Posts Tagged 'Microsoft'

Quick Review: Zune HD

zuneHDMicrosoft recently released their 3rd generation Zune media player – the Zune HD.  Whereas the previous Zune players relied upon d-pads and squircles to move around the user interface, the Zune HD is full multi-touch wonder, and it is very well done.  In fact, if it weren’t so pretty, you might almost say that it’s over done.  It’s almost embarrassingly schwanky and fun-to-use.

But let’s dig in to other items first.


Current pricing for the Zune HD is $219 (US) for the 16GB version, and $289 (US) for the 32GB version.  While that pricing is competitive and slightly cheaper than the similarly equipped iPod Touch devices, it seems like a better choice would’ve been to totally undercut Apple on this point. 

Also, I know that memory is sold in particular quantities and sizes (8GB, 16GB, etc.), but why can’t they figure out how to release different memory sizes for these?  For instance, a 40GB Zune HD that is comparatively priced to a 32GB iPod Touch would seem like a better value (to me) than being $10 or $20 cheaper.  I should know if this is technically feasible or not, but I’m really not sure.  You would think it wouldn’t be too difficult.


The Zune HD comes in a fairly small and sturdy box.  The top of the box slides upward to reveal the player, with manuals, earbuds, and USB cable packaged neatly behind it. 

If “unboxing” write-ups are your thing, then check out the Engadget article covering this.  Honestly, though… it’s just a box.


The Zune HD is easily one of the most advanced media players you will find on the market today, featuring

  • 3.3” OLED capacitive touch display (480×272 resolution)
  • Measures 2.07” x 4.08” x .35”
  • Weighs a paltry 2.6 ounces (compared to the 4.1oz iPod Touch)
  • Powered by the Nvidia Tegra processor
  • Flash-based storage
  • Multi-touch display
  • HD radio on-board
  • 802.11b/g wireless support
  • Accelerometer
  • MP3, WMA, AAC and MP4 audio support
  • 720p HD video output (via optional dock)
  • Equalizer
  • 660 mAh Lithium-Ion battery
  • Web browser, Apps and Games


Before you ever even turn the device on, you immediately notice how little it weighs.  Although 2.6oz doesn’t mean a whole lot to me on paper, it sure translates into a nice experience when you’re holding it.  My recently-acquired MyTouch 3G phone isn’t exactly heavy, but there’s no doubt that the Zune HD weighs less.  In fact, with the metal casing and glass screen, it just feels like a nicely designed & assembled piece of hardware.  At least two of my iPhone-toting friends remarked at how nice the form factor is.  It really makes the iPhone feel incredibly large.  Zune phone anyone?

zuneHD1 Like most touch-enabled devices of today, the physical buttons are mostly absent.  The top of the device has a rectangular Power/Sleep button that is flush with the casing.  The left-hand side features a slightly bumped out Media Button that brings up the volume and track fwd/back controls, no matter where you are.  Finally, the Home Button is placed just below the Zune logo on the front of the player.  That’s it.  No other physical controls are present.

The bottom of the Zune HD is also where you’ll find the standard 3.5mm headphone jack and dock port.

The back of the casing features a nicely etched Zune logo, your serial number (toward the bottom) and the obligatory FCC information, though very faint.  The lower left-hand side has the words “hello from seattle” in very small text, something that every Zune has sported somewhere.

The Zune HD comes with very typical earbuds (+ colorful foam covers) that I would never, ever use.  They sound decent, or so I’m told, but that style of earbud absolutely kills my ears.  I am continuing to use the Zune Premium headphones that shipped with my Zune 80.  Otherwise, the only other hardware of note is the standard Zune port-to-USB cable.


In my personal opinion, the “twist” interface on the Zune has been the best of any media player out there.  The ability to move horizontally and vertically among your collection is both fun and easy-to-use.  The Zune HD retains the “twist” tradition, while adding ‘touchability’ to the mix for additional control, shortcuts, and some pretty cool stuff.

As an interesting aside, a good friend of mine was taking a look at my Zune HD.  He noted that something (I don’t remember what) was not entirely intuitive on the Zune HD.  It got me thinking.  What isintuitive”?  Should all functions be readily apparent without ever having read a manual or having used a similar product?  How low do you set the bar?   These are interesting questions.  Microsoft has historically been *very* conservative and overly explanative with their interfaces.  Windows NT 4.0 featured an arrow that flew across the taskbar, poked the Start button, and said “click here to Start”.  It was fine for Grandma who’d never used a PC, but it was pretty ridiculous for the rest of us.  These days, however, Microsoft seems to count on the fact that more and more people know how to use a computer, and thus can figure out most of the interface on their own.  “Intuitive” is almost better stated as “consistent” – both with their own product, as well as other products on the market.  I read the Zune HD manual after the fact, but otherwise figured out on my own how to play music, use the radio, add a favorite in the browser, and scroll through pictures.  To me, that means they’ve accomplished “intuitive”.


zuneHD2 The Zune HD now features a “wallpaper”, of sorts, which ends up acting more as a shade to what is going on behind the scenes.  When you turn the Zune HD on, you are greeted with the (customizable) shade, the time, notification icons, and an arrow pointing up – which is the direction that you flick the shade to get the homescreen.  As best I can figure, this shade helps protect the user from unnecessarily messing with the player while in a pocket or purse.  If you happened to hit a button accidently, you would still have to flip the shade to do much more.  A safety feature, I suppose, and a fun way to personalize your device, since the rest of the player only allows for the default black background. 

