Office 365: Worth it?

word2013Back when Microsoft announced that they were going to offer Office as a subscription, I put it down.  I was convinced that it was nothing more than a money grab and not worth the money.  Well, A reader of this blog, and someone I consider a friend even though we’ve never actually met, convinced me that it was worth the money.  After some further research and listening to several podcasts both praise and condemn the notion of annual Office payments, I decided to try it out.

There are several subscriptions available, each have a unique offering, for the home and business user.  The home subscriptions works on just one device and is about 7.95 a month.  I got the middle tier, a $99 a year subscription that gets you installs on five computers and five portable devices.  The business edition is higher cost and is aimed squarely at companies and we won’t discuss that here.

Now, the really good thing with Office 365 is that you can actually install it on any number of computers and devices, but only five of each are active at any time. You can deactivate it on a device and activate it on another.  That’s pretty handy, and if you use OneDrive, then being away from your computer suddenly becomes a moot point. Save your work to OneDrive and access it and Office from anywhere. Just deactivate one machine, then activate the one you are on, do your work, save to OneDrive and then deactivate.  Plus, you only install what you need. If you don’t want Powerpoint, don’t install it. Simple.

So, here at my house, I have it installed on my primary machine, my Son’s laptop and one other desktop. As the other computers already have Office 2007 or Office 2010, I’m going to leave them be. I did install it on my Asus tablet and have downloaded the three apps for the iPad. 

My only complaint, so far, is that my Live ID seems to have problems with the Office 365 login.  Not sure why, but every other login seems to return an error telling me that the ID has a problem. It never says what it is.

OK, I do have one more issue: on my tablet, some of the damn on screen widgets are too small. It isn’t very finger friendly under Windows…yet.  With Build 2014 coming up, I’m hoping that Microsoft will announce a ‘Modern UI’  version of the suite.

Office 365 is one of those odd things that, on the surface, seems like a bad deal, but it really is not.

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OneNote for Mac is for real and it is free

Microsoft not only released a version of OneNote for the Mac OS X, they made it free as well. It is free not only for the Mac, but for all platforms. There is still a business edition that is a paid for product, but all of the rest are completely free.Onenote

I have downloaded and installed the Mac version, but have not yet used it, so I cannot yet compare it, but from what I have seen, it looks and works just like its Windows counterpart.

Finally, our Apple friends can now use what is, perhaps, the greatest piece of productivity software ever to come out of Redmond’s software factory.

Not only did Microsoft make OneNote available for free, they have added features.  An improved API, LENS for Windows Phone (which turns the phone into a scanner), enhanced the OCR ability and released a library of plug ins.

Go here for a list of apps and services that work with OneNote.

With OneDrive, you can now keep all of your Notebooks in sync.  You can even protect your notebooks and all of the various versions (except for the Windows Store version) will be able to access the protected notebook.  Even the web version. Yes, you can even use the web version with YOUR notebooks.

If you are an EverNote user, you can easily migrate your data to OneNote. The easiest way is to save your notes out as HTML and then import them into OneNote. You can also PRINT TO ONENOTE each of your EverNotes, but that could be quite an involved process.  You can also email your notes to your OneNote mail address. (To set this up, goto the OneNote.com site, scroll down about midway and look for ‘Send Mail’. Click the Setup email link. It will show a list of email addresses that you have linked to your Live account. Select the one to use with this feature. From now one, you can send mail  from that account to ‘me@onenote.com’ where ‘me’ really is the word ‘me’ and NOT your name. The email will then go into your default notebook and section.)

I am a huge fan of this software and have written several posts about it. Click here to check them out.

OneNote is available for Windows, Windows RT, Windows Phone, Android, iOS and, now, Mac OS X. You can download the package for your device here.

