Please excuse the mess

I’m in the process of cleaning up my Microsoft SkyDrive, which previously hosted some of the images used in various blog posts that migrated over here from Spaces. Some of the images and links may appear broken, until I can get them updated. Although it’s hard to see based on the near-abandoned state of my blog, I do take my curator duties very seriously. Updates will be forthcoming in the new year!

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

So, it’s been a while. Hope you had a good summer. You look great! Have you lost weight?

Verizon's first Windows Phone: the HTC Trophy  Anyway, I got a shiny new Windows Phone 7 device, and I pretty much wasted the last three months of my life getting to know it. In that time, I’ve really put it through its paces power-user style, experimented out tons of apps, and tried to enmesh it into as much of my online life as possible.

I’ll save you the obligatory, drawn out, fanboy review. Suffice it to say, it’s an awesome phone, and I really do think it has a bright future. Instead, I’m using this post to discuss one glaring shortcoming I’ve noticed and to provide my own insight as a professional armchair critic.

Most phones provide a simple framework for organizing and launching apps, which in turn provide all the real functionality and do the hard work. So, if you want to play with Facebook, then – as they say – there’s an app for that. Twitter? Another app. You get the idea. While some apps do interact with each other, they’re still mostly regarded as siloes for your content and activities.

One of Windows Phone’s key differentiators is how it organizes your information around functional hubs instead of the traditional app-centric approach. The phone still supports scads of apps to be sure, but you can also visit several hubs – People, Pictures, Music+Video – to see all your activities clustered around these pillars. For instance, once you’ve connected services with your phone, the People hub automagically pulls in your friends across all of them and weaves together their social activities in one consolidated view called What’s New. Rather than focusing on which service they used to share an update, the People hub focuses on, well, the people. It’s a remarkable way to work and play.

The People hub is great, but too often it pulls in content from sources I follow that are not people. For example, I like the Microsoft blog LiveSide on Facebook, which is akin to subscribing to their updates. Likewise, I follow MSNBC on Twitter. This becomes awkward, as Windows Phone regards these entities as people, and displays their updates right alongside those of my real-life and ersatz virtual friends in What’s New. It’s kind of jarring to see an update from my lovely wife alongside LiveSide’s or MSNBC’s latest headlines.

The latest release of Windows Phone software, codename Mango, offers an option to help quiet the noise by hiding all contacts from specific services and only displaying those updates of individuals who match visible contacts. It’s practically the only way to prevent Twitter from flooding your contact list with the deluge of celebrities and other non-friends you happen to follow there. Turning off a service still allows you to see updates from friends with whom you’re connected on other services. So, if a friend in my Windows Live contact list happens to have a Twitter account, then I can see his tweets, while those from Weird Al Yankovic are blissfully hidden (sorry, Al).

It’s not that I don’t want to see Weird Al’s tweets or LiveSide’s blog posts, I just don’t want to see them mixed in with updates from my friends and family. Which brings me to my aforementioned point about a feature that’s lacking from Windows Phone 7. The solution, in my opinion, is to create a News hub for Windows Phone. The News hub could incorporate updates on social networking sites from any entity who’s not connected to a contact and provide a built-in aggregator for my RSS feeds (something that Windows Phone 7 sorely needs, BTW). I could see a lot of potential here for categorizing sources, such as technology, entertainment, and so forth. A News hub could also provide a hook for many apps that deliver news, such as updates from the Weather Channel’s app.

What do you think? Would you like to see a News hub in Windows Phone? Discuss!

Create a group using Windows Live Messenger

Messenger certainly has grown into one hell of a social networking desktop client. When properly configured and linked to your various profiles, it allows you to control almost every aspect of your social experience in one convenient interface. In this post, I’ll discuss how to quickly create a small Windows Live Group from Messenger.

First, a little background on groups. Originally, Messenger used the term group to refer to a collection of friends that shared a common thread. These days, Messenger uses the more meaningful term category to describe such a collection. The term group now refers to a formal Windows Live Group, which provides members with:

  • A dedicated group website at http://groups.live.com
  • A shared discussion forum
  • 5 GB of shared SkyDrive storage, including a documents powered by Office Web Apps
  • A group calendar that integrates with Hotmail and other calendars
  • A group e-mail address that members can use to quickly communicate with each other
  • Group instant messaging for groups with up to 40 members

Sure, you could build such a group by visiting http://groups.live.com, but that is a multistep process that requires you to create the group, select members, send invitations, and tweak group options. If your primary use will be group chat, then Messenger can makes your life so much easier.

