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Mailbag: May 16, 2012

In this edition of the Mailbag: Reexamining Microsoft Signature, Live Mesh vs. the new SkyDrive application, adding comments and article ratings on my site, enabling Hyper-V in Windows 8, whether the Barnes & Noble and Microsoft alliance changes my preference for Kindle, Nokia Lumia 900 cloud features compared to iPhone, and Windows 8 and notifications.

If you have questions, please email me.

Microsoft Signature PCs revisited

A number of people have emailed me this week about Walter Mossberg’s coverage of Microsoft’s Signature PC program. Given his status as the elite Apple backer in the mainstream media, he was pretty positive about the program overall:

I found the Signature [PC] versions much cleaner and easier to navigate and faster in a variety of tests … In my speed tests, Signature beat all the stock machines on all my trials, but the margins weren't dramatic, usually from a few seconds to 25 seconds … In my opinion, it makes for a better experience for the user.

Hooray for Walt. But as a reminder, I’d just note that I wrote about Microsoft Signature well over a year ago. With the benefit of a lot more experience now, I would like to add a couple of other comments about this service.

First of all, Signature PCs are demonstrably superior to the same PCs supplied by a PC maker. They are devoid of the PC maker-supplied crapware that virtually no one wants or needs, and include a handful of Microsoft solutions (crapware?) that I find desirable. That, combined with important power management and performance tuning means that Signature PCs, on average, perform much better than the same machine provided by the PC maker. These differences are often not subtle, as Mr. Mossberg seems to think.

Signature PCs are limited, however, in two important ways.

First, while you don’t actually have to live near a Microsoft retail store to take advantage of this program—you can buy the PCs online as well—there are important advantages related to support and hands-on help. And if you don’t have a Microsoft Store near you—as most don’t—Signature isn’t as viable.

Second, be careful that you’re getting what you think you’re getting. Signature is still sort of a mom and pop operation within Microsoft, an internal startup of sorts, and the selection of PCs on offer is a small subset of what’s available in the outside world and, more important, the offered machines can often be a bit out of date. This is especially important in times like now when many PC makers are refreshing their lineups. Just be careful not to inadvertently order last year’s HP laptop, or whatever, when you meant to order the new Ivy Bridge-based machine.

Regardless, Signature is a great program. I recommend it, especially if you do happen to live near a Microsoft Store.

Live Mesh vs. SkyDrive application

I’ve also received a lot of email about the new SkyDrive app and whether it will replace Live Mesh and, if so, whether it will adopt some missing Live Mesh features before that happens. While I did write about these two solutions in Cloudbusting: SkyDrive Vs. Live Mesh Vs. Google Drive vs. Dropbox, it is perhaps worth examining these issues a bit further.

First, I’ve asked. And while Microsoft isn’t really willing to discuss explicitly what it plans to do, I think it’s fair to say that Live Mesh will eventually disappear. No word on the schedule yet, but I take that to be a definite.

I was told, however, that the current SkyDrive app is just a beta and that Microsoft will be improving it before a final, shipping release later this year. Furthermore, I was told that Microsoft was aware of the issue of syncing multiple folders and is looking into this.

My gut feeling is that the SkyDrive app will never support the syncing of multiple folders, as does Live Mesh, but that it will eventually let you determine which folders to sync to each PC. Right now, it’s a dumb on/off thing.

With this in mind, there are some workarounds that may make the SkyDrive app more viable for you. One of them is to use a fairly esoteric NTFS feature called symbolic links to emulate the multiple folder sync capabilities of Live Mesh using the SkyDrive app. Various people have written up explanations of this process, but here’s a good one from Jan Hannemann.

If you miss the remote desktop functionality of Live Mesh, check out Logmein Hamachi, a free (for non-commercial use) VPN solution that will let you use the Remote Desktop Connection software in Windows to remote desktop into your other PCs. I use this software regularly, and not only does it work great, but the remote desktop experience is superior to that of Live Mesh, to boot.

Comments and article ratings on your site?

Sepp S. asks:

I wanted to leave a comment to your blog, but it is not possible, I am logged in. What am I doing wrong?

This will be changing very soon, I’m told, but the SuperSite for Windows is actually three sites in one right now because of the way it evolved. The “main” part of the site is a web site, not a blog, which dates back to 1998 (before there were blogs). In late 2010, Penton imported the thousands of articles that made up the site into a more modern content management system and merged them, somewhat, with two other sources of articles: The SuperSite Blog, which was a separate system created years ago to accommodate the fact that the main site could handle blogging, and content from Windows IT Pro, which includes my daily news articles, weekly editorials, and print magazine articles.

Today, you can comment on my SuperSite Blog posts, but not my SuperSite articles. And you can comment on the Windows IT Pro content, but only if you do so from

Again, this will be changing. Sometime soon, you’ll be able to comment on all of my articles, regardless of the source, and do so directly from the SuperSite. Sorry for the delays.

