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How Microsoft Helped Me Move To Linux

Microsoft is afraid of Linux. This much is well documented and yet Microsoft seems to be putting a lot of thought and effort into getting me to leave Windows and move to Linux by making my Microsoft Windows Experience™ so awful and sometimes painful that the only I choices have are between continued Microsoft branded masochism or finding something else. The following is my personal account of a few of the many things that pushed me over the edge.

New Hardware

I recently had a power supply fail in a desktop computer that runs all the time. This machine happens to be my home digital video recorder (DVR) so it is always on and doing work recording TV shows, compressing them to save storage space, scanning and marking commercials for easy skipping or quick finding in the case of the Superbowl, downloading guide data and looking for new shows to record almost all day long. It uses a program called BeyondTV™ that only works in Windows XP and newer with no support to run on any other operating system. So I had no choice but to install Windows on the replacement hardware.

The first hurdle; how to get back to where I started.

The only parts not damaged in the old computer were the hard drives. Fortunately those were the most expensive parts with lots of hard to replace old TV shows. The new motherboard was a nice upgrade in speed but had no support for legacy peripherals like a floppy drive or IDE hard drive interface. I really wanted to keep the exact same Windows XP operating system that was already installed on the first hard drive, but the new motherboard was too different. It had a different number of CPU cores, a different configuration for memory, a different video chip set and so on. In short I found out exactly how much Windows hates to have the hardware change.

So I figured I would move all of the TV and DVR configuration files off of the first hard drive, install Windows fresh and then restore the files to get back to where I started.

Easier said than done.

The hardware that failed was only a few years old, purchased specifically because it came with Windows XP pre-installed when all of the other hardware makers were only selling Windows Vista pre-installed on their machines. It did not come with any Windows XP install disks, but I have two 2002 retail Windows XP packages on my desk each with the original holographic decorated CDROM disks inside with official product license key stickers. So I put one into the DVD drive in my new machine and found an endless supply of error messages, frozen screens or random reboots.

The heart of the problem centered around the total lack of hardware interfaces that would be recognizable to a Windows version made in 2002. It needed drivers to see the new hardware (USB3, SATA DVD drive, etc.) required to load the drivers. A classic Catch-22 situation that might be humorous in a different setting.

So in a fit of frustration I picked up the free Windows Vista disk included with my original computer and put it into the DVD drive. After a lot of fiddling to get the device driver disk copied to a partition on the install hard drive so it could be seen while the Windows install disk was in the DVD drive, I was finally able to get my first Genuine experience with Windows Vista.

Windows Activation Roadblock: The WoW and the Whoa

How many times do I have to type in the Windows key before I get it right? Presenting a new user with the need to type in a long string of random letters and numbers is a great way to give a dyslexic lots of seemly endless frustration. But in this case the problem is I don't have a working network connection because there is no network device driver loaded. It takes a while with the new overly protective file navigation to locate the driver installer program and get the network connected. For the record I hate the hidden file extensions default in Windows. In this case it was way too hard to tell the difference between a program, a dynamically loaded library and a data file without file extensions and I know what I'm looking for. They all have colorful and mostly meaningless icons. I can just imagine what someone less technical, like my grandmother, would be experiencing about this point randomly clicking on the pretty icons for DLL and data files that don't do anything.

Now I'm presented with a warning that my version of Windows will expire in 30 days unless I activate right now. Didn't I just type a long key? I use the online activation tool and it complains. Something is wrong and I need to use a secondary activation method through my phone. I click the button and what? I now see an even longer sequence of numbers than the product key! And I must type or say this into the phone and get back another long list of rapid-fire numbers to type into a bunch of little boxes. I'm not really sure this is anything more than a way to completely confound dyslexic people.

Somehow it appears the Genuine Microsoft Windows Vista key sticker physically attached to my computer case was installed before or at least that is what Microsoft thinks. Just so it is very clear, this is the first time I have pulled this disk out of the sleeve and the first time I have typed that key into the computer. So yet another few hurdles to jump through and I now have the new long list of numbers to type into the little boxes to take away the scary warning and let me use my new computer.

