My Windows 8.1 start screen

Windows 8.1 start screen

Windows 8.1 start screen (click to view full size)

I was reading about the anticipated announcement of the next version of Microsoft Windows, which some are speculating may not even be called ‘Windows’.

In the Guardian article Microsoft event will reveal new revitalised Windows 9, Windows 8 got quite a bit of stick for the way it muddled its interface for desktop users.

I have to say that I really like Windows 8 and 8.1. I especially like the new start screen, particularly the way you can customize it to show only those applications you use most, grouped and named how you want them, in four sizes.

Above is a screenshot of my Windows 8.1 start screen. Setting it up like this has meant that I now have very few items pinned to the taskbar (Windows Explorer, eM Client, Todoist, Safe In Cloud, TED notepad, and Google Chrome)…

Windows 8.1 taskbar showing only seven icons.

My minimalist Windows 8.1 taskbar

…and absolutely nothing on the desktop.

My Windows 8.1 desktop showing no icons at all. (Click for full size)

My Windows 8.1 desktop showing no icons at all. (Click for full size)

To the right of that lot I’ve got games: first LEGO games for the children and then a few other things for me (Call of Duty, Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition, Four Winds Mah Jong).

How do you organise yours?

Using eM Client with Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Contacts

eM Client

A few weeks ago I blogged about moving from Microsoft Outlook (and an Exchange account) to eM Client using Google’s productivity tools Gmail, Calendar and Contacts. These are my reflections on using eM Client for the last month or so, having been a faithful Outlook user for the last 14 years.

Why move?

My reasons for moving were three-fold:

  1. Simplify—I was using at least three email accounts, as well as trying to synchronise Outlook calendar and contacts with Google. This way I could keep everything in one place.
  2. Share—I needed a more robust way of sharing my calendar with (my wife) Jane, and she uses Gmail as her primary account, so it made sense to move.
  3. Cost—Though they do offer a terrific service, buying an Exchange account from Simply Mail Services was costing me about £70 per year. I could put that money to better use.

My hesitations in moving were two-fold:

  1. Email address—I really wanted to keep my gareth@garethjmsaunders.co.uk email address, and for email to send as that. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that was just vanity. So long as all mail sent that address was forwarded to me it didn’t really matter what email address I was sending from; besides some people were emailing me there anyway. (As it is I can configure Gmail to send as my own domain, I just haven’t done it yet.)
  2. Email client—I’ve enjoyed using Outlook because I like having everything in the same place: email, calendar, contacts and tasks. I’ve adapted my workflow around this set up. and it works for me. I knew that Outlook wasn’t suitable but didn’t know of an alternative. eM Client proved to be a near perfect replacement.

Setup

Setting up eM Client was so simple. Upon installing the application I was asked to enter my account details. I typed in my Gmail email address and password, and eM Client did the rest.

Enter your account details and eM Client does the rest.

Enter your account details and eM Client does the rest.

The free version of eM Client allows you to connect a maximum of two accounts, the pro version (£29.95 GBP) allows unlimited accounts. I’m currently on the free version but I intend to upgrade to pro at some point, simply to support the company.

IMAP

During the setup eM Client alerted me to the fact that I hadn’t enabled my Gmail account to use IMAP. This was easy to do within Gmail settings.

IMAP is now enabled in Gmail.

IMAP is now enabled in Gmail.

IMAP enables two-way communication between eM Client and Gmail, so any changes made in one client are immediately made in the others. This makes it really useful when trying to access your email from multiple devices, e.g. Windows and Android.

Once connected to my Gmail account eM Client took only a few minutes to download my email messages, calendar and contacts data.

I also connected my Facebook account which allows me to use eM Client as a chat client, and to update contact details and avatars from Facebook.

Review of eM Client

The following is a summary of my experience of using eM Client over the last few weeks.

Bear in mind that I am using eM Client only for Email, Calendar and Contacts. eM Client also supports Tasks and what it calls Widgets, which are plugins like an RSS reader.

