Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Consumer Camp - Windows Phone Troy, MI

I've always wanted to be able to meet with people to discuss the great things that various Microsoft products have to offer. I enjoy my Surface, I love my Window Phone, and I'm glad I have an Xbox 360. They work well together and I just want to help other people see how great they are.

Well now I have a chance. I've partnered with a group called Consumer Camp to present Windows Phone to customers so they can see all that it has to offer. If you're reading this, you're invited to the event. It's happening at the Microsoft Store at the Somerset Collection in Troy, MI. The event is September 22, 2013 from 2PM to 4PM.

Bring your phone, regardless of what you have. If you have a Windows Phone, you might learn a couple tricks. If you have something else, you'll get to see someone demonstrate all that Windows Phone has to offer.

If nothing else, if you haven't seen a Microsoft Store, you should come just to experience one. It's sure to be a fun event. Currently, I'll be joined by Microsoft employee Mark King.


Friday, February 8, 2013

How the desktop PC can be saved... or at least could have been saved

   I love desktop computers for a number of reasons. They're economical. When upgrading a machine completely, you can keep your monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Minor updates are much easier. AMD recently sent me an new APU to try out. I didn't have an FM1 motherboard to install in on, so I took it over to my dad's and put it in his HTPC. The new A8 gave him quite the performance boost over his older A6. I was impressed. But that's something I couldn't have really done on a laptop or tablet. My current desktop is humming along nicely as it has for the past 4 years. I recently beta tested some software and was impressed by how well a machine that old handled it. It wouldn't have hurt if I had a better video card though. And with a desktop, that's an easy fix. I simply go to, pick one out, and install it in about 10 minutes.

   However, they're not exactly portable. My current desktop is a Shuttle. It's pretty compact.  However, taking it anywhere involves unplugging everything and moving the monitor as well. It's doable, but I would never take it with me to a meeting. This has been a key issue in the decline of the desktop.

A Shuttle compared to a traditional desktop

   And it's clear that the desktop PC is going into the pages of history. Go into a Best Buy and look for desktops. If it's anything like my local store, laptops and tablets and front and center while desktops are shoved into a small aisle. It's rather depressing to me at times. I spend more of my IT time with individual customers helping them pick out a laptop and less time designing and building a desktop for them. The last time I built a machine for a customer was about 3 years ago.

   But does this mean that the desktop has to die? I really don't believe so. I believe it simply needs to change in a few key areas (some are already taking place) and it might be saved. However, it could be too late.

   The main issue is the desktop PC needs to move, literally. The "desk" in desktop has to go away. That's not to say they can reside on desks like they have since the dawn of the home computer. But right now they're getting pushed aside like Woody did when Andy got Buzz in Toy Story. It needs to find a new home. The best place is in the home entertainment center.

   It really is the only place a desktop can go. We already have dozens of devices that are there and they're not exactly portable. Our Blu-ray players, Xboxes, and surround sound systems don't move that often. Modern video cards pretty much all have a DVI or HDMI connection which many of our TVs have as well. So desktops can work pretty well in this application already.

   The problem we're then left with is the mouse and keyboard. In some ways, this issue has already been tackled. An adapter can be purchased for the PC that allows it to work with Xbox 360 wireless controllers. Seeing how many of us already have these in our homes, we just need to get the adapter and we're cooking. Valve has even released a mode for Steam called "Big Picture." It's Steam, but designed for use with controllers. I've tried it out with my Xbox controller and it works quite well. The only drawback is that all the games don't work with the controller so it's slightly frustrating in that regard, but completely understandable that they didn't make all the game makers go back and make it so their games worked with the controller.

   But then typing and other things aren't exactly best done with a controller. It's limited. When it comes to the Xbox, anyone who's tried writing a message to a friend using the controller knows that. But then Microsoft has come out with a nice little program for smartphones and tablets called SmartGlass. As the software has grown, I've become a big fan of SmartGlass. In short, it helps you control your console with your phone or tablet and provides more information than what is presented on screen in certain applications. To get into what all it does would take time, so if you're interested in learning more, I'll let Microsoft help you out.

   The one short coming of SmartGlass is that it's limited to the Xbox. It doesn't work with a Windows 8 machine. And that's a shame. Imagine if, when connected to a PC, SmartGlass would clone your desktop screen on your tablet and then you could control your PC that now resides in your home entertainment center. A on screen keyboard would only appear on the tablet and allow users to type in a way they're already familiar with using. Clicking on the screen on the tablet would be like clicking with a mouse much like using the desktop mode on a Windows 8/RT tablet. Instead of inventing a new controller that would be expensive, why not use a device many of us already have?

   Another controller that could be used is Kinect. Microsoft has already made it so Kinect can work with a Windows machine. The problem is that Kinect isn't exactly practical at our desks. It would be, and is, in our living rooms.

   But what application would this new home and setup provide? The number of us that want to type up Word documents from our couch is probably small. One application I've alluded to already is games. We're already playing games there with the Xbox. Speaking of the Xbox, it has other applications that we would use. We use it to watch movies, listen to music, and now even browse the web. We could do that with our computers from our couch.

   And, in the fact that the Xbox does all that already, lies the issue. Why would we get a PC in our entertainment centers to do all of that when we already have the Xbox? And it's clear Microsoft and others have observed this. When Microsoft released Windows 8, it didn't come with Windows Media Center, a piece of software that had me extremely interested in the HTPC setup. As much as I hate to say it, I highly doubt that the next Xbox will even work as a Media Center Extender which was a big motivation for me getting the 360 when it came out. Windows 8 didn't come with Blu-ray support either. That's something that really bothered me when that bit of news was announced. Getting Media Center on Windows 8 (now at an additional cost) doesn't even add it (another bit of news that ticked me off).

