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January 2006 - Vol. 6, Issue No. 77

By Scot Finnie

IN THIS ISSUE

  • Broadband Chronicles: Verizon FiOS Big Red-Letter Day!
  • Windows Vista Dec. Beta - Plus, Issues with Multiboot?
  • Confirmation of Firefox 1.5 Woes
  • Link of the Month: GasBuddy.com
  • Tip of the Month: Customizing the Places Bar, Part II
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    Broadband Chronicles: Verizon FiOS Big Red-Letter Day!
    I can rest now ... because I have finally attained broadband nirvana. Right now in the U.S., Verizon FiOS is as good as broadband gets. While I write this, I'm working through my fourth day with Verizon's 15Mbps FiOS service. Considering how long I waited for it, the actual event was a trifle anticlimactic. It happened quickly and with very little fuss. And the performance is very fast, though not overwhelmingly so.

    For all the many SFNL readers stuck with dial-up, satellite, or IDSL Internet access, don't eat your hearts out (any more than you usually do). Yes, 15Mbps broadband is faster than anything I've used, faster even than any corporate Internet access I've tried. But the experience does not seem to be five times faster than Comcast 3Mbps service, or 10 times faster than the 1.5Mbps Verizon DSL service that FiOS replaced at Scot's Newsletter Labs. At the level of apparent perception, FiOS Web-surfing seems about twice as fast as Comcast's 3-4Mbps cable Internet broadband. Straight file downloads of software installers, images, and video are where you see the best improvement. They feel several times faster. But overall, the switch from cable Internet to FiOS is not the transforming experience that switching from dial-up to typical cable or DSL is.

    A recent weekend at the home of some relatives, where I was checking sports scores and other vital things via their dial-up Internet service, brought home for me again just how slow dial-up is. Despite dial-up "acceleration" features, dial-up is effectively slower now than it was when I was using it every day. It's not that dial-up is literally slower, it's that websites are increasingly taking faster connection rates for granted. More images, more video, wider pages, more complex coding are all trends at thousands of popular websites. All other things being equal, Web pages take a lot longer to load now than they did five years ago.

    Ordering and Preparation
    As alluded to in the last issue of the newsletter, Verizon finished the work on my street that needs to be done before FiOS can be rolled out. Verizon is quietly offering FiOS to some people in my town, as well as scores of others. They're not doing that on a town-by-town basis, but on a street-by-street basis. I learned recently that a rumor I'd heard several months ago was true. FiOS was installed in my town as early as last September, but that wasn't formally announced since only a few streets in town were fully prepared for FiOS. So, rather than create demand for something it can't generally deliver, Verizon is accepting orders on a word-of-mouth basis.

    On my street, FiOS didn't become technically available until early December, when fiber-optic linesmen installed terminals on the telephone poles that permit "drops" to be connected from the pole to each house. I waited a week after the terminals were installed, called the FiOS phone number, 888-GET-FIOS (888-438-3467), and tried to place an order. I was told that my street was not yet ready.

    Less than two weeks later, right before the Christmas break I called the FiOS number again and was casually told that now Verizon could take my FiOS order. I wasted no time in setting the install date for January 17.

    Before the installation could proceed, I had things to do on my end. I needed to run a Cat5 Ethernet cable from my second floor office (where my router and primary switch is located) down to my basement where the phone lines enter the house. If I didn't do that beforehand, Verizon would run the Ethernet for me. But since they don't fish cabling into walls, they would tack the cable along the outside of my house — something I didn't want. It's not just that this is an eyesore; exterior-mounted cabling is a lot more likely to be punctured by a staple or damaged by the elements.

    FiOS also requires an AC power outlet close to where the phone lines enter the house. They can run an extension cord up to 100 feet to reach an outlet, but I didn't want that kind of mess either. I had an AC outlet very close by, but it was already overloaded with too many things plugged into it, including a refrigerator, large exercise equipment, and the line amplifier for my Comcast cable 9-port coax block. So I needed to add two circuits there. While I was at it I needed to run another Ethernet cable to the dining room, which my wife and I recently converted to a bedroom to make room for our new addition. (My 14-year-old, not the baby, got the new bedroom.) My electrician, David Caron, did all this work for me. He does an excellent job, and best of all, I long ago learned to trust him to get the coax and Ethernet wiring just right. David was very responsive to my request, and he had all the work done just after my initial call. (My electrician charged $470, but only about a third of the work directly related to preparing for the FiOS installation.) So, with the house now ready, I called Verizon back and asked them to push up the installation date, and we agreed on 8AM-12PM Thursday, January 5.

    Options and Costs
    FiOS wound up being cheaper than I'd expected. I'm paying $39.95 (plus no Federal use taxes) a month because I'm converting Verizon DSL customer. You can also save if you have or opt for Verizon's Freedom or Freedom Essentials long-distance plan. For all intents and purposes, Verizon FiOS packaging and even its configuration appear to be very like Verizon DSL, right down to the PPPoE (Point-to-Point Protocol over Ethernet) settings. So it coexists with a phone line, the way ADSL does, although that may be more to help Verizon track the service than for any technical reason. The Verizon ONT (Optical Network Terminal) box supports five connections: four copper pair, or phone lines, and one RJ-45 Ethernet connection (consisting of 4 copper pair). Fiber-optic cabling in use by Verizon in the last mile replaces up to 12 copper pairs, each with a separate glass strand that conducts light.

