Why I Don't Care About Opera | August 31, 2005

I don’t want to be the kind of person that sits on the fringes of a birthday party, bitching about the host, but I really hate Opera.

Now before I start, I just want to explain something. I really wanted to like Opera, I really did. When I first became aware of Opera in late 2000, Firefox wasn’t even a twinkle in its fathers eye. Opera was being billed as a fast, reliable and standards compliant browser, possibly even an IE killer. What developer wouldn’t be supportive.

And yet, Opera never lived up to the promise. In a time when the web standards movement was in its infancy, Opera 4 was without doubt more advanced that both IE4 and Netscape 4. However since then, the move to web standards seems to have out paced Opera development at every step.

I started developing standards based sites around the same time that IE5.2/Mac came out. At the time, this was the most standards compliant browser available, and the first browser to really show that CSS based layout was possible.

Opera 5 was supposed to be standards compliant, but it felt very buggy by comparison. Macromedia used the Opera engine on Dreamweaver for the “Design View” on OS X. If you’ve never used the design view in Dreamweaver 4, it was really bad, to the point of being unusable for CSS based layouts. Is it any wonder why people were slow to take up CSS development when CSS layouts don’t even work in the most popular authoring tool. Im not blaming this totally on Opera, as I believe the Windows rendering was pretty bad as well. However it didn’t make me feel particularly warm to Opera.

Opera seems to have had a major update at least every 12 months. Operas 5 came and went, as did Opera 6 and Opera 7. All were slight improvements, but all still had major CSS bugs. If you used a standards based approach to your coding, things just didn’t work as they should. More annoyingly was the consistency of things breaking. Fix something in Opera 6 and it would break in Opera 7. Fix it in Opera 7 and it would break in Opera 6.

People are notoriously slow at upgrading their software, and browsers upgrades are no different. Due to the regularity of Opera updates, the developer is left with a mass of buggy browser versions to contend with. Once Opera 5, 6 and 7 have been retired, I’ll be a lot happier.

Opera started to become the bane of my web development life. Layouts would work “out of the box” in Firefox and Safari. They would work pretty well in Netscape, albeit it with the odd tweak here and there. Internet Explorer is a pretty buggy browser, but because of its market share it is an important and well known browser. As such, bugs get found, documented and often fixes or workarounds are discovered. No such luck with Opera.

At first I started to care about Opera. But as each successive site I built failed in Opera, I started to care less and less. At the start I tried to find workarounds, these days I don’t bother. Now days I expect CSS based sites not to work properly in Opera, and it rarely disappoints me. As such, Opera is my nominated “to fail” browser. If I have to choose between something breaking in one browser, but working in everything else, I choose Opera.

For a web browser that is 10 years old, up to version 8, and developed by one of the inventors of CSS, I had honestly expected more. Opera 8 is now finally a reasonable browser. It still has odd CSS bugs, but nowhere near as many as it’s ancestors. Unfortunately I’ve been let down by Opera so many times, I no longer care.

So happy 10th birthday Opera, but I really couldn’t care less if you made it to eleven.

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Using the Sony Ericsson D750/K750/W800 on OS X | August 30, 2005

The Sony Ericsson D750 (also the K750 and W800) has a few small problems when using OS X. I’m sure these will be fixed pretty soon, but until then, here are the ways round them.

Firstly, my D750 came with a USB lead for connecting to my computer. Previously I had a USB charger lead, but this one allows you to browse the device as an external drive as well. The problem is, disconnecting causes a kernal panic which crashes your Mac. Not a good thing.

To get around this problem RazzFazz created a driver that shuts down unneeded services and prevents your Mac from crashing. So if you plan to use your USB lead, I’d recommend downloading and installing it now.

The next problem is Address Book integration. I used to connect to my K700 in Address Book via Bluetooth and send text messages all the time. Unfortunately this no longer works with my D750. Luckily there is an easy way around this.

You should now be able to send text messages, dial numbers etc. using bluetooth.

I got this tip from mobile.feisar.com but unfortunately you can’t direct link to the page.

