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Windows 7

Windows 7 Beta Report Part 1: Bugs

Windows 7I had Windows 7 installed on my trusted Vaio SR140D laptop a couple of weekends ago and have been running it on a near constant basis since. Now after 3 weeks or so I have compiled a list of bugs and bonuses that should be helpful to the development team as well as users who are curious about this new operating system.

Overall I have to say Windows 7 has been a revelation (of the good kind that is). People say that Microsoft get things right every second release of something major, and since Windows 7 can be said to be a second coming of Vista the saying rings true. Windows 7 sees vast improvements in everything from usability to functionality to performance and puts a final nail in the coffin of most of the negatives the naysayers and Mac fanatics have been riding so hard on for the last two years.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Because I know you came for the trash talk I’m going to start with the bugs, ‘cus there are some nasty ones. My Windows 7 Bonuses article with the many reasons why Windows 7 is the best OS I have ever worked with will be up some time next week.

System Fatal Program Crashes

Yes, you read that right; system fatal program crashes. In the first week alone my computer crashed upwards of 40 times from this error. Bizarrely that number has gone down to almost zero in this last week but still, there is something horribly wrong going on here.

Although I can’t reproduce the problem at will, it is obviously related to files being written to drives, both internal and external: When saving one or multiple files from different applications, one or more of the applications will freeze, display “Not Responding” in the window header and a fade effect is applied. There is no way of turning the program off when this happens; even opening Task Manager, selecting the process and hitting Delete does not kill the application and you are left with a dead program locking up your computer. This problem is cascading so once it has occurred and you attempt to save another file from a different program, that one will also stall and so on.

But the problem doesn’t end there: Because Windows 7 is unable to terminate the application even from Task Manager, it is impossible to shut down or restart the operating system by normal means. When you try to shut it down, the Open Applications window will appear listing the stalled applications with and you are asked if you want to shut them down. But no matter what you try, the applications just won’t shut down and the computer is left in an infinite loop. At the end the only way of resolving the issue is to do a manual restart by holding down the power button for 8 seconds.

And now for the really bizarre part: As I said, this problem appears when you try to save a file. The application stalls almost immediately after the saving process has started so one would think the file was never saved, right? Wrong! For some inexplicable reason, once the computer has been restarted you will find the file that caused all the problems to begin with in the location where you saved it. And it works the way it is supposed to.

At first I thought that the problem was caused by some sort of drive writing conflict but that theory was shelved when I discovered that the files were actually written properly. My new hypotheses is that the problem is a broken communication between Windows 7 and the applications as to the writing process itself; a checksum error or something along those lines. That still wouldn’t explain why the applications stall so completely nor why Windows 7 is incapable of shutting them down, but it is a start.

The system fatal program crash has been triggered by both Windows 7 native and 3rd party applications including these ones: Windows 7 native zip extractor, IE 8, FireFox, Expression Web 2, PhotoShop CS2, Illustrator CS2, Notepad, Notepad ++, Opera and FileZilla. In the case of the zip extractor the crash occurred multiple times when I tried to drag-and-drop files out of an archive and onto my desktop. As for the browsers the crash occurred when I tried to save files from the web.

Caveats

Note that the system fatal program crash only happens during write-to-disk operations. I have managed to crash several programs for other reasons but in all the other cases the program has either shut down properly on its own or been possible to shut down through the Task Manager. Also note that I have been unable to find any similar references to this specific problem anywhere else on the web. However I highly doubt the problem is caused by my computer itself – I installed Windows 7 on an empty hard drive and the computer is only or 5 months old and running perfectly – and there is no possible way I’m the only one experiencing it. And even if I was, there is a good chance someone else will run into it further down the line and since none of the conventional shut down techniques work once it rears its ugly head I foresee true panic unfolding among the Windows 7 using masses.

