Microsoft, Apple, T-Mobile…They take a lot and give little

win10mobileT-Mobile.  The Un-Carrier.  This company, led by it’s uncool CEO, John Legere, claims to be different.  And, in a few regards, that is true.  They led the march to do away with subsidies and contracts.  Getting rid of the contracts was a good thing.  However, the replacement plans by T-Mobile and the others leave little to be desired.  This company also bills itself as having a fast, reliable network.  That’s debatable. In the Richmond, Virginia area, anyway, they are spotty—despite having PINK all over the area map.  Speeds are so-so.  They also advertise the binge-on program where you can consume all of the video streaming, from a select few services, and won’t affect your data or speed. What they fail to say is that you need specific plans to qualify.  Lastly, the ‘Get Thanked Tuesdays’ promotion only applies to certain customers—i.e. those who have Android or iOS devices and those not on prepaid plans. If you have a Windows Phone/Mobile, Blackberry or other device or you have those and are on a pre paid plan, you are out of luck. No thanks on Tuesdays or any other day.  (To be fair, they did try  to make up for it by giving me a credit, free pizza and, in last Tuesday’s event, they texted me the codes—but did not mention I had to use them right away. My fault there, though, it is in the rules.)  The no hoops, hurdles and strings mantra does not apply if you use anything but iOS or Android.

Apple.  Another company that loves to dump on its customers. But, Apple, at least, makes you feel good about getting dumped on. Hell, it’s a PRIVILAGE.  This company has, for the most part, products that, if from any other company, would put you to sleep. But, they slap that stupid logo on them, charge a mint and invite you into these sterile, wood and glass stores, and attempt to make you feel like you OWE them a purchase.  What’s really odd…and lame…is the uniforms the employees wear…..JEANS and BLUE T-SHIRTS.  What the hell is that?  You want me to pay two grand for a computer, I’m in what is supposed to look like a high-end store, and the person who is assisting me is dressed as if he or she was playing kick ball on a school lunch break? Seriously?  And what’s up with that stupid watch?

Microsoft. OH MY LORD.  This company makes it damn near impossible to like.  Everything I have liked, from the Zune to Windows Mobile 10 to Windows 10 itself, has had features removed, been crippled in some way or out right cancelled. I don’t’ need to say anything about Zune…its dead and so is my 30gb player. So, I’ll move on…to Windows Mobile 10. Now, a few years ago, MS bought Nokia’s phone business.  And promptly drove it into the ground.  They released Windows Mobile 10 by gutting many of the nice features of Windows Phone 8, including stability, reliability and many, many features like the hubs.  Now, the company says they are removing features because no one uses them, like FM Radio and the Kids Corner.  Guess what? I DO! This is the same reason they removed Media Center from Desktop Windows. Guess what? I used that too.  Now, Microsoft is further limiting another of its once great products: OneDrive.  They lured you in with tons of free online storage, then cut it all out but 5gb (like Apple) but you could still do a lot. Now, that is being limited as well. You cannot use it to share files a lot or share large files. I guess they are getting hammered for bandwidth. I don’t care, they opened the door and invited us in, now they want to boot us out after an hour.  Why should I bother at all?  They did this with remote sharing as well.  They killed off a terrific photography tool, photosynth.  Their OneCare was great, they killed it.  Windows Mobile has the potential to still be great, even with all of the neutering but, it, too, will languish. That’s what this company does best.

Honorable Mention: GOOGLE. Man, I could rant for days, but I’m not.  Suffice it to say that I will likely be forced to use Android again. I don’t like Android, but my distaste for iOS is worse than my dislike of Android.  One last thing, Google is far worse than Microsoft when it comes to product support and growth. Just look at the Google dead product grave yard.

This may sound like sour grapes, and to some extent, it is.  I’ve been burned a lot by these and other companies.  However, the problems stated here affect more than just myself. In the case of Apple, the deception costs real money.  In the case of Microsoft, it’s not only money, but a lot of frustration as well.  This company needs to stop its practice of introducing things, getting you hooked and then either taking them away or severely handicapping them.  It has really made me re-think my whole Microsoft affinity. 