All that said, it seems like the swiping up motion to clear the shade is a bit problematic at times.  It requires a fairly intentional swiping motion, and it occasionally not ready to be swiped after first turning the screen on.  Here’s hoping these issues are remedied with a future firmware update.

zuneHD3The homescreen is really broken into two main parts: the category list and the quickplay.  When one part is made prominent, the other shrink down and off to its respective side.  It’s really an amazingly clever way to give access to more functionality, without having to mess with an interface that is already known.

homescreen: As you can see in my very awesome, custom graphic, the homescreen gives the ability to launch several things all from one place.  Get used to this, because the Zune HD is all about having a lot of choices from various views.  In this case, you can select any of the various ‘categories’ on the right-hand side, click on the ‘Play’ circle to begin playing all of your music, or you can click on the left-hand side ‘Quickplay’ area for access to a number of handy things.

zuneHD4 quickplay:  The small quickplay area on the left becomes the prominent portion of the screen just by clicking on it.  Actually, you can switch between the two main screens by either swiping back and forth, clicking on the respective side, or simply hitting the home button.  They really want you to use the quickplay functionality, and you really ought to be.  It’s wonderful!

Back to the subject at hand, though, the quickplay area is broken into (at most) four sections: Now Playing, Pins, History, and New.  The ‘Now Playing’ portion only shows when you return to the homescreen while you’re playing music, radio, or a podcast.  It will show an album cover (or similar) of whatever you’re currently playing, along with ‘Playing’ or ‘Paused’ text above it.  ‘Pins’ are like favorites for the media you have on your Zune HD.  Like a particular album, artist, or genre?  Pin it to your quickplay area where you can quickly get at it.  You can also pin podcasts, pictures, radio stations, browser favorites, and apps.  Nice!  The ‘History’ area, as you might expect, shows media that you’ve accessed most recently.  Finally, the ‘New’ section shows media that you’ve most recently added, which is great when you’ve downloaded a few new albums that you want to remember to listen to.

zuneHD5 music:  Hopefully, playing music is the primary job of your Zune HD.  After all, that’s where this device excels above all others in this category.  Clicking on ‘Music’ from the homescreen whisks the word “music” to the top of the screen and zooms in, revealing your Artists view.  From here you can scroll downward and roll through the artists, swipe side-to-side to get at playlists, genres, albums, etc., or hit a boxed [E] letter (see the photo) to bring up the full alphabet view where you can go straight to all artists beginning with that letter.  It’s really a fairly ingenious (and fast) way of moving around, and yet retains the “twist” interface that Zune has used for years.  It’s more of the same, but better.  Not only that, but other items are immediately clickable from this view.  Click the ‘Play’ circle next to an artist and begin playing all albums from that artist.  Rather dig in?  Click on the Artist name to get at their albums, pics, bio, and related.  Finally, click on the top of the screen where the cropped ‘Music’ text lives to go back to the previous screen.  This is a consistent feature when moving around the Zune HD interface.

zuneHD6 While playing music, the ‘now playing’–type view has an astonishing amount of control.  As you can see in the picture above, you have access to no less than 7 distinct functions all from a single view.  What you actually see is certainly far less cluttered than my photoshopped screenshot, so you’ll need to imagine this without all of the red arrows and text.  The ‘now playing’ view let’s you easily see the artist (bold), the album (just below it), the album artwork, the current song (just below the artwork), and the next three tracks coming up.  You can also hit Back, toggle Shuffle and/or Repeat, and give the song a Rating, if you like.  There’s more here than meets the eye, however, because much of what you see is also clickable.  For instance, the Artist text will take you to the section for that artist.  The area that shows the current + upcoming tracks will give you the full track list for that album (or playlist).  Selecting the middle of the screen will bring up the Media Key functionality: adjusting the volume, or going FWD/BACK with your tracks. 

Wow!  That’s a lot of stuff, and as with most Microsoft products, really just a number of ways to accomplish the same task.

video:  Strangely enough, I don’t (personally) spend a lot of time watching video on my Zune.  Sure, I have the obligatory few DVDs I’ve ripped and some home movies, but nothing significant.  Quite honestly, I use my Zune mostly for music.

That said, there isn’t a lot that the Zune HD offers in video playback as compared with the previous Zune players – save for a beautiful, beautiful screen.  That’s really the story here.  Even with a smaller screen than the iPod Touch, I’m guessing that most folks would prefer watching the Zune HD and all its OLED goodness.  The colors are richer, the viewable angles are far better, and (on paper) the video-playback battery life is longer.

As you might expect, you can hit the Media Key to get on-screen playback controls during a video.  Drag to fwd/rew the video, turn the volume up/down, or pause.  Pretty basic stuff, and it works well.

pictures:  Again, the story here is really the beautiful screen.  You can browse your pictures via folder name or date, and then watch a slideshow or flip through them manually.  They look wonderful. 

