Category Archives: windows

Microsoft announces the return of the Start menu to Windows 8 – again

Just announced at Microsoft’s Build conference in San Francisco: a new desktop Start menu:

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Note that this is not part of Windows 8.1 Update 1 (about to become available) but rather a future Windows 8.1 update. It will be free to all users.

The Start button was re-introduced in Windows 8.1, but only takes you to the Start screen. This new one runs entirely on the desktop.

Another key new feature in this future update is the ability to run universal Windows apps (which are Store apps) in a window on the desktop.

The plan to make Windows 8 a more compelling update for desktop users, and to promote Store apps to users who use keyboard and mouse and mainly desktop apps.

Thirty years of mainly not the Mac

It’s Mac anniversary time: 30 years since the first Macintosh (with 128K RAM) in 1984 – January 24th according to Wikipedia; Apple’s beautiful timeline is rather sketchy when it comes to details like actual dates or specs.

My first personal computer though was a hand-me-down Commodore PET 4032 with only 32K of RAM, which pre-dated the Mac by about 4 years (though not by the time I got hold of it).

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The PET was fun because it was small enough that you could learn almost everything there was to know about it though a book called The PET Revealed that listed every address and what it did. I had a word processor called Wordcraft that was excellent, provided you could live with only having one page in memory at a time; a spreadsheet called VisiCalc that was even better; and a database that was so bad that I forget its name. You could also play Space Invaders using a character-based screen; the missiles were double-dagger (ǂ)characters.

The small company that I was a little involved with at the time migrated to Macs almost as soon as they were available so I had some contact with them early on. The defining moment in my personal computer history though was when I needed to buy a new machine for a college course. What would it be?

If all the choices had cost the same, I would have purchased a Mac. My second choice, since this was a machine for work, would have been a PC clone. Both were expensive enough that I did not seriously consider them.

Instead, I bought a Jackintosh, sorry an Atari ST, with a mono 640 x 200 monitor and a second disk drive. It had the GEM graphical user interface, 512K RAM, a Motorola 68000 CPU, and built-in MIDI ports making it popular with musicians.

The ST exceeded expectations. Despite being mainly perceived as a games machine, there were some excellent applications. I settled on Protext and later That’s Write for word processing, Signum for desktop publishing, Logistix for spreadsheets, Superbase for database, the wonderful Notator for messing around with MIDI and music notation, and did some programming with GFA Basic and HiSoft C.

If I had had a Mac or PC, I would have benefited from a wider choice of business applications, but lost out on the gaming side (which I could not entirely resist). The ST had some quirks but most things could be achieved, and the effort was illuminating in the sense of learning how computers and software tick.

Despite the Mac-like UI of the Atari ST, my sense was that most Atari owners migrated to the PC, partly perhaps for cost reasons, and partly because of the PC’s culture of “do anything you want” which was more like that of the ST. The PC’s strength in business also made it a better choice in some areas, like database work.

I was also doing increasing amounts of IT journalism, and moving from ST Format to PC Format to Personal Computer World kept me mainly in the PC camp.

For many years though I have found it important to keep up with the Mac, as well as using it for testing, and have had a series of machines. I now have my desktop set up so I can switch easily between PC and Mac. I enjoy visiting it from time to time but I am not tempted to live there. It is no more productive for me than a PC, and Microsoft Office works better on a PC in my experience (no surprise) which is a factor. I miss some favourite utilities like Live Writer, dBpoweramp, and Foobar 2000.

That said, I recognise the advantages of the Mac for many users, in terms of usability, design, and fewer annoyances than Windows. Developers benefit from a UNIX-like operating system that works better with open source tools. There is still a price premium, but not to the extent there was when I picked an Atari ST instead.

Happy Anniversary Apple.

Results for Nokia’s last quarter with Windows Phone: slightly worse than flat? Over to you Microsoft

Nokia has released its fourth quarter results for 2013. They make odd reading because of the division into “Continuing operations” and “Discontinued operations”, the latter including the mobile phone business which has been acquired by Microsoft. This tends to cloud the key point of interest for some of us, which is how Windows Phone is faring in the market.

The answer seems to be that sales slightly declined, though it is not clear. Here is what we know.

