Thursday 26 November 2009

My 18 essential Android apps

Yeah, six months, almost to the day, since my last post. I know, it’s disgraceful. I’ve had numerous reasons, not least that I’m not in a hands-on technical job these days, and it’s taking me a while to find my voice on a new topic. But let’s see how that works out.

Meanwhile, back in my comfort zone, some geek goodness. I’ve only had my Android phone (HTC Magic) a few months, but I can’t remember what I ever did without it. (I prefer to forget the Samsung i600 which turned out to be an almighty mistake.) So these are Android Apps I can’t live without, in alphabetical order because that’s the way they’re arranged on my phone:

  1. ACast – webcast client, which I have pointed at my PodNova account (so I can subscribe to podcasts from any web browser and have them appear on all my clients), which in turn has a feed pointed at a download tag on my Delicious feed (so I can bookmark individual tracks and have them appear as part of a feed). Has the must-have setting to only download when connected to wifi, so won’t cause me to fall out with my network operator. It just works. I haven’t been tempted to try Google Listener, so I can’t tell you which is better. Maybe one day when I’m bored…
  2. AnyClip Pro – gives me a gadget on my iGoogle homepage which syncs text with an app on my phone. Great when I’m at work and I want to check out a link that Websense won’t let me see… paste in my iGoogle, quick sync, and open the link in my Android browser. Vice versa if someone SMSs or gMails me a link and I want to see the site in my desktop browser. Quicker and less hassle than copy/paste and email.
  3. Bluetooth Switcher – gives me an icon on my homescreen to toggle Bluetooth on/off. Simple, quick, and just works.
  4. Handcent SMS – I nearly didn’t include this because I don’t like the new Quick Reply screen as much as the previous one, but it was the first alternative SMS client I tried, and I still haven’t found another one I like better. Has an annoying habit of popping up texts you already closed or replied to in Quick Reply, but otherwise pretty decent. Has lots of UI
  5. Technorati Tags: ,,
  6. options including custom colours if you like that sort of thing.
  7. Locale – a ‘set it and forget it’ app which lets you change phone settings or trigger actions depending on your location. So mine switches the ringer on when it’s at home, and off when it goes somewhere else. I usually have GPS switched off to save battery, so it uses wireless network location which is a bit flaky, but that’s not the app’s fault. The vast majority of the time it works, and that’s good enough for me. Also has plug-ins e.g. an SMS sender, so you can automatically send a “be home in 20 minutes, put the oven/heating/batman outfit on” text to your significant other from a strategic point on your commute.
  8. London Tube Status – when my train is pulling in to London Bridge, I can check if the Jubilee Line is working or not in a couple of seconds, so I don’t have that wasted trudge to the tube station, just to find out it’s not running. If it says “Minor Delays” I can check the live departure board to see how minor. Next trains at 5, 9 and 14 minutes? No thanks, I’ll try some other way.
  9. My Days – it’s a girl thing. Unless you know a boy who wants an app to track the menstrual cycle of the woman in his life. Which would be a bit creepy if you ask me.
  10. NetCounter – useful for checking if that app you installed earlier is suddenly making your network data usage go through the roof. (Twidroid, I’m thinking of you…)
  11. NewsRob – An offline reader for Google Reader. Possibly my single most used app, and I love it. Has the critical “only do full sync over wifi” feature. Not perfect, but they’re constantly improving and updating it.
  12. PaperDroid – I’m listing this although I don’t actually use it much, but I would if I could. It’s a great idea – an offline reader for your ReadItLater account. Unfortunately I can’t tag items with ReadItLater from work, so I’m mostly using Instapaper instead. And waiting for an Instapaper app…
  13. Power Manager – great for commands like “Switch on WiFi when charging, switch off WiFi when battery goes below 80%”, and the brilliant, emergency-call-juice-saving “switch to 2G and switch off Sync when battery goes below 10%”. Just works.
  14. Pure Calendar Info – a more compact calendar widget for the homescreen. Doesn’t seem to impact performance too much.
  15. Record It – remote recording tool for Sky+. Great UI, much easier (at least I think so) than trying to remember the syntax for requesting by SMS, and even though this is a paid app, it pays for itself after a handful of uses.
  16. Steel – my ‘spare’ web browser. The main reason I have this is because it picks up iPhone versions of web pages (sends a user agent string identifying itself as the iPhone browser). So a good backup option for pages that look like crap in the regular browser.
  17. Swift – simple twitter client. Has the annoying habit of telling me again and AGAIN that I have direct messages I received weeks ago, but other than that it’s OK. I prefer TwitterRide, but I’ve found the easiest way to manage two twitter accounts is to use two clients, and this is the second best free one I’ve found so far.
  18. TooDoo – I’m a huge fan of the ToodleDo online task management site, and this syncs with it and even adds features not in ToodleDo. It’s nice to be able to type my shopping list from my PC, add items on the train if I suddenly remember them, and be able to walk around the supermarket ticking them off with a strikethrough gesture - very satisfying. Also syncs with Remember The Milk. A bit buggy though, does tend to force-close a lot.
  19. TwitterRide – quick, simple Twitter client.
  20. Useful Switchers – easy access from the homescreen to some common on/off settings, e.g. Silent mode, WiFi, GPS and a screen white-out that is supposed to work as an emergency torch. (Personally I’d rather save my battery for other functions I’d find more useful in an emergency, but that’s just me.)

