Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Fixing a Firefox user profile, and Foxmarks

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

SNB reader John Volborth wrote to me with a Firefox problem. My solution worked for him, so I thought I would pass it along:

Question:

I haven’t used Firefox in a while because of a problem I’ve been having. It won’t let me gather any apps. This is the error message:

Could not initialize the application’s security component. The most likely cause is problems with files in your application’s profile directory. Please check that this directory has no read/write restrictions and your hard disk is not full or close to full. It is recommended that you exit the application and fix the problem. If you continue to use this session, you might see incorrect application behaviour when accessing security features.

Is there any help you can offer me? Thanks.

Answer:

I’m not clear on what you mean when you say “it won’t let me gather apps,” but more than likely you have a corrupt Firefox user profile. To solve the problem, you’ll need to delete every file in your Mozilla installation and do a clean install of the latest version of the browser. Some of these files hide in places you might not think to look, so it’s important to follow directions on how to fully remove profile.
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Windows 7 HomeGroup not so hot in Beta 1

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

In a more recent post, I finally got HomeGroup to work — third time is the charm. The fact that I had difficulty with a virtual machine version of Windows 7 is something that I hope Microsoft can resolve. So I think this post is still valid. I will retest virtual installations with later releases of Windows 7.

In an earlier first impression post about Windows 7 Beta 1, I called Microsoft’s new HomeGroup feature brain dead. Well, after further review, I’m standing by that assessment. HomeGroup isn’t working here. The feature feels only partly implemented to me. And, normally I’d forgive Microsoft that foible, given this is Beta 1, except that Microsoft’s top dog for Windows 7 Engineering, Steven Sinofsky, just confirmed that Windows 7 will move straight to a release candidate build, skipping any other betas.

So, why do I say that when so many other reviewers are raving about HomeGroup? Well, here’s my experience.

I started by creating a HomeGroup on my Windows 7 test machine. Then I thoroughly tested networking with several other computers on my network, including a Vista machine, an XP machine, and two Macs. I had no trouble with either Vista or XP, networking the way any Windows user would on a peer network. In that mode, Windows 7 networks exactly like Vista does. All computers, even the Macs, are using the same workgroup name. My Vista and XP machines can file-share back and forth with the Macs quite easily. The Windows 7 machine could not. The Macs can connect to Windows 7 without trouble. Windows 7 sees the Macs but issues a path error when I try to force it to connect to them. I had run into this same Mac problem with my earlier test of Win 7 Beta 1 and the November release of Win 7. Networking is often dicey with beta versions of Windows, so this Mac issue wasn’t a huge surprise.

The only way to test the HomeGroup feature is with two Windows machines running Win 7. Unfortunately, I don’t have another PC available and suitable to be a Windows 7 test machine. So I downloaded Sun’s freely distributed VirtualBox software for the Mac. The hardest part about setting up VirtualBox was locating its Guest Additions (add-on drivers specific to your guest OS). It wasn’t where Sun’s documentation said it was. But there were several variations on the installation directions, and one of them worked. In all other regards, VirtualBox is an impressive product. Anyone who has used either VMware or the Parallels virtualization tools will recognize similarities.

VirtualBox has a pre-configured Windows 7 guest-OS mode, and that made set up easy. It took me only a little over an hour to rig up both VirtualBox and Windows 7 on one of my MacBook Pros.

With the two Windows 7 installations running, I expected to have no problems with HomeGroup. Even though there’s clearly some sort of issue with Windows 7 and Mac networking, the fact that the Macs could connect with Windows 7 left me feeling confident. It’s actually not uncommon for the Mac to have an issue networking with a Windows box while the virtual machine of Windows running on the same Mac has no problems connecting. But if you’re inclined to discount my experience with HomeGroup, this would be the best thing to hang your hat on.

