Category Archives: Technology

HMV: End of an era?

The news that HMV is calling for administrators is hardly a surprise. As with Comet and Jessops, the question in my mind is “What took so long?”

It’s a cruel irony that I’ve seen some significant improvements to their London Oxford Street and Piccadilly stores in the last few months, especially in vinyl stocks. But that doesn’t really offset the issues I’ve been having with them lately. For incidence – none of the stores seem to have put much effort into being places that anyone would want to spend time in. The constant drone of over-loud pap-Muzak pervaded the entire experience, often distracting from what I wanted to buy. The vinyl sections up until a year ago were badly kept, with old bent/warped stock that was in a perpetual state of disordered chaos. This got better in the last few months at the Piccadilly store, but still wasn’t great.

Even finding CD’s was a chore, at Christmas time in the Westfield Stratford branch I was unable to find anything from the shopping-list of well-known artists we had compiled, except for Susan Boyle’s latest. The cheaply-published and packaged best-of’s offered for remaining artists on the list were hardly good gifts and often didn’t actually contain the ‘best’ of said artists’ output. DVD’s and BluRays were easier to find once I could navigate the crowds, but again I only had a 50% hit-rate. The eye-watering queues at the tills also didn’t help, especially for what should have been quick lunchtime purchases!

For me and my household, despite (always) being on a budget, price doesn’t have to rule the spending decision. Part of the fun of building our music and movie collection has been the voyage of discovery, and the sense of a good shopping experience. If the in-store experience is bad or even just merely indifferent, then that infringes on my perceived quality of the product. If the store doesn’t care about its contents, then why should I, unless I really know something they don’t? Certainly in that case I won’t order online from the same store – likely I won’t order anywhere at all until I find a store that does have it, and cares about it. In short – we tend to buy what we are looking for, or discover on the way – not always the cheapest, and rarely online.

An interesting angle on this was found when I took on the project to upgrade my grandparents’ tape collection to CD. Their collection has a surprising number of quality albums from the 80’s and 90’s, none of which I was able to find on CD in the high-street, HMV included. Given the amount of work involved in converting a number of old tapes to CD, restoring them to “like-new” quality levels associated with CD on the way so that the transition is an improvement as much as a necessity, it is usually far easier and more cost-effective to replace with store-bought new copies. The artists get more royalties, the stores get more sales, and I save myself hundreds of pounds in time, software and electricity doing the conversions myself – that’s a win-win situation! This ‘shopping-list’ style of shopping lends itself best to online retailers now – but even online only about 75% of the content is available, and I’d rather support high-street stores where I can actually physically browse, interact with staff, etc etc. In other areas of life I’ve had fabulous conversations with staff and patrons, even leading to increased sales (“hey, you’re looking for Curved Air, right? i just found some over here!”) and offers of real work. That won’t happen if I buy my music on Amazon!

Another negative experience, and one that pervades all the ‘big’ electronics/media stores I’ve encountered recently, is that there’s no real try-before-you-buy facility, especially on things like headphones and media players. Where such facilities are offered, staff tend to be rushed and pushy, and the range of equipment available for real-world comparison is usually much smaller than that available for sale in-store. Where kit is available for demonstration it’s broken, or priced at such a premium level that I couldn’t afford it even if it were the right thing – many “Beats” or “Bose” headphones for example are easily outperformed by (sometimes significantly) cheaper competition, but with no way to test this there’s no way for the consumer to sort the genuine star-players from the dross.

Seems to me that a lesson being missed here, and one that seems to be in common with Comet, Jessops and HMV, is that there’s a level of basic sales service, and customer experience, that is being missed. Sure, the economic situation isn’t helping. Sure, online sales are taking their toll. But the stores I choose to frequent for such things, especially music, are those like Sister Ray and Music and Video Exchange in Soho, where passion, care and above all, content, are king.

If HMV passes, that leaves small independents a niche. If they (and we as consumers) can exploit that, it could be a very good thing for the music industry as a whole. If they don’t, then physical music purchases will likely become a niche, and consumer electronics will likely follow behind, beyond what the marketeers can tell us all we should be buying next. Sad times. I enjoyed the variety and excitement in these markets in the 80’s and 90’s, and I’ll miss them now they’re all but gone.

Some thoughts on using Google Docs

Following on from yesterday’s thoughts on using a Chromebook for an extended period, I thought it worth updating it (coming soon!), as well as jotting down some thoughts about Google Docs.  This got so big (and is relevant to all platforms, not just the Chromebook) that for the sake of clarity I decided to hive it off as a separate post.

Game-changing features

I think the main thing I’ve had to learn in terms of my expectation of what Google Docs can do, is to consider them as functions of a large and very advanced database.  From this perspective, the vague consideration of “wow – how do they even do that?” becomes much easier to resolve and put to rest.  With that in mind, I can now take a deep breath and present some major gains I’ve found with Google Docs as opposed to working in traditional desktop productivity apps like MS Office.

Never hit “Save” (or ctrl-S) again

This is a big one.  I type out a sentence, and then pause to look up to the toolbar… the word “Saving…” presents itself for a few seconds, before eventually changing to “All changes saved in Drive”. In theory, this means I can go into a document, type some stuff, then just navigate away from it in the knowledge that the changes were saved without my even having to worry about it.  Compared with MS Office, where it’s quite normal to get completely sucked-in to writing that important document then have it crash when fine-tuning the formatting and then find you didn’t manually save that last 3 hours of work, even the Autosave functionality often doesn’t keep up with important edits.  The Google Way™ seems so much better, and has saved many a draft.

Always available, on any computer in the world…

…provided that it has an Internet connection and a modern web browser.  This has massive implications for the freedom of users to roam the planet as they need and still have access to the information that’s important to them.  Obviously this doesn’t negate the need for backup of truly valuable data – but does act as a less-admin-intensive solution than providing a full roaming Windows/Mac roaming network account with all the security and software licensing hassles that creates.

