Gadgets Galore

As anyone who knows me is aware, I’m a bit of a gadget fan. In fact, fan might be a little bit of an understatement. Since I’m always looking for a new gadget to buy, I figured it’d be nice to have a site to tell me what gadget to buy. One thing led to another, and now whatgadgetshouldibuy.com exists.

 

gadget

 

 

Aside from being a completely useful shopping list for myself, I really played around with the technology used. I built a small REST API with PHP on the backend. The frontend communicates with this using only asynchronous Javascript queries, meaning that the site feels responsive all the time. I also used the Javascript history API very heavily to keep this one page app able to share links and to navigate back and forth.

Most of the feedback I’ve received is positive, and for some reason, I consistently get traffic from a small town in Russia. Hope this helps you decide what gadget you should buy next.

 

On Smartwatches

2015 is the year of the Internet of Things. This is what the tech media and big companies want you to believe. Like 3D TV in 2013. Except this time they’re right. Not because it’s something that they’ve suddenly decided we should buy, but because there are a lot of places that super-functional, internet-connected devices make sense. The wrist, however, isn’t really one of them. So here’s my take on smartwatches, what each manufacturer seems to be thinking and what they should be if they want to be successful.

Smartwatches, what?

Smartwatches are the combination of current gen mobile computing, and the classic wristwatch. For a fantastic history, and good read on smartwatches, I recommend this OSNews article. As usual, Thom nails it with a very detailed history, and what it means to be a watch.

The mobile phone market has, over the last few years, removed the need for a time piece. Many people check their phone for the time, and in places where you’re not sitting behind a PC, or in a room with a wall clock, you probably have your smartphone at hand. While commuting, shopping, dining or just out with friends, you always have your phone with you. The majority of wrist watch consumers use them more as fashion accessories than functional devices. Many of the younger generation have never had a need to wear a wristwatch, and so it doesn’t make much sense any more. The tech industry seems to have decided that the wristwatch just needs a technological upgrade to make it relevant. And they may be correct about that, but they may also be approaching it from a bad angle.

Everyone seems to agree that notifications are a core feature of a smartwatch. Whether it comes through your phone, or via their own data connection, a modern smartwatch seems to be defined by its ability to tell you that you’ve received a message, email or someone liked your Facebook/Instagram/Twitter post. On the surface this does seem like a good idea, but with such limited screen space and input limitations, no one seems to have really made this practical to the point of it making sense.

LG, Motorola and Android Wear in general

Android Wear is Google’s approach to smartwatches and wearables in general. The core is just to show notifications. Developers don’t have to do something for it to work, as all Android apps automatically support it. While this is great, it also means you get too many notifications most of the time. Of course, you can customize this, but most of the information isn’t practical or useful on your wrist. There are also applications for it, including maps w/ navigation, weather, music control, and there is an SDK for developers. Much of what you can do with it, requires pulling out your smartphone, or using voice input. Battery life ranges between 19 hours and 2 days.

Apple

It’s not out yet, so the speculation and hype is huge. My take is that their offering isn’t visually attractive (my opinion but also shared by many), it doesn’t seem easy to use with 15 different ways of interacting with it, and it will be insanely expensive – starting at $349. I think the end result will not be all that different from Android Wear, a mashup between notifications and applications that often require your phone or voice input. Yes, there will probably be a hype curve where big celebrities are wearing one for a year or two, but then something else will take over. Battery life is about 1 day, judging from Tim Cook’s description.

Samsung

Samsung, being Samsung, have gone for an all-in strategy. They have Android Wear devices, Tizen devices and some other weird smartband/fitness devices. At best they match Apple and Android Wear, at worst, they’re bulky, ugly, buggy and only work with one or two of their own phones.

Pebble

Interestingly, they were the first of this modern rush to the smartwatch, and still one of the most highly rated. The Pebble basically does notifications, with a few extra features such as music control. Pebble stands out in a few ways, in that there is no touch input (only real buttons), and they have a black & white E-Ink screen which barely sucks power. The end result is a week of battery life. They’re relatively ugly, although the Pebble Steel, which is a bit more expensive, has made steps to fix that.

Why not?

