Computers

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

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.

Surface Pro 2: Development Workstation

Surface Pro 2

After five years of faithful service, I have finally replaced my old MacBook with a new computer. I got myself the Surface Pro 2 with 256 gigabytes of storage, and 8 gigabytes of memory.

Frankly this small computer is the fastest one I have ever owned, and performs better than my higher spec work laptop. This is especially noticeable when using Visual Studio and other development tools, but it’s also faster doing every day things like Mail and OneNote.

Development Workstation

The purpose of this computer is to be my development workstation, and to run all my x86 applications. Due to the tiny size of the tablet it will probably spend a good deal of its time attached to external devices. A full size monitor, keyboard and mouse combination will allow me to be as productive as possible at home, while still being able to take everything to other locations in even the smallest of bags.

While thicker than my original Surface RT, the Surface Pro 2 shares the same design language, and I find that it looks almost indistinguishable when I’m facing the screen itself. Picking it up it certainly feels thicker, heavier, and warmer. But it’s still a Surface, and feels extremely well made and very sturdy.

So far, I’m very impressed. I’ll be writing up some of my experiences of using the Surface Pro 2 as a development workstation as I spend more time with it.

Surface

So if this device is meant to replace my MacBook, what does it mean for my Surface RT?

Having two 10.6 inch tablets is not ideal, I know. But I’m going to continue to use the Surface RT for things like Skype, Netflix and general carrying around in my backpack until there’s a 7 or 8 inch Windows RT based tablet that catches my eye.

Windows RT devices tend to have much better battery life, and the operating system itself certainly better suited to mobile devices. For example, Connected Standby allows Windows RT to collect email and other notifications over Wi-Fi even when ‘off’. A feature that is sorely missed on Windows 8.1 Pro x64.

I’m also not convinced that the 10.6 inch screen size of the Surface RT is what I want from a Windows RT tablet anyway. The relatively large screen is great for using with the Type Cover and being productive – but I’d rather have something smaller for using mostly with touch.

Surface 2 & Surface Pro 2

As expected, Microsoft recently showed off two new Surface tablets, both next generation replacements for their existing offerings. The Surface 2 offers updated specifications and thinner body aiming at personal productivity with Windows RT 8.1 and the Nvidia ARM platform, while the Surface Pro 2 caters more for the professional with Windows 8 Pro and the low power Haswell based Intel Core i5. Both offer a new two position kickstand, which apparently makes it more stable to use on your lap.

Personally, I find the Surface Pro 2 very compelling, and I’m certainly considering it as a possible successor of my old MacBook as my personal software development machine. Though even with the updated lapability, I’m not sure if I would be productive on one as a laptop – when not using a desk.

Surface Pro 2 offers the portability and simplicity of a tablet when you want it…

Surface Pro 2

…and the power and flexibility of a laptop when you need it.

Regardless of if I decide to buy or not, both products look like good solid updates to the line. The real new stuff is a little more subtle though – the updated accessories really fill out the Surface experience, and a clearly the differentiator that puts Microsoft’s tablet into a league of its own. A few worthy of mention are as follows…

Docking Station

This was going to happen, and I’m glad it did. Personally, I’d love to have a setup with a Surface Pro 2 and one of these fancy new Docking Stations – my biggest problem with that is that I don’t currently have the space – though that’s something I’m thinking about changing in the near future. I’m glad they have finally made this accessory, and it would certainly factor into my plans if I decided to get one of these devices.

Power Cover

As well as updates to both the Touch and Type covers – that include backlights, thinner designs and better performance – the Power Cover also includes a large battery that’s meant to increase the life of the new tablets. Personally, I think I’d really have to need one of these before I got it. Maybe even being caught powerless a few times before investing.

Arc Touch Mouse

The Surface Edition of the Arc Touch Mouse interests me quite a lot. I still have mine and I still use it regularly. But the single thing that interests me the most – is the fact that this thing is Bluetooth now. Why wasn’t it already? I don’t know. Also, I find the design way cooler than the Surface Edition of the Wedge Touch Mouse which they previously released.

Surface Music Kit

Surface Music Kit

Finally, this is the cover that interests me the most. It’s a sign of change, a real differentiator on Microsoft’s part – they’re designing a pressure sensitive touch surface that’s tailor made for music tasks. Specifically around their Surface Remix Project. I see a bright future in these kinds of accessories, and I’m looking forward to see what comes next.

