TV + Movies" item in Media Center." 

From the "ERD Commander isn't dead after-all" home office:

Back before I got all wicked l33t with Linux Live CD's, BartPE disks, and now Win PE 2.0, the ERD Commander emergency disk we had in our shop was golden. We would fight over the right to carry it.  Now with all those other tools and Microsoft's assimilation of Sysinternals, I figured ERD Commander had gone the way of Nessie...often loved and remembered, but rarely seen.

I was wrong.

The Windows Experience Blog : Giving the Microsoft Diagnostic and Recovery Toolset (DaRT) a Try

[Give] the Microsoft Diagnostic and Recovery Toolset (DaRT) 6.0 - a try. DaRT is an excellent set of tools for IT Professionals to troubleshoot unresponsive PCs and removing viruses and malware off infected PCs in their environment. DaRT 6.0  also now has the ability for IT Professionals to conduct offline removal of malware and viruses from infected PCs.

The first thing I noticed when I started using DaRT is that it provides two options to the IT Professional: a way to analyze crash files from unresponsive PCs through the Crash Analysis Wizard, and a way to create a startup disc with the necessary tools in fixing an unresponsive PC that is unable to boot into Windows called ERD Commander.

Like I said, there are so many great freeware options available now for Windows system recovery, but I suppose there are some enterprise shops that would find this great to have.  For more information on DaRT follow this yellow-brick road: Windows Vista Enterprise: Microsoft Diagnostics and Recovery Toolset


From the "If you have to reinstall your Windows system...why stay with Windows?" home office:

Reinstall Windows and outfit your system with all freeware programs - via

Samer did a clean-install of Windows XP and provides a list of 53 fantastic freeware utilities and applications that handle most all daily-pc usage needs.

It is a great list and loaded with quality program descriptions and links.

I found a number of new programs worth adding to my systems.  Go take a look and snag some freeware of your own.

Game's almost over.

The 12th man appears to have been a deciding factor.

Time to pack and head home.

See you in the skies!


Important Things I Forgot: #2

Microsoft Vista continues to grow on me.  I really do like it, overall.

Performance on our Gateway MT6451 Notebook remains above acceptable, and that's with just 1GB system RAM (2x512MB) and a 2GB ReadyBoost USB stick.  I wish I could have a dual-display notebook, but it isn't convenient to carry and attach a 2nd LCD monitor to the laptop on a regular basis

Dad has twice mentioned on the phone that he is just overwhelmed with the performance and beauty-of-use of his new Vista system we set up last week.  He told me how he was bragging to his family relatives at their Thanksgiving-day feast about it.  Warms me-heart, it does.

Still, even-now, I find am still doing minor tweaks and adjustments to the system to get our Vista laptop where I want.

For Instance

I've been head-over-heels with the dock-utility Rocketdock.  It is rock-solid, performs fast, supports dual-monitors, has beautiful effects and graphics, and is a joy to use.

However with Vista it can be just a tiny pain-in-the-butt.

Some applications I would launch from it would error out completely.  Others would error, but continue to work.  I had been using an older version for some time, just because it seemed more stable on Vista

The last straws occurred last night.

First, I had downloaded the latest version of Notepad++. It installed fine but when launched from RocketDock, tossed a slew of errors before finally running without complaint.  That was weird as it worked fine before the upgrade.

I then downloaded and installed the latest version of RocketDock.  Still no changes in the issues.

Then I downloaded Nirsoft's fantastic utilities OpenedFilesView and MyUninstaller.

I had unpacked them both and ran them from my "standalones" utility folder. They worked great.  So I added them to my RocketDock toolbar.

Funny Thing  Example #1

When I launched them from RocketDock, the programs launched fine without errors.  However, they would not populate with data as expected and previously observed.


I knew they worked fine...what gives?

After a few minutes of trial and error I figured it out.

It appears that Vista will not run the programs launched under RocketDock with "administrator-level" permissions, which were required for them to populate and execute the data-gathering routines correctly.  If I launched them directly, Vista allowed them to work fine.

So now I had two options worth trying out:

  1. Modify the properties for each target executable file to Run as Administrator, or
  2. Modify RocketDock itself to run as Administrator.

I went with option 2 first, but that generated a new problem.

After I rebooted the system, it gave me a new warning message I hadn't seen before saying that RocketDock was being launched as "administrator" from the startup group entries, and had been disabled.  I could/can then choose to manually enable it to launch each time.  I hadn't heard of this alert message before and was a bit of a nuisance (but comforting from a system-security standpoint, I suppose....).

So I went back and modified the programs that were having issues off RocketDock and set them to run as Administrator according to this Microsoft bulletin: How to use User Account Control (UAC) in Windows Vista (KB922708)

To run a program as an administrator, follow these steps:

1.    Right-click the icon that you use to run the program, and then click Run as administrator.
2.    When you are prompted for an administrator password or for a confirmation, type the administrator password, or click Continue.

