Trying a new laptop

Finally bought a Surface Pro 3, and bought it from the Microsoft Store because it has a generous 30-day return policy. I got the 256GB/Core i7 model mostly to see if there are any downsides to going with the top-of-the-line model.

Our current laptop is getting a bit old and given that our use of the “home laptop” is mostly casual with AutoCAD being the key program that needs to run properly, I thought I’d give the new form factor a whirl before thinking about a proper Ultrabook-style laptop, or maybe even a MacBook Air. The latter is not a religious issue for me, it is just that AutoCAD does have not a subscription for their Mac version, and worse, the Mac version of the AutoCAD LT product is behind the Windows version in terms of raw features supported.

I will write up my thoughts on the device in detail soon!

Twitter history

I have been playing with Excel’s Power View, Power Query (my favorite) and Power Pivot (older but still fantastic) and a few weeks ago someone tweeted something about their twitter archive. That gave me an idea to see if there is any pattern in my tweeting.

So I went to twitter web settings and requested a fresh archive. As a side, how awesome is it that twitter lets you request an archive and that it is ready in minutes. This is a company that could not go back more than a few days in history not so long ago!

Anyway, I brought in all the data from the csv file and put a couple of simple charts together. I’d have loved to share this as an embedded Excel file but because it has all the data, the file is ~19MB and Excel Online can only handle file size of 5MB and below :-(

Anyway, it is interesting to see that my peak twitter was 2012, and for some reason, April of 2012. And as for the clients, MetroTwit, which is still one of the best twitter experiences I have had, very surprisingly dropped to negligible levels after 2012.

Anyway … as usual, there is more insight to gain from the data. I just found these to be the quick and easy ones to look at.

TheRomit tweets by month

Tweets by month

 

 

TheRomit tweets by client

Tweets by client

Strange problem with Outlook.com address book used on iPhone

I have long had my main address book in the cloud on what is now called Outlook.com’s People app. It not only is my central store of all contact information, it is also smart because it is connected to twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Google. As a result, my “master” contact card for any person is smart enough to show me not only what I have for them in my address book but also information that they have chosen to make available to me via any and all of those networks.

So, the central store and federation is a big deal. Coupled with those things, I am able to pull in this address book via Exchange Active Sync (read: 2-way, instantaneous push and sync) on all my devices: Windows Phone, Windows 8, iPhone, iPad, Android.

Needless to say, this has become indispensable for me. I love that I am able to forget about syncing and keeping a master record, and more importantly, not worry about losing that data if I lose or reset a device.

However, the downside is that when something weird happens, it instantly becomes a major cause for worry for me. Like a few weeks ago, my niece’s contact information disappeared from my iPhone. The way I realized it was through WhatsApp; her message showed up without a name and instead, just a nick and a phone number. I looked up my Contacts on the iPhone and couldn’t find her. I panicked. I had no idea what happened. Was I hacked? Was there something I did? What could delete this account? What else was deleted? All these thoughts started circling in my head. The problem of complete automation, I guess.

The good news was that the contact existed on People app on the web, and it also existed on my Windows devices. The phone number though, was missing. Bizarre. I added the number because I wanted to first get back on track and then troubleshoot. For whatever reason, I could not force a sync back to the iPhone. It is supposed to be instantaneous, but it simply did not bring that contact over to the phone! I contacted Microsoft support on twitter and posted on their forums.

Anyway, since it was so random, Microsoft support suggested I just remove and re-add the account on iPhone and see if that resolved the issue and it did. Problem solved, kinda-sorta. It was “solved” for the support team. Not for me. However, I had no idea what may be going on, and no time to investigate. So I ended the chapter there, with slight dissatisfaction of knowing I had not really solved the problem, only worked around it.

Today, I noticed that another family member’s phone number is missing from my phone’s contacts. Again, it showed up because in WhatsApp, her message showed just the nick and the number. I checked the phone, and the contact does not exist, and in this case, the contact as well as the phone number exists on the web as well as Windows devices.

Something really strange is going on with the way contacts are syncing from Outlook.com to iPhone via the “Outlook” account type (not “Exchange”). I am not sure if it is something Outlook.com needs to address or Apple, but I know that I am just not comfortable with the setup I have at the moment.

Time to create some backup plans. :-(

My weekend with (Samsung) Android

I have been wanting to test drive Android for some time now. I had briefly thought of buying a Nexus 7 to experience Android as an OS and the Android as an ecosystem in general. For whatever reason, the actual purchase did not happen. Earlier this week, an opportunity presented itself, where a friend was able to loan me his brand new Samsung Galaxy S4 Active device on Thursday and I could put the device through its paces over the weekend.

