I was lucky enough for my employer to send me to BUILD 2013 this year (videos on Channel 9). The major topics for the event were Windows 8.1, Windows Azure and improvements in the development platform and tooling coming with Visual Studio 2013.
Of course, nobody does giveaways like Microsoft (and their partners). Each attendee that was at the conference received two free tablet PCs. The first is an Acer Iconia W3-810 and the second was a Surface Pro. As you can imagine the attendees were all pretty excited to pick up their goodies at the end of day one.
The devices came pre-loaded with Windows 8, and we had a USB stick that we could use to load up Windows 8.1 preview to give it a spin on the new hardware. That was exactly what I did that night back at the hotel and I can say that I am pretty happy with the progress that has been made with Windows 8.1 since Windows 8 was shipped. I’m now running Windows 8.1 on all of my devices and its working great.
Nothing Like a Fresh Install
One of my long established hang-ups about new hardware is that I like to go through the process of installing Windows on a blank drive, removing all of the cruft that comes out of the box from the hardware vendor. You’ll often hear people referring to this as bloatware.
I’ve done this regularly with almost all of my devices, except the W3-810 (and Surface Pro) which I simply did an in-place upgrade on. This weekend I decided it was time to go through the ritual. Boy did I regret it!
The Acer Iconia W3-810 is very new hardware for the Windows platform. Whilst it ships with Windows 8 pre-installed, the engineers at Acer would have pre-loaded the image with all the drivers necessary to make Windows 8 work. I had no such conveniences when doing a fresh install of Windows 8.1 from the MSDN ISO image.
The first challenge you have to over come is kicking off the installation. The way that I did this was hold down the power and start menu on boot to get into the diagnostic menus for Windows 8. I then navigated my way through the advanced settings and launched a command-line. When Windows is running out of this mode it appears to be operating out of a RAM disk, so I plugged in the USB key that had Windows 8.1 on it and ran setup. I stepped through the process and deleted the partitions on the local machine and then triggered the install of Windows 8.1 itself.
All was going fine until it rebooted and I discovered that neither the WiFi or the touch-screen had in-box driver support. So I pulled out the USB key that I used to install the operating system and plugged in a USB keyboard (the bluetooth keyboard that came with the device was no good at this point either). I used the keyboard to navigate through the personalisation prompts whilst I started downloading the drivers for the device from Acer’s web-site.
The next challenge was how do I get the device drivers onto the tablet with no network, and only one USB port currently being used by the keyboard (note, I didn’t have a USB hub handy). In the end I wrote a simple little batch script and kicked it off which copied all the files from a particular directory on the USB stick to a local directory and then looped around and did it again. I yanked the keyboard out, plugged the USB stick in and bingo, the driver files copied across to the local disk on the tablet.
Next I plugged in the USB keyboard again and triggered the installation of the drivers. There are three driver packages that come with the device. One is a big “other” drivers package which basically contains all the Intel drivers which make up the bulk of the hardware in the device. The remaining two are for Wireless LAN and Bluetooth.
The Intel drivers went on without a hitch and I noticed almost all the unidentified hardware on the device was detected sans the Bluetooth and WiFi adapters of course (Broadcom devices both). When I tried to install the WiFi driver it didn’t work. The driver package has a simple “install.bat” file which if you double click on results on plenty of activity on the screen before disappearing.
In the end I opened up a command-prompt window and ran install.bat and saw the nature of my error. Basically the command prompt needed to run elevated to install. I did so and suddenly the WiFi driver kicked into action.
One of the issues that I noticed after installing the large Intel driver package was that any of the modern user experience elements in Windows 8.1 were showing blocked out text (like the CIA had redacted Windows or something :P). That is a sure hint that video drivers are a problem so I flicked over the the desktop Windows Update screen and triggered a download of all the drivers/updates (one of which was an Intel Graphics driver). After this update everything was working as expected, except the Bluetooth driver which I then installed.
Phew! I managed to go from nothing working to a clean tablet!
Some Lessons for PC Vendors and Microsoft
One of the great things about the Windows eco-system is that of choice. When you choose to run Windows, you can choose which hardware you want to run it on and it comes in a variety of form factors with a multitude of different features.
However, all of these features aren’t worth anything if you load the base image for the PC up with loads of junk that is either truly useless, or just gets in the road of the native experience. As long as vendors keep doing that, people like me are going to continue to tear down the machine and reload a vanilla version of the operating system.
I can accept that if I am going to do that then I’m choosing to inflict some pain on myself, but at a minimum a tablet PC should have the following in-box driver support:
- Keyboard / Mouse
- Touch Screen
- Wireless LAN
Even if it is just rudimentary support out of the box with a subsequent Windows Update delivery to get it all up to the latest drivers. My installation experience would have been dramatically simpler if I had just had WiFi support.
I hope that moving forward Microsoft continues to put pressure on vendors not to mutilate the installation of Windows, and provide improved in-box driver support. After installation, detected hardware can have updated drivers delivered via an improved Windows Update experience which might (if we are lucky) lead to more Windows Store apps being installed which interact with those drivers through the app/driver bundling methods included in Windows.
Finally, I should say that the Acer Iconia W3-810 is a really nice device – thanks to Microsoft and Acer for giving them away at BUILD 2013. I’ve got a Google Nexus 7″ and it effectively replaces that for me.