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.
  • 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.