  1. In the main Messenger window, click Contacts 4 Create a Group. A prompt is displayed to provide a name for your group.Creating a group in Messenger
  2. Type a friendly name for your group (it doesn’t have to be unique), and click Next. You’ll be prompted to invite others to join your group.Inviting people to my new group
  3. You can click the link to select individuals from your Messenger contacts, or you can just type individual e-mail addresses separated by semicolons. When you’re finished, click Next.
  4. Messenger informs you that the group has been created and the invitees have been notified. Click Finish to close the window.
  5. The group is accessible under the Groups heading on the right-hand side of the Messenger window. To access this group more easily, however, you can click the drop-down and click Groups.List of my groups
  6. Once other members have joined your group, you’ll be able to initiate a group instant messaging session with any other online members by double-clicking the name of the group.Group chat in Messenger

If you want to access any of the aforementioned sophisticated features, such as group e-mail, forum-style discussions, or document collaboration, you’ll need to hit the group’s website. Just point your browser to http://groups.live.com and click your group.

– Greg

Remote control

I love a good hack, especially when I can accomplish it with some help from my Windows Live tools. You may find yourself somewhere that blocks access to BitTorrent. I’ll show you how to download and retrieve your torrents anywhere easily.

Disclaimer: I have to give props to The How-to Geek for the idea (although, they did it using DropBox).

First, you’ll need the right tools for the job:

  • A home PC with unfettered access to BitTorrent running uTorrent (the world’s best BitTorrent client) and Windows Live Mesh (preferably as part of Essentials 2011 suite)
  • A second PC behind a proxy/firewall (we’ll refer to this one as the other PC), also running Windows Live Mesh
  • Two beers (optional, as always)

For starters, I know that Mesh has an awesome remote desktop feature that renders a lot of this unnecessary, but if your organization blocks the ports that are used by remote desktop but still allows Mesh to sync files, then this is your best alternative. Besides, it provides a way to seamlessly shuttle your downloaded content from your home to your other PC. Now, as I was saying…

You’ll need to set up a synced folder on your home PC. Start the Mesh client, and click Sync a folder.

Sync a folder on your home PC

The folder can be anywhere, but I think it makes a ton of sense to create a new folder called Torrents in the Downloads folder.

Select a local folder to sync torrents and downloads

Click Sync. Next, you’ll be prompted to select the devices on which you’d like to sync the folder. You don’t really need to pick an sync point on the other PC yet, so just click OK.

Next, you’ll need to configure uTorrent to automate the process of initiating downloads. In uTorrent, click Options4 Preferences. In the Directories section, you’ll need to tap into a nifty feature that allows uTorrent to automatically load torrents placed into a specific folder (you guessed it, our synced Torrents folder), as shown in the figure below .

Configuring uTorrent preferences

While your there, you’ll also need to specify a folder where those downloads should be placed ‚, and because you’ll be flying blind so to speak, you’ll need to suppress the dialog box that uTorrent normally displays prior to starting the download ƒ. If you want to actually collect the completed download on your other PC, then you can also ask uTorrent to move those files back into the Torrent folder „. Click OK.

This (hopefully) goes without saying, but you’ll need to leave your home PC and uTorrent running while you’re away.

Finally, it’s time to get your other PC in the mix. Simply launch Mesh on the other PC, select the synced folder, and click Sync this folder.

Sync this folder on your other PC

Once again, I think it makes sense to create a local Torrents folder under Downloads. When you’ve selected a the folder, click Sync.

That’s it! You can now search for, download, and save Torrent files to the Torrents folder on your other PC. When the contents of the Torrents folder are synced, uTorrent on your home PC will automatically start grabbing the torrent’s files and place the completed download back in the Torrent folder, which will in turn sync back to your other PC. In minutes, you’ll have the files you need on your other PC.

– Greg

Viva la lists!

Here’s a quick tip for my fellow Spaces ex-pats out there. Remember lists? They were these really nifty containers for interesting links that you could display on your space’s main page. There were 4 list templates, tailored for specific types of content:

image

But in truth, you could use any of them to house links to anything, and when you created or modified a list, the update would appear on your Messenger social feed.

When it was announced that they wouldn’t make the trip over to WordPress along with your blog posts, you may have been worried that they’d be lost for all eternity. However, I’m happy to report that your custom lists are (for the moment, anyway) alive and well under your Windows Live profile. Turns out that following Windows Live wave 3, all Spaces lists were relocated under the profile, which helped them to survive Spaces Armageddon.

