Friday, 28 September 2007

Web accessibility testing with Thunder screen reader

Most web designers know that well-structured and valid XHTML with CSS makes a big difference for blind and visually-impaired people surfing the web. As developers we can check our code with things like an accessibility validator, however I've never actually used a screen reader to find out how my web pages sound for a blind person. A search turned up a couple of interesting videos on YouTube about a free screen reader called Thunder which I downloaded and tried out.





As a visually unimpaired person it's a very interesting experience to surf the web using just the keyboard with your monitor switched off. Considering most of us strive to write well-formed code anyway testing it in something like Thunder takes little effort and ensures your site is as accessible as possible. For example I quickly noticed the benefit of placing your content before navigation or adding a "skip to main content" link to avoid hearing a list of navigation links at the top of every page. I also noticed the importance of label tags on forms to keep the input field correctly associated with the label.

Often accessibility is regarded as a secondary consideration by busy designers, but for a person with no sight the internet is a life changing tool allowing them to use email, IM, online shopping and banking amongst many other things. I think putting yourself in someone else's shoes with Thunder is much more involving than reading a list of do's and don'ts and quickly gives you a feel for what the real accessibility issues are.

As a side note I thought it somewhat ironic that the Thunder website employs an old-school table layout, generally regarded as a big no-no for accessibility. The website creator also displays the W3C logo claiming Level A Conformance to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. However their site also uses a table layout which doesn't meet WCA Guideline 3: Use markup and style sheets and do so properly.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Usability and learnability

The difference between usability and learnability is something that always sticks with me from Joel Spolsky's brilliant User Interface Design for Programmers. He makes the point that when people talk about software usability they are quite often referring to learnability, or how easy it is for a new user to learn how to use an interface. Confusing the two can be bad because learnability is not always the most important part of UI design.

Anyone that uses a command line interface knows how powerful it can be, and indeed for many tasks command lines are simply the best interface. It's rather like the difference between becoming fluent in a foreign language or gesticulating your way by. When holidaying in a country where you don't speak the native tongue, simply pointing to items in a shop or restaurant is much easier than learning the whole language - but if you live in a place for any length of time you will soon find it frustrating and much quicker to get what you want by speaking at least some of the lingo. This isn't to say that hand/mouse waving isn't still appropriate in many situations but just that learning how to communicate in the local language can make your life in Computerland run much more smoothly.

In software we would tend to regard a GUI as more usable than the command shells of power users. The GUI is easier to learn but it isn't necessarily the best tool for the job. A power user might learn keyboard shortcuts or change the file extensions of 100+ photos with a single shell command instead of clicking and renaming each individually with the mouse. Shortcuts like these are invaluable to anyone that uses a computer interface on a daily basis.

The above are common examples where there is a so called user-friendly and power user approach for the same task. However what tack do you take on designing an usable interface when the underlying process is inherently complex? The risk is you are either going to overcomplicate the interface, thus reducing the learnability, or annoy experienced users by making them jump through hoops around an overly simplistic GUI as they try to find advanced features that have been tucked away.

A classic Microsoft approach to the problem is the "Wizard" which holds the user's hand through each option in a step-by-step fashion. This is highly usable but once you know what you're doing, flicking through ten screens to change a single option on the eleventh is not suited to an experienced user who can handle seeing everything on one screen, so the Wizard is often made optional to the full-fat interface.

Apple favour leaving out the extra options. Non-essential functions tend to be hidden from the GUI if not completely removed, but sometimes this requires more in-depth knowledge of keyboard shortcuts (ctrl+click instead of a right mouse button) or even preference files for the advanced stuff. I have to say that from an average/casual user point of view I tend to prefer this approach but it doesn't work for everything.

After having a quick play with Apple's new iWork suite including their spreadsheet "Numbers" I am impressed. There are lots of innovative features such as instant alpha which meet the needs of the casual user. There are strokes of genius peppered with frustration when you want to do something more advanced.

Joel Spolsky makes the point that sometimes all you care about is high learnability, using the example of a tourist information kiosk where almost everybody who uses the interface will use it only once.

On the other hand Microsoft Office is used daily by millions and has hundreds of options, tool bar icons and keyboard shortcuts which might not be classed as user-friendly, however they make many people's computer lives easier and more productive once they've been learnt, so there is an argument for them in this scenario.

