Archive for Technology category
My eagerly-awaited Chromecast arrived a couple of weeks ago. Despite the reports that Google had run out of Netflix codes my 3-month streaming code arrived a few days before by email – a great deal given that it is also valid for current Netflix customers too.
The requirements for using a Chromecast are:
- HDMI-capable display
- 2.4 GHz 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi network
- iOS device, Android device or laptop with Chrome
The box was quite small but contained everything you need and a couple of things you might not, specifically:
- Chromecast device – with HDMI at one end and Micro USB at the other
- Micro USB to USB cable – to provide power to the device
- HDMI extension cable – if Chromecast is obstructed from fitting in your HDMI port
- USB wall socket adapter – if you don’t have USB ports available
The device itself is a rather small affair about twice as long as a HDMI connector and a little wider and thicker.
Some people are upset that it needs a USB power cable given the promo shots show no such cable.
HDMI however only supplies 50mA of power wile USB supplies 500-900mA. Chromecast is a small computer with 1080p output and Wi-Fi so it’s going to be needing a lot more than HDMI can supply. If you were hoping HDMI 1.4 would address that you’ll be disappointed.
Given that your options are:
- Plug USB cable into TV USB socket (if it has one that is always-on)
- Use included USB wall socket adapter
- Find something in range with an always-on USB socket
My Yamaha receiver/amp is the hub for my system and all devices have to go through to get sound (it also makes switching device simpler).
My amp lives in a small confided space below my TV which reduces the Wi-Fi range but the Apple Time Capsule is near enough for a strong single and indeed the spare USB port it has provides power.
Once connected and powered up you’ll be presented with something like this on your screen which cycles through one of many beautiful background images both during setup and when idle. I’m not sure if the images are location-aware or Google chose it because they’re also in the bay area.
Cromecast starts up with it’s own temporary wireless network. Then you download one of the two setup programs for either Mac or Windows and it will switch you to that network (with no warning, I hope you weren’t downloading anything) and will prompt you for your Wi-Fi details. With any luck it will switch Chromecast over to that and it’s up to you to switch your machine back.
A WPS option would have eliminated the need for downloads and disconnects but given how few people know about WPS (it’s very hidden away on my Time Capsule) it’s an understandable omission.
The Chromecast is a very lightweight device and as such you need another device to control it. My wife and I both have iPad’s that are normally nearby so this is primarily the source of plays.
Basically the app looks as normal however you’ll see a little icon at the top right. I’m going to call this the “cast” icon as it’s also used in YouTube and the Chrome Cast plug-in. Tapping it shows which of your devices to play on. If something is already playing you get a blue bar at the top to let you jump in to control it:
Once the show or movie is playing you get artwork for the show and a bunch of controls to move forward/backward, change audio and subtitle options or go back. Hidden behind the stack of cards at the top is the episode menu for switching episode or season. This is useful as there isn’t yet a “post-play” experience to take you to the next episode automatically.
I ran into a problem that should your HDMI link be interrupted or your iPad sleep you may get the error I captured below. If you do you’ll need to quit the Netflix app and restart it to regain control.
Netflix for Android behaves in a very similar way to the iPad – the same blue bar while playing and a very similar during-playback experience and menu button. I’ve not included screenshots because it is so similar but I can put them up if anyone asks :)
Running the Silverlight based player from the website also reveals the cast icon tucked between subtitles and sharing on the playback control but only if it is running within Chrome and the extension is installed. This works on both the PC and the Mac despite Silverlight for Chrome on the Mac never becoming officially supported by Microsoft.
Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer users are out of luck for now although it there is a possibility that Windows 8.1 and IE 11 with HTML5 based playback may have the option – I’ll have to try it and report back. (Windows 8.x DRM doesn’t work in a virtual machine)
I have a love-hate relationship with YouTube. I love the wide variety of content but hate the duplicate content, poor encoding, confusing channel organization, re-buffering and choppy full-screen performance on Chrome for Mac. (Works fine in Safari, how odd)
Thankfully Chromecast solves a couple of these. Re-buffering and full-screen performance are great here. Just find your video and hit the cast icon at the bottom right to choose where to start it in a similar way to Netflix.
When it’s already playing the Chrome Cast extension gets involved and shows you what is going on:
If you try clicking this icon to cast either YouTube or Netflix you’ll get a warning telling you to use the icons within the players themselves. This is a bit clunky and I would imagine Google will improve the interop here in the future so you can just always use the Cast button.
