Dec 19

Software I use

My hard time choosing and managing the migration from the soon to be deceased Windows Live Mesh, made me think about the dependency I seem to have on some software tools and how hard it is to replace them and change the installed workflows around the tools in use at some point. From that, the idea of a post about my current software tools, highlighting some of the genuine gems out there, was a small step. So here it is, a list of software I use and some of the reasons I use it.

Personal Productivity Software

Office 2013 – this is the latest version of Microsoft Office. The big difference to the previous version, from my personal perspective, is the integration with SkyDrive, extending the ability to cooperatively create and edit documents to Word, Excel and Powerpoint, something that was already available with OneNote. OneNote2013 is clearly me favorite app, probably the one I use the most, after Outlook, which I use as my email client. OneNote is a superb app, which I actually loved when I first came in contact with it, at the time I bought by first tablet pc, back in 2005. I still use it everyday, either to take notes while I read books and articles, or to work cooperatively about ongoing projects with the other guys from Web2Automation.

I really don’t like web email clients, don’t think I ever will, and the native email client in Windows Phone 7.5, in my Nokia Lumia 800, works as a fine email client replacement when I am away from my laptop. When I am there, I use Outlook 2013, which has some annoyances yet to be solved, but which I find perfectly acceptable as email clients go.

For PDF handnote taking, I use PDF Annotator. It is a great tool for that purpose and was especially useful when marking student papers or providing feedback on PDF documents produced by others.

Software Development

The main tool is, naturally, Visual Studio 2012 Ultimate, although I still keep Visial Studio 2010 Ultimate on my desktop, which I still use for the occasional Php project, when I then use the excellent VS.Php add-in (which runs on VS 2010, only). I also use Microsoft Expression Web Studio 4, although much less frequently.

For SQL Server development, the main tool is SQL Server Management Studio, although I have been using SQL Server Data Tools a bit more. When dealing with MySQL databases, WebYog’s SQLYog is a great and indispensable tool. I use Team Foundation Server 2012 as my local ALM tool, but the very good and free Team Foundation Service will see increased usage, as I migrate to cloud based tools, since I am really getting to enjoy the benefits of accessing the info I need regardless of where I am. As we are using TFService at work, the move to use it personally is looking quite natural.

There are other tools that are quite useful, when developing. A superbly designed tool is my long time favorite Beyond Compare – when it comes to file comparison, it doesn’t get much better than that. LINQpad is another great tool, when messing around with LINQ.  I used EditPlus for quite a long time, when developing asp apps, and I still use it occasionally, when having to support Snitz related stuff. I have moved to Visual Studio as my default editor, even when dealing with ASP, since the integration with TFS is so much easier, but I thought EditPlus still merited a reference here.

For modeling, I have used Microsoft’s Office Visio, coupled with specific UML templates. Visual Studio is also looking like a tool that can be increasingly used for this purpose.

Another tool used mainly connected to my software development activity is SmartFTP. It is a great FTP app and it’s still a frequently used way to upload stuff to deployment servers.

Backup and File Synchronization Tools

My main backup software is Acronis True Image 2013. I started using Acronis TI back at version 8 and it has saved me quite a few times. I find it preferable to Windows native backup and as it has not failed me yet, I will keep using it. I image my own computers once a week, using two external drives, which I rotate. Just this week I started using Cubby as a file syncing tool, replacing Windows Live Mesh, after Microsoft’s announcement of Mesh’s impending death. As a file syncing tool, Cubby offers pretty much the same features as Live Mesh, but just for the Pro version, which I have subscribed. As Cubby Pro comes at least with 100 GB of cloud storage, I have started to use that space to backup selected parts of my data.

I like SkyDrive as a means to store and enable cooperation over Office documents. It’s really great for that, but the wrong choices made over the SkyDrive app made me choose a different option for cloud storage. Shame, really, as Microsoft could have done much better.

Security Tools

I have used software firewalls since I first connected my personal computers to the internet, back when the access was still done at 56Kbit/s. Even though my home computers run behind a hardware firewall, I find the protection offered by HIPS rather comforting. For the last 3 years or so, my HIPS of choice has been Emsisoft’s Online Armor. As HIPS go, you can’t fare much better than with OA, even if it can be a bit annoying, both immediately after installation and when installing software, but that is nothing that cannot be easily solved with its own learning mode. Emsisotf’s also produces a top of the line anti-malware product, Emsisoft Anti-Malware. The combination of EAM and OA provide multiple layers of protection, without putting any noticeable overall in the normal running of my computers, and so I find this a very good combination to run. I also use Malwarebytes Antimalware Free, on demand, for regular scans.

Communication, IM and Social Networking Tools

I don’t use IM much, but the only tool I use infrequently is Google Talk. Other than that, I use Skype for voice and video chat, and the free for personal TeamViewer, when I need to help someone or for a quick chat. My favorite Twitter client is MetroTwit, of which I use the desktop version only.

Other Tools

I still use Winzip as my main zip compression tool and use the Outlook add-in Winzip Courier to have email attachments automatically compressed. Another Outlook add-in that I find invaluable is Xobni – it’s much better than using the native windows search and it will index all my .pst files. One handy tool I became aware of through LogMeIn’s support is UnLockIT Free. It’s very useful to check what apps, if any, are locking a file or folder and unlock it.

