A Computer For Virginia, USA

Are you into jokes? If you live in the East Coast region of the USA, you've probably heard this one.

Q: How many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: At least 3. One to do the work, the others to remember how great the old one was.

But the Great State of Virginia is moving into the future, and so should computer owners. We have to let go of the past, and get rid of computers running Windows 95, 98 - and yes, ME and 2000. At least, we need to stop requiring Microsoft to "support" them. Microsoft simply can't retain backward compatibility to every historical edition of Windows, forever; sometime, computer owners have to roll forward, into the present.

If you can't network your computer running Windows 98 with a computer running Windows Vista, because the computer running Windows 98 "locks up", is that a Vista problem? The Windows 98 operating system (and the aged hardware running it) has limits. Those limits may not be seen until you try to exceed them, but they are limits in the Windows 98 operating system (or the hardware).

If Internet Explorer Version 6 won't display certain web sites, is that a fault of Microsoft, of the web site producer, of the web site host, or maybe should you accept just a bit of the blame too - since you keep using it? Internet Explorer V6 is very old software - it's buggy, it lacks features, and it's frequently patched to foil the bad guys. Microsoft can't patch it forever, though.

Every computer system contains internally located parts, or externally attached devices. Internally located parts, classically located on "expansion cards", are designed to be swapped in and out, in cases where one has failed or you simply want a better unit. Mass storage (aka "disk drive" controllers) processors, multimedia (aka "sound" / "video") processors, network ("Ethernet" / "WiFi") processors, are internally located parts. Fax machines, modems, and printers are externally attached ("peripheral") devices.

Internal and peripheral devices require drivers, a set of programs that connect a specific device (processor) to a specific operating system. If your computer is going to support your video card, you have to have the drivers for that video card, written to support that operating system.

Generally, the drivers are written by the manufacturer of the component in question. Possibly (but not always) they will be certified by Microsoft, for the operating system.

Every component, internal or external, like every person, is mortal. One day, the video processor, on your computer running Windows 98, will die. When that happens, what chance is there that you can go buy a replacement? You can maybe find a newer model by the same vendor, but what chance is there that the vendor will have written drivers, for that model, that support Windows 98?

Go to your favourite computer store this week, and look.

Then think about what you're doing, and move forward.

Windows Vista And Personal Storage Space

Except for the flashy new GUI, Windows Vista is similar to Windows XP and earlier versions of Windows. This allows people who are used to Windows to adjust to Windows Vista. But there are subtle differences, such as where personal data is stored.

In Windows XP and earlier versions of Windows, your personal storage would be part of your user profile. Your documents might be stored in a folder in "C:\Documents and Settings\(Your AccountName)\My Documents".

In Windows Vista, "C:\Documents and Settings\" has been reorganised, and your personal storage will now be part of "C:\Users\(Your AccountName)\". To provide backward compatibility with older versions of Windows, Vista still will recognise the path "C:\Documents and Settings\(Your AccountName)\", but will retain it as what it calls a "junction point". A junction point is the Vista term for an object that doesn't exist, except virtually.

When you use Windows Explorer (or its Vista equivalent), and try to open "C:\Documents and Settings\(Your AccountName)\My Documents\", you should get "C:\Users\(Your AccountName)\My Documents\", labeled as "C:\Documents and Settings\(Your AccountName)\My Documents\", assuming that you have permissions properly setup.

This is more complicated, when a computer running Windows Vista is a client, and a computer running Windows XP is a server. If the client reports getting "access denied" when trying to open a file in "C:\Documents and Settings\(Your AccountName)\My Documents\", it may be referring to "C:\Users\(Your AccountName)\My Documents\" on the server. "C:\Users\" doesn't exist in Windows XP.

Ad-Hoc Networking

Microsoft Windows is called a Network Operating System. Computers running an operating system like Microsoft Windows (any of the many versions) were designed to be networked. As I've said elsewhere, if you have one computer, you have the beginning of a network.

The minimum complement of equipment, that you need for a computer network, is 2 computers and the appropriate networking components. The simplest networking component set would be two Ethernet adapters (one in each computer), connected by a bit of Ethernet cable, generally (but not always) a cross-over cable.

That's an ad-hoc Ethernet network. It's similar to hub (router / switch) based Ethernet networking, but without a hub (router / switch).

You can also have a network without any Ethernet cable, if you replace the Ethernet adapters with WiFi adapters. That's called an ad-hoc WiFi network.

An Ethernet based ad-hoc network is frequently limited to 2 computers. An Ethernet cable has just 2 ends - to get any more, you need a hub (router / switch). With a WiFi based ad-hoc network, you can have any number of computers connected, with minimal effort.

But there are several disadvantages to ad-hoc WiFi networking.

  • One of the biggest is security. The minimum acceptable standard for WiFi security is WPA. Unfortunately, WPA requires a WiFi Access Point, to manage authentication / encryption. With no WAP, you're limited to using WEP to protect yourself, and WEP just isn't adequate security.
  • With a router "in charge" of the network, you'll generally get more throughput. Client - server (with the server in charge) is more efficient than peer - peer (with no one in charge).
  • Most WiFi equipment, in ad-hoc mode, will only operate in 802.11b mode, and get up to 11M of bandwidth total.
  • Without a router, and a DHCP server built-in, you'll have to use ICS (if you're sharing Internet service), or pre-assign fixed IP addresses to each computer.
  • You'll have to pre-assign channel number and SSID on each computer, as the normal WiFi Client won't find your ad-hoc network by scanning. Nor will it give you a signal strength indicator.
  • You won't be able to disable SSID broadcast (not that this is a bad thing). In ad-hoc mode, SSID broadcast is forceably enabled.

Remaining aware of the limitations of ad-hoc WiFi, see specific details of the setup process

For a quick LAN, ad-hoc WiFi is OK. In an otherwise secure environment (maybe a single conference room deep within your office complex) it's perfect for a quick conference, and application sharing. For long term, really secure networking, though, you can't beat a properly setup, router (WAP) based network.

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Windows Vista And Routers

As I've written separately, the networking stack in Windows Vista is significantly different from the networking stack in previous versions of Windows. These differences are discussed, in detail, by experts like Joe Davies of Microsoft.

Like any improvements, the many improvements in networking, in Vista, use more resources - memory and processor - on the host computer. Resources on any peripherally connected computer - or router - will likewise be used more intensively. In testing Vista, Microsoft engineers found out that older routers won't perform as well when used with computers running Vista, as with computers running earlier versions of Windows.

As you integrate your computer running Windows Vista with the rest of your network, you'll find a few challenges with the various computers running other operating systems. Those differences you'll have to work around, with configuration changes.

If you get a new computer running Vista, and your router is a few years old, it's time to replace the router too. Or at least upgrade the firmware - if any is available - obtained from the vendor.

For more discusssion:

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