Published by Derek Moore on 03 Sep 2009

Acer monitor update

On Aug. 24, I called a 2nd time to Acer’s inept customer service line, and got nowhere.  I called a 3rd time on Aug. 27.  For the first 5 mins of the conversation, support rep thought I had the wrong first name on the account.  Finally, after convincing the Indian gentleman (whose English was so broken and unintelligible, he should’ve never been allowed anywhere near a customer service center) that someone whose first initial “S” is not pronounced “EssAY”, he put me on hold.  When he came back 10 mins later, he finally announced to me the following (and for full effect, pronounce this very slowly), “Ve … vill … send … you … a … new … mon..i..taur … in … ten … days.

Glory be, I finally received it this afternoon.  Functionally, its pretty much the exact same 22” I had before, but it does have a few perks my old one didn’t, like portrait rotation and adjustable height (neither of which I don’t really need).  But, I at least have a monitor back.

I never even bothered to ask for the $60 back for shipping from the guy.  I was afraid that if I did, his head might explode.

Anyway, I’ll use this monitor until it wears out.  But I probably won’t ever consider purchasing another Acer product again.

Published by Derek Moore on 23 Aug 2009

Acer makes my complaint streak continue

I don’t think of myself as a complainer.  But I’m also not one to write about how wonderful everything is … the flowers in bloom, the sun shinging, etc.  So I apologize in advance if it seems I’m constantly shaking my fists at international corporations.

About a month ago, I woke up one morning, sat down to my otherwise perfectly nice 22? Acer monitor that I’d had for the last 18 months.  (Side note: I purchased it from CompUSA on Black Friday 2007, about 2 weeks before they announced their bankruptcy.)  When my PC came on, I saw a garbled, multicolored mess of a vertical line streaking across it, about 2/3 of the way to the right side.

My initial thought was “Uhhhh .. is my PC screwed up, or do I just need more caffeine?”  Once I was sure that the error was not in my brain, I started to troubleshoot.  Different computers, different cables, different inputs all yielded this ugly line.

Because I had purchased it 18 months ago, and because I think so little of warranties (and you’ll see why in a minute), my initial thought was to get a new monitor.  But once I saw that the warranty was for 3 years, I decided to send it back to Acer.  What a dumb idea that was…

So, took me almost 20 mins of Google searching to find Acer’s strategically hidden RMA site.  I filled out the form, and it told me where to ship the monitor to (somewhere in Texas).  Acer also told me it must be placed in an appropriate-sized box (i.e. you must purchase a new box from the UPS Store), with 4-5 layers of bubble-wrap .. NO packing peanuts (purchase bubble wrap).  And, it must be insured for $200 ($$).  Before I realized it, it cost me $61 to mail that thing back to Acer!

It was shipped to Acer, and arrived there Aug. 3.   What happened after that?  I wish I knew.

Acer has now had the monitor for 3 weeks, and I haven’t heard word one about its status.  No calls, no emails, no “new monitor appearing on the doorstep”.  Nothing.  Normally, when you RMA something, a tech hooks it up, sees that it doesn’t work, and orders a new/refurb monitor be shipped to me.  Takes like 10 minutes, tops.  You could’ve built 30 new monitors by hand in the time that this is taking!

I called Acer about 10 days ago, and all I could get is an Indian customer support person to tell me “It’s in the repair shop.  That is all that I know.”  Gee, thanks Acer.

So, Acer, if you see this, I have a very simple request:  I want a freaking monitor back!  Whether its the same model, or the comparable 22? model you have now.  Waiting 3 weeks on an RMA is just plain ludicrous.

And remember kids, the moral of the story is:  If something breaks, just buy a new one.  And don’t buy a new one from Acer.

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Published by Derek Moore on 27 Jul 2009

The Windows API makers have lost their minds, part 17

I am now fully underway in the rewrite of 7stacks v1.5. This new 7stacks, unlike v1.2, eschews Windows controls of any kind. Now, for reasons of both speed and appearance, I will be drawing everything myself.

The primary tool I’m using to do this is something I’ve used a lot lately .. the Graphics32 library. It’s a Delphi library that allows you to draw fully alpha-blended 32-bit graphics at speeds much faster than a standard canvas. I used Graphics32 in 7stacks v1.0 to draw text and preview graphics. One of the tricks I’ve learned when doing this is how to make Graphics32 combine with Aero Glass to make awesome effects like 7stack’s text possible.

