Sunday, April 30, 2006

Small Screen Livin', part II

In part I I wrote about reasons for giving up large screens and how to make those small screens even smaller by using Large fonts! Well, the next tip will claim some of that space back!

To recap, on a 10" screen the desktop space becomes a scarce resource and you want to manage it properly. The biggest space hog is the Windows Task Bar. As useful as it is it simply consumes too much space on a 10.6" widescreen when Large Fonts are enabled (this makes the Task Bar a few pixels fatter). You can move it around of course. Docking it the left or right edge of the screen sounds like a great way to utilize the widescreen aspect ratio. Unfortunately, I found it consumed too much space in those configurations as well so I set out to find a replacement for the Task Bar! I needed something to provide me with:
  • A list of running applications
  • Access to my frequently used programs (although not essential)
  • Access to certain system tray (system notification area) features
The first likely candidate for replacement was something that worked similar to the way Mac OS Dock functioned. A set of icons docked to the bottom of the window that expanded as you moused over them. There are several implementations of Dock-concept for Windows and I started trying them all, some of which were free utilities.

I started with the free apps, of course! A lot of them did a very good job, I especially liked MobyDock. Others I tried were AquaDock, AveDesk, RocketDock and Y'z Dock. Unfortunately, most of them were meant to be used as program launchers, rather than replacements for task bar. I needed to switch between programs currently running rather than just launch programs. As I said, MobyDock came closest to what I needed but unfortunately it was really unstable. It would work quite well until I put my laptop into Stand By or Hibernate modes. After waking the dock would start acting up.

I finally decided to try the grand-daddy of dock applications on Windows, the ObjectDock. They have a free version called ObjectDock, and another that costs $19.95 called ObjectDock Plus. After trying and playing with the free version (which pretty much did everything I needed) I soon upgraded to ObjectDock Plus, without even thinking about it.

ObjectDock is great - well written, extremely stable and very versatile. I do encounter a problem occasionally where the dock doesn't stay on top and is shown behind other windows but in those rare circumstances I just need to restart the program and the problem is fixed. It's worth noting that my laptop runs non-stop, hibernates a lot and is restarted maybe once every two weeks so any software that tries to replace system components like ObjectDock needs to be extremely stable to work well.

Here is the image of my typical session, the left group of icons are shortcuts and docklets (I only need four), and the right group shows my running applications:

The applications will "bounce" in the dock when asking for your attention (like IM messages arriving in the background), and you are able to right-click on the applications in the dock to access their system menu. You can even drag and drop to re-arrange the order they're displayed in. Mousing over the dock will enlarge the icons and show large name for each application. Unfortunately, you cannot drag and drop from Explorer onto the icons to restore that application's window but I soon got over it.

The four special icons on the left side invoke (in order from left to right) the Programs Start menu list, my personal shortcuts list, battery indicator with much higher resolution than the default Windows four-state battery icon and the toggle that hides/shows the Task bar when I need to access a system tray icon not normally visible here.

ObjectDock is very customizable and versatile to fit pretty much anyone's workflow. In my case it enabled me to get the most out of my small screen and made me even more productive than I was before. I highly recommend it! If you know of other Task bar replacement tools that work well for you I'd love to hear about them.

Part III will bring you even closer to the small-screen-Nirvana...

Friday, April 28, 2006

Small Screen Livin', part I

I love large, bright spacious LCD monitors! There's just something special about surrounding yourself with desktop space to use as you see fit. I'd love to have two (or even three) 24" widescreen LCDs working in tandem, allowing me to work uninterrupted and focused on the task at hand and not managing my windows.

My laptop's screen measures barely 10 inches across. Most people see that as a tremendous handicap and the barrier to switching to a smaller laptop and shrinking their traveling weight. I have to admit I had some serious concerns too. I was used to hooking up my 15" laptop to a 21" LCD to get more room when not on the road, so would I be able to put up with 10" screen at all?

What finally pushed me to go ultra-light was the enhanced battery life combined with the incredibly more portable setup. Since my battery can easily last 5 hours (with WiFi enabled) most of the time I leave my AC Adapter behind. And since the laptop is really small and light I don't need heavily padded laptop bag to keep it safe.

Once I made the move the first week on the small screen was a bit scary. It helps that most widescreen ultra-portables sport fairly high 1280x768 resolution, which in itself is not that bad. After only 2 days I was already used to the lack of physical square inches and my old laptop screen looked simply gigantic. I did make some changes to my setup to make this possible, I hope these tips help you as well.

