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Scot’s Newsletter

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November 2005 - Vol. 5, Issue No. 74

By Scot Finnie

IN THIS ISSUE

  • Windows Vista October CTP Pre-Beta 2
  • New Internet Explorer 7 Features Revealed
  • Email's Loss of Reliability and Lack of Innovation
  • 60-Second Briefs
       - Should You Install Firefox 1.5?
       - Updated Version: POPFile v0.22.3
       - Check Out the Pipeline Reviews
  • Poll Results: Your Next Operating System
  • Digital SLR Camera Follow-Up
  • Linux Explorer: Use Hdparm to Optimize Your Hard Disk
  • Link of the Month: Wikipedia
  • Newsletter Schedule
  • Subscribe, Unsubscribe, Change Your Subscription


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    Windows Vista October CTP Pre-Beta 2
    In the last issue of the newsletter, I offered an in-depth report on the Windows Vista September CTP (build 5219). A couple weeks ago, Microsoft released the October CTP (Community Technology Preview), build 5231 of Windows Vista, a slightly newer pre-release version of beta 2. And more than likely there'll be another pre-beta-2 CTP release in November. Beta 2 may be in the offing after that. That's how I read the tea leaves anyway.

    The October CTP is notable for changes to Internet Explorer 7 (IE 7), which is addressed in the next article in this issue. There are also the beginnings of several other Vista elements.

    Network Center
    Perhaps the most prominent new feature in this build of Windows Vista is Network Center, Microsoft's forthcoming replacement for My Network Places and Network Neighborhood. So far Microsoft has provided very limited information about new features showing up for the first time in the CTP builds. One thing the company has said is that Network Center will provide network diagnostics and make it easier to attach and configure network media players, routers, and wireless access points.

    Network Center shows up as a system tray icon. Single-click that icon and an Explorer window opens that's loosely akin to Windows XP Service Pack 2's Wireless Networking Wizard, but with a larger purview. Network Center offers a long list of tools and options for configuring and working with wired and wireless networks, including Network Map, which is designed to show all the nodes on your network, including the switches and access points. There's a Diagnose facility that ostensibly will help you figure out network problems.

  • Screenshot: Network Center (53K, 628 x 506 pixels)
    The Network Center is Windows Vista's next-generation version of Network Neighborhood. So far, so good, but not much works here yet.

    At least on my network, most of Network Center's functionality isn't working or isn't working properly. Some items lead to a crash; nothing happens when you click others. This is the typical experience in a beta product, so Microsoft has done nothing wrong. On the other hand, without deeper information from the software maker on how this is supposed to work, I'm operating in guess mode. As it stands, Network Center in build 5231 doesn't even reliably deliver the more limited functionality provided by My Network Places in Windows XP. That's probably why the XP-level Network user interface continues to be available in this build.

    This is also the first widely distributed build to include the long-promised new IPv6 protocol. Both IPv4 and IPv6 are installed, as well as Link-Layer Topology Discovery Mapper I/O Driver for NDIS 6 and Link-Layer Topology Discovery Responder for NDIS 6. Among other things, these layers support the Network Mapping and diagnostics functionality that's not all there yet.

  • Screenshot: IPv6 TCP/IP Protocol (51K, 367 x 444 pixels)
    Microsoft's new IPv6 TCP/IP protocol, as well as the Link-Layer Topology Discovery layers provide the horsepower to support many of the new features in Network Center.

    Considering that I have been critical of Windows XP in the networking area, I am glad to see Microsoft making this an important new design point for Vista. We'll have to wait and see, though, how well this works in the real world.

    Diagnostics
    Microsoft's description of Windows Vista build 5231 begins with "built-in diagnostics," including Windows Memory Diagnostics, Windows Disk Diagnostics, and network diagnostics. The network diagnostics feature either isn't properly hooked up, or it's not going to be very helpful. We'll have to wait for later builds to gauge whether this functionality will prove to be a boon, or like Windows' Help troubleshooting tools, a bust. Right now, it can find no problems on my network, which I find difficult to believe given the networking performance and browsing issues with this build of Vista.

    If Vista's network diagnostic is toothless, at least so far, the disk and memory diagnostics are just nowhere to be found — even though Microsoft says these tools are in the October CTP. The disk diagnostics have been described in past as a service designed to warn you of pending catastrophic failure. Presumably, the memory diagnostics work the same way. But should there be a tool you could run to manually check for problems? The Windows Memory Diagnostic is available to Windows users now as a separate download.

    Mobility Center and Power Options
    I count 44 Control Panel applets in Vista build 5231. Windows XP SP2 on my main computer has 31 (not including OEM-specific controls). The new control panels include Auxiliary Displays, Indexing and Search Options, iSCSI initiator, Mobility Center, Network Map, Peer-to-Peer, Saved Networks, Secure Startup, Solutions to Problems, and Windows Parental Controls. Some control panels have been renamed or recast. The Accessibility control panel, for example, is called Ease of Access in build 5231.

  • Screenshot: Control Panel (103K, 681 x 593 pixels)
    Control Panel now sports several new configuration applets, Auxiliary Displays, Indexing and Search Options, iSCSI initiator, Mobility Center, Network Map, Peer-to-Peer, Saved Networks, Secure Startup, Solutions to Problems, and Windows Parental Controls.

    For more on Auxiliary Displays, check the October 2005 issue of Scot's Newsletter.