Lastly, for the full Mac experience, you’ll want to use an OS X Tiger theme. There are plenty around, but I settled on the one from www.esato.com.

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My New D750 | August 29, 2005

After my little mobile phone usability dilemma I settled on a compromise. I wanted functionality and usability over style, but style was still very important to me. Rather than go for the gaudy orange W800, I noticed that T-Mobile had their own custom branded version, going under the name of the D750. While it was still nowhere near as nice visually as the K750, It had much more usable keyboard.

d750.jpg

I know some of you don’t like the K700 for various reasons. However I personally believe, form factor wise, It’s a brilliantly designed phone. I think it’s a real shame that mobile phone vendors remodel each time they upgrade a phones capabilities. I understand that they do this in order to differentiate models and make phone purchasing easier on the consumer. It would be a real pain for instance, if you went into your local mobile phone shop and all the phones looked the same. However I think it’s a shame that this enforced redesign means when they finally come up an ideal form factor, it’ll only last as long as the next technical advance.

Design should be about innovation, but more often than not, it’s purely about differentiation.

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Holiday in Provence | August 29, 2005

I went on a weeks holiday to Provence at the start of the month. Apart from school trips as a child, I’ve never properly been to France, always preferring more exotic locations. However I have to say that I really enjoyed the South of France. We stated in a fantastic villa in St Remy de Provance.

pool.jpg

We hired cars and drove to places like Orange, Gordes, Chateauneurf-du-pape and Isle sur la Sorgues where we wandered around markets and villages eating some great food along the way.

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Mobile Phones: Style vs Usability | August 26, 2005

A while ago I mentioned my desire for a new mobile phone. Now I have to admit that there isn’t actually anything wrong with my current phone. In fact I’d go as far as to say it’s the best phone I’ve ever had.

The K700i is small, lightweight, looks great and has pretty much all the features I’ve ever wanted in a phone. The bevelled sides make the phone pleasant to hold while at the same time reducing its perceived size. All in all, a very impressive design.

However there is one thing has always bugged me, and that was the poor quality of the camera. Now I understand it’s a phone I’m talking about here, not the latest digital ixus. As such I shouldn’t expect professional quality images. However the K700 really doesn’t take good pics at all, not even good enough for posting to flickr. So despite loving my phone, I’ve been looking forward to the next generation of 2 Megapixel camera phones.

I had originally wanted to get a Sony Ericsson K750. I quite liked the look of the phone, although I wasn’t sure about the black finish. However the main problem with the K750 was the keypad. If you look at the keys, the two main function keys are tiny and set back into the body, making them difficult to use.

k750-keyboard.jpg

Also the number 2 on the keypad has a reasonably large chunk taken out of the top, also making it difficult to use. Now while I understand that you have to pack a lot of features into these smart phones, it shouldn’t come at the expense of their primary function, making phone calls.

I much preferred the keyboard on the W800.

w800-keyboard.jpg

The main control buttons are much easier to use, and while the actual number buttons are smaller than the K700, they don’t have any stupid chunks chopped out of them.

The W800 has the same features as the K750 with the addition of a dedicated music player only option, and a much bigger memory stick. The only problem was the colour, bright orange. Now call me a design snob if you will, but orange really isn’t my colour of choice for a mobile phone. Also the W800 looks that bit more chunky, boxy and plasticy than the K750 and doesn’t fit as nicely in the hand as my beloved k700.

So I was left with a bit of a dilemma. Get a phone I liked the look of, but had a badly designed interface, go for a more usable option who’s design I didn’t like, or stick which my current phone that looks good, is easy to use, but lacks a key feature I want.

This opens up and interesting question. Which is most important, design, usability of features?

Would you choose design and usability over features? Or if features were important, would design win out over usability, or the other way around?

I’ve made my choice, but I wonder what you’d choose.

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iTunes Smart Playlists | August 20, 2005

I listen to my iTunes music library almost constantly when I’m working. I currently have 3476 songs in iTunes which works out at around 12.4 days worth of music. This may seem a lot, but considering how much time I spend on the computer, I burn through tracks with surprising ease.