I discovered, quite by accident, that if you right-click the left-hand panel you can decide which modules to display.

Right-click and select which modules you would like to display in the left-hand panel.

Right-click and select which modules you would like to display in the left-hand panel.

This also affects the shortcut keys to quickly navigate to these modules. With Tasks and Widgets removed these are now, for me:

  • Ctrl + F1 Mail
  • Ctrl + F2 Calendar
  • Ctrl + F3 Contacts

The full list of shortcut keys can be viewed at Tools > Settings > General > Shortcuts.

Using Gmail with eM Client

Email view within eM Client. Four columns, from the left: folders, messages, message details, chat

Email view within eM Client

The email client looked very similar to Outlook, albeit with a simpler, cleaner look. The screen shows four columns (from the left):

  1. Folders (Gmail labels)
  2. Mail received
  3. Message (full text of the currently selected message)
  4. Sidebar (showing contact details, agenda or chat)

Themes

eM Client comes with a number of built-in themes. I’m using a light blue theme called Arctic which is very clean looking. It clearly distinguishes the different areas of the screen: menu bar, mail folders, message, sidebar allowing me to get on and work undistracted.

Folders and labels

One feature I used a lot in Outlook mail was folders. Gmail doesn’t use folders. Instead it uses labels.

For many years I have used the following primary folders:

  • Action
  • Archive
  • Hold
  • Mailing lists
  • Projects
  • Waiting for

I tend to create sub-folders for Projects and Waiting for to make it easier to find emails. Then when the project is finished, or the item I’m waiting for (e.g. Amazon – CD order) has arrived I destroy the folder and either delete the emails or move them into the Archive folder.

In Gmail email can be categorised with more than one label. I have decided to use only one label per email. This matches the way that I used folders in Outlook. I find it simpler this way.

Something else I had to learn about Gmail is that “Inbox” is a label too. If an email doesn’t have the “Inbox” label then it is regarded as archived and appears under the “All Mail” label.

In eM Client Gmail labels appear as folders. So if I drag and drop an email into a folder in eM Client, it applies that label in the Gmail web client.

Once I understood these subtle differences between Outlook and Gmail I was happy to explore setting up rules to automatically filter my email.

Rules

Something that I relied on a lot within Outlook were rules. I created a lot of rules to filter all my regular newsletter and mailing list emails into a sub-folder called ‘Mailing lists’ (who would have thought?).

I’ve found this prevents my inbox from clogging up with ‘noise’, enabling me to see the more important emails from friends and family.

Gmail calls these rules filters. But unlike in Outlook, you cannot set up these filters within the eM Client. They must be done using the Gmail web interface.

Initially I thought that I might find this a bother, but in reality I’ve just accepted that this is the way it is. And besides, for each newsletter I only need to do it once.

It has also allowed me to review.all the mail I’m getting and decide whether I should cancel the subscription or not.

Filtering an email within Gmail.

Filtering an email within Gmail.

I tend to use the same rules for each message:

  • Skip the Inbox (Archive it).
  • Apply the label: Gareth/Mailing lists.
  • Never send it to Spam.
  • Also apply filter to X matching conversations.

Categories

As well as labels/folders, eM Client supports categories.

List of categories for email.

List of categories for email.

There are four contexts in which categories can be used: contacts, emails, calendar events or tasks. Categories can be unique to a context or shared across any of the four contexts.

You may set the context when editing the category.

Computer category is used only for emails.

When editing a category you may choose where it is used.

I have still to finalise the categories, but I tend to use these only for grouping items within my “Action” folder/label. These are emails that I have identified that I need to do something with: reply to, read, or follow a link to download something, for example.

Standard replies

Something I used quite a lot in Outlook was “Quick Parts” where you could store standard replies to certain questions. I used these a lot for replying about Psion repairs or certain mahjong questions.

eM Client doesn’t support this feature. However, you can create a number of custom signatures and using the “Insert signature on caret position” option to can use this to insert these standard replies into your text. And unlike Outlook 2010 you may add more than one signature to an email.

