ANOTHER ODDBALL WEEK – NUMBER 24 – SPONSORED BY CEE NEUNER

Cee’s Odd Ball Photo Challenge – Week 24

I take bunches of pictures in my house. I’m one of Those People who hangs stuff on her windows. Indian corn. Stained glass.

indian corn kitchen window

window snow 8

Dream catchers. Medicine wheels. No matter how bad a week I may be having, windows are a photo-op.
dream catcher garry office window
These are the only kind of pictures I can take regardless of the weather or state of my arthritis. Not surprisingly, I have quite a few of them. Good I like my windows. Oh, and then … there are dolls.

Windowlight-1

It’s Not Your Equipment … It’s a Lack of Documentation! – Marilyn Armstrong

Maybe I should just give up, but I spent my career writing material to help folks use complicated equipment and sometimes very obscure software.

I should probably start by mentioning that I’ve fought this battle for long years … and was utterly defeated. About 7 or 8 years ago, high-tech companies, in a money crunch and driven by that bottom line that seems to be the only thing that matters anymore, began to eliminate technical writers. Entire departments were dismantled and eliminated. Jobs disappeared and what remained paid so badly it was insulting.

A decision had been made at the corporate level: YOU don’t need documentation. No matter how complicated or expensive the equipment or software you purchase may be, don’t need documentation. Companies provide the minimum the law requires or they can get away with. Quality is no object nor usability. Information is limited to basic stuff like how to install a battery and if you are lucky, where the compartment is.

I was a technical writer for about 75% of my career, the rest being divided between journalism, editing, promotions and advertising. But mostly, I wrote documentation and I though my work mattered. Probably naive, but I believe that if I documented a system, it should be well written, clear, organized, and useful., When a user needed to find something, it would be in the book and in the online help. It would be easy to find. I carefully avoided using mysterious search parameters that could be deduced via a psychic link to my brain. If you knew what you wanted, I made it easy for you to find it.

I was proud of my work. I still believe the fundamental goal of documentation is to make complicated things simple. Not necessarily easy because sometimes, the product was not easy to use, but that didn’t mean that it had to be hard to understand. My documentation was good for another reason: I used the product and tested what I wrote to make sure it was true. This testing makes the difference between a pile useless gibberish and a manual.

Thus, when you get something that appears to be documentation, stop and read it. Appearances are deceiving. Most “manuals”  are generated, not written, and never checked for accuracy or usability. Such “manuals” are as likely to increase your confusion as provide illumination.

I bought a PEN EP3 camera from Olympus. Seven months and hundreds of photographs later, it remains one of the mysteries of my world. It takes wonderful pictures, and it has hundreds of functions. I haven’t the slightest idea how to find most functions and have no idea what to do with them if I could find them.

I grew up in a pre-digital world. I know F-stop, depth-of-field, shutter speed, aperture and focus, film speed and composition. I have a good eye. I’m no genius, but my pictures are pretty and I enjoy taking them.

He solves the problem the way most do: Automatic everything, then shoot.

New digital cameras have a vast and overwhelming array of functions, most of which you or I will never use or need. I believe they are there entirely to impress us with the super high tech-ness of the equipment. I doubt that even the designers — especially the designers — expects us to actually use them. Which is good, because I don’t know what they are supposed to do anyhow or why I would need them. Ansel Adams didn’t need them. Neither did Edward Weston. Neither do I. But, the more you pay for a camera, the more of these obscure functions you get and I figure that the least they owe me is an explanation of what these setting do and how to find them.

I’m not sure whether to curse or say thank you. Maybe if Olympus provided a manual that explained these options, I’d be grateful, but that is not happening.

I spent half our shooting time trying to find the menu to change the ISO.

This is true of cameras, but the lack of documentation on your computer is actually worse … much worse because most of us depend on our computers. We need them to work and we need to have some control over the environment in which we work. Configuration of our computers to suit our needs is not a minor detail: it’s the difference between having a tool that does what you need and one which is a burden … an enemy with which you do daily battle.