So, with Windows 7 running on the Mac, I proceeded to try HomeGroup. You’re supposed to create your HomeGroup on one machine and then from all other Windows 7 machines, use the Join HomeGroup function. But no matter how hard I tried, the two Windows 7 installations were unable to connect to one another. The Join HomeGroup dialog wouldn’t appear. I tried it in both directions. I also tried creating HomeGroups on both machines and making them use the same password. No go.

Note: It’s possible to change the HomeGroup password after the fact from the Network and Sharing Center or Control Panel. It’s not possible to change the Windows 7-assigned HomeGroup password while you’re initiating HomeGroup.

I probably would have put off posting my less-than-stellar experience with HomeGroup except that I decided to go looking for other people’s experiences, and it was not difficult to find other people having the exact same problems with HomeGroup that I was.

I’m sure that Microsoft will straighten out HomeGroup in most people’s Win 7 installations by the time the operating system ships. I’m sure I will get it to work, too. Although I still sort of doubt that this Windows Networking Wizard on minor steroids will truly obviate the need to fully understand the ins and outs of Windows networking.

One final note: For those of you who read my previous post on Windows 7 and disagreed with me about performance, my MacBook Pro-hosted virtual machine Windows 7 installation seems no faster or slower to me than the other one. Windows 7 feels like Vista to me.

Maybe it just feels faster because you’re not constantly being bombarded with those annoying UAC prompts?

Windows 7 Beta 1: I’m not impressed

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

I am not impressed with Windows 7 Beta 1. While virtually every reviewer, including my friend and Computerworld‘s lead Windows editor and reviewer, Preston Gralla, is for the most part praising Windows 7, Beta 1 is every bit the pig that Windows Vista is. How could reviewers be missing that? The earlier Alpha was fast — even I said so. This beta is not.

For those of you who downloaded the new Windows 7 beta, try launching two Windows at once or loading two Internet Explorer windows. Try deleting one large folder of files, and then while that’s taking forever to delete, try deleting another. Or really anything that involves walking and chewing bubble gum. Like Windows Vista before it, Windows 7 Beta 1 is sluggish, glitchy, and inconsistent. It may be fast for a while, here and there, but as soon as you really press it, performance folds up like a house of cards.

It took me 30 minutes to figure out how to avoid using the brain-dead “HomeGroup” feature to share files and folders on a wireless network. Windows 7 kept telling me that it was sharing the files on the “domain” that was the workstation name of my Windows 7 computer, not the workgroup name on my network (you know, like, “Workgroup”). In fact, there’s no place that I can find within the Network and Sharing Center to create or change the workgroup name. In other words, Microsoft removed this ability in Windows 7, since Vista’s Network and Sharing Center had it. Eventually, I just rebooted Windows 7 and it started recognizing the workgroup name of the other computers connected to it (I wanted to see whether the incorrect workgroup name was a bug or a feature — it was a bug). Yes, you can still change the workgroup name several levels deep under the System Control Panel, but that’s not even slightly intuitive for the uninitiated.

I suppose I should score something in Windows 7’s favor because I was at least able to network with Beta 1, something I gave up on with the Alpha version. Microsoft still doesn’t get networking. In trying to make it more and more a wizard process, it has needlessly complicated it for people who already know what they’re doing. It comes down to this, if the only way we’re being given tools to network requires us to use the HomeGroup, the new name for the Windows Networking Wizard, something is awry. HomeGroup assigns you a cryptic password which you must “write down” to remember, and every computer on your network has to use it. You can’t change this password. And, as with the Alpha version, I don’t see a way to network using HomeGroup with a Linux or Mac machine. (For additional information on the operation of Homegroup, please see the more recent post, Windows 7 Homegroup not so hot in Beta 1.)

The new taskbar, missing from the Alpha code, wasn’t worth the wait. It’s not special. The windows-management features first shown in the Alpha are pretty cool. But the new taskbar is a pale imitation of the Mac’s Dock feature. I suppose that if you’ve never used the Mac’s Dock, you’ll find this innovative. But if you have, you’ll recognize the fact that Microsoft hasn’t improved on it in any meaningful way.