So, to take use of this, I’d like to retrieve 256×256 full-sized icons. Using the backend library that I’m using now, the MPCommonLibrary from MustangPeak (which itself is a translation of that part of the Windows API into Delphi), this is simple to do. Using 2 lines of code (using the function SHGetImageList with the parameter SHIL_JUMBO), I can retreieve a big ol’ icon, and put it into a Graphics32 bitmap, ready for use. But wait, that’s too easy!

As it turns out, not all icons are 256×256. And I can completely understand that. But, certainly in cases where there is no full-sized icon, the API could inform you about this, and let you make alternate plans (say, retrieving the 48×48 icon, instead)? Perhaps telling you how big the real icon is? Or just returning no icon at all? But no. It turns out that the Microsoft API team apparently gets its jollies from toying w/ developers, rather than helping them. In these cases, where no big icon is available, it simply slaps a 48×48 (or sometimes 32×32 or 16×16) icon onto a mostly blank 256×256 icon. AND, it doesn’t tell you how big the icon actually is! Hooray! So, imaine the fun I had of looking at this tiny little icon on this HUGE space, and trying to ask a computer to look at how big it really is.

Fortunately, Graphics32 is just too awesome, and led me to what we’ll call a “workaround”. I created the following 2 functions. The first function, TrueIconSize, scans the icon’s alpha channel, starting from the bottom-right to the top-left. If it finds anything, it says “aha! There’s the icon!”. The 2nd function, RoundToIntInList, simply rounds up to the nearest available icon size.

function TrueIconSize(Bitmap : TBitmap32) : integer;
const
  TestPoints = 20;
var
  PointsBlank : integer;
  X,Y, I : integer;
  IconSizes : TIntegerArray;
begin
  Randomize;

  SetLength(IconSizes,5);
  IconSizes[0] := 16;
  IconSizes[1] := 32;
  IconSizes[2] := 48;
  IconSizes[3] := 128;
  IconSizes[4] := 256;

  Result := Bitmap.Width;
  repeat
    Dec(Result);
    PointsBlank := 0;
    for I := 1 to TestPoints do begin
      X := RandomRange(0, Result);
      Y := RandomRange(0, Result);
      if (AlphaComponent(Bitmap.PixelS[X,Result]) = 0) and (AlphaComponent(Bitmap.PixelS[Result,Y]) = 0) then Inc(PointsBlank);
      end;
    until (Result <= 16) or (PointsBlank <= TestPoints-1);
    Result := RoundToIntInList(Result, IconSizes);
end;

function RoundToIntInList(Amount : integer; IntArray : TIntegerArray) : integer;
var
  I : integer;
  HiIndex, LoIndex : integer;
  IsFound : boolean;
begin
  I := 0;
  IsFound := FALSE;
  while (not IsFound) and (I <= Length(IntArray)-2) do begin
    IsFound := (Amount > IntArray[I]) and (Amount < IntArray[I+1]);
    Inc(I);
    end;
  LoIndex := I-1;
  HiIndex := I;

  if Frac(Amount / (IntArray[HiIndex] - IntArray[LoIndex])) > 0.5 then
    Result := IntArray[HiIndex]
  else
    Result := IntArray[LoIndex];
end;

There may be approx. 4 people who ever need these functions, but there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.

And just remember the moral of our story … don’t let your son or daughter grow up and say, “I want to be a Windows programmer!”

Published by Derek Moore on 08 Apr 2009

To: Time Warner Cable Re: You suck

Time Warner Cable for the past few months, has been testing the idea of bandwidth caps.  In it, you’re allotted a certain amount of data per month, then get charged overage for every GB over the cap that you go.  If that sounds like cell phone companies and their “minutes” then you’re beginning to see that moronic minds think alike.

Imagine if your Internet connection was milk.  You buy a quart of milk for $1, drink it in a few days, and go back to buy more.  The grocery store then tells you, “Oh, you’re only allowed ONE quart per month.  We can’t handle the burden that you’re putting on the cows.  So, the second quart will be $10.”

Now, I would have less reason to complain under this system, if TW used a system like Comcast’s (did I just write that?).  Comcast caps usage at 250GB/month.  That’s reasonable.  That’s like giving you the first 50 gallons of milk each month, and charging overage after those 50 gallons.  Unless I’m the OctoMom, I’m not going to be buying that much milk, and therefore extremely unlikely to be hitting that cap.

However Time Warner has recently trumpeted that their “tests” went so well, that they’ll soon be rolling bandwidth caps out to the entire country!  Hooray for the country!  And those caps will be .. from 5GB to 40GB?  Excuse me?  And, users will get charged $1 per GB over the cap.  It’s so ridiculously low, it’s almost comical.  If I weren’t a TW Cable user, I’d slap my head and go, “Boy, are their customers screwed!”

