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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

More info on the Vista + T-Mobile WiFi deal...

Last week, it was announced that Windows Vista users would get three months of free wireless access at hundreds of T-Mobile HotSpot locations across the country.

Although my Tablet PC has been running Vista since the start of the year anyway, I was curious to know how Microsoft and/or T-Mobile was planning to restrict access to Vista users only. Engadget reported that the login site simply checks your user-agent string which, as most of you know, can be easily spoofed.

However, according to initial reports from people who actually went out and tried to sign in, it turns out that it's not that simple. Corey Gouker reports that the login page prompts you to install and run an ActiveX control, and that user-agent spoofing does not work. Clever. :)

A Mac user on digg has verified that running Vista in a Parallels VM and performing the validation step gets you connected, after which you can share the connection with OS X. My guess is that Windows XP users can probably do something similar using VMware or Virtual PC, but all of this still means you need an installed copy of Vista.

I'm sure someone will eventually find a way around the ActiveX-based validation process, but as it stands right now - no Vista means no access.

posted at 8:43:00 PM
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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Make Firefox look better in Windows Vista...

Even though I think IE 7 is a big step-up from its predecessor, I still prefer Firefox for its versatility, even on Windows Vista. But the fact is, while IE 7 looks like a native Vista application, Firefox doesn't quite fit in. The default Winstripe theme was fine on XP, but I think it looks out of place with Vista's new Aero UI.

Fortunately, we can fix that pretty easily and have it looking like this in no time...

Firefox on Vista

1) The first step is to skin the browser chrome. "Vista Firefox" is a work-in-progress theme that looks great already. Download and install it. Then, right-click the toolbar and select "Customize" to move the buttons around. You can arrange them like I have in the screenshot, or do what works best for you.

2) I prefer to keep my toolbar as uncluttered as possible, so I install the Stop-or-Reload Button extension. This combines the two buttons into a single one - Stop while a page is loading, and Reload after the page has loaded (since the Stop button would be greyed out at this point anyway). I place this combined button to the right of the address box, just like it appears in IE 7.

3) The IE folks had the right idea when they turned off the menu bar, in my opinion. I hardly ever use it in Firefox either, so I decided to hide it to keep things minimalistic. To do this, add the following line to your userChrome.css file:

#toolbar-menubar { display: none !important; }

However, unlike IE 7, Firefox doesn't automatically show the menu bar when you hit the Alt modifier key. So I installed the Compact Menu Blue extension, which allows you to place a button on your toolbar that expands out to display the File, Edit, View, and other menus. The blue globe you see to the right of the search box in my screenshot is the Compact Menu button.

And that's it. Firefox should now look much better on your Windows Vista setup. :)

Edit: Some of you wanted to know how to get the blue Google page. That's easy too. Just install the Stylish extension and get this user-style for Google.

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posted at 5:33:00 PM
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Saturday, January 27, 2007

CallWave Mobile: voicemail to email...

Last week, I started testing CallWave Mobile, a free service that replaces your voicemail service and sends copies of messages you receive to your email inbox.

Setting up the service the first time only takes a minute. You just sign up for an account on CallWave's site, and enter a code on your cellphone. The code is carrier-dependent, and CallWave tells you what it is. Once that's done, all unanswered calls are automatically forwarded to your CallWave inbox instead of your carrier's voicemail service.
CallWave Mobile Widget
When you get a new voicemail message, CallWave notifies you via SMS, email or both (this can be configured in your account settings). These notification messages include the caller's phone number, the time the message was received, the length of the message, and a link to a webpage that plays the message directly in your browser if you're at a computer. You can also get messages as audio clips attached to the email notifications, if you like. CallWave provides handy visual voicemail widgets/gadgets for both Windows and Mac OS X as well.

If you're at a computer, you can respond to voicemail messages by either sending the caller a text message from the web page, or initiating a call back. In the latter case, CallWave dials you and the caller and connects both of you together.

Deactivating the service is as simple as setting it up. You just punch in another code (which CallWave provides you with as well), and you can continue using your carrier's voicemail service.

I find this service quite handy because there are places where I don't get cellphone reception. Many of the computer labs and classrooms in the engineering building on campus, for example, are dead spots, but I'm almost always near a computer at these places. If someone's trying to reach me, I can at least listen to their messages and respond if it's something important. Plus, there's really nothing that your carrier's voicemail service does that CallWave can't, so you don't lose anything by using it.