The big question is, why would I, as a consumer, want a smartwatch. I already have a $300-$600 phone in my pocket which gives me all this information without having another device to charge every day. If it’s just for the fashion statement, all the big watch manufacturers still exist, and we’re seeing them add some simple notification features to their watches, so why not pick up one of those? Sure, the companies selling them want you to want one, but there’s no real practical purpose for them.

The size is an issue. Being so small, not only limits the information you can show, but really hurts your ability to interact with them. People don’t use voice input. It’s a great feature to have for accessibility, and there are some limited cases where it’s practical, but for the most part, people don’t want to speak to their phone, watch or TV. The screen size is also a problem. Smartphone screens grew rapidly, even Apple was forced to acknowledge that the majority of consumers prefer bigger screens. You can’t show enough information on a 47mm (1.8 inch) screen. Sure, it worked 10 years ago, but in 2015, we have 5 inch super computers always within reach. The 1.8inch supercomputer just seems odd.

Because they have to be small to be a watch, they also don’t have room for a great battery. Traditional watch batteries last years or even decades. Smartwatch batteries last hours or days. Why is this an issue? For something to become ubiquitous, the difficulty of consistent usage needs to be as low as possible. If you forget to charge your smartwatch a few times, the chance of it ending up in a drawer increases rapidly. Tablets are starting to suffer a similar fate, many of them end up drained of power in a cupboard or drawer somewhere. The prevalence of the large screened mobile phone has made the barrier of entry for new devices very high.

Where do they make sense?

The arguments for the smartwatch range from the fair “perfect companion to your phone” to the vague “it will be used in ways we can’t imagine right now”. Most of the bulls tend to be very tied to one particular platform, be it iOS or Android ( you never really hear people defending how good Samsung’s Gear series are ). Using vague terms like “it’s a very personal device” doesn’t really justify anything. Where they do make sense is fitness features and light notifications. I have a Fitbit Flex and I often think that if it buzzed when I got a phone notification, that would be enough. What does make it practical is that I only need to charge it once a week, and that is the only time I ever take it off. Being on my wrist all the time means that even when I’m not using it actively, I have no reason to stop using it. The benefit of getting that reporting of my sleep and a little buzz pattern when I am active enough already overcomes the maintenance that I have to do on it. But now we’re not talking smartwatches anymore. We’re talking fitness trackers. And this is where the internet of things makes sense.

A note on price

In general, items don’t become mainstream until they’re cheap. As much as the tech media tends to associate Apple with the smartphone, the reason is because in the US, iPhones are cheap. They come on a contract, you generally don’t pay much up front, and you get an iPhone. The rise of the smartphone market may have been kick started by Apple, but Samsung are probably to thank for their market penetration. When sub $100 smartphones were widely available in developing countries is when they became a huge market. This is why Android has global marketshare dominance and why the Lumia 520 was the best selling Windows Phone device. Currently though, the main smartwatches are going for above $200, something most consumers don’t even feel comfortable paying for their phones. Sure there will probably be a high end luxury market here, and Apple is betting on it, but this is clearly not a general consumer product.

Conclusion

Electronics companies are trying to make new markets. Unfortunately for them, these are markets that the consumer didn’t really ask for. 3D TV was pushed on us by these same companies, and two years later are words that will forever remind us of 2013. The smartphone was coming for a long time, things evolved in that direction and Apple made a breakthrough product. But it’s pervasiveness has destroyed several markets, and no matter how much these companies try to make them reappear, they won’t for long. The smartwatch is not something that most consumers are interested in. There isn’t enough unique functionality to justify a $200+ purchase, that you have to charge on a daily basis. I applaud the internet of things, and look forward to my breadbox, fridge and coffee machine appending items to a shopping list while my thermostat grabs my location and turns up the temperature, and as I walk in the door my lights activate and my speakerbar takes over the music my phone was playing through my wireless earbuds. Once these are all reasonably priced, I can see them invading the home, but the smartwatch doesn’t seem to fit in my painting of the future.

Speeding up Windows 8.1

I like Windows 8. I won’t deny it, and i’m in a minority, but i think it’s a solid OS. Windows 8.1 has a few more nice tweaks, but i noticed that it’s a chunk slower than Windows 8.0. As far as I can tell, there are a few changes that Microsoft made that added some performance overhead. Every once in a while, my hard disk usage spikes to 100% ( from the System process ) and stays there for a while. With no SSD and a 4 year old laptop, that makes things painfully slow. Searching for apps locally is much slower than before, and seems to take ages to find anything. The main culprits seem to be the integrated Bing search and the auto syncing SkyOneDrive.  This is how I improved the performance. There’s probably more you can do, but this was already a huge step up for me.

