Archive for May, 2010

Another Windows XP rant

Some schools and businesses like to keep a uniform standard with letterheads and stationery, and this includes computers as well. A wallpaper with the school/business logo on all computers can look professional and smart, definitely better than what a lot of users chose as background pictures. We also wanted to prevent users from changing this wallpaper or setting another one.

We recently tried setting this up in our computer labs, and as usual used the magic of Group Policy to do so. We succeeded, but ran into an interesting problem: the icons on the desktop were being surrounded by a block of colour, depending on what the original background colour was. My colleague and I tried every tweak, using a bitmap file instead of JPEG, tweaked settings etc, all to no avail.

A search on the internet revealed that this is a known problem with Windows XP. For whatever reason, setting the desktop though Group Policy causes the picture to be displayed, but does so by using the horrible Active Desktop feature, a horrendous piece of leftover technology from Windows 98.

It’s hard to believe that this problem was never corrected in a service pack for XP, and now it never will be. We’ve yet to try and use this feature on Windows 7 based computers, but I have heard that 7 also has some issues when wallpapers are assigned through Group Policy.

We’ve left the settings in place, but I am not impressed by the fact that it looks so messy. Yet another reason in my view to ditch Windows XP and move on.

Horrible Sharp photocopiers

I don’t often rant on my blog, but I have just about had enough with our school’s 2 Sharp photocopiers. In the last month, these machines have jammed and had more service faults than any other copier I’ve worked with in my whole life. If not the duplex unit giving issues, it is the rollers gone flat in said unit, or the automated document feeder causing skew copies, or lines in the scan and so on. The models we have are the MX-450U and the AR-351. Their constant downtime has caused us plenty of grief, and I’m tired of people ranting at us because they have broken down.

The copy/print quality of these machines are not too bad, but that is about their only saving grace. Their web interfaces are very spartan and not useful beyond the basics. The copier itself also doesn’t scan to email or network as standard, which is something I found astounding. These are fairly recent machines, and the fact that you need a license and an add in board for these simple functions is daylight robbery.

My next gripe is that the drivers for these machines haven’t been updated in a long time, so getting them to work with printer deployment in Windows 7 has been challenging because the driver we have isn’t digitally signed by Microsoft. I’ve spent too much time fiddling with these things, trying to track down something more recent and useful.

Luckily our school is looking to get out of our contracts with Sharp, and to get some quality Ricoh copiers. I look forward to that day, to work with a product I know and like. The sooner the better I feel. This is one more step on our modernisation path for the school.

IP based CCTV

Late last year, in an effort to boost security in our school, the Business Manager decided that the school needed CCTV cameras. She had looked at it previously, but it had proven to be too expensive, especially the IP based cameras. Now, a few years later, the price had come down to the point where the school could put a number of cameras in. After consultation, she was advised that IP cameras were the best bet, as analogue cameras were slowly being phased out, as well as being tedious to set up with 2 cables running to each camera.

In preparation, we bought a HP 2610-24 POE switch, as well as a server with 2TB RAID5 of storage. These were in place weeks after the decision was made, but that was as far as we got last year.

Due to the ground staff in the school taking forever to put the relevant trunking up so that we could lay some cables, the project only kicked into high gear this year. Myself and my colleague started running the cables from the server room to the various points, an incredibly tedious and frustrating job. We persevered however, to the point where we now have 9 cameras up, with 4 more to go. One point was professionally installed, as that job was too tricky for us.

Software side, the server wouldn’t display the images from the camera, even though the cameras were working fine. This puzzled everyone, including the installer. I had a brainwave that night, that perhaps the software needed Windows Media Player installed so that it could work. I’d seen a tech newsletter where someone couldn’t get a score when running the Windows 7 Experience Index, and the suggested solution was to install Media Player. Server 2008 doesn’t have it installed by default, but a quick check box and a reboot later, all was good.

As things stand now, the system is working well. The quality of the recorded footage isn’t too bad, but it is very dependant on natural light and nearby fluorescent lights and so on. The cameras are set to record at 15FPS for some reason, probably to conserve disk space, but it does cause a jerky image.

I am impressed with IP based CCTV, it works quite well, and if managed properly, can fit in pretty well to any existing network. It is bandwidth intensive but set up right it won’t be a problem.

If you buy the server, switch(es) cabling and so on yourself and install those, you can save yourself quite a bit of money. You could even install the cameras yourself, but unless you are a professional, it is perhaps best to seek some advice before starting.

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Internet Explorer 9 Platform Preview 2

I downloaded this in the week, as I was curious to see what the fuss was all about. Being a Platform Preview, the application is a minimal GUI over the Trident engine that powers IE. The install file was about 16MB, and it didn’t require a restart. You can download a copy here:

The browser window is as spartan as Notepad, which in a bizarre way is actually quite cool. When you start it, it takes you to the Microsoft Demo site, where you can play around with the demos that show off some of the new features in the engine, its speed and improved web standards. Most of these are pretty boring after a while, so I opened up some real websites. I tested my school’s website (built in Joomla) and some other fairly heavy websites.

I was pleased that IE9 PP2 feels faster already than IE8, though of course this is just the raw Trident engine. My school’s website, which relies on a lot of PHP and JavaScript due to being built in Joomla, opens a lot faster than IE8. A lot of things don’t quite work in the admin backend, but I’m sure this will improve as IE9 continues to grow. Other websites showed a similar boost in speed.

I’ve often been asked why we don’t install Firefox or Chrome in the school network, and I reply that until the day you can manage it out of the box like you can with IE through Group Policy it won’t be installed. Most people never knew that, especially the students who think to show off their “l33t skillz”

I don’t know when IE9 will be released, nor if it will help Microsoft regain some points in the browser wars, but increased speed and standards support is a very big welcome. It’s unlikely to get users of other browsers to switch back, but it may stop new users from switching in the first place.