Category Archives: Uncategorized

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NVIDIA Tegra 4 chipset: faster performance, longer battery life

NVIDIA has announced the Tegra 4 chipset, which combines an NVIDIA GPU with a quad-core ARM Cortex-A15 CPU.

According to ARM, the Cortex-A15 delivers around twice the performance of the Cortex-A9, used in Tegra 3, and is able to address up to 1TB of RAM.

The Tegra 4 GPU has 72 cores, compared to 12 cores on Tegra 3.

In addition, NVIDIA is including what it calls “Computational Photography Architecture” which uses both CPU and GPU to improve photographic capability.

The part of the announcement that most caught my eye though is the claim of “up to 45 percent less power than its predecessor, Tegra 3, in common use cases”.

Tegra 4 will enable high-performance smartphones, but I am more interested in what this and other next-generation chipsets will offer for tablets. Microsoft’s Surface RT would be more compelling with Tegra 4, rather than its current Tegra 3, since it suffers from poor performance in some cases (Excel, for example) and longer battery life would do no harm either.

There will be even less reason to want a laptop.

NVIDIA’s newly announced Project SHIELD gaming portable also uses a Tegra 4 chipset.

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Microsoft’s Server 2012 Essentials: a good replacement for Small Business Server?

Microsoft has completed Windows Server 2012 Essentials, the kind-of replacement for Small Business Server (SBS) in the Server 2012 range.

I say “kind-of” because it does not replicate the old SBS idea of bundling Windows Server, Exchange, and optionally SQL Server into a single keenly-priced bundle designed to work on one or two servers. Instead, Essentials is designed to integrate with Office 365, online Exchange and SharePoint. There is also an option to integrate with on-premise Exchange but there is no special SBS deal for purchasing this so it will be more expensive than before.

Server 2012 Essentials has the following features and limitations:

  • Maximum 2 physical processors.
  • Up to 25 users, no CALs required.
  • May not be used as a Hyper-V host, but can be installed on a virtual machine (VM).
  • Includes Active Directory.
  • Includes simplified administration console.

If you hit the 25 user limit, you can transition to Windows Server 2012 Standard, but similarly to Exchange, this will not be such good value as the old SBS Premium which supported up to 75 users, even bearing in mind that CALs were required before once you got past 5 users.

When you install you get a couple of options, clean install or server migration:

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I picked clean install. Here is the initial screen:

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Why a tablet-friendly Start screen on a server? It makes more sense that first appears, since you might be accessing the server desktop from a tablet. In fact, the dashboard is deliberately touch-friendly as well, even though it is a desktop application.

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You can integrate with Exchange:

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Alternatively you can link to Office 365, which is what I chose to do. Server Essentials does not use Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS) for single sign-on between the local domain and Office 365, but it does synchronize users and passwords. I asked why it does not do the job properly with ADFS, and was told that one reason is that the base Office 365 “P” subscriptions – which for various reasons I do not recommend – do not support ADFS.

Synchronization is useful but can go wrong. Password expiry for example is a big issue for small businesses; if passwords expire regularly by default as they do in both Server Essentials and Office 365, then users can get into difficulties with issues like smartphones where the password settings are buried. The impression I got at the press briefing is that password policy matches in Essentials and Office 365 by default, but if you change the policy in Essentials it will not automatically change in Office 365 (I hope I am wrong about this).

Server Manager is also present in Essentials. I was interested to see which roles and features are available.

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Missing from this list, compared to Server 2012 Standard, is Hyper-V and Windows Server Update Services.

Apparently you will be able to install SharePoint when this is available for Server 2012.

A strong feature of Server Essentials 2012 is a wizard to set up DirectAccess, which is called Anywhere Access here, and lets users access shared files on the server from anywhere over the internet.

Other interesting features are Storage Spaces, for cost-effective expandable and resilient storage, online backup of your data (though not yet full system backup), backup of client computers, and other Server 2012 features.

It strikes me that a smart way to set up Server 2012 Essentials would be on the free Hyper-V Server 2012. Then you could use a second Hyper-V Server and Hyper-V Replica to have a failsafe system.

But what about the question in my title: is this a good replacement for Small Business Server?

It depends. There are scenarios where this could work well, for businesses that have adopted Office 365 but still need a local server.

On the other hand, this looks like a poor deal for a business that has SBS 2011 Premium or an earlier equivalent and does not want to go the cloud route. Setting up the equivalent with full Exchange will cost more, and the advantage over plain Windows Standard 2012 is not particularly clear.

You can also argue that a small business that has gone for Office 365, having a local server is a retrograde step, introducing a maintenance burden that does not need to exist.

Nevertheless, if you meet the requirements of fewer than 25 users, this is a good value offering with most of the great features of Server 2012 available.

Crisis in Microsoft land: what next after the mixed reception for Windows 8 Consumer Preview?

Microsoft will have expected some users to find the transition from Windows 7 to Windows 8 challenging, but I doubt it was ready for the reaction from its own community that it is receiving for Windows 8 Consumer Preview.

