Outlook for iPad

Last month Microsoft released Outlook for iPad (based on Acompli, an app it has previously purchased). Since the company I work for uses Exchange 2013, I was able to take advantage of this and try it out. The interface is a breath of fresh air for anyone, like me who is stuck using Outlook 2013’s confusing and dated interface. My favourite feature is the ‘Focused’ inbox with automatically shows you a view of messages deemed important. Newsletters, alerts and other noise are quietly hidden away so you only get to see emails from real people. The ‘other’ inbox is only a swipe away, and the focused view is only that, a view; so it won’t have any effect on your desktop email view. This is surprisingly accurate and didn’t require much training. Replying and managing email is pleasant, with the ability to swipe to archive or flag email quickly.

Outside of the corporate word, the app supports Outlook.com, Gmail and other well-known email providers. I like to keep work and personal email separate, so I haven’t tried these.

 

Attachments

Another surprising feature of Outlook for iPad is the ability to connect to cloud services such as Dropbox and Google Drive 1. A lot of network administrators will loose sleep over this, but ultimately it’s a step forward – especially for users of Office 365 who will be able to access all of their ‘OneDrive for Business’ files and attach them to emails wherever they happen to be.

A week point however is the lack of a system extension, so it’s not possible to share a link from Safari to Outlook, or send and document directly from Word for iPad. I’m sure this is on the way, but I do think it should have been included in the initial version.

 

Calendar

The calendar seems quite basic. It doesn’t seem to do a great job of letting me see other invitees ‘free/busy’ information (the main benefit of using the desktop version of Outlook), but it’s serviceable for a version 1.0 release. It’s quite buggy, for example, I tried to update an appointment start and end date, but it just didn’t work. No crash, no error message, it just didn’t do anything. I’m sure Microsoft’s latest purchase, Sunrise indicates Microsoft is putting some thought into its calendaring strategy, and so major improvements should be on the way. I’m not sure about the unified app approach – I’ve always wished Outlook on the PC were separate applications instead of one big conglomerate (especially since it’s still full of model dialog boxes! I digress…) – separate apps seems especially fitting for iOS, and I can only think it’s a branding decision to go with one big ‘Outlook’ app on iOS.

 

Security Concerns?

The first release had no security requirements at all, so if your system administrator had mandated users have a passcode on their device, Outlook would ignore it. This has been resolved, though unfortunately it requires you set a PIN at a system level on the device, rather than just for the app (as had been the case with the pervious OWA app). I liked the fact I could have more lax security on my personal device (e.g. ‘Ask me for a PIN after 1 hour’) while the app could be much more strict (‘ask me for a pin after 5 minutes’) – this worked in the old OWA app, but not anymore; which is a major disappointment. Some system administrators might lament the fact the then app will store your emails on Amazon’s AWS servers (soon to be Azure, I have to believe), but it does allow the app to do lots of cloud processing that ultimately benefits users. The fact that Microsoft just released the app without any warning and a way to block the app is probably the bigger concern in my views, as I can understand organisations who have various security practises (ISO et al) not being very happy about being caught off-guard like this.

 

Conclusion

Overall, Outlook for iPad solidifies the iPad as a tool for business and makes me think that one day, many users will be able to use an iPad (or similar device) exclusively at work.

It’s missing some key features at the moment (you can’t set your ‘Out of Office’), but I’m certain they will come in time. The bigger question is whether tablet-devices will ever replace traditional PCs in the workplace. This is probably the subject of a future blog post, but with Outlook, Office and the cloud it’s becoming an increasing possibility. I personally use Outlook for iPad as more of a sidekick device than a laptop replacement, but then my job does involve using a lot of traditional desktop software such as Visual Studio, or macro-enabled spreadsheets. That said, for many enterprise users, an iPad with a decent hardware keyboard is now a viable alternative, if not for the small screen size.

 

 

 

1. Great to see Microsoft embracing interoperability, in contrast to Google, who refuse to support Windows Phone.

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Xbox One – Initial Thoughts

I was lucky enough to be bought an Xbox One for Christmas, so I thought I’d post some of my initial thoughts.

