Sunday, 3 January 2016

Windows 10 Mobile: An update

Even though my previous post was only published 6 days ago, it was written a week before that so I’ve now got 3 weeks of usage under my belt and felt the need to post an update.

The biggest issue I’ve encountered over the last few weeks, and which I forgot to incude in the previous post, was battery life. This was suffering quite a bit in diaily use to the point where regular use of email, Readit, Facebook and Twitter was rendering the battery dead before dinner time. To combat this, I reduced the telemtry levels down which seemed to have no effect. I was on the verge of quitting my bold experiment and retreating back to WP8.1 when Readit released an update with improved performance which also seems to have solved my battery problems, so it seems the issues weren’t with the OS itself, just a single app. It’s a poignant lesson about how a single regularly used app can uniwttingly completely alter your perspective of a platform.

My other issue, which I did highlight in my prevous post is performance. I’m glad to say that shortly after that post, this seemed to spontaneously improve dramatically. There were no new builds in this time period, I don’t know if there was some indexing going on that was taking an age to complete and was chomping CPU cycles, but all seems well now. I think the aforementioned performance issues in Readit may have also played a part in my negative impressions.

I am still loving the ability to reply to a text without unlocking. My security concerns aside, it is really convenient!

I’ve just started working on my first app, a basic music/podcast playing app with Band control integration (as MS have deemed to only update Band 2 with music controls, not Band 1, I’m doing my own!) While the model is quite different to what I am used to as a Win32 desktop and Web developer, it is quite consistent and I’m slowly starting to get my head around things. Debugging my app on the physical phone has been completely painless, although I wish I could say the same about using the emulator!

Just 3 days ago, I was seriously contemplating going back to 8.1. I am glad to say that I am now pretty happy with WM10. It’ll be interesting to see if Microsoft keep the same pace of development with WM10 after release as they have with Windows 10 desktop, of if they repeat their previous mistake of releasing a new version and then dropping focus and putting their efforts in somewhere else.

Realistically, MIcrosoft are never going to unseat Android and IOS from the 1 and 2 spots, but there is still a chance of carving a decent market share as a third-player, but only if they don’t screw it up again. This is their chance to waste, I hope they don’t.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Windows 10 Mobile: Impressions after a week.

I’ve been keeping a close eye on Windows 10 Mobile, and I haven’t really liked what I’ve seen. The navigation is a clear lift from Android, and not in a good way, and paradigms like the Pivot control which made WP8.1 unique seem to have disappeared. But I’ve never been one for sticking my head in the sand and sticking to the current version of something because the new version looks scary and different so, rather than wait for WM10 to be released, I decided screw it, I’ll get what is essentially the RTM build on my Lumia 1020 by joining the Insider Preview programme.

This was about a week ago, and these are my impressions after using WM10 on my daily driver for a week.

The Upgrade

 

The upgrade itself went very smoothly. Took about an hour and everything was exactly where I left it when it came back, even down to the Start layout which wasn't preserved when upgrading 8.1 to 10 on the desktop. Kudos for attention to detail though, as I had the old neutered Office app pinned to my start screen, the upgrade downloaded the new Excel, Word, and Powerpoint apps and put them in a tile group in the same spot where the old Office app was pinned. Not a massive feat of software engineering, but a nice touch.

Overall, the upgrade is much like going from Windows 8.1 to 10 on the desktop, generally a non-event with a few niggles that I'm confident will disappear over time.

Navigation

It’s still screwy, although not as bad as I expected. The mail app for example, has the old ellipsis menu at the bottom of the page AND the new hamburger menu at the top of the page. This is just plain confusing and I hope that apps will settle on using one method of navigation over time, even if it is the hamburger. I'm yet to decide if the "hold down the Start button to bring the screen down so you can access controls at the top of the phone with one hand" feature is a nasty hack to get around the idiotic decision to follow Android and put all navigation at the top of the phone away from the user's hand, or a clever trick to get around the idiotic decision to follow Android and put all navigation at the top of the phone away from the user's hand.

Performance

My initial impression of performance was that it was generally comparable to Windows Phone 8.1 on the same device, slower in some areas but faster in others. After a few more days of working with it however, it is definitely slower overall. Loading the main apps I use, such as Mail, Twitter, and Readit, can take seconds. Once they’ve loaded, performance is about the same as on WP8.1, the only issue here is initial load time.