I spent all last night — until dawn — trying to figure out how to turn off the touchscreen functions of my monitor. Before Mac users jump in and point out that it’s because Windows doesn’t work, that’s irrelevant and untrue. Windows works fine. It’s just that the company doesn’t provide any written documentation. There is embedded information in the operating system, but much of it isn’t logically arranged. It’s rather like looking for your car keys after you’ve dropped them someplace you don’t normally put them. You know they’re in the house, but where? It could be years before you find them..

On a new computer, you typically get an “introductory” video and that’s pretty much it. I watched it. It showed me in exquisite detail how to do what I already knew how to do.

Operating systems are designed to be used the way the system’s developers expect you to use it. If you prefer a different setup, trouble starts. The only way to figure out how to do something differently is to keep querying the system and hope you’ll stumble on the right  key word — the word that will bring up the information you need. What is most frustrating is that you are sure it IS there, but whether or not you will ever find it is a different issue.

If you are sufficiently persistent and a bit lucky, you will eventually find a mystery menu after which you fix your problem in a few seconds.

Last night, I searched, searched again and again. It didn’t call Dell because I knew the support person wouldn’t know the answer either. They pretty much never do.

So I tried one word combination after another, recombining them in the hope that it would lead to a menu buried in the system. There had to be a way to deactivate touch input.

Around 5 in the morning, I found it. It took me less than 30 seconds to eliminate the problem that had been driving me nuts since I got the computer. Now, it’s a monitor. A great, high-definition, 23-inch monitor that’s a joy to work on and makes photo editing a pleasure. No more configuration by crawling insect. I am mistress of my virtual world at last!

A technical writers earns less than an entry-level developer. I understand the guys in India who provide telephone tech support work cheap, but I bet a tech writer would cost less than a network of telephone support no matter how cheaply they work.

Assuming you are under warranty and you can get through the voice mail  maze … and further assuming you get someone who understands the problem and don’t get blown off because software is not part of your warranty (Note: If someone can tell me how, without using software, you can determine if you have a hardware problem, I’d like to hear it) … Round and around you go.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Would it blow the budget to hire a competent technical writer to embed online help that will live on even after the warranty period is over? Wouldn’t it be nice to help users avoid needless aggravation and not wind up with angry, frustrated, exhausted, and homicidal customers whose problems remain unsolved?

Granting that many home users have a limited understanding of how their computers work and for them, it wouldn’t much matter what documentation you supply. Most problems result from insufficient understanding of a product or process. If you are talking about a novice user, perhaps more information wouldn’t help. But …

I’m not inexperienced and I still can’t find essential information I need to configure my monitor. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect a menu on the control panel that I could use to configure the monitor’s capabilities, not merely its resolution but any other functions it may have. Functions not available on a particular model could be grayed out. How about that?

There is nothing wrong with my computer that better organized and easier to find information would not solve..

Every issue I’ve had over the last 5 or 6 years was ultimately fixed with a few clicks of the mouse. The problem was never something broken. It was always lack of documentation.

That pisses me off. Because tech writers — even highly experienced ones — work pretty cheap. Users do need documentation, and not just for software and computers. We need documents that let us use our cameras and telephones and DVD players and all those other pricey little devices that we own and often, don’t know how to use. Online FAQs are insufficient.

This is an old battle I’ve already lost. I know it’s hopeless. I find it infuriating that I can barely figure out my telephone without customer support, so rather than spend time on the phone with customer service, I don’t use anything I can’t easily configure.

I had to buy a separate book on how to use Photoshop and another for my first camera. I was able to get some help from a fellow user of my new camera, but that only goes so far. For my PEN P3 camera, there IS no customer support nor any after market book. I depend, as Blanche DuBois said, “… on the kindness of strangers.”.

My camera will remain a mystery until someone writes a “Dummies” book for it. Hopefully I’ll still own the it when the book finally gets published.

It’s not fair. The reason they get away with it is because we let them. Think about it.

So how did I finally figure it out? The “monitor” menu should have been a gateway, but was useless. The only thing you can the “Monitor” menu lets you do is lower your screen’s resolution. That’s useless.

Finally, I typed: Touchscreen.