If your reply is longer then you could opt to use templates. As far as I can see, however, you cannot insert template text into a reply. You may only use it to create a new email. So if you don’t mind a bit of copying and pasting then you may choose to do this. Otherwise, stick with the signature workaround.

Spam

When I used Outlook with a standard (POP3) account I needed an add-in to filter out spam emails; I used Cloudmark DesktopOne, which I found excellent.

After I moved to Microsoft Exchange I paid extra for a Postini server-side spam filter to be activated on my account, which I found gobbled up more than a few genuine mailing list emails.

Having moved to Gmail, only a few rogue messages have got through to my inbox, and I’ve had maybe only four or five false positives.

Right-clicking the Junk E-mail folder in eM Client allows me to empty my Gmail junk mail.

Conclusion

On the whole I have been able to use eM Client in exactly the same way that I used Outlook. In other words, my familiar workflow hasn’t really been upset.

The only real difference is needing to go to Gmail itself to set up mail filters.

I am actually surprised at how easily and seamlessly I’ve made the transition from Outlook to eM Client, after 14 years of using the former, but I suspect that reflects the quality and flexibility of the software.

Using Google Calendar with Em Client

eM Client calendar displaying five Google calendars on top of one another.

eM Client calendar displaying five Google calendars on top of one another.

As sharing calendars was one of the drivers for moving from Outlook I reckoned that this had better work seamlessly. And I’m delighted to report that it is.

I have five Google calendars that I display:

  1. My default calendar (green)
  2. Children (orange)
  3. Home (grey)
  4. Jane (violet)
  5. Scottish Episcopal Church saints days (rose)

Colours

Regardless of the device (web, eM Client, or Android) Jane and I have synchronised the colours of the calendars. So my calendar is always green, Jane’s is always violet, children is always orange, etc. That way we don’t need to think twice about what we’re looking at.

eM Client draws its colours from Google Calendar itself. On our Android devices (Nexus 4, Nexus 7, and Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini) you have to set the colours on the device itself.

Categories

I used to use a lot of colours and categories when using the Outlook calendar to denote different activities, e.g. coding, writing documentation, meeting in the office, meeting in St Andrews, meeting/conference outwith St Andrews, etc.

I expected to miss that when I moved to a mono-colour calendar but again I’ve surprised myself. The clarity offered by colour equals person has been really valuable.

I don’t use any categories now for events. eM Client comes with four built-in (vacation, must attend, needs preparation, birthday) but I don’t use any of them; you cannot delete these four.

Sharing calendars

Another decision we made was to give each other full read and write access to each other’s diaries. That way we can add appointments directly to each other’s calendar without having to go through the rigmarole of inviting each other to events.

Calendar for home events

Another innovation was to add a generic, shared calendar for home events such as which recycling bins go out and when, gas boiler service dates, car tax, etc.

I chose grey for that calendar which makes it neutral but helps it stand out enough to notice it.

Google Calendar’s recurring event feature was ideal for this calendar.

Performance

Like eM Client’s handling of Gmail, the lag between adding an event within eM Client and it appearing either on the Google Calendar web interface or on our Android device is minimal. It is almost instant.

While eM Client displays an Agenda view in the sidebar, I have not found myself using it and tend to leave the sidebar set to viewing Facebook chat contacts.

Tasks and calendar

One feature of Outlook that I used a lot was to drag and drop tasks from the sidebar onto the calendar.As it’s not possible to do this in eM Client I am now using Todoist to manage my tasks.

I now either manage the dates within Todoist itself or simply copy and paste tasks into my calendar. It’s a little overhead but really not that much.

Conclusion

As this was one of the primary functions that we needed to get right (sharing multiple calendars) I have been quite delighted not only with what Google Calendar itself offers but also how eM Client handles the management of these calendars.

