Monthly Archives: March 2012

The incredible moving cursor: why your cursor jumps around when typing on your Windows 7 laptop

Here is the problem: you are typing on your laptop and suddenly the input cursor jumps to a different place and you are typing somewhere in a previous paragraph.

It is infuriating and there are long threads on the subject on Microsoft Answers here and here, for example.

I have just been speaking to a user with exactly this problem. The clue: he had recently created a new profile, which resets your Windows user settings to the default.

The answer was simple. Laptops have touchpads or trackpads which have a feature called tapping. Just tap with the finger and it registers a mouse click. Double tap and it registers a double-click.

Nice idea, but it is a vile feature for some – possibly most – users since it is so easy to trigger accidentally. Anything might happen: emails sent by mistake, documents closed, buttons clicked, and so on. It is as if your computer is being remote controlled by a malevolent third party, especially if you have a slight tremor for any reason.

Fortunately you can disable the setting, but it is among the most buried in Windows. The instructions on my Toshiba are as follows:

Go to Control Panel, Mouse, Change Mouse Settings, Advanced tab, click Advanced Feature Settings, then click Settings under Detailed Settings for Touch Pad operations, then uncheck Enable Tapping.

The path may be different for you, particularly if you have a different brand of touchpad. The above is for a Synaptics; Alps has different dialogs, for example. Poke around in mouse settings until you find it.

The setting “Disable tapping while typing” is not sufficient for some reason.

Why does this make your cursor jump, even if you do not use your touchpad? It is the vibration from your typing that is enough to trigger a tap on some machines, registering a “click” wherever the pointer happens to be (and the pointer is usually hidden when typing, making this appear even more mysterious).

The question which puzzles me is why this annoying feature is enabled by default, when it should be disabled, and second, why it is so hard to find the setting, when it is something that many people need?

I imagine this single feature has driven some users to the Mac. Most users never discover the fix, but just have the impression that Windows is buggy.

Whoosh! Review: Samsung 830 series SSD kit

Is it worth replacing your laptop’s hard drive with a solid state drive instead? If you can put up with a few limitations (and perhaps a smaller drive) then it probably is. SSD is faster than a spinning disk, and you will notice this in the form of faster boot, faster application loading, and a snappier system in general. Battery life may improve too.

This review covers the Samsung 830 series 128GB SSD, specifically the laptop installation kit which contains all you need (except the screwdriver).

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Laptop drives are usually easy to replace physically, but migrating your operating system can be tricky. Samsung seems to be making an effort to simplify this, though it could do better. The essentials are here though, particularly a very handy cable that lets you connect your new SSD as an external USB drive. This means you can image your existing drive to the SSD, then replace the drive and boot as normal. The package also includes two CDs, one for Norton Ghost and the other for some utilities and documentation. Finally there is a short printed manual and of course the drive itself. Since it is thinner than a hard drive, a spacer is supplied which bulks it out to the size of a standard 2.5” drive if necessary.

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The laptop I picked for this test is a Dell running Windows 7 64-bit. It has a 160GB 7200 rpm Seagate drive – typical of a laptop which is a few years old.

Curiously, although all the kit is supplied to migrate from your existing hard drive, there is a note in the instruction leaflet that says “Samsung recommends that you do a fresh OS install to ensure an optimal operating environment for your new SSD”. Good advice, except that laptops usually do not come with Windows install media, and if they do it is recovery media with recreates the original install, which is not quite the same as a fresh install. Another problem with a fresh install is the time-consuming job of reinstalling your applications. There are many advantages to migration rather than clean install, even if the final result is not optimal. You can also tweak an existing Windows install for SSD so it is not that bad.

A problem with this kit is that although it does have all you need, it lacks a simple step by step guide. That is not for want of trying; someone has worked hard on the interactive manual on one of the CDs. Even so, with a printed manual that covers both desktop and laptop versions of the kit, two CDs, Samsung’s Magician utility as well as Norton Ghost, it ends up being a confusing bundle.

Most laptops only have one drive, and you may well find that there is more data on your current drive than there is space on the new SSD. I recall a note somewhere that advises you to delete unimportant data to make space. Alternatively, you could get Samsung’s 256GB kit for around twice the price. On a desktop, you would likely use an SSD drive for booting and for the operating system, but conventional hard drives for data.