Even more impressive, though, might be the speed at which you can flip through your pictures.  The Zune HD is quite simply the most responsive handheld device I’ve ever owned.  Thanks to the Nvidia Tegra processor, I imagine, and some very clever programming.  You can literally flip through them as fast as your fingers will move, and then pinch to zoom (etc) that folks have come to expect.

Lastly, you can long-press a picture (or folder) to delete it, “pin” it, or (in the case of a single photo) make it your slide background.

zuneHD7 radio:  Like all previous Zunes, the Zune HD offers built-in FM radio, which only the most recent iPods have begun to offer.  One of the selling points of the new Zune “HD”, however, is the inclusion of HD radio, which advertises ‘CD quality’ radio reception.  Having listened to HD radio in my commuter car for the past year or so, I can honestly say that it does sound noticeably better than standard FM radio.  It also offers the (very handy) ability to include the artist/song/album name info in the audio stream, which is nice.

Like other views on the Zune HD, the ‘now playing’ page for radio gives access to a number of handy functions.  Notably, you can quickly add a radio preset, access your existing presets, and add the current ‘song’ or ‘show’ to your cart for later downloading on the Zune Marketplace.  With an HD-enabled station, you can also swipe left or right to change between their HD offerings.

All in all, if you don’t listen to much FM, the HD radio offering may not float your boat a whole lot.  It is a very nice feature, though, and well implemented.

marketplace: Building off of the 2nd generation Zune functionality, the Zune HD has full wireless access to the Zune Marketplace.  Launch the Marketplace and you are greeted with (4) basic options: Music, Apps, Search, and Cart. 

The ‘Music’ option takes you to a nice thumbnail view of the newest album releases, or you can swipe left/right for Top Songs or Top Albums.  ‘Apps’, as you might expect, let’s you view all of the Zune apps for immediate downloading.  There’s like 7 apps total right now, so it’s pretty silly.  ‘Search’ looks like a typical browser search area, and brings up the Zune HD virtual keyboard.  Type in your search terms, hit Done, and away you go!  Everything that the Marketplace has available is at your fingertips – for streaming (Zune Pass) or purchasing via the ‘Cart’.  I would imagine that you can purchase immediately if you have Microsoft Points in your account, but I have not tried that.

: It came as a bit of a surprise to many folks, but the Zune HD features a very capable browser.  Given what Windows Mobile has offered up in terms of browsing, not much was expected in the regard, but the results are quite welcome.  The IE6-based Zune HD browser is nice to look at, relatively fast, and features the typical mobile browser controls you’ve come to expect: pinch to zoom, move around with your fingers, and so forth.

The browser interface is, shall we say, very spartan.  There are about (4) controls to see, and much of that is tucked away at the bottom or transparent.  When push comes to shove, you realize that the “bare bones” interface is really all you need in a mobile browser: hitting Back, managing Favorites, Searching, and then interacting with your current URL.  It seems almost too simplistic, but what else do you need to do that cannot be handled with those basic controls + screen manipulation?  It’s very efficient, and the browser engine is surprisingly capable.

Aside from the Marketplace search, the browser is really one of the primary places in the Zune HD where you’ll use the virtual keyboard.  While I don’t have hours of typing under my belt on the Zune HD, my initial reaction is that the keyboard is quite capable, and in many ways better than what is on the MyTouch 3G.  It seems to be responsive and very accurate.  In fact, I did a test type between the two devices, typing “echo and the bunnymen”.  I had one mis-typed letter on the Zune, and I completely mangled “bunnymen” on the MyTouch 3G, which I have far more experience typing on.  Guess that says something.

apps: This is certainly a point of contention amongst many reviewers and interested buyers: What is the app support on the Zune HD?  To be perfectly honest, the current support is poor.  Microsoft has not announced a long-term plan for what type of app support the Zune HD will have, and so we’re left wondering… and tinkering with the handful of launch day apps. 

Let’s see, I have a calculator, a weather app, and some games.  While they all look very nice, they take a bit too long to load, in my opinion. 

What would be nice to find out are the long-term app plans for the Zune platform.  Will we get XBLA games ported to the Zune?  Will there be a full app marketplace with 3rd party support?  I would be very surprised if Microsoft left the apps as they are currently, but without any official word from them, I can only remark about the present state of things.  It’s pretty sad, but at least a small step forward from the previous iteration of Zune hardware.  A very small step.

settings:  I’m not going to spend too much time with this.  Need to adjust your wireless link?  Try out a different EQ setting?  How about set a lock screen PIN?  It’s all here.   Enjoy.


A nice interface is nothing if the infrastructure doesn’t support it well.  The Zune HD could dance and twirl all it likes, but if it feels like the hardware is constantly chugging to keep up with you, well… the experience would be less than ideal.  Thankfully, the performance is top-notch.

I don’t know a whole lot about the Nvidia Tegra processor, but I get the feeling that this is a nice piece of hardware.  Either that, or the Zune team is a crack squad that can produce blood from turnips.  Whatever the case, the Zune HD moves along at a clip that is nothing short of wonderful.  Screens emerge quickly, transitions are smooth, and scrolling is seamless.  If anything, my experience with the Zune HD has been eye-opening.  This is how mobile devices are supposed to be:  fast and fluid.  HTC and the WinMo team need to get together and get this Tegra processor into all of their upcoming phones.  Seriously.  This is good stuff.


