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Date: Thursday, 03 Dec 2009 22:32

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.
  • Author: "kyle" Tags: "reviews, Windows"
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    Date: Monday, 09 Nov 2009 15:53

    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!

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "backup, internet, reviews"
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    Date: Wednesday, 15 Jul 2009 15:04

    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.

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "internet, reviews"
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    Date: Wednesday, 20 May 2009 20:59

    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.

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "keyboarding, reviews, Windows"
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    Date: Thursday, 02 Apr 2009 23:23

    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.

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "backup, internet"
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    Date: Tuesday, 17 Feb 2009 21:59

    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.

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "backup, internet, reviews"
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    Date: Tuesday, 27 Jan 2009 21:34

    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.

  • Author: "kyle" Tags: "backup, internet, reviews, software"
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    Date: Tuesday, 27 Jan 2009 21:34

    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.

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "backup, internet, reviews, software"
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    Date: Friday, 07 Nov 2008 17:37

    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.

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "internet, keyboarding"
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    Date: Wednesday, 29 Oct 2008 17:53

    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.

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "internet, reviews"
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    Date: Thursday, 04 Sep 2008 00:11

    The internet is abuzz with comments about Google Chrome, the newest entry in the browser wars. Within the first day, it had already exceeded Opera’s market share, and we had several questions about support for it in Ultra Recall. So I decided to download and install it to see it for myself.

    In true Google minimalist fashion, it performs a no-questions-asked installation, and it installs to a user-accessible location (which means it can be installed by non-admin users). The interface is also rather sparse, with no window caption, menu or status bar, which does provide more screen space for web content but may be a tad overdone.

    It does start quickly and is responsive when loading web pages, although it doesn’t seem all that much quicker than IE. I’ve seen claims of enormous JavaScript speed improvements, but GMail and GCal did not feel much faster to me.

    I like the ability to drag a tab into its own window (and drag a separate window as a new tab into another Chrome window). Apparently each tab uses a separate process, which should make it more stable. I also like the address bar auto-completion, which is similar to what’s available in Firefox 3 and IE 8, but it also provides inline search capability instead of using a separate field.

    Another novelty is the ‘create application shortcut’ feature, which creates a desktop shortcut that launches a specific web app in a separate Chrome window with custom icon, no tabs, address bar, bookmark bar, etc. I’m not sure how useful this is though, since clicking a link in this window opens in a new tab in the main Chrome browser window, but it might be useful for some Web 2.0 applications.

    One drawback I noticed immediately: It uses a non-standard Vista-style window border on Windows XP, which looks out of place and has the “now which window is active?” flaw. And on Vista, it doesn’t even match the standard Vista look or support Aero Glass. I guess Google is trying to make the OS obsolete, but they haven’t replaced everything yet and should be a better citizen.

    Keyboard accessibility is also lacking. It does provide keyboard shortcuts for some functionality, but there is currently no equivalent to Firefox find-as-you-type, nor any way to access bookmarks, options, etc. via the keyboard.

    Some of the licensing terms were egregious, but they have been updated to correct that. And apparently Chrome is not immune from security flaws either. If and when these problems are resolved, I may take another look, but it isn’t compelling enough at this point.

    Regarding Ultra Recall integration, copy/paste and drag/drop from the address bar or page selection was not working due to how Chrome puts data on the clipboard, but the latest release of Ultra Recall has a fix for that. As far as buttons in Chrome to import into Ultra Recall, extensions are not currently supported.

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "internet, Ultra Recall, reviews, keyboar..."
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    Date: Monday, 04 Aug 2008 15:43

    Most Windows applications require admin rights for installation, which explains why most users run as admin. It also explains why software viruses and spyware are so rampant and why Microsoft invented User Account Control in Windows Vista. Note that even applications that require admin rights for installation should run properly for non-admin (and non-elevated Vista) users.

    Sometimes, it does make sense to allow an application to be installed without requiring administrative privileges (which we do for Ultra Recall). Some would argue this is just a way to subvert the IT police, but it doesn’t sidestep any security restrictions or permissions that the non-admin user already has, and sometimes the IT police are more like Nazis anyway.