Mobile phone revenue overall declined by 29% year on year and by 5% quarter on quarter, for the quarter ending December 2013.

Nokia states in its report:

The year-on-year decline in discontinued operations net sales in the fourth quarter 2013 was primarily due to lower Mobile Phones net sales and, to a lesser extent, lower Smart Devices net sales. Our Mobile Phones net sales were affected by competitive industry dynamics, including intense smartphone competition at increasingly lower price points and intense competition at the low end of our product portfolio. Our Smart Devices net sales were affected by competitive industry dynamics including the strong momentum of competing smartphone platforms, as well as our portfolio transition from Symbian products to Lumia products.

Disappointing; though in mitigation Lumia (ie Windows Phone) sales volume in 2013 overall is said to be double that in 2012.

We do know that much of Lumia’s success is thanks to the introduction of low-end devices such as the Lumia 520. That has been good for building market share, but not so good for app sales or mind share – on the assumption that that purchasers of high-end devices are more likely to spend on apps, and that aspirational devices have a greater influence on mind share than cheap ones.

That does mean though that units might have gone up even though revenue has fallen.

Still, the results do put a dampener on the theory that Windows Phone is taking off at last.

This is a moment of transition following the Microsoft acquisition. Microsoft has not got a good track record with acquisitions, and the Danger/Kin disaster is hard to forget, but Nokia comes with an influential executive (Stephen Elop) and common sense would suggest that the team which created excellent devices like the Lumia 1020, and which was able to engineer strong budget offerings like the 520, should be kept together as far as possible. Or will it be dragged into the mire of Microsoft’s notorious internal politics? Over to you Microsoft.

Update: it is now reported that Lumia sold 8.2m devices in Q4, down from 8.8m in Q3 but up from 4.4m in the same quarter 2012.

Something Microsoft has never fixed: why Windows is slow to start up

One of the most common complaints I hear about Windows is that it is slow to start up. Everything is fine when a machine is new (especially if it is a clean install or purchased from a Microsoft store, and therefore free from foistware), but as time goes on it gets slower and slower. Even a fast PC with lots of RAM does not fix it. Slow boot is one of many factors behind the drift away from PCs to tablets, and to some extent Macs.

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As far as I can tell, the main reason PCs become slow to start is one that has been around since DOS days. Some may recall fussing about TSR – Terminate and Stay Resident – applications that would run at startup and stay in memory, possibly causing other applications to fail. Windows today is generally stable, but it is applications that run at startup that cause your PC to start slowly, as well as having some impact on performance later.

I install lots of software for testing so I suffer from this myself. This morning I took a look at what is slowing down my desktop PC. You can view them easily in Windows 8, in Task Manager – Startup tab. A few of the culprits:

  • Adobe: too much stuff, including Service Manager for Creative Suite, Creative Cloud connection, Acrobat utilities
  • Intel Desktop utilities – monitors motherboard sensors
  • Intel Rapid Storage Technology – monitors on-board RAID
  • Sync applications including SkyDrive, Dropbox, SkyDrive Pro (Groove.exe)
  • Seagate Desktop, manage your Seagate NAS (network attached storage)
  • Google stuff: Google Music Manager, Google update, some Chrome updater
  • Plantronics headset updater
  • Realtek HD Audio Manager
  • Fitbit Connect client
  • SpotifyWebHelper
  • Microsoft Zune auto-launcher
  • Microsoft Lync, famously slow to start up and connect
  • Roccat Gaming mouse settings manager
  • Flexera “Common software manager” (InstallShield updater)

Many of these applications run in order to install a notification app – these are the things that run at bottom right, in the notification area of the taskbar. Some apps install their own schedulers, like the Seagate app which lets you schedule backup tasks. Some apps are there simply to check for updates and inform you of new versions.

You can speed up Windows startup by going through case by case and disabling startup items that you do not need. Here is a useful guide. It is an unsatisfactory business though. Users have no easy way to judge whether or not a specific app is doing an important or useful task. You might break something. When you next update the application, the startup app may reappear. It is a mess.