Miscellaneous

The settings app is immeasurably better. The old one was just a completely unorganised list of options, with no sane grouping and a number of really useless names that don’t help you figure out where to find the setting you want. The new one follows the same layout and groupings as Windows 10, so that’s one advantage to the OSes sharing a larger amount of functionality these days.

The tiles are larger than on Windows 8, however the “Use More Tiles” option makes them too small in my opinion. Guess you can’t please everyone!

The ability to reply to texts without unlocking your phone is really convenient, although I’m slightly concerned about the security issues with such a feature.

Conclusion

My overall impression is that this initial release is a little rough. Obvious, keep in mind that even though build 10586 is RTM, I’m still running the insider preview so there may be extra telemetry enabled and reduced optimisations that may be hampering the performance. Is it as smooth as WP8.1? No. However, I still prefer it to Android even in it’s current state, and given that Windows 10 has improved from it’s already pretty stable condition upon release, if Microsoft keep up the same pace with WM10 as they did with desktop post-release, then I’m confident the rough edges will be gone fairly soon.

Will WM10 make Windows Phone a mainstream consumer phone OS finally? Again, no, I highly doubt it. But there are a lot of benefits to the shared code, features, and manageability of Windows 10 and it’s various derivations, including WM10, that may look very tempting to businesses, especially as that space is being rapidly vacated by Blackberry, there is room for a new mainstream business phone, and WM10 may just have a chance there.

Monday, 21 December 2015

In-place upgrade Windows?! You’ve got to be kidding me!

Before the release of Windows 8, this was my default reply to anyone who dared suggest doing an in-place upgrade of Windows. I’d done it before in upgrading from 98 to ME and I’d seen and heard many horror stories of failed in-place upgrades that it become clear that it wasn’t even worth the effort, you were going to have to do a fresh install either way, so you may as well make it plan A.

Then along came the £15 upgrade offer for Windows 8 shortly after it’s release in October 2012. It seemed like a no-brainer just to get the latest version of Windows for such a small price. So I went for it, in the expectation that I would have to do a clean install anyway, reducing the upgrade to simply the hoop I had to jump through to get the offer.

Imagine my surprise when it worked. There were no BSODs, no applications failing to load after the update, no driver issues, nothing. It. Just. Worked. The only thing I had to do was re-intsall Linqpad to get Windows Search to show in the results lists when searching for “linq”, but in retrospect, if I’d given it a day or two to reindex everything it probably would’ve picked it up on it’s own eventually. In the months after, I upgraded several more machines and witnessed a number of other upgrades, all of them completed with at most minor issues easily solved by driver/Windows updates, or no issues at all. My faith in Windows in-place upgrades was restored.

That upgraded OS served me faithfully until I elected do a clean install when replacing my spinning rust HDD with an SSD 6 months later. While I now trusted Windows upgrades, I still don’t trust transferring OSes between disks, been burned on that front numerous times too.

Then in early 2015, Microsoft announced the Insider Preview programme for Windows 10. Why not I thought, so I took a laptop, signed up, and in the following 6 months, saw in-place upgrade afer in-place upgrade take place, successfully too for the most part, while keeping in mind this was pre-release so breakages were expected. By the time Windows 10 was released in July, I had no hesitation in just going ahead with the in-place upgrade. To my delight, but not really to my surprise anymore, it just worked. I have since updated a number of machines from both Windows 7 and 8.1 to 10 and haven’t had a single failure yet or major issue that hasn’t been simply resolved by running Windows updates.

Whatever you may think of Windows 8 or it’s successors, Windows in-place upgrades are no longer the joke they once were. They’re a very appealing and extremely reliable way of updating to the most recent version of Windows without going through the chore of a clean install. I’ll take an hour to do an in-place upgrade vs spending a day doing a clean install any day!

Having said that, always back up anything important before doing an upgrade. Even if the upgrade process works 9999 times out of 10,000, you don’t want to be that unlucky 1.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

OpenLiveWriter–It’s like Windows Live Writer but it works with my blog!

Since I started blogging, I’ve had to suffer the apalling mess that is the blogger editor.

Windows Live Writer was hailed as the panacea of free editors, but whatever I tried I could never get it to work.

Then Scott Hanselman and a group of Microsofties resurrected it as Open Live Writer and less than a week later, blogger support now works!

Go download Open Live Writer now!

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Windows 10 upgrade experience

Microsoft have really upped their upgrade game.