    Inno Setup is a popular tool for creating program installers, and it is fairly simple to create a non-privileged installer with this tool.

    The first thing to do is add

    PrivilegesRequired=none

    to the [Setup] section of the installation script. This will cause Windows to run the install program without elevation for non-admin users.

    Second, don’t install any files to {pf}, {win}, {sys}, or other system paths. DLL dependencies can be installed to the installation path.

    Third, the installer should detect whether it is running as an elevated admin user and default the installation path under Program Files if it is or a user-writeable path if not. This can be done by using a DefaultDirName in the [Setup] section like this:

    DefaultDirName={code:DefDirRoot}\AppName

    and a [Code] section like this:

    [Code]
    function IsRegularUser(): Boolean;
    begin
    Result := not (IsAdminLoggedOn or IsPowerUserLoggedOn);
    end;

    function DefDirRoot(Param: String): String;
    begin
    if IsRegularUser then
    Result := ExpandConstant('{localappdata}')
    else
    Result := ExpandConstant('{pf}')
    end;

    Fourth, any [Registry] entries written under HKLM will fail if the installer is run by a non-admin/elevated user and should be marked to ignore failure by adding the noerror flag. And if possible and appropriate, add the equivalent HKCU registry entries, which will work on a non-admin installation.

    Finally, non-admin users do not have permissions to register COM DLLs and OCXs. One option, which is not recommended, is to also register in user-level registry locations. A better option where possible is to utilize Registry-Free COM.

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "development"
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    Date: Monday, 14 Jul 2008 12:48

    Well-behaved GUI software should make all functionality easily accessible from the keyboard. For Windows, most of this is covered by the Windows User Experience Guidelines.

    But there a some subtleties not covered there which many developers get wrong. And one that I see quite often is the improper display of context menus. Many people refer to these as right-click menus, but they can also be initiated from the keyboard, either by pressing the menu key (usually to the right of the space bar) or Shift+F10.

    The first problem is that some applications ignore the user and don’t display the menu at all when initiated via the keyboard. The second issue, and probably the most common, is displaying the context menu at the mouse pointer location instead of near the keyboard focus/selection. For keyboard users, it is not uncommon for the mouse pointer to be far away from the current selection (even on a different monitor), making for a very unpleasant, inefficient user experience.

    Handling display of the context menu properly is very simple. Do not use the WM_RBUTTONUP message to display a context menu. Instead, process the WM_CONTEXTMENU notification in each control that displays a context menu. This notification provides the mouse position (if initiated via the mouse) or a position of -1, -1 if initiated via the keyboard.

    If initiated via the keyboard, determine the position of the caret or first focused/selected item in the control and use that position to display the context menu. For tree and list controls, see how Windows Explorer handles this, and for edit controls, see WordPad. For all you developers who are doing this wrong, please fix it now. Thanks!

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "development, keyboarding"
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    Date: Monday, 07 Jul 2008 14:56

    Windows XP is a great operating system, possibly the best desktop OS ever. It looks great, is very stable, performs well, and rarely requires rebooting. And unlike earlier versions of Windows, it hardly ever needs to be repaved (format + reinstall). I’ve been running Windows XP SP2 as installed with my PC for over 3 years.

    But like everything in the universe, entropy is always increasing, so it can’t last forever. Well, a few weeks ago, Windows XP stopped recognizing my DVD drive, probably after uninstalling some software. I don’t use it much, but I knew that I would eventually need to, and my online searches for a fix came up empty. I briefly considered just switching to Vista (which I have installed on another partition but use only for testing), but I have not been impressed with it.

    I even toyed with switching to Mac or Linux. I have an old Mac Mini and also experimented with Ubuntu in a virtual machine, and while both have come a long way in the last few years, I didn’t find either more compelling than XP. Plus, there will always be a few Windows applications that I need. My experience with running the Windows apps that I use under Wine has been dismal, and running them in a Windows virtual machine under Mac or Linux is not nearly as useable as running natively (and I would still need to have Windows installed there anyway).