By contrast I have installed hundreds of different versions of Linux over the past 10 years on both physical hardware and virtual machines. Not once have I had an installation take more than 60 minutes from first boot to a fully working desktop complete with working Internet connection and all the productivity software I need to start working right away. In fact the majority of new Linux installs I do take less than 15 minutes. There are no hoops and very often I get to keep using the computer, including browsing the web, while Linux installs to the hard drive. So by comparison my Microsoft Windows Vista installation experience is getting painfully close to punishment. I had no clue what was next.

The Windows Vista Experience saga continues.

Everything Is A Web Browser?

Now that I have an approved and licensed installation the Windows Vista Wow factor hits me square in the face. The user interface changed a lot since Windows XP and most of it is not welcomed. Everything looks a lot like a web browser which is confusing when sometimes clicking once works and other times clicking twice is needed. Am I supposed to feel disoriented? I push on.

Anyone setting up a brand new Windows machine to look like an older version of Windows gets to know the control panel. It is the place to change things to your liking. Or at least that is how things used to be. Now there are a lot of different places. It is like they are trying to make things hard to find on purpose for experienced Windows users. And I have first hand experience on every version of Windows since 3.0, the first functional version, so I have a lot of time invested learning to use Microsoft software.

After fighting my way through the incredibly thick Windows Vista user interface to turn off all of the unwanted eye candy bogging down my CPU and turn off all of the unwanted features I found myself in front of a screen that looked enough like classic Windows XP that I could now start installing the BeyondTV DVR software.

Keep in mind recording and playing TV is the sole purpose and function of this machine. If everything works correctly the desktop will never be visible which is why I don't want any of that stuff chewing up memory or stealing CPU time away from the TV.

Updates Upon Updates For Even More Updates

Here is the picture so far. I'm installing BeyondTV, downloading the required but surprisingly not included Microsoft .NET runtime libraries versions 2, 3, 3.5, 4, each amazingly huge downloads, and configuring the drivers and support programs needed to find the TV tuner hardware, download the TV guide data and to know all of the shows I want to record. In the middle of this I get a pop up warning there are Windows updates available to install.

I purposefully turned off the Windows update setting that wants to automatically install updates at 3am every morning because I might be recording a late night TV show or movie and don't want a random reboot to interrupt it. So I install the update and it goes away happy.

A few minutes later it is back with another pop up notification about Windows updates to install. Didn't I just play this game? This time I take a peek at the expert display to see what it is installing and see a very long list of a remote attacker can hurt Windows patches. Again I install and this time it wants to reboot at the end.

After a boot sequence that is uncomfortably long apparently wasting precious TV recording time with an unwanted animated logo I'm now back at the desktop trying to complete setting up my BeyondTV when yet again the pop up warning has more things to update. There is another long list of patches and updates to all of the .NET libraries I just installed. What? I just installed those fresh from the Microsoft download service not minutes before and now they need to be patched already?

The trickle update process continued for at least TWO OR THREE HOURS as I attempted to work restoring or recreating my TV settings to be the way they were before. Sometimes the Microsoft patches installed without a reboot, other times they required a reboot. I'm beginning to hate this. Isn't there a way I can just download EVERY patch and update all at once without having to reboot and download more after each step? And for that matter, why can't Microsoft patch the patches on their site before I download them?

This brings us to a new problem. BeyondTV is not just one program. It has a bunch of services that run in the background to find TV shows to record, work out any scheduling conflicts, compress already recorded shows and mark commercials all so the front-end display program can show them to me. When Windows wants to shut down it sends each of these foreground and background tasks a signal and, at least on previous versions of Windows, waits for those tasks to end before continuing. Windows Vista does not want to wait. Sure it shuts down fast, but at what cost? This causes any tasks involving files, like video compression or database updates, to leave things in a dirty mess possibly corrupting data.