Pre-Windows 8, there was no point even bothering with an upgrade. Even if it completed without bricking your machine, the end result would be so unstable you'd just pave it and start again anyway.


The upgrade from 7 to 8 was relatively painless, I only needed to reinstall a handful of applications afterwards, not a big deal.

8 to 8.1 was seamless, as you'd expect given that 8.1 was essentially a service pack.

I've now upgraded 8.1 to 10 on 2 machines and the process has been almost perfect. On my home machine, I actually have one less bug than I had before!

About the only criticism I have is that you lose your start screen layout, but in reality this isn't a big deal and has encouraged me to do a little spring cleaning of my start screen apps.

I never thought the day would come when I'd start a Windows upgrade and not be already digging out my installer archive in preparation for a clean install.

Well done Microsoft, keep it up.

Friday, 11 September 2015

UniqueIdentifier as a primary key, that will solve all of our problems!

No, no it won't.

In evolving a single-instance website to multi-instance one, one of the many problems I have faced is how to deal with database access when your website instances are on the opposite side of the world.
My solution to this was to use SQL Azure Data Sync, makes sense as my databases are already in SQL Azure anyway.
Facilitating this involved changing all of the integer primar keys of every table to a different type with a lower possibility of collisions when syncing between databases.

I thought a Guid in the .Net side and a UNIQUEIDENTIFIER in the database would be the perfect fit for this. I was very, very wrong.

While using uniqueidentifiers as PKs has virtually eliminated any possibility of a sync collision, there is a very undesirable side effect of very high index fragmentation, bringing my site crashing to it's knees as soon as the indexes reach a critical level of fragmentation.

As is customary, I decided to run some tests. Below are the results of inserting 10k records in to an empty table:


Ouch! 96% fragmentation vs 18% on 10k records. Now in reality I rarely insert 10k records at the same time, but certain operations involve hundreds and this level of fragmentation will occur over the course of time.

Regardless of what data type your PKs are, fragmentation will happen. But the massive downside of using uniqueidentifier is that this not only happens a lot faster, but also a simple defrag or rebuild indexes is not going to save you as the data is inherently, due to it's random nature, impossible to efficiently index.

My first idea was to use an identity column (in my case called clusterkey) for the clustered index and keep the PK as a Guid with the PK constraint being non-clustered. This would sort out the fragmentation problem. But unfortunately, SQL Azure Data Sync didn't like my clusterkey, I suspect because it is a non-PK identity column. Regardless of the reason, it's not viable, so I looked further.

A contact at Microsoft suggested using the SequentialId() function in SQL Azure (available as of the latest V12 release), but all of my Guids are generated in code, so this was too big a change for me. My colleague Dave came to the rescue by tracking down this article, which describes how to generate reasonably sequential guids in C# that should keep the clustered index happy.

I'll not repeat the contents of the article, which is a really informative read, but it seems to work. This is how my tests look now:
I'll take that, much better fragmentation and approximately the same cost for inserts.

Note: The insert time includes the time taken to generate the Guid/SequentialGuid in code. Also, don't take the fact that SequentialGuid is smaller here as an indication that it is consistently faster. During testing, the number was generally the same as Guids and ints, but was consistently faster as soon as I came to actually measuring it for this blog post!


As these kinds of distributed environments become more common, I suspect more and more people will hit similar issues so hopefully this will help someone avoid making the same mistakes I have.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Windows Phone 10 - First Impressions

After running the Windows 10 Technical Preview on my laptop for the last few months and being generally happy with it, bar the obvious problems you get running a Technical Preview, I've been itching to get my hands on Windows Phone 10 (officially referred to as Windows 10 Mobile, but I'm going to refer to it as WP10). As a very happy owner of a Lumia 1020, I'll be getting it eventually so thought it was worth taking a look at. Fortunately, a colleague has recently switched from WP to Apple, so he kindly leant me his Lumia 635 to use as a sacrifice to the Technical Preview gods.

If you want to run the Technical Preview, details are here. But seriously, heed Microsoft's warning. You don't want to apply this to your main phone. I haven't hit any bugs yet, but the many interaction problems mean I'd be really annoyed if I had installed this on my main phone.

The Good

The settings app is vastly improved over the one on WP8.1, which is essentially a load of very narrowly scoped categories in a really long list on the page. The new app is well thought out, and the categorisations seem to broadly match those on Windows 10 on the desktop, which means you experience with one should transfer pretty well to the other.