Microsoft should have addressed this problem aggressively, years ago. It did put great effort into making Windows boot faster, but never focussed on the harder task of bringing third-parties into line. A few points:

  • If Windows had a proper notification service, many of these apps would not need to exist. In Windows 8, it does, but that is little help since most applications need to support Windows 7 and even in many cases Windows XP.
  • The notification area should be reserved for high priority applications that need to make users aware of their status at all times. The network connection icon is a good case. Printer ink levels are a bad case, aside from reminding us of the iniquity of printer vendors selling tiny ink cartridges at profiteering prices. In all cases it should be easy to stop the notification app from running via a right-click preference. The Windows 7 idea of hiding the notification icons is counter-productive: it disguises the problem but does not fix it, therefore making it worse. I always set Windows to show all notifications.
  • Many tasks should be done on application startup, not on Windows startup. Then it is under the user’s control, and if the user never or rarely runs the application, no resources are grabbed. Why do I need to know about an update, if I am not running the application? Have the application check for updates each time it runs instead.
  • It is misguided to run a process on start-up in order to speed up the first launch of the application. It may not be needed.
  • If a background process is needed, such as for synchronisation services, why not use a Windows Service, which is designed for this?
  • Windows has a scheduler built in. It works. Why write your own?

Of course it is too late now for desktop Windows. Microsoft did rethink the matter for the “Metro” personality in Windows 8, which is one reason why Windows RT is such a pleasure to use. Apple does not allow apps to run on startup in iOS, though you can have apps respond to push notifications, and that strikes me as the best approach.

Update: I should mention a feature of Windows 8 called Fast Boot (I was reminded of this by a commenter – thanks Danny). Fast Boot does a hybrid shutdown and hibernation:

Essentially a Windows 8 shutdown consists of logging off all users and then hibernating.

This is almost another subject, though relevant. Microsoft has for years sought to address the problem of slow boot by designing Windows never to switch off. There are two basic approaches:

Sleep: the computer is still on, applications are in memory, but in a low power state with screen and hard drives off.

Hibernation: the computer writes the contents of its memory to disk storage, then powers off. On startup, it reads back the memory and resumes.

My own experience is that Sleep does not work reliably long-term. It sometimes works, but sooner or later it will fail to resume and you may lose data. Another issue on portables is that the “low-power state” is not as low power as it should be, and your battery drains. These factors have persuaded me to shut down rather than sleep.

My experience of hibernation is better, though not perfect. It usually works, but occasionally fails and again you lose data.

Fast boot is a clever solution that works for some, but it is a workaround that does not address the real issue which I have outlined above: third-party and Microsoft applications that insist on automatic start-up.

Toshiba ships DVD media with laptop without DVD drive

One day you will be able to buy a Windows device and have a smooth and delightful experience getting started.

To be fair, something like a Surface tablet can give offer a reasonable experience if you are lucky.

Not so a Toshiba Portege Z930 ultrabook – at least, not if you buy one with Windows 7 pre-installed, and want to run Windows 8, as a contact of mine has just done.

Why would you not buy one with Windows 8 pre-installed instead? With hindsight, that is what I would recommend; but since it says on the box, “This system is pre-installed with Windows 7 Pro software and also comes with a license and media for Windows 8 Pro software,” he did not think it much mattered.

The problem: The Z930 has no optical drive, but Windows 8 is supplied in the form of two recovery DVDs.

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I thought that was pretty silly, but luckily I know all the tricks about creating a bootable USB drive from a DVD. I even spotted the note in the box that instructs you to go into the BIOS and change it from CSM Boot to UEFI Boot.

No go. It would not boot from the USB drive in UEFI mode, and in CSM mode (which is also meant to work for Windows 8, with a few limitations) it boots, starts a Toshiba recovery wizard, and then bombs out.

I spoke to support. The first thing they told me, unprompted, was to make Windows 7 recovery disks, since not everyone likes Windows 8.

Next, the support guy was surprised that a model without a DVD drive ships with DVDs. Had the machine been tampered with? Then he looked it up, and admitted that they are all like that.

After a little more investigation, he said there is no way it will work from a bootable USB drive, because it is coded to look for the DVD. The only way is to buy an external DVD drive and attach it via USB.

The behaviour began to make sense to me. The scripts must be hard-coded to look on the optical drive for the files. I’d guess you can fix it by modifying the scripts if you know where to look, but life is too short and I went out and bought a DVD drive.

