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Scot’s Newsletter

Windows and Broadband Information You Can Use!

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January 31, 2002 - Vol. 2, Issue No. 20

By Scot Finnie

IN THIS ISSUE

  • Head to Head: StarBand vs. Pegasus Satellite Broadband
  • More on the NTFS File System
  • Tried and True Products
  • Digging into Windows Installer for Win9x
  • Product Beat: Sun Cobalt's Qube3 Debuts
  • Good Idea or Bad? The Interactive Software Review
  • Suggestions Wanted
  • Link of the Week: Eshelman's Windows Support Center
  • Tips of the Week: More Windows XP Tips
  • Subscribe, Unsubscribe, or Change Your Address.


    HEAD TO HEAD:
    StarBand vs. Pegasus Satellite Broadband
    When my DSL service went down a month ago, I was forced to fall back on my Pegasus Express powered by DirecWay (DirecPC) two-way satellite service. I was pleasantly surprised by the experience.

    Since the last issue, I've been living with StarBand to re-examine the competition. Then I went back to Pegasus again. With each change, I've learned something new. Now that both StarBand and DirecWay have been around long enough to get most of the kinks out, and each has updated its software and refined its load-balancing techniques, I can finally do a real comparative review.

    Dish hardware and installation. StarBand's dish is smaller and where I am, stake mounting (mounting on a pole anchored in the ground) wasn't a big deal for the installer. Unless you have a flat roof and can do a sled mount (rests on the roof with weight to hold it in place), I recommend you request a stake mount because that way you won't be putting holes in your roof. Those holes have a way of leaking sooner or later. Both StarBand and Pegasus try to get you to mount on the roof though because you have a better likelihood of finding a direct line to the satellite. That's critical.

    Although Hughes makes excellent hardware, the DirecWay dish assembly is overly complex and the unit weighs a ton (not literally). That complicates many installations. It may also mean that your dish will be more likely to fall out of alignment.

    One thing I do like about DirecWay is that they require stake mounted dishes five to six feet off the ground. That's a pain, but it's safer. Placing your head near the dish while it's sending data can actually be harmful to your eyes. And kids might be tempted to do something like that. My StarBand dish is well mounted, but it's low to the ground.

    It doesn't mean that much because this varies widely by region, but the installers of both services were excellent. The StarBand guy was outstanding though.

    Rating (5=Best):       StarBand:  4      Pegasus/DirecWay:  3


    Inside installation and software. Both the StarBand 360 and the DirecWay DW4000 satellite modems connect via USB cables and were easy to connect. The StarBand 360 gives you the option to connect via Ethernet cable if you prefer — a nice plus. But I had trouble with the software installation on both products.

    StarBand installation has been problematic all along, both with the Model 180 satellite modem and the 360. The problems were different but they all centered around the same thing on the 360: Getting the USB driver installed. I spent several hours following the installation instructions to the letter to no avail. Finally I contacted StarBand. They overnighted me (they knew I was reviewing the product) a disc with a slightly newer version of the software on it. It also came with a revised Quick Start Guide. Guess what? The directions were wrong, not the software. Once I reversed the order of two steps, the driver installed right away, and the rest of the installation went quickly and easily. For StarBand, it's the USB driver that's the killer.

    Pegasus has the opposite problem. Its USB driver works like a champ every time. And in fact the software installation completes fine. But at the end of the install it begins the Web registration phase. This requires that you have a dial-up Internet connection on your PC. Numerous times over several days I found that the server rejected my attempts to login the first four or five times I tried. And then all of a sudden, it let me in. At the end of Web registration, I frequently encountered a crash. That crash is usually just before, during, or after the email address set-up process. There's a specific server that the process calls at that time that seems to be overloaded or in need of repair. Sometimes you crash and never get to the point of creating an email address. If that happens to you, call tech support. They have a workaround.

    This is a recent change for Pegasus, but both products use a proxy server to attempt to improve performance. I find StarBand's particularly annoying. In fact, StarBand's software, in general, is more annoying than Pegasus's. It's possible to disable both the Pegasus/DirecWay proxy server and the Pegasus Navigator software (giant blue box that opens when the service loads offering links to the ExpressWay website, and so forth). StarBand's stuff is more heavy handed. You really can't even do much performance tweaking with the StarBand software.

    Both services, but StarBand in particular, have a lag between when the computer first starts up and you're actually connected to the Internet. With StarBand, you may wait for up to a minute for it to kick in. That can sometimes mean failures of automatically loading software and services that check the Net as they load.

