Initial thoughts on the Windows 10 Technical Preview

Now that the second preview build of the Technical Preview of Windows 10 is out, I decided the time was right to share some of my initial thoughts on this early preview for Windows 10.

Windows 10 Universal Apps

First of all, it’s important to understand that, for casual computer use, I was very happy using Windows 8.1 on my Surface Pro 2, both on the touch screen and when plugged into a monitor, keyboard and mouse. I didn’t just “put up with Windows 8″ like many folk seem to. I embraced it and it changed the way I used a computer.

I embraced Windows 8 and I loved using full-screen apps at home

Simplicity is something I am always striving for. For example, I don’t have any icons on my desktop and I only pin the minimal amount of apps to my taskbar. The majority of the apps I used at home were ‘modern’ full screen apps. This means that I could have Xbox Music playing in the background with no icon in the task bar or any other visible UI unless I have it snapped to the screen. I understand that for some users this was mind-blowingly hard to understand, but I liked the simplicity.

Windows 10 Taskbar

With Windows 10, performing a task, like listening to music, means that there is an icon in the task bar. This is better for the majority of users, but for me it takes some getting used to.

Using Windows 10 is already better for multitasking and getting things done

The first two builds of the Technical Preview have been focused squarely on the experience in the enterprise, and specifically, use with a keyboard and mouse inside of the desktop environment. Here are where things really shine in Windows 10.

Unlike the way I was using full screen Windows 8 apps at home, I use multiple screens and desktop applications when I’m at work. Three screens means I can multi-task between development applications like Visual Studio, SQL Management Studio and PowerShell at the same time, but I still have to minimize and swap windows around when switching to communication and note taking applications like OneNote and Outlook.

Windows 10 Task View

Windows 10 includes some fantastic virtual desktop features which help around this, and I’m really looking forward to running Windows 10 at work. I could use the Task View to switch between these two logical tasks rather than minimising multiple windows.

Unfortunately the Windows team couldn’t get everything done in time for the first preview. The biggest things that are missing for me are around using the touch screen, and modern apps in full screen. The good news is that we do know that future builds will include features like Continuum, that are specifically designed for hybrid computers like the Surface.

Touch screen is still coming, and hopefully it will be as great as the desktop

With two builds already, it seems that the velocity is pretty fast. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on new features. Windows 10 is shaping up to be one of the most important versions of Windows ever – in terms of both the features and the speedy development process.

Jetstream Prime

The fact that I love Jetstream ink would be no surprise for anyone that has spoken to me about pens. However, these days I use a lot less ink than I used to. This year, I have only used pencil in my notebooks, and it has almost always been the same 0.5 B lead that I use in both of my daily-use Kuru Toga pencils.
 
I do still use ink sometimes though, and this is where the lovely new Jetstream Prime comes in. It’s a multi-pen with serious style that is made out of some fantastic materials. The three refills that come with it are black, blue and red – with the ability for you to change it into other types, should you desire. There are both 0.5 and 0.7 options.

Jetstream Prime

Personally, I never write with blue ink, which is why I usually tend to avoid carrying them. Therefore, I cannot really say how good the blue ink is, but with the other two, it is exactly as expected and it is the same high quality that I’ve come to know from the Mitsubishi Pencil Company.
 
The pen itself has a very nice metal body, with a matte finish on top. The version I have has a chrome-detailed end, though there are a number of other versions. I’m really not a fan of the fake jewel in the end though. It’s certainly not as bad as I thought it would be – but I feel that I would have preferred the design without it.
 
Talking of other versions, they also make one that includes a pencil. However this one is thicker and includes the pencil as a fourth option. I haven’t tried it out so I can’t say how good it is.
 
As is always the case with these multi-pens, they’re never quite perfect for what I’m after. The body of this design is very nice, but the useless (for me) blue ink is something that I’ll never use. Yes, I could replace it with another 0.7 of either the red or the black, but I don’t think I’m going to invest in that at this time. I would have liked to see the slimmer three pen version come with a pencil, which would essentially give me the same setup that I have with my StyleFit, but with a nicer body.
 