The quick access to commonly used settings that has appeared in the notifications flyout on Windows 10 is also present here. It's a welcome addition that should reduce the need to venture in to the Settings app.







The Bad

Yes, that good section whizzed by rather fast didn't it? While I generally like Windows 10, even though it does remove some of the minor features of Windows 8.1 that I quite like, WP10 takes this a step further and removes pretty much everything I like about WP in one fell swoop. Let's go through the list shall we?

Command placement

WP was very predictable, all commands were at the bottom of the screen, easily reached by your thumb to summon them up. They were large and full width, so you could easily trigger them with the hand that is holding the phone without too much stretching. The overall one-handed experience with WP8.1 is very comfortable.
A great deal of the commands seem to have moved to the new "hamburger" menus in WP10, which are situated in the top-left, about as far away from your phone-holding hand as you can get (unless you're left handed of course).

Top, bottom, ellipsis,
where do I go?

Swiping

As part of their march to look like everyone else, MS have removed the pivot control from their apps. This means that instead of just swiping, again with your phone-holding hand, to move between screens, you now have to stretch
to either the hamburger menu or, in the case of the dialer, to the buttons situated in the middle-top of the screen OR the buttons situated in the middle-bottom of the screen. Add to that, the dialer still has the older ellipsis menu from WP8.1, this one app has about every interaction model available, except for the one that suited it the most. Now I'm sure the ellipsis will go before release, but MS seem to have lost sight of the fact that the Pivot control was one of the greatest things about WP8.1 and I can't help but think that they could've got away with just making it a little smaller to make things more familiar to Android/iOS users while still retaining the superior interaction.








Schizophrenic navigation in the UWP mail app.

I've noted this separately from the above as I genuinely don't know whether this is just because this is a TP or if this is how this is actually intended to work, but the interaction with the mail app is incredibly painful and I sincerely hope this is not a sign of what we can expect from the UWP platform. I generally don't like doing 1-to-1 comparisons against a preview build, but in this case it's necessary to show how much of backward step this is.

To look at account settings in WP 8 is: Swipe up (or tap ellipsis) to bring up command bar (at the bottom of the screen), tap settings in the resulting menu which appears from the bottom of the screen.

In WP10: Tap hamburger (top-left), cog icon (bottom-right), tap options (in menu that appears from top of screen). My finger is going all over the phone here. It's quite a stretch and it's not even a big phone. On my Lumia 1020, I suspect this would be a 2-handed operation.




Ready to dropdown and
nowhere to go.

Desktop input controls on a phone

Most of the criticism aimed at Windows 8 is that it uses a phone UI on the desktop. It would appear misplaced UI elements is a two-way street. In the calendar app, and presumably all UWP apps, the dropdowns, rather than being full screen as they have been previously, are dropdowns just as they would be on the desktop. Except now they've got to contend with fat fingers and an on-screen keyboard that giv
es them no vertical height to occupy.




Slow animation on apps view

Now I'm nitpicking a bit, but WP at the moment is a very snappy, fast OS. You can get things done pretty quickly and there are no slow animations getting in your way, everything happens almost instantaneously. Long pressing on the back button to bring up the running apps view triggers in what feels like about 100-200ms and the animation is quick.
On WP10, it feels more like 700-800ms and the animation is slow. I don't think this is down to the hardware as there is no visible lag, it just seems that they've slowed it down to make it smoother. Smooth === slow in this case.

Verdict

Not good. WP has always been a very different beast to other mobile operating systems, maybe this is part of the reason it hasn't taken off. But, in my view, the interaction with WP is faster, easier, and more natural than interacting with Android or iOS. I haven't had a great deal of contact with iOS and even less with BlackBerry, but I had Android phones for about 6 years before my current Lumia and while I didn't hate using them, WP was the first mobile operating system that I can actually describe as being pleasant to use.
 While there are a lot less WP users, those who stick with it tend to be much more satisfied with it than users of other operating systems. This survey, while admittedly a couple of years old, proves the point (at least among the users Reader's Choice surveyed).

 In their attempts to try and appeal to Android and iOS users, MS seem to have forgotten the things that make WP so pleasant to use. While I do not blame them at all for trying to make the experience more familiar to users of other OSes so the move doesn't seem quite so scary to those used to Android or iOS, you've got to think of your existing users while trying to appeal to new ones.

I suspect that, if the current preview is anything to go by, WP10 is just going to look like a pale imitation of Android or iOS, and that's a damn shame.