Saturday, February 6, 2010

GADGETS: My guide to Windows 7

In December of 2008, the time had come for me to upgrade my computer. My previous machine, an Alienware Aurora, was the first computer I ever bought. Before that, I had only ever built them myself out of components. When I got that one, I had a spiffy job, with comparatively low expenses and high disposable income. I got it specifically to blow away the system requirements of Half-Life 2, and it did so admirably. But time marches on, and when you add up the 2-3 years since I built the computer before that, and the 5-6 years the Aurora continued to kick ass, I had been out of the computer manufacturing business for almost a decade. Thus, a little over a year ago, I felt it was high time I jumped back in.

I consulted with my friend Tadd, who is an incredible PC resource, and got a ton of advice from him. About the only piece of advice of his I didn't take was not to get dual video cards. I was excited to have a cutting edge machine, and I was way too attached to the dual video card thing to accept his advice, so I went with a pair of ATI 4800 series cards. Beautiful card I got, too. I don't remember the manufacturer, but they didn't do that thing most ATI cards do: encase the heat sink in plastic. I get that they want to focus airflow across it in a certain way, but essentially all they're doing is building a little box to store dust. I also picked up one of the new Intel i7 series chips, the Nehalem, I think it was called. Something wierd like that. 2.67 gigs of quad core power. This computer, even a year later, is still a beast. And now, that Win7 is out there, it actually has a chance of using the other 3 cores that XP never really tapped.

And this was my long term plan when I built the machine. Knowing Win7 was on the horizon, I figured buying a quad core that XP couldn't use would basically be getting myself a brand new computer in a year when the new OS hit the market. I felt it was a sensible investment, especially since the march of CPU speed increases has slowed down in the past couple of years.

Now Win7 has been out for a few months, long enough for me to get past the Is-it-Vista? stage. A few of my friends got it running on their machines, and they love it. So I decided this week that I was ready. I went out, picked up a new external drive to back everything up, and got a copy of the Home Premium Upgrade. At first the guy at Best Buy didn't think I could use the upgrade, he thought I had to buy a full version. He was wrong. The issue is that there's no direct upgrade path from XP to 7. This is Microsoft being a jerk to people who (wisely or luckily) avoided jumping on the grenade of Vista, nothing more. So, you have to do like three more steps to install it and follow the directions on a card they include in the box. Really, they're shooting themselves in the foot, because probably most people who had to upgrade from XP to 7 needed to call tech support.

Myself included.

Having backed everything up, I went into BIOS to change my boot device priority (here is where most XP users trying to upgrade would begin to have problems and call Tech Support... STEP 1 of the process.) from HDD to optical drive. I've been fiddling with BIOS since the late 80s, so not a big deal. Boom, the system boots from the DVD, and I use the custom install button. I delete my partition and create a new one (Goodbye old data!). And click for it to install. I starts cooking. In like 10 minutes, it says it's finished, and just needs to restart. I will say this: a fresh install of Win7 is FAST. So it restarts, almost makes it to an operating system, and then my screen goes black.

I've done the whole upgrade your Microsoft Operating System dance before. At one of my previous jobs, I made the horrible mistake of trusting Microsoft and upgrading all of my work computers to WinME. It took me two days to get those machines back to 98 so that our office network would function again.

So, I didn't panic. I figured it was just a hiccup, and I decided to just start over, since everything was so fast from start to the point where it stopped working. And I duplicated results. In troubleshooting, being able to duplicate an issue is a good thing. It means there's definitely a cause that you can isolate. However, as there are an extremely limited number of options in the Win7 setup, there wasn't really anything I could be doing wrong. Fearful of it being a hardware incompatibility issue, I knew I had to resort to the Tech Support phone number.

Guess what! After almost three hours on the phone with tech support, we worked out that it was... Wait for it... My Crossfire video card setup had returned to bite me in the ass. Although there is a Win7 Catalyst driver, the Win7 setup has no idea what to do with dual video cards, so it responds, quite naturally, by crapping the bed. Now, for those of you out there waiting to upgrade from XP to 7, with multiple linked video cards, this is what you need to know: After the restart fails, if you restart again, and bypass the DVD, it will go to a BOOTMGR screen, asking you if you want to try to load Windows 7 or an "Earlier Version of Windows", which... Well, I never tried, but I'm pretty sure I had nuked that earlier version when I deleted my partition. I'm pretty sure that option wouldn't have done anything. (Anyone remember ABORT, RETRY, FAIL?) Regardless, neither of those options is correct. Instead, you need to hit F8. Yeah, I think it says somewhere on the screen that you can hit F8 for more options, but it's not super obvious. Then you need to select "Low Resolution (640x480) Mode". It'll disable one of your video cards and load up with a bare bones driver, and the first thing Win7 will do is connect to the internet, download the latest driver, and spasm in a terrifying manner for a few moments while it figures out the score. Then, all of the sudden, your one working monitor will black out, and both will come back on, and after a few seconds of panic, you will be able to fiddle with the extended desktop and monitor layout options, like you used to.

Took almost three hours for the tech guy to help me figure that out. Good thing MS outsourced that job... Otherwise, the tech guy's hourly salary would have cost more than the copy of Win7 that I bought. Oh, or they could have just made a direct upgrade path from XP to Win7. Probably would have saved them money to be cool. Good job, MS! Spend a ton of cash on being jerks!

The good news is, once I spent an afternoon sorting out my installation, the OS is great. It's fast, has some neat features, and I'm sure it's wonderful in a number of behind-the-scenes ways. I do wish it had some support for doing neat things with multiple monitors. Maybe it does, and I just haven't figured them out yet. For example, I would like, if I'm watching a movie fullscreen on Monitor 1, for Monitors 2 and 3 to be able to go to screensaver, so I don't have to obsess over what new tweets or facebook updates are happening on my browser window. It might already be able to do this, mind you, and I just haven't figured it out. If I do, you'll be the first to know.

Then, after I did the XP-Win7 upgrade, the next day, my friend Kate brought her laptop over, and we upgraded hers from Vista to Win7. This process was much simpler, especially since her laptop came with a free upgrade, because she bought it just before Win7 hit the market. She took my advice back then, and got a dual core CPU so that a few months later when Win7 came out, it would be like getting a bonus faster computer. Toshiba made this upgrade process super easy by including a special software package to upgrade all of their hardware-specific software at the same time as doing the Win7 install. This install went super super smoothly. Took us most of the afternoon, but we were playing Rock Band while it did it, so no biggie. Not a single hitch at any point in the process. So, if you were unlucky and got stuck with Vista, at least Microsoft has thrown you a bone and made it incredibly simple to get Win7 running on your machine.

Anyway, if you're running XP or Vista, you should do yourself a favor and upgrade to Win7, especially if you have a multi-core CPU. Don't buy a full version! The upgrade disc is all you need. The process is pretty simple, and the most time consuming part (assuming you don't have any difficult-to-solve high-end hardware problems) is copying your important files to an external hard drive at 480mb/s.

My name is @nerdsherpa, and I'm a PC.

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