Applications Vista

A better desktop with RocketDock and Vista Start Menu

Sitting in front of a computer about 80% of your working day it is important that your work environment – that is your desktop – is both visually pleasing and functional. Having switched to Windows Vista not too long ago and just bought a new laptop I spent some time customizing my desktops to increase functionality and decrease clutter. Along the way I found some useful applications and some nice tricks that I’d like to share with you.

Get a Dual-Monitor Wallpaper with DisplayFusion

One of the things that has bugged me from day one was that out of the box neither XP nor Vista allowed you to have different wallpapers on different screens if you have a dual screen setup. I’ve been working with two screens for years and a cohesive background graphic for my workspace has always been one of the items on my wishlist. When I came across the beautiful Mandolux multi-monitor wallpapers I decided that now was the time so I started digging around on the web for a small app that would let me split my desktop in half so to speak. After some trial and error I landed on DisplayFusion – a free multi-monitor desktop wallpaper application that runs on both XP and Vista alike. The application is light and easy to use and combined with a Mandolux wallpaper the result (as seen at the top of this article) is quite stunning.

Keep your tools handy with RocketDock

It’s no secret that I’m a Windows guy and I have less than kind things to say about it’s rival the Mac. But that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to say that Steve Jobs and his fruity company hasn’t come up with some briliant ideas. Ideas like the customizeable launch bar. Fortunately clever coders have created several clones of this application that run in Windows environments. One of these is the nice and spiffy RocketDock. It lets you drag and drop any application, folder or whatever else comes to mind into a dockable launch box and makes them available to you with one click. I’ve installed it on both my office computer and my laptop (as seen below) and moved the regular Windows Taskbar to the left hand side to get it out of the way. Now I have all my frequently used applications handy with one click at the bottom of my screen and if I want to dig deeper I can always go to the Taskbar. As Candide would say, it’s the best of all possible worlds.

Harness the launching power of the Vista Start Menu

An often overlooked application that I myself wasn’t fully aware of until recently is the Vista Start Menu search box. More than just a regular search box, this powerful feature lets you launch any application by simply writing (part of) it’s name and hitting Enter. This comes in handy when you want to launch a seldom used or hidden application like the equally genius Snipping Tool which for some bizarre reason is hidden within Vista. The search box catalogues all your applications and lets you launch them without digging through folder trees on the Program menu.

“But wait. That’s exactly what Launchy does” you might say (if you’re a real nerd or a Lifehacker reader). And you are right. But think about this for a second: Why would you use a third party application to do something that has been built into the operating system anyway? Sadly the prevalence of Launchy and applications like it on Vista systems shows how buggy the transition from XP to Vista has been. But fret not: If you’re already a Launchy user, try switching over to the Vista Start Menu for a while and you’ll see that you can safely get rid of that extra 3rd party bulk and still get pretty much the same results.


What Notebook Should I Get?

I need a new notebook (when did they become “notebooks” anyway? I always thought they were “laptops”). The one I share with my better half Angela (a Toshiba Satellite M100-JG2) is too big, too heavy and too old. But as with pretty much everything else I find myself in a self-induced deadlock over which one to throw my money away on. I’m a very indecisive guy I guess.

So what laptop notebook should I get? The annoying thing about computers is that they evolve too quickly and there are way too many options. Regardless of what I get it will be outdated and price-reduced two weeks from now and I’ll feel like a moron for having spent the money. Nevertheless I need to make a decision: I spend a lot of down time during the day in transit and in the control room where I broadcast a live TV show and with a thin and light notebook with enough power I can get a lot more work done – or at least I think I can. And it is with this scenario in mind I have set down some basic parameters for my search:

  • It has to be relatively small and light. I am comfortable with a 13.3” screen but nothing smaller. Anything larger gets too heavy and bulky anyway. That pretty much narrows the field to a select few computers.
  • Then there is the question of power and future-proofing. I tend to run multiple applications at the same time (usually several different browsers, Photoshop, Expression Web plus a bunch of other stuff) and I’m very impatient. I also occasionally do some video editing work so it really has to be up to snuff. So a high-end and low-power processor is a must, ie a Penryn, preferably the T8100.
  • Finally the notebook needs to be tough and portable. I can’t stand those flimsy paper like notebooks that have screens that bend and twist when you breathe on them and I’m sure I’d just break them anyway. I have an ancient ThinkPad and it’s great (and slow) but I can’t really get myself to shell out an extra $1000 on that extravagance.