Windows 8.1 on the 2008 MacBook

Windows 8.1 on 2008 MacBook

For a while now I’ve been wanting to get myself a new PC, but I haven’t found one that really captures my attention. I tried looking at Vizio, Apple and Samsung – but nothing seemed worthy of the investment. Plus I must admit I have been holding out to see if Microsoft brings an Ultrabook to the Surface family.

Most of the time I actually use my Surface RT for doing every day stuff, but there are some things that are much faster using a larger keyboard, a proper track pad and the ability to be used on the lap. I have been using my 2008 MacBook running Windows 7 for these tasks, as well as pretty much all of the development I do for my personal projects.

Last week – when trying to get the MacBook to boot from a VHD file – I managed to mess up the boot configuration, and two of the three operating systems (OSX, Windows 7 and Windows 8.1) didn’t work at all – the only one that worked didn’t really provide me any way to fix the issue.

So for the first time in what seems like forever, I actually burnt a DVD and got a copy of the Windows 8.1 Preview installed fresh on the NTFS partition. This worked much better than the Windows 8 Preview I had previously tried, and I decided to try and get things up and running properly by following a guide (slightly modified to get the new version of Boot Camp) and lots of hacking around.

To my amazement, not only did all the Apple specific drivers (the backlit keyboard, multi-touch track pad etc.) all work for the x64 version of Windows, but the operating system itself felt a lot faster than Windows 7. It also seemed the Apple’s Boot Camp software wasn’t hammering the CPU as much as it used it.

Thanks to some of the changes in Windows 8.1 – like being able to use Snap view on lower resolutions – I’m actually able to complete most of the tasks I wanted a new computer for. Sure there are a few down points:

  • No hypervisor – meaning I can’t run the Windows Phone Emulator.
  • No touch screen – yes I have tried to swipe content on the screen by mistake!
  • Not very speedy – hey it’s a 2008 machine, it’s not going to be fast.
  • Hacky configurationthe third party drivers sometimes feel like they’re held together with luck. And they are.

But these negatives aside, I’m actually able to get most of my development tasks complete on the new operating system, and I’m going to upgrade to the final version of Windows 8.1 when it comes out in the fall. This means I don’t need to buy a new computer right away, and I’m going to try to get at least another year out of this one.

Windows 8.1 on 2008 MacBook

I still hope that Microsoft will enter the Ultrabook market, and if they do I’m sure I’ll be glad that I waited. But for now I’m going to try to continue to use this 2008 MacBook as long as I can.

My hat goes off to Apple – this has definitely been the best machine I have ever owned.

Update

I no longer own this MacBook anymore as I’ve upgraded to a Surface. It’s a little difficult for me to answer further questions around running Windows on it.

Good luck!

iPad is all about the apps

Apple iPad mini

I recently acquired an iPad mini for a reasonable price. I had been thinking for a while that if I had any iOS device it would have to be an iPad – simply for the apps. Having an iPhone would involve a major investment into an ecosystem that I have no interest of using. The iPhone is great for both the Apple and Google ecosystems, however am invested in the Microsoft ecosystem, and I already have my computing needs pretty much set.

Here are the devices I tend to use on a daily basis:

  • Surface – main computer
  • Laptop – development
  • Lumia – portable device
  • Xbox – entertainment

In addition to these, I do also have a couple of extra ‘dedicated’ devices:

  • Nintendo DS – Pokémon
  • Kindle – reading

So where does the iPad fit in? I see it as one of these extra devices, in the same league as the DS and the Kindle. What’s this devices dedicated purpose? Running apps that Windows doesn’t have*.

  • iPad – apps

Here are some examples of the apps I’ve installed so far, that don’t exist on Windows:

What am I specifically not using it for? No email, calendar or contacts – this is already on my Windows machines. No music or photos – I already use Xbox and SkyDrive for this stuff. No social networking – I get notifications for Facebook and Twitter on my Windows machines already. I simply do not need another device with these features.

Do I think I have too many devices now? Well no, not really. I’m ok with the amount of stuff I have – though I’m always looking to reduce things. To me, having an iPad is significantly more useful than having something like a microwave.

* Interestingly, since getting the iPad I’ve already been thinking about a time when I don’t need to have it, and all the apps I want are on Windows. That’s the dream.