Collaboration

It’s now routine for my boss and I to dump a load of notes into a Document, or run through entries on a spreadsheet, then have both of us view and edit the same document at the same time.  While we remain online and inside the document(s), we can each see who is doing what and where – even where the cursor is for each user.  This helps us greatly in documenting expenses, working through tricky wording of contracts, manuals, specifications and other basic project management tasks.  This feature alone, working across documents, spreadsheets and even presentations, has changed our working lives for the better.

Word processing

Generally, for any document created in Google Docs itself, everything pretty much works as expected – at least from a simple “type up some notes, edit then, make them look vaguely presentable, and print/email it” perspective.
That said, some foibles have been found that have stepped in the way of my making a more complete switch to Google Docs full-time, and relying on MS Office:

  • Previewing of MS Office documents does indeed (mostly) work, but Google Docs’ more simple headings, formatting and layout options mean that document fidelity with formal reports tends to suffer.
    • Sometimes inserted graphics disappear, or are rendered very badly, or appear in the wrong place with text wrapping mangled in the process.
    • Appendices and other numbered/customised headings tend to get lost – sometimes changing the implied meaning and flow of the incoming report.
    • To get around these issues, I tend to ask those reporting to us to submit (both final and draft) reports to me either as email body text (for informal reports), or as PDF’s for more formal work.
  • Page layouts that preview well on-screen can end up with very different pagination, especially when printing to A4, or rendering to PDF.
  • Working with headers and footers is basic, but in fairness does allow insertion of tables, images etc for fine control over layout of logos, titles, author details, page numbers etc.
  • While I’m pleased to see that footnotes work, it’s not a full referencing system that can log and tabulate the source of each reference – again this makes full academic and some reporting use-cases awkward, and calls for migration to more powerful desktop software.
  • Table of Contents can be inserted, taking and automatically updating its entries from headings used throughout the document.  Good basic stuff, but:
    • No page numbers alongside the links.
    • No obvious control over which heading classes are included, nor over the specific formatting of the table entry.
    • Headings cannot be formatted with numbering, in the way that MS Word or other word-processing apps handle.  (Collaborative) Drafting of formal proposals, reports or academic writing can be done on Google Docs, but really formal documents are best having the final text copy/pasted into MS Word or a more advanced desktop word processing or page layout tool of your choice.
    • Table formatting is quite flexible, but not as many available line styles or formatting options as MS Word.
      • Also, can only move cell boundaries when they are visible, eg. when they have a border thickness greater than 0pt.
  • Printing and output
    • Page size is set to US Letter by default. This can be changed to any other supported paper size – A4 for me, please!
    • Equations entered through the Equation tool end up inconsistently placed and pixellated on both PDF and printed output.
    • Documents can be downloaded (or shared) as PDF
      • An example of the PDF output, combining these and yesterdays’ posts, is here:  SamsungChromebook303Cusability (2))
      • Useful for sending out fixed versions of a document files as a reference.
      • The PDF rendering engine can have some strange results, notably with changes to pagination.  Stray blank pages get inserted, and some placement changes made for the onscreen page preview end up looking different on paper.
      • A 20-page report (such as this one, according to the page count in the footers) on-screen ends up coming out as a PDF with 22 or more pages, depending on how and where simple page-breaks have been used.
      • Interestingly, automatically-generated page counts remain correct regardless of whether the document is viewed in the Docs editor, or as a PDF.
      • These are the kind of inconsistencies that most users I know find absolutely maddening for formal work – and a crucial limitation for users to be informed of. It’s like using a camera that takes a photo of the most beautiful mountain range in the world, at sunset, and when you download the photo to your home computer you find it actually gives you a photo of a discarded needle on a wet East London street-corner.
    • Documents can also be downloaded in common MS Office and other (more open) file formats.

Spreadsheets

My needs for spreadsheets tend to fall into one of two categories:

  1. Simple line-entries and basic summaries thereof, for things like expenses, inventory-lists and the like.  This kind of use is so easy to cater for that I’ve yet to find any flaws – and the extra collaboration and availability of the files tends to win over the bulk of a desktop application and opening an actual file from a disk.
  2. Complex mathematical data import, analysis and charting, with templates for print output of charts and tables  to be included in other documents.  Such work tends to involve complex and obscure cell functions, and often (in Excel) some customised VBA code.  Such documents have previewed in Google Docs with reasonable fidelity, but there’s no way I’d expect anything other than MS Excel to understand the file, let alone work with it in any meaninful way or timeline.

Presentations

Rather than using presentations in teaching, I tend to use more of a show-and-tell approach, or even use a Google Doc (word processor) as a virtual blackboard to help explain what’s going on.  That said, when I want a simple pack of slides to summarise the points made, or to outline the plan for a day,
I’ve not played with the Presentations tool much beyond this, mostly because I expect problems even getting Powerpoint files to open and play out correctly on another copy of MS Powerpoint – let alone transferring them to another app such as Google Presentations.  

(Nearly) Two weeks with a Samsung Chromebook 303C

Scope of review

In the week before Christmas, we took delivery of a Samsung Chromebook Series 3 (303C) – with the intention of reviewing it for suitability towards a distinct usergroup we administer.  So to that end I’ve spent many hours using this machine in place of my usual MacBook Pro (for work) and occasionally for personal use in place of my usual Windows 8-based netbook.  I’ve taken some notes as I’ve encountered thoughts and issues provoked in daily use, which have been compiled into this review (which itself was written on the Chromebook in Google Docs) for others to see where I’ve got to with it and why.  Hopefully it will inform and comment rather than poke holes or fun.
Please note therefore that this review is neither an analysis of Google software/policy/infrastructure, nor is it an in-depth user manual for this machine or the Chrome OS it runs.  Others have these functions covered far better elsewhere.

Setting the scene

The computing market has been flooded with sub-£400 laptops in recent years, with many being in the small “netbook” form-factor.  Their primary intended use is for the consumption of online content, and getting simple tasks done like email, letter-writing, online banking etc.  Most of these netbooks run full copies of Windows or Linux and offering power enough to run basic internet, office and even multimedia software – this has given us a new class of affordable machines with surprising processing power and flexibility, despite being designed for much simpler tasks.  New models continue to be offered with Windows 8 and Intel/AMD x86-compatible processors.

