Buy Cheap, Pay More.

27 Apr

As noted in an earlier posting, I got myself a new laptop last August. This cost me the thick end of £1,800, so was a considered purchase by all accounts.

More recently (early this year) my company, after much kerfuffle, eventually replaced my ageing work laptop with a new developer spec machine.

Developer for them…

When I asked about the possibility of getting something with a touch screen the IT department representative laughed out loud with out a hint of irony. The response was something about “There’s only two touch screen laptops in the company, and you have to be on the board to get one. They cost upwards of £2,500”, accompanied by a look that said “you’re an idiot”.

Hmmm…

“Wow!” I said (really, I said “Wow”). “That must have quite a specification.”

“They have an i7 and 32Gb of ram”

“How much do you spend on the normal laptops for developers then? What spec will I get?”

“They’re about £1,900. Core i5 with 16Gb of RAM and 512Gb SSD. You won’t need more than that.”

A good call considering he doesn’t have any idea what it is I actually do… however, I diverge,

“But I purchased this very laptop here, 4K touchscreen, Core i7, 32Gb RAM, 1Tb M2 storage, 3 year extended warranty, additional battery/charger for £1,800. I think you’re being ripped off…”

“Yes, the touchscreen laptops cost £1,800. The one you’ll get is £1,200…”

What?!!

OK. Whatever. If I’d asked for a Apple machine they only seem to supply top of the range MacBook Pro or Air models, depending on your role (not needs) so at least the money is there for them I suppose.

Still at least I got a new machine, similar to those of my peers.

Unfortunately the build time on my current project is in the region of 90 to 120 seconds with one of these machines.

Benchmarking on something more… capable… we’ve seen sub 35 seconds. It doesn’t sound a lot but multiply that by four (now over eight) developers, and add on testers, and you lose valuable time every day. That ultimately cost the client money (and now us money as we move into a fixed price project structure), and us as the users of these machines become that little bit more frustrated.

Still, it’s a step up from what I had, but I can’t help thinking will need replacing sooner than if they spent that little bit more to begin with.

Sounds like a false economy to me, but I dare say there’s some accountancy rule coming into effect here, and not just penny pinching and status protection.

Still, I look forward to when the client asks for the project to become touch aware (as they have before) and nobody is able to test this due to a lack of hardware…

As an aside, here’s the relative SSD benchmarks for the two machines:

E5470

Company Dell Latitude E5470

XPS15

Personal Dell XPS15 (9550)

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So what is going on with Windows 10 Mobile?

25 Apr

From everything I read, nobody knows.

At the moment it just seems to be speculation as to where Microsoft is heading with Mobile as it appears no sources seem to know, or at least nobody is telling.

In some ways this is becoming the norm for Microsoft, which appears to be managing leaks, or at least the media, far better than previously. Take for example the release of the Surface Studio, there was very little chatter about this before the official announcement and what was available was posted with uncertainty by the respectable news sources.

And so we see the same thing with Windows Mobile. Speculation but nobody calling anything concrete other than for the purposes of click-bait. From my own perspective through reading various we sites I can imagine the following panning out:

  • With the release of the Feature2 branch windows Mobile is essentially being put into maintenance mode to keep enterprises and partners happy for the next several years (think HP with their Elite X3, or the various police forces and governments that have adopted Windows Mobile). This has happened before – I was still doing the occasional piece of work for Windows CE less than 2 years ago and devices were still being manufactured and sold running this OS. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t still the case – if it works, etc.
  • Windows Mobile has lost in the consumer space for now, and any work being done now is primarily for enterprise. Look how much new functionality was added for consumers in the Creators Update. Of course the occasional minor feature will continue to trickle out until the next re-boot is announced.
  • With the C-Shell initiative full Windows 10 on ARM is expected. Yes Windows Mobile was largely Windows 10 recompiled for ARM, but not completely. With the move to XAML (most recently in UWP, but also in WPF to some extent) responsive applications have been a reality for some time, so a well designed app can more easily scale to different screen sizes. The main thing full Windows is missing is a telephony stack and it’s job done (an oversimplification perhaps, but even as a worst case scenario the code is there ready to be ported).
  • The hardware is almost there too. The Snapdragon 835 has even been shown to run full Wn32 apps at (what looks like) full speed.
  • Those apps may be too small to use on a phone screen but… Continuum…
  • The Windows store isn’t anything to get excited about yet, many of the Windows developers I work with barely know of it’s existence, let alone understand it. But with Project Centennial hosting full Win32 apps, the Snapdragon 835 emulation, and the expected announcement of Windows Cloud in the next few days (which reportedly only runs apps from the store), perhaps the store will grow legs.
  • Everything is coming in place with the new vision, with the current minimal Windows Mobile user base, why wouldn’t you make the switch now the planets are aligning?

