Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Word 2007 Thesaurus "information" Bug

A fun little bug I stumbled across yesterday...

  • In Word 2007, type the word information anywhere in a document
  • Hit Shift+F7 to fire up the thesaurus

The results you get are synonyms for in formation (like in order, etc.).  To see the correct results, try using info instead.

I tried this in both US and UK English and both seem to behave the same.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Saving money and your sanity during a house move

Yes, I've been moving house.  As if my life wasn't hectic enough, put myself - by choice - through stress, physical punishment and extreme expense for the sake of a new address.  (Actually there are some big, tangible benefits that made it worthwhile, or at least will if I ever get to a point where I can find things again, but I digress.)
So here are the three things I should have done before I moved:
1. Signed up to cashback sites
I've discovered the joys of www.quidco.com among others.  Unfortunately for me, I discovered them about two days after I signed up to new contracts for broadband, telephone, insurance, and about a dozen other things that could have got me some serious cashback.  I'm not talking about enough money to really put a dent in the cost of moving, but every little helps.
2. Diverted my email as well as my post
I used to get my broadband from my cable TV supplier, who I'd been with for many years, using my ISP-based email addresses for some things.  For dull and complicated reasons I chose to go with satellite TV at the new place and get my broadband from my telephone supplier.  That means I lost those email addresses overnight, and wasn't organised enough to give myself the opportunity to do anything about it.
Fortunately I'd been using my gMail for lots of things already, so it could have been a lot worse.  I also had two of my ISP mail addresses forwarding to gMail, which still seems to be in place even though my account has shut down (shhh, don't tell them) buying me some extra time on some of my mail.  But it's a major pain having to change registration details on sites where you can't remember the password, when they can't mail you a new password.
3. Kept an 'essentials' box on the day of the move - and kept it away from the removals guys!
Yep, I followed the advice about keeping the important things (knife for opening boxes, screwdriver and allen keys for emergency disassembling and assembling of furniture that won't fit through doors, notepad and pen, mobile phone charger, snacks) in a separate box to be last on and first off of the removals van.
Unfortunately an over-zealous remover decided to load it with a pile of other stuff, so I couldn't get to it for a couple of hours.  As it happens, there was nothing in there I couldn't live without or find a replacement for, but the stress from not feeling in control when I thought I'd done the right things to prepare nearly drove me over the edge on an already stressful day!
Anyway, I've been here two weeks now and I have no clue where I'm going to store all my things, but I have a desk to work from and I have broadband, so things are getting back to normal.  My movers were a great bunch of guys, and so far I haven't found a single thing broken from the move, so all in all it was pretty successful.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Sudoku solver in Excel without a line of code

I wrote a simple Sudoku solver in Excel about a year ago, and was pretty pleased with myself but gave up on the more advanced solving techniques which were beyond my meagre coding skills and (more to the point) my patience.  But that was in VBA... it never occurred to me that it might be possible to achieve the same just using Excel formulas and without writing a line of code.

So I'm loving Charlie Ellis' post walking us through doing just that, which made me look at familiar functions in completely new ways.

Up until today I thought I was a pretty advanced Excel user, but I now I've realised that all this time I've been missing out on defined names for formulas.  Which probably makes me a complete Excel dunce in the eyes of anyone who really knows what they're doing, but hey, I'm happy that I know now.

Now I just have to get my head around array formulas...

Thursday, 25 September 2008

How to review and archive your household filing in one hour a year

This is the third and final part of my series explaining how I've adapted David Allen's Getting Things Done principles to deal with my household paperwork.  (If you're starting out, see this post to find out how it took me just one day to get to a state where it only takes a minute a day plus an hour a year to maintain.)
Because my system works in whole years, it makes sense to do my housekeeping tasks sometime in January.  I find a couple of weeks after New Year works for me, but if you want to be super-diligent and get it out of the way on January 1st then good for you!
The steps for moving the filing and archiving system on each year are pretty simple:
1. Bin the oldest year’s paperwork
2. Demote the oldest ‘single year’ archive to the “---- and older” archive
3. Remove anything older than last year from the ‘current’ filing into the folder we just freed up
I like to start with what feels like the most meaningful part of this job which is to thin out my ‘current’ filing system, even though that’s really part of step 3.  All I do is go through each of the file folders in my filing box and take out anything dated earlier than last year, abbreviated to Y-2.  (So when I next do this in January 2009, I’ll be removing all the 2007 content.)  If something still has day-to-day relevance now then it stays in the file e.g. an appliance warranty that doesn’t expire until next year.  I also take the opportunity to get rid of some newer items I’ve since realised don’t need to be kept, like the quote for the decorating work I decided not to go ahead with anyway.  Anything I know I’ll never need again gets shredded or binned immediately, and whatever is left becomes the Y-2 pile, so in this case the 2007 pile.
All my examples here are based on my seven-year retention with my oldest archive housing three years, so you’ll need to adjust for the configuration you’re working with.
Now I need a place to put the 2007 pile – but because I’m demoting my oldest ‘single year’ archive that means I don’t need an extra box file.  Here’s what would happen to my archive box files in 2009:
Old label New Label
2003 and before 2004 and before
2004 2007
2005 2005
2006 2006
I highlighted the 2004 to 2007 change because this is where the new 2007 pile goes.  So the 2004 contents go on the floor (yep, they get temporarily relegated to a ‘pile’), out comes the labelling machine, and voilĂ , we have a 2007 archive.
The only thing left to do now is update the oldest archiving, so the “2003 and before” box gets a new name, and the 2003 content goes in the bin (after a very quick scan to make sure I’m not throwing away something I do need to keep after all).  I then have a sift through the 2004 pile and get rid of anything obsolete before I add what’s left to the box file.  I don’t need to touch the 2005 and 2006 boxes this year.
And that’s it – if you follow the same system you get to enjoy the warm glow of being organised for the rest of the day, and don’t have to worry about housekeeping your archives for another year!

Saturday, 6 September 2008

HP LaserJet 1010 on Windows Vista

Half of the reason for writing this post is in case I ever have to do this again and forget how I did it!

If you've come here from a search engine then chances are you have:

  1. a HP LaserJet 1010
  2. Windows Vista

...and probably some amount of frustration trying to get the two working together.  According to Microsoft and HP it can't be done.  Pah!

