Thoughts

What Microsoft Can Learn From Mac OS X Lion

This article makes a point which has been on the mind of Windows and Mac users for quite some time: namely, that Microsoft ought to stop selling so many versions of its OS. It’s confusing, it’s expensive, and from my point of view, underhanded.

What Microsoft Can Learn From Mac OS X Lion

They should take a cue from Apple, which has only two versions of its OS: its consumer version (for desktops and laptops), and its server version.

With OS X Lion, it looks like they’ll simplify things even more. It may ship with only one version, allowing those who want the server version to activate the server components as an add-on. Cheers for that!

Another point of contention for me is the ridiculous price difference between Windows and OS X. Windows can cost upwards of $300-500, depending on the version you choose, while OS X is just $129. Windows OS upgrades can cost anywhere from $200-300 dollars or more, while OS X upgrades are just $29.

The price difference is incredible, and I can’t help feeling cheated whenever I need to shell out that much money for a Windows license. What am I really getting in return, when I compare their OS with the Mac experience?

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Thoughts

Every time I boot up the Windows XP virt…

Every time I boot up the Windows XP virtual machine on my Mac, I waste at least half an hour with stupid Windows “critical updates”, not to mention Windows Live One Care updates. My computer is always “at risk”. Windows seems intent on wasting my time, every time I use it.

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Reviews

Vista SP1 addresses some of my previous frustrations

I’ve had Vista SP1 installed on my machine for a week or so, and I’m pleased (surprised as well) to see that Microsoft addressed some of the issues that have frustrated me in the past. I guess when your expectations are low, any step toward something better is noticeable.

If I sound somewhat bitter, it’s because the SP1 install was problematic. I detailed that ordeal previously (you’re welcome to read it if you’d like). Basically, it had to do with language pack installs, which caused the prep time for the SP1 install to take several days instead of 15-30 minutes.

Once the extra language packs were out of the way, the actual SP1 install itself posed no issues for me. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories, but for me, the experience was normal, if somewhat protracted. Once the computer finished the three install steps (2 pre-reboot, 1 post-reboot), my machine was up and running with SP1.

As I began to use it, the first thing I noticed was the correct calculation of the RAM present in my machine (see screenshot above). That was a nice little surprise. I found it frustrating (pre-SP1) when the BIOS said I had 4 GB of RAM, yet Windows could only see 3,069 MB of RAM. It didn’t make sense. Now that’s fixed, although, as Ben Watt points out in this comment, Vista will still not use all of it due to 32-bit limitations.

Boot-up times also seem to have improved. I haven’t done any stopwatch testing, but I don’t find myself sitting around twiddling my thumbs as much when I need to reboot. That’s nice.

More importantly, I am now able to do something which I couldn’t do pre-SP1, even though it was an advertised feature of Vista: back up my machine (see screenshots above). That’s right, before SP1, a full PC backup was impossible. There was a bug that didn’t allow you to go through with that operation in Vista Ultimate. Now that’s no longer the case, and I’m happy to say I completed my first full PC backup this afternoon.

I also understand that Microsoft is now making Vista SP1 available in more languages, which will help reduce the language uninstall times for those people who were unfortunate enough to install the optional (or in my case, required) language packs.

Furthermore, they’re offering free, unlimited SP1 install and compatibility support, which is laudable — but given the fact that one has to jump through hoops to install SP1 — also needed. In my case, I doubt they could have helped. After all, what I needed to do was to uninstall the language packs, and Microsoft made the uninstall process so freakishly long that all I could do was to either stare at the screen, fuming, or take a walk, then come back to find it still going on…

What I do not approve though, is the way they’re trying to get the word out about Vista and SP1. They’re doing it through an internal (leaked?) video that makes me want to pull my eyes out. It’s as if they’ve learned nothing from the Bank of America video debacle. Worse, it’s as if they took that video and did their best to outdo it. They succeeded all right, in a very sad way.

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Reviews

One more reason why Microsoft doesn't get it

At work, I use Windows Vista Ultimate Edition. I tried to install Vista SP1 on my computer yesterday. I created a restore point, just in case something went badly, and started the install. Here’s the error message that I got:

Vista SP1 cannot install

Apparently, Vista SP1 cannot install on my machine, because I’ve got too many language packs installed. Fine, I can understand that. But what I don’t understand is why Microsoft itself kept tagging the extra language packs as “Important Updates”, basically shoving them down my throat and forcing me to install them in the first place. Don’t believe me? Hang on, I’ll give you proof of it below.

