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5 things to expect in Windows 8.1

Posted by Alan at 8:34 AM on October 5, 2013

With Microsoft’s latest operating system release drawing closer, many customers are growing excited about what to expect in this update. Windows 8.1 isn’t really a new OS, but its a lot more than just a service pack. The company has attempted to fix many of the issues that have drawn complaints from customers, while also enhancing other features.

Changes are too numerous to detail here, but this is a good time to take a quick glance at five of the more noticeable changes that users can expect to see on October 18.

The Start Button

This is the big one, but beware that I said Button and not Menu. The Button, when clicked, merely takes you to the Start screen. However, there is a bit more functionality hidden within it. Right-click on it and you get a context menu with a number of options. It may not be what people had in mind, but it is better than nothing.

start context menu

Search

The search option is still accessed from the Charms Menu, but unlike before, it no longer takes over your screen. Instead, it simply occupies the space of the Charms menu, and results appear below the search box. It’s a much nicer way of working.

windows 8.1 search

SkyDrive

SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage service, was a part of Windows 8, as it is part of Office 2013. Now in version 8.1, the service receives a place in the PC Setting menu, allowing for easier control over how it works.

windows-8-1-skydrive

Start Page Images

Windows 8 still allowed users to customize their desktops with virtually any image they wished, but limited the Start screen options to thosen chosen by MicroSoft. Now you can opt to have the image on your desktop carry over to the Start page. If you have images rotating in a theme, don’t worry — Start will keep up with the changes.

windows-8-1-start

Boot to Desktop

With the exception of the Start button, this is probably the most requested feature. Customers can now opt to have their PC go right to the desktop upon bootup. A simple check-mark in a box is all that is required.

boot to desktop

As I said, there is much more to be found in this new operating system, but these are perhaps the biggest and most notable of the changes Microsoft has made.

You can now pre-order Windows 8.1

Posted by Alan at 6:57 AM on October 2, 2013

The next generation of Microsoft’s operating system is now less than a month away — Windows 8.1 will be officially released on October 18th, though some customers can get it now thanks to TechNet and MSDN. While most people will have wait for release day, you can at least prepare now.

Today Microsoft has opened up pre-orders for the perceived fix to Windows 8. The new OS, which returns the Start button (well, sort of), will retail for $119.99, while the Pro version will set customers back $199.99.

windows-8-1-start

Those with an existing Windows 8 license will receive a free upgrade upon release. The upgrade adds a Start button (though not a menu), new search and sharing features, Skype for Metro and tighter SkyDrive integration. Other changes are less noticeable – for instance in Explorer you will find that “Computer” is now “This PC”.

If you can’t wait to get your copy then head over to the Microsft Store a place your order now and you should receive the product on day of release.

Surface 2, Surface Pro 2 up for pre-order

Posted by Alan at 2:36 PM on September 24, 2013

surface 2 show

Microsoft held its big New York City event yesterday, unveiling the Surface 2, which will ship later next month, just days after Windows 8.1 makes its official debut. Today, the Redmond-based company begins taking pre-orders for the new tablets, which begin at $499 and range upwards from there.

“This morning we began taking pre-orders via www.MicrosoftStore.com, Microsoft Stores, and through select retailers in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Learn more about the new devices and accessories as well as how to pre-order in your market at www.Surface.com/pre-order“.

Prices have risen back upwards from the original Surface, which has been discounted to $349, and customers must still purchase a keyboard (touch or type) separately to make proper use of the tablet, that is more laptop than anything else.

The stage is set for the release, but customers have sometime to wait for the new hardware, which features the return of the Start button, that went on hiatus in Windows 8. Will you be buying one?

New Dell Windows 8 Tablets Outed

Posted by Andrew at 8:53 AM on September 24, 2013

Dell LogoDell showed off a new 8″ Windows 8-based tablet at the recent IDF conference earlier in September, promising further announcements on the resurrected “Venue” line at a press event on 2 October in New York City. Geek News Central has obtained advance information that Dell will be presenting three tablets; the already seen 8″ plus two 10.8″ tablets.

The three devices and specs are:

1) 8″ 1280 x 800 screen, Intel Bay Trail CPU, 8 hours battery life, 2 GB RAM, 32 GB SSD. Office Home and Student 2013 will be bundled. This is the one that was seen at IDF in San Francisco.

Dell Venue 8"

 

2) 10.8″ 1920 x 1080 screen, ARM Qualcomm CPU, 10 hours battery life, 2 GB RAM, 32 GB SSD. Office Home and Student 2013 will be bundled.