And I did. The experience wasn’t exactly smooth and the “getting acquainted” period ended up being longer than I expected. After much frustration, I realized Android as I experienced (via the Galaxy device and Samsung’s flavor of Android) is most definitely not for me. Some things that I liked and would love to see implemented in iOS and Windows Phone, but many things that are baffling and plain annoying in Android for me to seriously consider it as a daily driver.

What is there to like

Actionable notifications

I love that I could reply to a tweet directly from the notification center. It doesn’t compose the tweet (like maybe the Me tile lets you do in Windows Phone) but it opens the Twitter app directly in the reply window so you can reply and be done with that notification. Rumors are that such a feature is coming to Windows Phone 8.1, and I would love to see something similar in iOS.

Widgets

If you know me and/or have read some of my thoughts on mobile platforms, you know that I love Windows Phone’s live tiles. These tiles provide information at a glance for things that you only need to glance at, like top news or the next calendar appointment or the current weather. Widgets in Android do something similar and are very useful in providing snippets of information. I like that, and do miss it in my iPhone.

Screen size

After using a larger screen with Windows Phones for the past few years, I thought the iPhone’s screen size would seem small. It surprisingly has not felt like that. So, using the larger screen on the S4 felt good but only for a bit. You will see the same exact bullet point listed under what I didn’t like :-)

Choice

It is quite amazing that I can install multiple app stores on the device. I mean, it already comes with two – Google Play and Samsung App Store – but I was also able to install the Amazon Appstore and get some apps from there. There was an increasing sense as I used the phone that Android seems very much like Windows on the desktop from the previous era, and this “choice” is just another example of that. Just like screen size though, you will see Choice listed under things I didn’t like.

So much not to like

OOBE

The out of the box experience, which was mostly how I experienced Android in the past (and didn’t like at all), made me feel like I am doing something wrong for not “getting” it. I simply didn’t understand where to start in terms of using the phone. Swiping to unlock was clear, and tapping the phone icon to make a call was clear. But why are there 4 home pages where one of them is to the left of the one marked with the “home” icon? How to create a new page or modify an existing page? Maddening.

Crapware

There were so many apps that came pre-loaded with the device! The worse part is that most of these bundled apps cannot be uninstalled, they can only be disabled. And because of how the home screen works, “removing” from the home screen does nothing besides deleting *that* shortcut (more on that later) from that home screen.

User experience

Not only was it confusing out of the box, the entire user experience is full of inconsistencies and confusion. These are too numerous to list but some that I remembered:

  • You can create shortcuts to apps on home screens. That makes sense, but you can create multiple shortcuts of the same app on the same home screen, and even in the same folder on that home screen. There is no difference between an app icon and a shortcut, which means when there are multiple shortcuts to the same app on the same screen, you have no idea why.
  • For the longest time I had no idea how to disable icons that show up in the system bar at the top of the device. I did not want my email notification in the system bar but despite going into the email app (GMail app, in this case), I wasn’t able to find the setting to turn that off, nor was there anything under the main settings. Later, by accident, I realized that the first physical button triggers a menu and when I went into GMail app and triggered the menu, I was able to get to settings and uncheck the notification setting.
  • Why the heck do apps have a settings screen in-app and also trigger another set of settings via the button? The afore-mentioned GMail app is one big example of this nonsensical user experience, so we can’t even blame “Android developers” as a collective. This is Google’s own developers creating confusion within their prime app by having some settings exposed via app and some via the button.
  • I noticed that the lock screen showed a few app icons on the bottom that I could launch directly from the lock screen, but I simply couldn’t find where to change that list. Help from the web seemed to suggest it was under Lock Screen settings but I just couldn’t find it. Later, I realized I had to change the first setting (lock screen swipe) before I could edit that setting. If I had a PIN to unlock, I couldn’t even see how to edit it but it was there by default. This one took a long time to figure out and involved removing my work Exchange account because that mandated a PIN to unlock. This item really frustrated me, more because it was so hard to figure out rather than the actual utility of being able to edit the list of apps.
  • Speaking of work Exchange account, when I set it up, I was asked to enable encryption. I understand what that means and why they need it, so I went ahead and agreed to that step. I was asked to set up a password which confused me because I already have a PIN enabled for the device. Regardless, I went ahead with it because I did not have a choice. After the process completed, I realized I ended up having to enter that password upon boot, and then enter my PIN to unlock the device. Both iOS and Windows Phone encrypt the whole device by default and keep the user out of this messy issue. I understand technically what they are doing in Android (encrypting only part of the device that needs to be encrypted for Exchange use), but for a common user, this is a hot mess.