The Zune HD is rated at up to 33 hours for music and 8.5 hours for video.  These numbers are, of course, under the most ideal conditions – wireless off, screen off (music), and not fiddling with things.

Evidently, the Nvidia Tegra processor is known to be both powerful and power-sipping.  The verdict is still out on the battery life of the Zune HD, but I can’t say that I’m completely blown away just yet.  If I’m listening to music for 5 hours and barely see the battery meter change, then I’m impressed.  As it stands, the battery life seems to be decent, but not incredible.


So, this “quick review” is not especially quick, but what can you do?  There is a lot to talk about with all that is wrapped up in this tiny package.

Is the Zune HD the best personal media player out there?  I say “yes”, with no hesitation whatsoever.  If your goal is a great music listening experience, then the Zune HD is the best of the best.  Hands down.  If you’re a Zune Pass subscriber, then the whole package just becomes that much better. 

What about video support?  Well, I still say that the Zune HD is wonderful for watching video, but at 32gigs max (currently) you’re only going to fit so much content on here.  What you have will look great, thanks to the beautiful OLED screen.  No doubt about that.

What about app support?  As it stands right now, the Zune HD is *not* your best choice for apps.  If you want a large selection of games, map finding apps, or something to produce bodily function sounds, then another device is a better bet for you.  That said, I’m hoping that Microsoft knocks our socks with some amazing Xbox/XBLA integration in the very near future.  C’mon, guys!

What else?  Quite simply, there is not a nicer looking media player on the market today.  The form-factor is great, the interface is amazing, and the whole package is extremely well thought out.  From the wonderful navigation to the beautiful screen, the Zune HD has many features that the competition need to be seriously considering. 

With exception of app support, the Zune HD has raised the bar.


Microsoft Security Essentials (Anti-virus)

I have never, ever been a fan of anti-virus applications.  Why?  Well, as a systems administrator, I’ve seen how more often than not they adversely affect the PC that they’re “protecting” – primarily in the area of system performance.  It drives me nuts.  In most cases, I think the protection they offer is admirable, but at the cost of performance?  No thank you.

When it was announced a year ago (or so) that Microsoft would be releasing their own anti-virus client, the jokes started almost immediately.  Windows has long been flogged as an “insecure” operating system, even though Windows XP’s service-pack 2 (released in August 2004) resolved most of these issues. 

It’s difficult to shake a bad reputation. 

What has been unknown for these many months is what Microsoft’s iteration of an anti-virus client would look like.  Will it be bloated?  Slow?  Will it even provide system protection?  How much will it cost?  Some of these questions were answered with the earlier release of Microsoft’s Live OneCare suite, which garnered very good reviews on all accounts.  Still, Microsoft would find some way to mess up a good thing, right?  Don’t they always??

Not necessarily.

Earlier this year, the beta of Microsoft Security Essentials was released and the results were quite surprising. 

  • No Bloat: Less than a 5 meg download for the 64-bit version.  Seriously.
  • Responsive: Your system feels nearly ‘no load’, even while a full system scan is taking place
  • Cost?: Free

The one thing that I cannot comment on is the level of protection that this anti-virus suite provides, though I’m going to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt on this one.  Why?  Just because they’re Microsoft?  No, actually – more because their Live OneCare product (upon which this app is based) has already been given a thumbs-up in this regard.  I expect that tradition to continue.

So… note this date in history: I am for the very first time recommending an anti-virus product.  Check out Microsoft Security Essentials

Would like to read a more in-depth review?  Sure thing.  Head over to this site.

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Gettin’ my “Bing” on!

Microsoft made a bit of a splash recently as they announced their new search (err… “decision”) engine, Bing.


Thankfully, Bing isn’t just a re-brand of their previous Live Search engine.  Rather, Bing appears to take the good of Live Search – a great home page, for instance, good search results, Cashback functionality – and it wraps them into what they are referring to as a “decision engine”.  It sounds a bit like they’re giving up on the “search engine turf wars” that they’ve been losing to Google for years now by attempting to change the game entirely.  It remains to be seen how effective this route is going to be, but I’m of the impression that this is the right track.  Google is great and all – I use it quite a bit – but the results are less than perfect.  They seem almost “bloated” at times with fake websites, old information, and stuff that I quite honestly don’t want.  Can a new engine perform better?  Perhaps.

Anyhow, I’m finding a lot to like about Bing.  For instance…

  • A “warmer” interface than Google, which is beginning to appear overly sparse and somewhat cold
  • Very fast, even though it appears to be more media-rich
  • Link “previews” when you mouse over them.  Nice!
  • Video “previews” when you mouse over them.
  • Additional “filtering” for many searches built right into the search results
  • Great home/start page graphics with informational overlays.  Cool!
  • Cashback functionality, that I actually use.  Seriously.
  • Very good search results.

I’ve been using Bing as my primary search engine for the past week or so, and I’m really enjoying the experience.  Better yet, I’m finding very little need or desire to use Google, which is different from my previous attempts to use Live Search as my primary engine. 

One *very* interesting experiment is the “Blind Search” test from Michael Kordahi.