Step one, drop the artist formerly known as SkyDrive:

Go to the PC settings app, and disable OneDrive’s sync. Sure, this will kill the nice auto backup feature, but it’ll save your harddrive.

settings

onedrive

onedrive_2

Step two, kill Bing with fire:

Still in the PC Settings, go to the Search and apps.  Then disable the Bing search.

search_1

search_2

And now your Windows 8.1 should feel as responsive as your Windows 8 was.

Caves of Steel

As some might know, I’m a fan of Sci-fi. The book I’m currently reading is Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov. Asimov has quickly grown to be my favorite author, i feel that Caves of Steel is one of his best works.

It’s a murder mystery novel, set in 2154. The Earth is a different place, with a population of 8 billion ( bare in mind this was written in 1953, when the Earth’s population was on 2,5 billion ), and most people live in giant metal domed Cities. Food is mostly made from farmed Yeast, in massive processing plants within the city. In one of the safest areas of New York City, the unthinkable happens. Someone is murdered. Detective Elijah Bailey is on the job. With a new partner, a robot named R. Daneel Olivaw.

Just over half way through the book, the following conversation takes place. I thought this piece very relevant. This is what makes humanity great. Our species always finds a way.

Norris said, “It looks as though the Medievalists are right.”

“You mean back to the soil? Is that it, Phil?”

“No. I mean about the robots. Back to the soil. Huh! Old Earth has an unlimited future. We don’t need robots, that’s all.”

Baley muttered, “Eight billion people and the uranium running out! What’s unlimited about it?”

“What if the uranium does run out. We’ll import it. Or we’ll discover other nuclear processes. There’s no way you can stop mankind, Lije. You’ve got to be optimistic about it and have faith in the old human brain. Our greatest resource is ingenuity and we’ll never run out of that, Lije.”

He was fairly started now. He went on, “For one thing, we can use sunpower and that’s good for billions of years. We can build space stations inside Mercury’s orbit to act as energy accumulators. We’ll transmit energy to Earth by direct beam.”

This project was not new to Baley. The speculative fringe of science had been playing with the notion for a hundred and fifty years at least. What was holding it up was the impossibility so far of projecting a beam tight enough to reach fifty million miles without dispersal to uselessness. Baley said as much.

Norris said, “When it’s necessary, it’ll be done. Why worry?”

Baley had the picture of an Earth of unlimited energy. Population could continue to increase. The yeast farms could expand, hydroponic culture intensify. Energy was the only thing indispensable. The raw minerals could be brought in from the uninhabited rocks of the System. If ever water became a bottleneck, more could be brought in from the moons of Jupiter. Hell, the oceans could be frozen and dragged out into Space where they could circle Earth as moonlets of ice. There they would be, always available for use, while the ocean bottoms would represent more land for exploitation, more room to live. Even carbon and oxygen could be maintained and increased on Earth through utilization of the methane atmosphere of Titan and the frozen oxygen of Umbriel.

Earth’s population could reach a trillion or two. Why not? There was a time when the current population of eight billion would have been viewed as impossible. There was a time when a population of a single billion would have been unthinkable. There had always been prophets of Malthusian doom in every generation since Medieval times and they had always proven wrong.

But what would Fastolfe say? A world of a trillion? Surely! But they would be dependent on imported air and water and upon an energy supply from complicated storehouses fifty million miles away. How incredibly unstable that would be. Earth would be, and remain, a feather’s weight away from complete catastrophe at the slightest failure of any part of the System-wide mechanism.

Baley said, “I think it would be easier to ship off some of the surplus population, myself.” It was more an answer to the picture he had himself conjured up than to anything Norris had said.

“Who’d have us?” said Norris with a bitter lightness.

“Any uninhabited planet.”

Acqui-hires are strange

It’s common in the tech industry for big companies to buy startups. Acqui-hires are a new trend, and what makes them interesting, is that they don’t buy the startup’s product, but their talent. What makes them ridiculous – the reason I’m writing this article – is the money being thrown around compared to the actual talent being hired. The sums of money are enormous, and often the startups are extremely young.

