Behind the Wheel: 2014 Fiat 500L (Diesel)

Earlier this year while I was in Italy on vacation with some of the Australian side of the family, we rented a car to travel up to Lake Como in northern Italy. Unsurprisingly, the car we ended up with was a Fiat – but in this case, it was the new 4-door version, the 500L.

Fiat 500L

I’d driven a Fiat 500 before, but the 500L was something new. I was actually glad to see it – I knew from experience that fitting 4 adults into the 2-door 500 would not have been a pleasant experience, especially for the long drive we had ahead of us.

italy route map - milan to lake comoThis particular 500L was also a diesel, and a stick shift on top of that – unlike the Audi A4 I’d driven previously in this trip – so driving it out of the city of Milan and up the narrow, twisty, winding roads around Lake Como was… an interesting experience!

But truthfully, the 500L was quite easy to drive – the steering was nimble, the brakes were solid, and the overall handling was very surefooted. The diesel took a bit of getting used to, however. Unlike a small gasoline engine, the diesel in this Fiat didn’t need to be revved up – it had plenty of power down low in the rev range.  In fact, the diesel really didn’t like being at any sort of high RPMs at all – which meant I had to spent a lot of time shifting, especially up the twisty, hilly roads around Lake Como.

The 500L fit all four adults reasonably well, as well as our bags, so it is a quite practical little car. Visibility was good, the steering was nimble, and of course the diesel means it’s quite fuel efficient.

Up around the Lake Como region are some very, VERY twisty roads, which would have been quite fun to tackle – though with 4 people in the car and traffic coming in the opposite direction, I didn’t actually get much opportunity for fun. Still, the 500L was nimble and took the corners well, and at no point was I worried about the car’s capabilities. Although at times I did find myself wishing that it was a little bit smaller – although the 500L is by no means a big car, some of those roads were still a very tight fit.

All in all the Fiat 500L is a small, practical little car, that can be fun, but takes some getting used to if you’re not accustomed to how diesel engines develop their power. For myself, I’d have preferred a gas engine, but when you rent you kind of have to take what you get – and of course in Europe diesel is much more common than here in the US.

So, if you’ve always wanted to have fun in a little Fiat 500, but wanted to be able to carry more than 2 people, the 500L is certainly not a bad choice.

Behind the Wheel: 2014 Audi A4 Wagon (Diesel)

Audi A4 WagonEarlier this year I found myself over in Florence, Italy, with family and I needed to rent a car to go for a day trip. Although I normally don’t splurge on rental cars, in this case we decided to go for a “luxury” rental – both as a slight treat to ourselves, and because we didn’t want to be crammed into an itty-bitty little car.

So, what should pull up in front of the rental place but a 2014 Audi A4 wagon… with a diesel engine, no less!

Right off the bat this car surprised me – the diesel was excellent – smooth and quiet, to the point where at first I didn’t realize it was a diesel! Highway driving was easy, but uninspiring. Plenty of power on tap from the diesel engine, but it isn’t overwhelming – or exciting. That said, it’s got more than enough “oomph” for near effortless passing at speed. City driving was also surprisingly nimble, though in Italy – and especially in the narrow streets of Florence – the A4 was almost too big.

The interior was a very comfortable place to be – and it carried 4 adults on a long road trip up to the Chianti region with no fuss at all. I can definitely understand why people like this sort of car as a daily driver – it’s comfortable, the in-dash navigation is great, and it has plenty of room inside.

On the other hand, it’s not exactly what you’d call a “driver’s car.” Although there was plenty of power from the diesel, there wasn’t exactly an abundance of it, either. Everything about how it drives was smooth, gentle, and reassuring – not in the least bit exciting.

All in all, not a bad car by any means, and one I’d happily drive again as a rental, but not one I’d want to own.

Windows 8.1 is Here – Is it any Better?

Windows 8.1Windows 8.1 was released yesterday, and it’s available as a free update for anyone who already has Windows 8. So, naturally, as soon as it became available, I took the plunge and installed it.

