Windows 8: I’ll Admit It; I Like It.

With the headlines about Windows 8 Killing PC sales, and the laundry-list of complaints from tech websites about problems with the OS, you’d think that Windows 8 was the worst thing since, well… Vista. But it’s not. I promise you it isn’t.

Main_Start_fxd
My re-arranged “Metro” Start Menu.
Pretty elegant and useful, if I do say so myself.

It’s old-hat by now. Microsoft releases a new operating system, tech people throw a fit, but a year or so later it’s the standard. That’s the way it was with Windows XP and Windows 7. We’ll ignore Vista for the moment, since that OS had objectively bad implementation, as Microsoft’s move away from that titling system has shown.

When Windows 8 first came out, I kept well enough away. If there’s one truism about OS releases, it’s that you wait for the first round up major updates before you even consider installing it. I have lots of work that I need to get done on my computers and excluding a few test machines, I don’t have time to dink around with drivers and install problems.

The Install

One day, my Windows 7 machine crashed hard. After a laborious reinstall process, it turned out to be a hardware issue that I won’t go into here and it got me thinking that it might be time to take the plunge. I had previously had a upgrade from XP to Win7 meaning that I had to install XP first, and then upgrade to Win7 should I need to do a full reinstall. This was a cumbersome method, but I was strapped for cash at the time I made the purchase and I really needed to move away from XP.

Win8_Twitter_fxd
The official Twitter app is okay,
though like other Windows Store apps,
it needs a little more love to be useful.

So, I bought a System Builder version of Windows 8 and reformatted my recently installed Windows 7 to start over. The install was pretty clear, and guided me elegantly from start to finish with a fluidity that I honestly didn’t expect. I really didn’t have any problems of note on my custom-built rig. I was off and running… kind of.

I’d only used Windows 8 on a display in a store, and for a short bit way back in the developer preview version. Aesthetically speaking, it was largely unchanged, but boy was I lost. The main screen was pretty straight-forward, with all the apps listed across the sliding panel and the “Store” to purchase them in.

Where it really lost me though, was the desktop. See, in the new version of Windows, the desktop is kind of an app on your Start Menu. You click it and you’re taken to the old familiar Windows7-ish desktop you’re probably familiar with, sans the Start Icon. Notification area, Recycle Bin, QuickLaunch, etc are all listed there as per usual. This caused me some problems that I’ll talk about in the Not So Neat section of this post.

I shrugged my shoulders at the desktop and returned to the Start Menu, adding/removing apps to and from it, getting rid of ones that I probably will never use. Sorry, but I’m not ever going to click on the “Shopping”App. Once I had everything, including my two backgrounds and color scheme customized, I was ready to actually start using it. I forced myself to work with it for about a month to give it a chance to impress me (or not!).

Pretty Neat

As step one I think it’s fair to go through some of the big things that were important to me that I like about Windows 8. There’s a lot of little stuff that it does well, but these are the things that were important to me and maybe others.

AppSwitch_fxd
The “App Switcher”, while it hasn’t
replaced ALT-TAB, is a nice addition.

First of all, it’s faster. Not in a blazing-your-socks-off kind of way, though it is a definite performance boost. Being someone who upgraded a laptop from XP to Vista, I can tell you that this came as a surprise. This is the first OS I’ve ever upgraded where the upgrade was faster than the previous version. Keep in mind that I had a fresh install of Windows 7 on the exact same hardware prior to wiping and upgrading to Windows 8.

The user interface, while a whole different ballgame from previous versions of Windows, was pretty easy to get the hang of. All apps seemed to work independently of each other, much as you’d expect from a App-architecture and most of them functioned pretty well. Most. (See below for more details) I also had no problem pulling all of the software I’ve used on my Windows 7 system or getting Windows Store equivalents.

All in all, this is the smoothest upgrade I’ve gone through with Windows.* For the most part, everything worked pretty darn well.

Not So Neat

It’s not all sunshine and roses. As with any OS, even those I like, I had a few problems. Win8 has a weird way of going about some things and I try to keep separated what I find genuinely frustrating and what is just different to me. Some things are just fine, but they’re different now and I need time to get used to that. I try pretty hard to avoid crotchety old man syndrome.

