Shampoo Planet, Life after God, Microserfs, Girlfriend in a Coma, and Miss Wyoming

Shampoo Planet, Life after God, Microserfs, Girlfriend in a Coma and Miss Wyoming
Shampoo Planet, Life after God, Microserfs, Girlfriend in a Coma and Miss Wyoming

One of my resolutions last year was to read more, and in March I set out to read all of Douglas Coupland’s novels in chronological order. I seem to remember reading an interview with him where he said he’d love to be able to read his novels afresh in the order they were published, something he can’t do as he’s too close to them. That seemed like a good enough challenge for me.

Continue reading Shampoo Planet, Life after God, Microserfs, Girlfriend in a Coma, and Miss Wyoming

Microsoft Excel save dialog… what on earth?!

Every time I have to save a document in Microsoft Excel and I’m presented with this drop-down list of available file types I cry a little inside.

I often use Excel to create files of events to bulk import into Microsoft Outlook, Google Calendar or The Events Calendar (WordPress plugin). And each time I need to convert from the default Excel Workbook (*.xlsx) format to CSV (Comma delimited) (*.csv) format I cringe when I see this mess of a list.

Excel save dialog showing file types not in alphabetical order
Whose idea was this listing?!

I find it hard to believe that this order has been the result of extensive user-testing.

Would it be too much to ask for an alphabetical list?

I mean, sure, put the default Excel format at the top, but then list everything else alphabetically. That would work for me, and I’m sure lots of other users too.

Current list

This is the list as it currently looks. I can appreciate that the most commonly used formats are near the top (Excel, old Excel and XML) but after that… where is the logic?

Try quickly finding CSV (Comma delimited) (*.csv) in this list.

  • Excel Workbook (*.xslx)
  • Excel Macro-Enabled Workbook (*.xlsm)
  • Excel Binary Workbook (*.xlsb)
  • Excel 97-2003 Workbook (*.xls)
  • XML Data (*.xml)
  • Single File Web Page (*.mht, *.mhtml)
  • Web Page (*.htm, *.html)
  • Excel Template (*.xltx)
  • Excel Macro-Enabled Template (*.xltm)
  • Excel 97-2003 Template (*.xlt)
  • Text (Tab delimited) (*.txt)
  • Unicode Text (*.txt)
  • XML Spreadsheet 2003 (*.xml)
  • Microsoft Excel 5.0/95 Workbook (*.xls)
  • CSV (Comma delimited) (*.csv)
  • Formatted text (Space delimited) (*.prn)
  • Text (Macintosh) (*.txt)
  • Text (MS-DOS) (*.txt)
  • CSV (Macintosh) (*.csv)
  • CSV (MS-DOS) (*.csv)
  • DIF (Data Interchange Format) (*.diff)
  • SYLK (Symbolic Link) (*slk)
  • Excel Add-in (*xlam)
  • Excel 97-2003 Add-in (*.xla)
  • PDF (*.pdf)
  • XPS Document (*.xps)
  • Strict Open XML Spreadsheet (*.xlsx)
  • OpenDocument Spreadsheet (*.ods)

More user-friendly list

This order would make much more sense to my mind. The default Excel format is at the top, to make it easier to find, but after that everything else is in alphabetical order. I’ve also removed the “Microsoft” prefix from Excel 5.0/95 as it’s the only Excel format that includes it.

Now try finding CSV (Comma delimited) (*.csv) in this list.