Cheap, powerful computing – what it *can* be

I bought an Asus EeePC 1011PX to aid study and note-taking in 2011.  As I progressed through the studies beyond simple note-taking, writing up projects in Microsoft Office 2010, it has been used for mixing multitrack audio on the move, as well as room-acoustics analysis with a USB test mic.  That’s an amazing amount of processing power and flexibility for £230, even though that doesn’t include the extra hardware and software I now use with it.
To get the best out of such a small machine, I’ve had to carefully analyse my needs and find solutions that scale down appropriately to such a small machine.  Document compatibility issues finally pushed me to purchase and relearn Microsoft Office 2010.  To make that transition I ditched the dog-slow Windows 7 Starter Edition in favour of the two major consumer-previews of Windows 8, enjoying both enough to finally upgrade to the release version Windows 8 Pro.
I’ve also had to deal with what I feel was more than my fair share of maintenance.  Within 11 months of purchase both the fan and hard-drive failed, both of which were dealt with surprisingly quickly by the manufacturers’ UK repair agents.  No surprise that these moving parts needed replacement, but within 11 months?  The OS itself needs to update itself from time to time, as do most of the individual applications – albeit less often and usually without requiring a reboot.
So all this leads me to ask; what makes the Chromebook any better than what I know of an arguably similarly-specified Windows machine at a similar price point, and what can one expect from such a machine?

Software and hardware

First-off, a Chromebook comes preinstalled with enough of an operating system (OS) to run Google Chrome, and connect to the outside world via WiFi and Bluetooth wireless, alongside slots for USB and SD-cards.  Anything that can be done inside a web-browser can be done with a Chromebook.  This essentially makes it a Netbook in the most literal definition of the word.
Additional software is available, but only in the form of web-apps that can be installed inside Google Chrome itself.  This should ensure an increased level of OS security and stability compared with a full-blown Windows, Mac or Linux installation, since the user cannot fiddle with it.  It should also ensure that software updates are much more limited in scope and number, since there are less components on the Chromebook.
Installing Microsoft Office is out of the question, but that doesn’t mean that the machine can’t be useful for paper-based productivity – but instead of Office, Google would expect you to use their Docs/Drive package with a Google account.  Instead of Outlook, Gmail – this would include calendar and contacts functionality.

User data

A Chromebook typically comes with very little built-in storage.  The Samsung 303C tested here comes with a 16GB SSD which is seemingly used for both the built-in OS and any user-data such as downloads, etc.  With such limited onboard storage, multimedia options are limited to anything that can be downloaded from the Internet, or played directly from USB/SD media.
The idea of the Chromebook platform is that it acts as an interface to cloud-based storage and management of email and documents – and is clearly best used with a Google account.  If you don’t have one, the machine will allow you to create an account as part of the login process.

First impressions – hardware

 

  • Fast boot time (needs measuring)
  • Easy to get going with Google account credentials or as a guest user
  • Fast to sleep and to wake up.

Display

Pros

 

  • Surprisingly nice screen – compares well with existing Asus EeePC 1011PX netbook. Pixel size seems ideal for form-factor.
  • Text rendering looks surprisingly crisp – without being fatiguing.
  • Matte finish much nicer to use than the reflective shiny glass finish on Macs and some PC laptops.

Cons

 

  • HDMI connection to second monitor has yet to work with any DVI or HDMI-equipped TV or computer monitor I’ve tried – usually causing the laptop screen to go dark.  This might make presentations a problem.

Build

Pros

 

  • Thin
  • Light
  • Feels solid in the hand.

Cons

 

  • Fiddly to open one-handed, but too light and small to easily open two-handed.  Could easily have been solved by setting a bigger indent just under the trackpad to offer more grip.
  • Silver coating is really too easy to scratch. The underside of the machine is scratched up after a day’s use, and it’s only ever been on a clean desk, or inside a padded case.
  • The “G” from the Samsung lid decals has fallen off – not good since the unit has only ever travelled in my hand or a soft case!
  • While the machine feels solid enough in handling, the screen does seem to touch the keyboard when folded down, allowing dust and skin-grease to transfer, particularly from the spacebar to form lines on the screen.  This is a common problem to all plastic-screened laptops and notebooks I’ve used.  Models such as recent MacBook Pro’s with much more solid glass-faced screens seem to flex less easily to begin with, and mark less easily than the plastic if they do make contact with the keys.
  • Headphone socket is a very tight fit with most standard 3.5mm plugs encountered during the trial.  Really does feel like I’m going to break the machine if I push too hard.  This is the complete opposite case to most laptops I’ve ever encountered, whose headphone/line-out connections are generally too loose, causing nightmares for corporate presentations.

Keyboard

Pros

 

  • Full-size keyboard is very much like the MacBook (Pro) machines we’ve been using for the last five or more years.
  • Function keys well thought out with dedicated (and marked) keys for tab refresh, maximise, window cycle, brightness, volume mute/down/up, standby.
  • Typing longer documents (like this review, even) is a surprisingly comfortable experience – I’m finding it hard to feel any notable difference between this and a MacBook.
  • Dedicated “Search” button likely more useful to modern users than “Caps Lock”, but…

Cons

 

  • …Where’s the CAPSLOCK KEY SO I CAN SHOUT AT PEOPLE??!
    • Actually, Alt-Search has the same effect – makes sense since the search key is in the traditional place for the Caps Lock key, but this config could confuse new users who might not understand why their Chromebook “randomly” brings up a search function!
  • No “Delete” key, nor obvious way to replicate function.
  • Left and right arrow function keys would make most sense as a way of moving across tabs in the same window, but don’t appear to do anything?
  • No media keys – would be useful for YouTube, Google Play Music player, etc

Trackpad

 

  • Like many new machines, this was set a little slow by default. Soon fixed by adjusting settings (more on this later).
  • Right-clicking with two-finger tapping seems hit-and-miss.  Right side seems more sensitive/accurate to touch gestures than left.
  • Works best either with a firm thumb-push at the bottom (where buttons used to be before smooth trackpads became the “in thing”), or using tap-to-click. To this end-user, this feature seems no different to the glass Apple Trackpads fitted to aluminium unibody models.

