Andrew Hill on Google+

09 April 2014

XP and from one scary message to another

OK. I admit it. I am still using Windows XP on a desktop. There, it's out now. I am so bad / lazy / unconcerned / old-fashioned / stupid [delete as appropriate to fit whichever news article you read]. Microsoft's support for the operating system stopped yesterday. I now get a warning when it starts and the Microsoft Security Essentials flag icon in my tray has turned red. Add to that a mass of articles and it is difficult to ignore the fact that XP is no longer 'supported'.

So, all credit to Microsoft in a sense for a massive increase in their name being mentioned everywhere. It is quite remarkable just how many people have stuck with Windows XP over the years. Vista really did not appeal and the press were critical at the time, Windows 7 initially seemed like a slightly fresher version of Vista (although it was a considerable improvement) but didn't seem that big a deal when XP was still managing fine and, having used both a lot over the years, I genuinely didn't see much difference in performance and decent protection kept systems running and free from nasty bugs etc. The years passed and Windows 8 definitely didn't appeal visually. I have had lots of clients, friends and colleagues call me up to ask for help with quite simple things with Windows 8 where, basically, they couldn't figure out what to do whereas they had been quite adept in earlier versions. That put me off upgrading too. I would have liked the more efficient system and anything that's faster and more secure is welcome but the interface had no appeal whatsoever and I dreaded the thought of being a beginner again!

So here I am. Still running XP on my desktop, which I use daily for all sorts of stuff. I do have Windows 7 on an ancient laptop but that is so slow and clunky in many ways that it's not a pleasant to use at all and it hasn't moved for many months. The main alternative machine is a Chromebook. That's is brilliant but I still need quite a few bits of software for drawing and web design that I can't do on the Chromebook. There are apps and they're improving all the time but I would struggle without my Serif, Dreamweaver and one or two other bits of software.

I will have to take the plunge into the Windows 8 ocean soon and have been looking at some new kit but, in the meantime, I thought I should do something about the dire warnings of imminent disaster. Microsoft do say that they'll keep updating the virus stuff in Security Essentials for another twelve months but that doesn't stop the flag being red or the warnings bout the 'system' not being updated. I think that means that if there is another hole discovered in the operating system code that allows people to wander around inside your files and steal data then Microsoft will not be fixing it. I understand that. It's fair enough. You buy an old car and accept that it may not do everything it should. Once the guarantee's up, you're on your own, even if they made a mistake when manufacturing it. You do get the feeling though that Microsoft are not so bothered and might not put much of an effort into protecting us old XP folk. They may update virus definitions or they may leave them for a while. Who knows? There may be more income-generating things to do. Now, I'm sure they won't deliberately put my files at risk but I don't feel comfortable and that damned red flag keeps reminding me of the fact.

So, as an interim solution for my nerves if nothing else, I downloaded Avast! a free anti virus programme that I remember using years ago. There are a few alternatives out there. AVG gets good reviews too as do some others. As with many free programmes, though, you need to be alert. Attempting to download from one quite reputable news site, I find a screen where I have to choose some add-on on the way. I cancelled that and went direct to Avast!'s own site. That was better and avoided the extra programmes. On the way you may need to untick some browser extensions or add-ons but there's nothing significant to worry about. I am not at all sure this will give me any more security at all, just more system resources being used up and an occasional scary message from some woman coming through the speakers, but I feel a bit better.

Now, back to deciding between a Shuttle and traditional desktop...

06 January 2014

Return Of The Desktop

Both HP and Lenovo have new releases this month. Desktops. Desktops running Android operating systems. They may be seen as some as just large tablets with leads to keyboards and a mouse (although they do have touch screens so the mouse may be an option) but could be a sign of something of an unexpected change of direction.

We have been getting used to Chromebooks - getting very popular as more and more people see that they can use them and that the devices are not merely for those of us who they used to think of as geeks. Android, however, is a far more familiar environment, being on the majority of their phones.

