Restarting Windows 7

In a previous column, I wrote that I was having a fine time using Microsoft’s recently-released Windows7 operating system.

My very favourable first impression has not changed after much intensive use, and I figure that the company really hit the jackpot with this version of Windows. It does everything in such a capable and fuss-free manner that I barely notice it’s there.

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Why the hell not?

During a recent very difficult time, I was once again given cause to wonder what software designers think they are doing.

The situation was that I had e-mail that I needed to take home and edit and, as I usually do, I exported the messages I needed from Microsoft Outlook at work in the form of an Outlook PST folder. I saved the folder onto a flash disk and took it home where I expected to import the messages into my Outlook Express mail client and do the edits I needed.

hellnot  My suggested new dialogue box!

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Making posting easy

It’s no secret that I am a big fan of the WordPress blogging platform but I do have one gripe with it.

The built-in editor you use for adding and formatting blog posts is pretty cramped and not all that pleasant to use. There are WordPress plug-ins you can install to replace it, but I found another very nice option, from a somewhat unexpected source.

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XP is a jealousy custard

The week started off with a bang this morning when I went into my office only to discover the frozen remains of my screen saver on the computer’s screen.

Apart from that slight sign of life, nothing was happening and that state of affairs carried on even after I applied the usual treatment of switching off, unplugging the machine completely, and turning it back on.

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A new Windows opens

I see that there has been a study by the universities of Oxford and Oviedo about broadband Internet quality in various countries.

South Africa’s broadband quality is apparently below the international average and considered to be below the level at which it is really practicable to run online applications in any useful way. South Korea has the fastest Internet, with an average speed of 21.85 Mbps and Lithuania, of all places, comes fourth with 13.5 Mbps.

I’m in danger of sounding like a stuck record, so I’ll change subjects quickly to say Windows 7 has finally arrived and we’ll see if it can rescue Microsoft’s reputation which was damaged by the previous version of Windows, First.

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A new Windows on the world

It has been a long time since I have looked forward to the launch of a new version of an operating system, but I’m in that position again.

I started talking about Windows 7 last week and said that I’d acquired and installed a copy of the pre-release version, which Microsoft had put out for users to test and evaluate. The real for-sale version will probably be here by Christmas and I have to say that I can’t wait.

New to me, and everyone who managed to avoid Windows Vista, is a snazzy-looking interface called Windows Aero. It’s strong on animating things like windows opening and many elements of it incorporate a glass-like translucent look. You’ll like it if you like that sort of thing.

I didn’t and turned off the glass and animation but I was very pleased with the rest of the interface. There is still a Start button and a taskbar, but they are greatly refined and better than those in XP.

For example, you still get a button appearing on the taskbar when you start a program but you now get multiple instances of a program, like many browser windows, stacked under one button.

Hovering the mouse pointer over a button gives you a thumbnail view of all the windows open under it, and it’s a simple matter to click the one you want. Programs that you use often can be pinned permanently to the taskbar, so that you can click the button to start them.

There are a fair number of accessories new to me in Windows 7 including a Snipping Tool, to capture images from your screen, and Sticky Notes, for leaving notes to yourself on your desktop and there is also a Mahjong game.

That stole quite a lot of my time as I tried to identify and remove matching tiles from the various shaped piles that the program generates. I found it quite a challenge at first but my brain adapted to the task and I got better as I went along.

Also available are Desktop gadgets which live on your desktop and are either ornamental or provide useful information. The gadget idea is not new but the Windows 7 ones I tried, including a calendar and Durban weather report, did not make my desktop feel cluttered, as the Google Desktop ones do.

For me, one of the most important changes in Windows 7 is in how user files are stored. The system works on libraries for storing documents, music, pictures, and videos, and it is now less important where the files are physically located.

There are still a basic set of folders where these files are stored but Windows can also show you files stored in other locations like, for example, music stored on another hard disk drive. Quick access to your libraries is provided from the Start button and from a sidebar in all open Windows, so your stuff is only ever a click or two away.

I was incredibly impressed with Windows 7 and, in spite of it not being a final release, it is elegant, clean, and hassle-free. Best of all, it seems to be quite a speed merchant and will allegedly work perfectly well on lesser computers, which was not at the case with Vista.

In the week or so I had Windows 7 on my machine, I didn’t have a single problem that I could trace to it. I eventually decided to step back to Windows XP only because two of my most vital programs refused to install on it.

All the other many programs I installed, including little freeware ones, worked perfectly but my Quickbooks 8 and my Dragon Naturally Speaking 9.5 refused to install. So many programs worked so I conclude that those two programs try to do something non-standard and fall over when they encounter a Windows they hadn’t heard about.

It would probably be a good idea for everyone wanting to upgrade to Windows 7 to check that all their software is compatible before taking the plunge. There’s no telling what price it will be launched at but, assuming its reasonable, and my software will work on it, I’m upgrading for sure.