  • Excel Workbook (*.xslx)
  • CSV (Comma delimited) (*.csv)
  • CSV (MS-DOS) (*.csv)
  • CSV (Macintosh) (*.csv)
  • DIF (Data Interchange Format) (*.diff)
  • Excel 5.0/95 Workbook (*.xls)
  • Excel 97-2003 Add-in (*.xla)
  • Excel 97-2003 Template (*.xlt)
  • Excel 97-2003 Workbook (*.xls)
  • Excel Add-in (*xlam)
  • Excel Binary Workbook (*.xlsb)
  • Excel Macro-Enabled Template (*.xltm)
  • Excel Macro-Enabled Workbook (*.xlsm)
  • Excel Template (*.xltx)
  • Formatted text (Space delimited) (*.prn)
  • OpenDocument Spreadsheet (*.ods)
  • PDF (*.pdf)
  • SYLK (Symbolic Link) (*slk)
  • Single File Web Page (*.mht, *.mhtml)
  • Strict Open XML Spreadsheet (*.xlsx)
  • Text (MS-DOS) (*.txt)
  • Text (Macintosh) (*.txt)
  • Text (Tab delimited) (*.txt)
  • Unicode Text (*.txt)
  • Web Page (*.htm, *.html)
  • XML Data (*.xml)
  • XML Spreadsheet 2003 (*.xml)
  • XPS Document (*.xps)

Now, isn’t that easier to use? Microsoft… please make this a thing.

Moving from Outlook (Exchange) to eM Client (Google)

For the last 14 years I’ve used Microsoft Outlook to manage my life. Last week, with some trepidation I moved to Google (Gmail, calendar, and contacts) and something else for tasks (I’ve not quite settled on it, although Todoist is currently a very strong contender). I thought it may be useful for others in a similar situation to document my experience.

Over the years I have used Microsoft Outlook 2000, 2003, 2007, and most recently 2010. I have synchronised it with various Psion handheld computers, with Windows Mobile, and I’ve used it for the last four years with a hosted instance of Microsoft Exchange 2010 from the excellent, UK-based Simply Mail Solutions.

ActiveSync kept sinking

I moved to Exchange in 2010 mainly because I was having issues synchronising my Windows Mobile phone via ActiveSync with two PCs: home and work (below). Synchronisation didn’t always work successfully and I had no end of problems: duplicated, missing or deleted content. Enough was enough, so I looked at the options.

Workflow for using ActiveSync with two instances of Outlook
Workflow for using ActiveSync with two instances of Outlook. I found this caused all sorts of problems when using the phone as the ‘golden copy’.

Move to Exchange

At that point, in 2010, I considered moving to Gmail but Windows Mobile 6 didn’t support Google data particularly well and I had no real need to share my data with anyone else but myself. My main concern was synchronising data between devices not between people.

So I research the options and in the end I moved to an Exchange 2010 account rented from Simply Mail Solutions. It cost me around £70 per year, plus my domain name. But I felt that cost was worth the expense when set against lost time and frustration due to synchronisation failures.

Synchronisation with Exchange Server 2010
Synchronisation with Exchange Server 2010

With this model everything was synchronising with the Exchange server in the cloud. It was fast, it was efficient, and I never once had an issue with duplicated or missing content. I could add a task on my phone during my walk to work and when I got to the office it was already there on my PC. It felt like magic.

When I moved away from Windows Phone a few years ago and bought a Google Nexus 4 it had support for Exchange under its “Corporate” account settings. So, again, there was no need to move. If it ain’t broke…

Why move to Google, then?

What has changed recently though is that now I do need to share my data with (my wife) Jane. To add another user to Exchange was going to be expensive and unnecessarily complex, particularly when you factor in which domain names we use and that Jane was already using Google mail. The logical conclusion was for me to move to Google.

eM Client for mail, calendar and contacts

One of my hesitations about moving lock, stock and barrel to Google was that I’m not particularly fond of the standard Gmail or Google Contacts interface; Google Calendar is okay; Google Tasks is terrible.

As I said, I’ve used Outlook for a long time. It’s become very familiar and some of the workflow processes have depended on features exclusive to Outlook. I would need to find something else, as Outlook’s support for Google doesn’t extend much beyond IMAP support for Gmail. If you want to synchronise your Google Calendar with Outlook you can forget it: it’s a clunky business at best, and impossible at worst.

Calendar view in eM Client, showing different colours for shared calendars
Calendar view in eM Client, showing different colours for shared calendars

Someone I follow on Twitter mentioned eM Client which claims to be the best email client for Windows. I gave it a go, trialled it alongside Outlook for just a week and decided that although it lacks a few features that I really like about Outlook this was perfect for my needs. I will write a more complete review of eM Client in a later post.

