A Look at Windows XP Service Pack 3 Part 1: Good Enough?

Rather than write a traditional review of Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3), I thought this might be an opportune time to reevaluate XP’s standing in the Windows world. After all, virtually every technology pundit on earth has described Windows Vista as operating system non grata, an upgrade to be avoided at all costs. Over at the tabloid-o-rific InfoWorld, a “Save XP” petition has garnered 100,000 signatures: Sure, that pales next to the 120+ million people that are using Windows Vista at this time, but what the heck. There must be something to this. Is XP really good enough to warrant saving?

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To find out, I did a clean install of Windows XP with a near-final version of Service Pack 3, the final XP service pack. I then installed a number of applications and technologies from Microsoft that bring XP roughly up to speed with Windows Vista, including Internet Explorer 7, the various Windows Live suite tools, Windows Defender, Windows Media Player 11, and Office 2007. And then I installed my stock group of preferred applications on the system, including AVG Free Antivirus, Apple iTunes, Firefox 3 Beta, Adobe PhotoShop Elements, WinRAR, and several others.

And you know what? I get it. I get why all those people are freaking out over the impending end of the mainstream availability of Windows XP, why so many are clamoring for Microsoft to give its previous generation OS another chance. And it has nothing to do with any faults in Vista, real or imagined. (Mostly imagined, actually.) No, it has everything to do with human nature. We’re creatures of habit, you and I. And even the most forward-looking of us, those who enjoy living on the edge, technology-wise, have a very natural need to be in the comfort zone sometimes. And XP is just that, comfortable, like that ratty old sweatshirt that we should have thrown out years ago but just can’t bear to replace.

Don’t get me wrong, though: It’s not like anything’s broken here. Windows XP has plenty of life left in it. This system will run on far less demanding hardware, comfortably, than any version of Windows Vista, and that alone means this system will be around for years to come. (Not surprisingly, XP also provides better performance in virtual machines as well.) After all, PCs last a lot longer than they used to, and while Microsoft and Intel wrestle with the fact that Moore’s Law is succumbing to the current generation of under-utilized multi-processor CPUs, everyday users are noticing that they can get a lot more out of yesterday’s software than was possible a decade ago during the Megahertz wars. This is big news for the industry, and for the billions of people who use PCs every day.

No, clinging to Windows XP is entirely understandable. I typically advise against upgrading to Vista on current, XP-based hardware. After all, not only will XP likely run more quickly on your existing hardware, but you’ll probably also experience better compatibility, both with software and hardware devices. The old maxim is as true as ever: Unless you’re an expert, you should simply adopt the latest Windows version when you purchase a new PC. This discussion begs a new type of question, however: Should you opt for XP over Vista on a new PC? (Though to be fair that question will become academic this summer when XP is no longer available in this fashion.)

My answer to this question is no, you shouldn’t. Instead, you should choose Windows Vista, for the many reasons I’ve outlined in my Windows Vista review (check out the final part of that review for a quick list of reasons why I think Vista is a big deal and a huge improvement over XP.)

But that’s not what this article is about. No, this is about those of you who have elected, bravely, foolishly, or otherwise, to stick with XP. So let’s take a look, a last look at Windows XP, at least on this site, which is, after all, dedicated to the future of Windows, and not the past. But I think it’s OK to take a step back and see whether what’s old can be new again. After all, that’s what Windows XP Service Pack 3 is all about.
Windows XP and the Vista conundrum

In delaying Windows Vista for over two years, as Microsoft did between 2004 and 2006, the software giant exacerbated the problem it always has getting customers to upgrade, and it did so once inadvertently and once on purpose. The inadvertent bit was that the longer Vista was delayed, the more comfortable XP became to users. Though XP suffered from the same performance, stability, and compatibility issues that dogged Vista in its first year (and, let’s not forget, please, that XP also suffered from a range of extremely high profile security issues the kind of which have never plagued Vista, thank you very much), enough time passed that people simply forgot. Anyone buying a new PC during 2005 and 2006 discovered, perhaps to their amazement, that things actually worked pretty well most of the time. This kind of experience may be commonplace in the tightly controlled Mac OS X environment, but in the willy-nilly world of Windows, where any third-rate second-world company can and will ship a painfully bad device driver at the drop of a hat, this level of stability and reliability was a new phenomenon. Windows XP simply got more mature over time, in ways that were never possible with previous versions of Windows. For the first time ever, time effectively slowed in the computer industry. The upgrade cycle pretty much ended for a while there. (Further evidence of this evolutionary mindset can be seen in the number of XP-based OSes Microsoft shipped in this time frame, including various versions of XP Media Center and Tablet PC Editions.)

More purposefully, Microsoft also screwed over Windows Vista. As Vista was delayed again and again, Microsoft realized that it would be a mistake to tie the success of key new technologies that were to have originally been Vista-only. So it back-ported a number of technologies to XP, things that previously were designed to be Vista-specific. These include, among others, Windows Defender, Internet Explorer 7, Windows Presentation Foundation, Windows Communications Foundation, .NET 3.x, the Windows Security Center, Windows Media Player 11, and even Office 2007. (Remember, Office 2007 was originally going to be Vista-only, was then going to offer unique Vista-only functionality, and was finally changed so that it worked identically on Vista and XP.) Microsoft also dramatically detuned some key Vista features, like Instant Search, while cancelling related technologies such as WinFS. In short, Vista became less exciting over this time period whereas Windows XP became more and more capable. Now, I understand why Microsoft made these decisions and I may even agree with most of them. But the net effect should have been predictable: By not drawing a clearer line between XP and Vista for much of its next-generation technologies, Microsoft in effect created a situation where XP didn’t become obsolete as quickly as did previous Windows versions. Now, the goal is admirable and understandable: Those technologies would achieve greater success due to their exposure to a larger audience. But Vista suffered as a result.

Couple this strategy with the Vista delays and Microsoft’s inability to capitalize on multi-core hardware (another way in which Vista could have differentiated itself from XP), and suddenly XP becomes that comfortable old sweatshirt I discussed previously. I have no doubt these events will be closely studied by both Microsoft and various business schools in the future. To say that this was a lost opportunity is an understatement.