My experience with it has been good so far - it was quick and easy to set up, and notifications come in almost immediately. Check it out if you think it might be useful to you. :)

posted at 4:24:00 PM
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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Vista users get free T-Mobile HotSpot access...

Nick White over at the official Vista Team Blog announced today that Windows Vista users will be able to connect to T-Mobile HotSpot access points across the country for free, starting this Friday, for the next three months.

If you have Vista installed on your laptop, look for some HotSpot locations near you. There are lots of them around here, at airports, hotels, coffee shops, bookstores, etc.

Who says being an early-adopter doesn't have its benefits? This is sweet! :)

posted at 10:11:00 AM
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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Halo 3 beta participants to be notified this week...

Did you sign up for the Halo 3 multiplayer beta last month? Well, "Phase One" acceptance emails are going out this week, so watch your inboxes!

If you're not one of the lucky ones this time, or you didn't sign up earlier, 13,333 additional people will be accepted into the second phase at the beginning of Feburary through the "Rule of Three" program.

Finally, specially marked retail boxes of Crackdown, which hits the shelves towards the end of February, will also include Halo 3 beta invitation codes.

You can get additional information about all of this on the Halo 3 site. Let me know if you get an acceptance email this week! :)

posted at 12:17:00 AM
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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Tweet, tweet! Are you twittering?

Twitter is officially described as a "global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing?"

I know - it sounds silly, and can turn into another huge time-waster like Facebook or Orkut if you get addicted, but it's actually quite interesting and fun! I had signed up for it sometime ago, but just started using it yesterday after Dave joined and blogged about it.

The thing that appeals to me about Twitter is its simplicity. I added the bot to my GTalk contact list, and I can update my status just by sending an IM to it. When my friends post tweets, the bot notifies me too. Of course, you can also use the site directly, post tweets and receive updates via SMS, or use various third-party widgets/gadgets/apps. I have imov installed on my Wizard and it's always signed in to GTalk, so that works well for me on-the-go.

Another neat idea that people have come up with is using Twitter at tech conferences and events (like the Sundance Film Festival at the moment). It's not a replacement for blogs, but it's faster, easier and more convenient for people to post short, regular updates while they're moving around, even from their cellphones.

Are you on Twitter too? If not, try it out! It's fun, and you can always stop at any time. Add me to your friends list. :)

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posted at 4:58:00 PM
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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Why driving on icy roads is a bad idea...

"Elementary teacher Derek Porter witnessed 15 different car collisions on icy roads outside his Portland apartment Tuesday morning and caught several on home video."

Check out the crazy video on the King5 news site. Wow... :D

posted at 11:32:00 PM
[ 3 comments ] [ Permalink ]

Folding@home Gadget for Windows Vista...

The other day, I was curious to find out what it's like to build a Sidebar gadget for Vista.

As some of you know, I contribute my idle CPU cycles to Stanford's Folding@home distributed computing project. So I built a F@h monitoring gadget that tracks the progress of my work units; especially useful since I run the client as a GUI-less background service.

Folding@home Gadget

Download: Folding@home Monitor Gadget

Note that if you run two or more separate F@h instances on a multi-core or multi-processor machine like I do, you can simply add multiple instances of the gadget to your Sidebar and point them to the different working directories.

Let me know what you think. :)

Update: A new, compact F@h gadget for dual-core machines is now available. (April 05, 2007)

posted at 10:27:00 AM
[ 5 comments ] [ Permalink ]

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Soccer kid - what a great ad!

One of the sweetest ads I've seen in a while! Some people I showed it to had to watch it a second time to "get" it, but it gives you a good chuckle once you do. :D

posted at 11:06:00 PM
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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Might as well call it the StevePhone...

In case you hadn't heard, Cisco is planning to sue Apple for infringing on its iPhone trademark after negotiations failed. So I have an idea for a new name - why not call it the StevePhone? After all, according to the latest reports, it appears that StevieJ and Co. will get to decide what you can and can't put on your brand new $600 investment.

Moreover, Mr. Jobs also appears to be restricting the potential for third-party software developers to write applications for the new handset - from ringtones to word processors. [...]

"We define everything that is on the phone," he said. "You don’t want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn’t work anymore. These are more like iPods than they are like computers."

