Nine Billion Flies Can’t Be Wrong…

A couple of months ago I wrote a post “Metro – Murdered By Microsoft?” in which I expressed my concern that it appeared as though Microsoft was dropping many of the elements of the Metro design language. As I said:

Frankly, if I’d wanted an Android phone, I would have bought one. One of the key reasons why I went with a Windows Phone was the UI design. I like it a lot, and I am at ease with it. To have a key Microsoft team turn their back on it and introduce Android elements is a shock, to say the least.

A few days ago, we got confirmation that Microsoft has indeed stuck a dagger in the back of Metro. The confirmation came in the form of an AMA (Ask Me Anything) discussion on Reddit by an ex-Microsoft Windows Phone designer, Jon Bell. It’s clear that he doesn’t care for the Pivot design element that is a key part of the design language:

Swiping sucks. It hides content. Let’s say you’re in Format and you want to get to something 5 tabs away. Five swipes is an unacceptable series of interactions. The carousel model has been disproven repeatedly, every single decade, for several decades. We have the data. It’s a dumb interaction model, full stop.

It clearly doesn’t matter that I (and presumably many others) happen to like the Pivot and its swiping action very much indeed. Microsoft has the data that “proves” it’s a dumb interaction model. And as an ex-Microsoft designer explains:

So on the day of the Meeting, the PM [Project Manager] will go on and on about how the Decision benefits the User. They come up with facts that support the Decision. We don’t want to confuse the User with too many options. Only 3% of people used it that way, so clearly it’s okay to remove. Consistency is good for Microsoft, so it must be good for the User. Everybody smiles and nods and agrees this is the best way. The newest to the team, because it just makes so much sense. The veterans, possibly because they secretly know it’s about the engineers and not about the User, but more likely because engineers are inherently lazy. The meeting ends and the Feature has a new direction. It’s a little bit farther from the vision, and maybe little bit worse user experience, but writing software is about compromise. This was a good compromise. It’s not that bad, anyway. It was the best option available. If only the User was there to see it, they’d understand that.

Probably more to the point, the Metro design language is radically different to those of iOS and Android, and Microsoft wants to attract those users across to Windows Phone if it can. Having a distinct design language acts as a barrier, so Microsoft appears to have made the decision that nine billion flies can’t be wrong, and moved to a similar design language. I think that’s a pity, I like Metro, but at the end of the day, Microsoft wants to make money.

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Filling A Reservoir With A Teaspoon

I’ve been using Microsoft’s OneDrive since it was launched as Windows Live SkyDrive, back in 2007. By the time it got renamed as OneDrive in 2014, I had 40 GB of free storage available in the Cloud to use for storing documents and photos.

I’ve noticed a change in my computing habits over the years. When I had just my Desktop PC, my primary location for storing both documents and photos was local storage on my PC. Backups were taken daily and stored on our Windows Home Server system, with secondary backups of the most important data taken from that server and stored off-site.

With the arrival of the Cloud, I first started storing copies of selected photos and documents in Microsoft’s SkyDrive/OneDrive, primarily as a means of sharing them with friends and family.

With the arrival of my first “proper”tablet, the ThinkPad Tablet 2, back in January 2013, I started to make more use of OneDrive as the primary location for my OneNote documents. It was simple to create a OneNote document (usually on the Tablet), and then continue to work on it on my PC. That has grown to the point where my primary storage location for OneNote documents is no longer a local device (the desktop PC or the Tablet), but the Documents folder in OneDrive, which is synchronised transparently across all my devices (now a desktop PC, a Windows tablet, a Lumia Smartphone and a laptop).

When I bought a license for Office Home & Student 2013 for my ThinkPad Tablet, I began storing all my Office documents (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) in OneDrive by default. That way, they would be immediately accessible from my other machines and synchronised with them.

With my 40 GB of free online storage available in OneDrive, this would probably suffice for my documents and selected photos.

But then, last month, Microsoft announced that music media could be stored in OneDrive, and be available to my devices. In truth, it’s not really necessary for me, I already use the Windows Home Server as my music media storage; but the thought of having extra backup options appealed to me. With a music collection that is currently 215 GB in size, I would not be able to hold a duplicate, backup copy, on OneDrive as it stood.

