Friday, May 29, 2015

This Is The Beginning

I started this blog all the way back in 2004 without any clear focus or sense of purpose, and with the hope that 1. I would eventually settle on some sort of vision for what I wanted it to be about and 2. In the process, it would develop some kind of audience.
Neither one of those things ever happened, and in the years in which I've been infrequently posting I've kind of been all over the map, posting rants, recipes, drawings, excerpts of some of my other writings, movie reviews, and just any random whatever that happened to pop into my head.
After nearly eleven years of random mental meandering, it's time to close up shop.
It's not going to be any great loss - see my point about failing to achieve hope number 2 - and, honestly, over the past couple of years my infrequent posting schedule has become so infrequent as to be practically nonexistent.
With that said, however, this isn't quite the end of Threshold.
As some (most?) of you already know, I've begun a new venture in the world of online comics, creating OpenDoor Comics in an attempt to build an open and inclusive platform for publishing comics of all kinds from creators of all backgrounds.
It's an exciting - and scary - new adventure for me, and between that and my continuing role as a Corporate Drone and Establishment Stooge, there's even less time and energy available for focusing on The Little Blog That Couldn't.
So the time has come to shut it down, shut it all down.
Well...not quite all.
Threshold will live on, in a new, slightly more focused form, as The Threshold, the Official Blog of OpenDoor Comics.
It won't be the same kind of unfocused ramblings that virtually no one has come to know or love, but if there's such a thing as Blog DNA (Note:  There isn't), that genetic code will continue on in this new entity.
With The Threshold, the goal is to keep people up-to-date on the latest happenings with OpenDoor Comics as the idea continues to move towards  my ultimate vision for it, and while it will have a certain randomness to it - the result of its genetic inheritance - the focus, ultimately, will always tie back to the central vision that led me to create OpenDoor Comics.
Ideally, I'm looking for The Threshold to be comparable to the old "Stan's Soabbox" columns that used to run in Marvel comics that were ostensibly - as with anything attributed to Stan - written by Stan "The Man" Lee, and the "Meanwhile..." columns that DC used to run under Dick Giordano's tenure.
Right now, the new site doesn't really have a lot going for it, but, like someone once said about a famous ship, she's may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts.
So...that's it.
I hope that any of you reading this will stop by the new place from time to time, and that you're able to find content - beyond what shows up in Threshold's digital descendant - that you will enjoy.
It's too late to avoid busting out that hoary old cliche about how every ending is a new beginning, but, while I want to avoid getting too maudlin, I do want to say that I'm at least a little sorry to see the end of this chapter.  Threshold never really delivered on my hopes, but there was a definite value for me to have this avenue of expression over the years.
While this will be my last post here, I'm not completely pulling the plug - what exists now will continue to exist for the time being, but don't be surprised if one day you find that not even a memory remains.
Please be sure to swing by OpenDoor Comics regularly, and, if you're of a mind to, follow @OpenDoor_Comics on Twitter and like OpenDoor Comics on Facebook, and just generally help spread the word about my new venture.
Finally, a big THANK YOU to everyone who's stopped by over the years.

Jon Maki

Saturday, April 11, 2015

So Much For That…

A while ago, as part of the overall Technical Preview program for Windows 10, Microsoft released a Technical Preview of the phone version for Windows 10 to those brave souls willing to take the risk of "bricking" their phones in order to test and help improve the latest mobile offering from Redmond.
However, due to an issue with the size of the install partition - a boring technical issue that I won't get into - only a limited number of phones were eligible to run the pre-release OS.
My phone was not one of them.
Recently, they announced that they would be releasing a new build that would be available for a wider range of phones, including mine, and provided a release date and time of April 10th at 10 AM PDT.
I decided to give it a shot - in the worst case, it would brick my 2+ year old phone and I'd pick up a cheap, low-end Windows Phone off-contract to tide me over until MS finally releases a new "flagship" phone later this year along with the official release of Windows 10.
Having gotten distracted by something else, it was a few minutes after the launch went live before I fired up the Windows Insider app to start the update process.
I was promptly greeted by a server error.  I tried again off and on for a while, and checked online to see if this was a known issue and if there was a fix in the works.  It was, and there was, and some hours later I was able to get the ball rolling and the update downloading.
It took a lot longer for the update to install than any other update I've done on my phone, but eventually the phone rebooted and I was greeted with the new look of the Windows 10 UI.
I was not, however, greeted with much in the way of actual functionality.  Most apps would immediately crash upon opening, and the battery was draining at a pace that would make Barry Allen say, "Slow down, Turbo."
It's worth noting that one of the few apps that I could get to work properly was the Photos app.  I found this amusing because on the PC version of the Windows 10 Technical Preview, the Photos app is the least usable app an can barely be said to function at all.
The new Outlook Mail app would open and bring me to a "Getting Started" screen to add accounts, as it didn't appear to carry over any of my existing e-mail accounts.  I attempted to add my GMail account, and it went through all the steps, including bringing me to the screen from Google asking me to authorize the app's access to my account.  At that point, however, a message popped up saying, "Oops!  Something went wrong!"  It then sent me back to the "Getting Started" screen, which had become unresponsive and would not allow me to try again until I closed and reopened the app, which would result in the same error when trying to add GMail, and no error message, but a return to the unresponsive "Getting Started" screen if I tried adding any other type of account.
I decided that a reboot was probably in order.  However, upon starting back up, the phone indicated that there was no SIM card present (there was), and that no wireless networks were available.  Another reboot did not solve the problem.
Before running the recovery software to attempt to go back to the previously-installed OS, I decided to do a hard reset, which would wipe all the data on the phone and give me a fresh start.
Once the reset was done, it attempted to restore some of my data.  Mostly preferences - account information, Start screen layout - etc. but there were several items that couldn't be restored because they depended on features that are no longer supported, or required files that were no longer present.  A particular folder of photos that I had pinned to the Start screen couldn't be restored, for example, because the photos it contained were wiped from the phone's storage.
I wasn't terribly concerned - there was nothing on the phone that was irreplaceable - particularly given that it was now recognizing my SIM card and was able to connect to my wireless network.
Additionally, upon launching the Outlook Mail app, I saw that all of my existing accounts were in place, though I did have to log back in to each of them.
With the Technical Preview up and running, I can share my initial reaction to some of the changes and new features, as well as some of the bugs I've encountered.
Let's start with the Pros:

