Monday, September 21, 2009

Aero Peek heads up control binding.

This just in: We're not sure when this feature came about. A quick search of google revealed nothing about it.

The key binding ctrl+alt+tab is our favorite accidental discovery of late. It works much like alt+tab, except that it stays on the screen.

It's possible to actually look at the windows, move back and forth, and remove your hand from the keyboard while the windows are heads up. It can be amazingly useful when many application and windows are open on a single laptop display.

Buzz Lightyear wallpaper from Discovery Channel and NASA.  Buzz just returned from the International Space Station.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A few useful commands for Windows, restated.

It may come as a laughable surprise to those who are already familiar with these commands, but in some corners, pretty experienced workstation users haven't discovered them.

It was only after gaining some familiarity with using cygwin as a windows shell that we learned of some of these commands. Others are being restated because the make the list more useful as a quick console reference.

A quick listing of the options for most factory windows console commands is available using the command followed by /? which calls the help.

**** shutdown - works just like linux except that it doesn't.  shutdown can reboot, halt, hibernate, and sleep the machine.  We find this particularly useful when ssh'd into a windows machine.  One oddity is that be default windows will wait about thirty seconds to execute the shutdown. the /t notation sets the timeout.

shutdown /r /p restarts the computer immediately. Otherwise /t sets the timeout. /f forces everything to close immediatlely without saving.

shutdown /a aborts a shutdown while it's on a timer, as is the default.
details at shutdown /?

**** tasklist and taskkill - our new favorite friends.  It's roughly the equivalent of the ps and kill commands on linux. Tasklist lists the running processes with pids and taskkill can kill them, usually with less drama and clicking around than the explorer will allow.

taskkill /pid 0000 where the zeroes are pids garnered from tasklist to kill an errant process.  try /f to add more force. 

*** bcdedit is a command to to manipulate the windows bootloader. this one only works from cmd.exe, not from rxvt.  So far we've used it clear out excess entry caused by abruptly deleting and reclaiming dual boot partitions.  in particular, old xp installs and the remains of the chainloader left by wubi when the super easy ubuntu install is used.

I'm sure it is possible to foul up the boot process in ways that are very hard to recover from.  On the other hand there might be quite a few useful possibilities other than simply deleting stale entries. It's more useful than boot.ini.  boot.ini is gone now, for the rest of you out there that skipped vista entirely, like we did. bcdedit has also been used to do such things as disable driver checking in vista, and maybe 7. . . so the possibility exists that there are many useful boot time options that can be passed.  Should be a useful development to see some more options come to our attention.

Having mentioned them, Wubi installs are great for creating on a clean ubuntu install for testing something, As of this writing wubi exists for xubuntu, kubuntu, and mythbuntu as well.

There will be more of these commands posted here as we find them.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Power Archiver 2010 - So promising.

Maybe this is just nitpicking, but WinRAR  has an archaic user interface.  While there is something to be said for consistency (most WinRAR users can operate it blindly), we started looking around for something that was a little more up to date, and fit more closely in with the windows 7 style.

Searching around, Power Archiver 2010 rose to the top of the heap.  It supports all the file types that WinRAR does, as far as we can tell, with similar shell integration and a user interface that has more in common with Office 2007 and later than with Word 97.

The trial being installed, it was time to leave it on the tester for a few days and see how it fared as a replacement for WinRAR, a fairly demanding task, as WinRAR is used more than once a day and has always been reliable.

The long and short of it is, while Power Archiver boasts a much nicer and more thought out user interface, in keeping with newer design ideas from Microsoft, it simply doesn't perform well on our systems.  It stalls on load, hiccups frequently, and usually ends up killed rather than closing cleanly.

It's unfortunate, because with some performance and stability tuning, this could be a very nice application. Perhaps this is just growing pains related to recent changes in Windows 7, but as it's in version 11.50 now, one would think it would be quite mature in it's basic functionality.  We'll keep an eye out for improvements.