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The best place to start is the comments on Building Windows blog here and here – at the time of writing, around 1300 comments, most from users who have downloaded and tried the Consumer Preview. It is worth browsing through them if this is something you care about; some are knee-jerk negative reactions, but some others are thoughtful and wanting Microsoft to succeed.

Overall, the message is: don’t make us use Metro, let us stay in the desktop if we choose.

I’m still waiting for an explanation as to why my 30" desktop screen has to look like a smartphone, that’s what my smartphone is for.

My users range from tech savvy to plant workers and truck drivers. Like all of us, the start button is baked into our DNA … How can I make the desktop the default UI?  I’m not going to deploy metro desktop to my users as the default screen. I would rather deploy a slew of ipads and I’m no ipad fan that is for sure.

In 17 years of using Windows I have never used the Windows key. Interestingly I’ve never seen any user of a computer use the Windows key. I don’t want to learn and remember key combinations to do things that I can currently do trivially using the start menu.

Let me tell you something, I always have a gazillion webbrowser instances and tabs open (rarely less than 50 browser tabs and as much as 100) – I often run 5-10 Visual Studio instances simultaneously (and I know your usage statistics says average is 1, so you won’t make it easier to distinguish between them, but this is a different matter..) – usually have 10+ explorer windows – and I absolutely love working this way, I am productive this way and that’s what counts for me. I run 2 big screens with 2560×1440 resolutions to give me as much working space as possible, so I can easily switch between a lot of my open applications, browser tabs and explorer windows. Even if I had a use for some Metro UI application, I would be looking for a desktop alternative, so I could have it running side-by-side with my other applications – let’s be honest, one application at a time might be great for the average joe, but it’s a horrible solution for professional users.

Part of the problem here is that the Metro UI Windows 8 is more about solving a problem Microsoft has – how to compete with the iPad – than a problem its users face. It has been clear since Windows 8 was first previewed that the tablet UI and new Windows Runtime was Microsoft’s main focus, and that desktop users would get less value than they might normally expect from a major release. The reaction to the Consumer Preview though is more serious than that: many users are saying that Windows 8 is, for them, a substantial step backwards.

I am writing this in Windows 8 on a desktop and it is not that bad. Apps are easy to launch once you get the hang of Windows Key – Search, and there are workarounds for the annoyances. There is no doubt though: if you are working mainly in the desktop – which is inevitable for most users upgrading – the “immersive UI” does get in the way at times. Since it must run full screen, a Metro app obliterates the taskbar and handy features like the time and date which shows bottom right in the notification area. If there were an option to run Metro apps in a window, I would grab it.

The irony here is that the name “Windows” refers to the ability to run multiple apps in windows, as opposed to the single application UI offered by DOS.

Another issue is that if you switch between Metro and Desktop, you have to learn two ways to do common tasks. For example, I tend to use the taskbar previews to find browser tabs, since if you have numerous tabs open it is the quickest way to find the one you want. If you are in the Metro browser though, you have to right-click to show the tabs. Right-click by mistake in the desktop browser, and you get a context menu. Add to favourites? Different. History? Different. All friction if you just want to get your work done.

If you have multiple monitors, Microsoft’s “Move the mouse to the corner” idea for raising the Charms does not work well. The “Corner” is on the primary display, but if you have multiple displays it is not a corner but the border between two screens. You have to position the pointer just so to make it work.

There is more; but it is not my intention to iterate through every annoyance. I am more interested in the reaction overall and in what Microsoft will do next.

I will add that I admire what Microsoft has done from a technical standpoint in the Windows Runtime and that Windows 8 on a touch device with the right screen size has great promise as a new tablet operating system. It is my first choice for travelling; iPad and Android tablets are too limited, and I am more than ready to leave the bulky, awkward laptop at home.

Needless to say, few of those commenting will have tried such a device, for reasons I have described before. Windows 8 in a virtual machine is a worst case, and it is a shame that so many (for good reasons) are trying it that way.

What next for Windows 8?

It seems to me that Microsoft now has, broadly, three options for Windows 8.

1. Plough on regardless. This, I imagine, is the plan as it stands currently. Microsoft has deliberately made Metro unavoidable in Windows 8, I presume to ensure that it will not be ignored. There will be some refinements in the final release, improved discoverability of features users are struggling to find, but no fundamental change to the design approach. The plan as stated last month is that there will be no further beta, and the next public release will be the release candidate.

The question: can Microsoft do enough tweaking to win over a majority of its own community? Right now my sense is probably not. A negative reaction on release will be costly for the company and for all those third-parties who depend on its platform; yes, Windows 7 will have a prolonged life, but there will be loss of momentum for the platform overall.

2. Delay Windows 8 for further refinement. Go through the reactions to this broad public beta test, and work out how to fix the issues without losing the vision behind this “reimagined” Windows. Delay would be painful, of course, but less bad than a failed release.

The quick version of this would be to do what many are asking for: make the Metro-style personality in Windows 8 optional. Would that be such a disaster?