After some digging around and some trial and error, here's how I got mine working with Vista SP1:

  1. Dug out the install CD that came with my printer.  (If you don't have a copy of this I really don't have an answer for you because the method I used needed one.  Maybe if you can find an ISO image somewhere to rip the disk then you can try that.)
  2. Found this post which led me to http://h20000.www2.hp.com/bizsupport/TechSupport/Document.jsp?lang=en&cc=us&objectID=c00067783&jumpid=reg_R1002_USEN
  3. Downloaded EZInstall.exe
  4. Faffed about a bit trying various combinations of things (which you can skip if the next bit works for you first time)
  5. Copied EZInstall.exe to my desktop, right-clicked it, and from the Properties dialog set the compatibility to Windows XP SP2 and ftp://ftp.hp.com/pub/softlib/software3/COL6438/lj-19937-4/EZInstall.exe.  (I have UAC switched on, so I had to click the All Users option first.)
  6. Put the CD in the drive and ran EZInstall.exe, and followed the instructions (namely to switch off the printer at one point, then switch it back on a bit later)
  7. Windows reported that EZInstall.exe had errored, but it was in the Complete phase and it didn't seem to make any difference
  8. Windows was already trying to detect the printer and install the driver by this time which, after quite a while, it did.
  9. Printed a test page (from the Printer's Properties dialog in Control Panel/Printers), which worked just fine.

You don't get the utilities you'd have if you installed normally on XP, but the basic printing functions seem to work just fine.

Don't let anyone tell you the LaserJet 1010 doesn't work with Vista!

Friday, 5 September 2008

How to keep on top of household filing in one minute a day

OK, let's get one thing straight.  If your household paperwork is already a disaster zone, one minute a day isn't going to help much.  If that's you, first you need to see my earlier post One day (yes, really) to clear your home paperwork backlog forever.  When you've invested that one day, one minute a day is really all you need to keep things in order.
Because we're only talking about a minute's worth of work here, this is going to be a somewhat shorter post.
Ideally you already have the best possible conditions for success:
  • Hopefully your day-to-day filing system is within arm's reach of the place where you deal with your post.
  • Even better is if you can keep your paper recycling bin, box or tray also within arms reach to deal with envelopes, junk mail and other rubbish.  The security-conscious might also have a shredding tray, or even keep the shredder close by to deal with unwanted confidential items as they appear.
  • Spare square-cut folders and your labelling machine should be not too far away for those occasional days when you realise you have a new filing category.  Never put off filing because you don't have the right file!  In fact, never put off filing, full stop.  Unless maybe the house is on fire, or a family member is choking on a pretzel or something.
  • Any 'projects' filing, or folders for categories big enough that they don't fit in the day-to-day filing box also need to be at your fingertips.  (Tucked behind the filing box works for me.)
And here's how you spend your one minute a day:
  • If something is obviously junk mail, bin it (or put it in the shredding tray) straight away
  • Open the rest of your mail - I keep a nice letter opening knife near my filing box for this - and work out which items need to be dealt with, and which are just for reference to file away
  • Put your 'to-do' items in your 'to-do' place - for me this is my desk at the weekends, or on weekdays a folder I carry to work so I can deal with things on the train
  • File everything else in your day-to-day filing box
That's it!
For this to become a habit, it's best if you can get into dealing with the post at the same time each day, or in response to a certain daily trigger, for instance at breakfast, or after you've taken the dog for a walk.  Apparently our brains are good at forming new habits when they're anchored to existing ones.
As for how to deal with the 'to-do' items, this is where I'll refer you back to Getting Things Done by David Allen who has plenty of excellent, detailed and practical advice on the topic.
My next post will be on how you can do your paperwork housekeeping in just one hour a year.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

How to clear your home paperwork backlog forever in just one day - yes really!

