Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Google Chrome - Have you tried it yet?

I really admire the way that Google can take a "solved" problem like Web Search or Email, add a little innovation, and end up creating a new use case that changes the entire industry. For instance, the ability to view emails in a threaded "conversation" view may seem simple, but after using Gmail for the last few years I can't imagine using email in any other way. When replacing our corporate email servers at work recently, I pushed towards using Google Apps for Domains primarily to get Gmail style email for my work account. Exchange 2010 will support a conversation view as well, but I don't think I could survive waiting 12 months for that feature (let alone having to support an exchange server).

Google chrome is another case where I think they have raised the bar. It still has a few quirky bugs or will crash when loading a random website, but I have been using it as my primary browser for almost 6 months now, and I'm hooked. I occasionally have to open Internet Explorer to view certain websites (Sharebuilder.com and MSDN.Microsoft.com mostly), and in the amount of time it takes to open a new IE browser session, load the page, and open another tab, I could have completed a 2K online marathon using Google Chrome. Chrome feels fast, has a simple minimalistic user interface, and "Just Works" when you try to move a tab to another monitor or search for something from the address bar. They pay attention to a lot of little details that make the overall browsing experience exceed your expectations. For instance, this is what my day looks like using Chrome:

 

 

For more videos check out the Chrome Shorts posted on YouTube. And for heavens sake: Just download it already! It still plays nice with IE or Firefox, and doesn't have to be set as your default browser, but once you start using it, you might never want to go back.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Who needs a $100 Mouse? You do!

For Christmas my brother got me a MX Revolution computer mouse, which is one of Logitech's most expensive mice. I am usually not the kind of person to spend extravagantly on something like a simple computer peripheral, but after 4 month of use I can hands down say that this is the best mouse I have ever used. Sure, it is cordless, rechargeable, has great ergonomics, and uses a high precision laser for "flawless tracking on nearly any surface", but none of those features really justify dropping 100 bones on a new mouse. There are however 3 features that make it a MUST HAVE for anyone that spends 8 hours a day in front of a computer screen waiting for retinal cancer to set in. Those three things are:


1. Free-spin scroll wheel
The MX Revolution has a scroll wheel that works in two modes: Free-Spin or Click-to-Click. Click-to-Click mimics the standard scroll wheel that you are use to, where the wheel has a lot of resistance and clicks as you scroll down the page. This works great for documents and PDFs with page breaks in them, but when scrolling on a long webpage this actually really slows you down. How often have you had to scroll a dozen times just to get to the bottom of a page? With the Free-Spin mode this is not a problem. The wheel glides effortlessly up or down, and with one quick flick you can get to the top or bottom of a page. It actually feels really cool too and makes a flywheel sound that can offer a bit of therapeutic stress release in the process.


2. SetPoint software
Usually I am not a huge fan of memory resident programs, which are those annoying little pieces of software that end up living in the system tray next to your clock. Having worked at computer help desks for many years, I can tell you that a large percentage of "My computer is running very slow" problems are simply due to there being way too many programs running in the background trying to help you search the Internet, check the weather, or Ding you whenever a great airline fare is available. The majority of the time these programs are simply not needed, so I was a bit apprehensive when I found out that my new pimped out mouse came with a configuration program that was always running. Turns out that while the program does eat about 20MB worth of memory, it is very useful for setting up the scroll wheel and customizing the functions for each button. It will let you customize the setting for different programs, so you can have it do one thing for Word, another for Excel, and another when browsing web pages. I have it setup right now to always be in free-spin mode unless I open Adobe Acrobat or Adobe Reader, at which point the mouse will jump into Click-to-Click mode to give finer control over scrolling through the pages.


3. Lions and Tigers and Buttons... oh my!
By my count there are 5 standard buttons on this mouse, 3 movable directions on the scroll wheel (click, sweep left, sweep right), plus a 3 function jog dial where the thumb rests. This gives a total of 11 buttons, which may sound like overkill, but I have managed to find a use for each and every one of them and wouldn't want to give any of them up. These shortcuts save me from having to switch back and forth between the keyboard and mouse or having to click on certain places of the screen to do what I want. Below is a list of each button function ordered by my estimated frequency of daily use.