At prices the equivalent of under £300, however, and that can include a reasonably decent big monitor, and abundant apps already available for virtually any task, could this type of device become the living room controller? The central co-ordination point for (almost) all the other devices you wish to use. 

Phones are great - they'll do almost anything and are there, ready for your thumbs, wherever you are. But the screens are a bit small - you can't comfortably share views with anyone other than boy/girlfriends or little sisters. (The screens are getting bigger but they're also getting uglier and too big to slip into pockets so where that line of development is heading I do not know.)

Tablets are cool, provided you don't want to type a lot. Nice screens and something you can pass around on the sofa but you're not going to leave it plugged in to do anything long-term. They never stay in one place either. Someone has usually borrowed it and forgotten to return it where you want it when you want it. They're also OK for close-ish viewing but not really standing alone in the corner for more than a few to watch.

Smart TVs are good as TVs and just about manageable if the internet programme is already selected or immediately to the left or right. above or below whatever's currently selected but that's it. Try to use a keyboard and the remote gets thrown at the cat.

Chromebooks are fine but not much bigger, screen-wise, than a tablet. Nor are any of the laptops, notebooks etc on the scene. All super toys and even work devices but they're not something to be left on or shared much.

A Windows desktop. Remember them? Nice big screen and it sort of sits somewhere and seldom moves - reassuring computing. But Windows 8 has made devastating inroads to our confidence as users. Do we click here or there. Where is that menu that opens - was it this edge or that? Oh, there isn't a Windows App for that then. Pity. I was very happy helping the few that needed help navigate their way around XP and 7 and could make the screen display just about anything I wanted it to. I tend to leave 8 alone and gingerly tap on rectangles and the background may forever be that dark shade of mid blue. 8, 7 XP or Vista, the fans whirr and buzz and interrupt any quiet moment. A black screen is never really black and there'll be updates that take an age just when you want to turn the damn thing off.

A silent running device in the corner, troubling no-one unduly, simple to work and substantially maintenance-free, at a price that allows it to be chucked out after a couple of years (or taken to bits by an inquisitive teenager), may be just the thing for 2014.

13 December 2013

The Dour And Unfathomable Nandsi

Thought I'd buy some British Premium Bonds. With interest rates on deposits almost non-existent at the moment, the idea that my cash is safe while standing a chance of winning something is far more attractive than 2 or 3% at best! Even if I win nothing all year I'll have lost no more than the cost of a pizza or two for each £1000 invested.

But how difficult does HM Treasury (or whatever those who hold the purse strings at National Savings) make it? You'd think anyone offering to top up the Government's coffers at this time would be welcomed with open arms.

First, I cannot just go on-line and buy them. I need some number. You can only get a number by downloading a form and printing it, signing it and posting it to somewhere near Blackpool.

Three weeks later, I get a letter with a secret password. It's almost something you'd expect to find in a Corgi Toy James Bond car set - little peel off windows with what could be invisible writing to the uninitiated. It might have been exciting had it not been so slow. I went to the site again and tried logging in with this new password. No luck.

It seems that the password isn't the number I need at all. That, apparently, arrives in a separate letter. So I wait. Another few days go by and this morning a letter arrives with a number. No peel off secret mission things, though. Never mind, now I can access the site, amusingly called nsandi.

The number works. Great. So does the password. But before I can do anything else I have to change it. I invent something complicated. No good says the first message in tiny red capitals in a red outlined box like something you might have seen in the late 1990s. Apparently I need a special character. OK, I throw in a full stop. Success.

Now I have a page that shows I have a massive £7 of Premium Bonds. Actually, I thought I only had one so that was a surprise. Now to buy a few thousand more... There ought to be a link to buy more, invest or something somewhere...

A few minutes later and I am still searching. OK, I'll try the main site rather than my account section. No Buy Now button anywhere so I try an Invest link and follow that through a page or two. It wants me to enter my number again. OK. here goes. More little red capitals. Number not valid. Hang on, it seems to want my Holder's Number and that is not, by the seems of it, my number. OK. I dig out my original Premium Bond document, now on fading yellowy paper with computer printing like an old typewriter.