For some program icons, the Run as administrator option is not available on the shortcut menu. For these program icons, follow these steps:

1.    Right-click the icon that you use to run the program, and then click Properties. On the Shortcut tab, the Target box contains the location and the name of the program file.
2.    Open the folder that contains the program file.
3.    Right-click the program file, and then click Run as administrator. User Account Control permission If you are prompted for an administrator password or for a confirmation, type the password, or click Continue.

If you must run a program as an administrator, you may want to set up the program so that you automatically run it as an administrator. To do this, follow these steps:

1.    Right-click the icon that you use to run the program, and then click Properties.
2.    On the Compatibility tab, click to select the Run this program as an administrator check box, and then click OK.

The Compatibility tab is not available for some program icons. For these program icons, follow these steps:

1.    Right-click the icon that you use to run the program, and then click Properties. On the Shortcut tab, the Target box contains the location and the name of the program file.
2.    Open the folder that contains the program file.
3.    Right-click the program file, and then click Properties.
4.    On the Compatibility tab, click to select the Run this program as an administrator check box, and then click OK.

That seemed to have taken care of those issues. RocketDock runs fine and when certain applications that have had issues are launched, they run as administrator and work fine as well.  No errors.

Funny Thing #2

I had also wanted to make some setting changes to my slick Logitech LX7 Cordless Optical Mouse.  I kept clicking the icon in the system-tray to launch the SetPoint software but nothing would happen.  Neither from the Program list.  I downloaded and installed the latest software from Logitech.  Same thing.  Next I even tried running the installer exe file "run as administrator" but still it wouldn't run.

Finally I set the SetPoint.exe file in the Logitech Program Files folder to "run as administrator".

Rebooted.  Tried again.

Worked like a charm.

Lesson Learned with Vista

I find I also have to launch the CLI "run as administrator" in order to do a release/renew IP command as well.  I expect I will continue to uncover these little "security-gems" for a while to come.

At least now, as long as I remember these tips, (even though my Vista account profile has "administrator" level rights) I don't expect to have quite as much frustration.

So if you find a tried-and-true application just doesn't behave as expected under Vista, don't loose heart.  Try to elevate the program with "run as administrator" and see if that helps.  If it does, make the change permanent.


Build your Own: Firefox 3 (alpha/beta) Portable

Unless you have had too much turkey in your system, or been trapped in long-lines at the mall, you may have heard mention that Firefox has released a beta 1 version of Firefox 3.0.

This really isn't a build for the weak-of-heart.  While it is very usable, there are a lot of things that still don't-quite-work right yet.

So what do you do if you want to play with it, but are afraid it might corrupt or damage your Firefox 2.0 installation?

Make a portable/standalone version, of course!

Method 1 - Roll the latest Firefox 3.0 "Minefield/beta" nightly release!

This method is entirely CyberNet News's hard work.  If followed exactly, you will end up getting the most current "Minefield" version of Firefox 3.0.  This is actually going to be newer than the Beta 1 I would still consider it effectively alpha-level.

Just follow the steps and links Ryan outlines in his clearly-written post: Using Firefox Portable to Test Nightly Releases

  1. Download his custom ZIP file that includes the launcher and structure files.
  2. Extract the files to a "FirefoxPortable" folder which should be created in the unpacking process.
  3. Download the latest nightly (Minefield) trunk release.  Look for the .zip file version!
  4. Extract this file into a resulting "firefox" folder.
  5. Copy/Paste the "firefox" folder and sub-contents from step 4 into the \FirefoxPortable\App\ subfolder.
  6. Run the FirefoxPortable.exe file in the FirefoxPortable folder and away you go!


Method 2 - Roll the Firefox 3.0 Beta 1 release

This method is one I worked out which is based on Ryan's method and files from above.  However, if you don't want to play with the "Minefield" version, but do want to test the Firefox 3.0 Beta 1 version, you will have do do a few more steps in this method.

  1. Download Ryan's custom ZIP file that includes the launcher and structure files.
  2. Extract the files to a "FirefoxPortable" folder which should be created in the unpacking process.
  3. Download the Firefox 3 Beta 1 setup file.
  4. Download, install, and run the freeware application Universal Extractor to unpack the "Firefox Setup 3.0 Beta 1.exe" file into its components.
  5. Manually create a "firefox" folder in the "FirefoxPortable\App\" folder from step 2.
  6. Now open up the unpacked "Firefox Setup 3.0 Beta 1" folder which was created.
  7. You will see three sub-folders: "localized," "nonlocalized," and "optional".
  8. Open up the "nonlocalized" folder and copy ALL the files and folders into the "\FirefoxPortable\App\firefox\" folder you made.
  9. Open up the "Firefox Setup 3.0 Beta 1\optional\extensions\" sub-folder and copy the "" folder into the extensions folder now in your "\FirefoxPortable\App\firefox\extensions\" folder.
  10. Open the "Firefox Setup 3.0 Beta 1\localized" folder and copy all the files/folders in it into the "\FirefoxPortable\App\firefox\" folder.
  11. Run the "FirefoxPortable.exe" program in the FirefoxPortable folder.

Should work like a charm! Did on my Vista and XP systems at least...