Smooth after that? Not brilliant. Recover Windows 8, go to Store for Windows 8.1, remember that you have to apply updates before it appears, apply 80 Windows updates, remove McAfee trialware and a few other unwanted applications, back to Store, do large Windows 8.1 download, and done.

In an era where usability is king, it is remarkable that Toshiba thinks that shipping DVDs with a computer that cannot read them is a smart thing to do. That said, I have a few more observations.

  • If you got a product key for Windows 8 and could download the media from Microsoft, that would work. But OEM Windows 8 is now pre-pidded so you don’t get a key.
  • If Microsoft were not still making so much money from businesses paying for Windows licenses, it could give Windows away and offer users a more Apple-like upgrade experience.
  • If Microsoft had not come out with a Windows upgrade which many of its customers do not like, companies like Toshiba would not be selling so many laptops with Windows 7 pre-installed.

As for the Z930, it is a lovely light, fast laptop if you do not need touch. But when will Windows OEMs, and to some extent Microsoft itself, learn the importance of out-of-the-box user experience?

First thoughts on Xbox One: difficult to recommend right now

I received an Xbox One on launch day last week.

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I ordered this because I am interested in tracking Microsoft, and because I have had a lot of fun from the Xbox 360 and its predecessor, the original Xbox.

In the box you get the console, power brick, the new Kinect sensor, a single controller, a headset, and several leaflets including a pointless Day One “achievement” and a code to download FIFA 14.

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Setup is a matter of connecting an HDMI cable to your TV or, in my case, a receiver, and the Kinect to its special port. I also connected an ethernet cable.

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Finally I connected a digital TV PVR to the HDMI in. This enables the TV app on the Xbox One.

First impressions of the hardware are good. It looks elegant and feels well made. The controller is lovely to hold. The Kinect looks solid and sits comfortably in front of our TV.

I looked in vain for any specifications in the box. From other sources I believe the Xbox One has:

  • AMD chipset with 8 CPU cores at 1.75 GHz and 8GB DDR3 RAM
  • 500 GB hard drive
  • AMD GPU with 768 cores supporting up to 3840×2160 (2160p) graphics.
  • Blu-ray drive
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • 802.11n wifi
  • HDMI out, HDMI in, 2 USB 3.0 ports, S/P DIF optical audio out.
  • 7.1 surround sound

First impressions of the software are so-so. It began by downloading a firmware update, which went quickly enough. However that was just the start. The Xbox One dashboard uses an app model; almost everything is an app. Each app has to be downloaded and installed, including the Blu-ray player, Xbox Music, Skype and so on. Even the system settings is an app.

I made the mistake of registering my free download of FIFA 14 as one of the first things I did. The download is huge, and while it proceeded most of the other functionality showed as “Queuing”.

I expected to be wowed by some gorgeous effects in the new dashboard, but in fact the design is rather pedestrian. It is a tiled user interface but not quite the same as Windows 8. The dashboard features a larger tile which represents the currently selected app. This may be a live preview in some cases, TV for example. You can select this to run full screen, or you can have a snap view which shows a secondary app running alongside.

The dashboard overall feels rather spartan, especially to begin with when nothing much has been downloaded.

All of this contributed to an overall out of box experience of “is that it?”

I remember unpacking the original Nintendo Wii, running the Sports game, and having an amazing time. By contrast getting started with Xbox One was rather drab.

There is a video store where you can buy or rent downloads. I tried a few previews which show in extremely poor quality, which I trust bears no comparison to what you get if you actually pay. It beats me why you would show worse-than-VHS previews of movies when trying to tempt people into paying for a download.

There there is Kinect. I have mixed feelings. First, it really is amazing. It feels like a huge step forward from the original Kinect. I downloaded Kinect Sports Rivals preview, which lets you ride a water racer where you clench your fist to accelerate and move invisible handlebars to steer. It works perfectly even when you are seated. Technically that is a huge achievement.

At the same time I have to say that I would rather use a controller. Are we ever going to get equally precise control with motion sensors, compared to what you get with a controller? If it is a bowling game, motion sensors do make sense, but for controlling a water racer I am not so sure.

I am looking forward to trying the fitness app, but currently I a get a log-in failure with a message “unable to connect to token service”. It could be a firewall issue. Annoying.