3. Release Windows on ARM (WOA) ahead of the full Windows 8. Most of the objections users have to Windows 8 do not apply to WOA, where Metro is primary, where all devices are touch tablets, and where those desktop applications (mainly Office) and utilities that are included are there to fill the gaps which Metro cannot yet fill. As for x86, users are still happy with Windows 7. When Vista was the current version, users could not wait for the next release, but there is no such pressure with Windows 7.

The best ear buds I have heard: Wolfson’s Digital Silence DS-421D with noise cancellation

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month I caught up with Wolfson Microelectronics, who make digital converter chips and other audio components. They do not sell many products to end users, but are making an exception for the Digital Silence range of noise-cancelling headsets.

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The origin of the technology here is in the company’s 2007 acquisition of Sonaptic Ltd, specialists in micro-acoustics, or in other words getting good sound from mobile devices.

The Digital Silence range is unusual among ear buds in including noise cancellation. In other words, microphones on the outside of the buds pick up external sounds, phase reverse them, and add them to the input signal so that you hear more of the music (or voice, if listening to a call) and less of the external sound.

The new Digital Silence range has three models, of which I have been testing the DS-421D, which is set for general availability shortly.

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What you get is a stereo headset with clip-on controller, spare ear foams, mini-jack adaptors to cope with the fact that some mobiles wire up their 4-pole mini-jacks differently, USB charging cable, and a black zip-up carrying case. As with most headsets, there is also a built-in microphone and answer button. By default they are iPhone-ready, but will work with pretty much any mobile or player with a standard 3.5mm mini-jack output.

The controller has a rechargeable battery, charged by a USB connection, and specified to last for 14 hours of playback. A switch on the controller enables ANC and lights a green LED to show that the battery is OK. The ear buds work without ANC as well, so if the battery gives out you still have music. In a quiet environment, you might also prefer not to use ANC in case it adds artefacts to the sound.

A button on the side of the controller marked Monitor has a dual purpose. Press it to mute the sound; or press and hold to change the ANC filter. There is no display, but the unit plays one, two or three beeps to indicate the selection:

General: 20dB cancellation across a wide frequency band

Aeroplane: Low frequency cancellation such as found in an aeroplane is emphasised.

Office: Speech frequency cancellation around 200Hz – 1kHz is emphasised

Other products in the range are the DS-101A (around £30.00) and the DS-321D (around £50). I do not have a price yet for the DS-421D itself but was told “Under £100”. The DS-101A does not have selectable filters or a call/answer button.

Sound quality

Enough of the technology, how is the sound? This is what counts, and I am impressed. The DS-421D headset sounds excellent even without ANC engaged. No amount of noise cancellation would make them good if they were poor to begin with, and I suspect this fundamental good design is actually more important than the clever processing.

I used a variety of ear-buds for comparison. My regular set are Shure SE210 noise-isolating (not cancelling) ear-buds which I find easily out-perform the ones that come free with smartphones and iPods. I was taken aback by how much better the 421D sounded. The biggest difference is in the bass extension, but the sound is also smoother but without loss of clarity. These are the first ear buds I have used where you do not feel you are compromising by not using over the ear headphones.

The noise cancelling works. Don’t have unrealistic expectations, these will not deliver “digital silence”, but they will substantially reduce the noise. It is a bit like shutting it behind a door. There is also a slight change in the quality of the sound, for the better in my opinion, being a little richer than before. I used the DS-421D on an aeroplane and on the London Underground and had worthwhile results in both cases. I could have the volume lower and still enjoy the music.

I also compared the DS-421D to a set of Sennheiser PXC 300 foldable noise-cancelling headphones. The PXC 300 was slightly more effective in killing background noise, but the reason I tend to leave these at home is that they are bulky and use two AAA batteries which give out if I forget to switch them off. The DS-421D is more convenient. As for sound quality, it is close and I might even give 421D the edge.

The DS-421D is mainly for music, but I found the headset functionality useful too. I used it for Skype on a Windows 8 tablet and it worked much better than using the built-in microphone.

Design

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The design of the DS-421D  is excellent in terms of technology, but I am not so sure about the ergonomics. The length of cable between the ear buds and the controller is short, so you cannot clip the controller to your belt. It must be on your collar or perhaps top pocket. You could leave it dangling, but it is heavy enough to be a nuisance if you do.

Visually, the design looks a bit geeky to me; not unattractive, but I can imagine the DS-421D losing out among the more fashion-conscious purchasers.

Conclusion

Regular traveller who likes music? I recommend you give these a try. Now you can have noise-cancellation and high quality sound and a small, light headset.

Technical addendum

Wolfson’s noise-cancelling system is called myZone ANC (Ambient Noise Cancellation) which the company says uses “feed-forward, rather than the usual feedback systems”.

What is that then? I hunted around and eventually found Wolfson’s white paper on the subject*. Here is an illustration of feedback versus feed-forward:

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The figure on the left is a feedback system where the microphone is placed between the loudspeaker and the ear. In the feed-forward system the microphone is external so that the external noise is detected, inverted and added to the input. An advantage is that this does not require a sealed enclosure around the ear.