    Next to performance, this is the area that both products need the greatest improvement in.

    Rating (5=Best):       StarBand:  1      Pegasus/DirecWay:  2


    Performance. This is the single most important criteria in this review, and it's the most frustrating factor to gauge. The plain fact of the matter is that both of these services vary widely in terms of performance. It's never the same broadband twice. And sometimes it's not broadband at all. A few weeks back, Pegasus Express was definitely on my good side because I was seeing performance test results consistently over 800kbps and as high as 1,000kbps. That's well over DirecWay/Pegasus Express's "up to 400kbps" stated performance claims. That was about three weeks ago. Now, after reinstalling it and tweaking it the same way, my performance is sub par, in the 100kbps to 200kbps range, max. And sometimes the test show as low as 45kbps. To be fair, DirecWay has been doing maintenance on its servers. Still, I called them. It should be done by now. They don't know why my performance has dropped off.

    But this is the recurring story with satellite broadband. I've had the same trouble with StarBand off and on over the last year. Tests in my last StarBand go-around showed the service in a varying range from 400kbps to 800kbps, with 500-600kbps being average. That's pretty darn good for StarBand's stated "up to 500kbps" speed claims. But here's something interesting. When I shared out my StarBand service with other PCs on the network, those PCs were consistently faster at broadband benchmark tests than the primary StarBand machine. One of them was hitting 1,000kbps performance levels on some benchmark tests. (Note, I run about a dozen different benchmark tests and compare them all.)

    The reverse was true under Pegasus, where client PCs on the network tended to be slower than the primary Pegasus machine (even when I tweaked them for performance).

    Here's the thing about two-way satellite. Like cable modems, you're sharing the bandwidth with other people using the service. In most cases, a lot more people are sharing those available bandwidth pools than are sharing cable modem segments. That's not a hard and fast rule, but it's probably true more often than not. So performance is going to vary a lot. Stir in the latency issues, and the ever present vagaries of the Internet, and what you've got is broadband potluck. Right now, my Pegasus performance is pretty terrible. But two weeks from now it might be screaming.

    One thing is for sure, at raw download, both services were able to pull down a 50MB file in under three minutes. StarBand was slightly faster (even when Pegasus was at its best), managing to retrieve the file in two minutes, nine seconds. The same file required 22 minutes with my 384kbps DSL connection.

    But before you break out into a huge smile, there's a major caveat. If you were to compare web surfing performance among the three: Scot’s crummy 384kbps DSL connection, StarBand, or DirecWay, I promise you that you would pick my DSL connection as hands down the fastest. You would also pick StarBand as the slowest; it seems to hesitate after you click a hyperlink. There's no upstream server call once a big file starts downloading. In fact, the latency issue rolls up into the time it takes to pull down such a large file. It's that blizzard of small-file server calls that really bogs down a satellite connection. And that's precisely that sort of operation that most people ask their broadband connection to handle.

    Last point about performance is upstream. Both of these products are pretty terrible there. Your upstream connection is not much faster than a 56K connection. So don't expect to run a Web server out of your house. In fact, I've often wondered whether online gamers wouldn't be better off with DirecPC's one-way satellite service with a dial-up connection for upstream data flow. That would probably cut back on the latency issues introduced by the roughly 44,000-mile round trip your data has to take out to the satellite and back. It's just a thought.

    Rating (5=Best):       StarBand:  3      Pegasus/DirecWay:  3


    Connection sharing. When I started testing these products, I had trouble making either one share its connection with other PCs on a network. Those problems are gone. With its newer software, Pegasus Express works perfectly with Windows' Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) feature. It literally took me about 5 minutes to configure ICS and the physical connections on my network, including the Windows restart. It's bullet proof. (That hasn't always been my experience with ICS in the past, by the way.)

    StarBand doesn't work with ICS. StarBand uses a network shim product that overlays your network adapter drivers with another layer of crud that, I think, is one of the weak points of the StarBand system. A trial version of Ositis' WinProxy 4.0 for StarBand ships with the later versions of the StarBand software. I'm very familiar with WinProxy, which I used for couple of years, and which I've also reviewed for Broadband Report. I like WinProxy, but I find it unreliable. I have found that its Achilles' heel is its dynamic IP assignment. Sometimes it just messes up. That's partly a Windows thing. Even so, it doesn't happen with ICS. Other than that, though, WinProxy works well. And it shared my StarBand connection handily. I did have to reboot all the machines a lot and also use WINIPCFG to release and renew IP addresses. Sometimes that has to be done multiple times.