For pictures of the new Windows 7 Beta 1 features, including the new taskbar, see the image gallery for Preston’s Gralla’s Computerworld review of Windows 7 Beta 1.

Other new features include Jump Lists (prettier context menus with new functions) and Aero Peek (yet another way to look behind opened windows). But let me expose this for what it is: Fluffy UI stuff to help make you feel good about a warmed over version of Windows Vista with a new name. Taken as a whole, the changes so far shown in Windows 7 are minor.

In Beta 1, I continue to be happy with total gag order Microsoft gave User Account Control (UAC) by default. It makes using Windows 7 far less annoying. But taking away a bad idea also isn’t that big a deal. You could turn off UAC in Vista too.

Yes, Windows 7 Beta 1 is better than Vista, but if Microsoft doesn’t do serious work on the next version of Windows’ ability to run tasks simultaneously, on software quality, on adding that feeling of effortlessness that the Alpha displayed, I won’t be likely to recommend it. Microsoft needs to do well with this version of Windows. It needs to change the perception of what it’s like to use Windows. Beta 1 is not confidence inspiring in that direction. And for those of you wondering, I clean installed these new Windows 7 bits on the same machine I used for my Alpha review. While no barn burner, it’s a respectable 2.0 GHz Core Duo with a decent graphics subsystem. I purchased it in 2006 to evaluate Windows Vista’s Media Center functionality.

Beta 1 is a prerelease version of Windows 7, so I’m not drawing conclusions this early. But having reviewed every beta and gold release of Windows since Windows 3.0, I’m seeing the beginning of a pattern I’ve seen before: Windows gets slower and less responsive as it gets closer to being released.

At some point you have to just say no to more features and services that build unsustainable overhead. When you use other operating systems — such as Linux and OS X — it becomes clear that Microsoft and its OEM PC manufacturers really don’t care about the fact that Windows is perennially overtaxed.

Early Reactions to Windows 7

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Editor’s Note: This story was written in November about the early version of Windows 7 that Microsoft calls the “pre-beta.” I term it a late alpha. Either way, it’s not the Beta 1 version that was publicly distributed in January.

I was on vacation last week and finally got a chance to install Microsoft’s Windows 7 alpha code and play with it a bit. My first reactions were positive.

Installation went without a hitch. I cloned the drive of a Dell Core Duo notebook circa 2006 and then allowed the Windows installation process to do a clean install on the drive. The installation process was very fast — much faster than Windows Vista. It also did its job with a minimum of fuss and questions. On first start, Windows 7 did an online update and installed multiple items. The screen resolution, which wasn’t correct on initial start, righted itself to the LCD’s wide-aspect-ratio native resolution when I rebooted.

The first thing I noticed about Windows 7 is that it’s fast. I would caution that I had the same reaction to some of the earlier beta versions of Vista. Vista definitely slowed down at the end of its development cycle. The same thing could happen to Windows 7. But there’s an effortlessness about the Windows 7 UI performance that is pleasant and very welcome.

There’s not a lot new in this build of Windows 7. It’s not feature complete. But I love the new smarter window-sizing features. Pushing windows around and dragging their edges is one of the most tiresome aspects of working on a computer. Microsoft’s smart idea works this way: If your browser, for example, isn’t maximized, you can drag the top edge of the program window to the top edge of the screen. Then Windows 7 automatically pops the bottom of the browser to the bottom edge of the screen too. Think of it as maximized vertically; the sides of the window will be wherever they were when you started. Windows 7 shows you it’s going to adjust the window size in advance. The indicator is a tinted overlay area that shows what the new window size will be. When you release the mouse button (after moving the top edge of the window to the top of the screen), the tinted area goes away and the window resizes.

Even more useful for the way I tend to work, is a variation of the feature that works on either side of the screen. I frequently set up two applications side by side on higher-resolution monitors, a tedious process. Windows 7 makes the chore a snap. Drag any window by its title bar off the screen to one side or another (you have to drag it until the mouse pointer itself is to the edge of the screen). Windows 7 will then open the program window so that it takes up exactly half of the available screen to the side you dragged it to (think of it as maximized on three sides). Open another program window and do the same thing on the other side, and the result is two programs opened side by side, perfectly positioned in only a few seconds. It’s a very useful, even ingenious feature that power users are sure to love.

