(needlessly long post, this – it was going to be a quick point about what is hardly a major issue, but… well, I got rambling)

This week, I took delivery of a new PC – a Dell Studio 15, a replacement for the netbook I’d been using for just over a year, which was itself a stop-gap solution after my previous machine, a ThinkPad (the last in a long line of machines passed down as unwanted spares from my Dad’s work), had all but given up the ghost. I’m very happy to have it – it’s got a nice big widescreen display, it’s got enough grunt that I can get back to playing games that were released more recently than 2005, and it’s got Windows 7, with which I’m pleasantly surprised so far. All in all, it’s lovely and shiny and new, and it’s great.

However, it’s not without its annoyances – a major one being something I’ve discovered this evening, which has proven to be a classic example of the age-old trend for computer manufacturers to get ideas way above their station. I’m sure anyone who’s ever bought a new PC has encountered this sort of thing – it’s commonly known as “bloatware”, and particularly bad offenders include Acer and Dell. If you’ve ever seen an annoying toolbar or set of “widgets” on your desktop that don’t look like part of Windows, chances are your PC manufacturer put them there – it’s their attempt at stamping their own company branding across your screen, even though it’s already quite clearly all over the hardware itself.

I just don’t understand why companies do this. I mean, Microsoft – for all their faults – have been making operating systems for quite a while now. The odd blip aside (*cough*Vista*cough*), they know what they’re doing, and how to make them work – why do the likes of Acer and Dell think they know how to do it better? Why do they have to interfere? I had the same thing with a Nokia N70 I got on Orange some years back – lovely phone, and the Symbian operating system was at the time the best and most effective smartphone interface out there. But for some reason, Orange – a telecom provider by trade, remember – thought they knew better than Nokia how to run Nokia’s own phones, and had added their own ghastly, clunky, cripplingly slow homescreen. I eventually got rid of it, but it was baffling that they thought anyone would prefer to use it.

So. I’d already dealt with Dell’s attempts to force this stuff upon me within minutes of starting my machine for the first time – or so I thought. First offender was something called the “Dell Dock”, a shameless attempt to ape the, er, Dock function of Mac OS (and one that was particularly superfluous on Windows 7, an OS that itself shifts towards a dock-style setup courtesy of the new taskbar). Off it went. I then spent some time trying to figure out how to change the utterly ludicrous setup that meant that in order to use the function keys for their original purpose, one had to hold down the Fn key (as the default keypress for each would provide the alternate functions – e.g. brightness/volume control, etc.) As someone who bashes F2 and F5 quite a lot in the general course of working (not to mention F6 when gaming), this was of course entirely unacceptable – and I eventually discovered that it was possible to switch off in the BIOS.1

Dell's software division, yesterday.

Dell's software division, yesterday.

Anyway, with all of that dealt with, I was happily using the machine – until I started to notice another annoyance, this one worse than the others. With no LEDs anywhere on the machine itself to indicate the status of various key locks (most notably Caps), Dell instead employ a little notification icon that overlays onto the bottom right-hand corner of the screen whenever you turn Caps Lock on and off. Now, I’ve got a weird thing with Caps lock anyway – the way I have my hands on the keyboard for my fast (100wpm, people) typing, I have this odd little compulsion to frequently bash the lock on and off with my little finger, often at the end of sentences. No apparent reason for it, it’s just a weird thing of mine. Anyway. Aside from that, though, I discovered while playing GTA: Vice City that when I tried to use the key for its assigned function in that game – looking over the character’s shoulder in “on foot” mode2 – the act of bringing up the notification actually took focus away from the game, minimizing it. It didn’t crash, but it did mean I had to Alt-Tab back in, where a pause menu was waiting for me. Further experimentation revealed an irritation that I hadn’t even noticed in a couple of days’ worth of working – that sometimes, switching the Caps Lock on or off actually took focus away from a word processor or web browser. Thus defeating the point of even using it in the first place. Utterly, utterly insane.

Online research eventually revealed that this behaviour was being caused by a background program called “quickset”. Easy enough to kill from within Task Manager, and to locate in the registry and prevent from loading on startup. Except it wasn’t even as simple as that. Because in another example of infinite-wisdomness, Dell decided that this PC shouldn’t have a hard button for ejecting the DVD drive (it’s not drawer-based – it’s one of those annoying slot-based ones that you just know you’re going to break one day by putting the disc in wrongly somehow). Instead, it’s a key on the keyboard, inbetween the F keys and Print Screen. And guess what? If QuickSet isn’t running… it doesn’t work. In other words, by forcing this overlay into the same program that operates the control keys, Dell are forcing you into one of two equally undesirable options. One, lose the focus on your window every time you hit Caps Lock (and lose the ability to use the key in full-screen games that often require it). Or two, lose the ability to get your discs out of your drive (without having to browse to My Computer, right-click on the drive in question, wait for the menu to respond, and hit “Eject”).

brightnessStill, eventually, I found a third option, and it’s the one I’ve gone with – a registry hack changes the functionality of QuickSet, removing the keylock notifications while still allowing the control keys to work. But it also, oddly, changes the onscreen display for volume and brightness adjustment into the tackiest possible form – something that looks like it’s come straight out of Windows 3.1 (right). So basically, Dell are making me choose between having stuff work properly, and having it look in any way sensible.