SkyDrive: sync your OneNote notebooks, access all your PC’s, and share your photos

skydrive1Years ago, Microsoft introduced it’s Windows Live brand and, with it, a set of applications, including the Photo Gallery, Movie Maker and something called Live Mesh. Mesh was a syncing tool that also had a really nice remote access feature. This was, perhaps, its best feature. You could remotely access and control any PC that had Mesh and was linked to your Live Account. I used it extensively. Mesh also allowed file syncing between all of the machines in your mesh.

Alas, Microsoft dinkyed around with Mesh over the years and have now killed the product. All is not lost, though.

Enter SkyDrive.

When I first heard that SkyDrive was replacing Mesh, I cringed. Having seen it, I was thoroughly unimpressed. But…

Things change, time passes and software gets better. And, so did SkyDrive.

Microsoft has SkyDrive client software available for Windows, Android, iOS and Windows Phone. There is also a browser based client. Of all the choices, the web based SkyDrive is the better choice.

I’m not going to go over the clients, they offer only basic options, like file sharing.  The web site, however, is more.

While it will not provide the remote access, Microsoft is leaving that up to its partners, it does allow access to the file systems of any machines that you’ve linked to your SkyDrive account.  And this feature alone makes SkyDrive-the web site-a must.

If you are using Windows 8, that machine is automagically linked. I found my three Windows 8 devices are all linked to my SkyDrive account and let me access the file systems on the other devices.

skydrive2Other features include photo sharing, online versions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint and access to Outlook.  Microsoft keeps making SkyDrive more and more useful. It’s a shame they are not making the applications more useful, especially the rather lame XBox 360 version. I have yet to figure out why I would want that one.

For me, the ability to sync my OneNote notebooks is about as useful as the access to my devices, perhaps more so. I can now sync my notebooks between my PC’s, iPad, iPhone and my Asus tablet. Having access to that data has proven invaluable and, couple with the online Office apps, have eliminated my desire to put Office on my new machines. My Asus tablet does have Open Office, but mainly for use at work, where my access to SkyDrive is limited.

If you have not tried SkyDrive lately, give it a shot, you will be pleasantly surprised.

Windows 8 Family Safety: parental controls are your friend

Since Windows Vista, Microsoft has included a fairly robust parental control mechanism in the operating system. Vista’s parental controls were fantastic, but were neutered when Microsoft rolled out Windows 7. They required the installation of Windows Live Essentials in order to work. Microsoft left the door open for third party parental control mechanisms, but few, if any, hit the market. With Windows 8, however, they restored the functionality that was removed and enhanced the overall package.

Now called ‘Family Safety’, the Windows 8 parental controls are much more granular and offer the added benefit of being able to monitor your child’s computer activity via the web (which was one nice thing they did add with Windows 7.)

In order to work, however, you must setup an account on the computer. You can setup a Microsoft Account or a local account. For my purposes, and for this post, we will use a local account.

famsettings1To setup a local account, bring up the settings charm. Tap the lower right corner and swipe up for touch, or hover the mouse in the same corner and when the charms display, go up and click the settings charm. Next, tap or click ‘Change PC settings’.

You will see the Settings page display. Tap or click the Usersfamsettings2b link. On the right side, you will see YOUR current account information. Toward the bottom of the page, there is a link for adding a new user. Tap or click that link.

The next page will ask for the Windows Account email address for the new user.  Since we are using a local account, tap or click the link that says ‘Sign in without a Microsoft Account’. famsettings3a

Next, you are presented with a page where you fill in the user’s famsettings4aname and password information. For my five year old, I leave the password blank. There is a checkbox that indicates this is child’s account. Check it. This sets up the safety ratings in the games and applications as well as the web sites. Once you have setup the new user account, you are ready for the real meat and potatoes: the family settings page.

From the Windows 8 Start Page, type FAMILY SAFETY. As you start typing, Windows initiates the search. You will see that SETTINGS will return a few hits.famsettings5 Tap or click the ‘Setup Family Safety for any User’ link.

