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Closing Windows

technology2I don’t drink alcohol, but it is going to be hard to resist the urge to raise a glass of something on April 8, 2014.  That particular Tuesday is going to be a special day for many of my fellow techies around the world and I have no doubt that many of my I.T. brethren will be celebrating the momentous occasion that takes place on that day.  What is it, you ask?

It is the day that Windows XP finally DIES.

Don’t get me wrong, Windows XP has had a hell of a run since August 2001.  It was a good OS and was definitely a step up from the awful Windows Me that preceded it.   Heck, it was so good Microsoft kept it around when Netbooks came into vogue a few years ago.  Those netbooks and the terrible Windows Vista probably helped to keep it alive probably well past its originally intended expiration date, but all good things must come to an end, so here we are…or at least here we will be in just under seven months.

Windows 7 is goodness and I finally decided to eat my Windows 8 peas, so XP is but a fond memory for me except for when I have to deal with customers that still use it at work.  I can’t give them too much grief, because I still use WinAmp 2.9 and Microsoft Money 2000!  That said, I’ll be happy as a clam when I no longer have to worry about whether users should click on ‘Add/Remove Programs’ or ‘Programs and Features’ in the Control Panel!

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RANDOM REVIEW: Windows 8

EATING MY PEAS

My Windows 8 Desktop

So Purdy…

I first gave Windows 8 a spin when the Developer Preview was released back in 2011.  As I have not purchased a new computer since then, I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the final product, but judging from prevailing opinion as well as feedback from customers, it seemed that I wasn’t missing much.  As I work in tech support, I figured that I was going to have to support Windows 8 sooner or later, so I decided to eat my peas and installed Windows 8 on my laptop: a 14″ Toshiba P745-S4102 with 6MB of RAM.

THERE AND BACK AGAIN

The install went fairly well, but I made the mistake of not wiping the drive beforehand, so I had lots of icky bits left over from years of Windows 7 use.  I would open up my boot drive to find rouge directories sticking out their tongues at me in glee.  Obviously the thing to do was to delete them, so I got delete happy and of course, deleted an important directory.

So just like I did during my adventures with OS X, I had to start all over again.  I formatted the drive, reinstalled Windows 8, and was back in business.  Windows 8 seemed to be a little more happier after the second install, so lesson learned: always format the hard drive before dropping in a new OS.

THROWN FOR A LEARNING CURVE

Up until Windows 8 you could count on a few things like the Start Menu and Control Panel to be there.  No mas.  The Start Menu has been replaced by the Start Screen and other options are accessed by pulling up a ‘Charms Bar’ that is accessed by moving the mouse to either the upper or lower-right hand corner of the screen.  Moving the mouse to the lower-left hand corner reveals a shortcut to the Start Menu, and the upper-left corner pulls up the last program opened and a list of currently open programs if you move the pointer down from there.  The interface is not intuitive and poorly explained, you get zero help and are tossed into the Start Screen with nary a tooltip to help you.

A great example of how obtuse things are is the method for shutting down the computer:

  1. Bring up the Charms bar by moving the mouse to one of the right-hand corners…that is, assuming you know its there.
  2. Click ‘Settings’
  3. Click ‘Power’
  4. Click ‘Shut Down’ from the pop up menu.

Is it any wonder that people are upset about having to re-learn how to use their computer again?  Expect to stumble around Windows 8 for a while (I certainly did) until you learn its intricacies or say ‘screw it’ and download a Start Menu replacement.

APPY, APPY, APPY

Mess of tiles on Windows 8 Start Screen

…or not!

One of the big reasons Windows 8 has received so much grief was because of the removal of the apparently-beloved Start Menu.  I admittedly gave them static about this too, but having poked at it again, I now get what it is Microsoft had in mind when they removed it.

Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets have given us the concept of apps, or small programs that only do one thing or access a single service.  Like many of you, I’ve gotten accustomed to doing things via apps.  When done right, they’re great: you open up the app for whatever it is you want to do and take care of business instead of having to open up a browser, navigate to the website, login and all that.

Microsoft and Windows 8 want you to do everything in apps, and while I like this idea and would like to embrace it, the fact of the matter is that for whatever reason, the Windows 8 apps I have used have either fallen short of my expectations or just plain don’t exist.

