They Still Don’t Make ’em Like They Used To

Long-time readers will recall that slightly less than a year ago I finally replaced my venerable old Netgear RT314 router with a newer Netgear WGR614 v7 router.

Ever since then, I’ve been battling with an intermittent problem – the worst kind to debug. At seemingly random intervals, the router would reset itself – dropping my LAN connection (and of course any wireless connections) for a few seconds until it finished rebooting.

For a while, I thought it was my Internet connection dropping (and the router was just resetting to reconnect). There wasn’t much I could do about intermittent Internet connection problems (short of going with a different ISP)… but something didn’t seem right.

I wondered why the router would be resetting when the Internet connection was dropped. It seemed a little… unusual.

Since it was an intermittent problem, it was terribly difficult to diagnose. (When you can’t make a problem reoccur, it’s really hard to debug.) But eventually I realized it wasn’t the Internet – it was the router itself. (Coincidentally, it just reset while I was writing this post!)

I had heard horror stories from people that they had to reset their routers frequently, after a certain number of packets had been sent. But that didn’t seem to be the case here – sometimes, it would reset twice in a short period of time (less than an hour), and I knew I wasn’t sending that much data (I monitor my network usage).

It wasn’t terribly catastrophic in the grand scheme of things – it did, after all, work normally after a few seconds of disconnection. But it WAS annoying – and worse, it seemed to be interrupting my on-line backups with Mozy. Although Mozy can recover from Internet connection problems, when the router resets it literally powers off the LAN ports for a moment – causing Windows to react as if the network cable has been unplugged (and producing a message to that effect). This would wreak havoc with any long-term network connection, as you would imagine!

So finally I decided I had sufficient evidence to go to Netgear’s tech support with the problem. After the usual run-around from tech support (upgrade your firmware, reset all your settings back to the default, lather, rinse, repeat, etc.), they told me it must be a hardware problem.

So, now I’m facing returning my router – not a pleasant thought, as the usual routine is to return the defective device (at your own cost) and then wait a week or more while a replacement in shipped. In the meantime, you have nothing.

Although I could always fall back on my venerable old RT314, I now have a Nintendo Wii, which connects wirelessly, not to mention Amanda who works from home at times with her (obviously) wireless-connecting laptop. So no wireless in the house for a week or more was no good.

Fortunately, Netgear does offer a pre-ship option, where they’ll ship you the new unit first, and then you can return the broken one. You pay for it (for the shipping both ways), but it’s not too bad. And it prevents me from having to be without a (wireless) router for a week or more.

So that’s where we are today – the new router is on its way, and when it gets here I’ll return the one I have now. Then, we’ll see if this was just a fluke (a.k.a. bad quality control) or whether the overall quality of Netgear products has decreased from when I bought my old RT314.

I guess we’ll see…

Internet connection icon courtesy of the Crystal Icon Set.

UPDATE: The Saga Continues yet again…

Windows Still Works for Me

I ran across this story from Ernie the Attorney today about a lawyer who was having trouble with Windows and got some rather strange advice from a “Windows zealot” in a discussion group:

The Windows zealot tells him that if he switches to a Mac just to avoid those problems he’s basically ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water.’ Then, after carefully considering the best way to solve all of the guy’s supposed problems, he offers this amazing solution:

“Do a fresh install of Windows XP. This will ultimately be quicker than trying to figure out what is going on exactly. Once installed update Windows until it will update no more.” (emphasis added)

Between that story and things like “How to install Windows XP in 5 hours or less,” it sort of got me thinking – what is wrong with this picture?

Let me just say from the start: I use Windows. I like Linux (both for its principles and for its intrinsic qualities) and I appreciate Mac OS X (being itself based on Unix), but I use Windows. That said, I do not recommend any one OS over another – it all depends on what you’re looking for. So let’s just say that I’m neither a zealot of any particular OS, nor a “basher” or “hater” of any particular OS, either.