The main problem with implementation is time-aligning the cancellation signal with the input signal. Wolfson’s solution:

By placing microphones at the rim of the headphone, the ambient noise signal can be acquired and driven to the loudspeaker in advance of its arrival at the eardrum, thus compensating for the intrinsic response time of the loudspeaker.

The illustration in the paper shows a ring array of 5 microphones around each headphone, but since the DS-421D is a small earbud I doubt it has such an array. There is only one visible microphone aperture. Still, this gives some indication of the technology used.

Wolfson did not invent feed-forward as far as I know, so its innovation is in the area of how to achieve accurate time-alignment of the cancellation signal.

*The paper is called Ambient Noise Cancellation for Headphones and Headsets. I cannot find a direct link, but if you go here and search for resources for the WM2002 you will find it.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview tip: use compatibility mode for driver installation

I have a Kodak ESP 725o network printer, and was trying to set it up on Windows 8 Consumer Preview. The setup software detected the printer OK, then gave a strange error:

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“The application called an interface that was marshalled for a different thread.” Hmm.

The solution is to run the installer in Windows 7 compatibility mode. Doing this in Windows 8 takes a few steps. First, find the setup app in the Start menu:

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then right-click to show the options menu, or if using touch, drag the shortcut up slightly and release for the same result. Then click or tap Open file location.

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This shows the application in Explorer on the desktop. If you prefer to get there by another route, that is fine too. Right-click the executable, choose Properties, and then Compatibility. Select Windows 7 and click OK.

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Run the printer setup utility, and if you are lucky (as I was in this case) it will install the driver for you perfectly.

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Nokia Lumia 800 review: beautiful phone, some annoyances

I have been trying Nokia’s Lumia 800 for the last week or so, the first Windows Phone from the company. It is a significant device, since Microsoft is relying on Nokia to revive its Windows Phone 7 platform which has won only a tiny market share since its launch in late 2010, while Nokia is betting its business on Windows Phone after selecting it in preference to Google Android or its own MeeGo operating system. No pressure then.

The phone is nicely packaged and comes with a free protective skin as well as a fake railway ticket stating “Your one way ticket to amazing.” This is a UK ticket so I presume it is suitably regionalised elsewhere. A small detail, but it formed part of my impression that Nokia has thought carefully about the unwrapping experience, whereas previous HTC Windows Phones have felt like just another phone in a box.

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The Lumia takes a micro-SIM, as used in the iPhone 4.x, and the only one I had available was in my iPhone, so I removed it and popped it in the Lumia. Everything worked, the switch-on and initial setup was good, and I was soon up and running with Exchange email. I did have to install my self-signed certificates for Exchange, but this is not an issue that will affect most users.

This phone has a polycarbonate body and a Gorilla Glass front and feels solid and well-made. The 480×800 screen is bright, clear and responsive to touch. I have not had any issues of laggy or uncertain response to taps.

What counts here is that the Lumia feels like a high quality device; the design has something extra that sets it apart from most smartphones out there.

In terms of hardware features, the Lumia is unexceptional, with volume, on-off and camera buttons on its right edge, speaker at the bottom, standard headset socket on top, and rear-facing camera lens and flash.

I rate the sound through the supplied ear buds as decent, but the speaker is tinny, much worse than that on the iPhone 4. Fortunately you rarely want to play music through the built-in speaker.

The USB connector (also used for charging) is behind a flap. You have to push a small protrusion to swing it open. It is a little awkward at first and a slight annoyance, but I can also see how it improves the appearance and protects the socket.

Although I like the hardware overall, there are a few issues. One is battery life; it is barely adequate, though Nokia says a future update will improve it:

A software update in early December will include improvements to power efficiency, while a second update in early January introduces further enhancements to battery life and battery charging.

How bad is it? Here is a screenshot:

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Do the maths … if 23% is 1 hour then 100% is just over 4.5 hours, not good. Of course this is with active use, mostly email and web browsing. Do not panic about the “Time since last charge” – it was not a full charge!

The Lumia does have a neat feature whereby it goes into a “battery saver” mode which turns off non-essential services to prolong battery life when it is low. Curiously this was off by default, but I enabled it and it works.

Lumia Software

Physically the phone is above average; but what about the software? This bit is mostly Microsoft’s responsibility, though Nokia has done what it takes to make it run sweetly on the Lumia; the user interface flows smoothly and the chunky tiles are easy to tap.

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On an iPhone you get four favourite shortcuts at the bottom of the screen and page through the others by swiping through pages (or you can create groups). On Windows Phone you get eight favourites above the fold, scroll down for more favourites or tap the arrow at top right for the complete alphabetical list which scrolls vertically. It is different but equally easy to use.

You have to tap at the top to see network and battery status; I would prefer to have this always visible but it is a minor point once you know how.

Nokia does supply several apps. Nokia Music is radio without the ads or commentary; you choose a genre and it plays continuous tracks. A decent app.