The games look amazing

I have one game (Forza 5) and at £50 a pop I will likely only have one game for many months to come. That said, together with the new controller that has vibration motors in each trigger (lets you feel feedback from the brakes), speeding around Circuit de la Sarthe has never felt so real. Whether it’s being blinded temporarily by the sun, or seeing a glimpse of the driver in the windscreen, it just feels so real.

The Interface is Confusing

While I wanted to love ‘Metro’ on the PC, after trying it for just over a month on my main development machine, I had to revert to using Start8 – it didn’t work out for me (loved it on the Surface RT, however) – so how does it stack up on the Xbox One? My view is that it could work, but the current execution isn’t great. On the main screen the positions of apps move about too often, so it’s impossible to remember where anything is. After a while I realised the tiles on the main screen amounted to a ‘recently used list’ the with exception of the left and right columns, which are fixed. There’s no visual differentiation, barley any visual hierarchy (the currently running app is the largest, everything else just looks like it was thrown in) and so it all gets rather confusing. To get to Settings for example, you have to go to ‘My Games & Apps’.

Apps for the sake of Apps

No device these days would be complete without an ‘App Store’ – however the Xbox One has taken this to extremes. For example, if you’re in a game and you get an achievement, in order to see the full details of that achievement you need to leave the current game and open another app (complete with an awful “splash screen” which makes the effect of leaving one app and going to another feel even slower), if the Xbox 360 could do this, surly the Xbox One should be able to? Another example of this was when browsing the video store, in order to view ‘TV Deals’ I had to install the Xbox Video app. It seems a bit ridiculous that this isn’t just built in.

Kinect is impressive if still work in progress

Having Kinect recognise you and automatically log you in is very clever. The speech recognition however is limited. Unlike Siri on an iPhone you need to keep to a precise syntax, and it’s not very forgiving. Say to Siri “Hello my friend, could please turn on the Bluetooth thingamajig” and it will turn on the Bluetooth radio. Ask your Xbox to “switch off” rather than “turn off” and it does nothing. I really hope this gets improved. That said it is still very useful, especially the “record that” function that lets you record the last 30 seconds of gameplay and share it online. I can’t imagine using the Xbox One without the Kinect plugged in, it just feels like work in progress still. I don’t have any Kinect games, so I can’t comment on how good it is for games, which I guess is its main purpose after all.

Everything is fast and fluid, it multitasks like a dream

The Xbox 360 despite being able to render Skyrim at a decent frame-rate was seemingly unable to load a simple system menu without a few seconds delay. Game updates would block the entire interface and it just felt very sluggish, The Xbox One however always feels snappy. Even mid game I was able to press the ‘home button’ and get straight back to the Start Screen, compete with a smooth transition and sound effect. Subsequently opening an app such as Skype or Internet Explorer was very quick. I was also able to install a demo from the store and keep playing. I hope it doesn’t slow down over time, but this fluidity will do a lot to tempt me to use the Xbox One rather than the Apple TV or Virgin TiVo box to access Netflix or rent movies etc

The best is yet to come

I hope (and predict) Microsoft will keep updating the Xbox One as they did with the 360. I’ve only used it for a couple of days so far and you can only fairly judge a a games console after many months of usage. Overall I’m very pleased with it, and look forward to more exciting releases.

24 Season 8

24 seasons a DVD cover

 

 

I've been a long time fan of the TV show '24' and back in April I finally got round to watching the final season, season 8 as it became available on Netflix. I've got the rest of the series on DVD but had been waiting for the price on iTunes to drop below £20 – so I was very thankful when all 8 seasons appeared on Netflix.