Windows 8.1 is kind of a strange mix of “service pack” and “new operating system,” but the really big question is – is it any better than Windows 8 was? Does it improve on the shortcomings I pointed out in my previous reviews?

Read on to find out!

Installing

windows store tileGetting the update was actually a bit confusing. It’s not a Windows update, and doesn’t appear as part of your standard updates – instead, you have to launch the “Store” app and hope that the offer to upgrade appears (I’m not sure what triggers it, as it didn’t appear at first for me).

The installation is fairly straightforward, although it does take a while – even longer than installing a Windows Service Pack used to take.

Still, there were no hiccups and eventually after a few reboots I was back at my desktop. Not a bad start to things! And speaking of “Start…”

Start Is Back, All Right!

start button is back in Windows 8.1

We missed you!

The Start button is back – as it should have been all along.

While I understand the reasons behind using the corners as “hot spots” for both mouse and touch gestures, when introducing a new user interface element like this, you need to give some sort of visual cue to… um… cue users into the fact that there is something there that can be interacted with.

The Start Screen, Take Two

The ability to have your desktop show through the Start screen is a very small change, but it goes a long way towards making it feel more “cohesive.” No longer is the Start screen this weird world of squares & rectangles, with no connection to your desktop – instead, it’s just an overlay of icons you can click on, just like the old Start menu was (but bigger).

Windows 8.1’s Start screen also now uses different colors for tiles – and not just Metro app tiles, either. All your application tiles now have individual colors, which usually (but not always) match the color of the icon.

windows 8.1 - start screen colors

Instead of being mainly a single color for non-Metro apps, your Start menu is now a real rainbow of colors.

All these colors certainly make the Start screen a bit more visually distinct, but it also makes it look a bit busy. Still, it’s a nice touch to help identify the program you’re looking for at a glance, since the color helps with recognizing an icon before you even read the text.

The ability to go to the “All Apps” view by just clicking a single chevron at the bottom of the Start screen is a welcome addition – especially since Windows 8.1 doesn’t automatically dump newly installed program icons on the Start screen like before. Now you can quickly bring up your “All Apps” (the equivalent to “All Programs” in pre-Windows 8 speak) and find your programs (relatively) easily.

Windows 8.1 Start menu - all apps

Much better!

Windows 8.1 also adds some new sizes for icon tiles – instead of “square” and “rectangle,” you now have “tiny square” and “even bigger rectangle.” Not a big deal, but it’s helpful to keep your Start screen organized if you have lots of icons – though only Metro apps can use the “even bigger” tile sizes.

Windows 8.1 Start menu - different tile sizes

Little icons, big icons, all sizes of icons!

Modern Metro Madness

One small but nice change in Windows 8.1 is that Metro apps can now be split-screened in any proportion – you’re no longer limited to the 1/3 and 2/3 split from Windows 8.

If you have multiple monitors, you can also run Metro apps separately on each one – though I can’t really imagine many people doing this.

(Also, what should we be calling these apps now? They were originally code-named “Metro,” then they became “Windows 8 Modern.” Are they now “Windows 8.1 Modern?” Seriously, they need a better name!)

Search the World

I never understood why Microsoft chose to make search in Windows 8 segmented – it just made no sense to me at all. Previously, searching from the Start menu searched both your Start menu and all of your indexed locations (by default, your libraries) – which is exactly what it should do. Simple, search once and find what you need, no matter where it might be.

But in Windows 8, you had to choose where you were searching – were you searching apps? Or were you searching settings? Or files? And it got worse when you realized that some things (e.g., system settings) were not under “settings,” but actually “apps,” depending on their specific implementation. It was maddening and just made no sense.

windows 8.1 - search everywhereFortunately, Windows 8.1 undoes this terrible design decision, and by default the search now searches “everything” again. (That is, it searches all your apps and all your libraries.)