    Back to the costs, if I wasn't converting from Verizon DSL, I could still have saved money on the FiOS $49.95-per-month list price by signing a one-year contract for FiOS. Verizon includes a DI-624 four-port access-point router as part of the installation at no charge.

    Because I ordered before December 31 and was converting from Verizon DSL, they also waived both the one-year contract and the $70 installation charge. The discounts are complex, and it pays to call Verizon billing (800-688-2880) to ask them how you can save money. The one thing that's clear to me now is that if I'd had to sign a one-year contract, I would have done so in a heartbeat. Two hours after the Verizon installer left, I knew I wouldn't be dumping Verizon FiOS — or going back to Comcast — any time soon. So far, I have yet to find any annoying downsides to the service.

    A Fiber-Optic Telephone Disadvantage
    Prior to installation, my biggest concern about FiOS was that you're not just getting fiber-optic broadband, you're also getting fiber-optic telephone service too. The voice quality is actually better with fiber-optic. But there's a shortcoming too. Traditional copper phone lines deliver a small amount of electricity as part of the bargain. Enough to ring the bell, light up the dial, and power the speaker, deliver the dial tone, and send the dial signals. This small amount of phone-company-delivered electricity is the reason why most of the time the phone still works when your power goes out.

    With FiOS, Verizon taps into your household electricity to power the phone lines. To offset the problem of the phone not working if the power goes out, Verizon installs a battery back-up system, which is mentioned on the FiOS FAQ page.

    The FiOS order rep told me that the battery would last for about four hours of talk time, and that concerned me. In an extended power outage, the phones would stop working once the battery ran down. The rep also said the battery was a standard size that could be easily replaced. The truth is that the battery is anything but "standard." You won't find it at Home Depot or your local drug store. It bears a closer resemblance to a motorcycle battery than to anything you'd pop into even the largest flashlight.

    When I placed the order, I was told that both of the phone lines in my home would be converted to fiber-optic, not just the one associated with the FiOS service. I wanted to leave the other line — the main house line — on conventional copper so it would stay up during long power outages. But I was told the installers would not be able to do that.

    So among other things, I hoped to convince the installation techs to leave my home phone line alone and convert only my home-office phone to fiber-optic.

    Installation Day
    Before I knew it, installation day was at hand. I expected two techs to show up shortly after 8AM. I also expected to have to deal with a lot of bureaucratic rules and red tape about such things as about where boxes would be placed, how wires would be routed and mounted, whether I had to use their router hardware, and whether I had to install the Verizon software on one of my PCs.

    In a nutshell, my FiOS installation was refreshingly pleasant experience. My lone service tech showed up in a basic van at close to 9:30AM. That was great because it left me time beforehand to plow through my business email. My tech was calm, friendly, competent, experienced, and completely willing to work with me to customize the installation to my liking. And he proceeded to do just that. (Note: Verizon had no idea that I write about broadband, so this experience didn't represent any special treatment. Of course, I might have gotten lucky.) Not a single thing on my nice-to-have list went unsatisfied. In return, I helped the installer extensively with the installation in several mostly minor ways, saving him some time. He was also very psyched that the Ethernet line and AC power outlet were set to go — two less things he had to deal with.

    For starters, 10 minutes after arriving, he let me know it would be possible for him to leave my home number on conventional copper — the configuration I preferred. In the end, though, it was equally thanks to the FiOS order rep that this was easy to accomplish. She told me the installers would convert both lines into the house, but she listened to my concerns and wrote up the order for just my home office number. Had she written it up as both lines, my installer's hands would have been tied. The installer also helped in this, though. Even though she wrote it up as one line, he could have chosen to convert both lines to fiber-optic, and I've heard that some installers do so routinely. In fact, it's extra work for them, it requires two phone boxes on the outside of your house, to leave one line on the conventional connection while converting the other to fiber-optic. Verizon also has a vested interest in converting as many copper lines to fiber as quickly as it can. In my case, though, the stars aligned, and got my fiber-optic and got to keep my copper too.

    So, for those of you lucky enough to be anticipating a FiOS installation in the future — and who have two or more phone lines — ask about keeping the copper up front. Make a point of it. It is possible, and feel free to refer Verizon to this story if need be.

    The ONT Box Is Big
    Once we established that we were keeping the existing phone box on the outside of the house, my installer consulted me on where to place the new fiber-optic ONT box. It's a very large plastic box, being both twice as tall as my old box and also standing off the wall roughly 50% more. On the outside of my house, there is literally no ideal place to add this box that wouldn't be horribly visible from the street. The phone lines enter the house right next to my less formal but primary front entrance to the house. Power lines, including a new RFID-based power meter, are also located there. And the location of the ONT is complicated by the fact that fiber-optic cabling, unlike most other types, can't bend at a 90-degree angle. It has to make a more gradual curve to complete a 90-degree turn. Places where the box might have fit would have been difficult to reach with the fiber-optic cable.