Bear in mind that this speculation is drawn up through third party sources within the echo chamber of the internet (i.e. Site A reports something speculatively, Site B picks up on this and re-reports, site C sees site A and B reporting it, so it looks likely to be true and reports as such, site A sees site C confirming their speculation and reports this is true, etc..)

There’s a couple of things that could prove this theory wrong:

  • Feature2 branch could be a “we never got rs2 finished on mobile. We need to sort this stuff out then we can merge back with the PC rs3 branch.
  • Microsoft said they had a mobile strategy. They didn’t say that strategy included Windows. Perhaps letting Google and Apple take the OS development pain, and making money off the back of them is a cleverer move, at least in the near to mid term (as a loose analogy SEGA did this after the Dreamcast by becoming a publisher for other platforms rather than making their own hardware). After all, Microsoft is no longer “The Windows Company”, it really is all about services now. Last time I checked Windows was only the third biggest revenue generator at Microsoft.

Essentially, who knows?

The one thing I do know is that I’m planning the switch to Android for family soon, at this point in time it’s the right choice for them. I shall do this with a heavy heart though.

I’m even considering the move myself. After the amount of effort I’ve put into Windows Phone and Mobile over the years (and reward from that to be fair) I’m not looking forward to it. But at the end of the day I’ve got no choice.

And the trouble is Microsoft, once I’m back into Android, I’m unlikely to look at coming back for the next 2-3 years minimum. So whilst I’m still happily tied into Microsoft services for now, I will be more exposed to the competition than currently. And you know what that means…

Microsoft is blocking Linux installs!

22 Sep

That’s the headline I’ve seen in a number of places.

Unfortunately, more surely it should probably read something like:

Linux fails to install on some PCs with SSD Raid drives, due to driver’s not yet being available.

(source)

Move on, nothing to see here.

IFTTT

31 Aug

I was just skimming over the Pocket Lint review of the Ring Video Doorbell (my thoughts on the Ring Video Doorbell Pro and Stick Up Cam coming soon) when I noticed they mentioned Ring+ will interface directly with the Belkin WeMo products. That could be worth investigating…

Also of note though is the integration of both Ring and Hue with the IFTTT service.

I’ve known about IFTTT for years, but it never interested me as I’ve never really been able to think of where I’d use it. This integration directly with Ring may be interesting, and additionally WeMo devices are also supported by IFTTT, but looking over the range of devices being sold on Amazon I can’t say there’s anything other than a few simple power sockets that interest me… and then they are only of mild interest… until you factor in the price (£29.99 up apparently) at which point I lose interest entirely.

Still, I may well have a look at IFTTT and see if it can do anything interesting for me.

It’s also interesting to see that the reviewer questions the battery life of his doorbell too. Whilst my doorbell is wired in, my Stick Up Cam has only been running for a little over two days and has already used 20% of its battery apparently. Hopefully the battery just needs to go through a few recharge/discharge cycles to settle down, either way it’s not looking like a good start. This is one of the reasons I’m holding back on my thoughts for now.

Ultraviolet Video… why won’t it work properly.

26 Aug

I’ve built up a (very) small collection of Ultraviolet videos, a grand total of 17 so far apparently.

But I’ve never managed to watch any of them.

Why?

Well I can download the videos and even stream them online, but the quality is less that perfect. I don’t just mean streaming via my embarrassment of a connection at home, but even through my 80+Mbps work connection.

And by less than perfect I mean grainy and jerky video. Even on downloads.

I used to blame my old Surface Pro 2, but secretly I knew that should have easily taken this in its stride.

But I’ve just tried using my new XPS 15 laptop to watch something, and guess what – it’s no better, and this is a comparative beast of a machine.

Sure it warned me that due to the scaling I have for the 4K screen, playback wouldn’t work full screen, but it isn’t working well enough in and scenario, windowed or full screen, downloaded or streamed.

I linked the account to Flixster, but I doubt this is just a problem for them.

So am I doing something wrong? I pretty much know what I’m doing with a computer so if I’m having trouble I’d be arrogant enough to assume I’m not the only one.

For the moment, I’m at a loss on what to do next. So I’ll move on and worry about this some other time.

It’s a shame as the concept offered so much.