So, what great Android phones are out there?  I need a good, non-Apple replacement for my Zune too.  My Zune HD is starting to have problems and I don’t know how much longer Windows will run the Zune software.  I want a dedicated MP3 player, I don’t like using my phone for media.  Lastly, what online storage solutions are out there that are low cost or free and are unfettered? 

Apple, you are done…Microsoft, your dominance is near the end and Google, welcome aboard: how Android won the game, via Chrombooks

Change. It is a difficult thing to go through, but, it is inevitable. Nearly thirty years ago, CP/M was THE operating system and 8080/Z80 based computers were THE thing. I remember thinking they’d be around FOREVER. They didn’t make it past 1986, when IBM began to take over the personal computer industry. And, so, we are near that crossroad today.

Google has announced that Android apps will be available ‘soon’ for ChromeOS. That is, as they say, a game changer.

Why?

Well Chromebooks are inexpensive. Small computers using ChromeOS are inexpensive and do not need Wintel level power to do things.  Android apps, likewise, are mostly designed to run on cheap smartphones with power that comes close to that of a cheap desktop or laptop computer.  Combine the two and…WOW…that is a game changer, folks.

A friend of mine (one day, Sam, we will meet in person) has been touting these Chromebook things for a few years now.  I’ve always kind of poo-poo’ed them as being a browser on a minimalist Linux.  However, you put Android abilities in there and…BOOM!   A real challenge to Wintel.

Chromebooks already outsell the Macintosh. It will be a while before they supplant Windows, but, I think the writing is on the wall.  I am a die hard Windows fan. I’ve loved the environment and, later, the operating system since the 2.1 days. But, change is inevitable and Microsoft knows this. Pretty much the only product they still sell that is not completely available on other platforms is the Visual Studio development tool suite. And, I think, it won’t be long and you will be using that on Android. On a Chromebook. 

So, how is Google doing this? Merging the two operating systems?

No. No merging.  No AppV or Virtual machines either. NO, they are using containers that have the Android framework embedded in them.  This is a quite clever approach as it not only allows the app to ‘see’ the underlying filesystem and hardware it is running on, it also means apps can talk to each other and that is HUGE.  What good is a photo editor that cannot get to the photos?

It also means the applications run AT FULL SPEED.  Think about that.  Now the Android GAME world is open to ChromeOS.  In fact ALL Android apps will work this way, no developer changes required. Candy Crush Jelly Donuts and Coffee will run, full speed, full screen, on a cheap $120 (US) Chromebook just as well as it does on that Moto G.  This, my friends, is not only cool, but awesome.

I am no fan of Google, but this is a clever and very smart way to bring Android into the home in something other than a phone.

Now, I need to buy myself a Chromebook, get a good book on Java development and retool myself.  Apple, you need to get a clue. Your walled garden is about to be overtaken by weeds when your gardeners leave for greener pastures.  From Google.

You can read more about it here.

Customize your Windows 10 experience

OK, you upgraded from Windows 7 or one of the Windows 8 flavors and want to personalize your machine.  In previous versions of Windows, all the way back to Windows 95, you could create themes, have slideshow backgrounds and change your color scheme.  You can still do that, but Microsoft seems to have gone out of its way to make it way more complicated than it should be.  This is one thing in Windows 10 they got wrong.

This short little guide should help.

Change the background picture to a slide show

settingsPersonalizationThis is actually easy to do, just buried. So, to start, you will need to create a folder and put the pictures you want to show in the folder.  Next, open up the SETTINGS app and select PERSONALIZATION or, right click the desktop and select PERSONALIZE. Next, select BACKGROUND. In the BACKGROUND selection box, click the arrow and select SLIDESHOW. Below that, there will be another button where you can actually choose the folder that contains the photos you wish to include in the slide show. Select the folder, click the Use folder button and that’s that. Your slideshow should start. You can change the duration, shuffle the pictures, etc.