So what am I missing?

Monday 25 May 2009

Why most PowerPoint presentations suck, and what to do about it

The phrase “Death by PowerPoint” (70,000+ hits on google) has nearly as many miles on the clock as the dreaded Bullet Points Of Doom, but a lot of the good information out there about creating better presentations seems to be preaching to the choir.  If you're self-aware enough to have looked for help on being a better presenter, you're probably not on the Most Wanted list of people likely to bore their colleagues or customers into a coma and you’ve probably realised that the default PowerPoint templates are about as beneficial to presentation audiences as tobacco is to beagles.
So, maybe you found your way here via one of my troubleshooting posts and this isn’t a topic you’ve devoted much thought to.  But maybe you’ve felt hours of your life tick by while you’ve watched your well-intentioned colleagues read through their screens full of bullet points and tables of data you can’t read from the back of the room.  Maybe you have a vague feeling that a lot of presentations are a waste of time, possibly even your own, and would like to break the cycle.  In that case, join the club!  I hope I’ve improved since I started getting interested in this topic a couple of years ago, but I’m very much a work in progress and I plan to keep learning.  I’m far from being an expert presenter, but I’ve listed some useful resources created by people who are at the bottom of this post.
Our managers have learnt to expect presentations in the same hackneyed formats, but that doesn’t mean we have to comply without question.  Most presentations where I work (and most places I’ve worked, for that matter) are doomed from the start because they follow a ‘default’ style that doesn’t take account of some basic aspects of human behaviour:
  1. If the audience are reading, they’re not listening.  If I’m talking and showing a page of text at the same time, I’m asking them to make a choice between one and the other, and it's not a conscious choice.  Unless I’m doing something to catch their eye, the text will get their attention.  If the text is all I wanted to get across, I could have sent out a document and saved my breath.
  2. People respond best to visual stimulus, and anyway, some things are difficult to communicate verbally.  Graphs and diagrams can make a point at a glance, tables of data just don’t have the same instant accessibility.  Photographs can add emotion and impact, which can help deliver a message and help the audience stay awake and interested.  Visual stuff is what slides are good for.  Words are for speaking.
  3. We have a short attention span.  Most adults can concentrate on a speaker for about 10 minutes before we need a change of some kind.  So if I have 30 minutes of material without much variation, I’ll have lost even the keenest members of my audience about a third of the way in.  I need to somehow break it up, whether that's by building in some audience participation, or an obvious change in dynamics, e.g. blanking the screen, getting out from behind the lectern and walking about to summarise my key points or introduce a new topic.
  4. Skimming my notes and rehearsing to myself is not the same as practicing it out loud.  Like most people, I feel like an idiot rehearsing my presentation in the mirror, but not nearly as much as if I rehearse in front of my audience.  Every presentation *is* a rehearsal at least the first two times I say it out loud (and to some degree every single time).  Like most people, I find the first few attempts are always awkward and clunky.  It's up to me who gets to see them.  (For the sake of disclosure I should add that I recently made the mistake of trying to deliver a presentation I hadn’t done for months.  It didn’t come straight back to me like I thought it would.  Lesson learnt, I hope.)
For a really interesting read about how the brain works and how we do our best to stifle it through the ways we set up our workplaces, check out John Medina’s book, Brain Rules or the Brain Rules site.
Anyway, as promised, some links to some real experts.  There are lots of great resources out there dedicated to making more killer presenters (killer meaning ‘very good’ as opposed to the literal sense).  Here are a few I’ve found helpful:
  • First is a slide show that made me laugh while making a very good point.  It’s more about how to write slides than present them, but I think it should be mandatory viewing for anyone who uses PowerPoint.  It takes about 2-3 minutes to watch and doesn't need a headset:
  • Next, a document from Seth Godin which is a bit more detailed.  Check out some of his TED talks to see his presentation style in action.
  • Finally, a great example of how to put together the in-person presenting with simple, uncluttered but relevant visual content.  Nancy Duarte worked with Al Gore on An Inconvenient Truth amongst other things.  (This one is kind of long and needs audio, but the first five minutes are enough to get the gist of her presentation style.)
It's easy to be daunted watching Nancy Duarte in action.  She does this for a living, most of us don’t.  And some of her graphics probably took a designer's touch to create them.  But that's not the point - the reason her presentation works is that she speaks with passion and humour, and her slides add to and complement her spoken words rather than fight with them.
Most of us don’t get to create presentations to save the world, we get told to present to our team about our project status or the recent re-organisation.  But regardless of what I’m presenting, if I use visual material I want it to make the content more accessible, interesting and persuasive.  Trotting out the same old bullet point format does just the opposite.