Win8_Skype_fxd
Skype is functional,
but not much else.

The learning curve is a bit of a mess. As strange as it sounds, if you’ve never used a computer before, you’re likely to pick up 8 faster than someone like me who’s been using the Windows platform professionally for a while. At least for your particular needs.

Keyboard shortcuts and the behind-the-scenes stuff has remained relatively unchanged but the layout has altered so drastically that even a week after I started using it I was still lost. I’d open up windows only to close them when I realized that I was heading in the wrong direction for what I wanted to do. I can’t count the number of times I’ve opened the Start Menu just to close it immediately when I figured out that I can’t use it for what I needed.

This leads me into my next complaint, that the interaction between the app-driven Start Menu and the desktop, to use a friend of mine’s description, is janky. If you’re on the desktop and you want to open something that’s in your Start menu, you have to go to the menu and open it. No problems there, but if it’s a desktop-based application, then you go back to the desktop to load it. It’s a full-screen back-and-forth that, while generally smooth, is time consuming and feels inefficient. So far, the only way to get around it is to have an icon in the QuickLaunch or on the Desktop, which kind of defeats the purpose of the really neat (are we calling it Metro now or what?) Start Menu system.

Those Start Menu apps also force full-screen. You can drag them off to one side, a process called “snapping” but some apps don’t support this feature as well as others. It’s best to just keep your apps in full screen most of the time. This isn’t terribly annoying, since most people are used to this now from mobile OS’s, but having multiple pieces of software open becomes hard to manage after a while.

Some apps, like Skype as of this writing, turn themselves off if you go to other software. If I’m using Skype to talk to someone and then I go to a full-screen desktop application, it will cut off the sound. There is a possibility that this is a problem in the Skype app, it was pretty rushed and looks it, though judging from the way that other Windows Store apps act, I’m not so sure. Skype is owned by Microsoft, so it should work perfectly in their new OS, right? Right?

And Now

So, after all is said and done, would I go back to Windows 7? Not a chance. Even with its janky nature sometimes, Windows 8 is a step in the right direction. Microsoft needed to do something radical to stay relevant, and this is the OS they needed to make. Short the weird desktop/Start Menu transition, the fundamentals are all there… and then some.

Windows-8-logo-300x300
Windows 8:
Not as bad as you’ve heard.

In the future, as with all Operating Systems, there are going to be improvements maybe even some heavy shifts to address some lingering issues (Check out what’s coming in Windows Blue). But, as a release that could have been horrible or have had no attempt to reinvent the OS at all, I can’t complain that much. So far, this is the most I’ve LIKED a new OS redesign in a long while (don’t even get me started on Ubuntu’s Unity), so I guess that’s something. But rest assured, this ain’t no Vista.

*For the curious, the worst was from Win98 to XP. It was just a big nightmare from start to finish. Keep in mind that this too had a lot in common with the Windows 7 to 8 transition in that it was a fairly radical (for the time) change in OS architecture.

-CJ Julius

Data Caps for Home Internet Are a Terrible, No-Good, Very Bad Idea

Cables_small
Want Internet?
It’s gonna cost ya.

I had been lucky enough to get in on AT&T’s unlimited bandwidth for the iPhone before they decided that they could make a boatload more money if they charged based on caps. You’re probably familiar with these caps if you have a smartphone of any kind. They’re a bank of data that you can use to send/receive over a predetermined amount of time, usually a month. They are confusing and infuriating, even for someone who knows how the technology works and keeps a close eye on it.

Now, they (companies like Time Warner Cable and Comcast) want you to use this system for your home internet as well. Which brings up a whole host of questions, like: How much is a gigabyte worth to you? Would you pay $20 for a gigabyte of bandwidth? Is that fair? What happens if I use over my gigabyte? Do I get a penalty or does my Netflix just shut off?

There are no good answers to these questions, because data caps are just a bad idea for home networks. It takes a relatively simple system, which already has a pricing scheme in place mind you, and needlessly complicates it. It adds nothing for the customer and in fact may drive people away, like similar price discrimination has hurt the airline industry.