 

For those of you who don't know by now, the premise of the show is that it follows Jack Bauer a federal agent over 24 hours, in real time. I've never been disappointed by a season of 24, although by about season 6 it did seem like it was starting to repeat itself. Season 7 added something new to the mix by moving the show out of Los Angeles and into Washington and so I was quite looking forward to season 8. Spoiler alert: Seeing terrorists raid the Whitehouse was a truly shocking moment (especially for fans of 'The West Wing')

 

This time we get a day in New York City. It starts with Jack Bauer sitting at home with his Granddaughter. Quickly events unfold that require Jack to return to action. The first 10 – 16 hours of this show were good TV, very good. However the final 8 episodes were AMAZING TV, adrenaline filled suspense with just enough intelligence to pass itself off.

 

After I watched Homeland I feared I'd find 24 outdated, and in some respects it did – the over-the-top set design of CTU, the inevitable mole, the fact that dramatic events only ever seem to happen at 55 minutes past the hour – however I was very impressed with this season, and I'm so glad that 24 is to return for a 9th season, albeit for only 12 episodes. The last 5 minutes were almost tear-jerking.

 

So if you have Netflix, block out a week in your schedule and catchup on this brilliant show.

 

5 Must have mobile apps for Android

I thought I’d share with you some of the apps I use most often on my phone (a HTC desire S). Here are a few links to some “must have” apps (non-games).

Audible

I enjoy listening to Audiobooks while at the gym or driving, and this app makes it so easy. You can download any books you’ve purchased from Audible and the 30s rewind button and sleep timer are excellent additions. The ability to bookmark is also nice. Being owned by Amazon, I’m surprised your position and bookmarks are not backed up to the cloud (as they are when reading a book using the Kindle app) – so this means when I launch the app on my iPad I’m not in sync. Great app and great service.

Call Filter

I don’t like answering calls from anonymous callers – it’s usually someone trying to sell me something I don’t want. This handy little app silently sends anonymous incoming calls to voicemail, meaning anyone who does actually want to contact you can still leave a message for you to call back.

Dropbox

A while back I blogged about a rather convoluted way to mimic the excellent Photo Stream feature found on iOS on Android. That just got much easier thanks to the latest update to Dropbox which can now automatically synchronise photos and videos to your Dropbox account. No more plugging in your USB cable to download all your photos, and if you loose/wipe your phone your precious memories are safe.

IM+ Pro

A great chat application that lets me sign into MSN Messenger, Google Talk and Facebook all at once. The app cleverly maintains your sessions on their servers, and uses a highly efficient Push connection to keep you connected – meaning you can be signed into all your accounts and your battery won’t even notice. (Also well worth getting for iPad)

Dogcatcher

I love podcasts, and Dogcatcher is a great player for Android. I wouldn’t say it has the nicest User Experience I’ve ever seen, but functionality it has everything I could ask for from a mobile podcast player – including automatic downloading of new episodes (you can specify WiFi or Plugged in only). iPhone users should checkout Podcaster which provides similar functionality.

 

Hope you find this useful, let me know if you have any favourites.

My favourite music of 2010

Yes I know its nearly February but here’s what grabbed my attention the most last year (in no particular order).

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

The Suburbs

The Arcade Fire’s third album is one of those albums that sounds better as a whole that any single track. From the epic orchestral thumping of “Rococo” to the quiet introspection of “Wasted Hours” to the delightfully poppy “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” this collection of songs deserves your full attention while listening. While it probably is slightly too long, I couldn’t pick a song to drop and I’m glad they didn’t. There really is no filler on this album, a rarity indeed. Original,  catchy, melancholic this if my favourite album of the past 5 years, let alone 2010. It just hooks me every time, it has its rockier moments, it’s quiet moments but they all feel like one. The hallmark of a great album is one where your favourite track changes regularly, for now my favourite track is ‘We Used to Wait’ (checkout this amazing dynamic video) but in the past it has been Rococo, Deep Blue, Ready To Start (in fact they’ve all been a favourite at times). Brilliant.