So, I put that number in and it gets accepted. But then another box of small red capitals tells me that I have already registered. Well yes, I know that. So what? So I couldn't go anywhere from there and there was no clue whatsoever on the page to tell me what to do now. I went back to my account section, logged in again. At least that was uneventful. Here I looked around again.

No obvious place to buy at all. OK, I thought, I'll look at what I have already and clicked a link to my £7 Bonds. Interestingly, I saw that they'd all been bought in 1957. There was a link to see if any had won so I gave that a click and there's a place to enter two dates. I try some time in 1957 in one box and today in another.

Small red capitals again tell me to select a date bigger than 1/1/2011 for the start box. OK, I see a note saying there are no records on-line prior to the on-line service starting but there is no clue as to when that was. I presume it was that 1/1/2011 date so enter 2/1/2011 just to be on the safe side.

More little red capitals tell me to choose a date bigger than 13/12/2011!! By now the air is blue and I am glad the children aren't within earshot. I enter another date and it tells me in the same tiny red capitals that I haven't got any prizes in that period. Nothing about the previous 54 years, though. If they had come up notification could have gone to any one of about thirty addresses. Oh well. Move on, and back to trying to buy some more.

It occurred to me that my Holder's Number was like an Account Number and not the 'Premium Bond' number and so maybe, as it currently held 7, there could be a way to add to that. Sure enough, there was. Finally.

It took over three weeks and at least thirty fraught minutes but I have now got 1007 Premium Bonds. There are limits on how many you can buy with some cards so I'll have to make several transfers but at least future ones may only take a few minutes.

Having said that, for some reason almost as inexplicable as the site navigation, my new Premium Bonds won't be eligible for any prizes until February 2014!! That's a bit disappointing to say the least and simply isn't the way to make customers lending you lots of money feel happy. If there was an alternative I would use it but, unless you know differently, the dour and unfathomable nsandi rules as OK as any.

I actually had more pleasure today unwrapping an old Corgi Toy Aston Martin I'd bought for £14. I get an immediate sense of satisfaction and achievement and a feeling that it might even be a better investment than cash in the bank too! 

01 November 2013

Queued For Sending

SMS now seems so clumsy and slow to me. I am sure that if you live in an area where you have great mobile reception then text messaging is almost the default way to communicate with anyone. I do get a bundle each day myself. The difference is that replying is such a pain.

Actually typing the message is OK, thanks to SwiftKey, but then comes the really annoying bit. You hit Send. And wait. Queued For Sending. Then, some time later, if you're lucky, you hear the derponk noise that accompanies a change to Cannot Send,  You try again. This time the display stays at Queued For Sending and there's nothing you can do. At least with Cannot Send you get a chance to Send Again. Not with Queued For Sending.  No way. You have to hope that it either does go or that you hear the kerponk.

On occasion I have resorted to copying an unsent message and sending it again and it has gone before the Queued For Sending one! Now that has really confused recipients sometimes!

All in all it's a bit of a drag. In complete contrast is GMail and, indeed, several other apps now which have message systems embedded in them - all, of course, using the internet rather than mobile data connection. In every case, I have been able to communicate far more quickly and reliably - and in the case of GMail, include all sorts of extras like links and images simply.

My problem, of course, is that not all my recipients have the appropriate apps on their phones but more and more do and, to a large extent, I am replying to those that come in that way so it's not that much of an issue anyway. More relevant might have been lack of an internet connection but I am finding BT WiFi hot spots in far more places than I find decent mobile reception! Not sure how long that will remain the case and maybe I have just been lucky. To be fair, most of my SMS problems are at home in a rural village and that is where I get great internet service in contrast to the non-existent phone service indoors.

