Vista Aero Glass – performance hit (or not)

Just read an interesting analysis at where they tested a couple of different systems running Windows Vista with Aero Glass switched on and off. (Windows Aero – if you’re not aware of it by name – is the new user interface functionality, with transparent windows and the swish new effects present all through Vista)

The cynic in most techies would assume that flashy graphics mean hammering the system performance; I’ve known plenty of people who even switched off all the fancy UI features, on the basis that the machine would be a few % more responsive… remember the old advice on Windows 3.1 or 95 to not use a graphical desktop backdrop since that put an overhead on system performance?

Anyway, the FiringSquad results are predictably games-focused, but draw an interesting conclusion – graphical performance is, in some cases, marginally better with Aero switched on, and even in the cases where it isn’t, it’s only fractionally less so.

“Quite frankly, we were shocked by these results.”

So, the moral of the story is… switch on all the bells and whistles if you can 🙂

Sansa e280 – I took the plunge

After my post last month about getting a new MP3 player, I went ahead and bought a Sansa e280 8Gb device from Amazon UK. In general I’m pretty pleased with it – battery life looks good, sound quality is good, it supports direct sync from Windows Media Player etc.

There are a couple of grumbles though – the touted ability to display Album Art is only available if you manually copy a file called “Album Art.jpg” into the folder on the device where the music lives… which is a fairly tedious process to go through IMHO. Come on Sansa … Windows Media player already stores AlbumArt<somenumber>.jpg files in the same folder – any chance you could come up with a sync utility which automates the copy process?

Oh, and the European models don’t have an FM radio… something I’d missed in the specs (assuming that it was the ability to record FM that was missing from European models, not the entire FM tuner). Ho hum, not a big deal but a minor niggle nevertheless.

Travel’s a curse

We all know that travelling on business can be a pain, and the glamour of travelling on holiday has long since worn off…

… so I thought I’d share some useful travel websites to help ease the pain (if you feel that way, and haven’t seen them before)…

  • – a must-have resource for any frequent flyers, to check out the skinny on mileage claims, scams, best way to get discount business class etc etc
  • – use your IATA booking reference number for flights to check that you’re definitely flying, and maybe even see how full the flight is (if your airline doesn’t give you that already)
  • – I’ve used this site loads of times to pick hotels (some of them, a bit off the beaten track) when on holiday, or just to figure out where to go/what to do
  • or – are you sitting in a seat which won’t recline? By a bulkhead with no legroom? Look on these sites and you’ll find reviews (yes) of specific seats on a load of carriers’ planes….

I’ve already booked the summer holiday, and have used all of these sites in making sure I get the best deal 🙂



Use NewSID on cloned virtualised machines

I came across a problem recently when a colleague was building a virtual Windows Server environment, and was reminded of it the other night when on a webcast with Exchange MVPs, when one of the attendees said he was hitting issues with Exchange 2007 servers not finding the Active Directory properly.

The solution lay at the heart of how the VM environment had been built – using a single source “base” OS image which was then configured to join the domain and had Exchange installed on it, for each machine in the environment.

If you’re building a multi-machine environment, it saves a lot of time if you build a single image and make sure it’s all patched up through Windows Update etc, then it’s just a matter of installing the Exchange (or whatever) servers once you’ve joined a copy of the VM into the domain.

Trouble is, when you install a new server (such as the base OS build), it creates a unique Security Identified (SID) which stays the same even if the machine is renamed and domain membership changed – whilst you’ll typically be able to join a cloned machine into the same domain, and it might look like it’s working OK, numerous strange things can happen – making it look as if the trust between the machine and domain is broken, or having problems authenticating to resources.

NewSID is a free tool that Mark Russinovich developed while at Winternals/SysInternals, and is now available from Microsoft since the acquisition of Mark’s company. The trick is to run NewSID on your cloned machine before joining the domain, and it will create a new, random, SID which means you won’t get clobbered later on with the kind of problems described above.

(NB: It’s worth noting that NewSID isn’t supported for production use – for that, you should really SysPrep the machines instead).


Exchange Archiving – to be, or not to be?

A lot of customers have looked at archiving solutions for Exchange over the last few years, and the most common reason for doing so is to reduce the volume of data held on the Exchange server. This obviously brings benefits for the administrators – they don’t need to back so much “stuff” up every night, and they have a chance to use the archive for longer term compliance/discovery purposes. I’ve even seen customers using archives as a way of migrating content from another email system – eg company migrating from Novell Groupwise to Microsoft Exchange decides they would just bung all the Groupwise content into an archive so they can start with nice clean mailboxes on Exchange, but the users don’t lose access to their historical data.

Archiving does pose an interesting question, though – what if you’re just archiving all the garbage that people don’t delete? I’ve seen cases of companies who have an archival solution but have implemented no mailbox quotas, on the basis that the archive takes care of handling everything they don’t want to back up every day. Now this, to me, seems like a situation where the Exchange mailbox stores are going to be relatively static, but the archives are just going to grow indefinitely…

Exchange 2007 Managed Folders

There are some good papers and demos here on Managed Folders in Exchange 2007, and if used appropriately these capabilities could provide a decent alternative to archiving altogether, or could at least provide a way of throttling the amount of junk that ends up in the archive. A nice side effect is that “important” mail is kept online on the server, so is always accessible from any client (without needing to put additional plug-ins or install any other archive-aware software) such as OWA or even mobile devices.

