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Bill Bennett

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Tag: Microsoft

The world’s largest software company has repositioned for cloud computing offering software-as-a-service as well as cloud services. Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Office productivity software are important mainstays.

Scan, stitch pages with Microsoft Image Composite Editor

Scanning and stitching pages and stories from old broadsheet newspapers has been a problem for a long time. Microsoft Image Composite Editor is the answer.

I’ve been a newspaper journalist for most of the past 30 years. My story portfolio is a pile of yellowing paper. It is now fraying around the edges. There’s enough to fill three filing cabinet drawers.

My news cutting hoard is a prime candidate for scanning and digital storage. Yet turning broadsheet newspaper pages into .pdfs or .jpgs isn’t easy.

Home office flatbed scanners are A4 size or maybe fractionally larger. They rarely scan a whole newspaper story in a single go, Full pages are out of the question.

You can scan and store pages in sections, but converting from, say, The Sydney Morning Herald, into six overlapping A4 pdfs is clumsy.

And the saved documents aren’t much use for anything.

Software stitching scanned pages

Applications like Adobe Photoshop or Gimp can stitch photographs together, so they should do the same with newspaper pages.

In practice the job is tricky, although I’m told recent versions of Photoshop do a better job.

There are specialist programs able to piece together overlapping images to form bigger documents. Photographers use them to create panoramas. Most are optimised for photos rather than printed pages. I came across ArcSoft’s Scan n Stich which automates the task making it easy.

I’d give ArcSoft nine out of ten for ease of use and practicality. There are two versions of the program. I’ve previously used the US$20 Standard Edition to deal with magazine and tabloid newspaper pages in my portfolio. The program whizzed through the task producing stunning results. I also use Nuance’s PaperPort to organise scanned documents and the same company’s OmniPage optical character recognition so I have both text documents of my old stories and facsimile pdfs.

To scan my broadsheet pages, I’d need to shell out a further US$40 to ArcSoft for its Scan n Stich Deluxe version. I don’t objection to paying for software to do this kind of job, I don’t use credit cards making it hard for me to buy software online.

Free alternative software

I looked for something available from local retailers or a free downloadable alternative. I wasn’t optimistic and braced myself for a lot of Photoshop work. On the other hand, I could just hang on to the paper.

Luckily I found Image Composite Editor (ICE) from Microsoft Research. ICE is a free downloadable application designed to process photographic images but it can meld six A4 scans into a single broadsheet-sized document.

ICE has been on version 1.2r1 since November 2008, so the application is clearly not a priority at Microsoft. There are rough edges and little documentation, but hey, it not only gets the job done, it does things quickly.

Best of all the application is simple to use. You simply drag and drop images in any order on the main Window and let the program do its stuff. One complication is that you’ll need to have roughly 20 percent overlap between the various pages – but this would be standard in any stitching application.

When you’ve finished there’s a basic crop tool and the option to export the completed image in a number of formats.

I had to play around a little with the images to get the best output. My scans were initially black and whites – it was hard to get the contrast level right and some text was always left unread. My scanner software has an enhanced text mode, but I didn’t use this for the composite image instead opting for gray-scale images captured at a potentially unnecessarily high 400 dots per inch resolution. The results looked more like photo images, which seemed to help with the stitching.

Browsers: Chrome 10, Firefox 4, Explorer 9

Until a year ago choosing between browsers was simple. Mozilla’s Firefox 3.5 was so far ahead of the game, Chrome and Internet Explorer didn’t come close.

I pushed Firefox 3.5 to the limits with extensions. All of them seemed essential – although that proved an illusion.

Firefox rarely lets me down in use, although there were problems. It took several lifetimes to launch when I booted my PC in the morning and managing tabs was a chore.

I’m not sure when Google’s Chrome caught up – I’m guessing it was somewhere between versions 7 and 8. Either way, by late 2010 I’d made the switch to Chrome and was happy with the move. At the time Chrome was a faster browser with a minimal interface that knows when to keep out the way. It loaded less time it took to cold start Firefox and the tab handling was better.