The official Twitter app is one example.  I have multiple Twitter accounts, randomizer9 is my main one and I have one set up for The Rules of Tech Support.  The Twitter apps on my phone and iPad both allow me to switch back and forth between identities with a few taps, but the Windows 8 app only lets me login to one account, which reduces its usefulness.

Some apps just don’t exist.  The most glaring omissions for me are Facebook and Gmail, though I can set up the Mail client for use with GMail.  I’m also surprised that there isn’t a version of Office that uses the Metro interface.  Granted, I don’t use very many apps to begin with, so its not that big of a deal to me, but other folks who love apps might be disappointed in the selection, though it should get better with time.

THE DOCKING DESKTOP

Luckily, the desktop is still around and is accessed by clicking the Desktop tile.  While the Start Menu is persona non grata, much to the consternation of lots of folks (including myself) programs can be docked to the Taskbar just like in Windows 7.  I found myself docking each one after installing them.  This works pretty well for me and I haven’t really missed the Start Menu all that much, especially since discovering this handy list of Windows key shortcuts.

Unfortunately, installing legacy programs barfs icons all over the Start Screen just like it did before.  It is a little jarring to see the a nice purdy Metro Start Screen morph into icky tile-o-rama with a tap of the Page Down key.  The big problem with the Start Screen is that there is currently no good way to organize tiles that were installed by legacy programs.  Sure, you can move them around, but one of the nice things about Ye Olde Start Menu was that it kept things you didn’t need out of the way.  Hopefully the upcoming Windows 8.1 will resolve some of those issues, otherwise I’m not sure what I’m going to do once my Taskbar fills up with docked programs.

I have experienced no compatibility issues with older programs and hardware as of yet which is pretty darn lucky considering I still use Microsoft Money 2000 and WinAmp 2.9.

WHERE’S MY MEDIA CENTER?

I feel bad for Microsoft at times because even when they do things right they often don’t get credit for it or the Thing Done Right is completely ignored.  Windows Media Center is one of those things.  Media Center turns a TV-tuner equipped PC into a pretty decent PVR and can even stream TV from a PC to an Xbox 360, which is awesome.  It was created during the Windows XP days (remember Media Center PCs? Yeah, me neither) and came included with certain versions of Windows Vista and Windows 7.  It does not come with Windows 8.  If you want Media Center you now have to pay an extra $9.99 even if you have the Super Mega Deluxe Happy Version of Windows..  So much for doing it right.

 CONCLUSION

Despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth you’ve probably heard, Windows 8 is not that bad.  Yes, it does have some annoying habits, such as the made-for-touch interface and missing Start Menu, but I have learned to live with those inconveniences.  That said, I understand why some people are upset: Windows users (such as myself) have grown accustomed to the Start button/menu being there for nearly twenty years.  For Microsoft to just yank that football away like Lucy does to Charlie Brown is just not right.  I know workarounds, but lots of folks either don’t or don’t want to go through the trouble/hassle.  Microsoft reached just a little too far ahead in that regard.

I understand what Microsoft is trying to do with Windows 8.  I even like the idea of doing everything quickly in apps instead of having to constantly go to the web browser.  Unfortunately, the apps either don’t measure up in terms of functionality or they just aren’t there, which means I end up constantly having to go back to the desktop, which defeats the whole point of the new interface.

The much-touted quick startup and shutdown is nice and my laptop appears to be performing as well as it did before, though, as with any new system, one should be leery of potential conflicts with old hardware and software.  I haven’t hit any snags yet in that department, but time will tell on that.

To wrap up: Windows 8 isn’t quite The Future just yet.  It takes steps in the right direction with its app-centric design but is hamstrung by sub-par apps that will have you going back to the desktop over and over again.  If you are one of these folks that just can’t live without the Start Menu, there are third party add-ons, but I can’t vouch for their usefulness or reliability.  Once you get over the steep learning curve, 8 isn’t all that bad, but it isn’t as great as it could have been, either.  The upcoming Windows 8.1 should make things better so we’ll have to wait and see what happens.  While I’ll be sticking with Windows 8 for the short-term, I won’t be tossing away my Windows 7 install disc anytime soon.

3 out of 5 tiles.

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GAME OVER?

videogamesI think I might be done with video games, or at least done with buying new consoles. I have been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600 but my enthusiasm for new games and consoles has grown smaller and smaller with each sequel/lookalike/dark-haried protagonist/space marine game announcement for the last year or two.