Norton Ghost is not my favourite disk utility. It is a backup tool as well as a drive cloning utility, and has a rather complex and intrusive install. An alternative is to use the backup and restore built into Windows 7, which would work fine for this although you will need an additional external drive as well as a Windows restore CD or bootable USB device. There are also leaner tools such as Drive Snapshot which work well.

Still, for this review I decided to use the tools in the bundle and installed Norton Ghost. The Ghost install flashed many command prompts at me and then hung for ages doing apparently nothing. I gave up, tried to cancel the installation without success, and rebooted to find that the install had apparently succeeded. I did not trust it so did a repair install which did complete, giving me reasonable confidence that I had Ghost installed OK.

If you go the Ghost route, you should read the document called NortonGhost_Data_Migration_User_Manual_(English).pdf which is in the MagicianSoftware folder on the Samsung Magician CD. The main issue is that Windows 7 creates a hidden system partition which you need to copy to the SSD *first*, otherwise Windows 7 will not boot.

I then attached the SSD drive with the supplied USB cable and ran Ghost to copy the partitions. It took around two hours for my 100GB of data.

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I then switched the drive with the hard drive installed in the laptop. This was pretty easy, though I did need the supplied spacer in order to press the hard drive close enough to the case for the stubby screws to bite.

Booted up, and Windows warned that it had not been shut down properly. I chose a Normal start, Windows detected the new drive, reconfigured itself, and requested a further restart. That was it.

Well, not quite. I ran Outlook which decided it had to recreate its offline cached mailbox completely. Mine is huge so that took a while.

I also used the Samsung Magician utility to optimize Windows for an SSD install.

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This utility tweaks a few settings, such as disabling Super Fetch. It also recommends disabling the Windows indexing service. The idea is to reduce the number of disk writes, bearing in mind that SSDs gradually wear and their capacity reduces as data is deleted and written.

There are other Windows tweaks you can make to optimize for SSD. Tom’s hardware has a handy list here. Note that there are trade-offs. Disabling the indexing service may be a good idea for the SSD, but can be inconvenient, particularly if you use Outlook whose search depends on it. Disabling System Restore means you lose its benefit if something in Windows gets corrupted and will have to resort to other restore methods.

Was it worth it? Here are the PassMark before and after results:

  Old 7200 RPM HD New SSD Drive
Disk Mark 234.7 2186.9
Sequential Read 31.4 241.2
Sequential Write 31.2 205.4
Random Seek + RW 2.31 158.2

and here are the results of the PassMark advanced drive test, showing that disk speed improved from 3.7 MB/Sec to 34.8 MB/Sec:

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A glance tells you all you need to know: the SSD is much faster. The Disk Mark improves by 931%.

In use the laptop feels like a new machine; everything happens faster than before. It is worth the hassle.

    

Nokia gradually fixing Lumia 800, battery life much improved

Nokia has rolled out several updates to its Lumia 800 Windows Phone. The latest is version 1600.2487.8107.12070, which for many users has greatly improved battery life, probably the biggest problem with the phone.

Whether you have this update pushed to you automatically depends on operators, region and who knows what. I followed the unofficial instructions here in order to get the update early and it worked fine for me; but try this at your own risk.

In my case battery life improved from needing to charge daily to running for several days with light use. Results do vary though. You can see how you are doing by running the Nokia diagnostics app and checking battery status.

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Check the figure for Discharging. If it is 70 mA or less you are doing well. If it is up at 140 mA or higher your phone will not last long on a full charge. Note that for some reason the screen capture utility I use bumped up the battery drain, which on my Lumia hovers around 74 mA since the update.

Some have found that disabling 3G in the “Highest connection speed” setting, under Mobile network substantially extends battery life. Worth a try if you care more about battery life than getting the highest data speeds.

Of course users should not be having these kinds of problems; but despite some hassles – the will not turn on issue is the worst for me but I hope is now fixed – I like the phone increasingly. The feel of the device in your hands is excellent, it is responsive, email works well with Exchange, and the Nokia Drive turn-by-turn directions are proving useful, to mention a few things.