So here it is, in 2008, four long years after Microsoft shipped the last major update to Windows XP (Service Pack 2, which can and should have been marketed as a completely new Windows version). Microsoft may have originally wanted to ship Windows XP SP3 long, long ago, but the Windows division got all caught up in this little project called Windows Vista, so XP SP3 was sort of cast to the side and forgotten. Well, forgotten by Microsoft, that is: The company’s biggest and most important customers–big businesses–seemed poised to settle on XP for the next decade, and they were getting a bit prickly about all the post-SP2 hot-fixes that Microsoft has shipped over the past three years. It seems these things are a bit time consuming to install, and they were interested in getting that promised next service pack, which would roll-up all the previous fixes into a single, convenient update.

Microsoft was quiet about SP3 for a long time, but last year the company finally owned up to the fact that it would indeed develop SP3 and ship it sometime in 2008. And sure enough, SP3 nicely rolls up all of the previously released hot fixes, providing a more seamless (i.e. less complicated and time consuming) install experience. There are a few new features, but not really, unless, again, you’re one of those big businesses Microsoft is so concerned about (see my XP SP3 FAQ for details). As with Windows Vista SP1, XP SP3 is a traditional service pack, more about rolling up previous hot-fixes than about new functionality. And in XP’s case, specifically, that’s just fine because XP, as noted previously, has already gotten a new lease on life. Heck, practically anything that’s available in Vista is available on XP now too, right?

Well, not exactly. But this isn’t a matter of whether all of Vista’s useful features and functionality are being made available on XP. It’s a matter of whether enough of Vista’s useful features and functionality are being made available on XP. In other words: Is XP still good enough? No, XP with SP3 isn’t as “good” as Windows Vista, but remember that it doesn’t have to be. It only has to be good enough. And maybe it is. It’s certainly good enough to make people forget all about Linux on the desktop. It’s proven good enough to keep people from switching to the Mac in dangerous numbers. And it appears to be good enough to make customers look at Vista and say, eh, there’s not enough there there.

And that’s a problem, at least for Microsoft and its current and future platforms. Because in this case, I think the company has kowtowed a bit too much to those who would see XP live forever. It cut a bit too deep from Vista and gave a bit too much to XP. Microsoft will tell you that this doesn’t matter. A Windows license sold, after all, is a Windows license sold. But that’s absolute baloney. If customers are standing put on the previous version, that means they’re not sold on the company’s technological vision, and they’re no longer lining up as Microsoft tries to lead them to the future. I mean, imagine a case in which customers were allowed to choose between a previous generation Toyota Camry and the all-new, designed-from-the-ground-up 2008 model, and the customers actually chose the old version by a roughly 2-to-1 margin, despite the fact that the price hadn’t changed at all? This would be devastating to any car maker. I believe it’s devastating to Microsoft for the same basic reasons.

But enough business theory. What I’m really concerned with here is how this affects you, the Windows user. And the question I put before you, again, is … Is Windows XP good enough?

Saying Goodbye To Old Technology

A reader recently made an interesting point: Windows XP, to his mind, was the tech story of the decade. He’s probably right. Microsoft has never made an OS of any kind with this lengthy a life cycle, and XP has lived on in the face of two major upgrades, Vista and 7, both of which were designed to obsolete it. But the success of XP has a dark side as well. And with most businesses still standardized on this Windows version, XP’s problems are starting to outweigh the benefits.

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Part of the problem is that XP still ships with wildly outdated non-core technologies, many of which are becoming favorite targets of hackers. Key among these are Internet Explorer (IE) 6 and, less obviously, Adobe Flash 6.

I’d be surprised to discover that I needed to defend my contention that IE 6 is arguably the most dangerous software any business could have deployed throughout their environment today. But it bears repeating: The web is the number one vector of electronic attack, and IE 6 was built for a different decade and, more important, before Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing initiative. Put simply, it’s just not safe to use.

The problem, of course, is that IE 6 is in fact still widely used. And this is despite two major IE upgrades, IE 7 and IE 8, both of which are dramatically more secure and dramatically more functional. (These two newer IE versions aren’t perfect, however. In the recent electronic attack on Google and other companies that emanated out of China, a vulnerability in IE 6, 7, and 8 was allegedly used. This begs a separate question: Does it make sense for any security-conscious business to use IE at all?)

So the possibilities of hacker attacks against IE aren’t all that surprising. But many admins may not even realize that Windows XP ships with a hugely outdated Flash version. In fact, it’s so old, that Adobe has shipped four major updates to the software since XP first arrived. It’s now up to version 10.

Because multiple vulnerabilities in Flash 6 can be targeted by hacker attacks and result in remote code execution exploits, Microsoft recommends that XP users update to the current Flash version. Common sense, right? But in the upgrade adverse corporate world, I have no doubt that millions of machines will continue forward unprotected.

A new level of vigilance is required here because as OS vendors like Microsoft have done increasingly good jobs of protecting their customers, hackers have moved on to other attack vectors, including applications software like IE, Office, and Adobe Reader and Flash. The popularity of such attacks makes sense; each of these solutions is used by hundreds of millions of users every day.

But when businesses are only slowly updating the technologies installed on users’ PCs–or not updating them at all–the situation is exacerbated. And the attack surface of your environment grows ever bigger.

I mentioned earlier that XP’s benefits–compatibility, familiarity, performance, and, let’s face it, the fact that it’s often already paid for–will soon be outweighed by problems inherent to using an OS that’s almost a decade old. These problems become all the more dangerous when combined with hackers’ new emphasis on unpatched applications as well.

The obvious way to mitigate many of the resulting problems is to upgrade. But as you’re all too well aware, upgrading comes with its own problems, not the least of which are the financial, training, and support costs. But as we’ve discussed over the past few weeks, this is a unique moment in time, and the ideal time to not just change for change’s sake, but to upgrade in ways that make sense. And that means reevaluating what’s installed on users’ computers, which cloud computing services you can perhaps take advantage of, which systems can be virtualized and centrally controlled, and so on.

But at the very least–that is, working within the confines of the systems you currently use–please be sure to thoroughly evaluate the software solutions you have running within your environments and ensure that they are all at least updated with the latest security fixes. We can’t all handle electronic attacks as well as Google apparently did in the recent Chinese situation. But we can at least do the minimum.

