VLC media player on Windows 8

VLC media player

VLC media player

When I upgraded to Windows 8 Pro I wanted to make sure that I could still play DVDs. Now that I have upgraded I’ve moved from using Windows Media Player to VLC media player. Here’s why.

Having read up a little about Windows 8′s support of various media I was fairly confident that if I installed the Windows Media Center then I would be able to continue to play DVDs in Windows Media Player, as I did in Windows 7. I was wrong.

Having bought the upgrade early (back in October 2012) I was offered a free upgrade to Windows Media Centre — woop! — which saved me a whole £6.99. However, as I discovered, it only enables DVD playback in Windows Media Centre, not Windows Media Player.

On my old Windows XP machine I used Cyberlink PowerDVD, which costs between £30-£70 depending; I got it free, bundled with my graphics card, if I remember correctly. It was fairly easy to use, and the controls were pretty intuitive. When I moved to Windows 7 I discovered that this version of the software wasn’t compatible with that version of Windows and I was reluctant to pay for an upgrade and so I started to use Windows Media Player, which had a really terrible, confusing interface but was free.

And so once again another Windows upgrade requires me to find another application that will enable me to watch DVDs on my PC. A quick Google search suggested that I try VLC media player.

VLC media player ticked both boxes: it’s free and it’s really easy to use. The interface is incredibly clear, much simpler than Windows Media Player 10 and 11, and it’s incredibly fast.

I also really like that the software is created by the VideoLAN organisation, “a project and a non-profit organization, composed of volunteers, developing and promoting free, open-source multimedia solutions.”

I definitely recommend VLC media player, if you are looking for a free, user-friendly replacement for Windows Media Player on Windows 8 (or, indeed, any version of Windows from XP SP2 onwards).

Planning Study 2.1

Back in April 2010 (was it really that long ago?) I wrote a post called Planning Study 2.0 showing how I was using a free online application called Floorplanner to work out whether it was feasible to move my study  from the former garage upstairs into bedroom four.

Then we discovered that we were expecting Isaac and those plans were put on hold. Bedroom four was to become Isaac’s room and my study would need to remain in the “garage room”.

Fast forward a couple of years and it became clear to us that Isaac was going to need a larger room. So Jane and I dusted down our plans and we decided to sacrifice the guest bedroom to move Isaac into, then the study would move into Isaac’s old room, and finally the garage room would become a second living room/lounge with the option of a sofa bed or inflatable double-mattress on the floor.

Initial plan — study 2.0

This was my initial plan from April 2010.

Proposed floor plan of relocated study

Initial floor plan of relocated study

Revised plan — study 2.1

My revised plan of Summer 2012, rotated 90° right.

Plan of study

Final plan

And so during the last couple of months we’ve slowly moved things around. Isaac moved rooms first of all, and then the study steadily moved upstairs. Bookcases and books first, then the filing cabinet and Ikea Poäng chair, and finally my desk (which I had to completely dismantle to get out through the former garage’s sliding door and back in through the front door).

So, here are the 3D renderings from Floorplan to compare with photographs of how the actual room looks.

Looking south

Floor plan of study shown in 3D

Floor plan of study shown in 3D (looking south)

My study, showing from left to right: filing cabinet, desk and bookcase

My study, showing from left to right: filing cabinet, desk and bookcase

Looking west

Plan of study, shown in 3D

Floor plan of study shown in 3D (looking west)

My study, looking towards the window, with chair and bookcases

My study, looking towards the window, with chair and bookcases

Conclusion

Floorplanner has been a really useful tool. As I said in my initial review, the free account is limited to only one plan (although you can join rooms together to create, for example, a whole floor) but that has been enough for our requirements.

We are now beginning to use it to plan what to do with the old study (the “garage room”). How can we fit in a sofa or two, and still make it comfortable for guests to sleep in? I’ll report back once we’ve worked it out.

PowerMockup – create wireframes using Microsoft PowerPoint

PowerMockup website

PowerMockup

When designing (or redesigning) websites I tend to follow a five stage process:

  1. Gather / discover
  2. Structure
  3. Design
  4. Build and test
  5. Launch and maintenance

During the second stage (structure) I will focus largely on two aspects of the website’s structure: the overall site hierarchy and the structure of each of the pages, what are traditionally called ‘wireframes’.

Site structure

To design the site structure, for years, I’ve used mind maps and my mind mapping application of choice is Mindjet MindManager.

I love MindManager, and each version just gets better than the last. An important thing for me is that the software interface doesn’t get in the way of capturing and organising the information. It’s packed with subtle but powerful features such as keyboard shortcuts and the ability to drag information from web pages and Windows Explorer directories).

Page structure and wireframes

When it comes to designing page-level structures I pretty much always start by drawing wireframes using a good old fashioned pencil and pad of paper.