Built-in software – in use

User accounts

 

  • Multiple user accounts can be set up on the same Chromebook.
  • “Admin” tools, suitable for remote control and corporate deployment are available as part of a Google Apps domain (how else?), but at a cost of something around $20 per year per machine at a quick glance.
  • Most users will likely be fine with a strong password and normal “user accounts”.
  • “guest” (browser-only”) access can be selected as an option at login/lock screens.
  • Accounts can be “locked” after sleep, requiring password (or switch to guest/alternate account) to wake – important for security.

Taskbar; a.k.a Launcher

 

  • Seems to be fixed at the bottom of the screen – but can be set to auto-hide.
  • Left side shows currently-open apps
  • Apps can be pinned to the launcher, much like Windows.
    • Some apps open in their own window, some open in a new tab.
    • Right side shows clock, WiFi, battery and account avatar pic by default.  Also shows notification of audio muting and caps-lock.

Menus

 

  • Relatively few built into the OS itself.
  • Tend to be limited to particular app (for the browser) or function (for things like WiFi, Bluetooth etc.)

Network connectivity

This machine’s sole means of connectivity with the outside world is via WiFi, which supports WPA, WEP and unencrypted connections on 2.4GHz (a/b/g) or 5GHz (n) WiFi networks.  Connectivity has been consistently good with a variety of Ruckus, Netgear and Apple access points.

Bluetooth connectivity

File transfer

Not attempted as couldn’t get the Bluetooth Stack to connect with any phone compatible with bluetooth file transfer protocols.

Keyboard/Mouse

Pairing an Apple keyboard/mouse set with the Chromebook was easy, once I’d remembered (searched Google for) the method to get the devices into a discoverable state.  Keymapping seemed reasonably logical – with volume, screen brightness, dashboard and windowing keys apparently behaving as expected.
Interesting discovery:  Playing a WAV file from a CF card (via USB card reader) brings up a built-in Music app – which does seem to respond even to the media keys on the Apple keyboard – impressive since there are no marked media keys on the built-in keyboard.  Nice little “easter egg” inserted to make developers’ lives easier perhaps?

Internet tethering

See “Interacting with Smartphones” below.

Windowing

Apps can be set (usually by right-clicking on them in the Launcher bar or menu) to the following windowing modes:

  1. As standard tab
  2. As pinnned tab
  3. Maximised
  4. Fullscreen

In real use, the actual implementation (and terminology) seem confusing and inconsistent.  “Maximised” Gmail has a different (and more minimalist) window style to any other “maximised” tab.  Some other apps (Scratchpad, for example) seem to be able to use the same minimalist maximised style, but not everything.

File management

It’s bound to happen – at some point in using a Chromebook, you’ll find that you’ve got some file(s) from a camera or USB drive that need attaching to an email or uploading to cloud storage somewhere.
Essentially, anything presenting itself as a USB Mass Storage Device, when plugged into one of the USB ports on the back of the machine, will bring up the File Manager window and make the contents available.  Obviously not every file type can be opened directly on the machine, but all files can at least be copied, uploaded or attached to emails.
Pretty much all common disk formats are supported, with no problems found during testing when reading and writing to USB drives formatted to default Mac OS X or Windows 8 settings.  According to the relevant Google support page, common Linux filesystems are compatible too – so the average user should rarely get into a situation where a given USB drive is unreadable.

A note about photos

Inserting an SD card or USB drive full of pics straight from a camera gives access to the pictures via the file manager.

  • Photos can be viewed as a slideshow directly from the drive.
  • Opening a photo will view the photo fullscreen.
  • Once the photo is open, the file manager also includes some simple editing tools:
    • Editing mode is enabled by clicking on the pencil icon that appears in the bottom-right corner of the preview screen/window.
    • WARNING:  ANY EDITS ARE AUTOMATICALLY OVERWRITTEN BY DEFAULT!

Web browsing

This machine essentially is Google Chrome, with enough of an OS to run it.  So browsing the web is essentially the same as it would be on any other machine supporting the same version of Chrome.

Apps

The Apps menu links to various built-in apps by default, including an app for the webstore where additional software from Google and third-parties can be installed. Note that this doesn’t mean you can install standard Mac, Windows or Linux software on this machine at all, let alone expect it to run.
Any apps installed are essentially plugins that extend the functionality of the Chrome web browser.  If you sync your Chrome settings to your Google account, then all pre-existing bookmarks, settings and apps installed on other machines should find themselves synced on the Chromebook.

Settings

All machine settings are essentially available through the Settings tab of the Chrome browser itself – with some shortcuts (date/time, WiFi, Battery) on launcher.

Email

Online

Uses the normal web Gmail interface, just like any other browser.

Offline

Available via a free downloadable Offline Google Mail app, from the Chrome web store.

  • Interface looks more like Mail.app on iPad than the usual Gmail web interface.
  • Offline syncing selectable up to whole of previous months’-worth of messages.
  • Some odd windowing issues when composing or filing messages.
  • Also default zoom levels needed reducing (eg press ctrl & – to zoom out) to make text in “Apply” and “Cancel” boxes

Smartphone interoperability

Given the cloud-based credentials of the Chromebook and Chrome OS, how does one get at photos, audio or video recorded on a smartphone?  it would seem that these should be synced to a suitable cloud-based service via some form of native app running directly on the device itself.  Once in the cloud, they’re accessed through a browser or web-app like any other web content.