Outlook Mail and Calendar - The two apps can be accessed separately, but are directly linked, and they look great.  Evidently they leaned heavily on the look and functionality of the recently-acquired Accompli in designing the apps.  I love being able to swipe to delete a or flag a message.  Not thrilled about the "hamburger" menu, but that's a battle that I think users have lost at this point, unfortunately.
Project Spartan - It's still extremely rough around the edges, but just the fact that Microsoft's next-generation browser is included in this build at all is a good thing.
Action Center - There have been multiple improvements here, including the option to Expand and see additional actions and settings.  Also, the ability to interact with notifications inline - being able to reply to a text from the notification without having to switch to the Messaging app, for example - is pretty damn cool.
Messaging - It's a nice - if long overdue - touch to actually show the contact picture for the person you're communicating with in the view of Conversations.  Also, the individual conversation threads themselves look somewhat more modern with the changes to the message balloons.
Settings - Being able to pin individual settings to the Start screen is a handy feature.
Bluetooth Keyboard Support – Another “about damn time” feature.  Of course, I wasn’t able to get this to work; while it attempted to pair with the one Bluetooth keyboard I had handy, much like Jon on a date* it wasn’t able to seal the deal.  Of course, that may have been a user error problem (again, much like Jon on a date).

...and I'm not going to list the Cons, because just a little while ago the Technical Preview bricked me.
Fortunately, I was able to roll back to 8.1 using the Lumia Recovery Tool, but making my phone completely unresponsive is the biggest Con there is, so no point in listing the other issues right now.
In fairness, it is an install-at-your-own-risk piece of pre-release software, so I can't complain too much, but until they provide a more stable build, I don't think I'll be making any further attempts at using it any time soon.
That said, I did have the opportunity to provide some feedback (which is what the Technical Preview is for), and to at least add my own to the chorus of voices calling out for some specific changes and improvements.
In the meantime, I'll keep using the PC/Tablet version on my Surface Pro 2 and providing additional feedback there.

*Though the fact that it was even able to attempt to pair puts it well-ahead of Jon on that front.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Make It A Perfect 10