I decided to bite the bullet, and take out a yearly subscription to Office 365 Personal (70 euros annually). That way I would kill several birds with one stone:

  • Upgrade my license of Office 2010 on my Desktop PC to Office 2013,
  • Be able to install Office 2013 on a further Windows tablet
  • Get 1TB of OneDrive storage, and
  • Get 60 minutes of Skype calls to landline telephone numbers (useful for overseas calls).

So I’ve subscribed, and also signed up for the “unlimited storage” option of OneDrive that Microsoft announced last year. Today, I received an email from Microsoft telling me that my Office 365 account now has unlimited storage and they’ve added an initial 10TB of storage. I’m only scratching the surface of what is available:

OneDrive 14

And now I’m discovering that I’m trying to fill a reservoir with a teaspoon. My connection to the internet is via ADSL, and with 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, it is not blazingly fast. I reckon that it’s going to take several weeks to upload my music collection to OneDrive, and a couple of weeks for my photos. An added complication is that the Smart files feature of Windows 8.1 is being removed by Microsoft in Windows 10, while they work out how to re-engineer it. This means that the user experience of using OneDrive storage will take a step backwards until at least mid 2016.

Still, I’ve now moved across to using OneDrive as my primary storage for documents, and given time, it will also become the primary storage for my photos, and possibly for my music. I’ll still be using our Windows Home Server for local storage and backup as an additional safety measure.

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Game On: Microsoft’s Surface 3

If you’ve been following my search for the ideal Tablet device, you’ll know that a number of them have passed through my hands, whilst I’ve passed up on others. To date, I’ve had an HP TX2000 convertible, a Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, and currently I have a Lenovo ThinkPad 10 and a Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro convertible.

I’ve long ruled out Apple’s iPads and the myriad of Android tablets, since I use the Windows ecosystem, and up until now, Microsoft’s Surface range of products has never ticked enough of my boxes. Whilst I had initially high hopes for the Surface Pro 3, it came with a poor fixed-focus rear camera, no GNSS capability, and a fan (I really want a fanless tablet). For more detail, see my “trying to nail it” post.

This might all be about to change, as Microsoft has now introduced the Surface 3. This, like the Lenovo ThinkPad 10 (TP10), has an Intel Atom processor, but whereas the TP10 has the last generation of the Atom (codenamed Bay Trail), the S3 has the newest iteration of Atom chips. These are apparently slightly faster than Bay Trail, but not a major advance. Here’s a comparison of the basic specifications of the TP10 and the S3:

  ThinkPad 10 Surface 3
Processor Intel Atom Z3795 processor (4 cores,2MB Cache, 1.6GHz with Intel Burst technology up to 2.4GHz) Intel Atom x7-Z8700 processor (4 cores, 2MB Cache, 1.6GHz with Intel Burst technology up to 2.4GHz)
Display 1920 x 1200 (16:10) 1920 x 1280 (3:2)
Memory 4GB / 1067MHz LPDDR3 4GB / 1600MHz LPDDR3
Storage 128 GB eMMC + MicroSD up to 64GB 128 GB eMMC + MicroSD up to 128GB
O.S. Windows 8.1 Pro 64bit Windows 8.1 64bit*
Front camera 2 MP fixed-focus 3.5 MP fixed-focus
Rear camera 8 MP auto-focus + LED flash 8 MP auto-focus, no flash
Digitizer Pen Wacom N-Trig (optional)
WLAN 11a/b/g/n 11a/c
WWAN optional optional
Bluetooth 4.0 4.0
GNSS yes optional **
NFC optional no
Keyboard optional optional
Base unit price €699.99 €729.00

* Apparently, Windows 8.1 Pro 64bits will be available as an option. However, the non-Pro version is perfectly adequate for me.

** If you buy the WWAN (LTE) version of the Surface 3, that will also include GNSS, but you can’t have GNSS without WWAN (unlike the TP10, where all models have GNSS included).