ThemessettingsTheme

One post on Microsoft’s own site says that the ability to create themes is gone, by design, from Windows 10.  This seems true, you cannot create a new, blank theme.  You can, however, SAVE changes to the CURRENT THEME, which there is ALWAYS a current theme.  So, set up your background image, system sounds and color scheme the way you want and then save the theme.  Here’s how…

settingsTheme3Setup your background image, if you want a slide show, follow the instructions above. Now, to setup your sounds, right click the desktop and select PERSONALIZE. From there, select THEMES.  There is a link to setup the system sounds, click that and it works and looks EXACTLY like it did in previous versions of Windows.  Once done, Click OK to close that window.  Repeat the process for the mouse, if you want to change that as well. Once it is all the way you want, click the first link, Theme settings. This takes you to the OLD Theme page, but there are no options on the page.  However, the very first Theme listed is the current theme and it is called ‘UNSAVED THEME’ Right click that and select which type of theme you wish to save. The first choice simply saves the settings for YOUR use. The second choice gives the ability to package the theme so you can share it.  Make your choice and give it a name. Click OK and your new theme becomes a selection along with any themes you already had.  NOTE: in place upgrades will preserve any themes you made in previous versions of Windows. New installs will have a few that come with Windows 10.

Also, note that the ‘unsaved theme’ choice is missing now. It will reappear once you make a change.

Change the Lock Screen and the Screen Saver

settingsPersonalization2You can change the image that displays when you boot the computer or lock it.  Right click the desktop, select PERSONALIZE and then LOCK SCREEN.  From here, you can change the image for the lock screen and make it a slide show, static image or a BING picture of the day.  Click Background selection button (the down arrow) and make your choice. If you select SlideShow, you do the same thing here that you did for the desktop background slideshow. Once you select the background, you have other things you can set, like the application updates you want to see (for example, calendar events, weather, etc.) Set those by clicking one of the little squares with the plus sign. You will see a list of available apps to use for notices here.  Not all apps will show since not all provide this functionality.settingsLockscreen2

You can also change the screen saver from here. Scroll down until you see Screen Saver settings. Click the link and you will see the screen saver settings that we all know and love.  Select your screen saver and click OK.

There are other things you can do to further customize your experience.  You can change the color scheme from the PERSONALIZATION page.  I have it set to use the primary color of the background image, but you can make it whatever you want.  Go on and explore the Personalization page.  You will find most of the things that were in the previous versions of Windows, just looking a little different now and, unfortunately, often buried where you would not think to look…like the screen saver settings in the LOCK SCREEN page. 

Any questions? Post them in the comments and I’ll try to answer.

Windows 10: Living with the Insider Previews

So, I’ve been on the Insider ‘Fast Track’ for a few months now. That means as soon as Microsoft releases a new build in the Insider Preview, I get it. Those on the ‘slow ring’ will get it when a new fast track build is released. 

edgenewtabGetting new builds this quickly is both a cool thing and a real point of pain. Some of the builds have been just awesome and other just awful.  Mostly, they are just…not ready.  For a product that is supposedly going to ‘RTM’ in July and be generally available a short time later, they sure have a lot of work left.

The latest build, 10130, while better, still has showstopper issues.  The START MENU/PAGE for one. This thing is such a turd.  The concept is cool, the execution, not so much.  If Microsoft is going to insist on the damned desktop still being there, they need to nail the start page and nail it tight. For example, when you click/press/swipe the start button, the page need to pop right up, no delay. And, it needs to be complete. So far, this seems to have eluded them and is a huge step back from both Windows 7 and 8.1.  I have four computers, two desktops, a laptop and a tablet, that have the same version of Windows 10. All of them have Start Menu/Page problems. 

newstartpage2All four of those devices also have rendering issues. After a time, things just disappear.  This is mostly  a problem with Windows Store apps, like Mail, Edge, Health and others. Tonight, though, it happened with Firefox, a desktop application. Other nagging things include Windows Store applications that do not resize well and the half baked hamburger menus. Now, I don’t have a problem with the widget itself, I don’t care what it looks like, but the content needs to be responsive and it is not.

