The Reason Why I Drink, Or Why Documentation Is So Important

I’ve had a really bad couple of weeks…

So… gratuitous resume rewind – 25 years of QA experience… CHECK! On every, formal, Technical Windows Beta Team between Windows 95 and Windows XP and beta tested ALL versions of Windows between Windows 95 and Windows 10… CHECK! 20 years of experience as a technology journalist… CHECK!

Whoosh! Ok… I feel a LOT better. For a moment there, I thought I turned into an idiot.

Over the past three to four weeks, I’ve been having a great deal of trouble with my Surface Pro 3. I got the device in December and have had it warranty replaced once and swapped out to a NEW unit once. My original unit bricked when I tried to refresh it from Windows 10 Build 9926 to a clean install. I found out the hard way that installing Build 9879 blew the Windows 8.1 recovery partition and replaced it with a Windows 10 Build 9879 partition. Upgrading from Build 9879 to Build 9926 did NOT update the recovery partition, so the device choked upon refresh.

One appointment to the Microsoft Store’s Answer Desk had it restored to Windows 8.1; but then when it tried to setup Windows 8.1, the device froze during setup and was not recoverable. Hence warranty replacement number one.

A week so after that, I’m back at the SAME Microsoft Store, wanting to put Windows 10 back on my i3-based Surface Pro 3; and I’m having a problem creating a Windows 8.1 bootable, USB Recovery Drive. The process involves using the internal Recovery tool to create the drive. You’ll need the following:

1. An 8GB or larger USB Stick
2. A working Windows 8.1 PC with an whole and undamaged Recovery Partition on the internal SSD
3. About 30 minutes of free time

The full process can be found here. It’s easy to do, and anyone who can use Windows 8.1 (meaning EVERYONE) can complete the process. It’s really super easy…

However… please don’t think that you’re going to be able to actually USE that USB Recovery Image for anything, especially if you have a Surface Pro 3, and ESPECIALLY after the 2015-03-26 Firmware Update. The status quo has changed…but just slightly.

Before the firmware update, I could boot from just about any external, bootable image – from one on a USB stick to a bootable DVD on my USB-based BDVD-RW drive. It just didn’t matter. If it was a bootable image and Windows could read the image and the media, it all worked.

Then the firmware update hit, and it all went south.

I don’t have confirmation from anyone on this at Microsoft, but the latest firmware update modified the way Surface Pro 3 can boot. Now, you don’t need to hold Power+Volume Down to get the device to boot from USB. Now, you can set boot order preferences in UEFI, and the device will boot from the first device in that chain with a bootable image. So if you want to have your SURFACE PRO 3 boot from

Network–>USB–>SSD

Or

USB–>SSD

Or any other potential, hard coded methods, the device will just do that. You don’t need to hold the buttons down any longer and hope that you’ve let them go at the right point, so you don’t have to repeat the process. It makes life, much easier.

However, Microsoft fails to note a couple of very important items in any of the documentation – if you can find it – related to the firmware update or the process for making a recovery image. The USB stick you use must have a GPT partition table.

Say what??

Yeah… a GUID Partition Table.

Mac users will recognize this. This is the partition table scheme that Macs have been using for years. PC’s have been using MBR or Master Boot Record partition tables since the dark days (…before the empire…) of DOS 1.0. However, that was when all PC’s were using BIOS and not UEFI. UEFI will use MBR formatted disks, but they’re much happier with GPT formatted disks.

UEFI

And that’s NOWHERE to be found in the instructions here or here.

That second set is a better recovery image creating process than the first set of instructions. All you have to do is format a USB stick with FAT32, download a zip file, unzip it and copy the contents of the ZIP to the USB stick and you’re in business.

The problem is that the instructions fail to inform you that you have to format the stick with GPT. Which, BTW, Windows will NOT do by default… AND there’s no way that I know of to get any GUI element in ANY Windows to do that, either.

However, you CAN do it with a third party tool called Rufus.

The tool is small, simple and easy to use, and you can use it to do a couple of different things
1. Use it to format a USB stick with the proper partition type, file system and cluster size
2. Use it to create a bootable USB stick from just about any ISO you can get your hands on.

With Rufus, I was able to create a bootable, USB Windows 8.1 Recovery Drive with the downloadable recovery image you can get here. The most important thing you need to know about this process – which, by the way, isn’t documented anywhere – is that in order to create a bootable Recovery Drive for Windows 8.1 AFTER the firmware update from 2015-03-26, you again, must format the USB stick with the following parameters:

Partition scheme and target system type – GPT partition scheme for UEFI computer
File system – FAT32 (Default)
Cluster size – 4096 bytes (Default)

There are a couple of things you need to be aware of:

1. Anything that is on the USB stick will be destroyed when you click Rufus’ Start button. Back it up or copy it off before beginning the process.
2. Microsoft recommends you use a 16GB USB stick for this process, though I’ve been able to demonstrate that an 8GB stick will work.
3. Some partition types and file systems don’t work together. Rufus will tell you which ones don’t work and play well with others when you try to use them together.
4. If you want to create a bootable USB stick for, say, a Windows 10 install, you can specify an ISO image to use.
5. That ISO image will likely have file system requirements that you may have to adhere to. Again, Rufus will tell you when your choices and the file system on the ISO don’t match up.