I am tech savvy.  And I would say that I surf more than “the average person”.  However, I am by no means a bandwidth hog.  And I use, on average, about 25 GB/month.  So, I’d either have to buy the 20 GB plan, and get charged another $5 on overage, or I could get the 40GB plan, for $10/month more and stay under the cap.  Or, I could just stick this pencil in my eye.  Option 3 might be the cheapest.

So many people are complaining to Time Warner, that they’ve setup a “special” email address so that they can mass delete respond to you, our valued customer.

So, I forwarded the following letter to realideas@twcable.com:

Obviously, no human will be reading this…  But I’m going to say this anyway… 5 - 40GB / month?  You’re kidding, right?  Was this was somehow related to April Fools Day?  Or are you just the fools?  You claim that bandwidth hogs are stealing the data from everyone else’s shared connections, and that anyone who uses more data than this per month is a hog.  By your definition then, bandwidth hogs are everyone, except soccer moms who check their FaceBook pages once a day.

My household has 4 PCs.  We surf the web and check email.  We watch a few YouTube videos.  We watch perhaps 2 or 3 Hulu videos per month.  We do not stream Netflix nor play online games.  We are the very definition of “normal use”.  And our average usage is about 25 GB / month.  By your math, that makes us hogs.  And with your caps and overage charges, that means our bill would go up.

I can switch right now to AT&T FastAccess DSL for cheaper than I pay for Road Runner.  AT&T U-verse and Clearwire are moving into the Charlotte area by the end of this year.  Your time as a monopoly is almost done.

I find it the very definition irony that your home page for my area has the tag line “Get More. Pay Less.”  Your cap proposal is for me to get less, and pay more for it.  I refuse to pay one cent more.  If you don’t want the expense and hassle of having “excessive” amounts of my data on your network, then I would be happy to remove all of my data from your network entirely.

As I said, I find it highly unlikely that human eyes belonging to anyone in the employ of Time Warner Cable will look at this.  But I’m hoping that some intern will check that realideas account every day and report to the higher-ups, “Wow, there’s 15,000 new messages this morning!  People are really ticked off!”

Published by Derek Moore on 13 Jan 2009

Why doesn’t Windows 7 have docklets?

When I use XP, I simply cannot use it on a day-to-day basis without ObjectDock.  I use it primarily for both my main apps, and for quick access to certain folders.  It’s handy to be able to just fling my mouse over to the side of the screen, and have a large target to click, rather than picking out a tiny little button in the QuickLaunch toolbar.

Now, OD, and other apps like it, are simply copying the OS X dock .. and that’s fine.  But guess what? So is Windows 7, in their new dock taskbar .. and that’s fine, too.  And that’s because its a good idea.  And good ideas should never be proprietary.  By combining running and non-running apps into the same space, you place the icons in the same order all the time, so that you always know where everything is.

But, there’s one other big use for docks: docklets.  There’s no such formal name in OS X, but in the Windows docks, docklets are miniature apps which run inside the dock itself.  In essence, they are basically widgets or gadgets that confine themselves to that dock’s icon, or an icon-sized window that the app author can paint however he likes.

For instance, I have a OD docklet that not only runs iTunes when I click it, but also displays the album cover of the song I’m listening to instead of the iTunes icon.  I also have a Thunderbird icon which doubles as an IMAP email checker.  There are thousands of docklets that give you weather updates, monitor RSS feeds, display system monitors, etc.

And this is where 7’s new taskbar is not doing it for me.  As a software author, I would love to be able to design an app that can change my app’s dock icon to whatever I want; whether its to draw a miniature calendar with upcoming appointments, or to display the iTunes album art instead of a static iTunes icon.

Adding such functionality into 7 shouldn’t be that difficult for Microsoft, given that their already extensive work into gadgets, and they’re existing partnership with Stardock (to create the Dreamscenes in Vista Ultimate).  In the end, giving programmers more control gives users a better experience down the line.

Published by Derek Moore on 13 Jan 2009

My Initial Windows 7 Thoughts

Story time, kids…  For Christmas, I got a new laptop.  I had needed one badly, and I managed to get a deal on Black Friday that was too good to pass up.  I mention this because, on the laptop was ..  Windows Vista.  Something which heretofore, I had never personally used.  Now, normally, as a computer geek, I would use the latest and greatest.  And as a programmer, I need to be on the forefront of this type of stuff.  But I had heard so much junk about Vista, that I was hesitant to use it, especially on my primary machine.

After using this laptop for over 6 weeks, I’ve been happy with Vista for the most part.  Despite all the naysayers out there, Vista isn’t that bad.  It’s definitely prettier, makes XP feel old.  But, it does come with a price…

Vista is a complete memory hog.  Even after I got rid of HP’s crapware on the laptop, the amount of Windows services that run in Vista is simply staggering.