There’s just one little problem: your space was the front door that took you to the list management pages on Windows Live, and it doesn’t really exist anymore. Any attempt to access your old space’s URL just directs you to your new WordPress URL. Since there’s no longer a visible link to your lists, they’re a little convoluted to access, but here’s how you do it:

  1. Navigate to your Windows Live Profile.
  2. Once you’re authenticated, add /lists to the URL (e.g., http://cid-19760888be8fca70.profile.live.com/lists), and click Go.

Voila! There are all of your former spaces’ lists, complete with the user interface to manage them. That’s right, you can still create new lists and manage your existing lists. Best of all, updates are still reflected on your Messenger social feed, so friends can still see when you’ve added a new item.

image

It’s entirely likely that this stay of execution is only temporary until Microsoft formally pulls the plug on Spaces at the end of March 2011, possibly even sooner. The fact is that movies, music, and books aren’t really necessary moving forward, because your profile has dedicated Favorite Things lists (which, confusingly, are part of the same service but not connected to Spaces lists’ content in any way). But I hope that they’ll at least allow custom lists to hang around indefinitely, and maybe even build their functionality into Favorite Things lists. I’ve often complained that the current arrangement of Favorite Things lists is too limited, and I think it would benefit from the ability to create custom categories of favorite things: TV programs, blogs, wines, whatever.

– Greg

The shortest path

My eldest son, three-year-old Logan, attended a friend’s birthday party at Jumpity Jump on Saturday. As you might glean from the name, it’s one of those event hosting places that caters to kids’ parties with huge inflatables and so forth. The kids spend an hour bouncing off the walls, get plied with sugary cake and ice cream, and then come home with you. An hour later, they crash like Joaquin Phoenix after a weekend bender and sleep for 72 hours.

Logan had a great time, and because he was reluctant to venture on any of the rides the first time alone, I got to work out muscles I’d forgotten about long ago.

He’s very focused on planning his next birthday these days. When you’re three, birthdays are a big deal, and your upcoming birthday party is like your bar mitzvah, prom, and wedding all rolled into one. He’s obsessed with the theme, who’s going to be invited, what he’s going to get, and of course where it’s going to be (Jumpity Jump now looks to be the front-runner). Anytime I try to discipline or scold him for anything he’s done, then I’m immediately crossed off the guest list…at least for the next 10 minutes or so.

Anyway, Ginny and I have been working with him lately on time concepts. We have this big picture book that explains how to read time on an analog clock, the days of the week, the seasons, and the months of the year. Before bed last night he and I were looking at the page with the months all laid out in a 3×4 grid, like this:

Months of the year

I could see he was struggling to understand the concept of months. Sensing the opportunity to tie it to something relevant, I said, “See, Logan? Here’s September…and your birthday is in February.”

“To get there, we have to go through October, November, December, January, and then there’s February,” I explained, moving my finger from one month to the next. “That’s five months from now. Understand?”

“No, daddy,” Logan replied. “Just go this way.”

Now all I need is a time machine.

– Greg

Windows Live Tags: , , ,

Bookmark and Share

Thinking outside the box

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, then you know I’m an avid user of Windows Media Center. Over the past 5 years, I’ve worked hard to integrate Media Center into my home entertainment equation as much as my budget (and my wife’s tolerance) will permit. At one time, I had completely replaced my conventional cable television interface using an HTPC equipped with a TV tuner, remote, and Media Center. Since then, I’ve continued building my home network piecemeal, and now I’ve finally arrived at 4 PCs running Windows 7 Ultimate, and I use HomeGroups and Media Center on each one to wirelessly stream my music, pictures, family videos, movies, and recorded programs to any TV in my house.

But it’s far from a perfect system. In fact, I would say I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with the whole setup. Early on, I used Windows Live Sync to shuttle content between devices pretty successfully, but the setup and maintenance was a bear, and I felt like I wasn’t maximizing my storage capabilities by replicating content all over my network. Then for a while, I kept all my media on a Linksys NAS-200, but the access times were painful and at times downright unreliable. It’s hard to convince family and guests to engage a HTPC when it takes 5 minutes to display the movie library and eternity to load a movie, which continues to stutter throughout. When the NAS finally died (and took my data with it), I slapped a 1 TB hard drive in an actual PC, set it up as a proper media server, and begrudgingly started building my media library…all over again.