Unlike Gmail there is very little that I have needed to do using the Google Calendar web interface, once we got the calendars created, shared and set to the right colours.

Using Google Contacts with eM Client

Google Contacts within eM Client

Google Contacts within eM Client

Google Contacts is yet another area where eM Client excels.

When I used Outlook (either standalone or connected to Exchange) I would every now and then import my Outlook contacts into Google in the vain hope of keeping them backed-up and synchronised. It was an overhead that I didn’t need and it’s been quite a relief, actually, to have them all in one place for a change.

Views

There are five ways to view your contacts, as well as a couple of ways to filter them. The five views are:

  1. Phone list
  2. By Company
  3. By Location
  4. Custom View (which by default shows you every contact card field in a spreadsheet-like table)
  5. Business cards

The default view is Business cards, and this is generally the view that I prefer. Each tile shows you the person’s name, email address, telephone numbers and/or company:

Contact card showing my details

Contact card showing my details

The coloured blocks on the left-hand side represent categories.

Categories

In Outlook I used to categorize almost all my contacts, but I used the Company field for that. I used this field to record where I met the person, e.g. National Youth Choir of Great Britain, School, Family, etc. I can use the “By Company” view to display contacts in this way; although it displays them by default as First name, Surname.

I have also created a number of key categories, e.g. colleagues, family, home-related contacts (plumber, joiner, etc.) so that I can filter my contacts by these categories.

These categories also come in handy when viewing contacts on my Android phone.

One thing that I discovered was that for contacts to appear in Google Contacts they seem to need to be categorized as “My Contacts”,

The other way to filter, of course, is by search. I would have found it handy if the search updated the list as you were typing but you have to hit Enter before the search begins.

Navigating contacts

Using a combination of categories, search and the scroll bar you can quickly locate the contact you are looking for.

Something I really miss from Outlook 2010, however, is the A-Z list down the right-hand side of the contacts cards view. This allowed you to very quickly navigate within your contact cards. I do hope eM Client adds this to a future version.

A-Z index in Outlook allows you to quickly navigate within your contacts list.

A-Z index in Outlook allows you to quickly navigate within your contacts list.

Contact photographs

One neat feature, once you’ve connected your Facebook account to eM Client is the ability to have your contacts’ profile photographs imported into Google Contacts.

That obviously requires your contacts to be using Facebook, and for them to have used the email address that you have for them to be registered in their Facebook account.

Duplicates and conflicts

Occasionally things can go wrong. When I used a Psion to sync with Outlook on two PCs (home and work) I was forever needing to remove duplicate entries. This isn’t as big a problem with eM Client as it is in Outlook.

eM Client comes with its own built-in duplicate remover (Tools > Deduplicator…).

eM Client has its own duplicate remover, which works for mail, events, tasks and contacts.

eM Client has its own duplicate remover, which works for mail, events, tasks and contacts.

I found it pretty effective, to be honest. It found a number of duplicates and where possible it combined information very effectively and deleted the rest.

A couple of times while updating contact cards I found that I made too many changes in a short space of time. In these cases eM Client asked me which data I wanted to keep and which I wanted to overwrite: local or remote.

Conclusion

Another win. To be honest, I can’t see myself needing to use the Google Contacts web interface terribly much. More or less everything is handled very nicely within eM Client.

Final observations

All in all, I am pretty delighted with eM Client. It does exactly what I needL which is to manage Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Contacts in one place. I really couldn’t ask for much more.

Sure there are a few niggles, like the lack of A-Z navigation in Contacts, and needing to set Filters in the Gmail web interface, but really these are minor issues.

If you are looking for an Outlook replacement (and eM Client does support Exchange, Gmail, iCloud, Outlook, as well as other standard POP3 and IMAP email accounts etc.) then I can thoroughly and warmly recommend eM Client.

If I was to score it for its integration with Google services then I would need to give it a full 5/5.

