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Computing At Chaos Manor:
June 19, 2007

The User's Column, June 2007
Column 323, part 2
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


Continued from last week...

We're down at the beach house in Mission Beach (San Diego) this weekend. We bought this condo decades ago during a real estate bust, and we often retreat here when the weather and pollens in Los Angeles get unbearable. I'm hoping to finally get rid of whatever crud I picked up during my East Coast trip.

On the Beach

Over the past twenty years I have lugged every form of computer from the 80386 Cheetah to a Vista Core 2 Duo IBM/Lenovo T series laptop down to the beach house. Often I carry more than one. Lately, though, I have been doing most of my writing on the IBM/Lenovo T42p I bought some years ago. I will probably switch over to the T60 Lenovo Core 2 Duo when Alex returns it, but there's no hurry. The T42p is reliable, and in general Good Enough, with my only minor complaint being when piggy old Outlook 2003 decides to eat most of the cycles. A dual processor machine can't tame Outlook itself, but confining Outlook to one of two processors can keep Outlook from blocking Word and other programs. Actually, though, I don't even have too many complaints about Outlook. The Lenovo T42p is more than Good Enough for most of what I do on the road.

In fact, I normally carry Orlando, the T42p, up to the Monk's Cell when I am writing fiction at home. Up there I have a Microsoft Wireless Comfort Keyboard and Mouse 1.0A, and a 19" ViewSonic flat screen monitor. I have used that combination for some months now and I've done a lot of work with it including finishing Inferno II Escape from Hell.

When I come to the beach I bring Orlando, and carry a ViewSonic 17" flat screen. That has worked reasonably well, but the screen is a little small - I really have got used to the 19" monitor in the Monk's Cell - and of course I have to dismantle the keyboard and mouse arrangement to bring it down here. I decided that now that I have finished Inferno II I would reward myself by getting a keyboard, mouse, and 19" monitor to keep down at the beach house.

My original plan was to buy precisely the same rig that I have in the Monk's Cell, and I went out to Fry's with that intention.

ViewSonic VA1930wm Monitor

I couldn't find either item at Fry's. ViewSonic must still make a square 19" monitor, but I didn't find one. What I did find was a big sale on the VA1930wm monitors. There were other flat screen monitors on sale as well, but I've had good luck with ViewSonic for many years now, and the VA1930wm 19" wide screen monitor was about $160 with rebates. I looked at the box and saw that it had 5 ms. response time, which is certainly good enough - I have had no problems with the games I like with my 8 ms. response time monitors - and accepted both Analog and DVI inputs. It has built in speakers, and the stand lifts it to a good 8" above the desk surface so I won't have to prop it up with the Columbia Desktop Encyclopedia that served that function for the 17" model.

Setting up the monitor was no problem at all. I took it out of the box, noted that there was no DVI cable provided - many monitor companies have taken to leaving that out of the box. If you need a new monitor for DVI input, you will probably have to buy your own cable.

In my case it hardly mattered since the input would be from the Lenovo T42p, but if I ever get a new Core 2 Duo Apple I'll have to remember to bring a cable. Oddly enough a DVI cable was provided with the 17" ViewSonic I've been lugging down here, but in fact I have never used it.

There is an audio cable to connect to the built in speakers. As it happens I continue to use the Optimus external powered speakers I keep down here (as well as a set of Optimus earphones since I sometimes play World of Warcraft late at night) but the cable was there and the speakers and volume control do work.

I connected the ViewSonic 19" Widescreen to the T42p, and brought up Microsoft Word. All was well. My text is sharp and clear, the monitor is at a good working height when fully extended, and everything was fine.

I logged on to World of Warcraft. I was informed that I needed to set both game and screen resolutions to 1440 by 900 for best results, and I did that. I closed off WOW and went back to Microsoft Word. Again all was well, both in the game and with my text.

Then I brought up Outlook. That made me think I'd made a drastic error in my purchase. Fortunately the story has a happy ending.

Why Suzy Hates Her New Monitor, Part II

Long time readers will recall "Why Suzy Hates Her New Monitor," (Byte link), which told about problems with Microsoft applications being unable to adjust font sizes, leaving users the choice of awful monitor resolution or tiny letters they couldn't see.

Outlook on the new Viewsonic
What I saw when I changed to 1440 x 900 resolution. The Plaintext preview panels are readable enough, but the subject matter is tiny. [View larger]
After adjusting Row Fonts
Outlook at 1440 x 900 with the "Row Fonts" settings changed from 8 point to 14 point. [View larger]
Outlook adjusted properly
Final setting of Outlook 2003 at 1440 x 900 resolution on the new ViewSonic 1930wm Monitor. The screen shots don't do this justice: on the real screen this is very readable. [View larger]

Vista has changed that by providing new ways to scale font sizes. Microsoft also rather quietly made some changes in some applications, Outlook 2003 in particular, but as usual, it's not entirely intuitive how one uses them.