Interaction with iPhone 3G (iOS 3.1.3)

 

  • No way to get photos or other content direct from device over USB.
  • No mobile Internet tethering via USB/Bluetooth. No WiFi tethering via iPhone 3G without jailbreaking the iPhone, which is untested as I don’t want to jailbreak my work phone!
  • All Google services accessible through Safari will be synced with same services accessed via Chromebook.

Interaction with iPhone 4 (iOS 6.0.1)

As iPhone 3G above, but:

  • Wifi hotspot may be possible but unable to test as the feature is locked out on my iPhone/plan.
  • All Google iOS apps, AND services available through Safari/any other browser app, will stay in sync with content accessed via the Chromebook.

 

 

Mobile phones, support and contracts… (Submitted by email)

It’s been interesting seeing how the mobile phone market has progressed in a few years. Ten years ago, I’d have walked into a store, picked a handset that did what I needed it to do, and live with it as-is for the next two years or however long the contract runs for. Then wash, rinse, repeat, adding new features to the ‘necessaries’ list in the meantime to inform each new purchase. If a phone didn’t do what it should, software updates were out of the question – just check it thoroughly in the first week and if required, swap it out for a phone that does work under an exchange policy. My Nokia 6310i worked for years without updates, and was even supported by much newer OS’s for Bluetooth sync and data connectivity.

Then the smartphone came along, and specifically the iPhone and Android platforms. There are hundreds more features in these things. And that’s great. I love my iPhone and find it very hard to imaging life without one. I’d function, but with more hassle in some ways, especially with regard to navigation and planning journeys on public transport. Email and SMS have become staples of information exchange on the move in ways I didn’t even think possible, let alone useful.

The downsides with this mass proliferation of features and functionality seem to be:

1) useability – it takes longer to learn to use and harness all the new potential features that come as standard. Doing these steps, and optimising them for everyday smoothness is beginning to become as big a time drain as not using them at all. iOS6 has so many new additional features over, say, iOS4 that I’ll never realistically find time to try everything to see if and how it fits with my life and needs.

2) lock-in – there was a time for me in the late 1990’s that I came to know about standards such as POP3 and IMAP email systems and how to deploy them. I think LDAP or something like it was also available. These seemed to be worldwide standards – anything that could follow the protocol could essentially work with anything else designed to the same protocol, regardless of the software or service provider. Fast-forward some 10 or more years, and we now have a number of somewhat proprietary systems for the same functionality, branded by say Google and Gmail, or Apple and its iCloud services. Taking email as an example, IMAP functionality is claimed but doesn’t quite work as IMAP standards intended. Gmail IMAP basically works but needs a bit of tweaking to get it right. On the other hand, I’ve yet to get a bog-standard IMAP client to even authenticate to iCloud’s servers, let alone talk to them. So if I’m to exploit the additional features offered by either platform, I’m forced to use more modern, more expensive hardware for features that really are trivially easy in terms of processing power and network bandwidth, if only the providers would just stick to established standards. This isn’t strictly limited to mobile phone platforms, but it’s an important limitation that in part defines the solution deployed on my desktops and laptops.

3) software updates – all these extra functions and solutions, whether built into the device operating systems themselves or bolted on as third-party applications, require regular updates to fix bugs or security holes. This seems to be an increasing need lately, since the devices, operating systems and data protocols involved seem to be too complicated for developers to get right first time – a problem that is human in origin (nobody is perfect, right?) and will likely never be fixed while needs (perceived or otherwise) and functionality continue to grow.

My big question coming out of all this is: do I really *need* all this new technology to survive in this modern age?

If the answer is thought to be “yes”, can I live with the time and patience required to get the best of it?

I’m getting to the point where the madness has to stop – beyond retaining existing functionality, the answer to both questions is trending towards ‘no’. I’m a technology geek. By no means an expert: but this small voice feels that something needs doing to make things still-easier on these fronts if we are to see this explosion in technological functionality actually translate into useful productivity. Anyone care to add any thoughts on this?

Asus EeePC 1011PX odd behaviour

Had an odd experience this afternoon with my Asus P1011PX netbook.  Started up Windows 8 as usual, and it was really slow to respond to trackpad gestures.  I thought at first (as I was working on a site project) that the dust on my finger was stopping the trackpad working, but then I noticed that the whole machine was becoming less and less responsive, with nothing odd showing in Task Manager except that it took five minutes for the machine to get there.  Only Chrome was open by the time the machine slowed to a crawl.

I next noticed that the left side of the keyboard was getting really hot – too hot to type. Closer investigation showed the fan vent was producing no air, and so my best guess is that the machine was getting too hot and the CPU was being throttled down to keep it running without burning up.  Rebooting failed several times in a row, with the machine powering off dead about 2/3 of the way through each startup.

Oddly, getting the machine home, it’s working fine now. Fan is up and running and everything seems in order with temperature and running processes/CPU usage.

Just thought I’d pop a note about this here (since other 1011PX users clearly hit this site) to see whether anyone else has experienced a similar issue – and what (if anything) resolved it?

Windows 8 Consumer Preview on Asus EeePC 1011px

I’ve just installed the Windows 8 Customer Preview on my netbook to see what all the fuss was about, and first impressions are…

…strangely positive!

The install took about 20mins from booting from the USB installer to having a working desktop. From that desktop, I noted that all the components were immediately usable, including a reasonable driver for the Intel GMA3150 graphics chipset.

I then tried to play with the Metro apps, quickly finding that they all require a desktop resolution of 1024×768. Since this machine (and pretty much every other netbook I’ve encountered) has a small 1024×600 panel, none of the new apps work. Frankly, given that the Metro interface is most suited to such small displays, this seems to be a bit of an own-goal on Microsoft’s part, and something that I think ought to be fixed before the final release if MS wants to give an incentive for a lot of users like me to spend real money to upgrade.

Besides Metro, the rest of the desktop interface seems to make sense. The new Start interface seems to work, and I was soon able to remove entries for the Metro apps I won’t be using. In doing so, I noted that the tiling and grouping doesn’t seem to be as flexible as most users would like – I wasn’t able to choose a tile colour or size for other installed apps, nor was I able to change their labels.