My reaction to the changes in the networking area — a weak point of Vista — is much less positive. I’m still frustrated by Microsoft’s attempt to wizardize everything. They’ve dumbed things down so far that I ran into three networking problems in 15 minutes. The first was that my Windows 7 machine somehow got the IP address of another device. This happens a lot with Windows machines on simple networks. I don’t know why that’s the case. In this instance, the IP address the Win 7 machine glommed onto is a permanently assigned address for a printer on my network. Windows 7’s network UI doesn’t offer a way to release and renew the IP address. While, yes, I can do that from the command line — the UI should offer this feature, as it did in Windows XP. What are they thinking?

While I was looking for a way to release and renew the IP, I realized that the Network and Sharing Center was showing that I wasn’t connected to the Internet — even though I was having no problems getting out to the Internet. After about an hour of operation and a couple of restarts, Windows 7 eventually realized that it was connected to the Internet and righted itself. But what’s up with that?

Finally, Windows 7 introduces the new “homegroup” feature, which is supposed to simplify the process of setting up file sharing and device sharing in home environments. But this is really nothing more than yet another wizard that wants to assign its own passwords (you can’t change them!) and take over for you. And there’s no transparency about what it’s doing. But the colossally arrogant aspect of this tool is that it appears to be only designed to work with other Windows machines. It’s not even clear from the UI that it works with non-Windows 7 machines, although I’m sure you can make it work with them.

I’ve saved the best of my reactions for last. One of my top three criticisms of Windows Vista was that UAC (User Account Control) was way too overzealous. To the point, I felt, that it effectively disabled its security by literally numbing the user to its warnings. Even worse, as far as I was concerned, was that UAC was annoying as hell. It made Vista very hard to warm up to.

User Account Control has changed in Windows 7. For one thing, it has four behavior settings which range from Windows Vista drive-you-crazy mode down to “never notify.” And the default setting is “Only notify me when programs try to makes changes to my computer.” During the first hour of use I opened almost every Control Panel item and was never confronted with a UAC prompt. At some point, I’m going to make a concerted effort to see a UAC prompt with the default setting, but I can call this now: Microsoft has solved my problem with UAC. This may not offer supreme protection in theory, but I believe that the balance of notifying about truly dangerous activities as opposed to everything under the Sun will offer better overall security. Why? Because if you see a UAC prompt in Windows 7, you’re far more likely to take it seriously. It won’t be just another in a blizzard of repetitive prompts.

It’s great to see the Windows Sidebar gone and the ability to place Gadgets (Windows’ widgets) directly on the desktop. This is the way it should work. Apple: Take notice.

All in all, the Windows 7 pre-beta is a surprisingly good start to the next version of Windows. I will continue to work with this build and report anything of note I come across. I look forward to testing the later pre-releases of Windows 7 too.

One Year Later: iPhone Not So Amazing

Monday, October 20th, 2008

There are many things I love about my original iPhone, but after one year of ownership, it’s lately begun to collect dust in its charging stand. I grabbed a BlackBerry Curve 8330 at the office, and after three weeks with the RIM device, I’m sure I’m not going back to my iPhone.

So what’s wrong with the iPhone? Two things:

1. One word: AT&T. I live and work in the greater Boston area, and AT&T’s network is pretty poor here and elsewhere. When I receive calls at my house, the iPhone rings only about 50% of the time. Sometimes calls don’t even register as missed. One of the first things I noticed after switching to BlackBerry on Verizon’s network is how many calls I was suddenly getting. And calls to my BlackBerry don’t drop off or become interference plagued anywhere near as frequently as those on my iPhone. Apple’s insistence on exclusivity with AT&T in the U.S. will keep me from going back to the iPhone until that changes.

