Windows 7 on the 8Gb SSD Mini 9: Redux

You may remember that I ended my previous post with about 1.6Gb free on the 8Gb SSD of the Mini 9 after installing Windows 7.

I still needed to install Office 2007, or at the very least Word and Excel for the ‘book to be useful. I therefore rummaged out another 16Gb SD card and revisited my earlier vista post about installing apps to an SD card. This time I simply let the card allocate a drive letter and installed Office to d:\Program Files instead.

The trouble was, after installing Office I was down to about 400Mb free on the Dell’s SSD, despite installing the suite to the SD card. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, the common stuff goes into c:\program files\common files\microsoft shared; secondly, the installer files are stored in c:\windows\installer.

I then followed the steps in my post about moving installer files with Vista and created d:\Windows\Installer to hold the data. I’m now back to 1.3Gb free on the SSD. I have successfully installed a couple of apps (including some of the Wave 3 Live suite) following the change so I am pretty confident it works.

I should point out at this juncture that after my previous post I received an email about junctions, Windows installer and Windows XP. That email warned me that performing the steps I documented with Windows XP was extremely dangerous and I should warn people against it. I did ask the mailer the reason why so I could post more detail, but I never got a response. The moral? Do this at your own risk, people.

Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend the 8Gb SSD as a realistic option. The XP install shipped on it is compressed and slow. My Windows 7 solution is compressed (although not as slow as I had expected – it’s quite usable). Most importantly, once you’ve got the OS on, you’re a bit stuffed for anything else without resorting to hacks like the ones described here. I would say that 16Gb is a minimum, and depending on your needs a 32Gb SSD might be worth the money.

Windows 7 on the Dell Mini 9 with only the 8Gb SSD

In my previous post about getting Windows 7 onto the fantastic Dell Mini 9 I talked about solving things like the driver issues and antivirus. This time I’m going to cover how I installed Windows 7 onto the 8Gb SSD version of the Mini 9.

Interestingly, Windows 7 will actually install in about 8Gb. However, when I tried to run through my previously documented steps, it told me that it did not recommend installing to a disk of less that 8303Mb. The Dell had about 7.5Gb free for the install as I wanted to leave the Dell system partition alone. When I tried to install the process reset partway through and I could not stop it doing it.

So I had a think. My final solution, in a nutshell, is the following:

  1. Install to a VPC with a small disk but stop before the final step where it runs the OOBE (preparing to start for the first time…)
  2. Boot the VPC from another source and compress the contents of the disk.
  3. Create an image of the new disk and transfer that to the Dell.
  4. Complete the installation.

The good news is – it works!

So, let’s run through that again and put a bit more detail into it.

To do this yourself you’ll need the following:

  • The drivers and software for the Dell Mini I listed in my previous post.
  • The Windows 7 x86 install iso.
  • The Windows 7 WAIK beta (to create WinPE media)
  • Virtual PC 2007
  • It’s also easier to have Windows 7 running on the PC you’re going to use to host the VPC for reason which will become clear soon.

Step 1: Create the VPC

I guess you don’t really need to limit the VPC to the same memory and disk as the Dell, but I did. Create a new VPC using the Vista template as the base. Set the memory to 1Gb and set the hard disk size to 8192Mb. While you’re at it, use the virtual disk wizard to create another VHD of the default size (16Gb, it’s more than enough) and call it something like ImageDisk. Don’t attach it to the virtual machine just yet.

Step 2: Install Windows 7 from the ISO

Attach your Windows 7 ISO to the virtual machine and boot from it. Choose your language as normal and select the 8Gb disk to install to. Don’t disappear and leave the installer to it, however – you need to pay attention.

The installer will copy files and uncompress them. It then does a couple more steps and does a reboot. At this point, because I’m paranoid, I shut down the VPC and copied the VHD file.

Let the VPC reboot. Again, pay attention. The installer carries on for a little while and then the system will restart. Again, shut the VPC down before it boots for a second time. Once again, I copied the VHD out of paranoia.