    There is one other gotcha with StarBand though. The WinProxy software times out after so many days and then they want about $60 (or more, depending on how many PCs you use simultaneously) to register your installed version. As I noted under the Performance heading, with WinProxy, the client PCs were even faster than the primary StarBand box. That's a sign that Ositis did its homework. Probably worth the $60.

    Rating (5=Best):       StarBand:  3      Pegasus/DirecWay:  4


    Reliability. Satellite broadband is rocket science. Or at least, that's part of it. There's a lot going on behind the scenes. And sometimes it goes wrong. And when it does, that means your upstream connection might stop working, or your email, or your Web browsing. StarBand used to be very problematic in this way. My experience lately has been that StarBand is more reliable, though. Pegasus seems a bit flaky at times.

    I have satellite television through EchoStar (Dish Networks). Hardly a week goes by when something doesn't mess with my satellite TV. Either the picture is going out or the dish needs to reconfigure itself or the network is downloading new information or something. I love the picture quality, sound quality, and availability of channels, or I probably wouldn't put up with it. I guess what I'm saying, though, is this lack of reliability is par for the course with satellite services. Same with cable TV and cable modem services too. In my town, the cable TV services go out about once a week. DSL is more consistent, although when you do have problems, they tend to be more serious.

    There's another thing about satellite broadband reliability that you should be aware of though. The companies downplay it but weather is a reliability factor. If you have a thick overcast sky or driving rain or snow, your satellite broadband connection is liable to just drop off altogether. StarBand and Pegasus are about equal in that. I've seen them both drop off that way several times over the last year.

    Rating (5=Best):       StarBand:  3      Pegasus/DirecWay:  2


    VPN support. In a word, forget VPN with satellite broadband. It is possible to connect via PPTP through StarBand. I have done so recently. But the performance was roughly on par with a 14.4kbps connection. In other words, dog slow. Too slow to use and spend that much money for every month. VPN support is just outright blocked by Pegasus. If you need VPN services, look to other broadband solutions.

    Rating (5=Best):       StarBand:  2      Pegasus/DirecWay:  1


    Internet services and protocols. DirecWay is marketed by Hughes DirecPC (its provider), EarthLink, and Pegasus Communications. Pegasus is also one of the biggest resellers of DirecTV satellite television. Of the three DirecWay providers, Pegasus is the only one that doesn't offer usenet newsgroups as part of its DirecWay package. It chose this as a way to save money. Pegasus customers should unite in telling Pegasus to go suck an egg over this omission. Newsgroups, Web browsing, and email are all core Internet services any ISP should provide.

    Neither of these services is really 100 percent comfortable running AOL or AOL Instant Messenger, although they both do it. StarBand has improved a lot in this area. Like Web browsing, performance of every other Internet protocol but FTP is slower with the satellite services than it is with my basic DSL service. One other exception: StarBand's newsgroup performance is fast and reliable. The worst, though, is email. Both services perform email checks much slower than my DSL service does. My email tests include several email servers that are not hosted by any of my ISPs, so they're as fair as can be.

    All in all, this is another stumbling block for satellite broadband, although there's noticeable improvement at StarBand, so perhaps there's hope.

    Rating (5=Best):       StarBand:  3      Pegasus/DirecWay:  1


    Documentation and support. Even though StarBand's documentation has more than once been wrong, and Pegasus Express's toll-free support is fast and very friendly, I would still have to give the nod to StarBand. Want to know why? They have an excellent tech support website with FAQs, downloads, tips, explanations, network status, and news about the service. It's like StarBand's a real ISP. Because it is.

    Unfortunately, Pegasus is not. They have a website that's designed to be your broadband portal, but there's almost no useful tech support information on it. And by the way, this isn't a DirecWay problem. DirecPC has a very good website, as does EarthLink. Pegasus Communications just opted not to provide a tech support website. But c'mon, we all know that a website is much more expensive than staffing up telephone tech support lines, right?

    One thing I will say, I've only had two occasions to call the Pegasus support lines, but both times I got very helpful and friendly reps who tried very hard to solve my problems — and did so. So it could be a lot worse. Also, at the StarBand site, I sent an email to tech support that was never responded to. And Pegasus's documentation is better (if not as pretty).