Monday 9 March 2009

Function for returning the nth occurrence of a substring in Excel

Here’s another bit of code that you’re either looking for or you’re not.  In all honesty, I’m posting this mainly because I use it again and again, and having the code here means I can always get to it.

So, where the built-in INSTR function in Excel VBA (or the FIND worksheet function) returns the position of a substring within a string (e.g. looking for the e in Apple would return 5), InStrNr extends the functionality by returning the nth occurrence of a substring within a string (so looking for the second p in Apple would return 3).

I mostly use this when a string includes a delimiter of some sort and need a way to find the right start position for a MID() function to grab just part of that string, so for example getting back the day from a m/d/yyyy date*. (This is something I do a lot because I’m in the UK where we have dd/mm/yyyy and end up converting by hand when importing from CSV files and the like if Excel won’t figure it out for us.)

Hopefully the argument names should be self explanatory, but to use my earlier example of returning the second p in Apple you’d use


Anyway, here’s the code:

Function InStrNr(FindIn As String, TextToFind As String, OccurrenceToFind As Integer) As Integer

Dim ThisOccurrenceNum As Integer, ThisOccurrencePos As Integer


    ThisOccurrenceNum = ThisOccurrenceNum + 1

    ThisOccurrencePos = InStr(ThisOccurrencePos + 1, FindIn, TextToFind)

    If ThisOccurrenceNum = OccurrenceToFind Then

        InStrNr = ThisOccurrencePos

    End If

Loop While ThisOccurrencePos > 0 And ThisOccurrenceNum < OccurrenceToFind

End Function

As with most of my quick-and-dirty code there’s no error handling or validation of inputs, so if the function doesn’t get the arguments it’s expecting you’ll get an error of some sort.  Feel free to post a comment if you get stuck and I’ll try to help so much as my meagre coding skills allow!