There are still a few annoying bugs. The camera is not as good as it should be, bearing in mind Nokia’s boasting about the Carl Zeiss lens, and a future update may improve the colour balance. There is a volume bug introduced in the latest update, that blasts your ears if a call comes in and your volume is set below 14.

App availability is still limited on Windows Phone. I would like to see a Dropbox client, for example.

Nevertheless, Nokia has created an excellent smartphone and seems to be serious about maintaining and improving it.

The meta-story here is that Microsoft’s success depends on the commitment of its hardware partners. Although Windows Phone was available from others such as HTC and Samsung, who no doubt made a substantial investment, those companies are more committed to Android and that shows in the quality of the devices and the way they are marketed.

Will this story repeat when it comes to Windows 8 tablets, particularly on ARM, which to my mind is the critical platform here?

Just three Windows 8 on ARM tablets at launch? Not good for Microsoft

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Bloomberg reports unknown sources stating that only three Windows on ARM (WOA) tablets will be available at launch:

There will be fewer ARM-based devices in the rollout because Microsoft has tightly controlled the number and set rigorous quality-control standards, said one of the people. The new version of Windows will be the first to use ARM processors, which are most commonly found in smartphones. Windows 7, the current version, only works with Intel’s technology. Three of the Windows 8 ARM devices will be tablets, the people said.

This may be nonsense but I can see this playing out badly for Microsoft. I am making several assumptions here:

1. The design of Windows 8 is all about tablets. If it fails on tablets, then it has failed.

2. Windows 8 Intel tablets will not compete with the Apple iPad and will probably not do well. The main reason is the old one: Windows desktop is mostly unusable with touch alone. I mean, you can get it to work but it is not much fun, and that will not change.  Supplementary reasons are that Intel CPUs are less efficient than ARM which means shorter battery life, and that traditional Windows applications expect lots of disk space and RAM, and that OEMs will want to pre-install anti-malware and other foistware, and repeat the mistakes of the past that are driving users with relief towards iPads.

I can also imagine Windows 8 Intel tablets being sold with add-on styluses and keyboards that are necessary to operate desktop applications, but a nuisance in all sorts of ways.

3. Windows on ARM has more potential to be a compelling iPad alternative. Metro-style apps are designed for tablets and will work well with touch alone. ARM devices may be lightweight and with long battery life. The locked-down Windows Store is some protection against excessive OEM interference. With Microsoft Office compatibility thrown in, these might appeal to a business user who would otherwise buy an iPad.

Despite the above, my guess is that Microsoft’s OEM partners will instinctively put most of their effort into Windows 8 on Intel tablets, because that it the way it has always been, and because of an assumption that someone buying a Windows 8 device will want to run Windows applications, and not just Metro-style apps.

The problem is that such people will try Windows 8 on Intel tablets, hate them because of the reasons in (2) above, and end up buying iPads anyway.

The counter argument? That Apple conquered the tablet market with just one model, so perhaps three is more than enough.

Why your new 2TB or 3TB drive will not work with Windows Backup

When Windows Vista and Server 2008 were released, Microsoft turned its back on tape backup. The built-in backup utility only backs up to hard drives. Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 continue this policy. The recommended strategy for Small Business Server 2008 and 2011, for example, is to have a bunch of external USB drives and to use them in rotation.

Windows Server Backup, and its command-line version wbadmin, work well enough, but users with growing storage requirements have been buying larger external drives. That seems fine: external USB drives with 2TB and 3TB capacities are now commonplace. Except that they often run into problems when used with Windows Server Backup. You might see error 2155348010 or 0x8078002A, or “The request could not be performed because of an I/O device error”, or some other error.

The reason is that most of these large drives have a 4K sector size, rather than the older 512 byte sector size. You can get a patch for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 that fixes most problems, but it does not fix the backup issue.

The further reason is that Windows Server Backup uses VHD virtual drives as its file format. The VHD format presumes the use of 512byte sectors, and the drivers that read and write data are optimised for this. You cannot create or mount VHDs on a disk with 4K sectors.

Microsoft has more information here and here.

Some drives have a firmware option to emulate 512byte sectors. These drives work, but with a performance penalty. Western Digital is one such, and you have a WD drive you may be in luck. See this post for details.