    Still, I like to help myself. You can't even download the software for Pegasus Express from the "ExpressWay" website. Who wants to wait on hold?

    Rating (5=Best):       StarBand:  4      Pegasus/DirecWay:  3


    Policies. Perhaps you've heard of this? Both DirecWay (which provides all of Pegasus's server services) and StarBand have posted something that everyone calls the "Fair Access Policy" (FAP) on their websites. What these policies state is that if you use so much bandwidth in such and such a time, StarBand and DirecWay have the right to slow down your services. In so doing, they keep a few people from using up a lot of the available bandwidth so there's more available for other users. Among the DirecPC/DirecWay faithful, the terms FAP has turned into a verb. It's said that DirecPC "FAP'ed you" if they invoked their right to reduce your performance levels because you were chewing up a lot of bandwidth.

    To be honest, I tend to come down on the side of the users who are incensed by this. Given how much people pay for this service, they should have a right to use it freely. I think the satellite companies should go out and get more bandwidth, and also find better ways to apportion bandwidth than by singling out individuals and giving them a speeding ticket.

    If you get FAP'ed, performance will return to normal in a matter of hours (perhaps as many as 12, although this isn't really clear). I have never experienced this personally, so I have no firsthand knowledge of it. I'm told, though, that you really have to be downloading some serious chunks of data at quite a good clip before you get zapped by the FAP police. So don't Bogart that satellite.

    For more information, read the policies for yourself. They aren't specific about numbers, but I can tell you that the numbers are fairly high. You would have to be downloading some serious code for long, long periods of time to trip this thing.

  • StarBand's Acceptable Use Policy
  • DirecWay Fair Access Policy

    Rating (5=Best):       StarBand:  2      Pegasus/DirecWay:  2


    The winner. Just a couple of weeks ago I would have said Pegasus, no newsgroup service and all. That's because it surfs a tad better than StarBand, and at that time my Pegasus connection was very fast. Now it's dog slow. And StarBand has been more or less consistent over that time. I'll take consistent with better services and preferable tech support. StarBand is just the better service right now. It's a real ISP. The performance is good. Download speeds are excellent. And everything seems to work.

    Overall Rating (5=Best):   StarBand: 3   Pegasus/DirecWay: 2


    Epilogue. But what about EarthLink and DirecWay? For what it's worth, I have contacted both companies to request evaluation units. About a year ago, EarthLink flatly declined to send me one. Hughes DirecWay has never responded to numerous attempts to reach them (one as recently as three weeks ago). I would still be open to looking at their products. The EarthLink deal includes 20 hours of dial-up service, which is an advantage to people who might like to travel and use their EarthLink Satellite email address. DirecWay's service also looks good to me. Pegasus may have the cheapest prices. They no longer appear to be showing pricing on their website.

    You'll find more information about pricing, installation, and deals at the links below. Keep in mind that EchoStar owns a piece of StarBand, and they're in the midst of trying to buy Hughes, which means DirecTV, DirecPC, and DirecWay. So it's becoming a very cozy industry.

    Please see More on StarBand and Pegasus for an update to this review.

  • StarBand
  • Pegasus Express
  • Hughes Network Systems DirecWay
  • EarthLink Satellite

    Other Two-Way Satellite Resources:

  • The Best of Scot’s Newsletter - Two-Way Satellite Coverage
  • DirecPC Uncensored
  • StarBandUsers.com
  • CNET Comparison Review

    Back to the Top


    More on the NTFS File System
  • Finding Cluster Sizes
  • Converting Cluster Sizes
  • NTFS Performance
  • TFS and Booting from a Floppy or CD Drive

    Wow! I got a lot of responses to last issue's article delving into Windows XP's NTFS file system. If you didn't read that piece, you might want to start there before you read this one. There's a lot of good information in both issues.

    Most of the email feedback was positive, and a lot of it offered useful information. My NTFS coverage is going to wind up continuing for a while because there are several outstanding (and intriguing) questions that I'm working through with Microsoft and others. But here are some things I've learned since last issue:

    Finding cluster sizes. Windows XP's built-in Disk Defragmenter tool displays NTFS cluster sizes if you know where to look. Launch the defragger (right click the disk drive in My Computer and choose Properties > Tools > Defragment Now). Then click the Analyze button and then the View Report button. The cluster size is plainly listed in the report.