    Throughout Vista's development cycle Microsoft has been messing with Control Panel applets, and some new ones have come and gone. It's too early to get serious about nailing down the configuration controls Microsoft will be adding to this version of Windows, but two areas are notable. The Mobility Center is a new Control Panel applet for portable computers that's designed to be one-stop-shopping for many of the things mobile users frequently need to control, such as configuration settings for LCD brightness, battery charge, wireless connections, external displays, and syncing. Many OEM notebook makers offer their own utilities that handle chores such as saving network-connection settings by location and managing external displays and presentation projectors. Mobility Center is barely even turned on and most of its settings areas are disabled in this build (at least, they are on my ThinkPad). So, again, it's too soon to comment. But the direction is interesting.

  • Screenshot: Mobility Center (32K, 566 x 268 pixels)
    The new Mobility Center isn't hooked up yet, but it aims to be a mini Control Panel aimed at common mobile computing configuration tasks.

    One thing that is hooked up in Vista build 5231 is the power-management features in the Power Options control panel. Although they're in need of a much better organized UI that displays the settings on something other than a blizzard of drop-down menus, Power Options' many settings are finally up to date, robust, and reflect the actual functions of today's (and tomorrow's) PCs and portables. Trust me, whatever you want to do in controlling power and systems based on battery or AC power, it's in there. And for the first time these features are working pretty reliably in Vista too.

  • Screenshot: Power Options (67K, 671 x 500 pixels)
    The vastly expanded functionality of the Power Options control panel is a lot of new power looking for a more usable interface.

    Network Sharing
    I'm skeptical about a set of features Microsoft has talked about for Vista — network sharing functionality. In the name of protecting us from ourselves, Windows XP made network sharing on a LAN so preposterously difficult at times that running a peer network (especially one that mixes wired and wireless networking) has become a black art instead of something you just do. Security became such a mantra at Microsoft that apparently the company forgot that people actually want to access data from anywhere on their small networks. What do I want to access? Oh, stuff on the desktop, stuff in My Documents. Horror of horrors, those things shouldn't be accessible!

    Hooey. Security protections can be a lot smarter than they are in Windows XP. A lot of this starts with sharing, sharing permissions, sharing by account, and it's an absolute mess in XP. So when Microsoft tells us it's going to make sharing easier in Vista, you'll forgive me if I'm from Missouri (the Show Me state) on this one. Some of this new sharing functionality (or at least user interface) is visible here and there. But in the October CTP, networking is less functional than it was in the September CTP. Just one more thing that'll have to wait.

  • Screenshot: Network Sharing (30K, 618 x 424 pixels)
    This appears to be an early placeholder, or one part of, the network sharing features Microsoft is intending to deliver.

    Looking Ahead
    For more information about the October CTP straight from the horse's mouth, see this document, which was released with build 5231.

    Some of the things that Microsoft is still actively working on for future builds include Windows Media Player 11, a new Migration Wizard (for when you switch PCs), Windows AntiSpyware, and Windows Calendar.

    Be sure to check the next section of the newsletter for more on what's new in the Windows Vista October CTP.

    Back to the Top


    New Internet Explorer 7 Features Revealed
    By Barbara Krasnoff and Scot Finnie

    The October CTP of Windows Vista brought with it several new visible browser features. An in-depth review of this new version of Internet Explorer 7 appears in the January issue of PC Today, which will hit the newsstands in about two weeks. To bring you another perspective, Barbara Krasnoff, TechWeb Pipelines' Reviews Editor, shared her experiences with this latest version of IE7. So this part of the newsletter presents IE 7 observations from both of us.

    Internet Explorer 7 First Impressions
    The latest widely distributed version of Windows Vista, build 5231, also known as the October CTP, is significant primarily because of the new features it delivers in Internet Explorer 7. Earlier issues of the newsletter covered the new tabbed browsing and RSS features. Both the appearance and the functionality of those two features are upgraded in this version of IE 7.

    Microsoft has added to its tabbed-browsing functionality with a thumbnail-tab overview feature called Quick Tabs, the ability to save and reopen sets of tabs known as Tabbed Groups, and a small new tabbed-browsing configuration dialog in Internet Options. Quick Tabs is the most interesting of the new features. Although earlier Web browsers or plug-ins have offered something similar to this before, it's a first for Internet Explorer. Once you have two or more tabs open, an icon appears on the tabs bar, which, when clicked replaces the Web page window with small thumbnail views for each of the Web pages you have open in tabs. It's very easy to both click on any thumbnail to open it and also to delete a tab in Quick Tabs by clicking the close box in its upper right corner.

  • Screenshot: Quick Tabs (114K, 772 x 700 pixels)
    The new Quick Tabs feature in IE 7 promises to be one of the biggest productivity boosters in the new Microsoft Web browser.

    There are two ways we can see ourselves using Quick Tabs. The most common will probably be "where oh where is that Web page with the cool stuff on it?" In other words, when you have 8, 15, or 29 tabs open, Quick Tabs will be the fastest way to find that other page you were looking at three hours ago.

    The other way some people will use this is as a visual tab manager. Whenever you call it a day on your computer, and you realize your browser has 14 open tabs, aren't there usually at least one or two you want to bookmark or save shortcut icons for? The easiest way to do that is to rapidly kill off tabs you know you don't need and then examine the rest. And we can't think of a faster way to do that than Quick Tabs.