* For a mm/dd/yyyy date in cell A1 the day would always be =VALUE(MID(A1,4,2), but with m/d/yyyy the ‘4’ could be a ‘3’ depending on whether the month has one or two digits.  With a m/d/yyyy date I’d use =VALUE(MID(A1,InStrNr(A1,”/”,1),InStrNr(A1,”/”,2)-InStrNr(A1,”/”,1)-1)).  Which looks pretty horrible at first glance but all we’re doing is using the position of the two slash characters to work out where the day part of the date starts and finishes.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Another word thesaurus bug: Broad


When I look up ‘broad’ in Word 2007’s thesaurus I’m getting synonyms for B-road.  Which made me chuckle.

I think this might be a UK English specific bug (do Americans have B-roads?) but I haven’t had a chance to check yet.

I can’t believe I found two of these… what are the chances?

Thursday 26 February 2009

...and what can Microsoft do about it?

Interesting how these things dovetail together. After my rant yesterday, I read this post from Viral Tarpara, where he addresses the issue of 'dumbed-down' marketing because it may be what some customers respond best to. But along the way he addresses the issue of "IT Pros" who don't have a deployment strategy for their next Windows rollout. This ties back into the topic of retention of talent in desktop engineering.

I think a big part of the problem is that there's no way to get recognised for desktop expertise beyond the bog-standard 'desktop support' qualifications which are considered (rightly or wrongly) to be pretty entry-level. The assumption, as I said yesterday, is that anyone who is any good will have moved on to server technologies after a year or two, and only those not good enough for 'promotion' will still be at the desktop. (Not to mention that 'server' products are where the money is.) And I believe the lack of a good desktop certification track only strengthens that view.

MCSE has been widely recognised for a long time as being a qualification that requires a certain amount of expertise and investment of time, but the "supporting Windows desktop" tracks have never gone much deeper than knowing how to uninstall printer drivers and a basic understanding of the results of IPCONFIG.

Some of us in large enterprises don't suffer as badly; we have tiered hierarchies where there's a reasonable chance a hiring manager will understand the value of a skilled desktop engineer, and might have a clue of how to recognise one. A typical hiring manager at an SMB would probably have wider responsibilities so might not be aware of the value of such a person, or be confident that they could pick one out from a lineup, so they rely on tangible things like exam passes and certifications. And if there are no 'engineering' qualifications for the desktop, then surely that means there's nothing to engineer? Just do a vanilla install (or even easier let your hardware supplier start shipping the new OS as your kit gets replaced) and let the support guys figure it out how to make it fit your environment as they go along. Those who hire a firm to do major deployments are likely to go with the cheapest contractor who "gives them what they want". Engineered equals fancy and expensive, they just want something simple, right?

It's going to be the exceptional individuals who don't mind swimming against the tide who also have a passion for desktop technology and don't actively dislike dealing with end-users (can you see how the field is starting to narrow?) who stay the course and become truly expert to a point where they can, for example, create complex automated deployment solutions that scale to thousands of users or are simple and robust enough to be passed on cheaply to multiple SMB customers.

Perhaps Microsoft could help things along by promoting something similar to the BDD MCTS (does anyone outside a very small group of people even know it exists?) and including it in a wider track including e.g. elements of desktop management through SCCM (rather than setting up SCCM architecture), GPO (rather than setting up AD), topics around security that relate to the desktop (rather than focusing on perimeter security), etc. And call it an MCSE so people know it requires the same level of expertise as supporting an Exchange environment or an AD domain! If our skills were better recognised, perhaps more technicians in their first few years working with the desktop would be encouraged not to jump ship to an entry-level 'server' job kicking off VM installs or swapping out disks in a datacentre.

If I sound at all bitter, I have no reason to be. I'm lucky to have worked in some great companies where the end-user experience is prioritised and the investment in desktop engineering has reflected that. I've worked on teams with highly talented people where we've built some truly best-in-class deployment and management solutions for the desktop, and I've done pretty well out of it, thanks for asking.