One reason is I just don’t consume as much media as I used to.  I see movies very occasionally, watch little to no television and don’t buy very many CDs and Blu-Rays anymore.  A bigger reason is a feeling of ‘been there, done that.’  The Big 3’s E3 announcements impacted me with a great big ‘meh’ as I saw the sequel numbers get higher and higher.

So let’s run down the list:

SONY

I like to describe my PlayStation 3  as my “Blu-Ray player that also plays Ratchet and Clank.”  I can count the number of PS3 disc games I own on my hands, and most of the downloadable ones I have are games that I reviewed for original-gamer.com  It should say something that I still haven’t finished Ratchet and Clank: Full Frontal Assault and have yet to even purchase Sly Cooper 4.  As I have nearly zero interest in JPRGs or any of the Sony exclusive titles, I don’t see any reason to get a PS4 anytime soon.

MICROSOFT

The Xbox 360 was easily my favorite machine of this generation, though it bears mentioning that about a third of the disc games I own have either ‘Rock Band’ or ‘Guitar Hero’ in the title.  I’ve also purchased about a dozen downloaded titles and the Kinect is always fun when friends are over.  The Halo and Gears of War series have both been entertaining, but I have little interest in seeing them drug into the ground a la Capcom.  The TV functions of the 360 were also nice: I used it to stream and record HDTV from my PC via Windows Media Center to the living room TV.  I was actually intrigued by the Xbox 360’s TV functionality but the high price and anti-consumer policies Microsoft may or may not be imposing mean I won’t be getting an Xbox One in the near future.

NINTENDO

“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be,” the old joke goes.  Nintendo has finally gone to the well once too often because Mario has become the new Madden as far as I am concerned.  I think the breaking point was when they started making sequels.  I may yet acquire Super Mario Galaxy 2 but my initial reaction was “Oh boy, they added Yoshi…whee.”  When New Super Mario Bros. 2 was announced,  I saw the ads about the whole ‘collect a bajillion coins’ thing and thought, “That’s IT?”  I am intrigued by the Wii U, but its initial lineup landed with a great big thud and the current game drought makes me feel like I didn’t have it so bad after buying a launch 3DS.  The sad thing is that the one franchise I would like for Nintendo to drag into the ground is one they’ve completely forgotten about: StarFox.

PC

I haven’t done any PC gaming for quite a few years now.  Seriously, the last PC game I bought was Portal…on disc…at Circuit City.  Oddly enough, I may end up playing games solely on my PC from here on out.  Since most of the big multi-platform releases end up on PC, I shouldn’t miss very many of the few AAA titles I’m interested in and there are loads of smaller devs doing interesting things these days on the indie scene.  Maybe I’ll get an Ouya after its had a little more time in the oven.

So there you have it.  I have been a gamer for well over 30 years now, and while it has been loads of fun, it may be time to hang up the controller for good.  Will it happen?  Who knows, but my current consoles and 3DS are doing just fine for now.

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Apple Does Not Like Files

technology2As my iPad mini is my first iOS device, I have had to learn it and adjust to its idiosyncrasies. Some of the new things I’m discovering are good, like the ability to swipe up with four fingers and bring up a list of currently open apps and volume/brightness controls. Of course, there are bad things to discover as well, such as the ‘locked down’ nature of the device. In particular, I was initially miffed that I could not work with files like I could on desktops or Android devices.

I like files. I know how to work with files. I like to make folders for my files and organize them and e-mail them and sort them and rename them and open them and edit them and do all kinds of fun stuff with them.

Apple does not like files.

Apple likes objects. On an abstract level, apps are objects in iOS,not files.  Instead of having files scattered all about, like in Windows or Android, your stuff lives in the app that uses it. If you’re going to work with a picture, you open up Photos, select the picture you want to work with, and get to work. Music lives in iTunes, documents live in Pages, and so on and so forth. The app comes first.

iOS gets irritiating for people like me because unlike Android, where I can get an app like Astro and poke around at the underlying file system, iOS does not let you get ‘under the hood’ at all.  I can’t put stuff where I want it because Apple won’t let me, and coming from a world where files rule and I can do whatever I want to with them, that is frustrating.

Case in point: I use Dropbox to store stories that I am working on. Indeed, one of the first apps I downloaded onto my iPad mini was the Dropbox app.  I also got the Pages word processor because it had totally knocked my socks off on the iPad demo units. Awesome. I quickly learned that Pages does not talk to Dropbox. My file-centric brain then said: “No biggie, I’ll download a copy of my latest story via Dropbox, open it in Pages, do some editing, save my changes, then upload the newest draft back to the cloud. After all, that’s how it had worked on my Acer Iconia Tab A100.”