Auto Starting Apps in Windows 10

24 Aug

I’ve recently installed a Ring Video Doorbell and am awaiting delivery of  a Stick-up Cam, after which I’ll start writing a review. However one minor concern is that although notifications come through fairly quickly (depending on the current internet connection) it still takes a moment for the app to start. This is literally only a second or two, but with the couple of seconds delay for the notification to arrive anything to trim down the time taken to respond to an event is worth investigating.

With this in mind I started wondering how to actually automatically launch a UWP App when Windows 10 starts up. Running msconfig and selecting the startup tab now redirects you to the task manager. The task manager section only provides the ability to enable and disable from the current list. Curious…

A few minutes with Bing and I found a good article over at WindowsReport.com that covers how to do this.

Essentially I called up a Run command ( Windows Key + R) and entered the command:

shell:Startup

This opened a file explorer window to the startup folder location.

The next question was how do I actually create a shortcut to a UWP App in this folder?

Simple. I made sure the file explorer window would be visible with my start menu opened. Opened up the start menu, then simple dragged the tile for the UWP app onto the file explorer window and into that folder.

Job done.

I hope this quick tip saves somebody a bit of time searching around.

Back on the Upgrade Cycle

19 Aug

 laptop-xps-15-9550-pdp-polaris-02

Once upon a time it was normal for me to upgrade a computer every two years, alternating between my desktop and laptop. As time and circumstances changed, this has fluctuated in recent years. My dates may be a little out here, but in recent years my updates have followed a cycle similar to this:

·        2006 – Convertible (tablet) HP

·        2009 – New desktop PC

·        2010 – New laptop (Acer Aspire)

·        2013 – Surface Pro 2 (October)

So I should be about due for another upgrade, right?

Well the thing is apart from the small screen size I absolutely still love my Surface Pro 2. It’s powerful enough for most of the tasks I throw at it (with the exception of video rendering, which can never be fast enough) it’s lightweight, the pen is awesome, etc. Sure there are plenty of things that were improved in subsequent models, but overall I loved the package. The point is whilst a newer model would be great and provide incremental performance gains, day to day the SP2 is still a fine device.

Apart from the fact that it started producing a lot of noise from the internal fan, and the replacement cost Microsoft quoted me was close to £600.

Dammit.

So whilst the machine is capable enough, I find I can’t use it outside the house without fear of deafening everyone around me. Essentially the SP2 has been kept safely indoors for the last several months.

I took to using my work supplied Dell laptop. A heavy clunky beast, strangely sluggish (for a mid-range machine) with less than stellar battery life. The additional weight meant that more often than not I’d just stick to using my phone and consuming media rather than creating anything.

This was all a little frustrating. My main single part of my commute to work is a 55+ minute train journey between Colchester and London totalling a little shy of two hours where I could potentially be doing something useful… even if only occasionally.

So I started looking around for my next machine. Here was a part of my wish list:

·        Something that sits on my lap better than the kickstand of the Surface Pro machines.

·        More memory, at least 16Gb. If I’m going to use this thing for work I’d like to have that stuff running in a VM and well away from my main system.

·        More storage. The 256Gb SSD of the Pro 2 was slightly constraining (you learn to live with these things), but again having the work VM would require a sizable chunk of storage for duplicate installations such as Office.

·        Bigger screen. The Pro 2 screen is beautiful to watch HD films on, but for using Visual Studio it’s quite restrictive.

·        Pen input would be nice. I used to use this extensively, although not so much in recent months. Having it there as an option is only a bonus though at it’s very useful when you do need it.

·        Touch screen. Once you start using a touch screen it can be really compelling for certain situations, and for mobile development it really gives an edge.

·        Decent trackpad. I guess I never notice this very often with the Pro 2 keyboard as I tend to either have it in tablet mode during travelling (due to that lapability issue) or connected to a mouse when sat at a desk. But on the occasions I do try to use it the touchpad experience on the Surface Pro 2 keyboard only just sufficies.

·        Something not too heavy. One of the reasons I upgraded from the Acer to the Surface was because the Acer was often being left at home due to its weight.

There were other considerations too, but these were the main things on my list.

So what to buy?

After liking my Surface Pro 2 so much and with the noted wish list, the natural contender was a Surface Book. I’ve been looking at these beautiful machines since they were announced and had they arrived on these shores around the same time as the US release I’d probably have snapped one up almost instantly (after all I got my Pro 2 on launch day).

But I’ve got three children now and that price was just too much. Looking at the 512Gb model it had everything I wanted… but at what cost. As for the model with 1Tb of storage….