You have to admit, when it comes to sheer malevolent supervillainny, they could give Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor and Hank Scorpio a run for their money.

1Although, as I subsequently discovered when trying to change something else tonight, there is an option buried deep in Windows itself to change it back – evidently a new addition by Dell, as people on various support forums certainly weren’t aware of it.
2When playing GTA, I use a joypad for driving, but switch to the classic FPS system of WASD+mouse when on foot.

Google Buzz, then

Since everyone else is doing it, here are my two cents on this whole little fiasco. And I’ll preface it by saying that, like a lot of people, I like Google, usually. Gmail is a superb mail client, and while I don’t use them so much any more, Google Reader and iGoogle are excellent at what they do. They usually get stuff like this right, which is why it’s a surprise to see them getting this so wrong. Here are some points, then:

  • First off, for me, the biggest flaw is the fact that email integration is not optional. It’s not merely the fact that it appears as an extra link (with a bracketed number of unread items) in your sidebar. That, I actually like. I’m all for integrating different services into one place – at least, integrating from my perspective. I’d quite like having my email, Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal friends and a variety of RSS feeds readable in one place (it’s why I went in for the whole Netvibes thing a little while back, though I did end up moving away from it after a while, and never did get round to writing my planned Micro Mart article about portal homepages). I don’t want them all talking to one-another, though – that way can lead to potential disaster. Anyway, the point is, I don’t mind an extra tab in my email that shows me a Twitter-esque status updates feed. The problem, though, is the fact that in addition to that, updates from Buzz get sent to your inbox. And not just updates from your friends – I was getting mail items when someone I didn’t know commented on the status of someone I did. That sh t’s annoying enough from Facebook without Google themselves getting in on the act. These updates were even being sent to my iPhone via IMAP. Not on. There are ways to stop it – but setting up a filter to exclude them is a workaround, not a Google-built option. Simply put, intrusion into your mailbox is not something you should have to fudge your way out of – you should be able to turn it off.
  • Something else that’s come in for criticism is the way it automatically assumes who you want to follow. Now, I’ve never used the option the likes of Facebook have for finding your “friends” from your email contacts, and I’m sure I’m not alone. There’s a very good reason – I just don’t trust them to work well enough. And sure enough, Buzz managed to annoy me by being presumptuous. Here’s the thing, Buzz – there might be names in your inbox who you’ve mailed/chatted to a lot in the past, but don’t any more. And really, you should notice the fact that I haven’t emailed or chatted with my ex-girlfriend in close to a year, and therefore not automatically include her in the list. Alright?
  • Plus, of course, there are the massive privacy concerns. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, where you’re aware that everyone can see who you’re following/friends with, Buzz has already started telling people who your most emailed/chatted to people are.
  • What’s perhaps the most staggering, for a company that’s usually so savvy about internet trends, is the way they’ve completely ignored some of the biggest controversies that have damaged Facebook’s reputation. Did they just miss what happened with Beacon? The lesson to be learned from the various (usually subsequently corrected) failures on Facebook’s part is that people want to opt-in, not opt-out. You can’t say, “Here’s this new thing we’ve set up, we’ve already made it so you’re a part of it, now go and read a load of tech blogs about other people figuring out how it works and what it actually does, even though it’s already doing it on your behalf”. You need to say, “We’ve got this new thing, here’s what it does and how it works. Do you want to start using it?”
  • Already, as Matt Sheret has pointed out, people are making the mistake of sending updates from Twitter over to Buzz (just as we all thought would be clever to do on LiveJournal, or Facebook, before – mostly – thinking better of it). This isn’t how cross-site integration should work – as mentioned above, it should be from the reader‘s perspective. I’d quite like to see Twitter on a tab in my mailbox, or Facebook updates in my Twitter client – it’s one less site to click through to when I’m doing my “rounds” – but I don’t want to read the same thing from the same person twice!

There’s definitely scope for Buzz to work – a Google-powered status update-based social network that links in with your email isn’t a flawed concept – but at the moment the execution, and the manner in which it’s been rolled out, are deeply flawed. It should be possible to use it – I’d certainly like to – without it being so inextricably linked with my inbox, contacts and everything else. It’s true that almost everything that people are complaining about can be turned off with a little digging – but crucially, they’re on by default. And by now, no-one with Google’s experience and expertise should think that’s a good idea. For now, then, I’ve switched it off entirely.

ACHIEVEMENT

Phew. After much technical jiggerypokery, I now have the entire iTunes library from my old (nearly dead) laptop – song ratings and playcounts and album art and all – consolidated onto my chunkyhuge external drive, and then being channelled through my netbook onto both my iPod (whole music library, but no video, syncing automatically) and iPhone (manually putting only certain albums and videos on there as I choose). Meanwhile, the “Remote” app is now my favourite thing in the world ever, and I’m now trying to figure out what devices (wireless headphones? Wireless speakers?) I’d need to be able to control AND hear music from anywhere in my flat.

I rather suspect I’ve unwittingly become Apple’s bitch.