    The Tab Groups feature lets you save sets of tabs to your Favorites (they're saved into a new folder) and then later reopen them with just a few clicks. This feature will come in handy, but the implementation in Favorites is a little clunky. When I saved a folder there, IE 7 placed the folder at the bottom of the Favorites list. Microsoft describes the feature as offering one-click recall of the tab set, but that's only possible if you open the new Favorites Center in the sidebar, which requires you to either run with the sidebar open or click to open it. We don't know about you, but neither of us is likely to leave the sidebar open at all times. In fact, Microsoft designed it very well so it no longer needs to remain open (we'll come back to this point in a moment).

  • Screenshot: Tabbed Groups (124K, 736 x 652 pixels)
    The Tabbed Groups feature lets you name, save, and then later relaunch sets of tabs (that is, Web pages).

    Microsoft's insistence on doing away with the main menus (File, Edit, View, etc.) by default in all Windows Vista Explorer windows, including Internet Explorer, is a usability no-no. Why would you take something millions of people already know how to use and hide it? The setting that turns this back on is also not immediately discoverable in either Internet Explorer or Windows Explorer. Microsoft, please think twice about this one. No user-experience philosophy du jour should put millions of people at disadvantage in an attempt to prove a point or teach us a "better" way to do things.

    The new Favorites Center is an improved version of IE's Explorer Bar (or sidebar), which in IE6 and earlier offers views of Search, Favorites, History, and Folders. In IE 7 from Vista build 5231, the Explorer Bar is recast as primarily the Favorites Center, with alternate History and RSS Feeds views. The very best new aspect of this sidebar is that, by default, it opens *over* the Web page currently loaded, instead of pushing it to the side. When you click to select a bookmark to load, the Favorites Center closes automatically and the page is loaded in a new tab. Yes! Finally, Microsoft has thought this through. This is the way it should work.

  • Screenshot: Favorites Center (44K, 283 x 517 pixels)
    Microsoft got the new Favorites Center right. It opens over the Web page, instead of pushing to the right, and when you click a clink to open a bookmarked Web page, Favorites Center closes automatically.

    A small button in the sidebar makes the Favorites Center part of the main window, pushing over not only the main window, but the toolbar as well. (In this iteration, the button is merely a left-pointing arrow, which is a bit confusing. Presumably, this detail will be fixed later.)

    Both Firefox and Internet Explorer are currently able to increase the size of text on any Web page when you hold down the Ctrl button and use your mouse scroll button up or down. Internet Explorer 7 will match one of Opera's cool features and let you scale the size of the entire Web page, images and text together, with Ctrl-mouse scroll (or Ctrl plus the + or - keys). This Page Zoom feature is very powerful, and extremely useful. It's not just over-45 eyes that will find this a big advantage.

    Microsoft's new RSS features for IE 7 are very similar to Firefox's Live Bookmarks. IE 7 can display any RSS feed in a legible format, something Firefox can only do with the aid of the third-party Feedview extension. Like Live Bookmarks, IE 7 has an icon that lights up when an RSS feed is available on a Web page. When you click RSS icon, you see a listing of the articles available from the feed, and you can click any of them to load a specific article page. What's missing in this rendition is a way to subscribe to the feed from one of a page you've loaded in this fashion, although you can click a Subscribe button next to the RSS button to add the current RSS link to the Feeds folder in Favorites. It seems that Microsoft has progressed with the user interface for its new RSS features, but this doesn't appear to be the finished product. So we'll revisit this again in the future.

    IE 7 is clearly unfinished in the toolbar area, so it's possible that what's wrong will be fixed when Vista ships. We'll hold off further discussion of the toolbars for now. They appear to be a work in progress, but we're not sure the direction is the right one. The IE toolbar of the IE 4 through IE 6 era has been one of the best things about the program.

    Phishing Filter in Action
    We're offering you two different views of the Phishing Filter, Microsoft's new anti-phishing protection feature set.

    Barbara:
    The Suspicious Website warning in Microsoft's IE 7 Phishing FilterAs you surf, you'll want to keep an eye on the bottom of the display, which now offers an icon informing you when it blocks pop-ups and cookies. You can click on these icons to see exactly what was stopped. There's also an icon that fades in and out like Casper the Friendly Ghost as each new page loads. It shows that IE 7 is checking a page you've just loaded for possible phishing characteristics. When the icon in the status bar winks out, a yellow warning icon is placed beside the URL address bar if the site is deemed to be "suspicious." No yellow warning means that Phishing Filter has deemed the site to be OK.

    I took IE 7 to an obvious phishing URL I had recently received (you know the type: "PayPal Notification of Limited Account Access"). The yellow warning appeared; when I clicked it, IE 7 displayed this message: "Phishing Filter has determined that this might be a phishing website. We recommended you do not give any of your information to such websites." You're also given the option to click on a link to a Microsoft Phishing Filter Feedback page where you can report whether you think it's truly a phishing site.

    I decided to play the part of a really stupid user, so I ignored the yellow URL and proceeded to put a name and password (false, of course) into the form. I was immediate taken to another page that told me my credit card was reported as lost or stolen, and asked me to fill in information such as my name, card number, PIN, social security number, banking ID, billing address — nothing really important. Again, the "Suspicious Website" notification came up.

    This is useful stuff, but I'm not sure it's enough. It took at least a full minute for the notification to come up, and a yellow button displacing part of the Address bar isn't really all that noticeable. If Microsoft really wanted to stop innocent users from giving personal information to scammers and other nasty folks, something like an "Are you sure you want to type personal information into a Web page?" notice would have been nice.