I've been offline for a while dealing with some 'life' stuff - I don't wish to burden you with the details, but it's caused me to remember how I got to the point I'm at today where I'm pretty much on top of my home paperwork.  So now I'm back, here's a marathon post for you!  This is inspired by several productivity blogs I've been reading, including www.lifehack.org, and a recent experience involving a mountain of paper dating back to the 1970s.
Most people I know fall into two categories with domestic paperwork:
  1. They have tons of stuff dating back to who-knows-when, piled up or hidden away in various places around the house, and want to get organised but it's just too much of a mammoth task to file everything
  2. They don't have tons of paperwork but still can't find anything in a hurry
This post is aimed at the people who fit case 1, although some of it is probably useful if you're case 2.  Until a couple of years ago I was a bad case of case 1.  I had probably 10-15 years worth of paper, some of it was in boxes, some in carrier bags, some was meticulously filed (where I'd had brief bouts of trying to 'get organised' over the years).  I couldn't find things when I needed them, and worse, I knew I didn't need half this stuff but it was too big a task to file everything from such a huge backlog, and I figured it wasn't worth going through it at all if I wasn't going to apply my 'system'. I also thought my day-to-day filing system would be at least a couple of drawers of a filing cabinet. See the photo below if you want to know what it really looks like!
The first thing that changed my mindset was reading Getting Things Done by David Allen.  It was recommended to me by a work colleague, but really I should say evangelised, because if you know anyone who's read this book and applied what they learnt you'll probably find they talk like someone who's undergone a religious conversion.  It really does change lives, not just at work but at home too.  I don't even use everything from the book, and it's made a huge difference to me.
Picture of filing box
Anyway, I last read GTD (as it's known) a long time ago and I can't remember which of these things I've lifted straight from the GTD method and which were home-baked, but this was what worked for me.  You could probably put this into practice today without reading the book, but I'd encourage you to read it anyway because it covers much more than just getting your paperwork in order.
Step 1 - before Day 0
Prepare.  This needs to happen before Day Zero, the day you set aside to get your paperwork in order. Like they told you about taking exams in school, read everything before you do anything.  Figure out which things here you can do on Day Zero and which require some thought beforehand.
One thing you definitely need to do as part of your planning is decide on a cut-off date before which none of your paperwork could possibly be useful.  For me it was 7 years because I heard somewhere there's some kind of time limit on historical queries for taxation purposes, and I used to run my own business so I'm a bit paranoid about these things.  Maybe I could have gone for less, but better to be safe than sorry.  Whatever date you choose, make your cutoff date the beginning of that year.  Whole years are much easier to work with.
You'll also need to consider things like how much shredding and recycling you'll generate as part of the process, but more on that later.
Step 2 - Day 0 or before
You need to go shopping for some supplies.  If you're doing this on Day 0 then get up early - you've got a lot to get through today!  I'm not an 'early' person so I went to Staples (open until 8pm!) the night before and missed the traffic.
There are a few supplies David Allen strongly recommends for GTD, and I have a bit of a thing about nice stationery, so the opportunity to buy office supplies, strangely, was an incentive for me to get started.  If shopping for stationery doesn't float your boat then just grit your teeth and get through it, and promise yourself a nice piece of cake/cold beer/whatever as a reward when you're done.
Here's what I bought:
  • A dymo (or similar) labelling machine.  This is recommended in GTD, and I'm glad I went along with the advice.  I think mine cost about £20 and came with enough tape to see me through the first year of filing.  Your mileage may vary, but my point is that you don't have to spend much on this.
  • Some cardboard square-cut file folders (also a GTD recommendation), like you can just see in my filing box in the photo above.  I bought a pack of about 100 dirt-cheap ones when I started and I haven't used half of them yet.  I couldn't find these on the high-street, so if you don't have an office supplies superstore within striking distance, you might want to shop online a few days ahead.  I prefer them to suspension files because they're far less fiddly, but if you just love suspension files then go ahead and buy those.
  • A filing box (the last thing from the GTD list) which is just a box with an open top that the file folders fit in for easy access for your day-to-day stuff.  Mine is in the photo attached to this post, and it's plenty for one person's worth of 'current' paperwork.  Really, it is.  You'll be surprised how little space you need.  Get something that looks nice enough that you'll want to keep it out on your desk, or your kitchen counter, or in my case the storage unit in the living room.  The idea is that this should go wherever you usually sort through your post.  It seems crazy, but just having a lid to open is an extra step that makes you put that piece of paper in your hand somewhere other than the folder it should go in, so try to get one without.  (You might think only the laziest, least self-disciplined person could fall into that trap, but I know I fell into the trap of not dealing with my post many hundreds of times to end up with a house full of paper in the first place.)
  • Box files - how many depends on how many years you decided to archive in Step 1.  Here's how I worked out what I needed:
    • This year (Year 0) and last year (Year -1)- I consider 'current' so it goes in the filing box that stays in my living room, so no box file required
    • Year-2 gets its own box file
    • Year -3 gets its own box file
    • Y-4 to Y-7 I decided should all go in one box, but I bought a spare just in case one wasn't enough.
    • In my case I also had some stuff from my old business which I wanted to keep separate, so I bought a couple more box files
I should say at this point that if you run a business (mine was already shut down when I started this) then you'll probably need two 'current' filing boxes for your day-to-day stuff to keep everything nicely separated.  Similarly, if you're doing this for a couple or a family, you could each have your own filing box and one for things relating to all of you, although it would probably be more practical to just colour code your cardboard file folders so everyone can easily file and find their own stuff.
You might be wondering why you couldn't just buy one of those concertina files made for home use, or one of those file boxes with suspension files in.  David Allen recommends square-cut files just because they're quick and easy and it's no hassle to grab a new one when you need to create a new category in your filing.  This is another place I'm glad I followed his advice because they're not what I would have chosen but they work perfectly.  But if concertina files or suspension files are your thing then go with those.  (Just remember to get a concertina file with enough pockets - see step 4.4 and add some extra for the things you'll discover along the way.)
Step 3
Gather everything together!  If you're as bad as I was, you might want to commandeer a room for this task, move all the furniture back, and just chuck everything on the floor in the middle of the room.  There are two good reasons to do this: 1. you don't waste time trying to sort things during the 'gathering' phase.  2. If you deliberately pick a room you use every day (so not the spare room) then you'll have to deal with everything to get the room back!
Look in all the places you've hidden paperwork, dig out every last thing you can.  If there are piles of paper in the loft or garage you feel like you need to deal with then get those too (although there's a good argument that if it's been there for more than a couple of years, you really don't need it and it should probably go straight in the recycling bin).
Step 4
This is the daunting bit, because now you've got this massive mountain of paper in front of you, and you need to clear it today.  But chances are the mountain isn't as bad as you thought, and anyway you don't have to do meticulous filing to get to the next phase.  You will need some space to put things as you sort through (empty floor space is fine) and some kind of receptacle for recycling.  (If your heap includes magazines and other junk mail still in polythene bags like mine did you may need a bin for non-recyclable rubbish as well.)
However... when I did this, I knew at the start I'd have more shredding than my poor little domestic shredder could handle.  I ended up getting a quote for a secure document disposal company to take everything away and shred it at their plant.  This had the advantage of not requiring me to separate anything - their minimum charge covered way more paper than I was going to generate even including non-confidential stuff, and the nice people I used had a machine smart enough to separate out things like paperclips, notebook bindings, and even plastic file pockets, so less work for me.  It wasn't cheap, but in my case it was well worth it.  But organising a company to collect your paper is something you should do when you're preparing, not while you have all your stuff piled up on the living room floor!
Step 4.1
Just getting started is such a huge step, I've put it on its own.  Well done for getting this far without chickening out.
Grab that first pile of paper.  Start with whatever is nearest and take as much as you can hold in your hands to work with and no more.
Step 4.2
Look at your first document or piece of paper.  Apply the following decision tree:
  1. Is this of any use or might it be needed e.g. for tax purposes?  If it is, go to 3.
  2. If not, does it have any sentimental value that makes it worth keeping?  If yes, put it aside in the 'sentimental' pile.  If you're not sure, add it to the pile anyway.
  3. Is it dated more recently than your cutoff period, or if not, is it something you need to keep longer e.g. a birth certificate, a manual for a cooker you still use, or the six-year corrosion warranty for your car?  If it is, go to 5.
  4. If not, put it with the recycling.
  5. For everything else you keep, it needs to go into one of three piles:
    • Current (anything dated this year or last year - we only work in whole years here!)
      • Long-term items - anything which has a 'current' life of more than a year, e.g. the 3-year warranty for your car - also go in the Current pile
    • Archive - anything between your cutoff date and 31 December Y-2 (the year before last)
    • Reference - e.g. manuals for appliances, birth certificates
Step 4.3
Grab another handful of stuff and repeat step 4.2.  Keep doing that until the paper mountain you started with is gone, and you have three small paper islands and (probably) a huge pile of paper for recycling.
Step 4.4
Pat yourself on the back, you've done the worst bit.  And look how much you can throw away and never worry about again!
You're now going to create your day-to-day filing system, or your 'current' box.  So get your filing box, a handful of file folders and your labelling machine.  First, make up some folders which you already know you're going to need.  Mine were:
  • Bank statements
  • Bank - Other
  • Utilities (water, gas and electric bills go here)
  • Phone (for phone bills and other worthwhile correspondence from the phone company)
  • Mobile (mobile phone bills and correspondence)
  • Cable TV (you get the idea...)
  • Health (anything to do with doctor, dentist, gym membership, etc.)
  • Home (home insurance goes here, bills from household repairs, that kind of thing)
  • Work (payslips, letters from my employer)
  • Shopping (warranties, receipts, returns slips for mail-order items I might want to send back)
  • Travel (travel insurance documents, correspondence about my season ticket)
  • A-D
  • E-K
  • L-R
  • S-Z - these last four are my 'catch-all' folders for anything which doesn't generate enough paper to have its own file.  I used these groupings because they're how the London phone books used to be organised when I was a kid, but go with whatever works for you.  Unless you get a really insanely huge volume of mail you want to file, having one for each letter of the alphabet is usually excessive.
The important thing at this stage is not to think too hard about creating a folder for everything you could possibly need.  Just do the obvious ones for now, and keep the labeller and blank folders handy to create new ones as you need them.
Now go through your 'current' pile and file everything in your folders!
You'll probably find one particular category has a lot of paper associated with it and starts to take over the filing box, like if you have a hobby that generates a lot of correspondence, or if you have a domestic project going on like building a new extension.  In this case it makes sense to create extra storage of whatever kind you need, but it's best if you can keep it with the filing box (i.e wherever you go through your post each day) and make it no more difficult to access than dropping a piece of paper in the cardboard files.  Just as an example, I keep everything related to my car in its own plastic A4 box (which is a bit fiddly, but I don't have to add to it often), and when I changed jobs I had a document wallet for all the paperwork that generated.
Remember: rules are for fools to obey, but for the guidance of the wise.  If something in this approach isn't practical for you, just think of how you can bend the rules without compromising on your main goal: creating a system that's easy to maintain.
Step 4.5
This bit is dead easy.
Grab some box files and label them up with the appropriate years for archiving.  If I were doing my system starting today, I'd have 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003-and-before, so four boxes.  Now you just have to split out the Archive pile into each of those years.  The big revelation for a lot of people comes at this part... you don't need to categorise or sort any of this stuff beyond grouping it by year.  Categorising is for stuff you might realistically need to get your hands on quickly.  For how often I need to refer back to something that happened three years ago, I realised it isn't a huge burden to go through that small pile of paper.  And I was surprised by how little paper there was for each year.  This is the difference between getting from "oh my god how am I ever going to file this mountain of paper?" to a workable system.
When you're done, find a place to store your archive files.  You want somewhere you can get to them when you need to, but they don't have to be right at your fingertips.  So if you have a bookcase in a study, or a high-up shelf somewhere, that would be ideal.
Step 4.6
This bit will take all of two minutes.  Divide up your reference pile however you want.  I've split my manuals into 'kitchen' (so cooking and washing appliances) and 'lounge' (everything else) and keep each box in the appropriate room.  You figure out what works for you.  You probably don't need to access this stuff often, the most important consideration is that it's somewhere convenient enough that when you buy a new appliance or whatever, you'll file the manual in the right place and not let it drift out of your filing system and end up falling down the back of the refrigerator weeks later.  You might have a 'family' box for birth certificates, passports, other important documents that you need access to from time to time.  Decide on your own storage place for these, just make sure you keep it separate from other stuff and in a place where you can find it.
Step 4.7
Remember those 'sentimental' things you put to one side?
Now go back through those and decide what to keep and what to lose.  It should be much easier to do that now, with the whole lot in front of you.  Maybe you don't need to keep every school report you ever had, perhaps there are just one or two worth keeping.  If you're into scrapbooking, maybe some of this pile will find its way to wherever you store your craft things.  If you're like me they'll just end up in a keepsake box that you dig out very occasionally.  Like everything, how easy this stuff is to get at should correlate to how often you'll want to add to it or look at it.
Step 4.8
Well done!  You should now have an organised, easy-to-maintain system for day-to-day paperwork, an archive for anything you need less often, and a big pile of rubbish to take to the recycling plant.  If you have any energy left you could do a small lap of honour before you put the furniture back.
If the stationery shopping way back at the beginning wasn't enough reward for you, it's time to have that piece of cake or cold beer you promised yourself.
Step 5
This is the part where you commit to maintaining your system for the rest of your life.  Actually I'm kidding.  The fact you just spent a day working your backside off getting things straight, and basking in the smug glow of being organised should be enough for now.  My next post will tell you how you can keep this up forever in just one minute a day, plus an hour a year for housekeeping.  That's not about commitment, it's just about forming new habits.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Stability and performance with Windows Vista

