Ian Hoar – Passion for Technology – Geeking Out - Technology, Web, Toys, Games, Design, Entertainment, Gadgets, & Geeking Out

Usability — the date is very important

What is with website articles and blogs not putting the date on their work! I find this so frustrating. The article will say something like “Company ABC just released XYZ 3 days ago” Okay, 3 days ago when? Many posts become useless without a date and it affects the usability of your site. It’s great to have archives of everything ever published, but with time some of it will become dated… pun intended. This information may still be of use to some people, but for many it will not. Don’t annoy your users — date your work.

Xbox 360 Dashboard update

Today Microsoft released the latest Xbox 360 Dashboard update. The big buzz seems to be around its DivX/XviD support, a feature lacking for a long time. Gizmodo has tested it out and the verdict looks good as far as support goes. Right now I play all my audio files off on an old computer hooked up to my HDTV, but it’s a bit of an eye sore sitting in my living room and my first thought was that I would ditch the computer and hook up the external hard drive via USB to the Xbox 360, but alas it was not meant to be.

After much frustration I did a bit of research online. It seems that the Xbox 360 does not support the NTFS file system. What is up with this? NTFS is Microsoft de facto file system now and it’s superior to FAT32. I feel like it’s always something with Microsoft, maybe the next Dashboard update will support NTFS.

Another much talked about feature is the ability to buy Xbox Classic titles online. I just hope you will be able to play these downloaded games on future Xbox consoles, but I’m not holding my breath. The dash interface also seems greatly improved with many ways to filter your results when looking at games and media. You can set up personal bio’s and share your friends list and view others friends lists too. Over all it’s a pretty cool update. You can view Microsoft’s full feature list on Xbox.com.

Blanket rules

Why is it that we, designers and developers alike have to constantly face blanket rules mandated by people with little to no technical knowledge? What I mean by blanket rules are rules that someone, probably near the top of an organization, has made with little knowledge or understanding of the stance they have taken. It’s usually on a technical issue, and it’s probably something someone has told them or something they heard on the news somewhere. It may even be something you told them!

Case in point, I create a lot of solicited e-newsletters where I work. Some of our designs get pretty crazy considering we are trying to make these things work in every mail client from Hotmail to Outlook. Designing for email is far harder than a standalone web page in my opinion.

Anyway, one of the companies we work for has now stipulated no background images in emails. Where did this come from and why? Well, probably because background images are stripped out of some new clients, but so are hundreds of other elements we use in email every day. The key with email is to layer everything you know, with the hopes that some of these layers will come through, and the rest will gracefully degrade.

Decisions like these should be made by the people creating these newsletters, people with the expertise to know what should and should not be used. We stress a lot of live type, so background images can be very useful since you can put live type on top of them. As a standby you can use a background colour if the image does not come through. With this method, we have created many possibilities of achieving the design and usability goals. Everyone should get the text message. Some people will get the image, and some people will get the background colour. By making a blanket statement like “No Background images ever!” you have just effectively eliminated a tool in the developer’s arsenal. We developers are constantly testing and watching email and web compatibility issues day by day, year by year. We make technical decisions based on the goals and targeted demographic. In a lot of cases a background image is a bad idea, but in a lot of cases it’s a great idea.

The point is, let Designers design, and let Developers develop. If you are hiring a good team they will probably know what’s best. There’s no need for non-technical minds to get involved in compatibility and delivery issues.

So how can YOU help change people’s minds? Just remember, it was probably something someone like you said that created the situation in the first place. Be careful what you say to people, a comment like XYZ won’t work in this situation could mean that further down the road you may see a mandate to never use XYZ, when really it was just in that situation that it should not have been used. Sometimes the situation will be out of your control, and you will just have to grit your teeth and design and code your way around silly rules.

Happy designing / coding.

Outlook 2007 – When is 200 pixels not 200 pixels? Spacer gifs

A large portion of my day is spent designing and marking up solicited email newsletters. I am also a very strong advocate of W3C Web Standards. For anyone who has ever worked on email newsletter, they will know all too well that the above sentences do not mix well.

All web designer’s have faced the many hurdles of browser compatibility. Getting things to work on multiple browser versions and browser types can be a real pain, but this is child’s play compared to the ever changing world of html based email. I’m not going to talk about whether email should have ever been used as a medium to deliver rich content, there is plenty debate about that elsewhere. The fact of the matter is that html email is here, and it’s very popular.

