Cheaper retail Vista?

Brain Livingston has described an intriguing way to go using the retail Upgrade editions of Vista to do a fresh installation without having either windows 2000 or XP installed in the latest edition (free – there is a paid version but I veer away from information overload) of the Windows Secrets email newsletter: install it twice! After the first time around, it cannot be activated because there is no previous version of Windows installed but it is possible to do a Vista to Vista "upgrade", the second installation, and that can be activated. It is strange behaviour but I suppose that it placates those who think that the full retail packages are far too expensive. They even think that in the U.S.; but "rip off" Britain is getting a lot worse deal because we are not seeing the benefits of the low dollar at all. If right was right, we should be getting Vista at half of the price that we are paying for it. It’s enough to drive you to going the OEM option or not upgrading at all, especially since XP is going to be supported until 2011 (I have seen 2014 mentioned in some places). Livingston is going to cover the whole OEM discussion in the next edition of Windows Secrets and I for one will be very interested to see what he has to say.

Trying out OpenSolaris

Having been programming (mostly in SAS as it happens) on Sun’s venerable Solaris operating system platform at work since the start of this year, the chance to try OpenSolaris x86 edition in a VMware virtual machine seemed a good opportunity for advancing my skills. Prior to this, my exposure to Solaris was when I was at university and things have moved on a bit since then, not least on the technology side but also in terms of my own skills. In those days, my mindset was fixed by exposure to MacOS and Windows with their point-and-click functionality; the fact that the terminals that we were using were ancient didn’t make for a positive impression. You can see here what I mean. And the concept of tackling a command line, even one as powerful as that in UNIX, armed with a good book was somehow foreign to me. Mind you, in those pre-Safari days, getting your hands on books not in the university library was an expensive outing for the student finances. Armed with years of programming and web development experience, the UNIX command line now looks like and powerful tool to be used to the greatest advantage. Years of exposure to Perl and Linux have made the tool a less daunting one for me. Also, the availability of shell scripting makes the Windows batch file language look positively archaic. The default ksh shell (I believe that it is ksh88) in Solaris is not as friendly as it could be bit bash is available on demand so life isn’t that uncomfortable on the command line. To date my experience of OpenSolaris has been brief because I wrecked the installation while trying to sort out an annoying graphics issue that appear after installing VMware Tools (drivers for various pseudo-devices) on OpenSolaris; I have yet to put things back. The installation procedure is pretty painless for what is a technical operating system. The Community: Tools section of the OpenSolaris website has articles on installation and installation under VMware is discussed on Developer’s Quarterdeck Log. As regards desktop environment, you have a choice between the ubiquitous Gnome and Sun’s own CDE, of which I have seen plenty at work. I installed the developer edition but there are the usual Linux mainstays on the desktop: StarOffice (in place of OpenOffice), GIMP, Mozilla Firefox, etc. I wasn’t able to sort out an internet connection but that may be because ZoneAlarm was blacklisting VMware at the time of installation. All in all, it looked a far friendlier environment for users than that which I encountered during my early years on UNIX. I must get it back in action and take things on from here…

Office 2007 on test…

With its imminent launch and having had a quick at one of its beta releases, I decided to give Office 2007 a longer look after it reached its final guise. This is courtesy of the demonstration version that can be downloaded from Microsoft’s website; I snagged Office Standard which contains Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. Very generously, the trial version that I am using gives me until the end of March to come to my final decision.

And what are my impressions? Outlook, the application from the suite that I most use, has changed dramatically since Outlook 2002, the version that I have been using. Unless you open up an email in full screen mode, the ribbon interface so prevalent in other members of the Office family doesn’t make much of an appearance here. The three-paned interface taken forward from Outlook 2003 is easy to get around. I especially like the ability to collapse/expand a list of emails from a particular sender: it really cuts down on clutter. The ZoneAlarm anti-spam plug-in on my system was accepted without any complaint as were all of my PST files. One thing that needed redoing was the IMAP connection to my FastMail webmail account but that was driven more by Outlook warning messages than by necessity from a user experience point of view. I have still to get my Hotmail account going but I lost that connection when still using Outlook 2002 and after I upgraded to IE7.

What do I make of the ribbon interface? As I have said above, Outlook is not pervaded by the new interface paradigm until you open up an email. Nevertheless, I have had a short encounter with Word 2007 and am convinced that the new interface works well. It didn’t take me long to find my way around at all. In fact, I think that they have made a great job of the new main menu triggered by the Office Button (as Microsoft call it) and got all sorts of things in there; the list includes Word options, expanded options for saving files (including the new docx file format, of course, but the doc format has not been discarded either) and a publishing capability that includes popular blogs (WordPress.com, for instance) together with document management servers. Additionally, the new zoom control on the bottom right-hand corner is much nicer than the old drop down menu. As regards the “ribbon”, this is an extension of the tabbed interfaces seen in other applications like Adobe HomeSite and Adobe Dreamweaver, the difference being that the tabs are only place where any function is found because there is no menu back up. There is an Add-ins tab that captures plug-ins to things like Adobe Distiller for PDF creation. Macromedia in its pre-Adobe days offered FlashPaper for doing the same thing and this seems to function without a hitch in Word 2007. Right-clicking on any word in your document not only gives you suggested corrections to misspellings but also synonyms (no more Shift-F7 for the thesaurus, though it is still there is you need it) and enhanced on-the-spot formatting options. A miniature formatting menu even appears beside the expected context menu; I must admit that I found that a little annoying at the beginning but I suppose that I will learn to get used to it.

My use of Outlook and Word will continue, the latter’s blogging feature is very nice, but I haven’t had reason to look at Excel or PowerPoint in detail thus far. From what I have seen, the ribbon interface pervades in those applications too. Even so, my impressions the latest Office are very favourable. The interface overhaul may be radical but it does work. Their changing the file formats is a more subtle change but it does mean that users of previous Office versions will need the converter tool in order for document sharing to continue. Office 97 was the last time when we had to cope with that and it didn’t seem to cause the world to grind to a halt.

Will I upgrade? I have to say that it is very likely given what is available in Office Home and Student edition. That version misses out on having Outlook but the prices mean that even buying Outlook standalone to compliment what it offers remains a sensible financial option. Taking a look at the retail prices on dabs.com confirms the point:

Office Home and Student Edition: £94.61

Office Standard Edition: £285.50

Office Standard Edition Upgrade: £175.96

Outlook 2007: £77.98

Having full version software for the price of an upgrade sounds good to me and it is likely to be the route that I take, if I replace the Office XP Standard Edition installation that has been my mainstay over the last few years. Having been on a Windows 95 > Windows 98 > Windows 98 SE > Windows ME upgrade treadmill and endured the hell raised when reinstallation becomes unavoidable, the full product approach to getting the latest software appeals to me over the upgrade pathway. In fact, I bought Windows XP Professional as the full product in order to start afresh after moving on from Windows 9x.