It is frustrating, though, to see all the money being planned for 4G networks so that people can watch movies on their way to work when so many people are like me and unable to make a simple phone call or send a message on their mobile without wandering around outside or balancing on a window ledge.

It may be terribly embarrassing for teenagers to see a dad holding his mobile in the air to get a signal but that is what has to be done here and it is not always easy to remember to avoid doing that elsewhere!

Soon there will be a High Speed train whizzing past a few miles away and neighbours may be crowing about their new £40 a month fibre optic internet connections but none of us will be sending each other SMS to comment.

The people on the train will probably have 4G beaming down to their devices. They'll probably be beaming as they look out of the window and see me in the middle of a field waving my arms around.

29 May 2013

Life With A Chromebook, Six Months Later.

It’s interesting to look back just six months when I was pondering a whole load of options for a new computer. I settled on a Samsung Chromebook, keeping my 4 or 5 year old Windows XP PC for whatever that wouldn’t do.

I had looked at all the things I did and the software I used to do them, concluding that there was an on-line version of something that would suffice for all but a few activities. Let’s see how I’ve fared.

By far the most activity has been e-mail and communication - more than I’d expected after meeting someone abroad! GMail has been great and, whilst working fast and furiously on the Chromebook, it was also much improved in operation and appearance on my Sony Xperia phone. The Chromebook handled all attachments too that I could throw at it.

Google Drive provided all that I needed to view and save documents and to create fairly straightforward ones. However, there are some shortcomings when it comes to more advanced things like removing headers and footers from a first page. That was surprising as other quite complicated tasks could be managed but not anything like sections.

Sheets are Google’s answer to Microsoft’s Excel and they have worked just great for years. I publish a chart each week that entails copying 100 items in bulk from a web page and pasting that into a spreadsheet. I was delighted to find that Google’s product accepted the data and arranged it in cells, saving me a huge amount of work. Formulae, including quite advanced ones, work seamlessly and I feel quite at home there. Deleting several rows usually throws up an ‘Ooops’ message every so often but I find it always works next time. Perhaps with 600+ rows to handle there is some delay in the server doing its best to preserve versions in case I want to restore data wrongly deleted!

I then publish a small section of the sheet that displays the Top 20 after applying some formulae. Taking a screenshot is simple and it’s filed automatically. Opening the file, there is a basic but efficient editing tool where I can crop the screenshot, save it and it’s ready to go on Google+.

I also do quite a few charts and graphs which Google Sheets present really well, especially in live on-line form where users can click lines or columns and get additional information. Not only are the charts more informative than Excel’s standard fare but also they are a refreshing change of style and even colour to the ubiquitous shades and style of Excel. Yes, I know you can change Excel in a million ways but it takes time! My only criticism is that it can be a bit clunky sometimes, using code to change the data being used for the charts - especially awkward when you want to skip some columns or rows!

I have also been using Google Slides a lot. They’re Presentations by another name now. I find them a really smart way to present information on web pages, using mini embedded sets of slides to do so. I don’t know how I could do this with PowerPoint. I also use Slides for actual presentations too. The themes are very basic and are early dreadful Google in style (as for Forms!) I suppose someone will get round to changing them eventually but it does encourage one to use white slides with simple black text and that, my friends, is no bad idea!

For images, as I have written elsewhere, life with Google can be confusing. Good. But confusing. I often need to edit images and add text on-line which is quite a simple operation using the newish Picnik-influenced interface for what I need to do in that respect. Anything more, though, and life can get tricky. Picasa is superb for image edits of almost every type I need but I can only do that off-line and not on the Chromebook.

On-line, if you view an album of your Picasa uploaded pictures you will be taken to Google+ Albums. If you spot it quickly enough, there is a highlighted line of text where you can return to Picasa Web Albums. It looks very much as if the latter is doomed and Google+ Albums will be the sole place to go. For now, though, you have different editing tools and processes depending upon where you are! None are like the off-line Picasa tools which are so good. You can elect to edit in Picasa and download the image and then upload it again but I found that even more confusing and, of course, that needed to be on the PC as there is no local Picasa on a Chromebook.