Eileen's and James' posts got me thinking about my experiences so far with Windows Vista.

I'll say straight away this is based on a very limited sample of machines so is far from scientific.  I don't know whether what I've seen will reflect many people's experience, so let me know through the comments if you agree or disagree, I'm interested to know.

I have a Sony Vaio laptop.  It came with Vista installed, and I've since upgraded to SP1. It's infuriatingly slow.  It's a lightweight laptop, so it wasn't bought for performance, but the spec isn't that bad and in theory it's more than capable of handling Vista and even Aero.  Most of what I do on this machine is through a web browser or at most some very light applications, so I'm hardly pushing it.  But it's been slow to start, slow to hibernate, slow to come back from hibernation, and sometimes the CPU goes to 100% utilisation for seemingly ages and I just have to walk away for ten minutes and let it calm down before I can even begin to get anything done.  I expect the average person who bought this laptop might tell their friends not to get one with Vista because it's rubbish.  I've heard people say similar things about machines they've bought for home with Vista pre-installed, laptop and desktop, and how they're thinking of getting their brother/friend/local IT shop to install XP instead.

On the flip side, one of my machines at work was running Vista until recently.  (We've decided as an organisation we're going to skip Vista and roll out the next version of Windows, so I couldn't really justify keeping it, and I've had to go back to our standard XP build.)  This one I'd been running since a Release Candidate version, but never got as far as installing SP1.  Performance-wise it was fine - in fact quicker to start up than my XP box (of the same spec), not noticeably different running my usual assortment of applications, and a few of the features (the new Explorer with Group By is just one example) were saving me time.  My experience of Vista in this instance was excellent.

Having worked with PCs for most of my working life, I can look a bit more objectively at the situation with my slow laptop.  These are the key differences between my Vista installations at work and at home:



Operating System OEM build, including all of Sony's 'value add' software, e.g. rubbish that makes me go to their website more often so they can try to sell me their products, trial versions of things I probably never want to buy, and customisations I hate, e.g. they hijacked my google search page to their branded one Standardised company build, where every component has been tested, performance benchmarked, optimised and locked-down so we can't break the hard work of the team who engineered it
Applications Mostly web and browser-based tools, e.g.
Firefox 3 (which I love, incidentally) with various add-ons, and other web tools like Flickr uploader, streaming media (Audible downloader, BBC iPlayer, Channel 4 On Demand), lots of which insist on launching at startup
Standard office applications.  Internally developed (and extensively tested) add-ons and tools.

I can't install additional applications without approval, so this makes me install only what's absolutely necessary.
Hardware Optimised for weight, designed for consumer market.  Plus all the various junk I might want to attach at home - maybe only once in a while, but the driver still stays installed, with all the little 'added extras' the device manufacturer packaged with it. Optimised for enterprise purchasing, i.e. consistency and stability.  Components don't change much from one model to the next to allow more consistent driver model and simpler longer-term product roadmap.

So you see where I'm going with this?

