Archive for the ‘Windows Vista’ Category

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This iPhoneless Life #11 – iTunes’ Secret Agent

August 27, 2010

iPod To describe my life as iPhoneless is a slight exaggeration. There is definitely an iPhone in my life, my wife’s iPhone 4, and it robs me of sleep.

My wife is addicted to Angry Birds.  It has not quite taken over completely from reading in bed at night (I can thank the late Stieg Larsson for that) but there seems to be an unwritten rule that we have to get through at least 2 or 3 levels of the aforementioned smash hit game before calling it a night.  I am often called in to help out clearing a level if my wife is stuck on it and wants a break to read another chapter of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I am expected to keep going until every last grunting green pig has been blown to bits.


So I know all about the iPhone 4, it’s beautiful “retina” screen and gorgeous build quality. But for my own use I still have my old, battered Windows Mobile phone – an HTC Tytn II (in O2 “Stellar” livery).  It has done a job for me but now enough is enough and I want a modern phone.

Largely out of sheer bedevilment, I am determined not to become an iPhone user like everyone else in my family. And I’m wary of being a Windows Phone early adopter, much as I believe that platform holds out great promise. How could I forget what it was like to be an early adopter of Vista, when the pain of it is still faithfully documented in this blog? So I will go Android, at least for the foreseeable future, and currently favour the Samsung Galaxy S.

It was while I was checking out what the podcast client options look like in the Android world that I came across a free open source application called iTunes Agent. The idea is very simple. It makes your random non-Apple music device look, to iTunes, like an iPod. That means you can use iTunes directly and seamlessly to synchronise music and podcasts with any mp3 player or phone.  iTunes Agent has been around for quite a while and I can’t think how I missed it, particularly when I was casting around for a podcast solution for my HTC WM6 phone. As explained in an earlier post, I have a more than workable solution using iTunes for podcast capture and WMP for synchronisation, but iTunes Agent looked like a neater fix and I thought I should try it out.

I had no trouble installing and running iTunes Agent on my Windows 7 PC, and it hooked up immediately with iTunes. The difficulty I had was getting iTunes Agent to link up to my phone when the latter was connected to the PC via USB.

The way it is supposed to work is that you specify the folder on your music device where you want your synchronised music to live, in my case a folder on the HTC phone’s micro SD storage card. When you connect your phone, iTunes Agent is supposed to detect that this folder  is available on the Windows file system and therefore knows your phone is ready for synchronisation.  The limitation is that iTunes Agent requires your phone or music player to have been allocated a drive letter by Windows, but Windows was just listing my phone under “Portable Devices”. I could easily navigate through the phone’s folders and files using Windows Explorer but no way could I persuade Windows to allocate a drive letter.  And without a drive letter, iTunes Agent refused to accept any folder on the storage card as synchronisation target.

This stumped me for a while until, by dint of frantic Googling, I discovered the difference between the MTP and UMS protocols for connecting storage devices over USB. My phone naturally connects to my PC using MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) – a technology which is reckoned to offer the widest device compatibility with media players – as opposed to UMS (USB Mass Storage) which is targeted more at USB keys and SD card readers. Unfortunately Windows only allocates a drive letter with UMS devices, not with MTP.

More Googling and I found out about two applications that can be installed on a WM phone to make it emulate a UMS device and thus qualify for a drive letter, W5torage and Softick Card Export.  The former was written by a lone developer and is free whereas Card Export is a commercial product. Both were created so that you can in effect use your WM phone as a card reader.

I tried W5torage first.  It installed fine on my phone and appeared to be running, but in UMS mode my PC was not able to detect my phone at all. A quick uninstall and I tried Card Export, which is free to trial for 21 days. I took an instant dislike to the latter because it automatically added an annoying status display to my Today screen and an icon in the notification tray. It did however work. My phone now appeared as the G: drive and at last I was able to configure my phone in iTunes Agent. My HTC now showed up as a device in iTunes.

This did not though constitute a happy ending. Before going much further I was determined to rid my phone’s Today screen of the unwanted Card Export status display.  I went into the phone settings and unticked the Card Export option from the list of Today items. This resulted in my phone locking up. A reboot later and the Today Screen was free of Card Export status, but now my program icons were missing. There was clearly some clash between Card Export and the application manager software from O2 which came with my phone. Now the O2 software is lot more important to me than use of iTunes Agent – my researches in that direction were more curiosity than need – so it was Card Export that was going to have to go.