So, what do I like? The concept. I like the notion of the combined Start Page and Menu.  I like the icons.  I like the typography. I like the boot speed.  Overall, I like Windows 10.  I realize these are incomplete builds, but some of the issues, like the Start menu/page, have been there since that first insider release. Surely, I am not the only one who has experienced this, so, why not fix it?

I am looking forward to the ‘final bits’. I will eagerly upgrade my machines. I just hope they get these things fixed.

Windows 8.1 Update 1 is here!

startpageMicrosoft released Windows 8.1 Update 1 today.  The update, which, for me, was like finding a needle in a haystack, will be a mandatory update-which is why it is going through Windows Update versus the store like 8.1 did.  I did not want to wait, so I went to the normal Windows update method, but did not find it. I went to the charms bar, selected SETTINGS, then CHANGE PC SETTINGS, then UPDATE AND RECOVERY then windows update.  I clicked the ‘check now’ option and did, in fact, find many updates. None of them were the ‘Update 1’.  So, I remembered that, sometimes, you have to go to the ‘old’ desktop version of Windows update.  Open up Control Panel, select System and Security then Windows Update.  There it was.  I let it update. It took about 20 minutes. Once that was done, it was like a new computer again.startpagemenu

There are a lot of little things that, collectively, add up to a mostly pleasant experience for the mouse/keyboard user. I have not yet tried it on my tablet, but I suspect I’ll not see much of a difference.

For most users, the changes are subtle and welcome. For example, on the Start Page, there is now a power button and a search icon.  Right clicking tiles gets you a context menu and the app list now highlights new applications.

startpagetaskbarstartpagelivetilesModern apps (Windows store apps, metro, whatever you want to call them) now show up on the task bar when in the desktop AND the task bar shows up on the Start Page. startpagetaskbarAt least, it does sometimes.  I’m not sure if it is a bug or not, but I get the task bar on my Start Page when I move the mouse down to the bottom of the screen and hover. BUT…it doesn’t always work, so, I’m not sure if it is a feature or not.

Modern apps now have a title bar with minimize and close buttons. Fortunately, the title bar hides startpageapptitlebarafter a couple of seconds. to get it back, move the mouse up to the top of the screen.

So far, my only real complaint: it defaulted to booting to the desktop instead of the Start Page.  Don’t want the desktop to be default.

There are other changes as well and more changes are coming (like a new, enhanced Start Menu.) This is the Windows that Microsoft should have released as version 8 and then, over time, deprecate the crap, like the task bar.  For now, though, I wonder if this might be too little, too late. We’ll see.

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.

Free Mac OS X? What? Apple, what gives?

mavericksApple, in a ploy to garner more coverage (which worked), announced that its Mac OS X upgrade, called Mavericks, would be free. In addition, it would be made available to users of machines as old as six years and running ‘ancient’ versions of the OS, all the way back to ‘Snow Leopard.’ While I applaud them for the move (Microsoft, your turn) I have to wonder what it really means.

Way back when the iPad came out, I speculated then that iOS and OS X would, one day, merge.  I am thinking that ‘Mavericks’ is OS X’s swan song. Oh, they may release another point upgrade and struggle with pointing ‘features’ (and, sorry, tagging is not a feature that screams ‘hey, buy a Mac, look what it can do.’) No, I think Mavericks is the end of the innovation line and that a combined operating system (OS XI?) will come out in two years which will move the Mac line into iPad territory. Sure, they will have one, maybe two Macs running something for development, but consumer ‘Macs’ will be iPads with keyboards. This is a tact that Microsoft has begun: Surface Pro and Surface 2 are the start of the blending of the two worlds.  Microsoft has even hidden the traditional desktop in RT for Surface 2 (they removed the tile on the Start page.) I’m thinking Windows, as we know it, has two, maybe three, years left. 

The introduction of the iPad Air pretty much confirms that the next generation Macbook Air will be an iPad with a keyboard. Now, this is my supposition, but why else would they stick an Mac moniker on an iPad? Apple is very thoughtful and deliberate in its actions. This is more than just reusing a corporate brand name.  Personally, I think it is a great idea.  Put the iPad in a nice case with a sturdy keyboard, and you have a very nice, fast and easy to use laptop.  iOS, even version 7, is way more easy to use than Mac OS X, which, for me, is one of the most cumbersome operating systems out there. I’d rather use BeOS-which was just awful.