Up came something that I hadn’t considered. Flicks. Now, for me? That means the movies. Having never used it, I had no idea it had anything to do with the monitor or its touchscreen technology. Once I got to “Flicks,”, I started opening menus and voilà, there were two check boxes allowing me to toggle an option:

  • Enable finger as pointing device.
  • Do not allow finger as pointing device.

I un-checked the first one by checking the second. I clicked “Apply.” As the sun rose in the east, my problem was solved and I went to bed, to sleep, perchance to dream  … of murder, destruction and vengeance.

INSIDE LOOKING OUT, OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

Weekly Photo Challenge: Inside

light at the end of the hallway

Inside looking towards the light … then outside, looking in at the darkness. Inside and out. In and out. Inside outside.

Heritage Lights 13

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REVIEW: THE DELL VENUE PRO 8 TABLET

After the Kindle HDX washed out, I had a hole where a small, portable web-capable device should be. With hospitalization soon, I wanted to be able to do small footprint basic computing. My laptop is great, but too big and heavy for a hospital bed.

I’ve been using the Dell Venue Pro 8 every day for the past few weeks. I no longer find myself shouting at it — big improvement. The real problems were solved when Dell installed new drivers. The rest of the issues have gone away as I’ve gotten to know the hardware and operating system.

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I remain underwhelmed by Windows 8. It offers no advantage over Windows 7, at least to customers. My son pointed out it offers value to Microsoft by making everything proprietary. It blocks you from using applications not made specifically for Windows 8. Considering the whole advantage to Windows has always been its universality, this is a strange, self-destructive direction for Microsoft. They have a new CEO. Let’s see if he gets the company back on a sensible course. Otherwise, this will likely be my last Windows device. Sad, after such a long relationship.

Technically, you can run standard Windows applications on any Windows 8 machine, tablet or otherwise. Practically speaking, it’s not true. Some things run. Most don’t. The Venue 8 only lets you install by download, which eliminates a lot of my software by default. Most of the other applications I use on Windows 7 don’t run on 8 — or run so poorly it isn’t worth the effort. It’s ironic. Just as Apple is opening up their platform to all kinds of applications, Microsoft has gone the other way.

The tablet’s native software runs well. The email app is fine. IE runs smoothly. You better like IE because you won’t be using Firefox or Chrome — neither runs on the tablet. I’m not a big gamer, so the lack of games doesn’t bother me as much as it aggravates others, but still. Aside from Solitaire, there are no games. You can’t even get a download of Scrabble. That’s rough.

Photography apps? None worth the effort. I won’t be taking a lot of pictures using the onboard camera (which works pretty well), or uploading photographs to the tablet — even for viewing. There’s no USB port, no slot for an SD card other than one micro card which is an extension slot for memory.

If you want to play games, read books, watch movies, listen to music? The Kindle Fire HD (the old version, not the HDX), is just $139 from Amazon. It’s a far better choice for entertainment. Not as good for email and other Internet activities … but for entertainment, it’s a winner.

The Dell Venue Pro 8 is solidly built. It feels great in hand. It seamlessly connected to Netflix. Watching movies is easy. You can listen to music on Amazon’s Cloud Player, but it’s not straightforward. Microsoft really wants you to use its own software … but I find it confusing, complicated and lacking documentation or instructions, ultimately incomprehensible. It’s inexcusable to provide so little support.

The (free) copy of MS Office installed without a hitch. I don’t know if I’ll get out much use from it. That’s not what I bought the tablet for. I found a bunch of other useful small applications. Solitaire, a clock, calendar, alarm and stopwatch and installed them without incident. I uninstalled a few things too. Installation and uninstallation is really easy. And fast. If only there were more apps!

The speakers are great, though not terribly loud. Which is fine. I can use earphones if I need it louder. For such a little tablet, the graphics are fantastic. I watched “Jack Reacher” on Netflix and enjoyed it. My website looks great.

The cameras (1 front, 1 back) work but the lack of editing software limits their usefulness. It would be okay for Skyping — probably — but I don’t Skype, so it’s moot. The video camera seems fine as does the voice recorder, though I have little use for either.