As mentioned in previous posts, when my Surface Pro 3 ran into a hardware issue and had to be replaced I busted out the Surface Pro 2 to fill in for its younger sibling.
While I was at it, I installed the Technical Preview of Windows 10, the latest OS upgrade from Redmond, scheduled to be officially released later this year.
The point of the Technical Preview is to give users the opportunity to kick the tires of the OS and take it for a test drive  in order to provide feedback, either directly or via other data sent back to Microsoft via crash reports and the like, on areas for improvement in terms of performance and the UI, but it also represents a chance for Microsoft to test the waters and gauge users’ interest in new design paradigms, new services, and the overall direction of the windows line, and it gives me an opportunity to mix metaphors, apparently.
In any case, it was my intention to write up a post about my experience so far with the next generation Operating System.
However, despite the fact that I have the Preview installed on the SP2 and one of my spare desktop systems, between receiving my replacement SP3 and breaking in the new Cintiq, I really haven’t done much with it.
Even when the SP2 was serving as the temporary replacement for my SP3 I wasn’t really using it as my daily driver, as I found myself spending more time on my main desktop PC using the Cintiq, and now the SP2 is sitting upstairs in the library, and, like the spare desktop set up in one of the other bedrooms, it’s remained largely untouched.
The only real observations I can make about Windows 10 at this point is that the UI is somewhat inconsistent and in many ways represents a step backwards, and Google Chrome is agonizingly slow on it.
I am pleased to see Cortana on the desktop, and I’ve enjoyed using the “Hey Cortana” functionality, but at this point, while I think that Cortana will ultimately be something of a game-changer when it comes to everyday computing as the virtual assistant matures and becomes more sophisticated, and I still think that “she” is pretty cool, as with her Windows Phone counterpart I find that I honestly don’t have that much use for her at present.
Sure, the “chitchat” functions are entertaining, and I do use her to set the occasional reminder, but most of the time I’ve got my phone in vibrate mode, and sometimes I just plain forget that she’s there.
On the PC, her functionality remains somewhat limited in comparison to the phone iteration, so there was even less reason – or likelihood – for me to interact with her.
That said, I do have some thoughts on the Cortana and her potential that can serve as fodder for a future post.
But to bring things back to Windows 10 – as an aside, there’s a Technical Preview available for phones as well, but it’s only available for a small sub-set of phones, of which my phone isn’t part – apart from some of the interface changes, for the most part it’s…well, it’s Windows.
Sure, the icons are different – well, some of them are, at any rate, which is, er, consistent with the inconsistency issue I mentioned – and the Start Menu is now this weird mix of old and new, but the underlying experience is largely the same.
And that’s the problem.
Yes, ultimately, in a lot of ways, it’s good for Microsoft and consumers, in that it has the potential to be new and interesting while still familiar, which is kind of the perfect response to the consumers who want something new but still want everything to work the way it always has, and that compromise – along with making it free to the majority of users for the first year – will help to address a lot of the concerns that kept people away from Windows 8 and speed up adoption of the new OS.
While I tend to err more on the side of new and interesting than on the comfortable and familiar side – I was an early adopter of Windows Phone, after all, and remain a fan of the platform, and I like Windows 8/8.1 and tiles and the modern (metro) design language – I have no complaints about Microsoft making this compromise.  Yes, I would like a lot more wow factor, even at the cost of having to learn a new way of doing things, but I get that there’s a need to satisfy the more conservative users.
So it’s not as shiny and new as I would like, but I’m okay with that.
My problem with the meet the new OS, same as the old OS approach isn’t about the visual appeal, it’s that in simply building on the old foundation any new version of Windows is going to have the same underlying issues as previous versions (and new ones besides, which will then carry over to future builds).
And so far with what I’ve seen of Windows 10, that’s as true now as it was in the days of Windows 98 or, God help us, Windows Me*.
So, after that lengthy preamble, here is my list of Windows gripes that, if they were to be addressed, would make me a fan of Windows 10 even if the end result were something that looked like Windows 3.1.
First up is what I call the “Yeah, I know you didn’t really mean that” effect.
Sometimes you make a change to a setting in Windows because the default behavior doesn’t work for you.  The new behavior, after the adjustment, turns out to be exactly what you needed.  Hooray!
Except Windows decides that you weren’t serious, and, at some random point, decides to change things back to the way they were.
As an example, take the Tablet PC settings**.  When Microsoft launched its touch/stylus based variant of Windows XP back in the beginning of the current millennium, it brought with it settings for controlling various Windows behaviors as they relate to touch or pen input, which have since been incorporated into all flavors of Windows, given that we live in a very touch-centric world.
One of those settings is for determining handedness.  By default, Windows assumes that a user is right-handed, which makes sense, given that only about 10 percent of people are left-handed.  I’m part of the 90 percent, so one would assume that I’d leave the default setting alone.  The problem is that I don’t like the way things work when it’s set for right-handed use.  When set to right-handed, context menus appear to the left of your cursor.  I prefer that menus appear to the right, so I always set my computer to left-handed.
Everything will be going along nicely, and then one day I’ll do a right-click to bring up a menu and the menu appears to the left, because Windows decided to change things back to the default.  Why?  Who knows?  This has to be a pain for people who actually are left-handed and not just right-handed weirdoes who are set in their ways. (Wasn’t I just saying that I’m not one of those people, and that I like things to be shiny and new?  Well…there are limits.)
