Saturday, August 16, 2008

Windows Woes

For years it seemed like a good idea, Microsoft produced the software and many vendors sold compatible hardware. Competition kept the hardware innovation flowing and prices low. Then Microsoft turned into a big bloated monopoly that could not create a decent product if it tried. Moreover, Microsoft is not really in control, it itself is hostage to other interests. The result is a horrible user experience. Here are a couple of my recent experiences.

A few months ago I bought a new video card so that it would use the digital input to the monitor. Installing the card was a breeze and the digital input makes the monitor noticeably sharper. The only problem was that the sound had stopped working. After a couple of hours scratching my head and vigorous Googling, the problem turns out to have been caused by Hollywood.

The connection between a computer and its display uses HDMI, a digital interconnect standard that can transmit both video and audio. This allows a PC to connect to a digital television as well as a simple display. It also allows the video and audio content to be encrypted so that you cannot steal it from your own computer. This was mandated by Hollywood and Microsoft meekly acquiesced to it so that they could provide media center software that would display Hollywood movies in high definition.

So after the video card installation, Windows software assumed that I was going to use the digital audio output on the video card and ignored all other audio output devices. This even although my display does not have any speakers. I had to go into the BIOS and change some low level settings for sound so that Windows would allow me to select the sound settings that I had been using before installing the video card. Any time you have to go into the BIOS to change settings, the user experience loses.

More recently my brother and family came to visit during a tour of California. He wanted to unload all the pictures on his cameras flash card and write them to a CD as the flash card was full. I suggested the easy way out, visit Fry's Electronics and buy another flash card, but that deemed more trouble. In practice it would have been much easier.

We downloaded the flash card to my PC. The first difficulty is that you are presented with a list of 6 competing programs that want to download your pictures. Which one should I use? I know that in practice they are all going to put the pictures in some ridiculous place where you can never find them again (that is the subject of another tirade). I chose the first in the list which happened to be compatible with the brand of digital camera.

The next problem came when we went into Windows Explorer so that we could drag the pictures to the CD ROM folder. Every time we went into the folder where the pictures were, Explorer exited saying that it had an unexpected fault. I knew exactly what the problem was because I had seen it before. There were some movie files taken with the digital camera, and Windows has problem with these movie (.avi) files. For some reason, Explorer tries to open every file in a folder when it enters the folder, even although I set it to just list the files and not display thumbnails.

The fix was to open a DOS window, navigate to the folder with the files and rename them so that Windows would not think they were media files. I added the extension .tmp to each .avi file by laborious typing. Then it was possible to do the intuitive drag and and drop with Explorer to make a CD ROM. Any time you have to resort to using a DOS window to do a straightforward function in Windows, usability has gone out the window.

I could go on (as I have in the past), there have been more problems, however with each problem the Apple alternative looks better. Apple is by no means perfect, however the Apple OS is built on a better foundation and the innovations that it makes when it comes out with a new version are both useful and innovative.