At 1440 by 900 resolution, the Plaintext preview panes in Outlook are quite readable, but the windows showing the origin of the emails and their subject were very small. I could read them, but not comfortably. Since everything else worked well, and the monitor was at a very good price, I wasn't tempted to take it back, but this was a disappointment.

Fortunately it's Father's Day, and Alex and Frank were down here for the day. I asked Alex if there were anything I could do about that Outlook text size. He thought there was, but it wasn't obvious how to do it. As one has come to expect, Microsoft Help wasn't much help at all. Eventually Alex went Googling and found this page which doesn't precisely tell you what to do, but if you read carefully and then examine some chicken guts you may figure out what must be done.

Microsoft did build the capability into Outlook 2003. Simply go to View | Arrange By | Current View | Customize Current View | Other Settings and you will find "Column Fonts" and "Row Fonts". It's not instantly obvious what each does, but "Row Font" is the one we want. The default is 8 point. Change that to something larger - I changed it to 14 - and do OK, Ok, Ok, Ok and you'll see something like the second capture at the right.

It's not clear to me why you can't see what it would look like without completely exiting the procedure, but that's the way Microsoft set it up.

Of course changing the font size will decrease the amount of information shown, but after all, this is a wide screen monitor: simply stretch the appropriate column out a bit, and voila!

So all's well that ends well. The moral of this story is that Microsoft often gives you capabilities that are hidden deep within the system. Often you don't even have to hack the registry to find them.

Regrets

I used to visit Microsoft fairly often back in the 1980's when they were still in Bellevue, and just after their move to the new campus in Redmond. In those days Microsoft worked very hard to make life easier for users. I recall once they asked me to come up to see a new corporate level laboratory in operation. I forget precisely what they named this group - I suppose I could find it if I dug deep enough in my old McGraw Hill BYTE columns for the 1980's - but it worked this way: a team of human factors experts would take Microsoft software and bring in savvy users from outside the company. They brought in Executive Secretaries from Seattle banks, Boeing junior engineers, insurance salesmen and real estate agents - the kinds of people they hoped would be using Microsoft software. These people were put in offices equipped with microphones and one-way mirrors, and turned loose with the new products. Then the human factors people would watch to see what they did.

Not only were the user problems recorded, but also the various ways the users tried to solve the problems. How they used Help; what questions they asked; and of course the observers recorded whether or not the problem was solved at all. These data were given to the product managers whose job was to make it easier for users - and consequently cheaper for Microsoft since technical support calls were expensive.

It was impressive to watch this process and I said so at the time. Moreover, the effects were obvious: for a few years there Microsoft really did have the best HELP files in the computer business, and their products were intuitively easy to use. Word Perfect had the best technical support teams, but Microsoft Word, when it began making inroads into Word Perfect, was just easier to use than either Word Perfect or Word Star, and that was reflected in their relative sales.

Alas, that group is gone; at least I am pretty sure it must be gone. I have not heard anything about it in years, and over the years Microsoft's HELP files have acquired an entirely different reputation: they are now considered some of the best word puzzles in the world. Today's Microsoft HELP file writers are clearly graduates of a secret school that teaches you how to be certain the answers to all questions are in the HELP files, but also assure that no one who doesn't already know the answer can get any HELP from them. It's very effective, too.

As for me, I regret the loss of what I used to call the "Human Factors Group" at Microsoft, but I don't know any way to persuade them to bring it back. I suspect there was a fight between the geeks and the bean counters, and the suits won as usual. Alas.

Peter Glaskowsky says the group still exists, and may have more funding now than it ever did; if so, it doesn't seem to be working as well as it once did.

Microsoft Wireless Laser Desktop 6000

Screen magnifier from Laser Mouse Utilities
The "magnifier" feature of the Microsoft Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 utilities. It turns out to be very useful. [View larger]
Two wireless desktop sets
The Wireless Desktop 6000 below the older Comfort Curve Keyboard 1.0A. [View larger]
The new setup at the beach house
The new setup at the beach house, with the ViewSonic VA1930wm monitor and Microsoft Wireless Laser Desktop 6000 keyboard and mouse. The computer is the Lenovo T42p you see over to the left. Note the Rayovac 15 Minute battery charger to the right of the computer screen. I depend on Rayovac batteries and chargers. [View larger]

I couldn't find a copy of the Microsoft Wireless Comfort Keyboard and Mouse 1.0A, and I suspect they aren't made any longer. The closest I could come was the Laser Desktop 6000 with Comfort Curve Keyboard and High Definition Laser Mouse. This was about $100 at Fry's, and there was neither sale nor rebate. It seemed worth it; now I can leave the Monk's Cell setup at home, and leave the new unit down here. Or vice versa; I haven't quite figured out which one I like better.

The Laser Desktop 6000 works very well indeed. The keyboard feel is very good. Not quite excellent - I really do wish I could get this Comfort Curve layout with collapsing spring "clicky" keys - but it's pretty darned good. I'm writing this with no trouble at all, and I got several hundred words of Mamelukes done yesterday.