Recently Yahoo bought Summly for $30 million. While this is small change for Yahoo, is it a good investment? Business Insider point out many things in that article:

  • It’s a 3 person team
  • The lead developer is really young and immature ( Gizmodo made him cry )
  • The app itself has less than 1 million downloads
  • They’re based in London

To me this doesn’t sound like a well planned purchase. Are developers so hard to come by in the US that Fortune 500 companies have to pay $10 million per developer? If I was in Marissa Mayer’s shoes, I probably wouldn’t have done it. What did stand out about Summly ( and especially the CEO, Nick D’Aloisio ) is how vocal and out there their product was. I guess it was the same tactic that got that Gizmodo article which brought them into Yahoo’s crosshairs, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

If I was looking into acqui-hires, I wouldn’t buy the loudest company. It’s easy to scour mobile app stores to see apps/games with over 1 million downloads. Sometimes those apps are developed by single developers, or really small teams. Some of them go on to become huge ( like Instagram or WordFeud ), some stay relatively quiet ( like my own DigiClock, or Tupsu ). When they’re in that ½ million to 10 million range, is the perfect time to buy them. Those developers have proved their worth as developers, but aren’t big enough to cost the company a lot.

This also helps avoiding massive expenses on one-hit developers. When I heard about Zynga’s purchase of OMG Pop, I took a good look at their catalogue. Historically, they are not an overly successful developer, and got lucky with a fantastic game idea. Because of this, their price was over inflated. Zyga’s money could have been better spent buying a smaller developer like Evgeni Gordejev.

A little bit of market research when doing acquisitions can go a very long way! Companies like Zynga and Yahoo, who don’t have the rosiest future forecast at the moment, should probably be more cautious when splashing out large sums of cash.

Windows 8, Some Essential Apps

I’ve been using Windows 8 since December 2011, developing a game which has been released just before Windows 8’s launch. It didn’t take long, but I very quickly learnt to love the operating system. The improvements to the core desktop have been solid, and the metro interface is becoming more useful as more apps become available. This is my pick of apps with ‘Metro’ interface support:

Wordfeud

This hit iOS/Android game has been in the Windows 8 store for free for a long time now. As an avid player, this was my first regular metro app. Playing during the morning commute on my Android phone, and responding to the same game in the evening on my laptop. The game’s really polished, and the developer has definitely done a great job making it work on the bigger screen.

Wordfeud

When my boss sees this he’ll know what letters I have.

Can be found in the store.

Google Chrome

Yes, this is a metro app. Somewhere around August, Google pushed through an update to Chrome’s desktop app adding Metro support. Given that I normally use it on the desktop, I didn’t initially notice. Until I clicked a link in a Metro app, and it asked me whether I wanted to use Internet Explorer or Chrome. No doubt, I wanted to use Chrome, and it happily opened a fullscreen Metro app. It’s also almost an exact copy of the desktop version, and includes account synchronizing.

Google Chrome

I am in no way hinting that you should look at my new website. Which can be found at davidgoemans.com.

This one isn’t in the store but can be downloaded from Google, as it’s included in Chrome’s desktop version.

Booking.com

I swear I had just made a conscious note to start using airbnb instead of Booking.com as my primary accommodation site, but then I saw this app. Beautiful.

It’s about time I took the wife to Italy

Google Search

Google has come a long way as a search engine, and now you can pretty much ask it a bunch of questions. Combined with windows integration, you end up with the ability to ask Windows those questions. This blows my mind.

This is my test question whenever I’m messing with voice search on my phone

This is in the store.

Evernote

As usual, these guys have a great experience on a new platform. It’s familiar, but still looks native to Windows 8. The important stuff is there; it syncs with your account and allows you to take notes. During the development of Rocket Riot 3D, we found this was one of the few apps that actually integrates sharing properly, and as such we made it possible to share both text and screenshots to Evernote.

Evernote

I bet Microsoft won’t like this note I took during Unite 2012.

It’s in the store.

