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Archive for the ‘Software’ Category

Wide open space

Friday, December 11th, 2009
Not a LOL cat

Not a LOL cat

My laptop (now on its very last legs) has a fairly dinky screen. It’s wide enough to not be a problem, but the height is always a pain, especially that now (unlike when I bought the laptop all of 4 years ago) I am a web developer and routinely have firebug and the web developer toolbar open, which sucks up about two fifths of the height of my screen.

Enough is enough, and I’ve decided to get tough on undesirable widescreen, tough on the causes of undesirable widescreen.

First off, although I don’t like Google Chrome’s tabs at the top interface, I do like the fact that they’ve squeezed something useful onto the otherwise desolate windows title bar, i.e the bar at the top of the screen that tells you which program you’re using and, in firefox, the webpage’s title. As I have no need for firefox to tell me anywhere other than on the tab which web page I’m on, this bar is pretty much useless. And, luckily for me, there is a new firefox extension to get rid of it: Hide Caption. It shifts the close, maximise and minimise buttons down to near the search bar and gives me an extra cm of space. It warns that it may not be compatible with tab-mix plus, though I haven’t had any problems, and I use loads of other extensions too with no clash. Although I did uninstall another plug-in called Hide Navigation Bar as this didn’t work, but it may have been a clash.

A few of other things I’ve done to save space and decrease clutter is decrease the text size in firebug, change my windows taskbar to a single row rather than two, use the personal menu extension to hide the menu bar, and got rid of my bookmarks toolbar (although not sure how long that will last). It would be really handy if firebug could have an option to place it to the side of the screen rather than the bottom. Most of the time the lines don’t span the width of the console, so it’d be a great space saver to stack them vertically down a narrow strip at the side of the page.

Incidentally, one of the few add-ons that has remained a constant for me over the years is the qute theme. It’s really nicely designed with light colours and small icons and makes the screen seem a lot less cluttered. There’s two versions available at the moment; the authentic new version for firefox 3.5, and the retro version based on the original icon designs from years ago, which is the one I plump for. Aside from being aesthetically more pleasing it also has the advantage of not having a heart as the icon for bookmarks, which always took me a second to work out what it meant.

Anyway, here is my current, much cleaner looking, firefox appearance now (I would do a before and after, but it’s way too much hassle to go back and disable all the things I’ve changed):

Slimline firefox

What is this?

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

It can’t be for real, surely. Not even Microsoft is this naff.

On the bright side though, it does mean my wait to get a new laptop is nearly over; no way was i gonna get one with Vista installed.

What’s up with wordpress?

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

My old blog was a blogspot blog, and while using blogger to write posts I had very few complaints. But when it came to setting up this blog I plumped for WordPress, mainly on reputation; wherever I turned I would read phrases along the lines of “while not a full-featured publishing platform, Blogger does offer an impresive, easy-to-use interface for the novice blogger,” and  damn me if I was going to be labelled a novice!

I have, by and large, though, been very impressed with WordPress. As a front-end developer, I particularly like the fact that it very rarely gets confused about what to do when you do something (eg delete some html which leaves some tags unexpectedly unclosed) that woudl drive Blogger potty. And the new version of the admin interface (from about version 2.6 onwards) is a staggering improvement on the old version and on Blogger.

However it has one irritating feature: it constantly breaks.

Since upgrading I’ve had the wysiwyg text editor break several times (fixed by deleting and then recopying in the wp-includes folder), saving posts broken once (fixed by overwriting thw wp-admin folder), and for a long period of time couldn’t log out of admin (no idea how this is fixed – it just seemed to go away of its own accord). It’s immensely frustrating (though not frustrating enough to cause me to abandon wordpress).

It’s probably a flaw in the wordpress automatic upgrade plugin, but I’m loathe to abandon that too as it takes the pain out of making tea, so to speak. Though I can’t help thinking it may be a false economy as in the end I have to manually overwrite files anyway.

Snapshots – one (or maybe just half) better than websnapr

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

Yesterday I railed against the useless, so-called functionality added to web pages by websnapr. However, I did close by adding that the technology is impressive, if only somebody could find a use for it that isn’t sanity-shatteringly pointless.

You’re expecting me to say I/someone else has succeeded, but I’m not going to.

What I will point to instead is another service, very similar to websnapr, which is in fact very useful (though still suffering from the same problems as websnapr in a lot of cases). It’s called snapshots (and it, rather than websnapr, would also appear to be the market leader for this sort of thing).

Snapshots still suffers from the pervasiveness of the same annoying, information-scarce tiny screenshot provided by websnapr but, where possible, it makes that extra step (probably less technology intensive, in fact) to genuinely improve the user experience. Two examples I’ve discovered so far are:

  • If the link is directed to wikipedia, a sizeable chunk of the  article appears in the pop-up window, which is exactly what I would want to read if I went to the webpage itself.
  • If the link is to google maps, it embeds the google map in the popup window.