Hands-On with Windows Small Business Server “Aurora”: Notes from the Field

I’ve written about Microsoft’s new Small Business Server offering, code-named Aurora, a lot over the past few months. (Most recently in Windows Small Business Server “Aurora” Release Candidate.) Since then, I’ve been using Aurora as the basis for a new domain in my test environment, and I’ve spoken with Microsoft further about the product. Here are some notes from my time using Aurora over the past several weeks.

It’s simple. Aurora is simple, maybe too simple. That’s because it’s designed for the smallest of small businesses, where there is not only no IT staff but perhaps not even someone who is particularly knowledgeable about computers. Aurora needs to work in these largely unmanaged environments, and my take on this is that it will do so just fine. But Aurora really comes into its own when it’s run by someone who understands Active Directory and Group Policy: Push a bit beyond the surface UI and the entire Windows Server management infrastructure is there, waiting to be unlocked. A bit more about this in a moment.

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What’s confusing about Aurora, to me, is that it’s not clear what’s going on under the covers. Setup literally involves just a handful of steps, and the most taxing question you’ll answer is the name of the new domain you wish to set up. Unlike with traditional Windows Server versions, Aurora assumes you’re going to install it behind a home-like broadband router, like you’d get from a cable or DSL Internet provider, and it doesn’t assume that it will be providing DNS or DHCP services.

On the client end, Aurora also simplifies the process of connecting users (and their PCs) to the domain by providing a very basic web-based installer, which can be found at http://server-name/connect. By default, users will connect via this interface, provisioning a new domain user account and PC in the process. If you’re used to micromanaging this, it can be a bit off-putting.

Launchpad can be too chatty. Users can optionally use the LaunchPad software on their PCs, which provides them with PC- or network-based health alerts. Even in my small environment, these alerts have proven to be way too chatty, in my opinion, and users who are tasked with ensuring that the environment is kept in a steady, healthy state will quickly become overwhelmed by the number of alerts. These alerts change the LaunchPad’s notification icon to yellow when there’s an issue to resolve (a computer has important updates to install) or red for something very serious (a computer has a hard drive that is nearly full, or an out-of-date anti-malware solution).

Aurora is particularly prickly about getting the remote access and server backup capabilities online and working properly. If you don’t do either, you’ll be notified somewhat incessantly. For some reason, it’s easier to disable client backups than it is server backups.

Shares are confusing. Aurora, like the Windows Home Server products on which it is based, comes with a set of default shares that provide access to server-based storage over the network. However, this isn’t a home server, so the shares aren’t designed around media content like music, photos, and videos. Instead, you get shares called Users and Company. Fair enough, but I found the process of creating new shares–and worse still, removing unwanted shares (Company??) too difficult, and I suspect the IT-less Aurora user base will as well.

What’s really different, however, is that Aurora (like “Vail,” the next version of Windows Home Server) also creates a unique drive letter in Explorer for each share. So the Company share can also be accessed, on the server, by the Y: drive, and the Users share is found at W: too. Why is this, I asked? According to Microsoft, these mapped drive letters make it easier for users to find the shares in the file system (they were previously somewhat hidden on in D:\Shares in WHS v1). And they’re easier to back up as well.

OK, fair enough. But there’s no UI for deleting shares and their accompanying drive letters simultaneously, at least not in the standard Aurora management UI, called the Dashboard.

Extensibility is the key. Where Aurora is really going to prove impressive is via its new add-on model. The problem, for now, is that there are no Aurora add-ons to test, though there is a hint in the UI that one is coming for Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite, or BPOS, which provides hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint, and other Microsoft servers. I’m eager to try such an add-on, but I’ll need to wait. So I asked about other add-ons that may be coming.

From the look of things, it’s going to be pretty exhaustive. Microsoft plans add-ons for on-premise servers, like Exchange 2010, as well as for hosted services, and there is a very interesting set of management add-ons coming that will simplify Group Policy and other management features. Also coming are add-ons that will negate the very real need, currently, to logon to the server via Remote Desktop Connection to perform many management tasks. Those will all be exposed through the Dashboard in the future, which will be a nice change.

Microsoft is also going to offer something called a Premium Add-on for Aurora that will provide a fully licensed copy of Windows Server 2008 R2 and SQL Server 2008 R2. This provides features not found in Aurora–like Hyper-V–and lets you extend your new domain with a second domain controller. And it is a second machine: Contrary to the upgrade possibility suggested by its name, the Premium Add-on is installed on a second server, not over the existing Aurora box.
Summing up…

Put simply, Aurora lives up to the needs of its stated mission and will be an excellent solution for very small businesses. But where this thing will really come into its own is in the hands of someone who really knows their way around AD and GP. Just implementing something like folder redirection, for example, could make a huge difference for users. These kinds of capabilities, I think, will be out of reach for typical Aurora users, however, unless they sign up with a forward-looking Microsoft partner that understands the product and the ways in which they can provide value on top of the base package. Yes, Aurora is in many ways a starter server. But lurking underneath the hood is (almost) the full power of Windows Server, just waiting to be unleashed.

Revolution, Not Evolution

That we’re in a time of great transition is, of course, obvious. That the future of computing is both mobile and connected, also obvious. Not so obvious is how painful this transition is proving to be. And that pain points to the fact that we’re undergoing a technology revolution, and not an evolution.

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The two most obvious examples of this technology revolution are cloud computing, an ill-defined and rarely understood technology if there ever was one, and the rise of smart phones, devices that fit in our pockets yet are more powerful than the average business PC desktop from just a few years back.

IT has feared cloud computing from its inception. The reason is simple: Those in IT see the trend towards off-premise computing as a threat to their job security. This is completely understandable and, unfortunately, probably at least partially correct. But IT has always been about efficiency, and one might make the argument, as I have, that by definition anyone in this business should be constantly expecting to evolve their skills as their jobs, and the technology they use, evolves as well.

You’re not alone in this fear. Years ago, a former editor questioned me about cloud computing, which was at the time an emerging trend at best. “What happens to the magazine’s audience?” she asked. “Will their jobs simply disappear?” I told her that the jobs would basically shift from the many on-premise data centers that we traditionally associate with the enterprise to a smaller number of much larger data centers, maintained by giant corporations like Microsoft and Google. The need to maintain these servers would still be there, however, I said.