As well as video streaming you can browse web sites from Chrome using the Cast extension. Simply hit the Cast button on the toolbar and choose again where you want it to go:
There are also various options available to control how things look on the screen.
Rendering quality is okay from a distance but a mess close-up most likely due to the 720p limit and some sort of scaling going on. 1 pixel lines and curves are a mess as is small text.
Usability is okay as long as you are looking at your laptop and not your TV as there is no mouse pointer, context menus, toolbars and a second or two of lag even over fast solid Wi-Fi.
Weirdly selected text shows as selected and web sites with hover effects show that effect even with no mouse. I think these omissions and inclusions are simply the result of what Chrome renders via Webkit rather than a rational set of choices.
Oddly I received performance warnings on a MacBook Pro 2.6 GHz with no major apps running.
Usability and screen display quality were massively improved by choosing the semi-hidden and experimental “Cast entire screen”:
This could give offices a very cool and simple way to setup sharing for presentations in Keynote/PowerPoint without the dreaded hunt for the right cable or adapter that always seems to happen.
Lag was also improved when dropping down to lower resolutions.
It’s a great device but there is always room for improvement. I’d like to see:
- More video streaming services – Hulu & Amazon Prime
- Some music streaming services – Spotify & Pandora
- DLNA streaming support for existing media/libraries
- Native Mac OS X & Windows drivers to add Chromecast as additional wireless display
- Configure a source for background images when not in use
More streaming services are coming so that’s covered.
Getting DLNA support (or indeed Airplay for Mac loving friends) will probably require some open source efforts. Thankfully Google have the start of a Google Cast API/SDK available so that should just be a matter of time.
The wireless second display option would be awesome for developers, testers and presenters. Let’s hope somebody figures that out.
The Chromecast is a great device.
From the time we switched it as completely taken over our Netflix home viewing. We were using an Xbox 360 but the Chromecast:
- is faster to launch
- is quieter
- supports 1080p (the Xbox runs native 1080p on only a handful of titles, everything else is hardware upscaled)
- supports Netflix profiles
- doesn’t play cheesy UI effect noises through my surround system
- uses less power
Additionally instead of watching YouTube on our laptops we just cast them over to the big screen and sound.
For $35 it’s an absolute steal.
Disclosure: As a former Netflix employee I have stock options in Netflix.
Ahmet Alp Balkan on the Microsoft Azure team reflected on his experiences at Microsoft. His experiences do not exactly match mine (initially on LINQ to SQL, then Entity Framework and finally xbox.com) but I recognize some of his points.
Here is some further discussion along with some other thoughts that have come up over the years. A lot of these don’t apply just to Microsoft and some are useful for people new to the industry to think about.
People think of Microsoft as a single entity with a sole focus and one opinion.
That’s about the worst mistake you can make.
Microsoft is like hundreds of small companies that often work together but sometimes against each other. They have different processes, dynamics, attitudes and goals not only within the same division but also within the same building or floor.
Thinking your experience with one team is a reflection of the whole company is short sighted. Microsoft employs almost 100,000 people including over 40,000 in the Redmond area alone.
It’s like a small country.
“Expect no documentation”
Documentation can sometimes be found checked in with source code, in wikis, buried in Sharepoint sites or OneNote. Wherever it may exist it will be out of date by the time you find it.
Documentation can only be up to date if it is never changed or you have a team of incredibly rare developers who like to read and write documentation more than code. Don’t fret unless nobody has the source code.
It might appear that people are critical and dropping dead will kill the project because everything gets funnelled through one or two people but that’s not the case. Many people know more than they let on but don’t want to be involved on a day-to-day basis because they have moved onto something better. When a dire situation arises these people step up.
“Not everyone is passionate for engineering”
It’s true not everyone you meet will be interested in quality software engineering. Some people just want to get the job done and go home. That happens to across all jobs and all walks of life. It’s a personal choice.
Ask yourself how many engineers you meet are passionate about delivering great experiences to users. Do they prioritize their own wants and desires such as a high test coverage in a rarely-regressed area over a simple useful feature many users are asking for.
Software engineering is a means to an end.
Your customers aren’t interested in software engineering. They want a useful tool or something entertaining.
What you want is to be able to sustain happy paying customers.
“2-3 hours of coding a day is great”
When you’re coding for yourself you are the user. You can make the decisions quickly and know what you’re asking of yourself. There is no communication overhead.