Problem connecting my Google Nexus 4 to Windows 8.1

My Google Nexus 4 has been playing up lately: taking ages to connect to WiFi and burning up battery extra quickly. Time for another factory reset, I thought, so plugged it into my PC to backup my ebooks, music files and photographs only to discover that it no longer showed up in Windows Explorer.

It turns out that a recent Windows 8.1 update has prevented many Android users from connecting their devices.

I found the solution on this post on Stack Overflow: Windows 8.1 Device Manager now showing ACER Device rather than Android Device for Google Nexus 7.

As far as I recall, this is roughly what I did:

  1. In Windows Device Manager click on View > Show hidden devices.
  2. Locate the ACER Composite ADB Interface uninstall all instances of it.
  3. Reboot PC.
  4. Plug in Android phone.
  5. Return to Device Manager and open ‘ACER Composite ADB Interface and select ‘Update Driver…‘.
  6. Select ‘Browse my computer for driver software‘.
  7. Select ‘Let me pick from a list of device drivers on my computer‘.
  8. From the list select ‘MTP USB Device‘.
  9. Click Next.
  10. Unplug Android phone.
  11. Reboot PC.
  12. Plug in Android phone.
  13. Windows 8.1 showed the phone in Windows Explorer.
Nexus 4 listed as a device in Windows Explorer.

Nexus 4 listed as a device in Windows Explorer.

For some reason I had to do this twice. It may have been because I had ‘USB Debugging’ activated in Settings > Developer Options, and I unticked it the second time.

Anyway, I can now connect my Nexus 4 to my PC. Panic over.

 

Playing LEGO games across two monitors with SoftTH

LEGO Marvel Superheroes on 2 x 1920x1080 monitors

LEGO Marvel Superheroes across two 1920 x 1080 monitors

This afternoon we had a visit from Isaac’s godfather, the fabulous Mike McQuaid. As we stood in my study watching the boys playing LEGO® Marvel™ SuperHeroes on my PC I remarked to Mike that I wished that there was an option to use both my monitors, rather than squeezing the two-player co-op onto one 1920 x 1080 screen.

Mike was pretty certain that should be possible and after a quick ‘google’ he unearthed information about NVIDIA® Surround, which “joins multiple displays into a single immersive viewing surface”, typically used for full-screen gaming or watching full-screen video. However, we soon discovered that it requires three displays and I have only one.

This evening, not taking no for an answer I did some internet searching of my own and discovered SoftTH which claims to do the same thing as NVIDIA® Surround but on any number of monitors regardless of whether their resolutions match or not, and so long as they are plugged into a PCI Express graphics card.

How to…

I read somewhere that configuration could be a bit cumbersome but it actually turned out to be fairly straightforward. The trickiest bit, to be honest, was locating the game files (see below).

  1. Download SoftTH.
  2. Unzip the two files: d3d9.dll and readme_SoftTH2.txt somewhere handy.
  3. Locate the directory where the game EXE file is located.
  4. Copy the d3d9.dll file into that directory.
  5. Run the game.
  6. SoftTH runs and checks for the location of a config.SoftTHconfig file. If it doesn’t find one it creates a default configuration file.
  7. Once the game loads (on one monitor) adjust the screen resolution two the new default setting (in my case 3840 x 1080), and the aspect ratio to “From Screen-Res”.
  8. The screen resolution will change, stretching across both monitors and now two player co-op uses one screen for each player.

Locations of EXE files

We have quite a few LEGO games installed so I had to hunt around for their various locations within C:\Program Files (x86):

  • \LucasArts\LEGO Clone Wars
  • \LucasArts\LEGO Star Wars – The Complete Saga
  • \Steam\SteamApps\common\Lego Indiana Jones 2
  • \Steam\SteamApps\common\LEGO Marvel Super Heroes
  • \Steam\SteamApps\common\The LEGO®  Movie – Videogame
  • \Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment\LEGO® Batman™ 2
  • \Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment\LEGO® The Lord of the Rings™

Caveats

I have a fairly decent graphics card (NVIDIA® GeForce GTX 660) so this worked for each LEGO game I tried. I didn’t play each game for long so I couldn’t attest for how reliable this is played over hours, but I couldn’t see anything that might suggest that it wouldn’t. A few notes from my 30 minutes experience of this…

Taskbar on monitor two

I discovered when returning to the games that if I had any other applications open on monitor two (I’m running Windows 8 here) then once SoftTH was running it still showed the taskbar.