Step 3: Compress the disk contents

There’s an irony here – the installer has just merrily uncompressed all your files and now you want to shrink them back down again. Ah, well…

Boot the VPC from the installation CD. When you get the install screen up press Shift+f10 to open a command prompt.

Change to the root of the c: drive and type the following:

c:\windows\system32\compact.exe /c /s /i

This will run through and compress all the files except hidden and system files like the page file and hibernate file. It takes a while, but it will take a heck of a lot less time on your VPC than it would if we tried this on the Dell.

Once it’s finished, type:

c:\windows\system32\shutdown /s /t 0

or power off the VPC.

Step 4: Create a Win PE disk

I’m not going to run through the process of creating a WinPE disk. Install the WAIK and follow the instructions. You should end up with an ISO file that can be used to boot the VPC. Make sure you copy imagex.exe onto it!

Step 5: Image the VPC

We now need to create a .wim image of the installation we’ve partially completed. The easiest way to do that when using a VPC won Windows 7 is to mount a second VHD file and create the image on that. We can then attach the VHD to our Windows 7 host PC and copy off the image file.

First of all, we need to partition and format the VHD we create to store the image. On your Windows 7 host computer, start Computer Management as an Administrator (type ‘com’ into the start menu, right click the computer management icon, chose ‘run as administrator’).

Right-click on the Disk Management icon beneath Storage in the left hand pane and choose ‘Attach VHD’. Browse for your VHD file and click OK to mount it. You should see the new disk appear in the right hand panel.

We can do everything we need in Computer Management, but I find diskpart to be quicker. Open an administrative command prompt and type diskpart to fire it up.

We need to create a new partition. Computer Management helpfully tells us the number of our VHD so we can type that into diskpart. For example:

select disk 1

Then to create a partition:

create partition primary

And then, being eclectic, I use Computer Management to quick format it as NTFS because it’s easier to right-click the disk and choose ‘Format’!

Now we have a formatted partition, we can right-click the disk in computer management and detach the VHD. You can do that in Diskpart as well, I know…

Now edit your VPC configuration and add the second VHD. Boot the VPC from the WinPE ISO you created and you will end up with a command prompt.

The next bit is easy:

imagex /capture <drive letter of our system disk, hopefully c:> <drive letter of our big empty disk, possibly d:>\Mini9.wim “Mini9”

The sytem will chug for a while and you will be left with a shiny wim file on the second VHD. Mine was about 2.7Gb.

Step 6: Transfer the image onto the Dell

The easiest way to do this is to create a WinPE USB stick with your wim file on it as well. You’ll need to format your USB stick as NTFS and then xcopy the WinPE disk contents onto it. Make sure you use the /S (subdirectories), /H (copy hidden and system), /E (copy empty directories) and I usually tack on the /Y (don’t prompt) for a quiet life:

xcopy <source drive>\. <usb drive>\ /s /h /e /y

Then copy your .wim file on as well.

I usually use the Windows 7 install media to delete the original OS partition from the Dell, simply because the UI is nicer than using diskpart. You may differ. If you follow the WAIK instructions and use the diskpart ‘clean’ command you risk losing the Dell partition as well.

Armed with a nice empty Dell disk, boot from your USB WinPE disk.

First we need to partition the disk:

diskpart

list partition

<you need to remember the number of the big partition! I’m going to assume it’s 1 for now>

select partition 1
active
format fs=ntfs
assign
exit

And now you should have a nice big empty partition which you need to work out what drive letter WinPE has assigned (it may or may not be c:)

To put your image onto the disk use the following:

imagex.exe /apply <usb disk path>\Mini9.wim 1 <dell disk>:\

Once again, site back and wait. When the imaging is completed you can shutdown the Dell, remove your USB stick and follow the same procedure as I talked about before to get your drivers installed.

Still to do…

I haven’t sorted out applications yet. There’s only about 1.6Gb free on the disk after this process is completed. I am looking at using the SD card for applications in the same way as I talked about in my post about Vista and junctions.

Windows 7 on the Dell Mini 9

Windows7

What better way to try Windows 7 then installing it on the Mini 9? Having read all the commentary about the smaller footprint of the new OS I couldn’t resist.