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Nokia Maps is an alternative to the standard Bing Maps, which is also installed, and seems redundant to me, since it has fewer features. I also noticed several cafes wrongly positioned in my local area, which does not inspire confidence.

Nokia Drive though is worthwhile, offering turn by turn directions and its own set of road maps – though I am not sure how practical it is if you are driving on your own.

The Lumia comes with a mobile build of Internet Explorer 9, and I have found it pretty good in general though of course neither Adobe Flash nor even Silverlight is supported.

Office Hub

The Office Hub is one good reason to get a Windows Phone – provided you use Exchange and SharePoint (though note the annoyance below), or the free SkyDrive, or Office 365. I like the way Outlook on the phone easily handles multiple Exchange accounts, which appear as separate instances.

The Office Hub gives you read-write access to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote documents, which I personally find useful, even though the editing features are limited.

Me and People Hubs

The Windows Phone 7 OS aggregates a number of social media accounts: Windows Live, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn though not Google+. I find this works fairly well, though I found the slightly different roles of the Me tile and the People tile confusing at first. Personally I use Twitter more than Facebook; and I find tweets of people I follow listed in the People app, while my own recent tweets and notifications of tweets mentioning me are in the Me app. I wonder if these two apps could usefully be merged?

That said, Windows Phone does a great job of surfacing your social network interactions and I would guess that this is one of its foremost attractions in the consumer market.

Annoyances

I found a few bugs and annoyances, though I suspect for most of these Microsoft is more to blame than Nokia.

First, there seems to be a bug in the interaction between the maps, the GPS and the direction finding and “Local Scout”, which is meant to find local attractions and facilities.

I saw this today. I was in London and the GPS was working fine, I could tap the “me” button and it correctly located me on the map. But when I asked for directions to a street nearby I got this:

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“No location information”. Something not right there – and yes, I tried again. I also get this sometimes with Local Scout.

Second annoyance: on my Android phone I can connect to my laptop and use the mobile as a 3G modem. Windows Phone has a Mobile Hotspot feature, though it does not work on my O2 connection; I assume that is a carrier issue, but I miss the feature and the direct USB connection works well for me on Android.

Third annoyance: Zune. I do not know why Microsoft persists with the tarnished Zune brand, and it is a mistake to build in this dependency on Windows only desktop software – yes, I know there is also Windows Phone 7 Connector for the Mac. I would prefer to be able to connect the phone to any PC or Mac and have the ability to copy documents and music to and from device storage.

Zune is not too bad when everything is working, though I had a specific issue on the train recently. I had written some notes in a Word document on my laptop and wanted to transfer them to the phone. Zune only syncs music. The only way to get the document from the laptop to the phone would have been via the internet, and that was impossible because the laptop was offline.

Fourth annoyance: SharePoint. I run my own SharePoint server, and while I can easily access it on the internal network, if I try using it from Office Hub over the Internet I get the message “SharePoint doesn’t support this authentication scheme.”

This turns out to be documented:

Unless your organization uses a Microsoft Forefront Unified Access Gateway (UAG) server, you can only access a SharePoint 2010 site if you’re in the office and connected to your organization’s Wi-Fi network.

That is not what I consider a detailed technical explanation and maybe there is a workaround; but it is annoying when Microsoft cannot get its own products to work together properly. Note though that SharePoint in Office 365 works fine.

Fifth, I had to sign up for a paid developer account in order to install a screen capture application. This is why many Windows Phone reviews have no screenshots. How difficult would this be for Microsoft to build in?

Sixth, I have found Local Scout near-useless. This is mainly because of lack of momentum; it needs more data and user reviews to be useful. However I have also noticed that a restaurant near me which closed a while back is still listed even though I have twice reported it closed through the “Tell us this place is closed” link, the first time two months ago. It makes me wonder to what extent this database is actively maintained; inaccurate information can be worse than useless.

Windows Phone Apps: still a disappointment

The biggest disappointment deserves its own heading. This is the apps available in the marketplace. When I go to the Apple or Android stores I see dozens of apps that look interesting; in the Windows Phone store on the other hand I struggle to find excellent apps. The number of apps in the marketplace is less important than the quality, and here Windows Phone 7 still seems to fall short.

If I go to the marketplace, choose the category of All apps, and then select Top (which I presume ranks according to popularity and rating) it is interesting that they are all games and mostly from Microsoft Studios:

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Games are important, but that does not look like a healthy ecosystem to me.

Could this be an opportunity for developers? Since Nokia World in London at the end of October I have seen a dramatic increase in profile for Windows Phone; it is what Microsoft should have achieved at the original launch a year earlier. We will not know numbers for a while, but there must be more of these things going out, with new users looking for apps.

The Camera

I am not reviewing the camera in detail here. The quality is good though the images seem a little “cold” to me, which means I suppose that the colours are not as vibrant as they should be. I will not press the point though; it is a decent camera and good enough.

Summary

This is a beautiful phone and the only showstopper problem is the poor battery life. If Nokia fixes this, we are left with what seems to me the best Windows Phone 7 implementation yet, despite a few annoyances which are mostly in the Windows Phone 7 OS and its core apps rather than being the fault of Nokia.