My workaround was to right-click the taskbar before the game started and select “Auto-hide the taskbar” which slid it safely out of the way.

Character tables

The first real niggle I had was when selecting a new character why does the game present the character table in such a squashed-up way?!

With so much screen real estate why are the characters squashed up so much?!

With so much screen real estate why are the characters squashed up so much?!

The same is true when both players change characters at the same time.

What is going on?! You have a width of 3840 pixels... USE IT!

What is going on?! You have a width of 3840 pixels… USE IT!

Not suitable for one player

My second caveat is that as beautiful as the periphery scenery looks while playing, game play isn’t very sustainable if you are playing a single player game because your character stands right in the middle of the screen, and so is divided between the two monitors.

Cut screens?

My last word of warning is more of a hunch than from experience: I imagine that certain pre-rendered cut screens throughout the game may display in a strange way as they are not optimized for such a wide screen.

UPDATE: Actually, the cut screens on the whole were okay. You do lose some detail as you’re essentially viewing them through a huge letterbox, but it’s mostly viewable.

Targeting is disrupted a little

UPDATE: One thing I’ve noticed is that targeting with certain objects is now a bit off with the double-screen set up. For example, on the opening level with Hulk and Iron Man you need to target a water cannon at Sandman: where you direct the cannon and where it actually sprays are two different locations. On the next level you need to target one of Captain America’s locks, but it’s near impossible to line it up properly without quickly nipping back to a 1920 x 1080, single-screen resolution.

Conclusion

On the whole, I was really impressed. It was simple to set up, with absolutely no configuration from me.

I’ll show this to the boys tomorrow and see what their verdict is: usable or not? Then I’ll report back.

Installing Node.js on Windows 8

Command line showing node installation

Command line showing node installation

Over the last month I’ve slowly begun exploring Node.js and so far I’m really liking what I’m seeing.

In a nutshell, Node.js (or simply Node) allows you to write server-side JavaScript. In other words, until now JavaScript is normally written to be run within a web browser, on a web page. Node instead allows you to write JavaScript applications that run outside the browser or via the command line.

Node uses Google Chrome’s JavaScript engine, called V8. Perfect if you are used to writing JavaScript for your browser.

This means that you can now write applications, or ‘modules’ that can do stuff outside the scope of a web browser. For example, you could write a simple web server in Node or — and this is what I want to use it for — you could write modules to manipulate web code and automate certain processes related to web development.

Installing Node.js

Installation on Windows 8 could not have been any more straight forward:

  1. Visit nodejs.org
  2. Click the “install” button to download the installer.
  3. Run the installer (make sure you tell the installer to add references to your PATH system variables).
  4. Reboot your PC.
  5. Er…
  6. That’s it!

Command line

Almost everything you do with Node is via a command line. You can use either the standard Windows cmd.exe or Windows PowerShell (or, indeed, any other command line interpreter (CLI) you may have installed).

To use the standard Windows command line:

  1. Press Win + R (for Run)
  2. Type: CMD
  3. Click OK

Checking that Node is installed is as simple as opening a command line and typing:

node --version

Hit enter and you’ll get a result, something like:

v0.10.5

Node Package Manager

One of the great things about the Node installer is that it automatically installs the Node Package Manager. This makes it much easier to install additional applications to extend Node’s capabilities.