I say this with some personal experience, since I’ve been using Managed Folders for a while now, in the real world. My mailbox sits in the Exchange Dogfood environment where the Exchange development group and Microsoft IT get to implement very early technology before it’s finished, and before it gets rolled out to everyone else in MS, let alone our customers. My mailbox was on Exchange “12” for a year before it released, and it is set to a gut-busting 2Gb quota, so I don’t really need to use PST files any more.

The approach to using managed folders is one where all mailbox content (and it’s possible to differentiate different types – eg having different rules for emails, calendar appointments, voicemail etc) would have some age limit set (eg 6 months), and on expiry of that time, the content gets “dealt with”. This could involve deleting the content, forwarding it somewhere (through journaling, perhaps sending to a different mail system, to a Sharepoint 2007 site, etc), or moving it from the main mailbox folder into one of the managed folders…

 These managed folders are defined on the server and applied to the user via a policy (so that users in different departments might see different folders from others), but it’s important to note that they are mailbox folders (ie they appear as regular-ish folders within the user’s mailbox, are only visible to the same people that might be able to see the mailbox itself – ie they’re not public folders of any sort -and count against the mailbox quota).

Retention limits can be set on both the “regular” mailbox folders (such that after 6 months, everything will get shifted into one of the managed folders), and also on the managed folders themselves… so in this example, everything from the Inbox etc would get shoved into the Cleanup Review managed folder, and after 30 days in there it will be deleted from the server. So the onus is now on the user to decide if they want to keep anything in that managed folder, and if so, move it to one of the other managed folders, which will typically have a longer retention period (eg HR records might be kept for 7 years).

I’d liken this approach to pushing the user into deciding what they need to keep, and basically assuming that anything which doesn’t get specifically tagged or categorised by the act of moving them to the correct place, is therefore assumed to be disposable and can be removed from the server. Of course, it could still be archived somewhere else for long-term storage. It’s a bit like when I was a kid – my mother would periodically come into my room and put anything left lying around into a bin bag and threaten to chuck it out… if I protested, she would retort “Well, if you wanted to keep it, you shouldn’t have left it lying on the floor now, should you??”


iPhone over-the-air experience

Just read Jason O’Grady’s blog over on ZDNet and it’s quite eye-opening… one thing leapt out:

“Wireless syncing. iPhone can only be synced with a cable and can’t be synced via WiFi or Bluetooth. This is unacceptable. iPhone has three radios and should be able to be synced with all three. WiFi and BT minimally, then OTA to Dot-Mac for bonus points.”

So the device won’t be able to sync with Exchange natively and unless Apple changes the stance of not allowing 3rd party applications (another strange decision), presumably precluding a 3rd party ISV from building an ActiveSync client (such as DataViz RoadSync which is available for loads of other devices). Maybe even RIM would have wanted to build a Blackberry Connect client for the device, but again, might be unable to…

Sounds like the iPhone v1 will be pretty limited in terms of competition with other smart devices – basically a music player which can do a bit of web surfing and make and receive phone calls.

Who knows, maybe that’s what the masses actually want – maybe smartphones and connected PDAs are too complex for the average user on the street – but it could be some future iteration of the iPhone which expands on the basics which the v1 device establishes. It’ll be interesting to try out the iPhone when it comes out… no doubt, it’ll sell shed loads and if the UI is as good as the hype suggests, it could force everyone else to concentrate on doing a few things well, and carefully adding more functionality gradually.

Related reading:


Apple iPhone for now ignoring synch

Windows Mobile iPhone

Apple attacks iPhone UI emulators

Finally! Apple announces the iPhone!

“Dealers of Lightning” – an insightful history in Xerox PARC

Ever since reading  Robert X Cringley‘s excellent 1996 Accidental Empires book (which actually has the even more excellent full title of Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition and Still Can’t Get a Date), I’ve been interested in some of the history behind the way the PC and internet industry has evolved. I’ve always loved Cringley’s description of Steve Jobs as “The most dangerous man in Silicon Valley”… (in fact, he even opens Accidental Empires with a line akin to the opener from the sadly departed Douglas Adams’ tome, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which was, “High on a rocky promontory sat an Electric Monk on a bored horse.”)

Many commentators would trace the genesis of a lot of technology we now take for granted back to Xerox Corp’s famed Palo Alto Research Center, aka PARC. The roll call of what was supposedly invented at PARC is long – laser printers, ethernet, the bitmapped display, GUI, mouse, object-oriented programming, distributed computing… the list goes on.

Legend goes a little fuzzy though – not everything that came out of PARC originated there, but a lot of the researchers who worked there in the glory days brought ideas with them and refined them enough to be useful (eg Doug Engelbart, who invented the mouse before coming to Xerox but perfected its use with the new bitmapped displays and Graphical User Interface). Legend also has it (backed up by some fact, in fact) that The Most Dangerous Man in Silicon Valley himself was given a guided tour of PARC’s facilities, saw the Alto computer they’d invented (showcasing their GUI, mouse et al) and became inspired to have Apple launch the Lisa computer, which was the forerunner of the Mac.