Spolsky draws the analogy of putting a new driver behind the wheel of a car and conducting a usability test. As the driver swerved dangerously around parked cars and stalled in the middle of busy junctions you would have to conclude a car is essentially unusable. However we all know that the learning process is worthwhile in order to control a car effectively and learnability isn't the most important factor. That's why the hazard lights button isn't inside the engine bay despite usability tests showing 99.5% of journeys will never need it or when you slam on the brakes in your car, a little dialogue box doesn't pop up saying "Stop now? (Yes/No)".

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Regional Spiceworks settings

If you live in the UK changing the $ currency sign to a £ in Spiceworks isn't very obvious but there is an option tucked away under http://yourservername/settings/advanced/pro.

Scroll down to the bottom of this hidden page and change the $ sign to £ (the HTML entity for £). You can also change the PDF page size to A4 in these hidden settings.

Apparently this feature was added last minute to Spiceworks 1.6 but hopefully in subsequent versions with be more apparent or pick up regional settings from the host machine.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Improving SD picture quality on an LCD/plasma TV

Today I unpacked and connected up my shiny new LCD TV. After trying a couple of DVDs and Sky noticed some very irritating video noise. I'm not by any means a videophile and I'm not planning on paying extra for Sky HD but I wanted the best possible picture from my SD (standard definition) equipment.

What follows are some quick tips to get the most from a large screen HDTV with SD sources via SCART such as a DVD player or Sky box (non HD).

The first thing I did in Sky was change the video output mode from PAL to RGB. To get to this option press Services, 4, 1. This improved the image considerably.

Next I did the same on my DVD player, this time there were a couple of small switches on the back of the player. Again this helped but there were still some very distracting cross-hatching patterns which were really bugging me.

Whilst reading up on A/V connections I stumbled across the solution on Wikipeida. The SCART input socket on many TVs also acts as a composite video out and the unscreened wires in my bargain basement SCART leads produced crosstalk between the in and out leading to noise and ghosting. The solution to this was simply open the TV end of the SCART plug and cut the composite video wire on pin 19 (shown below). This prevents the superfluous composite signal being sent back down the cable.

The Wikipeida article suggests it may also be possible to push the pin back into the plug for future use but if you do choose this method don't forget to insulate it so it doesn't short across other pins.

After this modification the cable becomes one-way for composite signals so it's a good idea to label it to avoid head-scratching in years to come when plugged in the wrong way round.

Once I put the cables back I was pleased to see the noise had gone and the picture was much better. At least for the time being my SD setup will keep me happy until HD reaches a more mainstream price.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Spiceworks - network management software for free

I've recently been tinkering with a piece of network management software called Spiceworks. It's a comprehensive tool with a web interface that helps IT staff manage networks for SMBs with up to 250 devices. It includes monitoring devices, hardware/software inventory listing, alerts, reporting and a help-desk feature to track end-user issues. To top it all off Spiceworks is free.

Claiming to be the "iTunes for IT management" the software is very easy to setup and use so apart from a small problem with Windows firewall and WMI I was up and running very quickly. The Ruby on Rails based server runs on Windows and the interface being web-based can be accessed from any other machine with a web browser, it also doesn't require any client agents to be installed but rakes in a lot of data about devices on your network via WMI and SSH.

It can deal with Windows, OS X, Linux, switches, routers, printers and more. Once it has scanned the network you can investigate the devices and there are some useful predefined reports that can be produced showing things such as computers without anti-virus, disk usage and services running. you can also create and save your own reports.

The inventory listing is a useful feature for small businesses trying to keep track of their software as it can be very time consuming to do this manually or extremely expensive to buy software to do it automatically.

The real "selling point" for Spiceworks is that is is free and anything comparable is either a nightmare to configure or prohibitively expensive for most SMBs. The obvious question is "where is that catch?". On delving a little deeper I discovered it is funded by advertising on the web interface. Of course advertising in software isn't a new idea but they've been sensible with the Spiceworks ads policy and there are no distracting Flash animated banners goading you to punch a monkey in the face but mainly just plain links to IT articles. These links lead to sponsored white-paper style articles on various IT technologies. There is the occasional animated advert but nothing you don't see around on the average tech website.

I can imagine this will work well considering IT departments tend to have money to spend and the advertising can be tailored to their networking needs. SMBs need hardware, software and training so advertising in a tool like Spiceworks can tap into this. For example Spiceworks could detect that your computers don't have antivirus so show you some related ads for AV products, or similarly if your server is running low on hard drive space suggest a retailer selling replacement drives. Combined with a very well written piece of software that is used by IT staff on a daily basis it sounds like a very clever business model.