If you want, on his page, Ryan shows you how to copy your Firefox profile into your portable build creation as well.  I have found that most Firefox 2.x Add-on/extensions don't work well in version 3.0.  You can get and use the Nightly Tester Tools extension to help force compatiblity and operation with some, but it doesn't work with all...Sage simply refuses to work, no doubt due to "Places" redesign.

I just prefer to "Export" my Firefox 2.0 version bookmarks to the desktop.  Then go back and "Import" them into the new Firefox 3.0 version.  That works good enough for testing/playing in Firefox 3.0 beta/nightly releases.

Finally, Ryan's portable-launcher makes use of a very clever trick to enable the portable version to run at the same time as the stable Firefox 2.0 version on your system and not conflict with each other!  This is really great for side-by-side testing and comparison of the two versions.


Free Vista Firewalls: And then there were five

Having an extended holiday is a blessing and a curse for a guy like me.

I have two extra days to chill out, visit with family, surf the web, tweak my own home pc systems, etc.

Of course, that often leads me to uncover additional subjects to blog about.  Currently I have about twelve post subjects now waiting in my Firefox bookmarks collection.  I hope to get through them all!

Yesterday morning we traveled to Lavie's parent's home in the country (a.k.a. "the sticks") and spent the night.  Luckily Pop has a DSL connection as well DishTV so we have the entertainment aspects down.  I dug out the D-Link router that we got him (and which he doesn't use) so I can run my laptop on his net-connection while keeping his system connected as well for Alvis to use.

Anyway, this week a fifth freeware firewall solution for Vista was released, thus leading me to this post and a change-out on my Vista firewall.

Free Vista Firewalls - New Release!

Comodo™ Firewall v3.0 - (freeware) - This week, Comodo released it's final version of it's leak-proof winning firewall product.  The new version is fully compatible now with Windows Vista in both its 32 and 64-bit OS flavors. Yummy!

I had been using the Microsoft firewall that ships with Vista until now.  Installation was a breeze and I selected the "Train with Safe Mode" for the firewall setting and the "Clean PC" for the Defense and Security Level setting. This HIPS system helps keep the system safe from malware and virus/trojan attempts to hijack a running system.  The whitelist of approved programs that ships with the application supposedly has nearly 1,000,000 items listed.  All executables are checked against the list to verify the are genuine before being allowed installation.  You can also manually add trusted software vendors.

The pop-up alerts are very helpful and informative. Once when a process appeared and was caught trying to access the net, I didn't have a clue what it was.  I clicked the link offered for the application and was able to view the properties and find that it was actually the Vista Media Center updater doing a network connection to look for updated catalog info.  It was amazingly simple to do this quick bit of research on the file via the Comodo interface.

I really like the updated user interface.  It is very nice and well organized. Navigation is simple and advanced views are easily accessed. On my Vista Home Premium system it is running with just over 3.5MB of RAM used.

I've been using it for two days now and still am finding new areas to optionally configure and tweak (because I can and want to, not because it is required).  It has been a long-time since I have had this much fun poking around a new firewall application and being happy to do so.

In the past, I did have an issue with how it and the AVG-Free email-plugin for Thunderbird worked...they didn't.  So I think I will uninstall the Kerio/Sunbelt firewall on my XP system and try this new Comodo version on it as well to see if that has been fixed. If so, I will probably leave the Kerio/Sunbelt firewall off and stick with the new Comodo version.

Also, it has been noted pretty clearly now that Comodo Firewall v3.0 isn't playing nice with the Avast! anti-virus application or some other A/V applications.  So you might want to be cautious.  I'm using AVG-Free with Comodo and haven't seen any performance issues at all, myself.

Comodo Firewall v3.0 -- Valca recommended!

Free Vista Firewalls - Four Others!

There are also four other quality freeware firewalls for Vista at the moment worth considering as well:

Webroot Software Desktop Firewall - (freeware) - This application offers "multiple layers of security include desktop firewall, port manager, URL filter, process monitor, and application/system anomaly detection."  Review and screenshots via CyberNet News post.

PC Tools Firewall Plus Firewall - (freeware) - This firewall that is Vista compatible has a very simple interface, but allows for more complex rule setting. Review and screenshots via CyberNet News post.

ZoneAlarm by CheckPoint - (freeware) - ZoneAlarm was my perennial free Windows firewall selection for years and years.  Then it became a bit buggy and bloated in my opinion. So I left it behind for Kerio/Sunbelt.  However, I understand this new version which is Vista-compatible has been cleaned up considerably from previous versions. ZA remains a strong contender in the free consumer software-based firewall market.

Microsoft Vista Firewall - This default firewall that ships with Vista is clearly better than nothing-at-all. It has been improved in many regards from the XP firewall.  However, unless you are are willing to do lots of technical work with "profile configurations", it really just functions as an inward-blocking firewall only.  I did find this nice SANS whitepaper (PDF) on the Vista firewall.