You’ll notice that the prices of these two tablets, while definitely in the “Premium” bracket, are close to each other. However I would definitely want the N-Trig pen, which adds another €49.99 to the price of the Surface 3. Then again, my ThinkPad 10 has a Quickshot Cover, which to my mind is an essential accessory, and that cost me €49. The Quickshot cover is thin, and only covers the screen (it can be completely folded back under the TP10 in use). It can also act as a stand, but it is less stable, and with less angles to choose from, than the kickout stand built into the Surface 3.

Unfortunately, Microsoft do not produce an equivalent cover for their Surface range. Instead they have the Type Cover – a cover and keyboard combined. Nice idea, but it weighs in at an eye-watering €149,99. Since I don’t need a keyboard, I can’t see myself shelling out for this. So I’d probably go for just a slipcase to protect a Surface 3. Not as convenient as a flip-over cover, but a good deal cheaper. I just wish that Microsoft, or a third party would produce something like the Quickshot Cover for the Surface range.

So let’s say that I find a decent case for €30, then my total outlay for a Surface 3 setup would be €808.99 versus €748.99 for the TP10. Still within shouting distance of each other, but the gap is widening, and not in the right direction. Physically, the two tablets are close in size, and smaller than the Surface Pro 3. Here’s a diagram to illustrate the differences:

Tablet Size Comparison

The Surface 3 has a larger display than the TP10, and I like the 3:2 aspect ratio of the S3 even more than the 16:10 ratio of the TP10. It would be even better for reading books and documents:

Tablet Display Size Comparison

This, to my mind, is where the S3 scores over the TP10. For me, its display has a nicer ratio, and a nice physical size. The Surface Pro 3, although it has the same aspect ratio, is bigger (almost the size of an A4 pad). It also has a much higher resolution, which causes scaling issues with some programs.

I think the S3 is the Goldilocks model of the three (TP10, S3 and SP3). By way of comparison, the Yoga 3 Pro that I have is a bit bigger than an A4 pad, at 33cm x 22.8 cm, and when in tablet mode is simply too unwieldy for my liking. So the plus points of the S3 are:

  • it’s fanless (like the TP10)
  • screen ratio of 3:2 (better than the TP10)
  • bigger screen than a TP10, and smaller than a SP3.

The drawbacks are

  • premium price
  • no reasonably-priced flip-over cover available
  • no GNSS

I think, for my requirements, it measures up very well against the TP10, and might well be the tablet to go for once Lenovo ask for their loan TP10 back. Of course, waiting in the wings will be the Surface Pro 4. The question arises, would I consider this. Frankly, I don’t think it will be a good fit for my requirements. I suspect it will be at least as big, if not bigger, than the SP3, with power to match.

I don’t need a poweruser’s laptab; the S3 is a much better match with what I’m looking for. As usual with Microsoft, the third time’s the charm. The Surface 3 promises to be a good machine. It would suit me, and I suspect many others, very well indeed.

Posted in Computers and Internet | Tagged | 10 Comments

Windows 10 Technical Previews

Over the past few months, I’ve been playing with Microsoft’s technical previews of their forthcoming Windows 10 operating system. It’s the version of Windows that is supposed to marry the best features of Windows 7 (which was designed for traditional PCs with a mouse and keyboard) and Windows 8.1 (which is designed for both traditional PCs and devices such as Tablets that use touch for input).

It’s safe to say that Windows 8.1, and Windows 8 before it, has had a poor reception in the market. Acres of newsprint have been spread with the cries of pain, and vitriol, from many users of traditional PCs. Personally speaking, I singularly fail to see what all the fuss is about. I use Windows 8.1 on both my PCs and Tablets, and am perfectly comfortable in both environments. I took to the new operating system like a duck to water, and could not countenance ever going back to Windows 7.

Nonetheless, perception is reality, and Microsoft have realised that their challenge is to introduce a new version of Windows that keeps as many users as possible happy, no matter which camp (PC or Tablet) they are in.

So, as I say, I’ve been playing with the previews of Windows 10, and I’m coming to the dismaying conclusion that, as a user of a Windows 8.1 Tablet, I just don’t like it

While the Desktop side of things has improvements, from my perspective as a Windows Tablet user (Lenovo ThinkPad 2 and Lenovo ThinkPad 10), the UI experience in Windows 10 is significantly worse than that delivered by Windows 8.1.