I started to remove the language packs, and the uninstall process itself is just horrible. You cannot remove more than one language pack at a time, and it takes at least 10 minutes to do it. Try it yourselves and see. It’s a three-step process. You run the uninstaller from the Control Panel, it takes a few minutes for that, then you’re prompted to reboot, you do so, it takes a few more minutes for the second step, then reboots and runs the third step, which takes the longest. It’s insanely frustrating and a big waste of time. I’m hard-pressed to think Microsoft couldn’t have come up with a better and faster way to install/uninstall language packs.

I had about 7-8 extra languages installed (other than the standard EN/FR/IT/JP). I only did it because Windows wouldn’t quit bugging me to update it by installing the language packs in the first place, and now I find I have to waste more than an hour of my time uninstalling them after having already wasted more than an hour installing them a few months ago. Thanks, Microsoft! Increased productivity my foot…

I uninstalled a few of them yesterday, and here’s the message that I got from Windows after doing that:

Windows Update: Available Updates

See those 5 important updates tagged with yellow, that Windows advises me to install in order to “enhance my computer’s security and performance”. That’s Microsoft-speak for “waste your time and decrease your computer’s performance”. Guess what they are?

Windows Update: Available Updates

As you can see, it’s the very five language packs that I uninstalled. Windows wants me to install them right back, just so I can’t upgrade to SP1. Isn’t that grand? Don’t you just love Microsoft for their obvious programming logic?

That’s exactly the same type of message I kept getting from Windows before I installed the damned things in the first place. I only installed them so Windows would leave me alone. I guess that won’t happen any time soon, because I now see the same “Available Updates” icon in the taskbar, glaring at me, nagging me to install the stupid language packs. Do you see it below? It’s the blue icon with some sort of orange satellite flying around it.

Windows taskbar available updates icon

I only hope Vista SP1 will fix this annoying behavior, but somehow I doubt it. I have a feeling I’m going to have to revert to an earlier system restore point, which would be a real shame, but then again, it would be just what I’d expect from Microsoft.

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Lists

Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-18

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Reviews

Three interesting downloads from Microsoft

Microsoft’s out to kick butt lately, and with these three downloads, it’s taking on three companies at once: Apple, Adobe and Intuit. Try them out, and judge how well Microsoftie’s doing in the fights:

  1. Windows Media Player 11: organized pretty much like iTunes, but with a leaner installer — iTunes weighs in at over 35 MB for the installer, and WMP11 is a featherweight at 24.5 MB.
  2. Microsoft Expression Web Designer (Beta): Dreamweaver, you bloated piece of software, here comes MS to kick you into shape! If you’re sick of 100% CPU overhead when synchronizing your sites with Dreamweaver, like I am, then give the Web Designer a go. You might find it tastes a bit like Equal, not sugar, but hey, anything to whip Adobe into shape, right? Oh, and the kicker: it opens .dwt files. Yup, you heard me right…
  3. Microsoft Office Accounting 2007 (Beta): Quickbooks, shake in your boots! This piece of software will let 1-person or small businesses do most of the things they could do in Quickbooks, and, they’ll be able to do them knowing an enterprise-level database is storing their data, not some Quickbooks proprietary format db. Yes, Office Account 2007 installs SQL Server 2005 Express. A reboot is needed as well after the install (b/c of SQL Server). Yes, it imports data from Quickbooks, and from MS Money.
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Reviews

Boot Camp 1.1 Beta just released by Apple

Apple Boot Camp 1.1 BetaI complained in a previous post about how I wanted to buy a Mac laptop that I’d use for both work on pleasure, but couldn’t, because I was shackled to Windows OS for most of my development work, and there were certain things that just didn’t work on the Mac, with either Boot Camp or with virtualization software.