What is disappointing here is that these drives are mostly sold without any warning about these compatibility issues. The drive vendors will say that Microsoft should update its backup software; this is correct, but since the problem seems to be inherent to the VHD format it is not trivial to do so.

Another problem is that discovering whether or not the drive you are about to buy has a 4K sector size is not easy. Once purchased, you can find out by attaching the drive. opening an administrative command prompt, and running:

fsutil fsinfo ntfsinfo x:

where x is the drive letter of the target drive. This will show the sector size, and may even include the words “Not supported” in the output.

Windows Server 8 introduces the .VHDX format which both supports larger drives, and also fixes the issues with 4K sector sizes.

 

Backup and file history in Windows 8 Consumer Preview: a million options to confuse you

How is backup in Windows 8? Does it have online backup? Do files sync to SkyDrive like Apple’s iCloud?

Reasonable questions. I had a poke around in Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Search for Backup in the Start menu:

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Not that then. Search in Control Panel:

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More promising. So what is File History, is that the essence of Backup in Windows 8?

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The essentials seem to be: File History is off by default. If Windows finds a drive other than the system drive, it will propose it for File History as above, otherwise it invites you to connect an external drive. Here are the Advanced settings:

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You had better make sure that everything you want to save is in a library, because while there is also an Exclude folders option, I cannot see an Include folders option.

But File History is not, to my mind, backup. It will not recover your system or your applications. Oddly, if you want to see all the backup options, do not search for backup; search for recovery.

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This is where things get strange. Go into Windows 7 File Recovery, which sounds like some legacy thing, and there is the old backup – yes, it does backup as well as recovery:

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Note that from here I can also create a system image or a repair disc.

Alternatively there is the new Recovery feature:

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Reset seems clear enough: a clean install, or at least, restoration of the OEM install that came when your PC was new.

Refresh though is more opaque. What exactly happens if you click Refresh?

Refreshing your PC reinstalls Windows and keeps your personal files, settings, and any apps that came with your PC and apps that you installed from Windows Store.

It seems to me that Refresh is essentially a Reset followed by restoration of Windows Store apps, settings, and your files as defined by Windows, probably the same as in File History but who knows? If you have a folder in your C drive called “Important stuff”, my guess is that neither File History nor Refresh will pay it any regard. Don’t do that.

The disappointment of Refresh is that it does not preserve other application installs, you know, like AutoCAD, Photoshop, that custom business app written in VB6 and somehow persuaded to work, and so on. Refresh could be less than refreshing for some users.

Advanced tools includes an option to create a recovery drive. It is not clear to me though what gets included here. On my system I was invited to insert a USB flash drive with at least 256MB capacity, which suggests that not much gets recovered.

Finally, I mentioned SkyDrive and online backup.

There is an online backup service built into Windows Server 8, but which is only available to test if you are in the USA. Might this also be offered to Windows 8 client users? It seems to me possible, but I cannot see it in the Consumer Preview.

What about SkyDrive? Microsoft is promising some strong SkyDrive integration, which will let you:

  • Open and save documents direct to SkyDrive in Metro
  • Have a SkyDrive folder in Windows Explorer
  • Get files from your PC remotely via SkyDrive.com

All good stuff; but I cannot see the desktop SkyDrive app in Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Details are here, where Microsoft’s Mike Torres says:

we aren’t talking about availability right now – but it won’t be available this week.

where “this week” means Consumer Preview week.

I have the Metro SkyDrive app on a Windows 8 slate that is not domain-joined. On my desktop PC, I domain-joined the Windows 8 install. Tried to run SkyDrive and got this:

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Hmm. Does that mean not using a domain-joined PC? I went to Users as instructed. There is no “Switch to a Microsoft account” option, but there is an option to “Connect your domain account to your Microsoft account to sync PC settings”:

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Hang on a moment. What, exactly, does this do? In particular, what does that last option, “Sign-in info”, mean? That if someone hacks my Live ID they have my domain login too?

How are app settings synced if I have different apps installed? What about different versions of the same app, or is this just Metro apps that can be presumed to be kept updated? What about PCs with different hardware that needs different settings, say Aero enabled on one but not another?

Again, reasonable questions, but don’t bother pressing F1. Nothing will happen.