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See you through the Windows 7…

This is a one of the most strange and uncomfortable columns I’ve had to write in the past six months or so.
The problem is that I had to type it all out manually instead of dictating it, as I’ve been doing since getting my hands on a copy Dragon Naturally Speaking. The program transcribes my spoken words into a wordprocessor file and, having learnt from all the corrections I’ve made, it’s pretty accurate.

I like dictating and have found that, if I sit quietly and note down the important points, I can dictate the column, have it transcribed onto my computer, edit it, and send it off in just over half the time it used to take to type it out. Unfortunately, I’m in the midst of reinstalling all my software on a new hard drive and didn’t manage to get Dragon moved across in time.

Canopus, my computer, was starting to show signs of age was sometimes cranky, like its owner, some might say, and unwilling to start. It had been running more or less continuously for four years and I got the message that I should probably be getting a new computer before it failed altogether. I am not a fan of Microsoft’s Windows Vista and I had been hoping that Canopus would last until the arrival of the next version of Windows, Windows 7, or until I won the Lotto and could buy an Apple.

That wasn’t to be, however, and I was wondering what to do about an operating system, when I noticed an article in a computer magazine. It reported many users of the test, or Beta, version of Windows 7 were so impressed that they were already using it as their main operating system.

Microsoft recently made the first release candidate of Windows 7 available on the internet and, seeing that a release candidate should be very close to the finished product, with most major bugs ironed out, I decided to take a chance and install it on the upgraded machine.

A friendly guru, Vaughan Willcox, stepped in with a copy of Windows 7 RC1 on a flash disk and I soon copied it to DVD disc and plugged it into the machine, now known as Cambria. So there I was with a copy of Windows 7 loading itself onto a completely fresh hard drive.

Quite frankly, I wasn’t expecting too much, having been a bit bitter and twisted about Microsoft in the past few years. The first surprise came when Windows 7, after asking a few questions about me and which part of the world I live in, breezed through the installation process and was ready for action, a bare 20 minutes later.

I have sat through many program and operating system installations over the years and this was about as quick and trouble-free as its gets. A far cry from the longest installation I can remember doing, which was Microsoft Office which, in those days, came on 50 floppy disks.

Installing Windows 7 was much better than that but, to hear exactly whether I managed to get to grips with it, and whether Dragon Dictate will agree to work on the new system, you’ll have to wait until next week.

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Into the wild Azure yonder

The big news in the computer world last week was the announcement by Microsoft that there will be a version of Windows which will run over the Internet. [Added 2/11/08: There will still be desktop versions of Windows such as Windows 7, which is slated to replace Vista.]

The product is to be called Windows Azure and the announcement was made at the company’s Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles by the company’s chief software architect, Ray Ozzie.

I had a look at the Windows Azure website at microsoft.com/azure and found that it was described as “.. a cloud services operating system that serves as the development, run-time, and control environment for the Azure Services Platform”.

Being none the wiser after reading the definition, I found a list of frequently-asked questions but, while I understood most of those perfectly, the answers were couched in more impenetrable gobbledygook.

I then went out onto the web to see if I could get a better explanation of what Azure is, and it turns out to be mechanism by which your computer operating system, programmes and data will no longer be located in the computer on your desk.

Instead, all these items will reside on large computers housed in data centres owned by Microsoft, and you will access them through any computer with an Internet connection.

There is nothing new in this idea, which really dates back to the earliest days of computing, when processing power and storage were centralised in the mainframe computer, and users accessed it through terminals.

Here at Independent Newspapers, for example, we had such mainframe systems in the form of Atex and CSI, which we used for entering and storing stories and printing them out, so that they could be used to make up the pages of our papers. The terminals we used were just smart enough to be able to find and connect to the mainframe.

Gradually, however, the world moved away from this way of doing things and started to put a lot of the computing power and storage onto the desktop. Companies like Microsoft and Intel grew fat off selling ever more powerful desktop computers and programs, even though some data files were still stored centrally on servers, and there were still some mainframes around.

Having the computing power on the desktop was great because it meant that you could keep on working when the link to the mainframe failed. The downside was that it became very complex and time-consuming when, for example, you needed to keep hundreds of computers updated with the latest software versions.

Some organisations, like Independent Newspapers, began to move back to a server-based system and the tendency moved into high gear with the rise of the Internet. Various organisations began to offer web-based programs, like word processors, and storage space for files. Many users discovered the joys of using these services, which are mostly free, and don’t require a brute of a computer to run, or high-priced software packages.

Windows Azure is Microsoft’s reaction to this trend of putting the computing power back on the server, and it’ll be interesting to see how it pans out. They stand to lose big-time on desktop operating system and software sales, in the face of online offerings from the likes of Google, for example.

They had little choice but to move in this sort of direction and hope that they’d be able to maintain their income through renting out online access to their software, charging other software developers to host their programs on the Azure platform, and for storage space for data files.

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Opening a new vista on the world

You may have heard by now that Microsoft launched its new Vista operating system last Tuesday.

Vista is the intended successor of Windows XP and has been in development for the last five years. I realised that I would encounter the beast sooner or later, and so I set out on an Internet expedition to see what was what.

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