   Observers might also notice that Microsoft doesn't put a whole lot of effort into gaming on PC either. While there's Xbox Live on Windows, it's hardly mainstream. I looked up a number of recently released PC games in the Windows 8 app market and couldn't find any. For big titles, one has to go with Steam. They're just not there in the Marketplace. Even the ever hated Origin from EA seems to have a larger presence than Xbox Live. That's sad. However when it comes to consoles, Microsoft seems to sell more in the US than anyone else on regular basis.

   So it seems it's just too late to save the desktop PC. It will linger. There will be people who demand more power than anyone can shove into a laptop for the same price. Businesses that have a large number of computers will probably keep them around because they're easier and cheaper to repair. There will be people like me who want to have control over every component that goes into their machines. However, in a few years, expect that aisle at Best Buy to disappear. Unlike Andy and Woody, most consumers are just going to leave the desktop in the past.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Microsoft Surface with Windows RT: Review

   When Microsoft decided to enter the tablet market, they tried to keep it secret, but everyone expected them to announce a tablet. However, what they didn’t expect was Surface, a product with a recycled name, ultra-thin profile, keyboard attachment, and two different flavors (one running Windows RT and one running Windows 8). But how does Microsoft’s first trip into making tablets, Surface with Windows RT (Surface RT), compare to the other options out there?



   When Surface came out, some commented that the display isn’t as high of resolution as the latest products from Apple. However, the display, running at 1366X768 is bright, rich, and beautiful. Using ClearType, text is easy to read. Video looks brilliant. Colors pop when they need to, images are well defined. Video works very well. Given the resolution, it is an HD display and it is a beautiful one. At 10.6”, Surface RT offers plenty of viewing space for a tablet. For those looking for a little extra viewing space, Surface comes with HD video out. With a separately sold adapter, it can be connected to a television, projector, whatever one needs. It would be nice if the port was a bit more universal, but then in order to keep the profile of the device thin (.37”), that would be tough to do.

   Side by side, the display on other tablets such as the latest iPad can appear to be better, but not by much. People who are familiar with both devices would have a hard time identifying the tablet by just seeing a video playing on one device. The Surface display leaves little to nothing to be desired. Any increase to the price to improve the display wouldn’t be worth it.



   Microsoft hit the ball out of the park when it comes to the exterior of the Surface. The VaporMg casing is solid. It’s softer than metal so it doesn’t feel like an industrial machine, but more solid than plastic so it feels like it could last the test of time.

   The kickstand is excellent. It doesn’t have the feel of a luxury car door opening and closing like some have said. However, it is extremely useful. It seems like it should be standard on all tablets. It doesn’t matter where someone is or what they brought. Surface RT can be set up anywhere, allowing you to simply sit back and enjoy. The only drawback to the kickstand is that the notch to open it is only on one side. There have been times when I happen to be holding the tablet in my left hand and try opening it with my right. Doesn’t work too well. If it is to be on one side, I would think the right would be better. I’m not the only right handed person out there and I hold a tablet in my left hand so I can use my right to poke at the touch screen. However, if you’re left handed, you may find Surface to be a bit friendlier to you in that regard.

   While the hinge for the kickstand doesn’t have the same luxury car door thunk as some have said, the click for connecting a TouchCover or TypeCover does. The magnetic bond is great. It does have a very satisfying sound when connecting. And, yes, the connection is strong enough that one can hold on to just the cover and the tablet will hold on. We’ll have more on the covers in another review.

   I’ve mentioned the video port, but there’s another port right next to it. Surface provides a full sized USB port. This allows users to connect just about anything out there. Obviously, one can connect a USB flash drive to increase their storage or to share files, but it goes beyond that. If you find the cost of the TouchCover to be a bit too much, it can be used to connect a keyboard, mouse, etc. Microsoft lists over 1000 printers that will work with Surface (So your printer has a good chance of working with it). There are external hard drives, headsets, cameras, the list goes on. This opens up Surface RT to be more flexible and capable of doing more than just about any other tablet out there. It can even be used to charge your cell phone. Try doing that with other tablets.

   Surface RT also features a microSDXC port hidden behind the kickstand. This gives users the ability to expand their storage for a fairly good price. More on the microSDXC later.

   On the right side, there’s also the charging connector. The charger connects using magnets and has a small light on it to let the user know that the connection has been made. It’s a small, touch, but a nice one.



   Surface RT has two cameras where you would expect them. There’s one on the front and one on the back. Compared to the wide world of cameras, the cameras on Surface leave a lot to be desired. I would never dream of using the cameras on Surface to take snapshots of a vacation. That would be a terrible idea.

   But then I don’t believe that was the main purpose in mind when Microsoft selected these cameras. They do make quality cameras for things such as Skype. So for that video call to a loved one who lives far away or for a video conference, the cameras are great. And besides, anyone who really cares about quality images has a digital camera or a smartphone with a quality camera on it. With the microSDXC slot on the Surface, those who want great pictures on their tablets can take them on their digital point-and-shoot or DSLR and take the card and put them on their Surface using the microSDXC port. From there, they can be uploaded to Facebook, Twitter, or other sites.

   So while the cameras leave something to be desired, it’s not a huge loss. That is unless you don’t own a digital camera or a smartphone with a quality camera.