This app saved my bacon AND my sanity.

I have been working a support thread with Barb Bowman most of the day today, and without her help and DIRECT intervention; I would not have been able to resolve this problem. I would have created yet ANOTHER Microsoft Answer Desk appointment and they likely would have swapped out my SURFACE PRO 3 i5 for another unit, suspecting it to be defective.

Now… the big problems I have will be moving this device over to Windows 10. There are a couple of new issues with that, given that I want to run the Enterprise version of Windows 10 and not the Professional (consumer-based) version.

1. The Enterprise download for Windows 10 is still Build 9926. Currently, Microsoft has us on Build 10049 in the Fast Ring.
2. I don’t want to have to install/ download a version of Windows 10 that’s three versions back.
3. The file system in the Windows 10 Build of 10041 (the last Build released to the Slow Ring and the last official, released ISO) is formatted with an NTFS file system, and Rufus won’t let me create a GPT based partition table with an NTFS formatted ISO. They don’t work and play well together.

This still leaves me with a problem of creating a bootable Windows 10 drive so that I can install Windows 10 Build 10041 on the new Surface Pro 3. From there, I can use Windows Update to upgrade to Build 10049, which includes the new Spartan Browser.

But that’s been my life over the past few weeks. I’ve been banging my head up against this SP3/ Windows 8.1 Recovery Drive issue so I can figure out a way of getting BACK to Windows 10 so I can continue my coverage of the OS on Soft32. As a result of this problem, I may have left my OneNote Disappearing Ink problem in the dust, but I’m without a way to actively test current builds of Windows 10 as I sold my Surface Pro 1 to Gazelle.

The biggest problem here is the total and COMPLETE LACK of documentation. I’m a software quality professional. I TRIED to find information on the issue. I had to start a support thread with Microsoft to get any resolution to this issue. If Microsoft had included this information as part of their instructions for creating a bootable recovery drive, AND if they had their Windows 8.x recovery tool automatically format the USB stick with a GPT partition table and as FAT32 as part of the process that creates the Recovery Drive, this wouldn’t be a problem at all.

Do you have a SP3? Have you had issues booting to a USB drive since the application of the 2015-03-26 Firmware Update? Did you know about Rufus; or about needing to format ANY bootable USB stick to use a GPT partition table? I’d love to hear about your recent experiences with this issue, if you’ve had them. Why don’t you join me in the Discussion Area below, and give me your thoughts?

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Manage and maintain your drive’s partitions with Aomei Partition Assistant

The price of SSD’s is coming down. At about $1.00 per gigabyte, putting an SSD in your notebook PC is becoming more and more realistic. Upgrading from smaller SSD’s to larger, faster SSD’s isn’t as financially painful as it used to be. The problem, though is finding a decent drive migration and management tool. This is one of the biggest reasons why I like Aomei Partition Assistant Home Edition. It’s a partition and drive management tool for Windows.

AOMEI Partition Assistant Home Edition is a completely free partition manager. It carries out hard disk and partition management, advanced system optimization and easy copy and partition recovery to keep your computer running. The app works in both 32bit & 64bit versions of Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP, and Windows 2000 Professional. It has the ability to resize and move partitions, migrate an OS to either an SSD or hard drive, to merge or split partitions, to allocate free space, to copy partitions, to copy a disk and to recover a partition on MBR and GPT formatted disks. The app also includes the ability to create a bootable CD to ensure data and system safety. As an added bonus, it includes a free, portable partition manager portable. With it, you can copy the installation directory of AOMEI Partition Assistant Home Edition to any device, including a USB flash drive, a portable hard drive, etc.

Read full review | Download Aomei Partition Assistant

 

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O&O SpeedCheck

Defragmentation is a necessary operation for any stable system. But its result may vary from system to system depending on each configuration. You can get a long process duration and it may not be distinguishable. So instead of doing it anyway and losing time, you may want to check if your system really needs such an operation and what are the results in case you may want to apply such an operation.

O&O SpeedCheck is a free portable utility that simulates the effects of a defragmentation on your computer. It will simulate a fragmented and defragmented state on your system. This means that the program will simulate reading files that are fragmented and then re-reads them as they were defragmented. No data is written in the simulation and no real files are used for reading.