One of the problems with this is keeping your music collection interesting. You’ll want to hear newer songs more often than older ones, yet at the same time you’ll want to make sure that the old music doesn’t get lost. You want to hear your favourite songs slightly more often than everything else, but you don’t want to keep listening to the same old tracks over and over again. As such you need to make sure your playlists have a good degree of variety as well as and a high churn rate.

The way to achieve this is by utilising smart playlists, however it can be quite difficult getting the right balance.

The first thing I’ve done is organise my music into genre related playlists such as Indie, Dance, Chill etc. You could do this using a smart playlist and matching the genre to a specified keyword. However I find that the predefined genres tend to be pretty poorly defined. For instance I’ve got several Thievery Corporation CD’s as well as lots of random tracks from compilation albums. As such, their music is variously categorised as Electronica/Dance, Rock, Soundtrack, Reggae and Blues. Of course the other option would be to update the genre info, but there honestly aren’t enough hours in the day.

Next I’ve created a series of “base” smart playlists that will form the foundations of my proper playlists. Because I won’t actually listen to any of these base playlists I’ve given them a prefix of XXX so they appear out of the way at the bottom of my smart playlist list.

The first of these smart playlists is called XXX Highest Rated. As the name suggests, this playlist creates a list of the highest rated songs in my library; in this case songs with 4 or more stars.

XXX Highest Rated Playlist

I don’t want to keep listening to the same songs over and over again, so I have limited this playlist to songs I haven’t heard for a week.

Rating the songs in your iTunes library is a really good idea as it gives you the ability to create all kinds of preference based smart playlists. If you did want to spend a weekend or two rating your songs, you can easily set up a smart playlist to show you every song without a rating. Unfortunately I can’t be bothered going through all my songs, so I tend just to rate my favourites.

With so many songs, it’s easy for your newer music to get passed over. As such I’ve also created a XXX Latest Additions smart playlist.

Latest Additions Playlist

This playlist is comprised of music added in the last 8 weeks. Obviously you can tweak the time depending on the size of your library and how often you add new tracks. I don’t want to keep hearing the same songs over and over again, however I do want to hear newer songs more frequently than older ones. Because of this I’m limiting songs in this playlist to ones I haven’t heard in only 2 days, as opposed to a week

You’ll also notice that I’m excluding audio books and radio stations from this playlist. There is nothing more irritating than the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy or a learn to speak French CD appearing in the middle of a playlist.

As well as wanting to hear the latest additions, I also want to hear stuff I’ve not listened to in a while. To accomplish this I’ve created a XXX Not Often Played playlist.

Not Often Played playlist

This playlist is made up of songs that have been played less than 4 times and haven’t been listened to in 6 months or more. This is a nice way of getting to hear older music that you haven’t heard often. Obviously the longer you use iTunes, the higher the play count will need to be.

So now I’ve got three playlists, one for my favourite songs, one for the new stuff and one for the older and less played stuff. To complete my base smart playlists I need to create one that deals with everything else. In this case I’m calling it XXX Fresh, because I want to make sure this playlist is full of fresh tracks that I haven’t heard for a couple of weeks.

Fresh playlist

If this playlist just contained songs not played in the last couple of weeks, it would be pretty large and the songs within it would have too much weighting in their favour. In order to put more weighting on the other playlist, I’m limiting this one to only 1000 songs. However I don’t want these 1000 songs to include those in my other playlists, so am excluding them.

With these base playlists in place, I created a new playlist called XXX Mix. This playlist basically brings all the other playlist together in one uber smart playlist.

Mix Playlist

This playlist contains a pool of around 2000 songs. Half of the songs come from my favourites, latest additions and old songs, the other half are songs I’ve not listened to in the last couple of weeks. If you wanted to get more scientific, you could actually set limits on all of the base playlists. For instance, if you wanted to hear twice as many new songs as favourites you could limit the new songs to 600 and the favourites to 300.