You are now whisked away to a nice, Windows Desktop app. You will leave the comfort of the Windows App/Metro/Store/Modern UI world. That’s OK, it’s worth the discomfort.

famsettings7Once in the Family Safety application, you can control the time your child can use the computer, how long, what apps and games and where they can go on the internet. Plus, it all gets recorded for you.

 

 

TIME

You can set a curfew, which governs when the computer can be used. Setting it is a snap: it is a grid that you click or tap each block to allow or block time. famsettings7time

You can control how much time is allowed during the allowed time frame:

famsettings7time2

WEB USE

You can allow or disallow websites:famsettings8

The web filtering further restricts sites by category: child safe, general interest, adult, etc. By using this in conjunction with the Allow or block specific websites, your child should be protected and prevented from going anywhere you do not wish them to go.famsettings8b

You can also prevent them from downloading anything. While it won’t completely prevent viruii and other nastiness, it should go a long way to help.

 

GAMES, STORE, APPS

famsettings9aPerhaps the best part of the family safety mechanism is the ability to control what games and apps can be run by the child. In addition, you can control which non-Windows 8 applications can be run. The mechanism does rely on the ESRB ratings system, however, for those games that are NOT ESRB rated, you can prevent them from running all together or allow only certain ones to run.

 

 

CONCLUSION

The best thing you can do is to go exploring. This post was not intended to be an in depth how to, rather more of an introduction to this important aspect of Windows 8.  I encourage you to also check out my other posts on this subject as well as the official Windows 8 site. If you have young children, setting up an account and then protecting it is the best thing you can do for your child, your sanity and the computer.

HOw to make that cell phone picture look better

Smartphone-indeed, cell phones with cameras in general-have pretty much ruined our eye for photography. Not that we had a great one to begin with, what with Polaroids, the 110 camera, the disc camera (remember those?) and a slew of low end point and click cameras all contributed to our poor photography skills.

I am not exception either…I take LOTS of photos with my smartphone. I have an expensive Nikon DSLR that just sits around, doing nothing. I have a Kodak digicam that sees a good deal of use, but nothing like my phone.

So, we are taking mediocre to good photos with our phones. Is there anything we can do to help them look better?  Sure!  On the Windows side of the house, there is a plethora of helper apps to give your photos some life.  Many are free, many are cheap to very expensive and all will help.

Since I am a frugal person, I’m going to focus on FREE. And, of all the freebies, there are two that I love: Picasa from the Goog and Windows Photo Gallery part of the Windows Essential suite.  Both share some of the same functions, but each has a unique set of features that can do wonders. Both allow fine tuning of things like contrast, brightness, color saturation and tint.

Picasa 3

IMAG0824Picasa has the traditional ‘I’m feeling lucky’ Google button that will automagically make your photo look better. As a place to start, click that button. Once clicked, you can further enhance your photo

IMAG0824-picasa-fixedIMAG0824-picasa-fixed-bwby changing the white balance (for older photos or washed out photos) or apply a number of filters for a more artistic edge. Experimenting is the best way to achieve the look you want. I always make a copy of the photo first, but Picasa has a number of undo steps to bail you out.

Notice the three photos here. The first, taken with my HTC Shift at a local theme park, in untouched. It’s OK, but looks washed out.  The second one, the same photo, had the “I’m feeling lucky” button applied and it looks much better. I also used the neutral color function on the second tab to further enhance it and, finally, pumped up the fill and background lighting.  It looks much better.  The third picture, again the same photo, had the Focal B&W applied to it. This allows you to focus one specific area of the photo. The entire photo is rendered black and white, except for the focal point, which is color. In this case, I wanted to draw attention to the kid on the bench and some of the water behind them. There are a bunch of features that can enhance the photo, but I will leave that to you to discover. 

Windows Photo Gallery

Windows Photo Gallery, part of the Windows Essentials Suite, formerly Live Essentials, and is available for free from Microsoft. Like Picasa, Photo Gallery has many tools for enhancing your photos.  It even has the I’m Feeling Lucky button, but it is called Auto Adjust. Like Picasa, it also allows the fine tuning of the lighting, colors and brightness and contrast. It also has a straighten feature, which will straighten the photo for you. You can control this or let the software figure it and it does a very nice job of figuring it out too.