So, during PDC in October ‘08, the new head of Windows, Steven Sinofsky, showed off a netbook running 7 … in 512 MB of RAM!  As soon as I saw this, I decided I had to try 7 as soon as it came out.

So, now that day is here.  In addition to installing it on a rusting bucket of bolts, I decided to also install it dual-boot on my main desktop PC.  For the record, my main desktop PC is only about 6 months old.  The parts in the case are these:

  • CPU: Core 2 Quad Q6600, overclocked to 3GHz (no more, because I like quiet+fast)
  • RAM: 2GB (2 x 1GB) PC2 6400
  • GPU: Geforce 8600GT (yea, I know .. “meh”)
  • HDD: 640GB SATA Western Digital

My initial impressions show Sinofsky to be right; the Core 2 Quad runs Win7 slightly faster than XP.  And post install, it also used up about the same amount of memory as XP.  Which is to say that 7 uses up far less memory than Vista.

Stay tuned.  I’ve also got some thoughts about the new Taskbar for my next post.

Published by Derek Moore on 03 Jan 2009

Windows 7

Like many others out there, I decided to try the newly released “unofficial” beta version of Windows 7 build 7000.  Based on what I’ve seen, I will be purchasing once it comes out.

Overall, I’m very impressed with the quality and completeness.   But where the rubber really meets the road is the speed…

Unlike everyone else who is trying this on the latest and greatest system, I decided to try Windows 7 on the slowest, crappiest computer I still had.  So, here’s the specs:

  • PC: Shuttle SK41G barebones
  • CPU: Athlon XP 2400
  • RAM: 1 GB (2×512 MB)
  • GPU: Geforce 6200 AGP
  • HDD: 160 GB IDE

Being purchased approx. March 2001, its marginally capable of running Ubuntu Intrepid or Windows XP.  It’s mostly been used to run Ubuntu over the years.  It was capable of running Compiz, but was woefully underpowered to run the “cube” effects of Compiz.  The best I could manage is the “wall” effects, which are much less taxing.

When I tried to install Windows 7, I was all but certain it would make the system choke.  But, imagine my surprise that Windows 7 not only booted up, but Aero worked!  And it worked fairly well, also.  Its at least as usable, and actually runs Firefox, IE, etc. fairly well.

So, kudos to MS.  Now that Allchin is out of there and Sinovsky is running things, perhaps they can make a decent OS.

Published by Derek Moore on 12 Aug 2008

So long, Dad

It is with a heavy heart that I announce that my father, Jim, has passed away.  He was 71 years old.  He died of a sudden heart attack yesterday afternoon at 4:15pm.  I’m absolutely stunned, because he had no history of heart problems, and was fine just the day before.

Needless to say, any well wishes emailed to me or my brother, David, will be graciously accepted.  However, any tech support or business emails will have to wait at least a week or so until we can deal with the arrangements.

Thanks.

Published by Derek Moore on 08 Jul 2008

My kingdom for an icon

It sure is hard to find icons that can be used in software.  You know, in menus, toolbars, tabs, etc.  No one hardly talks about it in programming, because most software designers (this one included) are not artists.  I would make the icons myself, but I couldn’t draw a decent-looking icon to save my life.

And yet, one of my biggest pet peeves is software that looks spartan.  I mean, if you want to design something that looks like an eight-year old could’ve made it in two hours with Visual Basic, then try to sell it on the open market, be my guest. (Ironically, some of my competitors look like they already do this.)  But to me, an ugly app means that the author doesn’t care.

I say all this because I’m putting the finishing touches on Speedy Shopper 2.0 with icons.  Since I can’t draw, I have to cobble together icons from disparate sources.  And most of the freely available icons look like crap.  When you do searches for icons via Google Images or IconFinder, you pick a good-looking icon here or there.  But the end product looks inconsistent. And, you have to make sure that any graphics you find are free for non-commercial use, and give credit in the help file for every one that you find.

On the other side, if you want a consistent look, you can use (or buy) a collection.  But most collections don’t have certain icons for specialized functions.  Example: Speedy Shopper needs icons for things that are incredibly hard to define in an 24×24 icon .. like “Aisles/Departments”.  What tiny graphic represents aisles in a grocery store?  Eventually I settled on a loaf of bread.  Why?  Why not a steak, or fish, or the number 9?  I have no idea.  A bakery is in a grocery store, right? Right!?! :)

Then, there’s the need to find multiple resolutions of the same icon.  Toolbar icons are usually 24×24 or 32×32.  Menus are 16×16.  Oh sure, I could resize every single icon in Photoshop, and put 3 different versions of the icon in the app, and make sure each icon is ChromaKey‘ed properly to have a transparent background for the toolbar, and do your best to eliminate “jaggies” for each resolution.  OR…. I could have a root canal through my nose.  Personally, I’d opt for #2.