    After we had considered and rejected several external locations for the ONT, we gave up on the outside of the house and moved to the basement where the phone lines enter my home. A complete FiOS installation involves three separate boxes. There's the ONT, a surprisingly large power center (which contains the battery backup and accepts AC power from a nearby power outlet, and a large AC converter brick. All three have to be mounted on the wall somehow. Phone, cable, and power connections all come into my house next to my 200-amp power panel. The cable people already used up all the excess space around the power panel. So we were having trouble finding a place to slot the FiOS stuff there too — until I hit on the idea of mounting a plywood panel on the end of the floor-to-ceiling storage shelves I'd built next to the power panel several years ago. It took me less than half an hour to find the scrap plywood, cut it to fit the end of the shelf, and mount it there. By that time, the tech was ready to mount the new ONT. So it all worked out.

    Because he was alone, my installer needed my help to add the fiber-optic drop from the telephone pole to the house. Verizon provides its installers with fiber-optic drops in pre-configured lengths. The installers choose a length a bit longer than required, and the excess footage is wound up in a large circle (because it can't bend) in the back of the ONT box. My drop is 150 feet long. By doing it that way, the installers don't have to splice the fiber-optic line. They have tools for doing this, and it's not all that difficult. Still, I was glad there was no need to splice my drop. My help boiled down to directing traffic to keep people from driving over the new cabling. The telephone pole is across the street, so the fiber-optic line had to be stretched from the pole across the road and my yard before it could be mounted to the house. But that only took about five minutes.

    Setting Up the New Connection
    With FiOS, there is no "modem" device. The ONT may serve this purpose in some fashion, but its primary job is media conversion. It converts the fiber-optic line to copper. Once the ONT and power box were added, power connected, and the Ethernet line was plugged into the ONT, the tech focused on re-routing my phone line to the ONT while preserving my other line as it was. I went back to my office to check my phones and email. Less than half an hour later, he came up to my office to finish the last leg of the installation.

    My installer's approach to this part was refreshing as well. The wireless router Verizon gives you, the D-Link DI-624, is very similar to the one I was already using for my Comcast connection, the D-Link DI-604. On my network, the D-Link router connects to a fast Linksys 24-port 100Mbps switch whose ports are filled.

    He took one look at my network and asked if it would just be easier for me to connect it to FiOS. And it was. Using my D-Link router's web-based config screens, I merely released the WAN connection from Comcast, changed the connection type to PPPoE, entered the user name the installer gave me, accepted the default password, and then asked the router to renew the WAN connection. The whole thing took about 5 minutes.

    But then we ran into an annoying problem. As previously mentioned, I was migrating my Verizon DSL account info to Verizon FiOS, including email addresses and login data. When my installer tried to log me into Verizon's Web-based portal for FiOS and DSL users, the site would not take my password. I'd had trouble with this about a month before the installation, and had meant to call support to have it fixed before the FiOS installation, but I forgot. We spent about 45 minutes messing around with this with a Verizon internal support person on the phone, because even after they reset my password, we still couldn't log in. Eventually it started working, though. And it was at that point that we discovered my home office phone wasn't working. But that too wound up being an internal computer error (not at my house, but at the Verizon office), so it was quickly rectified. And with that, installation was complete.


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    Getting to 15Mbps
    While we were messing around with the login and phone problems, most of my focus was on the performance I was seeing for the new Internet connection. My initial tests on my main machine elicited only about 7Mbps — less than half of the promised 15Mbps. My tech quickly connected his ruggedized Panasonic notebook (the one with the touch screen and the built-in suitcase-style handle) to my network and immediately got just under 15Mbps. We were using a broadband speed test I've long respected and used, Speakeasy's Speed Test.

    So while I knew I had the full broadband goods, the Windows installation on my main machine wasn't taking advantage of them. I switched to one of my other computers and it too was getting 14Mbps plus, so I felt easier about it. What I needed to do was fine-tune a slew of Registry settings for the new faster connection. Having been through this several times in past, I knew just what to do: Download the latest version of Speedguide.net's TCP Optimizer tool (version 2.03).

    TCP Optimizer is the best of its ilk, and I've praised it in the past. It's only gotten better since I last made extensive use of it. For one thing, it's now designed for connection rates up to around 20Mbps, which was just what I needed. It's also got an intuitive interface, it automatically suggests optimal settings, and it automatically saves a backup of your pre-existing settings.

    The beauty of TCP Optimizer is that, while it may not get every setting 110% right for your specific Internet connection, it's definitely close enough for government work. Or let me put it another way, after I ran it once and restarted my main machine, I was seeing just under 15Mbps download speed with Speakeasy's test. Any utility that wins me 8Mbps of broadband performance in less than 10 minutes, well, that's definitely a Scot's Newsletter Top Product. So I've added it to the Scot's Newsletter Reviews list.