   A quick and easy fix for those looking for better cameras on their tablet would be for Microsoft to create drivers to allow some of their higher end web cameras to connect with Surface. However, there is currently little to no support. I would almost prefer this fix as opposed to better cameras on the device because it really does make the sky the limit and doesn’t require a price increase on the device for those who would never use the cameras or barely use them.


Operating System

   Surface RT runs Windows RT, a version of Windows designed to run on chips such as the NVIDIA Tegra 3 found in the Surface RT compared to Windows 8 which runs on x86 processors from AMD and Intel. Windows RT is to Windows 8 as iOS is to Mac OS.

   So what does this mean to users? Unlike iOS, Windows RT is almost identical to its x86 brother. This helps limit, if not eliminate, any learning curve for those familiar with Windows 8. It’s an extremely pleasant experience firing up a new device using an operating system you’ve never used, and you know exactly how to run it. The downside is that it has the potential to create some confusion. But the name is different, anyone who does minor research will know the difference. Given the price of a tablet, hopefully consumers do their homework before buying anything. 

   What are those differences? The main thing that consumers will deal with is that all the software designed for Windows 7 won’t run on Windows RT. Surface RT won’t run Photoshop or Counter Strike. It will run apps available in the online store or already on the device. It also comes with a host of programs including simple email, calendar, and messaging apps, Internet Explorer (both a version when in desktop mode and a more “Don’t call it Metro” touch friendly version), SkyDrive for accessing the cloud, and a Bing app. The biggest and most notable addition is Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote). That’s something not included in Windows 8 and brings great value to Surface RT.

   There are a few other additions that surprised me. Microsoft Paint is there and there’s even command prompt and NotePad. Windows Explorer is there for moving files. There is no Windows Media Player (although the device has other programs for listening to music or playing videos). However, that was about the only application that’s really noticeably missing.

   Some have made negative comments regarding the inclusion of the Windows desktop in Windows RT. The main critique is that it’s not very finger friendly. That’s very true. But then this isn’t an iPad. There are other ways to interact with the device. There are the TouchCovers and there is that USB port for connecting other input devices. Is everyone going to have these all the time? No. But then failure to include desktop for that reason would annoy me as much as when my elementary teachers would say “If you didn’t bring enough for everyone, then you can’t have it in class.” This isn’t the Soviet Union. To deny some a bit of functionality because some will never use it is silly. The desktop is not essential to use the device. It’s more of an extra. And it’s a welcomed addition.

   The platform is lacking in a number of big name apps. Which apps are missing that you might find important will vary from user to user. Only start screen friendly apps will work (outside the ones Microsoft includes). The apps that are missing that bother me aren’t really available on any tablet platform. There’s no Visual Studio (it would be nice to write and edit code on the go and then compile it later on my Windows desktop). Steam doesn’t work on it. Adobe Premiere doesn’t work. I can’t put Zune on it (leave me alone. I love the Zune desktop software and I don’t care who knows it).

   There were a few surprises when I fired up Windows RT. A lot of my desktop computer’s settings were brought over. The background image from my desktop was automatically there. The picture I use for my lock screen was automatically brought over. And these aren’t images that came with either OS. Using my LiveID/Windows ID/ whatever Microsoft is calling their account program these days, it automatically brought over a number of settings. It helps the device feel more personal and saved me the time of setting up the device. The biggest cross-over surprise was the fact that Internet Explorer brought over my frequently viewed sites and favorites. This saved me the trouble of rebuilding my favorite list on the tablet.

   Speaking of Internet Explorer, it works pretty well. It’s pretty much what one would expect from the Internet Explorer on their computer (Unless it’s an older version from when Internet Explorer stunk like a skunk). I’ve heard of some websites not running as advertised, but they’re few and far between. YouTube works. Hulu functions pretty well. Flash seem to work well. No promises that you won’t run into any sites that don’t work perfectly, but they’re few and far between.



   Surface RT comes with a 31.5 W-h battery. In my experience, this is enough to power the device for three days of moderate use and stand by time. How much the device is used and what it’s used for will impact the battery life, but I’ve found the battery life to be better than the average laptop. For those looking to replace their laptop with a tablet, that’s a big plus.



   Surface RT leaves a bit to be desired at first glance when it comes to storage. It comes in 32GB and 64GB flavors, but a portion of that is taken up by the operating system itself and the applications, including Office. The 32GB model has about 16GB of free space. It may leave a bit too little for some. However, unlike many other tablets, there’s other ways to get more storage than to buy the larger model. First, we have SkyDrive. I keep most of my Office documents on SkyDrive so they don’t take up space on the Surface and also so I can access them on my desktop and Windows Phone.

   There’s also the USB port. One can load up movies, pictures, and music on a flash drive, plug it in, and go.

   We also have the microSDXC card slot. For about $70, one could add a 64GB microSDXC card and instantly expand the amount of storage on the device. It costs $100 to go from a 32GB iPad to a 64GB iPad. For $30 less, a Surface can increase its storage size by twice as much and it can be done at any time, not just the point of purchase. That’s extra nice if you’re new to tablets and not exactly sure how much storage space you’ll need.

   I’ve also found a fourth way to increase the storage space of the Surface: Networked drives. I can set my larger hard drive on my desktop computer that I use for media as a network drive and easily get to it from my Surface. That added 1 TB of storage to my Surface, at least when I’m at home. It does make it nice when I want to share a video or something of that sort with someone in the household as I don’t have to drag them to my computer. If you’re going to do this, make sure you’ve secured your wireless network. The last thing anyone needs is their neighbor snooping around their files.


Who would benefit from Surface?