Something else for tasks

Like Outlook I like that everything is together: email, calendar and contacts. I decided not to use the tasks as support for Google Tasks isn’t great even on Android.

For a week I trialled Wunderlist, which is one of Lifehacker‘s favourite to do apps. I’d tried it before but after a week I still wasn’t convinced: I wanted to use their Windows 7 client but it simply wouldn’t synchronise with the Android app, plus the Android widget was clunky. So I gave up.

Todoist—simple and clean-looking task application
Todoist—simple and clean-looking task application

That’s when I stumbled on Todoist, which I really like. The Android app is clean and simple, the Windows app just works, it synchronises really quickly, and the widget is perfect for my needs—it does what I need, and works the way that I want it to.

I expect that I will stick with Todoist for the near future.

How to move from Outlook to Google

Moving from Exchange to Google was fairly straight forward: mildly complex but not complicated. Here’s what I did:

  1. Synchronise Outlook calendar and contacts data with Google using demo version of Sync2. It allowed me to copy all my data from Exchange to Google Calendar and Contacts with no restrictions.
  2. Add Gmail account to Outlook as an IMAP email account, then copy (or move) emails from Exchange/Outlook account to Gmail.
  3. With everything moved over and essentially backed-up to Google, change MX records in my domain name DNS. Basically, this tells all email to go to my web hosting company (Heart Internet) rather than my Exchange server (hosted by Simply Mail Solutions). The DNS took about 4-6 hours to update.
  4. Create a forward for my email address so that it all gets passed on to Gmail. I did this within my Heart Internet control panel.
  5. Install eM Client and add my Google account. All my data, email, calendar, and contacts is then synchronised with eM Client.

The nervous bit was waiting for the DNS to update, as you need to set the MX (mail) records correctly otherwise it doesn’t work. But as soon as my [email protected] emails started trickling into my Gmail account I knew that everything was fine.

What now?

So far I’ve been using this set up for a couple of weeks and I’m really appreciating having only one place to check email; I’m loving that Jane and I can see each other’s calendars so easily.

I think this is going to work. I wish I’d discovered eM Client and Todoist before now.

Why I love Windows 8 (but don’t have 8.1 yet)

Update to Windows 8.1 for free on the Windows 8 app store... or so they say
Update to Windows 8.1 for free on the Windows 8 app store… or so they say

On Thursday Microsoft released Windows 8.1 into the wild. Hmmm… there be dragons!

The upgrade hasn’t gone particularly smoothly for a lot of people (including me) judging by this thread (“Couldn’t update to Windows 8.1 – 0xC1900101 – 0x40017”) on the official Microsoft Community Windows forum and this article (“Windows 8.1 launch weekend plagued by some show-stopping installation issues”) on PC World.com.

The Windows RT upgrade (for Surface tablets) was removed from the app store until they could figure out what was going on. Microsoft released a “recovery image” yesterday to try to address the issue. Time will tell if it has worked, I can’t see past the search engine results noise of it having been removed.

The Windows 8.1 upgrade disappeared from my Windows 8 store for a day or two as well, but re-appeared last night. I’m still not going to try to upgrade again until I know for sure that it will work.

Windows 8

Windows 8.1 was meant to address some of the criticisms of the original Windows 8 release, particularly the removal of the Windows start button and that Windows 8 boots to the new Modern/Metro UI start screen, rather than to the desktop.

I have to say that I have been a huge fan of Windows 8 since the beta. I had the beta installed on my laptop right until the RTM edition was launched. Since then I’ve defended Windows 8 to everyone and anyone.

Windows 8 has been, by far, the fastest, most stable, most secure version of Windows I’ve used (since my standalone, not-connected-to-the-internet version of Windows for Workgroups 3.11 in the mid-90s). My desktop PC boots up and is working within about 20-30 seconds. Compare that with my Windows 7 Dell beast of a PC at work which can take about 10 minutes to start up and become fully responsive.