    Verizon FiOS expects an MTU setting of 1492. Windows defaults to 1500, probably the most common setting. So that was something that had to change. But there's a whole range of other settings in the Windows Registry that can affect your data-transfer rates. For more about settings like MTU, MaxMTU, and TCP Receive Window/RWIN, please consult one of these documents from Speedguide.net:

  • Windows 2000/XP Registry Tweaks
  • Windows 9x/ME Registry Tweaks
  • More Win2K/XP Tweaks
  • Advanced Tweaking (Win9x/ME)

    Verizon also offers a Web-based Registry editing utility, the FiOS Speed Optmization Tool, for the same purpose. I tried this tool, and it works fine, although Verizon gives you no details about what it actually does. The changes are very similar, though, to those of TCP Optimizer.

    About Bandwidth Performance Tests
    Looking at the world of online bandwidth-performance-testing tools from the perspective of a 15Mbps Internet connection is a real eye opener. It has completely changed my evaluation of the available tools. The Internet performance test of one my old standbys, PCPitStop.com, does not appear to me to be properly optimized for this fast a broadband connection. It shows my FiOS connection to be much slower than I believe it actually is.

    The PCPitStop test, for example, appears to work with approximately 3.3MB of data with my FiOS connection. (I hope my friends at PCPitStop, a Scot's Newsletter Link of the Month, will correct me on any of my facts.) I'm basing that on the results screen displayed when I run the test.) But a 15Mbps Internet connection hasn't fully ramped up to speed by the time it completes the transfer of 3.3MB of data. I am convinced that it takes a much larger data transmission to accurately gauge the performance of a fast broadband connection. With a faster Internet connection like FiOS, it also takes a very fast test server to do the job fairly. I still think the PCPitStop test is accurate and worthy, but it appears to be better suited to broadband connections in the 768kbps to 6Mbps range.

    I don't know anything about the details or methodology of the Speakeasy test, which DSL Reports currently offers as its number one test. But I did find some other bandwidth tests that confirmed Speakeasy's results (and Verizon's claims). At BandwidthPlace.com, an online tester I've recommended in past, I got a 14Mbps score once I set it to measure the connection as "Ethernet." Before that, the BandwidthPlace.com test refused to show me my score because it was too high to be believable.

    Unfortunately, BandwidthPlace.com limits you to three free tests per month, and in my opinion, three free tests isn't enough. Although BandwidthPlace.com doesn't charge much for 100 personal tests per month, there are other fully free services.

    Visualware's MySpeed online test also shows my downstream FiOS connection at 15Mbps.

    This DSLReports.com page shows a long list of other bandwidth-testing sites around the world. Several others I tried here also showed me scores in the 13-15Mbps range.

    Verizon has its own test, but it won't let me run it because my account hasn't yet been updated on the website to reflect the fact that I'm a FiOS customer. It still thinks I'm a standard DSL customer. So I'll have to wait until they fix that.

    FiOS isn't just fast coming down the pipe either. The company advertises upstream performance up to 2Mbps, and what I'm seeing doesn't miss that mark by much. All the test sites I tried that measure upstream performance (except PCPitStop) show upstream rates in a tight range between 1750kbps and 1805kbps. Not too shabby, and more than four times faster than any upstream performance I've ever had before. That should make activities like FTP uploads to any of my several websites and the Scot's Newsletter Forums a better experience.

    Two or three FiOS users who got the service before me have reported that Verizon blocks Port 25, an anti-spam practice that, depending on how it's implemented, can be very annoying to customers who use multiple outgoing message servers. My email package reaches out to about a dozen different POP and SMTP mail servers each time it checks mail. For me, outbound blocking of port 25 (the standard outgoing email port), would have been a total deal breaker for FiOS. That would have meant that I had to use FiOS's SMTP server, and only FiOS's SMTP server, to send all my mail. That sort of implementation creates many problems for users like me. It also means that if that server goes down, I can't send any mail at all. Thankfully, though, if Verizon is blocking port 25, it's only blocking it inbound, which is a perfectly acceptable protection mechanism. As I wrote above, so far I have come across no stupid ISP tricks with FiOS.

    Down to This
    All in all, my initial experiences with Verizon FiOS have been nothing short of stellar. I waited for the new fiber-to-the-home broadband service for two years, and it was well worth the wait. FiOS even costs less than my Comcast cable Internet connection. And the word is, Comcast is about to raise rates. Right now I'm paying $47 a month plus federal use tax for Comcast cable Internet.

    I'll be hanging onto my Comcast broadband service for a while longer, though. My intention has been to publish a formal, head-to-head review of Verizon FiOS vs. Comcast High-Speed Internet, just as I compared Comcast to Verizon DSL a couple years back.

    I intend to check in with Comcast to see if it has a new service up its sleeve, but my attempts to reach the marketing or public relations departments by phone or email in the past have not been successful. If you're listening, Comcast, please call me.

    I'm interested in your questions about FiOS as well as the experiences of those who have it already. Please don't expect me to answer every question by email, but I intend to answer the most common or interesting questions, as well as publish intriguing insights, in a future issue of the newsletter. Send your FiOS questions or observations my way.

    For my many readers who have no hope of getting DSL or cable Internet, never mind FiOS, I am working on a first-hand account of WildBlue, a new two-way satellite Internet service with faster downstream speeds than the competition. Note: This won't be my first-hand story. An old friend of mine — someone who possesses a truly scientific mind — recently got WildBlue and offered to send me his account of it.