   Surface is great for a wide audience. I could see this being THE device for a college student. With Office preloaded, the ability to use flash drives, printers, and the cloud to share and print documents, a compact form factor, the ability to connect a keyboard, and an almost fully functional web browser, it’s a great device for students. The fact that the operating system is familiar means those that aren’t tech savvy will feel comfortable. Movie lovers will benefit from the fact that the display is great and can be connected to a larger screen. Those just looking for a computer to do some basic work will enjoy Surface.

   The only crowd that should possibly consider another tablet is the crowd that’s heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem. There’s no support for iCloud, it loses that level of familiarity if you’re used to Mac OS and iOS, and it might require the repurchase of some apps that you regularly use.



   The thing that amazed me most about Surface RT is how complete it happens to be. It looks and feels like Windows 8 to the point where it’s hard to tell it’s not Windows 8. Microsoft didn’t limit the OS based on the fact that not everyone would be using it with a TouchCover/TypeCover or mouse and keyboard all the time. That means it has functionality that other tablets who limit themselves will never have. The same goes for the fact that they included so many ports. There aren’t many tablets out there that I could also use to charge my cell phone or install a microSDXC card.

   Sure, Microsoft ruffled some feathers when they decided to release Surface. Acer CEO JT Wang said it would hurt the ecosystem and said that it’s something that Microsoft has never been good at (but then Acer’s never been great at building computers either). But this is a beautiful device. It’s a solid device. The other companies out there that make Windows computers should take a few pages out of the Surface playbook. Microsoft didn’t use cheap materials or cut a bunch of corners. If all desktop computers were built with the care and attention to detail that was applied to Surface RT, I wouldn't feel the need to build my own.

   If nothing else, Microsoft has changed the game when it comes to Windows computers. Many say that Apple products have better quality. Surface RT makes most Apple products look like children’s toys. I’ve been waiting for a Windows tablet of this quality. Previous tablets running Windows left plenty to be desired. Windows RT brings the operating system to the point where it feels like it’s in the right environment on a tablet. The build of the tablet is the perfect mate for the OS. Wang said Microsoft has never been good at this sort of thing. Well, if they weren’t before, they are now.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Understanding Microsoft's Surface Pro

 Microsoft has confirmed pricing, release date, and specs for their upcoming Surface Pro. It starts at about $900 for a 64GB of storage and you'll be able to get one in January. It runs an Intel i5, 4GB RAM, Windows 8 Pro, and all in a body slightly larger than the Surface RT. However, the product has been met with some early criticism.
   Part of the negative comments have centered around the lack of battery life. Microsoft has said that the battery life is about half of that of the Surface RT. That puts it at about four hours. That leaves something to be desired. Between that and the fact that it has Intel HD Graphics 4000, it falls short of perfect. These two issues are potentially being addressed with the next iteration as rumors are afoot that the next version will run an AMD APU. That would potentially improve battery life and improve graphic performance. But that's all speculation and neither here nor there.
   Another part of the less-than-loving comments center around the price. Sure, compared to other tablets, it's a bit pricey. A 64GB iPad costs $700, a 64GB Surface RT with a TouchCover costs $700, and Android tablets go for a few hundred dollars. That puts Surface Pro hundreds of dollars above just about anything else out there. When I posted on my Facebook about the announced price and specifications, I received comments such as "899 might as well not sell it" and "HOW much?!? What are they thinking?" And from a quick glance, they're right. However, anyone who's paid significant attention to the cycles of technology sees that it's actually quite different. With Apple's move to the iPad Mini and Microsoft's move with the Surface Pro, it becomes clear that one of these companies has been taking notes and the other is just looking for a quick sell.
   I remember the first time I saw a laptop. It was in the early 1990's and was a work computer for my dad. It ran an Intel 386 processor. It had a black and white screen and I could see the pixels fade in and out as they turned on and off. It could do very little. Back then all I cared about playing games and the device couldn't do that. It just didn't have the power needed. The blank and white screen and poor sound didn't help.
   Regardless of the price, that device had no hope of replacing the desktop computer we had. It simply couldn't do everything our family computer could do. It couldn't play CDs. It didn't run a lot of the programs that my parents used or at least didn't run them as well. I couldn't play the games I had.
   Laptops had a purpose though. People needed to be able to do work on the go. Carting a desktop computer around just wasn't feasible. So some people had both.
   But now, laptops can do pretty much anything desktop computers can do. I'm typing this post on a desktop computer and there's no reason I couldn't do it on a laptop. Every single program I run (Steam, Zune, Office, Media Center, Premiere Elements, etc.) runs on a lot of the laptops out there.
   And this transition has had an impact on our purchasing. Look at a Best Buy and they give laptops plenty of floor space and a place where they can be seen by everyone just walking by. At my local Best Buy, desktops are given space on a single shelf and hidden in a aisle between the laptops and the accessories. When I have people ask me about their next computer, they always ask for a laptop. I almost never get someone asking me about a desktop unless it's an old device they have that needs fixed. If they could replace it, they'd get a laptop instead.

