Free Tools for Managing Home Windows PCs

This is a list of some of my favorite free tools for managing Windows PCs in the home for personal use.

System Tools

  • Ninite – one-click installer for some of the most popular software packages
  • Macrium Reflect – backup and migrate disks, mostly used for moving to SSDs
  • EaseUs Partition Master – tool for moving, resizing partitions
  • EasyBCD – boot manager useful for dual-booting
  • CCleaner – easily remove unneeded files
  • CutePDF – a small PDF converter
  • Teamviewer – remote assistance

Other Software

  • CCCP – adds a wide range of video and audio codecs for playback
  • Iris Mini – relieves eye-strain by filtering blue light, similar to Flux but light weight
  • Notepad++ – a handy raw text editor
  • 7-Zip – unpack archive files in other formats
  • Sumatra – read PDFs and ebook formats

Demoing the HTC Vive Pre

(not me pictured but this was the actual headset I tried on today)

I had the chance to demo the HTC VIVE Pre at AMD’s career fair today. The last similar demo I tried was the Oculus Rift DK2 at MaRS Discovery District for We Are Wearables Toronto late last year. This is the first time I tried on VR with room scale and motion controls.

  • Is there a screen-door effect? Yes, if you look for the lines between the pixels and focus on them you will still see them
  • Was the experience immersive? Yes, I quickly adjusted to the environment and forgot where I was physically. Having motion controllers that synchronize with your virtual space actually help a lot because it adds a sense of control even though the rest of my body was invisible
  • The most annoying part of playing with VR for me was the weight of the headset, and the fact that I wear wide glasses that didn’t fit very well inside the VIVE
  • I didn’t encounter any motion sickness
  • Even though I could move within the ‘play space’ defined, I felt the motion controls to be rather lacking without tracking the rest of my body along with the inability to move beyond the ‘place space’ boundaries

The two demos I tried were Job Simulator and Audioshield. I didn’t really enjoy Audioshield as much as I did with Job Simulator, but neither of the games felt like fully fleshed out games and had this shallow feel to them.

Job Simulator does a great job of making you feel immersed in the environment. I felt like I wanted to touch and pick up everything with my virtual hands. I tried passing a cup to myself behind my back and failed to catch it, but it did work and it was more of my lack of hand-eye coordination within the space. Another thing I tried was trying to roll around a ball on the floor between my hands, which was rather amusing. It felt weird to use my hands only to not actually feel any physical feedback for virtual objects which don’t really exist, but not so much so that it took away from the immersion.

I can definitely see myself investing in virtual reality down the road even though I’m not a gamer these days. It’s amazing that the technology is available today, but until I find more practical uses of it, but I would rather wait for the next generation where they polish up all the kinks for the masses.

Repurposing Old Consumer PCs in 2016 for Windows 10

In general, you should find that many computers newer than 2005 can reliably run Windows 10 as a desktop operating system and should be upgraded to extend its life well into 2025. Windows 7 should be supported only into 2020.

That there is a good chance that many old PCs will keep functioning past 2020. As the deadline for the Windows 10 free upgrade date of July 29 approaches, it is a good time to re-evaluate old PCs to see if they can run Windows 10. These old clunkers can still be put to good use.

Minimum Requirements

Windows 10 has these basic requirements, which isn’t much much more than Windows Vista other than RAM at a glance:

  • Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster processor or SoC
  • RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) for 32-bit or 2 GB for 64-bit
  • Hard disk space: 16 GB for 32-bit OS 20 GB for 64-bit OS
  • Graphics card: DirectX 9 or later with WDDM 1.0 driver
  • Display: 800×600

However there are actually more requirements on the processor than what is listed above. The processor additionally needs to support CPU extensions PAE, NX, SSE2. Some processors can run 32-bit but not 64-bit Windows 10, because 64-bit Windows requires CMPXCHG16b, PrefetchW, and LAHF/SAHF extensions. Without going into details, it means that you can’t just rely on referencing the clock speed of the processor as per the above.

 

The oldest PC processors which can run 32-bit Windows include select processors of these families, and anything earlier will not work:

As for processors that cannot support 64-bit Windows 10 even though they can run 32-bit Windows, you should find success with newer Intel Core 2/AMD Sempron 64/AMD Athlon 64 processors, but limited success with Intel Pentium 4 and Pentium D processors with 64-bit support. Here is a blurb on Wikipedia explaining this mess which I will not copy here.