It’s got a lot of bells and whistles, some of which I might use yet it’s missing important basic tools. Not being able to edit its own photos is bad, but not being able to upload my photos at all? Worse. All for the want of a USB port.

It’s good for reading (Kindle and maybe other reader apps), watching a movie on Netflix. I don’t know about other services but you can’t watch Amazon Prime. Or I can’t figure out how.

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It’s good for quick emails. I’m disinclined to write much on a virtual keyboard. I can  do small amounts of web editing but wouldn’t want to do more. But not because the tablet won’t. It loads this website fast and switches to editing mode with no problem.

The Venue Pro 8 is too small for web editing. It’s too small for a lot of things. My son has a 10″ device and he can do a lot more. The “OK” boxes and other targets on-screen are tiny. Even using a stylus, I miss as often as I hit. Fine editing is out of the question. That is not the fault of the tablet. I chose this size. I knew it would have limitations. I was right.

There are no after market accessories — yet. Well,  there’s one, but it doesn’t work. I bought a secondary market keyboard — blue tooth — and returned it. It wasn’t broken, but you had to enter a generated key code. You couldn’t see the code because the virtual keyboard popped up and blocked it. By the time you got the keyboard out of the way, the code was gone. The codes are good for only 30 seconds. I don’t understand why they designed it like that. Just provide a printed code. Why make me jump through hoops to sync a keyboard?

Dell sells a keyboard that apparently works, but it’s $99. Too expensive. I’ll do without. I don’t know how well any blue tooth accessory will install. If it includes a “time out” code, it won’t. It’s a tactical rather than technical problem, but it stopped me.

If anyone wants to point out how I could use my iPhone, may I remind you I find an 8″ tablet too small. Do you think the iPhone would be better? Think before commenting.

Summary

What I like:

  • Great graphics
  • Excellent sound
  • Good camera and video (but no editing tools)
  • Free Microsoft Office, email and other workaday stuff
  • Fine build
  • No problem loading websites
  • Fast boot time; almost instant
  • Long battery life and short recharging cycle
  • Comes with a charger.

What I don’t like:

  • No USB port
  • No SD card slot
  • The cord is too short. Really, would it have broken the bank to add a foot and make it reach my desk from the electrical outlet? Serious inconvenience
  • No documentation. The PDF is just generated data. Useless
  • Windows 8.1 sucks
  • The graphical Interface feels like a bunch of pieces stuck together without a cohesive concept.

Related articles:

DELL VENUE PRO 8 TABLET – UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL | Serendipity

DELL VENUE PRO 8 TABLET – UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

Not long ago, I chronicled my adventure with Dell Customer Disservice and Dell Technical nonSupport. A few days later, I wrote ASK A SIMPLE QUESTION, GET A SIMPLE — WRONG — ANSWER. The following day, my Dell Venue Pro 8 tablet arrived. Such a little package. Well, what did I expect? It’s just a wee bit bigger than a Kindle.

dell-venue-8-pro

Why Do I Always Have Be the Fixer?

Yesterday was computer fixing day. My son used to be a professional computer repair guy but has apparently forgotten everything he ever knew. He handed me his laptop. Seven hours later, it was running pretty well, though it could use a full reload of the OS which I’m not going to do. Still, I think it’s at least a working computer.

With all the jokes they make about Old People and computers, how come I’m the ONLY one in this 3-generation household who understands how computers work? How come, huh? I wanted to beat the kid (all 6’4″ 240 lbs of nearly bald 44-year-old kid) to death with that 15″ laptop. I’m definitely getting old and cranky.

Back to the Review (Already In Progress)

The Dell Venue Pro 8 is well-built. It has a lovely, solid, silky feel. It easily connected to the Kindle application and Netflix. Without a hiccup. Chrome, on the other hand, would not work and I gave up. Some battles aren’t worth the effort. The (free) copy of MS Office installed without a hitch too. Eventually I found a variety of other useful applications, a reasonable version of Solitaire, a clock, calendar, alarm and stopwatch and installed them too. I uninstalled a few things I didn’t have any use for. Installation and uninstallation is really easy. And fast.

The tablet wasn’t working quite as it should. It dropped its Internet connection each time it went to sleep and it wasn’t sensitive enough to touch.