Or folder options.  I set a particular folder to display in “Details” view, with everything sorted by Date Modified.  At some point in the future, I’ll open that folder and it’s displaying “Large Icons” sorted by Name, and worse, if I right-click (and find the menu appearing to the left) and try to change the sort method, Date Modified has been removed from the list of options and I have to go into the “More…” to add it back in.  Why?  Because fuck you, I guess.
The absolute worst offenders, however, are the Sticky/Filter Keys.
Sticky/Filter Keys are designed to assist people with disabilities, and are controlled via the Ease of Access Center.  Filter Keys, when turned on, will ignore repeated keystrokes unless there’s a specified delay between them, so as to prevent inadvertent keystrokes by people with hand-related issues that might cause them to accidentally hit a key multiple times in a row.
Sticky Keys are designed for people who have difficulty holding down more than one key at a time, so if, for example, you needed to hit Ctrl+C, you could tap Ctrl, and it would remain pressed even when you remove your finger from it to give you the opportunity to tap C.
I’m sure that these features are a boon for their intended audience, and it’s great that these accessibility options are available.
If Sticky Keys aren’t active, you can activate them by holding down the Shift key for 8 seconds.
When I’m working in Photoshop, I frequently have to make complex selections in different areas of the canvas.  If I make a selection and then want to add to it, I have to first hold down the Shift key before starting to make the addition.  Admittedly, I only have to hold Shift down until I start making the additional selection, but frequently I’m not paying attention – given that I’m focused on making the selection – and I’ll keep holding the Shift key down.  After 8 seconds there’s a beep and Sticky Keys are turned on.
While my hands are pretty terrible, I don’t really have a need for Sticky Keys, so this is an annoyance.
In theory, this is an annoyance that should only happen once, because you can go into the Ease of Access Center and uncheck the box that set it to turn on Sticky Keys if Shift is pressed for the requisite amount of time, and also turn off Filter Keys, which turned on at the same time as Sticky Keys.
Easy enough.
However, the very next time I hold down Shift for too long, there will be the beep, Sticky Keys will be turned on, as will Filter Keys, and if I look in Ease of Access I will see that the box has been re-checked.
There doesn’t appear to be a way to permanently disable the alleged feature.  Everything I’ve found online only addresses unchecking the box, but never mentions the fact that it will re-check itself the next time you hold Shift down too long, and Windows does this because seriously, go fuck yourself.
Next is “That Program You Just Closed Encountered An Error While Closing, So It’s Being Closed.”
There’s a lot of error collecting that goes on with Windows, which is a good thing, as, in theory, the collected data might be used to correct the error at some point in the future.  However, some of that needs to be a lot more transparent to the user, with no pointless error message being displayed.
Sometimes an error requires user intervention, or, at a minimum, does require that the user be informed of the error.
But this should only happen when you’re actively using a program.  When I click on the X or File>Exit and the program runs into some sort of error in the shutdown process, I don’t care.  I was closing it anyway.  You don’t need to tell me about the error when the only thing you’re going to do to resolve the error is close the program that I was already closing.
Related:  “Who’s the Boss?”
This one is the error you get when you’re shutting down/restarting Windows and it pops up to tell you that a program – though it won’t tell you which one – is preventing Windows from shutting down, it then presents you with an option to force the program to close and let Windows shut down, or to cancel the shutdown process.
I…what?   You’re the operating system, Windows.  You shouldn’t let programs boss you around.  And if you can force the shutdown after I tell you to do so, you should be able to do that without me telling you to do it.
And finally, “NAS?  More like 'Nah,' amirite?”
Windows isn’t great with Network-Attached Storage (NAS).
Oh, sure, you can add a NAS easily enough, and access it just like you would local storage.
Unless you want to add a folder on your NAS to one of your Libraries.
When you try, Windows will inform you that it can’t be added because it’s not indexed.
Okay, fair enough, so…index it.  Problem solved.
Nope.  Windows won’t/can’t index the location.
The suggested “solution” to this problem is to make the location available offline.  What does that mean?  It means that it wants you to make a copy of the files on your local drive.
Which kind of defeats the purpose of storing the files somewhere else, and is impossible when your local drive only has a capacity of 256 GB and the files on your NAS clock in at over 1 TB.
What makes this especially maddening is that if you have Windows Media Center, you can actually add a NAS folder to your Libraries through the Libraries settings in WMC, and it will be available as a Library location in Windows itself.  You still won’t have indexing, which makes accessing that location slow if there are a lot of files contained therein, and when you open your Libraries you’ll get a message telling you that not all features are available because it’s an unsupported location, but it can be done.
This is especially troubling, as WMC is a paid add-in, and  it seems that it’s going away entirely in Windows 10 – the current preview build disables it if you have it installed.
The point is, I don’t see any reason why a NAS can’t be indexed (My NAS builds its own index; why can’t Windows at least access that?), and the WMC “backdoor” proves that non-indexed locations can be added anyway.   So, seriously, what’s up with that?
In any case, these are the kinds of things I want to see addressed in Windows 10 more than I want to see fancy new gewgaws and terrible throwback icons
Fix these kinds of problems, and you'll have made the best version of Windows ever.
And I didn’t even get to this:

(Seriously, for the love of all that’s holy, and unholy, while you’re at it, fix this.)

*People complain about Vista.  It's got nothing on Me.
**Please.  (It's impossible to resist)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Longest Road Trip Ever

And when I arrive at my destination, the moose out front will tell me the park's closed.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Clean Slate

On my way home from work yesterday I realized that – given that various moments of forgetfulness had led to me not sending it back until almost a week after setting up the exchange – that I was within the estimated timeframe, though a bit on the early side, of my replacement Surface Pro 3 arriving.
I’m guessing that it was because it was on my mind that my reflexes were up to the task of allowing me to catch it with my foot as I opened the door and the package containing my new SP3 came flying out at me from its hiding place between the doors.
Because it was an entirely new device – they replaced the whole thing rather than replacing or repairing the defective part – that meant that I had to go through the process of setting the whole thing up again.
There was the initial setup that follows from turning it on the first time, such as pairing it with the Surface Pen, selecting a language, region, and time zone, and connecting it to my home network.
From there, it was a matter of setting up the various customizations and personalization, and reinstalling applications and reloading personal files.
Windows 8.1 makes that a lot less painful than it used to be, thanks to the use of the Microsoft Account login and the ability to sync settings, themes, and “modern” apps across devices.  Once you’re signed in, if you’re using the syncing options, you’re presented with the lockscreen and desktop wallpaper images you’ve set up on your other PCs, you’ve got all of your bookmarks, and in the “All Apps” screen, you see a list of all of the apps you’ve installed using your Microsoft Account.  Granted, the majority of those apps need to be reinstalled, but at least you have them there and don’t have to try to remember which apps you had.  The reinstall occurs as soon as you tap on the app.
This process will get even simpler in the future with Windows 10 and as “universal” apps become more ubiquitous, at least if we assume that the “universal” apps ultimately end up replacing the more traditional desktop applications.  In the case of those applications, I did have to go through the process of manually reinstalling, which is also, in many cases, a little less painful than it used to be.  In particular, reinstalling the Adobe applications was a matter of simply downloading and installing the Adobe Creative Cloud Desktop application, signing in, and choosing the applications I wanted to install.
Manga Studio was a little more complicated, as I had to dig out my Serial Number, go to the update site, download the most recent update (the updates actually contain the full version), and go through the somewhat convoluted process of downloading it.  It was still simpler than using the physical media to install it, as I would have had to connect a DVD drive and set that up, then do the install, and then end up having to download the update anyway.
(It’s worth noting that while I had uninstalled the Adobe applications from the old SP3 before sending it in, I had neglected to sign out of them first, so the first time I launched Photoshop on the new SP3, it complained that I had too many devices registered – the limit is two – and I had to tell it to sign me out of all of the others before it would let me sign in on the new SP3.  That meant that, in turn, I had to sign back in on my desktop PC.)
So, while I question whether or not “universal” apps will ever be as robust and powerful as the more traditional desktop applications – even Microsoft intends to make both “universal,” which is to say, “touch-friendly,” versions of Office applications concurrently with more fully-featured desktop versions for the foreseeable future – if there ever comes a time that the universal (dropping the scare quotes) apps supplant their ancestors, the reinstall process when getting a new PC or tablet will become much more streamlined.
Beyond the applications there were also the various add-ins – and again, syncing based on an account helps a lot – for browsers, and assorted other utilities and codecs that you need in order to do whatever it is that you normally do with a computer.
Personal files weren’t too much of an issue for me, as I keep most of them either on my NAS or in the cloud.
Overall, the initial set-up and restoration went pretty smoothly – except for that moment when I was just finishing up an installation and accidentally pulled the plug, and the not-yet charged SP3 shut off, but that ended up not causing any real issues.
Later, though, things got a bit more bothersome.
When Windows 8 launched, Microsoft made Windows Media Center, which was integrated into Windows back into the days of XP, into a paid add-on.  I like Media Center, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it allows me to add non-indexed locations to my media libraries. 
As something of an aside, seriously, Microsoft – People use Network Attached Storage devices and need to be able to add them to libraries.  Either find a way to index them, or let non-indexed locations be added to libraries.  Media Center proves that it can be done, and the fact that it’s looking like Media Center won’t be available in Windows 10 at all means that you have to find a way to make libraries and NAS locations work together.  I know you’re pushing OneDrive and the cloud, but even though I have unlimited OneDrive storage thanks to my Office 365 subscription, after having you shut down my previous OneDrive account because I had pictures – that weren’t being shared with anyone – that violated your puritanical and draconian rules about nudity (“Oh noes, that woman’s shirt is wet and you can see her no-no parts!”), I can tell you that I have a lot of files that are never, ever going to get stored on OneDrive, so I need my NAS.  Making files available offline – your “solution” to the indexing problem – isn’t a solution, because I don’t have an extra 3 TB of space on my 256 GB SSD to store duplicate copies, and if I wanted to keep them on my local drive I wouldn’t have stored them on a NAS in the first place.
Anyway, I like Media Center enough that I’d paid the extra money to add the feature on my former SP3, and, since I no longer had that one, I figured I could use the Product Key to activate it on my new one, so that’s what I did.
The first sign of trouble (which, to be fair, I kind of expected) I noticed was that there was a bit of text in the lower right corner of the Desktop listing the build number of Windows 8.1 currently installed.  This is something you normally only see when you’re running a consumer or technical preview (which is to say a beta version) of Windows, or when your copy of Windows isn’t activated.
I checked my settings and sure enough I saw an option to activate Windows.  I tried it, even though I knew it would fail, because if it were going to work I wouldn’t be seeing the option in the first place.  It did fail, of course.
The reason is that when you add Media Center and its Product Key, you actually change the Product Key of Windows itself.  So by adding the Product Key for the copy of Media Center that had been installed on the old SP3, I changed the new SP3’s Key to the old Key.  Because the old Key was in use on the validation server, my copy of Windows was deemed invalid.
I called the number provided and talked to an automated system, which walked me through the process of getting a new, valid Key that I could use to activate my copy of Windows.  While it meant rattling off a lot of numbers to the system and then, in turn, having a lot of numbers rattled off to me, it was a relatively painless experience, and it’s really only noteworthy in that in all the years that the whole validation/activation process has been in place it’s the first time I’ve ever had to do it.
In any case, I’m glad to have a working SP3 again, though now I’m not really sure what I’m going to do with the SP2.  Of course, that’s been a problem for a while, as I don’t really need two Surface Pros, and I don’t feel like dealing with the hassle of trying to sell the SP2, nor am I especially inclined to just give it away.  However, it’s more complicated now, as I installed the Technical Preview of Windows 10 on the SP2 and want to continue putting the new OS through its paces and contribute my feedback to its continuing development, but now that I have my SP3, I’m not sure how much I’ll make use of the 2.
Still, I will try to use it so more, if for no other reason than to get material for an upcoming post about Windows 10.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Scratching The Surface