Again, you can check the version of NPM by typing the following into your CLI:

npm version

You’ll get an answer, returned as a JSON object:

{ http_parser: '1.0',
  node: '0.10.5',
  v8: '3.14.5.8',
  ares: '1.9.0-DEV',
  uv: '0.10.5',
  zlib: '1.2.3',
  modules: '11',
  openssl: '1.0.1e',
  npm: '1.2.18' }

To find out what packages are installed enter the following into your CLI:

npm ls

The result will be formatted as a directory structure, like this:

C:\Users\Gareth
├── cssmin@0.4.1
└── n@1.1.0

Obviously, to find out which globally-installed packages are available use the global flag:

npm ls -g

The first application/module that I want to investigate in depth is the CSS pre-processor Less which is used by the Bootstrap project. I will no doubt report back.

Why I love Windows 8 (but don’t have 8.1 yet)

Update to Windows 8.1 for free on the Windows 8 app store... or so they say

Update to Windows 8.1 for free on the Windows 8 app store… or so they say

On Thursday Microsoft released Windows 8.1 into the wild. Hmmm… there be dragons!

The upgrade hasn’t gone particularly smoothly for a lot of people (including me) judging by this thread (“Couldn’t update to Windows 8.1 – 0xC1900101 – 0x40017″) on the official Microsoft Community Windows forum and this article (“Windows 8.1 launch weekend plagued by some show-stopping installation issues”) on PC World.com.

The Windows RT upgrade (for Surface tablets) was removed from the app store until they could figure out what was going on. Microsoft released a “recovery image” yesterday to try to address the issue. Time will tell if it has worked, I can’t see past the search engine results noise of it having been removed.

The Windows 8.1 upgrade disappeared from my Windows 8 store for a day or two as well, but re-appeared last night. I’m still not going to try to upgrade again until I know for sure that it will work.

Windows 8

Windows 8.1 was meant to address some of the criticisms of the original Windows 8 release, particularly the removal of the Windows start button and that Windows 8 boots to the new Modern/Metro UI start screen, rather than to the desktop.

I have to say that I have been a huge fan of Windows 8 since the beta. I had the beta installed on my laptop right until the RTM edition was launched. Since then I’ve defended Windows 8 to everyone and anyone.

Windows 8 has been, by far, the fastest, most stable, most secure version of Windows I’ve used (since my standalone, not-connected-to-the-internet version of Windows for Workgroups 3.11 in the mid-90s). My desktop PC boots up and is working within about 20-30 seconds. Compare that with my Windows 7 Dell beast of a PC at work which can take about 10 minutes to start up and become fully responsive.

Start button

As for those two criticisms about the lack of start button and not booting directly to the desktop, well Start8 from Stardock (USD $4.99) addresses both those issues.

Start8 gives me back my start button and Windows 7-like start menu

Start8 gives me back my start button and Windows 7-like start menu

Firmly ticked is the configuration option in Start8 that reads “Automatically go to the Desktop when I sign in“.

I rarely use any of the Metro UI applications (occasionally TV Catch-up, the Steam tile app, and a couple of games with the boys) so it makes sense for me to jump straight to the desktop. This application saves me a click.

To be honest I installed Start8 mostly to make the PC more accessible to my wife Jane, who uses it occasionally. I didn’t want her to have to bother with the convoluted Windows 8 nonsense of Win+C > Settings > Power > Shut down, or Win+C > Settings > Control Panel to access the Control Panel. I reality though, I use those features most.

Start screen

I also have to confess that I really like the Windows 8 start screen. My grumble about the traditional Start menu in XP, Vista, 7 is that it’s a mess. It lists everything that is installed and gives everything equal status.

The Windows 8 start screen allows me to customise it for my own needs, my own priorities.

And if I want to see everything: Win + Q takes me there.

I can pin to the taskbar those applications that I use most frequently, the rest I can pin to the start screen and arrange into named groups. It’s so easy my four year old boys can use it.

The Windows 8 start screen on my PC.

The Windows 8 start screen on my desktop PC.

I used another paid-for application from Startdock to customize the background of my start screen: Decor8 (USD $4.99).