There are a number of things to like: social network integration, the Office Hub, Mix Radio

Nokia’s Windows Phone launch has made more impact than I had expected. Microsoft and its partners need to follow through with faster updates, and to work on quality rather than quantity in populating the app Marketplace.

How not to ship a hard drive

I ordered a hard drive from play.com and was taken aback by the way it was shipped to me – in a flimsy padded envelope with no additional protection.

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In case you are wondering how to ship a hard drive, this is the illustration from the Western Digital support site:

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which adds:

Place in sturdy cardboard box. Do not use chipboard, as it is not strong enough to withstand the rigors of transit. Please make sure the corrugated carton is free from defects and is structurally sound. Note: Returning a WD hard drive in an envelope, will void the warranty.

I protested and play.com offered to take the drive back but gave me no explanation for the incorrect packaging. Surprisingly the drive checks out OK, although hidden damage is a concern.

Review: JetBrains AppCode for Objective C

I have been trying out JetBrains AppCode, a new IDE for Apple’s Objective C. The company is best known for its IntelliJ IDE for Java, and AppCode essentially takes the same core IDE and reworks it for Objective C. AppCode is itself a Java application, but unless you have a religious objection to this I doubt you will find it a problem: I found it perfectly snappy and responsive on my machine, a 2.3 Ghz Core i5 with 8GB RAM.

Installation was a snap, as Mac users expect.

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One thing I discovered immediately is that AppCode is not a replacement for Xcode, the official Apple IDE. The Apple SDKs are delivered with Xcode, and AppCode requires it. An AppCode project is also an Xcode project.

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This is particularly important if you want to use Interface Builder, the Xcode visual designer, since AppCode has no equivalent. Double-click the .xib file and it opens in Xcode. This is a disorientating at first, but in practice I found it convenient to be able to switch between the two IDEs.

So why bother with AppCode, when Xcode is free? It is certainly not essential, but my view is that tools which save time or improve quality are worth the investment. Whether AppCode will do this for you will depend on how you work and whether you have any frustrations with Xcode, which improved considerably in version 4. Out of the box, Xcode has integrated Git or Subversion source code control, unit test integration, refactoring including Rename, Extract, and Encapsulate, the aforementioned Interface Builder, and a ton of other features. Sticking with Xcode is a safe choice.

That said, AppCode feels leaner and less cluttered than Xcode. It also has many additional productivity features in the editor. JetBrains’ IDEs are well known for refactoring, and while AppCode is not as rich as IntelliJ IDEA in this respect, it does have a more than Xcode.

Another strong feature is code generation. Press Command + n in the editor, and a context-sensitive Generate menu offers various time-saving options. I like the way I can type a new method in an implementation file, press Alt + Enter, and select Declare method in the interface to add it automatically to the interface file; or type it first in the interface and have it implemented automatically. It pays to learn the keyboard shortcuts

Live templates let you type an abbreviation and expand it to a block of code, which you then tab through to edit. Type for, select the template, press tab, and AppCode will create a for loop; press tab again to edit the variable name and the number of iterations. You can customise and create your own Live templates in the AppCode Preferences dialog.

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There are also a ton of performance tools in AppCode [update: note these are links to Xcode tools].  Choose Profile from the Run menu and choose what you want to analyse:

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then run your app

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You can also do static analysis according to customisable rules.

There is a debugger which works as you would expect including stack trace and variable inspection.

The best thing I can say about AppCode is that it is a pleasure to use. It does not throw up unnecessary dialogs, it works logically, and the tools are easy to use and configure. I have not always found this to be the case with Xcode, and if you spend a significant amount of your time on Objective C development then I recommend grabbing the trial download to discover if it will speed your work.

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Adobe MAX 2011 and the future of Flash

The unstated theme of Adobe MAX 2011 last week was this: what is the future of Flash? The issue being that with HTML 5 ascendant and Apple wrecking the idea of Flash as an ubiquitous web plug-in, should Adobe be frantically retooling its design tools for HTML and apps, or does Flash still have a future?

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The answer is a little of both; but let’s be clear: there was more Flash than HTML at MAX. What was the most eye-catching demo? It was Flash running Unreal Tournament with the claim of better graphical performance than on Microsoft Xbox 360 or Sony Playstation 3.

It is also worth noting that the touch apps demonstrated at the day one keynote were created in Flash and compiled into apps using the new Captive Runtime feature in AIR 3.

At the same time there was a substantial amount of HTML effort on show. There was the announced acquisition of Nitobi, makers of PhoneGap – though note that PhoneGap itself is heading to the Apache Foundation – and demos of the Edge motion and interaction tool for HTML5. Adobe also told us about its work on CSS Regions and CSS  Shaders. I also saw how HTML export, including partial ActionScript to JavaScript conversion, is coming in a future version of Flash Professional.