As mentioned in a footnote in my last post, a while back I bit the bullet and picked up a Surface Pro 3.
I did so despite the fact that earlier in the year I had picked up the 2, had been annoyed at how close on the heels of that purchase Microsoft announced the 3, and being wary of switching from a device with a Wacom digitizer to one with an N-Trig digitizer (I had a really negative experience with N-Trig on an old Tablet PC) and its lower levels of pressure sensitivity.
Mostly because it was a good deal.  Or rather, a couple of good deals.
The first deal that caught my attention was for a 28” 4K monitor bundled with a Surface Pro 3 Docking Station.
I wanted that monitor – especially for that price – but the Docking Station wouldn’t do me any good without an SP3 to dock in it, as, due to the size difference and the different connectors, the SP2 wouldn’t fit in the SP3 dock.
Once they offered $150 the cost of the SP3, I decided to just go for it.  After all, the SP3 was bigger, while being lighter and thinner, had a higher resolution, a better battery life, and by most accounts the N-Trig digitizer worked just fine.  Plus there were some cool additional functions that ne Surface Pen could perform.
As for the lower pressure sensitivity – 256 levels as opposed to the 1,024 of the SP2 – well, as I mentioned in my last post, I’m not really physically capable of utilizing that many levels anyway.
So I ponied up the cash for the monitor/docking station bundle, a Type Cover, and a Core i7 model SP3.
I didn’t go top of the line, as the only differentiator between the two Core i7 models is the amount of storage.  Between cloud services, microSD cards, external drives, and my NAS, I’m not really hurting for storage*, so the penultimate model, with a 256 GB SSD as opposed to the 512 GB of the ultimate version, was the best value proposition.
In due course, my order arrived, I got everything set up, and I was very happy with it.  Happier – owing to the many improvements in form, such as the vastly-improved kickstand – than I was with the SP2.
However, about two or three weeks later I got an e-mail from Adobe.  As a subscriber to their Creative Cloud service, the message informed me, I could take advantage of a special offer:  $479 off the the price of a new Surface Pro 3.
”SON OF A BITCH!” I would have yelled, if I hadn’t been at work when I read the e-mail.  With that much of a discount I could have gotten the 512 GB version and still paid less than what I paid for the 256 GB model and the accessories.
Still, I remained happy with the SP3 itself, though I did consider returning it, then using the Adobe discount, but ultimately laziness won out over parsimony.
Despite that annoyance, everything was going along smoothly until a couple of weeks ago when I brought my car in to the dealership for its regularly-scheduled maintenance.  The only time I could get in for an appointment was during the workday, so I brought my SP3 along with the intention of using the free Wi-Fi to get work done while I waited.
I fired up the SP3 and was presented with a message informing me that no wireless networks were available.
”That can’t be right,” I thought, and confirmed my suspicion by connecting to the available network with my phone.
So I spent most of the time there troubleshooting the network connectivity issue without success.
As a result, I noticed a couple of things that were odd beyond the SP3’s inability to see available networks.

1.  The Surface Pen wouldn’t launch OneNote upon having the top button clicked, which is one of the cool features of the SP3 and its pen
2.  There was no listing for Bluetooth in the Device Manager
3.  There was an “Unknown USB Device” listed in Device Manager with an exclamation point

I was unable to resolve any of these issues – which all appeared to be related – or find much help online.  (The Internet being useless when it comes to finding a solution to a problem?  What are the odds, he asked, sarcastically.)
The couple of forum posts I found for similar issues all pointed to one conclusion:  a hardware problem.  Specifically, a problem with the Wireless Network Adapter.
Even though Device Manager reporting it working fine, this made sense, as the same hardware controls Bluetooth – which is how the Surface Pen communicates with the SP3 – and the “Unknown USB Device” was most likely the Bluetooth component, which probably (I guessed) had an impact on the Adapter’s ability to “discover” available signals, whether Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
After contacting Microsoft support and, eventually, leading them to the conclusion that I had already reached, it was determined that I had faulty equipment and needed to exchange it for a new one.  I could take my chances and drive to a brick-and-mortar Microsoft Store and hope that they had one in stock to replace mine, but the safer option was to ship it to the exchange center and wait.
In the meantime, I’ve busted out the SP2, which has been sitting around waiting for me to figure out what I’m going to do with it.  I have to say that, despite being less than a year old, and having only gone unused for a couple of months, it feels positively archaic in comparison.  And it’s so heavy!
While I’m using it I decided to install the Technical Preview of Windows 10 on it.  I’ll talk more about that in a future post.
In any case, the one thing I want to do is mention this for anyone – and hopefully it’s not a widespread issue – dealing with same problem with the SP3 that I had in a bold, TL; DR version that will hopefully show up in search results.

Surface Pro 3 – Unable to find available networks, no Bluetooth, Unknown USB Device in Device manager = hardware failure and requires a replacement.

