Saturday, 24 March 2012

Windows 8 Review

This is an old post, preserved for reference.
The products and services mentioned within are no longer available.

I've been running the Windows 8 Consumer Preview for a while now, so here are some of my thoughts on it.  Let me say at this point, I'm not the average user, so this is just my take on things, on how I want to use it.

Firstly, it works - it does the job. I'm writing this in Windows 8 and it is perfectly usable in that sense.

There are a few things that are going to take a bit of getting used to though. Metro is the most obvious difference, as a replacement for the good old 'Start' button (not that it has actually said 'Start' on it since XP). And this is where I think it falls down. It is trying to be all things to all people, both a desktop and a tablet operating systems and they do seem to jar at each other. There's basically two interfaces, the new one, Metro, with all it's touch friendly large coloured boxes and the other which is pretty much Windows 7 without the start button.

They seem to coexist, but don't exactly cooperate. I run multiple screens as I find this very useful, particularly in applications which support this way of working and allow you to have toolbars on one screen, the main work on another, status windows on a third etc. I have a motley collection of 5 mismatched monitors at the moment, including one portrait which is great for work processing as you can work on a whole page at a time, the right way up. Windows 8 continues to support this in it's standard desktop mode fine, but it becomes pointless when running anything in Metro. I tend to leave on monitor showing my email, and other web applications, so I can always see their status. I have another small monitor which normally shows my music player, has the taskbar, and the desktop gadgets like the clock and calendar. When I start a Metro app, all of these close and just show the wallpaper. This is a bit pointless as I'd rather it kept displaying the apps that were running. Admittedly, to the average user with one screen this wouldn't be an issue.

My second main gripe is why didn't they just leave the start button there? Fine you can go into Metro and use any new apps designed for that environment, but for everything else, you have to hover and bring up the right hand menu and search for it (a bit like the Ubuntu Unity launcher), (or use Windows + F if you remember your keyboard shortcuts). I then pin it to the task bar (as I used to do in Windows 7 anyway) as this is quite a convenient way to start apps, particularly those which support the droplists of recent files.

One of the first things you get after installing Windows 7 and earlier is a warning about installing so anti-virus software. There isn't one, and it's not obvious what is happening about anti-virus protection. After a bit of diffing, it seems that have integrated Microsoft Security Essentials into the OS under name of Windows Defender, but there isn't an obvious way to start it and gone is the reassuring green ticked house in the taskbar that allows you to track its status. I wonder what it does if there is a problem? Making it a standard part of the OS is a good move. I tend to install Microsoft Security Essentials by default on all new builds, refurbished PCs and reinstalls as it seems to do the job and is less intrusive that other free solutions like AVG (mainly I suspect because AVG need to try to sell you the full version, whereas Microsoft have already sold you Windows so have nothing to tout).

Like Apple and Google, they like users to login with their Microsoft ID, a Live mail account normally, although it is possible to set it up to use a standard local login rather than an email based one. Many of the Metro apps seem to need it. There is a new music player, but that only works if you have an XBox Live account. I don't have an XBox, why do I need an XBox Live account to play a collection of local MP3 files?

Media player is also installed for the desktop version, and as a side note, does not appear to have the same annoyance that it will stop playing an MP3 playlist if you insert a CD (to install software for example), even with autoplay etc. disabled as it does on earlier operating systems.

Duality again in web browsers. IE 10 is there in Metro, IE  9 in the normal desktop, and as usual if you have something open in Metro, all the other windows disappear.

It seems Microsoft have taken the multitasking operating system and returned it to the days of single tasking. It reminds me of how I used to run Windows 3.11. I booted up to a full screen DOS menu, all bright colours and squares, not a curve in sight. I could then select from a number of full screen, single tasking applications like Protext and Quick Basic etc. but also had the option of running Windows if I wanted (and that didn't have a start button either). But I could only run one full screen application at a time, and had to leave windows if I wanted to run anything else. There was nothing wrong with that way of working, I happily used it for many years before Windows 95 and so on came along and offered multitasking and start button and all. They got it right again in 98SE, went a bit wobbly with Windows ME, then got it right again with XP. Wrong again with Vista and then Windows 7 seemed to be a nice place to work again. Has Windows 8 fallen into the 'every other operating system is rubbish' pattern I wonder?

So all in all, will I be going back to Windows 7 after my brief sojourn with Windows 8? Yes, I think so.

Will I be reconsidering this when it is finally released? Of course, but still with a due sense of precaution and dread. I'd be surprised it they didn't ship a 'Business', 'Professional' or 'Desktop' edition with a start button.

2022 Note: I think that was a fair appraisal of Windows 8 as it was when it was released. I did indeed go back with 7 and kept going back to 7 and later to 10 when I needed to do Windows development. Most of the rest of the time has been various favours of Linux,. My Linux is currently Mint flavoured.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Atari 800XL Memory Repair

This is an old post, preserved for reference.
The products and services mentioned within are no longer available.