The following article goes into more depth explaining why data caps are terrible in theory and practice:

From Gigaom:

In a recently published piece, Prof. Daniel Lyons of the Boston College Law School argued that broadband data caps are a reasonable form of price discrimination. Lyons believes that data caps allow ISPs to more equitably distribute network costs among users based on how much they value internet access. He then goes on to suggest the best model of price discrimination comes from the airline industry, and that ISPs would be wise to learn from them.

Okay, wait a minute. The airlines? I had to read that twice to make sure Lyons was actually recommending that companies like Comcast and Time Warner – you know, two of the lowest-ranked U.S. companies in terms of customer satisfaction – ought to be taking marketing tips from the industry that rivals them for most-hated status. (Interestingly, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, the airlines are third from the bottom, followed by… the cable industry!)

Read More…

User Mcbeese had an interesting comment on the above article, where he argues that it may be treated like long distance telephone service. Users pay based on peak and non-peak usage times. So, a user who surfs all night (non-peak) would be charged less than someone who does so in the 5-7pm block.

That’s a fascinating alternative view (I hadn’t thought about the link between ISPs and long distance telephone services before), but as Elfonblog points out, it’s still “imposing rations on a resource which is not scarce in order to sabotage it’s use for competing purposes (Internet video).”

While I personally won’t go as far as a conspiracy, I can definitely see this as a method for ISPs like Time Warner and Comcast to squelch Hulu and Netflix so they can offer their own competing services. It almost seems too convenient.

-CJ Julius

Didn’t do the reading? With Digital Textbooks, Your Professor Can Prove It

Good and bad
And easier to carry around

I’m of two minds about the creation of digital textbooks. On the one hand, they are cheaper to produce and therefor cheaper for the student. Also, they have a lot of extra capabilities, such as the ability to copy/paste or reference easily for papers and assignments.

But on the darker side, they do give the publisher quite a bit of power. DRM can force textbooks to “expire” (I’ve dealt with this myself), so you can’t reference it years later if you want, and they’re usually completely unportable, in the sense that they don’t work in any reader but the publisher’s reader.

Now there’s a third thing: classroom control. I’ll admit that I didn’t always do every bit of required reading for courses, but I was pretty good about it, maybe even better than most. However, the idea that a professor can see which pages I’ve looked at and what I’ve highlighted, without me sharing it explicitly is a little disconcerting.

From ArsTechnica:

There exists a textbook that will report back to your professors about whether you’ve been reading it, according to a report Tuesday from the New York Times. A startup named CourseSmart now offers an education package to schools that allows professors to, among other things, monitor what their students read in course textbooks as well as passages they highlight.

CourseSmart acts as a provider of digital textbooks working with publishers like McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and John Wiley and Sons. The NY Times describes books in use at Texas A&M University, which present an “engagement index” to professors that can be used to evaluate students’ performance in class.

Read More…

Bitcoins Aren’t New, But They Sure Are Interesting

bitcoins
A new currency?

Despite the fact that they’ve seemed to come out of nowhere, bitcoins are an idea that have been around for a bit. I remember hearing about them some time ago, but only recently have I seen them gain any real popularity. Now that they’re trading at over $200 a coin, it’s not hard to see why.

The latest issue of Ubuntu User (Issue 15), if you can get your hands on it, does a great job of explaining what bitcoins are and why they’re suddenly all the rage. If you’re looking for something a little quicker, there’s a 3 minute video that can give you a crash course [here]. Think of the possibilities of an anonymous (mostly) digital currency with no borders, and you’re on the right track. The methods of creating, securing and building an economy around bitcoins are fascinating.

If you already know what bitcoins are and how they work, and thought of mining for them yourself (I certainly have) then check out TechCrunch’s article How To Mine Bitcoins.

However, be careful if you want to go all gun-ho on this newish digital currency. Some economists have pointed out that this may in fact be a bubble. It definitely looks and acts like one, but whether it will deflate slowly or pop remains to be seen.

It may do neither, and we will see a new standardized currency arise for the digital age. Any way it turns out, it’s an interesting thing to watch.