It took about 10 reboots before the phone was working normally again, with no trace of Card Export, the Today screen displaying all the right items and no lock-ups when I tried to access the Today settings.  There was a moment when I thought I was going to have to ditch the phone as a write-off, or at least restore factory settings.

That is, unfortunately, one of the most problematical issues with Windows Mobile. Lots of apps but easy access by developers to the deep innards of the operating system, which can readily become unstable as a result. I don’t know why iTunes Agent had remained a secret to me for so long but I could have done with it remaining a secret.

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The Black Screen of Death

December 1, 2009

Vista busy cursor According to the BBC (and doubtless others) Microsoft are investigating a new phenomenon affecting Windows 7 which is being dubbed the “black screen of death”.

Oh ho, methinks! Did I not myself verily encounter a most unwelcome phenomenon with Windows about a month ago which I also chose to describe in those exact terms? Except that it was Vista that was getting stuck at a steadfastly black screen, not Windows 7. I now believe that problem arose because I had a dual-boot arrangement (Vista plus Windows 7) which had not been set up correctly, so that the two OSs did not recognise each other’s presence and therefore felt at liberty to interfere with each other’s file and disk security settings. This had robbed both OSs of permissions to load key system files with the result that Vista’s boot up sequence came to a premature halt with a black screen of death while Windows 7 succumbed to an infinite reboot loop. These problems disappeared completely after I reinstalled Windows 7 from scratch and used NeoSmart Technologies’ EasyBCD to set up the boot options menus correctly for both OSs.

I have no idea whether the black screen of death now being reported has anything at all to do with the problem I had with Vista, but I would not be at all surprised to learn it was connected with some automatic system meddling with file and disk permissions, either in relation to a dual boot setup or otherwise.

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Hasta la vista, Windows 7

October 30, 2009

Vista busy cursor For the second time in a matter of weeks I found myself unable to boot into Vista on my home desktop due to a file permissions problem. The tell-tale signs are becoming familiar. Boot-up starts as normal with the screen that has the pulsating green progress bar.

When that disappears we get a black screen and after a few seconds the mouse cursor appears in the centre. The disk continues to thrash for a few more seconds then settles, but we remain stuck looking at the mouse cursor on a black field. The black screen of death.

I believe the problem is that Windows has reached the point where it wants to write to the disk but is unable to because the file it is trying to access has been made read-only or otherwise had its permissions stripped away. You’d think that a booting OS would always have access rights but apparently not.

I wasted hours with Spinrite, thinking it must be due to a damaged sector. The only way out of this, short of a reinstall of the OS, is to boot up in a different OS, maybe on a different disk or from a CD, and then manually change the permissions on the files in the drive that won’t boot.

Ironically, it is the use of different OS’s on different disks on the PC that seems to be implicated in giving rise to the problem in the first place. Particularly if one of the OS’s is Windows 7, or at least the Release Candidate.

I have had two disks on my desktop for years. The larger one (250GB) is the Vista drive that came with the PC. I later added a 40GB drive salvaged from an older computer and for a long time had XP on it. I found I could switch between the two without problem. The BIOS allows you to choose which disk to boot from.

More recently, I used the 40GB disk to try out Windows 7 64-bit – first the Beta then the RC. All went well until my first “black screen of death” crisis. That sorry tale is recounted here. I blamed myself because I had meddled with the permissions on the Vista disk, but that was only to add permissions which seemed to have been “taken away” somehow without my intervention, making files inaccessible over the local network. I am starting to wonder whether Windows 7 was responsible in some way for messing with permissions on the Vista drive.

To my mind, an OS should not be making automatic file permission changes on other drives on the system. I’m not sure why but I suspect Windows 7 does this. The first black screen crisis was resolved when I booted in Windows 7 and could see that the Vista disk had been stripped of permissions. I added them back manually from within Windows 7 and was then able to boot back into Vista.

A second black screen crisis happened a couple of days ago. I had (as on the previous occasion) booted in Windows 7 to play around with a few 64-bit apps. I tried to uninstall an older 64-bit app but Windows 7 refused, claiming it could not locate the original MSI file. I then tried to return to Vista only to find I was back to my black screen of death. Worse, I could not get back into Windows 7 either. That would start to boot then spontaneously restart, causing a never ending loop.

I was forced to do a clean install of XP on the 40GB drive. I had no important data on that drive so it wasn’t an issue.  I could then see all the files on the Vista drive, so as a precaution copied around 200GB of data to my 1TB external drive. I did notice all the files came across with the read-only flag set, which seemed odd. As Vista continued to prove unbootable, even in safe mode, despite hours of Spinrite and other attempted solutions, I decided I would use XP as my main working system for the time being so I started installing apps and device drivers. I also wanted my data available on the network so turned on file sharing. I noticed that when I shared the Vista drive it took a very long time and gave me a message about writing permissions. That got me wondering. I tried booting in Vista and of course it came right up as if nothing had happened.