    I tried searching one more time on the DVD drive issue, and lo and behold, I found the very simple solution of cleaning up a few registry keys.

    I also had some trouble installing Windows XP SP3, but quickly found a fix for that too. And installing SP3 resolved the other annoyance that had cropped up — all open applications encountering an Application Error on Windows shutdown (which I had been working around by using CloseAll).

    So XP is now running like new again and I expect it will for many years to come. I’m not sure how Microsoft will handle activation of Windows XP when support ends, in case I ever do need to reinstall Windows, but it is possible to transfer activation.

    And I’m not really worried about Microsoft no longer updating XP. I’ve never encountered a security related problem with it (even running as administrator and without anti-virus or anti-spyware), and there’s not much chance that a new security flaw will ruin that record.

    And there’s always Windows 2000, or maybe Linux 2014.

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "Windows"
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    Date: Wednesday, 14 May 2008 12:45

    We’re excited to announce that you can now promote Ultra Recall (or any of our products) and earn 40% of every sale resulting from your promotion!

    It’s easy to join. Just send us an email with your request, and we’ll provide a URL with your affiliate ID that you can use on your web site, blog, newsletter, email signature, etc.

    Whenever a user visits our site via that URL, a browser cookie with your affiliate ID will be stored in the user’s computer. If that user visits our order page within a year and makes a purchase, the affiliate ID will be provided to us with the purchase information.

    For every order containing your affiliate ID, we’ll pay you 40% of the purchase price. We will send payment via PayPal each month that you have one or more affiliate sales.

    Thanks in advance for your participation!

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "Visual Build, Ultra Recall"
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    Date: Wednesday, 09 Apr 2008 06:07

    Version 1.4 released


    Ultra Recall, another exceptional application from Kinook Software, recently got even better with the release of version 1.4. Many new features have been added, including Recurring Reminders, increased integration with Microsoft Outlook, Internet Explorer and other browsers, folder synchronization capabilities, etc.

    Only recently joining the ranks of personal information management (PIM) programs, its advanced features, high-performance and paradigm-redefining innovation and fresh design cause it to stand out from the competition. With the capability to store and index anything on a computer, Logical Linking technology which turbocharges hierarchical relationships, a powerful Advanced Search engine, and the ability to keep everything in a single, optimized data file, it really is in a class by itself!

    Value at every level


    With a price of just $99 USD, it isn’t hard to imagine Ultra Recall providing a significant return on investment (ROI). An application you will use everyday, it simply represents an awesome value. But the fact that a PIM application is used so extensively highlights what might be even more valuable than the features embodied in Ultra Recall: the support behind the product!

    As is mentioned above, the PIM marketplace is filled with a wide range of entries, from minimal unsupported open source utilities to very complicated, expensive programs which are hard to understand. Very few reach the point where they are viable for daily use with real life data. They invariably fail far short in at least one of the following areas: features, performance, reliability, documentation, active development or support.

    Written from the ground up for performance and stability, by award-winning Kinook Software, Ultra Recall passes the test in every area:
    - features - Ultra Recall is feature rich, flexible, and powerful, yet is intuitive enough for casual use “out of the box”
    - performance - even if you manage Gigabytes of information in Ultra Recall, its performance remains consistent and responsive.
    - reliablility - written from the ground up for performance with stability, it just works, and works well!
    - documentation - several included samples a complete help file (also available online) and an active forum are all available.
    - active development - with full-time developers assigned and a track record of regular product updates and a responsive staff, you can rest assured Ultra Recall will remain an industry leader with the features you need.
    - support - exceptional service is already the reputation of Kinook Software which will certainly continue with Ultra Recall.

    Try it today!


    Download a copy of Ultra Recall today and see for yourself what you are missing. Time savings, increased productivity and the confidence you will experience as you put Ultra Recall to work organizing your life await you!

    Author: "kevin" Tags: "Windows"
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    Date: Monday, 31 Mar 2008 20:45
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    Author: "kevin" Tags: "Windows"
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    Date: Friday, 14 Mar 2008 19:05

    VC6

    Our applications are written primarily in Visual C++. We started with Visual C 6.0 back in 1998 and used it successfully for many years.