The Vista firewall provides simple and effective protection and clearly is not intended to be a single security solution.  It’s cost effective as being distributed as part of the OS and offers a sense of purity in what it does.  Combined with other facilities such as anti-virus and patch management, it can still be thought of as that 3rd piece of an overall PC protection posture.  On the down side, trouble shooting can be difficult due to limitations in logging.  This would include the ability to control what is put in the logfile and Microsoft’s choice to only record events involving ports that are listening.   The Domain Aware feature, while extremely useful, is inflexible in its ability to decide which adapters are involved with authentication.  Like most other 3rd party firewalls, it offers no protection against programs or facilities that can be installed in such a way that network traffic can be processed before it has a chanced to be examined by the firewall.  Overall there are no features or characteristics that would prevent an organization from adopting the Vista firewall.  With organizations eventually migrating to Vista and those that already support Active Directory and Global Policy, this may provide the perfect solution.

Still waiting on Sunbelt's Vista version

And meanwhile...we still wait patiently for Sunbelt to release a Vista-compatible version of their Sunbelt Personal Firewall.  This remains a shame as quality freeware firewalls choices for Vista are continuing to appear and providing Kerio fans the chance to try and use them in the meantime.  If they aren't careful, they may get behind in the race.

I sincerely hope that Sunbelt's delay is due to the hard-work and efforts in preparing to deliver a updated application that will perform awesomely and be a major evolution in the features and interface they ship to their faithful.

Whatever application you decide to go with, there are too many strong and quality choices to not use one to keep your Vista system secure and safe.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Important Things I Forgot: #1

Thought I would start keeping a running list of stupid things that I find myself forgetting.

The Problem

In my last post I mentioned that I took an ImageX image of Dad's old system's hard drive.  I still have yet to set it up in a virtual machine as I planned, but I didn't mention the hours it took to capture it.

I had my Win PE 2.0 boot disk with ImageX loaded.

I was using my 3G 40GB iPod connected via USB (1.0) to the system.

So far, so good...right?

The total drive capacity on his old system was about 20GB.  Of that he probably had about 10-13GB in use with files.  I have over 30GB free on the iPod.

So the first time I did the ImageX capture of his C: it failed after about 3-4 hours at 76% saying the drive was full.

I checked and there was tons of space on the iPod.


So I deleted some odd files off the C: that were not needed and tried again.

After about 3-4 hours (blame it on USB 1.0) it failed at about 85%, again reporting the disk was full.

I checked and there was still tons of space on the iPod.


So I cleaned more files off.  This time (overnight) it got to 96% completed before failing, again reporting the disk was full.

Now I was getting irked.  I've gotten quite good at work capturing images from multiple systems for deployments and never ran into this issue.  What gives?

I had lost all the time I had budgeted to do the virtual image setup now.  All I had left was time for one more capture attempt before Alvis and I had to return home from Tyler.

So this time I got really aggressive with the system cleaning and file cleanup.  I uninstalled quite a number of unneeded applications from the old system, deleted downloaded installation files, cleaned out all the user's temp folders located in their profiles, deleted all the profile's cache files for IE and Firefox, and then a few more things.  I managed to seriously remove some extra-fileage from the system.

This time I finally got a 100% capture of the image with no errors.

Strange.  Still had tons of space on the iPod when done.  The image file came in at about 3.6 GB.

The Solution

It came to me Monday morning in the shower as I was getting ready for work (go figure, I have no idea why it usually works out that way).

It was actually pretty simple.

See, I had forgotten my iPod is formatted FAT32.

That means that the maximum single-file size is 4 GiB minus 1 Byte (232−1 bytes).

The image I was capturing kept hitting that limit, causing the ImageX file capture to error out saying the disk was out of space.


Had I been capturing the image to an NTFS formatted drive, it never would have happened.  By my successive attempts at cleaning Dad's drive of extra files, I ended up reducing the image size enough to drop below the 4GB limit.

Could I have reformatted the iPod drive to NTFS?

Yes, but it would no longer work as an iPod: Apple Help: iPod no longer plays music after formatting or partitioning the hard disk

iPod only works (as a music player) when its hard disk is formatted for the appropriate platform using the Mac OS Extended (HFS Plus) or FAT32 formats. Do not reformat the disk using Mac OS Standard (HFS), New Technology File System (NTFS), or UNIX File System (UFS) formats.

Looks like I need to invest in a nice portable USB hard-drive and format the drive as NTFS just for imaging captures.

Bonus...ImageX (Re)-Deployment

So how do I plan to get the image onto Dad's Virtual PC virtual hard drive?

I've been playing with various scenarios, but I think I will go easy.  I plan on making a fresh Win PE2.0 boot disk, and besides copying ImageX onto it, I will also add-on the .wim file image I captured.  Then I will create the ISO file with it all bundled together.

That way I just have to boot the virtual drive/system with the boot-ISO file I made, and simply apply the image contained in the ISO file to the drive.

I've done this at work for some of our system deployment images quite successfully.  It does require use of a DVD instead of CD-R due to the .wim image size, but otherwise works quite nicely.  Since I will be doing it all virtually (in Dad's case), the ISO file is all I need and I won't need to actually burn it to a physical DVD.

At work, I still prefer to use and image/deploy using WinPE 2.0 boot disk and a portable USB 2.0 drive for its speed and flexibility (over CD/DVD media), but despite the slower transfer rates from optical-media (versus USB 2.0 hard-drive), it presents a nice and flexible solution and allows team-members to make multiple copies of the image-deployment disk.

