Thursday, 30 July 2015

Windows 10 on an old laptop

It won't be easy, no, it won't be easy without you, no no no, in the words of Justin Heyward

Way back in October 2012 I upgraded my old 2ghz ThinkPad X61 from Windows XP to Windows 8. I still use that machine quite often - most recently as a musical instrument - and although it's eight years old it's still pretty good. I've upgraded mine with extra memory and a solid state drive. It's useless for games but otherwise it works just fine as a kind of Windows-powered Chromebook. Now that Windows 10 has come out I decided to test it out, and my X61 was close to hand.

Windows 8.1 - the much-reviled Start screen (top), and the desktop (bottom)

The machine came into this world in 2007 with Windows XP Pro. I've upgraded it to Windows 8 Pro (£25, a special offer) and then 8.1 Pro (free) and 10 Pro (free). There is also a Home version of Windows 10. The Pro version doesn't have any killer features that distinguish it from Home, but Home is for women. I'm not a woman, for heaven's sake. I'm not telling people that I have Windows 10 Home.

This raises the question of whether you can get hold of the Pro version of Windows 10 by picking up a crappy old XP Pro laptop and upgrading it. It's an interesting proposition although I don't think that it's viable, because you have to upgrade to Windows 7 or Windows 8->8.1 first. You can't upgrade straight from XP. This adds anything from £50-100 to the cost depending on how legitimate you want to be - Windows 7 upgrades are actually more expensive, because they're no longer available new - in which case why not spend a little extra and buy a laptop with Windows 7 Pro already installed? Hmm? Note that whereas my XP-Windows 8 upgrade essentially wiped XP, the 8.1-10 upgrade kept everything as it was.

Windows 10 is being rolled out via Windows Update progressively, but you can beat the queue by going here and downloading it from Microsoft. You have two options - an in-place install, or an ISO that you can burn / write to installation media (in which case you have to be careful to pick the right version of Windows 10).

The most powerful XP Pro laptops came out in 2007 and perhaps 2008, "the year of the Vista-XP downgrade". XP devices were sold for a couple of years after that, but they tended to be low-cost, low-power netbooks. The cream of 2007's crop were late Core II Duo laptops running at 2.6ghz or thereabouts, with 4gb or 8gb memory ceilings and 1440x900 screens if you were lucky. Nowadays these machines are, as with the X61, still competent if you can find them cheap enough. The T61p, which had a 1920x1200 screen and a separate graphics card, is not bad at all. I prefer the X61 because it's smaller; it was unusually small in 2007 and has aged well.

But I digress. Microsoft's attitude seems to be that you already have Windows, so you might as well upgrade. There will be boxed versions of Windows 10, but not until August. Do you remember when people queued up for boxed versions of Windows 95? Do you remember when PC software was sold in shops?

Star Cops was pretty much symptomatic of Britain's dysfunctional... look, I always thought that although Red Dwarf was a sitcom, it was a better sci-fi show that most sci-fi shows. The first series in particular had a philosophical, melancholic tone. The writers were obviously huge sci-fi nerds but they could do characterisation and storytelling as well.

You know, there comes a time in a man's life when he looks deep into his soul and instead of seeing Clint Eastwood peering back at him, he sees Arnold Rimmer. "An incompetent vending machine repairman with a Napoleon complex who commanded as much respect and affection from his fellow crew members as Long John Silver's parrot." Isn't that all of us? Lister was the hero, but I suspect that Rimmer was how the writers saw themselves; Lister was an ideal.

Inevitably Microsoft wants to own your life, like diverticulitis - but whereas diverticulitis requires antibiotics and/or surgery, Microsoft's clingyness can be dismissed with a few boxes.

But can it be dismissed entirely? We are all pawns in a great war between the forces of Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Google. Where once there were nation states, now there are giant data farms, vying with each other to own our souls, so that they can sell us shopping machines that help us shop for more shopping machines, and smartphones that help them sell shopping machines to us. "Our children will live, Mr Beale, to see a perfect world in which there is no war or famine, no oppression or brutality - one vast and ecumenical holding company, for which all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused."