Windows Search Functionality

I mentioned in passing that Windows integrates search functionality. While this seems like a cool thing, it’s worth considering the implications of this. When I hit the start button and type what I want to search for, I can do it via any range of applications that support this. What this means is that I can search for “How cold is it in London” in Windows 8, and direct it to use Google! This kind of integrated system means you have a unified environment from which you can get any information. In a way, this is like your web browser, but extended with extra native functionality from sources of your choosing. It’s a matter of time before someone makes apps that let me set alarms by typing in the search bar. That’s almost like Android and iOS let you do, except it’s in Windows. In your primary OS†. That’s big.

The only thing I really know about Chicago is that it’s where Oprah did her show.

Note that these were the apps that I could review pre-launch. Skype made a brief appearance in the store, but got pulled, so I haven’t had a chance to look at that or plenty of other apps which will be out when Windows is launched. If these apps are any indication to the future of the Windows Store, I am very excited at the prospects!

† I know, <blah blah custom app> allows you to do this in <any OS you can think of>. Sure, but it’s not integrated by default. What that means is that there are official, in the system APIs for using this. Developers can easily plug into this without having to support <blah blah other third party app>. That’s really important to make it feel native, and so that every app implements it.

Openness has little to do with it

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about piracy on Android. This came after Madfinger Games dropped Dead Trigger’s Android price to $0 citing piracy as the reason. A day or two after, a developer by the name of Matt Gemmell wrote a post criticizing Android for how open it is and how its openness drives piracy. Along with that came some bad reporting, implying that Matt Gemmell was a developer for Madfinger Games. In my opinion, openness has little to do with it and there are some things that need to be cleared up here.

Piracy happens on iOS

There seems to be a lot of misinformation about Android piracy. It happens, and I don’t doubt that piracy rates on Android are much higher than on iOS, but that doesn’t mean that iOS is invulnerable. The developer of FingerKicks, a popular iOS game, had a pretty horrible experience too. “FingerKicks has sold only 1163 legitimate copies but there are at least 15,950 pirated copies being played on a regular basis on Apple’s Game Center” [link]. That’s about the same figure we heard from the Dead Trigger devs. All you need is a jailbroken iPhone, and jailbreaking an iPhone is easier than installing a custom ROM on my Nexus S – the device for OS hackers.

Then there was the story recently about a Russian hacker who managed to redirect iOS in-app purchases through his own server. Apparently this didn’t even require a jailbroken iOS device, and it was very simple to setup. The Next Web reported that “30,000+ in-app purchases have been made through Borodin’s service” [link].

iOS is not free of this, and despite being a closed system, piracy is still a big deal.

Users who paid that much money for a phone don’t need to pirate.

Ye I said it. The iPhone is a luxury product. As is the Samsung Galaxy SIII. People who paid upward of $500 cash or $150 on contract for a phone are less likely to have an issue paying $1 for an app. Apple’s business model is, to a large extent, one of vendor lock in, so most users are used to paying extra money for Apple services and products. Sure, they make high quality, attractive looking products, but those come at a premium price. I sure wouldn’t go and sully my beautiful top of the range smart phone with pirated products, potentially containing malware. We also shouldn’t forget that while Apple’s iPhone 4S costs $199 on contract, Samsung’s Galaxy Y costs $159 on prepaid. Android has a much wider range of users, from the ones who can afford apps to show off how rich they are, to tech savvy teens who don’t have access to their parent’s credit cards…

Google’s market still requires a credit card in most countries.

iTunes has considerably better payment options. Until recently Google Play lacked paid market support for most countries. There are many cases where people pirate, not because they don’t want to pay, but because they don’t have a legal way of getting the app ( or music or movies or TV show ). This phenomenon is relatively common. For example, Game of Thrones was one of the most watched TV shows around the world this past year, especially in countries where it wasn’t being broadcast. While Google Play might have a paid market in the Netherlands, it doesn’t have payment options. The Netherlands is one of those odd countries where people generally don’t have credit cards. I know many people with Android phones who don’t have paid access to the Play store. I see iTunes vouchers in my local super market, but never Google Play vouchers. Google need to work at this.

Google is doing something.

Although OS updates are slow on Android ( this deserves another post lamenting device manufacturers ), Android 4.1 automatically encrypts all applications and generates a per device key for each application. Google realise that piracy is easy on Android, so they’re trying things to make it more difficult. It may not be enough, and I still think they should focus more on increasing payment options globally, but it’s a step forward.