A desktop-centric Windows 8 PC

This gives me the best of both worlds: the speed and stability of Windows 8 coupled with the desktop-centric focus of Windows 7.

In each version of Windows that I’ve used I’ve tweaked it and wrestled with its user-interface to give me the experience that works for me. With Windows 3.11 I used Calmira, in Windows 98 it was power toys and TweakUI, in XP I created my own toolbars. Why should this operating system be any different? Surely that’s one of the beauties of Windows.

I really don’t understand these grumbles of “I hate Windows 8 and the Modern/Metro UI!” To be honest, I don’t notice the juxtaposition of desktop vs Modern/Metro UI much. I ignore most of it. I don’t have a touch screen, I have all the Windows desktop applications that I need and only occasionally dabble with the odd Modern/Metro app. And Start8 and Decor8 allow me to quickly tweak the rest

Windows 8.1

And so back to Windows 8.1. I would rather like to upgrade sometime soon.

I tried it on Friday.

It all seemed to be going well until the second boot when it halted the screen that Windows 8 shows when it’s booting up. The little spinner just kept on spinning… for about 30 minutes. So I rebooted the PC… and it did the same until it quickly flashed up a blue screen of death (BSOD) and about 10 minutes later returned me to Windows 8 and a message similar to this one but with error code 0xC1900101 – 0x40017.

Couldn't update to Windows 8.1

Couldn’t update to Windows 8.1

I’ve been closely following, and contributing to the thread on the Microsoft Community. People have had limited success it would appear with certain workarounds working for some but not others: uninstall graphics card drivers, uninstall SteelSeries Engine software, unplug everything, etc.

I have a SteelSeries mouse. I could uninstall it and try the upgrade again, but do you know what? It’s 2013. Why should I have to? Modern operating systems should just work and upgrade without any kind of hardcore hardware geekery.

I’m going to wait until either Microsoft have figured out a way for the operating system to work around or quietly remove incompatible device drivers or until Steel Series have made their drivers compatible with Windows 8.1. Which in my opinion they should have done by now.

Windows 8.1 was code-named “Blue”. It looks like they omitted “…Screen of Death” at the end of it.

Disappointing, and at a time when Microsoft is fighting to stay relevant this seems to me to be a terrible blow to its reputation. As I said, I’ve been almost evangelical about the stability and reliability of Windows 8. I’m not at all confident about upgrading to 8.1 now. That’s not a good thing.

The trial continues…

Which button should I press?

Here’s an odd dialog box I spotted the other day. I had just run MySQL Workbench 5.x for the first time in a few months (I tend to use Navicat Premium Essentials these days) and it ran a quick check to see if the software was up-to-date. It wasn’t and presented me with this dialog box:

MySQL Workbench dialog box shows 3 options: OK and Get It Now and Cancel

You can download the latest version. Which button would you press?

So, which button should I press to get the update?

The text reads, “The new MySQL Workbench 6.0.6 has been released…” (was there an old MySQL Workbench 6.0.6?) “You can download the latest version from http://www.mysql.com/downloads/workbench.”

And then I’m presented with two options: OK and Get it Now.

My train of thought was: it says I can download it from this URL, so okay I want to download it.

I clicked OK.

The dialog box closed and nothing else happened.

What?! What just happened there. I thought I had just said that I wanted to get the new version. I clicked OK but it did what I would expect a cancel button would do. But that’s cancel! There is already a cancel button. And there is also a red [x] button in the top right-hand of the dialog box which also cancels the dialog box.

That’s THREE different ways to cancel the dialog box. But they are offering me an upgrade, to make the software better, so why not make that the most obvious, easiest to select option?

Surely this would be a better dialog box:

This dialog box now has one clear call to action.

This dialog box now has one clear call to action.

Now it’s simply telling me that MySQL Workbench 6.0.6 has been released, where I can download the latest version if I want to do it independently of this dialog, and now there is only one, clear call to action: Get it Now.