First Start Program Incompatibilities

The second major problem I’ve run into is a transient one: Upon first installation a lot of programs do not run properly. I’ve installed a huge pile of applications under Windows 7 and for the most part (often surprisingly) they work without a hitch. But in some cases things go badly wrong until I reboot the computer. The most recent example is when I installed Camtasia from TechSmith yesterday. Upon installation the application seems to run fine, but when I stopped my screen recording and tried to start it again, the actual recorder portion of the program stalled. A warning windows opened asking if the application terminated properly and when I said no, the recorder shut down wihtout shutting down Camtasia in the process. I am guessing this is because Camtasia actually runs several different sub-programs and the crash only occurred in the recorder sub-program. Anyway, the recorder shut down and I had to restart it. After experiencing the exact same problem 5 times in a row I restarted the computer and after that everything worked perfectly.

This problem also happened when I installed PhotoShop and Illustrator CS2, FileZilla and some other applications. The problem seems to be rooted in registry rewrites or some other element that runs in the “bottom” of the operating system and needs to be restarted to be reset. Because it is transient and is easily resolved by restarting the computer it is not a major problem like the one listed above but it is still hugely annoying.

A solution?

If I’m right (and I think I am) the problem is caused by a registry rewrite or something similar that unlike Vista, Windows 7 requires a restart to apply. If that’s the case it shouldn’t be too hard to create some form of conditional operation within Windows 7 that tracks such changes and suggests that the user restarts the computer for the newly installed program to run properly.

Compatibility Mode Annoyances

As I mentioned before I am running PhotoShop and Illustrator CS2 on this computer (dont’ ask why – long story). If you’ve played with these programs under Vista you probably know that there are some crazy and annoying compatibility issues (though they are nothing like the ones in Premiere Pro CS2 which pretty much becomes nonfunctional under Vista). Fortunately the wise minds at Microsoft foresaw this problem and created something called Compatibility Mode where you can set applications to run as if they were running under older operating systems like Windows XP SP1, SP2 or even older ones like Windows 98 or 95. And this worked great. In Vista.

Annoying User Account ControlIn Windows 7 on the other hand things get a bit annoying. Because of the Vista problems with CS2, I set PhotoShop and Illustrator to run in Compatibility Mode for XP. But when I did, Windows 7 started treating the applications as unwanted bastard step children. First off, the otherwise wonderful icons displayed in the Start menu and the new and vastely improved task par are branded with an ugly User Account Control sheild warning you that something is very wrong. Seccondly, when you open the application, a User Account Control warning appears saying that an application from an unknown publisher is trying to run on your computer and asks if you still want it to run. This is totally rediculous because if you run the same program under either Vista Compatibility Mode or without Compatibility Mode, that warning doesn’t appear. Finally, in XP Compatibility Mode the splash screen at startup is totally mangled and ends up looking like some poorly hacked knock off. This of course is purely aesthetic but it still bugs me.

Yes, I know you can turn User Account Control off etc etc but the majority of user won’t do that. And even if you did, it still wouldn’t explain why the application while running under Compatibility Mode all of a sudden becomes a potentially malicious piece of software from an unknown publisher. That’s just plain rubbish and it should be fixed.

Crazy Window Dither Effect

Window Dither EffectThis last bug is one that occurred twice, but I have not been able to reproduce it since then. It is hard to describe but the screen grab above pretty much says it all: The top and bottom bars of the windows are dithered and screwed up by horizontal lines that spill out to the sides. The effect is distracting and makes it hard to work with the windows but had no actual effects on the window functionality. Click here or on the image to see the full screen grab with multiple busted windows.

This dither effect appeared during the installation of Adobe Reader and also appeared after the reboot I did to get rid of it (which is when I took the screengrab). For a while I thought this was some sort of permanent screen driver glitch but after another reboot everything was back to normal. Very weird.

That really is all there is to it. Apart from the bugs listed above, all of which should must be fixed before the final release of the new operating system, Windows 7 is running flawlessly on my laptop and I am so content with it I am considering wiping the Vista partition on the machine to free up more space for fun stuff work.

Categories
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.

Categories
Vista

Mac vs. PC – Let The Flame Wars Begin

Mac is not better than PC. It’s just different. If you think otherwise you really need to check your sources.