One problem I have noticed is that running the server from my desktop PC seemed a little slow although I'm not sure if this is processor usage or the interface waiting for ads to load. Although I've only really been experimenting with Spiceworks so far I definitely think it will be a very useful tool for managing our network and plan to install it on a more permanent home soon.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Essential Firefox extensions

When working on websites I've tested them in Internet Explorer and Firefox for some time but until recently still used IE as my main browser. A couple of months ago I decided to take the plunge and switch completely to Firefox. There are so many things that make Firefox better than IE, especially for web development. What follows is a list of my current favourite extensions:

Spell checking
I always found it ridiculous that IE doesn't have a built in spell checker. Firefox has many languages available for download so you can add spell checking to your web forms.

Firebug
This is probably one of the most useful tools I have come across for web development. It allows you to inspect and edit CSS, HTML and Javascript on-the-fly directly in the browser. I find it particularly useful for debugging CSS layouts when I'm just not sure where a mysterious 50 pixel wide gulf between elements has come from.

Flashblock
Flash adverts can be very annoying when I use RDP to connect to my desktop remotely. This extension lets you decide whether or not to run them.

Greasemonkey
Greasemonkey is an extension that allows scripts to edit the way pages look. For example you can add extra links to ebay that only show negative feedback, or perhaps show a clock counting down to the end of the auction. There are hundreds of free scripts for all kinds of popular websites available at http://www.greasespot.net/.

IE tab
Firefox is great but sometimes you need to check a page in Internet Explorer. To avoid the sick feeling clicking the blue 'e' icon produces IE tab allows you to render pages using the IE engine within a Firefox tab. It also allows you to set certain sites such as Windows Update to always open in the IE engine.

Web Developer toolbar
This is a Firefox toolbar with various useful options. Similar to Firebug it reveals the structure of the page and has lots of handy features for working with forms and images.

Fiddler
Not really a Firefox extension but hugely useful, Fiddler is a free HTTP debugging proxy. Basically it sits between your browser and the server showing you everything your browser requests and allowing you to "fiddle". You can view anything from raw hex, to XML to an image as well as build requests. It's invaluable for troubleshooting all kinds of web applications and also just exploring how they are put together. Whilst being Windows only (it's from Microsoft) there is also Charles for OS X.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Parallels 3.0 released

Parallels 3.0 (previous blog here) was released yesterday. Their download server must have been working hard because I had to leave the 80MB download running overnight. I've just installed it and tried out the DirectX using Google Earth as a comparison between the OS X and Parallels Windows versions and I'm impressed. It's obviously not as fast as the native version but very usable and works well in a coherence window.

I also like the integration of the XP Start menu/OS X Applications menu so you can fire up applications from either OS. I've not tried SmartSelect yet but I'm planning to use the new snap shot feature before installing Vista to see how that runs.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Parallels 3.0

The new version of Parallells (Windows on a Mac) is apparently only days away from shipping. I haven’t tested the beta but have pre-ordered my copy because it contains a major new feature on my wish list which is DirectX emulation. The main reason I need to reboot into my Bootcamp partition is DirectX which is a hassle.

Whether it will be fast enough for gamers remains to be seen. There must be some overheads translating DirectX instructions to draw onto the Mac display although there are videos around of it running Quake 4 quite respectably.

In addition Snapshots (à la VM Ware) will also be added to Parallels 3 as well as a new feature called SmartSelect which allows you to assign filetypes to open an application in either OS X or Windows. For example, MS Word files double-clicked in either OS X or Windows can be set to always open in the Windows version Word.

I’m looking forward to trying 3.0 out with Vista on the Mac in the next week or so and see how it copes with Aero.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Photosynth

Photosynth takes a large collection of photos of a place or object, analyses them for similarities, and displays them in a reconstructed 3-dimensional space. For example you could search Flickr for snaps of a famous landmark and bring together photos from various people taken at various times. Photosynth can then piece them together into a 3D representation of the landmark.

You can try out the technology here (Windows only): http://labs.live.com/photosynth/

And a few videos here: http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyID=afe093ae-b780-4ee0-b0f1-897dfd42f0f9&displaylang=en
http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/129

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Adobe's CS3 UK pricing

Adobe have just released their new Creative Suite 3 packages. The Web Premium edition has upgrades to several pieces of software I already use such as Photoshop, Flash and Acrobat as well as containing a few extra bits that would be very useful. Unfortunately the pricing just seems ridiculous.