Enabling Hyper-V in Windows 8?

Dimitris T. asks:

I was looking at Windows 8 virtualization with Hyper-V and I noticed on the Performance tab of the new Task Manager that it says, "Virtualization: Not capable". I know that my laptop doesn't meet the requirements for the Hyper-V feature, although VMware and Virtualbox run smoothly, but is this info appearing on the Task Manager enough for someone to know that he can't run Hyper-V on his Windows 8 desktop?

That rating does not equate to Hyper-V compatibility. The Virtualization entry in Task Manager explains whether your processor supports any hardware virtualization features and, if so, whether they're enabled. On my Core 2 Quad-based desktop, for example, Virtualization is listed as "Enabled," which it is, but my system can't run Hyper-V 3.0, as it requires features in second-gen Core i3/5/7 processors.

The easiest way to see whether you can use Hyper-V to is to open Windows Features and see if it’s available or not (it will be grayed out in the latter case).

Hyper-V is what's called a type-1 hypervisor. But VirtualBox and VMware Workstation are just applications that run under an OS, or what's called a type-2 hypervisor. Type-1 hypervisors have stricter hardware requirements but offer dramatically better performance (and other features).

Does the Barnes & Noble and Microsoft alliance change anything with your eBook platform recommendations?

Joe A. asks:

You've been very vocal in your support of Amazon and Kindle.  Does the recent announcement between B&N and Microsoft change your thoughts around e-reader platforms?

Not for me... this all comes down to ecosystem. Amazon's is still better/bigger. One thing I would like to see is publishers back a way to move content between the NOOK and Kindle ecosystems. Maybe that’s a bit too customer-friendly to even consider.

Mistakes in Lumia 900 article?

Francis P. got up on the wrong side of the bed:

I found it rather interesting that the number of mistakes in a certain article [sic]. iCloud: Article claims there is a lack of it.  Windows Phone uses SkyDrive and does what most of the article says it does not do. Auto photo uploading: Again, it does it with SkyDrive and auto uploads to all my computers and my Xbox.

While iDevice users can automatically upload photos to iCloud in full size and resolution, the similar feature in SkyDrive is terrible by comparison: It uploads only tiny, horribly compressed versions of the photos that are not suitable for backups and look horrible on an HDTV.

PC-Free Usage: Yep, Windows Phone does not require a PC.  In fact, when you setup the software for the first time, if you setup Wi-Fi on the device, asks [sic] if you want to setup wireless sync when you get home.  But even that isn’t necessary, unless you want all your music onto your device. 

Windows Phone very much requires a PC. You cannot download software updates without tethering your phone to the PC. You cannot sync content--music, TV shows and movies, or (in most markets) podcasts--without connecting to a PC. You cannot download full-sized, full-resolution copies of your photos without connecting to a PC. And by the way, this is true even over Wi-Fi sync: Your PC is still a required part of all these activities, whether they're physically connected or not. Everything listed above can be done directly from an iPhone, without a PC or Mac.

What’s sad is I don’t even work at Microsoft and have had this phone for less than a week and I am noticing all these issues.  Quite frustrating.

That’s not all that’s sad about this little exchange.

Windows 8 and notifications?

Matt F. asks:

Is Microsoft including a notification center of some sort in Windows 8? I'm not sure I've noticed one or have heard of one at all. I think it's a major misstep if not included from the get go.

There's a centralized notification feature for apps. In the Consumer Preview build, the preview apps don't trigger many notifications, aside from the Messaging notifications you may have noticed. You can see the configuration interface for notifications in PC Settings (under Notifications) and there's a global switch for them (which is changing a bit in the next milestone) in the Settings bar (WINKEY + I, at the bottom).

So there really is no centralized place that stores all the notifications until they've been checked out or clicked on? I'm talking like iOS's notification center that pulls down from the top.

No. Just a standardized way for apps to present notifications.

I really hope that Microsoft includes a notification center for the Release Preview then. That's a major misstep if so. It's one of the major features Windows Phone needs, and I was hoping it would be rectified with Windows 8 (as Windows Phone will be based off of it). It can be really annoying hearing the notifications and not knowing what they were for as they went off the screen before you were able to pull it out of your pocket or something.

I don't think anything of that magnitude is going to change for the Release Preview. The base platform was completed early this year.

What are your thoughts on that? Don’t you find it a bit annoying with Windows Phone not having one even?

No. I find it more annoying having to "clear out" notifications on Android and iPhone. Live tiles provide their own reminders of unseen notifications.

That said… It’s a fair point. Apple, for example, is adding a Notification Center to Mac OS X “Mountain Lion,” which should ship later this year. I suppose Microsoft’s point is that they already have a single place to look for missed notifications—the live tiles on the Start screen, as noted above—and that providing yet another UI to check this stuff reeks of micromanagement.

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