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Minggu, 14 November 2010

Windows 7 in-depth review and video: This time Microsoft gets it right

Microsoft may call the newest version of its operating system Windows 7, but you may want to think of it as Windows 6.5. In overall look and feel, it mimics Vista, although there are enough changes to make it far more than just a juiced-up service pack.
Anyone looking for massive changes or some kind of paradigm shift will be disappointed. But those who want a better-working Vista with the kinks ironed out and some nifty new features introduced will be very pleased.
Overall, Windows 7 is a more functional, more efficiently designed operating system than Windows Vista, with far more attention paid to the user experience. From revamped a User Account Control (UAC) feature to better home networking, improved search and nice interface tweaks, the entire operating system has gotten an overall polishing. Even Windows Backup, one of the worst applications ever shipped with an operating system, has been turned into something useful.

A usable UAC

Let's start by going straight to the most reviled feature of Windows Vista: UAC.In Windows 7, UAC has been tamed and is actually now a useful security tool. For a start, there are fewer prompts by default. Want to do something really crazy like change the date or time of your PC? Go ahead: Unlike Windows Vista, Windows 7 lets you do it without popping up any prompts. In fact, UAC rarely gets in your way -- you get a prompt only when a program tries to make changes to your PC. If you make them yourself, it allows you to go ahead.
In addition, UAC is customizable. With Windows Vista, it was all or nothing -- UAC was either on or off. With Windows 7, you have some control over how it works.
You tweak it by using a slider. There are four settings:
  1. Never notify. In this one, UAC is completely turned off.
  2. Only notify me when programs try to make changes to my computer. This is the default; make a change yourself, and UAC leaves you alone. When a program makes a change, a prompt appears. Otherwise, UAC sits there silently.
  3. Always notify me. Think of this as UAC Classic. It works like Vista's UAC: When you make changes to your system, when software is installed or when a program tries to make a change to your system, an annoying prompt appears.
  4. Always notify me and wait for my response. This setting is baffling. Its description is identical to "Always notify me," and it appears to work precisely the same. Either it's not enabled in this pre-beta, or else there's some difference that's so subtle it's not noticeable.

Microsoft should consider cleaning up one aspect of UAC. As with Vista, any selection or setting that spurs a UAC prompt has a small, multicolored shield icon next to it. That shield remains the same, no matter what your UAC setting is. So if you've kept the UAC setting at the default, you'll see that shield next to a setting for changing your system time or date. But when you click, no prompt appears. Microsoft might consider giving some visual notification when the state of UAC changes -- for example, by graying out the shield when UAC is in a state in which it will not generate a prompt.