    Scot:
    The other side of the coin could present issues for businesses. When I loaded Scot's Newsletter in IE 7 from Vista's build 5231, I found virtually every page on my site (hundreds of pages) caused IE 7 to display the yellow "Suspicious Website" warning. When you click the yellow button, there's a link for webmasters and site owners to notify Microsoft that their sites are incorrectly labeled this way. To submit a page for human examination, you have to fill out 10 separate fields, including personal information. Then you send it off to Microsoft.

    The first time I did this, I assumed Microsoft would check over the entire site when it realized its mistake. But, no, what it did was to agree with me that the page in question didn't represent a phishing threat, turning off the yellow suspicious website warning for just that one page. I got an auto-generated message 24 hours later letting me know of the company's decision. There's no way to reply to the message.

    The submission form doesn't let you submit any more than one page at a time. So, I thought, I'll submit another page and ask them in one of the five free-form fields to examine every page on my site. I got the exact same auto-generated email response as I did with the first submission, and again, Microsoft had turned off the warning for just that one page. The third time around I put the same request in every field asking for all the pages on my site to be reviewed. It took about five days for this to occur, but at last Microsoft got it right. Every page but one was free of the yellow warning. I just submitted that one page and it, too, was free of the warning the next day.

    I interviewed three of the folks at Microsoft who are responsible for the Phishing Filter about the issues I experienced as a webmaster/website owner. They readily agreed that blog and newsletter sites have tended to be a problem for the Phishing Filter, and this is something they will have fixed by the time the IE 7 ships. But they stopped shy of saying that would make it easy for entire websites to be submitted for review. Their fear is that phishing scammers will set up domains, have them reviewed as safe, and then add-in the malicious tools after Microsoft has blessed them. I can understand that problem. But it points out to me that the technology they're using might need to be improved. It's too soon to say that for sure in this early beta, but it's something to keep an eye on.

    I should add that we have found very few sites on the Internet so far that seem inappropriately tagged with the Suspicious Website tag. So by and large Microsoft has gotten this right. But they need to make it easier for legitimate businesses whose websites are their front doors to free themselves of Microsoft labeling them as phishing scams when they're not. If you're going to set yourself up as final arbiter when the ruling could be potentially damaging to another company, you better get it right — or make it easy to set it right.

    Security and Out
    There's quite a bit more security in IE 7 too. The Windows Vista version of IE 7 will provide a Protected Mode that gives the browser sufficient rights to browse the Web, but not enough rights to modify user settings or data. Protected Mode will only be available to Vista users because the functionality depends on the reworked user account system in Windows Vista. Vista's version of IE 7 will also be able to automatically install security and other updates; that will not be the case in the XP version. New parental controls will be available for Limited accounts (we were unable to make the Windows Parental Controls control panel to work). There's also a new "ActiveX Opt-in" feature that's apparently in the 5231 code but we haven't been able to prompt it into action.

    We'll weigh in with insights and opinions about how much better IE 7 is when the beta 2 code is released; it's expected around the middle of December.

    Barbara Krasnoff and I collaborated on the earlier InternetWeek's Test Drive: Internet Explorer 7 Beta 1 For XP, which might also interest you.

    Back to the Top


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    Rant: Email's Loss of Reliability and Lack of Innovation
    How many times a week do you learn that you didn't get a message that you were supposed or that someone didn't get a message you sent that you assumed he or she had? Maybe you can't measure this on a weekly basis, but I'd be surprised if anyone reading this newsletter hadn't experienced this several times before. Email is no longer reliable. And especially in business settings, where reliable communication is not just nice to have, but absolutely required for a company to conduct business effectively, email is increasingly becoming a problem-prone means of communication.

    You know the reasons as well as I do. The rise of spam has created inbox overload. Email once boosted productivity in business because it can serve as an impromptu meeting on a specific decision point — especially one that's best supported by details, facts, hyperlinks, spreadsheets and so on. We can only be in one meeting at any hour of the day. But we can be on multiple email threads, even while we're conducting in-person meetings. I began working this way in business in 1989, and the productivity boost at that time was dramatic.

    In this decade, however, business inbox glut has become a huge problem. It's not just spam either. Business people get so much legitimate email from outside the company — much of it of only slight significance to their work — that some companies are choosing to limit how much time or how many messages their employees receive. Personally, I believe that's the wrong way to handle the problem, but I can sympathize with the managers who are attempting resolve things that way.

    The rise of spam has also created an insidious secondary problem, the rise of ISP- and IT-run anti-spam content filters that look for patterns and specific words in email and reject it automatically when they find a match. This kind of software is hugely successful at rooting out about 80% or more of the spam people receive. But the unsophisticated software is also prone to tagging false positives — email that the user actually wanted to get. And the email usage patterns dictate that many false positives go unreported, either because they're unknown or because people don't know how to or don't bother to report them. Whitelisting is a rudimentary way of handling the problem because names and email addresses change.

    Email is no longer a reliable enough means of communication to conduct important business with. Yet millions of businesspeople everyday rely on it to carry mission-critical communications both internally and with outside business partners. It seems unlikely that email will ever go away, but the half-baked attempts at authentication standards and proprietary solutions aimed at grabbing a new revenue stream have been pathetic. Even the U.S. Postal Service at one point wanted to get in there and start charging us to send email. What are these organizations thinking? Why is the computer industry so befuddled about how to deal with these problems?