Free-to-play generates more money on all mobile platforms.

Free to play and Freemium games generate more money on average on mobile platforms. Developing mobile games with a standard cash-on-sale business model is no longer advised by many analysts. Nicholas Lovell has publish much about this, and in my own experience in the mobile games industry, I agree with him. Going free isn’t automatically bad. Free-to-play works around piracy for the most part, and generates more revenue than paid apps. It’s the way forward and I respect Madfinger for trying it in an industry of peer pressure not to. Hopefully they’ll see the benefits of Free-to-play and build their next games around it.

Open has little to do with it

I see many issues here, but openness is not one of them. Openness means that it’s easier for the 1% of technical users to install custom operating systems and hack their phones. That 1% is not the 90% that Madfinger points out. Openness just gives users choice of where to get their apps from ( legally ) and what apps they use for every function on their device. Openness gives developers aren’t locked into an OS and a programming language. Openness is what allows device manufacturers to develop phones with hardware keyboards, massive screens and styli. Openness is what allows for $150 Android devices, which you can easily give your kids so they can use WhatsApp.

Payment options and the fact that we’re comparing different socio-economic groups are two of the major monetization influencing differences between the platforms. iOS isn’t some sacred perfect platform free of piracy, and it’s closed nature may mean that there are more security vulnerabilities, like the in-app purchase one, that we don’t even know about. Neither platform is perfect, and much work is going into improving both.

A week in Ubuntu: The good, the bad and the ugly

I used to be a Linux user, all the time. Then the mass exodus to Ubuntu and Gnome started happening. And Windows 7, which was a very solid OS. As a KDE user, feeling sidelined at the lack of deep OS integration that Gnome was getting in Ubuntu, I was at a crossroads. I tried to love Ubuntu, but never could. Ubuntu always disliked something of my hardware – which openSUSE didn’t seem to mind. Kubuntu never felt well put together, not like Ubuntu. So I left it behind, bought a great notebook with Windows 7 pre-installed, and stuck to that.. for 3 years. Over a week ago, I decided to give Ubuntu another shot. Here’s how that went.

The Good

Some things about the OS are great. Ubuntu has come a long way, as has Linux, and desktop Linux may still have a bright future, especially with Steam on the way.

Installation of Ubuntu is amazing. It’s easier than any other OS I’ve tried. This has always been the case. Good on Canonical knowing that if it wasn’t this easy, people wouldn’t even try.

The OS is fast, bootup is quick, everything is responsive. The experience feels very optimized. There wasn’t a point where I thought, damn this might lock up, or that I might be taxing the system by opening Inkscape, Gimp and Spotify at the same time.

Unity desktop is stable, and does exactly what it should. All of the demos, with the HUD and launcher are exactly as expected. This is something I could really get used to, and hope to see all desktop environments going this way. I know Windows 8 does something similar, but without the HUD for alt+key combinations – something that’s really awesome.

Gnome 3 is actually a really nice desktop environment. I’ve heard so much hate about it, and although I can see why, I don’t agree. It’s quick, stable, and customizable. The extensions are ridiculously easy to install, and the only thing I couldn’t find is a button taking me to the extensions site. The extension installer even worked out of the box in Chromium.

This deserves its own point, although this aplies to Linux in general. I could change the desktop. This is something I still love about Linux, and it’ll always have a place in my heart. Even if Unity itself isn’t customizable, I don’t have to use it. I could install Gnome, XFCE, KDE, LXDE, or even – something that I still have a soft spot for – Enlightenment.

Apps on Linux are just getting better. Geany is great for editing PHP and Python. Eclipse always felt more native on Linux than on Windows. Spotify ( since I have a premium account ) worked like a charm. I even managed to develop a Spotify extension using only the Linux version. The games selection in the Software Center is looking much better too, with some top premium games. And with Steam and Unity 3D ( the engine ) support coming, that will only get better.

My laptop is a Dell XPS 17, with an Optimus chipset. Something that’s been in the media lately for NVidia’s lack of official Linux support. It turns out, there’s a project called bumblebee, which works surprisingly well. Once I followed instructions, things were working great. The little 3D sample app, GLXSpheres, went from 1,6 fps – using the intel card – to about 180 fps – using the 555M my laptop packs. I tried a few 3D games, without a problem. I even played some levels of Swords and Soldiers, a port of the Xbox/PS3/Steam version. This is where Linux shines, if NVidia won’t support it officially, someone will find a way.