When I hear stuff about the “Windows half-life” and the idea that having to completely re-install the OS on a regular basis is a “normal” thing, I just can’t understand it – because, frankly, my experiences have been totally different.

Let me explain:

The copy of Windows that is running on my current computer is the same one that was installed when it came from Dell’s factory – it has never been re-installed, ever. And I’ve owned it for almost 3 and a half years. My previous computer ran for nearly 6 years without an OS re-install.

Let’s also remember that I only own one computer, and I use it every day – and I do mean “use.” I do software development on my computer, I install beta versions of programs, I install games (admittedly not many, but still), I do some video editing, I do a little bit of music editing, I use bluetooth headsets and IP telephony, I use the Windows Media Center application… I mean, well, just look at a few of my start menu branches:

Get the picture?

Oh, and I should mention – my computer is running just fine after 3 and a half years, thank you.

In my experience, all that it takes to keep Windows in good running order is some common sense – don’t install junk, and just… use your brain (especially when it comes to email and some types of web sites), and you should be OK.

But… maybe I’m the exception to the rule? I am a software developer, after all – if I see trouble with a program, I’m liable to just fire up a debugger and dive right in and figure out exactly what’s gone wrong.

To me, when someone suggests re-installing the operating system as a “fix,” it’s like being slapped in the face with a dead herring – I mean, seriously, WTF? Oh, sure, it’s possible for malware and viruses to get their little tentacles deep down in your system so that the only reasonable way to get rid of them is to format & re-install, but if you use common sense, you wouldn’t have malware and viruses to begin with! (And I submit that if there was the same malware and viruses for Linux or Mac OS, you’d end up having to do formats & re-installs for those systems as well.)

Are people just getting lazy when it comes to taking care of their Windows PCs? Or am I the only one who has gotten long life from a Windows installation?

Breaking the Web

Recently I’ve found more than a few websites using a very annoying pop-up preview thing – you’ve probably seen it yourself, popping up when you mouse over a link on a web page. It’s from some place called “Snap,” and it shows you a preview of the page the link leads to – I guess so you can… see it before you see it?

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see the point. In this day and age – with tabbed browsing available from all the major web browsers, there’s just no need for a “preview” of a link. Just open the link in a new tab! Seriously!

Considering how much people hate other kinds of “pop-ups,” it’s surprising that they’d put up with these kind. And even more confusing is why website authors themselves would include the functionality in the first place. Maybe they just think it looks “cool?”

Personally, I find it terribly distracting at best, and at worst I find that it totally breaks the web – it stops you from reading the content behind it, it causes random asynchronous requests from your browser (using AJAX no doubt), and it just slows down the whole experience. If you’ve got a page with more than a few links on it, and you move your mouse over the page, you might be in for quite a surprise as dozens of these little pop-ups try and spring to life, like monsters born from the dust of some evil pixie or something. Never mind that the preview is too small to really make a difference anyway. The most you can hope for is to see whether the linked page uses a particular color scheme. It’s like trying to preview a page by looking at your monitor while seated 20 feet away.

In short, utterly useless.

Really Annoying Flaw in NTFS Mount Points

UPDATE: As some people have noted, this problem was fixed in Windows Vista, so “it’s not really a problem anymore.” And with Windows 7 out now, and Windows XP slowly dying, there’s no real reason to worry about this anymore. But I’m leaving this article here, just for the sake of posterity.

I found out (the hard way) about this particular problem with NTFS Mount points today:

When you try to delete folders that are stored on a mounted drive and to send them to the Recycle Bin, you may receive the following error message:

Cannot delete Foldername: Access is denied. The source file may be in use.

This behavior occurs because the Recycle Bin does not understand mounted volumes.

This was really freaking annoying. What makes it even worse is that there is no “fix” for the problem; only a workaround is available. And the workaround?

When you delete the files or folders by using Windows Explorer, use the SHIFT+DELETE key combination. This bypasses the Recycle Bin.

