Computers

Computers are an essential part of every day living in the 21st century. Especially if you are a software developer.

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.

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.

Knomo Kilkenny bag for Microsoft Surface

Knomo Kilkenny

I spent a lot of time looking around for a bag that will suit my current computing habits – I found myself taking my Surface with me when I went to see friends and family quite often. I used a bag I already owned which was not really designed to hold a computer – and I worried about it. I knew I needed something that would keep my computer safe.

First I thought about what I wanted to be able to carry and came up with a list of must-haves and optional extras that would all need to be able to fit – though not at the same time.

  • Surface Pro (10.6 inch screen)
  • Surface Mini (when they make one!)
  • Arc Touch Mouse (Surface Edition)
  • Mechanical Pencil and Surface Pen
  • USB sticks & USB cables
  • Moleskine Notebook
  • Amazon Kindle
  • Nintendo 3DS XL
  • Surface Charger

I decided I wanted it to go one of two ways:

  • Backpack
  • Cross-Body Messenger Bag

Eventually, after whittling it down to two* very different options, I decided to go for the Knomo Kilkenny cross body messenger bag, designed for laptops and tablets with screens up to around 11 inches. While it is not designed to be used with the Surface as such, it fits really well without being so tight that I wouldn’t be able to switch the computer out to something of a similar in the future. It’s also leather, which means it will hopefully last even longer than the technology it will hold.

Here’s how I’m using it…

The padded back compartment is specifically designed to hold a laptop or tablet, there’s no extra pockets in here and my Surface Pro 2 fits really nicely. This will be the only purpose for this back section to ensure I never accidentally scratch or damage the computer.

Knomo Kilkenny

The middle compartment is probably going to be the most changeable, and there is plenty of room for a second Surface tablet, Amazon Kindle, or Nintendo 3DS XL. There are two pockets a nice amount of padding as well as a zipped compartment providing a number of options for storing cables, devices or chargers depending on what I need.

Knomo Kilkenny

The front compartment is protected by a zip, and has a couple of small pockets as well as two loops for pens. I must admit the space for the pens is a little shorter than my other backpack, making both my Surface Pen and my Koru Toga fit tightly – but they do fit.

There’s also a back pocket and while I wouldn’t use it normally, it is ideal for picking up mail or storing documents for quick access. Very pleased to have it.

Knomo Kilkenny

I’m really happy with this bag. The quality is high, and it contains just the right mixture of storage verses size that I wanted. Especially when compared to the bag I was using, I’m sure that the Knomo Kilkenny will protect my most important electronic devices.

* the alternative was the Grid-It backpack. It is super cool, but a little big for what I needed.

The Best PC is not always The Best PC

When I was a teenager and still learning about the computer industry, my friends and I were easily caught up in the marketing of the latest Intel processors or Nvidia graphics cards. But quickly I learned that as long as the software can do its magic, I am contented with the hardware specifications.

I do require a quality user experience though, which is why I tend to get computers and form factors that are ahead of their time, then stick with them until they just can’t perform the tasks any more, and one of the best examples of this was my old Sony Vaio C1.

Sony Vaio C1 PictureBook

I got a Sony Vaio C1 back when they were brand new. Using the Crusoe processor, it was capable of running Windows 2000 and Windows XP without too much trouble. It’s actually running Windows XP beta in the above photograph (next to some early Windows CE based mobile computers).

It was small, very small. Much smaller than any of my friends laptops. Initially it was to be used as a companion to my desktop computer, but it became my primary machine when the desktop eventually failed. It mostly kept up to the task, but the biggest problem was multi-tasking. Once you had some programs running in the background, the machine started to get sluggish. It was difficult to use PaintShop Pro when you’re trying to download the latest episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer on Kazaa.

For the size the keyboard was pretty good, and the mouse pointer was certainly acceptable – though the mouse buttons were a little bit poor. The overall the hardware experience was actually very impressive, especially with the built in camera features (example photo below) and dedicated capture button. The extreme portability of this machine enabled me to take it out of the house more often than any other computer I’d owned previously. For me it really was the start of a different kind of computing, as well as my first taste of the kind of disposable photography that we all take for granted on smartphones and tablets today.

More C1's taken with a C1

The rest of the world hadn’t quite caught up though. While this was one of the first wave of computers to have built in Bluetooth (great with the Ericsson T28 as above), it didn’t have built in wireless networking. In fact, it didn’t have any networking built in at all (unless you count Firewire) and everything had to be added on by means of PC Cards. It didn’t matter too much though, as most people did not have wireless at home, and free wireless (like you get at Starbucks) wasn’t a thing yet.

Windows XP on Sony Vaio C1

Using this small and underpowered computer for nearly all my computing tasks taught me something. It doesn’t really matter how powerful the computer is, as long as you are capable of performing your tasks. As long as the hardware and the software can do their magic together, everything is good.

With my recent use of Surface devices I am at the start of another new type of computing freedom. I’m reminded that while these cutting edge devices may not be the ultimate machines in terms of specifications – they certainly can be used as primary computing devices. Like the Vaio C1 back in 2001, the Surface Pro 2 is the best PC for me at this time.