My perception is that while Adobe is serious about stepping up a gear with its HTML tools, its heart is still with Flash. That said, there is a shift of emphasis away from Flash as a web plug-in, other than when it is the “Games console of the Web”, and towards Flash and Flex as a cross-platform development platform. Adobe is using Flash and AIR for its own Touch apps, previewed at MAX.

Let me add that the new features in AIR are huge, in particular the ability to package the Flash runtime as part of your app, called Captive Runtime, and the ability to extend your AIR app with native code. Cross-platform mobile tools are a particular interest of mine, and Adobe’s offering is strong in this field, though it will never be the most efficient. Adobe is also pressing ahead with something like web workers for ActionScript, providing a form of concurrency, though this is not in AIR 3 but planned for a future release. Another big new feature in the Flash runtime is Stage 3D, accelerated 3D graphics which enabled the Unreal demo mentioned above.

Nitobi’s Andre Charland was at MAX and I could not shake off the thought that he will find joining the Flash company difficult.

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It will be near-impossible for Adobe to be equally enthusiastic about both PhoneGap and AIR, and given that Flash and AIR are so deeply woven into the company’s products I suggest that PhoneGap is more likely to be neglected.

Take a look at Adobe’s agenda for the Back from MAX event in London next month. It is 100% Flash and Flex.

What about the MAX attendees? I have contradictory evidence here. I noticed that a session on Building mobile apps with HTML, CSS and JavaScript (ie PhoneGap) was packed out, while the session running at the same time on What’s new in AIR – and what’s next was sparsely attended. This session was repeated, which means Adobe thought it would be a popular one. I was also surprised by how few went along to hear about Flash Professional Sneak Peek: a glimpse at the future which was a fascinating session if you are interested in the future of this tool. Adobe must have been surprised too, as it was in a large room.

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That said, a session on native extensions for AIR was moved from one of the smallest rooms to one of the biggest and was still full. There was also great interest in concurrency in the Flash runtime. Many of the attendees I spoke to saw themselves as Flash and Flex developers and there was more talk about how to fight off the perception that the tech world is moving to HTML, than of how to encourage it.

Getting rid of Flash may seem like obvious progress to someone annoyed by the Adobe updater, or who is an Apple iOS enthusiast, or who does not like the idea of proprietary plugins. It does not feel like that though if you have a browser-hosted app to maintain and enjoy targeting a single runtime rather than testing in every browser, as well as using features of Flash that are hard to replicate in HTML.

Adobe’s design and development platform is still Flash-centric, which is either good or bad news depending on your perspective.

See also Down but not out: Flash in an HTML5 world.

Battle of the portables: Netbook vs Apple iPad 2

A semi-serious comparison

The popularity of tablets has seriously undermined the market for netbooks, according to many reports. But to what extent are the two comparable, and if they are, is a tablet unequivocally superior? I’m asking the question as much as answering, because I am trying out an iPad 2 and intrigued to see to what extent it can replace the netbook with which I normally travel. I have found I prefer the netbook to a laptop when out and about: the lightness and long battery life is worth the performance limitations for me.

The comparison is not straightforward. An iPad is a thing of beauty, whereas a typical netbook is an obvious compromise, nearly a laptop but limited in memory and performance. For some people that is enough; they will say, it is not about features, it is about the experience, and it is night and day.

Even so there are things that the netbook does better. What follows are some notes on the subject, based on the iPad vs a Toshiba NB 300 netbook with which I am familiar. I may add or amend the entries, so check back for updates.

1. Price

iPad2: £399 (wi-fi with 16GB)

Toshiba netbook: £230.00 (based on typical current price of NB305)

Winner: netbook

the netbook comes with Windows 7 starter, a crippled version of Windows, and only 1MB RAM. You probably want to add 1GB RAM (£17.00). If you want to join your netbook to a business domain you’ll need to upgrade Windows 7 to the Professional version; if you want to get rid of the annoying ads in Office Starter you’ll need to upgrade Office too.

2. Ease of setup:

iPad2: Switch on, and it asks you to connect to a computer running iTunes. This actually has its annoyances. iTunes is rather slow and bloated especially on Windows. When you connect, the default is auto-sync, which means iTunes will attempt to copy its music library to your iPad, likely not have enough room, and copy a random selection. If you have an iPhone, you will also get all your iPhone apps copied across, like it or not, which means you have to delete the ones you do not want.

Toshiba netbook: I recounted the “fairly dismal” experience of setting up a Toshiba netbook here. The main problem is all the trialware that is pre-installed, plus a bunch of Toshiba utilities of varying quality. Rather than repeat it all here, I will show show the screenshot a few minutes after first power-on:

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

3. Boot time

iPad 2: instant

Toshiba: ages. Better from hibernation, though still much slower than iPad 2. Better from sleep, but I am not a big fan of sleep because it drains the battery and occasionally crashes on resume.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

4. Multi-tasking, or the ability to do several things at once

iPad 2: does multi-task but the experience is not great. Only one app is visible at a time, and to switch you have to double-click the big button, swipe through a list of apps, and tap the one you want.