If you want to try this yourself, the procedure is exactly as if you were installing Vista. You will need the drivers folder from the Dell, along with the contents of the Program Files\Wireless Select Switch folder from the XP install and the R192569.exe file from the ZIPFILES folder which is on the support CD I believe.

Installing Windows 7 is a pretty quick and easy process – much faster than Vista. Once installed, follow the same procedure as with Vista to install the hardware drivers from the drivers folder you copied, then run the R192569.exe installer to get the battery driver on. Finally, copy the Wireless Select Switch folder into c:\program files and add an icon to your startup group which fires up the WLSS.exe program – that will allow you to toggle Bluetooth and wireless LAN on and off.

Once that’s done, follow the steps that Paul Thurrott  has on WinSuperSite about enabling the ‘awesome bar’ (does anybody else besides me hate that name?).

I then installed AVG AntiVirus. The corporate version we have failed completely to install, so I turned to AVG Free. That installed fine, but complained at first about being unable to start the resident scanner. A couple of reboots and updates sorted that with no intervention from me and it now works fine.

Office and Live Writer are now installed and I have 4Gb free of my 16Gb SSD. I haven’t fiddled with performance tuning yet – the OS ticks over using about 550Mb of RAM. With Live Writer and Internet Explorer 8 running I have about 300Mb of RAM free.

First impressions? Great! Quick, easy to install, UAC is improved, like the new Taskbar UI… I now want to try out some of the other features such as Bitlocker To Go. I hope to get a Server 2008 R2 test environment running as well so I can try things like DirectConnect etc. If I make progress, I’ll post more.

Bottom line: Windows 7 – the OS the Mini 9 was built for.

Vista on Dell Mini 9: Using junctions to move files off the SSD

Flush with my success earlier in getting apps installed on the SD card now mounted as ‘c:\SD Program Files’ I installed a few things. I then hit a snag.

When you install apps using an MSI, the installation files get cached by Windows Installer. Steadily, c:\windows\installer gets bigger and bigger, so whilst my apps were no longer taking up space, the install files were (and some of those are quite large).

I now have an image of the Vista install so I’m becoming more cavalier. I wondered if I could move the Installer folder from c:\windows onto my SD card by copying it into the mount point, but still get Windows Installer to work as though nothing had changed.

So, first I used Robocopy with the /SEC option to copy the installer folder tree over. Next, I deleted c:\windows\installer and created a directory junction which allows the moved content to still be accessed as c:\windows\installer.

To create a directory junction, use the mklink command with the /J switch to create the installer folder in c:\windows and point it at ‘c:\sd program files\installer’.

So far, it’s working fine. I need to try a few more installs to be sure, though…

Vista on the Dell Mini 9: Installing applications on an SD card

I’m still trying new things with the Mini 9. I now have an image file that I can restore to the Mini which has my base install after running sysprep. The problem I have is storage space – the SSD isn’t _quite_ big enough.

So, Richard wandered in this morning and handed me a 4Gb SD card to experiment with. The question: Can we use the SD card and install app onto it?

Our initial finding was a big fat no. Visual Studio setup refused to install to ‘removable media’. Bearing in mind all we’d done at this point was stuff an SD card into the card slot I wasn’t too surprised.

I fired up computer manager and went into disk admin. The partition on the SD card was FAT32, so we replaced that with an NTFS partition for a start.

I then went into the drive properties and changed the Policy settings. By default the SD reader is set to allow instant removal. Changing that to enable write caching means I will have to use the tray icon to ‘Safely Remove Hardware’, but I think that’s the key setting to allow me to install apps. However, I wanted to make things a little more integrated, so I created a folder on the C: drive called ‘SD Program Files’ and used it as a mount point for the SD card.

Visual Studio is now happily installing to the SD card.

As a 16Gb SD card is around twenty-five quid, this makes a reasonable approach to increasing storage space, assuming apps run reasonably quickly from the drive.

