A Second Look at Windows 7

Posted December 3rd, 2009 by kyle
Categories: reviews, Windows

My main PC recently died, and it was time to build a new one. I ended up putting one together with components from Newegg.com, which worked out really well. One big decision was whether to install Windows XP or Windows 7. I recently discovered that Outlook Express still lives on in Windows 7 by virtue of Windows Live Mail (which also runs on XP and Vista). It turns out that Windows Live Mail is essentially Outlook Express 7 — it can even import OE6 settings and messages. It also has decent junk mail filtering built-in. Since that was the biggest stumbling block for me, I decided to install Windows 7 on the new machine.

Installing Windows 7 (64-bit edition since my new PC has 8 GB of RAM) was painless and fairly quick, and I’m really liking it after using it for a few weeks. Booting is quick and everything feels very snappy. Of course, some of this is due to newer hardware, but I suspect that it is at least as fast as XP. All my critical applications run fine on Win7, and I was even able to eliminate a few programs with the upgrade (Launchy, TaskSwitchXP, MyUninstaller, and SPAMfighter) since their functionality comes baked in. The only thing I haven’t solved is finding a driver for my Brother MFC 8840D laser printer.

I really like the new keyboard shortcuts (Win+arrows for window positioning, Win+T to access the Superbar, arrow keys in Alt+Tab, etc.). I’m getting comfortable with the new Aero look-and-feel. I’ve found Windows 7 to be a worthwhile upgrade to XP.

A few things I really hope they add in SP1:

  • Calculator in the Start menu (ala Launchy).
  • Improved unification of the Start menu and Taskbar for launching vs. switching.
  • Make Internet Explorer’s find-as-you-type feature actually useful.
  • Online Backup Review, the Final Chapter

    Posted November 9th, 2009 by kyle
    Categories: backup, internet, reviews

    Since my last review of online backup choices, I discovered that CrashPlan now offers unlimited online backup options, putting their pricing right in line with the other least costly options. Since my Mozy subscription was about to end, I decided to take another look, and I’m glad I did.

    CrashPlan is unique in that it supports multiple backup destinations — a local hard drive or network share or a friend’s computer, as well as online backup (all but the online option are completely free). You decide where and when your backups will run. It backs up open files, uses strong encryption, and supports incremental (block-level) updates and bandwidth throttling. It can backup everything — it doesn’t limit file sizes or types that will be backed up. It offers very granular choices on retaining of old versions of files. It supports Windows, Mac, and Linux. They even offer an unlimited family plan option for multiple computers.

    I configured a local drive and CrashPlan Central destinations (about 180GB of content). The local drive backup completed in a few hours, and in one week it’s already one fourth of the way done backing up online. It Just Works.

    CrashPlan is now the unequivocal leader in online backup. They have found the sweet spot of features, usability, and price. Thank you CrashPlan!

    Firefox 3.5 Slow Startup

    Posted July 8th, 2009 by kyle
    Categories: internet, reviews

    I switched to Firefox 3.0 a few months ago, and I was looking forward to the release of version 3.5. It’s supposed to have a much faster JavaScript engine and some other nice improvements, but unfortunately Firefox 3.5 startup time is much slower than 3.0 (which wasn’t very fast to begin with). A cold start of Firefox 3.5 on Windows XP SP3 takes about 25 seconds vs. 8 seconds for 3.0. A warm start is about 3 seconds vs. 1 second.

    This was just too painful for me (and the suggestions to cleanup the TEMP folder and IE cache didn’t help me), so I switched back to 3.0 for now. Apparently I’m not alone in experiencing this, so hopefully they’ll get it sorted out soon. I always appreciated Internet Explorer’s blazing startup time (about 1 second for a cold start and almost instantaneous for warm). Maybe they will finally make it a priority to improve on startup times in v4.

    Update: I was able to get v3.5 cold startup time down to 9 seconds by following the instructions in this article. IE’s cache cleanup must not be very comprehensive, since there was still over 67MB of files there.

    First Look at Windows 7

    Posted May 20th, 2009 by kyle
    Categories: keyboarding, reviews, Windows

    I recently downloaded and installed the Windows 7 Release Candidate. Installation was quick and painless. It didn’t detect my sound card (SoundBlaster X-Fi), but I was able to find an updated driver, and everything else seemed to work out of the box.

    Overall it looks similar to Vista (tellingly, the internal version number is 6.1, not 7.0). Unfortunately, the focused window issue remains unchanged, although Win7 does hide other windows after a short delay while switching between apps (via Alt+Tab, the taskbar, etc.), which does help somewhat.

    Startup times are similar to Windows XP SP3. Boot time (boot menu to login prompt) is about 31 seconds vs. 41 seconds for XP on my box. Logon time (time from entering password to desktop display) is 10 seconds vs 8. Shutdown time is about 12 seconds vs. 11 for XP. Although this may not be a completely fair comparison, since the Win7 install is clean while the XP partition has lots of startup apps and other cruft.