    No Client-Side Innovation
    There's another set of factors that add to the problem. Corporate email tools — such as Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Notes, Novell GroupWise — are abysmal products on the desktop. Lotus Notes in particular is a shoddy email package that robs employee productivity at every turn. I've used or worked around Notes for almost 15 years. My company has used it since 1997, and my previous employer began using it 1991. Notes' email features were an afterthought, something that creates problems everyday for Notes users. Outlook is by far the best of the corporately-aimed bunch, but it is also a bloated product that's received almost no usability improvements aimed at true productivity in years.

    Let me give you one important example of what's lacking in all leading email applications. Most end users need to be able to parse their email into groupings that make it easier for them to focus on email in different contexts. There are two traditional ways of doing that: 1.) By creating smart queries that bring up parts of the inbox or 2.) By physically moving messages into separate folders. Either way, very few companies have focused on making either process easier to set up and manage, and the best examples are open-source products requiring a local proxy server or little-known commercial companies selling add-ons for Outlook. (See the POPFile entry in this issue's 60-Second Briefs for more detail.)

    The result is that most of us are left to fend for ourselves to wade through what for many business people can be hundreds of messages a day. There's really no other application that business would put up with this sort of inefficiency. It's like we're blind to the lack of improvement.

    I'm not sure we can pin the blame solely on Microsoft for this, because the competition has been inept. But Microsoft owns the biggest share of both the commercial corporate and free Internet email user bases. Outlook and Outlook Express — two very different products — have effectively shouldered out companies like Lotus, Novell, Qualcomm, Netscape, and many others. Microsoft's response to effectively owning this software category has been a curtailment of innovation.

    A few issues of the newsletter back, I called for SFNL readers to dump Microsoft Hotmail because Microsoft was implementing a proprietary email sender authentication system that hasn't been accepted by standards bodies and that isn't easy for smaller mailers to adopt.

    Today I'd like to send out a similar message to the CIOs, CFOs, and CEOs at companies around the world asking them to cut their losses and dump the overly expensive Lotus Notes and Domino, which is never going to solve email problems. I'm also calling for enterprise executives to apply pressure on Microsoft (or the makers of whatever corporate email solution they employ) to focus on employee productivity. Far too many enterprise applications give no thought at all to the amount of time business users spend sifting through their email. One of the reasons the economy boomed in the late 1990s was because the productivity gains of a large installed based of business computer users finally starting having a huge pay off on corporate bottom lines. A smart, dedicated set of computer savvy business people found that could burn the candle at both ends, stretching their business day into the evening hours and expanding their channels of consensus building and decision making.

    Email was a large part of that change, but now companies are taking that advantage for granted.

    Back to the Top


    60-Second Briefs
       - Should You Install Firefox 1.5?
       - Updated Version: POPFile v0.22.3
       - Check Out the Pipeline Reviews

    Should You Install Firefox 1.5?
    According to Firefox insiders, the release of Firefox 1.5 RC1 (Release Candidate 1) is due any day now. That's often the last pre-release version before a software product is finished. Mozilla has a history of airing release candidates for a week or two and if no verifiable bugs are reported, pushing the product final pretty quickly. So if luck goes Mozilla's way, the final version of Firefox 1.5 could arrive in as little as two weeks, and it seems likely that it will be released to the world before the next edition of this newsletter.

    I've used Firefox 1.5 beta 1, beta 2, and now I'm running a pre-release of the RC1 release. I can't tell you what your experience will be. I'm only one guy running it on four computers. But there are some things I can pass along to those of you who are wondering whether you should jump on the new version of Firefox as soon as it's available.

    First, installation is fast and easy. I always recommend that people install to Mozilla's default directory for Firefox. But if you opted for a different directory, be sure to note which one before you install any new version of Firefox; the setup program will prompt you for this information. Don't guess. Beyond that, there's not much to say. Whether you uninstall your previous version of Firefox (the option I recommend) or install right over your 1.0x installation, the experience is both similar and equally good. I definitely, though, recommend uninstalling any previous beta version of Firefox before installing 1.5.

    One of my favorite aspects of 1.5 is the way it manages and updates extensions. When you install the new version, it will find all the extensions previously installed (even if you uninstall your old version of Firefox first), checking automatically for newer versions of your extensions and compatibility with 1.5. If an extension is found to be incompatible, Firefox disables it but leaves installed. That way you can check again in a few days to see whether the program author has updated it. Mozilla has made Firefox program updates smaller in file size and completely automatic. The software maker also added a manual "Check for Updates" option on the Help menu, something I suggested in my in-depth review of Firefox 1.0.

    One of my other suggestions — to add the ability to drag-and-drop rearrange the order of open browser tabs — is also incorporated in Firefox 1.5. I still feel strongly that some of the user interface and functionality of popular extensions, such as Tab Clicking Options and UndoCloseTab, should be incorporated into the tabbed-browsing features of the product. For more on the extensions I use and recommend, see the Best of Scot's Newsletter's Customizing Firefox site, which I update regularly.

    A new button on the Tools menu, labeled Clear Private Data, lets you dump all personal information (including usernames and passwords, browser cache, and so on) from the browser. It's a great last-ditch panic button if you think you're being attacked by drive-by spyware.

