Windows

Microsoft Windows is currently the most popular general purpose operating system for PCs.

Using Windows Reading List

When Windows 8.1 came out it included an application called Windows Reading List, which used the Share functionality of Windows to bookmark articles which can be read later.

Any application that shares the right kind of information can be used with Reading List, but the applications I use most often are Internet Explorer, Flipboard and the Bing applications.

Reading List

When you share an article to Reading List it asks you which category to use. I have set myself up with categories for software development resources, health and fitness information and general inspiration for life and work.

Adding articles on either Windows or Windows Phone will use your Microsoft account to synchronise automatically. This is completely seamless in both applications – meaning there are no options to configure these settings at all. I’m quite happy with this, but I know that some power users would prefer the option to choose how the information is synchronised with their computers.

Reading List and Internet Explorer in Reading Mode

When you use the application on Windows, clicking on one of the articles will open up another window next to the snapped reading list. I love this feature, and it really goes to show the strengths of multitasking with the modern interface in Windows.

Doing the same on the phone just opens Internet Explorer, the related application, or prompts you to search the store if you pick something that is incompatible. For example the Bing Wikipedia app isn’t currently available on Windows Phone, so clicking articles from this app prompt you to search the store.

Reading List for Windows Phone

The addition of the Windows Phone version of this application has really increased its use for me, however it’s obvious uses are diminished when used with older versions of Windows.

At work I use Windows 7 for my development machine, and there’s no way I can share interesting links found here with my Reading List. While I’m not expecting Microsoft to create a desktop app, a simple bookmarklet or browser extension would certainly do the job for collecting new articles to be read later.

Will Neovim rock on Windows?

Gvim on Windows 8

I have been using Vim on Windows since I switched to 64-bit and edit.com stopped working. Originally I just used the console version inside of PowerShell or the standard command line. In the last three years I’ve been favouring Gvim as my go-to text editor for smaller scripts and utilities.

I know for a fact I’m not using everything Gvim or Vim has to offer, but I’m quite happy with the way it works. For example, I have line numbers turned off, but I can turn them on very easily using a quick :set nu.

Very powerful, very fast.

There are some things I absolutely hate though. For starters, what’s this horrible border on the inside of the window, and how can I make it disappear without hacking the whole application and recompiling it? This isn’t Windows 95.

Ugly Border

I’ve looked for some time but I haven’t found a solution. But hey, I found out that people can make it look pretty on Ubuntu (handy!)

Enter Neovim

Neovim promises to be a refactoring (and reimagining) of the Vim text editor using more modern techniques. The plan is to have the core Vim functionality moved into a new library, which will allow the interfaces to be separated out in a modular way.

The thing that got me really interested? When they mentioned Windows:

Modern GUIs written in high-level programming languages that integrate better with the operating system. We can have GUIs written using C#/WPF on Windows or Ruby/Cocoa on OS X, for example.

True they’re not saying they will write a GUI using C# & WPF, but someone can. And I like the sound of that. Of course, it’ll be open source – and I’ll be able to edit the XAML to have no borders at all, if I like.

Also, here’s hoping we get better PowerShell integration out of this too.

It could be huge.

So, will Neovim rock on Windows? I sure hope so.

It’s a great time to be a Microsoft-focused software developer

The Build 2014 conference took place in San Francisco last week, where thousands of developers and designers came together to learn all the latest information about what it means to use Microsoft development tools, and build solutions that run on Microsoft platforms.

I have over 137 GB of videos yet to watch, but I can already say that it has been one of the best Microsoft developer conferences to date.

Here are my thoughts so far, with a few links to some of my highlights.

.NET is alive and well – and becoming more open

build-2014-4

There was a general feeling that .NET developers had been left behind in recent years. A strong push to using HTML and JavaScript really got some people worried when Windows 8 was announced – but at Build 2014 the message was loud and clear. The .NET platform is alive and well.