Snapshots screenshot

These things which are both useful to see at a glance, not necessarily requiring loading a full web page. And there may be more examples where the snapshots preview is more than just eye-candy… so kudos to them. I just doubt, somehow, that they have an option to turn off the default screenshot previews.

iSproggler – an elegant scrobbler for a more civilized age

Monday, May 25th, 2009

I like I really do, though I don’t use it as much as I used to, for trivial reasons (where I work at the moment my PC’s box is a tower on the floor, rather than on the desktop, so my headphones don’t reach). But despite not using the website to listen to music, I do still want it to record what I listen to, partly because when I do start listening again I want it to have up to date information on my music tastes, and partly because I’m a bit of a geek and like to check every now and then if Elliott Smithis still my top artist in figures as well as in esteem.

But does have one major annoyance. The software for scrobbling information about the music you play to the website is far more bulky than needs be. It contains a player (not really necessary now they’ve introduced the ability to play straight from the website), and also reminds you incessantly to download plug-ins for every mainstream media player you have, even if you only use one, and as you can’t uninstall Windows Media Player, this means a lot of updates of no benefit to you. It also requires updating very frequently and will remind you every time you start iTunes, thus disrupting the mood that put you in mind to listen to some music in the first place.

I needed something better. And I found it.

iSproggler is a little application developed by some user(s) which is a bare bones sproggler for iTunes. If you set it to run when windows opens it will send all your listening data to and nowt else. It’s reliable, discreet, uses a fairly small amount of resources, and most importantly never nags you to be updated; exactly what the software should be like. Also it’s name, as I’ve just discovered, is rather humorous, be it deliberate or not.

It does however have one minor setback – every time you close iTunes it asks you to click OK, but even though this happens every time (as opposed to the software reminding you to upgrade only until you upgrade it) it bothers me a lot less as it doesn’t delay my listening to the music I’ve decided would suit the moment.

To download it you need to join the iSproggler group, but it’s a small price to pay.

A tale of two Apples, part 2 (or, having your iCake and eating it)

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

As I was saying, iTunes is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it is way out in front of the media player competition (even more so with the new addition of iTunes Genius), but on the other it’s cursed with Apple’s megalomania.

Today the subject of my ire is that only iPods sync with iTunes’ completely non-standard way of handling playlists and the like. While the new iPod shuffle is pretty cool (though for the size of the thing you’d expect it to have more storage), I’ve never been a fan of the iTunes design – the scroll-wheel is over sensitive in my humble opinion. Also I don’t think I’ve heard anyone applaud the amazing battery life or good value for money iPods offer. And finally, if the battery runs out which – if the iPod is designed as well as everyone likes to think it is – should be well before the thing breaks, you have to send it back to Apple to get the new battery fitted.


So I have always stayed clear of iPods, favouring cheaper and more flexible mp3 players instead. First of all I went for the on the face of it iPod clone, but in fact much clunkier, Sandisk Sansa, which broke after little more than a year. At the time I also synced using a bit of free software I can’t remember the name of, and which wasn’t very good anyway.

In its second iteration my iPod abstention has fared better. The mp3 player I have is none other than a sony walkman. Annoyingly, like most mp3 players these days it has the ability to play videos, which I and surely many others don’t want. But minor gripes aside, the simultaneous discovery of Musicbridge, a handy piece of software which takes all your playlists etc. from iTunes and copies them over to windows media player (which, in keeping with windows tradition, is a piece of software which gives you the freedom to choose what hardware you use with it), has led to a golden age of having my iCake with some Sony-icing on top.

A tale of two Apples, part 1

Monday, April 27th, 2009

I’m not the world’s biggest Apple fan. I’ve written a couple of times of the annoying usability glitches in the so-called design gurus’ software, but by and large their software is very good, so it’s not this that inspires my dislike of the company.

My number one gripe has always been the control freakery; how their all-encompassing design ethic means that they seem hell-bent on making you choose 100% Apple or 100% competitor. A great example of this is that the Apple USB extension cable my friend got that had a little dimple in it, meaning it could only be used on Apple products (though this could be fixed with a pair of pliers).

But this attitude continues into their software. The only Apple software I use is iTunes, quite simply because it’s brilliant. This brilliance has just gone up a notch with the introduction of iTunes Genius, which is excellent at building a playlist of songs to go with any song you select. It’s better than‘s similar functionality, and it’s better than a number of iTunes plug-ins I’ve tried over the years. And I love it when computers/the internet manage to predict your preferences (Amazon‘s recommendations is still the best ‘web2.0′ idea on the web I reckon).

