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:: Reviews : Switching to Windows: Not as easy as you think
This is the way the world of Linux ends. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.
I grew up on a Unix command-line. BSD, I believe. I have dim memories of dialing up on a black and green Wyse50 terminal, sending e-mail with 'mail', reading newsgroups and playing Nethack in all its ASCII glory. I even became rather adept at vi. I was happy, ecstatic even, wrapped all snug and safe in my warm, green world of text and terminal beeps. But my friends all had 'IBM clones', and as I grew, so too did the technology. My early youth was tinged in the stark, cyan tones of CGA. My preteens were illustrated in glorious EGA, and as I came of age, so too did the startling, varied hues of SVGA. But I get ahead of myself. As a child, we did play games, primitive games, on these 'IBM clones'. Bolderdash, Centipede, Double-Dragon, Golden Axe. But no computer game could compare to the imagination of a ten-year-old boy! And so for the better part of my youth I remained shrouded by the eerie, flickering glow of scrolling text. My first experience with a 'Graphical User Interface' was an X-terminal. Then it was Red Hat Linux all the way, until Ubuntu walked itself onto my desktop nearly a year ago... and there things should have ended.
Note: Well, there was Windows. There was always Windows. But for comedic effect, the author chooses not to mention the long, heavy years spent using Microsoft Windows for School, University and Work. Now please continue reading, happily oblivious to this devious bit of artistic license.
Except that life does not always go according to plan. You see, I was typing one day, at work. Just typing, tapping the hours merrily away, and suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, my computer rebooted. It reset, then reset again, and continued to reset, sometimes making it past POST, sometimes not, but certainly never managing to boot an OS. And the CD drive was making weird, grinding noises. "Calm down, little computer", I cooed softly, but it didn't, so I jerked the power cord out with a vindictive snarl, and then unplugged the CD-ROM. Then gently, gently, ever so gently, I turned the PC on again. There was a loud bang, a nasty smell (think burnt cabbage) and a lot of smoke billowed out from the hole where the CD-ROM used to be. I was a little surprised. Upon further investigation I discovered that a tiny black thing had fallen off the motherboard and hit a tiny, round white thing with copper wires running around it. Curious, I sticky-taped the little black thing back onto the motherboard, in approximately the same place it had been before it fell off, and tried the power switch again. Nothing. At this point, the idea occurred to me that maybe my computer was broken. Luckily, we had plenty of spare parts around the office. Briefly, I considered transplanting my hard drive into one of the spare machines. Then I noticed the Windows XP OEM license key stuck to the side of a nearly empty chassis, and had a better idea! "Oh ho!" I thought to myself, "Why not use this opportunity to try a fresh install of this 'Windows XP' I keep hearing so much about." So I grabbed an all-in-one Intel board, and a spare 200GB IDE hard-drive we had kicking around, then rooted through the cookie jar for some RAM chips that I jammed into slots until I heard clicks. Then I rooted through the trash pile until I found a Windows XP OEM CD, and we were all set for this grand electronic experiment!
Windows installation occurs in two parts. The first half is text based, consisting of a blue screen with white text. Not exactly pretty, and not particularly functional. It spent a long time 'copying system files' before it asked me any questions. Copying them where, though? I had an unformatted hard-drive in this machine, so I suspect the RAM. Microsoft should also be aware that this long, textually silent wait might frustrate Distro junkies, who are used to installers that begin asking questions almost immediately, or even boot straight into a usable system and allow a hard-drive install to be performed in the background, at their leisure. The next step was the partitioner, and it was a bit of a let down. Anyone who complains about a Linux partitioner obviously hasn't tried installing Windows. Your only choice of file system is FAT32 or NTFS, and although you can create as many partitions as you like, you can only format the one partition - the partition you select for the Windows installation. Obviously, this gives you no chance to create a separate home or boot partition, or even a swap partition. Apparently Windows automatically creates a swap file for you on the main partition. A user with suitable expertise could create a separate partition for the swap file after installation... but this is still an annoyance. Worse, the Windows partitioner hoses your MBR, and installs it's own MBR with no attempt to detect and provide for any other operating systems you may have installed. Worse yet, the Windows partitioner tried to tell me my 200GB IDE drive only had a 130GB capacity. I figured I could always extend the partition later if need be, and installed anyway. Windows copied the base system over and then asked for a reboot. Unfortunately, it could not boot off partition it had created for itself. Figuring the problem was related to Windows not recognizing the drive, and not wanting to waste time trouble-shooting, I simply ripped it out and found an old 20GB drive instead. Windows made no complaints about this older technology, and installed without any obvious problems.