On the other hand, Windows 8.1 does by default include integration with Bing for search results – but this is easy enough to turn off if you don’t want to search the Internet every time you try to search your computer.

Boot to the Head – er, Desktop

Yep, that’s right – you can now have Windows 8.1 boot directly to the desktop, instead of the Start screen. This option isn’t on by default, but it’s available – and again, something that really should have been there all along.

windows 8.1 - new start screen options

Some welcome new options

Is That It?

Yep, pretty much. Windows 8.1 brings a number of welcome changes – though some of these are less “changes” and more “putting things back the way they were” – but at the end of the day it’s a very minor update – just as it’s name would suggest.

The Bad Stuff

Although the installation itself went very smoothly, there were a few hiccups with my upgrade.

I did have to re-install a few programs because they ran as “services” in Windows, and for whatever reason the update had lost or removed the services. I also had to re-install my display driver – Windows defaulted back to the Microsoft provided driver, which works fine, but doesn’t have some features I like and need.

I also had to re-install my printer/scanner software, as it lost the ability to “Scan to” my computer (even though it still printed just fine) – although honestly this is probably more the fault of the printer manufacturer’s often finicky software.

Windows 8.1 also takes the odd stance of removing links for Libraries from the left-hand navigation pane of Windows Explorer window – though thankfully there is an easy option to bring this back.

Also, somehow my Windows theme had gotten changed so that the text in title bars and the task bar was black instead of white – and it’s not at all easy to figure out how to change this back.

Still, all things considered the problems with this upgrade were fairly minor – none of my devices malfunctioned (and I do have quite a few USB devices hanging off my computer) and all my settings were retained. Having to re-install a few programs, although slightly annoying, was not really that bad.

Windows 8.1 Final Thoughts

All-in-all, Windows 8.1 is still very “meh,” just like Windows 8 was – just slightly less so. Not exactly something I’d get excited about, but it is an improvement – albeit a small one.

The “Metro” side of things (or whatever Microsoft is calling it now) remains just as useless as before – although to be fair, there are more apps now and the built-in ones have improved a fair bit. For anyone using Windows on a tablet device, I’m sure these will be welcome improvements, but for the majority of people I’d imagine they will continue to be mostly ignored.

There are also some other changes I didn’t really go over, but to me they are just so minor as to be irrelevant.

If you already have Windows 8, upgrading to Windows 8.1 is almost no-brainer, as most of the changes are definite improvements over Windows 8, despite the few glitches you might encounter along the way.

If, on the other hand, you’re upgrading from Windows 7 or purchasing a new computer, I would definitely say that you want Windows 8.1 over Windows 8 – mainly for the Start button and Start screen improvements.

More of the Hidden Worlds in our Own Backyards

So I went for a walk again recently, on a trail that goes beside the Passaic River near my house.

green reflections in the passaic river

It’s one of my favorite places to go for a walk, especially in the evening, since the reflections in the river can be amazing.

water like glass

I always tell people that New Jersey isn’t called “The Garden State” for nothing – everywhere I go, I find nothing but lush green growth. (Newark and the bits near New York are the exception, of course.)

a narrow path through lush greenery

Even more amazing is how the setting sun lights up the green of the trees and undergrowth along the river. It’s almost like something out of a painting.

setting sun through the trees

This time I went a bit further than I normally do, and as usual, I was rewarded with beautiful scenes. You never know what might be around the next corner.

gold and green at sunset

Finally of course I had to turn back – the trail probably goes on, but I figure I can save that for another day.

evening reflections in the passaic river

No matter where you are, there’s always something special waiting, hidden, in the most unlikely or even ordinary of places – if you just take the time to look. Often these special places are right nearby, around corners we routinely ignore.

Wherever you are, or wherever you end up, I hope you take the time – once in a while, at least – to look around you, to turn down that path you always walk by, or that place you’ve always seen but never stopped at. Your curiosity will almost certainly be rewarded.

Happy (backyard) trails, everyone.