    Mozilla has redesigned the Options menu, and the new organization makes sense, although this is a pretty minor change. Mozilla describes other changes in its version 1.5 release notes.

    After using several beta versions of Firefox 1.5, this is my early assessment: It's a better product than Firefox 1.0x, but the differences are minor. If Mozilla had called this a 1.1 upgrade, none of us would have thought that version number strange. Some of the best aspects of 1.5, like support for new Web standards, are going to require extensive testing by millions of people before we'll be sure of their value.

    I also wouldn't think twice about recommending that you upgrade to this version. There are several security enhancements and my only qualms about some of the enhancements are that they might not have gone far enough. Mozilla is on the right track.

    If you're using any of the Firefox 1.5 betas or once the final version comes out, drop me a note and let me know about your experiences with the new newest version of Firefox.

    Updated Version: POPFile v0.22.3
    I'm on record as saying that POPFile by John Graham-Cumming is the most accurate email-classification and anti-spam products I've ever tested. My opinion on that score has not changed. After using POPFile for nearly a year, I went back to Spamnix 3.0x for Eudora. The POPFile user interface is much less convenient, but even more importantly, I found the proxy-server that POPFile installs was causing one-to-two-second program freezes for Eudora. Those issues went away as soon as I uninstalled POPFile. Although Spamnix is not quite as effective as POPFile, its efficiency has improved considerably in recent versions.

    I remain, however, supremely interested in POPFile and other products like it (such as SpamBayes). What I like in particular about POPFile its mail-classification features. POPFile can quickly "learn," based on how you classify email, the characteristics of email you receive. For example, you could create a "Newsletter" bucket in POPFile, and after training it to place all your received newsletters there, it would continue to do this very accurately. Or perhaps you want to create a bucket for all your family and friends? POPFile doesn't do this based on email addresses; it actually analyzes the mail you receive for like characteristics. With a little work from you in training it, the program is stupendously accurate.

    All the downsides of POPFile stem from the fact that it's not built right into your email program. This is the kind of functionality that companies like Microsoft, Lotus, Novell, Qualcomm, and others should be thinking about implementing. (For more about what email companies aren't doing right, see the rant above: Email's Loss of Reliability and Lack of Innovation.)

    So, anyway, POPFile has also not been updated in almost a year. The new 0.22.3 version is a minor upgrade, but it's good to see the product improve. The short list of improvements, most of which target the installation process, is not aimed at the problems I had with the product. But a new version is a new version — for any of you who followed me into the POPFile experiment. Also, the program author has publicly mentioned he's working on a major new release. For more information, check the release notes for the new version. Some additional links:

  • POPFile v0.22.3 Download
  • POPFile Home Page
  • Spamnix for Eudora
  • SpamBayes

    Check Out the Pipeline Reviews
    In my other professional life, I run the TechWeb Pipelines sites. Earlier this year we launched a product reviews effort on the Pipelines. I hired long-time PC Magazine, PC Sources, and Computer Shopper reviews editor, Barbara Krasnoff (who had been our editor of Desktop Pipeline) to fill this role. And she's done an admirable job of getting this process rolling. The result? There are dozens of Pipeline product reviews. Many of them are written by people with decades of experience. Below is a 10-pack sampler of the Pipeline reviews, hand picked by me:

  • Review: Three One-Touch Hard Drives
  • The Pipeline Guide To Security Software
  • VoIP On The Go: New Wireless Solutions
  • Take It All With You: Two 'Smart' USB Drives
  • iPod Nano: Small, Sleek and Superior
  • First Look: Firefox 1.5 Beta 1
  • Hot Apps: ZoneAlarm Security Suite 6.0
  • Review: Sony Ericsson W800i Walkman phone
  • Review: Get The PC — Hold The Windows Tax
  • Review: Google Desktop Beta 2

    To find more reviews, visit the TechWeb Pipelines Reviews page. If you have suggestions for products you'd like to see the Pipelines review, please send email my way. You can also reach any of the Pipeline editors or staffers by contacting them directly.

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    Poll Results: Your Next Operating System
    Thanks to the 2,500 Scot's Newsletter readers who participated in the What's Your Next OS poll I ran in the August issue of the newsletter. The Polls are closed now! I appreciate your help.

    Here are the results. For those who read carefully, I was asking people to respond with the name of the one operating system they would be most likely to adopt next, if they're planning to make that change within two years.

  • Fully 25% of those responding say they have no plans to upgrade their operating system within two years. (Last year it was 50%.) Many of this year's "not upgrading" votes indicated they were using Windows 98, 2000, or XP and planning to continue using it.

  • About 44% say they intend to upgrade to some version of Windows Vista. (Last year it was about 48%.)

  • People saying they will upgrade to Linux or the Mac still have small numbers, but compared to last year, they're up several orders of magnitude at 272 would-be Linux upgraders and 140 people looking toward the Mac. Last year only 14 people were planning to make the Linux switch and the Mac only garnered three people saying they planned to adopt it. These numbers tell me less about the importance of desktop Linux or the Mac, and more about the Windows users' disaffection with their operating system. Believe it or not, there was a time when running Windows was fun. I don't think most of us would describe any aspect of Windows as being fun. (Well, maybe Spider Solitaire.)

  • The only other data point worth calling out is that 237 people said they were planning to upgrade to Windows XP next.