Keep Reading 

Electronic faucets, toilets and showers

I love technology and I love gadgets and games. It’s what this blog is all about, but what I can’t stand is useless technology. Just because we can do it, should we? This may seem like a frivolous rant, but it brings me to electronic faucets, toilets and showers. What’s the deal with these? Okay, I understand we need to save water, but these things just don’t work half the time.

At my work we have electric faucets in the washroom that have very little pressure and when they are working, they continually clunk on and off every few seconds. Sometimes you find yourself waving frantically in front of the little black insidious eye detector, begging it to give you just a few extra drops of water. Let’s not even talk about how these things fare in a power outage, something that is slowly becoming more common where I live.

When electric faucets do not work it’s not that bad, you can usually go to the next one and hope it automatically turns on for you, but what about toilets and urinals? Urinals are the absolute worst when they break down. There is usually no manual flush, which in itself is such a terrible idea. When one of these things break down no one notices for a few days until the awful smell of urine starts wafting throughout the washroom. Then the building management apologizes and tells you that it will be awhile before they are fixed because the little tiny part that is broken has to be imported from Germany! Toilets usually have a button to override the automatic flusher, a very wise idea, especially for those of us who need more than one flush per visit.

This brings us to the last of the automatic nonsense. Recently my buildings amenities were upgraded. The whole complex was closed down for a couple of months while they modernized everything. It turned out quite nice, and hopefully it will eventually raise the value of the condo. Anyway, I decided it was time to go for a swim. A mandatory shower is required before going into the pool.

I stepped into the shower and looked for the knobs to turn the water on. I see a cold and hot heat dial and turn it, but alas, nothing. Hmm. Why isn’t it working, I fiddle again and with a clunk, a single spray of cold water douses me. Ah, the little dreaded black eye is staring up at me… Damn you little black eyes, damn you all to hell I cry. Now the fun part is, how do I get the water to the temperature I like. Well with a little dance of waving my hand in front of the eye as I turn the cold and hot dial I slowly in spurts of spray get the temperature I like and then step under the shower head. Now I’m expecting the shower to stay one, but no, all I hear is the grinding clunk, clunk, clunk of the pipes shutting on and off as I move only slightly away from the ever present evil black eye. I start holding my hand behind myself and waving it back and forth in the hopes of getting a steady stream of water to no avail.

In theory, automatic faucets, toilets and showers sound like a good idea, but when they break there is often no alternative to getting them working again. The malfunctioning probably would be bearable from time to time if they actually worked flawlessly when you needed to use them, but often they don’t. Often they just squirt on and off in a pathetic attempt to do what they were designed to do. The one exception I have seen to this rule is hospitals; maybe they use better detectors in these places. If you are not willing to install top notch detectors, then why bother, it will just frustrate everyone.

Illustrator crashes when saving anything!

Well, my copy of Illustrator running on Windows Vista would not save for the past few days. At first I assumed it was a corrupted or funky file problem specific to the one file and found a work around file for Photoshop. A few days later I needed to use Illustrator to copy a vector into Photopshop and convert to a smart object. Every time I cut and pasted Illustrator would hang and then eventually crash and nothing would be pasted into Photoshop. Okay, so I decide I’ll save the Illustrator file and then place it in Photoshop via File / Place. Still no joy, the second I went to save, it crashed. Just to make sure I wasn’t going crazy I created a blank canvas, typed something on it and go to save it, again Illustrator crashes with the message “Adobe Illustrator CS3 has stopped working”. Wonderful, so helpful, and the “Check online for a solution” wasn’t even working for me, but to this date even when it has worked in other programs it rarely provides a useful solution.

Time for some Google power. After doing a few searches I realize that this is not an isolated issue, and could be one of many problems. One post on a forum stands out though. Illustrator CS3, at least on Vista, requires that your Print Spooler be running. Well, this is another issue I have not solved yet. I have a randomly crashing Print Spooler. Anyway, I start up the print spooler and sure enough, Illustrator now saves. Why the print spooler is even needed I don’t know, but I think it would be helpful if when this happens illustrator could recognize it’s not running and say “Hey, your Print Spooler is not running, Illustrator requires it to be on, please start it up”, or something along those lines.

Here’s how you can check your print spooler.

Go to your start menu. In the search box type services. Your services dialog will open. Scroll down to Print Spooler. If it is running already then this might not be your problem, but try restarting it just in case. By the results of my Google search there are many other reasons why Illustrator might not be saving, but hopefully this helps some people out.

Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, Capcom, and other annoyances

I bought the Xbox Live arcade game Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo the other night. I have wanted a Tetris like Live game for awhile now, but everything I have tried to date did not satisfy me. As soon as I started playing the demo, I knew I wanted it. It’s charged with a whole lot of fun and I would recommend it to anyone who likes Tetris and wants a good multi-player puzzle game. As far as puzzle games go, this one is really geared toward competitive play, and I like that.

That said, Capcom has done what they do so often, and that is make a great game and then introduce some of the most annoying little peeves that serve one purpose only and that is to hinder the player from actually playing the game. Dead Rising was famous for this, a fantastic 360 game, probably one of my favourite games and yet most annoying to date. The save system was horrid, the font size was too small, and the game just ends when the time runs out after hours and hours of game play. I’m playing the game, I’m enjoying it, I’m smashing Zombies, I’m having so much fun, … I’m booted out of the game and told it’s over. WHY?

Super Puzzle fighter has nothing quite that bad, but it does have its fair share of annoyances. I should also mention that Backbone Entertainment actually developed the game.

The first problem is one that seems to be a growing trend lately that I have seen in other games. Why am I forced to watch screen after screen of every company that was involved in developing the game, okay, I understand receiving credit, but at least allow me to skip it. After seeing an intro screen saying company XYZ made this for the one hundredth time I think I get the point. Capcom actually goes one step further in Super Puzzle Fighter. When you finish a game, which does not take too long, you are forced to watch the credits. I say forced, because you literally cannot skip them and start playing again. When I finish a game I now do a force quite and restart the game only to see the long intro text.

My third rant about this game is the voice system. Every game I have ever played on Live allows you to talk to your friends by simply picking up a head set, putting it on, and talking. How could you screw this up? Simple, just add another step, in Super Puzzle Fighter you have to hold the right trigger to talk. You will constantly hear the other gamer’s voice cutting off as they release the trigger before they are done talking. Maybe I’m missing something here; maybe there is some reason for this, but I cannot for the life of me see what that could be.

But I digress, even knowing everything I have outlined above I would still buy this game, and that probably says a lot. It’s a whole lot of fun, and hopefully patches come out to address some of the above issues.

Vista knows when you should reboot

This is nothing new, and there are literally thousands of posts and articles on this subject, but I want to add more fuel to the fire.

Last night I had several large Photoshop mockups open. I was working late and figured I might as well leave them open and continue in the morning. I do this a lot at home, although I do save before leaving. I know leaving your computer on can pose a security risk, but I like living on the edge.

Anyway, I walk in this morning and of course I have a login screen. Log in and nothing is open. Windows Vista has performed an update. Although you are prompted with a countdown to cancel, which in itself can become annoying as it keeps popping up even after you have postponed it, I think this is a crazy default. What if I was crunching some numbers over night, running network connections, or took a bathroom break with unsaved work on the screen. Well Vista would think that it’s time to force reboot and I would lose whatever important things I was doing.

Here is how you can disable this silly default.

  1. In your start menu search field type gpedit.msc
  2. Click your way to Local Computer Policy -> Computer Configuration -> Administrative Templates -> Windows Components -> Windows Update.
  3. Double click “No auto-restart for scheduled Automatic Updates installations.
  4. Click Enable .

There are some other interesting settings in here and you can read their descriptions on the left hand side when you click on them. You will need to reboot in order for this to take effect of course.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 and no Image Ready? No animated GIF’s either?

We recently installed Adobe CS3 at work. Everything was looking great until one of us needed Image Ready. Where is it? Turns out it is no longer part of Photoshop. The good news is that most of it is incorporated into Photoshop. Problem solved, we then proceeded to open an animated GIF, only to be told that it would only open the first frame. Wow, we can make animated GIF’s in Photoshop, but we can no longer open them. I immediately started digging for some answers only to find at first, many frustrated users. At the time I looked, Adobe’s official solution was to buy Fireworks, really no solution at all, considering that Photoshop via Image Ready has had this functionality for years. After some more digging on the Adobe forums I found what I was looking for.

Go to File / Import / Video Frames to Layers…

You will get a dialog that shows MOV, AVI, MPG, and MPEG files. So what use is this to you? Well, it is posted on the Adobe forums that this is an oversight by them. If you type in *.* in the File name: field this will show you all files. You can now open animated GIF’s and they will display in the animation window and layers pallet.

Hopefully Adobe will fix this in a future patch. All they need to add is the .GIF filter to there import dialog. I had actually tried this before searching, but of course did not see GIF as an option.

(update) See my newest entry on how to create animated GIF’s in Photoshop CS3 “Adobe Photoshop CS3 and no Image Ready? Animated GIF’s Part II