Someone out there will likely point out how stupid it is to replace a perfectly working program with another one just because the new program is pretty. We expect it, and deserve it. Still, we like the shiny stuff, as long as it works as well as what it's replacing.

A windows command shell that works, or a brief guide for *NIX users.

Some in the computing world actually have more experience using linux as a desktop than they do windows. Many others are at least very comfortable using the bash shell (or others) to navigate the file system, and frequently find it faster to move around using a shell than with a bunch of clicking.

Linux is the operating system of choice for many tasks here, but we're mostly using windows on the laptops. Windows is pretty damn good. All the pointing and clicking, however, is really damn annoying to terminal dwellers. Windows is the only thing out there that doesn't come with a shell from the later parts of the 20th century. The Mac has bash and fileutils, (not to mention a wealth of open source tools available). Windows is still stuck with a command interpreter from the dark ages just before the gods delivered color monitors, among other useful features. cmd.exe still seems to be the console from the last version of DOS that outsold windows. Ick. 

Powershell is something new, but we'll get there in another post.

To that end, here's what we do around here to make a windows machine more useful.  There's a number of projects out there that come into play, and most of them have been around for a while and are quite mature.

The first step is to install the cygwin project on the target machine.  Wander over there and grab the setup.exe.  Run it with adminstrator priviledges.  The cygwin installer itself is kind of cumbersome, but it gets the job done. Click through some stuff, select a mirror, and end up at the rather overwhelming listing of packages, reminding one of the package selection of Red Hat years ago.  No surprise there, as this program was started somewhere in the Red Hat community years ago.

Take heart, everything that's needed to make cygwin work is automatically selected.  For starters, most users will benefit from  grabbing rxvt and openssh.  The first delivers a traditional and largely compliant terminal emulator. It's a port of the venerable slightly improved xterm clone 'rxvt,' built to run under the native window management system. No X11 required.   The second delivers ssh and sshd, allowing remote access to and from the machine.  scp is in there too.

On this system rxvt-native is pinned to the start menu, and the taskbar.   It works not only for the open source toolkit, but also for using basic windows commands such as ipconfig, tasklist, taskkill, and shutdown.  If the windows commands are completely unfamiliar, use the /? switch to get help, similar to -h in most open source programs. 

It is possible to configure some of the rxvt behavior by editing the specific command parameters in the properties dialog of the start menu icon.  man rxvt for a comprehensive list of options. Of note are scrollback lines (-sl) scrollbar presence (+/-sb) and reverse video (+/-rv).

There's a decent number of command line utilities from the linux world ported to windows, both through the cygwin installer, and and as standalone binaries.  We use ffmpeg to do a lot of video re-encoding, and have discovered that programs symlinked into /bin (or /usr/bin, etc.) can be called from the command line.  ffmpeg and vlc go hand in hand in the encoding process this way.  More on encoding with open source tools on windows will likely follow our first video post.

Another useful discovery is that from anywhere in the filesystem, calling 'explorer .' will open up the Windows Explorer in the present directory.  Now if only we could figure out how to open rxvt to the current directory from a context menu in explorer.  Also, calling explorer on a file from the command line will open that file with the default windows application. Nice.

As an aside, instead of deleting that cygwin setup binary from the Downloads folder when you're done with it, move it to /bin using rxvt.  Run it as administrator as needed.  Look for packages there before scouring the web. It is also possible to cp all of the initial .* files for bash configuration over to your windows user directory, and replace your cygwin homedir with a symlink to your windows home, so that bash opens in your /Users/.... directory.

This by no means turns a windows machine into a free software compliant machine.  There are a  number of projects that supply unix like functionality, including genisoimage, ffmpeg, wodim, mencoder, and others, and the mingw project offers tools to bootstrap a basic compiling environment, but mileage varies. Some projects such as ffmpeg specifically support windows, but most don't, and really don't care if it builds for you or not.

Such is life. Simply being able to mv, cp, and ls the filesystem properly is very useful.

Using the Group Policy Editor to kill the Desktop.

