Finding a cure may mean looking elsewhere

Fred langa By Fred Langa

Sometimes, what seems to be a networking problem is actually caused by the actions of a totally different PC subsystem.

By making simple adjustments to that second system, you can often resolve the networking problem.

Network just stops, for no obvious reason

Jim Boyer has some questions regarding my Oct. 14 Top Story, “Simple change in settings pumps up Win7 networks.”
  • “I read with great interest your lead article about network slowdowns. But I have been experiencing a different problem: the network doesn’t slow down but gets lost completely! Let me explain.

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    “I have a Win7 machine and so does my wife. I also have two older XP machines on the network. Because of the XPs, I never set up a homegroup in Win7. The problem is that sometimes my [Win7] computer will no longer ‘see’ my wife’s machine or one of the XPs, even though it did earlier.

    “The strange thing is that I can go over to the other computer (be it my wife’s or the XP) and immediately access mine over that network. One minute I was connected, the next not — but only one way. I conclude that the network is OK, it’s just that there is something that’s losing the connection.

    “What’s going on?”
I’ve seen the same sort of thing, Jim. Believe it or not, this is often a power-management issue! When the network cards on the affected machines are in a low-power state, they can’t be accessed from outside. Any user activity on the PCs restores normal power to the network cards, letting them work again.

It’s important to note that the network card’s power state can be different from that of the rest of the PC. It should be easy to fix:

On the Win7 machines, open Control Panel and drill down through Hardware and Sound, Power Options, and Edit Plan Settings. Then select Change advanced power settings.

Make sure that the Wireless, USB, and PCI options (depending on what type of network adapter you’re using) are set to full power and that the general system timeouts are long enough not to power anything down sooner than you want. (See Figure 1.)

Adjust win7 power settings
Figure 1. Adjust your power settings to prevent important subsystems from powering down too soon (Win7 shown).

If you need more help with adjusting Win7 power plans, see the Microsoft Help & How-to article, “Change, create, or delete a power plan (scheme)”, or How-To Geek’s tutorial, “Learning Windows 7: Manage power settings”, or SevenForums’s tutorial, “How to change the Power Plan settings in Windows 7.”

In XP, set the Power Option properties to Presentation, Always On, or Minimal Power Management (see Figure 2). If you need more info, see Microsoft’s tutorial, “Configure Windows XP power management,” or the MS TechNet article, “Configure a Power Options item (Windows XP).”

Adjust xp power settings
Figure 2. XP’s Power Options are more limited than Win7’s and Vista’s but still can be usefully adjusted.

If your network dropouts cease (and I’m betting they will) you can now fine-tune your power settings so that you’re saving power — and your network components don’t snooze sooner than they should!

Transferring programs without reinstallation

Tom Riding is seeking an easier way to move installed programs from PC to PC.
  • “I need a program that will move installed software from one hard drive to another. I know this is a complex problem. I’m running Vista, which probably complicates the issue. Do you have any recommendations?”
I know of only two tools — neither free — that let you selectively move some or all of your apps.

The one I’ve used is Laplink’s PCmover (U.S. $30 and up, info page). It works on all current versions of Windows, from XP to Win7.

I have no experience with SoftRescue ($30 and up; info page), but it’s well-regarded on message boards around the Net. It’s not listed as Win7-compatible but does claim XP and Vista compatibility.

With luck, one of those will be just the ticket!

Separate partitions for system and data?

Reader JimB is setting up a new system and asks some partitioning advice.
  • “I’m finally getting around to upgrading from Vista to Win7. I’m doing a clean install. Do you still suggest using separate partitions for system, programs, and data?”
You certainly still can do that, if you wish. There’s no harm in it. However, the advice to place data on its own, separate partition dates back to Win95 days, and there were two reasons for it.

The first was that Windows could — and often would — get itself seriously hosed from time to time. It wasn’t unusual to have to reinstall Windows 95 and 98 from scratch once or twice a year. In that circumstance, having your data files separate from the operating system was a real time-saver.