So is this a regional problem? Not according to Consumer Reports, which has more than once ranked Verizon’s network as best or second best in most major markets throughout the U.S. Both in the Northeast and in my travels all around the country I have found this to be true. I was a Verizon Wireless customer before I bought my iPhone.

2. The virtual keyboard doesn’t work for me. People assume that it’s the lack of tactile feel when pressing fingers to glass, but I don’t think that tells the story. My frustration with the iPhone keyboard is that I cannot use my thumbs, but am instead reduced to stabbing with one finger, which is slower and less accurate. The worst part is that I frequently press the wrong keys while attempting to type without looking. On the BlackBerry, even though the keys are both much smaller and packed more tightly together, I’m able to “touch type” because of the little bumps that help you locate the keys by touch. The way I see this the problem is one of size. I could deal with lack of tactile feel on the iPhone if the virtual keycaps were larger so there were less chance of hitting the wrong key. Without those tactile bumps, me and my thumbs need larger targets.

That’s my short list of serious pet peeves with the iPhone. Were I to make a list of things I love about Apple’s smartphone, it would have at least a dozen items. But while it’s a short list negatives, they hard to get around: It’s not a reliable cell phone for calls, and I can’t really type emails and texts comfortably. The switch to the BlackBerry was a no-brainer for me.

Even so, I wouldn’t say I love the BlackBerry. The software syncing situation is terrible for Mac users. PocketMac is hopeless. (I’m about to try Missing Sync.) RIM needs to break down and write a true Desktop Manager for the Mac. I’m going to miss the iPhone’s seamless integration with all things Apple and Mac.

I also don’t like the BlackBerry’s over-reliance on email as a way to notify about voicemails and texts. I get so much voicemail that I need one place for that. I love the iPhone’s visual voicemail center and texting module (which uses more of an IM paradigm).

The BlackBerry Web browser and digital media features pale by comparison with those of the iPhone. I bought a 4GB SD card for the BlackBerry and still haven’t been able to successfully copy my songs and photos to RIM’s smartphone.

One BlackBerry Curve strength I hadn’t expected is that it’s noticeably lighter than the iPhone while being roughly comparable in size.

All in all, the iPhone is the most important smartphone released in the last three years. But Apple’s blind insistence on being exclusive with AT&T and Steve Job’s belief that buttons are bad — even keyboard buttons — makes the iPhone incomplete for me. I know other people who’ve gone back too. I’ll come back to the iPhone when and if Apple gets the message about the main things that a smartphone has to accomplish: phone calls and email.

If I could only get the BlackBerry keyboard and Verizon’s network on the iPhone, I’d have the best of both worlds.

Online Armor Version 3 Beta Supports Vista

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

Yesterday, Tall Emu, makers of Scot’s Newsletter’s Best Software Firewall of 2008, Online Armor, released public beta 1 of a significant new version of its firewall. Online Armor version 3 supports Vista, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. The list of features is quite long and very intriguing.

Tall Emu CEO Mike Nash tells me that the public beta of the free version of Online Armor will be released shortly (probably today). In addition to Vista support, the free version will now be able to check for and install updates automatically as well as upgrade to newer versions (free or paid) of the OA software without having to uninstall the previous version. That takes care of my chief criticism of Online Armor’s 2.x free version. (The paid version of the product was able to perform both of these functions.) I’m glad to see Tall Emu make the products equal in this area. It’s the right thing to do. But in the same breath, I also urge my readers to pay for the commercial software products they adopt and use regularly. It is equally the right thing to do.

So here’s a quick top-level list of what’s new in Online Armor 3. For more detail about what’s new, see Mike Nash’s post in the Tall Emu forums.