Large screen

While a large screen felt good going from the iPhone’s screen, it turns out there are more downsides to it than I had imagined. See, I got used to the one-handed use that is possible with the iPhone’s size which I simply wasn’t able to do with this device.

Choice

While it is cool (and amazing, really) that I can have multiple app stores on the device, the choice expands to all kinds of apps including keyboard replacements. But this choice is actually a huge problem for a first-time user because out of the box, there are multiple apps for Photos, Videos, Music, Messaging, etc. Samsung has duplicated most of the Google apps for these utility apps but Google itself has duplicated what comes with Android like Chrome and “Internet” browser, Hangouts and Messaging, GMail and Email, etc. I would think it would be a much, much better experience if there were a default app associated with each action at the least, but it would be even better if all add on apps are installed by user upon some sort of a prompt after the device is set up. The choice, in short, is overwhelming.

Wrapping up

The device is good but not great. I really prefer the flat edges of the iPhone vs the slightly rounded edges of this device or the even more rounded edges of my Lumia 920. The flatter edges make it much easier to hold the device. The operating system has all the power of what is expected of a modern smartphone operating system, but like Windows XP that was installed on PCs, the OS is full of stuff that a user should not be seeing and the device is loaded with crapware that is seriously unnecessary.

Of course I cannot deny the millions of devices that Samsung has sold and even more so, the billion devices that have apparently been activated with Android, but I can say one thing: Android does not seem like it is something I would enjoy using as a direct consumer of the system. If my next music player has Android built in, and that gets exposed with their iOS app, I don’t care, but I don’t think I have the tolerance or the patience to “work with” Android as it stands today. Now I can at least say this definitively, having experienced the same on (one of) the most popular Android devices.

ps: I realized after the experiment that I did not even care which version of the operating system was installed on the device

Weekend project complete – move from Office 365 to Outlook.com

As you may or may not be aware, my personal email (with “vanity” domain) is hosted on Office 365. Yes, that business service which charges $6/month for Exchange, SharePoint and Lync Online. I have had it since they launched the small business and professionals plan.

Since then, Hotmail has gone from being the dull and boring email service no one wants to be associated with, to a beautiful and modern Outlook.com. While Hotmail always provided the ability to use custom domains, I never thought of using that option because it was not a great email service. For example, there was no easy way to connect to it from a desktop email client unless you use Outlook Express or Windows Live Mail. Outlook added a Hotmail Connector but it always felt like a hack. And of course, there’s mobile.

With Outlook.com, what’s nice is that it supports Exchange Active Sync out of the box. No connectors needed. No jumping through hoops. 2-way sync, push support and all that jazz. For free. I have been tempted to move my domain email to this combination except that my mailbox is fairly huge (5GB) and I was not sure if I will be able to move the entire thing and I was not even sure how long it would take.

So I did some quick experiments with my existing Hotmail account and realized that via IMAP, I am able to move my emails fairly quickly over Comcast’s speedy internet connection (and maybe a much better back-end on Outlook.com?). So, I decided to take the plunge and make the move.

I disconnected my email account from my domain on Office 365, “removed” the domain from Office 365’s management, added the same to Live Domains and set up my account there. With some small glitches here and there (my email was an alias on my existing Hotmail account, so I wasn’t able to add it as a new domain email account until I removed the alias), I was up and running with my new setup.

I used Outlook 2013 to connect to my Office 365 account (via normal “Exchange” connectivity) and Outlook.com account (via IMAP). I started moving emails by folders and realized most of the messages were showing up on the web fairly quickly. Except for two very large folders, I was done in a couple of hours. The large folders took a bit longer but not terribly so. Overnight, I was actually surprised that I was done with the email part. What remained was calendar and contacts, both of which created much pain.

I took it for granted that calendar can be moved as easily as email but I was in for an unpleasant surprise when I realized I was connected to Outlook.com via IMAP. That means, no calendar support. I saved the Office 365 calendar as an ics file (was not under “export” but under “save as” in Outlook 2013 – go figure) and imported it from the web. That was easy, except that the “save as ics” step did not save every single event! There was no obvious pattern in what was saved and what was omitted.