After installing Chrome, Thunderbird (with Lightning and Google Address Book addons), LibreOffice and a couple of other apps to get real work done, I’ve found the rest of the interface informative and swift.

One surprise as a former XP user wo migrated to Mac OS X, is the ability to calibrate the display colour output using a built-in tool from the Control Panel. It’s simple but surprisingly effective, removing the blue-tint. I tried this in Windows 7 when the netbook still had it, but it wasn’t terribly effective – perhaps a user error on my part.

It seems to me that for the kinds of admin, email, browsing and media consuming tasks I’d usually put this netbook to, 2Gb RAM is enough to keep Windows 8 happy – even with an email client, multiple Chrome tabs, iTunes, Dropbox, LibreOffice Write and some other apps open, memory use rarely topped 1.3Gb – better than my Dell Inspiron 6000 running similar workloads on XP.

So I’ll be sticking with this for a while, and will report back with more findings when I have time.

Burning Data DVD/CD from Mac OS X “Lion” (10.7.x), for use on non-apple devices

Slight alarm bells ringing here.  It’s been a while since I last had to burn optical media for anything other than DVD-video mastering, so it’s not an issue I’m likely to have come across since the early days of Mac OS X “Leopard” (10.5.x).

This afternoon I happily burned a DVD using Apple Finder as usual, and it all went fine, verifying as usual. Since the target is a mixture of users on Windows and Mac OS X, I asked a Windows-using colleague to check the burned DVD worked on her machine.  Epic Fail.  Came up with the usual dialogue box asking how to open the contents, and Explorer showed the disc as having nothing in the root directory.

When I took the disc back and mounted it on the Mac, I checked in Disk Utility and sure enough, the mounted drive is in the native HFS+ format for Macs. Totally useless on PC’s.  I’m sure Mac OS X used to burn Hybrid media suitable for use on either Mac or PC, but this seems to have changed somewhere in the last few years.

Googling the problem online doesn’t bring up obvious answers, so I had to do a little more digging.  One possible solution was found here in the Apple discussion forums, which I’m now trying for myself.

Burn (Freeware utility) for Mac OS, on Sourceforge

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So – I’ve told it to create a disk image suitable for PC’s (as shown in the dropdown menu above), and I’ll mount it in the Finder before burning to DVD to see what format the image actually has:

Image

Good sign – the Finder sees ISO 9660 (Joliet).  Now I just need to burn the image to disk, which I’m doing from inside the Burn app rather than asking Disk Utility to burn an ISO.  I’ll test that later.

So while I wait for the disk to burn. I’ll add to these notes that I need to check the disc on a Windows box, to check that the file names remain intact.  For some uses this might not matter, but for the application I have in mind (sending multitrack audio projects to multiple users for training purposes), the file and directory names to remain intact for Reaper (or any other audio sequencer) to find them again without having have the user point it to them.

As I write this I also realise that the burning process, despite being set to run at 8x (the fastest the drive supports) and the data-set and transfer rate remain the same as in Disk Utility, seems to be taking about twice as long as Disk Utility.

The final result:

Image

Also looking promising – let’s test it on a Windows box and see what it looks like!

UPDATE:  Fail. Comes up as blank DVD in Windows.  

Looks like the only option left in the time available is to transfer the content via USB key and burn the disk on Windows.

Anyone else have any better solutions that don’t involve spending money or reverting to the command-line?

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Finding the right OS for a basic Asus Netbook

Back in the fall of 2011 I found myself looking for a netbook-format computer, which I planned use for a combination of basic online, office and media work. Online work covers the usual email, social networking, blogging and surfing duties. Nothing too heavy, I’m not expecting to use this as a media playback machine for video, nor for games. Office-related work for me is the usual emailing, documentating and spreadsheet number-logging and number-crunching work, and the occasional printed letter. Media work is the basic management and non-critical editing of a large photo library, along with occasional audio mastering work.

Getting the hardware right

Lacking the funds for the MacBook Air that I would want for such duties, I had to look around at the netbook offerings from the rest of the market. All of them seemed to come with Windows 7 Starter Edition, and all of them seemed to offer the same 3 USB2.0 ports, SD card slot and analoge video output over VGA.

Aside from the occasional Nikon RAW photo, nothing of the work I want to do with such a machine is terribly processor-intensive, but I decided that something like the 1.6GHz Intel N570 dual-core Atom processor would give a reasonable compromise between cost, battery life, speed and future-proofing.

In fairness, there’s not much user-configuration to do on a Netbook beyond picking the right CPU/battery/storage-space for the job. All the netbooks I found were offered with only 1Gb RAM, which I thought would likely not be enough to get real work done in Windows 7, Starter Edition or not. I could easily see an upgrade to 2Gb on the cards, and was happy to see that all the netooks I found offered easy access to the RAM bays to do this.

So – I tried typing on a few machines to see how the keyboard felt, and how responsive each machine was. No point buying a machine which is unable to keep up with my slow typing, from new! Within a few minutes I found myself gravitating to the EeePC line, whose out-of-the-box software was slim enough to not bog the machine down in real use, while having a keyboard I could comfortably type on without feeling like I’m constantly having to “switch modes” from my full-sized work machines, Mac and PC alike.

So – The EeePC 1011PX became my weapon of choice – mostly because it was the only machine I felt comfortable with, that also offered a dual-core processor, decent-enough battery and reasonable hard-drive space: 320Gb is a welcome improvement on the 120-160Gb I found in other machines at a similar price-point, and should give me room to spare even with a decent (compressed) music and photo library on board.

Experience with Windows 7 – Starter Edition

So – I got the machine home, and started out with everything as it came out of the box. Windows 7 Starter Edition was a welcome modernisation on the Windows XP PC’s I’ve owned in the past. Coming back to the Windows from using Macs for 6 years was rather a shock I’ll admit – of the first 30 hours of real use I’d ended up spending 20 of them waiting for new updates to Windows, Office or other software. Thats not a good ratio, and the updates just never stopped. Absolutely hopeless.