    You'll also get the information if you run Windows' CHKDSK utility (also available on the Tools menu mentioned above). Or you can run it by typing CHKDSK on the Windows command line (Start > Command Prompt). After CHKDSK runs, it'll give you a report. If you have 4K clusters, that would be listed as "4096 bytes in each allocation unit." There were also several other ingenious methods of checking cluster sizes. One of which is to create a small text document with only a few words in it, then save and close it. Check its size on the disk. Even a 100-byte file will displace 4K on your disk if your cluster size is 4K.

    I want to thank at least five or six dozen SFNL readers who sent in one of these three ways of checking cluster sizes.

    Converting cluster sizes. SFNL reader Rob Wilen sent me a simple but very good question. He's got PartitionMagic 7, Windows XP, and an NTFS partition that he notices has 512-byte clusters. So can PartitionMagic convert the cluster size to 4K for him? The answer is no. PartitionMagic can convert cluster sizes of FAT or FAT32 partitions, but it's not currently able to convert NTFS clusters, according to PowerQuest's Travis Eggett. Eggett says that most NTFS conversions result in 512-byte cluster sizes, but some result in 4K cluster sizes. In Eggett's experience, the performance differences between the two are negligible for desktop PC use.

    I also checked this point with V-Com's Jeff Hyman. In addition to making the venerable System Commander multiboot utility, V-Com makes Partition Commander, a product that's been moving up in the polls (figuratively speaking). Jeff confirms that Partition Commander can't covert NTFS cluster sizes in it current version either.

    But a reader named Tom Snyder located a program that does do the trick. It's Paragon Software's Paragon Partition Manager. According to Tom, he used the $40 program to convert his cluster size from 512-bytes to 4K and he's noticed a marked performance improvement. I haven't tried this product, but the marketing materials do specifically list NTFS cluster-size conversion and Windows XP support. It is also able to convert from FAT/FAT32 to NTFS and back. I can't vouch for the product's reliability the way I can with PartitionMagic. But I've sent an email to the company requesting a copy of the software. If I get that, I will try it and write about it in a future issue. If you try Paragon Partition Manager, please let me know about your experiences. I'm particularly interested in cluster-size conversion, but any thoughts you have would be interesting. Please send me info about what you learn.

    NTFS performance. Microsoft's David Golds sent word that the NTFS article in the last issue was accurate except on one point. I mentioned that on larger (30GB or more) volume sizes, NTFS can cause an erosion of performance. Golds writes: "4K clusters are actually close to optimal for performance for most workloads. It's just that 512-byte clusters are a bit small. So NTFS retaining the 4K cluster size actually positions us really well for performance and for storage efficiency."

    I think David put his finger on the issue. Many of the people who are noticing performance issues have 512-byte cluster sizes because they converted during or after an upgrade installation of Windows XP. It's probably much fairer to say that performance degradation occurs with 512-byte clusters.

    But I would also hasten to add that I've received probably 50 emails since the last issue from readers who either bought NTFS PCs or converted, all of whom are complaining about disk performance, a constant need to defrag, and slow defrag times. (Some people say the slow defrag times are with FAT32 under Windows XP, so there's a difference of opinion on that point.) Bottom line: There are NTFS performance issues of some sort that some people are experiencing. I have sent a solid handful of your messages to Microsoft, and they're analyzing them now. I hope to hear something back from the company on this point.

    In the meantime, I recommend that you hold off on NTFS conversions until this gets sorted out. A lot of people have written to say their XP PC worked fine until they converted to NTFS. So why tempt fate? I still think NTFS is where we all want to be, but let's get this sorted out.

    NTFS and booting from a floppy. A lot of people wrote me saying that all that cool NTFS stuff is nice, but what happens if you need to boot from a floppy and perform operations on your disk? Good point, except Microsoft has that figured out. The easiest way is to boot to your Windows XP CD and enter the Recovery Console. If you've never done this, you might want to check it out. It's worth a look because it's pretty powerful.

    There's also a second option for people whose PCs can't boot CDs or those who don't have Windows XP CDs. My friend and erstwhile Winmag.com colleague Serdar Yegulalp lobbied hard (with a bit of help from me) to get Microsoft to offer a floppy disk boot option for Windows XP. Eventually they agreed to do that, and the result is the download you'll find in Microsoft KB article Obtaining Windows XP Setup Boot Disks (Q310994).

    Check Serdar's Win2KPowerUsers.com newsletter from January 13, 2002, on this subject for more detail on using this tool.