Happy Turkey-Day!


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Vista/XP Quick Screen Resolution Toggle Tip

...and then some....


Just got back in from a weekend jaunt up to Tyler.

About a month or so ago, I finally shamed Dad into buying a new pc system..the rest as they say, is history.

The PC

His XP system had been upgraded from ME, was running short on RAM, and had a dinky processor. Additionally, Windows Update and IE had become somewhat corrupted and despite my attempts at repairs...I had only managed to keep it working and secure, but not fixed. Next up would be an entire system reinstall from a bare disk.

So after a bit of email correspondence, I remote-controlled Dad's PC with him and we ended up ordering him a custom-built HP Pavilion a6000-series pc.

Since he plans to pick-up digital photo-editing as a hobby once he starts his 2nd retirement, I wanted to make sure it had enough beef to handle Photoshop or other such editing software.

We ended up with an AMD Athlon 2.6 GHz dual-core processor, 4GB of RAM, integrated sound and video, a 400GB HDD, and a multi flash-card reader. Oh, I foisted Vista Home Premium on him as well. He had already purchased a LG 19" flatscreen monitor that was pretty nice.

Preparation, Data-Transfer, and Tweaking

The unboxing and initial setup went very smoothly. I had a few nuisance applications and helper utilities to uninstall and remove from the autoruns, but not much. That was a very pleasant surprise. I could have used this helpful Windows Vista Migration Step-by-Step Guide which suggests both the Windows User State Migration Tool (USMT) as well as the Easy Transfer wizard. Or I could have tried out this new freeware tool: ForensiT - User Profile Transfer Wizard which I recently stumbled upon.

However, being a bit more experienced and knowing their files were scattered across the PC, I just used my 3G iPod as a USB drive and copied their personal files, email (Outlook) files, IE favorites/cookies, etc. over to it. Then once I had gotten their profiles set up on the Vista machine, I just copied their user files and fonts over and was done in pretty short order. I also went ahead and used TweakUAC to suppress the UAC elevation prompt requests...knowing that failing to do this would likely generate some remote-support calls from Tyler.

I left the default Windows Vista Firewall running in place. I am still waiting for Sunbelt or Comodo to release a final Vista version of their firewall even though I know there are other freeware Vista firewalls (ZoneAlarm, Webroot, PCTools and beta Vista Comodo firewall) out.

I set the Auto-Updates to download and install, set Windows Defender to run a daily scan, and finally, installed Grisoft AVG Free v7.5 and configured it as well.

Dad only wanted Microsoft Office 2003 Pro installed, which was an upgrade from MS Office XP they had been using. Easy enough to do. I got both their Outlook accounts and PAB/PST/Contacts brought over and working in short order as well. I also installed Mozilla Firefox for my own usage, they prefer IE7 which is fine I suppose, but I did turn on the phishing tool in it.

One of the things that irritates me about Vista is the size of the shortcut arrow on the icons. There are numerous Vista Tweaking Tools available, but I wanted a fast and easy solution. So I just went with the freeware utility Windows Vista Shortcut Overlay Remover (aka FxVisor). I downloaded it, installed it, ran it, and set the "light arrow" option. (I could have also gone with a custom arrow icon or none at all.) I logged off, and back on. Done.

Since Dad's wife isn't a techie, I ended up switching her profile to use a custom "Classic/XP" theme. Dad liked the new Vista theme. No problems so far.

It was running very fast and Dad and his wife were amazed at the difference. Everyone seemed happy.

Then a little issue came up.

The Screen Resolution Problem

Yes, the dreaded "screen resolution problem" reared its head quickly, and threatened to sabotage all my hard work and sink the beauty, grace and style of this quite-nice system.

See, Dad's wife likes to run the monitor at a 800x600 or 1024x768 display resolution.

When Dad got the new flatscreen he had it set to the max of 1280 x 1024 and was amazed at how sharp the display was comparatively to the lower resolutions he was used to using and just how much more useful the enhanced screen size was. Unfortunately that was way to "small" to please his wife who just wants to be able to read the email and web-texts very large. So he just went with what she wanted.

Lavie and I are lucky to both enjoy the best detailed screen resolutions so we don't have that issue and marital bliss still reigns in the Valca home.

I had hoped that Vista would allow me to set a different display resolution for both profiles, but alas, soon found out that didn't work.

What to do?

Well...the way I saw it,

  1. Dad could cope.

  2. Dad could manually go into the display properties and after several clicks deep, make the change to his preferred resolution, then go back before he logged off and fix the resolution back, or

  3. Have a brilliant son (me) come up with an easy and elegant solution...for free!

I figured I better go with number 3 since he treated me that night to an awesome super-sized Applebee's hamburger for dinner and chocolate mousse cups for dessert. So I mulled the problem over as I went to bed that night.

The Solution (XP/Vista)

I don't know any "native-to-Vista" way to allow different profiles to log in and automatically maintain different screen display resolutions. I did find some $ apps that claimed they could do this, but I am cheap and wanted something VERY easy with no configurations; just an easy way to toggle and switch between two different screen resolution settings for the display.