So what happens if you don't want to pay your cellular carrier's ridiculous international calling charges and want to use a mobile version of Skype instead? What if you want to sign in to MSN Messenger or AIM so that people can IM you rather than sending you SMS messages? What if you want to use a full-fledged navigation application with a Bluetooth GPS unit in your car that would make Google Maps look like a toy? If Steve doesn't think you need any of those things...well, tough luck.

I find this ridiculous, especially after the big deal that was made on stage during the keynote about the iPhone "running OS X" and "desktop class" applications. If this is what a "revolution" in the cellphone industry is going to look like, I'm sorry, but count me out of it. I'll stick to my Windows Mobile device that cost me half as much almost a year ago, and will do more than twice as much a year from now.

Mike Torres says it best - "I don't want to live in a world where something like this succeeds. I don't care how pretty it is."

posted at 10:21:00 PM
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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Apple iPhone: not quite flawless...

While a large part of the blogosphere goes completely ga-ga over the newly announced iPhone, Eugenia Loli-Queru of OSNews has posted what I think is the most balanced initial analysis I've read so far. Once the RDF wears off, you realize that the points she makes are actually quite valid.

The iPhone is a gorgeous device, unmatched by any other - there's no shred of doubt there. More than the hardware, the beautiful software/UI is what really draws you in. Plus it's got nifty "extras" like an accelerometer that allows the screen to switch between portrait and landscape mode automatically (my Canon camera does this too), and a proximity sensor that turns off the display when you lift the phone to your ear (smart!). Small features, yes, but they definitely contribute positively to the overall user experience. Now throw in the 4 or 8GB of flash, a web browser, mail client, and traditional PDA functionality, and this is starting to look almost perfect!

But then the issues begin to arise...

1) Third-party applications: It's still not clear whether the iPhone allows you to install third-party apps to extend its functionality. It wasn't really addressed during the keynote. Engadget, via Michael Gartenberg, reports that it won't, which is just terrible. That's the killer-feature of smartphones and what got me to switch to them from standard cellphones in the first place. RSS readers, IM clients, games, GPS navigation apps, office productivity apps, eBook readers - there's a whole giant ecosystem of useful third-party software for Windows Mobile and Symbian smartphones out there. I find it very hard to believe Apple would do something like this though. I guess we'll have to wait and find out...

2) On-screen keys: Eugenia is not impressed by the on-screen QWERTY keyboard and the lack of tactile feedback, and I'm in total agreement there. This might not be an issue if you're not planning to do anything text-heavy, but if you start sending text messages and emails often, you're going to get sick of the tiny on-screen keys very, very soon.

3) User-replaceable battery: Well, is it? Pictures of the device on Apple's site show a closed shell similar to the iPod. If your iPod's battery dies, you ship it to Apple for replacement - that's okay. Are you willing to do the same with your cellphone and be without it for how much ever time it takes Apple to ship it back to you (especially if it's your only phone, or if you use it daily for important business calls)?

4) EDGE connectivity: All those fancy internet features, but only EDGE support for a cellphone scheduled to hit the shelves in mid-2007? My T-Mobile MDA uses EDGE too, and even though I like most other aspects of the phone, this sticks out like a sore thumb. My second Windows Mobile device, a Palm Treo 700wx on Sprint, supports EV-DO, which is blisteringly fast in comparison. Cingular has already been rolling out their HSDPA network in major cities across the country; why not include a HSDPA radio in the iPhone and usher it into the current generation, especially when you're asking customers to invest so much money into it? This isn't something that can be fixed with a software update, after all.

5) Carrier-restricted: I was a little baffled that the phone is restricted only to Cingular customers. Jobs described it as a "multi-year" deal with Cingular, so one has to wonder when it'll show up on other networks, if ever. Apart from the visual voicemail feature that needs additional work on the carrier's side, there's nothing that should have prevented Apple from selling an unlocked phone for anyone. It is a quad-band GSM device, after all. Was the visual voicemail feature that important to them that it warranted excluding a whole chunk of potential non-Cingular customers?

Besides all this, the seamless integration between Windows Mobile, Exchange Server and Outlook on the desktop is a killer feature for me, personally. Pair them up once, and it just keeps working without interruption. Sure, Apple has the whole push IMAP deal going with Yahoo, but who wants to bother changing email addresses (try suggesting that to business users!) or mail forwarding? Besides, that just covers email. What about over-the-air synchronization of contacts, calendar events, tasks, etc? Plugging in your device to a computer every night is so archaic.