And then there are iLife and iWork. Both products received substantial upgrades, with iWork, finally, getting some real productivity chops that could actually give Microsoft reason to pause. Microsoft really, really needs to get Office Touch out there for both the Surface 2 (and Windows RT) as well as the iPad if it wants to stay in the game. Otherwise, Goolge and Apple will be competing heavily and Microsoft will be scratching its collective head trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

Apple, you are one sneaky company.  And…that’s good for competition. Keep it up.

LCD Character Editor for Parallax LCD panels

The Parallax 2×16 or 4×20 LCD panels are inexpensive and easy to use. While limited to 2 or 4 lines of text, they do provide for 8 definable characters. This allows a bit of ‘graphical’ manipulation but, doing so in code can be a bit tricky.  I have developed a small, Windows based editor that lets you specify the target for the code, the type of output you want and a graphical way of creating your character.

The LCD Character Editor

lcdchared

Using the application is simple: when it starts, you have a blank canvas. Click in the white squares to turn them on. Create your character this way. When you are done, click Add and the code to create the character appears in the large window. There are a few things you need to enter prior to Adding the character.

First, you need to name the character.  That really means assigning it a special character number (0 to 7.) Enter that in the ‘Special Character # box. Next, you need to tell it which platform to gen the code for … either the Basic Stamp, in which case it creates BASIC code or Arduino, which generates C like syntax. Next, select the type of code you want. The Source + Header option will create a nice beginning to a project file in BASIC Stamp mode or some generic starter code for Arduino.  Source Only just gives you the code that actually gets sent to the display. It uses the binary format. Hex Code APPENDS the hex version of the binary code. You can then cut the format you want.

Save and Load does just what they say.

Clear allows you to start a new character. And, since this is a one character at a time deal, that is why you have a choice of inserting the header code or not. You can create as many characters as you need, maybe create a library and import the characters you want into your project.

Finally, EXIT just shuts down the program.

All character files are stored as text files with the .BS2 extension, even for Arduino…sorry Arduino fans. This was an oversight and might get fixed in a later version.

I make no warranty about this application. It is free to use, even for commercial works, but you cannot sell it.

It was developed with Visual Studio 2005 and requires .net 2.5. You should not have to install anything if you are running Vista or better.

Code Samples:

I. BASIC STAMP, Header and Source:

=============================
‘   {$STAMP BS2}
‘   {$PBASIC 2.5}

‘ =========================================================================
‘ —–[ Program Description ]———————————————
‘ —–[ Revision History ]————————————————
‘ —–[ Variablew ]————————————————
baud            VAR     Byte            ‘ baud rate variable
‘ —–[ I/O Definitions ]————————————————-
TX              PIN     0               ‘ serial output to LCD
‘ —–[ Constants ]——————————————————-

#SELECT $STAMP
#CASE BS2, BS2E, BS2PE
    T2400       CON    396
    T9600       CON     84
    T19K2       CON     32
#CASE BS2SX, BS2P
    T2400       CON     1021
    T9600       CON     240
    T19K2       CON     110
#ENDSELECT

baud=T9600

HIGH(TX)
PAUSE(100)

SEROUT TX, baud, [251]

SEROUT TX, baud, [%01110]
SEROUT TX, baud, [%11011]
SEROUT TX, baud, [%01110]
SEROUT TX, baud, [%10101]
SEROUT TX, baud, [%11111]
SEROUT TX, baud, [%10101]
SEROUT TX, baud, [%10001]
SEROUT TX, baud, [%10001]

II. BASIC STAMP, Source Only

SEROUT TX, baud, [248]

SEROUT TX, baud, [%01110]
SEROUT TX, baud, [%11011]
SEROUT TX, baud, [%01110]
SEROUT TX, baud, [%10101]
SEROUT TX, baud, [%11111]
SEROUT TX, baud, [%10101]
SEROUT TX, baud, [%10001]
SEROUT TX, baud, [%10001]