Even in Test Form, Windows 7 Leaves Vista in the Dust

This will be a big year for new operating systems. Apple plans a new version of its Macintosh operating system, to be called Snow Leopard. Palm plans an all-new smart phone operating system called Palm WebOS. But the new release that will affect more users than any other will be Windows 7, the latest major edition of Microsoft's dominant platform.
Microsoft hasn't announced an official release date for Windows 7, but I would be surprised if it wasn't available to consumers by this fall. The company has just released the first public beta, or test, version of the software, and I've been trying it out on two laptops. One is a Lenovo ThinkPad lent me by Microsoft with Windows 7 already installed, and the other is my own Sony Vaio, which I upgraded to Windows 7 from Windows Vista.
I won't be doing a full, detailed review of Windows 7 until it is released in final form, but here's a preview of some of the main features of this new operating system and some of my initial impressions.
In general, I have found Windows 7 a pleasure to use. There are a few drawbacks, but my preliminary verdict on Windows 7 is positive.
Even in beta form, with some features incomplete or imperfect, Windows 7 is, in my view, much better than Vista, whose sluggishness, annoying nag screens, and incompatibilities have caused many users to shun it. It's also a serious competitor, in features and ease of use, for Apple's current Leopard operating system. (I can't say yet how it will compare with Apple's planned new release, as I haven't tried the latter.)
In many respects, Windows 7 isn't a radical shift from Vista, but is more of an attempt to fix Vista's main flaws. It shares the same underlying architecture, and retains graphical touches like translucent Window borders. But it introduces some key new navigation and ease-of-use features, plus scores of small usability and performance improvements -- too many to list here.
The flashiest departure in Windows 7, and one that may eventually redefine how people use computers, is its multitouch screen navigation. Best known on Apple's iPhone, this system allows you to use your fingers to directly reposition, resize, and flip through objects on a screen, such as windows and photos. It is smart enough to distinguish between various gestures and combinations of fingers. I haven't been able to test this feature extensively yet, because it requires a new kind of touch-sensitive screen that my laptops lack.
But even if your current or future PC lacks a touch screen, Windows 7 will have plenty of other benefits. The most important may be speed. In my tests, even the beta version of Windows 7 was dramatically faster than Vista at such tasks as starting up the computer, waking it from sleep and launching programs.
And this speed boost wasn't only apparent in the preconfigured machine from Microsoft, but on my own Sony, which had been a dog using Vista, even after I tried to streamline its software. Of course, these speed gains may be compromised by the computer makers, if they add lots of junky software to the machines. Windows 7 is also likely to run well on much more modest hardware configurations than Vista needed.
The familiar Windows taskbar is more customizable and useful in Windows 7. The program icons are larger, and can be "pinned" anywhere along the taskbar for easy, repeated use. There are also "jump lists" that pop out from the icons in the taskbar and start menu, showing frequently used or recent actions.
Windows 7 also cuts down on annoying warnings and nag screens. Microsoft notifications have been consolidated in a single icon at the right of the taskbar, and you can now decide under what circumstances Windows will warn you before taking certain actions.
Compatibility with hardware and software, which was a problem in Vista, seems far better in Windows 7 -- even in the beta. I tried a wide variety of hardware, including printers, Web cams, external hard disks and cameras, and nearly all worked fine.
I also successfully installed and used popular programs from Microsoft's rivals, such as Mozilla Firefox, Adobe Reader, Apple's iTunes, and Google's Picasa. All worked properly, even though none was designed for Windows 7.
But there are some downsides to Windows 7. First, you will only be able to directly upgrade Vista computers to the new version. People still using Windows XP will need to perform a more cumbersome multistep process. Microsoft is working on a method to help XP owners preserve all their data during this process.
Second, Windows 7 will eliminate some familiar bundled programs from Windows. Vista's Mail, Calendar, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, and Address Book programs are being removed. To get similar basic, free, programs, you'll have to download them from Microsoft's Windows Live service, or use alternatives from other companies. Microsoft defends this move as supporting consumer choice and better coordination with Web services, but it does remove out-of-the-box functionality from Windows.
Still, even in its preliminary form, Windows 7 looks very promising, and could well help expunge the bad reputation of Vista.

Jumat, 12 November 2010

Are Netbooks Enough for Your Business?

Can you build your business using only Netbooks? Those relatively cheap, lightweight, Internet-enabled devices can be used for little else but accessing the Web and e-mail but maybe that's all your employees need.
Portable and affordable, the trendy "netbook" is all the rage among computer makers and the consumers snatching them up in droves -- so much, in fact, this young category is estimated to make up more than 20 percent of the entire laptop category by next year.
But are these tiny Wi-Fi-enabled netbooks -- designed primarily for Web surfing, e-mail, and word processing -- ideal for running your business? What's lost or gained in the transition?
If you recognize the limitations of these scaled-down PCs, a netbook might be all you and your staff need to remain productive on the go, experts say.
Price and size matter
"A netbook is just a laptop whose pivotal axis is price," says Michael Gartenberg, vice president atInterpret LLC, a market research firm based in London, New York, and Los Angeles. "Basically you need to ask yourself if the netbook has enough horsepower to manage your business, and if so, you can save some money." However, if you or your staff need to run memory-intensive programs or require larger screens or a full-size keyboard, you might want to steer clear of this category, he says.
The lack of an optical drive might be an issue for some, Gartenberg adds, but an inexpensive external drive -- that can be shared among employees to install software -- might be all that's required. "Beyond that, many computer users today simply don't need a DVD drive," he says.
Steve Hilton, vice president for enterprise and small and mid-sized business research at the Boston-based  Yankee Group, says along with a relatively inexpensive price tag, netbooks offer two other advantages for mobile workers: "They are fairly easy to replace if lost or damaged -- in fact most suppliers can easily ship an exact duplicate very quickly. Plus, an IT department tends to like [netbooks] as they're easy to manage since they have very few applications resident on the device."
Cloud computing
Netbooks might carry few applications because many small and mid-sized businesses are moving towards "cloud computing," which allows online employees to securely access programs and files on a remote server, as opposed to physically carrying sensitive data on the road. This trend is on the rise thanks to ubiquitous Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity. In addition, more devices are available -- such as netbooks and smartphones -- with limited local memory. Much of the software is Web-based, too, therefore not requiring one particular operating system over another.
"Applications in the cloud are not loaded on a netbook because applications are processing and hard-disk hogs," explains Hilton. "Netbooks are light on both processing and hard-disk space, which is one of the reasons why they're priced fairly inexpensively, so in order to get the value from a netbook, applications in the cloud are essential."
Looked at another way, "a Prius and a Boxster have different purposes," continues Hilton, comparing netbooks with automobiles. "If you need a car that sips gasoline, drives your family of four to the mall, and keeps your auto insurance premiums low, your choice is obvious."
Gartenberg, however, cautions those who rely too heavily on remote applications for business. "The problem with the cloud is that it's not always available," he says. "There is this notion that everything will be delivered via browser, but it's more of a coexistence [with locally stored programs]. One solution isn't killing the other."
And they're getting better
Just two years ago, a netbook might be limited by a Linux operating system, a petite 7-inch display, and just 4GB of Flash (SSD) memory. Fast-forward to today, however, and there is far more selection, including a Windows o/s, bigger screens (up to 12-inches), a near full-size QWERTY keyboard, a minimum 160GB hard drive and better processors, such as Intel Atom chips.
As far as security goes, Gartenberg says you must treat netbooks like a laptop. "You want to be cautious about what information is on the netbook," he says, "ensure everything is password-protected, and despite its small size, try to remember not to leave it at a coffee shop or in a taxicab."