There's an old adage about builders' houses, mechanics' cars and plumbers' bathrooms... I guess it's true of IT people's PCs, at least it is of mine.  If anybody complains to me at work about not being able to install their favourite widget in our locked-down environment, I can evangelise to them until the cows come home about why it's best that way.  And what do I do at home?  Fill my PC up with crap, and complain when it runs like a dog.

On the plus side, I've learnt an important lesson.  I wanted to reinstall Vista on the laptop from a Vanilla install disk the day I got it, but I really needed to be up and running quickly and didn't have the time.  Big mistake.  The more time that passes, the more stuff I install on it, the longer it would take me to start again.  The next PC I buy will get a clean build on day one.  I've spent so much time on this machine over the months, done the usual msconfig thing, even gone through Task Scheduler to get some of the sneaky Sony system update stuff to back off to running just once a week rather than on every damn startup, and still it just doesn't run like it should.  I reckon it would take me a solid weekend to do a search-and-destroy on every bit of bloatware it shipped with.

I know I'm going to have to bite the bullet one day soon though and install from scratch... as long as there's all this OEM rubbish on here using my CPU without my permission it doesn't feel like it's mine.  And I want my laptop back.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Microsoft Office User Group for IT Pros?

Are you looking for an online community for IT Professionals who support and deploy Microsoft Office and related desktop technologies? I'm thinking of starting one, so please leave me a comment if this is something that interests you!

I've been in IT over 14 years now and I must have spent about twelve of them bitching about how little focus and recognition we get in the desktop space. No matter how extensive our expertise or what benefits we can deliver for our businesses, the plaudits mostly go to the folks who spend their lives in front of server consoles.

Since the Excel 5.0 and Word 6.0 Resource Kits (so the early-to-mid '90s) Microsoft haven't had a technical manual or training course aimed at supporting Microsoft Office. The more recent Resource Kits are mostly aimed at deployment, and while this is all necessary stuff, we're supposed to learn how each product fits together well enough to support it from whatever we can glean from the mostly sketchy information in KB articles. (The recent and mostly excellent blogs from the Office product teams are a rare exception to this, but hardly comprehensive.) As for proving our expertise... well we can get certified as an expert user, trainer or developer, but there are no certification paths for being the best-of-the-best at supporting the Office suite. No wonder most people in desktop support don't hang around long enough to become real experts.

Anyway, anyone who knows me will tell you how I hate people who moan about their lot in life but won't make an effort to try to change it, so this post is about doing something to fix the situation.

I'm thinking of setting up a user group. ('User' is already a misleading name, but that seems to be the accepted term for technical communities loosely affiliated to Microsoft and their products.) I know this isn't going to suddenly change perceptions that have been around for at least as long as I've been in IT, but joining together as a community of experts and getting back on Microsoft's radar has to be a good place to start. I haven't entirely decided on its scope but I expect it will broadly cover support and deployment of the Microsoft Office desktop products, with some related Windows and server technologies but from a desktop perspective. Supporting and deploying to large organisations is an area of particular interest to me so I hope we'll have some focus there.

If this is something you'd find useful, or better still would want to join or contribute to, please let me know through the comments.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Dark Knight on Imax

After reading this article in Wired, I decided that I had to wait to see Dark Knight until I could get to the Imax.  Tickets are selling fast (the BFI’s site for the London Imax was giving Server Busy errors all yesterday morning), and the soonest I could get was in a couple of weeks, but it’ll be worth the wait.

If you’ve never been to an Imax and you can feasibly get to one, the diagram on page 4 of that article might help convince you to go.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Useful site of the day: Index of RSS feeds for Microsoft KB updates

I tried to find this today and it isn’t easy to track down, so there’s a good chance not everyone knows about it.

http://support.microsoft.com/selectindex/?target=rss contains a list of RSS feeds for new KB articles by product. So if you want the latest hotfixes and ‘known issues’ delivered to your reader, this is the place to get them.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Default font changes not saving in Outlook 2007

I'm getting a problem on one of my PCs where changes I make to the default Word template used by Outlook (yes, Outlook 2007 uses Word as its mail editor) aren't always properly saved.

http://support.microsoft.com/kb/953924 contains a fix for a problem something like this.  The exact details of the problem that's been fixed aren't clear from the article, but I'm going to give the hotfix a try.

I'll report back and let you know if it works!

Friday, 18 July 2008

TechieBird Twitters!

Since my blog posts tend to be pretty lengthy (and infrequent – sorry!) I thought microblogging might be a good idea as well.

If you’re reading this through Blogger then you’ll see my ‘tweets’ at the top of the page. Otherwise, find me at http://www.twitter.com/TechieBird. I’ll try to post updates a bit more often than I do here, and if you have a Twitter account then you’ll be able to send me replies and let me know what you think.

Monday, 16 June 2008

More keyboard shortcuts

I might have mentioned before that I'm a bit of a collector of obscure Microsoft Office shorctuts.

http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/help/HA102750211033.aspx has some really great tips, #3 and #8 had managed to pass me by until now, so I'll be using them today!

Sunday, 15 June 2008

PowerPoint macro to rename drawing objects

This week I created a slide to show a process flow.  I decided the best way to explain how our process works was with lots of animation, showing how incident tickets pass from one group to another.  When all the drawing objects on the slide have un-helpful names like Group 53 or Callout 12 it can be pretty confusing working out the custom animation sequence.  I've known for a while it's possible to rename drawing objects pretty easily with VBA, but it strikes me as a glaring omission from the User Interface that we have to drop into code to achieve it.


Anyway, I was getting into enough of a mess with this particular animation sequence that it was worth spending the time writing the following bit of VBA and using it to give my drawing objects more meaningful names like Stickman 1 and Flying ticket 1.


This works for me in PowerPoint 2007.  As usual, I didn't do much testing, and I have no idea if/how it will work on other versions.  I'd suggest trying this out on a copy of your slides rather than risk wrecking the real thing if the code doesn't behave as expected (which I realised would have been a good idea just after I told it to rename a series of about 15 objects on my insanely complicated slide... but this time I got away with it).

Sub RenameShape()


Dim n As Integer, NewName As String


With ActiveWindow.Selection


    If .Type = ppSelectionShapes Then


        NewName = InputBox("New name for shape:", "Rename Shape", .ShapeRange(1).Name)


        With .ShapeRange

            If .Count > 1 Then

                For n = 1 To .Count

                    .Item(n).Name = NewName & " " & n

                Next n


                    .Name = NewName

            End If

        End With



        MsgBox "Selection is not a Shape", vbOKOnly, "Rename Shape"

    End If

End With


End Sub

If you have one or more drawing objects selected, you'll get a popup dialog asking for the new name for the shape(s).  If you only have one object selected, it will be renamed with that name.  If you have more than one object selected, they'll be renamed NewName 1, NewName 2, etc. in the order you selected them.  (If your selection isn't drawing objects you'll just get an error.)