But I'm only here because I'm a stubborn creature who stuck with something when everyone else told me it was a bad idea. It would have been so much easier to accept the status quo and make that move to setting up file shares and print queues and long for the day I was allowed to configure something with CISCO written on it.

I wonder how many potentially great desktop solutions engineers we lost along the way...

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Why your end users' experience matters most of all

James O’Neill led me to a post from Steve Lamb about end users’ experience of IT:
I continue to be amazed how poor the corporate computing experience is for many people due to the provision of machines that are not fit for purpose - not due to lack of money being spent but simply due to poor configuration/management/consideration of what's required.

If you are an IT Professional then work with those around you to view your corporate infrastructure from the perspective of your users. Whatever your level of seniority I strongly suggest you make a few minutes to watch how end-users get on with their corporate PCs - chances are there are improvements that could be made simply by better understanding where the frustration lies.
While Steve’s coming from a slightly different direction, this echoes something I've been saying since I was a wet-behind-the-ears floor-walker supporting Windows 3.1: It doesn't matter how great your infrastructure is behind the scenes, if your desktop sucks, your users' experience of IT sucks.
I used to go on about this a lot, back when the prevailing belief was that if you worked with desktop technologies for more than a couple of years, it was because you weren’t smart enough to get ‘promoted’ to working with servers.  (Bitter?  Me?  Never.)  Even though you don’t hear that so much now, the majority of IT departments still recognise and reward someone working with a server product significantly more than someone with the equivalent level of expertise and responsibility working with the desktop.
So 15 years after I started ranting about the desktop being under-prioritised, have we moved forward?  I do hear more these days about focus on the end-user experience, so maybe we are finally starting to get through.  But I think there are still a lot of senior IT managers who would still find this revolutionary, and for Steve to be blogging on the topic I wonder how many underinvested desktop environments he’s seen. I hope it doesn't take another decade and a half for the value of the desktop (and the missed opportunity if you don’t sort it out) to be so obvious we can stop talking about it.

Windows 7 Diary: My Bluetooth Heaven

My Bluetooth headset is working with Skype!  Yes, I have managed to get Windows to understand that a headset can do stereo and have a mic for making calls.  Incredible.

This is something I’d tried on a few occasions with Vista, and never got to any useful level of reliability.  The awful Toshiba Bluetooth stack that’s supposed to work on my Vaio was less than useless in this regard, but unfortunately I couldn’t get it working at all without, so I was more or less stuck with them.

Anyway, I started out with the same problems with Win7 but in a cavalier moment I decided to uninstall the Toshiba rubbish (I did an in-place upgrade so I still had everything installed from my Vista config) and, incredibly, it worked!

It’s the little ways like this where Win7 just seems that little bit more capable than its predecessor that impress me the most.

Tomorrow I’m going to try out my HSDPA stick, so I might even be blogging from the train…

Thursday 12 February 2009

Sony Vaio/Internet Explorer typing problem fixed!


Right now I’m grinning like a maniac because this problem has been driving me to distraction for ages. It’s weird how a thing like having random keystrokes ignored when you’re typing can drive a person disproportionately loopy, but there you are.

So, if you don’t have the same problem then there’s no point in reading the rest of this post. Nothing for you here. If you are looking to fix keyboard/typing weirdness in Internet Explorer on a Vaio laptop then read on…

You’ll know you have the problem if you type in a text box on a web page and, unless you type v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and carefully the text looks something like this:

The uick bron foxjumps ver the laz dog.

(Because, as you might have gathered, some of your keystrokes get ignored.)

This has happened to me on two different Vaio laptops now (and when I googled for it, other Vaio users were having the same problem so I had a pretty strong feeling it was something specific to them) and I’ve seen it in IE6, IE7 and even IE8.

Anyway I read a post by some other poor soul frustrated to the point of madness, who just happened to mention that one good thing about the Vaio is the fingerprint sensor for logging on.