I had a hunch that night while chewing this over I could make a batch-file and maybe automate a registry setting change, but ended up with a slightly different fix.

I located a freeware utility ResSwitch & ResCopy v1.22 which works great on both XP and Vista. It is a command-line application that allows changes to be made on the screen depth and resolution. It is a miniscule-sized application (6K) and doesn't require installation.

  1. I just downloaded the zip file, and unpacked it into a shared "Public" folder.

  2. Next I made two shortcuts to the program and placed them on Dad's desktop.

  3. Then I edited the icon properies for each one as follows.

  4. For the first one I edited the target line of the icon's properties to read (after the path section) "ResSwitch.exe 800 600 32 60" then saved it. I then named it "Set M's display size".

  5. For the second one I edited the target line of the icon's properties to read (after the path section) "ResSwitch.exe 1280 1024 32 60" then saved it. I then named it "Set Dad's display size".

The first two numbers after the exe are for the display resolution values, the third number is the color-bit level (8, 24, 32), and the last is the refresh rate which I got from looking at the advanced display properties to see what the system was already using. That's it!

I clicked on M's and it instantly resized the display to 800x600 with no prompts or extra dialogs.

I clicked on Dad's and it instantly resized the display to 1280x1024 with no prompts or extra dialogs.

Now Dad just needs to click his icon to instantly set his display, then click M's when he is done and before he logs off.

On the drive home from Tyler to Houston, it struck me I probably could have made it even more simpler. Had I copied that shortcut into her "Startup" folder and Dad's into his "Startup" folder, it would have launched automatically when they logged in to their own profiles. But alas, I didn't do that.

Similar Alternatives

I was so pleased with ResSwitch that I didn't consider any other tools. But I later found some very similar ones when I did a bit more research upon getting home.

Resolution Changer (ResChange) - (freeware). Very similar but has a bit more command-line detail to use. See this post: ResChange 3.11 « Inspect My Gadget blog for an explanation of it in action.

Multires - (freeware for personal use) - Another similar program, but allows for system-tray icon settings as well as scripting-support.

Additional blog posts I found on this technique were:

The Aftermath

I also took an ImageX image of Dad's old-system's hard-drive and dropped the resulting WIM file onto his new pc.

We are going to secure-wipe his old-drive next-time I visit, until then it will be stored safely just-in-case I missed some data. Then they can donate it to their church.

However, with the ImageX image of his drive, I am going to load MS Virtual PC 2007 on his system, create a virtual drive, then put the image of his old drive into that virtual drive. My thought is with a 2.6 GHz processor, 4GB RAM and a 400GB drive, he has the muscle and space to run it. Then if we find he needs to use a program that wasn't reinstalled, or grab data that we missed, we can quickly and easily access it, right at hand. But that's a project setup for another day in Tyler.

(His new system uses SATA drives/connections and his old one is a ATA so I didn't have the time or patience to find/order the adapters or external drive enclosure to hook it up as a 2nd system drive...besides it sounded like a fun project to attempt.)

Until then, Dad and his wife are happy and blazing away on their new PC at warp-speed and I expect to have fewer troubleshooting calls for some time to come.

Mission accomplished!


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Four Small and Sweet Software Apps

I've had very good luck this week in my freeware software trawling.

Sometimes I might find just one worthy software application and other times I hit a feeding-frenzy.

Here are four small and sweet freeware applications.  All can run "portably" off a USB stick or from a local folder without requiring "installation" on the system.

MyLastSearch - (freeware) - This new NirSoft utility scans the cache and history files of your Web browser, and locate all search queries that you made with the most popular search engines (Google, Yahoo and MSN). The search queries that you made are displayed in a table with the following columns: Search Text, Search Engine, Search Time, Web Browser, and the search URL. You can select one or more search queries and then copy them to the clipboard or save them into text/html/xml file.

As a system administrator, this is a nice tool to run when checking a user's system to ascertain certain web-searching activity.  It could also be helpful for parents and spouses.

Of course, if the history and cache has been cleared/deleted, then it won't be of much use...but I find most users are sloppier than we give them credit for...fortunately for computer forensic experts and system administrators...

OpenedFilesView - (freeware) - While this NirSoft utility is not new, it has been recently updated. It quickly will list all opened files running on your system. Detailed information included in results view include: handle value, read/write/delete access, file position, the process that opened the file, and more...  Once identified, it allows you to close one or more opened files, or close the process that opened these files. Really handy if you are attempting to delete/move/open a file and you get a "cannot delete" system error. 

Runs on Windows 2000/XP/2003/Vista (32-bit only !). Requires administrative privilege to run.  The latest version has these new options:

  • New option: 'Enable Explorer Context Menu' - Allows you to launch OpenedFilesView utility directly from Explorer window, and display only the file handles of specific file or folder.
  • New command-line option: /filefilter - Run OpenedFilesView with a file filter - display only the file handles of the file or folder that you specify.
  • The configuration of OpenedFilesView is now saved to a file instead of the Registry.