It’s almost as if they asked .NET developers what would make them really happy, and set about doing all those things. For me, personally, I was most excited by the promise of open-sourcing even more of the framework, including the brand-new compiler platform (Roslyn) that has been years in the making.

Initiatives like .NET Native will allow applications built with C# and Visual Basic to get much closer performance to applications created with C++. Starting first with Windows Store apps, these architecture specific binaries will increase performance at runtime without losing the productivity of developing with the architecture-agnostic .NET Framework.

Roslyn and .NET Native are in preview, and won’t be completed until the next version of Visual Studio. But there have also been a wide range of updates to the ASP.NET web platform, MVC, Entity Framework and way more – most of which are either available now with Visual Studio 2013 Update 2, or can be downloaded using packages from NuGet.

You can tell Windows is under new leadership

build-2014-1

Cortana – the new assistant built into Windows Phone 8.1 – was the highlight of the show. There had been rumours of Microsoft’s answer to Siri and Google Now for quite some time, so a lot of the information had already come out. But still, it was great to see Joe Belfiore talking to her publicly for the first time, confirming what Halo fans were waiting for: yes she is called Cortana, and yes, she sounds like Cortana.

As Cortana is such a huge step for Microsoft, I’ll be going in depth on what I think over the next few weeks.

Cortana wasn’t the only addition to Windows Phone 8.1, there were hundreds of new features and tweaks to the UI that will take weeks to be documented – the new calendar is just one of these. I’ve tried it in the emulator and it’s really great. The developer preview is due this month.

As a developer, the news of Universal Apps was very welcome. This allows high amounts of code sharing between applications designed for both Windows and Windows Phone. I can’t wait to try this stuff out, especially with the new JavaScript support.

Windows 8.1 has some new features too. The much-leaked Windows 8.1 Update includes changes to how the operating system behaves with a keyboard and mouse – though these changes are only the start of the improvements that are coming.

Azure is the future, and already here

build-2014-3

Microsoft’s cloud platform has improved tremendously over the last few years and this year was no exception – in fact, there were so many new features I can’t even begin to go through them all. Some I probably won’t even use (Java? No thanks.) but I know the option is there, which will inform my decisions for cloud hosting in the future.

Scott Guthrie and his team talked at great length about new features that will improve productivity for ‘DevOps’ tasks significantly. For example, the new Azure Portal includes the ability to view statistics, create new infrastructure, build new virtual machines, deploy websites and even do code changes with Git source control – all from one UI.

I already use Azure as part for my personal projects, as well as Visual Studio online as my source code repository. I plan on using it even more in the future – so I’m pleased to see Microsoft lead in this area. And they really are leading.

It doesn’t have to be Windows & .NET

build-2014-2

Times have certainly changed, and PCs that run Windows are no longer the most popular computing devices. As a predominantly Microsoft developer, this makes me wonder about the future. This year’s Build has continued the recent trend of Microsoft supporting other platforms in new ways – plus with partnerships with like likes of Xamarin, I see no reason to even contemplate switching over to Android (the most popular platform) in the foreseeable future.

While I was hoping that there would be the announcement of a Xamarin acquisition, they didn’t disappoint. It was great to see Maguel even joining Anders on stage during the keynote. Both of these guys are very smart, and I look forward to what else the partnership can bring. Being able to develop universal apps that also target iOS and Android is not very far away at all.

Tracking Health & Fitness with Windows

Running Shoes

These days I use a combination of software and hardware to keep track of my health and fitness in a way that I never have been able to previously. There’s no one vender that covers everything I want, but the software I’m using all works fairly well with my Windows devices.

Bing Health & Fitness is an application for Windows and Windows Phone which – as you may have guessed from the name – helps people with tasks related to health, and fitness. This is probably the most used software I have for actively recording information, and I use it every day.