    VC7

    There was quite a bit of disappointment among C developers with the release of Visual Studio .NET (VC7) in 2002 and VS .NET 2003 (VC7.1) the following year because of so much emphasis placed on the new .NET Framework and VB.NET and C# languages. But with some trepidation and a moderate amount of pain, we finally migrated to VC7.1 in mid-2005. Other than some quirks in the resource editor that we managed to work around, that version worked well for us (with the requisite additions of Visual Assist and Fast Solution Build add-ins). It brought much-needed improvements to standards compliance, some library improvements, and was fairly stable, although compilation was a little slower and the executables slightly larger than VC6.

    VC8

    In early 2007, we experimented with upgrading to Visual Studio 2005 (VC8) but ran into a lot of problems attempting to get everything to compile and link properly. Microsoft also made some changes to how LIB files are handled, and one third-party library we use did not offer a VC8-compatible library at the time, so we shelved the conversion.

    With Microsoft readying the release of Visual Studio 2008 (VC9) and the availability of VC8-compatible third-party libraries, we decided it was time to attempt migrating one more time. We thought it would be easier to convert to VC8 first and then try VC9 after that, but boy did that turn out to be a poor assumption.

    VC8 didn’t do a great job of converting our project and solution files, requiring manual correction (Build checkboxes in the Configuration Manager and dependencies getting dropped). We also ran into several compilation and linker issues to work through, including:

  • Several code changes were required to eliminate warning messages related to using the new safe CRT functions calls, etc.
  • Had to increase the compiler limits (/Zm) on some projects
  • Warning for non-standard extension used in qualified name for enums
  • Disabled manifest generation and embedding (since our executables already include a manifest)

    Thanks to Visual Build’s built-in support for all Visual Studio releases, updating our builds was painless (only needing to append ‘|Win32′ to the solution configuration names).

    Once we finally got everything to compile and link, we ran into several runtime problems and had to make some more changes, primarily:

  • Avoid referencing &elem[0] of empty vectors (it’s safe to pass that to memcpy with a length of 0, for instance, but VC8 aborts the program just by referencing the element)
  • Make changes to bring STL iterator code (which assumes they are pointers) into compliance

    Most problems were identified quickly and corrected in the debug build, but even with these changes, we ran into two show-stoppers:

  • Choosing one feature in one of our applications resulted in the app just disappearing, and this only occurred in the release build on a Windows 2000 box.
  • Command-line builds worked fine, but compiling almost any file in any project within the Visual Studio IDE resulted in the dreaded internal compiler error (ICE), which made development and debugging unbearable.

    VC9

    We were about to give up and stick with VC7.1, but as a last-ditch effort, we decided to try migrating everything to VC9. We encountered a few more compilation issues:

  • Some of our projects defined a minimum Windows version of NT 4 (_WIN32_WINNT 0×0400), which now resulted in compile errors, but changing this to Windows 2000 (0×0500) fixed that and is safe since our applications require Windows 2000 anyway
  • The 64-bit portability check compiler flag is deprecated so we removed that directive from the project files
  • MFC no longer handles including of afximpl.h very nicely, so we just copied the few lines of code we used from that file into our own sources and removed the include

    After these changes, low and behold, we found that everything worked just great! No more crashing of the compiler when building in the IDE, and no more problems running our application on Windows 2000. Our executables are larger still (about 10%), which is acceptable considering all the improvements that have been added to make the code more secure in our connected world.

    It’s apparent that Microsoft has really put significant effort into improving their C tool chain with this release of Visual Studio, and there are many great IDE improvements as well:

  • The debugger, especially peering into STL containers, has improved tremendously
  • The resource editor is improved and now handles high color bitmaps
  • VS/MSBuild now supports parallel builds on multi-core and multi-CPU systems (and builds do appear to be noticeably faster on such systems)
  • New features like testing, optimization, code snippets, and property manager capabilities
  • Easy backup, restore, and sharing of IDE settings

    One caveat that bit us: Visual Studio 2008 requires Windows XP or later, and our build boxes were all Windows 2000, so we had to reconstruct the build machines. There is also a quirk with the Visual Studio 2008 Standard edition installer — it doesn’t install cl.exe and some ancillary files unless you perform a full installation.