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 was also a vast improvement on earlier versions, but it was still too much of a memory hog to take seriously. What’s more, you couldn’t easily add web design widgets and other gizmos to IE8.

Now the browser game is wide open. And that makes life confusing.

Browser or browsers?

I would like to live with a single browser. I’d like to master its features. Learn its ways and tune it to my needs.

This wasn’t possible in the recent past. You needed to keep Internet Explorer on a Windows PC if you wanted to stay current with OS and software updates without dancing through ridiculous hoops. Those days have gone. And yet, I find it still isn’t possible to find a favourite and stick with it.

Chrome 10 is number one

Take Google’s Chrome 10. It is my main, everyday browser. It still starts up and loads pages faster than any rival. That’s a huge plus. Chrome plays nicely with Gmail – which stays open all through the day on my PC.

It works well with all the Google applications. I use Google Reader for my work and Google Docs, the integration between these applications and Chrome 10 is as tight as the integration between Internet Explorer and Microsoft Windows.

Chrome is the only browser at present which allows me to run Tweetdeck in a tab. I use a total of ten Chrome extensions; some are as good as the Firefox extensions. LastPass works well. Delicious and WideStamp behave as well as with Firefox. There’s a clone of the WordPress Press This extension which acts as expected. Firebug is distinctly second-rate on Chrome when compared to Firefox, while the third-party Read it Later extension; Postponer is a sluggish disappointment.

I’ve only come across a handful of sites which struggle to render properly in Chrome, but when that happens, the rendering is awful. At times the sites are barely readable. I suspect this is because designers are working with Firefox or Internet Explorer and miss testing Chrome, but for this reason alone I need to have more than one browser installed on my machine.

Perhaps my favourite Chrome feature is the way bookmarks and settings sync across my PCs. Firefox also offers sync, but Chrome syncs everything simply using my Google account details. It can even sync bookmarks with my Android phone.

Other people like Chrome’s built-in PDF reader. I hate it. The PDF rendering is not a good as with standalone readers and controlling the way documents look onscreen is hard. I’ve also struggled with cutting and pasting text or pictures from Chrome-rendered PDFs. Your mileage may differ.

Firefox 4.0 remains essential

Chrome does the job for day-to-day browsing, but it is not the best tool when I’m tweaking my website. My self-hosted WordPress site is easiest to manage in Chrome, but checking the HMTL and CSS works better in Firefox.

That’s mainly because Firefox has a better choice of extensions. Firefox also handles extension better than Chrome. Navigating Mozilla’s extension website is hard – Chrome has an iTunes-style App-store.

Mozilla has cleared up all of Firefox 3’s shortcomings – this happened progressively with the various point updates of Firefox 3 tidying up shortcomings. With Firefox 4.0 tab management is improved. Firefox 4.0 still isn’t as nicely integrated with the operating system as Internet Explorer or Chrome. I use Windows 7 and find right-clicking toolbar icons work better with the other two browsers.

The new Firefox interface is minimalist and the browser is faster than before. Even so, in my experience it remains the slowest of the three. Having said that, Firefox’s start-up speed has improved so much the few extra seconds is no longer an issue. We’re talking nine or ten seconds for Firefox compared with five or six elsewhere.

Firefox has a better hit rate than Chrome when it comes to rendering websites. I’ve rarely hit an unreadable one with the browser.

Microsoft gets Internet Explorer 9 right, not perfect

Although there’s little to choose between the three browsers, I found Internet Explorer 9 the least useful. It ticks all the right boxes and in my admittedly unscientific testing appeared the fastest of the three. It also has a tidy minimal user interface and – as you’d expect – it integrates beautifully with Windows 7. IE9 also handles images better than the other browsers.

I have two and a half problems with IE9. First, if I want to run an extension – say LastPass – Internet Explorer insists on adding a toolbar across the top of the screen. While this only removes 20 or so pixels from the main browser window, it adds a toolbar for all extensions wanting them. Add five toolbar extensions and you lose a sizeable slice of the display. If you hide the toolbars, IE9 switches off the extensions.