When you work with customers that slows things down especially if they’re not easy to get hold of. Most of the time you work with a project or program manager (PM in Microsoft speak) who advocates for the user. This speeds up the simpler decisions but complex or difficult decisions will still require time.
With more developers, testers and partners the communication overhead increases. You make educated guesses and perform iterative steps and keep everyone involved. If those guesses are wrong they should show up quickly. You can address those wrong guesses before too many features, code or documentation rely upon them being implemented wrongly.
If a decision can’t be easily reversed in the short term the it needs discussion. That takes time.
Two hours of coding a day can be fine. If it takes the product in the right direction.
“Not giving back to the public domain is a norm”
Whether you contribute code back to the outside world is defined by your personal goals and the team around you.
Some teams like the ones on ASP.NET MVC and Entity Framework have completely opened their stacks. Other teams have contributed back to existing projects. Your might not be able to do either… yet. Things are changing at Microsoft as these projects show and it can take patience and perseverance to make it happen.
It can be painful for a developer to break through the resistance of his own team and legal. There are reasons not to:
- It takes time and effort to put something out for public consumption
- It can take ongoing time and effort to maintain that code publicly
- If your code is innovative to your business area you might be giving the competition a boost
- Legal may perceive code contributions as a patent minefield
If your code doesn’t give you an edge then why are you writing it? Intellectual challenge? Do that on your own time. If something open source already provides important functionality you need to get permission to use that instead. Don’t give your competitors your edge while it counts.
“It’s about getting it done”
Shipping good products leads to success. Waiting for perfection leads to failure.
Shipping is everything. True, it’s not always first-to-market that wins but being late won’t help unless you have something that’s radically different. A lower bug rate or a slightly more polished experience won’t be enough.
It’s incredibly easy to ship updates today. Concentrate on getting the features usable and ensure it doesn’t harm the user. That means no corrupting data or major security issues.
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. - Gandalf ;-)
Your product will ship with bugs. If you have a good test team you’ll know what some of them are. Fix the critical, the blockers and the high-priority as best you can. Your competition isn’t going to wait, nor are your users.
The more easily discovered or hard to work around a bug is the quicker it will be found. A hard-to-reproduce bug that’s easy to work around isn’t worth the time you already spent thinking about.
“Copy-pasting code can be okay”
Starting a shared library between teams requires an intentional co-ordinated effort.
- When a team modifies a shared library do they know how it affects other teams? No.
- Will the other teams be carefully monitoring the shared library? No.
Copy and pasting is fine for odd classes. You get code re-use without having to set-up merging, policies and ownership.
Fixing a critical bug in shared code always requires co-ordination between teams whether they copy and pasted the code or whether they take a shared dependency.
Bugs can hide bugs. Fixes can reveal more bugs.
“Code reviews can be skipped”
There are a few things people want to get out of a code review and how well it goes depends on the people interested in reviewing the code.
How well did I implement this feature?
We’d all love to know this but it’s the hardest thing for somebody to critique in a code review. They probably don’t know the requirements well and unless they’ve been in that area of code lately they probably don’t know what the alternatives are and why you went with this approach. To know as much as you do about implementing this feature they would likely have needed to have spent as much time on it as you.
Code reviews rarely provide good feedback in this area unless you’re new to the team – in which case you should probably have pair-programmed instead and had a better experience.
Are there any glaring bugs?
If you’re a professional you should have read your code back and forth several times and probably refactored it until it looked good. If regular bugs or code reviews point out issues then you need reviews for this. Some people are much better than this than others – it’s one of personal discipline.
You should spend far more time reading your code than you did writing it.
Did I regress performance, security or reliability
This is about the best thing you can get out of a code review. People know arcane little bits about the system that are probably not well known and tricky to document. If you’re working in code that is called all over the place go for the code review especially.
“So… can code reviews be skipped?”
I’d be lying if I said I had a code review for everything I did. Sometimes you know the code base like the back of your hand and there are plenty of checkpoints further in the process as well as other eyes constantly on the codebase. A lot of open source projects work well this way.
Never skip a code review when:
- You’re in a rush. That’s exactly when you need it most. Send it to multiple people and wait for 1 or 2 responses – it parallizes well.
- The code is used everywhere. The more callers, the more places to fail.
- The code accesses sensitive data. Patching after a breach is too late.