It has a stitch feature which allows you to select several photos, pick parts of the photo to keep and it will merge them together into one photo. So, if you have, say, three photos of the same people in the same pose, but each has a person looking a different way, you can select the correct faces from each and have it stitch together a photo where they are all looking in the same direction. Quite clever and it works well.

You can also select multiple photos and create a movie from them, however, this is a bit of a deception since it just calls Movie Maker and passes it the photos.  But, this is not a knock on the software.  By correcting the photos here and then calling up Movie Maker, you can give more life to your photos.

Photo Gallery is not quite as sophisticated as Picasa, but it works well and loads faster than Picasa. For quick corrections, this is probably the best free tool out.

Both of these products work with Windows 8.  Speaking of Windows 8, there is one photo app I played with, but really cannot recommend it yet. It is called ‘Awesome Picture’ and is in the Windows 8 style.  As with the Release Preview App Store releases, it is rather simplistic and, obviously, not a complete app. However, it’s filters work as well as Picasa or Photo Gallery. It is currently free and I do not know if it will stay that way.

There are lots of other photo editing and enhancing packages, these are just two of my favorite freebies. ArcSoft had a few decent packages as did Corel. But, for the money, Adobe’s Photoshop Essentials, the pared down consumer version of Photoshop, works very well and offers much more in the way you can fix and enhance your photos.

I have previously written about this subject, so please read these posts as well.  Happy clicking!

Previous Posts:

Restoring Old Photos – King Kobra Rollercoaster example

Make a video from stills

Digital Photography Posts

Simple Photograph Restoration

Windows 8: gripes and missing features…are they really that bad?

Win8StartWindows 8, Microsoft’s next iteration of it’s vulnerable Windows operating system, is due out later this year, with a release ‘preview’ due up in the next couple of weeks.  After a ‘developer preview’ and a subsequent ‘consumer preview’, the operating system has garnered a fair amount of praise and criticism.

Some of the criticism is warranted, others…well, not so much.  For example, the lack of a start button seems to really bother some and is the number one complaint, followed closely by Metro’s seemingly unfriendliness for mouse and keyboard.  These are more personal preference, in my opinion, than short comings of the operating system.  Microsoft is attempting to re-invent Windows and they have a desire to just break with the past and killing the start button is just one way to do so.

Another way, as announced recently, is to ditch much of the eye candy they introduced with Vista. In fact, in a blog post, Microsoft proclaimed that Aero (the fancy special effects for window presentation such as see through borders) is tacky and that they are getting rid of it. Now, MY preference would be to keep it as it made that rather staid and plain Windows desktop look a bit more attractive.  So, Microsoft is killing off many of the things that made Windows, well, Windows. Some of the other things that are getting removed include:

  • DVD Movie playback – you will need a third party solution for this
  • Windows Media Center – it will still be available, but will cost money and you MUST be running Windows 8 Professional (just like in the XP Media Center days)
  • Aero
  • Blue Screen of Death (replaced by a uninformative frowny face and friendlier message)
  • Start Menu and Start Button (similar functionality available via the start screen and a hotspot in the lower left corner of the screen)
  • Previous Versions replaced with File History
  • Overlapping, multiple windows in Metro (there is a snap feature that lets you see two apps at once)
  • Flip 3D appears to be gone. Alt-Tab still there.
  • Traditional menus in many desktop apps (like Explorer) replaced with the ribbon UI

The biggest criticism that actually makes sense is the stark contrast between the Metro and Windows desktop interfaces. Microsoft has done little to ease that while many third parties have designed very attractive themes that follow the Metro look and feel and make the desktop feel like it is part of Windows 8.  However, I get why Microsoft has not done so much, they really are trying to kill traditional Windows.

