Tag Archives: windows

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.

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.

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.

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.

First thoughts on Surface 2

After a day or two with Surface 2 and the Touch 2 keyboard, a few thoughts.

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First, I am typing this on my desktop PC. I would have used the Surface 2, as I like to match the tool to the review, but no Live Writer on Surface (my favoured blog authoring tool) and no, Word is not as good for this.

That neatly demonstrates the app issue on Windows RT; but despite that I expect to use Surface 2 frequently in the coming months. It is an excellent tablet, with its chief advantages over the older Surface being performance and Windows 8.1, which includes Outlook.

Performance on Surface 2 is around 4 times faster for graphics – see previous post – and more than twice as fast in general.

The touch keyboard, now with backlighting, is also much improved.

I know I am in a minority here, but to me the Windows RT concept makes good sense. A locked-down version of Windows that is almost legacy-free, though it is still Windows and capable of throwing up mystifying dialogs and hiding settings in strange places.

It seems to me that if there is any hope for the Windows 8 app ecosystem, then it will be driven by tablets like this one, and Nokia’s new Lumia 2520 which also runs Windows RT. Desktop users are mostly ignoring the app platform. There are a few signs of life, like the new Facebook app, and things like Xbox Music are now decent. MediaMonkey, which I like for its Flac support, runs nicely on Surface 2.

Isn’t an iPad Air better? In some ways for sure. Usability, performance, size and weight, and rich app availability are all in the iPad’s favour, and price is similar. The reason you might get a Surface though is for Office, USB 3.0, HDMI out, SD card, and the clever keyboard cover. I also like having more than one app to view, whether that is Word and Excel on the desktop, or Word and Caculator, or the split view that works in the new app world.

I’ve hit a few snags with Surface 2. Sound is less good than on Surface RT, tending to be thin and reedy, unless you use headphones or external speakers. The Touch 2 keyboard sometimes stops responding, which I hope is a driver issue (perhaps the update downloaded this morning will fix it).

I also suspect that build quality on Surface 2 falls short of Surface RT. It is still “Vapor Mg” but I already have a slight dent in the bezel on mine whereas on my old RT it is still perfect and I wonder if it is thinner.

The extra price for the 64GB vs 32GB SSD is absurd. Why not make them all 64GB and increase the price by a fraction?

Is Microsoft serious about selling Surface 2? There does not seem to be much stock around, and it is not yet listed on Amazon.co.uk, although it has been on sale since yesterday.

Those that do discover it will like it, provided they understand the difference between Windows RT and Windows x86, something which – bizarrely – Microsoft still seems keen to disguise.

Review: Surface Touch Cover 2

Windows tablets present a design challenge because they include desktop applications which are designed for keyboard and mouse, rather than touch – not least Microsoft Office, which for some of us accounts for a significant proportion of the time spent using the device. So far there has been consensus therefore that Windows tablets need some easy way of using a keyboard and mouse or trackpad. How to achieve this without losing the benefits of a tablet  is not easy. Bluetooth is one solution, but means three devices rather than one in your bag. Screens that twist over to form tablets are another, but the devices tend to be heavy and the twisting action inconvenient. Detachable keyboard/trackpads are the favoured solution, but leave you the problem of a loose keyboard to look after once you have detached it. If it stays always attached, perhaps you should have bought a laptop.

Microsoft’s Surface tablet has the most elegant solution I have seen. When it was launched a year ago, it included two optional keyboard covers. The Type cover is a thin keyboard with real clacky keys.  The touch keyboard is almost flat, though the keys are slightly raised. You can detach them, but they fold back behind the device, automatically disabling the keys, at which point they are unobtrusive.

Many people liked the idea of the touch keyboard, but found typing frustrating with more errors than they normally make. For this reason, the Type keyboard is more popular among Surface users. It is possible that more Touch keyboards were sold, since they are slightly cheaper and more often bundled with the device, but in actual use I see more Type keyboards.

That is a shame, because the Touch keyboard is design-wise a better solution. It adds very little bulk to the Surface, and when folded back under the device for tablet use, it feels perfectly natural, whereas the Type keyboard feels odd because of the keys that are then on the underside.

When Microsoft announced the Touch Cover 2, it said that by adding more sensors (14 times as many apparently) and more intelligence to the cover and its drivers, it had improved the typing accuracy. As a Surface user I was excited to try the Touch Cover 2 and see if it lives up to these claims. If it does, I will happily ditch the Type cover.

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The Touch Cover 2 is the same price as before, £99 in the UK or $120 in the US. It is compatible with every Surface, including the original Surface RT. It is also fractionally thinner, 2.5mm as opposed to 3mm. Third, it is now backlit, which makes a big difference on those odd occasions when you are typing in dim light, such as on an aircraft when the cabin lights are dim.

Looking at old and new side by side though, you would be forgiven for thinking not much has changed – the new one is the lower of the two, and note that my original is a US layout and the new one UK:

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Here are a few more points of detail:

  • The new keyboard has function key labelling F1-F12. As is now common, the default is the non-Fn meaning, and you have to press Fn first to get the function key. The old keyboard also has an Fn key, but you have to work out which top key to press. The right Alt key is now labelled Alt Gr.
  • The purpose of two of the special keys has changed. The new keyboard no longer has volume keys, though it does have a volume mute. In their place are two keys controlling the brightness of the backlight.
  • The design of the trackpad has changed slightly. On the old touch cover, the left and right “buttons” are on the edge of the keyboard outside the etched area that represents the trackpad. On the new cover, these buttons are within the etched area, which means that the trackpad seems slightly bigger, but in reality is not.
  • The underside of the touch cover used to have a fabric finish. On Touch Cover 2 it is now smooth plastic. This is one detail where I prefer the older cover, though maybe it helps to get it that 0.5mm thinner.