Pros

  • Great Jetstream ink
  • Fantastic premium feel body
  • Neutral position by un-clicking all pens

Cons

  • I don’t write in blue, so it’s wasted on me
  • Not sure about the fake jewel on the end
  • All multi pens rattle, this is no exception

Lumia 630

Sometimes technology fails at a bad time, and in my case – my Lumia 920 died when there are no true flagship Lumia phones on the market.
 
I decided to get the exceptionally good value Lumia 630 phone without contract and I’m now using it as my main phone.

Lumia 630

There are a number of things I miss from my Lumia 920 – the high resolution screen, the dedicated camera button, the automatic brightness adjustment and lots more. But where the Lumia 630 excels is in everyday use.
 
The core experiences of the Windows phone are exactly the same on this cheap device when compared to my old higher-powered device. This is a testament to how well the Windows Phone 8.1 operating system performs on the limited hardware. Very impressive really.
 
I’m also impressed with the battery life and the overall size, weight, and simplicity of the design. It’s a great little phone and will serve as my backup device as soon as I get another flagship device.
 
Fingers crossed that a Lumia 1030 isn’t too far away.

Windows 10 has an improved Console

Windows 10 Console

It’s true, the Windows command line is making a comeback.

With Windows 10, a number of ‘experimental’ options have been added to the console host which work with both the classic cmd.exe and PowerShell. This includes features like CTRL-C and CTRL-V for copy and paste, plus new text selection hotkeys, resizing, transparency and more.

And, by the looks of Microsoft’s UserVoice forum, this looks like just the beginning:

In the dawn of time, the original Windows console was created. For millenia, geeks and developers (typically both) steeled their nerves and leveraged the console’s utility. After a (very) short time, a great lacking was noticed. And so, legions of ever intrepid command line mavens migrated to other platforms and other consoles, ‘til but a stalwart few remained. Now, today, with a small rumbling, the ancient, weary console heaves a great sigh and rises. The journey to legitimacy has begun.

WE’RE BACK!

If these kinds of features are important to you, don’t forget to give your feedback to Microsoft so that they know that the command line is still relevant in 2014.

Windows 10 Technical Preview

As a big user of software and services in the Microsoft ecosystem, finding out about the next version of Windows is always exciting. Yesterday, we got our first official look at Windows 10, and while we didn’t learn about many features which hadn’t already been leaked, we did finally get to hear Microsoft’s plan for its next generation Windows platform.

Windows 10 Product Family

The official picture above teases how this single release of Windows will feature multiple interfaces the operating system itself, scaling from the Xbox One and the large Perceptive Pixel multi-user business display, all the way down to embedded devices, phones and small tablets.

From a developer point of view, Windows 10 will support a new universal app model that spans across multiple devices. This means that an application can be written only once to run across all of these environments, end-users will only have to purchase the application once to use it everywhere. Universal apps for Windows 10 will probably be very similar to the ones announced at Build earlier this year.

Windows 10 Start Menu

New features like Task View and Snap Assistant are included in the technical preview, but the more obvious user interface changes look like they are still to come. For example, Continuum is a set of features which enable hybrid devices to switch between touch and desktop modes automatically, just by attaching or removing the keyboard.

Windows 10 Task View

Today, along with many other Windows enthusiasts, I signed up for the new Windows Insider Program. This new program is similar in concept to the Windows Phone Developer Preview, but it will also provide opportunities to provide feedback directly to the Windows team.

Trust me, I’m going to provide as much feedback as possible.

Is this the end of HealthVault?

MSN Health & Fitness

As part of the rebranding to MSN, the fantastic Health & Fitness app gained a number of smaller features, and lost one big one: synchronisation to Microsoft’s HealthVault medical data backend.

HealthVault first started back in 2007 in the United States as a medical storage system designed for families to share data with doctors and medical institutions. It expanded in 2010 to include the United Kingdom with grand plans to integrate the service into the UK’s National Health Service. It seems that these grand plans were never realised, as I’ve never been able to get access to my NHS data this way.

HealthVault for Windows Phone

I have been using HealthVault for years though. It’s my central repository for all my health information including steps from my Fitbit, blood pressure, emergency contact details and, until now, calorie intake and exercise statistics from Health & Fitness.

In my opinion, today’s removal of the HealthVault synchronisation is probably for technical reasons, but it may signal the beginning of the end for the service. I can’t imagine Satya’s Microsoft keeping two competing health platforms up and running for long. Especially with new competitors outside of the company from the likes of Apple’s HealthKit and Google Fit.