In response, Pages threw the finger at me and said, “NO SAVING FOR YOU.  You’re going to open the file in Pages and I’ll make a copy there. Its staying there after that, too, because I don’t like Dropbox and I ain’t giving it back.” So I end up with two copies of the story floating around, one in Dropbox and one in Pages. So much for keeping things in sync.

Ultimately, I found a Microsoft Office-compatible app talkd to Dropbox direclty, so that fixed that, but its just one an example of how I have had to work around iOS because it ‘thinks different.’  Its methodology is awesome for end-users because files are icky things and people don’t like dealing with them.  I think its because most folks can’t make the mental leap from objects (like documents, pictures, and music) to files. They can’t wrap their heads around the abstract concept like ‘computer people’ do.

If everything lives in the app, then they don’t have to deal with files at all.  If they want to do something, they open the appropriate app, and everything is there.  Instead of a list of files, they see pictures, songs, and documents, and that’s what they know.

Those of us that are more ‘computery,’ on the other hand, have a few options: muddle around iOS as best we can, jailbreak our devices, or just not bother with it altogether. Unfortunately, I think I’ve taken one step too far into the rabbit-hole, because for all that fuss, I’m still loving my iPad mini…even if it doesn’t want me to have my precious files.

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RANDOM REACTION: Windows 8 Developer Preview

Just when I was growing to love Windows 7, Microsoft has to come up with something new. Windows 8 is expected to drop in late 2012, but that’s a wild guess from people that get paid to make wild guesses.  For now, though, there is the Developer Preview, which was introduced on September 13th at Microsoft’s BUILD developer conference.  In a pretty smart move, Microsoft made it available to the public, which only makes sense because everyone was going to share it anyway, and it gave Microsoft something to brag about: 8 was download half a million times within its first 12 hours of release.

Like any good geek, I wanted to poke at the latest thingamabobber from the depths of Redmond.  I started my download, went to bed, and burned a Windows 8 install DVD before going to work the next morning.  I figured I could install it while I was at work and poke at it during the day.  I started the installer, and about an hour or so later, after using my Windows Live ID for maximum effect, I had a nice purdy Windows 8 screen thingie looking back at me.  FYI, this screenshot was taken after I’d set up the Socialite (Facebook) and Weather apps, so it isn’t quite the default:

Windows 8 Start Screen

Its Hip to be Square!

Windows 8 eschews the Start Menu (almost) completely and give you a Start Screen.  The Start Screen uses the “Metro” interface found on Windows Phone.  This is a good thing and a bad thing.  Its good because it places lots of information and apps in front of you but its bad because well, most of the information presented wasn’t too important. The Facebook tile seemed to display just random images of friends, and the Tweet@rama (Twitter) tile was set to one of Microsoft’s feeds.  While I’m sure that the UI and tiles will be more customizable the closer we get to release, right now the constant stream of data just feels like overkill on a desktop.

One thing that became rapidly apparent was that the Windows 8 user interface was clearly designed with touch screens in mind; the Start Screen’s big chunky tiles appear to be more suited for finger tapping than mouse clicking.  Since I was using a mouse, I had to make do with horizontal scroll bars that constantly appeared at the bottom of the screen which got more than a little bit annoying.

Luckily, for those of us dinosaurs that still want to work with the Desktop, clicking the “Desktop” tile pulls up a Windows 7 desktop that looks like the one we’ve grown to love over the past two years or so.  Programs can be stuck onto the taskbar just like in Windows 7 but getting to them isn’t quite as simple as it used to be:

Windows 8 Apps list

Get'cher apps and programs here!

In order to get to your list of programs and apps you have to click “Search” which pops up in a menu that appears when you move your mouse to the lower right hand corner of the screen.  You can then type in a search term or scroll through the list until you find what you want.

The Start Menu?  Gone.  Kaputski.  No Mas.  Frankly, I think that is a horrible decision on Microsoft’s part.  Here’s why:

Windows 8 Start Screen after Office install

I only needed Word, doggone it!