   I'm seeing something similar now with tablets. Very few have completely given up their laptops and are living just on tablets. The most popular tablet, the iPad, syncs with your computer via iTunes. It's more or less dependent on a regular computer. On top of that, all iOS, Android, and Windows RT tablets lack the ability to run a lot of the programs we use on our desktops. None of them can run Adobe Premiere or Photoshop. Good luck playing a game of CounterStrike on most tablets. Office? Outside Windows RT that's something that people still need their laptop for. So despite how much some thing their tablet replaces their laptop, it simply can't.
   That is unless it's a Surface Pro or similar Windows 8 x86 tablet. This actually can replace a laptop. This is something that runs all the Windows apps we use regularly (assuming the system requirements don't exceed the specs of the Surface Pro). The hardware combined with the finger friendly nature of Windows 8 (a finger friendly nature was what held Windows 7 tablets back) makes for a tablet that can do it all.
   Surface Pro is the logical next step in computing. When computers first started, they were large. The idea of having one on a desk was silly. They then progressed to something we have on our desk, but they were bulky and lacked any sort of mobility. We eventually got laptops, but their lack of functionality kept them from hitting it big. That is until the line between the capabilities of laptops and desktops disappeared. And while tablets are popular, they still leave all of their owners that also have a laptop with the fact that they can't do it all. Anyone with a Surface Pro won't have the deal with that. The moment they buy one, they can put their laptop up on sale on eBay. People with iPads can't do that. They'll still need their laptop.
   To the people who made negative comments about the price on my Facebook (and I know of at least one of them who owns a laptop and a tablet), I pointed out something interesting about Surface Pro. A laptop with similar specs runs for about $600. A Windows RT tablet with 64GB of storage and a TouchCover costs $700. For $1000, a person can have something that can do everything the tablet can do (with exception to battery life) as well as everything the laptop can do. That's a savings of $300. That makes it a pretty good deal.
   Will Surface Pro fly off the shelves at Microsoft Stores when it comes out? No. There will probably be a number of them waiting to be bought. Between the battery life and the questionable decision regarding Intel graphics, it leaves something to be desired. It will also take people time to realize the benefit of Surface Pro's design. Many will just look at it and see a really expensive tablet. Until they're educated on why it's worth that price, they'll continue to buy iPads. But perhaps with Microsoft's next Surface Pro, they'll get the battery life higher, get some respectable graphics in it, and have consumers educated. Until that's done, Surface Pro will probably be viewed as personal computers were by the general public in the early days of Gates and Jobs starting their businesses... just a hobby toy that will never have mass appeal. However after people see the value of such a device, Apple's decision to make a smaller tablet that offers less practical functionality will leave people asking "Why in the world did they do that?"

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Using Smartglass in Education

I've more or less neglected this blog. I've started writing app reviews over at I've also been doing a little political commentary here and there which hasn't left too much time for this.

However, a question asked via Twitter has gotten the gears turning regarding the recently announced Microsoft SmartGlass. SmartGlass, in an overly simplified explanation, allows your phone, PC/tablet, and Xbox console to work together in new ways. Your tablet or phone can provide new information regarding a program you're watching or a game you're playing. In the demo Microsoft gave during their E3 event, they showed the potential ability to draw up or select plays for Madden on your tablet. While the presentation got me thinking about the old VMU for the Sega Dreamcast as well as Windows Media Center Extender functionality, it's a technology I would love to see applied to education (the question asked on Twitter was how we'd like to see this new tech applied to the classroom). It also got me wanting a Windows 8 tablet even more. But that's another story.

I should note that all of my suggestions here revolve around the hardware setup I usually have in a classroom. I have a teacher computer hooked up to a projector via a VGA cable. Sometimes the computer's in the front of the room while other times it's in the back. Given the time I've spent in other schools, I get the feeling that this is a very popular setup.

My first thought was to control PowerPoint presentations. Often, when I'm lecturing, I use PowerPoint to help the kids know what notes they need to take and also help break up the lecture with fun pictures and short videos when I can (making it better than the overheads I saw so many times as a student).

Sure, there are wireless PowerPoint controllers, but they're very limited. I can't have notes I want just for myself as I give the lecture appear on that little remote. However, I would love for them to appear on my phone (which I already have, saving me the cost of buying the remote) or Windows 8 tablet (which is just a matter of time until I buy one because of a list of reasons far to long to include here). I imagine that's a feature more industries than just education could use.

I can't edit my presentation very easily on the fly if I think of something during the presentation that I'd like to add. So many times I have a student ask a question or make a comment that makes me think of an article I had read, a way to add more clarification, or something along those lines. I still have to go back to my computer (which may disrupt the flow of things) if I want to have it added in. It'd be a great time saver if I could just inject that right into the PowerPoint from where I'm giving the lecture without disrupting what's up at the moment as some students may still be taking notes on the current slide. I'd love to be able to build a new slide into the presentation or load up an article from the web without changing what the students are currently seeing.

Every so often I like to play review games with the kids the day before a test. They're stress-free and help students take note of what they know and what they don't know. I could see a whole new world of review games open up using SmartGlass. A common review game is Jeopardy. With SmartGlass, the board could be shown to the students while the teacher can control it using a tablet or phone. The teacher could also be shown the answer to the question without the students seeing it. Of course this could go beyond just Jeopardy as game developers could build all sorts of review games that take advantage of SmartGlass.

Even beyond games, there are a lot of possibilities for apps using this technology. Being a government teacher, I would love to have a program that has the US Constitution and, via a tablet or phone, I can click on a clause and bring up relevant information and court cases and then choose to share that information to the main screen for students.

In schools where students all have access to a tablet or laptop (I know my school district is considering going in the 1-to-1 direction), this could help make days where students watch a documentary become something that's interactive. In a history class, as the documentary discusses the bombing of Pearl Harbor, students could look at pictures from the event. As a documentary talks about the Battle of Gettysburg, images of the weapons used in the battle could be shown on the tablet. It's very much based on the same concept shown during the E3 presentation, but taking it in more of an academic direction.