In case you're wondering, renaming the objects doesn't require you to recreate the custom animations.  You'll see the new names appear in the Custom Animation pane as soon as you've renamed the objects.  When I tried it, my animations (including entrance, exit and motion path) all carried on working just as before.



Wednesday, 11 June 2008

gMail, IMAP and Vista (Windows Mail)

I've finally got round to setting up my gMail to sync with Windows Mail over IMAP. I had some problems at first, kept getting this error message:

Your IMAP command could not be sent to the server due to non-network errors.

(There was also an error code of 0x800cccdf which apparently translates to IMAP_AUTH_NOT_POSSIBLE, which isn't hugely helpful.)

After reading a few posts on the Microsoft forums I thought it might be my Antivirus so wasted a load of time messing about with that, but then I found this:

Permanent Link- Setting up Gmail IMAP Support for Windows Vista Mail

The settings in there are identical to what I had, but it seems that the order you do things is very important because starting from scratch and following their step-by-step instructions worked first time for me!

This is also the same place I found this excellent article:

Permanent Link- Prevent Outlook with Gmail IMAP from Showing Duplicate Tasks in the To-Do Bar.

Thanks folks!

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Cool PowerPoint shortcuts

I'm playing catch-up on the PowerPoint team blog. I'm a huge fan of keyboard shortcuts and keyboard-mouse combinations (CTRL+Scroll wheel to zoom in/out, that kind of thing), so this post from way back in December (I've no idea how it dropped off my feed reader for so long) about views shortcuts is right up my street. I've known for a long time that there's similar undocumented goodness in Word, but had only got as far as double-clicking screen elements. (Try double-clicking around the edges of the ruler and see what you get...) I might have to have a play later and see what I can uncover with keyboard modifiers like CTRL and SHIFT.

Monday, 9 June 2008

How presentations should be

So from the PowerPoint team blog, I found a link to Nancy Duarte. Her company worked with Al Gore on the slides for An Inconvenient Truth, so her keynote presentation to an audience of people who write presentations for a living had to be worth looking at. Where I work the usual style for slide decks is to cram as much information onto the screen at once as possible. I believe in a much more minimalist approach, and it was great to see a presentation from a design professional that gives me and idea of just how far that can be taken! Even if you only have time to check out the first couple of minutes, it's worth it. This is how presentations should be.

At long last! Producer for PowerPoint 2007 in beta...

I was reading Mike Tholfsen's new OneNote and Education blog, and he included a link to this post from Nick MacKechnie. PowerPoint Producer (for 2003) was a great product and it's something I've missed since upgrading, so I'm looking forward to getting time to have a play!

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Three tips for Windows desktop support...

Basic: When you need to take a screendump, you can get just the active window by pressing ALT+PRTSCN

Intermediate: For a quick way to get to the System Properties dialog, hold down the Windows key and press Pause

Advanced: Need to figure out which branch of HKEY_USERS belongs to which user? Right-click it and check the permissions for a clue!

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Vista 100% CPU in svchost.exe

Yeah, that old chestnut... yawn. Last night my laptop became completely unusable for at least two hours. It took me that long to figure out that the service causing the problem was Windows Update. By then I was tired and irritable so I went to bed bitching about how Microsoft must have wrecked my machine with some flaky update.

Anyway, I did some more digging today and noticed that this guy had the same problem and was using the same AntiVirus as me.

Another quick google later and I found this post... turns out the problem is with CA Antivirus and they should have a fix ready for us soon. And there's a workaround for us in the meantime which has brought my laptop back to normal.

Friday, 9 May 2008

New Thing I Learnt Today: Calculated fields in Pivot tables

I think of myself as a dab hand with Excel and do a lot of pivot tables, so it was great to see this post from Joseph Chirilov about a feature I’d never even heard of until now! http://blogs.msdn.com/excel/archive/2008/05/08/pivottables-calculated-items.aspx

Friday, 11 April 2008

My new bookmark of the day: quick way to search microsoft.com

Quite a few times I’ve been thwarted by microsoft.com’s search engine.  My usual workaround was to go to Google and do a domain-specific search e.g. “outlook 2007 calendar hotfix site:microsoft.com”.  (Don’t worry about remembering the syntax of the site: bit, you can do the same from the Advanced Search page by filling in some boxes.)

I guess this must be a pretty common thing to do, because Google have a page that does the same thing with less typing: www.google.com/microsoft.  I’ve just added it to my shortcuts.

There’s a list of ‘special’ searches here: http://www.googleguide.com/special_searches.html.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Excel hangs for 5 mins opening file over HTTP

http://support.microsoft.com/kb/838028 is an eye-wateringly detailed KB article, but it helped me resolve an interesting problem the other day. At least, with a lot of help from some smart people who know about proxies and a network packet sniffer.

We had reports of Excel files on a particular host opening straight away from Internet Explorer, but opening them from Excel was causing a five minute hang before the prompt for username and password would appear.

Anyway, after a lot of head-scratching, we figured it out. When Excel tries to open a file over HTTP it sends an extra OPTIONS request (that meant nothing to me when I first read it, but I saw it on the network trace so I know it's true) to figure out if the host is capable of read-write access. Only after it gets back the response does it then ask for permissions on the file itself. (Internet Explorer skips the first part and just goes straight in for the file permissions.)

In our case it turned out that the host was in fact sending back an incomplete response to this first OPTIONS request. Some of our proxies were just ignoring the fact the response was incomplete and forwarding it back anyway for Excel to sort out. The proxies which were actually handling it correctly were the ones where we had the problem; they'd see an incomplete response and sit there waiting for the rest of it. After five minutes they'd time out, Excel would decide the host wasn't capable of read-write access so it would just go ahead and request read-only permissions for the file, then we'd get our prompt for credentials.

Networking isn't usually my strongest subject, so it was good to be able to follow this one through to conclusion and actually understand what the trace was showing us. It was also nice to see a detailed description of how something works in an Office product. There aren't enough of those about!

Monday, 7 April 2008

Excel and statistics: using the binomial distribution to find unexpected values

A very long time ago (no, I’m not saying how long, and it’d be rude of you to ask) I managed to just about scrape a pass-mark at A Level Maths & Statistics.  Since then I’ve managed to remember nothing but a few pieces of terminology (“poisson distribution” was my favourite) without remembering what any of it was actually for.
I vaguely recall that we spent a lot of time getting our heads round binomial distribution, which I kind of remember as being important but I couldn’t remember how or why.
Anyway, it seems I needn’t have bothered because after reading Gabhan Berry’s post on the Excel blog I now understand it better than I did when I took the exam.  And without having to sit in a warm, stuffy room listening to our lecturer, Mr Monotone.  Marvellous :o)

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

HTC Touch Dual: Return to Sender

I've been like a child waiting for Christmas the last few months waiting for my upgrade date to tick round on my phone contract so I could get my HTC Touch Dual without having to pay for it (yeah, I know I pay indirectly but it still feels like I'm getting a free toy).  And on Saturday I took delivery of a sleek black box containing a gorgeous shiny new phone!  Wooo!

