Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why is a 2-year old Mac better than a new Windows 7 machine?

Because the Mac seamlessly and effortlessly connects to a wireless network while the Windows 7 Just Doesn't, even after repeated trouble-shooting.

I'm visiting family in Boston and they have a wireless network. A few days ago, I fire up my MacBook Pro (about 2.5 years old, now running Snow Leopard), go to the AirPort (WiFi) preferences, identify the network ID, enter the password and -- snap! -- I'm on the internet.

This morning, I decide it's time to do a few things with my new Dell laptop running Windows 7 and I figure that setting up the wireless connection won't be too hard... foolish assumption.

First off, I have to find the right place to get things done. Dell has a "helpful" piece of software -- the Dell ControlPoint Connection Manager -- that I guess is supposed to make my life easier. After poking around a bit, I see that it doesn't even recognize that there's a wireless network: it has options for wireless (even including trouble-shooting FAQs), but none of the options for wireless networks are active... they're all greyed out and therefore not available.

So off I go to the Control Panel, hoping against hope that Micro$oft has improved this since Windows XP. What I learn after almost an hour of fiddling is that they've added lots of fancy-schmancy displays and options, but it's still just as bad as ever.

The bottom line is that the house where I'm staying has an old wireless router which uses WEP encryption (that old encryption that is so easily broken it might as well be transmitting in clear text).  The good part about Windows 7 is that it know this is poor encryption, so they refuse to connect to the network, even though I've given it the proper credentials.  The bad part is that they do so without any explanation whatsoever.

I wind up running the network trouble-shooter. The good part is it helpfully responds with a link to explain "How do I change security settings or manually create a profile?" The bad part is that this supposedly helpful page says nothing about manually creating a profile, which is what I'm supposed to do.

As is the way of Windows, the critical information may well be there, but buried so deeply that -- if you don't already know what the answer is, you'll never find it. In this case, you have to know to click on the "Encryption methods for wireless networks". It looks like just more general information about WEP and why that's a Bad Thing, but way down at the bottom, there is a detailed step-by-step approach to manually creating a network profile and forcing the connection to occur. The bad part is the instructions are flawed: three quarters of the way through the sequence, when I'm supposed to get the critical option to manually connect to the network, the dialogue closes and I'm right back where I started: no connection.

Sure... I've had some headaches with getting my Mac to work in development mode, but it's really nice to have at least one machine that Just Works when it comes to getting on the internet.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Two more backup failures...

So after the dismal failure of Acronis, I tried another backup solution: a product called Backup Maker from ASCOMP Software. It had gotten some nice reviews, so I figured I'd try the free version and see if it was worth the upgrade.

I set it up to run overnight, according to their instructions. Unfortunately, when I came in to the office this morning, I found a couple of warning messages from Backup Maker saying that it was unable to backup a couple of Norton files.

Too bad: backup software that's supposed to run unattended shouldn't be displaying messages and waiting for an operator to respond. Figuring that I might have made a setup error and assuming that the backup program was now running happily in the background, I decided to go check on what it was doing and make sure that the settings were correct.

Too bad again: Backup Maker had completely stopped, complaining that it didn't have enough space on the backup volume that I had pointed to and it hadn't done anything. This in spite of the fact that there was over 400 Gigabytes of free space on that volume!

I also tried out a product call Synchronicity (by Create Software) which can be found on SourceForge, a major repository of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS, to some). It didn't take me long to dump that one as well, The only way I could find to define backups was one folder at a time, rather than being able to select multiple directories from a file tree. And that was way too time-consuming. Maybe the option was buried in there somewhere, but I sure didn't want to take the time to find out. If new software isn't reasonably intuitive to me, I just drop it and move on.

So, two more backup programs byte the dust.

How hard can it be to write a backup program that just works?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

How bad can it get...?

Well... pretty bad I must say.

The backups on my new Windows 7 machine fail about every 2nd or 3rd try. It refuses to make a backup to a local hard drive (moderately unreasonable, in my opinion: I should be able to put my backup data where I want to and then copy it off elsewhere, although something off the computer you're trying to backup is definitely the best solution), so I use a networked hard drive across my Gigabyte network. No other software has problems using this drive (a Western Digital WorldBook, a very nice little NAS (network attached storage) device with Gigabyte transfer rates and a Terabyte of storage at a nice price), but Win7 backup sure does. At midnight, it complains of a network error and shuts down the backup.

So I figured I'd have to try another backup program. I've used Acronis in the past, didn't particularly like it in Version 8, but there were several reviews that discussed it favorably and one that described how mightily it had improved.

So I figured I'd give it a whirl with a trial version... bad decision. It doesn't work and support isn't available

First off, it's a monster install: about 250Meg download and almost 500Meg to install - what in the heck are they doing with all that code?

Secondly, the company makes you jump through all kinds of hoops to get the download itself, what with filling out forms, getting a validation email, then more data, and finally the download.  In the process, they give you a trial serial number which I duly copied and installed in the trial software. The one tricky part -- which will be a killer for many users -- is that they require a modification to your firewall software to let port 9876 through... this may be the problem, even though I modified Norton Firewall service in what I thought was the required fashion. But making users edit firewall rules is pretty arcane stuff and Definitely Not Recommended.

Thirdly, I setup a download following their instructions: to their credit, there are lots of options. To their discredit, the backup completely failed to run.

Finally, I went to their website and was completely unable to get support. Why is that, you ask?  Well... they require that you register your product to receive support, but the registration page refuses to accept the trial registration key that they gave me. So: no registration, no support.

I'm guessing that it has to do with the firewall rules, but since Acronis doesn't provide an option to test the basic features and make sure that everything works as expected, there's no real way to tell this short of hauling out Wireshark or other network tools and I sure don't have the time to do that.

What a waste of time...