Recommended Specifications

Here are my recommended minimum requirements for a decent Windows 10 experience:

  • RAM: 2 GB (32 bit) or 4 GB (64 bit)
  • Hard drive: 5400 rpm drive or faster
  • Graphics for video playback at 720p30: video chipset or dedicated card supporting accelerated H264 video decoding (see also my article here) OR processor has a Passmark CPU benchmark score of over 1400
  • Processor: Passmark CPU benchmark score of over 750

Sample Working Configurations

Good

  • Intel Core2Duo 2 physical cores @ 2.2 GHz, 4 GB RAM, Intel GMA 4500MHD

Acceptable, some lag spikes especially with multiple applications open, stumbles with higher bit-rate video but can play most videos at 720p30

  • Intel Core2Duo 2 physical cores @ 1.2 GHz, 4 GB RAM, Intel GMA x4500
  • AMD Athlon X2 3600+ 2 physical cores @ 1.9 GHz, 4 GB RAM, Geforce 9500GS

Close to unacceptable, random lag spikes even with single application open, can handle 720p30

  • Intel Pentium 4 HT 1 physical core @ 3 GHz, 2 GB RAM, Nvidia Quadro 3450 (similar to Geforce 6800 LE)

Unacceptable, cannot handle online video

  • Intel Core2Duo 2 physical cores @ 1.3 GHz, 2 GB RAM, Intel GMA x3100, 4200rpm hard drive

How to Look Up Processor Details

CPU-Z is an easy way to identify the processor: http://www.cpuid.com/softwares/cpu-z.html

From there you can find the code-name of your processor, the stepping, and the features it supports.

Further reading

Windows 10 64-bit Requirements – http://superuser.com/questions/931742/windows-10-64-bit-requirements-does-my-cpu-support-cmpxchg16b-prefetchw-and-la/941175

Windows Lifecycle – http://windows.microsoft.com/en-ca/windows/lifecycle

PCI-DSS 3 E-Commerce Learning

Disclaimer: This articles is a part of my research into PCI-DSS, and is not a definitive source of information

Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard, PCI-DSS for short, is a standard for organizations that handle cardholder data of branded credit cards from the major card schemes including Visa, MasterCard, and American Express. It is maintained by the PCI Security Secuirty Standards Council.

Non-compliance to PCI-DSS can result in a range of consequences, including range of fines and liability implications.

Cardholder Data

PCI-DSS defines cardholder data as follows:

  • Full PAN (primary account number)

When the full PAN is present, other sensitive data includes:

  • Cardholder name
  • Expiration date
  • Service code

It is allowable that a PAN’s can be masked for display by showing the first six and last four digits.

Compliance Extend beyond IT

While IT can help to make it easier to manage processes, but there is no way to replace responsibility and ownership of critical customer data.

Even if IT solution is purchased from a vendor claiming that they have attained PCI-DSS compliance before, it actually cannot encompass all of the control objectives required by PCI-DSS when an organization uses an instance of such a vendor solution. There are many controls apply to business process rather than any IT implementation.

For example, just because a website is hosted on SquareSpace, it doesn’t mean they are automatically PCI-DSS compliant. I wonder how many organizations actually do the due diligence of reading into what compliance actually requires when given the complex jargon of the documentation and numerous IT requirements to actually be compliant.

E-Commerce SAQs

Self-assessment questionnaires (SAQ) are validation tools provided by the PCI Security Standards Council intended to assist merchants and service providers in self-evaluating their compliance to PCI-DSS. The language of these SAQs would likely take an IT professional who has looked into PCI-DSS to see which one actually applies a particular e-commerce solution.

 

For e-commerce, one of SAQ A, SAQ A-EP or SAQ D would apply. Each contain a different set of validation criteria and recommendations an organization would have to meet, along with the significant cost differences to comply to each.

In general, a merchant must always be PCI-DSS compliant if they accept credit card payments, even if the card is entered on another site. Payment processors such as PayPal/Stripe/Recurly would typically recommend the merchant to completing SAQ A at minimum.

 

Just because the requirement is not a checkbox on the SAQ, it doesn’t mean that the merchant can ignore being responsible for implementing the requirements of the PCI-DSS. For example, they still need to make an effort to secure their network as well as show evidence of this. I am reading that experts who are evaluating solutions which would fall under SAQ A actually use the SAQ A-EP as much as possible to mitigate risks.

