Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Garden Planner Review

Faced with the daunting task of transforming a vacant fenced block of land, I was about to boot up Microsoft Visio (which I'd used before for house plans) before I thought to myself - "there must be a better way".

Well I found that way, and it is an affordable piece of shareware called Garden Planner.  However it takes a bit of patience.  On first use I was amazed by the sheer number of pre-loaded symbols for common landcaping including trees, fences, paths, vegetable gardens and the like. 

On the whole this software seems quite powerful and intuitive, although I found that initially I could not create a border or fence.  I worked out that you could double click to complete a border, but sometimes it just wouldn't allow you to delete and create a new one.  After several frustrating attempts of closing the software and reloading, I finally worked the quirks of the system and managed to - with several saves - get the hang of it.. Other than that, my only other griefs were that the software tended to crash and the scale and grid options are initially a little tricky to find.

But overall, Garden Planner is a neat and complete little piece of software that allows you to save, export and print a garden design.

Check it out at:

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Balsmiq Mockups vs Axure RP Pro - and some other Interface Wireframing Tools

Working in the web, I've often had to use prototyping software to draw information architecture diagrams and screen mockups and wireframes to help convey interface concepts to clients.

In the past I had used Microsoft Visio flowcharts and diagram templates and even MS Word's form builders or Open Office Draw, however more and more specialised and useful tools are beginning to emerge and be used by professional information architects.

I began using Axure RP Pro ( a couple of years ago.  However this software can be expensive and a little over featured.  I also found the HTML prototyping features to more time consuming.  Effective creation of links can nearly take as long as building the output and I've found myself sometimes even achieving more using Firebug to manually hack and re-export stylesheets and HTML.  The output screens are clunky looking even for low fidelity mockups.

An alternative is Balsamiq Mockups (, by the makers of Confluence the Enterprise Wiki and Fogbugz issue tracking software.  Balsamiq is simple and easy to use and has a deliberate "hand drawn" look to its interface which can help excuse the amateur look of these sort of diagrams.

Both these tools have a full complement of form widgets to create interfaces and allow you to snap objects to a grid.  Balsamiq has a smaller price tag but doesn't offer the prototyping features.  Axure offers a greater deal of sophistication, but can also be complicated.  From my experience a lack of HTML prototyping is not really a showstopper and these tools are not as effectively implemented in Axure as they could be anyway. 

So for now, the scales are tipped in favour of Balsamiq in terms of usability, feature and price and I am using it the most regularly.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Google Chrome is a most addictive web browser

My first impressions of Google Chrome as a web browser for Windows were probably swayed by my unfamiliarity with the interface, however I seem to have forgiven its forthcomings I have become drawn to Chrome as my web browser of choice.

There are many applications that Chrome does not work properly for me (particularly due to javascript support) and in that case I find myself booting up Firefox.  It is those times that I realise how fast Chrome is in comparison to Mozilla's browser.  Speed is the #1 reason I use Chrome.  It is also used by Google in its marketing pitch and for good reason.  The other browser are far to bloated and too much time to load.

Of my other criticisms of Chrome are the difficult to find menu items, such as privacy settings which are hidden deep within the options behind a little spanner icon.  Other things I've had to adjust to are things like shortcut keys.  However once these hurdles are overcome, Chrome is very useful.  Plugin support, one of the key things I like about Firefox, is quickly growing for Google Chrome.

I have read that Chrome is stealing marketshare from Firefox and Internet Explorer (as much as 10% on some sites), well I am not suprised.  However this popularity is not reflected in website support for the browser.  Many websites that I visit unfortunately look like a dogs breakfast in Chrome.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Prophet CRM vs Business Contact Manager

A while ago I complained that CRMs are just too slow and unresponsive and support is always a headache.  Well the search for a decent and affordable Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software program has led me to abandon Business Contact Manager and try Avidian Prophet CRM On Demand.

Well Prophet CRM has some features that I like:

  • Outlook integration (which I like as I’m also running LinkedIn for outlook which as CRM functionality too)
  • List management (includes grouping and filtering for prospect companies which takes a little getting used to but still quite effective)
  • More detailed and flexible reporting of pipelines, follow up dates etc
  • Reasonably good online tutorials
However I have found it has the following disadvantages:
  • Not free – and no free trail – I am using the On-Demand version at $20 a month.  The full personal version is $200.
  • Outlook only
  • Slow – although I’ve found this to be the case for all CRMs, particularly Outlook based ones which are resource hungry and web based ones which aren't AJAX or based on similar technologies.  Prophet appears to be just mildly faster than BCM
  • Website Enquires – have to set up manual Outlook rules to move enquiries into the Opportunity Manager folder (haven’t tried this yet)
  •  Contact sharing (Microsoft Exchange)requires Premium version $400
  • Automated follow-ups requires Advanced Edition edition $300
  • No timesheeting function
  • Can’t be integrated easily
Their sales crew appeared to be completely automated which meant I couldn't get great pre-sales advice.

Some specific bugs did rear their head, although their support seems to be active.  One in particular I found annoying was that although I could generate reports with data in Excel, the inbuilt functions of the Report Manager (preview and view) in Standard modes did not work.  No matter what I did, they came up blank.  However their support staff called me on the phone and diagnosed the problem, which was a conflict with Brother P-Touch's software.  They also provided me with some training and advice.