I was involved in a small private beta of the Health & Fitness app for Windows Phone in an effort to try and reduce the serious amounts of crashing that would occur on the app when tracking exercise with the GPS. It’s also no shock to anyone that has used it that entering information and waiting for it to synchronise was a slow process.

MSN Health & Fitness for Windows Phone

Synchronisation is super-fast on the new Health & Fitness app and the newly designed Azure-powered backend is probably a big factor in that speed, especially when compared to the aging HealthVault platform API.

The diet and cardio information entered into the app is also available on the new MSN portal that launched today. This is also super-fast and responsive. It’s no wonder they’ve made this decision for end users.

Finally, there is a possibility that MSN’s new cloud backend will eventually end up synchronising directly with HealthVault, rather than going through the device-based clients as it used to. But it seems doubtful based on my understanding.

Cortana comes to the UK

Something I can do for you, Jules?

When I first started using Cortana four months ago, she immediately became a useful asset for things like reminders and search. Over time she got much better at giving me local information about places, events, and restaurants automatically.

The other thing that improved greatly was her voice and personality. She started to tell jokes, sing songs, answer trivia related questions and much more. Over the four months I grew attached to the personality, and got used to the voice.

When Cortana officially arrived in the UK they did the expected localisations work, like using Celsius rather than Fahrenheit. But they also changed her voice – and therefor her personality – to be British, and for some reason this means she is a lot more formal and a lot less friendly.

Microsoft Cortana

In the United States, Microsoft’s personal assistant is voiced by Jen Taylor – the original voice of Cortana from the Halo series of video games. Her voice is friendly and bouncy, and has lots of emotion.

Over the pond things are different, Cortana has been voiced by someone else for the British market. My initial reaction was that this new voice sounded slightly robotic like a generic ‘sat nav’. This is obviously not a good thing for the technology.

I’m not really surprised though. There is no single British accent, and unless you’re going to provide dozens of options, you’re probably going to choose one that sounds like ‘BBC English‘.

It turns out that the way a computer speaks to you is absolutely fundamental to the way a vocal user interface works. As we move into this world of natural voice interaction, we need to understand what this means on the human level. In this case it feels to me that my personal assistant has left her job, and has been replaced by someone else. Against my wishes.

Localisation aside, Cortana is pretty much the full featured version that you get over in the United States, for example here is what Cortana showed me on Saturday the 16th of August while I was studying in the library.

Cortana on Windows Phone 8.1 GDR 1

As you can see there’s a lot of information here and almost all of it stuff I wanted to see, though I must admit I could quite happily see some improvements in how she finds potentially relevant news. Ideally I’d like to have something like Techmeme‘s ability to surface technology news.

Overall, I’m extremely pleased with Cortana and I’ve already noticed improvements in the voice to make it less robotic. But I have to admit, I’d much rather keep the original voice of Jen Taylor and combine it with the ability to tell me temperatures in Celsius.

Is that too much to ask for?

How I like to Study

stargazing

After taking a 4 year break from studying, I decided to ease myself in gently by studying a subject with which I was already fairly familiar. I opted to go for Galaxies, Stars and Planets, a short course with the Open University that has helped me formalise many of the concepts I have learned through being a member of The York Astronomical Society.

Location

My location of choice is the JB Morrell Library at the University of York. I’ve frequented the library since I worked at the Science Park in 2008. Back then, I was studying mathematics and I loved how studious the atmosphere was. Since then, the library has been refurbished making it even easier to get access to things like power sockets.

uni-library

I do actually have a favourite spot on the second floor which has a nice view and isn’t very far away from the toilets and recycling facilities. There is also a chilled water fountain nearby – but if water isn’t strong enough the Café is just downstairs. (Which is great for my Fitbit floors goal!)

The Morrell Library is located on the Heslington West campus. It is only a short walk to get to the largest plastic bottomed lake in Europe (fans of QI will understand the reference). I have found that it is a lovely place to walk around, and it gives me some exercise and fresh air when taking a break from studying.

bridge

Equipment

The course I’m currently studying centres around one key text book, which is supplied to me as part of the material sent by The Open University. It’s also available online in PDF and epub formats. The latter of which can be used (via conversion) with the Kindle.

large-scale-universe

My Kindle has been the main way I have read the study material while working on the course, and it’s obviously a lot easier to carry than the larger study book. I also keep a copy of the PDF versions on my Surface Pro 2 just in case I need to look at the diagrams in colour.