-CJ Julius

My Life After Google Reader

Google Reader on PC
Farewell, Old Friend

I’ve used Google Reader for quite a while, probably five years or so. I wasn’t an early adopter, but the service had definitely become the cornerstone of how I interact with news from around the internet. It allowed me to take all of the different websites that I enjoyed and pull them into one feed, organized that feed and then share what I found interesting. It was a solid platform.

But it’s going away. As of July 1st, 2013, Google Reader will shut down and we’ll all be left to find another service to organized our RSS feeds.

I decided to start a few weeks ago, looking at other newsreaders that would offer a similar experience, or maybe even one better. I needed four things from my new software:

  1. It needed to work on Linux PC, iOS and Android, as I use all three OS types on a daily basis.
  2. It needed to be able to organize my feeds into groups that I had become familiar with over the years of using Google. This includes being able to save something for reading later.
  3. It needed to have integration into various sharing apps. Specifically, I needed to be able to get to Twitter, Linkedin and Buffer if possible. Maybe even WordPress if I could at all manage it.
  4. It needed to sync my reading lists over all of these platforms and preferably pull my data from Google.

    Feedly on Firefox in Linux
    Feedly on Firefox in Linux (Ubuntu 12.04)

It seemed like a fairly standard list, but I was not very optimistic. This is a tall order from a free (or cheap) newsreader, especially number 4 above.

I’ll cut to the chase here, since I’m sure that my step-by-step decision process is less than enthralling. I tried multiple different online readers, even the MSN one, and found them all pretty lacking. Some were good at organizing, but just had an iOS app or only worked on the computer. Others, Pulse for example, looked slick but didn’t offer much in the way of sharing options. I then came across this article on TechCrunch (via my news feeds on Google Reader, ironically) talking about a new relaunch of a piece of newsreader software called Feedly.

Feedly on iOS
Feedly on iOS (iPhone 4)

I’d heard of Feedly before, but I’d never investigated it beyond a few screenshots. Besides, I already had a newsreader that worked pretty darn well. After some reading I found that it was indeed the software I was looking for. It claimed to do all the things I wanted and then some.

So, I installed the app on all of my devices, synced them with my Google Reader account. All of my data came over flawlessly and I’ll admit it looked great. The sharing options were there with Buffer and Twitter integrated in already*. With minimal work on my part I was grabbing, commenting and sharing like a pro again.

As of this writing I’ve only been using a Feedly for about a day and a half, but I’m liking it (dare I say it?) more than Google Reader. There are a few bugs, and some configuration options that I wish were there, but it’s rare that I go out looking for a piece of software and find one that matches what I needed so perfectly. If you’re one of the immigrants from Google Reader and you need a news reader, I recommend Feedly extremely highly.

Feedly Android
Feedly on Android (Galaxy Note 10.1)

Ratings:
PC version: 4/5
iOS version: 5/5
Android version: 4/5

*Buffer does not seem to show up on my Android device. I don’t know if they have yet to implement it or if it’s a configuration thing. Probably the former as Android apps tend to lag a bit behind the iOS ones.

-CJ Julius

How 3D Printing Actually Works

3D Printing, while a relatively new technology, does have a lot of exciting applications. These first few steps into designing relatively simple things are neat in and of themselves. I can’t wait until 3D Printing matures. The possibilities are endless.

The video is a little disappointing though. It doesn’t really add much to the article, but it’s still cool to watch.

-CJ Julius

From Mashable:

Now that 3D printing — the process of making three-dimensional solid objects from digital designs — is available and affordable to individual consumers, it’s piqued a lot of interest across the tech space in the past few years.

From scale models, gifts and clothing to prosthetic limbs, hearing aids and the prospect of 3D-printed homes, the possibilities seem endless.

The concept of 3D printing is by no means new, however. Chuck Hull invented and patented stereolithography (also known as solid imaging) in the mid-1980s, when he founded 3D Systems, Inc. Since then, advances in the technology have been (and continue to be) made, including the size of the printers themselves, the materials they can use and more.

But how do 3D printers actually work? How can something that looks like our household printer or office photocopier create complex, solid objects in a matter of hours?

Read More: How 3D Printing Actually Works.