Start button

As for those two criticisms about the lack of start button and not booting directly to the desktop, well Start8 from Stardock (USD $4.99) addresses both those issues.

Start8 gives me back my start button and Windows 7-like start menu
Start8 gives me back my start button and Windows 7-like start menu

Firmly ticked is the configuration option in Start8 that reads “Automatically go to the Desktop when I sign in“.

I rarely use any of the Metro UI applications (occasionally TV Catch-up, the Steam tile app, and a couple of games with the boys) so it makes sense for me to jump straight to the desktop. This application saves me a click.

To be honest I installed Start8 mostly to make the PC more accessible to my wife Jane, who uses it occasionally. I didn’t want her to have to bother with the convoluted Windows 8 nonsense of Win+C > Settings > Power > Shut down, or Win+C > Settings > Control Panel to access the Control Panel. I reality though, I use those features most.

Start screen

I also have to confess that I really like the Windows 8 start screen. My grumble about the traditional Start menu in XP, Vista, 7 is that it’s a mess. It lists everything that is installed and gives everything equal status.

The Windows 8 start screen allows me to customise it for my own needs, my own priorities.

And if I want to see everything: Win + Q takes me there.

I can pin to the taskbar those applications that I use most frequently, the rest I can pin to the start screen and arrange into named groups. It’s so easy my four year old boys can use it.

The Windows 8 start screen on my PC.
The Windows 8 start screen on my desktop PC.

I used another paid-for application from Startdock to customize the background of my start screen: Decor8 (USD $4.99).

A desktop-centric Windows 8 PC

This gives me the best of both worlds: the speed and stability of Windows 8 coupled with the desktop-centric focus of Windows 7.

In each version of Windows that I’ve used I’ve tweaked it and wrestled with its user-interface to give me the experience that works for me. With Windows 3.11 I used Calmira, in Windows 98 it was power toys and TweakUI, in XP I created my own toolbars. Why should this operating system be any different? Surely that’s one of the beauties of Windows.

I really don’t understand these grumbles of “I hate Windows 8 and the Modern/Metro UI!” To be honest, I don’t notice the juxtaposition of desktop vs Modern/Metro UI much. I ignore most of it. I don’t have a touch screen, I have all the Windows desktop applications that I need and only occasionally dabble with the odd Modern/Metro app. And Start8 and Decor8 allow me to quickly tweak the rest

Windows 8.1

And so back to Windows 8.1. I would rather like to upgrade sometime soon.

I tried it on Friday.

It all seemed to be going well until the second boot when it halted the screen that Windows 8 shows when it’s booting up. The little spinner just kept on spinning… for about 30 minutes. So I rebooted the PC… and it did the same until it quickly flashed up a blue screen of death (BSOD) and about 10 minutes later returned me to Windows 8 and a message similar to this one but with error code 0xC1900101 – 0x40017.

Couldn't update to Windows 8.1
Couldn’t update to Windows 8.1

I’ve been closely following, and contributing to the thread on the Microsoft Community. People have had limited success it would appear with certain workarounds working for some but not others: uninstall graphics card drivers, uninstall SteelSeries Engine software, unplug everything, etc.

I have a SteelSeries mouse. I could uninstall it and try the upgrade again, but do you know what? It’s 2013. Why should I have to? Modern operating systems should just work and upgrade without any kind of hardcore hardware geekery.

I’m going to wait until either Microsoft have figured out a way for the operating system to work around or quietly remove incompatible device drivers or until Steel Series have made their drivers compatible with Windows 8.1. Which in my opinion they should have done by now.

Windows 8.1 was code-named “Blue”. It looks like they omitted “…Screen of Death” at the end of it.

Disappointing, and at a time when Microsoft is fighting to stay relevant this seems to me to be a terrible blow to its reputation. As I said, I’ve been almost evangelical about the stability and reliability of Windows 8. I’m not at all confident about upgrading to 8.1 now. That’s not a good thing.