    Overall, it took longer than expected to complete the migration, but fortunately it turned out to be worthwhile in the end.

  • Author: "kyle" Tags: "development, Visual Build"
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    Date: Thursday, 15 Nov 2007 21:59

    None of the popular launcher applications, nor Windows itself, do a very good job of integrating launching vs. activating an already-running application. LaunchAssist is a little utility I wrote to improve this situation. It works with most application launchers as well as the Windows Start Menu, Run dialog, Explorer, etc. To install, download it here, extract it somewhere onto your hard drive, then register by double-clicking reg.bat (to uninstall, double-click unreg.bat, restart Windows, and delete the DLL). It works on Windows 2000, XP, and 2003, but unfortunately the hook that is needed for it to work was disabled in Vista (and despite what is stated in that thread, it can’t actually be fully enabled on Vista).

    When an executable, document, or shortcut is launched, LaunchAssist is notified, looks for a matching application that is already running (by comparing the application or document filename with the beginning and ending of top-level window captions), and activates the matching window if found. If no match is found or if Shift is held down while launching (Shift+Enter in most launcher apps), LaunchAssist is bypassed and the program is launched normally by Windows.

    Bonus feature: when launching URLs, if Shift is held down, LaunchAssist attempts to open the URL in a new browser window (for URLs, if Shift is not held down, LaunchAssist is bypassed). This is useful to me since I still use the venerable IE 6 (since I disdain tabbed browsers), configured to reuse windows when launching shortcuts, but sometimes I do want to open a new window instead. It works by finding the application associated with .html and launching it directly, which should work with most browsers.

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "software, keyboarding, freeware"
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    Date: Monday, 29 Oct 2007 12:14

    Several categories of Windows application launchers have evolved over the past several years. In this post, I’ll look at the best and most popular products in each category. I’m only going to mention products that are either quite stable or that have been updated recently.

    Auto-Config

    Products in this category typically provide a polished GUI, automatically track the shortcuts on your system (Start Menu, recently launched apps and documents, etc.), and are summoned via a single hotkey. Typing a few characters will filter from the list of installed applications to quickly find the desired the one to launch, and pressing Enter launches it. The idea is to avoid having to configure anything, and (hopefully) the application quickly learns your habits and remembers the best matches for frequently typed abbreviations.

    Many applications in this category also provide additional features (for instance, capture of selected text from current app, web search, inline calculator, auto-type from abbreviations, etc.) and support a plug-in architecture for user extensibility.

  • Colibiri
  • Dash
  • Find and Run Robot
  • Enso
  • Launchy
  • Single Key Launchers

    Launchers in this category provide a more basic interface (typically text-only and no icons) that is more like the Run dialog on steroids. They are also launched with a single hotkey, and filter on the text you type to identify user-defined abbreviations which launch an application, open a web page, etc.

  • Dave’s Quick Search Taskbar Toolbar Deskbar
  • Executor
  • Keybreeze
  • SlickRun
  • Start Menu Replacements

    These applications attempt to provide a better alternative to the Windows Start Menu.

  • Engage
  • JetStart
  • VistaStartMenu
  • Typing Activated

    Applications in this category provide a minimal user interface. Rather than summoning the application with a hotkey, you actually type into whatever application you’re in, and when the application identifies some abbreviation that you’ve defined, it pops up a confirmation prompt. Confirming the prompt erases the typed text from the current application and launches the application (or performs other functionality, such as typing boilerplate text) connected to that abbreviation.

  • Direct Access
  • Perfect Keyboard
  • Phrase Express
  • Some products overlap multiple categories. I’ll look more in depth at some of these applications in future posts. Some additional categories that I won’t explore are hotkey programs, full-fledged macro programs, programmable keyboards, toolbar (mouse-centric) applications, and voice-activated launchers.

    Author: "kyle" Tags: "software, keyboarding"
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