The Bad

Before installing bumblebee, Ubuntu decided to use Unity 2D instead of the full blown default 3D experience. It was still really quick, but it had some quirks that made me install Gnome 3. It was only after I installed Gnome 3, I realised that my 3D drivers weren’t active, because I kept booting into Gnome Classic. This may have sullied my Unity experience – which it did to some extent – so I tried full blown Unity again. I still went back to Gnome 3.

Unity in general hasn’t won me over. I dislike single menu bar and the side dock. I’ve written about this before. Basically, the dock becomes annoying for me to use if there are more apps on there than it is high. I also find global menu bars annoying – this argument is roughly how I feel about it. I generally dislike the way OS X deals with window management, and since they’re adopting OS X style standards, I dislike that. Sure, it’s  an opinion, and some people might like it, but I don’t and if Ubuntu is going the way of the Mac, that will make sure I never use Unity as a default desktop – which thankfully in Linux you can.

Gnome 3 is pretty good, but I’m disappointed by the lack of a default window list/manager as quick as that in other desktops. I installed the Window List extension, which has worked around the lack of space on the bar. That said, this extension works well, but not something I’d recommend for the beginners.

I was pretty disappointed to find Gimp 2.6 in the repository. One of the reasons I wanted to use Linux was for this. It’s a shame since 2.8 is now stable for a few months already and I’d have expected it to be up streamed into the repo.

The Ugly

Something that really got me angry was the default notifications in Ubuntu. I had forgotten about this from my previous attempts at learning to use Unity, but it actually makes me lose my patience. I use my laptop – which is my main computer – for several things. It’s my primary development environment, my internet browser, and my primary means of chatting. The fact that you can’t click on the notifications means that for me to respond to chat messages, I have to either multitask ( 2 clicks ) or go to an annoying menu at the top of the screen and select the chat that the notification came from ( 2 clicks ). It even goes to the extent of blurring the notification when you mouse over it, almost taunting the user, “I know you want to click on this, but you can’t”. That actually made me find and install an alternate notification system, which integrated so poorly with Unity that I installed Gnome 3 instead. It turns out that this notification system is like this by design. That fact annoyed me even more. Every OSes notifications are becoming more functional, I only hope Canonical wake up to this soon.

Something more directly related to Empathy – the chat client – was that every time I woke up my laptop, I had to redo my 2 step verification on my Google account. That meant, logging into my account in the browser, regenerating a new per app password and entering it into the client. As a default chat client, this is very annoying. Linux users normally have higher security than other OS users, so the fact that this bug wasn’t fixed before release is amazing. I found a bug report for it over a year old. It seems like a minor thing, but having to come home from work every day to re-enter a password behind 2 walls of authentication is not acceptable usability. Sure there were work-arounds, and other apps like Pidgin, but I was tired of fighting the OS defaults.

I have a Logitech Performance MX mouse. I paid good money for it to do some serious gaming. It’s a great wireless mouse with a darkfield laser – so I can use it on reflective surfaces. I probably won’t replace it any time soon and if then, only with something similar. The problem is that Ubuntu keeps forgetting it. It happened 3 times in 1 week. I’ll start up, and the mouse won’t work. It requires me to unplug the usb adapter for it and plug it back in. Add that to the previous hassle, and starting up my laptop is ridiculously annoying.

Conclusion

So I sit here back in Windows 7. Maybe it’s stockholme syndrome that makes me comfortable with Windows, but my chat client isn’t complaining at me and my mouse works. That said, I will definitely go back to Linux occasionally. Especially now that Unity 3D is going to have a Linux exporter. My current Unity 3D games will get Linux ports, and I will be putting them in the Ubuntu Software Center. Although I may be in Windows, I haven’t deleted my Linux install, and probably won’t any time soon. Ubuntu is better than I remember, but it’s still got a long way to go before I can achieve the same level of productivity that I can in Windows. Given that Apple’s share in the desktop/laptop market is only growing, users will be more comfortable trying out Linux. And I can only hope that with more end users, more of these usability issues will be ironed out.

Is the Windows 8 hate justified?

