Remote Desktop to the Cloud

Remote Desktop for Windows Desktop

For the last six months I’ve been using an Windows 8.1 virtual machine running in Microsoft Azure for various day-to-day developer activities. It has ended up being extremely useful to have a full Windows machine that’s accessible from any place and any device.

Azure

The VM I’m using is A2 Standard and running Windows 8.1, set up with my Microsoft account so all my apps are working on it properly – from Windows Store to Office 365.

Most importantly it also provides an always-on development platform for all my applications even when my main PC is being reinstalled with the Windows 10 technical preview builds. I have access to Visual Studio, F# Interactive, Node.js and all my usual scripting tools in PowerShell at any time.

Remote Desktop for Windows Phone

The remote desktop client for Windows Phone is truly brilliant too, with support for a virtual mouse pad enabling me to get access to applications like Visual Studio or Outlook at any time. True it’s a little fiddly, but it’s really powerful.

Azure’s Virtual Machines suite me as I have a number of credits every month, and nowhere at home to keep a server that could be on 24/7. Overall I’m really pleased with the service.

HP Stream 7

Four Screens

Back in May 2014 I was looking forward to getting a Microsoft Surface Mini as soon as they became available. I already have a Surface Pro 2 set up as a great developer workstation at home, but I wanted a smaller tablet to replace my original Surface RT. However, the Surface Mini wasn’t announced. It seems like it is a complicated story, and one we won’t know all of the details about for a while. But essentially the Surface Mini was indeed real, and Microsoft held it back because the software wasn’t good enough.

I still wanted a small tablet to fill in the gap between my phone and my workstation though. Even if Microsoft’s top class hardware wasn’t able to fill the gap for me. By the end of 2014 I had given up waiting for Microsoft’s hardware and I decided to take a look at some of my other options.

HP Stream 7

While I have to admit I’m still yearning for a high end device with a magnesium alloy case and pen input, the HP Stream 7 is a fantastic Windows tablet with a competitively low price. It’s made of out plastic, and the battery isn’t as impressive as it could be, but like my cheap Lumia phone – it’s certainly good enough.

I have always been happy with Windows 8.1 and because I’m already well established in the ecosystem, all I had to do was log in with my Microsoft account and all my Windows Store applications were there right away. Here are just 15 of the apps I use the most on the device (not including the many games):

  • Flipboard
  • Cover
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • HealthVault
  • Kindle
  • Netflix
  • Skype
  • Xbox Music & Video
  • OneNote
  • OneDrive
  • Bing Wikipedia
  • Wunderlist
  • NextGen Reader
  • The MSN Apps

I haven’t noticed any issues with any of these apps at all, and the device certainly performs better than the Surface RT I used previously. True the device doesn’t come with a keyboard, but the on-screen one is just fine for the kinds of apps I use.

HP Stream 7 Start Screen

In fact I have hardly used the desktop at all, though I have gone into it change some power settings that I couldn’t find in the full screen PC settings application, a problem that is fixed in Windows 10.

Talking of Windows 10, I’m wondering which version of the Windows 10 UI we will see on the HP Stream 7. The device is essentially a normal x86 PC, and can run the full version of Windows 10. But there’s also a special version of Windows 10 (based on Windows Phone) which is designed to run on phones and small tablets. I’m assuming it will be the full version, but we don’t know that for sure yet.

Update

Just as this post went live I spotted a Tweet from Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore which stated that the HP Stream 7 will get the full Windows 10 experience, including the desktop. I’m unsure if that’s a good thing or not for the way I use it. But it’ll be the preferred option for anyone who uses the desktop.

Feeling Good with Microsoft Band

Microsoft Band

Like the Fitbit before it, the Microsoft Band is now well and truly part of my everyday life. Thanks to the addition of the exercise tracking and the Guided Workouts I have seen some tremendous improvements in my health and fitness since strapping the device to my wrist for the first time two months ago.

I have seen an increase in the number in the steps I do and a huge increase in the amount of time I spend exercising every day. At the same time I have measured a decrease in my weight, and my average blood pressure is a little bit lower too. Most importantly I feel better.

I’ve always been driven by these kinds of statistics and throughout my life I have found that mindfulness is always a key driving factor in making improvements to myself. The Band gives me that health mindfulness on a new level, though the motivation to be better is all my own.

Microsoft Health

Positive results aside, I have some notes on a more technical level to share:

And finally I have one more point, which is probably the most important, when you think about it. It isn’t accurate when measuring lower heart rates. In some situations it literally doubles the reading I’m getting through another device – and this is usually when I’m very relaxed or sleeping. I have tweeted Microsoft, but they haven’t replied.