When I was able to get real work done, I found the machine was paging to virtual memory on the hard drive pretty much constantly. Given that this only involved use of Google Chrome and/or LibreOffice, none of which for intensive tasks, it was pretty clear that a RAM upgrade was on the cards.

Asus says that this machine is capable of 2Gb RAM max, so that’s what I put in it for the princely sum of around £15 from a real bricks-and-mortar store. In Windows 7 the difference between 1Gb and 2Gb RAM was immediate, even under the lightest of use. No, it didn’t improve startup or application load times, but it was nice to finally have a machine that didn’t noticeably bog down over hours of use.

Over the next week I found a number of niggles with Windows 7 that lead me to ditch it:

  • Limitations of Starter Edition:
    • Maximum of 3 simultaneous applications. It’s not uncommon for me to have a media player, spreadsheet, word processor and web-browser open alongside each other. Bang – I’m over the limit already. None of these are intensive enough to bog down a Netbook, so this really is a silly arbitary rule that gets in the way unnecessarily.
    • Use of screen space. Again, this was a silly thing, but I found the task-bar taking up too much space for the functionality it gives. Netbooks with small screens need some thought applied to them on the part of developers, so that the content takes up more space than the UI that displays and manipulates it. All the Windows-based software failed this test badly, especially MS Office. I was able to do some things about this like hiding some toolbars, setting the taskbar to auto-hide, but it still didn’t feel right.
    • Typing lag. As the software updates racked up, the machine bogged down. I turned the bundled Anti-Virus software off which helped for a while, but the machine soon bogged down. There’s just no excuse for this kind of behaviour on any machine designed for real users.
    • Wallpaper. Yup – W7 Starter Edition doesn’t even let the user configure their wallpaper.
    • System backup/restore. I bought a 16Gb USB key to host a system-restore image because Asus, like pretty much every other manufacturer, doesn’t bundle even optical media to get the system reinstalled in the event of massive user error or hard-drive failure. It turned out that not one of the (confusing) array of built-in tools would create a bootable disk that would reinstall the system from scratch. The results were:
      • Software crash part-way through creation of the restoration media
      • Hardware crash during boot from restoration media
      • “Missing Operating System” error messages on booting from the restoration media
      • Once booted, the restoration software failed to see the backup image as a valid image, OR would refuse to recognise the machine as a valid installation target.
    • The results were repeatable across a variety of USB flash-drives, USB hard-drives and even DVD media created using an external drive plugged into this machine.

So, after wasting two days trying (and failing spectacularly) to get to a point where I was confident that I would be able to reinstall the system software in the event of a failure (which will happen one day), I took the decision to ditch the Windows install and look for something more suitable.

Alternative OS’s

I briefly tried and reviewed the following alternative operating systems, and concluded the following:

OS: Pros: Cons: Notes:
Android x86 ports Very, very fast even from SD card.Nice, modern interface, works well on smaller screens.Great battery life.

Small footprint.

Excellent syncronisation with Google mail, calendars, contacts.

Software selection very limited.Getting the machine to sleep needs some hacks.Machine thinks it’s a phone, which means that its software doesn’t know how to interact with local file storage on a hard drive.

Too much reliance on a working Internet connection.

Stability issues.

Too much of a chore to get real work done, stored and sent out.

 

One to watch.Releases 3 and 4 used.I really wanted this to work out – I’m all for “unusual” solutions where they bring real benefits.

 

Ubuntu 11.10 Well-known,All hardware works immediately.Stable.

Reasonable use of battery and other limited system resources.

Good selection of sofware bundled or in repos.

Long boot time.

Iphone Internet tethering worked out-of-the-box over USB

Great online forum community.

Unity interface can get slow and glitchy.Gnome Shell nice enough but slow on mobile hardware.Needed time to whittle down the UI to make efficient use of display.

KDE too complex/fiddly for daily UI use, especially on small screen.

Flash video really slow, especially for BBC iPlayer content.

Desktop/Window managers tried were:Unity (2D and 3D),Gnome 3

KDE 4

Openbox

LXDE

#! – Crunchbang linux Excellent speed.Light on resource.Highly customisable.

Hardware worked out-of-the-box.

Good range of software in repos.

Great online forum community.

Iphone tethering took a lot of work to get running, including compiling a new kernel and some drivers/pairing software.Kernel and some other software running behind the times.  Recommended.My favourite out-of-the-box install, let down by driver support on newer hardware. 
Fedora 16 and 17 Faster than Ubuntu in general use.Great online forum community covering a wide range of uses. Even more resource-heavy than Ubuntu when running comparable desktop/window-managers.UI default settings not good on small screens.Slower bootup than Ubuntu. I loved releases 1-3 back in the day, but I think it’s been surpassed for most” normal” users by Ubuntu.
Haiku OS Fabulous speed and use of resources.UI is efficient and great on small displays. Clearly not a “finished” solution.Software and drivers not available. One to watch.I was a fan of BeOS 5 back in the day, and would really like to see its community-driven successor.
Joli OS (Jolicloud) Nice presetation of applications.Online syncronisation of apps, settings and content is enticing.Based on Ubuntu. Iphone tethering never worked correctly.Dropbox integration doesn’t produce a local cache.Integration with Google Docs needs a working Internet connection.

“Offline” operations are possible but not easy.

Application “store” not terribly intuitive.

I wanted this to work, but the silliness of having no offline cache or operability with built-in apps made me run away screaming.
Chrome OS Similar to Joli OS Hampered the same way as Joli OS.Wasn’t able to try on real hardware as none of the available builds booted on this machine.
Pear OS Slicker than Ubuntu, slightly quicker to boot. French localisation can’t entirely be turned off.Some rough edges to UI,Some installable software didn’t work correctly One to watch, if it ever takes itself seriously enough to fix the rough edges.Watch out for a lawsuit from Apple – there’s a lot of UI similarities and even straight copies of some elements. Good for Apple-savvy users, perhaps. 
Peppermint OS Two Almost as quick as Crunchbang, to boot and in use.Quicker in use than Ubuntu.All hardware worked out-of-the-box.