Entering diet information in to Bing Health & Fitness is fairly easy, there are a number of foods built into the database which you can select, or you can add your own with information about carbs, protein and fat – as well as calories. I have been using this on the Windows 8.1 app since it came out, but on the release of the Windows Phone app I’ve started entering the information on my Lumia more often than my Surface. Being able to enter this information on the phone itself is a lot more convenient and the live tile shows me the numbers, which also serves as a reminder for when I haven’t done it.

Health and Fitness apps on Windows Phone

Another feature that the Windows Phone version introduced is the GPS Tracking. Previously I’d have to enter in data about exercises into the Windows app with guess work as to how far I’d gone. The GPS Tracking feature lets you simply start and stop exercise activity, and provides a map as well as statistics on the speed and estimated calories burned. I use this as well as my Fitbit statistics so that I can see the difference between actual exercise effort against normal day-to-day activity.

Talking of the Fitbit – most of the data collected by this device is done with very little input from me. I walk a lot more than I used to thanks to the statistics, but I don’t manually enter any information through the Fitbit app itself – as mentioned above, all the non-passive food and activity data is handled by Bing Health & Fitness. I’m very pleased to say that the Fitbit does a great job of collecting my information without me having to do anything at all.

Fitbit

It doesn’t really matter which app I use though, as all of my information is stored in Microsoft’s HealthVault – an online service which allows secure storage of health and fitness information, which can be shared with friends, family or health care professionals. There are HealthVault apps for both Windows and Windows Phone which allow entry of information directly, as well as a website which allows some pretty comprehensive data exports – if you need them.

Basic information like my height and weight are entered directly into HealthVault itself using the apps, and these measurements are currently done using ‘dumb’ methods – in other words, normal bathroom scales. Maybe in the future I might look at getting wireless scales – or even something more advance than that – though I see very little point at the moment. Every other bit of information collected by both Bing Health & Fitness and Fitbit are synchronised with HealthVault automatically.

Another application that integrates with HealthVault is Health Choices, an app that’s also available on both Windows and Windows Phone devices. It acts as a front-end to the NHS Choices content provided by the National Health Service. This includes details about hospitals, surgeries and other places that are useful to keep track of. When saving these places, the contact and address information will also be saved directly into HealthVault.

Health Choices also induces a A-Z of various treatments and conditions which can also be saved onto HealthVault – I’ve found these extremely useful in keeping track of medical history and medications taken.

I’ve always had an interest in metrics and statistics anyway, and thanks to the technology available today with the Windows platform I’ve been able to really take control of these things. I’ve seen improvements in fitness and motivation, and the information in these applications has helped me make important decisions about where to get treated when I have been unwell.

Obviously, none of this stuff would be as effective as having a personal trainer, nor does it replace having a professional doctor – but being informed definitely helps.

Now that I’ve started keeping track, I’m not going to stop. In fact, I think it’s only going to get more comprehensive over time.

Windows 8.1 – Ultrawide Multitasking

When I recently decided to set up a new workstation at home, I had a look at the available monitors. Without really thinking about it I assumed I’d just get a standard 16:9 monitor, but then I stumbled upon an article about an LG all in one PC with a crazy wide 21:9 screen. This really sparked my interest. Not in the PC itself – but how these ultra wide screens work with Windows 8.1.

Being a fan of Dell monitors, I decided to invest in a 29 inch Dell Ultrawide – so far it has done everything I’ve wanted, and I’ve been very happy with it.

Dell Ultrawide

Windows 8.1′s snap feature allows you to use up to four different applications at the same time with one of these Ultrawide screens. This extra horizontal space has drastically changed how I use Windows at home.

All of these screenshots are real examples of how I use Windows, and were taken over a few weeks of actual use. Basic tasks like email and note taking aren’t included, as I didn’t want to have to censor the content.