Just to avoid potential file corruption I started telling BeyondTV to shut down long before allowing Windows Vista to reboot.

Then I get the killer Windows Vista update from hell that wants to totally take over my computer locking me out of everything for an hour or more. I had to take a screen shot of it just to prove this is real. This gave me a very long time to seriously look at the screen and wonder what the hell I was doing. Is all of the time I'm spending getting me any closer to my goal?

Vista Update From Hell

The Killer Feature: Is The Monitor Attached?

By now I have what appears to be a working DVR machine set at a resolution to exactly match my TV and desktop monitor. Both the TV and monitor are connected to a KVM splitter (the complete hardware is described in another article on this site) because this gives me the ability to use whatever display is appropriate for the task I need.

I turn off the computer monitor and TV for the night thinking everything is set properly and working how I want.

The next morning I turn on the monitor and see a 640x480 screen resolution that I have not seen since my first VGA display way back in the late 1980's. Why did Windows Vista change my screen resolution? Well after a lot of searching I find this is a design feature that is impossible to disable in Windows Vista and apparently in newer Windows versions too.

Why does Windows Change screen resolution when the monitor is turned off? This is just one example of many I found all pointing to people, some of them fanatic Windows users, reduced to hacking on their hardware, cutting wires or burning extra electricity leaving their monitor on all the time. All of these cries for help left me with sinking feeling that Microsoft was not listening, not interested in fixing the problem even after years of user complaints. Maybe it will change if some really big corporate or government customer complains and threatens to move to Linux.

Hint: If you are a big enough business or any size government, just threatening to move your computers to Linux is a proven way to get free stuff from Microsoft! But be careful, actually moving to Linux can bring legal action as Microsoft sues you back into buying their stuff. Sound strange? Check your favorite non-Microsoft search engine for yourself.

Is my only choice to never turn off the TV or monitor? I'm thinking if Microsoft pays for all of my wasted electricity and accelerated hardware aging this might be something to consider, but I know that is never going to happen. I had no hope.

A DVR machine that can't remember the screen resolution when the display is turned off is not just frustrating, it is totally unacceptable. Time to rethink my options.

That was the last straw. Believe it or not, I'm glossing over a lot of the uncomfortable details each one another straw piled on my back.

Windows Vista Dies! Long Live Windows XP!

It was a joy to erase Windows Vista from my hard drive even though I have spent many hours to get this far. I consider it a lesson much like smacking my head on a low overhang teaches me to avoid it next time. I learned my lesson.

During the long periods of time Windows Vista was doing updates, rebooting and doing other stuff that got in the way, I did some research on how to build a slipstream version of Windows XP with SP3 that knows more about modern hardware than the original install disk. This was the secret that let me get past the catch-22 installation issue at the start of my story.

Now I'm back to the same activation problem. It turns out that Microsoft has been busy blocking validation keys that have been working for years. The key that belongs to this machine, the same key that has been running on this box since I purchased it new, is now considered stolen. Of course I did not find this out until after much time attempting to double check my typing of the long keys in the Windows activation box and even longer sequence of numbers punched into the phone and finally giving up and asking to talk to a live operator only to get a friendly but thickly accented voice. Stolen? How do I get my machine back to the place where it was before? Buy a new license! Microsoft won't sell me a new Windows XP and I refuse to live with unwanted screen resolution changes. What can I do?

I ended up using another key from the sticker on the bottom of my old laptop. But I won't be surprised if that key is now marked stolen in their database. And even if it is not, I would not find it out of character if they stop activating all Windows XP installations now that all support for Windows XP officially ended.

My only choice when this XP machine dies again is to move all of my machines to Linux and forget all about the Microsoft brand of pain and suffering. But for now I want to run BeyondTV and, at least in my house, it only runs on Windows XP!

What's Next?

