Windows 8: it isn’t bad and it is not difficult to use

win8startMicrosoft is readying an upgrade to Windows 8 (surprisingly called Windows 8.1) which should address some issues with the operating system as well as add new features.  Microsoft is hoping the changes will help the operating system, which the tech press is now panning after heaping praise on the OS.  Among the improvements: ‘metro’ updates to more of the system settings, less dependencies on the antique desktop mode (they should ditch that now.)

Now, noted CNet/ZDNet columnist Mary Jo Foley is saying that ‘sources’ are now saying that there will be options to boot to the antique desktop and add the now useless Start Orb back (this, after Microsoft claimed to have removed the plumbing for it…riiiight.)  While I am all for the ‘metro’ additions, I can’t say I support the option to boot to the let-it-go-already desktop.  Seriously. The old Windows dressings need to go and go now.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying ditch Win32 all together, but there is zero reason to leave the desktop intact.  None. It is holding back the operating system. Seriously holding it back. As long as it is there, people, who do not want to change, will continue to use.

Mary Jo herself proclaims this line reasoning as the number one reason Microsoft defaults boot to the Start Page. She is right.

The biggest gripe I see and hear is that Metro is difficult on non-touch devices. I use it on two desktops with decidedly non-touch interfaces and have no problems getting around. In fact, I find it just as easy, if not a bit more so, than with touch. The other criticism is discoverability.  Well, if that is the case, then every touch device currently out suffers from this very same issue.  Did you know that the iPad uses gestures?  Can you name them? Do you use them? My guess would be no. Most people just swipe and tap.  That is it. Well, guess what? It is the same for Windows 8 RT. With or with out touch, it is the same.

I think part of the problem is the name. “Windows” really does not suit it, but it is still Windows underneath.  And Windows has the recognition (good or bad.) Windows RT denotes the non-Win32 stuff, but still is confusing. Microsoft would have been better off naming that something completely different and explain that “Windows” is compatible with what ever that is.  Say, WinTab RT.  That would be a lot less confusing.

At any rate, the grumbling about using a mouse and keyboard with RT is silly. It is no less useful than that damned old desktop.  And, lets be honest, not every facet of the desktop is obvious. You have to right click to do certain things. That is NOT intuitive at all. We do it because we know or someone told us.  Well, same thing can happen for RT.

My point is that people seem resistant to Windows 8 solely because it is different. Not for silly reasons like ‘it isn’t very discoverable.’ Its funny that my five year old stepson can pick up the mouse and use Windows 8 like it is second nature. I did not show him how. He figured it out. In just a few minutes.  If a five year old can do this, certainly adults can.

Look for Windows 8.1 preview to be available sometime in June.

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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.

So many tablets…iPad, Android, Surface or ?

surfacertA decade ago, I was hungry for what I called the ‘perfect form factor’ PC. This perfect form factor was something without a physical keyboard (but, I could connect one if I wanted), feature some kind of Palm like touch interface (because Palm did touch right) and run full Windows OR the Palm operating system. The device could be between 7 and 10 inches. Yep, I wanted a tablet.  Wanted one, really, since I first saw the PADD in Star Trek the Next Generation.

Well, in 2010, I got my wish, finally. The iPad opened the flood gates. While I purchased the first gen iPad, three weeks after its release, I still really wanted that Windows or Palm (by then, it was webOS) tablet. But, I loved-absolutely loved-the iPad. So much so that I went and bought my first new Mac (a 2010 Mac Mini) to do some development and get my feet dirty in the Apple world.

In late 2010, I got my first Android tablet, a pathetic attempt by Pandigital (I see why they are history now.) In 2012, it was the Kindle Fire-by far, the best attempt at making Android usable. The Fire was brilliant: comfortable size, decent speed (I really, truly, do not understand what the speed criticism was about) and decent UI. While it is still Android under the covers, it does not feel like Android.

2013 ushered in the device I truly wanted: a full on Windows tablet. This baby, the Asus VivoTab Smart, runs full Windows 8 and runs it well. Coupled with a Bluetooth keyboard, I can use it for both fun and business. 

So, there you have the three main tablet types: Apple and the iOS, any number of Android tablets and Windows.  So, lets take a quick look at them and do a quick comparison.

Apple and iOS

ipadminiThe iPad is the predominate tablet, but Android is closing and fast.  iOS offers a fairly clean ecosystem, mainly because it is tightly controlled by Apple. Apps must undergo some kind of evaluation by Apple in order to get into the App Store.  Most of the ‘big’ app types are there: some kind of productivity suite, plethora of games and multimedia consumption and creation.  The software can be quite good, but is, mostly, just variations of other apps to varying quality. Want a fart app? Check. Want a flashlight? Got that too.  Want a word find game? Easy. Want Microsoft Office…oops! Well, you still have those fart apps.