I’ve tried to stay out of the moronic Mac vs. PC debackle as much as I can but a conversation I overheard yesterday finally pushed me over the edge so now I’m not keeping my mouth shut any more:

Here are some facts:

  • Macs are far less stable and secure and far more buggy and prone to crashes than people are willing to admit
  • Windows Vista doesn’t really have any compatibility problems
  • Mac is not the industry standard for video editing
  • There is no discernible difference in workload, efficiency or quality of the end result whether you are on a Mac or a PC
  • The days when Mac was the only platform you should use for digital imaging etc are long gone (as in early 1990’s long gone)
  • The fact that you own an Apple product (iPod, iPhone, iMac, iRack whatever) does not make you cooler, smarter, better or more skilled than anyone else

If you’re a Mac user you are probably running frantically around the house whiping away the foam collecting around your mouth while you look for your Anti-PC-User Emergency Kit. If so just calm down and take a deep breath: I don’t have anything against you nor your choice of operating system – I just don’t like being looked down on or ridiculed by your kind because of my preference, especially when the arguments they present as reasons for using Mac instead of PC are nothing but advertising propaganda from Mr. Jobs and his staff.

What started it all

Anyways, back to my story: We just picked up a large video editing contract which includes working with a large variety of content providers (videographers) and consolidating all their differing content into a cohesive show. Unfortunately the content providers are amateurs who don’t know too much about video editing and especially industry standards when it comes to output. As a result we got a myriad of different formats and compressions that we needed to work with.

Normally this wouldn’t be a problem but because almost all of these videographers work on Final Cut Pro or iMovie and none of them know anything about export or compression other than how to publish videos to YouTube it quickly became a nightmare. You see when you use the click and “it just works” approach promoted by Apple, you get a video format that only works on Macs. This is because it’s quicker to export Mac native formats than to convert the video to an industry standard format like DV/DVCPRO. Unfortunately the videographers are under the impression that Mac is the de facto industry standard and therefore that if the file doesn’t play it is because we are stupid PC users. This couldn’t be farther from the truth:

The industry standard is AVID.

When we tried to explain this issue to the people we are working with we got the following mind-numbing and infuriating response (from a Mac user of course):

The reason it doesn’t work is because you are on a Vista PC. Microsoft doesn’t follow standards and doesn’t work. Switch to a Mac!

Right. I don’t even know where to start with this. First of all, the problem is caused by the videos being encoded using a proprietary Mac codec that is about as non-standard as you can get. In fact the codec only works in Final Cut Pro, nowhere else. And like I said, FCP is not the industry standard. Seccondly Microsoft doesn’t actually make pro video editing software: We use Adobe Premiere CS3. So if there was a problem with the software it would be Adobe’s fault, not Microsoft. Thirdly switching to Mac to solve the problem is about as good advice as telling someone whose tire you just slashed to buy a new car.

Don’t believe everything you hear

At the root of all this bullshit is the ingenious if misleading advertising campaign Apple has been running for the last 15 years claiming that their software “just works” and is far supperior to any other platform. If you go back about two decades, Mac ruled the design world because of it’s supperior graphics handling capabilities. But those days are long gone and today Mac and PC compete on an even playing field in this respect. Case in point: The industry standard for design software is the Adobe Creative Suite which runs identically on both platforms.

Today there are only two real differences between a Mac and every other computer on the planet:

  1. It uses Mac OS
  2. It contains a chip whose sole purpose it is to tell the Mac OS that this is a genuine Mac

In fact Mac OS works fine on any computer as long as you trick it to not look for that chip. But while Microsoft is a software company, Apple is a hardware company and they need to have some way of forcing their customers to buy their hardware so they tie their operating system to their hardware using that chip. That’s why you can run Windows on a Mac but not vice versa. In the real world this would be called monopolization and unfair business practice but for some unknown reason noone has really spoken up about this and tested it in court.

“It just works*”

The Mac slogan “it just works” should come with an asterix:

By “works” we mean that as long as your system is operational it is unlikely to crash. However if it does crash you are likely to loose 100% of your data and the lost data is unrecoverable. Also, we may choose to change our operating system or platform at any time in which case you need to buy all new hardware and software if you want to continue being part of our exclusive club.