Riiiiiiiiight. Because bypassing the Recycle Bin is exactly what I want to do WHEN IT’S MY ENTIRE USER PROFILE FOLDER THAT IS ON A MOUNTED DRIVE!

Now I’m really pissed off, because I no longer have the capability to try and go back to the configuration I originally planned to use with the new drive (copy partition & resize to new drive) – this is because I’ve already mounted the new drive and formatted it. Changing this now would involve a lot of copying data around and resizing of partitions, without being able to have a “backup” in place as before – a risk I’m not willing to take.

I may have to put on my Windows Hacker Hat for this one and figure out how to either:

  1. Make the Windows Recycle Bin understand Mounted drives, or;
  2. Make Windows automatically bypass the Recycle Bin for Mounted drives.

Because remembering to SHIFT+DEL every time I want to delete a folder from anywhere in my user profile directory (including but not limited to: My Documents, My Music, My Videos, My Pictures, etc.) is just not OK. Never mind what it’s going to do to programs that try to delete things – I can just see all the error messages now!

If anyone from Microsoft is reading this – especially anyone from the shell/explorer team – please, please, please bump this bug up in priority – I’m begging you!!

Computer Drama

So, my new 500 GB hard drive arrived the other day. Thus began the 3-part geek tragedy that accompanies any computer upgrade.

First off, let me say that it’s been a while since I’ve done this. The last time I installed a new hard drive in my computer, Ultra DMA was still pretty new – and every hard drive tended to ship with an IDE ribbon cable, just in case.

My first lesson was that this is no longer the case – or at least, it’s not the case with SATA drives, which is of course what my computer uses now. So, when I hunkered down Friday night to install my hard drive, I quickly hit the impasse of “no cable.” Silly me!

To be fair though, I must compliment modern PC designers – or maybe just Dell. This was the simplest hard drive install I’ve ever done. Say what you will about Dell (or mass-produced PCs in general), but they do have some good points. I just slipped out the plastic drive tray, popped the drive in, and slid it back into place. No tools needed. Sweet!

The next day, I hopped over to the nearest store where I could confirm that they had an SATA cable – which turned out to be Radio Shack. Of course they charged $10 for what should’ve been a $3 cable – but of course it was all shiny and colored and probably meant for more of the “case mod” crowd than people like me, but whatever. I got a really good deal on the hard drive to begin with, so I didn’t mind spending a few dollars more for the cable.

The First Signs of Trouble

I snapped the cable into place easily (I’m really liking SATA, BTW) and the drive came online easily. Now I just needed to boot from my GParted LiveCD and copy my partitions onto the new drive, resize them to take advantage of the new space, and I’d be done. Although the resizing would take a while, it should be pretty simple – just set it up, let it run, read a book while it churns, and come back when it’s done. How hard could it be?

Hard DriveThe answer, it turns out, is really hard. GParted (or more specifically, NTFSResize) kept saying that I had “bad sectors” on my drive, and because of this it refused to touch my main NTFS windows partition. Ugh.

So, following the advice of the tool, I rebooted and ran CHKDSK… and it found nothing. I booted to the Windows Recovery Console (following advice found online) and ran CHKDSK from there… and it found nothing. I booted into the “utility partition” that came with my Dell and ran the HDD diagnostic tools there – they all said the drive was A-OK. I rebooted, tried GParted again – no luck, it STILL insisted that there were bad sectors. I even ran Seagate’s own “SeaTools” disk diagnostic program – on both drives, with each scan taking several hours – and both drives “passed” the tests, no errors detected. But still, I couldn’t use GParted because NTFSResize kept saying there were bad sectors.

By this point, it was Saturday night and I was getting impatient. “OK,” I said, “screw you, GParted – I’ll just use some other tool to copy the partition, and then resize.” Oh ho ho ho ho, how naive I was to think that I could get away with this!

Trying to Outwit Fate

I used a disk cloning tool to make a copy of my hard drive on the new drive. Naturally, since the new drive was bigger, it didn’t use up all the available space after the copy. I figured that since the new drive was, well, new, it wouldn’t have bad sectors and once the data was copied I’d be able to resize the partitions easily.