Continue reading “My favourite music of 2010”

Gadget Review: Iomega NAS Media Server

I have a lot of media on my various computers, music, photos, videos and the like, but I’ve never found a satisfactory way of storing them all. My solution was to put them on my main laptop, which has a large hard disk, and then share the folders to my other laptop and Xbox 360. This is fine, except I tend to reformat my laptop quite often, and don’t keep it at on all the time at a desk, instead it’s packed away in its bag when not i use, making playing some music from my Xbox a bit of a hassle. So I decided a NAS box was what I needed. My only consideration really was price, I really don’t care about speed since most of the time I’ll be using 802.11g to access the files and so the Iomega 1TB drive is what I picked. It cost £120 from PC World, which I thought was good value. I’d read a few reviews, but since these reviews Iomega has released a new firmware (which came preinstalled on mine) and so a lot of the drawbacks have been addressed.

NAS BOX

I have to say, I am very impressed. The drive is fully accessible via SMB, meaning the software that comes with the drive is not essential (I only needed to install it once to find out what IP address my DHCP server had assigned it). The drive is actually a very small computer (probably running Linux, though I can’t be sure) and so it offers extra functionality. So called “Live Folders” allow you to create a folder that’s contents gets uploaded to Facebook, YouTube or resized for example. The NAS box can also act as a bit-torrent client, but unfortunately can’t be set to download a large file over FTP/HTTP. The device is also an iTunes server as well as a DLNA server (this is an open standard that the Xbox 360 uses to stream music and video over a LAN). If only TV shows purchased from iTunes didn’t have DRM, I’d buy a few, since being able to download a series of 24 straight to this device and watch it on my Xbox would be amazing. Still, having all your media always available via Media Centre/Xbox/ITunes is great.

The downsides to this device are the hard disk appears to be FAT32 (according to another review I read) – this means it’s not journaled and in the event of a power-cut the drive/data could be corrupted. There’ is only one hard disk, and 1TB of data is a LOT of data to be held at the whim on someone spilling something on it, or a cat knocking it over, so I will still be keeping the stuff I value most in two places. Anyone wanting a proper backup solution rather than a media server solution would be wise to get something that has RAID. It’s also quite noisy and doesn’t spin down the hard disk when it’s not in use.

Overall, I am pleased with this purchase and would recommend this media server to other looking for a good value solution.

Update:

I found the following information in the manual that states the drive actually uses the XFS filesystem, which was one of the first journalled filesystems. Hooray!

The Home Media Drive shares files using the SMB (Server Message Block) protocol and stores its files on XFS (built-in), FAT32 (external), and NTFS (external) hard drives.

I didn’t mention this before, but you can also plug in a USB drive and share it, or you can plug in a USB printer than share that instead. Shame there’s no SSH access however 🙂

Cell by Stephen King

A couple of months back I finished reading Cell by Stephen King.

The hardback original cover

What can I say? What an amazing book. Despite the inevitable of label “Horror”, I’d classify this as more of a psychological thriller. Yes there are many gory scenes, but the meat of this book is not in the action sequences, but in the constant feeling of fear, fear of the unknown experienced by a group of people who find themselves unaffected by the “Pulse” sent out through the mobile phone network, a pulse that resets the human brain to its most primitive form and eventually takes those affected by it (most people), know as  the “phone crazies” on a different evolutional path. What could have been?

The book could be described as a zombie apocalyptic story, but rather than the usual approach of “virus hits earth, chaos ensues, lead character finds a big gun, shoots zombies, makes their way to safety” the author gives the zombies original abilities and strange behaviours that just  cry out to be explained and will keep you reading.  All of the characters feel well written and believable, meaning you as the reader care about them, making the goodbyes sad and the dangerous moments tense.

Much has been said about the ending of this book, with many readers disappointed that it didn’t answer all their questions. While I won’t give anything away, all I will say is I liked the ending, it suited the tone of the book. If anyone has ever seen the original cut of Blade Runner, and then the Director’s Cut you’ll know what I mean – sometimes what is not said can be so much more powerful, in the same way the ending to the first Matrix film was ruined by the two subsequent sequels.

So I highly recommend this book, don’t be put off if “horror” isn’t usually your thing.