Now let's combine this with the PowerPoint idea I gave earlier. I would love to be able to set some assets during the lecture to be available on student devices. Let's say I'm giving a lecture on the Revolutionary War. It would be nice if students had the option to bring up an interactive map of the progress of the British from Lexington over to Concord while I'm talking about that without disrupting the PowerPoint slide that others may still be looking at. That way, those that are still taking notes can do so and those that are done with the slide can get even more from the lecture I'm already delivering.

The application of this technology doesn't even have to be very fancy. It could be just allowing a tablet to completely control a PC or, through a PC connected to a projector, display what's on the tablet. I know that there are ways to do this already, but the method can be something that many of today's educators find to be too complicated. Also, I've yet to find a way to control anything other than my Xbox using my Windows Phone. At E3, Microsoft demonstrated driving Internet Explorer on the XBox using a Windows Phone. Allow us to drive a PC in a similar fashion via phone or tablet. This would allow a teacher to walk around the room and control whatever it is that they're doing (writing code in a Computer Science class, going through an e-book in an English class, etc) without being tied down to a unit physically connected to a projector. This could be a huge benefit to teachers as it's hard for them to monitor students and make sure they're doing what they're supposed to be doing if they're tied to a single location.

The beauty of this approach is that it allows teachers to do what they want with what they know. They don't have to find all sorts of software packages they can bring to the classroom. They don't have to learn a bunch of tricks. They can take what they know and have more freedom in the classroom. It also allows them to accomplish this goal without investing in any new hardware.

Speaking of making sure kids are doing what they're supposed to, some computer classrooms use software that allows the teacher to look at a student's screen to help make sure they're doing the work and not tweeting. Again, either by using a new app or via the app already on their desktop machine, the teacher could accomplish this task without sitting at their computer.

The beauty of SmartGlass in the classroom is very simple. It would require minimal investment from IT departments while allowing teachers to use the technology they already have, be it a Windows Phone, an Android device, or an iOS device. It also opens up a whole new market of applications for the classroom. Given that it wouldn't require much investment from the schools, that means that they might be able to put more of their budget towards software that takes advantage of it.

In order for this all to come together, I imagine it will require efforts not only from Microsoft in the fields of development and education, but also from software developers as well as potentially text book publishers. Given that there are so many teaching styles and methods, the sky's the limit on the application of SmartGlass in education.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Getting to know Twitter

I've noticed a lot of new people getting in on the world of Twitter. It seems like now would be a good time to fill people in on what this new(ish) tool is and how it can be a benefit to them.

I first got on Twitter in 2008 and I had a lot of people asking me "What's Twitter?" Well, in short, it's a microblogging service that allows users to post short, 140 character messages. That really fails to capture the scope of Twitter. But then think about any tool in a toolbox. What's a screwdriver? It's a stick with a flat head and a handle? What's a hammer. It's a stick with a hard piece of metal on one end. Understanding the value of any tool is in understanding its application.

So why get on Twitter?

I've come to use Twitter for a wide variety of things. Using a program called TweetDeck on my PC, I have a constant stream of information flowing to me when I'm at my computer. By subscribing to certain people/accounts (this subscribing is called "following"), I am constantly alerted to all sorts of news, ideas, and comments. I follow a number of politicians and political commentators so I'm immediately alerted if there's something happening in the world of government that I should know about. I follow fellow Windows Phone MVPs and tech blogs so I hear about news regarding that world. I follow a few of my friends so I can find out what's on their mind. To top it off, I follow a celebrity or two who seems to have interesting things to share with their followers.

The beauty of all of this is I don't have to go from website to website to find out all of this information. I also don't have to wait for long write-ups to be put together. I just saw a tweet saying that President Obama has signed the debt ceiling bill. That's all I need to know. I don't need a big, long story featuring quotes from this person or that person. If I care what someone has to say about that news story, I'll follow them and see it in their posts.

To get informed, I just scroll though the posts by the people I follow on Twitter and I know the basics of everything. It's quick and efficient.

How do I get in on all this awesomeness?

So now that I've given a basic rundown of Twitter, let me fill you in on how to take full advantage of it. The first step is setting up an account. This is free and easy to do by going to When you're doing that, think carefully about what you'll make your username. It helps to make it something simple to remember. Why? It makes it easier to share. If you run into your cousin out on the golf course and want to share with them your username, it's going to be easier for him/her to remember it when they get back if it's something simple. I use Dan12R. Even that's more complicated than I recommend, but I've got a long story behind that one.

OK... now what?

After setting up your account and picking an easy to remember username, now you need to find people to follow. To start, consider the websites you visit the most (besides Facebook). I tend to frequent,, and So you can be sure I'm following them on Twitter. Any time they post a big story, they share it on Twitter so I know to go to their website and check out the story (assuming it's something that interests me).You can usually find a link to the website's Twitter feed somewhere on their front page.

Once you've found a couple websites to follow, consider companies you do business with frequently. I recommend your cell phone carrier, television content provider (cable/satellite), and any business that provides support for products you use today. The reason I recommend this is that it will help you get information if there's an interruption of service and sometimes I have more success getting tech support from a Twitter account than I do with a 1-800 number. Some companies actually have accounts just for supporting their products via Twitter. For example, Microsoft has a number of Twitter accounts for support including Zune, Xbox, and Windows Phone.

Covering these two areas will help make Twitter a powerful tool that keeps you up to date. But then it helps if it's a fun tool as well. Consider hobbies and interests that you have and start looking for Twitter accounts related to those. Being a conservative political junkie, I find a number of entertaining tweets from the likes of Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Jedediah Bila, and Adam Baldwin (this one also is entertaining being a fan of the shows Chuck and Firefly).