Ping! Lightbulb moment!

It suddenly occurred to me that I don’t get the same problem with FireFox or Google Chrome on the same machine. And also that Firefox 3 and Google Chrome aren’t supported for web sites authentication by my fingerprint reader!

So after a little digging around, I found the setting in Protector Suite QL (the utility that provides the fingerprint security functionality) to disable integration with Internet Explorer. If you have the same version as me, here are the steps:

  • Open the Protector Suite QL Control Centre (you can do this by right-clicking the fingerprint icon in the notification area if you have one, or from the Start Menu)
  • Under Settings select User Settings
  • Swipe your finger to let it know who you are
  • Go to the Password Bank tab in the User Settings dialog
  • Under Web Browser support, un-check the box for Internet Explorer
  • Close down all your Internet Explorer windows

Next time you open Internet Explorer you should be able to type without being left wanting to headbutt things. Incredible!

Apologies that my normal, moderate tone has vanished and I’ve gone a bit deranged but if you’ve had the same problem then you already know how annoying it is.

Of course it does mean I’ve lost the fingerprint authentication feature for websites, but for me that’s a small price to pay for my sanity. Which will, I’m sure, be restored when this brief euphoria wears off.

And since this laptop is now running Windows 7 Beta that means I can now try out all the added goodness of IE8 which I’d been missing out on. Manic grins and too many exclamation marks all round!!!!

Saturday 7 February 2009

Windows 7 diary: first impressions

So to tie up the loose ends from my cliff-hanger ending:

Yes, the laptop woke up from hibernation – the process seemed a bit quicker than before, but I could be imagining that bit.

Yes, I’m creating this post from my Windows 7 machine, so if you’re reading it then I reckon it’s working well enough to be productive.

And what do I think now I’ve had a chance to begin to get to know Windows 7… well so far I’m kind of ambivalent, but let me explain why…

First, let me say I read an article few weeks ago about the cool new features to look forward to in Windows 7.  And like most information I don’t use immediately, I promptly forgot just about everything in it.  So I’m pootling about discovering bits and pieces for myself, and to be honest I’m probably missing the WOW-factor features.  I plan to go back and re-read about what I should be looking out for later, for now I’m content just to go with the immediate impact of a new OS on the things I already do.

So, the thing I’ve been most impressed with was the upgrade from Vista.  That went smoother than I ever could have imagined, and not having to reinstall most of my software is a wonderful thing.

When I woke my machine up from hibernation today I had a notification alert that my CA Antivirus wasn’t enabled.  Letting Windows try to fix it for me didn’t seem to do very much after the UAC prompts, so I tried opening up the Antivirus console.  From there I took the option to enable real-time protection and that was it – I had to reboot Windows, but even that seemed quicker than before.  And I now have virus protection.

I thought this would be a long shot but, incredibly, BBC iPlayer downloader worked first time!  That was a surprise because it used to be finicky on XP and Vista.  I guess iPlayer has come a long way since those days, but I was still expecting trouble.  I downloaded a programme and set the options to play in my default media player (Windows Media Player in my case).  First time I tried to play I got an error message from a WMP addin that wanted updating, and even after installing the latest version from the vendor, the error didn’t go away.  Having said that, I hadn’t even tried loading Media Player on its own at any point to give it a chance to initialise itself, so I wasn’t being entirely fair.  Sure enough, just starting Windows Media Player and letting it settle down fixed the problem and now my iPlayer works just fine. I haven’t done anything else in the new Windows Media Player yet, so I’ll have to save my opinion on the improvements for another time.

My Windows Home Server connector couldn’t find my server on the first attempt, so it had to do a re-discovery but that sorted itself out quickly and wasn’t any real trouble.

So next was Internet Explorer 8.  This was my first experience with IE8 and unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be using it as my primary browser.  The reason for this is an annoying bug with Vaio laptops that causes the keyboard to skip characters when typing in Internet Explorer.  It’s definitely not Windows 7’s fault (I had the same problem with Vista and XP) and I’m not blaming it on IE because I haven’t seen it on any other machines… but FireFox doesn’t give me any trouble so I’ll be using that for most of my browsing.