Files are read continuously one after the other on a hard disk level from the start of partition C:. The whole process takes around 8-10 minutes depending on your harddrive capacity. At the end of the simulation you will be shown a comparison of the two test times, and the possible increase in speed available to you. In this way you will get the picture how your PC can gain speed if you will defrag your system.

Both test runs are carried out five times, in order to eliminate any side effects caused by the applications that run in the background. Anyway, you should still close all the applications that run in background in order to get a precise result. File operations in particular can lead to a distortion of the result.

O&O SpeedCheck is a simple and useful tool that might save you time in understanding the need of your system for defragmentation. But it also promotes O&O Defrag by pointing you to its download site after finishing the simulation. Good thing is that you don’t have to choose this program. Just ignore the message and carry on with your work.

download O&O SpeedCheck

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10 apps to tune-up you PC for the best gaming experience

There are two major steps to create your perfect gaming experience. First of all you have to buy a PC with a suitable hardware configuration to meet all the necessary requirements. In case of gaming, this rig can cost you thousands of dollars, but you won’t get the best results if you don’t install and use the right applications that will improve you system.

So the second step to take is to configure your PC by installing all the necessary software that will maintain and improve the performances of your computer. So here are ten apps to choose from:

Your video card is the most important tool while playing, so you should keep it up to date by installing the latest drivers. Many users have asked why is it so necessary to always track and install tha latest versions. In general every new version brings improvements and fixes bugs, but the major reason is that each new version comes with an updated games library that includes all the necessary tweaks for the latest major titles. The good part here is that there are only two major types of video cards, the ones with NVIDIA (download NVIDIA Forceware Driver) chip and the ones with ATI chip (download AMD ATI Catalyst Drivers).

Installing and uninstalling games can cause your system to become clumsy. Caches get full, drives get fragmented, registries get littered with orphaned entries. The only solution is to install and use any type of tune-up utility. I recommend Tune Up Utilities 2011 or Windows Winset. Both are all-in-one system utilities to optimize, clean up, maintain and speed up your computer.

 

Besides the tune-up utilities, you need also a harddisk manager that can perform all kinds of tasks to maintain, repair and even partition your local HDD. An ALL-IN-ONE partition solution and disk management for 32 bit and 64 bit systems would be EASEUS Partition Master 9. With the free edition of Partition Master 9 you can safely merge different partitions without data loss on the same physical disk. It comes also with the ability to wipe data on unallocated space. This option is very useful when you want to get rid of sensitive data.

Your gaming experience should also be secure. Playing all kinds of online games demands some trusty antiviruses and firewalls. I recommend AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, avast! Antivirus Free or Avira AntiVir Personal Edition, all three with good results and light hardware requirements. Some of them have even a game mode through which, the application reduces its processes when running a game.

 

Installing and running your games from their discs will cause your optical unity and even the disc to wear. So why not copy them on your local disk and run them from there. This can be easily done by using the Virtual Clone Drive that can emulate and run ISO’s of your games with ease. The application is small, simple in functionality and easy to use. Another alternative is the popular Daemon Tools Lite that can emulate also MDF’s and cue-bin files.

Every hard-core gamer uses the Fraps application. Fraps is a universal Windows application that can perform several tasks while playing. It can show how many Frames Per Second (FPS) you are getting from your game, can take a screenshot with the push of a key, and can capture audio and video up to 2560×1600 with custom frame rates from 1 to 120 frames per second!. Fraps can be used with games using DirectX or OpenGL graphic technology.

Let’s say that you have captured a video sequence with the help of Fraps. How can you edit it and upload it on your beloved social network? Install and use Camtasia Studio from Techsmith. It is more than a simple screen recorder. It is more of a virtual studio that can generate sophisticated, effective screencasts faster, easier, and with more consistency than other similar products.  Camtasia Studio 7 comes with the 32-bit and 64-bit TSCC codec which can export your recording files to a wider range of 3rd party applications, and keep the high-quality look you love.

You may believe me or not, but some games require additional video codecs to be installed. Otherwise the users won’t be able to watch the cinematic videos. The best solution that works in most cases is to install the DivX Plus Codec Pack. The Pack includes everything you need to play DivX or MKV files in third-party applications. In case you own a DXVA capable graphics card, with DivX you can smoothly play high definition videos on it, which means no more blocky videos or dropped frames.

Online games demand a voice communication tool in order give orders to your team or control a raid. With TeamSpeak 3 all these can become reality. TeamSpeak is a VOIP application suitable for voice communication via the Internet. TeamSpeak is created on a platform that offers a client-server architecture where client and server software is clearly separated. This means that the server product runs as a dedicated server, rather than peer-to-peer. In this way the TeamSpeak server software is literally capable of handling thousands of simultaneous clients or users.