There are several on-line editing tools outside Google that I shall examine sometime but, because of other reasons, I do all my image work (apart from the quick edit and text addition mentioned) on the PC. The main reason is that I take loads of pictures and would by now have filled up the tiny bit of storage space on the Chromebook - assuming that I could actually have connected it to my camera (or vice versa I suppose that should be). A new Panasonic Lumix uses a huge 64GB XC card and Chrome OS can’t read it! In fact, I had to get a special download for Windows XP to enable it to be read on the PC. I guess Google will eventually update Chrome OS but I don’t think they have yet. So photos go to the large PC hard drive and there I have all the facilities I need. The main one, though, is Picasa, with uploads to Google+ or Picasa Web Albums and thence to the world.

I have many blogs and write lots of articles for which Google’s Blogger has been more than satisfactory to date. I also like the way you can share new posts on Google+ too, directing each blog to the appropriate Google+ profile.

As I have mentioned, Google+ has been the place that I choose to post things first or to link blog posts from. Until recently there was a useful add-in to Google+ that made sharing posts to Facebook and Twitter quite easy. That appears to have disappeared following a change in the presentation of posts in Google+ so I am resorting to copying and pasting links at the moment. I am sure, however, that It will not be long before someone comes up with a sharing facility again if, indeed, they haven’t already!

Music with the Chromebook is fine provided it’s on-line! I use Amazon’s Cloud Player, Rdio and may start trying Google Player too but the others work fine. The speakers are nothing special though so, as it is seldom that I need music on the move, I use the PC anyway. BBC’s iPlayer and websites offering live programmes of all sorts, including regular channels work well and I can watch TV or recordings anywhere with an internet connection.

For Twitter, one of the few non-Google products I use nowadays, the excellent Tweetdeck app does exactly what I want, enabling simple posting as whichever of three profiles I require.

The other non-Google software, and the main area where I cannot use the Chromebook, are web design tools - the design and editing tools like Serif DrawPlus and PhotoPlus and their WebPlus product as well as Dreamweaver.

I am starting to use Wix more, and more effectively too, and Google’s Blogger can create some very attractive and simple sites on-line. However, most clients’ requirements still seem to need the off-line tools and that remains beyond what I can do with the Chromebook. To be honest, though, I wouldn’t expect to move from my PC for that sort fo work where a mouse or tablet is far more accurate and satisfying to use than fingers on a shiny trackpad!

So I am giving the Chromebook lots of good reviews. The keyboard is a delight to use, the battery lasts for hours and hours - easily meeting the specified 6 or 7 hours for me - and it is light and, of course, just starts without fuss or waiting. These features still impress me even now.

I need to figure out how to tether it to my phone so I can use it when on the move as more often than not I am not finding a connection and the phone seems able to find spots that this doesn’t! It can be frustrating when you want to show someone something - a document or photo or web site - but without an internet connection you can’t! There is something about off-line documents or mail I must investigate. There may be an answer but I reckon a phone connection may be the key. More about that another day.

What has surprised me is just how little I use non-Google apps or software now. That isn’t just the Chromebook’s influence but simply the fact that the products are getting better all the time and everything (except Picasa-G+) works well together.

Another factor in making on-line activity easier has been the installation of Jelly Bean on my Sony Xperia mobile. This has made internet use much faster and communication simple with new attractive interfaces for Google’s Hangouts. The ability to view sites and search quickly diminishes the need to consult a laptop or PC.

I do still fancy a Nexus tablet though! Not that this will in any way enhance anything I do. But I still want one. I just tell myself that all this time waiting will result in a much smarter version being available as and when I do succumb to temptation.

That reminds me, I must sell that Asus EeePC that I just fancied in 2007 and hardly ever used after the first week.

24 May 2013

Microsoft's Word App

We've had Office 365 for ages and its web versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint (and, yes OneNote, if you insist) but it is only recently that Microsoft have promoted these. They now call them their Word app (and presumably Excel app etc.)