Essentially, this portal page allows you to enter any search term, hit the ‘search’ button, and receive back three “blind” columns of results – one each from Google, Yahoo, and Bing.  You don’t know which results are which until you click on a “vote for this search engine” button, which unveils the identity of the engine you selected.  In the (above) example, I selected the left-column, which were the results from Google.

The initial roll-out of this “blind test” gave scores for each engine — showing which engine was selected most frequently — but it was clearly getting jacked somehow, and was thus removed for now.  Still, for your own experimenting, it’s interesting to put in some search phrases and decide which engine delivers the best results to you and how frequently.  In my case, I’ve ended up clicking the Google engine about 60% of the time. 

That said, it’s definitely made me think about “what” constitutes ‘better results’ from a search engine.  Is it more than just the top ten ‘blue links’?  What about the look and feel of the site?  How about linking in other media – images, video, etc.?  Quite honestly, sometimes it’s difficult to say – and the blind test really shows that.  I would venture a guess that the search results from these top engines are all quite good these days, so having additional offerings – such as what Bing is proposing – might be the right direction.

Something to think about.

Anyhow, I’m really enjoying my Bing experience thus far.  For some additional insight, check out Paul Thurott’s “Bing” review here.

Kicking the tires: Windows 7 Beta

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve most likely heard at least something about the recently released Windows 7 Beta from Microsoft.  Since we’re MSDN Subscribers at my work place, I was able to grab a copy of it a day or so earlier than the general public.  Good thing, too, since the traffic essentially brought down the beta download sites for about 2 days!

Anyhow, I just wanted to give a quick run-down of my Win7 experiences thus far, having installed it five times already.

INSTALL #1 – Virtual PC
Before I had a decent physical machine available to install on, I went ahead and created a Virtual PC instance running Windows 7.  I was somewhat discouraged, I must say, as the install took about 2 hours to complete.  Not only that, but Win7 runs fairly slowly as a virtual on my work PC.  Slower than Vista in a virtual?  Hard to say.  Perhaps about the same.

INSTALL #2 – Sony Vaio
I was commissioned to wipe/reload a Sony Vaio laptop with a new OS for a co-worker of mine.  I decided that this laptop needed Win 7 (64-bit), and off I went.  VERY MUCH to my surprise, the entire install took just 29 minutes from boot-to-desktop!  That is pretty astounding, actually. 

Unfortunately, Win7 could not find any drivers for the wireless network adapter under the 64-bit version.  In fact, it appears that  64-bit drivers do not exist for that device, so I had to move along.  So sad 😦

INSTALL #3 – Sony Vaio (again)
I decided that I could live with a 32-bit install of Win7 on this laptop, so I set out for another shot at a 29-minute install… and that’s exactly how long it took!  This time, though, Win7 was able to find every single device on the laptop and supply the corresponding drivers.  Nice!

(Listen – I understand that Windows XP also installs very quickly, but it really takes the steam out of your experience when you have to follow-up the install with 96 Windows Updates + 7 driver downloads!  When all is said and done, Windows Vista and Win7 are faster OS installs.)

Anyhoo… the Vaio was cruising along with a 32-bit install of Win7, so I promptly joined it to the domain, loaded Office 2007, and handed it off to the user.  So far, so good!

INSTALL #4 – Dell PowerEdge 400SC
My home machine is more or less considered to be a “dinosaur” at this point, and I had a similarly-spec’d machine at work that wasn’t being used for anything any longer.  I grabbed a Dell PowerEdge 400SC (2.4ghz P4, 1gig RAM, 40gig HD) and started a Win7 install.  Again, to my surprise, the install took just about 30 minutes to complete – even on a older machine!  The video card was pretty sad, so I added a slightly-more-advanced AGP card to enable the fun n’ funky Aero interface for Windows – transparency and all that.  Everything else was working fine, and the box really moved along at a very respectable clip!  Nothing to sneeze for a 4+ year old computer, running a next-gen OS in “beta” form!

INSTALL #5 – Acer AM5100
Well… I couldn’t take it any more.  I just *had* to install Win7 on my work desktop machine, which probably seems crazy to some.  Had the previous installs gone poorly or the “word on the street” been less-than-positive, I wouldn’t have attempted such a thing.  As it was, I was already thinking about wiping my desktop machine to install Vista 64-bit, so a Win7 64-bit install didn’t seem like too much of a stretch.

I made the leap.

Without sounding like a broken record, the install once again completed in just under 30 minutes – and all of my devices were present and accounted for.  After logging on, you are greeted with the clever “betta fish” desktop.  This also happens to be the first 64-bit OS that I’ve ever run for my personal desktop, so that’s strangely exciting.


Had I not been a Vista user for quite some time, now, the UI in Win7 would’ve been a bit of a surprise, followed by a learning curve.  That said, Win7 does offer some very nice updates to the user interface – primarily around the Taskbar and Start Menu.

The new taskbar – dubbed the ‘Superbar’, for whatever reason – defaults to using icons for both your shortcuts and currently opened applications.  Hovering over the icon of an open application gives feedback in the form of a nice color that moves with your mouse.  Also, you get a small thumbnail view of that application window, that also happens to show real-time data from that window.  The thumbnail of a WMP session watching a DVD would show the movie running within the thumbnail.