Yeah, in part it probably was my fault for not having a faster wireless network or better hardware, but I continually got the sense that the software powering the experience wasn’t making my life any easier, either. Windows Media Center does some pretty nifty things; for instance, the music library is really intelligent and the slideshow pan-and-zoom effect has always been a crowd-pleaser. But there are plenty of areas where it has continued to frustrate and disappoint me. Support for movies greatly improved in Windows 7 but still seemed to be geared around ripping actual DVDs. Shoe-horning my “externally acquired” movies into the library always proved challenging. No automated cover art. No subtitles. No consistency of navigation. And while Media Center has excellent support for analog cable TV, its Internet TV choices are extremely limited (unless you’re really into old Twilight Zone episodes). Plus, there’s no out-of-the-box support for external media content services, such as Pandora, Hulu, YouTube, and others, so if I wanted to jump to an external site, that meant dragging out the keyboard and using Windows to do it.

But I’m a Microsoft guy for better or worse, so I’ve been hesitant to shop around for a different solution. I tried XBMC a while back, which impressed me with its slick visuals and customizable interface, but it has a zillion configuration options, and ultimately I found it too difficult to program my remote control to work with the system.

That all changed last week, when I finally downloaded and installed Boxee. It just works, period. Boxee is a free media center interface, built on the XBMC platform, that supports a variety of platforms, including Windows, Mac, and Linux; D-Link is also working on a dedicated set-top Boxee device. The service is currently in open beta, but I got the sense that it’s pretty solid. Billed as the world’s first “social media center,” the entire experience is powered by an account-based website, so many of your preferences can be managed there and seamlessly float with you to any Boxee installation. The tool does all the things you’d expect from a media center: it organizes your local music, videos, and photos, lets you control playback, and runs nifty slide shows and visualizations. But it does so much more.

Boxee seamlessly integrates Internet media from all over the place. For instance, if you hit the TV Shows hub, then you have the option to show either your TV shows (meaning those you’ve recorded or stored on your local network) or the online TV show library, which encompasses a vast array of sources, including major networks, cable providers, Hulu, and more, all presented to you without regard to provider. You can browse popular shows, search for specific titles, and even queue up shows you want to remember to watch. All of it with gorgeous automatic cover art and descriptive metadata. There’s a similar arrangement for other media, such as movies and music. Boxee does not currently support live TV broadcasts, but I think I could find myself watching more and more on-demand content with a system that’s this user-friendly.

The world is finally catching on that entertainment is a naturally social experience, and that’s a nuance that isn’t lost on Boxee. You can easily wire up the service to communicate with popular social networks, including the juggernauts Facebook and Twitter, but also Google Buzz and others. By simply clicking a ubiquitous heart icon, your recommendations are seamlessly broadcast to your followers, using privacy settings that are dead simple to configure.

Another great feature is the integration of third-party apps, which like their more familiar mobile device cousins, are effectively streamlined versions of media websites optimized for the Boxee 10-foot interface. And there are hundreds of them. The Pandora app allows you to access your custom stations, stream music, and rate selections, just like the conventional website. The FailBlog app finds video clips from the infamous site on YouTube and DailyMotion and plays them at a full-screen resolution. Of course, there’s also the Boxee browser, which provides a remote friendly, fully functional web browser powered by Mozilla, so you can actually surf without leaving the media center app.

In short, Boxee effectively blurs the line between stuff on your PC and stuff on the Internet. For the first time in a long time, the prospect of casually playing content no longer fills me with angst. In fact, I sort of feel like I’ve been toiling with Paint and finally discovered Photoshop. Yeah, it’s that good.

Nothing against Windows Media Center, which is still one of the most elegant and versatile tools ever designed by Microsoft, but Boxee adds some sorely needed features. I’m sure I‘ll continue to leverage both solutions in tandem to get the most from my HTPC.

Ironically, many of Boxee’s podcasting and social features are already available in Microsoft’s other media manager, the vastly underrated Zune Player. My hope is that the next version of Windows includes a unified Media Center that incorporates the best features of Media Player and Zune, and also borrows a few of the slick nuances of Boxee. I think there’s a better chance of stepping in unicorn poop. In the meantime if you’re a media enthusiast like me, do yourself a favor. Grab a copy of Boxee and discover a real media center powerhouse.

– Greg

PS: If you’re a die-hard Media Center fan with an occasional jones for Boxee content, or a Boxee fan who’d like a little DVR action, there’s a free utility that can simply integrate a Boxee icon into Windows Media Center, effectively giving you the best of both worlds (there’s a similar plug-in for Hulu Desktop, too).

Bookmark and Share

And then there were four

Aidan and his teddy bearI know I’m a couple of months late, and the news has already made its way around the social networks, but I wanted to “officially” announce the birth of my second child to the blogosphere. On June 15, 2010 at 12:54 PM, Aidan Lucas Edwards officially joined the cast of the Edwards family. Although Aidan’s birth event (thankfully) lacked a lot of the stress of his brother’s arrival a couple of years prior, this time around was just as blog-worthy.