    There's more to come on this subject in future issues of Scot’s Newsletter. I've gotten so much mail on NTFS that I haven't been able to answer most of it. I'm trying to answer as many questions as I can in the newsletter.

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    Tried and True Products
    Last time I introduced the new Tried and True section of the newsletter by recommending three products to you that I use day in, day out. I got a lot of positive feedback from readers who liked the idea, so I plan to make it an ongoing section of the newsletter (but it won't appear in every issue). This week's Tried and True Products:

  • IntelliMouse Optical, Microsoft
    A mouse preference is partly subjective in that how well the device fits in your hand and feels to use is part of the equation. What I like about IntelliMouse Optical is that it's light, accurate, the optical technology never gets clogged up with mousepad crud, and the extra buttons are actually useful. It works equally well for lefties and righties. Plus, unlike the more well known IntelliMouse Explorer, you can buy one for about $32 (Buy.com). Besides the optical technology, the best part are the two side buttons. They're customizable, but the default action corresponds to your browser's Back and Forward buttons (a functionality that's liable to begin showing up in more and more application software in the near future). Those buttons and the scroll wheel greatly ease web browsing for me. Microsoft recently issued a significant upgrade to the IntelliMouse driver software, IntelliPoint 4.01.

  • Gel-Eez GL4 Wrist Rest Mouse Pad, Case Logic
    A few years ago I began having serious repetitive stress pain in my mouse wrist. I know people who've resorted to switching mouse hands because their wrists get so sore after using a mouse all day, seven days a week. One of the keys to solving this problem is to support your arm as much as possible. I use an armchair that supports my arm with my elbow bent at 90 degrees. My mouse is at the same level so the strain is reduced on my wrist. But the last piece of the puzzle for me was this Case Logic Gel-Eez mouse pad. It has two liquid-filled tubes that cradle your wrist about an inch above the base of your mousepad. It allows your wrist to relax. You can also freeze this thing for a few hours and then use it while you work as a home remedy to wrist pain. Although I've found that if the pain gets serious, it's time to lay off the computer for a while. [Eds. Note: Maybe I should give him a pain somewhere else to get him to lay off the computer for even longer? --Cyndy.] You can find the Gel-Eez in many computer stores and also at all the usual places online. It costs about $12. Gel-Eez mouse pads last a long time. The company also makes a similar product for keyboards.

    Back to the Top


    Digging into Windows Installer for Win9x
    The Microsoft Windows Installer is an installation and configuration service that ships as part of the Windows XP, 2000, and ME operating systems. It's also provided as a service pack upgrade to Windows 95, Windows 98, and Microsoft Windows NT version 4.0. Windows Installer provides a centralized application service. It prevents messed up Windows installations caused by poorly written program installers that overwrite system DLLs and exhibit other bad behaviors. Long and short, Windows Installer was designed to prevent "DLL Hell," and also to make it possible to roll-back application installations.

    Microsoft KB Article Overview of the Windows Installer Technology (Q242479) describes the main functions of Windows Installer in Microsoft's lively terminology.

    You should know that even though you might not have a version of Windows that Windows Installer (also called "MSI" by Microsofties) comes with natively, it's very possible it's installed on your system without your knowing it. That's because installing applications bring it with them and leave it on your PC. Once Windows Installer is installed on your system, it's not supposed to be uninstalled. A quick check of nine Windows 98 and 95 machines readily at my disposal showed that eight out of nine of them had Windows Installer installed. To check for yourself, run Start > Find > Files and Folders, and search for this file:

    msi.dll

    If you find it, Windows Installer is installed. There are different versions of Windows Installer. Right click the MSI.DDL file and choose Properties, then click the version tab. 2.0 is the latest version. Additionally, if you find cryptically named .MSI files in the C:\Windows\Installer folder, each one represents a program installation or update.

    There are good things and bad things about Windows Installer. I recently ran afoul of it in a big way. Eventually, problems with my Windows Installer installation forced me to uninstall and reinstall both Internet Explorer and Office XP. But the really tricky part came into play when Office XP refused to uninstall. I tried everything to make it uninstall itself so I could reinstall it. Nothing worked. Until I learned about a program called the Windows Installer Clean Up Utility.