Wireframes are visual guides that present a skeleton or framework for the information on the page. They are concerned more with where information and design elements should sit rather than how they look.

If you think of it in terms of architecture, the building blueprint will show you that the kitchen needs a window between the wall cupboards, and in front of the sink, but it won’t tell you what colour or make they are.

As I said, I usually start all my wireframe diagrams with a pencil and pad, but occasionally I want something that I can save, edit and share with others via email.

Until now I’ve usually used either Balsamiq or Mockingbird, both of which have limited, free accounts. But recently I’ve been trying out PowerMockup.

PowerMockup

PowerMockup is a wireframing tool that integrates with Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 or 2010. It is essentially a library of PowerPoint shapes offering

  • 89 fully-editable user-interface (UI) elements
  • 104 wireframe icons
PowerMockup stencil library elements

Examples of some of the PowerMockup stencil library elements

And it is as simple to use as finding the element you want to use and dragging it onto your PowerPoint slide. The UI elements and icons can all be resized, and recoloured too which provides a great deal of flexibility.

Page size

Also, remember, although you are working in Microsoft PowerPoint which, by default, is set up for a 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio screen you can adjust the page setup for any screen size and aspect ratio. That way you are not limited to only designing for ‘above the fold’.

Example

As a quick example, I mocked-up the PowerMockup website homepage using PowerMockup in Microsoft PowerPoint 2010:

Wireframe of the PowerMockup  website using PowerMockup

Wireframe of the PowerMockup website using PowerMockup

My experience

Intuitive

I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised using PowerMockup. Because it integrates with Microsoft PowerPoint I didn’t have to learn a whole new application: it was very intuitive to use.

Design

I really like the design of the elements too. My main criticisms of both Balsamiq and Mockingbird is that their UI elements have quite a sketchy, cartoony feel to them; particularly Balsamiq.

In contrast the UI elements in PowerMockup are clean, unfussy and unobtrusive. While Balsamiq and to a lesser extent Mockingbird’s UI elements have a Comic Sans feel to them, PowerMockup’s UI elements feel more like something classical like Helvetica.

Price

PowerMockup costs US $39.95 (approx. £25 GBP) for a single-user license, although obviously you also need a licensed copy of Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 or 2010.

The cheapest, standalone version that I can find, Home and Student, will cost you £75.00 GPB on Amazon UK), so you’re talking about a total cost of around £100 for one user.

If you already own a copy of PowerPoint 2007 or 2010, however, then you’re laughing and you may even qualify for a free license.

There are also two team licenses available: 5 users for US $119.95 (approx. £74 GBP), and 10 users for US $199.90 (approx. £123 GBP).

Conclusion

I’ve been genuinely very impressed with PowerMockup. What is not to like? It has a very extensive, very attractive, and very usable collection of UI elements and icons, and most importantly it’s really simple to use.

What might be nice is if someone could throw together a number of PowerPoint template files (with sensible background grids) to emulate the most common page dimensions, e.g. Blueprint CSS’s 950px width, 960 Grid System’s 960px width, plus some responsive-style tablet and mobile templates. Coupled with PowerMockup these could be a very useful, very affordable combination for small design studios and individuals.

I can definitely see myself using PowerMockup on the next design project I need to work on.

Reading through categories in Google Reader

20120112-googlereader

I’m a big fan of Google Reader, which is a Web-based application that allows me to subscribe (via RSS) to news and blog sites and read their latest updates in one convenient location, rather than having to traipse around a hundred or more websites.

I used to use a Windows application with the dubious name of FeedDemon. It was in my humble opinion the best RSS reader available for Windows. In fact, I liked it so much that I bought it.

And then there were changes to how feeds were aggregated and stored, and it started synchronizing with Google Reader rather than (if I remember correctly) its own server.

Which was when I realised that I didn’t need to wait a couple of minutes for the synchronization to complete before I read my posts. Instead of pulling them from Google Reader into FeedDemon I could go directly to Google Reader and cut out the middle-demon.

So I exorcised my PC and FeedDemon was gone. That was around 2007 or 2008.

So why has it taken me this long of using Google Reader to realise that I don’t need to have all my sub-folders open to access the posts?

I categorise my feeds into a number of folders (that I have both “Metal music” and “Music” is because Google Reader wasn’t playing properly the other night and after I created “Music” nothing happened until the next day!).

It was only the other day that I realised that I could simply click on the closed folder to see all the posts within, organized by date. And if I like, I can also view only unread items.

20120112-googlereader2

That’s making getting through reading updates much, much quicker and more enjoyable.

Of course, it also helps that I’ve purged a few blogs in the new year. This year I need to focus more. I’ve got a couple of Web projects that I’d like to launch in 2012, as well as a book on the go.

What do you think of the new @TweetDeck? My initial impressions…

tweetdeck-new

A couple of days I excitedly downloaded and installed the latest version of TweetDeck, the social networking application that is now being developed by Twitter themselves.