Podcasts: 8 of the best

Podcasts are a great way to keep up with the latest goings on in whatever subjects interest you. For me this means mainly tech news. I even wrote an application to help me organise all them all! I thought I’d list a few of the podcasts I listen to regularly.

This Week In Tech
Or TWiT, as it’s known is a general technology news ‘netcast’.
The flagship podcast of the TWiT Network, it consists of regular guests discussing the latest tech stories. Being American, it is heavily focused on US consumer issues, but that doesn’t matter since what happens in the US inevitably follows here in the UK, and they do sometimes have British guests. I find a lot of the people are too easily drawn into the latest crazes such as Twitter and Facebook but thankfully regular contributor John C Dvorak is there to bring them down to earth! Overall a top show, highly recommended.

Boagworld
A slightly odd name, until you realise it’s named after the show’s creator, Paul Boag. This podcast focuses on web design, and it aimed at those who work as designers, and to a lesser extent developers. It is light hearted, the guys don’t take themselves too seriously, so while you’re learning new facts and keeping up with what’s going on in the world of web design, you’re also enjoying it. Worth subscribing to if you have aspirations to become a designer, or are a web designer, or if like me, you’re a developer who has to do some designing. Top podcast indeed.

Security Now!
This podcast, from TWiT, is all about the latest news in the world of computer security. The show alternates each week between a listener Q&A session and a chosen topic that the show’s creator, Steve Gibson will talk about. This could be how SSL works, how a particular worm works or sometimes a non-security related topic. All episodes include the latest security news, which is essential if you’re an IT administrator, or care about the security if your own home network. Sometimes the topics can be very complex, then other weeks bizarrely simple – the show has a huge range but never fails to hold my interest. Anchorman Leo Laporte does a good job of representing the average listener, and asking Steve the questions we’re all thinking. Highly recommended.

PC Pro
A discussion of the latest tech news with a refreshing UK focus. The folks are very knowledgeable and raise some good points. They don’t seem to be as obsessed with the latest crazes like Twitter and FaceBook as other podcasts, which is so refreshing. Recommended for anyone who is at all interested in the computer industry.

Windows Weekly
Another TWiT podcast – if you’re interested in Windows, Xbox or Zune then a must-listen. Paul Thurrott has contacts within Microsoft that often mean you will find out things before anyone else. I sometimes wish it could cover more technical stuff for us developers, but we’re not really the show’s primary audience (there’s Channel 9 for that). Overall highly recommended if you have an interest in Microsoft technologies.

Diggnation
I occasionally listen to this one. It’s a roundup of the top stories submitted on Digg. Alex Albrecht is a very funny guy, and so too is Kevin Rose (the founder of Digg.com) A great laugh and good way to keep up with the less serious goings on in the world, also available in video, in fact it’s best viewed in video although personally I’m not so keen on video podcasts since I can’t do anything else at the same time (although watching Diggnation especially is a great Sunday morning remedy to a hangover). Overall I highly recommend.


Geek News Central

I’ve been listening to this podcast on and off for over a year now. It’s a show about technology news, but it’s not one bit dry and boring as one might first expect, this is thanks to the great host Todd Cochrane who has such a great passion for what he’s doing. With two shows a week, keeping up with this podcast requires dedication – and when you first listen you might wonder why Todd spends the first 15 minutes just having a general chit-chat about what’s going on in his world – but as you listen each week you realise that is part of the charm, and what differentiates this tech podcast from the myriad of others out there. This is the cream of the podcasting world, highly recommended!

Mark Kermode’s Film Reviews
This podcast is a repeat of Mark Kermode’s regular Friday afternoon section on BBC Radio Five Live. Kermode, along with host Simon May do an excellent job of providing information and reviews on the new releases each week. If Mark recommends a film, it’s a good sign that it’s worth seeing. Nice way to start the weekend.