It isn’t uncommon for US companies to set their sterling prices to be numerically close to their US dollar counterparts despite exchange rates but how can they justify these massive price differences for software?

  • Adobe CS3 Web Premium US: $1599 (£809)
  • Adobe CS3 Web Premium UK: $2344 (£1195 - ex VAT price)

I actually wanted to upgrade from Macromedia Studio where the pricing is even more disproportionate:

  • UPG from Macromedia Studio 8 to CS3 Web Prem US: $499 (£252)
  • UPG from Macromedia Studio 8 CS3 Web Prem UK: $1048 (£534)

Software media and packaging can be manufactured anywhere in the world so there are no extra shipping costs involved so how can these prices be justified?

The following quote from Adobe’s chief exec seems to sound like since buying up their main competitor (Macromedia) Adobe think they can charge whatever they want.

"Our customer is not typically price sensitive," Chizen said last week. "The cost of the tool isn't what's critical -- it's the productivity and what their output can be. They want to pay for value as long as we deliver innovative features that allow them to be more productive and creative."

There is another article on ZDnet highlighting the £1000 difference for UK customers buying the CS3 Master Collection. Adobe’s excuse here isn’t very convincing.

"Adobe sets pricing in each market based on customer research, local market conditions and the cost of doing business. The costs of doing business in European markets are significantly higher per unit of revenue than in the US. Pricing is higher in Europe on many goods, not just software. Adobe sets/evaluates pricing with each release, and has reduced up the delta [price differential] when possible."

I’m now investigating ordering CS3 from the US. Even if I can’t get it shipped over I could probably still save some money by flying across the Atlantic to pick it up myself.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Mobile internet access

I recently returned from a holiday in Australia, being a geek I had to make the decision whether or not to take my laptop and risk spending my holiday checking up on work emails.

However, the curiosity of seeing how much of my day-to-day stuff I could do from the other side of the world got the better of me, also it can be very useful to plan routes and book hotels on the move. I don't actually travel internationally in my job but I thought I would see how easy it was to get connected to the office throughout the trip, for free if possible. My goal was to establish a VPN tunnel from my laptop back to our office and thus access any system I would be able to from my desk. This includes all the other computers in the office, the servers, printers, our remote sites and also allow me to use IP telephony and video conferencing.

On the road

Beginning on the M6 down to Heathrow I fired up my Macbook (as a passenger of course) and connected it via Bluetooth to my Nokia 6233. There is a great little utility for the Mac called Launch2Net which configures your mobile phone data-connection completely automatically, I've not found anything for Windows that comes close to it's simpliciy. Launch2Net did its stuff and within a few seconds I had a high-speed 3G data connection. I was able to establish the VPN link and log onto my work computer to read my mail. I even managed to log into messenger for a quick chat with a friend. The connection dropped out after a few miles which shows that the technology isn't quite perfect yet (on the M6 anyway) but it wasn't bad considering we were travelling at 70MPH.

Heathrow airport

These days all Airports have hotspots so at Heathrow it wasn't very difficult to get online. I just logged on using our BT Openzone account. Whilst being charged by the minute the PAYG of £4.50 per hour isn't too bad I suppose. I took the opportunity to reply to a few emails.

In the air

We flew with Singapore Airlines who had in-flight broadband provided by Boeing up until 2007. Unfortunatly Boeing withdrew the service due to the market not taking off (excuse the pun). Perhaps it was just slightly ahead of its time as I saw a lot of people taking laptops onto the plane.

Singapore airport


Again there were plenty of hotspots and the local WiFi provider was a member of the international Wireless Broadband Alliance with BT Openzone so I hoped to be able to sign in. However because our Openzone comes via Freedom2Surf I couldn't work out the correct login. On the way out of Singapore I had more luck and found a free hotspot from Malaysia Airlines which worked perfectly.


Singapore Hotel

The hotel had chargeable internet connectivity provided by Intertouch so I loaded up KisMac to see if I could find a free network. I expected a few networks to pop-up but the 40 in range from my hotel room surprised me, about two thirds were open so I picked an innocuous sounding one and got an internet connection. To ensure privacy I created a VPN back to the office and forwarded all traffic through it so no one could sniff out my passwords etc. I wouldn't really advise connecting to an open network unless you can use a VPN like this because you really don't know if the network is actually a honeytrap. There were a couple of suspicious signals in range including an ad-hoc wireless network called "Free Internet" which I thought was best avoided.