    Windows Installer Clean Up is a 279K download that provides a simple graphical way to safely remove Windows Installer-related registry settings from your computer in the event of a problem. There's a Microsoft KB article that's a good reference about the utility: Windows Installer Clean Up Utility (Q290301). The article also provides a download link to the MSICU.EXE file, which is the installer for Windows Installer Clean Up. The article is a little out of date on one point. It states that the utility doesn't support the 2.0 version of Windows Installer, but that's only partly true. It does support the 2.0 version of MSI under Windows 9x (but not Windows Me, 2000, or XP). It's not clear to me that you can even get a 2.0 version of Windows Installer for NT 4.0.

    Long and short, when I used this utility to remove my Office XP registry settings, it literally uninstalled Office XP in a few seconds, with one important caveat: All the Windows XP program files were still there. But as far as the Registry was concerned, there was no Office on my PC. I rebooted my PC and then performed a "Complete" install of Office XP. I did that because I had previously done a custom install, and I knew I probably wouldn't get all my selections exactly right. Once the Complete install was done, I fully uninstalled Office again (using Start > Add/Remove Programs), rebooted, and then installed a custom install. From that point on, my machine was working properly again. And it was a trick well noted, which is why I'm passing it along.

    More information on Windows Installer:

  • The Windows Installer Start Page
  • Download Windows Installer 2.0 for Win 95, 98, Me

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    Product Beat: Product Beat: Sun Cobalt's Qube3 Debuts
    This week I had breakfast at Mel's with the folks behind the Qube, now owned by Sun Microsystems and relabeled Sun Cobalt. They announced the new Qube3 server appliance a couple of days ago, and I can't wait to get my hands on this thing. For anyone in a small office environment looking for a single solution to handle Internet access and sharing, IMAP or POP3 email, Apache Web server, FTP server, intranet, DHCP and NAT services, PPTP and IPsec VPN, firewall, file and printer sharing, and optional antivirus all in one 8-inch by 8-inch by 8-inch box, this is it. Literally you bring this thing home, add your broadband connection, mix in an inexpensive hub or switch, and poof, instant full-featured business network with the reliability of Linux configured via Web browser and 40GB of RAID storage. It can even serve as a Windows domain controller. As a home solution, it's not cheap starting at around $1,000 base configuration (excluding the RAID storage). But it's looks to be a bargain for a small office and even some home office needs. I'm planning a review of the Qube3 in an upcoming issue of SFNL. Don't miss it.

    — SonicWall and BellSouth Team Up —
    SonicWall and BellSouth have announced that BellSouth will offer SonicWall security solutions to its FastAccess DSL customers. BellSouth currently has approximately 620,000 DSL customers, about 30 percent of which are business DSL customers. BellSouth serves customers across nine states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. SonicWall (whose products have been reviewed very favorably by Broadband Report, one of the precursors of this newsletter) has over 230,000 installations of its security hardware worldwide.

    Does your company have a new computer product of interest to this newsletter's readers? Submit it to Product Beat.

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    Good Idea or Bad? The Interactive Software Review
    Here's an idea I've been wanting to try for almost 10 years. Scot’s Newsletter may be the best forum I've ever had to do it with. As a professional computer product reviewer dating back to the early 1980s, if there's one thing I've learned it's that no one product reviewer can really put a product through its paces. That's one of the reasons why, at Winmag.com, all our Windows review coverage was done with a team approach. The core team of Dave Methvin (now of PCPitStop.com), Serdar Yegulalp (Win2KPowerUsers.com), and yours truly could more easily figure out whether a bad experience was an anomaly or a trend. The result was blockbuster reviews like this Windows XP late beta review, which also appears on Lycos Computers.

    Maybe you can guess what I'm proposing. This is not a fully formed idea, but what if SFNL readers and I pooled our resources and collected our experiences about a popular software product or service to create a group review available on the Web for all to see?

    One way to do that is the way I do polls at Scot’s Newsletter. It's very low-tech and also labor intensive for me, but it's also very effective: Email surveys. Another way might be for me to set up a discussion area on the Scot’s Newsletter website, something I've been toying with doing anyway. I could create a Web-form-based questionnaire. Or rig up a Web-based poll/survey system. I don't have a plan yet, but I'm wondering what you think of the idea. Would you participate? Do you have an idea about how it should be done? Shoot me your thoughts.

    If this project gets off the ground, it'll probably take some months to get going (depending on the methodology we use). So another thing I'll be thinking about is what product we should tackle. Because SFNL readers will have to download and possibly buy the product in order to test it, it would make sense to choose a product that's either freeware or offers a fully-featured trialware period of 30 days or more. That lets out all hardware products. We also want to test something that's of broad interest to everyone, like a Web browser, email package, mainstream Windows utility, personal firewall, and so forth. Finally, it needs to be a major version of a product that hasn't already been released. If you have suggestions about products we might review, please send them along.