    Back to the Top


    Windows Vista December Beta - Plus, Issues with Multiboot?
    During the week between Christmas and New Year's, I finished up my research on the December CTP release of Windows Vista, and we posted an in-depth review and image gallery of the late pre-Beta 2 version of Vista on Desktop Pipeline.

    This issue of Scot's Newsletter is long, so I've decided to link off to the Windows Vista coverage on Desktop Pipeline rather than re-publish it here in the Newsletter. There's a lot of new Vista information in this story. So if you're interested in the next release of Windows, I urge you to check it out.

  • Visual Tour: Windows Vista Begins To Get Real
  • Visual Tour Image Gallery

    CES Commentary
    Microsoft held back some features from the December CTP so that it had something to show at CES the first week of January. Perhaps the most visible item that was withheld was the Sidebar (see the story above for more information about Sidebar if you're not familiar with it).

    So Microsoft showed Sidebar, new Windows Media Center features in Windows Vista, and a couple of other odds and ends at CES in Las Vegas last week. What was surprising about Microsoft's use of CES to demo new Windows Vista features was just how poor a job the mainstream (and even the computer trade) news press did in reporting the announcements. Many of the "new features" talked about in these stories were reviewed months ago in stories published on TechWeb, InformationWeek, Network Computing, and Scot's Newsletter. Apparently, some of the reporters attending the Microsoft demos at CES just took everything Microsoft said or implied for granted.

    I don't have access to the slightly newer build of Windows Vista demoed at CES, but you can catch some glimpses here. You'll also find my analysis on most of these features in the story above, since most of the functionality was in earlier builds. Probably the most important picture released at the show is the one showing the return of the Windows Sidebar.

    Windows Vista Gets Harder to Multiboot?
    One of the many small things about Windows Vista that haven't been well explained by Microsoft or us technical reviewers is the change in the way the new OS handles boot instructions.

    Under Windows XP and 2K, Windows looks for a simple text file, called boot.ini, that controls boot options, displaying them for your selection in character mode during system boot. Prior to Windows Vista, if you had more than one version of Windows installed on a computer, Windows consulted the boot.ini file (located in the root directory) about how to handle basic options and default actions at boot time. A simple tool for editing boot.ini to control default boot behavior is available in the Advanced > Startup and Recovery area of the System Control Panel. Boot.ini controls basic defaults, such as which installed OS will load automatically if you don't intercede on the multiboot screen, the wordings that describe your options there, and how long the multiboot screen will display at boot time before executing its defaults. The boot.ini file is protected by read-only attribution, but that doesn't make it secure. If someone hacked your network or a Trojan wanted to execute a script to edit this file, that wouldn't be challenging. The vulnerability could cause major headaches, especially for inexperienced users.

    Presumably, this is the reason Microsoft opted to do away with the boot.ini text file. I'm OK with that. My problem is with the alternative it has instituted instead. The only way to make changes to the multiboot configuration now is with a complex command-line utility called bcdedit (bcdedit.exe). Admittedly, there isn't much documentation for this utility yet. There is extensive help information built into the tool, though it's poorly written and figuring out the syntax requires guesswork. Bottom line: I found the tool incredibly difficult to use, and I had trouble making it do what I needed it to do. For example, the act of switching the default OS from Windows Vista to Windows XP took me several trial and error attempts, and even then it didn't work properly. I'm sure I'll finish climbing the learning curve, but why the heck would Microsoft do this? Why not just encrypt the file and make it accessible only to users with admin privileges who know the Administrator password? Why make the tool for editing the file as arcane as DOS or Linux?

    On most of my test machines, I run Windows XP in drive C:, create a new partition, and then install the latest Windows Vista beta in the new partition. Windows Vista, like Windows XP and Windows 2000 before it, automatically sets up the multiboot configuration during installation so that both operating systems are accessible. When I'm ready to install the next beta, I simply boot to Windows XP and change the multiboot configuration to default to XP. Then I use a utility to delete the Vista partition, recreate it, and reformat it as an NTFS drive. Then I install the new version.

    With Vista's new way of managing the multiboot script — which has been in place since the October CTP — Windows XP's boot.ini file can't control Vista at all. The Vista way of doing this trumps the XP way of doing it. Even if you entirely delete the Vista volume, as I described in the previous paragraph, you'll still see the Vista version of the multiboot screen when you boot your machine, and your Windows XP boot.ini file goes totally ignored.

    How is that possible? Simple. Microsoft has placed a new "boot" folder on your root drive. The bcdedit utility stores data in this folder. As it stands in the December CTP, I found that to solve the problem of uninstalling a Vista build and returning to the Windows XP default boot configuration, I started by editing the Windows XP boot.ini file, making XP the default entry (and deleting the Vista entry). Then I simply deleted the c:\boot directory added by Vista. Then I followed the steps above, deleting, recreating, and reformatting the Vista partition. It adds a simple step.