I find it an excellent companion utility to Microsoft Sysinternal's Process Explorer and Process Monitor utilities.

Q10 - (freeware) - This amazing little full-screen simple word-processor is cheeky-cute.  It contains the following features: Full-screen only typing, Live text statistics, Programmable page count formula, Customizable look and paragraph format, Portable, Timer alarm, Spell checker, Note support, Target count, Partial counts, Autocorrections and quick text, Standard and clean text format, Encoding and line endings agnostic, Typing sound effects ,Small, fast and stable, Autosaving, and Free.

I found it really fun to use and Alvis likes the word-counting feature for her school paper writing.

Download, install, run and hit "F1" once running to get the options menu up.

Jarte - (freeware) - this free, tabbed micro word-processing tool is based on Microsoft's WordPad engine.  However it brings an Apple-like skin, tabbed document support, and a simple interface to bear. It is portable and pleasant to use.

Some of the many features include:

  • Tabbed document windows for easy access to your open documents
  • Larger buttons for the most commonly used functions
  • Instant dictionary and thesaurus word lookup (integrates with free WordWeb)
  • Spell check and text search tools that do not park themselves on top of the text you are trying to edit
  • Single click bookmarking that make bookmarks both useful and usable
  • Instant access to the documents and folders you designate as your favorites
  • Instant access to the fonts you designate as your favorites
  • Use of the mouse scroll wheel button to copy and paste text

Sometimes you don't need a full-sized word processor like MS Word or Open Office Writer to make a grocery list or short essay/report.  In these cases, this just might be what you are looking for.



Secure Disk-wiping Software

Many years ago when we were upgrading desktop computers, data-security on the outgoing hard-drives seemed a really low priority.

Out with the old and in with the new.

We were dealing with thousands of systems and we had a handful of staff.  For quite a while the policy was to do a format and fdisk on the drive.  Then we would place an electromagnetic over the drive or side of the case nearest the drive and wave it around for a minute or two.

Job done.

Only one day I decided see just how effective the technique was. We tried the electromagnetic bulk eraser on a system right off the desk (not yet formatted/fdisked) and found that it didn't matter if was held on the side of the case or directly over the hard-drive.  The system shrugged off the attempts and was fully bootable/readable.

Then we demonstrated that common freeware data-recovery software could easily view the data still on the formatted/fdisked drive.

Time to change the policy.

Today our policy is to do a 3-pass D.O.D. grade secure data wipe on all hard-drives that are either leaving our ownership or that are being reassigned to a new user.

Corporate and home users both need to be aware that data can be recovered off of drives.  Before they dispose/donate them, it is important to either pull and keep the drives or perform a secure data-wipe process on them.  With very few exceptions (usually reserved for only the newest drives and systems) effective disk-wiping can be a time-consuming experience. If that's a concern, just pull and keep the drive, or take a sledge-hammer to the platters.

Here are just a few of the best freeware products I know of to address these needs. I now carry all of these wipe-disks (in both a floppy and CD format) with me at work and home so I am ready to address just about any hardware configuration I am presented with for secure drive wiping

The List

For the longest time we used Darik's Boot and Nuke (Hard Drive Disk Wipe) disk.  This old-standby (also known as DBAN) allows for creation of a boot floppy or boot CD.  It supports SCSI, IDE, PATA, and SATA disks and should be able to wipe just about any file-system from a drive.  You can use one of five preset wipe formats or set custom wipe patterns.

Lately, I've noticed it tends to run much slower on some of our latest laptop systems and has been having trouble when USB keyboards/mice are used instead of PS2 connectors.

A new application I have just come to start using is Terabyte Unlimited's - CopyWipe.  While it can also do direct disk-to-disk copy work, I've found it a great tool in securely wiping newer systems.  It seems to handle newer hardware very well and works with USB keyboard/mice configurations.  Download the zip file and unpack.  You can then run the makedisk.exe file to create a boot floppy or boot CD ISO file.  Burn it to disk and you are good to go.  This application provides support for accessing the connected drive via (through) the BIOS, via the BIOS (directly), via USB2 connections,  and for IEEE1394 devices.  You then have an amazing nine (9) wipe options to pick from.  From a quick 1-pass wipe, up to a 35-pass wipe.  Also included is a hardware-based wipe method for drives that support this built-in drive-wipe feature.

Third-up is the Center for Magnetic Recording Research (CMRR)'s Secure Erase (aka HDDErase) .  There are some really interesting items here.  I really encourage anyone wanting more details on this area to read their whitepaper Disk Drive Secure Erase for User Data.  It discusses the issues and liabilities related to data security and destruction. CMRR Secure Erase Protocols also discusses some of these in more detail.  Definitely stuff for data-heads. You will have to create a boot-disk yourself then add the program file to it, or else download the Ultimate Boot CD ISO file and burn it to disk as it contains this utility (and tons of other clever things as well).  One thing going for Secure Erase is that it also supports "enhanced secure erase" modes on supported drives.  This works to effectively render the data on a drive inaccessible in seconds by changing the in-drive encryption key.  Even though the data is still on the drive, it cannot be read/accessed as the key that interprets that data from the drive has be irrevocably changed.