For many windows within a single app, hovering over the icon will reveal all of those windows laid out side-by-side.  They can, of course, be selected or closed from that view.


Right-clicking on an icon in the taskbar brings up something called the “jump list” – essentially a quick way to do certain tasks.  You can always select or “pin” an application using the right-click method, of course, but it gets more exciting with apps that are pre-disposed to “jump list” behavior.  For instance, I can right-click on Microsoft Excel and easily access my recently opened spreadsheets!  Ever more exciting (for me, at least) is the ability to “pin” certain documents to that menu so that they’ll always show up right there.  Have a half-dozen spreadsheets that you access all week long?  Just pin them to the jump list.  Nice!


The Start Menu, although not drastically different from Vista, features the same “jump list” information, which is great.  I’m still getting used to how everything works together with Windows 7, but so far I’m really enjoying the UI enhancements!


As my good buddy, Andy, stated – “it’s the little things”.  Installing an OS and having all of the drivers present is a really, really great way to start.  Other things are nice too, such as…

  • Having your screen in high-resolution (1280×1024) right after install
  • Right-clicking on an .ISO file, and being greeted with a “burn to disc” option
  • A much less cluttered system tray
  • Updated built-in applications that “look and feel” this century 😉
  • Explorer and browser icons that show your download/copy progress on the icon itself.  Nice!!
  • Auto-detected and extended dual-monitor setup
  • Paired-down application install base, as compared with Vista
  • Updated Windows Media Player
  • Much less invasive OS overall.  Fewer distracting notifications, kinder UAC, and so forth.
  • Generally seems to be a faster-responding OS, as compared with Vista (which was typically just fine for me)
  • Some good Windows 7 Tricks to check out

It hasn’t all been roses, per se, though my day two experience (yesterday) was really flawless.  A few gripes worth mentioning, though…

  • IE8 Beta was causing some system-wide sluggishness, it seems.  I like the browser well enough, but I had to install Firefox to operate normally.
  • For whatever reason, Win7 does *not* map my network drives automatically when I log in to the domain.  Not sure what that’s all about just yet. (64-bit issue?)
    UPDATE: This is a carry-over issue from Vista that has to do with security and the UAC.  There is a reg-fix that resolves this issue, or turn of UAC (not recommended).
  • Hovering over the Start button makes it look like it’s on fire.  I don’t dig the visual much.
  • The “Show Desktop” / Aero Peek button in the bottom-right corner is great, except if you have an extended monitor off to your right-hand side.  It would be ideal to simply move your mouse to the bottom-right corner and have the Aero Peek feature spring to life, but with a right-hand dual monitor, the mouse moves to the other screen instead. 😦
  • Upon booting up today (evidently some “updates” had been installed, and then my computer restarted), my screen resolution was bumped down to 1024×768.  Aggravating.
  • Some graphical hesitations here and there.  Might be a “beta” display issue.
  • Some system “freeze” type hesitations in strange places.  Went to select a screen-saver this morning, and the dialog box froze for a few moments.

So far, my Win7 experience has been more positive than negative, and I *do know* what  a “negative first-time-using-a-new-OS” experience feels like.  Trust me.  Moreover, Win7 is really an amazing accomplishment already, and it’s only at a “beta” stage right now.  Here’s hoping that Microsoft continues to hunt down the lingering issues, tackle them, and then releases a ready-to-use Win7 sometime later this year!  Whether warranted or not, Windows Vista is viewed upon quite poorly in the consumer & business markets.  Windows 7 needs to hit it out of the park and get back into the good graces of users and businesses everywhere.

Ouch! The Zune 30 “Y2k” bugs hits hard

sadZune So…it seems that Zune 30s around the world decided upon a collective “strike” starting today.  Something about Dec. 31st, 2008 makes the old Zune 30s just freeze at the bootup screen.  Shortly after reading this I called home to have my wife check hers.  What do you know?  It’s frozen.  No worky. 😦

On a positive note, the newer-gen Zunes (4, 8, 80, 120) appear to be thus far unaffected by this, so we still have two functioning Zunes in the house!  I feel bad for our friends across the street, though, who only have Zune 30s.  Need to borrow mine, Eric?

What’s really sad about this – aside from the “freezing” issue itself, which is very lame – is the very negative press that will come out of this.  Zune has been making some great strides over this past year, and this is definitely something that will most certainly set them back a bit – if only in the eyes of the average consumer.  Also, I’m *very* curious to find out what the “fix” is going to be!  Evidently, Microsoft is “working on it”…


UPDATE: The Zune Team has posted a “fix”, if you will, which pretty much states that you’ll need to wait until tomorrow (1/1/2009), run the battery down, and all will be well.

Evidently the issue is related to a part found *only* in the Zune30 devices that improperly handles the last day of a leap year.  Since the Zune30 devices are essentially rebranded Toshiba Gigabeat players, I’m guessing that those players have suffered the same fate.  I don’t really know, though.

Anyhow, watch our for 2012 when the next leap year rolls around! 🙂


UPDATE #2:  Tested our Zune30 shortly after midnight (1/1/09), charged it for about 10 minutes, and voila! – back in action.  I guess the Zune30s around the world just needed a 24 hour siesta.


