Cool Tech Reviews

Just Cool Tech

May 18, 2008

Make your XP system look like Vista

Adam Pash at Lifehacker makes some interesting suggestions on how to Get Vista’s Best Features in XP. The sad part is that there is so little there beyond eye candy of dubious utility or applications for very specialized niches. In the latter category, I liked:

Take Quick and Easy Screenshots: PrtScrn has been around forever, but it’s never been the most user-friendly way to get a screenshot. In Vista, Microsoft threw in a screenshot utility called the Snipping Tool. Fact is, if better screenshots are important to you, there are gobs of excellent free screenshot apps available for XP like Screenshot Captor (original post), Clip2Net (original post), and Jing (original post), among many others.

Choose Clip2Net or Jing if you want to share your captures on the Web or Jing if you want to grab a screencast, but for my usual chore of taking screenshots and saving them on my PC, Screenshot Captor does the job and more. Screenshot Captor is for Windows only and is donationware.

Posted at 11:29 am. Filed under Operating Systems, Software, Utilities, Windows Vista

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April 4, 2007

Do you really want a Windows PC at the heart of your home entertainment center?

We all know that Microsoft would like everyone to install a Windows PC at the heart of their home entertainment centers, but how well does it really work out in practice? Andrew Schmidt points us to a review on AnandTech:

Anandtech has an absolutely horrifying review of the trials and tribulations of setting up a Windows Vista home theater PC [HTPC] with the first HD capable TV tuner from ATI (AMD).

Even with the on-site assistance of Dell (DELL) and Time Warner Cable (TWC) (with promptness and technical expertise you or I could never hope to see) it took two days to get the Windows Vista PC, external HDTV cable tuner, and Time Warner Network integrated and up and running. The resulting experience was great, though most consumers would have never had the patience or technical fortitude to get it up and running. It makes one wonder why anyone would bother to do this at all.

Some good lines from the review:

Prior to Dell’s arrival we had a handful of telephone conversations and email exchanges to clear our intentions for this article. Dell is used to dealing with sending review samples of complete systems that it has built and tested time and time again. Dell was not used to sending a platform out that was buggy, not yet ready for prime time and dependent on a cable network that it had absolutely no control over. In short: Dell was nervous.

Dell asked us if it was alright if a handful of representatives accompanied the system to our office in North Carolina, just to make sure things went smoothly. We didn’t anticipate any problems but said that if it made them feel more comfortable, they were welcome to oversee the initial setup. From our perspective the setup couldn’t be simpler: 1) Setup the system, 2) Insert CableCARD, 3) Watch TV. It turned out that we were a bit optimistic.

The ordinary home user like you and me is more than nervous already. A key part of the trepidation has to do with using a PC as a digital cable box:

Vista changed everything; it was chock full of DRM and was secure enough to make just about everyone confident that high definition content could be stored on it without being easily compromised. While it’s far too early to determine if that holds true over the coming years of Vista’s existence, the important part is that it’s enough today. At CES 2006 ATI demonstrated what had the potential to become one of the biggest features of Vista, the first working Open Cable Unidirectional Receiver (OCUR) for a PC running the upcoming OS.

We were impressed by OCUR, as it had the potential to make media center valid and useful once more. The downside was that we had to wait; we saw the first demo of OCUR at CES in January 2006, and we were told that it wouldn’t be released until Vista was available to the public. At CES in January 2007 ATI, now owned by AMD, introduced the final product: the ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner (DCT).

Gosh! It seems really simple to me!

Dell came prepared; upon landing at RDU International Airport, we got a call asking if it was okay if a Time Warner technician was present during the install to help with any problems. The more the merrier we thought, so Dell made a phone call and a Time Warner technician was present. As a side note, the last line was exactly how it happened. Apparently the magic number Dell called dispatched a Time Warner technician to what is known internally as a “VIP Customer”. There were no vague time windows, no waiting, and no arguing; just a phone call and poof: instant technician. After discovering this magic ability that Dell possessed, we asked Dell to move in with us permanently. Regrettably Dell declined and its representatives did not confirm whether or not they had similar influence over the local phone or utility companies.

There’s a nice picture of the Time Warner truck with flashing lights pulling up. Despite that, let’s just say things did not go smoothly.

At the end of the entire ordeal, the senior TWC representative that was with us turned to us and asked us what this system could do. We explained, to which he responded with the most priceless of facial expressions. It was an expression that needed no explanation; his reaction asked the question “why on earth would you go through this when you can just rent an HD-DVR from us for $9 a month?”

There’s a lot more in the review, but I have to conclude that Windows Media Center Edition, now replaced by Vista Premium Edition is not really ready for prime time – at least as far as home entertainment is concerned. Yes, they finally got it working and yes, there are a few bugs, but the real problem is that it doesn’t pass the simplicity test. If the average consumer can’t just buy the the PC, take it home and plug it in, it isn’t going to garner any share. Ordinarily, I’d say “Keep working on it, guys!” but it’s clear that Microsoft’s OS development cycle lags the home entertainment development cycle and that has to change for a Windows PC to even have a chance in home entertainment.

Posted at 7:23 pm. Filed under ATI, Companies, Media Center PC, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Personal Video Recorders, Windows Vista

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March 5, 2007

Some Windows Vista good news – shadow copies

Microsoft’s new Vista operating system may only be getting lukewarm reviews, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some useful new features. James Kendrick describes how Vista shadow copies saved his bacon when he accidentally deleted a bunch of notes he had taken with Microsoft’s OneNote application:

Reader Ryan Kabir left a comment and sent me an email with the two words that I’ll never forget– Vista’s shadow copies. OK, that’s three words but you’ll have to forgive me as I am as giddy as one can be without chemical influence. Ryan’s comment pointed out correctly that in Vista, shadow copies are activated by default (at least I didn’t specifically enable them) which means the OS saves snapshots of user files when they are modified. I’ve just spent 30 minutes, the most fun I’ve had in a good while, recovering EVERY SINGLE OneNote file that had been overwritten. Every. Single. File.

Vista and Ryan have come to my rescue and I am now grinning like the village idiot with all of my notes back where they were before catastrophe struck. Big shout out to the Vista team for putting shadow copies into the OS for just such an emergency.

Backup is easily the most important thing that most people never do for their computers and I am as guilty as everyone else. Vista shadow copies are a great idea for protecting yourself against user error, but you still need something external to protect you against hard drive crashes or the like. Some suggestions on that will be upcoming in a later post.

Posted at 10:19 pm. Filed under Backup, Companies, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software, Utilities, Windows Vista

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