The Surface Pro is also great for the online elements, including watching videos provided by the Open University, which accompany the course.

einstein

I decided to use a Moleskine notebook to work through the activities and make notes. It actually ended up being larger than I needed, so I think the type of notebook I use will be something I look into changing, for the next course.

Because all the equipment I use is so small, everything fits in my Knomo bag without any problems. In previous years I had been carrying around a large backpack which contained more books, a larger computer and a calculator or two. Keeping things light and simple means I have less to carry with me when I study, helping make the whole experience more enjoyable.

dark-matter

Software and Services

When I started the course back in May, I set about doing a lot of the meta-work up front. This meant that I could just rely on these things moving forward.

  1. I downloaded all the images, videos, and other materials from the OU website and put them on my OneDrive, setting them to always be available offline on my Surface Pro
  2. I made a list of all the work that would be required in the study plan and put it all into OneNote as a task list
  3. I put the milestones and study dates for the whole course into my Outlook calendar
  4. I set up the Aladdin Sky Atlas software using IKVM.NET on my Surface, so that I didn’t need Java
  5. I converted the study book from epub into the Kindle format, and stored PDF versions for the Surface

When actually working on the activities and reading the material, I’ve also used Windows Calculator, Bing Wikipedia, Periodic Table and Star Chart. These applications have helped me do mathematics, look up further reading, and – very importantly – visualise the solar system using 3D graphics.

sun-diameter

hydrogen

The extra programs that the Surface Pro provided where not required for the course, but certainly helped.

Mindset

I decided that I only wanted to study at my study location, which means I go there once a week, every week and make no compromises about that. If a friend suggests doing something on one of these days, I’ve just had to be firm and say no.

surface-library

But doing it this way has really suited me, as it gets me away from a home full of distractions and into a productive environment with other people wanting to get things done. The motivation of wanting to progress my work has been enough to keep me going.

I may have found it a lot easier on this course because it’s a subject I already understand more than the average person, so I’ll be really interested to see how well I fare when I pick a new subject next year.

While I’m not ruling out taking time off again, I’m certainly planning to continue my mindset of life-long learning for the foreseeable future. I’m sure the way I like to study will only improve over time.

String Hashing in F#

I recently wrote a small program to convert some strings into a ‘unique enough‘ hash which could be used as a short reference.

Whenever I’m trying to come up with an idea of how to handle these kinds of functions, I tend to turn to my favourite language, F#. This allows me to do rapid prototyping in a very functional way.

Below is the prototype version of this hashing program:

open System
open System.Text
open System.Security.Cryptography

let encode (alpha:string, number:int) =

    let b = alpha.Length

    let rec enc (s:string, n:int) =
        match n with
        | x when x <= 0 -> s
        | _ -> enc (s + alpha.[n % b].ToString(), n / b)

    match number with
    | 0 -> alpha.[0].ToString()
    | _ -> enc ("", number)

let md5Int (input:string) =

    let clean (str:string) =
        str.ToLowerInvariant()
           .Trim()

    let computeHash (str:string) =
        let bytes = Encoding.Unicode.GetBytes(str)
        use crypto = new MD5CryptoServiceProvider()
        crypto.ComputeHash(bytes)

    let convert (bytes:byte[]) =
        let i = BitConverter.ToInt32(bytes, 0)
        Math.Abs(i)

    convert (computeHash (clean input))

let hash (input:string) =

    let a = "ABCDFGHJKLMNPQRSTVWXYZ0123456789"
    let i = md5Int input

    encode(a, i)

Once I have this program created, it’s very easy to use in F# Interactive like so:

> hash "Here is a test string!";;
val it : string = "1W2ALLB"
> hash "The hash is much smaller, which is great.";;
val it : string = "5DAF5T"
>

Full Moon in May 2014

Last night I went out with my Canon SLR to take some nice photos of the moon, but when I got out I discovered my battery was almost flat – and I didn’t manage to get a good shot. But to make up for it, here’s a picture taken with my Lumia 920.

Full Moon in May 2014