    Overall, the new way of managing boot script data seems overly complex and not particularly secure. Hey utility programmers! I see an opportunity for a GUI program that makes the Vista boot data as easy to edit as it was under previous versions of Windows. Perhaps you could add some encryption too?

    Back to the Top


    Confirmation of Firefox 1.5 Woes
    Last month I sent you a special edition of the newsletter to point out a story I wrote with Linux Pipeline Editor Matt McKenzie about problems that a small but significant number of Firefox 1.5 users are experiencing with the latest version of the popular Mozilla browser.

  • Firefox 1.5 Stability Problems? Readers and Mozilla Respond

    Since then, InformationWeek printed a version of the story in its January 2 issue:

  • The Trouble with Firefox

    The story was also pinned toward the top of the Google News Sci/Tech page for a day or so in December.

    As a result of all the exposure, I've received more than 700 reader emails on this subject, and the problems have spread into the realm of Netscape 8.0, which is based on Firefox 1.5. While most Firefox 1.5 users have few if any problems with the browser, it's clear that thousands and thousands of people are experiencing issues. Every day I get messages from people who describe at least some of the same problems detailed in the story.

    Meanwhile, my own troubles with Firefox 1.5, which involved some of the issues most commonly reported by some of you, have almost completely disappeared. And I don't know why. I did uninstall some applications on my main PC — the one that had the most difficulty with Firefox 1.5. But I've also installed many others since then. It is possible that my problems (not everyone's) had something to do with some sort of application or driver difficulty. But the fairly sudden disappearance of symptoms, without an obvious cause, is also something some people have mentioned.

    I'm still seeing three issues. I continue to experience very high CPU usage with Firefox 1.5. I have an occasional problem with the appearance of a tiny Firefox window in the upper left corner of my screen. This window is shrunken to its smallest point, so that no part of the window area is visible, just about one inch of the title bar is visible. Its lower right corner can be dragged open, but when you do so, the window is completely blank inside. Other Firefox 1.5 users have reported this problem both to me and on various forums. Overall, while this is a minor issue, it doesn't instill confidence in the browser.

    Finally, I'm still seeing a problem that was intermittent for me under Firefox 1.0.x and is constant under Firefox 1.5. When I click a hyperlink in any program other than Firefox — such as in a received email message — it takes a long time for the link to load in Firefox. The time to open the Web page is much longer (measured in minutes) if Firefox isn't already running. Most of the time it's faster to copy and paste the link manually into whatever browser window is handy. It's an annoying problem, more so than it may sound because sometimes you click it twice because you think maybe you missed it, and then it takes even longer to load. But it's not a deal breaker. None of my remaining problems with Firefox 1.5 are.

    The main point for me is that I'm no longer experiencing Firefox freeze-ups, nor am I being forced to go into Task Manager and close an errant firefox.exe process because I can't launch Firefox. And I personally never experienced the memory/virtual memory issues than many users of Firefox 1.5 (and previous versions) have reported. I do have a lot of RAM installed in all of my main machines though.

    Is Mozilla Blasé?
    My biggest concern about the Firefox 1.5 issues isn't the issues themselves but the way Mozilla has reacted to them. An early version of Netscape (I think it was 2.0) had similar problems. I recall reporting on them pretty extensively over 10 years ago. Netscape took those problems very seriously and publicly announced it would fix them. Mozilla has chosen the path of politely ignoring the whole thing.

    For some in the Firefox community, this may be hard to believe: I continue to be an ardent Firefox user and supporter. But I'll admit to a feeling of disquiet about Mozilla's reaction on these version 1.5 issues. The previous generation of Mozilla's browser (not Firefox, the Netscape-derived browser) was, in my opinion, a seriously flawed application, riddled with bugs. I think that was more true of the Netscape variant than the original Mozilla products. But the promise has been that Firefox will be light and fleet, not slow, bloated, and buggy. My concern is that Mozilla's public beta process isn't rigorous enough for Firefox, and that the company relies too heavily on Bugzilla and its own perspective. In other words, the extended Firefox community may wear rose-colored glasses, and not be the best base of testers. And those who may actually have useful information are put off by Bugzilla and the forums. It's important for software development teams to listen to the user-experience drum beats, even the less organized or seemingly less credible ones. The minute Mozilla starts drinking its own Kool-Aid and starts to ignore its user base is the minute it has reached its market-share apex, and will begin the long slide to oblivion. Call it tough love if you want. To me it's just realism.

    When you build multi-platform software that runs on millions and millions of desktops, you have got to do an excellent job of stepping on bugs. For years people have criticized Microsoft, I think a little unfairly, because its software is buggy. Well, Mozilla, in my opinion, isn't in Microsoft's league when it comes to adequately beta testing its products.

    So long as I'm criticizing Mozilla, let me return to an old and related beef I have with Firefox. There's not enough feature content. The product relies too heavily on extensions to do the things that most people want from it. If Mozilla executed a more advanced version of its tab-browsing features, for example, the millions of Firefox instances out there would be less prone to software quality issues. Repeat that theory for several other less-is-more decisions that Mozilla made on Firefox. It's not enough for Mozilla to point a finger at errant extensions whenever problems arise. End users don't care, they just want their browser to be pleasant to use and to work as expected. They want to be able to trust its reliability. For Mozilla to solidify Firefox's position as the thinking person's browser, the company needs to take care of business on program reliability. It also needs to meet the basic feature needs of most of its user base, and not take three years to get there.

