Windows 7 RC1

So I finally downloaded and installed the release candidate of Windows 7 Ultimate.  (Gizmodo has a bunch of resources on how to get it and make it work for you.)

Anyway, after a couple of hours of playing with it, these are my initial impressions:

1.  It was nice to be able to dual-boot Windows 7, rather than have it replace my Vista install altogether, a decision I am very glad I made, which I’ll get to in a moment.

2.  The included wallpapers are quite nice, especially the infamous “trippy” ones.  And the ability to have the desktop images rotate in a slideshow is something that I have always wanted to have implemented.  Still not included, however, is the ability to have different desktop images on each of your monitors.  This is something, by the way, that is possible when using DisplayFusion, which is a very nice piece of software.

3.  I’m not used to the new taskbar, but I’m sure I’ll get there eventually.

4.  For the moment, my internet connection is through a Netgear WG111v3 USB adapter, which didn’t work quite right even after installing the latest drivers from CD-ROM.  (I like how Netgear offered to let me download the latest ones rather than install off the CD-ROM, but isn’t that rather difficult if the adapter is your only method of connecting?)  But there is a nifty little up-arrow icon on the bottom right hand of the screen, that lets you take a look at all your connected devices.  Windows 7 recognized that the adapter wasn’t working correctly, and right-clicking on the icon gave me the option of having Windows figure it out.  Which it did.  No problem.  Definitely +1 on that.  

5.  Netflix doesn’t recognize Windows 7 as a valid operating system, and as such, you can’t stream movies.  Massive fail on Netflix’s part, if you ask me, because I suspect that it’s probably just a bit of code that says, essentially (and it’ll become quite apparent that I’m not a programmer here), “IF NOT Windows Vista; Windows XP; or OS X –>THEN FAIL.”  There is no reason, from everything I’ve read about Windows 7, that would make it incompatible with Netflix, because the guts of 7 are apparently the same guts as Vista, just tweaked to be more efficient.  I checked online for some solutions, but if there’s a solution that makes sense to me, I don’t see it.  One thing I thought about before falling asleep last night, however, is making use of the virtual XP environment to try Netflix that way.  Probably won’t work, though, as it seems that is the weakest feature of the whole bunch.

6.  Watching video on Hulu seemed to be slightly choppier than I had experienced through Vista.  There’s no real way to quantify this, it just seemed just a tidge more jittery.

7.  And, finally, somehow I have sound in Windows 7 but not in Windows Vista anymore.  (I use the HDMI-out from my computer’s nVidia card to provide video and sound to one of my monitors.)  Usually, a reboot solves the problem when the sound isn’t working right in Vista, but not for right now.  When I have more time, I’ll play with it some.

All in all, it isn’t the life-changing experience I expected, given the fawning reaction of the geeklords on the internets.  It’s nice, sure, but as I’m not terribly displeased with Vista, it’s not that big a deal to me.  Maybe after a little more playing, my song will change.

What I do find compelling is what Microsoft is doing here.  Vista is not a bad OS, but its reputation was slaughtered by the press.  (Okay, okay, there were a lot of problems at launch, but those problems have largely been rectified.)  Microsoft could have just let things stand and added improvements to Vista incrementally, as it did with XP, and left well enough alone.  But facing pressures from Apple and even Linux (to a small extent, and mostly in the Netbook arena) it didn’t do that.  Instead it announced a new OS, and let everyone in the world, pretty much, play with it.  It’s like Christmas in May.  Those who play with it seem to like it an awful lot, and will likely be willing to shell out whatever upgrade fees will apply to update their machines by the time the release candidate finally dies in June of 2010.  (Actually, beginning in March, the machines running the release candidate will begin to shut down every two hours, which is going to drive people nuts.)  

My only concern, and it is the concern that I think will determine whether Microsoft has really “changed,” is that we’re playing with the Ultimate edition, and it’s already been announced that the virtual XP mode won’t be available in the Home Premium flavor.  What else will be stripped?  Hopefully not the rotating desktops and sound themes.  But we’ll see.

Bandwidth Conclusions

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some updated discoveries regarding bandwidth usage when streaming content.  My totals are, unfortunately, not much higher than they were when I posted that update.  I say “unfortunately” because the recent flooding in Houston really disrupted things for a while.

In any event, what did I learn?  Well, first of all, one should never expect constant throughput at maximum speeds.  For example, my DSL connection is through AT&T, and it is the “Elite” level, which is touted as having speeds “up to 6.0 Mbps.”  “Up to” is key here, as I have never once achieved that speed when testing it through tools like speedtest.net.  Usually it’s in the mid-fours.  And often much slower than that. And latency in Houston is usually absolutely terrible.  (I suppose it’s fortuitous, then, that I’m not really into on-line gaming, preferring the solitary experience…)

Second, I think there’s a limit to the speed levels offered by ISPs, and what my computer can actually handle.  I have no slouchy desktop machine; it’s got an AMD triple-core processor (64-bit), 4 Gigs of RAM, and even half a Gig of dedicated video memory.  I mean, it’s not a Falcon Northwest Mach 5 or anything like that (I don’t know if it’ll run Crysis, but I’m thinking probably not at full resolution), but it also didn’t cost 2100 bucks, either.  Anyway, I monitored throughput while downloading some Linux distros, and I noticed that as the throughput went above 500 KBps, my machine got sluggish.  I’m not certain why this is, but there you go.  (Also, this forum thread explains the whole “I have 6 Mbps service, why do I only get 500KBps?” question.  Hint:  capitalization matters.)

Third, streaming movies via Netflix does indeed gobble up bandwidth.  A month ago, I asked the question “Is that right?  Really? You could blow through even your Comcast bandwidth in less than 20 hours?  That doesn’t seem right…”  The answer is: Yes.  Sort of.  Netflix movies that stream with pretty good video quality do eat up about 1.5 Gigs of bandwidth per hour.  But my math was off by a power of ten.  (20 x 1.5 = 30, not 300!)

So, there you go.  As ISPs implement bandwidth caps, stream judicisously!

Real-World Bandwidth Usage

So, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m looking at what sort of bandwidth is actually used when you take advantage of the many media offerings made available on the internet.  For a little over two weeks, I’ve been monitoring my usage, and I think most of the bandwidth caps that are being floated by various ISPs are ludicrously low.  This morning I hit roughly 30 gigs, which would extrapolate to about 60 gigs for a month.  I have done the following:

  • Watched The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, 30 Rock, and The Office on Hulu.com;
  • Watched three movies and a bunch of television shows (probably six hour-long episodes) on Netflix;
  • Listened to music via Pandora;
  • Downloaded and seeded three Linux distros via Vuze;
  • Conducted legal research; and
  • General web-browsing.

Furthermore, for the  past few days, I haven’t streamed much content because I’ve been busier than normal, so my numbers may actually be a little low for what would be my typical usage.  In addition, these numbers don’t take into account the bandwidth used by other people in my household.

Which brings up an interesting question.  If the ISPs are going to impose caps on users, and charge them for overages (sorta like cell-phone plans), are they also going to make it easy to find out what your bandwidth usage is?  Can you log into your account and check your stats, or are you totally at their mercy as to the determinations of bandwidth?

Blockbuster Over?

So sayeth MSNBC.  Well, actually, so sayeth AP, so maybe I shouldn’t link this story… (more on that in my next post).  (Link.  Via Gizmodo, via via via…)

In any event, Blockbuster has apparently disclosed to the SEC that an auditor doesn’t see much future for the company.  Which is somewhat understandable.  Netflix was able to severely undercut Blockbuster pricing in exchange for not being able to spontaneously go get a movie.  Blockbuster’s shipped-DVD service never really caught on, even though they had a good idea with the whole get-it-delivered-return-it-at-the-store-get-a-new-DVD-immediately concept.

Now, a lot of people have already mentioned that Blockbuster going out of business would mean that the days of running out to get a movie may be over.  Countering that argument, though, are those that say “Go to Redbox” or use Netflix’s streaming ability.  And, who knows, maybe Hollywood video will expand to take Blockbuster’s place (yeah, right).

Redbox, though, isn’t a great option, in my opinion.  The few times I’ve tried to use it, there hasn’t been anything I’ve wanted to watch, or–more often–the movie I wanted to watch was already checked out.

Netflix’s streaming option is a questionable replacement, however.  I love the service, and I have made great use of it in the couple of months that I’ve had it.  But it has real limitations.  First, the selection is less than current.  If I had a sudden hankering for Cloverfield, I couldn’t watch it instantly.  Same goes for Kill Bill, Burn After Reading, Wanted, I’m Not There, There Will Be Blood, Slumdog Millionaire, Hellboy II, Body of Lies, The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight, or The Midnight Meat Train. (I like the name of that last one…)  What I can watch are Discovery Channel shows (I’ve enjoyed catching up on Extreme Engineering and Myth Busters), some PBS offerings (I highly recommend In Search of Shakespeare), some BBC things (Little Britain is cringingly funny) and some movies (A Clockwork Orange, The Big Tease, Back to the Future, Bottle Rocket, Dr. Strangelove …)  Netflix claims 12,000 options for watching instantly, and that’s good.  And as I’ve said before, watching movies and television as a streaming service is where we’re heading.  There are serious obstacles to the streaming future, however.

First, getting a good stream on Netflix, or Hulu, is dependant on your internet connection.  You need pretty robust–and reliable–speeds to have a satisfactory experience, and I don’t know if I’m the only one having this problem, but my AT&T DSL service oscillates between 5 Mbps and .7Mbps daily.

Second, you need a lot of bandwidth to watch a lot of movies.  With ISPs beginning to rollout monthly bandwidth caps, this will limit your ability to stream content.  For example, AT&T is testing caps in a few markets (so sayeth Gizmodo), and the plan is for there to be tiers of service.  Anything over the cap will be $1 per Gigabyte.  The caps aren’t terrible, but they aren’t overly generous either, ranging from 20 to 150 Gigagbytes per month.  (Other companies do caps as well;  Comcast has a 250 Gigabyte cap, and Time Warner is rolling out a plan in Texas where the top tier of service ($55 a month) is a pathetic 40 Gigabytes per month.  Link: Ars Technica.)  What’s interesting to me about the caps is that I warrant that very few people even know what they use in terms of bandwidth.  Yes, there are tools you can install that will allow you to monitor your usage (and we’ll all probably need to do that) (NetMeter is one I saw mentioned on a forum somewhere; I don’t vouch for its accuracy or safety), but it’s also interesting to me that there seems to be no set answer as to how much bandwidth gets consumed.  Doing a Google search doesn’t help much, and it’s unclear whether a DVD movie, which is, conservatively, 3.5 GB in size is what Netflix is streaming to you.  Does that mean that you will eat up your Time Warner bandwidth just by watching 10 movies on Netflix, with no other browsing?

Or should you calculate your usage with this formula that I found:   4 Megabits per second * 60 secs/min * 60 min/hr = 14,400 Megabits per hour.  Further conversion is required as 1 Megabit  is about 128 kilobyte (Link:  Wikipedia).  14,400 * 128 = 1,843,200 kilobytes per hour.  Which is well about 1.5 Gigabytes per hour.  (Is that right?  Really? You could blow through even your Comcast bandwidth in less than 20 hours?  That doesn’t seem right…)

I guess the point is that its tough to say that people actually know what their bandwidth usage is, and that, just as we’re learning in other areas, bandwidth caps mean ceaseless consumption just won’t be possible in the future.

This is where we’re going…

CNET (and, as of 9:06a central, a few others) are talking about ZillionTV (link here or here), which purports to stream television shows and movies to you, without the need for subscription fees.  (ZillionTV will get its money through ads and/or rental fees and/or purchasing fees.)

This makes total sense.  Just as landlines are becoming things of the past, so will cable or satellite.  No doubt, the picture quality from cable or satellite is much better than streaming video via services like Hulu and Netflix, but the convenience factor can’t be denied.

There’s also one other benefit that may be realized as companies like Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix strengthen their profits: the reduction of piracy.  What incentive is there to spend the time downloading the content when it can be streamed to your computer almost instantly, with little cost, and with little interruption?

That Was Quick

Well, after saying earlier in the week that only a select few Mac users would be able to stream movies via Netflix, it looks like all of ’em (that have an Intel chip, anyway) are welcome to play.  So sayeth their blog.  (Also, check out cnet, which is where I found out about it.)  Sounds good, other than having to use Silverlight.

Silverlight isn’t so bad in itself.  It’s good to have competition against Flash, though Flash is so ubiquitous.  But Adobe’s little spat with Apple vis-a-vis the iPhone is getting a little old, and it seems to be delaying deployment of Flash to smartphones in any meaningful way; yes, Adobe Lite is being used as interfaces on lots of cellphones, but getting sites like Youtube to work is a royal pain in the butt; surely, if I can watch television on my Treo 800w, and the Japanese can watch HD television on their cellphones, surely there can be a painless way to get Youtube to work properly.  And while they’re at it, how about getting Java to work on ’em too?

Anyway, this wasn’t really supposed to be a slam against Adobe; I was talking about Silverlight.  I played with Silverlight, and it does interesting things, I suppose. My main criticism of it is that it seems to have a habit of creating all sorts of bogus directories on your hard drive (and your external hard drives) and then placing copies of the Silverlight install package in ’em.  Huh?  How’s that a good thing?  I mean, they may only be five or six megs in size, each one, but it makes no sense to me.  Maybe it’s isolated to just me, and I didn’t bother looking for what else is out there about it before just uninstalling Silverlight and deleting all the folders, but, like my criticism of Chrome, I hate it when programs just do stupid stuff for no reason.  Hopefully, installing Silverlight on Macs won’t lead to the same issues, because we all know how Mac users are about Microsoft products, and Netflix isn’t really going to want to have to deal with a bunch of angries.

Getting Netflix on a Mac

As time goes on, I may begin to seem a little more critical of Macs than non-Macs.  Macs are gorgeous machines (if a little blah in the color-scheme; a guy can take only so much Bauhausian asceticism) and OSX is a very nice piece of work.  It certainly has a hell of a lot more bells and whistles than XP.  But, on the flip side, though Vista has its problems, it is a graphical improvement over XP, and as time has gone on, my experience is that the OS has sped up, not slowed down.  Probably an anomaly.  (In any event, does anyone really think that Microsoft couldn’t program a hell of an OS if it only had to worry about two or three pieces of hardware, was allowed to lock its OS to one hardware platform, and not offer it to the rest of the computing population?)

The point is: Macs aren’t perfect, and despite their touted advantage in A/V capabilities, watching streaming video on the internet has been difficult for Macs.  That has been especially true when it comes to watching streaming movies from Netflix.

The New York Times, and others, have reported that Netflix has found a solution for its Mac customers: Microsoft’s Silverlight.  That’s because Apple’s DRM positions got in the way, according to Netflix: “Apple does not license their DRM solution to third parties, which has made this more difficult, but we are working with the studios and content owners to gain approval for other solutions.”