Google really have led the way in this respect with their Docs getting better and better and considerable integration of Drive in Chrome. Microsoft have done a lot to try to keep up, including an Excel Survey app which I have only just noticed! That may rival the very effective and useful Google Forms, I'll have to review that later.

I thought I would have a quick look to see just how close Microsoft had got to something that really does rival Google.

Accessing your SkyDrive is easy enough, and your folder f documents is displayed. There's a strange-looking symbol for PDF documents. I opened a new Word App document and pasted in some content from a document I had in G Drive. The images didn't come with the paste but the text layout was OK and there are a reasonable number of styles and formatting options in the familiar-ish ribbon.

I chose that particular document because I wanted to remove a footer from the front page which I couldn't do in Google Docs. Hmmm. In Microsoft's Word app you can't even add a footer, never mind what I was trying to do! So I am afraid that's as far as I went. It will need to be more advanced if it is to be a real challenge and not just a place where people who haven't got a Google account go to create simple documents.

Excel looks more powerful but I really can't at this time recommend a move away from Google Docs which are getting better every week.

Something that Microsoft do give you, though, that I spotted is a link to your folder. I suppose Google do provide a url you can copy but here is an embedded blue box! Absolutely no way to change the security for individual items but never mind. And they do warn you about that. So it's pretty useless but quite pretty.

You'll see items there from 7 years ago when I first started experimenting. Gosh, was it that long ago! You'll also see that I have done nothing since.

The necessity to use docx may annoy some who still like Office2003 and there is only Download as a Word document as an option. All a bit restrictive. But more familiar to many and a port in a storm, I guess.

30 January 2013

SD XC and XP

I got a new camera a week or so ago but it didn't come with a memory card so I bought the recommended SDXC type with a massive 64GB of memory and faster read/write speeds so that it could handle the big files created by the camera. Took a few practice shots and thought I'd have a look at how they turned out.

Unfortunately, my pc couldn't access the card data. It wanted to format the card. I quickly hit No. That would have wiped everything off which rather defeats the purpose. I tried inserting the card directly in a card reader slot but that didn't work either. Now it is an old pc with Windows XP but it has had all the updates and is SP3 so it's as up to date as it ought to be in that respect. I looked on some forums and saw that the SDXC card has a different file format system and that there were card readers available that claimed to read this new type. So I bought one of them.

I had also tried the card in my new Chromebook, thinking that Samsung might have used a later type of card reader for the device installed on that. No luck there - the Chromebook recognised a card was there but wanted to format it too.

The new card reader arrived today and I plugged the card into it and the pc recognised the various drives on it. I was thinking that it was a bit of a drag to have to fiddle around taking the card out of the camera and then insert it into this little reader every time when I had got used just to plugging a cable from the camera into a USB socket but resigned myself to having to do that. Hang on - the pc still wants to format the card! Damn. Looks like I still have a problem.

I tried a slightly different set of search terms on Google. Something like Why on Earth can't I read my SDXC card?!! and read on a forum that it was a Microsoft Windows XP thing. Things looked gloomy as I'd had all the updates so I dug out an equally old laptop which I'd put Windows 7 on. It seemed that I could at least get the photos with that and then transfer the files to the pc where I wanted them. While the old laptop was thinking about getting started I had another look at the forum and noticed a link to an update related to this someone had posted. I downloaded that, restarted the pc and stuffed the card in the old slot on the pc.

And there they all were! Picasa found all the photos, just like old times!

I should also be able just to connect the camera direct too now. So I didn't need the new card reader or the Windows 7 laptop at all. Just a little update that, for some reason best known to Microsoft, hasn't been included in updates so far. So if you're having trouble reading SD XC cards DO NOT FORMAT them! You don't need to buy some fancy new reader (although it may read them a bit faster if you have hundreds to deal with) and you can do things the way you always used to.

Get the download at this link.