This meant – OMG!!!! – another call to Dell’s tech support. I didn’t hesitate. I have learned that thinking about it will make the inevitably horrible experience even worse. Moreover, I have no intention of keeping the tablet if it isn’t going to work properly.

The problems weren’t big ones, but they were annoying. Mostly I like the tablet. Good speakers, exceptional graphics. Watched “Jack Reacher” on Netflix. Not bad. The sound isn’t as loud as I might like, but the quality is excellent and it has an earphone jack. The cameras (1 front, 1 back) work pretty well, even in low light. I haven’t tried the video camera or the voice recorder yet. Overall, it’s got a lot of bells and whistles I might really use (be still my heart).

Tech Support Again (Oy)

I am not going to go into details. Suffice to say, I was on the phone with this doofus for 4-1/2 hours. When the conversation started I had 2 relatively minor issues. After he fixed things (reinstalling the drivers, etc.), the tablet was dead. Unresponsive. He said he wanted to try one more thing. It was getting late, past dinner time and I said, “No, I’ve had enough. Either you put me on with someone who actually knows what needs to be done and can speak English well enough for us to understand each other (this guy not only didn’t speak English, he didn’t understand it either) or I swear I will return this tablet to Dell, explain that YOU are the reason why and never, ever buy anything from Dell again in this lifetime.” Which, if I didn’t get my blood pressure under control, might not be very long.

He threw in the towel and passed me to a Supervisor. Who spoke and understood English. And knew how to get the tablet up and running.

The secret of getting a dead Windows 8 computer up and running is 3 successive cold reboots. Third time, it goes into “self-repair and diagnostic mode” — the new version of Safe Mode.  Which doesn’t require a password. So finally, I was able to adjust the setting after which it began to connect automatically to WiFi. Problem solved.

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Next, I insisted I make the table NOT password protected. Which is when I discovered Windows 8.1 is still — as all Windows have been — a hack over DOS. It was comforting in a weird way. There was the old DOS prompt in its little black window, like an old friend. It meant I was not really learning a new OS. I was just learning to work around the changed GUI. I felt better.

Eliminating Password Protection

For anyone who wants to get rid of password protection in Windows 8.1, here’s how to do it:

(1) Use Search to find the command prompt. Start typing “Command” and before you hit the second “m,” you’ll see command prompt as a clickable link. Click it.

(2) Type: control userpasswords2

(3) Up comes a little window, a little window you’ve seen on every version of Windows since 3.1.

(4) UNCHECK “require all users to have a password,” then enter your password as requested. Exit all the way out and reboot. That should do it. Sometimes you have to do it twice.

Win 8.1 has the identical sub-structure as every version of Windows. Control panel, menus, SysConfig, Uninstall. It’s all there, buried a level deeper under a new — pointless and unattractive — user interface. You can change the interface using “Personalize” and make it less ugly.

My over all opinion of Windows 8.1 remains unchanged. It is not an improvement over 7. If anything, it’s a step backward. It requires significant relearning without offering any noticeable advantage to users. After you get the hang of it, it’s not hard to work with, but it’s unnecessary and adds an unfamiliar layer to what ought to be simple.

Summary

What I like:

  • Great graphics
  • Excellent sound
  • Surprisingly good camera and video
  • Useful apps that work and most of them are free
  • Feels nice to the touch with a fine build quality
  • Good battery life.

What I don’t like:

  • The cord is much too short. Really, would it have broken the bank to add a foot and make it reach my desk from the electrical outlet? This is a serious inconvenience, not a quibble
  • Horrible documentation. I’ve seen the PDF and it isn’t much more informative than the leaflet. It’s not that Win 8 is difficult. The documentation is totally inadequate
  • I don’t like Windows 8.1. Now that I can use it, it’s a lot of flash and dash. It isn’t an improvement over Windows 7 — quite the opposite. Sorry dudes. I still don’t understand why you took a good OS (Win 7) and made it harder to use
  • The graphical Interface is neither tablet or user-friendly. It doesn’t feel integrated or smooth. More like a bunch of pieces stuck together without a cohesive concept.