    The rate of Windows XP adoption is much higher among SFNL readers than among the actual installed base of Windows users. Which makes me wonder whether Microsoft is really taking the real world into consideration with its Windows Lifecycle plans. With XP being four years old now, Windows Vista on the way, and all of Windows being 20 years old this month, you can bet your sweet bippie that Windows XP will rotate up into the termination crosshairs. Currently, XP is slated to stop shipping on new PCs on December 31, 2005, but expect that to be extended a year, since Microsoft isn't shipping Vista until the end of 2006.

    The good news is that the "extended support" (including free security updates and paid support) is scheduled to continue until 2011. The bad news is that extended support is not supposedly available to consumers. Microsoft cleared all this up a while back with revamped lifecycle policies, but I think most of us still have as many questions as we did before.

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    Digital SLR Camera Follow-Up
    Last month I ran an in-depth exploration of the Canon EOS 20D digital SLR camera. Because some people in the past have expressed the opinion that digital camera coverage might be beyond the pale for Scot's Newsletter, I asked for comments about whether this article fits Scot's Newsletter and is interesting to you. To my surprise, not a single negative comment appeared in my inbox. Even from an edition of the newsletter in which I offered lots of Windows Vista, Firefox, Opera, and Internet Explorer 7 coverage, more than 50% of the email in the last month has been enthusiastic email about the digital camera coverage.

    A recurring theme in these messages is that you, too, are weighing digital camera offerings, and that my research and the factors that I considered were helpful to you. Several Canon EOS 20D owners, about-to-be 20D owners, and Nikon D70 and D70s owners wrote to me with their insights, suggestions, comments, disagreements, and questions. This email is typical of the lot:

    "I really appreciated your comments on the digital camera. I believe that you represent a lot of people who are interested in computers and who view the digital camera as an extension of the computer's usefulness by introducing customizable graphics. Best regards." --Godfrey Bray

    I'd like to thank Bob de Violini and David Miller for sending me some ideas about how I might better cover digital cameras. David suggested a new section of the newsletter that would be devoted to other things of interest. And this makes some sense to me. In 1984, I worked on a long-since defunct computer magazine with Mike Nadeau. The two of us often joked around that virtually everyone we knew who was into computers was also an automobile buff. We playfully wrote up a proposal for a magazine to be named Cars & Computers. When I have a bad day on the job, my usual mocking refrain to myself is that I should have gotten a degree in engineering and become an automobile magazine editor. Other common areas of interest I've noticed over the years are playing musical instruments, writing music, home entertainment equipment, and personal technology like MP3 players, noise-cancelling headphones, and so on.

    Bob de Violini suggested another, related, thought. Perhaps I could start a second newsletter devoted to digital photography? I should hasten to add that until writing this newsletter becomes my full-time job (if it ever does), there's no way I'm going to take on a second newsletter. But I would very much enjoy writing about digital photography in a concentrated way.

    Fixing a Mistake
    As part of the interaction process, several of you pointed out an error in the story. The error I made was saying that the Canon "digital" EF-S lenses can be installed on analog film SLRs. That's patently incorrect. You cannot use EF-S lenses on your film camera; if you do you will likely damage both the lens and the camera.

    You can, though, use made-for-conventional Canon EF film lenses on most Canon digital SLRs. But there are some drawbacks I chose not to explain in the last issue of the newsletter. Most lower-cost digital SLRs don't use a sensor that's the same size as the frame of a 35mm film camera. (Canon's recently introduced EOS 5D is a full frame camera, but it's a lot more expensive than the 20D.) The smaller size of sensor results in smaller pictures. The size reduction is referred to as Field of View Crop. The smaller size of the pictures also affects the effective focal length of your lens. Even though this isn't technically accurate, for people coming from the world of conventional film SLRs, you multiply the focal length of your lenses by 1.6 to arrive at the effective focal length of lenses on Canon and many other digital cameras (including the Nikon D70/D70s and D50 as well as all Canon Digital Rebels). For a much more detailed explanation of Field of View Crop, please see The-Digital-Picture.com's Field of View Crop Factor explanation.

    I have updated last month's digital camera story on the website version of Scot's Newsletter pretty significantly, both to fix the error above and also to better explain other aspects. Please check out the revisions.

    I'd also like to thank these folks for helping out with excellent information in their emails to me: Ron Rogers, Owen Haberfield, Vincent Del Prete, and especially Skip Souza who not only noticed the error, but also very tactfully pointed out that the wording on another sentence, while essentially correct, didn't properly describe the reason why.

    I don't think I'm perfect, so I never mind being corrected. [Editor's Note: Oh, goody! --Cyndy.] My main aim is to be 100% correct about anything I report on. So if you ever notice something factually wrong with anything I write, I'd consider it a favor if you wrote me a note about it so I can correct it on the website.

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    Linux Explorer: Use Hdparm to Optimize Your Hard Disk
    Sometimes your hard drive starts feeling, well, less than speedy. But before you start thinking of shiny new upgrades, it's easy enough to check your hard disk's performance. That way you'll know whether it's a hardware problem or something else entirely. The "hdparm" command lets you check and tweak your hard disk's performance.

    -----------------------

    IMPORTANT: The tips in this document require the use of command-line commands. For more information about how to read and execute Linux command-line prompts and commands, please check the Linux Clues Linux Cheat Sheet, especially Linux Prompt Basics and Linux Command-Line Nomenclature.