Five Tips to Make Your Hardware Last Longer

At a time when few businesses can afford new equipment, there are several ways to get longevity out of your desktop.
With credit tight and profits down, “I need a new computer,” are the last words you want to hear from your employees. But chances are, you hear them all too often. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average lifespan of a personal computer is only 2.4 years.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. “Most computers are discarded when their hardware is perfectly good,” says J.J. Schoch, vice president of marketing, iolo technologies, publisher of the popular PC tune-up software System Mechanic.
Why do so many mechanically perfect computers get replaced? For one thing, it may be difficult to distinguish between hardware and software problems. If a computer is slow, glitchy, prone to crashing, and takes forever to load applications, its user is likely to demand a new one.
And some software problems are so bad they’re not worth fixing. “If a computer is badly infected with malware or has other severe security-related problems, fixing it may not be practical,” explains Ed Correia, CEO of managed service provider Sagacent Technologies. Yes, you could clean it off, but if it’s going to take 20 hours of expert IT time to do it, it might more cost-effective to buy another one.
With that in mind, here are 5 tips for getting the longest use from personal computers lives by protecting both their hardware and software:
  1. Keep the computer free of unneeded applications. Unused or obsolete applications leave bits of code behind that can clog up your computer, eating up RAM and slowing everything down. Besides being a software problem, too much leftover code can also lead to hardware failure, by causing your hard drive to spin more than it needs to, thus wearing it down. “Your hard drive can wind up looking like Swiss cheese,” Correia says. One way to get rid of unneeded code is to use tune-up software, but Windows also has a disk cleanup feature. Make sure the system tray and registry are also free of unneeded applications.
  2. Keep images of your computers. The operating system, configuration, and applications on a computer can be stored as a space-saving image, which makes it easy and quick for IT staff to restore them. Being able to re-image a computer solves the it’ll-take-so-long-to-restore-we-might-as-well-buy-a-new-one problem. And support staff can often re-image over the Internet, without even touching the computer. “Our standard procedure is, if someone’s having a problem and it takes more than an hour to fix, then we simply re-image,” Correia says.
  3. Maximize memory.  “One inexpensive way to extend the life of desktop computers is to upgrade to the maximum amount of RAM possible, so the operating system does not have to use memory on the hard disk,” says Matthew Chang, president of the online coupon website Here again, the idea is to cut back on excess use of the hard drive, which fills in whenever RAM is overloaded. Adding memory will improve users’ experience, too, since RAM is much faster than disk.
  4. Minimize dust.  Heat is anathema to computer components, so when their insides fill with dust, it traps heat, causing fans to work overtime, and wear out more quickly. So don’t set a computer directly on the floor, where it will act as a stationary vacuum cleaner -- even a few inches’ elevation will help. And don’t allow smoking or incense use around the computer either, since smoke will fill it with dust fast. “I’ve heard of computer motherboards frying because there was a layer of dust on them keeping the heat in,” Schoch says. You can’t keep dust from getting in, he adds. “Air has to circulate in a computer to keep it cool, and with air comes dust.” The only remedy, he says, is to open the computer case and blow out the dust periodically.
  5. Hold off on Vista. Microsoft Windows Vista demands much more processing power than its predecessor XP. “It’s much, much more demanding, so we do not recommend installing Vista on existing computers,” Correia says. “Most computers currently in place don’t have the needed processing power.”
While all these steps can help you extend personal computer life, in three to five years, he predicts this will no longer be a concern. “By then, most small businesses will be using virtual desktops running on servers in the back office, and employees will use thin clients (essentially a keyboard, monitor, and browser) to access them. It’ll be an initial investment, but then they won’t have to keep upgrading desktops. They can just keep using them until they physically break.”

