Tag Archives: free

Every Other Update

I’m not much of an early adopter anymore. Too many times I have been burned by “not ready for prime-time” products and updates. Now, I usually wait for the second or third iterations before making any technology changes. I made an exception this time, for Windows 10. I have found that Microsoft gets updates right about half of the time; usually on every other version. Time will tell if I chose wisely or not, but I have been playing with it long enough to form some initial impressions.

My Surface Pro 2 came with Windows 8.1 Pro installed and it took a couple of weeks for me to adapt to the new touch-designed interface, which has been called Metro, Touch and Tile World at various times since its launch. Microsoft figured that all personal computing was going to the tablet/touch interfaces commanded by iOS and Android, and they wanted to gain a piece of that market. They banked on that idea so much that they completely lost the traditional Windows desktop that has commanded computing since 1994. Public outcry was such that Microsoft quickly brought the desktop back to Windows 8 as a patch, which effectively split the user experience in two, leaving many to complain that 8.1 suffered from dual personality syndrome. Even so, I had a grasp of the nuances and managed to get my Surface to work for what I need it to do, though I was still missing the simplified user experience of Windows 7.

Microsoft, evidently wishing to distance itself from its Metro mistake, completely skipped Windows 9 and redesigned the entire OS for its newest update. The biggest news about the upgrade, however, was not the return to the desktop—a welcome piece of news for windows users, to be sure—but that the upgrade would be free. Free, that is, for those who are upgrading from 7 or 8 and do so within a one-year time limit from the release. Those who are still running XP or Vista (why would anyone be?) are out of luck.

This also means that all future upgrades are also free. Microsoft announced that there will be no more “Versions” of Windows, merely updates and patches. This is similar to Apple’s Macintosh OS stopping with OS X, even though there are constant updates for that system. Microsoft will not be losing money, to be sure. They have figured out a way to monetize OS usage by collecting user data. More on that later.

So, I upgraded my tablet the day after the release. The update process was simple and painless for me, although some Norton users complained that they lost their antivirus and had to go through some hoops to get it back. I had no such problem. My Norton immediately updated itself upon completion of the initial Windows 10 setup process.

Most of my configurations remained, such as my desktop image and icons. Users boot right onto the desktop just like previous versions, with the tiled Metro start screen now popping up as the start menu from the Windows button. Gone is the 2-App limitation on multitasking that Metro imposed on us; back is the multiple windows on the task bar. Now some of the touch-specific niceties of the Metro interface are also gone, such as the charms and the swipe to close/minimize feature. Closing is back to clicking the X in the upper right corner where it has always been. I had gotten so used to swiping down to close windows, that I kept dragging windows below the task bar and having to work to get them up and closed. I’m almost over that now.

Swiping in from the right used to bring up the charms, but that feature has been replaced by what I think is one of the biggest improvements in Windows: the notifications panel. In Windows 8, metro social apps like Facebook and Twitter kept a process running in the background to update their live tiles on the start screen. They still do this, but now they also show up in the notifications panel, and they remain there until the user clears them. This functionality is not new to mobile users—phones have had this for years—but Windows has never embraced it for computer users until now.

Windows also has included a built in mail app that can be configured for any POP3 or iMAP4 service. Yahoo, Gmail, and Hotmail can appear right beside ISP/work email in the same streamlined client, which alerts the user of new mail in the notifications panel. For those who use a web-based calendar like Google or hotmail, reminders for appointments and tasks also appear in the notification panel alongside any alarms the user might set.

Even with those updates, the biggest improvement for Windows might have to be Cortana. Apple launched Siri several years ago to the amazement of the mobile world. Google followed suit a few years later and there have even been some independent personal assistants like S-voice on Samsung phones. Windows developed Cortana to compete in that market, and rather than program a life-like computer-generated speech synthesizer, Microsoft employed an actual human actress to record her voice for the digital assistant.

Cortana is actually the name of a character in Microsoft’s game series Halo. In the game, a computer AI is named Cortana and is one of the antagonists for the hero. The voice became so popular that Microsoft decided to make Cortana real. Now Windows users can talk to their computers by simply addressing them with “Hey, Cortana.” Doing so will open a voice search window where a user can speak search terms, ask about the weather, inquire as to the day’s schedule, check email or even ask Cortana to tell a joke.