Second, I ran into weird text rendering issues with IE9 and Google applications. If I load, say, Gmail or Google Reader, each of the boxed lines of text shows the tops of the second line of characters. The effect is small but distracting. This is sad because, most of the time, Internet Explorer beats Chrome and Firefox when it comes to displaying text. Every character appears crisper and easier to read in IE9, but the ghostly tops of other text more than outweighs the good.

The half problem may be related to the text rendering, Internet Explorer sometimes chokes on sites and pages. I’ve seen it simply come to a halt when displaying pages and the browser needs restarting. Other times text appears strangely.

Conclusion: Pick two browsers

All three browsers are good – you won’t go wrong with any of them. Each has pluses and minuses. Most everyday users would probably be able to pick one and stay with it.

While I like Internet Explorer 9’s minimalism and display quality, it is the easiest one to dispense with. Chrome’s ability to run Tweetdeck and its integration with Gmail and other Google applications mean I’m likely to stick with it for most of my browsing. However, I can’t get by without some of the Firefox extensions. This means I’ll need to keep running both browsers for now.

My browser choice has less to do with the features of the browser software and more to do with the state of the extensions on offer for Chrome and Firefox. That’s not a conclusion I expected to arrive at, but I suspect a metaphor for the current state of personal technology.

Microsoft Word has a missing feature

Microsoft continues to develop Word and add features. The software is mature and stable. It has been around for almost 40 year.

Word first showed up on MS-Dos. It was on the original Apple Mac in 1983.

Word is feature packed. There are far more features than most users will ever need.

It’s unlikely most people use more than 10 percent of the product.

Yet there is one important feature missing from Microsoft Word. You can’t use it to create professional, high-end output.

Page design is not a strength

It’s not possible to produce a great-looking printed book with Word. There’s little point sending Word manuscripts to professional book printers.

Word is no better when it comes to crafting top-flight on-line layouts or creating classy PDFs.

Word does basic page layout well enough. It is designed for people who still print documents using laser and inkjet printers.

That’s something of an anachronism for many of us in 2020.

Microsoft Word is fine, although overkill, for mailed documents. Mail clients have all the editing tools you need.

Microsoft Word fonts are great

Word’s fonts are gorgeous. Calibri works particularly well on-screen. The problem is you never know for sure which fonts Word will use when you send a document to another computer.

Things can go wrong when you send Word documents to commercial printers or pre-press companies.

Colour is also a Word danger-zone. You never know for certain what colour you’ll see at the other end.

Word is good enough for low resolution work. For making everyday business documents.

When it comes to creating high-end documents or working with professional printers, you may to use Adobe InDesign. At around NZ$1,500 that’s an expensive sledgehammer cracking my layout nuts.

There are other options.

Apple’s Pages word processor is a solid alternative for digital documents. It has built-in layout features. Indeed, at times it feels more like a layout application than a word processor.

Life would be easier if Microsoft fixed Word to do these things.

Access 2007 trumps FileMaker Pro 10

Some months ago I set out to review FileMaker Pro version 10. I’ve used earlier versions of FileMaker and built an invoice system which I’ve used for the last ten years to handle the billing for my freelance journalism business.

The invoice system converted to FileMaker Pro 10 without a hitch, but I wanted to give the software more of a workout and try a different project. So I rebuilt my List of New Zealand media people and organisations on Twitter as a relational database.

In the original list I grouped names under various headings, but some people qualify under more than one heading, so I wanted to build a relational database which could be sliced and diced, but which specifically could treat headings as tags to reorganised the entire list in a more useful format.

I’d already been through this process using Microsoft Access 2007 to build the NZ media people on Twitter list. Although there were problems with using Access 2007  the basic database design was trivial, it took me less than a couple of hours to covert the HTML list into a Excel spreadsheet, import the list into Access, create extra tables, make the relational database links and pretty things up for the web.