Melbourne CBD Hotel

This was a cheapo stopover motel in the middle of Melbourne. It was fairly basic so no wifi provided. I picked up about 20 networks in range but only 2 were open and I couldn't connect to them. However if I'd really been desperate my phone data connection would have worked at this point or there was always the ubiquitous Starbucks wifi hotspot down the road.

Arrival

We were staying in a small town near Melbourne called Warragul. The house already had ADSL so there was no problem connecting to the VPN here.

On the road in Australia

At one point I needed to find a street address in Australia but was in the car without my laptop so I decided to try my mobile phone web browser. There was no problem establishing a fast data connection with Orange's international roaming arrangement and thankfully the address I was looking for came up as the first result in Google so I didn't have to fiddle around on the tiny screen for too long.

How well does it all work?

All of the technology I was using has been around for some time and although there are constant improvements it's still a long way from perfect. The mobile phone companies do a good job of organising international roaming but it's an expensvie way of getting online, wireless hotspots are widespread in built up areas and hotels but can be a bit hit and miss cost wise. One hotel I stayed in only had a tariff of $25AUD a day even though I only wanted to get online for 5 minutes to check my mail. The best internet is free internet and it seems where ever you are, as long as you're in a built up area, you're never far from an open wireless network.


Troubleshooting

The most common problem I came across with the PPTP VPN was the wireless network having the same subnet as the VPN network I was dialing into. This was an issue when I came to connect to my office PC because the MacBook was looking on the local wireless network for a non-existent computer rather than looking on VPN network. To get around this I added a route for my office PC (10.0.0.123 in this example) over the VPN with the following commands on the Mac:

sudo su
route add 10.0.0.123 -interface ppp0

You could route the entire subnet with something like:

route add 10.0.0.0/24 -interface ppp0

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Slow Outlook 2007? Some workarounds...

I discovered Microsoft published this knowledge base article with some ideas for fixing slow-downs in Outlook 2007 with large local mail stores.

However their solutions aren't really all that helpful since they require reducing the size of the .pst by archiving or switching Outlook to online mode, which means you don't have a local email cache when disconnected from the Exchange server.

Personally I think its a step backwards in this day and age to expect people to chop down their email stores because Outlook 2007 is slower than 2003. Apparently this is due to the new .pst structure requiring increased disk access with higher quantities of email but I really hope MS can come up with something better in a future update.

In the meantime there are some trouble shooting ideas I plan to work through on the Round Trip Solutions blog.

Monday, 26 February 2007

Ferrofluid art

Some videos on my brother's recent blog reminded me of ferrofluid art. If you've not come across ferrofluids they are basically made from magnetic particles suspended in a carrier liquid. When a magnetic field is applied they form into amazing shapes.

Apart from looking pretty they actually have useful applications, car manufacturers are using them in shock absorbers to stiffen and soften the suspension in cars dynamically.

Some of the coolest things I've seen are by a Japanese artist called Sachiko Kodama. Below is a some of her work on YouTube:



I really wanted to try making my own but it looked more complicated than I first thought so I haven't got round to it yet. However, if you really can't wait I did notice that people sell the stuff on ebay.

Sunday, 25 February 2007

Logik IR100 Internet Radio Resource page

bill888 from the Reciva.com forums has put together a very useful resource page for the Logik IR100 at http://logikir100.tripod.com/Logik.htm.

Amongst other things the page currently includes:

  • Known Hardware Design Flaws
  • How to improve Wifi reception
  • Wireless security and 'Wireless error 13'
  • 'DNS Servers Invalid' error message (updated 22 Feb 07)
And lots of other useful bits and pieces such as a link to download a scanned copy of the manual (for all you people searching for it who seem to get dumped here by Google!)

Monday, 19 February 2007

Outlook 2007 - a week in

I've now been using Outlook 2007 for just over a week. Since my last blog on the subject I've spent some time tidying up the toolbars, removing the "Install Desktop Search" nag and now have something reasonably satisfactory, it even seems to be running a bit faster. However I'm still yet to find a way of disabling the floating formatting palette that pops up when I highlight text. I can't be the only person to highlight parts of the text as I'm reading it because I find it easier to read on screen.

The whole Office 2007 ribbon menu thing hasn't really grabbed me yet. I'm not sure what is wrong with traditional drop-down menus. Microsoft say it should be easier to use because everything is only a click away but it just seems like a confusing mess of icons.

The problem with Microsoft's UIs is often the elements seem as if they were designed as 'cool ideas' in isolation of the overall product. Everyone is thinking of what they can add to make it better but no one is thinking what they should leave out.