This, of course, was not the case.

8 hours later and the copy was complete. I fire up GParted and… NTFSResize stubbornly refused to resize my partition, even though I had made a complete copy a new disk. It still said I had bad sectors.

At this point, I was beginning to wonder exactly how NTFSResize detected these bad sectors. It took over an hour for CHKDSK to do a complete scan, how was NTFSResize, which booted up in just a few seconds, detecting these bad sectors? And did the disk clone really copy the bad sectors as well, or just some partition table information that labeled certain sectors as “bad?”

The Compromise

By this point it was late Sunday afternoon, and my weekend of spare time was quickly running out. So I decided to compromise by using option 2 from my original post – the feature of NTFS “junction” points. It wasn’t ideal, but it would work – mostly.

I booted into Safe Mode and logged in under my seldom-used Administrator account. From there, I copied my entire user profile directory to a temporary location so I had an empty directory to junction with (for obvious reasons, you can only junction to an empty directory).

While I was at this stage, I thought “perhaps 500 GB just for my personal user profile is a bit much – surely I can junction another large folder and split the space into two partitions, perhaps 250 GB for my user profile and 250 GB for, say, “Program Files?” Well, no, actually, you can’t do that, as it turns out. Windows won’t let you rename the Program Files folder (even in Safe Mode), so you can’t use that trick to junction it to a different partition.

This wasn’t a huge setback – my user profile takes up some 60% of the space on my drive, what with movies & music & other such things – but while not ideal, it would work.

So after waiting an hour or so for the new partition to format, I had it linked to my user profile directory. Now to just copy my data back into the folder – which is now a “hard link” to a partition on a different drive. 🙂

A few hours later (hey, it’s a lot of data!) and my profile had been moved to the new junction – effectively, the new drive. I rebooted and everything came up A-OK.

Now, my user profile directory (all of it, not just the “My Documents” folder mind you) is actually located on a physically different hard drive (although it could have been any other partition).

As you can see (click the image for the full-sized picture), my user-profile folder “Keith” even has a distinct icon to show that it is linked to a different hard drive.

What was once a rather cramped 144 GB drive is now 79% free space – plenty of room for growth (new programs, Windows updates, etc.). And my bulky user profile, with its massive music & movie collections, now has plenty of room to grow on that new partition (named “HAL” for personal historical reasons – before Windows introduced the “My Documents” folder, I used to keep documents in a folder called “HAL”).

Those other FAT and FAT32 partitions, in case you are curious, are the utility partitions for Dell – where it has the “recovery & diagnostic tools.” They don’t take up too much space, so I leave them around – and they may come in handy someday.

Conclusion

I would have much preferred to be able to do what I originally set out to do. I’ve used GParted before, and I’ve had nothing but good experiences prior to this. The new drive is (presumably) slightly faster than my old one (bigger cache), and I would have liked to have that slight speed advantage for some of my, you know, programs, or maybe even for Windows itself.

I still wonder what those “bad sectors” were. I suspect that they may have been found long ago, and CHKDSK found them and dutifully marked them as “bad” after recovering data from them. They certainly don’t cause me any trouble – my computer is (knock on wood) quite reliable. Why NTFSResize refused to run is beyond me – perhaps being a little too paranoid about data integrity? And why there isn’t an option to just ignore the errors and continue I’ll never know – these are Linux-based programs, after all. Isn’t that kind of power/option the whole spirit of Linux? (I suppose I could have downloaded the source code to NTFSResize and re-compiled it myself to do what I wanted, but seriously, who has the time?)

I’m not knocking GParted – it’s still my favorite tool for this kind of work. But it was rather frustrating – it did, after all, eat up my entire weekend.

What do you think – was I just unlucky, or is this common when resizing NTFS partitions?

(Image credit to geerlingguy for the Creative Commons licensed image.)