Goodbye Nokia N95, Hello iPhone

For 2 years now I’ve been using the Nokia N95. At the time of release it was revolutionary. Even today it holds its weight when compared to the majority of phones on the market. From a top quality camera with a flash and autofocus, a GPS receiver and built in sat-nav, DVD quality video recording, to the more gimmicky 2-way slider, the N95 really is the bee’s knees.
So it was time for an upgrade. I was seriously contemplating sticking with T-Mobile and the N95 and just getting a cheaper tariff. But the N95’s biggest flaw, let me down. Build quality. My first N95 had a loose keypad, and the volume-up button broke. After about 20 months, the volume-up button broke on my second handset. Google it, it’s a common fault. Whereas once a Nokia would have been virtually indestructible (think 3310), the N95 was a fragile ornament. Other aspects of the N95 started to bug me also. The upper keypad is too cramped. It’s too easy to accidently cancel out of an application when trying to hit the ‘C’ key. Application start-up times are also slow, nothing seems seamless. I decided I needed to get a new phone.
I was torn between the iPhone and the N97. After the shocking build quality of the N95, I’d sworn never to go back to Nokia, which is a big thing for me. I’ve owned the 3330, 3510i, 6630, 6100, and 6230i – oh and the N95 of course, since 2001…. I had a play on the N97 and it looks amazing. The camera is top notch, and it feels a lot more solid than the N95. The touch screen however is very poor. A bit like the 5800, it’s resistive, and so works on pressure making it a real chore to use. The UI isn’t designed for touch, rather than adapted, and poorly adapted in my opinion. But the slide-out keyboard, and integrated flash in the browser were still enough to keep my interested.  I decided to stick to my guns, and not risk another N95. I went for the iPhone.
I’ve had many iPods before. I hate iTunes – it’s a true example of bloatware. I have used iTunes since 2001 when it was version 1, and came with Mac OS 9 – so I have a lot of experience with using it. From about version 6 onwards, it just got really slow. On Windows it has an annoying bug where it will steal focus every couple of minutes, this can be fixed by setting Windows Live Messenger not to display your song information. I’m sure Apple make iTunes on Windows run a slow as possible to make Microsoft look bad. I mean, why the hell does QuickTime, a crappy media player that no one ever runs (except as a plug-in) need a notification icon? What is it notifying me of exactly? Anyway we all know iTunes sucks, but it for syncing music and downloading podcasts, it does the job OK.
The iPhone, like the N97, looks great. Unlike the N97 it’s not at all obvious where the SIM card goes, so be sure to read the manual, or Google it as I did. The screen in capacitive, which works by conducting electricity from your figure. It’s a lot smoother and more enjoyable to use. The browser and email are great, but I do miss a few things about my N95

  • The calendar. An iPhone will only let you set a reminder for 2 days before an event. No good for a car service, or a big birthday present where you might like to be reminded a week or so before. Seems like a pointless limit, or oversight to me.
  • Bluetooth. The iPhone might as well not have Bluetooth, since you can’t send photos or contacts using it. I can understand Apple restricting music, but photos, contacts, and calendar entries? These are basics Apple and you’ve got them wrong.
  • Apple are in bed with the network operators. You can’t download podcasts over 10MB or use the iPhone has a modem, the N95 could do all of this. It was a phone not a marketing tool for 02.
  • 3G reception seems to be bad – when compared to other phones on the same network in the same room.
  • The camera is bad. The newer 3GS that I have still is poor and doesn’t have a flash.

I don’t want to be all negative – the iPhone is a worthy upgrade from the N95. Email is much quicker, and supports HTML (although Apple limit you to sending 5 photos as attachments), as well as syncing emails and calendars with exchange. The N95 would take about 30 seconds to ‘think about’ my emails after receiving them, which was just plain annoying. Direct upload the YouTube, along with some great games, and applications put the iPhone ahead of Nokia. Facebook, Twitter, even Windows Live Messenger via push (although the application author writes that the program is under review by Apple, no doubt because it might eat into network revenues) all work seamlessly. The interface is a pleasure to use.
So I’m glad I upgraded – just missing a few key bits of functionality!