The second stage of the installer is graphical, which is a nice touch, but it does have a rather irritating way of interrupting installation every 15 minutes or so to ask questions about language, time zone, networking, and so forth. I would prefer if all pertinent questions were asked up front. You are prompted for an administrator password, which I suppose is analogous to the 'root' account. You are also prompted to create a 'user' account. Do not be fooled, the 'user' account also has full root access. Windows hardware detection leaves a lot to be desired as well. Aside from the installation issue with the hard-drive, Windows was also unable to detect my graphics controller and sound-card. Intriguingly, Windows offered to automatically adjust my video settings for 'better performance'. I was not given a choice in the matter. It adjusted my desktop from the default 640x480 with 16 colours to a glorious 640x480 with 16 colours ... Gee. Well, I suppose it's the thought that counts.
In comparison, an Ubuntu 5.10 live CD tested on the same hardware correctly detected the 200GB hard-drive, sound card, graphics controller and monitor. Within minutes of sticking in the CD, I was booting into a fully functional 1280x1024 desktop with sound, Internet access, even 3d acceleration! For shame, Microsoft. With more and more consumers purchasing computers without an operating system, or with Linux pre-installed, you can't expect OEM system builders to pick up the slack for you any more.
In order to get the hardware working, I had to visit the Intel website and download the required drivers. Finding out what hardware you have is a difficult process under Windows. With most Linux distributions,it is often as simple as typing lspci. Not so under Windows. Instead you have to open up the 'Control Panel', find your way to the 'System' applet, look for the Hardware tab, then launch the 'device manager'. That's a lot of clicking, for such a simple task!
After a long download, a lengthly install, and a reboot, we were in business. Almost. Windows still did not correctly detect my monitors optimal resolution, instead opting to give me 1024x768. Trivial, I know, but many little problems add up to an overall lack of polish.
During install, Windows had asked me whether I wished to join a domain or a workgroup. I selected workgroup at the time, figuring I could join it to my work domain later. Like everything in Windows, setting up networking is a graphical affair. Moreover, I had expected Active Directory integration to be a strong point of Windows. It had previously taken me 2 hours to add my Ubuntu machine to the Windows domain and I hoped Windows would cut the effort required substantially.
I was wrong.
Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 comes with a wizard you can use to join client computers to the domain. You use this wizard by visiting a web page running on the server and clicking 'Add my computer to the network'. It didn't work. It bailed out, claiming it could not talk to the domain controller... Lies! All lies! If it couldn't talk to the domain controller, how was I able to visit a website hosted on that self-same server?
I tried using the client-side tools to connect to the domain. At first it failed, claiming there wasn't a machine account for the computer. Then, after I created a machine account, it complained that it couldn't join the domain, because a machine account already existed. Make up your mind, Microsoft! I did eventually get it sorted. After some two hours of chasing dead-ends, it turned out to be a DNS problem, related to a badly configured DHCP server. So we can't really blame Windows for that, except inasmuch as unhelpful error messages are concerned. But things were not about to get any better...
After finally managing to join the computer to the domain, I tried logging on using my very underused domain user account. Windows seemed to authenticate successfully, but then just sat there at the login screen saying 'Applying your personal settings'. I walked away, heated up a small mushroom pizza, and ate it. I came back, perhaps 15 minutes later. It was still sitting there at the login screen, 'loading my settings'.
I wanted to know what was happening, so out of habit I hit Ctrl+Alt+F1. Of course, this was a no go. It seems that virtual consoles aren't enabled in Windows by default. In fact, subsequent Google searches seemed to suggest that Windows doesn't come with this functionality at all! Your GUI is all you get. Perhaps new and inexperienced users would not need this functionality, or even notice it was missing, but I'm sure Linux 'power users', attempting to switch to Windows, will miss it.
Without being able to use a virtual console to kill the login process, I had no option but to do a hard-reset of the machine, and try logging in again. This time it popped up an error message saying it couldn't make a copy of my roaming profile, and it was going to give me a temporary default one instead. Why could it not load my regular profile? No reason was given. I logged out once more, logged back in again, and behold, this time it copied over my profile with no complaints. Or did it?