What a disappointment! What have they done to it?!

Can’t distinguish columns

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve always had some fairly major niggles with TweetDeck’s usability, particularly if you’re using it to manage multiple accounts. There is no easy, quick, don’t-make-me-think way to distinguish which column is associated with which account.

The addition of a tabs option, or colour-coding columns would go a long way to making the system easier to use. In my humble opinion.

Customisable notifications

But what TweetDeck did excel at, that the likes of Sobees and MetroTwit didn’t was its handling of multiple accounts, and the flexibility in terms of column placement, notifications customisation (what shows, when and where).

That flexibility, particularly in the area of notifications, has now gone in the new instance of TweetDeck. I’m sorry to see it go—it was very useful.

Posting an update

The new TweetDeck also seems to assume that you’ll always be using it in a full-screen (maximized) view. Old TweetDeck worked well in maximized view too, but at least you could still post an update when viewing only one column.

In the old TweetDeck the post-an-update window sits at the top of the column. In the new TweetDeck, however, the post an update window disappears off the edge of the viewport:

tweetdeck-old-postupdatetweetdeck-new-postupdate

The send update keyboard shortcut has also changed, from Enter to Ctrl+Enter (on Windows), which takes a bit getting used to.

Social network(s)

When it launched TweetDeck supported only Twitter, but it soon added Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Google Buzz and Foursquare. I used to use just Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn within TweetDeck.

When I logged into the new TweetDeck I saw only Twitter and Facebook. That said, within the options I can’t actually see how you would add a Facebook account—but maybe it only allows one, which kind of makes sense, and so these settings have been hidden.

I can understand why Twitter might want to limit the number of rival networks it allows you to access using their application. But similarly, I do wonder if this will drive users away to find other clients that do support the wider range of services that they use.

Private messages

One really neat feature that I loved, and didn’t really think about until it was taken away, about the direct (private) messages (DM) column in old TweetDeck was that you could also see the DMs that you sent other people.

Conclusion

In conclusion I have to say that I’m really disappointed with the new TweetDeck. In many ways it has become less useable and less useful. I suspect that over the next few weeks I’ll evaluate the other social media clients and move to one of those.

In the meantime I still have TweetDeck 0.38.2 installed, so I’ll continue to use it.

  • Old TweetDeck — 7/10
  • New TweetDeck — 3/10

Update

There’s an interesting review by David Bayon on the PC Pro blogs entitled New TweetDeck: more mainstream, less flexible which has one paragraph of the positives of the new version and nine paragraphs of the negatives.

His conclusion:

…for me the new client takes away much of what made TweetDeck so useful – namely the flexibility and control – and replaces it with much of what makes the Twitter web client so annoying. I don’t like the Twitter web interface, that’s why I use TweetDeck. Or at least it was until now. The former buying the latter means that distinction is only going to get narrower from here on in.

My top free Windows 7 add-ons

These are my current top free Windows 7 add-ons (they will all work with Windows XP and Windows Vista too).

allSnap

http://ivanheckman.com/allsnap/

allsnap

allSnap is a small system tray app that makes all top level windows automatically align like they do in programs such as Winamp or Photoshop. Makes your windows feel slightly magnetic.

On 64-bit applications you have to run both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions but you can hide them from displaying in the notification area/system tray; apparently they are working on a version that will work with both 32- and 64-bit PCs.

There is no installer, just drag a shortcut to your Start > Programs > Startup folder.


Classic Shell

http://classicshell.sourceforge.net/

classicshell

Add the “Up” button back on Windows 7 Explorer. They’re bringing it back to Windows 8, I believe. Classic Shell has other features, but I just use the Up button, mostly.

Update: It’s worth pointing out that Classic Shell is dependent on Internet Explorer. I did a reset of IE9 and disabled all the add-ons and extensions, which resulted in the Up button disappearing from Windows Explorer. Thankfully there is documentation on the Classic Shell website to address this.


Dexpot

http://www.dexpot.de/

dexpot

Advertised as “the tool Windows lacks”, Dexpot is a virtual desktop application enabling you to create up to 20 virtual desktops: one desktop might be for email, another for editing graphics, another for writing, etc.

So, rather than switching between multiple applications, just switch to the appropriate desktop. It supports Windows Gadgets and in multiple-monitor setups you can choose to create virtual desktops on any of your monitors (e.g. only switch monitor 1).

The effects (found under Plugins and Extras) are attractive offering sliding desktops or cube-like effects.


Dropbox

http://www.dropbox.com/

dropbox

It would have been remiss of me to not include Dropbox. 2GB of free space, drop your files into a directory and they are accessible everywhere: on your laptop, on your mobile phone, via a Web browser. You can also share folders with other users or with the public.