Despite the problems, Avidian seems to be ok and slightly more productive than slower online CRMs - Salesforce sucks and SugarCRM is ok, but in my opinion fatally flawed.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Brother P-Touch QL-500 and Outlook 2007

A few months ago I picked up an office label printer Brother P-Touch QL-500 for about $90.

This printer is supposedly compatible with Outlook 2007 (which I also use plugin based CRMs including Business Contact Manager and Avidian Prophet).

However there are some massive issues.  For a start, the drivers (latest update in 2009) do not work with Outlook 2007 and Windows XP, although they claim to be compatible.  Sure you can do some stuff but you are limited to default styles that are not compatible with the labels the printer uses.  It is effectively stuck on "Memo Style" and "Table Style" - any other type of paper you change it to Outlook blocks you with the error "The paper size is not valid. Check the values for Width and Height."

The add-on does work, but only allows individual printing of labels, which defeats the purpose of a label printer.  Bulk printing of labels from within Outlook's contact system is impossible without manually importing and exporting.  It is not available on the list view and selecting multiple and only available.

Disappointingly, the product is now already listed as an "obsolete model" by Brother.  oh Brother ...

The worst part about buying printers like this is you never know just how compatible they will be with Office applications until you buy them, unwrap them and get them going.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

10 Essential Freeware Programs to download for a Fresh Install

Having recently reinstalled my PC yet again, I thought I'd share a brief list of must have free programs which I always download and install on any fresh copy of Windows.
  1. Microsoft Security Essentials (freeware - requires valid Windows licence) - virus and spyware protection is a must and it won't bog down your PC either
  2. Sun Open Office (freeware) - essential for documents, desktop publishing, spreadheets and presentations
  3. Adobe Reader (freeware) - opening PDF files can be difficult without it 
  4. Mozilla Thunderbird (freeware) - for email
  5. Irfanview (freeware) - for viewing images
  6. Paint.NET (freeware) - for editing images
  7. Mozilla Firefox (freeware)- web browsing mainly for its plugins and standards base (using it less than Chrome these days though
  8. Picasa (freeware) - an essential photo management tool
  9. Windows Movie Maker (freeware) - a nice little suite for creating movie files and uploading them to services such as YouTube
  10. Filezilla (freeware) - for uploading files to the web
I can survive without anything else installed.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Things I love and hate about the 1201N ASUS EEE PC

The 1201N Seashell EEE PC is my first experience of a netbook.  My boss at work kept telling me that netbooks don't have the grunt to peform as office machines and that they were only good for surfing the net.  My boss appears to have an allergy to Intel Atom processors.  Yet a good deal of my job was demonstrating websites.  I was after a machine that was smaller and lighter than the 17 inch Toshiba Tecra A4.  The Tecra was bought a couple of years ago and was dying - the battery was dying, the soundcard was faulty, Vista was constantly crashing and slow.  So it mostly either sat on my desk or gave me back pains carrying it around with its chunky size and perhipherals.  As I began commuting on long train trips I wanted a machine that was small and compact.  I also wanted a machine that was small enough to take with me whenever I left the office and could do presentations with.  He had some valid concerns about screen and keyboard size of the smaller netbooks.

So I waited a long time for the right combination of robust computing power, a reasonable size.  Of the models I looked at, including the Dell Inspiron, I chose the ASUS 1201N based on size, affordability and battery life.  For some time now I have held ASUS to be a highly underrated brand - I have used their monitors and projectors which were all of very high quality and lasted a very long time with little support in comparison to many other more prestigious brands.  It came installed with Windows 7, so this was my first use of Microsoft's new operating system.

My initial impression of the 1201N is great.  The keyboard is just the right size to be very typable.  The computer rarely crashes and has the capacity for high definition movie playbck which is great.The webcam is adequate although low resolution.  The netbook is packed with features I'll never use but not too much bloatware.  I use Open Office which appears to run without a hitch.  Most Internet browsers and applications perform significantly better than my Toshiba.

Things I love about the 1201N:

* Look and feel - the black model looks particularly slick and impressive under the arm.

* Screen and keyboard - 12.1 inch is just right.  Not too small and not too big.  The layout of the buttons and multimedia controls is just right.  THe ports including USB are in just the right places.

* Mousepad - I have always loved the tactile responsiveness of the EEE PC.

* Battery and charger - excellent life lasts a long time between charges and the charger is tiny compared to my old brick

Despite my love for this machine, a few still do bug me, and these are:

* The glossy screen - it is just far too glary and reflective.  I ended up buying a screen protector, however the thin stick on film wasn't a good solution so I went for an attachable anti-glare device and this also is less than desirable.  For a travel device a matte screen is definitely preferable.

* Sound - the earphone jack is ordinary and faulty.  Volume output is low and putting the device right into the jack you won't hear the sound out of both speakers - only if you pull it out slightly and jiggle it a bit  will it work properly.   A cardinal sin for a travel device IMHO.

* Mousepad - while I like the mousepad there are a couple of things I dont't like about it.  Firstly there is not a lot of space around the mousepad.  This causes a problem in that my left hand (I am right handed) sometimes rests over the detection.  With the touch commands activated this often sent the laptop into one or two finger scroll mode when I didn't want it.  A tweak of the mouse settings helped this, but it still ocassionally kicks in.  The second thing is the single metallic mouse button.  It is difficult to differentiate in the dark, it tends to click quite loudly, takes a bit of pressing and is so smooth that it is actually quite slippery.  Two buttons would also have been nice.

Overall I'd really recommend the 1201N EEE PC as a great little unit for travel and work.