Voice control is another big feature. Again, I have mixed feelings. It works for the most part very well. You say “Xbox select” and available options show in green text on the screen.

The main problem I have with the voice control is lack of consistency. I am willing to invest the time getting good at voice control, but only if I can do nearly everything with it. Unfortunately many apps are not voice enabled. So you can start the YouTube app with voice, for example, but not search within it.

I also worry that voice control will be a liability in some scenarios. Such fun to enter a room full of intense gamers and say “Xbox Go Home”.

It is getting there though, and worth some effort just to be able to go into a room, say “Xbox play Miles Davis” and have it be so.

That brings me to Xbox Music. It seems pretty good for streaming from Microsoft’s service, but not for much else. In my case I have a huge library of music ripped from CD and would like to be able to play it on the Xbox One. Rumour said that there would be support for DLNA streaming but I cannot see any sign of it.

FIFA 2014 looks good though football games are not so much my thing. I do miss having a little leaflet with a quick guide to the controls; a downside of download games.

There are not many games available and some are extraordinarily expensive, £68.99 for Dead Rising Deluxe Edition for example.

The YouTube app is nicely done and a good way to while away time, lack of voice search aside.

There are occasional Windows-like annoyances. You start the console, it says “Hello Tim” and you think you are signed in. You open Xbox Music and it says you must sign in. You select to sign in and you get another screen saying you should sign in. Then you sign in and it works.

There is a lot more Windows in Xbox One than in its predecessor. The SkyDrive app lets you view your uploaded photos which is handy. Internet Explorer is there and works reasonably with voice control, but lack of Flash is a big problem given that multimedia is important in the kind of web browsing you are likely to do on a TV.

So what do I think? On the plus side, the hardware seems excellent. I like the new controller. I like the Blu-ray support. I like the YouTube app.

The sad thing though is that as of now an Xbox 360 is a lot more fun, with its rich array of available games, and mature dashboard and apps.

Lack of any backward compatibility is a disaster at this point in the new console’s lifecycle. It is also disappointing that you cannot yet install Windows 8 apps, which would have instantly provided an array of reasonably priced casual games.

Populate XBox One with some strong games and apps, give the dashboard a bit more polish, and it could be really good. As it stands though, I find this hard to recommend. This is a long-term worry, since it gives the competition a head start from which the One may never recover.

Microsoft also needs to be a little less greedy in terms of pushing its subscription services and give us more fun out of the box.

Kinect is the major differentiator, and we will have to watch this space. The technology is amazing but where are the stunning and delightful games or apps that take advantage of it? Whether or not these will arrive is a big unknown.

Microsoft Surface 2: still a hard sell at retail

I am a fan of Microsoft’s Surface 2; but looking at the display at Dixons in Heathrow’s Terminal 3 it is obvious that Microsoft has work to do in terms of retail presence.

There are no clues here as to why anyone might want to buy a Surface, and no indication that Surface 2 runs anything other than standard Windows 8, other than the two letters RT which you can read on the spec summary.

Windows RT is both better and worse than Windows on Intel. It is worse because you cannot install new desktop applications, but it is better because it is locked down and less likely to suffer from viruses or annoying OEM add-ons and customisations that usually result in a worse user experience.

Why did Microsoft not come up with a distinctive brand name for RT, such as AppWindows or StoreWindows or WinBook? I am open to negotiation should Microsoft wish to use one of my brand ideas :-)

Surface 2 has excellent performance, Microsoft Office is bundled including Outlook (though without the ability to run Visual Basic macros), and it is expandable using Micro SD cards or USB 3.0 devices, all features I miss when using an Apple iPad.

I do use the desktop a lot on Surface 2. Simple applications like Paint and Notepad are useful especially since they have, you know, cool resizable and overlapping windows so you can have multiple applications on view.

The Apple iPad is better displayed and I am sure its greater prominence is more than justified by relative sales.

 

Asus Transformer Book Trio combines Windows and Android – but what is it for?

Microsoft has one idea about how to combine desktop Windows with a tablet OS: mash them together into a single operating system and call it Windows 8.

Asus has another idea. Put Windows in the keyboard dock, Android in the tablet, and allow the tablet to be docket to form a Windows or Android laptop.