At the other end of the scale you have Apple who adopt the less-is-more philosophy but often leave out things that many would find useful. Their resistance to things such as the two button mouse, a standard PC keyboard layout and maximise window buttons could be taken as plain stubbornness from the company that prides itself on ease of use.

My preference would be for high configurability (a la Microsoft) but a very simple default view (the Apple way). Not many casual users know how or bother to customise their toolbars to remove the features they will never use but if something more advanced is needed they can add it on.

We are probably going to install a few more copies of Outlook 2007 in the office soon so it will be interesting to see what other people think about it.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Outlook 2007 - first impressions

In our never ending quest at work to find a calendar systems that works with Apple iCal on the Mac and Outlook for the PC users (some of whom synchronise with Nokia phones) we’ve tried just about everything. As with most cross-platform issues we ended up with a compromise which has been to shoulder the burden of an Exchange server with Outlook 2003 on the PCs and MS Entourage on the Macs.

Every IT person knows that managing an Exchange server is never something to be taken lightly, and this was definitely a sledge hammer to crack a nut considering we only wanted to share calendars.

We continued to look for something more suitable and went up a few blind alleys (Sunbird, Snerdware, Kiero, Remote Calendars, Monocalendar) although none of these quite ticked all the boxes. However Outlook 2007 promised the Holy Grail of publishing and subscribing to ical files via webdav and without Exchange, which Apple iCal is more than happy with. The beta worked well so last week we bought a couple of copies of the final release for testing. The rest of Office 2007 doesn’t really interest me but getting rid of Exchange would beworth upgrading Outlook for.

So now I’ve been using Outlook 2007 for a few days and to be honest my first impressions are not very positive. Yes, the calendar sharing works well and MS have caught up with the calendar overlay view but there are very few other improvements I can find. RSS feeds are a welcome addition and there are some nice graphical tweaks making things look nicer. However the whole thing is vastly bloated and a massive resource hog.

Outlook 2007's user interface employs MS's 'kitchen sink UI' philosophy

This really was a chance for MS to review the monster of buttons and options that Outlook has become but this version is worse than ever. When I logon in the mornings its like being dropped in front of the controls of a Boeing 747. There are buttons, panels, lists and popup menus everywhere trying very distractingly to be helpful. For example the To-Do Bar once again hammers in any appointments you have coming up on the same screen as your email, just in case you missed them the first few times in the Outlook Today screen, calendar view or reminder popups. Then when composing a mail and highlighting text a small formatting menu magically appears next to the text, thus saving me moving the mouse 5cm north to the standard menu. Was there some MS study that discovered this would increase productivity by 0.0001%? It just gets in the way.

This epitomises everything wrong with Outlook, it’s just trying too hard. It’s the user interface equivalent of having a team of in-your-face PA’s all desperately trying to show they’re the most clever and efficient when you just want to read your mail, similar to the annoyance of Office 97’s ‘clippy’ but without the animation.

Outlook 2007 is also slow. Not only that but it drags the rest of my machine down with it, other applications began hanging for no apparent reason, then I discovered that closing Outlook unfroze them again… and don’t even get me started on MS’s new attempt at file indexing: Windows Desktop Search which like Findfast from Office 97 slows everything to a crawl. That was uninstalled within the first 24hrs.

Despite the above I will still be giving Outlook 2007 at least a couple of weeks and attempt to find out if there is anything I can do to improve performance. In the meantime I can safely say we won’t be rolling this out to the other PCs on our network.

Monday, 12 February 2007

Streaming Last.fm to Reciva internet radios (Logik IR100)

The choice of stations on the Logik WiFi internet radio via Reciva is vast but I also like to listen to Last.fm's personalised radio on my PC. After trying a few similar personalised radio services such as Pandora and Yahoo Music Last.fm seems to have the best system for finding similar music and I can listen to it for hours without hearing a bad or out of place track. The problem is Last.fm uses a proprietory audio stream and the Reciva radios only play stations listed on Reciva (out of the box anyway).

The following is a quick guide to getting a Logik IR100 or similar Reciva internet radio to play Last.fm via a PC. It’s a bit of a longwinded process but it seems to work.