Case in point: My friend Anthony has a G4 Mac that he used for video editing. One day his system stopped working. Further investigation showed it was no longer working becuase the logic board was dead. So he took it to the Mac store and asked them to fix it. The guy at the store looked at the computer and told him they no longer support the chipset (Mac had just switched to the new Intel chips) so he would have to switch out the whole logic board to the new chipset. The cost? $2000 (more than the cost of a new Mac). After much back and forth Anthony ended up buying a new iMac instead. But when he got home a new nasty surprise was in store: None of his expensive software worked in his new iMac. A quick call to the store uncovered the unbelieveable answer: With the new chipset comes a whole new operating system that is not compatible with the old software. So he had to go out and buy new versions of his old software just to be able to open his old files.

Now imagine if Microsoft had pulled this kind of crap on their clients.

Vista Sucks

Since it’s release more than 2 yars ago Windows Vista has gotten an incredible ammount of flack from everyone from the tech press to pundits to my grandfather’s best man twice removed. Surprisingly about 99% of this flack is unwarranted nonsense generated by idiots who have never tried the operating system or don’t understand how computers work.

One of the main attacks on Vista is that it isn’t compatible with hardware. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read articles about how nothing works, how the drivers are full of bugs and that people are downgrading to XP. Well here’s some food for thought:

If the driver doesn’t work it is because the company that made the driver didn’t do a good enough job. And the drivers are made by the hardware manufacturer, not Microsoft!

So when people say their hardware doesn’t work and the drivers are crap and point their fingers at Microsoft they are blaming the wrong company. To put it in perspective think about this: If you bought a headset for your iPhone that said “iPhone Compatible” but didn’t work, who would you blame? The headphone manufacturer of course. It’s the same with driver incompatibility.

People have just gotten too used to blaming Microsoft for everything except Global Warming.

PCs crash all the time

More than anything what kills me is when people tell me that PCs crash all the time. Let me tell you something: I have 6 PCs running everything from Windows ME to Windows Vista Ultimate. In the last 6 years all my PCs combined have crashed maybe 10 times and in almost every case it was either due to hardware failure (mostly dead hard drives) or ill advised experiments at rewriting the registry or bios (aka. me being an idiot). With properly installed hardware and software the Windows platform is incredibly stable. And when something goes wrong it’s easy to find out why and how to fix it.

In answer to this ground breaking CNN worthy news I can hear all my Mac friends yelling “but you’ll get infected by viruses!”. I haven’t had a virus in 10 years. Why? Because I have a $20 router between my home network and the outside world and I don’t download dubious files from the net or my inbox. So here’s my response: I can kill your Mac in 30 seconds flat! And if I do, all your data is unrecoverable. You can’t do that to a PC without a huge magnet or a sledge hammer.

Your choice of Operating System should never define you

What never seizes to amaze me is the willingness of Mac users to let their choice of operating system define them. They seem to think that because they are using a Mac they are somehow better and different from the rest of the computer using world. Which is strange seeing as Mac is the most uniform computer brand out there: You have zero choice when it comes to customizability or identity – everything looks the same. And if you use any of the famed iLife programs the results invariably have that Mac cookie-cutter look. The grim reality is that in the end it is your creativity that matters, not what computer or operating system you use. You can make stunning artwork with a PC form 1993 and total crap with the most high-end Mac available – it’s all up to you.

So here’s the conclusion (forward all hate mail to my summer house at 1 Pennsylvania Avenue):

Macs are great if you don’t want to spend time learning how a computer work or if you want to live a cookie cutter lifestyle. If you want creative input you need to upgrade to 3rd party software such as Adobe’s Creative Suite in which case you can get a far better PC for the same price.

And before you start barfing up that ever popular “Final Cut Pro is vastly supperior to Premiere Pro” crap consider this: The reason Adobe is re-releasing Premiere Pro for Mac is because Mac users are asking for it. And Premiere Pro was designed by the same people that created FCP.

In the end I don’t care what you use. All that matters is what you produce. But don’t tell me you are better than me because you spent more money on your computer. The only thing you show with such a statement is your narrowminded inability to think critically. Sorry, but that’s how the cookie crumbles.

Flame on!