So, the solution I’ve come up with is, in my opinion, the best of all worlds.   First, I’ve settled on the Tango Icon Collection for 90% of my icon needs.  The remainder are hand-picked to look consistent as best as possible.  There are three big advantages this way: first they are consistent-looking.  Second .. they’re free, even for commercial use. But the biggest advantage of using these is that they are PNGs.  PNG graphics don’t need to be chromakeyed, because of the inherent transparency, and they can be resized and still look good.

(I’m gonna get a little techie here .. sorry)  So using these PNGs, I was able to do a little slight-of-hand using the Delphi library Graphics32 (which can use PNG’s native transparency) to draw the icons on the SpTBXLib toolbars and menus.  That way, instead of needing three different sizes of the same icon, I only need one icon which can be resized as needed.

Speedy Shopper 2.0 Toolbar

I have to say, I’m proud of the result.  No one could ever accuse me of not caring .. or of using Visual Basic :)

Published by Derek Moore on 29 May 2008

Finally, a new PC

I have not been able to post here in a week, and I apologize for that.  But after 3½ long years of having the same ol’ Athlon 64 3400 system, I have finally moved into the modern age.  I am now writing this on a brand new quad-core Q6600 overclocked to 3.0 GHz w/ 2 GBs of RAM and a 8600GT video card.  Now, of course I could’ve splurged and gotten some Q9450 w/ 4 GBs of RAM and SLI GeForce 9800 video cards … but what’s the point of that?

My family has always been, let’s say “frugal.”  Not cheap, but frugal.  It stems from my great-grandmother Waldrop.  She never had a lot of money, and always saved it when she could.  The funny thing is, all of us decended from her have been the same way.  She died 40 years before I was born, so it wasn’t her influence or anything.  I don’t know if its genetic or what.  But when we save some money like that, its a family joke that we say “That’s the Waldrop in you.”

Well, I purchased this PC in much the same way.  First, I hate store-bought PC’s.  When you buy a Dell or HP or Sony Vaio, you’re buying a system that they fill with mediocre parts, and is loaded w/ tons of crapware.  So I buy the parts piece-by-piece.  When you buy PC’s like this, its similar in a lot of way to playing the stock market.  Set your target price, wait until it reaches it, then pounce.  So, let me explain (and forgive me if I get too geeky here)…

So, first, I waited until the April 20 Intel processor price drops, waiting for a Q6600 processor to fall below $200.  I finally found that when MicroCenter had a Q6600 for $180.  Then I got a motherboard (DFI DK P35 T2RS) for $130, waiting until it wen’t on sale.  Then, I took advantage of the really cheap DDR2 prices lately, and got 2GBs of DDR2 800 for $45.  I used a $40 mail in rebate at Buy.com to get a Corsair VX550 power supply for $50.  And I got a Cooler Master Centurion case for $20 when CompUSA was going out of business.  Throw in an Arctic Cooler Freezer 7 Pro for $27, and I spent about $500 for a PC that would cost you $900 at your local Best Buy.

Where I really saved money, though, was by not spending that extra $400 on prepackaged junk that I didn’t need. I already have a 22″ widescreen monitor, so I don’t need a stupid 17″.  I already have a Logitech MX 3200 mouse and keyboard, which, for $50 is far superior to any stupid ball-mouse HP would throw in the box.  And, I already have a Logitech X-540 5.1ch speaker system (which I got for $50 once), which would be far better than any tinny, pathetic speakers that come bundled.

And, by getting top quality parts on the stuff I did buy, I can overclock this processor to 25% beyond its rated specs (and probably a lot more).  PCs made by most manufacturers (except the boutique outlets) are usually not overclockable, because you can screw things up if you don’t know what you’re doing.  But, since I and people like me do know what we’re doing, we can crank up the speed.

Now, the downside (as some see it) would be that you don’t get any tech support.  And that’s scary to a lot of people.  But, here’s the nice thing…  When you build a PC yourself, you’ll learn so much about it that you won’t need tech support.

So, unless you’re deathly afraid of technology, I’d advise anyone wanting to have a really good desktop PC, to build it yourself.  Not only do you get top quality parts on the stuff you buy, you save money by not buying parts that you don’t need.  Spending money, and saving it at the same time is a great feeling…

But I guess that’s just the Waldrop in me.

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