  • Firstly download LastFMProxy which is a proxy server that turns the Last.fm stream into a stream other players can deal with. It is written in Python so should work on Linux, OS X or Windows. You may also need to install Python at this point if you don't already have it.
  • Decompress LastFMProxy somewhere on your hard drive and follow the README instructions to setup the config with your Last.fm username and password.
  • Run main.py and you should now be able to point your web browser to:http://localhost:1881/and play an audio stream from:http://localhost:1881/lastfm.m3u (which can be tested in Winamp or similar)

The next stage is to connect your internet radio to this proxy stream using the 'My Streams' option on Reciva.com.

  • Create a Reciva account if you don't already have one. Login and go to 'My Account' and select 'My radios' then follow the instructions to add your radio to your account.
  • Add the Last.fm stream to the 'My Streams' section on Reciva entering a URL for your LastFMProxy PC. This will probably be the LAN IP e.g.http://192.168.1.9:1881/lastfm.m3u
  • Back at the internet radio you should now have an option under 'Stations' for 'My Stuff' where you should find your streams. If not you may need to force the radio to download the station lists by pulling the power on it and restarting.
  • Select your stream and after a few seconds you should be listening to Last.fm on your WiFi radio. If you have any problems check you don't have a firewall blocking TCP port 1881 on the proxy PC and test the proxy is running correctly with Winamp or similar.

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Chronologically sorting pooled photos

Have you ever you pooled a load of digital photos from an event with a friend’s snaps of the same event only to find at least one of you forgot to set the correct time/date on your camera so you can’t sort them in chronological order?

Today a colleague was embarking on sorting around 360 photos taken during a week on two cameras by manually renaming them. The file created date was wrong so I suggested sorting them by the EXIF date taken stamp. However this didn’t work because the camera clocks were an hour or so out of sync.

Googling came up with this very useful guide for offsetting the EXIF timestamps in batches using a piece of "nearly free" software called Exifer. Once the times are corrected you can also use Exifer to rename the pics so you can keep them in order wherever they end up, be it a CD, slideshow or online gallery.

The following instructions are mainly taken from Olly Stedall’s original article with some additions by myself.

Exifer can be downloaded from: http://www.friedemann-schmidt.com/software/exifer/

1. Make a copy of your photos so you have a backup!
2. Install Exifer and run it. Browse to the folder containing the photos from one camera.
3. Select all the photos by Ctrl-A then right-click on an image and go to ‘EXIF/IPTC’ and click on ‘Edit’.
4. Click the ‘EXIF data’ tab at the top of the window that opens. Then click the ‘Date tab below it.
5. You can then specify the number of days/hours/minutes to adjust all your photos by. Select the amount and click okay to adjust your photos.
6. Check the times are correct, now you can merge the photos with the set taken on the other camera.

Renaming and changing the file modified stamp:

7. In Exifer browse to the new folder with the photos merged.
8. Select all again with a Ctrl-A, right-click and select Rename/redate and copy.
9. In the mask for the rename enter <date_taken> - %o or similar which will prefix the current filename with the EXIF date and time.
10. You can also check the “Redate (by EXIF date fields) at this point to change the file modification date.
11. Click OK and you can now sort and view your photos in chronological order.

Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Mac things I wish I had on my PC #2… Exposé

Ok, to be honest I personally find the Windows taskbar buttons a quicker and easier way to switch between tasks than the OS X system, especially when combined with maximised windows when you can't see what's behind.

However Apple came up with a pretty cool solution in Tiger called Exposé which displays all open window as thumbnails. By default its activated by some F keys but you can create hotspots in the corners of the screen which I find more handy.

So for the Windows platform there is TopDesk from Otaku Software which does a straight copy of the Exposé stuff perfectly but also has a few other tricks like a 3D spinning effect for extra eye-candy and the Vista style Flip3D task switching for XP.

You can get TopDesk here: http://www.otakusoftware.com/topdesk/

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Synergy – desktop expansion across physical machines

Using both my PC and my Mac on a daily basis means I tend to have 3 displays running on my desk; dual screens on the PC and one on my MacBook. In amongst the dead hard disks, PDAs and digital cameras that seem to pile up I don’t really have much room for another keyboard and mouse so this is where Synergy comes in.

Basically it allows you to seamlessly use the keyboard and mouse from one machine on another physical machine by moving the mouse pointer off the edge of one display and onto another, rather like dual displays. As I move the pointer across the left edge of my PC it magically continues its movement onto the right side of my Mac display and the PC keyboard becomes the Mac keyboard.

It's a very clever idea for reducing desk clutter and leaving more space for my dead hard disks and coffee cups.