This covers most my tools. I will probably update this post as I go along and other useful tools come to mind.


Dec 14

Rising and Dying Clouds

This week saw the official announcement of the death of a tool that I have used extensively since its launch – Windows Live Mesh. In an email sent to the remaining Live Mesh users, Microsoft stated that “it makes sense to merge SkyDrive and Mesh into a single product for anytime and anywhere access to files”, so Live Mesh will be retired on February 13, 2013.

Ever since Live Mesh was initially released, Microsoft has been steadily improving its cloud offerings. One of those that I now use regularly is the Team Foundation service, available on TFS is an Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) service, meant for developers. Of course, there is also Office365, soon to become a lot more used, even by regular users, with the upcoming release of Office 2013 and its new subscription based purchasing model. SkyDrive, however, is the most relevant piece of Microsoft’s cloud strategy, in what regular users are concerned.

SkyDrive was revamped a few months ago and although the free storage offered was reduced to just 7 GB (for new users, as older users who took advantage of a timed offer can have 25 GB free), tiered, paid storage additional options are now available. One of the problems with SkyDrive was the difficulty to access it from a computer or other computing devices, other than from a browser, that is. The first sign of change in this area, was the excellent Windows Phone software, that integrated SkyDrive very well, allowing seamless access to photos, Office and other documents stored on SkyDrive. This easy access to SkyDrive was “ported” to Windows 8 where, like in Windows Phone 7.x and now Windows Phone 8, a Microsoft account can be used. Office 2013 takes good advantage of this easier access. While until now, OneNote was the single Office app that could easily use SkyDrive as the place to store, share and work cooperatively on OneNote documents, with Office 2013, the same ability to work cooperatively on documents stored on SkyDrive was extended to Word, Excel and Powerpoint. This new Office 2013 SkyDrive integration is really good and will make the cooperative work on Office documents a lot easier – at work, we have started to use it extensively, with great satisfaction and success.

The issue of SkyDrive integration with Windows Explorer (File Explorer in Windows 8) was meant to be addressed by the SkyDrive app. However, the two versions of this app, the initial one, released a few months ago, and a very recent update, when compared to Windows Live Mesh, are rather poor. Windows Live Mesh was (is) an excellent software tool. Among other features, it allowed syncing of folders, freely chosen by its users, between different computers and even different users. It also allowed the synchronization to be done with the “cloud” – a 5GB storage space provided in SkyDrive and reserved exclusively to this purpose.

Live Mesh did not require a preset folder organization – it allowed the sharing any folder, regardless of location and that folder could be mapped, in the destination computer, wherever desired. Through this freedom of mapping of the shared folders location, Live Mesh did not impose a way to organize one’s folder structure, it simply adapted to each user’s preferred drive organization scheme. That, and the fact that when synchronizing between computers located in a local network, Live Mesh did not use the internet to transfer the files, using the local network instead, were two of the signs of a cleverly, smartly designed software tool (we really don’t have enough of these!).

In what concerns file synchronization, the SkyDrive app fares much worse than Live Mesh. For users like me, who have relied on Live Mesh to share files with others, the app does not allow access to files that were initially shared by others. To do that, you still need to use your browser. On the other hand, when mapping shared folders in computers different from those where the sharing was initiated, there is no freedom to choose the destination path – everything goes under a root SkyDrive folder. You can choose where, in your local file system, this root folder goes, but that’s all that can be done. There is no way to map each individual folder, as it was possible with Live Mesh.

Of course, the SkyDrive app has some advantages over Live Mesh, the most relevant being the ability to allow access from Windows Explorer (or File Explorer, in Windows 8) to all of the available SkyDrive storage space, instead of just the previous 5 GB. For new users of the free service, however, this will just mean 2 extra GB, so not that much, actually, but still an advantage. To me, that’s probably the only advantage of the app, compared to Live Mesh. Yes, there are SkyDrive apps on other platforms, but I really couldn’t care less about it. I’m all in on Microsoft’s ecosystem – I own a Windows Phone, my computers run Windows in various flavors, from Vista to 8 (which I quite enjoy, by the way), I use Office and I develop using Visual Studio.

At this time, where the use of cloud based services and storage is on the rise, and where the advantages of that use are becoming clearer, the announced death of Live Mesh is bad news. It’s very hard to accept a degradation of functionality, once you get used to a better way. I can see no technical reasons for the Windows SkyDrive app not to offer the same file sharing and syncing abilities of Live Mesh. The SkyDrive app, though it has improved in its latest version, is still lacking. It is like Microsoft’s urge to change and adapt to fight Apple’s and Google’s competition has caused it to rush things and the end result are initial versions of products are that are, in some cases, glaringly lacking. Windows RT is a case in point, as the Metro side of Windows 8 seems to be, as the desktop versions of SkyDrive are. Different scales, of course, but can they be signs of the same problem?

It’s possible that a future version of the SkyDrive app will improve on the current limitations. I am not holding my breath, though. I will just have to find a replacement, to keep syncing my files as I want to. The good thing is that there are competing cloud alternatives (my own favorite backup tool, Acronis True 2013 offers sync functionality, which I need to check properly) and maybe there can be some advantages of not putting all my cloud based eggs in Microsoft’s basket.