UPDATE #3:  As expected (in my first “update”), the Toshiba Gigabeat products, of which the Zune30 is based upon,  had the *exact* same issue, though there was n’ery a mention of those players.  Still, the Zune is Microsoft’s baby and the buck stops with them. 

Personally, I applaud Microsoft for owning up to it and responding quickly.

Can we stop already?

I was browsing Cnet today, as I usually do, and came across an article regarding the new desktop that will ship with Windows 7 next year.  Part of the Windows 7 redesign is something touted as the “superbar”, that acts as the evolutionary upgrade to the taskbar that Windows has had for so long.  The Cnet video bit on this is quite informative, actually, if you can handle the poor audio.  I found it very interesting.


But that’s not the problem.  The problem is the feedback after the article.

I gave up browsing to Cnet for a time primarily because the feedback would get me so riled up.  Eventually, I went back to Cnet for the worthwhile tech news, but avoided the comments altogether.  I should’ve kept doing that.  Why?  Because the fan-boy-ism gets out of control. 

Here we have a relatively lightweight look at the new taskbar (“superbar”) in Windows 7, and folks have to bust out the “Micro$oft copies Apple”, “looks like the OSX dock”, “blah, blah, blah” comments, that really accomplish nothing.  Even more aggravating are the totally unfounded and untrue statements.

Can we get something straight here?  Large icons that launch programs were not invented by Microsoft, Apple, or anyone else that I can point to.  Interactive “docks” or “launch bars” don’t belong to either of these organizations either.  If anything, the “docks” that are so prevalent these days remind me of my time using Litestep back in the late 90s – before the Mac or Windows were using them!  Perhaps they even carried over from some Linux variants.

It doesn’t matter.

The “superbar” is not the OSX dock – they really handle things quite differently.  Better?  Worse?  Heck, you decide – but enough of the useless fanboy comments.  They’ve grown extremely tiresome.

If you care for some well-written coverage of Windows 7, check out the iStartedSomething site.  Good stuff!

Vista “Chump” Behavior

It’s obnoxious to me when any product nags me “post install” to provide additional information, join a survey, download a silly app, install something I don’t care about, and so forth.  Some companies seem to be worse than others.  In fact, fewer companies “nag” more than Adobe, but I digress.  I’m complaining about a Vista thing here….

You see, Vista would like you to participate in their “Windows Customer Experience Improvement Program”.  Whatever.  I don’t like being “nagged” with silly stuff like that, but I *really* don’t like it when “opting out” is made more difficult than it ought to be!  Someone from the Vista team thought it’d be cute to make it so that you can’t opt out until you select the option to opt in!  How clever.

Here’s how it works:

An icon in the systray says “Click me!  I’m fun!!”.  Well, kinda.  It doesn’t say that exactly.  When you click on it, however, you receive a box similar to the one below (red circle is mine).

You’ll notice that the “I don’t want to join…” option is selected by default.  Nice!  Except that the “OK” button to choose that option is grayed out and cannot be selected.  Only “Cancel”.  What’s a person to do?  What would your Mom do in this case?  How about Grandma?  They’d probably click “Cancel” for now, get pestered again, and eventually join the friggin’ thing just so it’d go away!

Microsoft wins.

However, if you select the option to “Join the Windows…Program”, guess what?  You can finally click the “OK” button!  What’d’ya know?!?!  You then have to select the “Join” option to unlock the “OK” button so that you can re-select the “I don’t want to join…” option and finally click “OK” again.

That’s chump behavior that really needs to stop.

Are you listening, Microsoft?

Looking forward to… the Zune Fall ’08 update!

This coming Tuesday, September 16th, is notable for a couple of reasons: First of all, it’s my birthday (wha?  24-years-old again??), and secondly, it is the launch date for the Zune 3.0 “Fall Refresh”.  Rather than re-invent the wheel, here’s a link to a good write-up from the Zune Insider site.

It’s interesting because the upcoming Zune hardware is more-or-less indistinguishable from the previous generation.  One of the flash-based Zunes is releasing in blue, and the 80gig Zune is being followed up with a 120gig model.  Microsoft is really a “software” company, though, and that’s where the changes are really being made here.


For starters, the upcoming firmware “refresh” is available to all previous Zunes — even the original launch 30gig Zunes!  Let me tell you how awesome that is.  Most “previous gen” media devices are left in the dust when the next version comes out, but the Zune team has done a remarkable job of keeping everyone on the same page.  It’s really pretty cool, and a model that others should follow, in my opinion.

Secondly, the 3.0 firmware brings a strong focus on “community” — both on the devices themselves, and in the desktop software.  The initial Zune mantra was ‘Welcome to the Social’, and that appears to really be happening, though a bit later than intended.  Although Microsoft was clearly aiming at the share-your-songs-over-wireless angle from the get go, that has had a lot of water doused upon it as the Zunes aren’t nearly as prevalent as some other players out there.  It’s really a chicken-and-the-egg conundrum.  That said, the wireless song sharing is really great, and I enjoy using that with other Zune owners that I know.  In fact, I’ve been frustrated at times when a friend of mine will have a song I like on their iPod, but I can’t get it from them in any way.  Not the end of the world, of course, but I like having the ability to swap songs with fellow Zune-ers…. and I *actually* do know quite a few of them, believe it or not!