I repeat:  If your Surface Pro 3 has no Bluetooth and can’t see available wireless networks, you need to exchange it for a new one.

*Well, I did have some storage issues on my desktop PC, due to having a relatively small C: drive.  I’ve since replaced it with a 256 GB SSD, which is sufficient to house the OS and my applications and a bit more besides.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me, I Want To Feel Artsy

As mentioned in my previous post, I decided to give up on waiting for my tax refund and/or bonus – or for anyone to make use of the “Donate” button – and went ahead and plunked down the cash for a shiny new Wacom Cintiq 27QHD Touch.
Yes, it was a lot of money to spend – nearly as much as I spent on the custom-built, high-powered desktop PC it’s connected to – and, realistically, it was a total waste of money, because, seriously, this is the sort of thing that successful, professional artists would think more than twice about splurging on, so a semi-talented amateur like myself has no business spending that kind of money on something that, ultimately, is probably just going to frustrate me because having all of that creative power at my fingertips can’t make up for the limitations of my talent and skill, and it will never, ever (ever) pay for itself.
Hell, the last one, which was $800 cheaper than this one, never managed to pay for itself.
So, yes.  It was a waste.
But it’s a beautiful waste that did at least provide me with one shining moment of joy as I removed it from its packaging, laid my eyes on it, and heard Etta James in my head singing, “My lonely days are over and life is like a song.”
Of course, somewhat later, I heard MC Chris – as Sir Loin (formerly MC Pee Pants) – saying, “I can’t fill the hole in my life with things,” but still, as I placed it on my kitchen table and stepped back to admire it, I did my customary dorky clap/giggle combo.

I also giggled because I thought, "That things huge," and then thought, "That's what she said."  I'm twelve.
I should mention that Etta James crooning “At Last” in my head was inspired in part by the fact that I had to wait longer than I had expected before I actually received the thing.  I’d ordered it on a Thursday, and, thinking, “In for a penny, in for a pound,” sprung for the overnight air option.  I didn’t anticipate actually getting it the next day, given that I’d ordered it fairly late in the day, but I figured I’d get it by Monday.  Tuesday at the latest.
In fact, I was really hoping that it would be one of those days, as I was going to be in a virtual training for the first three days of the following week, which meant working from home – my cubicle isn’t exactly the ideal distraction-free environment – which meant that I didn’t have to get up as early, which, in turn, meant that I could stay up later on Monday and Tuesday, giving me more time to get it set up and to start using it.
However, every time I checked on the status of my order at the Wacom store it only showed it as “submitted” and said that there was no tracking number available.  Finally, on Tuesday, I got an e-mail from UPS telling me that it had shipped and would arrive on Wednesday.
Class wrapped up early on Wednesday, so I would have had a few more hours to get it set up, but it didn’t actually arrive until the early evening.
I had just enough time to get it set up before I had to start preparing for bed, and I really didn’t get to use it all because I immediately ran into a problem.
The Cintiq has a resolution of 2,560x1,440, which is a resolution that the aging graphics card in my PC could support…but not with the connection options available.  That resolution requires a DVI-I Dual-Link connection.  The Cintiq only supports Displayport or HDMI, and when connected via HDMI (of the two types that was the only one available on my card), it was limited to 1,920x1,080, which left a lot of dead space on the edges, and was a complete waste of the Cintiq’s potential.
So a new graphics card was required, which was fine, as I’d been thinking about getting a new one anyway, but I didn’t have time to run out and buy one and install it.  So that had to wait until the next day.

Set up with its siblings, a 29" ultra-widescreen monitor and a 24" monitor.

Once that was accomplished, I ran into my first problem with it.  When I’d connected it via HDMI the night before, I’d gone though the calibration, which determines where the actual point on the screen is in relation to the tip of the pen.  At the native resolution, the calibration was way off.  I attempted to re-calibrate it, using the Tablet PC settings in Windows itself, and via the Wacom software, but neither would let me actually calibrate.  The Tablet PC calibration tool would show me the crosshairs, but would completely ignore my taps.  The Wacom tool wouldn’t even give me the crosshairs.
Neither tool gave me the option to reset to the default.  So I uninstalled the Wacom software, which reset the calibration to the default, and then reinstalled it.  I’m still unable to perform the calibration, which is annoying, because seriously, shit should work, but not really a major issue, as the default is actually pretty good, and probably better than what I would be able to manage if I did my own calibration anyway.
Once all of that was taken care of, and I had some time to start playing around with it, and here’s what I’ve noted so far.

Pressure Sensitivity and Palm Rejection
I found that while 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity – compared to the 1,024 of the old Cintiq, and the 256 of my Surface Pro 3* – is probably around 2,044 levels more than I’m capable of using consistently, it’s also pretty amazing, and does make lines of incredibly varying thickness (theoretically) possible.
That my Frankenstein hands are physically incapable of much in the way of subtle gradations of pressure should in no way take away from the Cintiq’s capabilities in this regard.  The thing is amazing.
Some random strokes demonstrating the 27QHD's capabilities and Jon's limitations.