I'm digressing here. Back in the early 2000s Apple came up with the idea of launching OS X and then gradually upgrading it, without making major changes to the core OS, or at least without making major changes to the interface. I have used OS 10.4 Tiger (2005), 10.6 Snow Leopard (2009) and 10.10 Yosemite (current), and they look and feel basically the same. As far as I'm concerned an OS should be a transparent thing that gets out of the way; I have a MacBook so I can use Logic, not so I can use OS X, although as it happens I like OS X. It gets a lot of stick in the computing world - hardcore Linux fans don't generally get along with Apple, and in any case they would prefer it if OS X didn't exist; Windows people never use it and pooh-pooh it because it's an Apple product; the great mass of humanity never uses it; Macintosh owners aren't aware of it, because they don't care about OSes. But it has never let me down and it just works.

During most of OS X's lifespan Microsoft generally maintained the Windows look and feel, although you often had to do a lot of clicking to get back the standard taskbar and start menu, and some things were changed irrevocably. But the rise of the smartphone and the tablet and the market for apps in the 2010s threw a spanner in the works. Apple decided to develop a new operating system for the iPhone/iPod/iPad - iOS - and Apple apps are written for it. It must have been tempting to port OS X for mobile devices, but Apple decided not to, and although the company is often dismissed as a shallow bunch of fashionable hipsters creating fashion trinkets for hip fashionistas, its OS strategy was simple and effective.

And... it looks a lot like Windows 8.1, with some tweaks. From start to finish it took about forty minutes, not counting time spent downloading it.

"A shallow bunch of fashionable hipsters creating fashion trinkets for hip fashionistas", that's quality writing you know. It has rhythm, it flows off the tongue. The overuse of fashion- and hip- was deliberate. It's supposed to imply that I'm tired and bored with the kind of people who dismiss Apple users as fashionable etc, because their stance is tired and boring.

Yeah but right in contrast Microsoft initially had a separate mobile OS in the form of Windows CE, which was joined with but not replaced by Windows Mobile which was replaced by Windows Phone and meanwhile there was Windows RT which was a bit like Windows but for ARM and also there was Windows 8, which could run on desktop machines and tablets but not smartphones. Got that?

The duality of Windows 8 irritated a lot of people, although over time I have grown to ignore it. Windows 10 is an attempt to gather some of this together, although there is still a separate Windows 10 Mobile which hasn't been released yet. I just don't care about this section of the article any more.

10 - can I call it 10? - has a new Action Centre, roughly analogous to the old Charms menu.

I wonder what they've done with the Start screen. Let's hit the Windows key and bring up the Start screen. Let's see how they have tweaked the Start screen. I can't wait:

Oh. They've got rid of the Start screen. There's no more Start screen. You can enable an imitation by fiddling with the personalisation features, but it's not the same. Like Joffrey Baratheon from television's Game of Thrones the Start screen reigned briefly, no-one liked it, no-one will miss it. To be fair it works fine on my Linx 10 tablet. It's not so much the interface that angered people but its ubiquity on non-tablet devices. A rare case of Microsoft having the right idea, but too soon and too much instead of too late and not enough.

You can expand the new miniature start screen / start menu out to the right. If you want shortcuts to the rest of your apps you click "all apps", in which case you get a straightforward alphabetical list. Unless you have more than 512 shortcuts in which case it breaks, apparently.

Cortana is Microsoft's new digital assistant. When I envisage digital assistants, I think of Jane Wiedlin's Singing Telegram Girl from Clue, which pleases me. Clue is one of those films that isn't very good but everybody remembers it, like Innerspace or Explorers. Men remember Clue for Colleen Camp, who played the french maid, and at this point all the male readers of this blog are nodding. I'll save you time, just highlight "colleen camp" clue and right-click and search google for and images.