Turns out, this supposition wasn’t far-reaching enough. Actually, there is still much need for IT inside of the enterprise, and that will continue to be true even if cloud computing grips the world in a frenzy of cost-cutting and off-premise, services-based infrastructure. That’s because businesses, even those that fully embrace cloud computing, will need to maintain some managed resources onsite and connect them, or federate them, with the hosted services. Long term, that scenario will evolve as well. But the need for traditional IT skills isn’t going anywhere. It’s just changing, evolving as always.

I have bigger concerns around mobile computing, specifically the proliferation of unmanaged smart phones that are now sweeping the world. As consumers move to smart phones like the iPhone and Google’s Android in ever-faster numbers, they’re expecting to be able to mix and match their work and home needs, all on one device. And many enterprises–too many, in my opinion–are simply giving in and allowing these users to utilize their own phones, accessing crucial corporate data via Exchange Server and other means.

The rationale behind this change is simple: Businesses believe it’s cheaper to do this. After all, it’s expensive to purchase, maintain, provision, and deploy smart phones. And if employees are just going to buy these devices themselves and shoulder the roughly $100 a month costs associated with their calling, messaging, and data plans, why bother offering to do this for them? That’s money in the bank, right?

So all around the world, corporate blocks to internal data have come down to accommodate these devices. It’s a glaring hole in the defenses against data loss, and one that I think will come back to haunt many companies in the future as users lose their unprotected smart phones or find them to be the subject of outright theft. It’s a lot easier to leave a phone behind than a laptop, and laptops get lost on an alarming scale. I think we’re only at the very tip of this smart phone era and only just starting to understand the importance of managing devices properly.

The silly thing here, of course, is that the technology to properly manage smart phones has been around for a long time. But in some ways, these tools were a bit too forward leaning, as they were tied to devices, like those based on Windows Mobile, that were archaic and not user friendly. I expect these tools to be more broadly deployed in the future as businesses understand they’ve unwittingly given away the keys to the kingdom, and as the technologies themselves evolve to manage more desirable devices.

I spent some time huddling with my compatriots at Windows IT Pro last week, debating these and other sea changes that will forever affect our businesses and the ways in which we manage technology. There’s a lot to think about here, but I was left with one overarching thought, and hopefully this will be at least slightly comforting to anyone that supports technology for a living. Yes, everything is changing, and yes, change can be frightening. But the need for IT–good IT–is stronger now than ever before. And as for this revolution into an era connected and mobile computing, it won’t happen successfully without you.

Droid Attack Spells Doom for iPhone

Last year, while I was on a business trip, my wife surprised me during a phone call by telling me that she was going to purchase a Motorola DROID and finally enter the smart phone age. This was surprising on a number of levels. She’s notoriously tight-fisted with money, for starters–is there a nice way to say that?–and isn’t the type of person to jump at the chance to toss $80 a month into the wind. She’s notably ambivalent about technology, too, which may be a shocker to some given to whom she’s married; to her, computers are a tool, and years of Mac usage did nothing to indoctrinate her into the Apple cult. (In fact, she uses–chose–a Windows 7-based Dell laptop last year.) And then there’s the DROID itself. This is a decidedly masculine smart phone, the antidote to Apple’s namby-pamby iPhone, and it was marketed then (as now) in a very aggressive fashion.

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“You’re getting … a DROID?” I could hardly believe it.

But she did it. And for the past year (almost), she’s been quite happy with her choice. She’s a Gmail and Google Calendar user, so the Android OS makes sense for her. And watching her latch onto things like Facebook has been both fascinating and disturbing.

But I’m not here to write about that. No, this is about something even more disturbing than my wife posting to Facebook. Last week, after a flurry of sudden work-related activity, I found myself the somewhat bewildered recipient of my own Android-based smart phone, in this case a DROID X. The reasons for this are complex, but basically I’m now an employee of Penton, the owners of this site, and I’m expected to meet certain corporate expectations. I’ve resisted, tried to, held out as long as I could. But now I have this phone.


About the book
Go beyond the obvious and explore the secrets behind Windows 7 with this comprehensive guide. Leading authorities in the field expose the hidden functionality within the Windows 7 operating system, revealing everything from its new features and functionality to modifying the system to work for you. These expert tips and tricks will help you gain the skills you need to quickly go from a Windows 7 user to a Windows 7 expert.

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Paperback: 1080 pages
Publisher: Wiley
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0470508418
ISBN-13: 978-0470508411
Errata, additions, and notes

The tech industry changes on a daily basis. And hey, we’re human too. Here you’ll find everything that’s changed–and any mistakes we’ve found–since the book was first published.
1. Selecting the Right Windows 7 Edition

Understanding the Differences Between the Product Editions
Pages 28-33
I maintain a much more up to date and complete version of this chart in my article Windows 7 Product Editions: A Comparison.

US List Prices for Windows 7 OEM Product Editions
Page 42
Current NewEgg OEM prices are as follows:
Windows 7 Home Premium (32-bit or 64-bit) – $105
Windows 7 Professional (32-bit or 64-bit) – $140
Windows 7 Ultimate (32-bit or 64-bit) – $175

Windows Anytime Upgrade
Pages 42-43
For more information about Windows Anytime Upgrade, please read my articles Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Anytime Upgrade and The Windows 7 Netbook Experience
2. Installing and Upgrading to Windows 7

Upgrading from One Windows 7 Version to Another with Windows Anytime [Upgrade]
Pages 76-79
The section is misnamed (the word “Upgrade” was omitted). For more information about Windows Anytime Upgrade, please read my articles Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Anytime Upgrade and The Windows 7 Netbook Experience

Performing a Clean Install with an Upgrade Version of Windows 7
Pages 80-82
Microsoft withheld Windows 7 Upgrade media from book authors and press, so Rafael and I weren’t able to fully understand the difficulties surrounding this type of Setup until the OS shipped. Not coincidentally, I’ve spent a lot of time documenting how you can use the Windows 7 Upgrade media to perform clean installs of the OS. You should read Clean Install Windows 7 with Upgrade Media and the Windows 7 Upgrade Scenarios series for much more information on this topic.