This may be one of our more esoteric hacks. This author does not like Desktop icons, at all. There is so much clutter created on the screen, and a background with Window Maker and other Step-like window managers on linux has opened questions as to the generally utility of the concept. There are no Desktop icons on Window Maker or blackbox, and they were never missed here.

These icons in Windows can be disabled, using the Group Policy Editor, a rather obscure tool for disabling various features to 'lock down' Windows for kiosk uses. There's a wealth of other marginally useful features buried in there.

To access this tool, open gpedit.msc from the run dialog, or find it quickly using the start menu search functionality.

Navigate to User Configuration > Administrative Tools > Desktop.

Open the setting "Hide and Disable all items on the desktop." Switch the radio button to 'Enabled.' Yeah, that's kinda backwards to disable the Desktop. Talk to Bill.

Log out and back in, and all the Desktop icons are gone. With them goes the right click menu on the background and drag and drop functionality on the background. You've been warned.

To access the Desktop use Windows Explorer.

If one other person finds this useful, we'll be surprised.

Cleaning out the context menu, finally!

Here at the lab, we’ve always hated the cluttered context menu. . . it’s always been one of those areas where windows application installers are given free reign to pollute the day to day operation of the system, through a mechanism the user is not conveniently able to access. To clean it out one has to use the registry editor. Using the registry is a pain in the ass. Nonetheless, around here we do it a lot.

We’ve been able to remove most of the garbage from the menu, but in XP, that left no convenient method to create a new folder. See, that was in the ‘new’ submenu of the right click menu. . . along with a bunch of other things. That this author has never clicked on. Ever. In 15 years or so of windows.

Now that ‘new menu’ functionality is provided in explorer windows, It can finally go. None of this is new information, but it does seem that in windows vista much of this information has been moved to a new location described below. 

Without further adieu, the quick and dirty registry hack:

Navigate to


Export this tree, for safe keeping.

Delete what you don’t want. Or delete everything. Deleting everything killed open as, which we need. Good thing there was that registry backup.

Other related locations of interest include:

HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\*\shellex\ ContextMenuHandlers 

There are an uncounted number of other 'ContextMenuHandlers' in the registry, and it's a giant pain to search for them all, but these seem to be all the one's that do anything, as of Windows 7. 

The right click menu on the Desktop and in empty areas of explorer windows should be exorcized of those graphics options, file compression options, and whatever else has accumulated there. This goes a long way to extending some of the personalization enhancements in windows 7.

This post contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer. It may also hose your windows. If it doesn’t make much sense to you don’t bother with it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ads in Windows Media Player

A lot of superlatives have been heaped on Windows 7 since it’s first beta a year ago.  For the most part we agree with them, though we’re not without complaints. 

We’ve been giving windows media player a shot, a bit of microsoftware that generally avoided, because it was very cumbersome.  The current version is a lot more comfortable than versions seen in the past.  One complaint, though. 

The Media Guide contains completely random ads that have nothing to do with music or media services being offered.  While we understand the existence of ads in the Media Guide, perhaps ‘guiding’ us to media services, do users of the media guide really wish to see ads from monster and for various hygiene products within the interface.  Apple’s product never does that.   It just cheapens the feel of the product, making it feel like some low rent blog such as this, rather than a store operated by a premium vendor. 


We found a nice little utility to customize the login screen with pretty much any image we have lying around. Take a look around for the login changer.



All nice and activated :)

New Windows Release

Here at the labs we’ve installed the latest Windows 7 release (one that takes a bit of searching to find). It’s after a string of Win 7 RC and Beta offerings from MS that this machine has run. It’s vista performance was awful.  Now that RTM is here, we thought it was time for a proper badge to replace the Vista badge this machine came with.  Not much is out there so we made our own :)


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Windows Live Writer

We’re pretty happy using Windows Live Writer to post this blog, as it’s well formatted and works smoothly.  Don’t laugh. It works. Perhaps we’ll test out making a movie clip in Movie Maker next.

UPDATE: My love affair with windows live writer ended in about two days, when i realized it was basically trashing the posts with a bunch of busted html code. It’s what i should have expected.