Lap of Luxury: Laptop Features for Mobile Workers

Smartphones, netbooks and tablets are increasingly adopted by mobile workers, but the laptop remains the most critical tool to run your business -- while on the go or at the office. But with evolving specs and new features introduced every few months, it can be overwhelming to decide what to look for in a laptop today.
Despite the explosion in popularity of smartphones and tablets, the laptop computer still remains the most critical tool to run your business -- at the office or while on the go -- thanks to a comfortable physical keyboard and powerful processors required to run your applications.
But with so many manufacturers, models and specs to choose from, buying one for yourself or employees can be an overwhelming endeavor. You must also decide which operating system is best suited to run your company's software.
And so the following are a few of the newer features found in laptop computers today and why they're ideal for your business needs.
Integrated wireless
An embedded 802.11n radio for Wi-Fi access can be found in most laptops these days, but a road warrior might also consider integrated cellular connectivity, says Richard Shim, research director atIDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based market research firm. "Cellular broadband can be an important feature as you can access the Internet wirelessly without having to look for a Wi-Fi hotspot, such as a Starbucks."
Other advantages of built-in cellular connectivity, sometimes referred to as wide area network (WAN), is that you can use it while in the back of a moving taxi -- something you can't do with Wi-Fi -- plus it could be argued this solution is also more secure than logging onto someone else's wireless connection. After all, there's the risk of hopping on a rogue connection set up by malicious types out to steal your data.
Shim concedes service plans are still "expensive" and "somewhat inflexible," because you can't use that connection in other devices -- so companies must research costs and assess usage patterns before committing to an integrated WAN service.
Solid state drives
Most major computer manufacturers give customers the option for laptops with solid state drives (SSD), or Flash memory, instead of conventional hard disk drives (HDD).
SSDs are a good pick because of increased durability because there are no moving parts, unlike a HDD, says Shim. They also offer improved performance and better battery life.
"SSDs are ideal for business travelers," confirms Leslie Fiering, research vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner. "They're lighter, have much faster boot up times and they're generally more reliable."
But they could be a "hefty investment" for some as they're more expensive than hard drives, cautions Fiering, plus they don't offer as much capacity for all your programs and files as hard drives at this point in time. For example, Apple's new MacBook Air laptops ditch hard drives in favor of flash memory -- but they start at just 64GB of storage compared to most hard drive-based laptops that start at 250GB.
Better webcams, tighter security
A common feature in consumer notebooks for years, webcams are being adopted by more businesses looking for mobile video conferencing, says Shim. "We're seeing useful technologies like better webcams in commercial notebooks because businesses are implementing video conferencing, plus there's the added benefit for travelers to better connect with their family while on the road."
Speaking of webcams, newer laptops might ship with biometrics technology that can read your face (or in other cases, your fingerprint) to confirm you're the user -- usually in conjunction with an alphanumeric password, too.
This extra layer of security helps prevent someone from accessing potentially critical company data should the laptop be lost or stolen.
'Basic' features still reign
Gartner's Fiering says while these new laptop features might be appealing, at the end of the day, the "basics" are still the most important considerations: "Notebooks are becoming commoditized, so we're past the point where a new generation of notebooks isn't going to offer a new set of 'must-have features."
"Clearly we're seeing better speeds, longer battery life and lighter, thinner form factors -- all of which are desirable 'core' features -- but because none of these are 'game changers,' remember to put the basics at the top of your priority list," suggests Fiering.