Online Armor 3 Beta 1 Highlights and New Features

  • 32-bit Vista compatible
  • Updated user interface
  • Additional threat protection
  • Updated help file (http://www.tallemu.com/webhelp3/Welcome.html)
  • New language support, including French and Italian.
  • Multi-desktop support
  • Manage your hosts file with Online Armor’s HOSTS editor.
  • “Trust All” option in the Safety Check Wizard allows fast setup on new computers.
  • MAC Filtering
  • Online Armor can be set not to start at next boot.
  • Filter by program added to firewall status screen.
  • Default “Run Safer” for unknown programs added to OA options.
  • Keylogger detection detects more types of keylogger.
  • Advanced-mode options screens allow finer control.

30 Days of Apple’s MacBook Air

Saturday, May 17th, 2008

Living with the MacBook Air is not only possible, even for a power user, it changes the way you work and play in a positive way.

For the last month I’ve been living with Apple’s diminutive MacBook Air as my sole production computer for all professional and personal use. My previous main Mac was a 2007 2.4GHz 4GB RAM MacBook Pro 17 with the highest resolution Apple offers in a notebook. So I went from one Apple portable extreme (highest resolution, most power, heaviest) to the other (smallest, lightest, least powerful, least memory, weakest video). There are a number of trade-offs, but the positive outweighs the negative.

It happened that late April through May is a slow travel period for me, so while I’ve attended local events offsite, I haven’t hit the road yet. But in a couple of weeks, I’ll be on a tour that includes D.C., NYC, Boston, and Miami. The east coast thang. I’ll give the MacBook Air a thorough travel test then. Once that’s complete, I’ll write a full long-term review of the MacBook Air on Computerworld.com.

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USB Drive Wrap-Up: The IronKey Rocks for Security

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Back in November I named Lexar’s 4GB JumpDrive Lightning a Scot’s Newsletter Blog Top Product! and I’ve been using it ever since. To give you a sense of how valuable a tool this is for me, I spent a day recently believing I had lost it (the biggest problem with USB memory devices), and just the thought made me feel clammy.

In the same article (scroll down to find it), I also presented the results of my performance testing of four USB devices, including the 4GB IronKey Secure Flash Drive. In my tests, the IronKey was not very fast. In a March 2008 secure USB drive comparison review in Computerworld, the same model IronKey (although, about six months newer than the evaluation unit that I tested), turned in excellent performance.

The Computerworld review tested a much slower Lexar device than the one I’ve recommended. It didn’t compare the JumpDrive Lightning, which has decent software-encryption security. Instead it compared the results of Lexar’s JumpDrive Secure II, a model I rejected because it was much slower and I didn’t believe the security it added was critical to my needs. As the Computerworld article states, “The Lexar JumpDrive Secure II offers three ways to protect data, but two of its methods [are] so awkward that the reviewer found them to be being more trouble than they were worth.”

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The Best Firewall Software of 2008: Online Armor

Monday, March 24th, 2008

The decision is in. After a year and a half of testing, and with the help of more than a thousand Scot’s Newsletter readers who’ve written detailed descriptions of their software firewall experiences, I’m happy to announce that Tall Emu’s Online Armor 2.1 is The Scot’s Newsletter Blog Best Firewall Software of 2008.

There are many reasons why I’ve selected Online Armor (OA) as the best software firewall for Windows users; the rest of this story delivers the details. But boiled down to a single thought, the most important reason is this: Online Armor offers the best blend of a high degree of protection with a high level of usability.

That may sound simplistic, but in this software category such a balance is the toughest thing for a software development company to achieve. It’s very easy to throw up a blizzard of pop-up user-prompts. You can make your system so secure that you’ll never want to use it again. It’s also easy to dumb down the security so much that you’ll rarely, if ever, see a pop up — and in the process, render the firewall ineffective. The trick is to offer solid protection with minimal user interruptions. OA 2.1 is the only firewall software I’ve tested that delivers a near-perfect balance.

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Online Armor 2.1.0.85 Released

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

Online Armor 2.1.0.85 was quietly released on the Tall Emu website earlier today. The company posted information about the software firewall’s new features on its forums. I’ve tested several betas of this release, but many of the what’s-new items are server-dependent, and so I’m just exploring those nuances right now.

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