Two Weeks with Microsoft Surface

Two weeks ago I finally got my Microsoft Surface for Windows RT. On the run up to the launch of the first Surface device, I started to think about if I’d actually be able to use the Surface for Windows Pro as my only computer as I had planned.

The trouble is that the form factor is not a laptop replacement, it’s a tablet which has a ‘ready to work’ mode which can be used easily on a desk. A laptop has a stable base and a screen which can be tilted to any angle – so getting real work done is still doable on your lap. I don’t have a desk at home, just a coffee table, so when I want to write some code or a long blog post – I tend to sit cross-legged on the sofa and type away. This is quite tricky to do with the form-factor that Microsoft has chosen for the first two Surface devices.

As a first time tablet owner there are a huge amount of benefits which are more related to the form-factor rather than the individual device, but for me having the Microsoft Surface has been a really fantastic and new experience.

Being able to surf the web and use application while laying down or standing up are pretty obvious, but there are more subtle benefits like being able to take it to work every day without my bag getting really heavy. Plus it’s always nice to have all your personal stuff available to use at lunch time, including emails and OneNote notebooks.

In the first two weeks have found a few suggestions for improvements to the design of the hardware:

  • The keyboard case should really have a magnetic grasp
  • Power Cable is a little short (though it can be extended)
  • Windows Phone earphones don’t work as expected (see below)

These improvements aside, the Surface has already proven to be a fantastic companion device, and due to the nature of the keyboard and kickstand design it has become my go-to device for email and instant messaging. In the last two weeks my MacBook has spent most of its time in a draw while the Surface has been my primary machine for personal use.

As someone who is a Windows developer and lives in a Microsoft ecosystem (Office 365, SkyDrive, Xbox etc.) it’s the ideal tablet for me, and I’m really pleased I got it.

Now if only I could find a Windows 8 laptop to replace my ageing MacBook and I’ll be sorted.

Update

I’m not sure if it was a firmware update, or just me not being able to test properly – but it seems like the Surface RT now supports Windows Phone earphones as expected. The microphone now works!

Surface for Windows 8 Pro

Originally I wanted to get Surface for Windows RT, but I’ve changed my mind about which Surface computer I want to get. Mostly because of two reasons.

1 – I’ve seen no Windows 8 Ultrabooks I like

I have been looking around for a good Ultrabook for a while now, and I had pinned high hopes on Vizio, but lacklustre scores on the touchpad and keyboard have tarred that machine. I have recently had a look at many of the machines shown at IFA – including the Acer Aspire S7) but none have them have really grabbed my attention like Surface.

The Aspire S7 has some fantastic Windows-friendly features, but in terms of traditional laptop design, the MacBook Air still has the edge for me. But I don’t want to have to hack around with a MacBook to get Windows to run well again. True I have enjoyed using Windows on my current MacBook, it’s just such a pain to set up just right.

2 – I really like using Windows 8

Windows 8 became available as an evaluation recently, and I have taken advantage of that to try out this new operating system in day-to-day use. I love how the operating system really does have this no compromises feel to it. It works extremely well on a laptop* and better than Windows 7 when used with a mouse and keyboard.

This has made me think that the best (and cheapest) option is to get one machine rather than two: a tablet that is a PC.

One PC

My experience of Windows 8 has been through the 90 day enterprise evaluation, and I’m still using Windows 7 on my MacBook. Before the Surface was introduced, I set out that I wanted to have only four machines (Xbox, Ultrabook, Phone, Tablet) but now I’m leaning toward having only Xbox, Surface and Phone for personal use.

It’s going to be interesting to see how I tackle the smaller screen size with productivity for personal tasks, but making things as simple as possible is what I always strive for. Though I do get the feeling that there’s room for a device around the 7″ mark to take the number of machines to four at some point in 2013. (NewCo?)

  • Processor: Intel Core i5
  • Weight: 903g
  • Thickness: 13.5mm
  • Display: 10.6″ ClearType Full HD (1080p) capacitive touch screen
  • Battery: 42Wh
  • I/O: microSDXC, USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, 2×2 MIMO antennae
  • Software: Windows 8 Professional
  • Case: VaporMg Case & Stand
  • Accessories: Touch Cover, Type Cover, Pen with Palm Block
  • Capacity: 64GB / 128GB

* Unfortunately the touchpad in my HP Laptop doesn’t have very nice support for Windows 8. Hopefully that’ll come soon.

