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Scott's Column
Web Design, Vista Gold, Laptops, Music Services

January 1, 2007
By Scott Lewis

This month I am going to cover the basic design change for my site (yes, I know, you are not looking at it yet). I also want to touch on the final version of Windows Vista, music services, Microsoft Money, and some other things. If I have time I will catch you up on this month's gaming.

Current Topics:

Gaming

Well, I have not been playing games that much lately. In fact, with the holidays in full swing and working on the redesign I didn't have any time for gaming. I completely re-wired my Christmas tree. It's a 9 foot tree with each branch getting its own light strand... until the last 4 or 5 rows where three branches each shared two strands of lights. The final count... 2,450 lights. It looks awesome!

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Web Design

I finally got around to redesigning my web site. I was trying real hard to find a look I liked, and could continue liking for a long time. I think I failed. I do like the look I came up with, but I fear it will not have staying power. Time will tell. I had a hard time wrestling with the color scheme, especially whether to do black text on a white background, or white text on a colored background. Since you are not looking at it you will just have to wait for next month to see that the main page content is black text on a white background. I put out a test site to get feedback on the color scheme, and it was slightly slanted toward white text on a blue background (by one vote). I decided to go with the simplicity of black on white for maximum readability.

I tried dressing the scheme up with graphics. I really wanted an "aero" look to coordinate with Windows Vista coming out. However, it was hard to do exactly what I wanted and be compatible with both Internet Explorer and FireFox. In fact, it was the problems between IE and Firefox that delayed you from seeing the final results. Three times I managed to get it "almost done" when I discovered it didn't work in one of the browsers. It was very frustrating. I should have done a better job of saving the early... and simple versions of the pages. The end result is not complicated, but it was troubling getting things lined up precisely in both browsers.

Since I am not finished I can't tell you if I was able to get the final look without tables. All the test pages put my navigation in a table, but I may have to put more tables to maximum browser compatibility. What a shame. I will do my best to use DIV tags, but can't guarantee anything. DIV tags would load faster, especially or those with slow connections.

I am building the new look using Microsoft's Expression Web product. I am using the Beta version of the product because Microsoft isn't putting this tool on MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network). Apparently, programmers don't need design tools. Go figure! Then they should stop pushing this product on me through my MSDN newsletters. O.K., I'll get down off my soapbox. Once all the little details are finished in my site I want to try building it in Dreamweaver. Maybe I can get the look I want there without the IE vs. Firefox issues.

Overall I like the general look of the site. It is nothing revolutionary. I wanted to make sure I have a site that is fast to navigate and easy to read. If you have been reading this site for any length of time you know that everything is based on three articles (Scott's Column, Car Corner, and Classic Car Watch). Navigating among these three articles is easy since they are linked on the left.

However, I am always looking for ways to make it easier for you to look at the archives of this site. There is a link to the main archive page on the left. This takes you to a static page that lets you pick an archive for each of the columns. I don't know of an easier way than this. I used to put a short list of recent articles in a sidebar near the top of each content page, but this interfered with the content. It has always been a double edged sword with me. I am trying to do without the "resent articles" section in this version.

Another navigation change is the breadcrumbs. I introduced them in my last design. However, this time I am making a change. I am going to have the breadcrumbs show you the path to the archived version of an article. In fact, I am thinking about pointing the main article pages to the current article within the archive. It is a bit of a pain to maintain two copies of the current articles. I hope the breadcrumbs will make getting to the appropriate part of the archives as easy as possible as well.

I hope to have this all published with next month's columns. I'll keep you posted.

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Windows Vista

I installed the final (?) version of Windows Vista. Final means it is the version that is supposed to ship to vendors such as Dell, HP, etc. I downloaded in just before Thanksgiving and installed it over that weekend. I was planning on installing it on the 100 GB drive on my main machine.

As you'll recall I have two physical hard drives, the previously mentioned 100 GB SATA drive and an older 20 GB ATA drive. I have been using the 20 GB drive for all the Vista Betas and using the BIOS to determine which drive would boot. This allowed me to test Vista without effecting my Windows XP installation.

When it came time to install Vista permanently I popped the DVD in the drive, and rebooted. My hands went into autopilot and I delete the 20 GB partition. This is very bad, because I backed up all the data from my C: drive (the 100 GB drive) to that 20 GB D: drive. Oops!

As you can imaging I lost all the data I put on there. Granted, about 10-12 GB of that data was downloads I have not had time to get to. I have also been using my laptop as my primary computer for a while and it has all the documents I really need... except two. The two files I really needed from my desktop were my Microsoft Money file and my budget spreadsheet. The newest backups I have of those two files is at least a few months old. I am not in the mood to re-enter all that data.

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Microsoft Money 2007

Because of the loss of data I am looking at this as an opportunity. I am going to take this time to examine the latest version of Microsoft Money. I was using the Windows 95 version (4.1). It was simple to use and did what I needed it to do. I tried Money 2000 and did not like it. It was too complicated for my needs and made entering in transactions more difficult that with Money 95.

