Review: Royal Mail SmartStamp

Screenshot of Royal Mail SmartStamp
Royal Mail SmartStamp software open at a blank labels template.

Today we posted our Christmas cards. Yes, I know the airmail ones won’t get there in time for Christmas, but hey! last year we didn’t write our Christmas 2004 letter until the end of January 2005! It’s a start.

This year I used the Royal Mail SmartStamp software that I bought (leased?) earlier this year. I’ve been using it off-and-on for the last four months but today was the first time that I really put it to the test, and I have to admit that while it does what I need it to do (that is: print stamps) the whole experience is rather disappointing.

It doesn’t appear to be a terribly well thought-out piece of software. The graphic user interface (GUI) isn’t great, or terribly user-friendly. One of my major gripes is that it is limited to an 800 x 600 pixels screen resolution. Here’s how it looks when I maximize the SmartStamp window on my 1280 x 1024 pixels resolution monitor:

Disappointing screenshot of Royal Mail SmartStamp showing a lot of white space.
Having maximized the window, disappointingly, nothing has resized!

Look at the size of the labels! I can’t read them, but if they automatically resized when I maximized the window that would make things a whole lot easier. I might even overlook some of the other ‘features’ if it did that.

I’ve not used the print-directly-onto-envelopes option yet, I’ve only used the print-onto-labels option, which suits me fine. It’s easier to load an A4 sheet of labels into my laser printer than faff around adjusting the paper guides to load a ream of envelopes.

Labels can be created either individually, one label at a time, or in a mail-merge where you select the stamp price and then tick the contacts you want labels printed for — SmartStamp automatically hunts down your Outlook or Outlook Express address book (which is great!)

Opening the application and double-clicking the first stamp you are presented with this screen:

Screenshot of the labels screen
Customize your stamps and address labels here.

The three options are

  • Single Print
    This allows you to create a variety of stamps (1st class, 2nd class, Airmail, etc.) with or without address labels.
  • Mail Merge
    For loads of stamps of the same denomination, with address labels selected from your Windows Address Book or Outlook contacts.
  • Bulk Print
    This option will give you a sheet of stamps of the same denomination, with no address labels.

Stamp prices and weights are all kept up-to-date and selecting the right price is simple — this I think they have got right — for either UK Mail or Overseas Mail. You can also assign regularly-used stamps to one of six Favourites buttons. CDROM in the screenshot above is for my Psion SDK software CDROM that I distribute.

Clicking the Address Book button (top-right) brings up this window:

Screenshot of SmartStamp Address Book
Choose your recipient’s address either from the list on the left or use the search facility to narrow it down to a shorter list.

As soon as it is open the Address Book list on the left starts to populate, which feels really annoying. I have 541 items in my Outlook Contacts list (which is the default address book selected in my SmartStamp). Almost every time I use this feature all I want to do is search for one particular name. I’d much rather that SmartStamp waited for me to type in the name rather than racing off trying to be helpful and list every name in my address book.

For Mail Merge much the same window pops up, but with the addition of tick-boxes to the left of the names in the Address Book list. This I don’t mind. But I do wish that it would sort the list alphabetically by surname once it has populated the list.

Another feature that would have been wonderful would have been to tie it into the Royal Mail’s online postcode checker facility. What a faff it was to keep clicking back and forth between SmartStamp, Outlook Contacts and the Royal Mail postcode website just to ensure that three addresses had their postcodes completed.

It would also be great if this software could read syndicated feeds that gave useful information such as last posting dates at Christmas, or information about proposed price increases.

Finally, once I’ve completed one batch of labels (eg Mail Merge of airmail letters to the USA) the only way that I can see to start anew is to exit the application completely and start again from scratch. Surely it wouldn’t have been too much of a hardship of include a New button. In fact, had they built the application using a standard Windows UI it would have made things much more familiar.

This week I ordered a book on Amazon called Don’t Make Me Think about website usability. I’m absolutely certain that this application could do with a major usability overhaul. Royal Mail, if you’re listening I’d be delighted to be involved.

And the price really is too high, for something this poor: £4.99 a month or £49.99 a year, plus cost of postage. I wouldn’t have minded paying a one-off fee of £49.99 to buy the software but every year?! Come on, Royal Mail!

And I forgot to mention that once you have printed your labels and stamps you then have 2 days to post the letters! I printed a sheet of 21 stamps today each of which said at the bottom of each “Post by 19.12.05”. Why?! I don’t get booklets of stamps at Tesco that have a use-by date, why here?!

I will keep using the software because it saves me time, and it means that I can deal with my mail at times that are convenient to me and when the local post office is closed. But at the end of the day while I was able to use the software to print all our labels and stamps, I could have done it a lot more pleasurably and intuitively had a few things been better designed, in my opinion.

MSN Messenger down

MSN Messenger error messages
I guess that means that the MSN Messenger website is down, then!