From what I’ve seen so far, Microsoft is bending over backwards to pander to traditional desktop PC users. They are removing valuable UI features (the Charms bar has gone) from the Tablet experience, or poking desktop features into the Tablet UI (I do not want the Desktop Taskbar to be present in the Tablet UI, but there it is, whether I want it or not).

Now I know that it’s a Technical Preview, but if Microsoft are going to deliver the final version in summer 2015 as promised, then it’s more than likely that the major features are now locked down, and all that remains are bug fixes and minor tweaks (e.g. improving the Toytown icons in File Explorer).

It seems to me, on current evidence, that Microsoft are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I am not impressed, and I’m not the only one.

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Mist Eclipse

Today was an opportunity to see a partial eclipse here in the Netherlands. Unfortunately the weather gods were not smiling. Much of the country had cloudy skies.

Here in the Achterhoek, there were not only cloudy skies but heavy mist. So in a sense, we had not only a missed eclipse, but a mist eclipse. When I took the dogs out for their morning walk, we were surrounded by mist; not a chance of even a glimpse of the sun. We went for a walk in the woods at around the time of the eclipse. It was very noticeable how it became much darker during the maximum coverage of the sun by the moon, and then the day returned to normal brightness as we returned home.

Therefore, even though I was not able to observe the eclipse directly, I certainly had indirect evidence that something was afoot. In addition, one of our outside motion sensors (part of our Home Automation installation) has a light sensor. The readings from that today clearly show how the light from the sun was obscured during the moon’s transit:

Domoticz 25

Posted in Astronomy, Science | 3 Comments

Home Automation Revisited

Back in January, I wrote about putting my toe into the waters of Home Automation. As I said at the time, there’s a bewildering array of products and standards out there. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been taking a look at some of the HA solutions out there, and I think I’ve landed on one that seems to fulfil my requirements pretty well.

I had decided back in January that my solution would be one that used Z-Wave, and that’s still the case. I’ve been able to purchase Z-Wave HA devices from several different manufacturers, and they interoperate as promised. I’m satisfied that the choice of Z-Wave is a good one for me.

As I said in January, there is a wide range of possibilities in the choice of the controller for a HA system. I could buy an off-the-shelf unit such as the Fibaro Home Center 2, the Zipato ZipaBox, a VeraEdge controller, or a HomeSeer controller. Or I could buy just the controller software, such as HomeSeer, and install it on a PC or a Rasberry Pi box.

In the end, I decided not to purchase an off-the-shelf unit. Fibaro still seem to be struggling to deliver a stable version of their latest software for the Home Center 2, and not being able to trial the other hardware products meant that purchasing one would be a gamble. It seemed to me that a better approach would be to trial a software solution, using an existing computer.

I ended up taking a look at the following software solutions:

The first two are commercial products, the rest are open source projects, funded by donations.

For my testing, I purchased a variety of devices:

With the devices installed, and included in the ZWave network (registered in the ZStick controller), I connected the ZStick to a variety of software controllers in turn…

HomeSeer has been around for a while. That means it’s comprehensive (it can control a wide range of devices using a variety of standards), and it has a wide range of third-party add-ons. However, it still strikes me as being expensive: $249.95 for the basic version of the controller software and $199.95 for the UI designer software. If I were to go with HomeSeer, it would probably make more sense for me to buy the basic (linux-based) HomeTroller Zee controller at $199.95. I installed the trial software of HomeSeer version 3, and used it for a week or two. It worked, and the diagnostic information was copious. However, the interface struck me simultaneously as being rather basic, and yet somewhat complex in places. I decided not to proceed further with HomeSeer.

I admit I only took a cursory look at both Charmed Quark and OpenHAB. I found both difficult to set up, and got the impression that I would spend more time fiddling with them than using them. OpenHAB, in particular, seemed aimed at programmers and developers, rather than end-users at this stage. As a result, I moved on.