Dell 10" Pro

 

3) 10.8″ 1920 x 1080 screen, Intel Bay Trail CPU, 10 hours battery life, 2 GB RAM, 64 GB SSD, 4G / LTE built-in.

Dell 10" RT

 

The documentation seen by GNC suggests that the devices will be running Windows 8.1 out of the box but it’s not totally clear. There’s also no information on pricing or availability so we’ll just have to wait until next week for the press conference to learn more.

Windows 8.1 hits RTM

Posted by Alan at 2:50 AM on August 28, 2013

Microsoft Windows 8Customers have been clamoring for the next Windows almost since version 8 of the operating system came out. The new update to Microsoft’s flagship product is set for official release on October 18, though a Chinese copy has already found its way online and an English version is likely to follow closely behind.

“We have delivered in a very short time an update to the OS that will bring an even greater unified experience for our customers. As we consider the code we just handed off, and the new intuitive and fluid computing experience it provides – anytime, anywhere, across all devices – we’re confident we made the right bet in continuing our vision and following through on our commitment to rapid innovation and responsive engineering”, reports Microsoft’s Antoine Leblond.

Microsoft hopes that, utilizing Windows 8.1, over the next several months you will see beautiful, powerful devices, from the smallest tablets to the most lightweight notebooks to versatile 2-in-1s, as well as industry devices designed for business.

Will the new update be enough to sway those on the fence, or the detractors? That is question that will not be answered for a couple of months at least, likely longer.

Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro Review

Posted by Andrew at 8:54 AM on August 7, 2013

The Samsung ATIV Series 7 Smart PC Pro is a Windows 8 hybrid: a touchscreen tablet that that slots into a keyboard, converting the tablet into a laptop. Sounds like a great idea but how well does it work in practice? Let’s get it out the box first – apologies for some of these photos, there was a bit too much reflection in the office.

ATIV Smart PC Pro Box

ATIV Pro PC tablet

The ATIV Smart PC is a big tablet. This is not unsurprising as it comes with an 11.6″ screen but here’s what it looks like next to a Motorola Xoom 2 which has a 10.1″ screen. And the extra size translates into weight. The Smart PC is 888g without the keyboard and it nearly doubles when the keyboard is added. For comparison, the Xoom 2 is 599g and Series 3 Chromebook is 1.1 kg.

Smart PC Pro v Xoom 2

The Smart PC has a good selection of ports and controls around the outside of the tablet. Most of the ports have small covers, which while maintaining the tablet’s sleek lines, become a bit of pain when it comes to plugging stuff in and out. On the left, there’s the volume rocker and and a mini HDMI socket. Along the top, there’s a headphone jack, on/off button, rotation lock button, USB 3 port and microSD slot. The right-hand side is bare except for the stylus silo at the bottom. Yes, the tablet supports Samsung’s S Pen and it’s pretty nifty. Finally, the bottom edge has the keyboard dock connector and the DC-in socket. To round the peripherals out, the Smart PC has cameras on both the front and back of the tablet, stereo speakers and last, the Windows button.

IMG_20130806_123013

Dropping the tablet into the keyboard dock is easy – it just slots in – and there’s a central eject button on the hinge for when you want to detach the two. The keyboard comes with the two further USB ports, but I don’t think they’re USB 3 as they’re not coloured blue.

ATIV Smart PC Pro Hinge

Together, the tablet and the keyboard ought to be a smooth, cool looking unit but the presentation is let down by various conformity declarations for the FCC, CE and others. Of course, Intel and Microsoft have to get their stickers on too and while those can be peeled off, the declarations are etched onto the case itself. The overall presentation of the device when closed up is unattractive and a disappointment. Honestly, it looks like the back of a desktop monitor.

Smart PC Pro Back

On the plus side, the hinge mechanism is positive and sturdy. When open, the keyboard is tilted at a very slight angle which makes it more comfortable to use. Keyboard is good and the touchpad is one of the newer button-less kind, which I found easy to use.

IMG_20130806_123358

Running Windows 8, the ATIV Smart PC is smooth as it should be, being powered by a 1.7 GHz Core i5 processor paired with an SSD. Animations are slick, the Live Tiles look great and apps are generally snappy. Regrettably Windows 8 is still the confused merger of a desktop and tablet OS but that’s hardly the Samsung’s fault so we’ll not hold that against it. What is surprisingly good is the S Pen, Samsung’s active stylus.