Android

sylvania7The Samsung tablets are the best of breed with the Kindle Fires hot on the heels.  Like iOS, Android has an amazing app ecosystem, but also suffers from the same problem: Lots of junk. In Androids case, most of the software is crap and of little value.  Most of the Android tablets are crap as well. Because Android is FREE, any company with a tablet reference design can tailor Android to work on that design and these companies want to maximize any potential profit, so these designs end up being junk. Take a look at Craig, Coby, Kobo and any number of ‘off’ brands. Even known brands like Vizio have missed the boat. Samsung, Motorola, Amazon, Acer and a few others have figured it out, but, on the whole, Android is just too messy.

Windows

vivotabfrontNow, it gets interesting.  There are, currently, three flavors out: Windows 7, Windows RT and Windows 8.  Windows 7 tablets are meant for non-consumer and are targeted to medical and other business use. Windows RT is aimed squarely at consumers and the Windows 8 devices are marketed to both business and consumers. With WIndows 7 and 8, there are tons of applications out and most will work fine with a touch device. Many are less than optimal, but will work. Windows RT requires a new library of apps. This should not be a problem since most would likely buy new apps for any Android or iOS device, so why not for Windows RT?  The problem, though, is the device itself. While not quite as bad as the Android world, the Windows RT world could face similar low cost devices too. This has yet to happen, but…be on the look out for tablet that purport to be Windows. Craig and Coby both sell Windows tablets, but these are WINDOWS CE tablets and that is a HUGE difference from RT or 7 and 8.

So, which ones stand out? Apple’s latest iPads, of course, are good choices. The iPad mini is proving to be a worthy machine and one that many seem to want. In the Android world, Samsung’s devices are a good bet as is the Kindle Fire HD. In Windows land, there are several good ones: Of course, the Surface RT and Pro, Asus’ VivoTabs (RT and Smart) and Acer’s offerings.  If price is your driving factor, then the Kindle Fire HD is the hands down winner.  If you want productivity out of the box, the VivoTabs are an excellent choice and my personal favorite. But…for the best of both (and if you don’t mind starting over in the software area) the iPad Mini is the best choice. Its size, price and software offerings make it the clear winner.

It is interesting, though, to read and listen to the tech pundits write off Microsoft and, now, even Apple.  It is definitely too early to be writing off either. The big reason Android dominates in phone and tablets is because it is free. This is will bite Google in the rear if it does not do something to stem the tide of cheap and dirt cheap hardware. I know many retailers moved a ton of these cheap tablets (from Sylvania, Coby and the others) over the holidays. I have to wonder how many were either returned or are sitting in a drawer while an Apple iPad is being used instead.

2013 will be even more interesting with the addition of the Ubuntu Touch devices. For once, I’m kind of excited about a Linux based product. Ubuntu Touch does not look like something you would need a masters degree in order to use.  I hope the final product lives up to the pre-release promise. The tablet and phones could be pretty interesting and give everyone a run for the money.

After a decade, though, I am still looking for that Palm tablet. Sigh.  I missed the boat on the HP TouchPad.  Maybe LG will fulfill my desire. Sigh.

Stock car racing, Windows 8 and Surface Pro…together…this is not your dad’s Windows

surface_WebLast week, the Great American Race-the Daytona 500-ran. Danica Patrick was the first woman to take the pole position and she finished 8th. Quite an achievement for any rookie and new team, regardless of who or what they are. It also signaled the start of the 2013 NASCAR racing season. Every year, teams try to eek out every bit of power, gain some kind of aero advantage (all but impossible with the ‘Gen 6’ race car) or, at least, gain as much information about how well a car performs on track.  This year, Toyota Racing Development contracted with Microsoft to develop a mobile, touch enabled application that will allow them to gather and analyze all types of data on car performance-data that can easily be updated by the driver with out the need for them to get out of the car (during testing or practice) as well as other team members.

Microsoft’s solution involves Microsoft Surface Pro tablets and a custom developed application running in the RT environment.

The Trackside app, as it is called, along with the Surface Pro tablet allows the team to capture performance data, via the touchscreen, and share it with the crew in real time.  Techs can then make more efficient use of time and fine-tune the car for better on track performance.

The Surface Pro was chosen mainly for its construction: its casing is durable and the Pro provides enough processing power to handle what ever is thrown at it.