Ginny and I had been trying to grow our family for a while. We didn’t seem to have a problem getting pregnant per se, but we had run into a few challenges staying that way. So, we were cautiously optimistic to learn that we were again once pregnant in late September 2009. Ginny wasted no time consulting with a specialist, who immediately started pumping her full of hormones to ensure the pregnancy would stick this time around.

In fact, my poor wife became something of a pincushion during the pregnancy. She had to take blood thinners every day, and then later she developed gestational diabetes, which meant testing her blood glucose about 4 times daily. It was as if fate was teasing her, “how badly do you want this baby?” Ginny is one of the most committed and diligent people I know, and although it couldn’t have been easy on her, somehow she managed to pull through.

Although Ginny made no bones about her preference for a girl, we found out at week 18 that we were in fact expecting yet another boy. She still insists it was my fault, like I somehow filtered my genetic contribution to include only the Y’s (the secret is how you…never mind). Throughout the remainder of her visits to the OB, she continued to ask the technician to please check again, just in case it was an arm or something. Nope, still a boy.

Fortunately, we were well prepared for “yet another” boy. In February, we moved Logan up to a “big kid” room and began preparing his old nursery for a new occupant. Ginny held onto all of his baby stuff, so we basically had to buy…diapers. Yep, that’s about it. Get ready for a lifetime of hand-me-downs, kid.

As the zero day approached, we meticulously compiled lists of our favorite names, figuring that we’d simply cross-reference our choices, find a match, and there we’d have our pick (yeah, we’re a couple of geeks). Turned out not to be such an easy task. Since Ginny really had her heart set on a girl, she burned a lot of time trying to figure out how to butch up names like “Sarah” and “Emma” before “Zachary” became her front runner. I really liked “Jackson,” so we found ourselves in a bit of a stalemate, and we aren’t exactly known for our ability to compromise. Logan offered up his suggestion of “Diego Velociraptor.” At the eleventh hour, we miraculously settled on Aidan Lucas. Aidan is a Gaelic name that means “little fire,” and Lucas means “he who continually tweaks classic sci-fi films.”

Getting ready to head to the hospital to deliver a full-term baby was unfamiliar territory for us. We kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Ginny was actually scheduled for a C-section on Monday, June 14th, but early that afternoon, the hospital called to tell us our doctor had called in sick (oh, the irony abounds). So we were in a holding pattern until the next day. Then another unexpected delay, but not until we’d already checked in at the hospital, so we were sort of like those airline passengers who find themselves stuck on the runway. Except they usually have decent internet access.

Around noon on Tuesday, they finally whisked my wife away to delivery. (BTW, Ginny has a whole saga to insert here, which I missed completely. Something about a giant needle and sheer panic.) Moments later, I found myself decked out in a gown, mask, and hairnet holding her hand and looking at absolutely nothing in the room except her eyes. Then in a flash and a one-foot incision, out came baby, and our lives changed forever…again. He’d really already been with us for nine months, but we were thrilled to finally meet him.

And so the next chapter of our family adventure began.

– Greg

Windows Live Tags: ,
Bookmark and Share 

Round robin

Tweet, tweet!If you’re a Windows Live enthusiast, then you’ve no doubt discovered that Twitter has recently been removed as a web activity partner. In my recent tip, Surviving the Twitpocalypse, I described how you can effectively restore the ability to include your tweets in your Windows Live activity stream and keep these friends in the loop using RSS.

In this post, I’ll show you how to go one step further by updating your Twitter status automatically from Windows Live and vice versa, albeit with a little help from another connected Web service acting as an intermediary. The secret ingredient in the formula is actually MySpace, which has the ability to receive your Windows Live status updates and the ability to synchronize with your Twitter status. Best of all, it works two ways: when you update your Twitter status, your tweets flow back through MySpace to your Windows Live activity stream.

Assuming you have a MySpace account, you first need to connect it to Windows Live as a web service.

  1. Go to your profile, and click Connect.
  2. On Your Services page, click MySpace. Be sure to allow Windows Live to update your MySpace status, and finish connecting the services.

Next, you’ll configure your MySpace account to push status updates to Twitter.

  1. Log into MySpace, and click My Account.
  2. On the My Account page, click Sync.
  3. Under the Sync to Other Services (Beta) section, locate Twitter and click Get Synced.
  4. Provide your Twitter credentials, and click Allow.
  5. To enable MySpace to update your Twitter status, click Post my status updates to Twitter and Update my status from Twitter, and click Confirm.

Whew, crisis averted.

– Greg

Bookmark and Share