It looks nice, feels well made without being too bulky, and most important for me it has a real keypad as well as a touchscreen.  (That was what had me sold from the minute I first read about the thing - I have no desire at all for an iPhone simply because I don't want to have to look at the thing to be able to do stuff I can do with buttons without looking.  And anyway, it has no high speed data.)  When I got my sim activated I browsed a few pages over HSDPA which was impressively quick, synced up my contacts from my PC, installed OneNote mobile (the other thing I'd been missing since I last had a Windows SmartPhone a couple of years ago), synced again, played about a bit with some settings, and generally admired its sleek loveliness and its cute little fabric bag.  There were a few things I was a bit disappointed by, mostly things I used to do on my C600 (a much older HTC, I think, rebadged as 'Orange') and assumed I'd be able to do with this.  But I was cautiously optimistic we'd work out our minor differences.

Four days on I absolutely loathe the thing.  I've just rung up my provider to send it back.  (Thankfully I did my upgrade online so I'm covered by a return policy - phew!)  Just a few of my gripes with it are:

  • Having a touchscreen on a phone is a bad idea unless it's smart enough to lock itself during calls.    See this appendage on the side of my head that I use for listening?  My ear?  Guess what happens when I'm on a call?  Yes, it touches my phone. And usually activates the SpeakerPhone option.  AGH!
  • Going through touch-menus to send a text message is not my idea of convenient, and texting is what I use my phone for most.  To my mind, I should be able to do that without getting the stylus out or making ham-fisted attempts to pick out some tiny menu option with my fingernail.
  • After four days I still haven't found a foolproof way of locking and unlocking the touchscreen/keypad so I can carry it in my bag without accidentally creating a dozen tasks called £*^$%"%%"!.  (Which, coincidentally, is exactly what I said while I was deleting said tasks.)  I'm not some doddery grandma who can't program my PVR, locking and unlocking should be intuitive; if there's a knack to it, it shouldn't take me four days to get it.
  • It's useful to have some kind of 'new event' indicator (other than an amber flashing light that has to be configured by an option buried deep in the menus of the thing) so I know if I missed a call or a text with just a glance.  Even now I have the amber light configured, I still have to look for two seconds before it flashes.  That is not a glance.  I could have done something with those two seconds.  My C600 was slightly annoying in that regard as well, but you can probably tell I've already lost my rag with the Touch Dual.  It's got to the point where the green light - the one you get when you have no new events to trigger an amber light - seems to be mocking me for my lack of calls or texts.  (Now do you see why I have to send it back?)

Those might seem like pretty minor annoyances but I guess the essence of it is that everything I could do on my previous handset (Sony Ericsson W850i) just seems to be so much less 'at my fingertips'.  I used to be able to pick up a text and reply to it and walk down the road at the same time.  Today I actually had to stop in the street to read a text message.  Oh, the humiliation.

Don't get me wrong, if you want a touchscreen PDA with phone features and think the addition of a numeric/T9 keypad will be useful then there's a good chance you'll love this thing, it really is quite attractive after all.  But I wanted a phone with some touchscreen PDA features, which this isn't.  At its heart is a touchscreen OS and the keypad is just an afterthought.  It's a shame.  I'm off now to console myself by window shopping for its replacement...

Friday, 7 March 2008

Writing in plain English

I've been creating quite a bit of documentation lately.  I try very hard to write good, clear documents without unnecessary detail.  (So that means not describing in detail, with screenshots, every input box on a straightforward authentication dialog in a document aimed at desktop support people.  If your support teams need that level of help, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you have problems that no amount of documentation will fix.  But I digress...)

Recently I was asked to translate a fairly technical description of a problem into something a less technically-minded person could understand.  In fact the brief was "translate it into something your granny would understand" (a pretty tall order as neither of my grandmothers are alive, but I knew what he meant).

Thankfully this is something I've done several times before - usually the instructions are "translate it into something my MD will understand" but unless the MD in question has a technical background that usually equates to about the same.

Anyhow, had I found the task at all difficult, this excellent document from the Plain English Campaign would have given me some great pointers:

How to write in plain English

I recommend having a look around the whole site because it's entertaining as well as informative.  Us techies are infamous for being poor communicators so it does no harm to a) try to learn to do better or b) console ourselves that at least there are worse offenders and have a good laugh at their expense.

In fact I'm starting to think the document above should be compulsory reading for anyone who ever went to university.  I've no idea how it happens (I left school at 18 so I'm in the clear), but somewhere between school and the workplace people stop writing "we did the experiment and wrote down the results" and start coming up with strange constructions like "a manual recording and collation methodology was employed in order to compile a dataset for utilisation in analysis of the observations resulting from the application of the prescribed experimentation procedures".  (I made that one up, but if you look around on the Plain English Campaign site you'll see it isn't that far-fetched.)

I plan to follow up with a handful of posts about writing technical and user documentation... if I ever break off from writing actual documents long enough to write the posts, that is!

Thursday, 28 February 2008

My First PowerShell Script - delete files which haven't been accessed in 30 days

I thought I'd start with something simple.
I have a Scratch folder on my Windows desktop where I tend to chuck things I only need for a short while - like if someone sends me a file they're having problems with and they want me to figure out what's wrong with it.
Every now and again I notice my Scrach folder is getting cluttered with stuff I don't need, and at that point I sort it by Last Access Date and delete everything I haven't looked at for a month or so.
I'm no good at learning scripting from a book, every scripting and macro language so far I've learnt through necessity - I had a job that needed doing and I didn't know any other way to do it, so I taught myself. I've been waiting for an opportunity to try to get to grips with PowerShell and I thought this would be a great project to start with.
Note that there's no safety net here - running this script deletes all files and subfolders that meet its criteria and once they're gone they're gone! As there's every chance I've made an error here or this may behave differently when you run it, see my disclaimer before you even think about running it!
set-location "$userprofile\desktop\Scratch"
Get-childitem -recurse | where-object {$_.lastaccesstime -lt $d} | remove-item -recurse -force
Get-ChildItem -recurse | where-object {$_.psiscontainer -and ($_.getfiles().length -eq 0)} | Remove-Item –recurse -force
Notes for those even less PowerShelly than me:
AddDays(-30) subtracts 30 days. (There isn't a separate SubtractDays method.)
The first Get-Childitem line finds all the files and subfolders that haven't been accessed for 30 days and deletes them.
The next Get-ChildItem line finds all the empty subfolders (getfiles().length will be 0 if there are no files in the subfolder) and deletes them. (This took me a while to figure out but I was pretty pleased when I managed it - I'd been looking around couldn't find any examples of a one-liner to delete empty folders.)
Update 29-Feb: For reasons unknown the formatting of the above script had all gone strange when I came back to it today. Hopefully it looks good now.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

And we wonder why Vista costs twice as much here...