FileMaker Pro is often easier to use than Access, but this time it wasn’t the best tool for the job. I went through the same basic steps, but couldn’t figure out how to use FileMaker to build the tags. I’m sure it is doable, but there’s nothing intuitive about structuring databases and in this case, I found Access way easier.

 

FileMaker, Microsoft Access not easy

FileMaker and Microsoft pitch their FileMaker and Access database applications at everyday PC users as “easy-to-use”.

While the two programs are less complex and frightening than other PC database applications, they aren’t easy. At least not in the sense most of us understand the word.

I recently returned to the two programs after years away from databases. Although they have their plus points, neither is entirely satisfactory.

My project is simple: New Zealand media people on Twitter. I want to turn the list into a simple relational database. So someone like myself who has worked as an editor and journalist in newspapers and magazines could be listed under all four tags and not in the existing group headings.

How do the PC database applications fare?

Easy Access

Microsoft Access 2007 starts out easy. I pulled the html from my website into Excel 2007 and exported the list into Access. Once there it took little time to build a basic relational database.

The tagging isn’t perfect, but the relational database aspect of the Access exercise went like clockwork. There were difficult moments looking things up in the extensive, but not always navigable online help. It doesn’t help that Microsoft slips into its own personal language making it harder to extract help information than you’d expect.

Access lost the plot when it came to turning data into HTML.

If you looked at my example you’ll notice there’s a weird box around the table, the text TwitterAddresses Query and three column headings. These weren’t optional. I could have removed them manually – but that’s not the point. Getting the data out of Access and on my site was harder than expected.

FileMaker’s dirty HTML

If anything, getting clean HTML out of FileMaker Pro is harder – although I have discovered workarounds. What I haven’t yet found is an elegant way of making what is, after all, a simple relational database work properly.

When you have two lists and want to marry them in a one-to-many relationship it should be straightforward, but after two days of playing around I still haven’t found an elegant way of joining the two databases and creating social media-like tags.

Filemaker has a quirky way of allowing you to store multiple items in a single field as a return separated list, but converting this to a tidy HTML table isn’t trivial.

So there you have it two “easy to use” databases that aren’t that easy to use in practice.

Microsoft Internet Explorer 8: the good the bad and the ugly

Until version 8, Microsoft Internet Explorer has been a necessity not a browser of choice. Explorer is a necessity because a limited number of sites and online services, including Microsoft’s own, are optimised or in some cases restricted to Explorer.

For the past four years Mozilla Firefox has consistently performed better than Internet Explorer. It was always faster and less bloated. Add-ons give Firefox a flexibility older versions of Internet Explorer simply could not match. And, while Microsoft’s browsers were better integrated with Windows and certain key desktop applications, Firefox was still able to deliver a better all round user experience.

In practice I’ve needed to run the two browsers alongside each other. Explorer has always played second fiddle. Can the upgrade to IE8 change that?

What’s good about Internet Explorer 8?

IE8 is fast

IE8 loads pages considerably faster than Firefox 3.0.8. One heavy-duty Web 2.0 page I frequent is ready in around 28 seconds with IE8. The same page takes 52 seconds with Firefox. The difference isn’t always as pronounced, however I did the anal retentive thing and timed a number of pages to discover they all loaded faster with IE8.

Once Firefox loads into memory, it can restart in seconds. But the first load in a session can run to as long as five minutes. That’s just plain awful. In many cases Firefox takes so long to fire up, I wonder if it is loading at all. I often find my self opening two or more instances. IE8 always fires up in seconds. However, there’s a down side to this as we shall see later.

Fabulous developer tools

Developer tools are geeky, but among the best improvements in IE8. Hit F12 and you can view a page’s source code and CSS. This is great for fixing up problems with your own pages. To get similar features in Firefox you need to install the Firebug extension.

Internet Explorer 8 is cleaner than earlier versions

Explorer is now web-standard compliant, has a tidy user interface and most of the time renders pages beautifully with crisp text.