Given that, unlike the Cintiq it’s replacing, the 27QHD also features multi-point capacitive touch, palm rejection, that is, ignoring errant touches from your palm while the pen is in use, is essential, and this is another area in which the 27QHD excels.  If anything, it sometimes works a little too well, ignoring my attempts to use my fingers to pinch-zoom or rotate the canvas if I try doing so with the same hand that’s holding the pen if the pen is still too close to the screen, even though the tip is pointed away from it.  That minor annoyance aside – really I just have to modify my workflow – it’s pretty impressive, especially compared to my Surface Pro 2, which also uses a Wacom digitizer and would periodically accept touch input even while the pen was in use, leading to some random smudges, or closed tool panel or window.
Of course, the palm rejection does get by with a little help from its friends, as Photoshop ignores all touch other than actual gestures (rotate, pinch to zoom) in the active drawing area by default.  At least I assume it’s the default; that’s how it’s been since they’ve updated to the touch-friendly version, and if it’s a setting, I don’t know how to get to it.
Mischief, a nice, lightweight drawing program that I like a lot, takes it to an extreme.  Not only does it ignore any and all touch beyond actual gestures, whenever it’s not minimized it disables all other touch, period.  That is, I can’t actually interact with Windows itself via touch while using Mischief until I minimize the program to the taskbar.  Given that I’ve never observed this behavior on the SP2 or SP3, I’m assuming this is some sort of bug.
Manga Studio, however, does not reject errant touches, and I find that I have to be munch more careful that that pen is always active when I’m drawing, otherwise I end up with random strokes appearing on the canvas, or I’ll end up closing a tool palette or changing the active layer.
I should also mention that there is little or no lag; strokes on the screen flow pretty smoothly as I move, and feel very natural and fluid, even in Photoshop, where there had been considerable lag with my previous Cintiq.

ExpressKey Remote
My old Cintiq had a set of “ExpressKeys” on either side, which performed various functions and were customizable.  For example, there was a long, thin strip that would zoom a drawing in and out, an undo button, and so on.  Later iterations of the Cintiq, such as the 22 and 24-inch versions, further enhanced the functionality of these keys.
The 27QHD, however, removes the keys from the Cintiq itself and places them on a small, separate device, the Express Key Remote.
Being a separate device allows for greater flexibility, and not having the ExpressKeys on the Cintiq itself makes for a sleeker appearance.  Additionally, on the old Cintiq, I had to disable the ExpressKeys on the right side, as I kept bumping them with my elbow and unexpectedly zooming in or undoing my last stroke.
However, the base of the Remote is magnetic, so you can place on the Cintiq’s bezel for easy, familiar access.
I’m still getting used to the Remote, as it has a lot more functionality than what had been available on my old Cintiq, and I have difficulty remembering which button does what.  Additionally, because it runs on a rechargeable battery – it charges via USB and can be plugged into one of the available ports on the Cintiq itself to do so – after a certain period of inactivity it shuts itself off, so when I get distracted while drawing and then return to the 27QHD later, I often find that I’m pushing a button and nothing is happening.

The Major Complaints
As mentioned, the fact that I can’t get the calibration to work is annoying, even though I’m terrible at calibrating screens anyway.  Shit should work.
I’ve been using Wacom products since 2001, though originally I was limited to the non-display tablets, such as you find in their Intuous line of products, and in all that time one thing has remained consistent:  sometimes the driver just craps out and stops working.
I’ll be in the middle of drawing something and then bring the pen down to add another stroke and…nothing.  I might as well be trying to draw on my TV.  Going into Control Panel and launching the Wacom software results in an error message claiming that the driver isn’t installed.  Typically, the functionality can be restored by going into Task Manager and stopping/re-starting the Wacom Service, but that generally only works temporarily, and at some point the only option left is to reboot.
Fortunately, it’s not a frequent problem, but the unpredictable nature of it makes it a major annoyance, especially given the expense of the device.  Again, shit should work.
My final complaint is kind of nit-picky, I suppose, but it concerns the bundled third-party software.  As the registered owner of a nearly $3,000 device, I received a special offer for free software that can unleash the power of my Cintiq.  By which I mean either free trials of software, or free versions of software (such as Autodesk Sketchbook Express) that are free for anyone, regardless of whether they’ve given a single cent to Wacom.  Sure, there’s also a bit of a discount on some of the full versions, but it’s still an extremely weak offer.

The Results
Time and ambition constraints have meant that I haven’t spent a whole lot of time actually using the 27QHD beyond simply attempting to get the hang of it and figuring out how to adapt my workflow to make efficient use of its capabilities, but I did do this quick picture of Bettie Page as part of a shakedown run.


Wrap Up
Ultimately, no expensive new piece of technology, except maybe some futuristic cybernetic implants and prosthetics that don’t exist yet, is going to make me a better artist, and it wasn’t my expectation that the 27QHD would do that.  It will, once I get more accustomed to it, make me more efficient in a lot of ways, and the higher resolution and pressure sensitivity will likely have some impact on the overall appearance of my finished work, though, and while that hit to my wallet still stings a little, if nothing else I’ll always have that moment when I stood back and admired its beauty.

*Oh, yeah.  I bought a Surface Pro 3 on Black Friday.  That will be the subject of its own post.