Installing Windows 7 on a Mac
Pages 84-88
An updated version of this section–which includes information on new Mac virtualization products that provide support for Windows 7 Aero effects–can be found in the article Best of Both Worlds: Windows 7 on the Mac.
3. Hardware and Software Compatibility

No changes or additions.
4. What’s New in the Windows 7 User Interface

Secret: Microsoft offers a number of wonderful pre-built Theme Packs…
Page 133
Microsoft changed the URL for its Personalization Gallery, which provides pre-built Windows Themes and other downloadable add-ons.
5. Where’s My Stuff? Finding and Organizing Files

An excerpt from this chapter is now available as the article, Windows 7 Feature Focus: Libraries.
6. Personalizing and Configuring Windows 7

More tricks and tips
Leo Laporte and I provide at least one software pick and Windows 7 tip each week on the Windows Weekly podcast.
7. Windows 7 Security

Install an antivirus solution
Page 255
Microsoft Security Essentials is now available for free, and I strongly recommend this AV/anti-malware. solution to all Windows 7 users. (It’s what I use to protect my own PCs.) Find out more in my Microsoft Security Essentials review.
8. Users, Accounts, and UAC

No changes or additions.
9. Networking and HomeGroups

Ad-hoc wireless networking
Page 314
Windows 7 supports wireless, ad-hoc (peer-to-peer) networking, which lets you share a wired (Ethernet) or 3G wireless connection over a standard Wi-Fi interface. Rafael discussed how this functionality is actually available in all Windows 7 product editions (contrary to Microsoft documentation) in his post Windows 7 Starter Hides But Allows Ad-Hoc Networking. I discussed this feature in episode 133 of the Windows Weekly podcast as well.

An (updated) excerpt from this chapter is now available as the article, Windows 7 Feature Focus: HomeGroup.
10. Complete Your Home Network with Windows Home Server

Power Pack 3
In November 2009, Microsoft released Windows Home Server Power Pack 3 (PP3), which significantly enhances the experience of using WHS with Windows 7. You can find out more about this update in my article Windows Home Server Power Pack 3 Preview.
11. Digital Music and Audio

No changes or additions.
12. Digital Photos

No changes or additions.
13. Digital Videos and DVD Movies

Editing Digital Video with Windows Live Movie Maker
Pages 503-526
Microsoft has shipped a major upgrade to Windows Live Movie Maker that substantially changes the application’s user interface and capabilities for the better. Please read my Windows Live Movie Maker Review for more information.

Ripping DVDs in H.264 Format
Pages 549-551
A major update to Handbrake, version 0.94, adds many capabilities to this free DVD ripper, including soft subtitle support and major performance improvements
14. Microsoft Zune: A Digital Media Alternative

Zune 4 and Zune HD
Microsoft has released a major upgrade to its Zune platform, Zune 4. This includes the new Zune HD digital media players, the Zune 4 PC software, and more. To discover everything that’s changed here, please refer to my five part Zune HD Review and, more generally, my Digital Media activity center.
15. Digital Media in the Living Room: Windows Media Center

Internet TV
Page 638
Microsoft released a nice Media Center update that significantly enhances the capabilities of Internet TV and support for the Netflix movie streaming service.
16. Having Fun: Games and Windows 7

Free Microsoft games
Microsoft announced that it will make Windows Vista Ultimates games Tinker and Texas Hold ‘Em available for free to all Windows 7 users. They still haven’t appeared however.

Games on Demand from Games for Windows – LIVE
Page 691
Microsoft announced that is evolving Games for Windows – LIVE to include a portal for accessing and downloading LIVE-enabled titles electronically. This will apparently work similarly to Xbox Live Arcade games on the Xbox 360’s online service.
17. Seven to Go: Windows 7 Mobility Features

Using Windows 7 with a Netbook
Pages 732-734
I’ve written a bit more about this topic in The Windows 7 Netbook Experience.
18. Using Tablet PCs and Ultra-Mobile PCs

No changes or additions.
19. Windows in Your Pocket: Windows Mobile and Other Mobile Devices

Windows Mobile 6.5
Pages 771-772
I’ve spent a lot more time with Windows Mobile 6.5 since the book was published. You can read about my experiences with this interim release in my multi-part Windows Mobile 6.5 Review.
20. Browsing the Web

No changes or additions.
21. Managing Email and Contacts

No changes or additions.
22. Managing Your Schedule

No changes or additions.
23. Your Life in Sync: Windows 7 + Live Services

No changes or additions.
24. Keeping Your Data Safe: File and PC Backup

No changes or additions.
25. Troubleshooting and Recovering from Disaster

No changes or additions.
26. IT Pro: Windows 7 at Work

No changes or additions.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week Master Libraries

Windows 7’s new Libraries features is one of the biggest changes to Microsoft’s latest client OS, and while their use doesn’t require a major rethinking compared to the previous scheme of physical and special shell folders, there are indeed some interesting and unique wrinkles to libraries. This week, I’d like to provide some pointers for getting the most out of libraries.

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As a refresher, libraries replace the old special shell folders from previous Windows versions–My Documents, My Pictures, My Music, and so on–with virtual folders that work much like physical (i.e. “normal”) folders but offer additional features. The key differentiator between libraries and folders is that libraries are not containers like physical folders that map to a single location in the file system. Instead, they aggregate content from multiple folders, providing a single view of all that data in a single place.

If you’re familiar with how relational databases work, then this comparison might make sense to you: In database-speak, physical folders are like SQL tables, because they contain data. You can filter and sort that data in different ways, but the data you see will always encompass only that single location. Libraries, meanwhile, are like SQL views: They provide a more malleable way to view data, often from multiple locations, all in a single place. The data you see in a view could come from two or more tables, just as the data you see in a library could come from two or more folders.

If you want to know more, I’ve written up a lengthy article, Windows 7 Feature Focus: Libraries, that fully explains this new feature. For now, let’s get on with the meat of this tip: How you can best take advantage of libraries in Windows 7.

Customize which folders are aggregated

By default, Windows 7 includes four libraries: Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos. And each of these libraries, by default, displays content from two locations, one in your own user profile, and one in the Public user profile. So the Documents library is an aggregated view of My Documents and Public Documents, Music is an aggregated view of My Music and Public Music, and so on.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Master Libraries

You don’t have to accept these defaults however. In each case, you can add additional folders to the mix and, just as important, you can also remove folders from the library view. To do so, open Windows Explorer and navigate to the library you wish to edit; I’ll use the Documents library in this example. (In Windows 7, new Explorer windows open with the Libraries view, and libraries are available from the Navigation pane.) Then, click the Locations link, which can be found under the Documents library heading and will read “2 locations” by default. When you do so, the Document Library Locations window opens.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Master Libraries

From this window, you can perform a number of tasks:

Add and remove library locations. If you don’t want to utilize one of the default library locations, you can remove that folder from the list of locations. For example, you may not care about the Public Documents folder, as I don’t. So you can select it and then click the Remove button. To add a location, click the Add button. A standard File Open dialog will appear, allowing you to navigate through the file system, including to network-based locations.