Download Synergy from here: http://synergy2.sourceforge.net/

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Inside a BT exchange

An interesting article from the Guardian details the process of connecting up ADSL in an exchange. It goes some way to explaining why it can take so long to get connected and some of the problems that occur. Click here to read the article.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Wi-Fi Internet Radio - Logik IR100


DAB radios are now mainstream and prices of basic units have dropped below £20. However more recently there has been the emergence of internet radios on the high street. The Logik IR100 Wi-Fi internet radio is exclusive to DSG group (Dixons, Currys, PC World) and was very kindly bought for me by my girlfriend as a birthday present.

The radio uses a broadband connection and I found it very straight forward to scan for my wireless network and enter the WPA key before the Logik automatically connected to reciva.com.

You are then able to pick your stations either by genre or location. Choosing the UK downloaded a list of 507 stations although I believe there are currently about 5500+ from all over the world so you can get your fix of Slovenian folk music of Ukrainian Punk as well as BBC radio. One of the best features is that you can access the BBC on demand service allowing you to listen to recordings from the past week and some older. The IR100 also allows you to play music from your PC across a wireless network which is quite useful for getting my desktop MP3 collection down to the living room although I’m yet to try this feature out.

Amazing sound quality isn’t really what this single speaker radio is about and bit rates of stations can obviously vary but the sound is still very good and can be turned up loud without distortion. A headphone socket on the back can output to a stereo sound system if desired.

In the short time I’ve had the radio I haven’t come across any bugs although I did use the automated firmware update function almost as soon as I switched it on which worked very smoothly. The only minor downside for me so far is the fact you can’t run the radio on batteries, but this does make sense with the power consumption of the processor and wireless transceiver.

At just under £100 the IR100 is a great introduction to wireless internet radio which I’m sure is going to become much more popular in the next few years.

Addendum - 25 September 2007


As pointed out in the comments below the IR100 has dropped quite considerably in price since I wrote this review making it an even better buy. Also, if you've not already seen them, there are further articles about the radio here.

Maximising windows on OS X - MegaZoomer

One thing that often bugs me coming from Windows to the Mac is the behaviour of the zoom window button (the green +). It resizes the window to fit the contents, sometimes making it larger, often making it smaller, whereas on Windows you have a maximise button that expands the window to fill the screen.

I often want the window I’m concentrating on to take advantage of the whole screen, hiding any visual distractions such as the desktop clutter and other applications. I use this function constantly in Windows when image editing, designing layouts, using Office apps, browsing the web, email etc.

There is a strong argument that Apple should at least give users an option to change this behaviour, especially if they are trying to attract more Windows users to the platform. In the meantime I came across this handy little utility called MegaZoomer from Ian Henderson that maximises windows to full screen with a keyboard shortcut (command + enter). It doesn’t work with everything (Word for example) but otherwise appears to work very well and hides all that desktop clutter.

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Mac things I wish I had on my PC #1… QuickSilver

I only recently discovered QuickSilver for OS X which is probably the most useful little app I have come across in a while. Basically it's a combined application/file search and keyboard launcher that you invoke with hotkeys (ctrl + space by default). You then begin typing what you want to find, whether it is an application, contact, bookmark or file and QuickSilver shows you results while you type. It's hugely powerful and customisable and has stacks of plugins to intergrate with applications. For example you can call up contacts in your Apple Address Book, search within a contact and display the results on screen within a few seconds without touching the mouse. Here’s a video I found of QS with the Cube interface in action:



If you do have a Mac take a look at Dan Dickinson’s quick guide to “A better OS X in just 10 minutes” which gives a nice run through some of QS's features.

QuickSilver for Windows?

There are a few similar tools for Windows, one of which is the new Start Seach in Vista, however I don’t think any come close to the slickness and elegance of QuickSilver apart from perhaps Launchy which is free from http://www.launchy.net/ and well worth a look.

Some other alternatives I have come across:

Colibri – Looking very good and obviously heavily influenced by QS but themes and configuration seem limited. I’m not too keen on the preferences being controlled via the search interface as well, I’d prefer just a normal window.

AppRocket - I tried this but it sits at the top of your screen, isn’t as slick and isn’t free.

SlickRun – I was using this before I found QuickSilver on the Mac. It tended to get in the way because it wouldn’t keep its screen position every time I logged in using remote desktop. You also need to predefine your keywords which isn’t as handy as being able to search.

Keybreeze – Formerly PC-Com, I haven’t tried it but the screen shots didn’t grab me compared to QS or Launchy.