Well, I can’t have been the only one with gripes, because Apple just released Boot Camp 1.1, addressing some of the very concerns I voiced, both here and at BlogCritics. Here’s what the new version includes:

  • Support for “the latest Intel-based Macs”: this means the Core 2 Duo chips, code-named Merom, coming out at the end of this month. It could also be referring to the new Quad Xeon chips installed in the Power Macs, but I have a feeling 1.1 covers the Merom line as well.
  • Easier partitioning: version 1.0 was somewhat limited (let’s say minimalistic and be nice about it) in the choice of partition sizes.
  • Ability to install Windows XP on any internal disk. It still stinks that we can’t install it on a USB/Firewire drive, but I assume that’s coming down the line.
  • Support for built-in iSight cameras: this was one of my biggest gripes. Trying to use the iSight camera would give the dreaded BSOD.
  • Suppor for built-in microphones: about time! This was a pretty basic requirement.
  • Right-click when pressing the right hand Apple key on Apple keyboards. Interesting, although I’ll probably still use Ctrl + Click.
  • Improved Apple keyboard support: again, about time! Keys like Delete, PrintScreen and NumLock are used by most users on a regular basis.

So what still doesn’t work? The Apple Remote doesn’t. And neither do the Bluetooth Wireless Apple Keyboard and Mouse. Now, while it’d be nice for me to control iTunes while in Windows with the Apple Remote, I can live without that, but why wouldn’t the keyboard and mouse work? So okay, they don’t – fine. But what bothers me is that the sudden motion sensor and the ambient light sensor don’t work either. Those are not only cool, they’re very practical technologies. The sudden motion sensor in particular should be a must have feature.

I can just imagine Apple Tech Support when an unfortunate fellow calls them (hopefully not me):

  • User: “My laptop was resting on its laptop stand, and when I picked it up, it slipped out of my hand and dropped on the table. Now it won’t boot up!”
  • Support: “How high was the drop?”
  • User: “Only 4-6 inches! What’s going on?”
  • Support: “Were you using Windows at the time?”
  • User: “Uh, yes?!”
  • Support: “Well, you’re out of luck. If you were using Mac OS, the sudden motion sensor would have protected the hard drive, but since you used Windows, that hard drive is kaput. Plus, we don’t support Windows. You’ll need to get a new hard drive.”

In a related note, most of the new Lithium Ion batteries are subject to meltdowns and explosions when shaken, overheated or dropped. Something to think about as you hold that laptop in your lap…

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How To

When it comes to home computers, k.i.s.s. and forget it

I’ve been learning a hard lesson these past few weeks, as my parents go through a time of computer trouble, and since I’m the one who purchased their computer equipment and set up their network, it’s up to me to get things right again.

What’s the lesson, you ask? As encapsulated in the title of this post, and as I’ve been yelling it at myself in quiet moments, it’s: keep it simple. 

Here’s how their setup looks:

  1. Cable internet connection
  2. Wireless router
  3. Vonage box hooked up to router, in turn hooked up to phone w/ answering machine, and multi-function printer/fax/copier/scanner
  4. Same multi-function printer/fax/copier/scanner also hooked up to router because it’s networkable
  5. Older desktop hooked up to router, another printer through parallel port, and to the multi-function machine through the network
  6. Laptop with wireless card, using the wireless router, configured to the networkable multi-function machine through the network

Where should I begin? Gee, let me start with WPA. Why? Because that’s how I had their wireless router set up. And every time something happened with the connection, they either couldn’t find the passphrase, or for some reason the laptop’s card didn’t feel like connecting to the router. Lesson learned: ditch encryption, just set up MAC filtering. That way, they can connect on the go, and don’t have to bother with WEP or WPA, which is a real hassle unles you’re a geek. Plus, with MAC filtering, unless someone can spoof a MAC address, they can’t connect to the network. And if they can spoof a MAC address, there’s a good chance they know how to get in even if encryption is enabled. Yes, I know the traffic can be sniffed if the encryption isn’t enabled, but who cares? Even WPA encryption can be sniffed and decrypted with readily available utilities. So why bother with it?

As I banged my head against the wall, I rued the day I set up their multi-function machine through the network. Why? Because if you have to delete it and re-install the printers, or you have to re-format the OS (Thanks, Windows, for the crappy OS, and thanks, driver manufacturers, for the horrible, latrine-worthy job you do writing those drivers – for all devices, not just printers!) you can never find the machine on the network so you can re-configure it, and you spend hours re-setting it to factory defaults through the printer’s LCD menu, then hunting for it on the network. Have you ever tried to walk someone through a printer’s LCD menu when you can’t remember the options, and they’re not familiar with it? It’s not fun. Lesson learned: install through USB, and set up local printers.