  • Left Click - tried and true
  • Right Click - where all your context sensitive options live
  • Middle Click (Scroll Wheel) - used to force opening links in a new window in IE or Chrome
  • Scroll Wheel Sweep Left - programmed to switch tabs in Chrome (move left one tab)
  • Scroll Wheel Sweep Right - programmed to switch tabs in Chrome (move right one tab)
  • Jog Dial Back - programmed to go back in Chrome (same as browser back button)
  • Jog Dial Forward - programmed to go forward in Chrome (same as browser forward button)
  • Jog Dial Click - programmed to close the current tab in Chrome using Ctrl+W. Same shortcut also works to close File Explorer windows.
  • Touch to Search button - programmed to re-open the last closed tab in Chrome using Ctrl+Shift+T (I LOVE THIS FEATURE!!!)
  • Forward Button - programmed to zoom in on webpage. I also just found out that this doubles as an Ctrl+Click when used with the left mouse button.
  • Back Button - programmed to reset zoom on webpage using Ctrl+0. (Faster than zooming out with multiple clicks)
If you aren't convinced yet, you can check out the Product Tour on the Logitech website. There is also a VX Revolution version without the jog dial that is a little bit smaller and designed for use with laptops. Like most products, the $100 mouse really only costs $75 when ordered from Amazon.com, and if you can't justify spending $75 then make your company buy it or ask for one for Christmas. Even if you don't go for their top of the line model, I highly suggest a 5 button mouse so that you can speed up some of your common tasks. Once you do, you will wonder how you ever got by without it!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Happy Birthday Channel 9! Microsoft's customer community site turns 5 years old.

I am a firm believer that for any big system to be successful there needs to be an efficient communication system in place. This is true whether the system is a multi-threaded computer program, a community Home Owners Association, a national or multi-national company, or a government/society. In my option, communication is one of the most difficult components to get right, and the people that do get it right are the ones that are most likely to succeed. If you think about the major advances in technology over the last 10-20 years, a lot of them have to do with mass communication: cell phones, SMS, email, websites, blogs, social networking, and RSS. But even when the technologies are available, it sometimes takes a change in the culture and attitude of a system before effective use of those technologies can shine through.

Today, with all the hype about social media, pretty much everybody is starting to use it. A lot of people still do not know how to use use the tools very well, but I am glad to see that the tools for mass communication have become so cheap and simple that everyone has access to them. It surprises me when I find a large company or organization that has yet to at least make an attempt at interacting in today's online social landscape. But, to put things in perspective, Microsoft's community site for software developers has just celebrated their 5th birthday with a few interviews looking back at the history and future of Channel 9. Channel 9 is a a very good example of how a company with over 80,000 employees can create an online community to inform, support, and engage with their customers on a global scale.

I started watching videos from Microsoft back in 2003 by following the .NET Show with Robert Hess, which was a professionally produced show that covered different aspects of the .NET framework. Sadly that show ended in 2007 (probably due to production costs), but it's spirit survives on Channel 9 with Robert Hess and The Knowledge Chamber. The content on Channel 9 usually takes a much more casual approach to relaying information, with a no-spin attitude and direct conversations with key people inside of Microsoft, which is refreshing after watching TV ads or reading corporate press releases that often are void of real information. The videos are usually aimed at a software developer (i.e... ├╝ber geek) target audience, but they also offer a lot of insight into a what it is like to work at a large technology company like Microsoft.

I wish that more companies would embrace this type of open communication with their customers, as it helps outsiders understand how the company thinks and operates. It also brings a human face to the corporate abyss, showing that there are in fact real people behind the development and support of their products. This has always been the mission of Channel 9, and I applaud them for their hard work and success.