(Well, some network-based locations: Windows 7 requires that the server-based system have the latest version of Microsoft Search installed since libraries utilize this technology’s indexing functionality to work. If you have a Linux-based NAS or other incompatible network storage device, you’re going to have to get creative. Fortunately, there’s a handy and free third party tool, the Win7 Library Tool, that will help you connect otherwise incompatible network locations to your libraries.)

Configure the default save location. By default, files you copy into a library are saved into what’s called the default save location, and this location, by default, will be your “My [whatever]” folder. So the default save location for the Documents library is My Documents by default. But it doesn’t have to be. Once you’ve configured other folders as locations in the library, you can change the default save location. To do so, right-click on the location in the Locations window and choose “Set as default save location.”

Change the location display order. By default, locations within a library are visually ordered in the order in which they were added. And with the default locations, the “My” folders are always listed before the Public locations. You can, of course, change this as well. To do so, open the Locations window for the library in question, right-click the location you wish to change, and choose “Move up” or “Move down.”
Custom view styles

Libraries are visually differentiated from physical folders by a small header that includes the name of the library (i.e. Documents library), a Locations link, and, on the right, a set of unique Arrange by options. These Arrange by options are not available in standard folder views and they can be quite interesting, especially for highly visual content like pictures.

The standard Arrange by view in each library is folder, which causes the library to use standard folder views. The other choices vary by library:

Documents: Author, Date modified, Tag, Type, Name

Music: Album, Artist, Song, Genre, Ratings

Pictures: Month, Day, Rating, Tag

Videos: Year, Type, Length, Name

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Master Libraries

If you’re a real power user, you’ll recognize this as the Stacks interface that debuted quietly in Windows Vista, which did include virtual folder technologies, but not in an obvious way. Stacks are visual representations of a query, essentially, and in the above figure what you’re seeing is a Pictures library sorted by month.
Create your own custom libraries

You aren’t stuck with the libraries that God, er ah, Microsoft gave you. That’s because Windows 7 lets you create your own libraries. The reasons you might do so are many, but one possibility is a project you’re working on–perhaps a book like “Windows Phone Secrets”–that needs files from multiple places on your PC and, perhaps, your home network.

To create a new library, navigate to the Libraries view in Windows Explorer (or just open a new Explorer window). Then, right-click a blank spot in the window (or, the Libraries node in the Navigation pane) and choose New and then Library. A new library icon will appear with the name, New Library, highlighted so you can rename it. Do so.

Windows 7 Tip of the Week: Master Libraries

If you attempt to open the library, you’ll be told that it has no included folders to display. So click the Include a folder button to display a File Open dialog you can use to navigate to the correct location. Once that’s complete, you’ll receive a standard library view, and you can use the Locations link to add and remove location, determine the default save location, and so on.

Note that custom libraries can be shared on a homegroup, just like regular libraries. And some applications–notably the latest versions of the Zune PC software–can add their own libraries. (In the case of Zune, a new Podcasts library is added.) If you delete a custom library, none of the content it aggregates is deleted, just the library file.
Restore the default libraries

Finally, if you’ve mucked around with your libraries too much and wish to return them to their default state, you can do so by right-clicking the Libraries node in Windows Explorer and choosing “Restore default libraries.” This will not affect any custom libraries you’ve created, but it will return your Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos libraries to their default states, with two locations and the default save locations.

Have any other library tips you’d like to share? Drop me a note and let me know.

Microsoft Plays Its Strongest Office 2010 Card: SharePoint

With Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 launching this week and Exchange 2010 hitting general availability on November 9, you may think I’d be a bit preoccupied. OK, well, there’s actually some truth to that. But Microsoft is launching some other important software in the weeks and months ahead, and in my mind, this coming generation of platforms isn’t complete without it. I’m referring of course to Office 2010, which doesn’t include just new versions of the age-old desktop software, but also web versions of some of those applications and a major new revision to SharePoint.

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I’ve written a bit about the Office 2010 desktop and web software in the past, but if I can sum up my feelings about the most recent pre-release version, this summer’s Technical Preview, it’s one of ambivalence. On the desktop, Microsoft is finally providing the lauded ribbon user interface to all Office applications, not just a hand-picked selection. But aside from Outlook, which is getting a fairly major update this time around, the other applications are seeing mostly minor, evolutionary changes only. On the web, the Office Web Applications are somewhat disappointing right now: They’re being positioned solely as add-ons to the traditional desktop apps, and not as full-fledged (“first class” in Microsoft parlance) standalone solutions of their own.

The one bit of new news is that Microsoft revealed this week that a public beta of Office 2010 will hit sometime in November. I believe this refers only to the traditional desktop applications and not the Office Web Applications, but it should still prove interesting, especially if Microsoft extends the functionality we saw with the Tech Preview.

The big news this week, however, is SharePoint. Months ago, when Microsoft contacted me about the Office 2010 Tech Preview, it had only vague information to share about SharePoint 2010. But this week, at the SharePoint Conference 2009, it revealed a feature-complete version of the software that, too, will enter public beta next month. As Microsoft promised, it is a major release.

For the 3 or 4 readers who are unfamiliar, SharePoint is Microsoft’s content and document management, enterprise search, and collaboration server suite. The key to SharePoint, I think–and this is something we’re starting to see more of in other Microsoft products–is that it provides an environment in which the users can actually create and manage their own collaborative web sites. In the past, trying to set up an FTP site, file share, or other dumb dumping ground for shared files required administrative oversight, slowing down the process and pulling admins away from more critical work. It’s all about power to the people, without any of the usual security concerns.