The following diagram provided by the PCI council tries to show the distinctions of which SAQ to use in various documents:

E-CommerceSAQ

From SAQ_InstrGuidelines_v3-1.pdf

VISA Europe had published an e-commerce payments guide which is more clear which SAQ to pick, as pointed out by the PCIGuru blog:

Matrix

Vulnerability scans occurring every quarter from external ASVs (approved scanning vendors) are required in SAQ A EP, SAQ D, but not under SAQ A. The list of ASVs is maintained by the PCI Security Standards Council, and adds additional cost to operating an e-commerce solution.

Under SAQ A, the merchant server serving the redirect/iFrame is not in scope for PCI-DSS compliance because no part of the merchant’s server touches CHD (card holder data).

Types of Controls

Control objectives PCI DSS requirements
Build and maintain a secure network 1. Install and maintain a firewall configuration to protect cardholder data
2. Do not use vendor-supplied defaults for system passwords and other security parameters
Protect cardholder data 3. Protect stored cardholder data
4. Encrypt transmission of cardholder data across open, public networks
Maintain a vulnerability management program 5. Use and regularly update anti-virus software on all systems commonly affected by malware
6. Develop and maintain secure systems and applications
Implement strong access control measures 7. Restrict access to cardholder data by business need-to-know
8. Assign a unique ID to each person with computer access
9. Restrict physical access to cardholder data
Regularly monitor and test networks 10. Track and monitor all access to network resources and cardholder data
11. Regularly test security systems and processes
Maintain an information security policy 12. Maintain a policy that addresses information security

From PCI-SSC quick guide, pulled from Wikipedia

Consider SaaS and Avoid Self-Hosting

Speaking from my own experience, IT professionals who know how to solve the problem of creating an e-commerce solution may not have knowledge about PCI-DSS compliance and pick the wrong solutions for your organization as a result. These organizations may have to find out the hard way via a data breach or fine to happen.

With any IT solution, ‘economy of scale’ results in products which meet more requirements at an affordable cost. Use well-known true software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms which provide explicit documentation and support on how to operate a PCI-DSS compliant solutions.

For example, I would recommend the likes of SquareSpace and Shopify to provide a solution instead of self-hosting store-front using WordPress or Magento for organizations who cannot afford to have dedicated IT operations. Trusting off-the-shelf WordPress plugins to be part of a PCI-DSS compliant solution has the potential for pitfalls. There is a similar challenge with picking PCI-DSS compliant web hosting.

Additional Reading

  1. PCI Security Standards Understanding PCI-DSS v3
  2. PCI Security Standards PCI-DSS v3 SAQ A
  3. Recurly – PCI-DSS Compliance

Windows Activation Admin Commands

Capture

Some useful notes for administration of for use with Windows 7/8/10 activation.

Tools

Retrieve Windows 7/8/10 key:

ShowKeyPlus releases as discusssed on TenForums

Commands

Needs to be executed with administrative rights

Show current Windows version

winver

Get licensing status and activation ID:

slmgr.vbs /dlv

Activate license and product key against Microsoft server:

slmgr.vbs /ato

Install a new valid key, where Xs represent a Windows key:

slmgr.vbs -ipk XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX

Bring up the change product key prompt to change Windows edition or input a new key:

slui 3

Bring up the phone activation prompt:

slui 4

Additional Notes

In-Place Upgrade for Non-Activated Windows Installs

Windows 10 10586 build does not seem to allow for in-place upgrade of non-activated Windows 7 installs without forcing the user to enter another valid key, but Windows 10 10240 works.

Feature Upgrade from Windows 10 Home to Pro without Reinstalling Windows

When moving from Windows 10 Home to Pro edition, it is enough to use the product key change command ‘slui 3’, to change the product key to a Pro edition key to do an upgrade if you have a key available. It is not required to do a full reinstall, nor it is necessary to have to download any installation images of Windows 10. Once the feature upgrade to Windows 10 Pro edition has completed, use the ‘slui 3’ command again but with a genuine Windows key and proceed with normal activation. To prevent failed activation of the generic key, disconnect from the internet before a the genuine Windows key is entered.

Hardware Video Acceleration for YouTube on Chrome for PC

Capture

Google Chrome is one of my favorite browsers, but there are some tweaks particularly with YouTube video decoding which are worth looking for most users out there who are not using one of the newest Intel or Nvidia GPUs.

Revert to H264 from VP8/VP9

The easy fix is to install the open-source h264ify on the Chrome web store

Then if you check ‘Stats for nerds’ by right-click on a YouTube video, you can see that the mime type says ‘avc’ right after where it says ‘codec’. You are all done then! Watch your CPU temperatures drop!

