Being productive on Windows 10

I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts on how I’m productive on Windows 10 now that it has been out for a little while and all of my machines have been updated.

Including my phone and 7 inch tablet, I run Windows 10 on four machines:

The following discussion is only about the first two, which are both configured to be general purpose devices used for all sorts of tasks, including development and productivity. I’ll write about the phone and tablet another time.

Windows 10 Desktop

With Windows 10 the desktop is back on the PC and, as usual with my computers, there are no icons in sight. I use my desktop for temporary things, not as a place to keep anything for any extended amount of time. If I’m downloading a file to run it through a comparison tool or something like that, my desktop is fine.

I’m still using teal as the main colour for the user interface. I have used this on my workstations for a number of years now and, with Windows 10, the colour configuration is better than ever. You can choose to have it just as a highlight colour on top of black or have variations of the colour used throughout the Start Menu and Action Centre UI. I prefer the latter with this colour choice.

I feel like teal has worked really well for me, it’s fairly conservative and seems to fit into multiple uses really well:

  • It is not too bright, and offers good contrast with both black and white
  • It works well in both cool or warm lighting environments
  • It doesn’t become too saturated when used with high F.lux settings

For my Surface, I have selected a nice ultra-wide space wallpaper which fits nicely with the colours I choose. This has been a real favourite of mine since I first started using it, but I am unsure who the original artist is. I’d love to give them credit.

Windows 10 Taskbar

I have no applications pinned on my taskbar so I get a really clean environment when I have nothing open. I launch all of my applications from the Start Menu or PowerShell.

I’ve loved using live tiles since they were first introduced on the phone. I enjoy the benefits you get from the glanceable information and I find the grid based organisational structure is way more useful than just a menu. My initial thoughts were that having the Start Menu in the corner may not be as good as having it full screen like on Windows 8, but I quickly changed my mind as soon as I started using it on the insider previews.

Right now, I have grouped the tiles into four main sections with the bottom right configured slightly differently depending on which machine I’m using.

Windows 10 Start Menu

My current setup of tiles and most used applications is pretty much a snapshot in time though – I don’t feel like I have had enough time to really know what I want to have pinned here. At the moment I’m enjoying having a mixture of glancable information (Weather, Calendar, etc.) unread content counts (NextGen Reader, Mail, etc.) and launcher icons (Edge, Store, etc.).

I’m certain this will change quite a lot with use.

Windows 10 Cortana

Cortana has been a very welcome addition to the PC. I’ve been using Cortana on my phone since the original previe, and she’s very much a part of my computer use now. She has had numerous improvements over her first iteration and now that she’s available through all my personal Windows devices, using her for things like reminders and glanceable information has been easier than ever.

I use her on my Surface quite a bit, though I do sometimes have trouble with her listening to me when I say ‘Hey Cortana’, so I usually just press WIN + C to activate her, then she has no trouble understanding my requests.

All of my requests are typed when I use the Virtual Machine. Typing requests is as easy as pressing the Windows key. I find typing to be just as natural as speech, and really fast when I’m using a desktop keyboard. I also tend to use the VM when I’m in locations where speaking wouldn’t be very useful anyway.

I have had issues with using the location-based features on the VM, but I worked around it using a Fake GPS driver.

The Task View is a another new addition to the Windows task bar, and even though I regularly use the key combination WIN + TAB to activate it, I still like to have the icon on the task bar anyway. This screen also includes the ability to add a number of virtual desktops. Surprisingly, I don’t use virtual desktops as much as I thought I would – but I am really glad they there when I do use them.

I originally thought I would always split things out every time I used the computer. For example, I thought that all my communications apps would always be in one desktop and development apps would belong in another. It just didn’t really happen that way. As I was regularly switching between them, I quickly got confused when I had more than a few apps open.

Virtual desktops become useful for me when I really want to concentrate on one or two different activities. I move their windows around on the Task View and put them into their own desktop to get a distraction fee environment when I need it. Ad hoc desktops to help me focus have been much more useful than trying to set rules for myself.

CTRL + WIN + LEFT and CTRL + WIN + RIGHT are used to switch back and forth between desktops. (I’d like to see better support for this with a three finger swipe on the trackpad please Microsoft!)

Windows 10 Notification Area

The Notification Area has been shuffled around a bit in Windows 10. The keyboard icon is now integrated and right next to the clock, and there’s now an additional new notification icon for the Action Centre.

I only show the very minimum of icons here – Process Explorer, Power, Network, Sound. I often use a FuzzyClock application to change how the time is displayed down here too. I am not a fan of using the notification area as a place to minimize windows, or launch applications.

