For the last six months or so I have been using Windows Server 2008 R2 as my primary desktop OS. I recently acquired a new laptop of my own after not having had one for a while and was interesting to see the developments made in the recently released R2. Back in the early 2000’s, I ran Windows 2000 for a long time because I appreciated its speed and elegant presentation, in contrast to the fisher-price monstrosity that was XP. Windows Server 2003 was then released which had an updated kernel to that which shipped with XP making it slightly faster. I also liked the fact that it was minimalistic with only the necessary services enabled by default and allowed for more configuration than XP did.
I believe the situation was similar with R1 and Vista, with R1 being released slightly after and having a slightly improved kernel, none of the problems that were attributed to vista and substantially less cruft. For Windows 7 and R2 however, this is no longer true. Windows 7 and R2 were developed in unison from the same codebase. As such there are no technical improvements in R2 over 7, rather it is all a matter of configuration or functionality. In theory 7 is a far far better desktop operating system as you can make it just as slim and minimalistic as a server OS, while retaining its optimizations for games and desktop applications. Windows has matured a lot in the last few years.
Also missing from R2 is support for ReadyBoost and SuperFetch. Unlike with R1, support is removed completely and it is impossible to patch it in. This does not really concern me, as my laptop tends to stay on pretty much permanently except when I am on the move. Additionally Firefox and Games would not benefit from SuperFetch or ReadyBoost, so nothing is really lost. For people who do get a benefit from those technologies it might be worthwhile to stay with 7, or checkout R1 if a server OS is still desired. Another feature I quite like on the server versions of Windows is the advanced firewall. While not terribly advanced, it allows for simple rules to be created which is more than the deny or allow approach on the consumer OS’s. While it would seem there would not be much advantage to running R2 over 7 in general, the fact that I wanted to become more familiar with the AD and Hyper-V enhancements sealed the deal.
The first thing I did was go to www.win2008r2workstation.com. I remember an equivalent website existing for Windows Server 2003 which was quite useful, and the updated guide for R1 and R2 equally so. Much of the stuff is obvious such as turning of the shutdown tracker or enabling themes, however it was still quite nice to have a checklist with instructions. I highly recommend the site and forum for anyone interested in trying out a server OS as a desktop OS. Unfortunately there are a few idiots around who make claims such as we need 8GHz computers today and technology has not improved from 10 years ago and 32bit software is considerably less stable on a 64bit CPU. However this is expected from someone who use a server OS just to be different, doesn’t understand what managed code means or what a system exception is and doesn’t seem to understand the the concept of graphics drivers . Wow. Sigh. Anyway.
After getting the system setup and usable, I had to install my applications and drivers and such. I noticed when I was typing a lot that the cursor would randomly reposition, and I was unsure why. I found out that I needed to install the software from Synaptics (manufacturers of touchpads) which disables the cursor while typing. Much much better. I then had to use the Mobility Modder software to install updated drivers for my Radeon 3650, which went absolutely smoothly. I needed a media player and chose smplayer. I have long been a fan of the mplayer software, and smplayer is the only free media player I found that won’t crash when a UAC screen comes up, supports all codecs natively and is extremely configurable. Highly recommended.
One of the first changes I then made was to configure automatic updates to only notify me every 24 hours. Most of the updates are rather pointless and I don’t need to restart unless it was a critical security fix. Unfortunately I can’t turn off notifications entirely, only delay them for 24 hours at a time. To do so open gpedit.msc as an administrator and go to Computer Configuration > Administrative Templates > Windows Components > Windows Update and configure the Re-prompt for Restart with Scheduled Installations option.
My laptop is fairly new and all hardware seems to have been supported natively. I don’t own any Bluetooth devices to test and have heard of problems with Bluetooth on R2, so all I can say is that Bluetooth is recognized on my system. The built in webcam was detected automatically and works fine with MSN and such. My Authentec AES1610 fingerprint sensor was detected, but I have been unable to get software to work with it. I tried the TrueSuite software which recognizes the devices, but never saves any of the fingerprints asking me to scan again to infinity. The device was also annoyingly disconnecting and reconnecting making an annoying sound, which I solved by disabling the “Allow the computer to turn off this device to save power” option.