At the end of the day ask yourself “Could this code damage the reputation of the company and therefore my career?”. If the answer is YES you need a review.
Competition and stagnation
When new markets and opportunities appear it often doesn’t belong to one team and many teams can find themselves in the same space as executives go for the land-grab. This behaviour is actually encouraged at all levels in the annual reviews … “expand your influence”.
Unfortunately this often results in customer confusion, especially as products expand and subsequently overlap. LINQ to SQL and Entity Framework are my own personal experience this but I’m sure you think of plenty more.
Conversely once a market is owned by a team it can stagnate quite quickly. Microsoft Billing and the MVP/MCP portals spring to mind. The latter requires Internet Explorer only to function. In compatibility mode no less. There are more than a few Microsoft web sites looking very dated.
Be aware of what other teams are doing and how it impacts yours. Treat teams in similar spaces as potential competitors but remember that their public failures reflect on the whole company including you.
Bring solutions, not problems
The article reminded me of one from a year or two back where somebody left Microsoft after a promising start that turned into a series of bad reviews after he started trying to change things by pointing out to people what’s wrong.
People know what’s wrong.
Microsoft like other big tech companies has a lot of smart people working for it. Smart people are busy.
Going around telling people that they’re doing things wrong or that things need to change without a plan is never going to make you friends or cause change. Guess what. Career progression is part popularity contest.
Worried the new site has so many hands it’s going to be a mess?
Don’t complain, do something. Figure out a solution that also solves pain for others so they’ll buy in. Work with the designers on a grid based PSD template, codify it into CSS, check it in and get it included on every page. Sacrifice a few lunchtimes to train the team on it. Get it done.
Think the approach you’re taking for security isn’t enough?
Liaise with experts, find the issues, develop or adopt libraries, tools and techniques to make the problem go away.
Get to the root of a problem and make sure the solution fits both sides
If you interface with customers directly through one of the many partner or support programs or indirectly through forums and twitter you’ll see upset customers. It’s hard, but it applies to all products. Upset people forget there are real people working hard on the product they use. That if they scream and shout they’ll get what they want. It doesn’t work that way.
You will come across good ideas, suggestions and feature requests internally and externally. Take the time to distill them down into small useful bite-sized pieces. Take from the critic’s what you can use for a better product and forget the rest.
People develop for themselves and what makes a great solution for them might not be for other people using your product.
Teams can be resistant to fully-baked solutions being handed to them. Come with bite-sized pieces and a few ideas on how they could interact. Let the solution flow out of discussion and debate. The result will be better than what you could come up with anyway.
This is even more important when dealing with other teams. They know their internals, other customers and future roadmap better than you do.
Expert means something different on the inside
Whether you’re an MVP or wrote a best-selling book joining the team behind it means you’re about to become a different type of expert.
You’re an expert on using the product. On the features that shipped. On the way it’s used.
You are about to learn is why the product is shaped that way. The hard decisions, the cut features, the implementation and constraints.
Brace your ego for impact. It doesn’t matter that you can write any kind of LINQ query off the top of your head and have used it in several apps. When you join the team behind it you’re in for a crash course in expression trees, compilers and query reduction. How far down does the rabbit hole go?
All those great ideas and suggestions you had as a user? Be prepared to find out 99% of them aren’t original. There are reasons why they’re not there. Ideas are cheap.
It’s now your job to figure out how to make them happen. Execution matters.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved working at Microsoft. It’s an exciting place to be with so many cool things going on. Leaving was a hard decision motivated by factors not on this list.
Like any job there will be challenges. Some unique to Microsoft, some big-company specific and some near-universal that you may be experiencing for the first time if you’re new to the industry.
Learn, adapt, thrive.
One of the great things about working for Microsoft was the sheer breadth of the company means there are lots of cool and interesting things going on that you can peek into even if it’s not your area. With a few exceptions your Microsoft badge gets you into the whole campus (some of the Xbox studios and the executive floor are exceptions).
As many people know I have a bit of a passion for typography and the Microsoft typography team are a very nice bunch of people happy to humor a crazy enthusiast.
Before I left I paid one final visit to the typography team to snap some cool pics. Here they are, admittedly a couple of years late, with some additional typography-related snaps from elsewhere on campus.
Check out Guerilla pixels via John Berry too.
You can see the full set including a few more shots, Sonic the Hedgehog and Lara Croft at Microsoft Campus on Flickr.