If you consider that your rig is ready to enter into the gaming universe, maybe you want to become a member of a community that shares the same passion and plays the same games as you. Welcome to Garena, sign up and join millions of gamers around the world and play your favourite titles together with them. And it’s all free! Garena features also an online service and provides direct support for games like League of Legends or Heroes of Newerth.

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Manage your disks with EASEUS Partition Master 9

Partition Master 9 is an ALL-IN-ONE partition solution and disk management. It allows you to extend partition (especially for system drive), manage disk space easily, and settle low disk space problem on MBR and GUID partition table (GPT) disk under Windows 2000/XP/Vista/Windows 7 (SP1 included) 32 bit and 64 bit system.

EaseUS offers a free version of this program and several other paid editions which come with additional features including Technical Services to Clients, free lifetime upgrades and License with WinPE bootable CD.

With the free edition of Partition Master 9 you can now safely merge different partitions without data loss on the same physical disk. It comes also with the ability to wipe data on unallocated space. This option is very useful when you want to get rid of sensitive data. The paid editions include in addition support for dynamic volumes, including copying, resizing and converting without data loss.

In comparison with the free edition, Partition Master 9 Server can repair RAID-5 volumes and supports command-line usage. This allows system administrators to create macro functions that can be scheduled to run without having to launch the main application. Therefore Partition Master 9 Server is also compatible with Windows Home Server.

The developers paid a great attention to the non-technical and inexperienced computer users. With Partition Master 9 anyone is able to backup, image and upgrade boot drives on their computers with ease. Also a bunch of video tutorials, accessible from the opening splash screen, are a great addition for those who need help when using this application.

download Partition Master 9

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TrueCrypt the open-source encryptor

TrueCrypt is a free encryption utility designed to keep your data safe from curios eyes and prevent data theft of destruction. With TrueCrypt you can create three types of encrypted volumes: file-hosted (very useful for DropBox users) ,partition/device-hosted or you can encrypt an entire partition or system drive.

While using the services of any backup provider, you need to secure your data before uploading it on their servers. With TrueCrypt you can encrypt and decrypt your files on your computer, so they’re already encrypted prior to being uploaded. That means the backup company can’t access those files, whatever happens. In order to secure your data, you can choose between several strong AES (Advanced encryption Standard) algorithms such as: Rijndael, Serpent or Twofish with up to 256-bit keys and 128-bit blocks.

TrueCrypt is a little bit hard to set up, because of its open-source character, but its functionality will convince you to carry on using it. The biggest advantage, compared to other similar paid-for products, is that with Truecrypt you can encrypt folders much larger than 2GB. Another advantage is the fact that TrueCrypt comes in three editions, one for Windows users, one for Mac users and one for Linux users, so you are not limited to a single operating system. The program can also be used on removable devices, such as a USB Flash drive. No installation is required on such a device. It is enough to unzip the content of the downloaded archive and copy the directory named ‘Setup files’ onto the removable drive.

read full review | download TrueCrypt

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Get over the 4GB limitation on FAT32 file-system very easily

If your USB flash drive (or any other storage device) is FAT32, you’ll face the 4GB limit. This file system has a ‘natural’ limitation for the maximum file size it can handle, which is 4GB. The partition itself can have a greater size, but you will not be able to create files greater than 4GB. The only way to solve the problem (beside splitting yours files to a limit of 4GB each using a spitting tool) is by converting the FAT32 partition of your USB flash drive to NTFS which can handle files of a greater size.

The simplicities way to do this is using Windows’ native conversion utility which works from the command prompt. Assuming the drive letter of your USB flash drive is is K:, here is what you have to do:

1. Open the Command Prompt (if you have Windows XP: Start > Run > cmd; if you have Windows 7 or Vista: type ‘cmd’ in your Start > ‘Search programs and files’).
2. Type: convert k: /fs:ntfs (substitute k: with the letter of the USB flash drive of the partition you wish to convert, then press enter)

Thats it, after a while the partition will be converter to NTFS.

Note: NTFS is a fault-tolerant and more efficient than FAT32, beside, handle files of a greater size and provides performance improvements.

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Recover your data from damaged disk partitions or scratched / defective CDs and DVDs

After years of experience in the computer field, I have to admit, there really is no “best data recovery software”, although there are specific tools that are better than others at getting the job done. Some are better than the others in specific areas, but it is difficult to point out one that reigns as the best data recovery software in each category. Today I’ll present to you one piece of software which claims to be efficient for recovering data from several storage mediums, called MiniTool Power Data Recovery.

MiniTool Power Data Recovery is practically an all in one free (for home user) data recovery software. It can recover deleted data from Windows Recycle Bin and restore lost data from formatted or deleted disk partition. Moreover, you can retain files back from broken storage mediums such as disk drives or optical discs (CDs/DVDs).

Read review of MiniTool Power Data Recovery | Download MiniTool Power Data Recovery

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