With this Microsoft Experience™ and the many hours invested fresh in my mind I wanted to do a fair comparison using some of the alternative choices I could download for free. I started with a few different versions of Linux with MythTV pre-installed. Remember my only goal for this computer is to record TV and play it back at times that fit my schedule - the most basic definition of a digital video recorder (DVR) that I know.

To put things into perspective it has been a couple of years since I last looked at MythTV to see if it would do what I want. At that time setting up a new installation felt like a very long list of questions and settings that sometimes were so obscure or confusing that I had no idea what to set. The MythTV complexity was one of the reasons I originally went with BeyondTV on Windows.

Wow things have changed!

Literally minutes after booting the MythTV CD image and installing a test copy into a VirtualBox I was able to tell it about my TV tuner hardware (HDHomeRun) and have it downloading TV guide data over the air. Absolutely no Internet connection required. Recording a show was easy and playback was surprisingly good for something running inside an emulated video device without any hardware acceleration. Just in case you are not aware of the work required to display live TV at full resolution, this is impossible with any out of the box version of Windows I know. In my experience out of the box Windows more often than not has a very hard time showing even low resolution video without lots of help from hardware driver updates. Then add the built in digital restrictions management (DRM) layers forced on all customers using newer versions of Windows and an extra powerful computer is needed just to keep up. By contrast Linux is lean, fast and runs on a much wider range of older hardware than is possible with any Microsoft product.

In a very real sense Microsoft spent billions of Dollars building Windows Vista, even more billions of Dollars in marketing it and pushing every PC hardware maker to package it into their boxes so they could get it in front of me. They made a very large investment to influence me and it worked.

I choose Linux with a Mac on the side. My few remaining Windows-only programs are now living nicely in a Windows XP machine inside a VirtualBox running comfortably on either my Linux or Mac machines. Since the Windows hardware is virtual, it never ages, never fails, is trivially easy to backup and restore the complete machine without needing any change to Windows and is likely to still be running long past my need for the few remaining Windows-only programs. VirtualBox may be the closest thing to immortality Windows will ever know.

A Note To Microsoft Investors.

If you are a Microsoft stockholder in the game for anything more than the quick buck, please consider my story carefully. I had a very specific need and invested a lot of time trying in good faith to use Microsoft software to meet that need only in the end to find that Microsoft is getting really good at driving me away. It makes me wonder how often this is happening all over the world. I wrote about my experience mostly to help my friends understand the path I took. If my experience is even partly representative of the Microsoft user base it could explain why so many previously happy Windows users are now being forced to look at less painful choices like Apple and Linux. Looking only from the user perspective it would be hard for me to find a technology product that guarantees more frustration and waste. Can you guess why Microsoft's popularity is falling in spite of the convoluted accounting and marketing gymnastics attempting to make it appear otherwise? I can. Happy users don't care if Apple makes great products. Unhappy users are forced to.

Windows 8 Update

Just in case I missed something I have been following the progress of Windows through Windows 7 and Windows 8. I'm no longer installing anything on physical hardware because I just don't believe it is worth the effort to find and download the latest device drivers, burn them to a CD/DVD and make sure I have two DVD drives installed so I don't need to swap disks. VirtualBox allows me to create multiple DVD drives and mount the included and always up to date driver CD at any time even while installing Windows or any other operating system.

The Windows 8 installation hit me with a bit of humor that I thought would be useful to share here.

Windows 8 EULA (End User License Agreement)

On page 7 of the 11 page legal document called the Windows 8 End User License Agreement (EULA), in Section 6 "Windows Apps", Microsoft includes the following wonderfully enlightening information.

"Some Windows apps include advertising. You may choose to opt out of personalized advertising by visiting choice.live.com."

Or you could also opt-out by visiting http://www.xubuntu.com and avoid the hassle altogether!

First published 2012-08-09. The last major review or update of this information was on 2014-04-18. Your feedback using the form below helps us correct errors and omissions on this page.