The new refresh allows for subscribing to “Channels”, which is pretty cool.  Think of them as dynamic, third party playlists that you subscribe to.  You can also “tag” songs for download while listening to the FM radio on your Zune.  I listen to the radio more these days than I used to, so that might come in pretty handy from time to time!

Thirdly, the Zune is set to finally feature some games.  At launch time, the Zune Marketplace will have ‘Hexic’ and ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ for free, with more to follow, I’m sure.  Not enough to turn the tide, I’m sure, but nice nonetheless.

Check out these great videos from the Zune team!


A bit of the new Zune functionality relies upon wi-fi connections, which are nice and fast, of course, but somewhat less handy than a 3G or GPRS network.  I typically don’t have wi-fi in my car, for instance, or out at the park, and thus I cannot access some of the “community” features that I might like to have.

Although the fact that the newest Zune firmware will function on all previous models, it would’ve been nice to see some additional hardware updates: touchscreen, improved battery life, etc..  Perhaps next time?


The Zune “Fall Refresh” is a nice, evolutionary step forward for this platform.  Clearly the Zune team has some vision here, and it very much revolves around “music enthusiasts” and a that community.  It’s a different approach, to be perfectly honest, and is somewhat of a gamble, as so much focus has been placed upon discovering new music, sharing your preferences, and actually having an audience that cares.

All of these features are playing to a particular Zune strength, however, and that is the Zune Pass.  Sharing music, tagging songs from FM, and so forth all work just fine with the pay-as-you-go method, but they are really inviting when you subscribe to the Zune Marketplace via the Zune Pass.  For $14.99/month, you have access to all of the music that Zune has to offer, and there is a lot to be had.

This is a first for me, but I believe that I will be moving that direction.  In our home, we are already big proponents of the “streamable movie”, with very little care that we don’t ‘own’ them like the days of yor.  You can thank Netflix for that transition.  It’s really only natural that I would consider going the same route with my music.  Why?  Because there is a LOT of great music out there, and I’d love to have access to it.  I don’t ‘own’ the music, of course — I’m really just ‘leasing’ it, but I’m not sure that it’s that big of a deal for me any longer.  I am buying musically digitally more and more, and the physical CDs that I purchase get ripped to my collection, and then put away — sometimes for good.  For the cost of about 1 CD/month, I can download 20 albums/day, if I want to.  That’s pretty awesome.  If I stop paying for my Zune Pass, of course, then that music is “locked” and I can’t play it any longer.  That said, I can always use another service *or* purchase those albums that I just have to have.  I’m thinking that “renting” your music is the way things are going, though.

Lastly, the Zune Pass is a trick that Apple doesn’t have yet.  I want to support it if only to stick-it-to-Steve-Jobs.


My Zune makes me sad… :(

I have sadness.

Much sadness.

My Zune 80 makes me sad.

Why do you do this to me, Zune?

Haven’t I loved you?

Haven’t I heaped praise upon you?

Haven’t I wiped your screen clean?

Haven’t I kept you safely and securely in my pocket?

Haven’t I charged you fully when you required it, with n’ery a thought of the electricity bill that I would incur?

Why do you show me 50% battery life left, and then turn off?

Why does the Zune “support” team have NO IDEA what I’m talking about?

Why is this now happening on my 2nd Zune device?

Why do you mock me, Zune?

I thought you loved me.

You’re a tease.


Update: 09/22/2008

It appears that this battery issue has been resolved by the latest 3.0 firmware update for the Zune devices.  Basically, I returned a non-defective Zune because the Zune support team couldn’t atleast muster the phrase “why don’t you wait until the upcoming firmware release”.

Anyhow.  I’m glad it’s resolved now, so I can get back to being all lovey-dovey with my Zune!

De-ghetto-ify your Windows XP!

Let’s face it: the standard interface for Windows XP is starting to look pretty long-in-the-tooth.  In fact, I’ve never been a big fan of it.  That said, there are literally millions of users still working in XP every single day.  Personally, I say “move to Vista”, but for those of you who can’t (or won’t) take the plunge, here’s an easy way to make your XP-erience just a bit nicer!

Download the free “Royale Theme” for Windows XP.  Click here to download the .zip file.

Step 2
Open the .zip (compressed) file and double-click the ‘Royale Theme for XP’ file to install.  Keep all defaults and complete the setup process.

Step 3
Right-click on your desktop and choose Properties.  (Alternately, you can go to START > CONTROL PANEL > and double-click on DISPLAY)

Step 4
In the Display properties, you should be on the Themes tab.  From the Theme drop-down box, choose the ‘Royale’ entry and then click OK.

Step 5
Your interface will be quickly changed to start using the ‘Royale’ theme, which is quite nice looking, in my opinion.

Note:  You’ll also notice that your wallpaper is automatically changed.  Head back into the Display Properties, choose the Desktop tab, re-select your previous wallpaper (or a new one, if you like), and click OK.  Done.




Subtle changes in some respects, but it definitely helps the XP interface feel more “fresh” and “current”.  Again, my opinion.

For those of you who are wondering about the origins of this theme, evidently it is an *official* Microsoft theme that was extracted from the ‘XP Media Center Edition’ install.  Nice!

Enjoy… 🙂