Again, Siri users will say “Been there, done that,” and they would be correct. In fact, Siri is still a bit more intuitive than Cortana, who opens web browsers to Bing for simple questions way too often for my taste. I can only expect that Microsoft will improve the service as time goes on.

Now for the concerns. In order for Cortana to work, the computer’s microphone has to be on all the time, and the network connection must also be active all the time. While this is a drain on the battery, it also means everything that is audible in the vicinity can be picked up and transmitted to Microsoft’s servers. Again, this is no different from Siri or Google, so many people won’t mind. But with all these voice recognition programs and devices, more personal data is being transmitted, collected and used by tech companies to gather information on users for marketing purposes. Some privacy advocates may be bothered by this.

Since Windows 10 is “free,” Microsoft has put a lot of data gathering tools embedded deep in the system. There are several places to find the settings for them and they are not easy to find and they are not together in the same place. Concerned users can opt out of all the data collection if they so choose, but Cortana will stop working if they do.

So, overall, Windows 10 is a step up, continuing the trend of good upgrades skipping a version. 95 good, 98 bad, 98 second edition good, ME bad, XP good, Vista bad, 7 good, 8 bad, 10… well, we’ll see if it ends up being as good as the first two weeks seem to indicate. One of my friends posted that her newly upgraded desktop locked up on Windows 10, which may be more of a problem with the fact that it is a cobbled system, rather than an out of the box computer. I am on a Microsoft-built device, so it may be that my good experience is owing to tight development between Microsoft hardware and software. So far, so good.

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No Charge Part Deux

With the sun shining high in the afternoon sky, my wife and I headed out on a weekend trip to the Texas Hill Country, looking to spend a relaxing weekend touring small town Texas; specifically Georgetown and Round Rock. We do this as a way of indulging our past times of antiquing and exploring the nearby countryside. We used to do day trips in the immediate area, but now we have to plan longer trips as we travel further from home.

We have two vehicles, both SUVs: a 2003 Ford Explorer Sport and a 2009 Ford Escape. They are like siblings sometimes, in that they get sick at the same time. When I was a child, my two sisters and I passed the chicken pox back and forth three times, so that my parents had to constantly deal with at least one sick child for several months. My cars are like that. Earlier this year, both of their batteries had to be replaced within a week of each other.sick_car[2]

Anyway, the highway was fairly populated, but traffic was moving at a relatively brisk pace. We stopped at an absolutely horrific Denny’s for a protracted, mediocre dinner before continuing on to Austin, where we planned to turn north into Round Rock. As we cruised west on highway 290, I felt a “thunk” in the car, almost like I drove over something that flipped up and hit the undercarriage. Suddenly, the car lost power and began to slow, despite my continued pressure on the accelerator. Something was wrong.

I drifted over to the shoulder and rolled to a stop. With the blinkers on, I waited for a break in the oncoming traffic before opening my door. You’d think that at some point, the road would be empty, even if only for a moment, but there was a steady stream of cars barreling down on us as I sat there with the door cracked open. Finally, I spotted my opening. I figured after the panel van went by, I would be able to hop out, close the door and scamper around to the front of the car before the red Kia knocked me over. I counted to three, hopped, slammed and scooted just in the nick of time. I opened the hood and peered inside, as if by doing so, the gremlin that was plaguing my car would jump up, throw his hands in the air and surrender, never to bother us again. Alas, I saw nothing amiss under the hood. Everything looked as it should. No hoses were loose, no belts screamed, no fittings spewed. With these new computer controlled cars, there isn’t even a throttle linkage to manipulate.

The engine was idling as it should, but it wouldn’t respond to the accelerator. My wife, Michelle and I feared we would be stranded and have to call someone to come get us. It was at this time that it occurred to me that this is a computer controlled vehicle, and what does one do when a computer malfunctions? One reboots. So I turned the car off, waited a few seconds and turned it back on. Bingo! The accelerator once again controlled the car. The vehicle managed to run just fine for the rest of the weekend and even into the next week.