That’s the next test…

Vista on the Dell Mini 9: Redux

I’ve been chipping away at this for a while now today, and I’ve learned a few things on the way:

  • When Vista says it suggests installing the battery drivers for the system, don’t. The zip file it suggested I install broke power management.
  • Patch the system fully as an admin user before logging in as a restricted user. It will save you hours of time.
  • Sysinternals Diskmon doesn’t work with Vista – you need to run it as admin, and that certainly isn’t an option for my restricted users.
  • Vista when hibernating just shows a black screen. That’s not very helpful the first time you try it, on a silent machine with no disk activity lights at all.
  • think Vista takes longer to hibernate and come back from hibernation than XP, although coming back from sleep is much quicker than it’s older sibling.

Overall, I’m still happy. I have Vista, Office 2007 and Live Writer and 3.5Gb of disk space free. With no serious hacking the Dell runs at around 50% memory usage witrh a browser and live writer running. I can live with that. Battery life appears OK. It’s 10:30 and I’ve been using the Dell since 8pm, thrashing the disk (as much as there is one) and the wi-fi, and I’m at 38% battery. That puts me on track for about four hours or so and I can live with that.

Ironically, having been using the Aspire One all weekend, the Dell keyboard is more annoying than I found it before I got the Acer. Comparing the two, however the Dell is a good inch narrower and a little lighter. If portability is critical then the Dell has the edge, although I’m starting to favour the Acer for ergonomics.

Top tips, then:

  • Try to use slipstream media – it saves a bit of tidying up.
  • Turn off system restore to save a bit of disk space initially and quite a bit in the longer term.
  • Keep the cruft at a minimum – additional windows components take up disk space, but shoving lots of apps on gobbles memory, which is quite tight with 1Gb of memory.
  • I tried to install from a USB memory stick with Vista installation media on it and it didn’t work – a USB optical drive is the easiest way.
  • Make sure you copy the drivers folder off the Min 9 before wiping the disk for Vista – you’ll need the drivers folder to install the appropriate system drivers before Windows can work it’s Update magic.
  • The 16Gb SSD isn’t that big when you try installing Vista and Office. I’ve not reduced Vista’s footprint with tools like vlite, but they might help. Certainly, being hard on yourself is important – do you really need Microsoft Access on a netbook?

The next step is to run the new Mini 9 with Vista in parallel with the XP Pro install on Richard’s and see which is the better long-term bet. Watch this space…

Getting Vista on the Dell Mini 9

Our second Mini 9 arrived in the office today. This one is for Andy and myself to use whilst out of the office. Richard has successfully upgraded his to XP Professional, so we had to try to push the bar out a little further – we’re running Vista Business.

I have not spent any time tweaking or prodding yet. I used install media with SP1 included and obliterated the partition on the SSD, then installed the drivers from Dell where necessary, and a driver for the battery hardware that Vista itself suggested rather than the Dell solution.

I have disabled System Restore to claw back some disk space, but even so, prior to installing the bits of Office 2007 we need (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote) I had around 7Gb free. That’s enough – we’re going to be using this for note taking and document writing, not heavy lifting.

Performance-wise, it’s quite nippy. Aero is disabled, and the sidebar is off (it’s a small screen, why waste bits of it?) and I have well over half the system ram available at idle. Right now I have no complaints at all.

Depending on performance I may well look at upgrading the RAM to 2Gb, but in the short term I’m sure I have an SD card kicking around somewhere I could use for ReadyBoost, should the need arise.

Why Vista? UAC. Shocked? I probably would have been a few months ago, but in all seriousness, UAC means that it’s much easier to run with limited-rights user accounts and still be able to do admin-stuff if the need arises. You can’t do that with XP Pro.

Dell Mini 9: A Day In The Life

Colour me impressed. I managed well over four hours’ battery life today and found the Mini 9 a joy to use. I have encountered a snag, however, and it wasn’t one that I expected.

You see, I’m now sitting on the 21:30 train from London Kings Cross to Wakefield after having been in the big smoke for a day of meetings. I got onto an empty train and picked a seat with a table – I want to get some work done on the documents required after my meeting and I thought the space would be nice.

Great, except I’m on 17% battery charge as I wait for departure, and I can’t use the plug in the wall. As a result, I* have switched seats to a cramped airline seat, also next to a plug.