Conclusion? If you want to backup your files or your system in Windows 8, you are in luck; there are a million options. I do not think you can call this simple though, and my guess is that wrong choices will be made and will be costly. 

My choice? Personally I like what Microsoft now calls “Windows 7 recovery”. It does an incremental backup of your entire PC, apps, “C:\important stuff” and everything. And it works. I do not see that any of the newer options replicates this.

Why is MusicCityDownload.exe in my Windows folder?

I had this question, and did not find much on a quick search, so here is the answer.

I figured that MusicCityDownload.exe was probably not malware, since it looks so much like malware. I mean, surely a malware writer would call their executable spladmin.exe or something like that.

This proved correct. The clue was to look at the executable properties, discover that it is signed by MarkAny Inc which has some DRM technology, and then that it gets installed with Samsung’s Kies media management application. I doubt you will miss Kies so you might want to uninstall it, but it is not actually harmful as far as I am aware so you can stop worrying about MusicCityDownload.exe.

The best ear buds I have heard: Wolfson’s Digital Silence DS-421D with noise cancellation

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month I caught up with Wolfson Microelectronics, who make digital converter chips and other audio components. They do not sell many products to end users, but are making an exception for the Digital Silence range of noise-cancelling headsets.

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The origin of the technology here is in the company’s 2007 acquisition of Sonaptic Ltd, specialists in micro-acoustics, or in other words getting good sound from mobile devices.

The Digital Silence range is unusual among ear buds in including noise cancellation. In other words, microphones on the outside of the buds pick up external sounds, phase reverse them, and add them to the input signal so that you hear more of the music (or voice, if listening to a call) and less of the external sound.

The new Digital Silence range has three models, of which I have been testing the DS-421D, which is set for general availability shortly.

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What you get is a stereo headset with clip-on controller, spare ear foams, mini-jack adaptors to cope with the fact that some mobiles wire up their 4-pole mini-jacks differently, USB charging cable, and a black zip-up carrying case. As with most headsets, there is also a built-in microphone and answer button. By default they are iPhone-ready, but will work with pretty much any mobile or player with a standard 3.5mm mini-jack output.

The controller has a rechargeable battery, charged by a USB connection, and specified to last for 14 hours of playback. A switch on the controller enables ANC and lights a green LED to show that the battery is OK. The ear buds work without ANC as well, so if the battery gives out you still have music. In a quiet environment, you might also prefer not to use ANC in case it adds artefacts to the sound.

A button on the side of the controller marked Monitor has a dual purpose. Press it to mute the sound; or press and hold to change the ANC filter. There is no display, but the unit plays one, two or three beeps to indicate the selection:

General: 20dB cancellation across a wide frequency band

Aeroplane: Low frequency cancellation such as found in an aeroplane is emphasised.

Office: Speech frequency cancellation around 200Hz – 1kHz is emphasised

Other products in the range are the DS-101A (around £30.00) and the DS-321D (around £50). I do not have a price yet for the DS-421D itself but was told “Under £100”. The DS-101A does not have selectable filters or a call/answer button.

Sound quality

Enough of the technology, how is the sound? This is what counts, and I am impressed. The DS-421D headset sounds excellent even without ANC engaged. No amount of noise cancellation would make them good if they were poor to begin with, and I suspect this fundamental good design is actually more important than the clever processing.

I used a variety of ear-buds for comparison. My regular set are Shure SE210 noise-isolating (not cancelling) ear-buds which I find easily out-perform the ones that come free with smartphones and iPods. I was taken aback by how much better the 421D sounded. The biggest difference is in the bass extension, but the sound is also smoother but without loss of clarity. These are the first ear buds I have used where you do not feel you are compromising by not using over the ear headphones.

The noise cancelling works. Don’t have unrealistic expectations, these will not deliver “digital silence”, but they will substantially reduce the noise. It is a bit like shutting it behind a door. There is also a slight change in the quality of the sound, for the better in my opinion, being a little richer than before. I used the DS-421D on an aeroplane and on the London Underground and had worthwhile results in both cases. I could have the volume lower and still enjoy the music.