The following picture shows the backs of the old and new keyboard covers side by side, with the new one on the left:

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Touch cover 2 in use

Now for what really matters. How is the Touch Cover 2 in use?

My first thought was to try a speed test. I went along to this online test and tried it several times with the old touch cover, then with the new one. The results favoured the new cover, perhaps by around 20%, though how you evaluate it depends on the weighting you give to errors versus speed.

Then I sat down to write this review. This is where my opinion of the new Touch Cover began to swing in its favour. I find real-world typing on the Touch Cover 2 substantially more pleasant than with the earlier version. Measuring words per minute does not fully represent the improved experience. Of course this is a personal thing and your experience may vary.

The backlighting is low key (ha!) but improves usability. The way this works is that the white lettering on the keys is illuminated so it stands out more.

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Note that if you think it is not working, you probably just need to increase the brightness using the special keys.

Is it as good as a real keyboard, or even a Type Cover? I doubt it ever will be, especially if you are someone who does not look at the keyboard while you type. The problem is that the slight etching round the keys makes it harder for your fingers to know where they are, though typing with audible key clicks helps.

Another factor is that if you are not at a desk, the lightness and thinness of the touch cover counts against it, since it flexes slightly on your lap.

That said, with practice you can get good speed and accuracy. As a cover, it is so much more elegant than the Type Cover that overall I might just prefer it, even though I still rate the Type Cover slightly better for typing.

One caveat though: I used the Touch Cover 2 with both Surface RT and Surface Pro, and had an annoying problem. If I stay typing in one app everything is fine, but if I switch apps than sometimes the keyboard stops responding. Oddly, opening Device Manager and pressing the up and down arrows a few times seems to fix it. Perhaps my Touch Cover 2 is faulty, but I suspect a driver issue, which means hope for a fix soon. I will be trying it soon with a Surface 2 and will be interested to see if the problem remains.

The keyboard also seems to mark easily. I have only had it for a day, but can already see slight fading of the black finish on the keys I type most often.

Mobility always involves compromise. If you want the very best keyboard for typing, it won’t be a touch cover. In fact, for best productivity I prefer a high quality Bluetooth or USB keyboard to either of the Type or Touch covers.

That does not detract from what Microsoft’s engineers have achieved with the Touch Cover 2. Flip it back, and you have a tablet; flip it forward, and you protect your screen; place it on a desk and you have a productive typing machine.

Glitch aside, I recommend the Touch Cover 2 as a good option with a new Surface and a worthwhile upgrade from the first Touch cover.

7 types of Windows 8 users and non-users

When I was in Seattle earlier this month I visited the Microsoft Store in Bellevue. I nearly bought a Nokia Lumia 1020, but also observed an enthusiastic salesperson showing off Surface 2 (a pre-launch demo unit) to an older customer. She watched patiently while he showed how it handled pictures, SkyDrive, Office, Email, Facebook and more. At the end she said. “I don’t need any of that. Show me your cheapest laptop.”

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Yes, it’s tough for Microsoft. The incident got me thinking about computer users today and whether or not they are in the market for Windows 8 (or the forthcoming Windows 8.1).

Here is a light-hearted at some categories of users. And yes, I think I have met all of them. For those that are saying no, what would change their minds?

1. The Apple fan.

Switched to Mac from Windows XP around 2007. Has Mac, iPhone, iPad. So much easier, no anti-virus nags, boots quicker, less annoying, always works smoothly. Occasionally runs a Windows app on Parallels but nothing non-nuclear would persuade them to switch back.

Buying Windows 8? No.

2. The Enterprise admin.

In latter stages of migration from Windows XP to Windows 7. Still a few XP machines running awkward apps or run by awkward people. Last holdouts should be gone by year end. Job done, won’t even think about another migration for 3-5 years. Next focus is on BYOD (Bring your own device); will be mostly iPhones and iPads with the occasional Android or Windows 8 tablet.

Buying Windows 8? Mostly no.

3. The older Windows user

Son thinks a Mac would be better, but Windows works fine, is well understood, and does all that is needed. No desire to upgrade but when PC conks out will look for the most familiar looking machine at a good price. Would prefer Windows 7 but may be forced into Windows 8 if those are the only machines on offer.

Buying Windows 8? Maybe reluctantly.

4. The PC guy

This is the guy who understands PCs back to front. Never saw the point of Macs, overpriced, fewer apps, and little different in functionality. First thing to do with a new PC is either spend 3 hours removing all the crapware, or reinstall Windows from scratch. The Windows 8 user interface took some adjustment at first but fine with it now, likes the slightly better performance, and even uses a few Metro apps on the Surface Pro tablet.

Buying Windows 8? Yes, best Windows yet.

5. The tablet family

Used to update the family PC every few years, but mum got an iPad, son got an Android tablet, then dad went Android too, and now they spend so much time doing email, games, web browsing, YouTube, Facebook and BBC iPlayer on the tablets that the PC gets little use. It’s still handy for household accounts but it won’t be replaced unless it breaks.

Buying Windows 8? Not soon, and maybe not ever.

6. The tried it once never again person

It was embarrassing. Used Windows for years, then a friend brought over a Windows 8 laptop. Clicked on desktop, but with no Start button how do you run anything? Clicked around, right-clicked, pressed ESC, pressed Ctrl-Alt-Del, but nothing doing. Friend was laughing. Now the sight of Windows 8 evokes a chill shudder. Never, just never.

Buying Windows 8? No way.

7. The “Make it like 7” person

Windows 8? No problem, it’s just like 7 really. Installed Start8, got the Start menu back, set it to boot to desktop, set file associations for PDF and images to desktop apps, and never sees the Metro environment.

Buying Windows 8? Kind-of, but will never run a Metro app.