When things change, people get unhappy. Except fan boys of course, but that’s to be expected. Microsoft are launching a new OS soon, and the tech blogosphere seems to love hating on Windows 8’s new Metro UI. I don’t understand why.

First I need to clear some things up. I am not a Microsoft fan boy. In fact, I am very much an open source geek, and ex-Desktop Linux enthusiast. I still love Linux, it just doesn’t like me, my profession or my hardware. I do love Android, and think Windows Phone is bland and ugly. Windows 8 doesn’t particularly appeal to me visually ( like Ubuntu 12.04 does ), but practically, I think they’re catching up big time. I feel like i can say this with confidence, as I’ve been using Windows 8 for the last 6 months as my primary work OS. Windows 8 comes with a large bevy of improvements, including (finally) a much better copy dialog that stacks with other copy dialogs and has a pause button, improved Windows Explorer with a ribbon menu that doesn’t suck, ridiculously fast boot times especially with UEFI ( which I’m not sure I agree with on a moral ground ) and much better performance and memory usage, improved default app handling and notifications. And then there’s Metro.

I love this copy dialog

I love this copy dialog

There are many articles expressing hatred for the Metro UI, often with tricks of how to get your start menu back. The problem with almost all these articles is that I can’t seem to see a solid reason for the dislike of it as start menu replacement. On a touch device, most bloggers seem to agree that Metro is great. And I have used it on a touch device regularly and it’s great. Snapping – the ability to run 2 windows docked side-by-side, one at 30% one at 70% – seems like a feature iOS and Android could do with. I could really see the use in having my chat window open on the side while reading my feeds or playing a game. The share and settings charms provide consistent, context based sharing & settings, and developers can register their apps for types of content. Overall, a good user experience.

That said, I don’t see myself using Metro apps on the desktop. Because that’s not what they’re intended for. Metro apps are for touch interfaces. Many next-gen ultrabooks will ship with touch screens, so that’s something that Windows 8 is built for. For hardcore desktop users, there’s still traditional apps with full desktop support. Removing it in favor of the clunky old start menu is, in my opinion, just going to far.

My main reason for writing this post, is that i think the Metro dashboard is arguably the best replacement for the traditional menu system i’ve seen so far – with Ubuntu’s latest Unity shell being the counter. Windows 7 introduced the pinned apps to the taskbar. This is something that initially i hated, but after using it, realised that it was Apple’s dock done right. You always know how many windows of that app you have open, and it replaces quicklaunch for the apps you actually use. If there’s something you need that’s not in there, hit Windows key and type. That’s how people work, right? At least that’s how I work in Windows 7.

Windows 8 takes this last bit a step further. Your start menu is now full screen, and centered around your keyboard. You simply hit the windows button and type. You navigate with your arrow and tab keys. You can instantly find control panel settings ( Metro and desktop ), apps ( Metro and dekstop ), and files that are in your libraries. Hit enter, and it launches your selection. Everything is navigable by keyboard. And yet almost every single blog has gone on about how it sucks for the pc. Rather than learn a bunch of obscure Windows shortcuts, you can now get any app, file, or setting open with the Windows key. Why would you – especially as a developer – not want this? It’s just as good as the current iteration of Unity, Ubuntu’s desktop shell. If only Microsoft added the functionality to get menu items with the keyboard!

Searching for Settings

Searching for Settings

I think people need to spend some time with Windows 8, use it on the desktop for day-to-day usage instead of messing around for 20 minutes and then ranting about why it’s unusable for PCs. Sure, it took me a day or two of adapting to the new way but once the mindset of Win+”what i want” was there, i struggled to go back to my Windows 7 home PC. A colleague of mine is running it on his primary home PC as well as his work PC. The only reason I haven’t upgraded at home is because I don’t want to reinstall when it’s actually released.

Windows 7 is a good, solid OS, but Windows 8 outdoes it by far. For touch devices, Metro apps and the Metro UI is good. I don’t like the visuals, but from a usability and developer perspective, it’s really solid. For desktop devices, the Metro dashboard is a more capable, super slick, lightning fast start menu replacement. I see the best of both worlds here, ready for dual input devices like some new Ultrabooks, and Transformer type tablets. If i’m missing something obvious, please tell me. Because i really don’t see what people dislike.