I was tidying up and came across a bag of 30 pin SIMMs. Definite relics of the past, some were 256K and you needed 4 of these to get 1MB memory, enough to comfortably run Windows 3.11. I can't really see anyone coming to me with a computer for which these would be an upgrade. The rest were 1MB sticks, and with 4 of those, your 4MB was just enough to scrape your way into Windows 95. I'm a hoarder at heart, so I couldn't possibly throw them out, but I was wondering how I could justify keeping them, what possible use could they be?
Then I remembered I'd found a use for one back in the 1990s when I didn't have access to replacement DRAM chips. My dear old Atari 800XL, the first computer I had with sound and colour (or color as having to repeatedly type COLOR and SETCOLOR didn't help my spelling back in the day). After a long, hard life, it had become a bit flaky. A unique feature of those Atari's was a built in self test, you could test the sound, the keyboard the ROM and the RAM. The RAM test should show up 48 green squares (1 for each KB of memory), but I was getting about a dozen RED ones scattered around.
This is where the 30 pin SIMM came in. I basically stuck it on top of the existing chips, and wired it in place. This was a while ago, so I don't have the wiring diagram to hand, but from what I remember the address and data rows / columns were all driven through resistors, so all I had to do was cut the end of the resistor where it went to drive the old chips and wire it to the nearest appropriate pin on the SIMM - although ideally D0 goes to D0, D1-D1, D2-D2 etc. with RAM it doesn't really matter if D0 goes to D3, D1-D6 and D2-D2 etc. as it will only be reading back what it wrote, so it will be in the correct order. The 1MB SIMM I had used was overkill in terms of capacity, I just tied the spare address lines to ground - at some point in the future, I never got around to looking at memory banking to make use of the extra capacity. The timing was also a bit more than high enough, the originals looked to be 150nS, the replacement were 70nS, so more than fast enough.
Not the neatest job in the world, it was sort of proof of principle, I was interested to see if it could work. No problems at all, memory test came up with 48 green dots and ran for a couple of hours with no problems reported. And most importantly, Spellbound worked!
This is now very much a spare as the keyboard and button panel are both incomplete, but it does actually run.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The fun of Ikea

This is an old post, preserved for reference.
The products and services mentioned within are no longer available.

I just thought I'd share my experiences on a recent trip to Ikea, and the ridiculous trail of events necessary to get a set of shelves.

Last week I decided I needed some shelving and had been recommended the Broder range of shelves. I went to the catalogue for more information but struggled to find anything as there wasn't an index, so you basically have to look right through the book until you see a room with the thing you want in. Hardly the easiest process.

So I went to the website where atleast I could search. I found the parts I needed and checked stock at my local branch (Gateshead). All items were showing green 'most likely in stock'. Sounds good, so I went to the store and to the shelving / storage section to look at the shelves to see if they were any good. I couldn't find them. I eventually found a staff member who told me they were in the bedroom department. So I went to the bedrooms department and found the Broder display. They looked suitable so I went to buy them.

All the metalwork items on the printout from the website had isle locations which makes that easier, but the  wooden shelves said 'contact staff for purchase information', so I found someone and asked and was told they were upstairs in the marketplace.

So I had to find a working lift (2 were out of order) and take the pallet trolley up to the market place, weave my way through all the breakable items to find the shelves. Luckily I had asked before picking the other items or I would have had a trolley full of metalwork at the time.

When I got to the shelves, the 1200mm versions were out of stock, even though they said they were in stock on the website, and even on the internal system when the staff member checked. She took my contact details and said someone would email me when they came in (still waiting by the way).

The lift by the down escalator was out of order, so I had to go backwards through the market place to the one working lift.I then had to pick all the remaining items, rails, feet, brackets etc. which was fairly tricky balancing act to keep them all on the trolley. Once I had them all balanced, I had to go through the checkout and take them all off again to be scanned. Then balance them all on again to go out.

An aside at this point, my Ikea Family Card wouldn't scan properly, the same had happened last time, and as with my last visit, I was told to go to the website and order a new one. I had looked last time and I looked again when I got back this time. I eventually found something that said 'card lost or stolen'. Near enough I thought. There it said, pick a new one up next time you're in store and tick a box on the application form saying 'replacement card'. Shame the people on the checkout weren't aware of that.

Back to the shelves. I had parked as close as I could in the car park, but most of the close spaces are for disabled drivers or 'parent and child'. I couldn't use the loading bays as I couldn't leave my purchases untended whilst I collected the car. So I had to push the trolley to the car across the incredible rough car park rattling all they way and constantly having to readjust the balanced heap on the trolley as it was vibrated apart by the cobbled car park.

It seems to me that no one at Ikea has thought any of this through in terms of how they expect someone to do this. Surely there has to be easier ways than that? It's all a bit of a mess really.

At least I can be sure I won't have to go through it again if I want to extend the shelves sometime in the future as they are likely to be discontinued when I go back anyway, just like almost everything else I've ever bought there.

2022 Note: The Broder shelves were indeed discontinued when I went back for more shortly after.