Of course, that's not to say that the iPhone is without its merits. Microsoft and its hardware partners, like HTC, could surely learn a thing or two from Apple as well, especially with regards to design and aesthetics. It never hurts to have another good competitor in the marketplace to spark off some great ideas from everyone in the game. The iPhone is also Apple's first foray into the mobile devices space, so there's plenty of room for improvement in the future. I think it'll be interesting to see what direction they take it in.

So, what are your thoughts, now that you've had the time to let the news sink in?

posted at 10:38:00 PM
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Monday, January 08, 2007

Windows Live Messenger team, take note...

Lots of announcements were made at CES today, and I'm still in the process of digesting all that information. I also just moved back to uni today (classes start tomorrow), so I' a bit behind on the news.

Anyway, I just spotted the new version of Yahoo! Messenger that's redesigned from the ground up, just for Windows Vista, using Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). And for a moment, my jaw dropped. That user-interface is just gorgeous, all the way from the smooth-scalable buddy icons in the contact list to the beautifully minimalistic chat window. Also, notice that they're using Segoe UI as the default font throughout the application, making everything look perfectly consistent. This app is totally a first-class citizen on the Vista desktop. Heck, I don't even use Yahoo! Messenger, but this is getting installed on my box as soon as it's out, just so that I can play with it in all of its WPF'd glory.

Windows Live Messenger team, take note - this is what WLM should have looked like on Vista; I sure hope you folks will deliver something equally eye-catching in the next release!

Update: Lee Brimelow from Frog Design, who worked on this with Yahoo! and Microsoft, has more information, including screenshots of the new voice call window, a Sidebar gadget (clever!), and an interesting color picker.

posted at 1:08:00 AM
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Friday, January 05, 2007

Windows Vista's Natural Language Search...

Mike Torres pointed out a great feature of Windows Vista that I've been using since I installed the RTM build on my machines - natural language search.

Most of you who have been following Vista's development and/or have used it know that indexed search is a prominent feature throughout the system. The inclusion of a search box right in the Start menu makes it extremely convenient to instantly find files, emails, contacts, and even launch applications. I'm a big fan of Windows Desktop Search on Windows XP (see my old review), but the tight system-integration and performance enhancements like prioritized I/O make the search experience so much better on Vista. It's definitely up there in my list of favorite features.

Search in Windows Vista

Both Windows Desktop Search for XP and the search system in Vista (which is based on WDS 3, by the way) include support for advanced query syntax to build more complex search queries. As a simple example, you can type in "from:john monkeys" to find all emails from John that have something to do with monkeys.

In addition to this, however, there's this gem of a feature in Vista that's disabled by default, and like Mike, I have no idea why! (Perhaps Brandon can shed some light?) Once you enable natural language search, you can perform the same query as the one above using syntax that's...well, much more natural - you can, for example, type "emails from john about monkeys." Power-users might find it more efficient to use boolean operators and properties (less typing!), but if you ever forget exactly what that property name was, you can easily fall back to this simple, natural syntax. And it works really well too!

To enable natural language searches in Vista, go to the Control Panel and type in "folder" into the search box at the top (yup, more search goodness!). Then click the "Change search options for files and folders" item. Check the "Use natural language search" box in the dialog box that appears, and hit OK. You're all set, and you can start playing with natural language search queries right away. :)

posted at 1:53:00 PM
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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Google Reader Trends - fun statistics...

I love keeping track of statistics. I use Google Analytics, StatCounter, FeedBurner stats, and my own custom stats system to find out what types of posts are most popular on my blog, which posts get the most number of comments, how many people subscribe to my RSS feed, what search engine queries lead people here, and so on. Similarly, I also use Google Personalized Search to find out curious bits of information about my own web searching habits.

So the addition of a new Trends feature to Google Reader is very interesting to me. I can, for example, find out which feeds I read the most, which feeds contained posts that I found most interesting (based on "starred" posts), which ones are least and most frequently updated, etc. I can also keep track of my reading habits - according to the stats, I've been skimming through most of my feeds in the afternoon and after midnight everyday, and mostly during the middle of the week, with the least amount of reading going on during weekends. Ah, holidays. :) My guess is that these stats will change quite a bit once the quarter starts again next week...

If you use Google Reader, you should check out this feature. Find any surprising and interesting bits of information about your feeds and reading habits?

posted at 12:57:00 AM
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Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Here's to a great 2007! :)

posted at 3:21:00 PM
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