As I was coming to realise, it was a variant on the permissions problem which had stopped Vista from booting, and the act of sharing the drive had restored the required permissions.  It is though very worrying to think that Windows can so easily get itself locked into an unbootable state like this, with no easy way for the user to diagnose and no solution that does not involve fixing the unbootable disk via a second OS on another drive.

I am hugely relieved to be up and running again, but extremely suspicious of Windows 7 and whether it has tendencies to make unwelcome interventions in other drives on the system, potentially jamming up other OS’s which may be installed on them. Well, for now at least Windows 7 has gone. Hasta la vista.

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Hasta la vista, Vista!

October 22, 2009

Vista busy cursor Never has the name of this blog been more apposite than on the day that Vista’s replacement, Windows 7, officially ships.

Vista has had a very troubled time, as faithfully documented here from early in its lifetime. It earned itself a bad reputation with its plethora of teething problems, having been let out of Redmond half cooked, and couldn’t shake off that negative perception even long after Microsoft had sorted out the glitches. This gave the likes of Apple an opportunity to expand their market share and cement their “we are the choice of the cool dude” image.

But Microsoft realised all they had to do was complete the Vista cooking process, give it a facelift and a few natty new features, rebadge it and push it out to the market to bury the bad Vista Karma as quickly as they could.

And Windows 7 already seems destined to be a hit, repairing the damage to Microsoft’s fortunes inflicted by Vista. Maybe not quite the euphoria of Windows 95 back in the day, but the nearest thing to it Microsoft has enjoyed since. And there will be a palpable sense of relief.

We already know W7 is a stable, quality platform. Many people have been using it in RC form for months. There is no risk whatever of a repeat of the Vista debacle.

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When sharing is not enough

October 1, 2009

Vista busy cursor I came perilously close to trashing my entire Vista install, including loss of some files.  Most of my key data is backed up but the consequences would still have been painful, particularly thinking of the time needed to get all my software reinstalled and everything configured.

And it would have been for nothing.  All because I was messing around with folder permissions and not being careful enough.

I was getting cheesed off with not being able to get to some of the folders and files on my Vista desktop’s C: drive from the various household laptops, over the domestic twifi.  I had shared the whole of the C: drive but many key folders, eg the desktop, were not accessible.  I found out that this was because sharing is not enough.  There are two hurdles to be overcome for one PC to access another’s files over a LAN or wifi: the folder must both be shared and have sufficiently relaxed file system permissions. So I set about trying to make everything on the C: drive accessible to Everyone, with Full Control.  It sounds dangerous but isn’t really. The whole network is protected by a fully stealthed NAT router.

Well, it shouldn’t have been dangerous but was nearly terminal, although I didn’t know anything was wrong for a while.  That’s because I have Windows 7 RC installed on another local disk (D:) and decided to boot into that for a while to try a few things out.  Only later did I try to boot back into Vista – and failed.  I got as far as the boot up screen with progress bar then all went black.  The mouse cursor was still visible, and moved in response to the mouse, but that was it.

Not realising the cause of the problem, I proceeded to lose a fair bit of time.  Trying many forms of OS repair from the Vista recovery disk, running Spinrite, pulling my hair out.  I was on the point of giving up and reinstalling Vista from scratch (and losing everything on the C: drive) when I had an idea.  I could boot into Windows 7 from the D: drive then try to recover my files from the C: drive (and save them on my external 1TB drive) before embarking on the Vista reinstall.

So I booted up in Windows 7 and found that the Vista boot drive (which appears as D: from within Windows 7) was greyed out.  If I attempted to explore it I would be fobbed off with an “Access Denied” message.  I found, though, that if I opened an administrator command prompt I could still navigate the disk.  I went so far as to start a massive disk copy from within the DOS prompt, intending to save all the files to the external drive.

Luckily, my brain started to work and it all began to make sense.  The admin command prompt could access the drive because the permissions on it allowed admin access, but there was no access for “regular users” so the drive was greyed out in Windows Explorer.  The penny dropped.  In trying to open up user permissions on that drive I had somehow screwed things up and removed some key access rights so that critical files were no longer accessible at boot time.  So if I could resolve that I might be able to boot up in Vista again.