The problem is, the charger I so complimented in my previous post is too deep to plug into the socket by the table. The power cable won’t bend and there’s only about an inch between the socket and the table. Not enough to use the Dell charger.

So I now sit with the Mini 9 on a fold-down tray, and it fits quite well, I must say. One could even say it was made for it.

Anyway, the Mini performed like a champ. It was small enough not to get in the way during the meetings I had today, made no distracting noises as my other laptop is prone to do as it’s fans spin their merry dance, and just.. kept… working. Exactly what I asked it do do with no problems at all.

I wonder if Richard will notice if I don’t give him it back…?

First thoughts on the Dell Mini 9

I’m down in London tomorrow, and rather than lug my laptop on the train I’ve borrowed Richard’s shiny new Mini 9.

Overall, I’m quite impressed with it. I’m still not sure about the keyboard, even after a couple of hours typing away – the keys are small and some of them are smaller still, which makes typing an interesting experience. However, I’m sure I would get used to it with time. The thing is, a netbook is not aimed at being your everyday machine, so does a quirky keyboard become a barrier to use if that use is intermittent?

My wife saw it and immediately liked it for it’s size and weight. For a small, very capable device to use, for example, when down at the library researching our family tree the Mini 9 is a good fit. Long battery life (I’ve not charged it yet and I’ve racked up at least a couple of hours on about 50% charge) and robust design with no moving parts makes a good fit in a large handbag where you don’t want the charger.

The screen is nice and bright. I’ve not tried to use it outdoors yet, where I suspect the high gloss screen may be a disadvantage, but inside where I would use it most there is no issue with legibility. Resolution is tight at 1024×600, but you have to compromise somewhere. It will happily drive a second screen at higher resolution, however, so it may well find a place in my heart for roaming presentations at events. it’s also a perfect companion for conferences, at least for myself – not a dev needing the grunt of more power for Visual Studio work.

I have successfully coupled my Touch Diamond with the Dell and can use my 3G data connection when there is no available WiFi and I think that works well. I’ve not tried using bluetooth, cool though it may be, as I see no point in crippling the battery life of both devices. How hard was the pairing? Easy – installed ActiveSync 4.5 and start the Internet Connection app on my phone. Less than five minutes to get going, including the ActiveSync download!

My one annoyance is not really Dell’s fault. XP Home is most definitely not a good fit for corporate use, and the spec isn’t good enough for Vista. As an IT admin, I want to enable domain membership and disk encryption and group policies. Being a Gold Partner means I could install XP Pro, but not everybody has that option. Microsoft have really got themselves in a hole over this one – on the one hand they can’t extend the life of XP Pro any longer, but Vista isn’t lean enough for this sector and they don’t want to forfeit the market to Linux. In the olden days, the OS would have been Windows CE, but the market has already learned that for mass market appeal users need to run their existing applications, and in that regard CE just doesn’t cut the mustard.

I’ve not played much with the Acer Aspire one. I had a fiddle with one at the weekend (in Tescos, of all places) and I think being honest, the Acer has the edge for keyboard. However, the charger for the Dell is a bit like a phone charger on steroids, whereas the Acer has a traditional laptop-style cloverleaf cable and charger which is much bulkier and heavier to carry. Add to that the fact that to get XP you need to order the model with the standard hard drive and the lower battery life and I would probably choose the Dell over the Acer.

Could I use the Mini 9 as my only computer whilst travelling? The answer to that is a qualified yes. Ask me again after I’ve tried it on the train to London and I’ll give you a definitive answer.

So, pros and cons, before I go away and order one for myself!

Pro

  • Small and lightweight
  • No moving parts so less risk when travelling
  • Performance is great (after we decompressed the hard disk!)
  • Screen is excellent

Con

  • Keyboard is tricky. There are no separate function keys and even with the FN-key combination there’s no F11 or F12.
  • Upgradeable, but… Getting hold of PCIe SSD disks isn’t that easy, and Dell have left out the antenna and other bits for the WWAN.
  • Shiny case is sexy and impresses from a distance, but is a magnet for fingerprints.
  • XP Home. Need I say more.