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    Link of the Month: GasBuddy.com
    Are you as much of a tightwad as I am when it comes to paying oil companies their due for gasoline? The recent steep rises in oil costs worldwide have really put a crimp in the traveling lifestyle shared by many North Americans. It wouldn't be hard to guzzle away any advantage of finding the best gasoline deal in town by driving around looking for it. That's why GasBuddy.com is a very useful website that deserves to be singled out for attention. You can use this site to find lower-cost gasoline in your area without using an ounce of gasoline. So it lets you pinch pennies without kidding yourself.

    If you find the site as useful as I do, sign-up and contribute your local knowledge to help other people save on gasoline too.

    Gratuitous Rant About the Auto Industry
    Let me take a few moments to say that I couldn't possibly be more in favor of maintaining the freedom of movement and travel that is viewed by many as a birthright in the U.S.A. There's nothing like the wide open spaces of this beautiful country, which cry out to be toured. Moreover, it's an important part of our national psyche that anyone can pick up stakes, hop in their car, and drive to a new town that offers a better opportunity. I can't imagine living without that freedom and privilege. Instead of trying to change this deep-seated cultural bent, I strongly believe we should be working hard to bend science much more smartly to our needs.

    That's why I'm very concerned about the lack of apparent motivation on the part of automobile makers the world over in developing powered land vehicles that safely employ far more renewable energy sources. Hybrid electric cars are very popular just now, and that's great. I may buy one in the future. But electric-powered vehicles rely on charging large batteries, either with their onboard gasoline-powered engines or, in pure electric systems (of which there are few production examples) with household electricity.

    Hybrids offer savings to the end user by using a smaller gasoline-powered engine to charge the batteries and to lend a performance boost when needed, such as pushing off from a standing start, climbing, or heavy acceleration. Hybrid-electric vehicles continue to rely on gasoline, a non-renewable energy source. And there are always trade-offs and even loss of efficiency with energy conversion. What's more, some current hybrid-electric automobiles, such as the current model Honda Accord, have skewed their performance curves in favor of performance over savings. In the real world, they don't offer much of an increase in their miles-per-gallon fuel economy over their all-gasoline-powered brand mates. There are also safety issues with high-voltage battery systems that have yet to be sorted out. And hybrid-electric vehicles are more complex than gasoline-powered vehicles, since they carry two power systems. Weight is usually a big issue, since a bank of batteries is usually employed, and that further drags on cost per mile.

    Hybrid technology comes very close to offering the type of performance the driving public has come to expect while reducing somewhat their use of gasoline. That's the reason hybrid cars are so popular. But in terms of making headway in addressing the overarching problem, hybrid-electric technology is merely a stopgap that doesn't represent the direction of a long-term solution.

    Pure electric vehicles are probably even more problematic. They have very short miles-between-charge distances (with today's battery technology) and because they require larger batteries than hybrid-electric vehicles, have issues with power-to-weight ratio. They rarely perform up to the standards of gasoline-powered engines in the auto body styles that the driving public is accustomed to. What's more, the common power sources used to create the AC current from which they must feed — coal, hydroelectric, oil, nuclear — each have huge environmental and/or renew-ability issues. Hydrogen-powered vehicles may be the answer. But we are a long, long way from proving that theory or exploring all the other possibilities.

    Why is that the case? The large gas-price run-ups over the last 32 years or so should have taught us long ago that we needed to make a far more aggressive commitment to exploring alternative energy sources and developing automobile motors and systems to properly utilize them. The state of California has been driving this cause for a long while, and more power to it — because our federal government appears to be paralyzed with fear that it will hurt U.S. automobile companies by pushing too hard. The U.S.'s CAFE standards, initiated in 1975, have raised the bar on federally mandated fuel economy at a truly glacial pace. Gradual change, which made more sense during the first 10 years, has done very little to encourage automobile manufacturers to seriously explore alternative energy sources. The slow rising of the CAFE standards has given manufacturers the luxury to rely solely on efficiency engineering. In other words, they squeeze another few miles to the gallon gasoline with each major combustion-engine redesign. The CAFE standards aren't moving quickly enough to force auto manufacturers to pioneer in new directions. As a result, the auto makers are only dabbling with alternative-energy vehicles, and have really only done that for the last 10 to 15 years.

    It is very important for us to apply a substantial scientific effort to solving this problem, because it's almost certainly going to take decades to achieve and implement. Long before we have solved this problem, we could face untenable power shortages and severe economic repercussions. And we're not even talking about the ongoing impact on the environment. Does anyone honestly doubt the possibility of what I'm saying? Do you really want to bet your kids' future on it?

    The U.S. federal government, as well as other major governments around the globe, need to make developing alternative energy sources a major priority before anything substantive will begin. We need to commit large sums of our tax dollars to this effort, probably in some way that blends the carrot-and-stick approach with the automobile makers. Companies such as General Motors, Toyota, Ford, Nissan, Volkswagen, DaimlerChrysler, Honda, Hyundai, and many others need to step up and make it happen. We can't continue to put off significant research and development efforts.