I am hoping Money 2007 Essentials will be easy enough to use and have enough functionality that I will not need the spreadsheet for my budget. I was getting tired of the dual entry using two programs for essentially one task. Money Essentials failed quickly to do what I needed. I am currently testing the Deluxe version with a 90 day free trial. It seems to be working, but I was doing some testing in Virtual PC an I could not connect to my bank while running in a Virtual PC. Weird. I am going to have to bite the bullet and install it on my main machine to do my testing.

I wish Quicken would offer a free trial so I could test it side-by-side with Microsoft Money. Alas, Quicken offers a 60 money back guarantee. Good, but not good enough.

When I installed Money Deluxe on my computer it did what I wanted. But when I went back to the program some features were set the way Money Essentials did them. It was like I had a hybrid version of Money, which drive me to use Virtual PC. 

I tried reinstalling Money Deluxe on my computer itself, but the same Essential vs. Deluxe issues were there. I assume if I was running the non-trail version I would not have these issues. If you want to test Money Essentials don't do it on a machine you plan to use Money Deluxe on. I'll have more next month, because I need to setup that budget for the new year.

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Back to Vista

The rest of Vista has been uneventful. I have not gotten into it much, but I did setup accounts for everyone in the house. I turned on Parental Control as well. I want to see what reports it generates more than anything else at this time. I have not yet looked at one of the reports, so again that will have to wait.

I installed a couple of games, and I liked how it blocked access to some of my Mature rated games from my boys' accounts. I also want to see how well it can be used to limit the amount of time my kids play on the computer. So far I see where you can allocate the blocks of time they can use the computer. That's good, but I would like to see a time limit per day as well. A setting where they can use productivity software during times when they are not allowed to play games would be really cool.

I don't have any CD/DVD burning software. Nero 6 does not work with Vista. I have tried everything, and also saw mention to this fact online. I will just have to stick with Vista's burning capabilities. So far I found I can't burn an ISO image to a disc. Ouch. I loaded my "OEM" version of Nero 6 (that came with my Plextor DVD Burner) onto my laptop. That went fine for the moment, though I did have my credit card out to buy Nero 7. I wasn't sure the OEM version was going to work on my laptop. When I upgrade my laptop to Vista I will probably buy Nero 7.

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Office 2000

I installed Office 2000. I only have one license for Office 2007. I plan to use that on my laptop. I may try to install it on both machines, but I will do the laptop first. If it then fails on the desktop there is no harm done. I won't install Vista on my laptop until I can download drivers from Toshiba. I mainly care about drivers for the wireless and the touch pad. Everything else should be pretty simple, but since I will do a clean install I just assume have those drivers.

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Another Laptop

Yea.. you read that right... another laptop. I think we now have 5 in the house. Here's the story. My son and I got new laptops over the summer. I gave my old laptop (which was my wife's old laptop) to my youngest son. Mainly so he would feel included. So that's 4 laptops. However, my sons tend to hang out with their uncle when he comes and stays with us. Well, on one of his many visits the boys had their laptops in the guest bedroom with their uncle and his laptop. At some point my youngest son's laptop must have been stepped on because the screen is all cracked... on the inside... badly.

My brother-in-law offered to sell us his laptop (a Compaq Presario v2000... 12.1" screen 512MB, 60GB) for $100, and he was going to get a new laptop that could play games. I helped him pick out a new laptop. Only one laptop at BestBuy had a gaming video adapter. We headed off to CompUSA where they had plenty. My exact laptop was still there... for $250 less than I paid for it. When my brother-in-law saw the prices of the machines with "real" video cards (nVidia GeForce 7600 or better) he started thinking maybe he didn't need gaming capabilities after all.

He settled on a HP model. I did not write it down, sorry. It has a 15.4" screen, 2GB of memory and a nVidia 6150 video card with shared memory. Decent, though not great for gaming. It cost him $999. I copied all his stuff from the old Compaq to his new HP. Overall I would say it was a very nice laptop with mild gaming capabilities.

On to setting up the Compaq for my son. Oh... did I mention that the power cord on the Compaq was chewed by an animal, and barely worked... with sparks and everything. Well, I know that was one of my pets, so I hoped I could get it working. I cut it and managed to splice it and the braided line enough to make it functional. Next up was the Enter key on the keyboard. It was almost completely broken, and trying to fix it made it totally broken. However, with no key present at all you can press on the center spot of the keyboards circuit board and it works well enough. Hopefully it won't bother my click friendly son too much.

I loaded this Compaq with Windows Vista Home Premium edition. At first it setup with the Vista Basic interface. I wondered if it did this because the requirements were a bit low... certainly in the graphics and memory departments. I went to change the Appearance and Vista Aero was in the list and it looked great. It is a bit sluggish, but not bad enough to get me to turn it back off. I think my son will enjoy the eye candy. The little laptop gets a Performance Index of 2.0 (due to the memory and one other component). I setup parental controls on the laptop and told my son to get with me if he needs anything installed.