Given my new focus on Windows 8 apps and the loss of my MacBook Pro I was in the market for a Windows 8 laptop.
My requirements were that it had a touchscreen display with at least 1080p resolution, fast (i5 or better with an SSD) and very slim. You’d be surprised at how such simple requirements leave you with such a small selection right now.
I settled on the Acer Aspire S7 although I had a couple of reservations as it supports a maximum of 4GB of RAM and a glossy display. Here’s my thoughts so far after two months of almost-daily use:
I picked up the machine from my local Microsoft Store in the mall. The process was quick and painless and I was in and out in under 10 minutes even though the store was rather busy. I did have to decline a free Windows 8 tutorial but otherwise it was plain sailing.
The product was well packed and nicely presented very much like an Apple product. The similarities ended there however as unlike Apple the box included a bunch of items Apple would charge extra for. These were:
- Leather-like slip-cover
- Small Acer-branded Bluetooth mouse
- USB to Ethernet adapter
- Mini-HDMI to VGA adapter
The adapters are very useful, the mouse of no use to me (I only use Logitech G5/G500’s) and the slip-cover I thought would be useful but is a bit unwieldy and it started to break after light use.
Anyone complaining that the machine doesn’t have Ethernet or VGA physically built into the device (I’m looking at you ZDNet) would do well to remember that both those connectors are thicker than this machine and there are plenty of thick klunky machines to choose from if having it built-in is important to you.
There is a good video on YouTube that shows somebody else actually going through the unboxing process.
The tiny 13.3″ display sports almost the same resolution as my 24″ Dell at 1600 x 1080 and at this size and resolution the screen is great. Small text is not unreadable at the regular DPI and larger text feels smooth and refined.
The touch aspect of this screen is incredible and I’m able to reliably move 8 objects concurrently on the game we wrote called Sticker Tales. The display actually supports ten concurrent touch points but at 13.3″ trying to find space for ten fingers to move is tricky unless you have tiny fingers.
That’s not to say everything about the display is good. As usual the gloss finish is incredibly annoying and within a week it has three indentations presumably from being pressed against small specs when closed against the keyboard although I’ve not seen the actual cause. Thankfully you can only spot them when the screen is mostly dark and the display is very bright and colorful.
Unlike some of the current touch-capable machines the screen on this one doesn’t completely flip over. It can however go completely flat… that might erm, be useful… to someone?
The keyboard is a mixed bunch. The basic layout and feel of the keyboard is good and it follows an almost-flush (2mm raised) chiclet style keyboard with back-lighting. Okay, that’s the good news.
The bad news is that there are no function keys so it’s Fn+numbers for those. The back-light comes on every time you bring the machine out of sleep and you have to tap Fn+U several times to get rid of it. There are a bunch of Fn special keys across Q through O the worst of which is Fn+T which is easily hit and turns off the trackpad with no notification. You’ll be incredibly confused the first couple of times you do this when you meant to press CtrlT to open a new tab.
Another annoyance for developers and power users is that the home/page up and end/page down are flush with the left and right arrows. Get used to typos. Symbols and the caps/enter keys are also a bit unusual too. Overall the keyboard feels more style over usability.
The trackpad is probably good enough for most people. Frankly my mind is so hard-wired from the hard-button on my pre-unibody Macbook Pro that I’ve been struggling with buttonless trackpads ever since. Thankfully the included software lets you disable some of the more annoying gestures like zoom if you’re having issues retraining your digits.
Weight and size
I have to admit the weight is awesome and despite my reservations after 4 years on a 17″ laptop the size is great. I really wouldn’t want to go any smaller though and when I get my own personal machine (this Aspire is a work one) later this year it will likely be a 15″ primarily because of the keyboard space limitations on a 13.3″ and the fact I don’t want…
Like all sub-15″ ultrabooks you’re stuck with the Intel HD 4000 graphics that are actually embedded inside the Ivy Bridge Intel Core i5/i7 CPU. Yes, even Apple’s 13″ MacBook’s suffer this limitation too.
If you want better graphics performance in an Ultrabook you’re probably going to have to wait until June when Intel’s new replacement for Ivy Bridge comes out and the graphics get ramped again.
This is a great machine for overall regular and light usage but I can’t recommend it to developers.
The lack of function keys mixed with the 4GB RAM limit are going to be painful for users of virtual machines or IDEs. If Acer had sense they would up the RAM on the i7 version to 8GB to further differentiate the two.