Both mice are marked "Microsoft Wireless Mouse 6000", and if there's any difference between them I haven't noticed it, except of course one is all silver and the other has black sides. They both have "magnifiers", which turns out to be a feature I would never have sought out, but once I tried it, I decided I like it very much.

The Laser Desktop 6000 keyboard is laid out a bit differently from the Comfort Keyboard 1.0A. The 6000 is more conventional; on the 1.0A, there is no "Insert" key; that has been replaced by an oversize Delete key. I rather like that arrangement, since I never use the "Insert" key for anything, and when I hit it by accident it infuriates me. On the other hand, the 1.0A arrangement of the Page Up and Page Down keys is not quite the usual, and I sometimes find myself hitting "End" when I want Page Up. It's easy enough to get used to either arrangement.

The middle image at right is the Wireless Desktop 6000 below the older Comfort Curve Keyboard 1.0A. The mice are identical except for color. The 6000 auxiliary keys are different from the 1.0A's, and some of the auxiliary key layouts are different, but both have a good feel and the Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboard which I like a lot. I wrote two books on the 1.0A, and I'd have bought another if available; the 6000 was the closest I could get, and it's probably a mild improvement.

The 6000 has a "Gadgets" key for use with Vista, and some other Vista ready features; I haven't tried it with a machine running Vista, but they're probably handy. There are also other specialty keys. There are various Internet control keys, and they've been given very strong springs to make it difficult to press one of them by accident. There's a key that brings up the Microsoft Calculator. There's an Internet Zoom key. And of course there are the usual Windows keys.

Since I do not think the 1.0A is available now - I can find used items for sale but nowhere do I see new ones - I presume I had better start getting used to the Laser Desktop 6000 if I want to standardize all my installations. The good news is that I don't see that as a problem. All told I am very satisfied with the Microsoft Wireless Desktop 6000. Recommended.

David Em on Vista

David Em is my premier expert on graphics. Actually, he's just about anyone's premier expert. He's been doing fine art with electronic media for over thirty years, and if you're lucky enough to find a copy of his The Art of David Em, grab it quick. David stays out at the bleeding edge of graphics hardware and software. He recently had this to say about 64-bit Vista:

An update on 64-bit Vista fun and games.

Vista is more stable than it was before the last couple of Windows updates. I'm running the Adobe Creative Suite 3 on it mostly without problems. I've turned off all the 3D eye candy and am using the old Windows Classic look.

There is a bluescreen that occurs when viewing RAW camera files in Bridge. While testing Sigma's sd14 camera last month there were a couple occasions I shot 300 pictures in a day. While reviewing them in Bridge, at about picture 280 Vista bluescreened. This was repeatable. There didn't seem to be a huge amount of memory used, so I don't think a leak is the problem. In any event, it's a little alarming that the whole system crashes rather than just the app.

There remain some peculiar interface annoyances. When I want to move files, I often get a pesky permissions request that causes the screen to go almost black. When I give it the OK, the screen becomes bright again in a flash. If you do this a lot, it's hard on the eyes.

Another UI peeve: I use a specialized big red cursor and some other icons I like from an old Windows Plus pack. On every reboot they're not there. However if I go to the mouse properties panel and click on the cursor options frame, everything comes back, so Vista knows exactly what I want but is too stupid to serve it up to me on startup.

Display management still lags far behind the Mac. After a crash, Vista has problems recognizing multiple displays on startup (I use four). Often it sees only one -- a different one each time. Once running, Vista remembers that I have designated the HP3065 as the primary display surface, however it serves that information to the old NEC 2010. The 2010's 1280x1024 res has less than half the resolution of the 3560, with the result that nothing shows up on the 2010's screen, because Vista is addressing the 3560. The only solution I've found is to physically disconnect all the displays except for the primary one, then activate the others one at a time. A related issue is that certain screens, in particular Firefox for some reason, when minimized and maximized will maximize to the 3560's higher resolution on less pixel-dense screens, with the result that part of the image goes off screen.

I got a cheery message window from Microsoft about a week ago informing me that there was a new Nvidia Vista 64 driver out for the Quadro cards. I downloaded it. Nvidia had produced a PDF with this driver release with many screenshots showing exactly what to expect when installing the driver in Vista 64. Unfortunately, very few of these screens actually appeared. It took several attempts to get it running properly, and when it finally did, performance was not good. The same screen refresh problems as last time, plus everything was slow. No way anyone in their right mind would try to run a 3D app in this environment. Six hours of torture later, I regressed to last October's driver, which at leas provides adequate 2D performance. Is Nvidia in trouble? ATI appears way ahead this time around.

-- David

Thanks. My conclusion is that I will avoid 64-bit Vista until a Service Pack comes out; but then I don't really recommend 32-bit Vista before SP-1 either. I hasten to add that many do find 32-bit Vista tolerable, and some, like Dan Spisak, like it a lot.

Visit David at http://www.davidem.com/ for examples of his art.

Coming Up

Chaos Manor is once again stuffed with new items that need reviews. I seem to be recovering from the combination crud and funk - frunk? - I picked up on the East Coast, and I'll get at the new stuff as soon I get back to the manor.