    I love the automobile. But the 20th century is over, and it's time for industrialized nations, and their major automobile corporations, to take responsibility for the fact that automotive business as usual will not scale through the 21st century.

    Have you discovered a relatively unknown Windows or broadband related website that's a little amazing? Please send me the URL so I can check it out and let everyone know about it.

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    Tip of the Month: Customizing the Places Bar, Part II
    In the last full edition of the newsletter I offered instructions for customizing File > Open, File > Save, and File > Save As dialogs in the last several versions of Microsoft Office applications. The modifications let you customize built-in shortcuts for specific file containers displayed in the "places bar," a column on the left side of Microsoft Office shared dialogs.

    After the newsletter mailed I revised the instructions on the Scot's Newsletter website. The original instructions weren't wrong, I just added some tips and made the instructions more clear for multiple versions of Office. So if you had trouble making this work, visit the link above for better instructions.

    In this issue, I'm concluding the tip by extending it to the similar dialogs that are used by Windows applications, such as WordPad, Notepad, and several others. Some third-party applications use these dialogs too, so it may help you customize them as well. Firefox's File > Open File and File > Save Page As dialogs will be customized by this tip. Internet Explorer 6's File > Save As dialog is customized too.

    I have only tested these instructions with Windows XP, and this specific set of instructions would only work with Windows 2000 or Windows XP (but I haven't tested to ensure Win2K compatibility, and my guess is that it might not work there.) There's a note you'll see in one of the screens that says this also works in Windows Server 2003. While there may be a way to do this in Win9x/ME, if so, you'd probably need to directly edit the Registry. In Windows XP, this is the area of the Registry that is added and modified:

    HKCU\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\Comdlg32\Placesbar

    What This Tip Does
    The default containers mounted on the places bar of Windows common dialogs are: My Recent Documents, Desktop, My Documents, My Computer, and My Network Places. On my computers, I change them to: Desktop, My Documents, Local Disk (C:), Network Neighborhood, and C:\Downloads.

    Unlike the last few versions of Office, Windows hasn't really been designed with the notion of letting inexperienced end users modify its common dialogs, but a basic user interface for accomplishing this does exist. One large limitation is that, unlike the later versions of Office, it's only possible to display five total items on the Windows common file dialog places bar. So you'll have to make the most of them.

    Here are the steps to follow to put this tip in motion:

    1. Click the Start button and select Run.

    2. Type "gpedit.msc" without the quotations and then click OK to open the Group Policy Editor.

    3. In the tree in the left pane, tunnel in by expanding each folder in this succession: User Configuration, Administrative Templates, Windows Components, Windows Explorer, and Common Open File Dialog.

    4. Click once in the Common Open File Dialog folder.

    5. On the right side of the screen, click the line that reads "Items displayed in Places Bar."

    6. Important: Read the help text appearing in the middle; it explains the kinds of objects you can put on the places bar, and gives you the programmatic names for some of them that you'll need to use to get them to appear.

    7. To add your customizations, double-click "Items displayed in Places Bar," which opens a dialog box offering five custom places you can add.

    8. Enter the correct pathnames or program names for the container objects you want to mount on the places bar and click OK. Check that your customizations are correct by opening Notepad and choosing its File > Open dialog. If they are, close the GPEdit utility.

    In addition to the five-item maximum, you're not able to edit the names of the items that you add. For example, when you add MyNetworkPlaces, the icon that shows up is labeled with the less intuitive "NetHood" moniker. It may be possible to add a setting that lets you specify the name. If you know a way to do that, please drop me a message.

    Reversing Your Places Customizations
    Despite what the help text says about choosing the "Not Configured" or "Disabled" settings, I found that the only way to return the default container destinations was by manually deleting the last folder in this key of the System Registry:

    HKCU\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\Comdlg32

    To access the System Registry Editor, click the Start button, click Run, type "regedt32" without the quotations, and press Enter. Navigate to the location of the Registry described by the path above. (Note: HKCU stands for HKEY_Current_Users.) When you get into the Policies folder, select the Comdlg32 folder and press the Delete key. Close the System Registry Editor.

    Hopefully, this tip will save you some time. It has definitely made my life easier.

    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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    Newsletter Schedule
    Scot's Newsletter is a monthly e-zine delivered by email. My aim is to send each issue near the first of each month.

    This issue is a bit later in the month than usual because of the holidays. I'm also taking some time off in January. As a result, the February issue may also run late or could even be merged with the March issue, since February is a short month. I'll keep you posted.

    You can always find out when the next issue of Scot's Newsletter is expected to appear by visiting the Scot's Newsletter home page.

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    Errata
    December was a particularly bad month for Scot's Newsletter production. An error in the HTML edition prevented some of you from seeing the contents of the newsletter you received. And an error on the Lyris server — which I still haven't figured out — kept the Text edition from being sent until December 20. My apologies to all. Some things I can't control, and sometimes I make mistakes. Thanks for your patience.

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