The trial continues…

PowerMockup – create wireframes using Microsoft PowerPoint

PowerMockup website
PowerMockup

When designing (or redesigning) websites I tend to follow a five stage process:

  1. Gather / discover
  2. Structure
  3. Design
  4. Build and test
  5. Launch and maintenance

During the second stage (structure) I will focus largely on two aspects of the website’s structure: the overall site hierarchy and the structure of each of the pages, what are traditionally called ‘wireframes’.

Site structure

To design the site structure, for years, I’ve used mind maps and my mind mapping application of choice is Mindjet MindManager.

I love MindManager, and each version just gets better than the last. An important thing for me is that the software interface doesn’t get in the way of capturing and organising the information. It’s packed with subtle but powerful features such as keyboard shortcuts and the ability to drag information from web pages and Windows Explorer directories).

Page structure and wireframes

When it comes to designing page-level structures I pretty much always start by drawing wireframes using a good old fashioned pencil and pad of paper.

Wireframes are visual guides that present a skeleton or framework for the information on the page. They are concerned more with where information and design elements should sit rather than how they look.

If you think of it in terms of architecture, the building blueprint will show you that the kitchen needs a window between the wall cupboards, and in front of the sink, but it won’t tell you what colour or make they are.

As I said, I usually start all my wireframe diagrams with a pencil and pad, but occasionally I want something that I can save, edit and share with others via email.

Until now I’ve usually used either Balsamiq or Mockingbird, both of which have limited, free accounts. But recently I’ve been trying out PowerMockup.

PowerMockup

PowerMockup is a wireframing tool that integrates with Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 or 2010. It is essentially a library of PowerPoint shapes offering

  • 89 fully-editable user-interface (UI) elements
  • 104 wireframe icons
PowerMockup stencil library elements
Examples of some of the PowerMockup stencil library elements

And it is as simple to use as finding the element you want to use and dragging it onto your PowerPoint slide. The UI elements and icons can all be resized, and recoloured too which provides a great deal of flexibility.

Page size

Also, remember, although you are working in Microsoft PowerPoint which, by default, is set up for a 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio screen you can adjust the page setup for any screen size and aspect ratio. That way you are not limited to only designing for ‘above the fold’.

Example

As a quick example, I mocked-up the PowerMockup website homepage using PowerMockup in Microsoft PowerPoint 2010:

Wireframe of the PowerMockup  website using PowerMockup
Wireframe of the PowerMockup website using PowerMockup

My experience

Intuitive

I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised using PowerMockup. Because it integrates with Microsoft PowerPoint I didn’t have to learn a whole new application: it was very intuitive to use.

Design

I really like the design of the elements too. My main criticisms of both Balsamiq and Mockingbird is that their UI elements have quite a sketchy, cartoony feel to them; particularly Balsamiq.

In contrast the UI elements in PowerMockup are clean, unfussy and unobtrusive. While Balsamiq and to a lesser extent Mockingbird’s UI elements have a Comic Sans feel to them, PowerMockup’s UI elements feel more like something classical like Helvetica.

Price

PowerMockup costs US $39.95 (approx. £25 GBP) for a single-user license, although obviously you also need a licensed copy of Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 or 2010.

The cheapest, standalone version that I can find, Home and Student, will cost you £75.00 GPB on Amazon UK), so you’re talking about a total cost of around £100 for one user.

If you already own a copy of PowerPoint 2007 or 2010, however, then you’re laughing and you may even qualify for a free license.

There are also two team licenses available: 5 users for US $119.95 (approx. £74 GBP), and 10 users for US $199.90 (approx. £123 GBP).

Conclusion

I’ve been genuinely very impressed with PowerMockup. What is not to like? It has a very extensive, very attractive, and very usable collection of UI elements and icons, and most importantly it’s really simple to use.

What might be nice is if someone could throw together a number of PowerPoint template files (with sensible background grids) to emulate the most common page dimensions, e.g. Blueprint CSS’s 950px width, 960 Grid System’s 960px width, plus some responsive-style tablet and mobile templates. Coupled with PowerMockup these could be a very useful, very affordable combination for small design studios and individuals.

I can definitely see myself using PowerMockup on the next design project I need to work on.