Joining the Dual-Monitor Club

After many, many years of dragging my feet, I have finally joined the dual-monitor club:

joining the dual monitor club

My wife’s company was getting rid of some surplus equipment and I managed to grab the 2nd monitor for just $25 – you can’t say no at that price! So I decided to give this dual-monitor thing a try.

I’ve long been… well let’s say ambivalent about the benefits of having dual monitors – despite the fact that most programmers swear by them (heck, dual monitors are item #1 on the Programmer’s Bill of Rights!).

My reluctance was partly due to the cost – especially back in the CRT days, when monitors (decently-sized ones, anyway) were not inexpensive. The other reason for my reluctance was that I’d tried the dual-monitor thing years ago and found it not very useful – the monitor I tried out was an old 15″ CRT, and the desk I was using at the time didn’t really fit a 2nd monitor very effectively. Also, back then there really wasn’t any such thing as a “dual-head” video card, so you had to add a 2nd video card (probably a slower PCI card, since your main video card was probably using up the sole AGP slot on your motherboard).

However, even when LCD monitors became relatively inexpensive and easy to get I still resisted getting a second monitor. The reason for this was that I just could not see how a second monitor would benefit me, given the type of work I do. Oh, I didn’t deny that it would be useful sometimes – but not necessarily enough to justify the cost/space/hassle/etc.

I just kept figuring that I really only “focus” on one thing at a time, so why bother having a second screen if I’m not going to be focusing on it? Plus, I worried about getting cramps in my neck & shoulders from turning to the side to stare at a second monitor for any length of time.

So I rationalized it to myself for a very long time, until this $25 monitor came along, and I just figured I’d give it a try (at worst I could decide I didn’t like it and give it away to a family member or friend who needs a new monitor).

So now that I’ve got it, how is it working out for me? Well, getting used to a second monitor actually takes some time and effort – when you have worked for so long with just one screen, it’s hard to “give up” a window and move it over to the second screen.

Of course, what stuff ends up on the 2nd screen is a tough choice to make. My “desktop” is now effectively twice as wide as it used to be, which means moving the mouse from the left side of the screen to the right side of the other screen takes a while – and again, I don’t like moving the mouse more than I have to (repetitive stress injuries are to programmers what black lung was to coal miners). So whatever went on the 2nd monitor would have to:

  • Only infrequently require mouse input
  • Be something I could glance at out of the corner of my eye, without needing to actually turn my head and stare at the 2nd screen for long periods of time
  • Not be distracting

Interestingly, not a lot falls into this category for me.

A lot of people using dual monitors will say how they love having their email open on the 2nd screen all the time. But I (mostly) follow the “Getting Things Done” philosophy, and I’m also a programmer so interruptions are anathema  to me, so having email always “in my face” is just not necessary. I check email when I’m ready to check email, and my computer will let me know that mail has arrived and I can then read it at my leisure.

Having IM or Twitter open on the second monitor might also seem like it might be useful, and after trying it out, I did actually decide to move my IM program to the 2nd monitor. It helps keep chats with co-workers “on the side” so I can keep working. And Twitter would probably be a good candidate, except I don’t use Twitter often enough for it to be that important to me. Plus, the Twitter client I use (Spaz) has growl-style notifications that let me know when new Tweets happen for the (relatively) few people I follow, so that’s good enough for me.

Another candidate for a 2nd monitor is for debugging – and that would be a good use for a 2nd monitor, depending on the type of debugging you are doing. But I mostly do .NET WinForms development these days, and debugging that is pretty easy on a single monitor. Perhaps when I have some web development to do, or other kinds of development, the second monitor will really come through for me – but right now, it’s just not helpful for the debugging I do.

However, a very good candidate for the 2nd monitor is for remote desktop/virtual machines. Often I have to remote control people’s computers, and putting that on the 2nd monitor allows me to effectively have their desktop right next to mine – it is very handy. Likewise for virtual machines – I will run the virtual machine on the 2nd monitor and I can keep an eye on it while working normally on my 1st monitor.

So that’s where I stand currently in regards to the dual-monitor club. I’m still a new convert, and I’m still getting my sea-legs, so to speak, as far as figuring out how best to use this 2nd screen I have. But I’m getting there.

Another Computer Conundrum: A Computer for MOM

Once again, I’m facing a computer conundrum. This time, however, it’s a bit trickier to find the “right” answer, because this computer isn’t for me: it’s for my mom.

My conundrum is this: I still have my old computer (Elysion) lying around, and since I love giving old technology a second life, I had planned to clean it up, install Windows 7 on it, and give it to my mom to replace her current computer – a very old Dell with a very slow early generation Pentium 4 CPU.

Now, you might be thinking:  “What’s the conundrum, Keith? Just give you mom your old computer; it’s obviously better than what she has!” And you’d be right – my old computer is better than what she has currently.

But there’s another choice I hadn’t considered originally: getting my mom a nettop computer instead.

To put it into perspective, he’s a handy comparison chart comparing my old computer vs. a new nettop (specifically, an Acer Aspire Revo AR2600 U9022 – gotta love Acer’s insane model numbering!):

My Old Computer (Elysion)
Acer Aspire Revo AR36010 U9022
CPU: Pentium 4 w/HT Intel Atom 330 w/HT
CPU Type:
32-bit 64-bit
CPU Architecture: “Prescott” “Diamondville”
CPU Cores: 1 (2 logical) 2 (4 logical)
L2 Cache: 1 MB 1 MB
Clock Speed: 3.2 GHz 1.6 GHz
Front-side bus: 800 MHz 533 MHz
Thermal Draw: 82W 23W
RAM: 1 GB DDR2 PC4300 + 2 GB DDR2 PC5300 2 GB DDR2 PC2 6400
Hard Drive: 160 GB + 500 GB (7200 RPM) 160 GB (5200 RPM)
Video: ATI Radeon X300 NVIDIA ION integrated graphics
Other Drives: 1x CD/DVD writer, 1x CD/DVD player SD/MMC/MemoryStick/xD memory card reader/writer
Cost:
Free (+ about $120 for a Windows 7 upgrade) $330 (all inclusive)

The problem I have is that I’m not always very good at picking out technology for other people – especially for people who plan to use technology in a very different way than I would. While my recommendations are still very, very good (the reason why people keep asking for my recommendations in the first place), they are still a little bit… biased.

On the surface, it seems like the Acer nettop is the way to go – although it may be a bit slower in terms of raw clock and front-side bus speed, it is a true dual-core CPU, with all the benefits that go along with that. (Astute readers might also remember that when I upgraded from Elysion I actually took a drop in raw CPU clock speed from 3.2 GHz to 2.6 GHz, and yet my new computer is much faster than my old one.)

On the other hand, there are other aspects of the Acer nettop that would suggest that maybe sticking with a full-fledged desktop PC is the way to go. The nettop is, with a few exceptions, basically a desktop version of my Acer Aspire One netbook. The CPU in my netbook runs at the same clock speed (although it is not dual-core) and has the same size (and same RPM speed) hard drive. And although I love my netbook and think it is a great little computer, it is not exactly “zippy” in terms of performance.

However, again, there are differences between the netbook and the nettop. For one, the nettop has more RAM than my netbook – 2 GB instead of 1. And the nettop has that new ION graphics package – remember, this nettop is often marketed as a great Media Center PC rather than as a desktop computer, and as such it has the necessary graphics power to drive a big HD screen. And my netbook runs Ubuntu Linux for the most part (with the factory-installed Windows XP on a separate partition), not Windows 7, so there may be performance differences there that I’m not aware of. And there’s that whole dual-core vs. single core thing, plus the fact that the nettop’s CPU is 64-bit vs the netbooks 32-bit CPU.

However, my old computer also has the advantage of being, well, free – since I already have it (I just have to pick up a Windows 7 upgrade CD). And in this case, cost is definitely a factor.

Making the decision even harder is that it’s very hard to find performance data that can be used to compare the old Pentium 4 (with Hyper-Threading!) against the very new Atom 330, especially since things like chipsets, graphics card performance, hard drive speed, and so forth can all very significantly affect perceived (and measured) performance.

So I’m just not sure what to do in this case – I think I will have to mull this over for a bit more still before I come to a decision. (Though I invite readers with an opinion one way or the other to chime in on this debate in the comments!) When I do come to a decision, I will post about it here (and update this article), since I think that this sort of computer conundrum is bound to be a common one among techno-savvy people with not-quite-as-tech-savvy family members. But we shall see!

Registry Cleaners: Just Say ‘NO!’

Today I’m going to give a little warning about programs that claim to “clean” your Windows registry, or people or products that tell you that you “need” to clean your Windows registry.

But first, a little story. The other day I happened to speak to someone who was having some computer problems – some very strange computer problems, in fact.

A little bit of questioning the user revealed the  problem. This person had recently had some so-called “computer experts” come and take a look at his computer. They apparently told him that he “needed” to “clean” his Windows registry, because it was “full of junk” and that was slowing his computer down.

This brings me to the moral of the story, which is basically that all “registry cleaners” are bunk.

Back in the old days (the Windows 9x days), a “registry cleaner” might have made some sense. Back then, you had to keep your registry small due to memory constraints, etc. A “registry cleaner” could remove some invalid entries and basically clean things up a bit to make the registry smaller. If it did this in a very limited manner, it was generally helpful and safe.

However, things have changed a lot since those days.

First off, there’s no longer any real need to worry about the size of your registry, but another thing to keep in mind is that registry cleaners were originally meant to help reduce the size of your registry. Now, how do you think they did that?

That’s right, they just deleted entries from the registry. And more or less, that’s all that registry “cleaners” do to this day – they aren’t really “cleaners” per se, they are “deleters.” And many of these programs don’t even give you the option to backup the entries they are about to delete – they just go ahead and delete them.

This is akin to trying to “clean up” your Windows installation by just going in and randomly deleting files from your Windows directory. Yeah, it’ll “clean it up” in the sense that it’ll take up less disk space – but more than likely you’ll also end up completely boning your Windows installation to the point where it doesn’t work anymore.

Regularly cleaning your Windows registry (which is something that many users of “registry cleaning” software say you have to do) of invalid/unused entries (say, file associations for programs that don’t exist anymore) isn’t going to make your computer any faster. The registry is already optimized for fast loading (that’s the whole reason there is a registry in the first place, instead of slow INI files), and a few extra entries aren’t going to slow anything down.

In fact, regularly cleaning your registry will end up “fragmenting” the files on disk that hold the registry data itself, and as time goes on, those “gaps” that were “cleaned” will be filled with new data, resulting in a registry that’s all out of order (at least on disk). This will actually slow down access to the registry (or, at least, slow down the initial paging of the registry into main memory).

Realistically, if your registry really does need to be “cleaned,” then you are going to have to do it by hand, because no “registry cleaner” program is going to be able to fix it auto-magically. It’s a bit like expecting a gasoline additive for your car to fix the dent in your bumper or your broken radio – it’s just not going to happen.

There’s another reason to be wary of so-called “registry cleaners” as well, and that’s the fact that if you search for a “registry cleaner” program, you are more likely to end up downloading spyware that’s just pretending to be a registry cleaner. Finding a registry cleaner that isn’t actually some sort of spyware/malware in disguise is, to put it simply, really hard, even for an expert.

The bottom line here is that registry “cleaners” actually have no benefit  at best, and at worst can actually slow down or even royally screw up your computer.

So if someone tells you that you need to “run a registry cleaner” or that you should “clean your registry regularly” or you’re about to download a program that claims to “clean” or “optimize” your registry… just say NO!

Colored blocks icon courtesy of the Crystal Icon Set.

Living with Windows 7

So, I’ve been living with my new computer for almost a month now, and that’s given me plenty of time to become familiar with the changes that came with Windows 7.

Previously, I’d only played around with Windows 7 through the betas and release candidates in a virtual machine – which, by its very nature, lacked the power to really let Windows 7 shine.

My new computer, on the other hand, has enough “oomph” to let me turn on all the bells & whistles so I can see how they work and which ones I like. This has allowed me to really get a “feel” for Windows 7 – arguably in an even better way than I did with Vista on my old computer.

So far, I have to say that I am very pleased.

If you’ve read any other Windows 7 reviews, you’ve probably read a lot of praise on how Windows 7 is a great leap forward, it’s so nice, etc.

Well, those people weren’t lying.

Windows 7 is incredibly polished. I’m sort of a details person, so these little details, the “fit & finish” of Windows 7 really impress me.

In any case, let’s get down to the details – in a nice, convenient list format:

  • Multitasking: you need a true multi-core CPU to get the benefits of this, but Windows 7 does a superb job of running lots and lots of programs all at once without any sort of trouble between them. And if one program goes down, you can just kill it and keep on truckin’ – no reboot required.
  • Stability: Windows 7  has so far been incredibly stable for me – and I tend to push my computers hard, so I’m one to know. Of course, part of this is due to the fact that I’m running the 64-bit version, and the 64-bit versions of Windows don’t allow “unsigned” drivers. And since device drivers are often the biggest contributor to instability in Windows, the fact that only “signed” drivers are allowed means that (overall) the quality of drivers is much higher – which means, in turn, that Windows is more stable.
  • UAC: My biggest gripe in Windows Vista was the UAC prompts that would pop up in various places – most annoying to me, personally, was when I tried to drag & drop to re-arrange folders in my start menu (I like to have my start menu nice & neat). If the folder or icon I was dragging & dropping was in the “All users” branch of the start menu, I’d get a UAC prompt when moving it. It was just incredibly annoying. In Windows 7 these prompts come up less often, which makes me very happy!
  • New Task bar: This is one place where I found myself unhappy with the default Windows 7 behavior, which is to show programs in the task bar by icon only (even when the program is open). I like being able to read the title of a window at a glance, without having to mouse over it, so I turned that functionality off. Plus, having the task bar buttons be full-sized with titles helps visually distinguish (even more) between running programs and programs that are just “pinned” to the task bar.
  • Glass Effects: speaking of the task bar, if you hover your mouse over open programs, you’ll see that the sort of glowing colored highlight follows your mouse pointer – as if your mouse pointer were a light shining on the button. On top of that, the color of the highlight is based on the color of the program’s icon… Niiiiiice. It’s little details like this that really impress me.
  • Aero Peek: Though I think the name is a bit pretentious, it is a handy feature. Basically the evolution of the “show desktop” button in that you can just hover over it, and it will make all open Windows 100% transparent so you can see your desktop (any windows that are not full-screen will show a faint outline so you know where they are). Other than that, the button acts just like the old “show desktop” button – click it once to show the desktop, click it again to restore all windows. Simple and easy, but it’s nice to have it permanently attached to the task bar, so you don’t lose it.
  • Libraries: I’m not exaggerating here – I love libraries. I’d been wishing for some sort of functionality like this for years, without even realizing it – or even being able to describe what I wanted. But libraries deliver. Got a folder with some pictures in it, in some strange location on your computer? Just add it to your “Pictures” library and now it’ll show up as if you had copied it into your “My Pictures” folder – but without actually having to copy it there! And since things like Windows Media Center and so on use libraries (rather than specific folders), it makes managing a music & movie collection so much easier!
  • Windows Media Center: The new UI for Windows Media Center is nice, but I didn’t really mind the UI in Vista either, so this doesn’t really impress me that much. It’s nicer, sure, but not enough for me to sing its praises.
  • Windows Media Center Extender Support: OK, so maybe I will sing the praises of the new Media Center UI – at least, as it applies to Windows Media Center Extenders. Because the new UI applies to these little, under-appreciated, under-powered devices. My Media Center Extender (MCE) hasn’t gotten any faster, but it looks nicer and it works more smoothly than it did when it was connected to a Vista computer. So there’s a bonus there.
  • Media Sharing & “Play To”: In addition to having a Media Center Extender, my new TV also supports the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) standard, which means it can connect to my computer and stream media (pictures, videos, music) from my computer. Under Vista, the only way to get this media was to browse for it from the TV – and the UI was a bit clunky and sometimes crashed! With Windows 7 however, the game has changed. Although the UI for browsing media directly from the TV is still clunky and slow, it is much more stable. And if that’s not your cup of tea, you can play media directly from the PC to the TV by right-clicking a file and choosing “Play To” and then selecting the TV (Windows detects any DLNA devices on the network automatically – though they do have to be turned on first!). There is just something deeply, geekily cool about selecting a video on your computer and then hearing it start to play in the other room!
  • Videos link on the Start Menu: It’s a little thing, but it was always very annoying to me that in Vista there was no “Videos” link option on the Start Menu. You had links to Documents, Pictures, and Music – but no Videos! Thankfully, this little oversight has been corrected in Windows 7. Again, it’s the little things that really add up and make Windows 7 such a pleasure to use.
  • Drag and Drop re-arrange of Task bar buttons: I’m not talking about pinned items, but actual task bar buttons for open programs – you can now drag & drop to re-arrange them as you see fit. Previously, you needed a 3rd party program to enable this feature. It’s not a big deal, but it’s nice if you’ve got a lot of windows open and you want them arranged in a certain order.
  • Volume control for multiple audio devices: Although Windows Vista handled volume control pretty well (you could adjust volume on a per-program basis), Windows 7 takes this even further. Now, most people will only ever have 1 audio device – their main sound card – in their computer, but increasingly you find people with secondary sound cards – maybe a USB headset, like I have (for Skype, etc.). When you click the “Volume” icon in the taskbar, it shows the “main” volume control, same as always. But, if you are using a secondary audio device (like, say, you have Skype open and are using your headset), when you click the “Volume” icon you get two volume sliders – one for the main volume, and one for the secondary device. Nice! You can control the volume for each individually – very handy!

