A fortnight of upgrades

A man in a yellow top and tight black trousers on a surfboard with his arms outstretched on a large waveThe past couple of weeks, I’ve upgraded the operating systems on all three of the computers I own (not including my mobile phone and tablet). I’ve a Mac, a desktop PC and a laptop PC, all of which run Linux as well as their usual OS’s. Apple released OS X Mavericks last week, Microsoft released Windows 8.1 (actually 6 point something) the week before, Canonical released Ubuntu 13.10 “Saucy Salamander” and SuSE put out a release candidate of their new system, version 13.1. Of these, the Linux upgrades were by far the least troublesome, the Mac upgrade interfered with my Linux install on that machine, and Windows 8.1 simply wouldn’t install.

I’ve never minced my words when it comes to Windows 8: I think it’s terrible, and I hugely regret paying for the ‘upgrade’ from Windows 7, which is the best desktop version of Windows in its whole history. I would actually rather downgrade to Windows 7 than install this upgrade because I want my PC to behave like a PC, I never use any of the new-style apps (some of which have stupid limitations, such as the Messaging client which only lets you set up two accounts) and I prefer a proper desktop menu to the new start screen. However, the word on the street was that Windows 8.1 is a massive improvement, so I went into the “Windows Store” and started the upgrade, which is bigger than 3Gb. It downloaded, “installed”, then told me “getting your PC ready” and “getting the upgrade ready”, before failing with the message “the application did not install, click for details”, but the details simply read “something happened” with a long number.

Googling this number failed to provide much of an explanation, and a number of workarounds suggested on various websites, including downloading the US English language pack and tricking the Microsoft website into letting me download a DVD image, all failed (the latter with the same insipid error message). A bit more research suggested that drivers on my machine may be incompatible with 8.1, but surely the upgrade installer should be able to tell me what’s wrong, rather than just that “something happened”. I’m not sure where people got the idea for this infuriating, unhelpful “error message” - I’ve also seen it in GNOME 3 when it fails to start. There should be an easy way of finding out exactly what happened. I also looked on the Acer website, which gave a list of their products which are supported for upgrade to Windows 8.1, and mine was not one of them; it also said that Acer products sold through the PC World group are supported by them, so I called them (and they do not have a number to speak to your local store, only an 0844 number which costs extra to call from a mobile) and they told me to speak to Microsoft’s helpline. However, Microsoft’s “helpline” told me to call back during business hours, which I’ve not yet had the opportunity to do. Companies please note: people who work during business hours do things like upgrading their laptops after 6pm.

The two Linux upgrades presented the least problems. My Mac had been running the previous version of Ubuntu and I was able to upgrade it to the latest using the desktop update tool. My old Dell desktop PC had been running OpenSUSE 12.3, and I used the net-install CD to install the new version. Apart from a known problem with it being impossible to change the time zone (which is easily remedied if you can use the command line, which I can), it installed without incident (despite this being a new installer written in a different language to the old one) and works fine. My laptop runs the same system and I won’t hesitate to upgrade it when the final version (or even the next release candidate, if the clock problem is fixed) comes out.

Which brings us to what should have been the final upgrade, Mac OS X “Mountain Lion” to “Mavericks”, the first version of OS X that isn’t named after a big cat (Mavericks is a beach in California known for dangerous surfing). The name reflects the arrogance of the major operating system producers, whose systems tend to assume that people are only using their software and frustrate attempts to use others’ - you might notice the move to “secure boot” on Windows 8 and the default setting on OS X since the last release not to run programs other than by registered developers (and it costs £60/year, when I last checked, to become one). Both are done in the name of “security”, but the latter is definitely a little money-spinner for Apple. All the work on making Linux cooperate with Windows and OS X has come from the Linux side. Ubuntu has used release names consisting of an adjective and an animal with the same initial letter, and has avoided using the names of big cats (it’s used wild cats, though) the whole time. One of Ubuntu’s release names, from October 2010, was Maverick Meerkat.

