Dec 18 2007

A Clear Vista

Check out these tips for troubleshooting hardware blips when deploying the Windows OS.

Whether you’ve already deployed Microsoft Windows Vista to your users or you’re getting ready to do so, you need to check that your systems and peripherals can support it.

Vista has some great features, but forums and newsgroups abound with tales of hardware problems and device incompatibilities. What do you need to know before you deploy Vista on your systems? And how can you troubleshoot hardware issues that arise? Here are nine essential tips you need to know.

1. Go with the latest hardware.
If you’re going to deploy Vista, you need to install it on new hardware. Although Microsoft’s system requirements for Vista suggest it can run on a 1.4-gigahertz Pentium 4 with 512 megabytes of RAM, you really don’t want to do that. Go for a multicore-processor machine with at least 2 gigabytes of RAM. Most complaints about Vista running slower than Windows XP result from loading it on inadequate hardware. These complaints probably come from the same people who whined that XP on Pentium 2 machines with 32MB of RAM ran slower than Windows 98.

2. Upgrade your BIOS.
Make sure you’ve got the latest BIOS  for your machine. This is especially important for notebook computers, which tend to have myriad additional settings and software for managing power, protecting hard drives and maximizing video performance. I can’t tell you how many Vista complaints evaporate by simply flashing the latest BIOS, and — poof! — the problem is gone. Of course, sometimes the manufacturer gets it wrong, and a BIOS upgrade causes more problems than it fixes, but that’s pretty rare now that Vista has been around for awhile.

3. Check your disks.
Bad sectors on hard drives can cause all manner of mysterious problems, so before you upgrade your machines to Vista, run chkdsk /r from an elevated command prompt. Run this after you install Vista on a clean system, too. I know one user who tried to copy a large file from a Vista machine, kept getting “cannot read source file from disk” and thought it was a problem with Vista until running chkdsk /r resolved the problem.

4. Get the latest drivers.
Many hardware issues can be fixed by installing updated drivers for your devices. That’s assuming, of course, that the manufacturers of these devices have released Vista-ready drivers, and that the drivers really are “ready for Vista.” (There’s no guarantee, even if they carry a Windows logo.) Poorly written device drivers can cause mysterious problems. For instance, if your wireless network card driver is not Vista-compliant, then your notebook might wake suddenly from sleep for no apparent reason. Problems with video drivers can cause all sorts of issues, including blue screens, black screens, hanging and application failure. Of course, getting Vista-ready drivers for peripherals for 64-bit systems can be especially problematic, which is frustrating, given the enhanced security and better performance of those platforms over x86 systems. All of this will likely change over the next year or two, as x64 systems become more common.

5. Troubleshoot power management problems.
Speaking of waking from sleep, has your notebook ever woken you up at night because it beeps when it comes out of sleep mode? Quite annoying. What’s potentially worse, though, is if your machine wakes when it’s stashed in your briefcase. At best, you’ll end up with a drained battery; at worst, your machine might fry from overheating. Sleep and hibernation issues are another common user complaint.

If updating your BIOS and drivers doesn’t resolve this, there are some other steps you can try. First, run powercfg –devicequery wake_armed from an elevated command prompt to determine all devices currently configured to wake your machine from a sleep state. If nothing looks suspicious, try running wake_from_and to determine the devices capable of waking the system. Now use powercfg devicedisablewake <device> to selectively disable these devices until you’ve identified those that might be causing the problem — and then complain loudly to the manufacturer that supplied the system or device until they develop a better BIOS or driver for it.

You can also check whether the system has a BIOS setting that lets you disable waking while the machine is running on battery power. If that doesn’t work, you should probably shut down your system instead of hibernating it.

6. Make sure legacy printers are compatible.
Unfortunately, manufacturers have decided not to provide Vista drivers for some peripherals, even though the devices may be only a year or two old. Do you throw out the printer you bought last year and buy a new one? There may be a workaround: Try using the Add Printer wizard in Vista to add your printer manually, selecting a driver for a similar but more recent model from the same manufacturer. Then, once you’ve added the printer, attach the actual physical hardware (the print device) to the machine. This should work in most cases. But what do you do if the printer involved is a network printer? In that case, add a new local printer first, then set the local printer’s port to the Uniform Naming Convention path of the printer share.

7. Check the memory.
You’ve heard that Vista is a memory hog, and the more memory you can add, the better. Actually, Vista doesn’t hog memory at all — it simply tries to make the best use of all the memory available on a system. Regardless of this, you decided to shell out some bucks to install 4GB of RAM on your machine, but when you look at System in Control Panel you only see about 3.3GB. You run memory diagnostics, and the RAM comes out with flying colors. So what’s wrong? Unfortunately, your motherboard won’t support 4GB of RAM because it doesn’t have the Santa Rosa chip set. Be forewarned: If you think your users will need at least 4GB of RAM, be sure to buy only systems that support Santa Rosa, such as the Hewlett-Packard 6910p or Lenovo X61.

8. Make sure the problem really is a Vista hiccup.
One user I know upgraded his notebook to Vista, and after a few days began experiencing issues with his keyboard. Sometimes the keyboard was unresponsive until the machine was rebooted. A Vista problem? Nope. When the user plugged an external USB keyboard into his system, everything worked fine. When the notebook went in for servicing, it appeared that someone had spilled a soft drink on the keyboard. The moral of the story: Not every hardware issue is caused by Vista.

9. Wait for Service Pack 1.
Finally, Microsoft has released Service Pack 1 in beta. The service pack will include fixes for many performance- and device-related issues that early Vista users have experienced. Microsoft has released many of these fixes through Windows Update, and administrators who need to deploy Vista today can grab the updates (including hot fixes and the latest drivers) from the Microsoft Update Catalog. Once you have the updates, you can use Microsoft Deployment to inject them into your Vista image (install.wim file) and then deploy the image to your machines. Or, you can just wait for a Vista version with integrated with Service Pack 1.

Mitch Tulloch is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional and was lead author of the Windows Vista Resource Kit from Microsoft Press.