As you build up your list of people you're following on Twitter, you'll learn that it leads to discoveries of new people to follow. While I only have a handful of people listed here, following these people has lead to me discovering new people to follow on Twitter because they mention someone else in one of their posts or they happen to be following someone that I think might be interesting to follow.

One last thing about following people on Twitter. In order to help users out, Twitter will at time verify an account to make sure it's run by the person who says it is. If you wanted to follow your favorite celebrity or sports personality, it would be nice to know that it is indeed that individual and not some random person. You can see if an account is verified by going to that account and looking at the name on the account. If there's a white check-mark in a light blue circular shape (it kind of looks like a badge), then you can be sure the account is run by who it says it is. Now, just because there isn't the symbol telling you it's a verified account it doesn't mean it's not run by who it says it is. It just means that Twitter hasn't verified it themselves. The best way to check if this is the case is to find a website or other source of information about the individual and see if they have a Twitter account listed there.

Tell me about all that l33t hacxzor speek!

Now that you're set on Twitter and you've got a stream of information flowing in, it's good to understand some of the lingo. It's fairly simple compared to some of the terminology out there in the tech world (if you can't read the headline for this section of the write-up, don't feel bad. Most can't). I've already mentioned following which is subscribing to the Twitter feed of another user. There are a few others that it's good to know:

Tweet- (n) a post on Twitter. Ex. "I saw a tweet mentioning that topic." (v) the act of posting a tweet. Ex. "Why don't you tweet about it if you love it so much."

Mention- If I mention someone on Twitter I may adjust my tweet in a certain way. If I mention Xbox Live's Major Nelson in a tweet, I will use the "@" symbol followed by his Twitter username so my tweet would look something like "Great podcast this week from @Majornelson."

Retweet- posting a tweet that someone else posted. For example, if I see something someone I'm following tweeted and I think it would be of interest to those following me, I'll retweet it, giving credit to the original author. Retweets usually start with the letters "RT" followed by a mention of the original author. A retweet of a tweet I posted would start off with "RT @Dan12R" followed by what I tweeted. If the original tweet is short enough, you can also add in your comment to the original tweet.

Hashtag- Twitter provides opportunities for people to find out what individuals are saying about a particular topic. In order to help others find tweets related to a certain topic, they'll include a hashtag. This is composed of the "#" symbol right in front of word(s) that are connected to the topic. For example, if I'm posting a tweet about the MSI WindPad 110W, I might hashtag the word "WindPad." In my tweet, it will appear as "#WindPad"

Hashtagging also plays a role in a number of Twitter games. On May 4th in celebration of Star Wars Day, people were using the hashtag #replaceawordinastarwarslinewithpants On this day in Twitter history, people replaced a word in a line from a Star Wars movie with the word pants. People that wanted to follow the creativity that this lead to simply searched that hashtag and could see all the posts related to it. You'll notice that it's all one word. A hashtag doesn't recognize spaces. As you dive into Twitter, you'll find more and more examples of these. They tend to come and go rather quickly.

Anything else?

Now that you're familiar with Twitter and all the lingo, it's good to start finding applications to help out your Twitter experience. I recommend finding one for your PC as well as your smartphone. Twitter has an official application for just about every smartphone platform out there. However, these apps aren't the most robust and you may find that you like a different one made by a 3rd party. Personally, I do use the official Twitter app for Windows Phone. It gets the job done for me. I do run a number of Twitter accounts (one for a radio station I'm involved with and one for my church) and the app isn't very good for that, but I'm mainly using my personal account so it's not too bad. I suggest exploring what's available to you. It's best to find an app that's easy for you to use and has the features you are looking for. Your taste in Twitter apps will become more defined the more you use Twitter.

So that's Twitter in a nutshell. It's interesting that I can write so much about a service that only allows for comments that are 140 characters in the length. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them. Also, share who you're following that you find interesting and which Twitter apps you find that you enjoy.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Internet options coming to rural areas

The IEEE has recently announced a new standard called IEEE 802.22. Now that might be a lot of crazy letters and numbers for many out there, so let's break down what it means to the typical consumer.

802.22 will allow for the creation of Wireless Regional Area Networks (WRANs) using UHF and VHF analog TV signals (remember when we made the switch from analog TV to digital TV a few years back? This would take advantage of these abandoned signals. Using a transmitter, areas in the ballpark of 100km (a hair over 62 miles) from the transmitter could get broadband internet coverage.

The benefit of this technology is that people who live in areas with lower populations might be able to get broadband internet options beyond satellite. Having heard from a number of satellite customers, it seems like this could be a welcomed option.

Real world performance remains to be seen, but the IEEE is suggesting that this standard will allow for up to 22Mbps per channel.

While this news is probably most appealing to those in rural areas, there's also the chance that this technology could flow over to urban and suburban areas, giving them choices beyond the usual cable or DSL (hooray competition!)

We'll keep an eye on this as it rolls out. Once it starts showing up around the country, you might want to be on the lookout for it showing up in your neighborhood.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The purpose and scope of this blog

As I've been developing this blog, I've had to consider what my target audience would be. Who did I want to reach? The very tech savvy people have a load of sites to consider. However, a lot of what's put on those blogs isn't very friendly to a person who's starting to dip their toes into the world of technology.