    The new taskbar is a welcome improvement. You can now pin common applications to the Taskbar, and clicking one will launch it if it’s not already running, activate a single running instance (hold down Shift to force a new instance), or preview multiple instances. There are some other nice taskbar enhancements like full screen previews on mouse over, jump lists, and easier rearranging of windows.

    There are new keyboard shortcuts for window manipulation and the taskbar, but usage is clearly optimized for mousers. Personally, I don’t think they went quite far enough in unifying launching vs. switching between applications, especially for keyboarders. It really should be extended to the Start menu, but it is a good first step.

    Windows 7 feels like Vista SP3 to me. It will be a no-brainer to upgrade from Vista, but I never made the switch from XP. It’s nice and all, but so far, I’ve come up empty trying to find compelling reasons to upgrade. And I still use Outlook Express (aka Windows Mail), which is no longer included in Win7, so that’s one strike against upgrading.

    SafeCopy Backup

    Posted April 2nd, 2009 by kyle
    Categories: backup, internet

    Another online backup service has joined the fray: SafeCopy Backup, and it looks very promising. I received immediate and knowledgeable responses from their online chat service. It appears to meet all my requirements and almost all optional features, and pricing is very reasonable. Their backup infrastructure is on par with S3 (multiple physical sites and redundancy and verification of data storage), and they claim to support true block-level incremental updates and compression. I’ve updated the comparison page with the details. I will definitely be testing it out soon.

    Update: It appears that this is a rebranded version of Memopal.

    Online Backup Comparison

    Posted February 17th, 2009 by kyle
    Categories: backup, internet, reviews

    I haven’t gotten very far yet reviewing online backup services. I continue to use MozyHome personal files and JungleDisk for business data, which work reasonably well. One nice thing about both of these products is that they run as a Windows service, and their system tray monitor apps don’t need to be running for backups to be performed, which reduces memory and CPU usage.

    I have put together a comparison chart for online backup services I have either used or would like to review in more detail at some point. It only includes services that have responded to my email inquiries.

    Online Backup Review, Part 2

    Posted January 12th, 2009 by kyle
    Categories: backup, internet, reviews, software

    Since my initial Mozy backup and review, I discovered that Mozy wasn’t performing incremental backups of modified files. Since I backup several large Ultra Recall database files that change frequently, this makes incremental backups painfully slow.

    It turns out that rather than comparing the new and old file contents and uploading differences at the block level (like JungleDisk Plus), Mozy instead monitors applications for changes they make to files. But in my case, these files are actually modified on another computer (or network share) and copied to a backup drive, then later backed up to Mozy. This change detection method also prevents incremental backup of files that are completely rewritten when saved (for instance, ZIP files).

    I do believe it’s inaccurate to describe this technique as “block-level incremental backup” and hopefully they’ll improve this in the future. Mozy support has been very responsive, and other than this one issue, the service works as advertised, so if their method of incremental backup works for (or doesn’t matter to) you, it may still be a good option.

    But I will be reviewing my options. Thanks to Eric’s mention of SpiderOak, I have one more service to evaluate. Their pricing is right in the ballpark (and should be a more sustainable pricing model): $10 per month per 100GB of storage. The folks at SpiderOak appear to have done their homework when designing the service — support for multiple machines and platforms (including Linux), true zero-knowledge security, perpetual versions/history, data sharing, etc.

    I also noticed that CrashPlan has reduced their prices for online backup (or maybe I didn’t notice the annual pricing options before), now offering 200GB of storage for about $17 per month, which would also meet the requirements.

    And it appears that Carbonite has released (or will soon release) an update (v3.7) that fixes the limitations I encountered with their service. According to their press release from October 2008, it’s already available and customers are being upgraded “over the next several weeks,” but according the support page, 3.6.1 is still the latest. Even more confusing, the release notes show 3.6 as the latest, while my Mozy installation is 3.6.2 (which is also the version you get when downloading from their site). Hopefully they will get their versioning straightened out and upgrade my account and/or update the download to 3.7 soon. Their support department has not been very helpful so far in this regard.

    I will re-test these services over the next several months.

    Worry-Free Off-Site Backup for the 21st Century

    Posted December 31st, 2008 by kyle
    Categories: backup, internet, reviews, software

    Anyone with important data on their computer needs a good backup strategy. Hard drives fail and catastrophes do occur, so both on-site and off-site backups are important. Off-site backup used to be a real pain. One way is to store a tape or DVD backup in a safe deposit box, but keeping it up-to-date is tedious. Widespread high-speed internet connectivity has made online backup much more viable, and many companies have entered the online backup space in the last few years.