And if you start inviting others to use it, Dropbox will give you 250MB more space for each new user who joins (up to a certain limit).


Fences

http://www.stardock.com/products/fences/

fences

Organise your desktop icons into groups that you can label.


Microsoft Security Essentials

http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows/products/security-essentials

microsoftsecurityessentials

The anti-annoying, anti-expensive, anti-virus application. I now use it on my desktop and both laptops, replacing AVG Free and Symantec Norton AntiVirus 2011.


Mouse without borders

Microsoft Garage

mousewithoutborders

Move your mouse between computers attached to your network (e.g. desktop and laptop), drag-and-drop files from one PC to the next, copy and paste between machines, and share the keyboard too.


PrintFolder

http://no-nonsense-software.com/freeware/

printfolder

A really handy utility to print or save a list of files located in any folder. Right-click any folder in Windows Explorer and select “PrintFolder” in the popup menu.


PureText

http://www.stevemiller.net/puretext/

puretext

Windows + V will paste your clipboard text as plain text — great for pasting from Word or webpages and stripping out formatting.


RocketDock

http://rocketdock.com/

RocketDock

A customizable, hide-able application launcher. I have it hidden beneath my main toolbar and it contains my most-used application shortcuts — those that are not pinned to my main Windows 7 toolbar.


Switcher

http://insentient.net/

switcher

Like the Mac exposé feature, but on Windows. Shows you all the currently open windows.


TreeSize Free

http://www.jam-software.com/treesize_free/

treesize

Right-click a folder, select TreeSize and it will tell you how big that folder and all its sub-folders are. Great for checking to see if stuff will fit onto CD-R or USB drives.


Winsplit Revolution

http://winsplit-revolution.com/

winsplit-revolution

Does magic with windows: reorganise windows to 33%, 50% or 66% (or define your own) with keyboard shortcuts. Windows 7 comes with the ability to quickly show two windows side-by-side, well this does it too and a whole lot more.

I’ve mapped my keyboard number pad to the monitor so that I can easily resize windows with just a few key presses.


What are your favourites?

What are your favourite, free Windows applications let me know in the comments, on Facebook or Twitter. I’ll post my favourites on this blog too.

Download Microsoft Money 2005 for free

ms-money-2005-02-homepage

I’ve been using Microsoft Money to manage my personal finances (such as they are) since about 1996. Today I upgraded to the last version that was produced for the UK by Microsoft: Microsoft Money 2005 (version 14.0.120.1105); in contrast the US edition went on until version 17.

I used the 16-bit Microsoft Money version 3.0 for Windows 3.1 for about seven years, until I upgraded to Windows XP in 2003. I then moved to Money 2004 and had all but given up hope that I could obtain the last localised UK edition (2005) until I discovered this afternoon that Microsoft now make it available for free download (see below for links).

Import RBS transactions

I’m a Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) customer and they still make all my statements available for download in Microsoft Money format (.ofx) which I can then import and track, which is really helpful.

Bills and deposits

I’ve set up in Money all my regular bills and deposits (e.g. mortgage payment, direct debits, salary) and so I can see what bills are still to go out, and when I’m next due to be paid. It really keeps me on top of all our accounts; we currently have about 11 accounts including credit cards and the boys’ Rainbow Savings accounts.

Categories

One of the most useful functions I find is the ability to categorise payments and deposits which is great for setting a budget, and tracking just exactly where our money has gone.

This month, for example, I can see that we’ve spent £242.34 on food, £253.76 on fuel (!!) and withdrawn a total of £150 from cash machines (including supermarket cashback facilities).

I found the reports a little buggy in Money 2004, in 2005 they are much improved.

Upgrade

The upgrade I found painless. I backed-up my Money 2004 (.mny) file, uninstalled Money 2004 and installed Money 2005 its the default location. On the first run I opened my existing Money file which 2005 ably and promptly upgraded and I was good to go.

The competition

Since Microsoft have halted development I have been tempted to move to another application but to be honest, this does what I need it to, and I can’t really justify the expense or hassle of moving to another, unfamiliar application.

I tried a demo of Accountz. I uninstalled it within a couple of hours. Personal taste: I just didn’t like it. It didn’t feel as polished an application as even Money 3.0. I’m probably doing it a huge disservice, but it just wasn’t for me.

The only other option, really, is Quicken which looks great and there seems to be a version for just about everybody. Obviously, RBS also offer downloads in Quicken format so it could be a viable option. The most basic versions, Quicken Starter Edition 2012 costs US $29.99 (approx. £19.41), next up is Quicken Deluxe 2012 which costs a very reasonable US $59.99 (approx. GPB £38.85) but that’s thirty-eight quid that I don’t have at the moment.

Conclusion

I’m happy with Microsoft Money, I’ve been using for years, I’m familiar with it, I trust it and it really keeps me on top of my finances.

You can download the localised US and UK versions here: