Living with Windows 7

Keith’s review of Windows 7 after living with it for almost a month.
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!

Behind the Wheel: 2009 Pontiac Vibe

I get behind the wheel of a 2009 Pontiac Vibe and find out that this little car has got it where it counts!
I recently had reason to take a trip back to Massachusetts, and to make the trip I rented a car (as I often do). For this trip, I ended up with a 2009 Pontiac Vibe – which, at least mechanically, is the same as a Toyota Matrix.

I had actually considered buying a Matrix some time ago – in fact, when I was looking for a car it was a toss-up between the Matrix and the Mitsubishi Outlander. (Obviously, the Outlander won for me.) However, I’d always been interested in this little car, so when the rental agent brought it around, I was pretty excited.

The four hour drive back to Massachusetts, combined with a weekend spent driving all around the state (both highway and city driving) gave me plenty of time to get to know the little Vibe – and I have to say, I was very impressed!

First things first – the car I rented was, I believe, the 2.4L model – although to be honest I can’t confirm this. But this little car was so darned… fast that I have a hard time believing I was driving the 1.8L model. Several times while driving it I squealed the front tires (it was, alas, only a front-wheel drive model) inadvertently – something I was quite surprised by, since I’m used to driving an AWD vehicle, and it’s virtually impossible to squeal the tires when you have AWD.

And this little car was fast. Seriously fast. It just wanted to go… which was a little troublesome at times, as the car would happily go well above the speed limit just about anywhere – yet the ride was so smooth and quiet that you didn’t notice the speed until you looked down at the speedometer.

Speaking of which, the instrument cluster on this car is probably one of its biggest downsides – it’s quite dark, hidden as it is behind a big hood in the dash. It’s difficult to see during the day if (like me) you drive with your lights on, as the dash relies heavily on backlighting to be visible, and when you turn on the lights, the backlighting gets dimmer. (There is an adjustment for this of course, but then you must adjust it for both day visibility, and again at night for night visibility.)

The interior of the car is actually quite nice – there’s plenty of storage for the little things you need around you when taking a trip. The stereo is, I assume, different in the Pontiac Vibe vs. the Toyota Matrix – I believe the Vibe gets the “standard” GM radio/CD player. Which isn’t to say that it’s bad – in fact it’s quite nice, with a line-in port for your iPod or other portable music device, and the CD player even understands CD-text (so it can show track names, if you’ve burned a CD with the CD-text option turned on).

For the four hour drive to and from Massachusetts, the Vibe’s seats were very comfortable – I daresay they are even more comfortable than my own Outlander’s seats. The rear seats are… well, they’re rear seats in a small car, enough said.

One other downside of the Vibe/Matrix is the rear C-pillars – they are VERY thick, and block rear visibility quite a bit. This is not uncommon in small hatchbacks like this, but it is still rather annoying if you’re used to better rear visibility.

All-in-all, the Vibe is a very capable car, very peppy (though high-revving) in its performance, and an all-around well engineered little car that I quite liked. If anything, it’s a little too peppy – I’d get the AWD version if I had the choice, to put that power through to the ground a little bit better. (The 2.4L engine makes 258 HP, which is a lot of horsepower for such a lightweight car.) Of all the cars I’ve tested in my “Behind the Wheel” series, I think the Vibe is my favorite thus far.

Telescope Tale

This is a story about a stupid mistake. I’m sure that many people who read this story will figure out the mistake before I get to the end, but needless to say, I didn’t figure it out, and neither did 3 other camera/telescope experts. So, perhaps there are other people out there just like me who have gotten stumped by this particular problem before. This story is for them – for everyone else, just enjoy laughing at my expense. 😉

For my 30th Birthday, I got a Meade ETX-80AT BB (the “backpack observatory” edition) telescope. Needless to say, I was excited.

So, I unpacked it from the box and set it up for the first time in my house – to get used to it, and make sure all the parts were there. Turned it on, moved it around… worked great! I couldn’t wait to take it out and try it.

So I broke it down and prepared to put it in the backpack, and here’s where the problem cropped up:

The scope wouldn’t fit in the backpack.

I called Meade to see if maybe I had gotten the wrong backpack, or if they had heard of people calling in with a similar problem (maybe I was just missing something?). They didn’t have any help – they would just have me ship the scope back to them and wait over a month for them to have new ones in stock before they’d even ship me a replacement. No thanks.

So I went back to my local camera store (Madison Photo Plus, in Madison, NJ in case anyone cares – very nice people there, as we’ll see) and asked if maybe we could swap out the bag from another one? I had thought that perhaps I had somehow gotten a back meant for a smaller scope – the ETX-70 or something, perhaps.

The people at the store – and this is a proper camera store mind you – wanted to look into it a bit more. They called their Meade sales rep (no help there), and then decided to compare with the floor model.

The scope didn’t fit in that bag, either. Perhaps there was a problem with ALL of the scopes they had??

All of us were sitting there scratching our heads. The scope definitely wouldn’t fit in the bag – it needed at least another inch, maybe two. The 3 camera store people and myself were stumped.

Eventually they decided they would give me a different hard-case temporarily so I could carry my scope around (as I said, they’re nice people) when, on a whim, one of the guys picked up the display scope off its tripod and brought it over to the counter – it was smaller than my scope!

Now, I’m sure there are people reading this who have already figured out the problem, but bear with me here, I’m trying to build drama in this story.

Suffice to say we were confused. They were perfectly happy to give me the display model – maybe we had somehow gotten the wrong scope? But something didn’t sit right with me – they both said 80mm on the end of the tube; they were clearly the same scope… but not the same size…

I examined them side by side to see what was different. The tube on mine was longer than the tube on the display model. I took the dust covers off both scopes and looked down the tube… and saw a metal rod in the display scope. In my scope, that same rod was there, but it was recessed further in the tube.

I showed it to one of the camera store people and a light went off in his head. The metal rod was threaded – it was used to make the tube longer and shorter – THE FOCUS! OF COURSE!

When I had been setting up the scope in my house, I had pointed it out the window at my porch and tried to focus on that. Naturally, that was very close to the “near” end of the focus range. Which naturally extended the tube.

It was a very head-slapping moment. I turned the focus nob back all the way in the other direction, and sure enough, the tube shortened and fit in the backpack just as it should. Problem solved!

All of us admitted that we should’ve known this was the problem, but we were blinded by the mystery of the bag, so we missed the obvious answer.

And so, my tip for any new ETX-80 owners out there is… when you put the scope back in its bag, if it doesn’t fit, just turn the focus nob the other way!

So simple – like many problems once you know what the cause is.

Anyway, I hope that this story helps someone out there… otherwise I’m going to feel really stupid!

Behind the Wheel: 2007 Chevrolet Trailblazer

I rented a 2007 Chevy Trailblazer to drive Amanda’s parents around in as we did a big tour of New England in the fall, so I had plenty of time to get aquainted with this vehicle – on both highways and tight city streets.

And I can say, unoquivically, that it sucks.

Having said that, I can’t help but notice… this behemoth of an SUV is everywhere. We stayed at a hotel in Waltham, MA – and the two nights we were there, there were not one, but two other Trailblazers – ironically, they were all the same color!!

The unusual popularity of this SUV confuses me. When I say it sucks, I mean it sucks – and for several very good reasons:

  • The steering is loose and disconnected,
  • There is far too little rear legroom for such a large vehicle,
  • Acceleration comes on in “surges” instead of smoothly,
  • Very tipsy (although to be fair, you’d have to expect this),
  • Confusing/difficult control stalk (especially the cruise control),
  • No limited slip differential makes for limited off-road capability,
  • Surprisingly little ground clearance for such a big SUV,
  • Jittery steering at highway speed.

Let me elaborate:

The Steering: I know it’s a big SUV, and perhaps I’m spoiled, but it is somewhat frightening in such a big vehicle to be unable to get much feedback from the steering. Half the time it’s like driving in a video game – there’s little to no feedback, making it difficult to steer with confidence.

However – and this is one of the few good points of this SUV – this thing has an excelent turning radius. For this reason, it is surprisingly easy to park.

Rear Legroom: one of the reasons we rented this thing was because we were going on a long trip with 4 people – we wanted rear legroom, plus room for luggage. Surprisingly, most rental places actually charged less for an SUV as opposed to a full-sized car, so we opted for the SUV, thinking that it must have more room – it’s bigger, right?

Well, wrong. The rear legroom in this thing is awful. Even with the front passenger seat all the way forward, there is surprisingly little room back there for the legs of rear passengers. Although there was plenty of room for luggage, it seems to me like a little bit more room could’ve been sacrificed to the passengers. (Perhaps this is why Chevy came out with an “extended” Trailblazer model?)

Surging Acceleration: It’s only got a straight 6 engine, but there’s a fair amount of “oomph” there. The only problem is that it comes on in big “surges” rather than smoothly across the entire rev range. The touchy gas pedal makes city driving – especially accelerating gently from a stop – somewhat challenging.

Tipsy: Well, what large SUV isn’t tipsy? But still, when you combine the surgy acceleration with the disconnected steering and a top-heavy SUV, that’s a recipie for disaster.

Control Stalk: Now, I know Chevy likes to put every single control function on this one stalk, but perhaps some concessions could be made? I eventually figured out the cruise control, but I was on the verge of reading the manual to make sure I had it right.

No Limited Slip Differential: Now perhaps some models DO come with a limited slip diff; I don’t know for sure. But the model we had didn’t. And although we never needed it (being confined to on-road driving pretty much the entire trip), it does kind of seem silly to have a big SUV with a fancy control nob for switching between 2 wheel drive, 4 wheel drive (automatic), 4 wheel drive (high), and 4 wheel drive (low) – but then neglect to have a limited slip diff.

The upscale SS models have an AWD system – I think Chevy should’ve just made that standard for all models across the range.

And don’t get me started on that control nob – I’m still not quite sure what the difference between 2 wheel drive and 4 wheel drive (automatic) really is – or why you’d want to switch between them, ever. (If you know, feel free to chime up in the comments.)

Not Much Ground Clearance: The Trailblazer has 7.8 inches of ground clearance. My little Outlander has 8.3 inches. Which one is billed as more of an off-road vehicle?

Jittery steering at speed: Let’s face it, when you’re in a huge vehicle like this, especially an American-made vehicle, you sort of expect it to handle the big highways with ease – just “floating” along, crusing easily and steering with one finger (errr, I mean, both hands firmly on the wheel!). But, with the Trailblazer’s disconnected steering, instead you get a rather “jittery” feeling at speed that doesn’t inspire much confidence. In fact, it can be nerve-wracking at times – especially in a crosswind.

So there you have it – damning evidence of the suckiness of the Trailblazer, collected in over a solid week of driving.

So… why do I still see so many of these things on the road? I just don’t get it…

So Far, So Good (Mostly) With Mozy

So I’ve been using Mozy for a little over a month now, and so far I’m pretty pleased with it. It did take a while to do the initial backup, but that’s to be expected – I do have a lot of data to back up!

I liked the fact that I could schedule Mozy to run at “reduced speed” during the work day when I’m using my computer – that was, in fact, a deal-buster. I need all of my bandwidth when I work!!

That said, there was one minor annoyance with Mozy – although I didn’t realize it was Mozy at first.

I had noticed that when I selected several files in Windows Explorer, and went to right-click them, Explorer would freeze up for up to 30 seconds. At first I just thought it was because the files I was currently selecting were on a remote server, but later I noticed the same thing was happening with local files as well.

Well, I’m no stranger to troubleshooting strange things in Windows, so I broke out some tools – namely, Process Monitor and Process Explorer. With these two tools, I was able to see that… Explorer was taking a long time to process my request. Digging in a little bit deeper, I saw that it was a shell extension to Explorer that was consuming all the time. Tracking it down was a little tricky since I’d never done shell extensions, but eventually the trail lead to… Mozy.

OK, so Mozy is slowing things down. I could understand why – whenever I opened the configuration screen for Mozy, it always took forever to open. I don’t know why, but I can guess – it’s connecting to the on-line service and reading a whole bunch of stuff, both from the on-line service and from my computer (presumably refreshing the list of files to be backed up, which is quite extensive). Now, why it was doing this when I right-clicked I don’t know – after all, I don’t know how their shell extension is written – but at least I knew what was causing the problem. Now I just needed to figure out how to fix it.

A quick web search didn’t turn up much, but there were a few hints about other people having the same problem, and a solution that was mentioned, but wasn’t explained.

To save people the trouble of hunting for the answer, I’ll just come out and say it. I found the setting that needs to be turned off after digging around a bit – basically, you turn off the shell extension feature of Mozy. While this might be a turn-off for some, for me it’s not a big deal. I don’t need to restore files often enough that I’d need a shell extension for it.

You can find the option by right-clicking your Mozy icon and choosing “Configure.” Then, click on the “Options” tab and check “Don’t show restore menu in Windows Explorer.” For good measure, I also checked “Don’t show MozyHome Remote Backup virtual drive in My Computer.”

After making those two changes, the problem went away – my right-clicks on multiple files were as speedy as ever. And I don’t miss the functionality I turned off, so it’s all good for me!

Hopefully this will help other people who’ve experienced the same symptoms. And perhaps Mozy will figure out why it slows down so much and fix the problem – though I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that it might not be easy – or even possible, given the circumstances. But oh well.

If you’re interested in my earlier post on Mozy, click here.