For SharePoint 2010, Microsoft is extending this popular platform in several key ways. From a user experience consistency standpoint, it’s picking up the ribbon UI, of course, and a new one-click layout functionality. It’s providing integration pieces for key new Office 2010 app technology like BackStage. And looking ahead to the ways in which SharePoint 2010 will be used in the real world, SharePoint 2010 will also come in two versions aimed at Internet-facing sites, one for on-premises servers and one for hosted versions.

Office 2010 Review Part 4: Office Mobile 2010

Like the Office Web Apps, Microsoft’s just-released Office Mobile 2010 suite of applications for Windows Mobile 6.5 is free, and positioned as a companion to the full, PC-based Office suites and applications. Here, however, the usage scenario is mobile rather than cloud-based: Since people tend to bring their smart phones around with them at all time, the mobile version of Office provides an always at-the-ready set of limited but still useful apps. What we’re talking about, mostly, is viewing and (very) light editing. But the addition of an updated mobile version of OneNote could provide hugely beneficial to mobile users, be them students or anyone else who needs to take quick notes on the go.

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Office Mobile 2010 can also connect to SharePoint 2010-based document libraries, can access Office documents stored on Windows Live SkyDrive, and can interface with documents that are shared via email. It’s a decent set of functionality marred only by it being limited to Windows Mobile 6.5, the very latest version of a justifiably derided smart phone OS that few people willingly choose. (An updated version will ship with Windows Phone 7-based devices later this year.) One can’t help but wonder how popular and useful an iPhone- and/or Android-based version of this suite would be. Microsoft offers up only a repetitive “no comment” to such questions, however.

Basic Office functionality
Office Mobile, of course, has been around for a while–since the first version of Windows CE in 1996, in fact–but it didn’t really become a semi-cohesive suite of applications until the 2000 release of the Pocket PC OS for PDAs. Then called Pocket Office, it consisted of very basic versions of Outlook (broken into separate Email, Calendar, and Contacts components), Word, and Excel applications. Over time, PowerPoint and then OneNote were added as well.

Until the current version of Office Mobile, the primary interaction method was via stylus and hardware keyboard and most people used the apps as simple document viewers. Light editing capabilities have always been the suite’s biggest selling point, but I have a hard time believing that many people–especially the mobile workers that Windows Mobile targeted–ever did such a thing. And even those that did would have found disappointing formatting issues moving between desktop and mobile versions of the apps. (This problem has been somewhat mitigated over time.)

Over time, Office Mobile got better, but the bar was pretty low, and the basic usage model didn’t really change. So the apps displayed Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations more like their desktop counterparts, but your mileage would vary depending on the complexity of those files. As it turns out, that’s still true today.
What’s new in Office Mobile 2010

Microsoft offers a number of improvements with the latest version of its Windows Mobile-based office productivity suite. It (sort-of) requires a touch-compatible device, common in Windows Mobile 6.5 world, and provides enhanced support for touch gestures. (Microsoft says it supports non-touch Windows Mobile 6.5 devices, but with reduced functionality. I’m amused to think such devices even exist.)

This time around, OneNote is up front and center, and that trend will continue into Windows Phone 7, where OneNote will get the primest real estate on the Office hub. The reasoning here is simple: While few are probably all that interested in working on Word, Excel, or PowerPoint documents on the go, many people–especially students–could utilize OneNote’s note-taking capabilities, especially if they’re out and about and the phone is the only device they have with them. That it can capture pictures using the device’s built-in camera and work with voice clips is, of course, just the icing on the cake.

Office Mobile 2010 Review OneNote Mobile 2010.
The addition of SharePoint Workspace is also a big deal: Now Windows Mobile users can access their SharePoint (2010)-based sites, document libraries, and lists on the go. Office documents that are stored in these document libraries can be opened on the device, edited, and then saved back to the server. This can be slow, but if you’re going to access certain documents regularly, you can also keep a local copy on the phone.

Office Mobile 2010 Review SharePoint Mobile 2010.
Word and Excel Mobile trudge along with much the same basic functionality as before. But PowerPoint Mobile picks up some interesting functionality that should prove useful to the Windows Mobile-carting road warrior: You can now use the mobile app as a remote of sorts for your PC-based presentations. This setup won’t come cheaply, however: You’ll need to connect the phone to the PC via Bluetooth for it to work.

Office Mobile 2010 Review PowerPoint Mobile 2010.
Finally, there’s Outlook Mobile, which as before is split into multiple applications and isn’t available from the Office Mobile folder, but is instead afforded a much higher position in the Windows Mobile UI hierarchy. You can access Outlook’s various components through E-mail (Messaging), the Phone application’s contacts list, and separately through Contacts), and Calendar, and Tasks. It remains a mixed bag, but if you’re using a Windows Mobile phone in tandem with Exchange Server 2010, there are a few nice upgrades, including support for Conversation View. (It doesn’t appear to support multiple Exchange accounts, however. Apparently, we won’t get that functionality until Windows Phone 7.)

Office Mobile 2010 Review Outlook Mobile 2010. Final thoughts
Ultimately, Office Mobile 2010 is an evolutionary update to what has always been a fairly lackluster set of mobile-based companions to Microsoft Office. That said, much bigger changes are coming later this year in Windows Phone 7, and while that could potentially change the way we look at mobile productivity, the reality is that the device form factors simply limit what’s possible. Office Mobile 2010 is a decent upgrade, especially if you’re in a Microsoft-oriented shop with Exchange and SharePoint back-ends. And the price, certainly is right, assuming you have the right kind of hardware.

Replace Your Hard Drive Using Free Windows 7 Tools

Many readers are likely familiar with the fact that Windows 7 comes with a fairly comprehensive backup solution that includes, among other things, the ability to create a so-called system image of your entire PC. This system image is, more precisely, an exact duplicate of the hard drive(s) in your PC, in VHD (virtual hard disk) format, and it provides you with the ability to fully restore your PC to a previous, known-good state.

Pedantic sidebar: By default, the system image capability in Windows 7 only backs up “the drives required for Windows to run.” The exact nature of these “drives” varies from system to system, and understanding how it works is even more confusing because of the way Windows 7 automatically partitions a hard drive. On a single disk system (most PCs and virtually all laptops), this will be the first (and only) fixed disk (i.e. “hard drive”), which is segregated into a hidden reserved partition and what we think of as the C: “drive” (which is in fact a partition, not a drive, but whatever). In the olden days, the C: drive would typically include the functionality of both the “startup disk” (the disk/partition that contains the files required for booting the PC) and the “system disk” (the disk/partition that contains the WINDOWS directory). And in Windows 7, that’s pretty much how it works, though it’s still possible for the startup and system disks to be different disks or partitions.