Microsoft has a new browser, which as you can see is called Microsoft E
It's a "start screen app" - apps launch in a window now, and although the X61's 1024x768 screen is behind the curve it's a shame Microsoft didn't test this out more thoroughly.

Will I use Edge? Why?

Hearteningly my existing setup is retained intact. Windows 10 doesn't crash or throw a wobbly. There was a time when each new version of Windows required a more powerful computer, but that seemed to fizzle out with Vista, which was widely panned for its bloat.

Over the last few years there has been a general emphasis on low power consumption and light weight, and Windows 10 has surprisingly modest system requirements - 1gb of memory, a 1ghz CPU, an 800x600 screen, around 20gb hard drive space. In theory that covers late Pentium III machines(!) but in practice I understand that BIOS, CPU and graphics problems mean that it won't work with pre-Pentium M devices, or at least not without hacking it.

There is a new Tablet mode that also emulates the Start Screen and is entirely optional. Microsoft should have implemented this back with Windows 8. Presumably from now on Windows 8.1 will have security updates but will otherwise be left to wither on the vine. Shed a tear for the concept of Windows service packs; the last one was Windows 7's first and last service pack back in 2011. Note that although the X61 has rubbish integral Intel graphics, it still copes with transparency, and in use Windows 10 feels fast and snappy. The Samsung 840 probably helps.

Returning to the topic of a cheap laptop, if the X61 copes then any late Core II Duo upgraded to Windows 10 with the hard drive replaced with a cheap 120gb SSD (about £50) should be just fine as a general productivity machine under Windows 10. I would pick one in tip-top condition. Does Windows 10 work on Macintosh hardware? I have a Macbook, but I'm not minded to try it out; I use it for music and I have it set up just right.

Controversially, updates are now downloaded without your say-so. The Pro version of Windows 10 lets you schedule restarts and I believe the Enterprise version lets you defer them. After installing Windows 10 there were two small updates as above.

The modern trend is for text-based searching rather than hunting through menus. Linux fans are generally smug, but wasn't it Ubuntu that introduced the idea of searching Amazon when you just want to open the device manager, hmm?

The install also added some Lenovo rubbish that seems to just run Disc Cleanup. I got rid of this. The X61's hardware is mostly generic although it has some oddities - a fingerprint reader (unusual for 2007), a TrackPoint nipple, a ThinkLight in the bezel that points down at the keyboard, and some kind of whitelisted wi-fi card. All of this worked. A while back I upgraded the BIOS with a special "Middleton BIOS" that enables SATA II, and Windows 10 either doesn't notice or doesn't care about this.

On Windows 8.0, SuperPi calculated Pi to 2m digits in 1m 02 seconds (right at the bottom). With Windows 10 it performs the same sums in 57 seconds! My hunch is that this is some kind of quirk rather than a genuine performance improvement. The new DirectX 12 is apparently faster than its predecessors, which may or may not influence the CPU's ability to calculate Pi. Subjectively the X61 seems to run slightly cooler than before; my recollection is that XP ran fairly cool, Windows 8 and 8.1 blew the fan more often, and after a few hours of trying Windows 10 seems to be cool again, with the machine idling at around 40c vs 50c as before. The X61's compact case is notorious for heating up quickly. The battery life seems much the same.

So, Windows 10. It introduces a lot of new features that you have already read about elsewhere. My immediate impression is that it's Windows 8.1 with a tarted-up menu system. No doubt under the hood a lot of clever stuff is going on, but from the perspective of this user, the upgrade process is quick, and it works. And I have demonstrated that an eight-year-old but well-maintained ThinkPad X61 will run Windows 10.

The big quandry; do I upgrade my desktop machine from Windows 7 Pro to Windows 10? It seems painless but I have far more installed on my desktop machine. Not yet.