After lengthy research and a lot of hair pulling I’ve narrowed it down to three choices:

Dell XPS M1330 (Product) RED Edition

This notebook comes highly praised by both reviewers and friends alike and with customization has everything I’m asking for: 13.3” screen, T8100 (2.1GHz/800Mhz FSB/3MB cache) processor, 4GB of RAM, dedicated nVidia video card, massive and fast hard-drive with free-fall sensor. To boot it even has an optical drive that doesn’t ruin the tiny form factor.

Price: $1,349 with special offer discount (ends September 12)

The pros: The notebook is very small and light, has everything on my list, is considered to be strong and sturdy and since it’s part of the (Product) RED program $50 US of the purchase goes to curb the AIDS pandemic (too little, but it’s a start).

The cons: It’s a Dell. For those of you who don’t know, Dell started out as a company that built computers with the discarded parts from other manufacturers. As a result they had an incredibly high failure rate. Surprisingly even after stepping away from that (incredibly stupid) business philosophy their computers are still questionable when it comes to performance. At the same time I’m reluctant to shell out $300 for a 3 year full service plan in case something should go wrong (which is quite probable). I’m also apprehensive because I have yet to actually see or try any of these notebooks in real life. The Dell booth at the local mall shut down and neither FutureShop nor Staples have the M1330 in stock for me to look at. To get this unit I’ll have to order it online and wait however long Dell deems appropriate to get it. And I don’t like waiting.

LG P300

The LG P300 series also offers all the features I’m looking for and is even thinner than the M1330. When it came out the reviewers all agreed that it was a true contender to the M1330. On the downside it is hideous and expensive and has an external DVD drive. But it’s available right across the street from my house right now.

Price: $1,599 at several major electronics retailers

The pros: The LG is the thinnest of the bunch yet as powerful as the M1330. In addition it is available right now and I can have it in my hands in less than 30 minutes.

The cons: At $1599 it is much more expensive than the M1330 (with the same specs and the discount, the M1330 would be $1249). Some of this can be explained by the thinner form factor but I think it is also in large part due to the so-called “stylish” looks of the lid. Unfortunately it is anything but stylish – the “wine red” lid looks like streaks of bloody whale barf with Peto Bismal mixed in. If I were to get this notebook I’d have to invest in a skin for the lid to conceal this artistic atrocity. But I digress. The P300 achieves its slim shape by ditching the internal disc drive for an external one. But is that really a con? In some ways I would be getting an external USB drive more than losing one. And I don’t really use the disc drive for anything except installing software so it’s not really a loss at all. One thing that is annoying is that LG has replaced the all-important FireWire port with a “SmartLink” port which is basically a mini USB. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with that port.

Lenovo IdeaPad U330

Lenovo has released a new line called IdeaPad in the States that looks very promising. Supposedly it retains much of the ThinkPad ruggedness and form without the insane price. The U330 has a slightly slower processor P7350 ( 2GHz 667MHz 1MB ) and less RAM but this is reflected in the price. Unfortunately it is only available in the USA so I’d have to cross the border to get my hands on one.

Price: $1,249 US

The pros: I trust Lenovo 100%. They are rock solid. The price is also good and even though it is not as powerful as the two others it is still up there. And it has an ATI graphics card which unline the nVidia cards in the other two won’t spontaneously self combust two weeks after purchase. Did I mention it’s a Lenovo?

The cons: It’s less powerful than the others and also a bit bigger. But the main problem is that for some reason, known only to the morons who decide where to sell these computers, it is not available in Canada.

What do you think?

Like I said, I can’t make up my mind on this one. So I figured I’d ask you, my trusted readers, what you think. Do you have experience with any of these notebooks? Do you have any preferences or reasons for or against one or another? Do you work for Dell, LG or Lenovo and want to give me one for free or at a massive discount in return for a fair and honest review here on this blog? If you have anything you’d like to share on this topic, please drop me a line in the comments below. I would really appreciate some honest input.