III. BASIC STAMP, Hex Code

SEROUT TX, baud, [0xE]
SEROUT TX, baud, [0x1B]
SEROUT TX, baud, [0xE]
SEROUT TX, baud, [0x15]
SEROUT TX, baud, [0x1F]
SEROUT TX, baud, [0x15]
SEROUT TX, baud, [0x11]
SEROUT TX, baud, [0x11]

IV. Arduino

#include <SoftwareSerial.h>

SoftwareSerial s(2,1); //receive on 2, and transmit on 1 aka ‘PB1’ aka pin 6
void setup() {
s.begin(9600);// set baud rate to 9600 baud
s.write(12);// clear screen
s.write(17);// turn on backlight

s.write(248)

s.write(B01110);
s.write(B11011);
s.write(B01110);
s.write(B10101);
s.write(B11111);
s.write(B10101);
s.write(B10001);
s.write(B10001);

You can download it, free, from here: LCD Char Editor

New Surface Tablets, Blackberry rots and Nokia

In the past week, there were three major product announcements. One, that of Blackberry, essentially, throwing in the towel, will have ramifications greater than just losing a once mighty product and service. Blackberry’s retreat will, no doubt, give Microsoft and Windows Phone 8 a badly needed shot in the arm. How? One less target to shoot at and the possibility of those former customers headed Microsoft’s way. A percentage will, no doubt, go to Apple and iPhone but, perhaps, a larger percentage will head to Windows Phone 8 as the capability of that platform is closest to what they know.

The other two announcements, the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, while interesting, will not have much impact on the world of computing.  But, they are bound to sell more than just a few and, perhaps, serve to force the other manufacturers to improve their offerings. 

The Surface 2 is the Surface RT, 2.0. Faster hardware and RT 8.1 will make for a more useful tablet. Surface Pro 2 is Haswell based and offers better performance, Windows 8.1, a slew of new accessories and better battery life.  Problem, however, is that they look like the tablets they are replacing. And that could be bad.

With the recent announcement that Nokia was releasing a Windows RT (yep, RT) tablet and then the subsequent announcement that Microsoft was purchasing the phone and hardware end of Nokia, one wonders about the fate of said Nokia ‘Sirius’ Tablet.  I have a feeling we will see the tablet released, before November of this year.  The completion of the Nokia acquisition is probably six months to a year out, so that would give Nokia plenty of time to release the tablet.

A recent Microsoft event reiterated that company’s commitment to Windows RT.  But, Steve Ballmer is due to step down fairly soon and hand the reigns over to a new CEO.  That incoming CEO may decide that RT is NOT the path Windows needs to take.  I think that would be a mistake.  Windows needs to evolve and getting rid of the baggage would certainly help.

[BEGIN RANT] Along those lines, it amazes me that Windows and Microsoft has to travel a different path than any other company. Apple completely changes the way Mac OS X works, CHANGES PROCESSORS mid stream, rendering machines obsolete over night; overhauls, completely, iOS and people CHEER them on and give them more money. Android forks every day and no one cares. Microsoft removes a button and the world is ready to roast them alive.  I’m not sure, but I think this actually means that people LOVE Windows? Could that be? Could it be that people are actually MORE passionate about Windows than Apple fans are of Apple? Huh…[/END RANT]

I am looking forward to checking out the new Surfaces.  I won’t be buying one as I have an Asus VivoTab Smart, but I still want to check them out. Who knows, maybe my Asus might show up on eBay…

In other news, Amazon introduced three new Kindle Fire tablets.  They feature faster processors, better screens, better battery life and new versions of Android.  Check them out at Amazon.com.

Windows 8.1 Preview: First Impressions and issues

Screenshot (6)I’ve spent the last couple of days using Windows 8.1 on my Asus VivoTab Smart Tablet. Overall, I am happy with the updated operating system. Many small changes equal one huge improvement over the previous release of Windows. Things seem to be a bit more fluid, some things seem more responsive while others, well, not so much.

First, the install process.