Jumping in at this point can be daunting. The industry has been around for some time and it's changing faster than ever before. Jumping in at this point is like jumping into a movie when it's half over and the biggest plot twist is about to take place. It's like jumping into the show Lost during the middle of the 4th season. It's not exactly the easiest thing to pick up.

I noticed a bit of a hole out there. There's not much to help everyone else catch up to what those who have been in this market forever are at in their level of understanding.

The efforts to help this segment out manifest themselves in a few ways. First off, there are a lot of topics I won't bother bringing up. For example, there are dozens of rumors out there about products and features that might be coming to market. The information behind these rumors is quite often rather technical and would confuse the target audience more than help them.

Another way it manifests is that because my target audience isn't exactly the kind that's probably in to checking the tech blogs every 5 minutes and they probably don't want to spend forever reading things about technology. So I'm not posting stories every 5 minutes (however, I do tend to get long winded every so often). It's probably closer to an average of once a week. When I find an interesting topic for those getting into technology, I'll post it.

I figured I would share these thoughts because it has been a while since I've posted anything. But then, it hasn't been the most new worthy couple of weeks. There are a few things I'll be sharing in the next few weeks and months that you can look forward to:

-Mango has just been announced to being released to manufacturers. What that means for the average Joe is that this update to the Windows Phone operating system is one step closer to hitting devices in your pocket and on store shelves. Once I get my hands on it, I'll be sure to share with you what it means for those looking at getting a smartphone.

-I'm still hoping to get my hands on one of the newer Windows 7 tablets to really get an understanding of how well the OS and devices work compared to the more well known tablets out there.

-I'll still be looking for apps and services that help improve the mobile experience.

-In the next few weeks and months, I'm looking at presenting mini tech projects for those who do want a better handle on technology. They won't be designed to make you an expert in any field. They'll hopefully help you just understand the technology out there so if you do find something that really excites you, you'll be better prepared to dive even further into it. In fact, if there's something in particular you would like to understand better, feel free to let me know in the comments.

Nobody's going to become the next great programmer or be able to start their own computer repair service based on what's shared on this blog. The hope is that you'll be more self sufficient with technology if you check in here every so often.

 So happy... um... computing??? I guess that's the best word. I hope that this blog ends up being a real helpful tool for those looking to get into this ever changing and ever exciting world of technology.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Plants vs. Zombies for Windows Phone Review

One of the last two entries in Microsoft's "Must Have Games" campaign was Plants Vs. Zombies. This entry from PopCap Games (makers of games such as Peggle and Bejeweled) is something that is best compared to a tower defense game. Players have to defend their home from wave after wave of zombies using various plants.

The game has quite a few positives and it's clear why it's so popular on a number of platforms. It's rather deep. There are dozens of plants to choose from that offer different advantages. These plants range from Sunflowers that produce resources (sunlight) to Cherry Bombs that help clear out enemies when they explode. There are also plenty of levels to keep you occupied (50 across a number of situations). There are also a number of mini-games and items to unlock. This isn't a game you'll finish in an afternoon. It will keep players occupied for some time.

The game really only has one big drawback. A number of the levels seem very repetitive. After clearing the front yard in the day time, players will have to do essentially the same thing at night. It creates a few different challenges, but nothing major. The zombies still roll in the same way and players only have to make a few minor changes to their strategy. Another example of this repetitive nature is after clearing the backyard at night, players have to clear the backyard at night... with fog covering half of the screen. Really? And it's not just one level with this new addition, it's a number of them. After clearing a location the first couple of times, players pretty well have their strategy figured out and it's just annoying to do essentially the same thing... again... again... and again. But if players are just looking to kill time, this doesn't get too annoying.

There are a couple other minor drawbacks. It would be nice if the zombies were a bit more varied. PopCap lists there being 26 different zombies in the game's description, but some of them are repetitive. For example, there's the zombie with a traffic cone on his head and the zombie with a bucket on his head. They're exactly the same, but the zombie with the bucket takes a bit more to take down. There's the pole-vaulting zombie which can clear the first barrier in its way and there's the zombie on a dolphin which can do the same... but in water.

The player options seem limited. There are 49 different plants, but players can only choose a few of them for any given level and, even then, the yard isn't that large. Most plants will be never used by most players. I found I would stick with about 3 plants I used every time and then I filled up the remaining slots to meet the needs of the given map. Since zombies don't depart from their straight approach, players will probably just recreate what they plant in each horizontal line with minor changes. Maybe for the sequel, players will get to defend their home from zombies that don't move in a straight line and are crossing a large field instead of a small suburban yard. 

Overall, it's a solid mobile game. The controls are very simple. The graphics are charming. The game is rather deep, even if it does leave plenty to be desired. Since it's an Xbox Live title, the game also offers achievements and the ability to compare your performance with your friends. For $5, it's not a bad value. Like all Xbox Live titles, there's a trial option so people can give it a go before buying it. That's probably the best approach to go with. If you don't enjoy the sample, then the repetitive nature of the game will really present a problem.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Garmin StreetPilot available for Windows Phone

Garmin has officially released StreetPilot for Windows Phone consumers. The app, based on what people find on the Garmin Nuvi series, gives consumers the opportunity to use their phone for turn-by-turn navigation. The app includes voice directions with street names, the ability to download maps prior to setting off (helpful in case you'll find yourself in a place with no reception), and access to your address book. The app runs for $40 (no trial version available) and can be downloaded here for those interested.

The timing of the app is rather interesting as many of these features are rumored to be coming with the Mango update in the fall. If you've been dieing for a good navigation program, this is probably your best bet. If you can wait until the fall to see what Mango offers, that might be a better course of action.