For instance, I’ve just set up a genius playlist based on Rodeo Town by The Kills, who have a female singer. Probably about 75% of the songs in the genius playlist also have female vocalists. I’m not saying this is necessarily desirable in a playlist (though it’s sounding pretty good so far), but being able to identify features such as that in order to get similar tracks is quite a useful feat. I look forward to the day when you can tweak options before generating the playlist.

But I digress – I was supposed to be dissing Apple!

My gripe with the new genius feature is that you have to sign in to iTunes store – giving up your credit card details – before using it. This effectively puts it out of reach of anyone without a credit card. And all because Apple want to make as many users’ purchase of music as quick and one-clicky as possible. Yes, they provide an excellent piece of free software, but any service demanding your credit card details when not absolutely necessary is taking a liberty I feel. iTunes store should offer to save your credit card details if you want to, but they shouldn’t force you to. Coupled with the fact that Genius has a built in ability to recommend music from the iTunes store, and is therefore a surefire money spinner anyway, it just makes Apple seem like controlling, money-grabbing ghouls.

Nice new feature though.

Whatever happened to Piclens

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

Piclens used to be a phenomenon. A minor phenomenon, but a phenomenon nonetheless.

I first realised this was the case when my telling one person in the office about it resulted in it spreading round the office like wildfire, until recommendations for me to try it out were coming at least thrice a day.

So what is (or was) Piclens.

In a nutshell, a Firefox extension that took any photo from a photostream/album on any of a number of popular sites (Flickr, Facebook, Google Images …), and added a hover-over link to it  which, when clicked, blew the photo (and its accompanying album) up into a full-screen slideshow and whizzy browsing tool. Brilliant! Browsing through a large selection of photos was no longer a chore.

But these days a lot has changed.

not-so-coolirisFirstly, the name has changed to Cooliris. The basic functionality is still there, and you can still get to it after each install of an update by going to the options and changing a few settings, but the default view on clicking on a link on a photo you want to see is the picture on the right.

Not only does it not show you the photo you chose or the album it’s in, it shows you some random photos from the web in its new Discover mode. You think “How the hell do I see those photos I wanted”, so you try Favourites, but this just asks you to set up a user account, then you try clicking the welcome message, and eventually, in a desperate bid to get what you wanted in the first place, you click Shopping. But none of these result in anything remotely related to what you asked for,

Imagine if a website habitually sent you to completely the wrong place, pushing stuff you didn’t want at you every time you click a link. This is how I feel using Cooliris, and I’m probably going to uninstall it.

I think the moral of the story is that all web services eventually have to make a profit, and with all the free stuff floating around it’s easy to take for granted their unadulterated, not just user-friendly but money-unfriendly interfaces. But trying to boost your profits too aggressively, with too abrupt and too unsubtle a change to how  the software works will just lead to people dumping you.

For something newer, that still doesn’t have to make a profit.

Why Internet explorer is losing the browser wars (or, Microsoft – design numptys yet again)

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Below is a list of links to the browser download pages for each of the major web browsers:

Each design is essentially the same – a little bit of text, some images (normally of the browser) and a massive link to download the latest version. All, that is, except for ie. (It also bears mentioning that the firefox page commits the usability cardinal sin of not actually mentioning it’s a web browser).

Microsoft internet explorer download pageHere is a screenshot of ie’s page. It’s difficult to see on this small image (but click it for bigger), but I thin kit must be one of the most ill-thought out, though supremely important, pages I’ve ever seen:

  • Despite ie7 still being the officially stable and sanctioned browser, the most prominent text and download link is for ie8.
  • You will already have clicked “get it now” once from the ie home page, but the top part of the home page and the download page are exactly the same, so it looks like “get it now” is just a download link that doesn’t work.
  • Once you figure out it’s not the download link you have to scroll down the page to actually download the software. Scrolling down to get to the most important bit of the page?! In the words of Kyle from South Park, “Really??!!”
  • You have to choose your operating system in order to download an installer which then downloads components appropriate for your OS. Given that it ends up downloading additional files anyway, why not just make it a generic download that detects your OS and then downloads all the relevant components. Or even detect the OS with javascript, with the select box as a fallback.

It beggars belief that usability mistakes like this can be allowed through.

Having said that, I bet most users never see the page as ie updates automatically… but still!

On two not unrelated notes:

  • I wish open source projects, in particular maybe the core design of sourceforge, would make use of prominent download buttons for the latest stable version, instead of the maze of  download links for every version under the sun. It woudl surely increase the use of what can be very useful tools.
  • I downloaded ie7 finally as I needed it to install IETester , a great tool for installing ie5.5, ie6. ie7 and ie8 simultaneously on either windows vista or xp.

Apple: user friendly? Pah! – 2

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

I hate in iTunes that when you click the ‘x’ to clear the search field, when you type the search field isn’t automatically selected.