My Sport was having mechanical problems of its own, having a rubbing sound and burning smell after driving for a while. I knew I needed to get that fixed before something ignited or a wheel flew off and rolled ahead of me down the road. For that car, it turned out the right rear brake caliper was jammed and after a boatload of money, it was fine. But the very same day I got the Sport fixed, the Escape’s gremlin returned. Michelle called me to let me know the car stopped accelerating on her way to work. She followed my example of pulling over, turning the car off and on again to reboot the computer and it worked, but that meant we had to get it fixed ASAP. It would not do for her to be stranded on the way to work in rush hour traffic if the gremlin decided a reboot wouldn’t suffice anymore.

I was worried, as the Sport’s repair bill was impressive and we had not budgeted for yet another repair bill. The Escape had more than 108,000 miles on it, so its factory warrantee was long expired. Fortunately, after some internet research, I found out that the issue is related to a known factory recall for the throttle body assembly, and that Ford was effecting repairs for affected vehicles at no cost. Yea!

So, once again, my two cars got sick at the same time, but fortunately, I only had to pay for one! Hopefully, they are both done getting sick for a while. But we know these things come in threes, so I’m knocking on wood as I type this.

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Filed under Humor, Personal

But I Need This, Don’t I?

Why do we do things we don’t want or shouldn’t? I’ll tell you why. We’ve been brainwashed, that’s why. Like some spy movie, we have had our minds altered by the nefarious villain. Our will has been sapped and manipulated by the evil forces of the enemy. They know us. They watch us. They control us like a puppet on a string. Who is this enemy? Is it Big Brother? Is it Kaos? Is it Spectre? No…it’s marketing companies.

Haven’t you found yourself buying something that you felt you had to have, despite the fact that—until the moment you got it—you never even knew you needed it? How do you think that happens? You watch TV. You read books. You surf the internet. Companies that make products have a simple mission: to sell their stuff. They don’t really care who buys it, as long as someone buys it. But those companies don’t know how to sell it to the masses. They hire people, or outsource to a firm, that specialize in convincing other people to part with their money.

I got a phone call from a company the other day that wanted to know if I would like to participate in a key contest where they would send me a car key and if it fit the lock of a Ford Ranger, I got to keep the truck. I said “Sure, why not?” If I don’t want the truck, I still get $10k cash (before taxes). No reason to pass up a chance at free money. Besides, I also will definitely win either a 300 bucks, a dream vacation, a flat screen TV, or a shopping spree (or some such nonsense). When I bought a car several years ago, the ad I took into the dealership had a similar consolation prize. I would win either a TV, 1000 bucks, a home entertainment system or a basketball. My son said that with my luck, it would be a flat basketball. I won the basketball. It was not pre-inflated.

So, I get this key in the mail. The company calls me to ensure that I got the key and set up an appointment for me to try it out. Now, I have had telemarketers call and give me the cue-card spiel, but never have they send a key in a hand-written envelope and made several calls to get me to listen to the spiel. I am somewhat suspicious of the whole thing, but now I am curious enough to go. And maybe that’s just what they expect me to do. Maybe I’m playing right into their evil clutches.

Their plan may be to lure me in with the promise of riches (ok 10k isn’t riches, per se; but it is money after all) then they spring the trap. Perhaps it will be a time-share, or maybe an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a real estate investment firm, or I may have a chance to start my own business with only a modest initial investment. Then again, it could be legit. It could be a company trying to get the word out of their new store and this is just a contest to build name recognition.

I hope so. I don’t need more stuff that I don’t need. Our house is too full of stuff we don’t use to go out getting more of it just because some marketing firm made me think I needed it. That is the scheme, you know. They use imagery of beautiful people (who remind us a lot of ourselves—in a deluded way) using their product to make us want to be those beautiful people using the product. That creates a “need” where one did not exist before. These firms have employed doctors and behavioral scientists to figure out the best way to get into our heads.

I guess the best way for me in this case is a chance at a free truck or cash. I’ll let you know what happens.

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Filed under Humor, Media, Society