This month, I can thankfully report that my search for a great, 64-bit Windows Vista laptop is over; that apparently the entire world found it at the same time that I did; and that it's possible to configure such a system. The system is the Lenovo T61P. I gave it a try after hearing good things about it from several clients. What clinched it was a bit of advice from a member of Microsoft's Hyper-V team that, if I intended to do Hyper-V, then the Lenovo was the way to go. (Readers and members of my online forum have also told me that Dell and HP's 64-bit "mobile workstation" systems – XPS for Dell, the 8000 series for HP – work well with 64-bit Vista and can accommodate 4GBs of RAM. Plus, Vista can use all of that 4GBs, and I mean actually use it, rather than simply reporting 4GBs and using fewer (as I reported last month that Vista currently does under SP1). In short: The T61P runs Hyper-V like a charm, gives me access to all of the 8GBs of RAM that I've installed in it, and runs quickly enough that it'd be hard to complain that "Vista is too slow."
When I purchased the T61P, I wiped its disk clean and installed the retail version of Vista Ultimate 64, which got me thinking about how to install Vista so that it could support the T61P's specific hardware without bringing along all of the largely superfluous applications that come with hardware. For example, I have a Dell 1320 color laser printer that is fast, reliable, and reasonably priced… but I hate installing drivers for it. Pop the driver CD-ROM that comes with it into your computer, and you don't just get a driver. Oh no – you get a utility that simplifies buying supplies for the printer, other utilities to show you toner levels, and so forth. I mean, it's a good printer, but heck, I'm not looking for a relationship, just a driver. Furthermore, I knew I'd be configuring a few other T61Ps – some friends were looking for The Perfect Laptop, and I agreed to help put their systems together – so I thought I'd use this opportunity to try out Vista and Server 2008's notion of a "driver store."
Device Installation Made Simple
Now, if you're not an IT pro, then just stop reading -- this will bore you to death. But for those of us who make computers work, this is really neat. What happens when you pop some new hardware into a PCI slot (Express or otherwise), a USB connector, a FireWire jack, or the like? Well, simplified, there's a bit of hardware in the system that asks the new hardware, "What's your Plug and Play ID (PnPID)?" PnPIDs look like long text strings, such as "USBSTOR\DiskUDMA-CF_ExpressCard_Rdr.2.23," which is the PnPID for the doodad that sucks pictures off my Compact Flash (CF) cards into my computer at amazing speeds. (It's a CF reader that's an ExpressCard/54 reader, which is amazingly fast. There are several on the market and, if you're a photographer who uses CF cards and who has a system with an ExpressCard slot, just buy one – trust me.) Once my CF card reader has responded "USBSTOR\DiskUDMA-CF_ExpressCard_Rdr.2.23" to my laptop, the laptop then looks at all of the drivers that it knows about to see whether any of those drivers know how to handle a "USBSTOR\DiskUDMA-CF_ExpressCard_Rdr.2.23" device and, assuming that it has such a driver, it then uses that driver to communicate with the CF reader.
What I've just described has been true since Windows 95. What's different about Vista and Server 2008 is that you can tell a system, "You've never heard about such-and-such PnPID and its corresponding device, but let me give you a driver now and on the off-chance that you ever run into this PnPID, here's a driver." The geeky phrase in Vista/Server 2008-ese for this is called pre-populating the Driver Store. So here's the neat part: Vista/Server 2008 has a new program called Pnputil that lets you create a downright population explosion in your Driver Store.
In brief, here's how it works. First, collect the drivers that you'll need for some device. Drivers (when not accompanied by friendly but unnecessary add-on applications) consist of just two files: an INF file, which is a text file that says, "When you see such-and-such PnPID, go over here and run this program called something.sys," and the something.sys, which is the actual device driver. So I took a guinea pig system and installed all of the vendor clutter – drivers, applications, and all. Then I removed any folders that didn't have INFs and SYS files in it. With that done, I collected all of the INF/SYS pairs and put them on a storage device. (They don't take up much space without the other stuff.). Next, all I've got to do is pop the CD/DVD/USB stick into my vanilla-built-Ultimate system, and figure out which drive that represents. (Let's call it F: for this example.) Then I open an elevated command prompt and type
pnputil –i –a f:
It'll take a little while, but once done, your system is "injected" with the wealth of drivers that you've put on the CD/DVD/USB stick. Give it a try and, heck, you might not hate Vista so much!