This is a pretty good use for the tablet and Windows 8.  The ease of use that the RT side provides, along with the Surface Pro’s form factor, combine for a very powerful solution. It is nice to see this product being used in a real world (albeit an unusual one) situation and one in which most of the users are not computer people, but car people-racers.

Go here to read more about this and watch a short video about the application.

Conquering the world with a Windows 8 Tablet

photo3The Asus VivoTab Smart does not have a CD/DVD drive, which precludes the installation and/or use of software that requires such a device.  Fortunately for me, I don’t need to run much software on the table that requires a CD/DVD drive.  But, alas, there are a few that I do want to run on the tablet, and one of them was Rise of Nations, a Civilization type strategy game from Microsoft. Now, this game is a decade old, but I find that I am still somewhat addicted to this game. So, installing would require an optical drive.  What to do?

Well, on one of the Windows 8 machines I have, I have set its optical drive to be shared. I mount the drive on the tablet and select the Autorun on the game disc. It worked just fine.

Installing over wifi like this will take some. However, this method does allow you to play or use software that you have on CD/DVD.

fileexplorerTo use, open a File Explorer (also known as Windows Explorer) and click on your optical drive. Right click the drive to bring up a list of things to do. Select ‘Share With’ and then ‘Advanced Sharing.’ Next, click ‘Share’. If Share is greyed out, then click Advanced Sharing.  For ‘Sharing’, follow the on screen directions and click OK. If in Advanced Sharing, type the name you wish to use for the shared drive in the ‘Share name’ box.  Click ‘Permissions’ and make sure ‘Everyone’ and ‘Read Only’ are select. Click OK until all of the boxes are gone.  Now, go to your tablet and bring up File Explorer window, goto the network and find the name of the computer that contains the shared drive.  Double tap fileexplorer2to open it up. You should see the share drive. You can map it to your tablet by tap-hold (tap the icon, but leave your finger on the icon until the little square shows.) Select ‘Map Network Drive’ and select the drive letter. I chose E: since D: is a reserved drive on my Asus. It contains the recovery partition and this is likely the case on most Windows 8 and Windows 8 PRO machines. Finally, click Finish.

Now, in File Explorer, you should have a drive E that is really the optical drive on your computer.

photo4While this method (which is actually what Apple recommends for Macbook Airs) is slower than if the drive were connected directly to your computer, it does work and works well.  Have some paitience, it took two or three times longer to install Rise of Nations, but the game, which requires the disk be in the drive, works well.

Happy conquering!

Windows RT: better than Classic Windows?

filecopystatusWhile the question of which is better, RT or Classic, Windows 8 on touch devices is both awesome and REALLY not so awesome. Microsoft did a disservice by not fixing the Classic desktop in Windows 8 for touch.

What do I mean?  Well, I’ve been using an Asus VivoTab Smart with Windows 8.  It’s a nice device and I’ve already written about, so I’ll spare the praise I have for the device.  I have installed a number of Classic applications, including Visual Studio, Firefox and VLC.  Much of the Classic desktop works well enough with touch, but some of it is just a pain in the butt to use with touch. So much so, in fact, that it is nearly enough to sour me on using the desktop with touch. 

The problem is that things are just too small. The desktop does not scale properly to be really useful on a touch device.  Things like scroll bars do not work correctly; the min, max and close buttons are too close together and picking from list or even trying to highlight something is just awful. It is very clear that Windows was NEVER meant to be used with any touch device.

The big problem is the graphical subsystems.  However the scaling is handled, that’s what’s broken. In order to make things big enough, you’d have to resort to lower resolution, in which case you lose precious real estate.  For whatever reason, this would be acceptable on an Android device or an iOS device. But, this is Windows and we need our massive 27 inch monitors and impossible to see resolution.  It just won’t fly on a portable device, though. On a 10 inch screen, that resolution would make things just too small. So, you lower the resolution and, bingo, you see the text and widgets.  But, then your finger is just too big. If you increase the text size, everything else increases and makes things easy to touch, but then you lose space and the text looks wrong.

There should be an easier way to make the widgets and chrome bigger, while maintaining the correct sizing for the text.  Sounds easy, but, apparently, it is rather difficult since Microsoft has yet to do so.

The RT side works well.  Text is bigger, but not too big. Much of the cruft in Windows is gone, replace by lighter weight components and fewer graphical parts.  It is touch friendly and works very well. Microsoft makes it works as it was designed with touch in mind and keyboard/mouse was the afterthought.

There will come a time when the Classic Desktop is removed altogether. I can’t wait. Hopefully, it comes sooner rather than later.