I put the old laptop in the server room (closet in the study). I don't know what I will do with it. The screen is deteriorating each time the lid is raised and lowered. I may try to run it as a server, but I don't know what I could need it for. Maybe Oracle 10g. I tried loaded 10g on my current server and it dragged it down to the point the interface was worthless. Hey, its only a 450 MHz Celeron with 384 MB of memory. Oracle 10g requires 512 MB minimum, so I was surprised it worked at all. I'll have to check the memory on that laptop. If it is at least 1 GB I may try the Oracle thing. Anyone have an idea how I can use a laptop without a screen. Oh, I should mention that this laptop has an overheating problem and I have the CPU stepped down to the minimum level to keep it from overheating and shutting down. Does anyone still have any idea how to use a slow laptop with a bad screen?

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Music Services

I have been playing around with some of the more popular music services. These are the places where you can either rent or buy music. Subscription music is the term. Pay a flat monthly fee and you can download all the music you want. However, you can't burn those songs to a CD, and can only play them on a limited number of PCs. Also, you must maintain your subscription or the songs will no longer play. Some services let you actually buy songs, which you can burn to CDs (and I assume copy to other computers).

I am going to test a bunch of these services. Hopefully I will settle on one by the time I have to install Windows Vista on my laptop. Having 6 music services on my computer is a drag. To test the services I am looking at a number of items. Since I do not have a compatible music player for any of them I am assuming they all just work. This is actually one of the reasons for looking at the services. I am thinking about getting a new MP3 player. I like the Zune. I know... Microsoft doesn't get anything right until the third try. Well, X-Box and X-Box 360 are pretty good and they aren't in their third version... yet.

The Zune is larger and heavier than an iPod. There are two iPods in my household. We bought my oldest son a 2GB iPod Nano (1st gen) for his birthday last year, which my wife uses as my son mostly listens to music on his computer. The other is an older 4GB iPod Mini that my brother-in-law gave to my youngest son (yes, the same brother-in-law with the laptops above).

I don't like iTunes. Why? Well, overall it is pretty good, but I don't like the proprietary nature of the iTunes/iPod arrangement and the screen on the video iPod in too small. iTunes doesn't have subscriptions either, so it is harder to discover new music than the other services.

I like the size of the Zune screen (though it is the same pixel resolution as the iPod's). I also like Creative's and SanDisk's players. This is all moot until I settle on a service.

I want a service that has subscriptions as well as the ability to buy songs. As for the subscription part I want to be able to use my computer at work along with my laptop and desktop at home. Add to that my wife should be able to use the service and that means at least four PCs to download and play music on.

Next up is buying songs to burn to CD. I believe if you are paying a monthly subscription fee to play songs on a PC you should get at least a few songs to burn to CD (say 5 or 10 songs a month). At the least you should get a discount when buying tracks. We'll see how this goes.

Finally is the integration and cost of downloading to a portable device. I can only guess on this one until I buy a player. However, I plan to use the cost of the service, and the easy of use of their software to determine which service I want. Then I will look at players that are compatible. When I do get a player I want one that can handle video. I am thinking I might like watching videos during lunch once in a while. I am having a hard time keeping up with all the serialized TV shows lately. Heroes, Kidnapped (cancelled, but was available online, and I just watched the finally), Prison Break, 24, etc. I want to start watching Lost, and would like to copy episodes to a player from my brother-in-law's DVDs. If that won't work I might as well just get a portable DVD player. But I can't watch current TV shows on a DVD player. I am digressing huge here. Back on topic.

I compiled a list of music services to test. I also created a list of artists, albums and songs to check for on each of the services (you can see the spreadsheet I created here). My tastes are pretty mainstream, but I am finding stuff missing from the services. The Beatles is the big one missing from all the services. I heard a rumor that The Beatles were going to sign an exclusive deal with Apple. Kind of ironic because Paul McCartney's company was going to sue Apple. Apple Records and Apple Computers had a deal way back when that said Apple Computers could use the Apple name as long as it never got into the music business. Oops!

I picked URGE as the first service to sign up for a free trial period. Two reasons, 1) They provided 14 days free without entering in any credit card information, and 2) They did rather well in the comparison of available music. I don't have everything available to tell you whether URGE is great or just good, or maybe just good enough. There are some issues. But I can tell you that having a subscription to download anything you want can be very addictive. I like the idea of the service. I didn't think I would like it this much. It will be hard to go back to just listening to my own music again.

I hope to have a final write up on the music services soon. Stay tuned. You can read my notes on my blog here.

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Conclusion

That's it for this month. I am so busy. I am still trying to find time to compare photo album software. I need to build a budget and setup financial software from scratch. I am doing the music service comparison. I am doing the redesign. I need to get cracking on learning to build eCommerce sites in Visual Studio .Net 2005. I want to learn a little more about Flash and possibly incorporate a touch of it on this site. I want to get my domain name back, and look into creating a database aware web site on the Internet. The list goes on and on.

Stay tuned. I hope 2007 will be fun year!

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