Using Windows 7

I have used Windows 7 since the early betas, as is always the case with new Windows releases – I was very interested in what new features were coming. Over the years I’ve come to rely on these features quite heavily, and like millions of other people I’m currently use it as my primary operating system.

My use of Windows 7 has changed quite a lot over the years – from simply changing themes to using totally different applications. But as Windows 7 is coming to the end of its life (for me anyway) I’m interested to see how my computer usage will change and evolve when Windows 8 takes over as my primary operating system.

So I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how I’m using Windows on my MacBook today…

I like to keep things simple, a trend that will no doubt continue to Windows 8. As part of this I usually keep the number of applications I pin to the taskbar to absolute minimum. On my home computer this is PowerShell, Outlook and OneNote.

In the notification area I tend to have only power, networking, and volume icons, as well as the awesome Process Explorer. This is pretty much all I want to see down there, and everything else gets hidden away. (Remember when we couldn’t hide stuff down there? Ugh!)

Because this is a laptop, I tend to run a lot of my programs either maximised or side-by-side using Aero Snap. This is by far one of my favourite features in Windows 7, and I use it all the time. Just grab the title bar of any window and drag it to the top, left or right of the screen to snap the window into place.

Windows itself is just the shell that works around the applications, and right now the applications I tend to use the most (other than the web browser) are:

  • PowerShell
  • Office
  • Visual Studio
  • Expression Studio
  • WebMatrix
  • Windows Live Essentials
  • Zune
  • WorldWide Telescope

All of these applications are made by the same company as the operating system they are running on, so you’d think that they’d all behave exactly the same. This is not the case – each one tends to have its own UX and personality. Something that’s probably going to change in Windows 8 thanks to the advent of the Metro design language.

There are plenty of other smaller applications that I also use, including (but not limited to):

  • Paint.NET
  • EOS Utility
  • FileZilla
  • Flux
  • KatMouse

Oh and as for the browser? My current choice is actually Google Chrome. Mostly because of the spell checking functionality. I’ve used Internet Explorer 10 pretty extensively on the preview versions of Windows 8 and I quite like it, so the chances are I’ll probably move back to IE when it comes out at the end of the year.

Finally I also spend a large amount of time in PowerShell console windows. I have a lot of applications and scripts that I use in this environment, and I’m really hoping we get some kind of full screen Metro treatment to PowerShell – until then I’m probably going to have to use the Desktop to run these kinds of apps.

Windows 8 will definitely let me work in exactly the same way I do today – you can get access to all of the desktop and features of Windows 7 (with more stuff) so there’s no doubt about that. But will things change?

Eventually Metro-style applications will take over from the desktop applications we are using today. It just might take a while.

Digital Junk

I know a lot of people who are file collectors, ranging from keeping every possible bit of information which has a memory attached to it, to keeping all their emails even though they’ve dealt with them.

I personally feel that a lot of this stuff can weigh us down, so I try to keep it all to a minimum. But there is always going to be a lot of ‘digital junk’ that has to be dealt with – even if you are careful about what you keep.

The ‘Spam’ folder

One of the biggest sources for digital junk is obviously spam, by letting email into your life you’re opening yourself up to all kinds of rubbish. Because email was essentially invented by hippies, there’s no system in place to force users to prove who they are – this means you can send an email from Bill Gates without any email servers batting an eyelid.

Yea sure things are better these days, but I still tend to get quite a lot of spam. I also have a policy where any email address that isn’t trusted is automatically put into my spam folder. Because of this I tend to check my junk email at least a few times a day. Oh the joy.

The ‘Junk’ folder

I tend to make a folder called Junk inside my profile (C:\Users\Julian\Junk) where I stick any files that I haven’t yet decided where they should be (or if I need them at all!) Usually I just chuck everything from my Desktop into this folder when I’m done with it.

Saying that, I don’t usually keep anything on my Desktop at all. I only tend to use it for creation of content that is about to be uploaded or put into another project folder that I’m working on.

The ‘Downloads’ folder

Downloads probably the ‘buit in’ Windows folder that gets the most junk I have to sort out. Downloads tend to be a mixure of stuff you want to keep, stuff you wanted to just open to view, and (in my case as a developer) millions of documents that I’ve downloaded from one of Branded3′s internal tools.

Ahhh first world problems.