The second reason was the backup media in use at that time, which tended to be slow and/or have low capacity. Backing up and restoring large numbers of files with floppies or tapes was tedious at best.

Today, backup and restore operations can be fast and easy. High-speed and high-capacity rewritable DVDs are common, and blank disks are dirt-cheap. Huge, inexpensive external drives are also available for easy offline storage of vast amounts of data.

Windows has also evolved and rarely needs wholesale, start-from-scratch re-installations anymore. So these days, there’s not much reason to segregate the data from the operating system.

Instead, purely as an operational convenience, I’ve taken to segregating my data files by frequency of change and importance.

For example, I keep all my most-important and frequently changing files — work documents, current financial info, current e-mails, and such — on my C: drive, along with Windows. This stuff gets backed up every day.

Files and folders that change infrequently — MP3s, photo collections, software-installation files, various archives, and so on — reside on other partitions. Because these files are relatively static, they don’t need to be backed up as often. Being kept in a separate partition, they don’t clutter and slow down my regular, daily backups.

That works for me. But in truth, whatever method works for you is perfectly fine, as long as you’re doing regular backups!

Questions about flash-drive limitations

Julia Henson is concerned about her flash drives.
  • “After purchasing two 25GB USB external flash drives, I read somewhere that they have read/write limitations. I have spent some time looking everywhere on the Internet for technology reviews that deal with this topic, but with no success.

    “Can you tell me how I would learn what the read/write limitation is for my drives? Also, how to access information from the drive that will tell me when I am reaching the limitation point?

    “I have checked your articles, CNET reviews, Wikipedia, and several places from a Google search, but none of the reviews actually deals with the technology and the process of being alerted when nearing the limitation.”
By “limitation,” I assume you mean the fact that flash-memory cells — the tiny devices that actually hold the ones and zeros that make up your data — have a finite life. After some number of rewrite cycles, the cells can fail.

Unfortunately, there’s no firm rule for how many write-cycles a flash device will withstand before failing. The numbers I’ve seen range from 100,000 to a million cycles. One reason for the discrepancy: there’s no universally accepted practice for measuring their life span.

There’s also no way to test or predict when a specific flash drive’s memory cell will fail. Unlike hard drives, which can give some early warning of an impending failure, flash-memory cells either work fully or don’t — there’s no in-between or marginal condition that will warn of impending failure.

Large flash arrays (such as those used in solid-state hard drives) usually come with special wear-leveling software to deliberately spread data around the drive, helping to avoid having any one part of the drive get used more than others. Inexpensive flash devices such as your thumb drives usually have no such software.

To further complicate matters, flash devices come in a wide range of qualities, prices, and warranties. Drives from one vendor might have a different lifespan than drives from another.

But rest easy. If, like most thumb-drive users, you use the device primarily to move files from one machine to another, even 100,000 cycles is a lot — you’re unlikely to wear out flash cells with that kind of use.

That said, Windows 7 and Vista offer a technology called ReadyBoost (info page) that lets you use a USB flash drive as a kind of extended pagefile/swapfile area. Personally, I think that’s a terrible idea, because pagefiles get used a lot. I think a ReadyBoost drive could rack up 100,000 writes in not much time at all.

My suggestions:
  • For important files and for heavy-duty or constant use, use only name-brand flash devices that come with solid warranties.

  • Cheap, disposable flash drives should be used only for light-duty, casual applications.

  • Never store your only copy of anything on a flash drive; have a backup copy safely stored someplace else.

  • And to maximize the life of your flash devices, avoid ReadyBoost!
Feedback welcome: Have a question or comment about this story? Post your thoughts, praises, or constructive criticisms in the WS Columns forum.

Fred Langa is a senior editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of Byte Magazine (1987–91), editorial director of CMP Media (1991–97), and editor of the LangaList e-mail newsletter from its origin in 1997 until its merger with Windows Secrets in November 2006.
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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.