Sunday, 6 December 2015

A Tale of two Window 10s

Rhodes University donated a very old PC to a local NGO and I set it up for the NGO. Though my preference is the free software route the practical reality is that I am not an NGO supporting NGOs so the easiest thing is to install what they are used to and that enables them to share documents with others, and that means Windows and MS Office.

The machine came with XP and that is a concern because it is not being actively maintained and there is a possibility that new software may not run on it. I was surprised at the modest hardware requirements of Windows 10, probably because Microsoft went the route of converging their desktop and mobile OS. While this effort has flopped in the mobile market, being able to run the latest OS on a machine that old is a plus. So how easy was it?

The hardest part was preparing the system and installation media.

First, I needed to put the installation media onto a USB flash stick, since the machine has no optical drive. A nice person in out tech support department helped with that.

Then, the Rhodes computing service set a password on BIOS to prevent changing the boot order, which I needed to do to start off the USB flash stick. Since it was heading for a weekend, I had to try to work out the BIOS thing. I found a web site that proposed popping out the CMOS battery and leaving it out for long enough to the capacitors to drain. That worked so well that the machine refused to start until the next day when I intimidated it by approaching it with a voltmeter – it started instantly but the BIOS password was still set. Another try: I found that it has an Intel logic board and there is a trick involving a jumper to put the BIOS into maintenance mode. I took out the password and then discovered that the BIOS would not let me set the boot order to include a removable device unless the removable device was actually attached at boot time.

Finally, I was able to start off the USB flash drive (after 2 restarts – perhaps it was slowly warming to the idea) and Windows 10 installed without any dramas. It took quite a long time, subtly disguised by appearing to finish fast, then needing a reboot. I was then able to install Office off another flash stick and do some minor configuration stuff, including persuading it I wanted to log in as a local user rather than via a Microsoft identity. This latter bit was not too hard for me to work out, but could have confused someone without tech knowledge.

On to machine number 2. A pensioner recently bought a notebook from a local dealer (upgraded by the dealer to Windows 10) and was having difficulty reading email attachments. The attachments are Excel documents, and I found him a free reader via Microsoft’s app store. When I launched it, it had some weird requirement for installing a license that made no sense to me, suggesting something had not been installed right in the base system. I gave up on that and found an older version of Microsoft’s free Excel reader, which installed just fine, but the system refused to find it when I tried to set it up as the default for opening Excel files.

When I installed everything from scratch, things were reasonably straightforward. Though I have extensive computing background, I am not a Windows user, so it is pleasing that it should be relatively easy to set up from scratch without too many bad surprises (the BIOS password thing would not be something the average home user would run into).

I wonder what the dealer did that made the other one more of an ugly beast to install software.

On the whole, though the first install I did went well enough, I am not tempted to shift from Mac OS. Though Apple has lost a lot of their edge in usability (not so much because Microsoft has improved but because they have stopped bothering with evidence-based usability and focus instead on making their systems look good), Apple still has one huge advantage for my purposes: UNIX-style development.