Toshiba: It’s Windows. Fortunately Microsoft changed its mind about having a limit of three apps you can run at once. You can run lots of apps, switch between them with alt-tab or by clicking a taskbar icon, and size them small so you can see more than one on-screen at one time.

The simplicity of one app to view is meant to be an advantage of iOS; but while the Windows model can be troublesome – see the above screenshot for proof- I’d like to see some improvement in this part of iOS. It is not a matter of screen size: the screen size on the netbook is similar to that of the iPad.

Winner: netbook

5. Keyboard

iPad 2: soft keyboard that obscures half the screen, or add-on physical keyboard.

Toshiba netbook: traditional clamshell design with integrated keyboard.

I do a lot of typing, and my speed is substantially better on a physical keyboard. However I do not like carrying lots of accessories, and while the iPad add-on  keyboard is fine at a desk, if you are in a confined space such as an aeroplane the clamshell design works better than a loose keyboard.

That said, I recall hearing how a school that issued all its pupils and staff with iPads was surprised by how few wanted keyboards. Some kids apparently prefer the soft keyboard to “all those buttons”, so it may depend what you are used to. However, even if you replaced the “Keyboard” heading with “Text input”, my vote would still go to the netbook.

Winner: netbook

6. Touch control

iPad 2: yes

Toshiba netbook: no

I’m putting this in just to make the point. Even a Windows tablet, with a stylus, is less convenient to use with touch than an iPad.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

7. Applications

iPad 2: A bazillion apps available in the app store, cheap or free to purchase, a snap to install. Not so many for iPad as for iPhone, but still a good number.

Toshiba netbook: It’s Windows. They are a bit slow to load, but I run Microsoft Office, Outlook, several web browsers, music apps, games, network utilities and all sorts of other stuff.

Winner: I am going to call this a tie. There are some beautiful apps for the iPad 2, but I miss the features of Windows apps like Office. With the netbook my experience is that I can do almost anything that I can do with a desktop PC, although more slowly, but that is not the case with the iPad 2. On the other hand, the way apps can be installed and removed in a blink on the iPad 2 is a delight compared to Windows setup.

8. File system and storage

iPad 2: There is a file system, but it is hidden from the user.

Toshiba netbook: Yes. I can save a document from one app, and open it in another. I can connect to it over a network and copy files from one folder to another. Not possible on the iPad 2 without workarounds like iTunes and DropBox; and even then some things are difficult. For example, you cannot save a document from Pages on the iPad directly to your DropBox. Let me add that the netbook has a 250GB hard drive, whereas the iPad gets by with a maximum of 32GB solid state storage – though also note that solid state storage is faster to access, and that because the iPad is designed to work like that it does not feel particularly space-constrained.

Winner by a mile: netbook

9. Connectivity

iPad 2: Wireless network, or devices that accept Apple’s proprietary connector. You can attach the iPad to a PC with USB, but only iTunes really understands it, unless you just want to copy photos and videos. Apple offers an add-on camera connectivity kit for downloading photos from a camera, and AirPrint for printing over a network. It is annoying that you have to buy add-ons to do what a netbook does out of the box.

Toshiba netbook: Three standard USB ports, you can attach external hard drives or most USB devices such as printers.

Winner: netbook

10. Battery life

iPad 2: Apple says up to 10 hours, but I have never managed as much as that. Maybe 7 or 8 hours.

Toshiba netbook: I get about 6 hours on wifi, more than that without.

In practice, I have no quibble with either machine – though I am envious of Amazon Kindle owners with their one month charge.

Winner by a whisker: iPad 2.

11. Portability

iPad 2: no bigger than a pad of paper. It is not exactly pocketable, but slips easily into any kind of bag or briefcase. It perhaps needs the protection of a case, but even in a case it is not bulky.

Toshiba netbook: fatter and uglier than an iPad, but still very portable. The worst thing is the power supply, if you need it: the Apple mains adaptor is much smaller than Toshiba’s effort.

Winner by a whisker: iPad 2

12. Watching videos

iPad 2: Great. It is like a portable TV or DVD player, but better – as long as you have a strong wifi connection and BBC iPlayer or the like. Just prop it up on its stand (most cases have one) and enjoy.

Toshiba netbook: it works but the graphics capabilities are inferior and it feels like you are looking at a netbook.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

13. Built in cameras and microphone

iPad 2: two cameras, front and back, and a microphone that works.

Toshiba netbook: webcam and microphone, but they are junk; I have not seen a netbook with anything decent.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

14. Reading eBooks

iPad 2: iBooks app and Amazon Kindle app. I prefer the Kindle app, though whether it will survive Apple’s assault on alternative readers I am not sure.

Toshiba netbook: Kindle app, as well as Adobe Reader etc.

A tablet is great for reading, much better than a netbook. However despite its humble appearance Amazon’s Kindle device really is better for reading, thanks to a screen you can read in sunlight, much longer battery life, and free internet access to download books everywhere.

Winner: iPad 2, though a Kindle is better

15. Attract admiring glances

iPad 2: Yes

Toshiba netbook: No

Winner: I did say “semi-serious”.