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    Suggestions Wanted
    I want to know if you see something major wrong with this newsletter, either in its facts, or the words, or the on the SFNL website. I'm not so much talking about how this newsletter spells website as one word, instead of "Web site." That's a style thing my editor chose. I'm talking about real problems that matter. I'm only just one guy here, and I do all the writing, formatting, coding, sending, etc. Mistakes happen. So please help me fix them! While I can't change something that's already in your mailbox, I can certainly change the website version of the newsletter. In fact, if you ever have a question about something you read in SFNL or wonder whether there's a mistake, you might check the website version. I can and do make changes there. Sometimes I even rewrite things that might mislead people after the fact. Thanks for your input.

    The best way to send suggestions is by using this email address and subject line:

    mailto:scot@scotsnewsletter.com?subject=SFNL_Suggestion

    By the way, I've changed the email address for the newsletter. It used to be scot@scotsnewsletter.com. And that still works. But scot@scotsnewsletter.com is now the primary address.

    In case you're interested, I've also registered this domain:

    http://www.scotsnewsletter.com/

    Right now it forwards to:

    http://www.scotsnewsletter.com/

    But if I can figure out an economical way to host it, I may switch to it someday.

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    Link of the Week: Eshelman's Windows Support Center
    James A. Eshelman's Windows Support Center should be among every Windows user's top 10 links for resources to turn to when you get into a problem on your PC. James is a Microsoft MVP, and I've known him for quite some time. I can vouch for his technical acumen, and the quality of the useful stuff you'll find on this jam-packed site. Check it out, and bookmark it now. If ever there was an SFNL Link of the Week, it's The Windows Support Center.

    Have you discovered a relatively unknown Windows- or broadband-oriented website that everyone should know about? Please send me the URL, and let me know why you liked it.

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    Tips of the Week: More Windows XP Tips
    More Windows XP tips courtesy of Microsoft, and embellished by me. As I wrote last time, tips for Windows 98 and other Windows versions will return to this newsletter in future. But while I have some useful Windows XP tips that I've never published before, I'm going to offer them. If you have a tip for any version of Windows since Windows 95 that you think is cool, send it to me.

    If I use it, I'll give you credit in the newsletter. Keep in mind that Windows Insider and Scot’s Newsletter have collectively published hundreds of Windows 9x tips already. Some of them have been published more than once. I strive for new tips whenever possible.

    — Keep Your Favorite Programs at the Top of the Start Menu —
    Windows XP's Start Menu automatically populates with program icons based on the last programs you launched. But what if you want to make a program stay on Start permanently? You can make it permanent by pinning it to the top area of the Start Menu, ensuring the program will cannot be bumped by other programs, even if you use the others more frequently.

    It's easy to do. If the program isn't already on the lower area of the Start Menu, launch it to add it there. Then right-click the program icon and select "Pin to Start menu." The program will be moved permanently to the top part of Start. Change your mind? You can right-click it again and choose "Unpin from Start menu."

    — Customizing Explorer Folders —
    Every Windows XP folder provides a list of contextually-selected hyperlinked tasks to the left of the folder contents. For example, the "My Pictures" special folder offers a list of "Picture Tasks" that are unique to the folder. What you might now know is that you can use a folder type as a template for other folders. This feature also lets you change the icon of a specific folder, and Microsoft has added several new folder icons with descriptive images. And your changes can also affect all subfolders. Follow these steps to try it:

    1. Right-click a newly created folder and click Properties.
    2. Click the Customize tab.
    3. From the "Use this folder type as a template" drop-down list, choose the template type you want to apply. Choose the folder icon you want to apply. Decide whether to apply your changes to all subfolders, and when you're done, press Apply.

    Now, when you open the new folder, it will contain a hyperlinked task list common to the type of folder you selected as the template. Microsoft includes several folder types, including Documents, Pictures, Photo Albums, three types of Music folders, and Videos. One thing XP still doesn't offer is a way to make color-coded folder icons — something I know many people would like to do, and that the Mac has offered for years and years. Oh well. Maybe next time.

    Do you have a Windows or broadband tip you think SFNL readers will like? Send it along to me, and if I print it in the newsletter, I'll print your name with it.

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