Quick question: if you unplug your printer’s or computer’s network cables from the wireless router, can you plug them into the IP telephony router? I guarantee you your parents or friends won’t know the difference, and they’ll plug them into it, then wonder why they can’t get on the Internet or connect to their printer. Lesson learned: forget IP telephony devices like Vonage. It may be cool for us youngsters to brag about how we slashed our phone bill by switching to Vonage or just using Skype, but it’s not cool for your parents when they can’t receive phone calls or faxes. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Vonage, with your awkward and arcane programming steps (or rather, button dances) so I can get my printer to send/receive faxes through your connection! Forget that!) Just set your parents up with a dedicated fax machine, plugged into a wall phone outlet, then sit back and relax, because they won’t call about it! And it’s the same with the phone! Leave it plugged into the wall! Forget saving $5 or $10 a month just for IP telephony. It’ll cost you and your parents much more in stress when their phone doesn’t work.

When my parents lost data because their laptop crashed and had to be reformatted, I realized the value of setting them up with automatic, regular data backup, the kind that just works. You know, you don’t think twice about setting up backups in the server room, but somehow you think the data on your laptop or desktop will take care of itself… Unfortunately, Windows doesn’t come with an easy backup program. Lesson learned: buy a big external hard drive, and set up automatic, regular backup jobs to it. It’s preferable to get a drive that comes bundled with a backup utility. Have any of you used the Windows Backup utility? What a stinker! How do you edit scheduled jobs? First, you can’t edit their every aspect after you’ve created them, and second, who’d think to look under a completely different app, called Scheduled Tasks, to find them there? Really, would anyone other than a geek know that? Why in the world aren’t the jobs available for editing within the Backup utility? It’s just plain dumb design.

As I had to re-educate my parents about the various ways of doing things on the computer, I came to realize (duh!) that I should have spent more time training them at the outset. Yeah, it seems like a no-brainer now, but back when you’ve just spent a couple of days transferring all their stuff and settings from the old computer onto the new one, do you really feel like spending another half day training them on the new machine? No, you just sit them down in front of it, point out the highlights, and tell them to enjoy it! Well, you pay for it later. Lesson learned: spend time training the user at the outset – you’ll avoid problems down the road. And define simple pathways for them, stuff like:

  1. This is where you save your documents.
  2. This is where your email archive gets stored.
  3. This is how your email account is set up. Make sure the settings stay this way!
  4. This is how to back up your bookmarks.
  5. These are the passwords and simple access instructions for the firewall, router, computer accounts, etc.
  6. This is where the photos get stored. Use this application to manage them. Download the photos from your digital camera this way…
  7. This is where the music gets stored. Use this application to manage it. This is how to sync the iPod…
  8. This is where the videos get stored. Use this application to download the videos from your camcorder to the computer. Here’s a simple way to make a DVD from a video…

It’s stuff like this that saves you countless headaches. If you need to, make screen-capture movies and put them on a “how to” DVD for them. Or write instructions, with screenshots. But make it simple, or you’ll pay for it!

Finally, as I troubleshooted why the laptop kept crashing because of obscure driver errors (everything was up to date, and the latest driver versions were installed), I learned the following three things:

  1. Buy a good brand. Don’t get a cheap brand. My parents have an Averatec laptop. That thing clonked out from the start. It was supposed to be able to output video to a TV through an S-video port, and it wasn’t even able to do that. When I called Averatec support, their advice, right off the bat, was to reformat the laptop. Great, the panacea fix used by all lazy tech support people! Then, after the 1-year warranty expired, it started to crash unexpectedly, even though there were no viruses and no spyware on the computer. It didn’t have any weird applications installed, either, just mass apps like Office, Firefox, iTunes, Picasa. So, don’t buy Averatec.
  2. Get an extended support plan. Don’t get cheap when you shouldn’t! Get that support plan, and make sure it includes accidental damage coverage, as well. You’ll be thanking yourself when you have someone to call if the hardware goes bad, or you need help with the system.
  3. Don’t buy Windows. Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But it’s true. People who aren’t geeks need a simple operating system that’s not fragile – one that doesn’t crash or is susceptible to hundreds of thousands of viruses and malware. Windows may be good for developers who are shackled to it by the work they do (like me), and it may work fine at the office, (where you have a Help Desk department, and you’ve got an industrial-strength firewall and anti-virus thin clients pushed out to all the client computers, with the latest virus definitions,) but it’s not good at home – not for people who are at a loss when they need to tell a bad file apart from a good file. The choice becomes pretty simple: Mac OS! Just get a Mac for your parents, or tell your non-geek friends to get one. Then, when they don’t call you to complain that it keeps crashing, you’ll get some time to pat yourself on the back.