All my other applications have worked without a hitch. Firefox, Notepad++, Adboe CS4 Master Collection, MS Office, Daemon Tools…everything works flawlessly. What about games? I play a lot of games, and they have all worked without a hitch on R2. I did have to set MSN to run in Vista compatibility mode to stop it from pinning itself to the tasbar, and go back to the system tray where it belongs. Many games I tried were from a few years ago, as well as the most recent games. Fallout 3, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Aliens Vs Predator(2010), Prototype, Max Payne 2, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Doom 3, Stalker, Soldier of Fortune 2…they all worked perfectly without any intervention needed. Bioshock has been working mostly without a hitch, however I had to install Games for Windows and set it to run in Vista compatibility mode. The only game I absolutely could not get to run at all was Project IGI 2, which ran fine on Vista. I am 99.9% sure however this would not work on Windows 7 either. There is a great list games and their known status of working with R2 here.
A few things annoy me which I am sure can be fixed, but I have not bothered to do so yet. I have not been able to get Aero Peek to work for a normal user account, only for the Administrator account. I am sure it is a policy setting somewhere, but as I wouldn’t use it anyway I don’t really care. I also found it annoying that I could not disable grouping..I much preferred windows to be in the order they were opened in. I might prefer to have a FireFox windows with new, then a word document then a firefox windows with pages relevant to that word document. Instead, all FirefFox windows will be grouped followed by all word windows etc. Annoying, but not overly so. Lastly the new start menu annoyed me…however I am used to it now and since the old startbar is gone for good, I should get used to it. Despite these few things I can honestly say R2 is a rock solid operating system and is highly recommended. I love the extra configurability available through group policy, the increased focus on security and the minimalistic approach.
Obviously the main drawback for running a server OS as a desktop OS is the price, with the cheapest edition of a server OS being close to $600. The extra features and functionality do not justify this price…but if you can get a copy through work, university or any other means then it may be worthwhile. If nothing else it presents an opportunity to learn some new skills which is rarely a bad thing.
Links to software
- http://www.hardwareheaven.com/modtool.php – Download site for ATIMobilityModder
- http://downloads.sourceforge.net/smplayer/smplayer-0.6.9-win32-webdl.exe – SMPlayer. I had to revert to an earlier version of the mplayer.exe to get the direct3d driver working for transparency, however I am unsure if that is still necessary.
- http://drivers.synaptics.com/Synaptics_v14_0_3_C_XP64_Vista64_Win7-64_Signed_default.exe – The Synaptics software and driver
- http://win7beta.authentec.com/w7wbf64.exe – The beta version of TrueSuite software for Windows 7
Update 1 – October 6th 2010
Some further tips for running R2 as a desktop OS.
The nagger thing for rebooting after installing updates can not be disabled. Contrary to what I wrote above, I can find no group policy setting or combination of setting to stop being nagged every 4 hours. Some updates are mundane and I don’t need to reboot over them, and the 4 hour thing can really get on your nerves. Enter WindowsUpdateSilencer, available at http://download.cnet.com/WindowsUpdateSilencer/3000-2084_4-10968085.html. This nifty little program runs in the system tray until you are ready to restart, no annoying bag screens. It is sad that I have to rely on third party functionality in this case.
Secondly, I found a nice hack to have the sleep and hibernate options available in the start menu.
To do this, download the Application Verifier tool from the Microsoft website at http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/en/details.aspx?familyid=c4a25ab9-649d-4a1b-b4a7-c9d8b095df18&displaylang=en. Obviously, grab the 64bit version.
Now, add Explorer as an application, uncheck basics under tests, and then under Compatibility go to the properties for the HighVersionLie item. Set Product Type to 1, and voila, the sleep and hibernate options become easily accessible.
Update 2 – October 13th 2010
OK, So WindowsUpdateSilencer actually does not work. I’m not sure why it did, or maybe it was working but doesn’t work every time….I’m not sure. Either way, I have found the Postpone Restart tool, which actually does work. It basically clicks the postpone button for you. It is somewhat noticeable as the window will still popup briefly but it is nowhere near as much a distraction as having to keep manually postponing it.