Process Explorer is Microsoft’s ultra-nerdy replacement for the Task Manager and something I always use on my Windows machines. I find it to be way more detailed than the built in version and it includes many features developers find useful. As you can see from the screenshot, you also get a glanceable indicator of CPU usage here too. I find that CPU usage is often the most important metric for how the machine is doing, as I don’t really care how much RAM is being used unless I am having problems with something. If I do have problem, full access to everything running on the machine is just a click away.

Windows 1`0 Action Centre

Action Centre is a welcome addition to Windows on the PC, and something I’m already well used to using, thanks to Windows Phone. The version that ships today is not perfect though. Over time I’d like to see better notification sync with the phone. I also find that the having a solid icon isn’t enough to really draw attraction to the fact there is a new notification pending. I’d like to see options here for flashing or some other more substantial indicator, though I have to admit, I probably wouldn’t want it to be like that all time.

In fact, when I’m trying to be super productive, I turn on Quiet Hours. I use this in combination with the Quite Hours feature on my phone to ensure I don’t get annoyed with notifications when I don’t need them. But they’re still a click away.

The utilities I have mentioned above, like FuzzyClock and Process Explorer, are tiny portable executables and don’t require some system-changing installation mechanism. All these small applications I use are stored in a Scripts folder I have been maintaining for years.

This folder lives in my profile under C:\Users\Julian\Scripts and is synchronised to a private Git repository hosted on Visual Studio Online. Inside there are a number of scripts to run automated tasks and setup my PowerShell profile to be exactly the same across machines. In addition to these scripts, there’s a Tools folder which contains all of these small utility applications as well as some larger applications which have been modified to work in a ‘portable’ way.

windows-10-powershell

I spend a lot of my time in PowerShell and this folder is absolutely fundamental to how I complete many tasks on my Windows machines including, but not limited to:

  • Scripting languages and runtimes – Ruby, Python, IKVM
  • Text editors and UNIX utilities- Vim, grep, wget, curl
  • Windows Tools – Process Explorer, Autoruns
  • General Utilities – FileZilla, Far, WinMerge, Putty
  • Plus years of PowerShell and F# scripts, registry files and more

I could probably go into more detail around this in the future. If you are interested, let me know in the comments.

Not everything is installed this way though. Some of the biggest applications I use require installation from the web through subscriptions, like Office 365 and MSDN:

  • Outlook, OneNote, Visio and the rest of Office (from Office 365)
  • Visual Studio Enterprise (from MSDN)
  • Visual Studio Code, Node and Git (free)
  • Wunderlist, Slack and Skype (free)
  • 7-Zip, F.lux, Paint.NET (free)

And finally, there are a number of applications which either are preinstalled on Windows or I have to install from the Windows Store. The ones I use the most are:

  • Groove Music, Film & TV, Photos and other entertainment apps
  • MSN apps like Weather and Sports
  • Audible, Netflix
  • NextGen Reader

Applications installed through the Windows Store are super painless. I wish more applications could be installed this way. I’d like to see more parity with the phone too, and I’m sure that’ll be coming when Windows 10 Mobile ships at the end of the year.

Overall, I feel like I’m more productive on Windows 10 than I have been on any other operating system. I feel like things are only getting better in general – with things like SSH and containers coming soon, the future is pretty bright for Windows 10.

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.

Watching Gravity on Xbox Video

I don’t own any movies on DVD or Blu-ray. None at all. I gave up on DVD at the same time I stopped buying CDs, and I have never been interested in getting myself a Blu-ray player for movies either.

Most of the movies I watch are on Netflix, but once in a while a new movie comes along that I want to watch as soon as I can. In previous years there weren’t any decent (legal) ways to do this, but these days there are a number of options for getting movies online.

As a happy user of Xbox Music, I thought I’d give Xbox Video a try.

Xbox Video

Xbox Video is a streaming video service that lets you either rent or purchase movies, and watch them directly on your Xbox, Windows device or in a web browser.

The only video I’ve purchased on Xbox Video previously was Mean Girls – but that’s a 10 year old movie and didn’t include any of the fancy extras you get with SmartGlass.

When Gravity became available I purchased the HD version for £14.99. Because it’s purchased, rather than rented, I can watch it as many times as I want, including the SmartGlass extras.

Gravity

In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone is a mission specialist on a Space Shuttle mission to Hubble, when an accident causes the rest of the crew to perish.

In a slightly unrealistic-but-more-realistic-than-most-movies turn of events she finds herself at the International Space Station, then to a Chinese Space Station in an attempt to get back home.

SmartGlass on Windows Phone

Through Xbox SmartGlass you get access to special content – which I believe is also included on the Blu-ray release. I have the option of accessing the extras through either my Windows Phone, or my Surface tablet. There are also apps available for both iOS and Android too, but I don’t have either of those devices.