I did briefly check out the new Accelerators in IE which look pretty useful.  The only one I can really see myself using for now is mapping with Google Maps, although as more become available it will be nice to replace bookmarklets (e.g. for Delicious) and toolbars (e.g. for StumbleUpon) with something I can use from a right-click.

Web Slices sound like a very cool feature (allowing you to tag content on a web page and have IE notify you of any updates) but I couldn’t find a site with them enabled.  Maybe I’m doing it wrong – I’ll need to investigate that one some more another time.

As for the new UI… well I never liked the sidebar so it’s definitely good being able to drag desktop gadgets about the place, but this is an ultra-portable laptop with 1024x768 screen resolution, so I don’t generally see much of the desktop.  The one use I can think of for the moveable gadgets though is that I have a 7” digital photo frame will work as a small extra monitor when connected by USB.  Assuming I can get that working in Windows 7 then I might find myself putting gadgets over there.

I’m undecided on the new taskbar.  Again, on such a small screen I’m slightly begrudging of the extra real estate required for the taller icons.  Aesthetically I think it looks kind of clunky, although I understand that the ergonomic reasoning is sound.  (See this post about how Fitts’ law influenced the ribbon design in Office 2007.)  I was never one for hiding the taskbar in previous incarnations of Windows, so not having it visible feels a bit weird, but I’m giving that a go as a compromise.  I found the option to use small icons – so basically have it look more like Vista – but I don’t think there’s much point in testing a new OS and making it look like the old one without at least giving the new UI a try first.  (Plenty of other features have grown on me in the past that I haven’t warmed to straight away, so I’m being open-minded about this one.)

So… I’m hardly leaping for joy, but then Windows 7 seems stable enough, the upgrade was surprisingly smooth, and my apps pretty much just work.  So maybe I was expecting too much after the real WOW that was seeing the Vista UI for the first time.

Next post I’ll do some poking around in the dark corners to see what I can find that’s less obvious, and at some stage I’ll re-do my research and find out what features I’m supposed to be loving and whether they live up to the hype.

Friday 6 February 2009

Windows 7 diary: the install

Inspired partly by this post and partly by the news that I had until 10th February to get my backside in gear, last night I took the plunge and installed Windows 7 on my laptop.

Yes, you read that right, my laptop. As in my only laptop. I have a desktop PC I use most of the time, so it's not my most critical machine, but still, it's a leap. So while I was waiting for the DVD image to download I took a manual backup (I just love my WHS so much for this kind of thing).

I also decided to take an unprecedented step and run it as an upgrade from Vista instead of a fresh install. I don't think I've tried a version upgrade to Windows like this since a very bad experience going from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 all those years ago.  Even though the underlying architecture is supposed to be near as dammit the same as Vista, I know my reaction would be “you did what?!"” if one of my techie friends did the same and it all went horribly wrong.  But the convenience of not having to reinstall all my apps to make the machine usable enough for a real-life test was just too much of an incentive to resist.

So... download completed, DVD burned, I put it in the drive and kicked off the setup. After a few clicks and quite a bit of waiting around - this laptop is an ultra-portable so not exactly built for speed - the setup program told me I needed to reboot to update some system files before it would allow me to continue. It was a bit frustrating that after the reboot the setup had to go through the same routine again (same set of clicks, 'checking compatibility' for quite a few minutes) before eventually allowing me to continue. It would be nice if it could store what it learnt the first time round and not have to go through all that again - but maybe the reboot scenario is a glitch they're hoping to be rid of before Windows 7 goes RTM.

By this time it was getting pretty late so I left the install running and went to bed, so I can't tell you how long the whole process took.