I also like:

  • Colour-coded tabs Open a new tab and its colour will match that of the parent page.
  • Tab grouping Tabs are grouped with their parent tab.
  • Smart address bar Similar to the Firefox’s new address bar, it remembers where you’ve been and your most visited sites.
  • Useful new tabs Open a new tab and you get links to the sites you’re most likely to want to visit.
  • Tab view A quick tab feature allows you to see thumbnails of all open tabs.
  • RSS Internet Explorer does a better job of handling feeds than Firefox.
  • Search bar Sure Firefox has the same feature, but I like the way the IE8 search bar works and I especially like the way it can be used to search the current page as well as the entire Internet.
  • Smooth integration Microsoft gets nervous when people talk about the way its products integrate, but IE8 works smoothly with Windows and Office.  The software also downloads and installs without a hitch.
  • Security See the anti-phishing feature kick in for the first time is impressive.

Bad things about Internet Explorer 8

Within hours of installing and running Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 on my Windows Vista Ultimate system I quickly discovered some negatives. Let’s look at them one by one:

1. Key features simply don’t work or are erratic

There are two pre-installed items on the favorites bar: Suggested Sites and Get More Add-ons. Neither of them work. Clicking either opens a windows that says “Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage” and there’s a button labeled Diagnose Connection Problems. This doesn’t happen all the time, just most of the time.

Some basic things simply don’t work at all on some sites. For example I tried joining Chi.mp using IE8, but the Captcha feature didn’t show up making it impossible to use. I had to switch to Firefox to enroll.

While we’re on the subject, Microsoft hasn’t bothered to localize spellings. Outside of North America the word is favourite, not favorite.

2. Crashing

After one month of use I experienced three major Internet Explorer 8 crashes. In each case I’ve had to reboot the machine and lost work because of the crashes. I’m not certain what causes the problems, but there’s something weird happening. I’m running IE8 on a Windows Vista Ultimate system with 2GB of Ram. Firefox has its problems, but it never crashes in such a spectacular and worrying fashion. I’ve also experienced a number of less serious crashes which can be fixed by closing and reopening IE8. Frankly this instability is the biggest barrier to my switching from Firefox to Internet Explorer. Presumably Microsoft will fix up the bugs over the coming weeks, but this does not fill me with confidence.

3. A lot of pages look strange

Internet Explorer 8 may be standards compliant, but it won’t display all the pages you throw at it. Ironically the biggest problem come when you view a page designed for IE7 or IE6. There’s a compatibility button in the address bar to ‘fix’ odd-looking pages by reverting the browser to IE7 mode. Nevertheless some pages still struggle. And curiously the button doesn’t always appear when you need it.

There are other anomalies. For example, if I visit the dashboard at WordPress.com, IE 8 frequently struggles to display the stats graph, even though it shows up perfectly well in Firefox.

4. Unable to automatically reload settings on start-up

One Firefox feature I love is the way it opens up with all the tabs exactly as they were left when you closed down. IE8 doesn’t do this. Apparently it was designed this way.

5. Active X is still a pain in the bum

Sorry Microsoft, I know Active X is your baby, but there’s a good reason everyone whinges about it. Here’s a simple explanation of why it is so awful for non-technical readers.

6. Spell-checking missing in action

Yes I know I’m supposed to be a professional writer and I shouldn’t need a spell checker. Generally I don’t. A spell checker is a way of a avoiding red faces.

And the ugly?

Despite the headline, there’s nothing ugly. I claim poetic licence. Internet Explorer 8 is a good all-round browser. It will meet most people’s needs most of the time. It comes close to meeting mine. I’m certain the majority of users will happily browse away using IE8 without giving the technology a second thought.

However, Internet Explorer’s shortcomings mean, at least until the next iteration or service pack arrives IE8 remains on my machine by necessity for those IE only sites rather than because it is the best browser. If it was more reliable, this decision could change. This is a pity because there is much to love about IE8 – and that’s not something I would ever have said about IE7