JON DOES BATTLE WITH WINDOWS UPDATE, DISCOVERS A MICROSOFT EXTENSION FOR CHROME, AND SAYS A FEW KIND WORDS ON THE PASSING OF APPLE AIRPORT
Jon does battle with Windows Update, discovers a Microsoft extension for Chrome, and says a few kind words on the passing of Apple AirPort
It was a somewhat grey and wet April Saturday. With a deadline looming, I’d come into the lab to try to get ahead with some work, and I needed a Windows machine to hand. My normal methodology here is to run everything in a VM, using either Parallels or VMware Fusion, both running on a decent spec of Mac. I like the separation of “church and state”, by having the base OS be something entirely different to the host.
This is especially true when you’re testing antivirus and network security software. Handling Windows malware is somewhat easier when you know it can’t infect the base OS. And the Windows session itself is temporary, so can be blown away and restarted at a moment’s notice.
But for some reason, I decided that this work was going to be done on a “real” Windows machine, where you run Windows on the base hardware. I know this is a common thing that people do, but over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all just too much hassle. I’d even go as far as saying that Windows desktops should be run inside a VM, if you have a choice. Which, of course, you don’t in a corporate environment. But for that you have the excellent OneDeploy technology I’ve raved about before, which lets you push out images to hardware with only a few clicks.
So, to solve my problem, I grabbed the Dell XPS desktop all-in-one that I’ve had kicking around for a few years. As a cheap Windows alternative to the iMac, it isn’t a bad bit of kit and it’s worked well for me. I started it up, and went to log in – which is when my troubles began. Windows wouldn’t let me enter. I knew the password was correct, but the more I tried, the less cooperative it became.
I rebooted, only to have a big Dell boot icon – along with Windowsstyle spinning wheel – tell me that the hard disk was corrupted and that it needed to spend an hour contemplating its navel. I let it have three hours just to be sure, and got on with other work. After its generous time slot had ended, it was still saying the same thing. So, I hit reboot once more, only to discover that the machine had disappeared up its own fundament and I wasn’t even getting the BIOS boot splash. Insertion of a genuine Microsoft Windows boot USB stick did nothing to help. Clearly, the machine had gone AWOL.
Fortunately, it has an HDMI input port, so I decided I could hook it up to a laptop and use it as a bigger screen. At this point I should have just given up on the whole idea and fired up some VM sessions. But, like a bull in a china shop, I wasn’t going to give up now.
I reached for my Surface Book, the one with which I’ve had a lovehate relationship after spending umpteen thousands of dollars on it at launch, and then waiting months for the semblance of stable firmware for it from Microsoft. I have the desktop breakout box for it, which provides USB sockets, Ethernet and a video out. Finding the correct cable dealt with the interconnect issue, and I soon had the Dell running as a second screen on the Surface Book.
Which would have been the end to my tale, except I went to Windows Update to ensure everything was indeed up to date. And there I found a bunch of firmware updates from last September for the Book that hadn’t been applied. No, I have no idea why they weren’t installed, but they were listed, loud and proud. So I fired off an update, and sat back.
Once that had completed, and the machine rebooted, I did a final Update check, only to discover in big red letters the phrase: “Your device is missing important security and quality fixes.” Of course, being Microsoft, it wouldn’t deign to tell me which ones were missing or what I should do to remedy this. Repeated pressing of the “Check for updates” button resulted in the same outcome.
At this point, my muttering became somewhat purple in nature, with me asking out loud into which orifices of a Microsoft engineer a Surface Book could be inserted. I looked at “View update history” to discover that it was blank – apparently some updates can clear the update history, which ranks as a truly inspired piece of coding.
I tried the Windows Update recovery tool. That didn’t do anything useful. I even tried the command prompt method of shutting down the services, moving
the update catalogue and log files, and restarting the Windows Update services. That didn’t work either. There was nothing left to do but to start again. I booted from USB and wiped the machine.
Once the install had completed, checking updates showed the red message had disappeared – which was something of a relief. The first thing to be installed was Dashlane, to bring my password system onto the machine. A quick install of Office 365 followed, with the inevitable pondering of why the Office team tries so very hard to make you take the 32-bit version when a 64-bit version is available too. And then Dropbox, followed by another long navel gaze, even though by default all files are left in the cloud for just-in-time download.
At this point, it was 3pm. My will to live had mostly disappeared, and I went home via the pub. All my good intentions had been blown away by a dead Dell and a worryingly undead Surface Book. Never has a VM looked so tempting.
Last month I had quite a good moan about three companies, with tales of woe about their software updates. One good piece of news: Chord has shipped its iOS app for controlling the Mojo/Poly combination. The app is quirky but it does what’s needed, so thumbs up there.
Naim did launch a firmware update and new iOS app. However, despite there being firmware for mostly everything the firm has shipped, there was nothing for the Uniti Core product. So, it remains stuck where it was, which is something of a disappointment.
I downloaded the Android app for the Hoover again, and found it still wants a full land-grab of every conceivable device, a bit of data, and anything else you might ever have thought of – which is nothing short of shameful. If Hoover’s R&D director wants a grown-up to help, he knows where to look.
One of the items I inherited from my parents was my dad’s study desk. It’s filled with wonderfully evocative memorabilia from my youth, including a large selection of Ordnance Survey maps. In one drawer, I was thrilled to discover his slide rule made by Faber-Castell. It’s at least as old as me, and I know he used it when he was a design engineer in the 1960s.
Many sneer at slide rules, saying they’re an antiquity. Often such snobs are found to be wearing large watches made by Breitling, which have a slide rule built into the watch face – but let’s not allow facts to get in the way.