So those are the big new things I’m very happy about with Windows 7. Suffice it to say, if you have the opportunity, I highly recommend you upgrade. Believe me – it is well worth it!

New Year, New Computer

Well, I finally made the jump to a new computer.

I’d talked about getting a new computer before (and why I had to get a new computer instead of upgrading, as well as the troubles I’d had trying to use the release candidate), and I’d also been looking forward to using Windows 7 – and now, at long last, I have a new, modern, fast computer with Windows 7 (64-bit, even!)

The system properties window from "Yotsuba," my new computer!

Over the last week I had been slowly installing all of my programs on the new computer, so it would be ready for me to use Windows Easy Transfer to bring my user profile over. (The list of programs I had to re-install filled 2 pages!)

This would be my first time using Windows Easy Transfer, and I was a little bit unsure – after all, my user profile was directory junctioned onto a 2nd hard drive. I had serious doubts as to whether it would pick up everything, or if I’d end up re-creating my profile from scratch (which, by the way, would not be the first time I’d had to do that).

Still, the potential benefits of Windows Easy Transfer (i.e., not having to re-create my profile from scratch) meant that I was willing to give it a shot. So just last night I set up the new computer on a temporary table next to my router (so that both computers could be on and connected to the network at the same time) and fired up Windows Easy Transfer.

Truth be told, it couldn’t be easier. It really did detect everything important. The only downside? A 5+ hour transfer time. But that’s really my fault, since I had 212+ GB of data to transfer!!

Still, that’s why I started it in the evening. I just let it run overnight, and sure enough, when I woke up this morning, my new computer was ready to go, with no errors.

Let’s just say, I am really, really happy!

Here’s the details on what I finally ended up with:

  • Intel Core 2 Quad (Q9400) 2.66 GHz CPU
  • 6 GB RAM
  • 500 GB HDD
  • ATI Radeon 4350 video card
  • Windows 7 (64-bit) Home Premium

Suffice to say, the new computer is quite a bit faster than my old one, even though technically the new computer is running at a slower clock speed!

The hard drive is still the slowest piece of the equation (as it often is in almost all computers these days, unless they utilize one of the new – and very expensive – solid state drives), but other than that, everything else is faster. The graphics card has more muscle, the CPU to RAM bus speed is faster, and of course the CPU is a true multi-core processor – 4 cores, to be exact.

Which leads me to the name of this new computer. Previously, I had named my computers after fictional/mythical places:

  • Home One (the flagship of the rebel fleet in Star Wars)
  • Sanctuary
  • Mobius (the fictional homeworld of Sonic the Hedgehog)
  • Elysion (the roman afterlife)

I had thought long and hard about a name for the new computer that fit with the existing “theme” of my computer names – and perhaps had some relation to the number “4″ (for the quad-core CPU). But I couldn’t come up with anything.

However, just as I was getting into bed the night before I transferred all my data over to the new computer, I had an idea for the new computer’s name. After sleeping on it, I decided it was the best name I was going to find, and I liked the way it was a subtle nod to the new computer’s 4 CPU cores.

So, my new computer is named (as you probably saw in the screenshot above): Yotsuba, after the manga character of the same name.

I guess the new name for this computer isn’t that odd – after all, I did name my netbook Ryo-Ohki (after a small, cute little rabbit/cat creature that also just happens to be able to transform into a super-powerful spaceship!).

Now all that’s left to do is just change a few little things here and there – things like organizing folders on my start menu, making sure absolutely everything works, re-configuring Windows Media Center (and my Windows Media Center Extender) and so on.

So far though, so good!