I hope this helps you streamline your work as you set up your parents’ or your friends’ machines. I sure wish someone shoved this under my nose when I started to set up my parents with new computer equipment.

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Reviews

New Skype for Windows 2.5

Skype has just released version 2.5 for Windows 2000 and XP. This new version includes the following cool features (on top of existing ones):

  • Send SMS messages directly from Skype to contacts’ cellphones.
  • View and call your Outlook contacts directly from Skype. This is really cool!
  • Auto updates: Skype will automatically update itself – no more downloads and installs.
  • Purchase SkypeOut credit directly from Skype – users won’t have to log onto the site and do it there. Nice!
  • Quick and easy overseas calling: pick the country and dial the number.

Those were the advertised features. Here are the unadvertised ones:

  • In their bid to get more profits, I see they’ve made it much easier for people to purchase ringtones right within Skype. Go to Tools > Rington > Get Latest Ringtones.
  • Similarly, they’ve made it easier for people to purchase accessories. Go to Help > Get Headset.
  • They’ve introduced Contact Groups, which allow you to place your contacts in pre-defined or custom groups – this means less clutter on the Contacts List.
  • The changes made to country codes have also spread to the Edit My Profile window, where the country of your phone number for home, office and mobile is now selected by clicking on the little flag next to the number, and choosing your country from the drop-down menu. This is pretty cool after all.

Now for some problems:

  • My existing list of Skype contacts disappeared after the upgrade. Suddenly, I had no contacts! Where did they go? I really don’t feel like entering them in there again. Five minutes later: decided to sign out of Skype and come back in. Bingo! My contacts re-appeared out of thin air… Strange!
  • The “view your Outlook contacts” feature didn’t work as expected. First, it’s not automatic, you have to import contacts. When I tried it, I had to allow Skype access to Outlook through the dialog box that came up during the Import operation. Then, the contacts didn’t display in Skype. I had to select the View > View Outlook Contacts feature in order to view them.

And some things that worked as advertised:

  • Tried the international calling with the keypad. Sure enough, they placed a drop-down menu listing the country codes right there. It’s helpful for those folks who don’t know how to dial international codes. I’m not sure how helpful it is for me, but I guess they’ve made it foolproof.
  • Sent an SMS to a cellphone in Romania, and it worked. Cost near 13 cents for the message, and when I pressed Send, the status changed to Pending, then after 15-20 seconds, changed to a checkmark, indicating it was sent.

And some things that worked but weren’t advertised:

  • My photo always disappeared after I upgraded to a new version of Skype. I’m relieved to see they’ve finally managed to fix that problem. My profile’s photo was still there when I checked my profile.
  • I see the Video feature is still in Beta. I wish they’d take it out of Beta already and make it available on the Mac as well. The video quality is really good when compared to any other messaging app out there (other than iChat).

Overall, this is a solid upgrade. I like this new version. But then I guess I’m biased toward Skype, and I’ll tell you why. The benefits are clear when one uses the application: great audio, great video, reliable connections, and, my biggest pet peeve, NO ADS, thank God!

I abhor the MSN, Yahoo and AOL Messengers for that very reason: I can’t stand their ads. They stick little banner ads everywhere, bombarding me with them. They flash, they pop up, and they’re completely annoying and distracting. I am truly grateful that Skype hasn’t succumbed to that disgusting practice, and I hope they never do!

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How To

Do you like Remote Desktop Connection?

If you use the Microsoft Remote Desktop Connection tool to connect to other Windows computers, you’ll appreciate their Remote Desktop Client for the Mac. That’s right, with this tool you’ll be able to connect to and manage Windows computers from your Mac! I’ve used it, and it works great!

Did you also know you can set up your Pocket PC with a Remote Desktop Client, and manage your main PC with it?

Finally, if you’ve ever lost the shortcut for Remote Desktop Connection from the Start > Accessories menu, you know how annoying that is. You can’t reinstall the software, because it’s built in. What can you do? There are two things you can do:

  • Run the program directly by using Start > Run, then typing “mstsc”.
  • Put a shortcut to it back on the Start Menu, perhaps even pin it there, by going to “C:\Windows\System 32” and browsing for the “mstsc” executable. Once it’s back on the Start menu, if you don’t like its name, just right-click on it and rename it to “Remote Desktop Connection”.
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