Writing a Blog Post

Writing a Blog Post

  1. Xbox Music
  2. Internet Explorer
  3. Internet Explorer

Arranging Tasks & Calendar Appointments

Arranging Tasks & Calendar Appointments

  1. Mail
  2. Calendar
  3. OneNote
  4. Xbox Music

Finding New Music

Finding New Music

  1. Internet Explorer
  2. Xbox Music

Looking for a Computer New Bag

Looking for Computer Bag Ideas

  1. Flipboard
  2. OneNote

Watching Windows Weekly

Watching Windows Weekly

  1. Twitter
  2. Twit.tv

ultrawide-10

Exploring the World

  1. Bing Maps
  2. Star Chart

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!

Installing Windows RT 8.1 Preview on Surface RT in the UK

Like many Surface RT owners in the UK, I was extremely excited to install the Windows RT 8.1 Preview that was announced today. Unfortunately, the update provided doesn’t seem to support English (UK) as a language option on my Surface RT.

First I attempted to add English (US) and replace my existing language, however that did not work and I still got the error.

So, hacking away like I usually do, I decided to try forcing the installation of KB2849636 from the Command Prompt:

expand -f:* Windows8-RT-KB2849636-arm.msu .
pkgmgr Windows8-RT-KB2849636-arm.xml

After a reboot my tablet sat on ‘Preparing to configure Windows’ for a long time, and after the jump I was able to see the preview from the Windows Store.

Windows RT 8.1 on Surface RT in the UK

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to install it yet, and I’m told to try again later. It seems to sit in this state and doesn’t progress any further…

Please try again later...

Update 1

Still no joy in getting the preview installed, but there are a few other people looking into the problem.

Check this question on the Microsoft Community for more information.

Update 2

It looks more and more like there is an issue around the installation that can only be fixed by installing an English (US) operating system. I have decided to wait and see what happens. I’ve heard that Microsoft will be releasing a fix for this in July.

In my opinion, this has been extremely poorly handled by Microsoft.

Update 3

There is another question on the Microsoft Community which has some replies from the moderators:


Windows RT users

Please do not change your base language just to install the Preview. If you do this and then update to the preview version, you will permanently change your base language on these devices. This happens because we create a new restore image based on your selected 8.1 base language during install.

Also, as we noted on the download page, if you’ve installed a language pack on Windows RT, we ask you not to install Windows RT 8.1 Preview at this time. A fix will be available soon for updating through the store with a language pack installed, so please check back.

Charles [MSFT]

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

When I had my first Windows PC, I spent a large amount of my time in the DOS environment, playing with scripts and trying to optimize memory. When I went into Windows I had access to cool applications like Solitaire… but most of the things I had ran in DOS.

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

Windows 8 is like that today, most of the applications I need to complete tasks – be that for work or for personal endeavours – are well established on the Desktop UI paradigm. I tend to use laptops mainly, but when I’m working I plug the laptop into a monitor and a keyboard to get stuff done.

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

I use a lot of utilities in the desktop for various development tasks, including F#, Python, Ruby, Vim, Filezilla, WinMerge, Fl.ux, KatMouse – all of which are portable applications which do not require installation. I keep these inside my Scripts folder and usually access them via PowerShell commands.

Because these applications sit inside my Scripts directory I get a number of benefits:

  1. I can sync the tools between computers (manually or via the cloud)
  2. I don’t need to sit through loads of installs on new machines (and remove the icons from the start screen!)
  3. I can be sure I always have a rich development environment for when I need to build software

On top of my scripts, I also run a number of proper desktop applications that require installing. Chrome, Office, Visual Studio, SQL Server, the Windows SDK and a few more.

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

Once I have all these applications installed, Windows 8 gives me everything I need to get tasks done. I have Email, Word Processing, Spreadsheets, and an extremely rich development and scripting environment thanks to Visual Studio and PowerShell.

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

My Desktop doesn’t include a number of things – apps don’t want to see there. No instant messenger, news readers or weather apps. That kind of information is made visible directly through the start screen and its use of Live Tiles. Clicking on the tile takes you to a full screen application that brings your focus to the task at hand.