My favourite part of the extra content was actually the video short, however I couldn’t get it to play full screen for some reason. Bit of a shame.

Xbox SmartGlass

In “Aningaaq”, we see the other end of the radio conversation that Stone has while in the Russian space craft. Aninqaaq, a fisherman in Greenland, is also dealing with death in his own way. This time we are provided with a translation for his side of the conversation, which is a great little extra to the movie.

Overall the Xbox SmartGlass experience was good, and more interesting when I watched the movie for the second time. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a movie specifically for the extras before, and I’m not going to start – but it’s a good little bonus.

Gravity

Wacom Bamboo Stylus for Surface Pro

Wacom Bamboo

I have enjoyed using pen input for Windows since my first Tablet PC. Using a pen allows you to draw and make notes using ink, as well as be more precise with the cursor when required. Personally I find the pen that comes with the Surface Pro 2 to be quite agreeable… but I do know that people generally complain about a couple of points.

The first is that you clip the pen on the side where the charging port is – this is a bit like an after thought, but when space is a premium – it’s not a surprise.

The second is that it’s a bit light and plasticky for a £25 pen.

There’s not much you can do about the first one complaint, but the Bamboo Stylus Feel is a good alternative if you want to have a premium pen-like feel.

Wacom Bamboo

As the price of the Bamboo Stylus feel had come down to less than £10, so I thought I’d try it out. If didn’t like it, at least I’d have a spare!

I haven’t had a chance to use it very long yet, but already I can tell that it is well worth the money. The build quality is very high, and it feels a lot more premium than the Surface Pen. The weight is good, and the length is slightly longer than the Surface Pen when you place the cap on the end, or shorter when you put it away.

Wacom Bamboo

It feels great on the screen – slightly softer and less slippery than the Surface Pen. The accuracy is also really good – I had no issues using it right away with the default calibration on the Surface Pro 2, without installing any extra software.

The button on the side (which lets you right-click) is totally flush with the barrel, so it’s a little hard to find by touch alone. There also isn’t an eraser on the other end, a feature which I really enjoy on the Surface Pen.

It’s worth noting that the packaging stated that it was for the Samsung Galaxy 10.1, but it worked on the Surface Pro 2 without any problems. Be sure to check that the one you get includes the ‘Wacom feel IT‘ technology. There’s also a Carbon version – if you’re interested.

This is going to be the stylus I carry around in my bag with me, but when I’m doing art work, I’ll have both handy.

Pros

  • Cheaper than the Surface Pen
  • Higher quality than the Surface Pen
  • Feels great when writing on the screen

Cons

  • No eraser on the end
  • Button is flush with the barrel

Using LEDs for Monitor Back Lighting

Dell Ultrawide monitor with LED Backlight

I recently set up a new development workstation for my Surface Pro 2 to plug into when I’m at home. The desk is a lot more comfortable to use for long periods when when compared to using my old MacBook on my lap. The biggest part of my desk setup is the 29 inch Ultrawide (21:9) Dell monitor, which is significantly larger than the 10.6 inch screen on the Surface Pro 2, and much nicer to use when writing software.

I have to say it has been really fantastic to have such a big, bright screen – but eye strain is a very real problem when working with computers for a long time. In my flat it’s especially problematic at night, and just about any time of the day in the darker winter months. Unsurprisingly, I’m more likely likely to be sitting in front of the computer at these times of the day, so something has to be done.

In the past I have used software solutions to try and reduce the potential for eye strain; I highly recommend that people try using F.lux to change the colour temperature of the display. Changing the colour of the screen to a warmer glow is certainly easier on the eyes, but it comes at a cost of changing the colour temperature of everything the screen is displaying. I don’t mind the colours being warmer in certain circumstances, so I use F.lux all the time on my work laptop.

I didn’t want to set it up on my Surface Pro 2, simply because the colour reproduction is really gorgeous on the tablet’s screen. So this time I thought I’d try a new approach to solving the eye strain problem.

Dell Ultrawide monitor with LED Backlight

I’ve attached LEDs to the back of the monitor to give the screen some back lighting. There are two strips of white LEDs which are powered by the two USB ports on the underside of the monitor. I tried a few different arrangements of the strips, and I found that having the strips quite high up ended up with the best result, while the distribution is obviously greater at the top – it looks absolutely fine when you’re sat in front of the screen.

The white LED back lighting is certainly on the blue-end of the spectrum when compared to the warm ambient light of the room, but it matches the cooler glow of my Ultrawide Dell monitor really well. Coincidently, the power LEDs on the monitor and sound bar also match the white back lighting. It’s a small detail, but it certainly helps the overall look of the setup.

Less than a month in, and I’m already thinking that this will factor into my plans for all my future workstations. I feel like having good lighting around the computer really helps with concentration and reducing eye strain.