Another idea struck me: why not connect to Outlook.com via EAS in Outlook 2013 and then copy all calendar events from one account to the other? Great idea, except there is a massive bug in Outlook 2013’s EAS implementation which does not sync events if you mass-copy them on a calendar. If I did all 350-odd events one-by-one, it would have worked. But I was not in a mood to do that. So the workaround was to simulate an edit across all the events and that is easily achieved with marking them all as a new category. That seemed to trigger a forced sync and I started seeing the events show up on the web. What seemed to be missing was events that I had marked as private, or at least some of those private events. Again, the EAS bug comes to bite me because even after marking them all as normal sensitivity, I could not simulate a sync. At this point I kinda gave up on the sync and re-saved the calendar as ics and imported it from the web. Then, a sync happened that showed up in Outlook 2013. For all the stuff that was not correctly sync-ed, including some recurring events that ended up showing as one-time, I manually went to the web and added/updated. :-(

As for contacts, I moved to Outlook.com as my “single source of truth” for contacts long time ago. I have been pretty happy with the arrangement especially because most of the contact manipulation (adding/updating/deleting) happens on mobile devices and with EAS, I am seconds away from always being up-to-date. Additionally, I have linked my Microsoft account to LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter and as a result, I have the “master” address book under People on my Outlook.com account. However, there is no way for me to link that account with the new account I created. No sharing, no linking, no sync-ing, and that’s a pity. I was hoping that just like I link a Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn account with Microsoft account, I could another Microsoft account too. Not to be. So I went for the next best option, which was to export and import. I could export my Outlook.com contacts as a csv but shockingly, when I tried to import, I got a generic error that seemed to indicate that there are some special characters in some phone or email fields somewhere in that csv file. No partial import, no specific error on specific records, nothing. An all or nothing which to me ended up with nothing. In the end, I had to go back to Outlook 2013 and with EAS, I was able to copy contacts from one account to the other.

Despite those multiple hiccups, I am glad to say I am done with the migration much sooner than I thought I would be and most importantly, there were no issues with the email migration. I was afraid of duplicates and missed emails neither of which happened.

I will monitor for a few days after which I am going to cancel my Office 365 paid account but a practical limitation I am facing now is that at work where I prefer to keep personal email limited to a tab in a browser, I won’t be able to see my current Hotmail account and the new custom domain account in a single browser window. With Office 365 account, I was able to because they don’t share the cookie, I suppose, but with both the accounts now running off Outlook.com back-end, I am unable to. It is a pain to have two browser windows open, one of which is an InPrivate window, but I am sure it is something I can get used to over time.

And to finish off, can I just say that Microsoft has made a big mistake calling their webmail service Outlook.com which is very close to their email client Outlook. Searching for solutions to the various problems I had almost invariably landed me on help pages for Outlook the program vs Outlook.com the service. It was quite frustrating. :-(

Backing up

Just read this post on Medium about backing up your data and I thought the setup was very similar to mine, so I felt like writing one to talk about my own.

My setup consists of:

An HP Proliant Microserver N36L which is a fantastic form factor for this purpose. Over time, I did add a graphics card to it so that I can get HDMI out to connect it to an external monitor for those times when I need to upgrade something that I cannot do over remote desktop, like when I moved from Windows Home Server 2011 to Windows 8 and then to Windows 8.1

The server is also great because in that compact form factor, it still allows for 4 hard drives. I had bought two 1TB hard drives and had let Windows Home Server run them in mirror mode. After I moved to Windows 8, I manually implemented that feature via File History. Not technically the same, but works for me in terms of keeping a copy of my data on a second hard drive in case it fails. Windows 8 also provides me the capability to restore to factory settings or to restore to a pre-determined point, in case I need to.

Since I have enough space on my hard drives, I haven’t deployed my other USB drives. Also, since this setup is in our closet, I also don’t want my wife to one day throw it all out of there :-) It would be nice to use Storage Spaces and make use of all my USB drives as a single shared pool of storage. After all, the server does provide a ton of USB ports on front and back.

I do not need VNC because I use the excellent Remote Desktop which now is available on iOS (and Mac and Android too but at this time I don’t have those devices).

Instead of Dropbox, I use SkyDrive for all types of file sync from and to multiple devices. Like Remote Desktop, the SkyDrive app exists on all the devices I use, and works quite well for me. In addition, on my home network, I have set up a HomeGroup and in Windows, I have set up all Libraries to point to the server’s respective locations (Documents, Photos, Music, Videos, etc.) and made that the default save location. That way, the need to sync is reduced when I am on the home network. Pictures from phones are backed up to SkyDrive from my iPhone as well as my Lumia automatically and show up on the server because of the SkyDrive app.

Finally, the best part: Crashplan automatic cloud backup running on the server, which is set to never sleep. In this way, I have multiple versions of all the files on the server, always backing up automatically to the cloud. I have been able to restore my backed up files on different PCs as and when I have needed to. It does not provide bare metal restore but I don’t need it because of the excellent Reset/Refresh features introduced in Windows 8. In fact, if I wanted to, I could even use Crashplan to do USB backups (it uses multiple “destinations” so cloud is the only destination I am using currently but there is no extra cost to add local USB as a destination).