Default Openbox config works well on small screens as it comes.

Insane battery life compared with box-fresh Ubuntu or Windows 7 installs.

Some fiddling required to make it look and operate like a modern OS.Iphone Internet tethering worked, but only after installing ipheth-pair software.  The all-round winner in my testing.

The above list is by no means complete, and clearly doesn’t cover every option out there. It does cover a good range I think of the different OS concepts and OS’s out there,

Building my workspace in Peppermint OS Two:

So far I’ve imported my documents, music and photos, and have installed:

  • Peppermint OS Two base installation
  • LibreOffice office suite, with toolbars set to “small” mode.
  • Evolution for email, contacts and calendar management, synchronised to Google account with built-in tools.
  • Dropbox for online document storage/backup.
  • xcompmgr for screen shadow and transparency effects.
  • Docky for Mac-OS-like dock. I’m a sucker for UI niceties, so long as they’re capable of getting out of the way when I’m trying to get real work done.
  • Ipheth-pair utility to get iPhone Internet tethering working.
  • Shotwell for photo library management and basic editing.
  • Audacity for basic sound editing.
  • Gimp for more advanced image processing/editing.
  • VLC media player.
  • Google Chrome browser. It’s built-in bookmarks/app/settings synchronisation has been a genuine lifesaver while I’ve been trying to find the right OS/workspace for this machine, working for everything except Haiku OS and (strangely) Android.
  • Gwibber for basic access to Twitter.
  • Skype for transatlantic voice/video calls.
  • DOSBox for some light relief playing old games, such as:
    • Monkey Island
    • Simcity Classic
    • Simcity 2000
    • Lemmings
    • Pipe Dreams
    • Test Drive series

Things to fix:

As I’ve typed this post, I’ve found that everything seems to be working well together, with LibreOffice Writer consistently keeping up with my (not exactly stellar) typing speed. There have been a couple of niggles though:

  • Backup
  • Trackpad – it works, but a little too well during typing, sometimes invoking a click as I tap it accidentally while typing, even when I’ve turned “tap to click” off.
  • Screen colour calibration – I’ve been spoiled by how easy this is to do (by eye) using built-in tools on Mac OS X, and could do with finding a similar method here on Linux.

Viewing and printing PDF’s from the Internet or GMail in Google Chrome

Google Chrome does a splendid job of showing PDF’s inside a browser window so you can read/search/save/do-what-ya-gotta-do.  That is until it comes to printing anything that is either of an unusual paper size, or um… in landscape orientation. Yuh.  Sorry about that, but it’s true.  And it looks like Google might not get around to fixing that anytime soon.

Easier workaround:

  • download the file
  • open it in your favourite PDF viewer
  • Print from the PDF viewer.

Harder workaround:

For those of you who simply *must* print from Chrome because downloading a PDF to open/print in another application is just too hard for whatever reason, then you will have to fight Chrome to make it do your will. Here’s how it plays out:

  • Find your difficult PDF on whatever website/online email account and open it in the browser.
  • Tell Chrome to Print it.
  • You’ll be taken to a print-preview window, with print controls on the left side of the screen. (As per the screenshot below)
  • You might find that a single-page document gets another blank page added to the end. I don’t know why.  If it’s a single-side document, tick “Two sided” and the blank page will get printed on the back of the page you want.
  • If the document was set to be “Portrait” mode, just enter the number of copies, select the printer, tell it to do black and white, and when you’re happy, click “print”.
  • If the document was set to “landscape” mode, then you’ll have to tell Chrome *again* that you want to print in Landscape. Otherwise your landscape document will be printed in landscape on a portrait page. Then check the other options, sending to right printer etc.
  • And you *should* be done.
  • After getting this wrong a few times, as I inevitably do every time I try to do it this way, you’ll probably appreciate the “easier workaround” above.

How to stop sending emails from GMail before they’re ready

So there you were, happily typing your email on the Gmail web page when suddenly, #POOF!#, it starts sending and before you can do anything to stop it you’re taken back to the inbox. Message sent. Ready or not.

The reason:

  1. Google have set up their email page so that pressing the “Tab” key moves the cursor to the next field or button on the web page, which in this case happens to be the “Send” button. And then when you next press “Enter” to end the line you’re still typing because you didn’t know you’d done it, off it goes.  You probably hit the “Tab” key by accident, or you maybe pushed the button intentionally to create an indent like you would in Apple Mail or Word.
  2. Alternatively if you’re anything like me, sometimes you might just get trigger-happy and blatantly hit “Send” on things that really shouldn’t be sent…

Easiest workaround:

  • Log into Gmail in Chrome, then click on the big dark cog at the top right:
  • Then select “Settings” from the menu that pops up.
  • Click on “Labs”
  • Scroll down and find the “Undo Send” lab option. Select “Enable” next to it.
  • Scroll down to find the “Save changes” button, and click it.
  • You’ll be taken back to your inbox.

Now, when you hit the “Send” button, a yellow notice comes up at the top of the browser window offering the chance to undo the send – but you only get a few seconds to do it!

Easy-ish workaround:

Don’t put the recipient’s names or addresses into the “To”, “CC” or “BCC” fields before typing your new email. If you’re replying, delete the recipient addresses.

That way, if you activate this intentional keyboard shortcut (which is what it is, no matter how annoying), it won’t be able to send because there are no addresses to send it to. And it will tell you.  And eventually you’ll drop the habit of bashing the “Tab” key without sending embarrassing or otherwise empty or half-baked emails to others.

Harder workaround:

If like me you *still* keep sending messages before they’re ready, and particularly if you’re working on a longer message that will take a while to get right, there’s no shame at all in composing the email text somewhere else and then pasting it in before sending. For incidence, I’ve written this as a document in Google Docs, and that’s enabled me to get all of the formatting, layout and thinking sorted without needing to worry I’ll send before I’m ready.