The last secure-wipe tool I have been using is CONVAR & PCinspector's e-maxx.  Download the installer or choose the pre-rolled ISO file and burn to disk.  It isn't very glamorous but it does the trick.

The latest Ultimate Boot CD ISO (v4.1.1) actually contains fully loadable versions of Darik's Boot and Nuke v1.0.7, CopyWipe v1.14, e-maxx v0.95, HDDErase v3.1, and the free version (4.1) of the Active@ Kill Disk Hard Drive Eraser application.

That's like five great wiping tools all on one CD.

I am also aware of Microsoft's DiskPart command-line utility (XP/Vista) that can be run with the "clean" argument.  Handy if you just have a Windows PE 2.0 or Bart PE boot disk laying around.


Removes any and all partition or volume formatting from the disk with focus. On master boot record (MBR) disks, only the MBR partitioning information and hidden sector information are overwritten. On GUID Partition Table (GPT) disks, the GPT partitioning information, including the Protective MBR, is overwritten. There is no hidden sector information.

clean [all]

all : Specifies that each and every sector on the disk is zeroed, which completely deletes all data contained on the disk.

For more on this, check out this post, specifically section 4: A geeks guide for building and deploy the perfect Vista image.  That section contains a nice list of how to clean a drive and reformat it using diskpart.

Regardless of the method you choose, just use all this scrubbing-bubbles power carefully.  Once executed, these tools will make all the data on a drive effectively disappear and become unrecoverable...probably even for the best recovery experts and techniques commercially and secretly known (or not).


Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Key is...

I've been doing quite a bit of work in the IT shop on system imaging.

We use volume key's for our Microsoft Office and XP/2000 systems.  So I don't usually have a real need to audit and recover these things before I create a image for deployment, or re-image a system.

However, when working on home systems for friends and family, I always try to capture the system OS key and any other software installation keys I might be able to grab before doing any serious work.

Nothing is a bigger bummer than having to reinstall an OS and then turn to the user and ask for their software key and get a blank look from them.

Despite the wealth of such programs now available on the web, there are a few main (freeware) utilities I use to recover Windows system keys.

All are tiny, portable and effective.  Take your pick.

Be aware, however, that some anti-malware/anti-virus applications may tag them as hostile applications...since they can be used to recover potentially "secret" information from a system.

The Best Key Finders

Magical Jelly Bean Keyfinder v1.5 - (freeware) - It works on Windows 95, 98, ME, NT4, 2000, XP, Server 2003, Windows Vista, Office 97, Office XP, and Office 2003.

Magical Jelly bean Keyfinder v2.0 Beta 3 -(freeware) - It works on Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000, XP, Server 2003, Windows Vista, Office XP, Office 2003, and Office 2007.

ProduKey - Nirsoft - (freeware) - It works on Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000, XP, Server 2003, Windows Vista, Office XP, Office 2003, and Office 2007.

RockXP 4.0 - (freeware) - A longtime favorite of mine. Provides information on Microsoft Applications and Operating System product keys, Internet (dialup) connection password, Passport/MSN password, NT password Hashes, Protected storage passwords.

Honorable Mentions

Here are some other key-finder programs.  I haven't used these as much, but they do a pretty good job as well:

RJL Software Windows Product Key Viewer - (freeware) - Works with all Windows operating systems (95, 98, ME, NT, 2000, 2003, XP, Vista), 32-bit and 64-bit.  Displays the full Windows version, service packs, product id, installation date and time, registered user, VMWare, organization and the current Windows uptime.

JalapeƱo Keyfinder (formerly Keyfinder Thing) - (freeware/$) - the "demo" version is actually a full-featured application that scans and displays any of about 80 software titles. The $ version supports over 170 titles.

Keys and then some...

These three applications can provide application and system-key information.  Additionally, they can provide a wealth of other hardware/software/driver/settings information about your system.

I find them useful to run when I am assessing a system for the first time.

WinAudit v2.26 - Free Computer Audit Software - (freeware) - great and fast program to inventory a system (hardware, network settings, security, configurations, licenses, etc.

SIW | System Information for Windows - (freeware) - Probably my all-time-favorite program in this class of applications. Wicked-fast and deeply helpful. Provides detailed information on software, hardware, network, tools, as well as some real-time monitoring functions. Supported platforms include: Microsoft Windows 98/Me/NT4/2000/XP/Server 2003/Media Center/Tablet PC/Windows 2003 Server R2/Windows Server 2003 x64/Windows XP x64/Windows Vista/ Windows Vista x64 / Windows Server 2008 / WinRE / Bart PE / Winternals ERD Commander

Belarc Advisor - Free Personal PC Audit - (freeware-personal use only) - Really popular and reliable system auditing tool.  It locates and displays a profile of your system including installed software and hardware, missing Microsoft hotfixes, anti-virus status, CIS (Center for Internet Security) benchmarks.

Just don't be a bone-head and like some noobies, post your keys or audit findings on the web or in a public-web-accessible location.  Protect your software keys like your passwords.