Out of sheer curiosity, I went on an internet hunt for slide rules. And to my delight, I discovered that Faber-Castell still sells them. I went to its German site, where I found a whole range of brand-new items for sale. I couldn’t resist, and bought a 12in technical slide rule – the modern equivalent to my father’s treasured item. I felt beholden to continue the tradition, despite the price tag of some €87.
At this point, I’d normally give you the URL for the item. But on visiting the shop just now at faber-castell.de/service/integrationonline-ersatzteilshop, I see that: “Our online shop for spare parts will be integrated into the FaberCastell online shop on 31.03.2018.” Heading to said online shop shows no sign of the slide rules, at least as far as I can see.
If they’ve gone then it’s a door onto my childhood that’s been closed. I’m only pleased I managed to get one of the last ones. Maybe you can find a new item before they’re gone forever. Or email FaberCastell to see if they’re still for sale.
A friend sent me the URL to the Travelodge website. Do I really need to tell you what it exposed? Yes, a full test interface into its JSON/ REST API test harness. Twenty-four
hours later, it was properly locked away.
But someone really messed up there. I imagine there are a few sore bottoms this morning from the spanking that was received – and rightly so.
One colleague said, “It makes me want to track down Travelodge’s IT people on LinkedIn, just so I can add them to the blacklist of people I’d never employ in a million years.” Harsh, but maybe not unfair.
MICROSOFT BROWSER PROTECTION… FOR CHROME
Microsoft has launched an extension for Chrome. Yes, in this modern era of Microsoft openness, it’s even developing Chrome enhancements. It seems to work on all platform versions of Chrome, so I had no issues installing it into Chrome for macOS.
Essentially, it’s an anti-phishing engine, as used in the mainstream Microsoft products. It’s been packaged up and made available for Chrome for free, which if nothing else is a nice gesture.
Now you might be wondering why you’d want to use this when Chrome has a strong anti-phishing engine built right in, and which is enabled by default. If you don’t believe me, go to the Settings window and scroll down to the Advanced section. You’ll find the setting, “Protect you and your device from dangerous sites”, which is Google-speak for “anti-phishing”.
I installed the Microsoft extension and disabled the built-in Chrome feature. Then I went to one of my regular anti-phishing test sites – which has a real-time feed of phishing sites – and tried it out. It achieved a high score over some 30 test URLs. I turned off the Microsoft extension and re-enabled the builtin Chrome feature. Re-running the tests, it returned a similar score but there were differences on a few sites that one got but the other didn’t. Re-enabling both caught almost everything in one or the other.
So far, it doesn’t appear to have gobbled up my system RAM or slowed my PC to a crawl. It seems to be an all-upside and no-downside add-on for Chrome. In the unlikely event that Chrome’s toolkit doesn’t catch a site first, the Microsoft tool might catch it as a backstop. Providing it proves to be a stable and reliable combination over time, this extension is worth having for those occasions it’s needed.
APPLE CLOSES ITS AIRPORTS
Of no surprise to anyone, Apple has announced the end of life of the AirPort range of wireless routers. I’m a bit disappointed, because these AirPorts were pretty good products, especially in the early years when most everyone else was making garbage. A lot of thought went into the product; it was one of the few platforms that noticed if you were behind a double-NAT IP installation, warned you accordingly, and switched itself to passthrough switch mode.
But time moves on. The competitors have got better, and the new mesh system has surpassed the rather ancient master/slave Apple’s AirPort retires. No doubt it’s making room for some new, superfast wireless hardware solution that Apple deployed. Do I think this is the end of the line for Apple and wireless hardware? Not at all. I expect it’s clearing the way for something entirely new; some super-fast, mesh-basedusing technology to leapfrog the competition. After all, given Apple’s much-rumoured desire to make its own radio chipsets, alongside its CPU designs and other custom silicon, it would make great sense to implement a bleeding-edge specification and try to own the space.
Not being reliant on a third-party chipset vendor would be a big win. Heck, Apple could even come up with an entirely new spec in the 5GHz open radio space. A gigabit mesh-enabled pico-cell-based Wi-Fi solution could be quite something. Only time will tell.
NETFLIX, AMAZON PRIME AND FOXTEL
It was one of those discussions that could only happen over dinner with guests. Should you have Netflix, Amazon Prime or Foxtel? I started off by saying that I’m in the fortunate position of needing all the services in the lab for testing, so at least I can compare.
Our guests piped up that they were thinking of dropping Foxtel. It wasn’t an issue of money; they just didn’t get enough use out of it. For myself, I find I watch a lot of stuff on Foxtel, especially series and boxsets. Netflix comes in a close second, and Amazon Prime is down in third – mostly there for the latest childish antics of the ex-Top Gear crew.
But it did raise an interesting question. All of these services can be watched on your mobile phone or tablet, so they can travel with you. They all offer a huge range of material, more than you could ever get through in a lifetime, or so it feels. Then price kicks in. Netflix is just $9.99 per month for a premium account. A decent Foxtel package can run to far more than that, and the value question has to engage at some point. Amazon Prime as part of the annual Amazon package isn’t expensive, and I’m left wondering if I too, like my friends, could manage without Foxtel. ◆
Here’s the message I faced when I checked the Updates on my Surface Book. Not helpful
JON HONEYBALL is the MD of an IT consultancy that specialises in testing and deploying hardware
A Faber-Castell side rule takes me back to my youth
Finally, Chord has shipped its iOS app. It’s quirky, mind