The S Pen stylus is a stubby affair reminiscent of a short ballpoint pen but the unflattering looks belie its usefulness. Simply, it makes “desktop” Windows 8 useful on a tablet as it provides the accurate pointing and clicking that would otherwise be delivered by a mouse. Without the S Pen, legacy Windows apps are at best, hit-or-miss, and at worst, a exercise in total frustration. The S Pen changes that completely. Further, Samsung have bundled their S Note app which takes full advantage of the S Pen, letting the user write notes and sketch on different pad designs. It’s a bit like a really colourful (skeumorphic?) version of Evernote. Handwriting recognition converts scrawls into text and the accuracy is pretty good. I was impressed.

Pricewise, the version with a 128 GB SSD and 3G connectivity costs nearly £1200. Dropping the 3G and the SSD to 64 GB will knock £200 off, as will losing the keyboard, setting the entry level model at about £800 (prices from Amazon.co.uk). Ultimately, the ATIV Smart PC Pro is an expensive and heavy tablet that will only appeal to those who absolutely need full Windows 8-compatibility. Anyone else will buy an iPad or Android tablet for about half the price. The S Pen is cool, but it’s not enough.

[Disclosure: The ATIV Smart PC Pro was not supplied by Samsung for review.]

WD My Passport Edge drive — the good and bad

Posted by Alan at 8:51 AM on July 24, 2013

If you are looking for a small, portable hard drive for your laptop then there are several choices on the market and hard drive prices continue to reach new lows. The one I settled on, mainly because of a price deal, was the WD My Passport Edge. The stipulation was that I was buying a drive that specifically said “for Mac”. There is a version that is not labeled this way, and is generally the same price, but at the moment of my purchase the Mac one was cheaper. No problem since, after all, a hard drive is a hard drive, right?

wd my passport edge

The Good

With 500 GB of storage, the little USB drive packs plenty of extra space into its enclosure. When I say “little” I mean that quite literally, as the dimensions are 4.4 x 3.4 x 0.4 inches and 4.6 ounces. In addition to the sleek design, the drive also is USB 3.0 (backward compatible of course) and comes with pre-installed software to work with Apple Time Machine.

The Bad

I am sure the Apple software is great, but I purchased with for Windows, and there is a process that needs to be carried out to make that work. That pre-installed software blocks Windows access.

As I plugged in the drive, I heard the familiar USB connection chime, but a trip to Explorer showed no extra drive. Normal trouble-shooting resulted in the same thing — I unplugged and re-plugged, switched ports and the like, all to no avail. A trip to device manager showed the drive, no problem. A PC reboot also produced all of these same results.

It turns out you will need to open Explorer and right-click on Computer (“This PC” if you are running Windows 8.1) and choose “Manage”.

Now, locate the WD My Passport drive — the simplest way is to unplug the drive while watching the console. Pay attention to which one disappears. Then plug it back in and again and pay attention to see which drive appears (it should be the same). Likely you will find it listed as “Disk 1″.

Move to the lower pane and right-click on the WD. Choose “New Simple Volume” — wording may vary based on Windows version. During this setup process you will be prompted to enter a volume name — I simply named it “WD My Passport”. If you choose none then the drive will be named “new volume”. You also must choose a drive letter, but the default should be fine (F in my case). You can always go back and right-click the drive later and rename it or change the drive letter.

Conclusion

The above steps fix the problem, and now you have a small and elegant looking hard drive that will easily fit in a pocket and holds 500 GB of data. For the price, this drive can not be beat, but setup is a bit of a trick.

Gmail Contact Synching Bug

Posted by tomwiles at 5:54 PM on July 4, 2013

Last fall I got a Samsung Galaxy S3 phone. I love the S3. It’s an awesome piece of technology.

Sometime overnight a couple of evenings ago, it developed a hardware problem and the next day it would no longer boot. It was working perfectly when I went to bed, but when I woke up something had gone wrong.

So, I went by a Sprint store. The technician tried to do a hard reset, but no go. He ended up giving me a new white S3.

I ended up having a bit of a problem getting my Gmail contacts to synch to the new phone from Google’s cloud. After a bit of research, I discovered there is an apparent bug in Google+. If you have Google+ friend synching enabled on your Android phone, it ends up preventing the Gmail contacts from synching to the phone.

The work-around to the problem is to turn off Google+ synching. Once I turned off Google+ data synching  in the the phone settings, the Gmail contacts instantly started synching over. I’ve got quite a large contact list since the list was originally developed in Windows and has been synched over to a number of different phones as well as OS/X, so it took a while to synch over.