From within Windows 7 I found I could still access the Properties >Security dialog on the drive and (carefully) give Full Control to Everyone, using UAC to elevate my rights to admin level for the purpose.

And of course that did the trick and I was able to get back into Vista with all data intact.  It had been a very, very near miss and entirely down to my own ineptitude.

From which I learn that if you are going to be an idiot, it helps if the fact of your idiocy can be persuaded to dawn on you in a reasonably timely fashion.

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This iPhoneless Life #8 – Full circle

April 13, 2009

iPod Having tried a number of Windows Mobile audio player programs I am back with Windows Media Player Mobile (WMPM), at least for everything apart from audiobooks.  And I am back to AudiblePlayer for the latter.

As I explained in a previous post, I had moved away from AudiblePlayer because it did not support my bluetooth A2DP earphones properly, with the result that the audio (which is mono) was coming out of the left channel only.  I had therefore embarked on a tour of proprietary media player solutions, in the hope of finding one that would play audiobooks properly and (ideally) handle my music and podcasts as well.

I had all but settled on Pocket Tunes, which ticks most of the boxes but is quite expensive. It also offers syncing direct with iTunes, as opposed to my current two-stage solution of  using  iTunes for podcast capture followed by WMP for syncing with the phone. Ironically, it was my attempt to get this iTunes sync functionality working which ultimately did away with the need for Pocket Tunes at all.

To explain how this came about we need to introduce my old nemesis, ActiveSync, into the story. Strictly I should call it WMDC, as Microsoft have rebranded it for Vista in the hope that we’d all be fooled into thinking it really isn’t as bad as we remember it. It turns out that when I installed WMDC on my Vista PC a year ago it was missing certain key drivers.  An updated version was released later but not rolled out automatically. Of course, I had no way of knowing that. But I had noted that some applications for the phone refused to install over WMDC, giving error messages of various descriptions. Where CAB files were provided by the vendor I could use them to get software installed on my phone, but in other cases I was stuck.  For example, I had not been able to get the latest versions of Audible Manager and AudibleAir installed on my PC and phone.  The installs failed and, at the time, I didn’t understand the error messages. It wasn’t stopping me enjoying audiobooks at that point so I didn’t waste time trying to get to the bottom of the problem.

Of course, when I attempted to install the Pocket Tunes iTunes sync software I hit the same issue again, the error message being “Can’t find CE Application Manager“.  This time I was less inclined to give up.  Googling took me to this website. Now being aware that I had an out of date (and incomplete) installation of WMDC I installed the current version.  This had the benefit that I was at last able to install Pocket Tunes iTunes sync and establish that it worked very nicely.

And while about it I also installed the latest Audible software, both to my PC and my phone, now that the path was clear.  This included an upgrade from AudiblePlayer 5.5.0.6 to 5.5.0.7.  And guess what? The new AudiblePlayer supports bluetooth properly so audiobooks play on both channels.  Still mono of course but at least in the middle of my head rather than in one ear only.

Conclusion? I don’t need to spend money on Pocket Tunes. I have gone back to WMPM and am using the latest AudiblePlayer for my audiobooks. Problem solved for an outlay of nil, plus a modicum of perseverance.

Mind you, ActiveSync/WMDC had the last laugh. After I installed the latest WMDC, it wouldn’t sync with my phone unless I removed one of the two established relationships.  I wasn’t sure which one was the one I needed so picked one more or less at random. After the next sync every single appointment had been wiped from my Calendar in Pocket Outlook. Thank you, WMDC. So kind. At least it had the good grace to leave my contacts alone.

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Hasta la vista, wordpress.com

February 4, 2009

Vista busy cursor No, I’m not ditching WordPress, but I have got rid of the pesky wordpress.com domain from my URL.

No longer http://hastalavistavista.wordpress.com, this blog is now just http://hastalavistavista.com.

WordPress have found a new way to make money.  They monitor domain names likely to be of interest to their customers and automattically (sic) offer them for purchase when they come available.  Clearly the guy who owned hastalavistavista.com failed to renew. I did make contact with him (Nicky Precht) a while back and tried to get the domain transferred, but it was too difficult to deal with his registrars and I gave up.

Then today a message pops up on my admin page to let me know the hastalavistavista.com domain is there to be had.

WordPress make it so easy to buy the domain through them and link it up to your blog that they will capture a lot of domain registration business.  Clever or what?

Maybe I’m silly for investing in a domain that is in danger of becoming “dated”, what with Vista recovering from its troubled birth and now the advent of Windows 7. But this website has established a brand in its own very modest way, so I’m going to stick with the name.

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