Large fonts

Your average computer screen displays 96 DPI (Dots Per Inch), some going up to 120 DPI. 120 DPI screens are a lot more "dense", pixels are closer together and fonts appear smaller yet sharper. Ultra-portables will pack even more pixels per inch, reaching 140 DPI. That is a pretty high number so the default Windows font sizes, designed for screens with 96 DPI, look very very small. I find that switching to Large Fonts designed for 120 DPI screens helps in making the laptop a lot more useable. Unfortunately, you will lose some screen real-estate since any text now will take up more pixels but you will still benefit from sharp text due to the high native DPI of the screen. To change to Large Fonts go to Display Control Panel, switch to Settings tab, click on Advanced and select Large size under DPI Settings. Note, Windows will ask to be restarted whenever changing the font DPI.

Some Windows programs out there (although few in numbers) are written to expect everyone to run their desktops at default DPI setting. These programs look a bit out-of-whack when run with Large Fonts, and sometimes they are not even usable; dialog buttons will be shown below the visible area of the dialog box so you cannot click on them. For this reason some people don't like to switch to Large Fonts, thinking it breaks certain programs. The truth is that it is those programs that are broken and their publishers don't test them properly. I rarely encounter programs that exhibit this broken behaviour, and when I do I consider myself lucky. If the program has this very obvious bug it probably has many others so I save myself aggravation and look elsewhere.

So now that you made this change you will actually have even less usable screen real-estate than before, albeit somewhat easier to use. I will outline how to claw that real-estate back in the part II...

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Windows Mobile and iPAQ hw6515

I was into PDAs before either Palm or Microsoft entered that market. Of course, I'm talking about Newton MessagePad by Apple, recently voted one of the worst gadgets ever by Laptop Magazine (which was the month I stopped buying Laptop Magazine - I mean, are they serious?). Well, after spending a considerable amount of money over the years and going through numerous Pilots, Palm Pilots, iPAQs, back to Palms and Symbian, I am currently using one of the latest products from HP, iPAQ hw6515.

My Symbian device is two years older than this iPAQ, a Sony Ericsson P900. As a PDA it gets 6 out of 10, and as a phone it doesn't do too much better at 7/10. So when I got my latest iPAQ with built in GSM/EDGE/Bluetooth/GPS I was really expecting to see some appreciable advancement.

As a PDA Windows Mobile has matured and does very well. It still has many small annoyances sprinkled throughout but overall I can cope. I would say it gets 8/10. But I was more curious to see how it does as a connected device and as a phone. Well, after a few weeks of use I have to say that this is one of the worst phones I have ever owned!

For example, the device has a clear plastic screen cover that is supposed to shield the screen while you use it as a phone. Unfortunately, Microsoft really did not integrate the keyboard well enough with the phone part of the device so that you are constantly lifting the screen and hitting a small nub of a button displayed in the corner.

Even though the device has an OK key on the keyboard it does not work that often. It will close some dialogs, while on the others you can use the ever-so-tiny Tab key to nudge the focus to the Close/OK button on the screen and then use the OK key to close it. But the worst are stupid notification popups that have a tiny Close button in the corner that cannot closed with any combination of Tab/OK key pressed. This is great if you're just about to dial, or are in the middle of a phone call.

Sorely missing from the tiny keyboard is also a Back/Cancel key! For example, you can conveniently press Joystick Up to see if you missed any calls, but guess how you go back to the phone dialing pad? Open the screen cover and use your nail to tap the tiny OK button to dismiss the list. If you press the OK key or the Phone key on the keyboard you may dial the entry displayed in the list. I thought hang-up button would be useful for this purpose but unfortunately it will just stop an active GPRS connection and return you to the Today screen.

Otherwise, phone application is almost devoid of features! It took me a while to figure out how to enable speakerphone (on P900 just flip the lid open). Speed dial is hidden under the joystick. Every so often I get a weird error popup on the screen - Rogers (my network provider) suggested I reset the device on a regular basis to avoid those (grrrreat!). Today I had a pleasant experience of the device locking up as I pressed on the Call Answer button to take an incoming call. So reset again, wait for reboot and hope I can call the person back in time.

The device does have other redeeming properties, but its phone functionality is pretty abysmal. I have stayed away from Windows-based phone device for years fearing exactly this type of scenario. This year I figured they had enough time to sort out the bugs and reviews were generally positive. I just don't understand how Microsoft hasn't gotten this right after all this time.

Update 5/14/2006: I would feel bad if I didn't update my experience with this phone after using it for another month:

The phone has built-in profiles to switch between silent mode, meeting mode, etc. It is activated by pressing and holding the power button. Unfortunately, every once in a while when I switch to a regular (non-silent) mode the device decides to turn my volume all the way down and disables vibrate. To cap it all off, the volume icon doesn't change to indicate silent mode - so you really have no idea you're missing calls. This certainly shakes my confidence in this phone.

My call waiting feature has stopped working, and not on the network level! I can hear the incoming calls beep while I'm talking to someone else but the screen no longer gives me a dialog box that lets me switch calls, the phone simply shows nothing on the screen. The worst part is that after I finish the current call there is no record of me missing or receiving the missed call! So I have no idea who I missed unless that person leaves me a voice mail.