One issue I have noticed and it comes as a result of using the server not just as a backup machine but also as a media server, is that videos take a long time to stream to tablets or TV. I suspect it is because the processor is quite old and slow and it is the server that is doing the CPU-intensive stuff so it ends up choking a bit. I also suspect the hard drives are a bottleneck as well in such cases. I don’t think I want to invest much into this setup at this point but I would love to see a modern version of this form factor. I haven’t found it yet. Most of the small form factor cases today skip the hard drive expansion slots and as a result make me afraid of losing the low-cost, big-sized storage capacity.

But that’s a separate story. I am just happy I have been able to get to a point where I don’t have to worry about losing my digital memories as well as important papers and hard work from my past several years. Huge thanks to Crashplan for making this happen via their inexpensive and unlimited backup service.

8″ Windows tablet

I recently purchased a Dell Venue 8 Pro, an 8″ Windows 8.1 tablet running on Intel Atom chip. I bought the 64GB version because I knew my app count (and size) would be high so it would be better to be n the safer side when it comes to storage. Besides, Amazon had a great deal on it, where I got it for $329 instead of the regular price of $399.

I kept the box because I was not sure if I needed another tablet (I have two iPads), or another Windows 8.1 touch device (I have a 27″ Lenovo A720 all in one). Surprisingly, I am loving the device and won’t be returning it. The following are just some of the reasons this is a great device *for me*:

  • Form factor: This thing is thin and light! I am talking in absolute terms, not comparing it to say, an iPad mini or a Nexus or a Kindle Fire. I can absolutely hold it in one hand for a long period of time. I was not able to do it with my iPad nor my Surface RT, despite both being relatively light.
  • Screen size and clarity: I feel 8″ screen is great for all my consumption activities and feel it is way better than my phone for quick Office/Excel work. I don’t care about the actual resolution, but what I see is pretty darn clear. There was an initial auto-dimming issue which was fixed by Dell via a firmware update.
  • Windows ecosystem: One may ask why I didn’t go for an iPad mini in the first place. The issue is that my home setup is based on Windows. I have a Windows PC (used to run Windows Home Server 2011, now runs Windows 8.1) in the closet with a large hard drive that has all our music, video, photos, documents, etc. This PC is also a part of a HomeGroup which enables it to share all that content easily with other devices in the HomeGroup. With an iPad, I would have to move the files to the cloud, or find some apps which can somehow read data off the network, or maybe trick iTunes into reading all those files as part of its Library. None of those seemed to be as elegant as simply adding a device to the HomeGroup. With my Dell, I have zero issues browsing our entire photo library or even more fun, watching some random old home videos of our kids.
  • User profiles: I didn’t do this until a few days ago, but I decided to add my kids accounts to the device because I realized my “games” area on the Start Screen was exploding in size and I wasn’t using any of them. I created two child accounts and added all the apps/games that they would care about on their Start Screen. They love logging in with their own Picture Password and their own game progress, achievements, etc. This is simply not possible, but highly desirable on an iPad.
  • Win32 fallback: I have not had to jump into the “old” Windows on this device much. Recently though, I wanted to play a DVD (ripped as an ISO, stored on my home “server”) but I couldn’t. Tried a few apps that promised that functionality but they couldn’t do it. Ultimately, I gave in and installed the ever reliable VLC player. I know they are working to bring it in a Windows Store app, but until then, the only option is to use their Win32 application. It worked flawlessly (no surprise) and I was able to stream the video on my device in seconds! Really handy to have that fallback, although the counter point could be the poor ecosystem that does not fill the gap. I believe the issue is DVD playback involves royalties which is perhaps one of the motivations Microsoft had in removing that feature from core Windows 8, and making it part of a “pro pack” on top of Windows 8 Pro which then includes Windows Media Center as well.
  • Office: Sure, this is not a touch-friendly version, and sure, it is dorky to use Excel on a small device but for quick updates like one or two entries on a common budget file my wife and I share, it is great to have a full version of Office connected to SkyDrive.
Bottom line, this device is actually so useful to me, I have used my iPad even lesser in the past few weeks than before. It also helps that Brandon Paddock (@BrandonLive on twitter) is actively iterating on his Metro twitter app Tweetium. It is a really nice app that works well in Metro, and more so, in portrait mode which is how I use this device most of the time. The official app is decent but Tweetium is way friendlier. Awaiting notifications support :-)
 
I admit, this may not be the device for everyone, much less everyone in the Windows ecosystem, but boy, at $250 or so, it is very close to a no-brainer.
 
Highly recommended.