HomeGenie is also something that will delight programmers and developers at the moment. Nonetheless, I was able to get it up and running very easily on Windows, and it works well. Here’s the “dashboard” that I see for the devices I currently have in my HA network:

HomeGenie 06

It’s primarily the result of the efforts of one developer, and he’s done a very good job. It’s still at a fairly early stage, so, for example, if you want to develop automated control of your devices, you will find yourself very rapidly at the limit of what the built-in “Wizards” are capable of, and have to turn to grown-up programming to get the job done. That’s all very well, if that’s your thing, but it’s really not what I want to do any more. I made a donation to the project, because I appreciate what has been achieved, and I hope it continues to develop. There’s a small (around 350 members) community forum where ideas are exchanged and bugs highlighted for solving. I could certainly make use of HomeGenie, if there were not other, and for my purposes, better solutions available.

Domoticz is another open-source project, and while it is primarily led by one developer, there are others actively involved, and the community forum is large (around 3,270 members) and active. Domoticz and HomeGenie are similar in many ways, but there are a few differences, which can be both strengths and weaknesses, depending on where you stand. Here’s the Domoticz dashboard:

Domoticz 18

The strength of Domoticz is its maturity; it already has solutions and support for a lot of hardware. In particular, it supports the reading and display of data supplied by our “Smart Meter” for our gas and electricity consumption. With the simple purchase of a cable, I was able to connect our smart meter to the Domoticz system and get real-time graphs of our energy consumption. Here’s what I see for our electricity usage:

Domoticz 16

It not only records our consumption (blue), but also the electricity generated by our solar panels (green) that is returned to the electricity grid. Gas consumption can also be tracked:

Domoticz 17

HomeGenie, at the moment, does not have this connection to Smart Meters built-in. The programmatic interfaces are there, and such an interface could be built, but I’m not the one to do it.

For me, the strength of HomeGenie is that it is a complete solution, in that the developer has written software to control Z-Wave devices directly. Domoticz, on the other hand, hands off the control of Z-Wave devices to another piece of software, developed by a separate open source project: Open-ZWave. That means that there is the chance of issues arising out of effects caused by the fact that there are two different software components developed by two different groups. I’ve already come across an issue with my Z-Wave sensors, which may be caused by a bug in Domoticz, a bug in Open-ZWave, or some combination of the two.

Nonetheless, I can live with that issue, and the quirk that the Fibaro wall plugs don’t always show the correct status in Domoticz. There are two reasons for this:

  • The fact that I can track our energy consumption directly in Domoticz (as shown above), and
  • the fact that Domoticz supports Blockly for building automation programs.

Think of Blockly as Lego for programming. It’s wonderfully easy to use, and I’ve already programmed the motion sensors on the driveway and by the front door to turn on the outside lights if someone comes along during the hours of darkness (which have been defined, using Blockly and a “virtual device” in Domoticz that I defined: IsDark):

Domoticz 19

Domoticz 20

So for the moment, I’m going to stick with Domoticz for our Home Automation system, with HomeGenie held in reserve as my fallback position.

And while I tested both on Windows, both Domoticz and HomeGenie are available for the Raspberry Pi. I’ve also stuck my toe into the waters of using a Raspberry Pi, and Domoticz is currently running very happily on it. But that’s the subject of another post, I think…

Posted in Computers and Internet, Consumer Electronics | 7 Comments

Goodbye, Facebook, and Good Riddance

Let me put my cards on the table; I’ve never been a fan of Facebook. However, it seems that most of our neighbours are avid Facebook fans, so after holding out for years, I decided that I’d open up a Facebook account in November last year, primarily as a means of being kept up to date with what was happening in my neighbourhood.

Even after I signed up, I rarely accessed my Facebook page, and contented myself with batting away the many, many Facebook notifications that appeared in my email inbox or on my Windows Phone. My prime channel for revealing my thoughts to the (largely indifferent) world has remained this blog.

Then today, out of the blue, I got a notification from Facebook that I’m restricted from seeing the profiles of people that I don’t know for one week:

Facebook 01

Er, excuse me? I don’t make a habit of trying to see the profiles of people that I don’t know (I have tried looking up two old friends since I joined), so why the restriction?

Well, sod this for a game of conkers. I don’t need Facebook, so I’ve deleted my account. Goodbye and good riddance.

Posted in Computers and Internet | 2 Comments