After

The most common way for video decoding support to be broken is the fact that YouTube switched to WebM video formats VP8 and VP9 in their video browsers when using the HTML5 player. This video format is NOT supported for hardware decoding for some hardware configuration today, including all AMD graphic devices.

It’s great for Google to flout that the VP9 codec has been pushed to millions of consumers, but this comes at the cost of higher power consumption and lower performance compared to the universally hardware accelerated video format of H264 for hardware dating back 2008 (Intel GL40).

Video Card Blacklists

There’s may also be patches in Google Chrome to prevent hardware video decoding for Intel depending on the video driver installed, which blocks older Intel GPUs by default. This can be verified by going to ‘chrome://gpu/’ to see if ‘video decode’ has ‘hardware accelerated’ next to it.

This can be forced on with setting the ‘#ignore-gpu-blacklist’ in chrome://flags/, but you do run the risk of running into other rendering issues. My Lenovo Thinkpad X200 (Intel GMA4500MHD) drops video frames for all 720p 60fps YouTube videos to the point that the video becomes completely unwatchable, even with hardware acceleration turned on.

The way to check if your video-card supports VP8/VP9 video decoding is via DXVAChecker

TV Specifications 2015 Year-End Review

Video

The above shows the compression ratios for current and upcoming generations of TVs. For this current holiday season, UHD-1 TV sets (4k resolution at 60 fps) have premium pricing. We also have a slew of 4k devices only capable of 30 fps, which may be worse than 1080p devices capable of 60 fps, in my opinion.

  • Resolution – 4k resolution (3840×2160) has more dots per surface area, and can display more at a time
  • Framerate – 60 fps (frames per second) is considered the optimal rate for gamers because it represents smoother game play and eliminates noticeable frame judder. The same applies for TVs. Above 60 fps is considered to be good for action but not strictly necessary.
  • Color – technologies for HDR (high dynamic range), 10-bit/12-bit color depth, 4:4:4/4:2:2/4:2:0 color subsampling (bigger the better)
  • Connectivity – HDMI 2.0+ or DisplayPort 1.2+ connections are mandatory to guarantee sufficient bandwidth deliver the video signal. TVs do not typically come with DisplayPort connector.
  • Bitrate – Measured in megabits per second, this is only really a concern for streaming content over the Internet for most folks out there with some sort of data usage cap. Most connections can achieve the sustained download speeds required by UHD content. However, to sustain 10 Mbps stream over a hour typical of 1080p, it consumes over 4 gigabytes an hour.
  • Smart – usually means the TV can either playback files or connect to the Internet. However, smart TVs get outdated fast, as manufacturers typically are not good at updating the devices, and the software outpaces the TV sets by a large margin. TVs can last 5 years or more, but software tends to be obsolete in less than half that time
  • Content protection – you need HDCP 2.2+ for some newer content for copy-protection of UVD content, but that is only if you wish to buy a Bluray player that requires this.
  • Codec – there is some confusion here as well, because HEVC uptake has been rather slow, with branding causing even more confusion. As with previous video standards, hardware support for processing video efficient has been mixed.HEVC is also referred to as H265. The previous video codec which has been popularized was H264, specifically 8-bit. Hi10P is a specific profile of H264 which allows for a 10 bit color space for more accurate color representation, but there is very limited hardware level encoding or decoding support for Hi10P, particularly on PCs.
    • HEVC PC codec support as of 2015 – only Nvidia Maxwell 2nd generation cards support HEVC decoding in hardware up to 10 bit color space for UVD-1 compatibility, and Intel has partial support which is of limited use. AMD doesn’t support HEVC at all
    • HEVC streaming box support as of 2015 – for the Apple/Amazon/Google TV solutions, this is limited as well, even on the 1080p front. Do your research…

I am not very compelled at all by newer TV features past 1080p at this point. There just isn’t much consumable media available at a high resolutions of 4k, nor am I willing to spend extra to pay for the added quality in the color data. There’s a good chance that you need to invest in new playback hardware as well. I’m happy to stick with 720p content for a long while to come.

The exception is that higher video quality is nice to have for photography and videography. Smartphones technologies have been leading in this direction, but you would need a high resolution display and a compatible player to take advantage. This doesn’t bode well for TV manufacturers going forward for typical consumers with so much confusion in being able to understand the technology

Future

Reference: