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Colin Devroe

Reverse Engineer. Blogger.

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Windows 10 May 2019 update brings better Windows Update

Zac Bowden, writing for Windows Central:

Windows Update received some pretty significant upgrades with the May 2019 Update, and it’s good news for users. Microsoft is backing off its heavy-handedness when it comes to forcing updates onto users. Starting this month, users will no longer be forced to install new feature updates unless they explicitly click on an install button for it. You will still have to install security patches and driver updates, but the big feature updates won’t be forced straight away.

This alone is worth updating for.

I like to choose when to update my computer, especially when I’m working on a big project and I don’t want anything in my environment to change until I’m finished. No longer are Windows Updates forced until 18-months after they are released. That is more than enough time.

Lots of other nice updates as well.

Microsoft releases WSL 2

Lots of Microsoft developer related announcements over the last few days. Since I use WSL every single day I am really looking forward to this WSL 2 release.

Initial tests that we’ve run have WSL 2 running up to 20x faster compared to WSL 1 when unpacking a zipped tarball, and around 2-5x faster when using git clone, npm install and cmake on various projects.

Significant speed improvements. But this bit really takes the cake:

WSL 2 uses an entirely new architecture that uses a real Linux kernel.

WSL 1 used an entirely different approach. They described it like this:

It is the space between the user mode Linux binaries and the Windows kernel components where the magic happens. By placing unmodified Linux binaries in Pico processes we enable Linux system calls to be directed into the Windows kernel. The lxss.sys and lxcore.sys drivers translate the Linux system calls into NT APIs and emulate the Linux kernel.

WSL 1 is a light-weight emulated Linux experience that allows us to use things like Bash commands within Windows without a full VM. WSL 2 is full Linux kernel properly piped to use the Windows stack.

I’m no expert in these sorts of things but this work seems pretty amazing on the surface and using it every day has been great and it has gotten better very rapidly.

The Mac is turning less Pro

skywhopper, on Hacker News, commenting on a thread relating to Mark Gurman’s scoop on Apple’s (supposed) plan to have apps running on iOS and macOS using the same (or, similar) code bases by 2020:

And then the Mac is losing what should be its primary audience through unwanted innovations and otherwise stagnant hardware, and a failure to recognize the importance of catering to the power users who might want an actual escape key, multiple types of ports, and a keyboard that doesn’t feel like it came off a rejected tablet accessory.

I can see an argument for fragmenting the laptop world into Pro/developer hardware and consumer hardware. But Apple seems to have got the needs of those groups mixed up. Do Apple’s own software engineers love the newest Macs I wonder?

I left the Mac (but may come back some day) for two primary reasons:

  1. Apple doesn’t cater to me (a professional computer user, programmer, video and photo editor, that owns a bunch of peripherals) any more. They used to. In fact the Mac was originally for exactly the type of person I am. The hardware choices they’ve made make it clear they care far more about consumers than professionals.
  2. The price gap between a Windows computer and a Mac computer is no longer commensurate with the build quality gap. It used to be that Macs were so much nicer than Windows computers. It was inarguable. These days it is arguable, if not nearly indistinguishable. Microsoft’s Surface line, Lenovo’s ThinkPads, and (dare I even mention) Huawei’s laptops are nearly on par with the latest Mac laptops. And the price difference is significant. My DELL XPS 9370 was about $1,400 less than if I had purchased a somewhat comparable Macbook.

You might ask: But what about the Operating System? macOS is still nicer than Windows in a variety of ways. It used to be far nicer and far more capable. But the niceness gap and the capability gap have also shrunk.

Windows 10’s WSL has been a boon for me personally to allow me to do the types of things I need to do on a computer. Combine that with Docker and I’m able to do every single thing I used to do on a Mac.

The biggest gripe I have with Windows 10 is its inability to strip away the legacy stuff you find in the corners of the OS. They are being eliminated one by one – like the plates in the shooting gallery at the county fair – with each release I download. But even this gripe isn’t much different from what I’m seeing on macOS. The Marizipan apps have been universally panned, the updates to macOS haven’t really been all that compelling (Dark Mode is your biggest selling feature?), and when will Mail.app ever get the update it so desperately needs?

To sum up: Mac hardware and software is still (albeit arguably) better than most Windows 10 hardware and software. But the gap is all but closed – leaving the consumer the ability to choose based on budget for hardware. And with PWAs, web apps, Electron apps, etc. taking over both platforms a huge portion of the software we use every day is nearly identical.

Apple is going less Pro. I don’t blame them. There are more buyers. Apple will continue to string along developers into believing they care deeply about the Mac because they need developers (and the Mac) to build apps for their consumers – especially on iOS. You need a Mac to build an iOS app (at least today). But I think it might be time to stop believing them and start opening up ourselves to the fact that there are other options for some of us that don’t only build Mac or iOS apps.

One less comment from me: I’m not anti-Apple at all. I still really like the company and what they stand for. I miss my Mac nearly every day. Windows 10 still has a ways to go. And the grass always seems greener elsewhere. But, I prefer to continue to have an open mind. To not be dogmatic and to choose the hardware and software I use based on principles I care about as well as on the reasonableness of their cost.

/HN comment thread via Michael Tsai.

Observations on the Dell XPS 13″ laptop

For the past 10 months my daily work computer has been the Dell XPS 13″ 9370 white & rose gold laptop. Overall the experience with this hardware has been positive and most of the issues I’ve encountered have been software related (rather than related to the laptop itself). Here are some observations I’ve made about the device.

  • The size and form factor is just about the best size for a laptop for me. While I find myself at times wishing the screen were larger (say, working on a drone video using Adobe Premiere in Iceland) the 13″ size is the best balance for me. The same was true when I was on the Mac.
  • I find the keyboard to be quite good. It isn’t loud but the keys have enough feedback in them to feel like you’re using a nice enough keyboard. And the arrow keys are large enough targets for me when compared to many other laptop keyboards.
  • The touch pad isn’t very good in my experience. I rarely use it – preferring to use my Logitech MX Master 2S 95% of the time – but when I need to I do not like it. It is a combination of the texture being too smooth and the accuracy and two-finger scrolling being difficult.
  • The camera being at the bottom of the display isn’t as bad as many made it out to be. Personally, I use that camera for team video calls. It works fine for this (albeit at an unflattering angle). I see that as of yesterday Dell has an updated configuration with a small camera at the top of the display.
  • The performance of the laptop – both processing and graphics – is adequate for the things I do. I do some photo editing, personal and professional video production using Adobe Premiere, and am frequently using Photoshop and Illustrator. I also jump into Minecraft with my nephews from time-to-time. Yes, the fans spin up.
  • Having the microSD card reader built into the laptop has made transferring large 4K video from my drone a breeze.
  • Being all USB-C has been great. I had a similar experience when I had the MacBook Pro with USB-C but it has only gotten better with my phone (Pixel 2 XL) and tablet (iPad Pro 12.9″) also being USB-C. On the past several trips I’ve only needed a single cable to charge all of my devices.
  • I’m very glad I chose the white finish for the laptop – it is virtually stain proof and shows zero sign I’ve even used it.
  • I’ve had an issue where the Qualcom bluetooth chip will fail occasionally. I’ll show up to work, boot the laptop from “hibernation” or “sleep” (I’m unsure which since Windows 10 has several different levels of sleep for computers) and my mouse, keyboard, headphones won’t connect. Only shutting the computer down, disabling the chip, and re-enabling it in Device Manager brings it back. If the problem persists over the next few Windows 10 updates (which I get frequently) I’ll be calling Dell for a replacement. Since I haven’t seen any other reports of this issue I’m guessing I just have a lemon chip.
  • I turned off the touchscreen. It is easy to do in Device Manager. I’m sure for some people in some use cases having a touchscreen totally makes sense. But I simply have no need for it. At the time of purchase I do not believe there was a configuration with a high enough quality display that was not touchscreen so I had to purchase it.
  • The battery life is sufficient enough. I actually think it could be far better but I blame Microsoft’s power settings in Windows 10. Perhaps I’ll touch on this more in a future write up about Windows 10.
  • The power cable that comes with the laptop is very good and I end up using it most often to charge other USB-C devices.
  • The laptop is light as a feather and I hardly notice if it is in my bag or not by weight alone.

I think this laptop is a fine choice for a Windows 10 laptop. While I would like to try a ThinkPad X1 I think I chose a very decent Windows computer for the price point.

If you have any specific questions I’d be happy to answer them via email or in the comments.

Whalebird – A Mastodon client for Mac, Linux, and Windows

h3poteto, the username of a software engineer from Japan that only goes by the name* of the fictional character Akira Fukushima online:

Recently I started Mastodon. I can find some nice client applications in iOS and Android, but I could not find client for desktop application.

The above from a post on Medium from March of last year describes why h3poteto started building Whalebird. Well, they’ve kept up development and I’m now using build 2.6.1 on Windows and it is quite good. It is far better than most other clients I’ve used.

* When I take 10 or so minutes trying to find someone’s real name online and I’m unable to, I take that as a sign that this person would rather me not know so I stop digging.

Best of 2018

This year I’m taking a slightly more comprehensive approach to my “best of” list. I’ve taken a look at previous year’s lists: 2008, 2009, 2017 and comprised a slightly more complete set.

Again, this is only the things I came across this year and can remember. I don’t keep a list throughout the year but rather rely on my memory. If you think I missed something great please reach out.

Best Blog: Becky Hansmeyer

I’ve linked to Becky’s blog 6 times this year. Mostly related to her iOS app SnapThread (which I can’t even use because I’m no longer on iOS). She openly published her thoughts, trials, tribulations, and triumphs (and new children) throughout the year. The epitome of a personal blog.

Runners up: Waxy – Andy Baio is back at it and the internet is better for it. Jeremy Keith’s Adactio is also always good. It might as well be perpetually in this category.

Best Blog Redesign: Lynn Fisher

Each year Lynn Fisher shows off her talent to build responsive web designs in a fun way by redesigning her site/blog. Go ahead and resize your browser on her homepage. Very fun.

Best (new to me) Blog: Windows Central

Hear me out. This blog publishes tons of times per day. The web site is obnoxious with ads (very thankful for RSS!). Despite that, since switching to Windows 10 this year I have been thankful to have a resource like this to keep me up-to-date with all things Windows. It has proven very useful to learn a number of tips and tricks and to know what the latest features are in Windows.

Best place: Iceland

This past September we visited Iceland – and it was definitely the standout trip of our year. The landscape, the water, the horses, the northern lights – everything was amazing.

Runner up: our trip to Kentucky this year to travel along the Bourbon trail. See this post and this post.

Best book: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I certainly laughed out loud more than once while reading this book. It was a fun read and is much better than any of the movies or series I’ve seen trying to adapt it to screen. Though I did enjoy Martin Freeman in one of the more recent movie adaptations.

Runners up: The Road by Cormac McCarthy – sad, but good read. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand – what a story.

Best service: Spotify

Spotify continues to be one of the greatest services I’ve ever used. Eliza and I are on a family plan and we use the service every single day at home, on the go, at work. See also.

Best album: Hollywood Africans – Jon Batiste

This is a fun album. It wanders around a little but overall it is a solid album to put on while enjoying a Manhattan (one of my requisites for good music). I also enjoyed his interview with Terry Gross about the album.

Runners up: Free Yourself Up – Lake Street Dive, SYRE – Jaden Smith (don’t @ me).

Best movie: A Quiet Place

I am hoping to watch this one again soon. It isn’t particularly revolutionary or mind blowing – but the pacing, the acting, and the overall balance of the movie is really good. Enjoyed it thoroughly.

Runner up: I just saw the new Spiderman and it is very refreshing. So glad they did something so different.

Best company: Microsoft

In my opinion, Microsoft has been firing on all cylinders for nearly the entirety of Satya Nadella’s lead. Their Surface hardware, Windows 10, Azure cloud services, acquisition of Github, Open Source initiatives, and push into mobile through Android has really been something to watch. Don’t call it a comeback but really, this company is back. See also.

Best hardware: iPad Pro 12.9″

I haven’t had time to write a proper review of this device yet but I do plan to. This is easily my favorite iPad ever – and I really, really liked my iPad Air 2. One quick anecdote; Face ID is extremely fast and works in so many more circumstances than I thought possible.

Very close runner up: Google Home Mini. We now have 3 of these in our apartment (kitchen, living room, bathroom) and we use them every single day for playing music, starting Netflix or YouTube videos on our TV, viewing photos from past vacations, and setting reminders or alarms. I hope to utilize these even more this coming year but I’m delighted at the capabilities of a device you can get for $29 (when on sale and we even got 1 for free with our Spotify subscription).

Best desktop app: Firefox

The Mozilla Firefox team is killing it this year. This browser is my favorite ever on any device. I also use it on Android and iOS. And I’m glad too given recent news re: Edge and Chrome. A few features I cannot live without at this point: Containers, Sync, Pocket (which could work in any browser but is built right into Firefox).

Runners up: 1Password – Eliza and I moved everything into 1Password this year and we couldn’t be happier that we did. Should have done so a long time ago. Visual Studio Code – Still the best code editor on any platform and certainly the best free editor.

Best mobile app: Pocket Casts

I use this app twice a day on my commute to and from work. I never have any issues with it, and every decision made by the design team seems to be right in line with what I want from a podcast app. My feature wish list for this app is relatively short and I believe they are coming with a not-too-distant-future update.

Runner up: Waze this app has saved me hours of sitting in traffic just this year.

Best tool: Trello

I’ve been using Trello more this year than any year previous and I find it to be incredibly well made. I don’t think we’ve had a single moment of downtime the entire year and, although I’d like it to be slightly less expensive for our team of ~30 I feel it is a very useful tool.

I’ve also tried to fit it into my workflow for other things like replacing a previous year’s winner; Bullet Journal. I couldn’t get it to fit. So I now have a hybrid system of using my daily Bullet Journal with Calendar and Trello.

Runner up: OneDrive – I’ve been using OneDrive this year for so many things across all platforms. The utility rarely messes up (whereas Google’s is terrible) and the space is affordable.

Best utility: DropIt

I use this small Windows utility to move files from OneDrive to two backup hard drives and Google Photos from my phone, camera, drone, and Eliza’s phone. It is far, far from perfect but I have wrestled it into doing exactly what I need.

Runner up: Snip & Sketch on Windows 10. I have this app mapped to my Logitech MX Master 2S’s middle click to quickly take screenshots and mark them up. It is an indispensable part of my workflow now working with my team. I just middle click, drag a rectangle, and CNTRL + V into any app I’m using to show my team a screenshot. I probably use this 5 times a day on average.

Best podcast: Meat Eater

I hike a lot. And I like to photograph nature. Listening to Meat Eater, and watching their show on Netflix, has given me a lot of knowledge about how to approach animals, how to know where on the landscape I’m allowed to go, and tons of other tips.

I’m also going to pick up fishing again in 2019 as a result of listening to this podcast.

Best YouTube channel: Zimri Mayfield

This guy is killing it. Each week he produces a new episode in a number of series on design. He’s incredibly quirky and likely not to everyone’s taste but I’ve found his videos both entertaining and educational.

Runners up: Tom Scott – Every video is interesting and the topics are random yet somehow of the same ilk. Nerdwriter – fast, well edited, insightful.

I had a few other categories that I’ve now dropped off because the list got a bit long. So instead, I’m just going to finish off this post with a bunch of random links to things.

Random: @jvdoming, Gutenberg, Floods Part 1 & Part 2, Docker, Cobra Kai, Dark Sky, Micro.blog, Dialog, Cash app, Blue Planet II.

Things about Windows 10 #3: Taskbar icon apps are frustrating

In Things about Windows 10 #2 I wrote:

It turns out Windows 10 is fairly terrible at remembering window sizes and placement when connecting to or disconnecting from an external display.

This post is in a similar vein.

The Windows 10 taskbar houses a few apps that constantly run such as OneDrive, Google Drive, Docker, 1Password, etc. This is very similar to macOS’s menu bar at the top of the screen. These small apps don’t require full window interfaces in many cases, and they run all the time, so the developers decided not to make them full blown apps that have their own task bar items with other apps like your email or calendar.

The issue I have is that whenever I change display sizes the “faux windows” or small pop-up dialogs that these icons invoke all but disappear (see right side of screenshot). From my research and my own noodling around there is no way to retrieve these without restarting the processes these icons represent. It isn’t as easy as quitting the “app” since you cannot find the interface to do so. You have to open the Windows 10 Task Manager and find the process and quit it. Then reopen that process yourself.

I waited several builds of Windows 10 to write this post, thinking it would be fixed very quickly. I cannot imagine that Microsoft’s Windows team isn’t running into this every single day themselves so I’m hoping a fix is in the works.

How to transfer photos from iPhone to Windows 10

Occasionally I will have need to transfer photos from Eliza’s iPhone X to my Windows 10 laptop. I’ve found the process of transferring the photos to be excruciatingly slow, unreliable, and frustrating. That is, until I figured out a better way.

Most tutorials, including Microsoft’s own, will recommend you plug the phone into your computer, open the Photos for Windows 10 app, and import the files through that app. But this never worked for me. I was attempting to transfer just under 5,000 photos and the process rarely worked for more than a few hundred before the phone disconnected, the process halted, or an error message popped up.

It turns out there is a better way. Here are the steps I recommend.

Transferring files from iPhone X to Windows 10 screenshot

  1. Open iPhone’s Settings app and navigate to Photos and under “Transfer to Mac or PC” choose “Keep Originals”
  2. Connect your iPhone to Windows 10 via USB
  3. Open File Explorer and navigate to “This PC”
  4. Under Devices right click on the now connected iPhone and choose “Import Photos & Videos”

Using this process proved to work reliably and much quicker than going through the Photos app. Also, toggling that one option in Settings made a world of difference in reliability.

Of course, this was my experience, your mileage may vary.

Things about Windows 10 #2: Moving non-existent windows

Well, I had said I’d try to keep this series positive but every now and then you run up against a problem.

It turns out Windows 10 is fairly terrible at remembering window sizes and placement when connecting to or disconnecting from an external display. So far I’ve had issues going both ways and having to rearrange all of my windows each time. On the Mac, it always remembers how I like my windows arranged in each context. I’m connected to an external display most of the time so I only feel this pain a few times per week.

This turns out to be a particularly frustrating issue if an app, like DropIt, doesn’t have a Taskbar item. It means you can’t “get a window back” onto the primary display without some sort of trickery.

Here is what you do: select the app by clicking on the primary icon for it, type Alt then Space then M (not at the same time) and that will allow you to move the “lost” window with your arrow keys to get it back.

Things about Windows 10 #1: Task Bar Previews

There is so much blogger coverage for Apple’s hardware and software products that I feel there needs to be a few more in the Microsoft and Google world. To that end I’m going to start a few new series here on my personal blog; Things about Windows 10, Things about Android.

Generally, I’ll be keeping both of these series positive. I contemplated calling them “Things I like about Windows 10” but, inevitably, there will be some things that I wish were a bit better. So, they will just be “things” that I find interesting.

This first thing about Windows 10, Task Bar Previews, I like very much.

Windows 10 task bar

Let’s say you have an application that has two windows currently open. In the above screenshot I have two File Explorer windows open. By simply hovering the Task Bar icon for that application I can quickly see a preview of sorts for what those windows look like. It turns out to be very handy.

It goes a bit further than that as well. If I hover a single one of those previews, everything else fades away on my computer and I’m able to see just that preview.

Check this one out where I have a bunch File Explorer windows open while moving myriad files from one place to another.

Windows 10 task bar with one window highlighted

I’ve found this feature very useful in just the first few weeks of using Windows 10 every single day.