Anyway, a few years ago I picked up Dealers of Lightning – a potted history of what happened at PARC, and it really is a fascinating read. It can be a bit heavy going in places but gives a great insight not only into the amazing work they did at PARC (and the disdain the industry poured on Xerox Research for basically inventing the world as we know it but then alledgedly doing nothing with it, because they couldn’t see how it related to selling photocopiers), and it also paints an inspiring portrait of the head of the Computer Science Lab, Bob Taylor.

Taylor’s basic philosophy was to hire people that were smarter than he was (and he was the guy who founded ARPANET, the precursor to the internet, so must be a bit of a smart cookie himself). He also decided, in the CSL, that he couldn’t manage any more than 50 people directly, so he set the cap on that size of organisation (since he didn’t want to introduce layers of management), and just went about making sure those 50 were the best he could possibly find. What an visionary management style, and an amazing story.

It’s also interesting to see how many of the luminaries mentioned in this book as the fathers of computing as we know it, now show up in the Microsoft Global Address List 🙂


Choosing a new MP3 player – dilemmas, dilemmas…

It’s time for a new music player. I got a Creative Zen Micro a couple of years ago, and it’s been a good little player but the headphone socket has now developed a loose connection and it’s getting a bit annoying. It’s time to start choosing a successor.

Things I liked about the Zen Micro, which help to shape the criteria I’m using:

  • 5Gb is a decent amount of storage; I’ve got about 1200 tracks and 1% free space. I tend to put a few whole albums on it, and just sync playlists from Windows Media Player for the rest. That can sometimes be a bit frustrating, when I’d listen to one song in the playlist then think “oh, haven’t heard him for a while”, go to play the whole album, only to find that’s the only song I’ve synced from that album… so maybe more space would be useful, but is it worth the tradeoff in battery life and physical size that might bring?

  • It’s small enough. I certainly don’t want anything smaller than the Zen, and although thinner would be cool, it’s not a big deal – I guess I’m thinking I don’t want to go for anything much bigger if I’m going to use the device a lot. It would be cool to have a nice big screen, but if it means the device doesn’t live in my bag that I carry everywhere because it’s too big, then it means I won’t use it.

  • It’s got a mini-USB plug on the bottom. Say no more – when I’m travelling or on holiday (which is when the device is getting more prolonged use), I have a single charger or sync cable for the music player as for the mobile phone. OK, you could argue that’s the thin end of the inevitable convergence, but I’ve covered some of that ground already…

  • I don’t use the radio much, but every year when we troop down to Le Mans to see the 24h race, it’s really useful… so if I could get a new device with an occasional radio use, that’d be cool.

All my music is in WMA format and I can’t really be bothered with the idea of re-ripping it all or converting to MP3 (a process which would inevitably degrade the sound quality quite some), and I’ve bought some stuff from MSN Music so would like to be able to carry that forward.

Point 1 (WMA) rules out anything in the iPod range (why won’t Apple just get over it and put WMA support on the iPods??), and point 2 (DRM) rules out the Zune for the moment since (almost unbelieveably) it’s not compatible with Plays4Sure.

I suppose at some point I’ll get a Zune: maybe even when I’m Seattle early next month… but for the moment, I’m leaning towards the Sandisk Sansa range… I did love their “” viral advertising on the tube last year, and these devices seem to be getting decent write ups though there are some minor niggles (like no mini-USB, for example).

Buying the right technology and not ending up with an expensive dud or a short-lived manufacturer’s folly… it’s not easy, is it?


Sideshow Media Center remote – want one!

I’ve been a long-time user of the Philips Pronto programmable remote – it’s an LCD touch screen based affair, which can be programmed to the 9th degree to create your own UI of macros which correspond to lots of different activities on different remotes – eg a “Watch the TV” button which powers on your screen, starts up the satellite box, switches the TV to the right input, fires up the Amp and selects the TV audio input on that. Or “Shut everything down”, where it would send “Off” commands to all your A/V kit.

To get a flavour for what’s possible, just have a browse on RemoteCentral‘s amazing file archive … the principal downside is you could spend hundreds of hours tweaking and tuning the setup …

Any IR-based remote can be frustrating though, since it’s all one-way – meaning, if it sends the signal to the TV to change inputs, there’s no way of verifying that the TV actually acted on the command – maybe something was blocking the IR window on the screen, or maybe your macro sent it too soon after switching the TV on so it might not have started up properly.

Anyway, I started looking into the promised Sideshow Media Center remotes which we’ll see later this year – remotes which have 2-way communication with a Vista Media Center PC (using the Vista Sideshow framework), so could not only control the PC and any associated A/V kit (using Bluetooth & IR), but could also let you browse media libraries or TV guides on the remote, without disturbing what’s happening on the screen.

Engadget has a preview of the Ricavision remote which was on display at CES … should be available towards the middle of the year, for around $200. I think I’ll get my order in now 🙂