VBA Script to create many calendar appointments in Outlook

A while back I was asked to create a few thousand Calendar appointments to help with some testing. I figured the script might be useful in case anyone ever has to do a similar task. I wrote it in Outlook 2003 and for me it works as intended, but it was meant to be quick and cheap (the script was only needed once so I gave it minimal testing and I've included no error handling at all) so you should see my disclaimer before you even think about using it!

Note that I put the items in a Calendar in a PST. This is because I needed to be able to easily share what I'd created, and also because I created the script on my live system (so if I'd written a few thousand Calendar items to the Exchange server I might not have been terribly popular if it had caused problems for other users).

The CreateLotsOfApptsInPST needs to be called with the following parameters:

PSTName - the name of the PST; this is the name it shows with in your folder tree (e.g. "Personal Folders") and not the file path. The PST has to be loaded. I didn't test what happens if there's more than one PST loaded with the same name.
Occurences - How many appointments you want to create
Start - The date and time of the first appointment you want to create
Interval - How far apart, in minutes, you want the start times of each appointment, e.g. if you make the Duration 45 mins and the Interval 60 mins, there will be a 15 mins gap between each appointment.
Duration - The duration of each appointment in minutes.
Subject - The subject you want for each appointment. As it is, the script will append a sequential number to each ("Test Appt 1", "Test Appt 2" etc.) but you could easily amend that.

The second sub is called by the first, but you should be able to see what it's doing.

Sub CreateLotsOfApptsInPST(PSTName As String, Occurrences As Long, _
Start As Date, Interval As Integer, Duration As Integer, _
  Subject As String)

Dim count As Integer

For count = 1 To Occurrences
    CreateApptInPST PSTName, Subject & " " & count, _
      Start + ((count - 1) * (Interval * (1 / 24 / 60))), Duration
Next count

End Sub

Sub CreateApptInPST(PSTName As String, Subject As String, _
  DateTime As Date, Duration As Integer)

Dim olApp As Outlook.Application, objName As NameSpace
Dim PST As MAPIFolder, PSTcal As MAPIFolder

Set olApp = Outlook.Application
Set objName = olApp.GetNamespace("MAPI")
Set PST = objName.Folders(PSTName)
Set PSTcal = PST.Folders("Calendar")

Dim i As AppointmentItem
Set i = PSTcal.Items.Add
i.Subject = Subject
i.Start = DateTime
i.Duration = Duration

End Sub

More seasoned coders will give me zero points for style, but it did the job for me!

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

WHS, Vista, Startup Profiles and Task Scheduler

...well sort of anyway. This is going to be a bit of a rambling post but if you aren't already using Vista's Task Scheduler as a kind of startup profile manager then you might need to read on...

I've had a Windows Home Server set up since the days of the beta programme, and I have to say I'm pretty happy with it. One of its most important jobs is to back up my laptop, so naturally the laptop has the WHS connector (client software) installed. My laptop, however, gets used outside of my home. If I'm at a friend's house I might connect to their wireless network, I may use a 3G card or wireless hotspot when I'm out and about, or I might work offline. Any of which leave the WHS connector doing nothing useful.

My laptop is a lovely lightweight skinny little thing. The downside of that is it doesn't run too quickly. I also have the power-saving options set to get the most time out of a single charge which slows things down even further. It's mostly bearable once it's up and running, but the startup time and the time to recover from hibernation were pretty unacceptable.

The thing that bothered me most was waiting for apps that ran on startup that required the network. If I was off the network (or on a different network to the thing that app wanted to connect to - which is why WHS is in the title of this post) I'd be sitting waiting not only for the damn things to load, but to figure out they couldn't contact the server they wanted to, in some cases complain about it (I KNOW!), then sit there using CPU and memory anyway. Irritating in the extreme when I need to get to some file on my laptop in a hurry. I considered downloading a startup profile manager utility, but couldn't find anything that quite met my needs. On my old XP laptop I made do with a script to start and stop various services depending on where I was, but that was far from perfect.

Anyway, today I finally got so fed up with all the OEM crap taking forever to start on my Vista laptop that I took some time out to fix things. (Shame on you Sony, nobody needs all this junk to run all the time.) In the process I found out that under Vista more and more Startup apps have been added to the Task Scheduler instead of the Run keys in the registry or our old friend the Startup group. I should probably be ashamed to admit I only found that out today, but hey... I got there in the end. But this was where my revelation occurred - I already kind of knew that Task Scheduler was a lot more sophisticated than old-style Scheduled Tasks, but it hadn't really occurred to me how I could use it at home to make my life easier.

The long and the short of it is that I'm now using Scheduled Tasks as a kind of Startup Profile Manager. The WHS Connector has come out of the Startup group and now runs as a Task to run on startup with a condition that it only runs if I'm connected to my home network. My two apps for downloading TV content only run if I'm connected to a network and only if I'm plugged in to mains power and idle for 2 minutes first. I killed some of the OEM ballast and now have things like driver update checks run once a month rather than every time I start up.

My startup time is now pretty reasonable for a slow little machine, and it's improved my temper no end. And all thanks to Task Scheduler.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

How item count in Outlook folders affects performance

Where I work we see a lot of Outlook performance issues where the user's Inbox is over 10,000 items. (I think the record was about 150,000 - you can probably guess we don't use email quotas!)

Anyway this article covers some of the reasons a huge number of items in any folder will cause poor performance:

KB905803: Outlook users experience poor performance when they work with a folder that contains many items on a server that is running Exchange Server

In particular the paragraph about how recurring items are populated into the Calendar was something that had never even occurred to me before.

The one thing it doesn't touch on is how Cached Exchange Mode affects the performance. Our experience is that accessing larger mailboxes from desktop or laptop machines with slow hard disks (think not just older machines, but laptops running on battery power), Cached Exchange Mode can slow things down considerably. It's working out of the OST file (the cached copy of your mailbox on your hard disk), so if your hard disk is slow and your folders have many items, building the indexes required each time you switch views or folders will take some time.

I am generally a fan of Cached Exchange Mode (just for starters it can sheild the Exchange server from so much traffic things like Google Desktop can generate) but there are times it requires a little thought. So if your big cheese needs to keep his huge amount of mail and doesn't want his Outlook running like a dog, he's gonna need to fork out for a half-decent machine for his desk. And even then his frequently used folders should ideally stay below 5000 items.

Creative Commons License This work by TechieBird is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.