That is my Start Screen after installing Word in Microsoft Office 2003.  Most of the programs on the right hand side of that screen I am never, ever going to use.  Normally, they stay tucked away in the Start Menu unless, by some miracle of fate, I actually need one of them.  When I install Word, I take the Word icon and drop it onto my taskbar because that’s all I need.  Now all those extra icons are all over my Start Screen, cluttering it up unless I take the time to go in and delete each individual one.  This sucks.

Yes, it may be used less often these days, but when you aren’t using it, the Start Menu stays out of the way.  If Microsoft insists on keeping backwards-compatibility with earlier Windows versions, it needs to keep the Start Menu lest they risk pissing off their userbase, because I guarantee you that the first thing everyone is going to look for after starting up their shiny new Windows 8 machine is look for the Start Menu.

That quibble aside, Windows  8 is a pleasure to get around, the teeny-tiny Notification area that used to be on the right side of the Start Menu has been moved over to the Settings area, which is accessed using the lower-left corner menu:

Windows 8 Settings Sub-screen

Very niiiice!

As you can tell, the Settings area is easy to view and read, and is definitely an improvement.  Apps written for the Windows 8 Metro interface also have a different look to them, such as Internet Explorer which you can see below.  The screenshot shows the pop-up menus that appear when  you right-click.

Internet Explorer 9 in Windows 8

Shiny!

While older programs run within the Desktop, apps run in full-screen mode.  Right clicking the mouse brings up menus that are different from the usual “File, Edit…” ones we’ve used to using all these years.  I think this is a definite improvement and should make Windows much easier for people to use, assuming, of course, that the interfaces are done right.  That may become an issue when we’re talking about more complicated software packages like Excel and Visual Studio, but the Desktop is available as a fallback.

As far as performance goes, Windows 8 seemed to run okay on my Toshiba Satellite T115D-S1125 laptop with 4GB of RAM.  All of my hardware appeared to work and the Frowny Blue Screen of Death was nowhere to be seen.  It did chug a little bit at times, but as this is a pre-beta, so that is forgivable and it did work well enough to be usable during the time that I had it installed.  Older Windows software such as Office 2003, WinAmp 2.9 and Microsoft Money 2000 also worked just fine.

Windows 8 is looking like a pretty nice update so far.  The Metro interface is very different from the old Desktop we’ve been using all these years and should make using Windows a much easier experience for less-technically savvy people.  Unfortunately, 8 also has to work with software written for previous versions of Windows, and the lack of a Start Menu is going to make the Start Screen pretty unusable for folks that are going to be installing a bunch of legacy programs onto it.  Microsoft may have been testing the waters by leaving out the Start Menu, but it is a bad move unless they decide to rip out backwards compatibility altogether, which I severely doubt is going to happen.

My other big beef with Windows 8 is its tablet-centricness.  This is not necessarily a Bad Thing, but I felt as if I was not able to make full use of it because I was using a mouse and keyboard.  In fact, a few of the programs were all but unusable because I did not have multi-touch, so I couldn’t pinch or widen two fingers onto the screen.  I would love to see this running on a tablet, but on a desktop, it feels a bit clunky right now.

In my opinion, Windows 8 is a step in the right direction and a long-needed shift for operating systems in general.  Metro is clean, sharp and very user friendly.  I look forward to seeing 8 evolve as the devs hammer at it and hopefully take user feedback (like this!) into account.  I just hope that Microsoft does not leave us old fogey mouse-and-keyboard users out in the cold in favor of the cool kids with their tablets and touchscreens.

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Is Windows Eight Enough?

A pre-beta version of Windows 8 launched last night and so I fired up my desktop and got to downloading.  I remember being very impressed by the Windows 7 pre-release versions, and so I was foaming at the mouth to take the latest from Microsoft for a test drive.

Sadly, I had to go to work the next morning, so I burned the install DVD and went to bed.  As I type this, the installer is almost done running on my laptop and I am eager with anticipation as to the new stuff that will be in this latest version of everyone’s favorite OS.

I’ve been hearing about Windows 8 for awhile, but hadn’t really looked into the new features much.  I heard that some things were being borrowed from Windows Phone, and tha’ts pretty much it.  I hear Windows Phone is really good from the few people that have Windows Phones so perhaps this will be a Good Thing.  That is pretty much the extent of what I know about Windows 8, as I have been deliberately staying in the dark so that I will be (hopefully) pleasantly surprised when I start it up.

In any event, my laptop is almost done rebooting so we’ll see how it goes!

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