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What this means to Windows Backup is that the system image capability will typically backup the C: drive only. But if you have partitioned the disk differently, or are dual-booting among two or more OSes, it’s possible that it could include two or more partitions (or drives). If your configuration is more complicated than that, you can also use Windows Backup to manually create system images for the other disks and partitions in your PC.

The system image capability in Windows Backup is good at what it does. But it has other uses beyond the obvious. And one of those uses is an increasingly common scenario: You’ve got a PC with whatever hard drive in it, and it’s running out of space. If you have a desktop PC, you might be able to simply add a new hard drive. But if you have a laptop, you almost certainly can’t. In either case, however, there are advantages to not adding a hard drive but instead replacing the existing hard drive with one that offers more capacity and, perhaps, better performance.

The trick, of course, is doing so without losing anything: Your data, your installed applications, your settings, and so on.

I used Windows Backup for just this purpose recently. I’ve been using the same ThinkPad SL410 laptop for about a year now, and while it has the best keyboard I’ve ever used, the stock 320 GB hard drive isn’t particularly voluminous and I was wondering whether I could get better performance out of a more modern hard drive. So I purchased a Seagate Momentus XT “hybrid” hard drive, which combines a small amount (4 GB) of solid-state storage with 32 MB of cache and a 7200 RPM hard disk to create a package that offers much of the performance of a true SSD drive for a fraction of the cost. Indeed, the 500 GB version I purchased cost just $109 on Amazon when I purchased it (though I notice its $129 today for some reason).

Here’s how to make the swap.

For purposes of this exercise, I’m going to assume you’re doing this with a single disk system like the laptop I used. You will need a USB hard disk or other supported backup media (which includes recordable DVD discs and, with Windows 7 Professional and higher, a network share) and a blank, writeable CD (or DVD).

First, manually create a system image of your PC’s hard drive. You do this via the Backup and Restore control panel, which is the front-end UI for Windows Backup in Windows 7. There are about a hundred ways to reach this window, but the simplest, perhaps, is to open the Start Menu, type backup in Start Menu Search and tap Enter. You should see something like the following shot.

Click the linked titled “Create a system image” in the task pane to start the wizard. It will search for an acceptable backup device, and, if found, present it in the “Where do you want to save the backup?” phase of the wizard. Otherwise, you can manually point the wizard at an acceptable backup point.

Click Next and the wizard will show you where it’s backing up to and what it’s backing up. On a single disk system like the typical laptop, this will again be hidden, reserved partition (System Reserved) and the C: drive (System).

Click Start Backup to create the system image. This will take some number of hours, depending on the used disk space, your PC’s overall performance, and the performance characteristics of the backup media. I backed up to a USB hard drive and it took several hours.

When the system image is done, the wizard will prompt you to make a System Repair disc. I recommend doing so, though you can launch this process separately from the main Backup and Restore interface later if you’d like.

A system repair disk is a bootable Windows 7 CD (or DVD) that provides two capabilities: It can present the various Windows 7 recovery options or use a system image backup to restore your PC to a previous state. You’ll be using the latter functionality.

Once the system repair disc is done, eject the disk and shutdown the PC.

Now, unplug everything (cables, power supply, laptop battery, whatever) from the PC and remove the current hard drive. How you do this will of course vary from PC to PC, but on the ThinkPad it involved removing a panel on the bottom of the machine, sliding out the hard drive in its protective cage, removing the cage from the old hard drive, and then attaching it to the new hard drive. Then, insert the new hard drive, put everything back together, and reboot the computer, re-inserting the system repair disc so that the PC boots from that. (If the hard drive you’ve installed is truly new, the PC won’t boot otherwise, anyway.)

When the system repair disc boots up, you’ll be presented with a screen in which you choose between the recovery tools–which can be used to solve problems with your current Windows OS–or to “restore your computer using a system image you created earlier. Obviously, you want the latter option.

The Re-image your computer wizard will attempt to find a suitable system image file located on a device attached to the PC. If it can find one, it will present that as an option automatically. Otherwise, you may need to manually select the correct system image.

After that, you’re given the opportunity to exclude certain disks, which applies to the target PC and not the imaged disks you’re restoring. This can be useful in certain conditions, but for the single disk restore we’re doing here it’s not worth worrying about.

Then, you can click Finish to start the restore process.
Oddly, the restore process takes considerably less time than the backup. In my case, I believe it completed in under an hour. When the process is complete, the PC will reboot into the exact same Windows install–complete with all your custom settings, data files, applications, and whatnot–as before.

There is one final task, assuming the new disk is larger than the old: Windows Backup will restore the contents of the old C: drive to a new C: drive that is the same size as the old one. So you’ll need to use Windows 7’s disk partitioning tools to expand this partition to use all the extra space. Curiously, this tool is pretty well hidden, but you can find it by typing partition in Start Menu Search. You will see a control panel called Create and format hard disk partitions appear in the search results. Click that and the Disk Management tool appears.

Looking at Disk 0, you’ll see some empty space after the C: partition. To use this space, right-click the C: partition (and not the empty space) and choose Extend Volume. Then, in the window that appears, tap Enter as needed to add all that empty space to the C: partition. When you’re done, the C: partition will have been resized to be larger.
A few notes

One of the nice things about this process is that it’s non-destructive. If something goes wrong, you can always get your old system back by putting the old hard drive back in the PC. In fact, you might consider saving that disk as-is as an in-time backup of sorts.

One of the other nice things about this process is that replacing a hard drive is not typically enough to trigger Windows Product Activation. So you won’t need to worry about re-activating and, potentially failing an electronic activation attempt that would force you to call Microsoft, hat in hand, and ask for their eternal forgiveness. (OK, it’s not that bad.)

Finally, this process also obviates the need to fully account for all of the provisioned applications and services on your PC. I’m talking about things like iTunes Store, Audible, and Zune Pass, which have only a certain number of associated PCs; this process will not waste a PC “slot” with these services. But it’s also true of activation-protected software, like Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat. You won’t have any issues with these or similar software titles.