Negatives aside, there is much to like about Windows 8.  Metro presents a whole new interface (that dates back to the Zune and Windows Media Center) that is attractive, clean and does not rely on gee-whiz effects to work. Yes, I am contradicting myself here: I LOVE Metro’s clean look yet LOVE Aero Glass.  I think they both can co-exist, but, if Microsoft really does not want Metro, fine. I’m sure the fine folks at StarDock already have an Aero Glass mechanism in the works for Windows 8.

One really nice thing about the new operating system is its speed. Boy, is it fast.  Start up is very quick, even on the Celeron based computer that I am using to write this post.  Not only is it fast, it’s memory requirement is pretty conservative: this machine has 2gb of ram and performance is very snappy, unlike it was with Vista or even Windows 7 (which is still my favorite version of Windows.)

The lack of a touchscreen, for me, in no way hinders my ability to use Metro applications. I find the mouse and keyboard to work very well. Yes, it took some getting used to, but it just seems like second nature now. I do find myself wanting to reach up and touch the screen (no, not out of disgust) and move those tiles.  It is going to be great with a touch screen, but is great with mouse and keyboard too. 

Over the next few weeks, we should learn about what will be in the final shipping version.  The release candidate is due to be unleashed the first week of June, so we should have a good idea of what is to come. Stay tuned for more.

Are you ready for Windows 8?

While Windows 7 continues it’s rather robust sales push, Microsoft is readying the replacement for Windows 7, due sometime in 2012. Microsoft is building on the foundation laid by Windows 7, while refining the user experience, tailoring the operating system for tablets, phones (yes, phones-I know, they JUST introduced Windows Phone 7, hey, it’s Microsoft, what can I say) and all flavors of devices.

Almost daily now, little bits of info are leaking out of Redmond and the last few days have seen some interesting bits revealed. Some will love (like me) the changes, while others (mostly those of you who hate Office 2007) will absolutely despise the changes and, no doubt, pine for the old days of the dreary battleship grey Windows 2000 look.

And, before I go on, the leaks are just that, leaks, and do not necessarily mean that the final product will resemble the leaked images. So, with that said, let’s look at a few of the changes.

Windows Explorer

Windows Explorer gains the ribbon-as will much of the OS-from Office 2010 and the Windows Live Essentials suite. While the current incarnation is incomplete and rather disjointed, it does appear that Microsoft is moving in the right direction with the ribbon. Features that are currently buried in menus will be brought out and more easily found. No doubt, there are those who will detest this. Presumably, your old keyboard tricks will still work.

Metro UI from Windows Phone 7

Metro, for those of you who do not know, is Microsoft’s rather clean and attractive user interface for both the Zune HD and the Windows Phone 7 platform. Bits of it were first used in the Windows Media Center software that has been shipping with Windows since Windows XP Media Center edition. Not all of the UI in Windows 8 will feature Metro, but parts of it will, including a built in PDF reader. The touch interface will also include the live tiles that are part of the Windows Phone 7 platform.

Other (Including Windows Live Integration)

Windows 8 will feature tight integration with Live services such as Hotmail and Live Mail. The task bar will become a notification area for mail. Hardware and driver installation progress will be tracked on the taskbar as well. There will also be an ‘Aero lite’ interface theme for those who do not have hardware that can display the full 3D Aero interface. The user interface is said to be ‘dynamic’ in that it will adapt to user habits. Icons and shortcuts will adjust to usage habits, which, I am guessing, is similar to the old Desktop Wizard that was so bloody annoying in Windows XP. Remember that damned message ‘you have unused icons on your desktop.’ Yeah. No thanks.

Overall, it looks like the user experience is shaping up nicely, at least, for those of us who like such things. For others, Windows 8 will probably be a no show for them unless they can knock it back into the stone age. But, hey, for them, Microsoft is STILL going to support Windows XP until 2014. 2014! That’s 13 years after it was introduced. (give it a rest folks!)