    -----------------------

    Here's how to put hdparm to use on your computer. Unlike recent tips, for this one you start by logging in as root. Type:

    $ su

    Type the root password at the prompt. Then type:

    # hdparm -tT /dev/hda

    If you have more than one hard drive, you'd use hdb (which specifies your second hard drive) to check the performance of the second drive, like this:

    # hdparm -tT /dev/hdb

    Those commands should display a screen something this:

    Timing buffer-cache reads: 128 MB in 0.68 seconds =188.24 MB/sec
    Timing buffered disk reads: 64 MB in 1.59 seconds = 40.25 MB/sec

    This performance isn't bad, but could be improved by tweaking some settings. Before you jump right in though, be sure to take some precautions. Some tweaks can cause problems, and may even make your hard disk unstable. First check the current settings:

    # hdparm /dev/hda

    This will return something like:

    multcount= 16 (on)
    IO_support= 0 (default 16-bit)
    unmaskirq= 0 (off)
    using_dma= 1 (on)
    keepsettings= 0 (off)
    readonly= 0 (off)
    readahead= 256 (on)
    geometry= 65535/16/63, sectors = 60040544256, start = 0

    Write down the parameters and their values, so you can set them back to the old values if needed. Next, closely read and please take the advice offered by this Linux Dev Center article, Speeding up Linux Using Hdparm.

    At the very least, please back up all the data on your hard disk.

    To find additional info about your hard disk, use this command:

    # hdparm -i /dev/hda

    This set of sample results from the above command shows just how detailed the information will be:

    Model=MAXTOR 6L060J3, FwRev=A93.0500, SerialNo=663214157434
    Config={ HardSect NotMFM HdSw>15uSec Fixed DTR>10Mbs }
    RawCHS=16383/16/63, TrkSize=32256, SectSize=21298, ECCbytes=4
    BuffType=DualPortCache, BuffSize=1819kB, MaxMultSect=16, MultSect=16
    CurCHS=4047/16/255, CurSects=16511760, LBA=yes, LBAsects=117266688
    IORDY=on/off, tPIO={min:120,w/IORDY:120}, tDMA={min:120,rec:120}
    PIO modes: pio0 pio1 pio2 pio3 pio4
    DMA modes: mdma0 mdma1 mdma2
    UDMA modes: udma0 udma1 udma2 udma3 udma4 *udma5 udma6
    AdvancedPM=no WriteCache=enabled
    Drive conforms to: ATA/ATAPI-5 T13 1321D revision 1:

    * signifies the current active mode

    These are possible settings for your hard disk, and the tweaks you might make. As an example, to set 32-bit I/O support flag to 3, multicount to 16 and DMA (Direct Memory Access) to 1 (= on), you give the following command from root:

    # hdparm -c3 -m16 -d1 /dev/hda

    Enabling DMA can in some cases lead to serious instability. To disable DMA:

    # hdparm -d0 /dev/hda

    After making these tweaks, check to see if performance has improved with this command:

    # hdparm -tT /dev/hda

    Have fun tweaking, (or in the words of Linux Dev Center, "Happy hacking!") but please don't gamble with your data.

    Sources
    Most of the material found in Linux Explorer comes from Bruno of Amsterdam, lead moderator of the popular All Things Linux forum at Scot's Newsletter Forums. Bruno is helped by All Things Linux co-moderators Peachy, BarryB, and Teacher, as well as other forum members who have posted in the highly useful Tips for Linux Explorers thread (from which Linux Explorer and the LinuxClues.com site are adapted). All previous installments of this section of the newsletter can be found at LinuxClues.com. For more from Bruno, please see his Tips for Linux Explorers website.

    Linux Explorer is edited by Cyndy and copyedited by Scot.

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    Link of the Month: Wikipedia
    I'm hardly ahead of the curve on this one. You've probably been hearing about wikis for at least a year now. If not, I'll give you the short form. Wikis are a new form of Internet-based content that might best be described as a collaborative fact collection around a given topic. On many public wikis, anyone can waltz up and add, delete, or edit the content contained on a wiki. Changes to the content are saved by the underlying wiki software, so that errant changes can be reverted to the original material.

    That may sound fantastic. But the results are powerful. The old two heads are better than one notion plays a big role in wiki content creation. One wiki enterprise, Wikipedia, has proven to the world that using wiki software to create a free online encyclopedia on literally thousands of topics is not only possible, but it may be preferable as a research tool because that data is often updated with new information very quickly.

    Although the quality of Wikipedia's is not consistent — and when you think about it, how could it be? — there's no doubt that this organically created, open-source knowledgebases is one of the foremost wonders of the Internet. And an experience not to be missed.

    Be sure to use the search field to look for what interests you. Wikipedia's one weakness is that it doesn't do a good job of exposing the powerful content it contains.

    Have you discovered a relatively unknown Windows or broadband related website that's a little amazing? Please send me the URL so I can check it out and let everyone know about it.

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    Newsletter Schedule
    Scot's Newsletter is a monthly e-zine delivered by email. My aim is to send each issue near the first of each month.

    The December issue of Scot's Newsletter is expected early the week of December 5th.

    You can always find out when the next issue of Scot's Newsletter is expected to appear by visiting the Scot's Newsletter home page.

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    The Fine Print
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    While you're at it, visit the new Scot's Newsletter Forums.

    Subscribe, Unsubscribe, Change Email Address or Message Format
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    The Scot’s Newsletter Subscription Center:
    http://www.scotsnewsletter.com/subcenter/subscribe.htm

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    Contact
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