This morning I was greeted by a prompt to select my time zone, a couple more clicks and next thing I knew I was ready to log in! The biggest surprise of all was that the login screen had the option for me to use my fingerprint reader to authenticate - as it uses a utility that hooks into the Windows Login screen it seemed like a long shot that it might work straight away, but there it was, working just like it did in Vista!

My desktop took a few moments to build, but it's only thinking back I realise what an incredible thing happened next. Windows just loaded. And sat there, waiting for me to do something. No error messages! No unknown device driver install prompts!  No hung (or processor-greedy) processes for me to kill!

I did have one slightly worrying moment when the notification about syncing my offline files came up. I have my Documents folder located in a share on my server, so both my desktop and laptop can use the same files. Windows 7 picked up the setting (in theory a good thing) and started syncing files. You can call me a scaredy-cat, but I'm not sure I like the idea of a beta OS syncing with my server copy of my important files. The server does have an off-site (i.e. online) backup but the pain of getting all my data back from there isn't something I want to go through for anything less than a real unavoidable data-recovery emergency. So I stopped the sync and took away the *Always available offline* setting from my synced shares just to be on the safe side. As time goes on I may relent on that one, but this was my first minute in a new beta OS so I hadn't had time to get any kind of comfort that it works well enough to be allowed near my files.

So, sync stopped and panic over, I only had a couple of minutes to spare before my early morning conference call. I launched Firefox 3 just to see how it would behave, and it seems to play nicely. After my call I had to head straight into the office so I closed the lid on my laptop and it began to Hibernate, so it seems to have remembered that setting. The hibernation process seemed pretty quick, but I've never sat with a stopwatch and timed it under Vista so I can't say whether it's better or not.

So that was my first day with Vista and I leave you with a cliff-hanger ending...

Will the laptop wake up from hibernation?

Will I be able to create my next post in Windows Live Writer from my upgraded machine?

What will I think when I've had a chance to get to know Windows 7 a little better?

We'll find out soon.

Monday 2 February 2009

Great little app for mounting ISO files as CD/DVD drives

Every now and again I need to use an ISO image of a CD or DVD.  I’ve tried various approaches (burning to a physical disk, mounting on a Virtual PC when I’ve had one available, using the Microsoft’s Virtual CD Control Panel) in the past but to be honest they’ve all been a bit of a pain.

So I was really pleased when I found this free app, which seems to just work without any fuss.  I’ve used it on both my Vista machines (desktop and laptop) and it does exactly what it’s supposed to, quicker and easier than I expected.

This is especially useful if you have a laptop or netbook without an optical drive, or if you prefer not to use the optical drive to save battery power.  You can create ISO images of your discs (plenty of software is available to do that part), store them on your hard drive, and never need to carry a CD or DVD with you again.  Provided, of course, you have enough free disk space!

Clonedrive by Elby

Thursday 15 January 2009

PowerShell script to unzip many files

Yeah, I know, I keep saying I’ll post more and all I do is post less.  Well the back half of 2008 kind of got derailed by unavoidable ‘life’ stuff and to be quite honest I haven’t yet decided if blogging will be one of my priorities in 2009.  Rest assured that if it is, I’ll be doing it properly and a redesign will be part of that commitment.  For now though, I’m back to using this as a holding space.  If I don’t want to lose something, and it might come in handy for someone else, it’ll end up in the blog.  Otherwise... well, we’ll see.

So here it is.  Say you have a folder full of zip files at j:\stuff.  Running this script (with j:\stuff as the current location) will unzip the contents of those zip files to j:\stuff.

$shell=new-object -com shell.application




$ZipFiles = get-childitem *.zip

$ZipFiles.count | out-default

foreach ($ZipFile in $ZipFiles)


$ZipFile.fullname | out-default

$ZipFolder = $shell.namespace($ZipFile.fullname)



If you also want to delete the source zip files, you can add remove-item $ZipFile after the line beginning $Location.Copyhere.  The reason I didn’t include that in the sample above is I strongly advise you (see my usual disclaimer) to run the script and make sure you’re satisfied the zip files unzipped properly before you go letting it delete anything!


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