Then I started looking at the Dell XPS 15. And the more I looked the more I liked:

·        Large (15 inch) 4K touchscreen.

·        Up to 32Gb memory, double the maximum currently available on the Surface Book.

·        1Tb storage with aforementioned 32Gb memory was cheaper than the 512Gb/16Mb Surface Book.

·        Faster than a Surface Book.

·        Better graphics than a Surface Book (that surprised me!)

·        Very good trackpad.

·        More ports, 2 USB 3.0 and one Thunderbolt (also HDMI and full size SD card slot)

·        Much cheaper!

Of course there were downsides too:

·        Heavier than a Surface Book

·        No pen support

·        Worse battery life than the Surface Book.

·        Supplied with Windows 10 Home only, no option to upgrade to Pro (really Dell?!!)

·        Windows install contains a little Dell Crapware (I’m looking at you McAfee) as opposed to the ‘Signature’ installation of a Surface Book.

This was going to be a hard choice… or at least I thought so.

When it came down to it the compromises of the XPS 15 seemed more than acceptable against the advantages, and the machine looked to be a little more future proof too with the additional RAM and storage I could get for the cheaper price.

I love the form factor of the Surface Book, but the Surface Pro 2 is still working should I need to do any Pen development (although I won’t be taking it to any meetings!!!)

So I ordered the Dell. Despite the order status stating the machine wouldn’t arrive for 4 weeks it actually arrived in a little over 2 weeks, not the instant gratification you hope for but not too shoddy either.

The machine actually arrived a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve been on holiday much of the time since then so I’ve only had limited time with it so far. The first thing I did was upgrade the OS to Windows 10 Pro (fortunately I had a spare key) and force installed the anniversary update (1607).

I’ve not reset the machine down to a clean state now, I figured I’d see how I get on with McAfee and the Dell software installed for a while (can I last the first year) and performance seems to be good, but I can’t help wondering how much better it could be if I did this. Start-up times in particular are acceptable, buy not as good as I’d imagined. Also there’s a strange bug where I need to restart the device after initial power on due to the ShellExperienceHost service becoming unstable.

I’ve set up a VM for work and assigned it 16Gb of memory and 4 of the total 8 processor cores, and whilst I’m yet to push it, this also seems very responsive and should be faster than the work supplied laptop without bringing the rest of the system to its knees.

That 4K screen is lovely, but frankly after the WOW moment on seeing the Surface Pro 2 screen all those years ago, it’s clearly better but incrementally so. I’ve not done anything to push it yet, with the exception of the 4K videos shot on my Lumia 950 XL, and these really do look impressive, but that’s expected isn’t it? Perhaps OLED will be my next WOW! Moment?

One bad side is that the screen is such a high resolution that some Desktop applications don’t scale properly. Surprisingly Outlook 2016 (yes, the very latest patched version) has the occasional dialog box that appears corrupt. If Microsoft can’t get its house in order it’s no wonder third party apps also fail in this situation.

Outlook Scaling Issue Example Image

The laptop is heavier than I’d like, but I’ve got used to this to some extent from carting around my work supplied laptop. Either way it’s not ideal, but at the moment I can live with it.

The keyboard, despite reviews and my pre-purchase concerns, seems OK. It’s not the best I’ve ever used, but it’s nearer the top than the bottom. I’m getting on fine with it and as I get more used to it it naturally becomes more comfortable. But then that would be the case with all but the worst keyboards out there.

Surprisingly, even in Desktop mode I used the touch on the Surface more than I’m currently doing with the XPS. I suspect there’s something wired in my brain that says Laptop = no touch, despite the fact I owned a convertible (that was closer to a laptop) back in the Vista days. Partly that may be down to the touchpad though. I’ve never used an Apple touchpad which are supposed to be the gold standard, but this is certainly the best I’ve used, and the ability to scroll using two fingers has meant that I don’t need to reach out to the screen as often as I used to. However, I still do tap the screen on occasion and would definitely choose to have touch available rather than not, that’s no contest.

One other thing I noticed quite quickly is that the matte silver back of the lid seemed to start getting scuffed almost from the first time I put the laptop into my bag. I quickly purchased a sleeve to keep the machine protected during transit so that was £30 I hadn’t counted on, but it does “complete the package” and looks quite smart.

So that’s my initial impressions of the new kit. Not perfect (weight, battery life) but I’m very pleased so far. I guess time will tell how I feel going forward. Overall though, No regrets. I think I made a good decision for my needs.