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

The full desktop is just one click away. If I want to check if a Visual Studio build has completed I can just flick back to check. This combination of the new and old interfaces seems to work perfectly for me. Taking all the distractions out of the desktop, and moving them into their own space. If I want to play a game of Solitaire – it takes over the full screen, giving me a rich experience. One click in the top left hand corner and I’m back in the desktop with all my windows exactly as they were.

Using Windows 8 (without Touch)

Am I going to continue using the desktop to access applications and consoles? Yup. Windows 8 has more than this though. The new applications we have today are pretty good. The Bing app has turned out to be extremely useful, for example. But where the new apps currently lag is in the more complex tasks like photo manipulation or music creation.

These kinds of experiences would be better in the full screen UI, and I’m very interested in finding out what the likes of Adobe and Propellerhead Software come up with in the future. But at the moment their products like Photoshop and Reason will have to be accessed via the multi-tasking desktop interface.

Many windows features are still only available in the desktop interface. Most notably File Explorer. There’s no way of casually browsing your file system through the new user interface. Sure you can select files to open inside of other applications – but if you fancy just browsing around – you are out of luck.

Through my use, I can say that Windows 8 has surpassed Windows 7 for its ability to get stuff done with a mouse and keyboard. The new start screen is also going to provide a rich user experience for touch input, and the new applications will really shine in these finger friendly scenarios.

While Using Windows 7 now feels like going back in time, I still think there is work to be done with Windows 8. It’ll be interesting to see if Windows Blue brings any changes to the desktop interface.

The Death of Outlook & Exchange for Task Management

Windows Mobile

Rewind to around 2005 – 2006, I had recently discovered the works of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and I had started looking for more resources and found the likes of Merlin Mann and others. These people were telling me that it was possible to do all the things you want to do by keeping track of all the tasks and commitments in a simple, trusted system.

Just like now, I was living mostly in a Microsoft ecosystem – I had a Windows Mobile Smartphone, I used Outlook & Exchange for my email and all my computers ran Windows.

I read a book called ‘Take Back Your Life! Using Outlook to Get Organized & Stay Organized‘ which took many of the principles behind Getting Things Done and implemented them in Microsoft Outlook to help keep track of what’s important.

  • Outlook Tasks – universal capture for all ideas as well as a single place for next actions
  • Outlook Calendar – the ultimate way to track professional and personal commitments
  • Outlook Email – a large amount of incoming tasks would come through email and processed directly from the inbox
  • Outlook Notes – sticky notes that could be used to make lists and capture ideas to be processed later, this was later superseded by OneNote for Windows Mobile – a separate download.

Outlook was ideal for this, because it also synchronised using both Microsoft Exchange and ActiveSync – software that ran on your computer and would sync your Windows Mobile device when attached. As Windows Mobile was my mobile operating system of choice it included Tasks, Calendar, Email and Notes without any extra software. It was Outlook, in my pocket.

Windows Phone

Fast-forward to 2012 – 2013, and the importance of Outlook has diminished significantly. Not by my choice.

The support for Outlook or Exchange Tasks in Windows Phone is very low. In Windows RT the situation is even worse, there is no way of getting access to Exchange tasks without third party software, and no way to flag emails to follow up. If I can’t use it on all my computers, it’s not worth using the feature at all.

These days I use a combination of other apps to follow up on actions – the Mail, Calendar, People, and Messaging applications allow me access to Exchange Mail and Calendar – but I manage notes and tasks through OneNote – which is fantastic for capturing but not so hot for reviewing, processing or planning.

Over the years I have actually moved away from using purely digital capturing and planning tools, favouring paper notebooks in some cases. However, I feel that Microsoft has not done enough to keep the functionality that they used to have for task management, and that they’re missing a trick by letting the functionality fall behind.

By focussing their smartphone and tablet efforts on consumer tasks and social networking, I believe they have lost a lot of the value they had by giving users ‘Outlook in their pocket’ – I hope they bring it back.

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!