I also compared the DS-421D to a set of Sennheiser PXC 300 foldable noise-cancelling headphones. The PXC 300 was slightly more effective in killing background noise, but the reason I tend to leave these at home is that they are bulky and use two AAA batteries which give out if I forget to switch them off. The DS-421D is more convenient. As for sound quality, it is close and I might even give 421D the edge.

The DS-421D is mainly for music, but I found the headset functionality useful too. I used it for Skype on a Windows 8 tablet and it worked much better than using the built-in microphone.

Design

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The design of the DS-421D  is excellent in terms of technology, but I am not so sure about the ergonomics. The length of cable between the ear buds and the controller is short, so you cannot clip the controller to your belt. It must be on your collar or perhaps top pocket. You could leave it dangling, but it is heavy enough to be a nuisance if you do.

Visually, the design looks a bit geeky to me; not unattractive, but I can imagine the DS-421D losing out among the more fashion-conscious purchasers.

Conclusion

Regular traveller who likes music? I recommend you give these a try. Now you can have noise-cancellation and high quality sound and a small, light headset.

Technical addendum

Wolfson’s noise-cancelling system is called myZone ANC (Ambient Noise Cancellation) which the company says uses “feed-forward, rather than the usual feedback systems”.

What is that then? I hunted around and eventually found Wolfson’s white paper on the subject*. Here is an illustration of feedback versus feed-forward:

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The figure on the left is a feedback system where the microphone is placed between the loudspeaker and the ear. In the feed-forward system the microphone is external so that the external noise is detected, inverted and added to the input. An advantage is that this does not require a sealed enclosure around the ear.

The main problem with implementation is time-aligning the cancellation signal with the input signal. Wolfson’s solution:

By placing microphones at the rim of the headphone, the ambient noise signal can be acquired and driven to the loudspeaker in advance of its arrival at the eardrum, thus compensating for the intrinsic response time of the loudspeaker.

The illustration in the paper shows a ring array of 5 microphones around each headphone, but since the DS-421D is a small earbud I doubt it has such an array. There is only one visible microphone aperture. Still, this gives some indication of the technology used.

Wolfson did not invent feed-forward as far as I know, so its innovation is in the area of how to achieve accurate time-alignment of the cancellation signal.

*The paper is called Ambient Noise Cancellation for Headphones and Headsets. I cannot find a direct link, but if you go here and search for resources for the WM2002 you will find it.

A hit: Wordament on Windows 8 Consumer Preview

Games do not matter; and yet they do, for many reasons. One is that a great game makes you want to pick up a tablet, which means you will probably end up using it for other things as well. I admit, one reason I like the iPad is because it has Funbridge, endlessly entertaining for Bridge players, and not available on any other mobile device (though Funbridge has become expensive and I play it less these days).

If Microsoft is to make a success of Windows 8 then, it needs some excellent games, and Wordament is the best so far. It is not dissimilar to Boggle, a shake-and-find-the-words game which has come to iOS courtesy of EA after enduring popularity in the physical world. Wordament offers a grid of 16 letters and you have to form words by dragging your finger over adjacent letters – I presume this also works with the mouse but have not tried it.

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What makes Wordament fun though, in contrast to Boggle, is that after each 2 minute game you get to know how you did versus everyone else who played that game.

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It is the same as with Funbridge: the fact that you are competing with others, even in a fairly anonymous manner and with no prizes, transforms the game into something compelling.

Three or four exclusive games as good as this, and everyone will want a Windows 8 slate.

Currently Wordament is also available on Windows Phone 7.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview tip: use compatibility mode for driver installation

I have a Kodak ESP 725o network printer, and was trying to set it up on Windows 8 Consumer Preview. The setup software detected the printer OK, then gave a strange error:

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“The application called an interface that was marshalled for a different thread.” Hmm.

The solution is to run the installer in Windows 7 compatibility mode. Doing this in Windows 8 takes a few steps. First, find the setup app in the Start menu:

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then right-click to show the options menu, or if using touch, drag the shortcut up slightly and release for the same result. Then click or tap Open file location.

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This shows the application in Explorer on the desktop. If you prefer to get there by another route, that is fine too. Right-click the executable, choose Properties, and then Compatibility. Select Windows 7 and click OK.

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Run the printer setup utility, and if you are lucky (as I was in this case) it will install the driver for you perfectly.

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