I don’t need the Google+ contact list to synch over to the phone anyhow, so I will keep this Google+ app feature turned off. I had noticed even before this happened that contact updates didn’t synch properly to or from the old phone, so it is likely that the bug in the Google+ synching has been around for a while and as of this writing is not resolved.

So, if you get a new Android phone and you are having trouble getting your Gmail contacts to synch over to the new device, make sure that Google+ synching is disabled then cloud synching of your contacts should begin working just like it’s supposed to.

Audio Evolution Mobile App

Posted by tomwiles at 3:36 PM on May 28, 2013

Audio Evolution Mobile 1.7.2 is a powerful multitrack audio recorder for Android that is somewhat reminiscent of Adobe Audition 1.5 in both form and function. Priced at $7.45 US, the app is a real bargain for anyone looking to do serious multitrack audio recording and editing on an Android tablet or smartphone.

Back a few years ago I switched from Windows to Mac, and Adobe Audition 1.5 is one of the pieces of software I had to let go of on a day-to-day basis in order to end the endless frustration of dealing with Windows. Newer versions of Adobe Audition have never struck me as having the same appeal of Adobe Audition 1.5.

It might be just me and the way I relate to software interfaces, but I’ve never had much use for Garageband on either the Mac or on my iPad. I was able to make use of Apple’s Soundtrack app, but it was just never as quick or as easy as Adobe Audition 1.5 was in quickly cranking out a tightly-edited piece of audio.

Audio Evolution Mobile 1.7.2 was easy for me to instantly make use of. The software maker suggests that you download the trial version to try on your particular Android hardware before you buy it, to make sure it will work for you. I downloaded the trial version onto my Galaxy S3 smartphone, and quickly determined that it would not only work but that I really liked the software and the way it worked. I uninstalled the trial version and purchased the full paid version and was able to crank out an hour-long edited recording quite easily with a minimum of confusion.

The software vendor makes it very clear that Audio Evolution Mobile 1.7.2 cannot directly output into the MP3 audio file format because of MP3 file format licensing issues. The app can output mixdown files to WAV, AIFF, FLAC or OGG file formats.

Of course the podcast file format standard is MP3, so in order to be able to convert the mixdown files to the MP3 file format, I downloaded the free MediaConverter app that converts files using the open-source FFMPEG libraries from many different file formats to MP3.

To add ID3 tags to the converted MP3 files, I installed the free MP3dit app that is able to edit ID3 tags for many different audio file formats.

To upload the MP3 file to my podcast server, I use the free ANDftp FTP client for Android.

Finally, to make the WordPress post I simply go to a browser such as Firefox for Android to the regular full browser view, log in and make the post as I would on a regular desktop or laptop computer.

To be honest, the last step is the hardest to accomplish on a tablet device. WordPress just isn’t laid out in a very touchscreen-friendly manner, but it can be made to work in a pinch.

From a podcaster standpoint, the mobile device recording, editing and posting software is slowly getting there.

Microsoft gives Blue info and attacks Google

Posted by Alan at 8:02 AM on March 27, 2013

Microsoft’s next version of Windows 8, code named “Blue” leaked out this past Sunday and ever since then I have been feverishly testing the new operating system in a virtual machine. There is a lot new here, making this “update” much more than a service pack, but also not quite “Windows 9″ either.

windows blue start screen in red

In a rare move, Microsoft has actually acknowledged the leak and added information about it. In the process, the company also took a swipe at Google’s recent decision to kill Reader.

Microsoft vice president Frank Shaw began his announcement by telling us “While some folks were out doing “spring cleaning,” we used the opportunity to look back a bit at what has happened in the past season, and to look ahead at what we have coming”.

More important than the shot at Google, which Microsoft seems to take on a regular basis, was the acknowledgement of Blue, which would have been hard to deny, given that many of us are testing it out. Shaw stated “Now, the look ahead. With a remarkable foundation of products in market and a clear view of how we will evolve the company, product leaders across Microsoft are working together on plans to advance our devices and services, a set of plans referred to internally as ‘Blue’.”

He went on to inform that “today, Steve Guggenheimer announced the next Build developer conference. At Build, developers will see what’s next for Windows, Windows Server, Windows Azure, Visual Studio and more. This is just one place we’ll discuss the advances coming – another is TechEd”.

Of course, he could not resist one final parting shot at the end — “See, spring isn’t just for cleaning/whacking away at things. It’s also a time to plant and get ready for summer”.