Look what I found! I’ve been trying to login to MSN Messenger for a couple of hours now, without success and having tried to access the Service Status page and getting an error I checked out the main MSN Messenger website. And that’s what I saw, above.

The current MSN Messenger Service Status is:

ERROR

The requested URL could not be retrieved

While trying to retrieve the URL: http://status.messenger.msn.com/Status.aspx?

The following error was encountered:

  • Unable to forward this request at this time.

This request could not be forwarded to the origin server or to any parent caches. The most likely cause for this error is that:

  • The cache administrator does not allow this cache to make direct connections to origin servers, and
  • All configured parent caches are currently unreachable.

Footprint 3.0/FPMCP
Generated Tue, 06 Dec 2005 17:52:40 GMT by 213.249.102.94 (Footprint 3.0/FPMCP)

I guess that means there’s a problem.

Goodbye 1st Page 2000; Hello WeBuilder 2005

Screenshot of WeBuilder 2005
Screenshot of the excellent WeBuilder 2005 — my new HTML editor of choice. I like my HTML comments to stand out in bright yellow!

I’ve gone and done it. After almost six years of faithful service to Evrsoft’s 1st Page 2000 I’ve finally said goodbye to my HTML editor of choice and said hello to a new one: Blumentals’ WeBuilder 2005.

Having checked out the beta release of Evrsoft’s First Page 2006 I’m now quite convinced that it is not going to be the product that I had hoped it might be, and so I’ve been looking around for a replacement. I found it today in WeBuilder 2006.

I stumbled upon it quite by accident this afternoon. As I was clearing up my desk I discovered the latest .net magazine cover CD which had an intriguing product on it called Rapid CSS 2005 by Blumentals. So I checked out their website and discovered that not only did Rapid CSS 2005 look like a very useful application, so did HTMLPad 2005. And even better: both applications were combined along with Javascript and PHP editing functions in an application called WeBuilder 2005. So that’s the one I opted for.

WeBuilder 2005 appears to me to be the update that should be First Page 2006. Here’s what I like, so far:

  • it loads really quickly
  • it supports the latest web technologies (XHTML 1.0, XHTML 1.1, CSS2, PHP, Javascript) with customizable colour syntax highlighting and autocomplete coding
  • it has an attractive, highly customizable user interface (reminiscent in places of the Microsoft Office look)
  • The Code Inspector sidebar gives both an overview of your code, but with CSS files also offers a rapid way to edit and build your CSS files.

There’s a whole lot more but you know, what I really want is a fast-loading, highly customizable text editor that offers me a load of useful tools that don’t get in the way of my coding. And I think I’ve found that in WeBuilder 2005. I think we’re going to enjoy long nights of coding from now on.

Opera 9 Preview

Screenshot of Opera 9 Preview
Screenshot of Opera 9 Preview.

Opera 9 is now in Preview release. This is the version before it goes Beta, so it’s likely that there will be some bugs. I’ve just installed it to a separate directory to Opera 8.

There have been quite a few updates since version 8 (as you’d expect from a major upgrade!).

It’s nice to see that Opera is finally having confidence in itself, as one of the changes since version 8 is “Changed default UserAgent string to identify as Opera”. It used to identify itself to servers as Internet Explorer. Which is clearly wasn’t!

It also appears to open much, much quicker than version 8, which isn’t itself particularly slow.

I’m now using Opera 8, 9 Preview and Firefox 1.0.7. And Internet Explorer 6.0 … when I have to!

eSword – freeware Bible software with an edge

Screenshot of eSword Bible software
A screenshot of the free eSword Bible software for Windows.

Next up in my “I’ve been meaning to blog about this for ages” series comes the excellent eSword bible software. I’ve been using eSword for a couple of years now, and it’s now at the truly holy version 7.7.7. (Stryper would be proud of them!) There is also a version available for Pocket PC (or whatever Microsoft are calling their PDA version of Windows).

What I really like about eSword is its variety of Bible versions available. I regularly use The Message, Contemporary English Version (CEV) and International Standard Versions (ISV), as well as occasionally in Hebrew or Koine Greek. Sadly, the New International Version (NIV) and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) are not available as their publishers haven’t granted eSword a licence.

The user-interface is really quite simple too: Select the version you want (of those you have installed) in the central section, and in the left-hand pane select the book and chapter you want to view. It couldn’t be more simple than that. If you have any commentaries installed you can access information from those in adjacent panes; or create your own study notes.

eSword also has a Compare function, showing your selected Bible verse in each version you have installed; or a Parallel function, allowing up to four versions to be viewed side-by-side.

Searching for a passage is a simple case of clicking Search and telling the software what you’re looking for, and in which version.

It’s certainly worth checking out. But if you want to download everything then you’ll certainly need a broadband connection as it clocks in at over 336 MB.