For me, the install went wrong from the moment it finished downloading. I noticed the battery was below 20%, so I plugged the tablet into the power supply.  Little did I realize that this particular tablet seems to run off of the battery, no matter what. It knows it is plugged in, but still runs from the battery.  I don’t think this is a Windows issue, more a design flaw from Asus.  Because the battery died, and the install had gotten to the setup stage, when the battery had charged to 15% or so, it powered up and rolled back the installation. While the tablet did not get bricked, I had to go through the install process all over again.  While I am not sure why, the install took well over three hours to complete. Since I was not at my home, I was using my portable Sprint hotspot. I am guessing that factored in.

Screenshot (8)Once the install was complete, I noticed the whole experience was, well, wonky.  The scrolling was jaggy, apps didn’t draw fast, some were not rendering correctly and, over all, video performance was just awful. A quick check of the video driver revealed that it was no longer using the Intel graphics driver, but something called ‘Microsoft Basic Video Driver.’ Re-installing the correct video driver fixed the issue.

Once the experience was smooth again, I was able to peruse the new environment and, get a bit confused all over again.

Screenshot (7)The first thing I wanted to check out was the returned Start button and all of the options it had. Well, funny thing, the damned options are in the oddest of places…compared to the RT side of the house. To get them, go to the antique Windows Desktop and then tap and hold the button for a second and then let go. A list of options will pop up. Among the options listed are control panel choices, call task manager, Run, Search, File Explorer and, best of all, an option to shut down the computer.  To access the button’s settings, tap and hold the taskbar for a second. The context menu will display. Tap the Properties then the Navigation tab.  There, you can the options for the Start button and the four corners of the screen.  What a bizarre and unintuitive place to put these settings. But, they are there…including the option to boot to desktop.

Oh, you can also set your desktop wallpaper to show on the Start Page. 

Screenshot (11)There are many, many small changes that, added up, make Win 8.1 feel new, like Windows 7 did over Vista.  Some of the smaller changes, like moving the tabs in ‘metro’ IE from the top to the bottom of the screen, seem like they were always there. It took me READING about the change to actually realize that, yeah, that was new.  Other changes are noticeable and make a lot of sense, like the settings page. There are a bunch of former Control Panel settings that are now in the metro style.  It makes the operating system look and feel a lot more cohesive. Microsoft still has a ways to go, but they are awfully close here.

The packaged apps-like News, Weather, Sports and others have received updates and there are a few new ones as well. I especially like the Bing recipes application.Screenshot (19)

There are improvements in the onscreen keyboard, like the word suggestions, that make the onscreen keyboard one of the best touch screen keyboards I have ever used, far and away better than iPad’s.

Now, all is not smooth in Asus land and Windows 8.1. Aside from the battery issue, I’ve run into a slew of problems since the upgrade. It’s like the drivers are incomplete, resulting in things not working quite right or at all.

The camera app is supposed to have Photosynth allowing you to create a virtual 3D rendering of your photo. You take a series of photos, guided by an onscreen arrow, of your target (a room, area, etc.) and Photosynth stitches it together allowing you to explore the photo. Well, the option is totally missing on my Asus VivoTab Smart. I’m guessing Windows is using a generic camera driver that is not fully compatible. Whatever the reason, the button is missing for this feature.

The battery indicator is missing from the sign in page, the status window and the task bar.

The Windows Store won’t always download applications and, in the case of the new Alarms application, it says I have it, yet I uninstalled it since it was not completely installed. Now, the store says it is installed.

The onscreen keyboard does not always display when I login to the computer. I have to shut down and restart.

The photo editing feature in the Photos app does not properly render the photo when you try to edit it.

Wi-Fi dropped out occasionally. I was able to correct the Wi-Fi issue by reinstalling the driver package from Asus.

Issues aside, this is worthwhile upgrade, even in the beta state that it is clearly in.  I am sure the little bugaboos listed above will get fixed before the final release. Even so, If you want to play around with the new OS, download and install on a machine that you can afford to sacrifice because when the final release is out, it will install like a new install and NOT migrate your applications. 

Stay tuned for more. I am still evaluating, but, so far, it is looking really nice.