I’m sure the accuracy of the lower heart rates will improve in time, so I’m not too concerned about it. I do look forward to seeing the kind of insights we were promised when the device first came out, as well as web access to the data. I’m sure it’s coming soon.

Waking Up with Light

I like to keep a pretty fixed schedule for my days so that I can be as productive as possible. In the winter I find it especially hard to get up in the dark mornings, and traditionally I have just forced myself to wake up using alarms.

For the last 3 months I have been using a Philips Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock to help me wake get out of bed with a more positive attitude.

Philips Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock

I used to have an alarm on my phone set for 06:30 every day, but now I have the light alarm set for 06:00. It actually turns on at 05:30 and gradually brightens over half an hour. I usually wake up before the light reaches its full luminosity, and I’m fully awake and ready to go before 06:30 without feeling like I have been rudely awoken.

Unfortunately I had to make a modification to the alarm to get it to work the way I actually wanted. Because I got the least expensive version, it didn’t include any options for changing the alarm sound. I don’t understand why this alarm has such an annoying, loud, high pitched beep for something which is meant to wake you more naturally.

Why did Philips add an annoying beep to an alarm that is meant to wake you naturally? Totally bizarre.

Anyway, using my Leatherman I cut open the alarm and removed the offending speaker. Now the light comes on in the morning and automatically stays on for two hours before switching itself off. No interaction required. (And yes, I could have done a better job at opening it up, but I can’t stress how annoying the beep is…)

I’m really pleased with it now, though there is definitely room for improvement. Philips do make a number of other models in the range, however a lot of them include features like radio that I don’t care for. I’ll certainly be looking at using this method to wake from now on – especially in the winter months.

One Week with Microsoft Band

I have now had the Microsoft Band for one week, and it actually feels like I’ve had it for longer. This is usually a very good sign for any new technology, and I thought I’d share my experiences so far. This isn’t a review as such, this is just my findings on how the Band fits into my lifestyle right now.

Microsoft Band and Microsoft Lumia

First of all, I got the large version of the Band. When it’s at its tightest fitting it’s very snug on my wrist. This gives me a little extra room to loosen it up if I wish, however I find that it’s perfectly comfortable when nice and tight. After a long session of exercise my skin tends to be more sensitive in general, and I notice the device more. This is no different to how I used my G-Shock, and in fact I’d go so far as to say that I notice it about as much.

The times I really notice it most are when the rubber catches on the sleeve of my shirt, or I forget that I’m wearing it and I put my hand in a drawer or a bag and knock the device. This is no different to wearing a large watch really, so I’m not complaining, but this is a large device and I do notice it throughout the day – just like my G-Shock.

Band

Talking of my G-Shock, I’ve decided to wear my Band on my left wrist in the position that used to be reserved for my favourite timepiece. The difference here is that the screen is on the inside. This is by far the best position for the screen when checking your heart rate or time elapsed when doing any kind of exercise, and was the correct decision for a fitness-focussed device like this.

As well as replacing my watch, the Band has also replaced my Fitbit. I used my Fitbit One to passively track statistics like steps throughout the day. The Band does this and seems to have approximately the same accuracy as the Fitbit. I only have these two devices to compare against each other, and the Fitbit seems to be consistently higher by a couple of hundred steps every day – this may be a false tracking of car journeys. I’m not sure.

The Band also supports more active statistics like actual exercise. This is one of the things I used to do though MSN Health & Fitness on my Windows phone. Now I don’t even need to take my phone on my run, and I still get even better statistics than I did before. Effectively, the Band has replaced two hardware devices I always carried and two apps I always used for tracking exercise.

As well as running (hiking and walking) you can also track other more generic exercise workouts. This is great for recording time, calories and heart rate for strength workouts, or anything where you’re not running.

Microsoft Health

At the moment, there’s no specific exercise tracking mode for things like cycling. This isn’t something I’m doing right now, so I’m not too bothered. However, the Microsoft Health software offers a number of guided workouts which can be selected to help you exercise over multiple days. Currently I’m using a 5K training workout which uses interval running to get up to a 5K run in 14 days.

And here we get to the really important part. The Microsoft Health software is new. Very new. Probably so new it lacks features that I’ve come to expect – for example there is no way of viewing my statistics online without using the app.
In time this will change and Microsoft Health will support more exercises, better ways to access the data, synchronisation with HealthVault and much more. In many ways the Microsoft Band is just a way for Microsoft to get data into their new health platform, and Band 2.0 will no doubt be out before too long.

Finally, to prove that the software is lacking features, I haven’t yet found a way to use the galvanic skin response or skin temperature sensors. They are in the hardware, but there is no way to access the data through the software. Yet.

So far my experience has been very positive and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes from unlocking the Band hardware and expanding the Health software in the near future.