Additionally, the locking up still happens: every once in a while when I press the green Answer button to answer an incoming call the phone responds by locking up. Just solidly locking up. That's gotta be the worst time for a phone to crash and it's happened about 6 times so far. I then have to pull out the pen, perform a reset, wait for it to boot up and call back.

Finally, last week I decided that hw6515 is a great PDA/email device and a bad, bad phone, even for a light phone user so I have placed an order for a proper small phone to accompany me. The irony is that I have not installed any downloaded software on my hw6515 so the instability I'm seeing can only be blamed on HP, Microsoft, Rogers or all three together.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Why Microsofties love their jobs

To continue on the topic of love/hate relationship most of us have with their jobs I wanted to highlight Microsoft and their unique approach to job satisfaction. In the past 5 years or so, most Microsoft employees I met or talked to have had nothing but good things to say about their employer. This is no small feat, considering that most large companies intentionally or unintentionally make their employees feel small and inconsequential.

Regardless of what you may think of Microsoft, the Evil Monopolist, they truly try to empower their workers, both personally and professionally. They spend an amazing amount of money to achieve this goal and it doesn't end with fooseball tables. One of the more interesting programs is their Management Excellence Foundation Program (MEFP) offered for free of course to their managers across the organization. To participate you need to take a week off work, completely disconnected (you're not supposed to keep on top of your email during this period) and immerse in a 7-day dawn to dusk course with fellow Microsoft peers. Trevin writes about it in his blog:

This particular training is off-site in Bellevue and is meant as an intensive totally immersive training. Each day started at 7am for breakfast and went until at least 10pm, and most days going much, much later. I'm purposely not going to give away too much about this program as much of the benefit you get is from not knowing everything that is going to happen throughout the duration of the event. I was apprehensive at first to blog about this, but I feel that this is important enough for the company that I simply have no choice. I don't say this lightly: This course has completely changed my professional life.

When you are working for a company that gives you this much power to control your life many other perks become secondary and leaving Microsoft for another job that much less likely. High tech or otherwise, companies should take employee development very seriously since in the end it will help their bottom line as well.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

How much do you hate your job?

I bet not as much as some of the people working for McDonald's outsourced drive-through service. Imagine yourself sitting in a cubicle thousands of miles away from the said drive-through and receiving non-stop customer requests asking for a double-double with cheese (obviously, I haven't been to McDonald's in some years).

Instead of listening to them on your walkie-talkie they are reaching you via Internet, and you follow through on their order by punching it into your computer. This in turn gets sent to the McDonald's assembly line for just-in-time delivery. Michael Dell would be proud! I honestly cannot believe that this makes them more efficient but I'm sure they've done studies...

The perks of working for the McDonald's call center include such gems as

Software tracks [employee's] productivity and speed, and every so often a red box pops up on her screen to test whether she is paying attention. She is expected to click on it within 1.75 seconds. In the break room, a computer screen lets employees know just how many minutes have elapsed since they left their workstations.

And you tell me I'll actually get paid (minimum wage) to enjoy this environment? Sign me up!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Your handy secret flash stash

I find that when traveling with my laptop (whatever its size) one thing that I always want on me is some type of external drive space, either for quick exchanges of data with colleagues or to ensure that your most important files are backed up somewhere other than the laptop's internal hard drive (knock on wood and all).

I'm fortunate enough to have drawers full of USB flash drives, of all shapes and sizes - a veritable United Nations of flash storage. One of my favorites is SanDisk's very flat metal-clad flash drive with U3. I realized one way to have this drive with me at all times is to use my laptop's PCMCIA slot, which generally sits empty (in a laptop the size of Fujitsu P7120 that can seem like a lot of empty space begging to be filled up). Here is a simple way you can stash your own slim USB flash drive inside your laptop.

To start, you need to find a dust-blocker plastic insert that usually sits in PCMCIA slot (some laptops use a spring-loaded flap instead, in which case you need to beg your friends for their plastic insert). You will need to use a power tool and dremel out an empty area in the middle of the plastic insert.

The bit on the right was cut out from the bit on the left. My plastic insert had a solid plastic throughout, but some others will be a lot easier to carve out. On this black insert you just need to sever the diagonal support.

Next, just slide your USB flash drive into the PCMCIA slot, with the insert in place:

Voila! Your flash drive is ready and waiting any time you need it. There are some caveats of course. Firstly, I am not responsible for any damage this arrangement does to your flash drive or the computer, but it has been working for me without problems. Heat hasn't been an issue either (flash drives can take a lot of heat). I will write about another way to expand your drive space via PCMCIA slot very soon.

Of course, you can stash all types of items into your PCMCIA slot (I suggest experimenting with liquids!) but generally memory cards are a good choice as they're resistant to heat and will not get lost in the laptop's innards. If you want to store items such as some extra emergency cash or spare keys to your house you may want to look at products designed for this purpose.