The upgrade to Mavericks appeared to go without incident, but I soon found that when I picked Linux from the initial boot menu, I got a message telling me it couldn’t find an operating system and telling me to put a boot disk in. I searched and found a few other people had had the same problem, but none of the workarounds worked, and that name clash meant that the search results were full of articles about getting Ubuntu Maverick working with OS X, not Ubuntu working with OS X Mavericks. Well done, Apple. In the end, I had to download an Ubuntu DVD and totally re-install it. That fixed a few nagging problems with Ubuntu itself, but really shouldn’t have been necessary. I believe the extra recovery partition that Apple puts there (which may be confusing the bootloader or making the partition table invalid — I didn’t check to see if it had been installed over the start of my Linux file-system, which would be really unacceptable if it were true) were the cause of this problem.

I haven’t really explored much of what’s new in Mavericks; I can’t use the improvements to handling multiple displays as I’ve only got one monitor, and some of them are Apple catching up with open-source desktops (notably the tabs in the Finder). The old “space” themed background image has been replaced with one of an ocean wave, which I found rather distracting, but there are plenty of others to choose from (I chose the “Hawaiian Print” background). I have tried to use Maps, but discovered when I searched for my home address that only roads were shown, not pathways, which makes it rather useless for anything except planning a car journey, and you can always just use the Google Maps or StreetMap website. Apple has posted the performance statistics for the new version of Safari, but as long as when you open up a Tab, the keyboard focus is somewhere other than the place where you enter a web address, I won’t be using it. Also, Chrome is pretty much the standard nowadays and it looks the same from platform to platform.

The October upgrade mania isn’t over; this evening the new version of Android is meant to be getting released, which may well mean that my phone gets the upgrade tonight or tomorrow. There are some interesting features to the new OS, like improved Bluetooth and a phone app that, when you receive a call from a business address, it searches for it and tells you who’s calling even if they’re not in your contacts. May not seem earth-shattering but hey, it’s a free upgrade. And I expect it’ll go a lot more smoothly than Microsoft’s and Apple’s upgrades and there’s no other OS on the phone for it to mess up.

Image source: Wikipedia.

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  • Tim Bowes

    I know this is heresy, but I rather like Windows 8.1. It works pretty well on my 7 year-old desktop. I did have a little trouble upgrading from the 8.1 Preview I had been running for months, but we got there in the end. I probably should upgrade my work Mac to Mavericks, but there’s no hurry; I’m not really an OSX man. I’m afraid I more or less abandoned my adventures with Linux when Windows 7 came out. Its appeal used to be that it was better than Windows XP — and free — but when Windows became good, that was the end of that. Now if I had the money — which sadly I don’t — I think I would buy a Dell Venue Pro to get the most out of Windows 8.1. I really enjoyed the tablet experience on a borrowed Surface, even in Windows 8, a few months ago. My iPad Mini from work really doesn’t cut it for me.

  • I don’t think heresy comes into it; what people prefer to use is up to them. I agree that Windows 7 is good by Windows standards; Windows 8 isn’t — it’s not a desktop OS but a touch-screen one awkwardly shoe-horned into a desktop setting, with the old desktop format awkwardly bolted on, and the only apps worth using are the desktop ones. I’ve heard that Windows 8.1 was better which is why I tried to upgrade, but it’s totally screwed up my system which now won’t boot.

    I find that Linux is pretty good for web browsing and watching videos etc; admittedly the Office substitutes are not up to much in my opinion (they work, though). What it’s best for is development; it’s just a superb environment to develop software in, because you have easy access to libraries etc from a central repository (rather than installing everything separately as on Windows and having to set command paths manually) and the package management software knows where everything is on the disk. There’s no equivalent for either Windows or the Mac. Most cross-platform development software is targeted at Unix and particularly the Linux/X11 combo, so you get to use the tools in their native environment.

  • Tim Bowes

    I take it all back. Yesterday I thought I would transfer the Win 8 licence from my rarely-used ageing desktop to a laptop, thinking this a better use of the software. I followed Microsoft’s guidance on deactivating the licence from my desktop and went as far as reinstalling Windows 7. But alas, the task of installing it on the laptop has had to be aborted. The installer tells me there in no internet connection, which there most definitely is. Microsoft’s support forums are filled with users complaining about the same issue — but with no resolution. I tried calling Microsoft, who passed me from one team to another before I got cut off mid-way through explaining it for the second time. Sat in the call queue for 15 minutes again, only to get cut off just as my call was answered. In short, I have given up. It’s probably for the best.