This is the Transformer Book Trio, just launched and on sale from 11 November 2013 at £899.99.

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All my instincts say this a terrible idea. Let Windows be Windows and Android Android, do not try to combine them.

Trying the machine though I found it was good fun. Just press the little Android button and it switches.

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and it becomes an Android laptop:

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The dock mechanism is a bit ugly but looks robust:

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There is the question still: what will you do with the keyboard when not in use? In a home context that is not a problem, but when on the road I find the most convenient place to keep a detachable keyboard is to attach it, making it more of a laptop than a tablet in practice.

Having two computers in one gives you a few options, which I did not have time to explore in detail. As I understand it, you can share storage in order to open a document prepared in Windows on Android, for example, and with two batteries there is scope for charging one from the other.

This is two separate computers though. It should really be called Duo, but Asus calls it Trio on the grounds that you can use it as a laptop or a desktop machine, with an external display.

The PC runs an Intel Core i5 4200U, and has 4GB RAM and 500GB hard drive. The display is 1920 x 1080 and supports capacitive 10-point multi-touch. Connectivity includes 802.11ac (dual-band) wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0, 2 USB 3.0 ports, Mini DisplayPort, and Micro-HDMI 1.4.

The tablet has an Intel Atom Z2560 with 2GB RAM and 16GB storage. Connectivity includes   802.11n (2.4GHz), Bluetooth 3.0, Micro-USB 2.0, microSD card slot.

Fun then; but what is the use case for this machine? This is where I am still having difficulty. It is somewhat expensive (though with a Core i5 performance is decent), and I have a hunch that users will end up sticking with one or the other OS most of the time – probably Windows given the price.

Oddly, it would make more sense to me to have a high-end Android device with the ability to run Windows when needed. This would address the case where a user wants to migrate to Android but occasionally needs a Windows app.

Brief hands on with new Asus Windows 8.1 T100 tablet – or should that be netbook?

Asus has launched two new tablets in the UK.

This one is the 10.1″ T100 has an Intel Atom “Bay Trail” Z3740 quad-core processor. The display is 1366 x 768 and supports capacitive multi-touch.

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You press a release button under the display to detach it from the keyboard, whereupon it becomes a tablet. This approach, it is now generally agreed, is better than a screen which twists over, since it gives you a reasonably thin and lightweight (550g) tablet rather one that is bulky and odd to hold. However, there is still the question of what you are going to do with the keyboard once detached, and I have a suspicion that these machines are likely to be almost permanently attached to the keyboard making them similar to netbooks.

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Microsoft’s Surface overcomes this to some extent, especially with the Touch keyboard cover that folds underneath and adds little weight or bulk.

On the other hand, the T100 strikes me as good value at £349.99 (which includes the keyboard dock), especially bearing in mind that Office Home and Student is bundled (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, but no Outlook).

The T100 comes with 2GB RAM and 32GB eMMC storage. Connectivity includes Bluetooth 4.0, Micro-USB, Micro-HDMI, MicroSD slot, and a USB 3.0 port in the docking keyboard.

I tried the T100 briefly. I was impressed with the performance; Word and Excel opened quickly and overall it feels quick and responsive. I did not like the keyboard much; it felt slightly spongy, but at this price a few weaknesses can be forgiven.

The tablet Windows key is not under the screen as with most Windows 8 tablets, but a button on the side. What looks like the Windows key in the above snap is inactive, and that logo will not show on the production units.

What to do if SkyDrive disappears from Windows 8.1 Explorer?

Here is the scenario. You are working away in Windows 8.1 and want to save a document to SkyDrive. You look for the SkyDrive link in Windows Explorer but it is not there.

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Don’t panic; your documents are most likely fine and you can get to them in the web browser via http://skydrive.live.com

Still, that is inconvenient. How can you restore the Explorer link, other than by rebooting and hoping it reappears?

The solution is to open a command prompt (press Start button and type command) and then type:

%systemdrive%\windows\system32\skydrive.exe

and press Enter. You don’t need to run the command prompt with administrator rights.

All going well, SkyDrive will reappear:

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What if it doesn’t? Now you have to check the logs or event viewer and look for specific errors. But the simple technique described first has always worked for me.