    Requirements

    Here are my requirements for online backup software:

  • 250GB storage for less than $20/mo
  • Strong encryption (transfer and storage)
  • Block-level delta (incremental) copy
  • Retain previous file versions
  • Bandwidth throttling
  • Large file support (at least 5GB)
  • Easily include all file types (.exe, .ocx, .msi, .iso, etc.)
  • Low resource (CPU, RAM) utilization
  • Responsive technical support
  • High potential for staying in business

    Nice to have but not required:

  • Automatic continuous backup
  • Backup in-use files
  • Multi-platform (Windows 2000+, Linux, Mac)
  • Multi-computer synchronization
  • Support targeting on-site / external HD as well as off-site
  • Web access / sharing

    I’ve looked at a lot of options but have found only one that handles all of my requirements. This was my journey.

    JungleDisk

    I used JungleDisk (which uses Amazon S3 for storage) for several months, and it is a very good option. Incremental backups with JungleDisk Plus greatly reduce backup times, backup options are highly configurable, and it is very reliable. It meets all requirements except for price. My backups keep growing, and it would cost over $35 per month (plus additional bandwidth fees) to store 250GB with JungleDisk. Until Amazon drops their prices substantially, it’s too expensive for backups larger than about 50GB.

    Carbonite

    Carbonite offers unlimited backup for $50 per year. Installation and setup of their service worked reasonably well. Unfortunately, I found their configuration too simplistic. It excludes several file types by default, which can be worked around, and each file larger than 4GB must be explicitly included in the backup, which is annoying and potentially dangerous. Their support department did respond after four days indicating that they plan to update at some point to automatically includes larger files and additional file extensions, but I decided it wasn’t worth waiting to see.

    BackBlaze

    BackBlaze is a newcomer in the online backup space and also appears to meet almost all requirements (unlimited storage for $5 per month), except that they also limit file sizes to 4GB and don’t have currently plans to expand that (but their support did respond to my questions).

    CrashPlan

    CrashPlan meets almost all the requirements, and they offer unique additional options of backing up to on-site computers and/or friends’ computers (instead of or in addition to online backup on their servers). Their online backup servers cost about $25 per month for 250GB of storage, but if a friend’s computer is used, there is no monthly fee (just a one-time purchase of the client software for $60). I tried it out and it worked well, but their cost for online storage was a little too high, so I decided to keep looking.

    Mozy

    The last service I tried, and the one I’m currently using because it meets all my requirements, is Mozy, which offers unlimited backup for $5 per month for personal use. I had already set up my parents and mother-in-law with their 2GB free plan, which has worked well. I contacted their support department with a few questions and was pleased to receive a prompt response and promising answers (Mozy supports unlimited file sizes and plans to support Linux in the future). It has worked well; I highly recommend it.

  • Google Just Removed Its Best Feature!

    Posted November 7th, 2008 by kyle
    Categories: internet, keyboarding

    For the last couple of years, Google had an experimental search feature called Keyboard Shortcuts available. I found it indispensible for navigating search results via the keyboard.

    Well, today that feature is gone (results can no longer be navigated via the keyboard and the message “The experiment you’re trying to access is no longer available” is displayed when attempting to use this feature).

    Another related experiment is Accessible View, which does provide some keyboard navigation, but it plays annoying sounds and has several other deficiencies. And this one may have been dropped too (it worked a couple of times today, but usually gives the same message as Keyboard Shortcuts).

    I was really hoping they would incorporate Keyboard Shortcuts into the default search results, but apparently there wasn’t enough interest in it. Bummer. I’ll have to find a suitable replacement, but no luck so far.

    Headache-Free Spam Prevention

    Posted October 25th, 2008 by kyle
    Categories: internet, reviews

    By any measure, spam is a significant problem for email today. Having to wade through dozens or more spam messages in your inbox daily really hampers productivity. But thankfully it’s also easy to overcome this problem.

    For personal email, GMail is the way to go, bar none. Since switching from Yahoo to GMail over 15 months ago, I have had a total of 3 spam messages make it to my inbox. Before that with Yahoo, I could expect to deal with several spam messages per day, and I’ve seen similar reports from Hotmail, Earthlink, and users of other email services.

    GMail is free, has a large storage capacity, and is very reliable. It supports a web interface (which is actually pretty good, even for keyboarders), or if you prefer another email client, POP, IMAP, and email forwarding are also supported (and if you’re concerned about privacy, you can use these to pull down your mail [sans spam] and not retain on the server). It Just Works.

    For corporate email, use an email service provider that offers virus scanning, greylisting, SpamAssassin, and Spamhaus SBL/XBL. In the past we used SpamBayes on the client side, which worked fairly well, but it needed constant training. Since enabling spam filtering features on our Pair.com web hosting account over a year ago, we have eliminated almost all spam from our inbox, and it requires no effort on our part once configured.

    If your email provider doesn’t provide these services, another option may be to route your email through Google Apps.

    My last choice would be a client-side solution (of which there are many, both open source and commercial). This is one case where a server-side solution is preferable whenever possible.