I want a way to skip over songs I don’t want to listen to, and I can do this by selecting the “Match only checked songs” option. If a song is playing that I don’t want to listen to, I can simply uncheck it, and iTunes skips to the next song. However periodically you’ll need to go through and re-check these songs or you’ll end up never hearing them again. To make this easier I’ve set up a couple of utility smart playlists.

My Checked playlist is simply a playlist that contains all the checked songs.

Checked playlist

My Unchecked playlist then uses this to exclude any checked songs, creating a list of unchecked songs.

Unchecked playlist

As well as un-checking songs I don’t want to currently listen to, I’ll also un-check songs that I don’t like or are damaged in some way. I can then later go though my Unchecked playlist and delete any songs I no longer want.

Here is a quick tip that frustrated me for a while, so I thought I’d pass it on. Selecting a song in a playlist and hitting backspace simply removes that song from said playlist. If you want to remove the song from iTunes you need to do Option (Alt) Backspace. And if you want to delete the song from your computer you can do Command (Apple key), Option (Alt) and Backspace.

Anyway, back to the XXX Mix playlist. You could happily listen to this playlist as is, although I’d probably choose to limit it to 30 tracks chosen at random, just to keep the sequence shuffled and fresh. However I prefer to listen to my music based on genre, so have created several more smart playlists called @Indie Mix, @Dance Mix, @Chill Mix etc. The @ prefix keeps these main playlist at the top of your smart playlist list, although you could equally use a colon, a full stop or an underscore to achieve the same effect.

Each of these main smart playlists look the same, so I’ll only show you the @Indie Mix playlist.

Indie playlist

Here I’m simply creating a subset of my main mix playlist that only contains Indie music, and am limiting this playlist to 30 songs chosen at random from a much larger pool of songs.

And there you have it. That’s how I use smart playlists keep my music collection interesting and organised. However I know there are many ways to skin a cat, so I’d be interested to hear how you organise your music collection in iTunes.

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Internet Explorer and the Box Model | August 4, 2005

Everybody knows that Internet Explorer gets the CSS box model wrong. According to the specs, the width property relates to the width of the content area. Padding, borders and margins are added to this, in order to calculate the total size of the box. Internet Explorer incorrectly sees width as the sum of the content width, padding and borders, adding only margins to calculate the size of the box. This means that if you specify a dimension and then add padding, the box will be smaller in IE than every other browser.

Many people have berated IE for this flaw, however I actually think Microsoft got this one right. I personally think the W3C box model is flawed and feel that Microsoft’s original approach makes much more sense. Here is the reason why.

Quite often I’ll have a floated element, inside another floated element. I’ll want the child element to take up the full available width, so I set it to be 100% wide. Now I want to create a fixed width gutter on the inside of the element to let the contents breath. To do this you’d naturally think about giving the element padding. However wait a minute, the total width of your box is now larger than the width of the parent and your layout is shot to hell.

There are ways around this. For instance you could apply your padding to the elements children, either explicitly or using the child selector. Alternatively you can add in an extra element. However both these methods are messy and a bit of a hack. If the parent element has a known width, what I usually end up doing is setting the width of the child explicitly to account for my desired padding. However this seems really unnecessary and always makes me feel slightly uncomfortable.

This issue is probably the main reason why I shy away from flexible layouts. Sometimes you just don’t want to set your padding as a percentage, the available options are all less than satisfactory. It would make so much more sense if padding was applied on the “inside” rather than the “outside”, the way IE5 does.

Failing that, I’ve often wished I could include simple sums in my width declarations. Maybe something like this.


#wrapper {
  width: 100% - 24px;
  padding: 0 12px;
}

Now something like that could come in very handy.

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Herman Miller Chairs | August 3, 2005

In a recent post I mentioned that because I spend a very large portion of my life on a computer, I want to make sure I have the best system available. I was going to use the analogy of the travelling businessman wanting to get the most reliable, conformable and fully featured car available, before moving swiftly into the over used comparison than Apple were the BMW of the car market. Owned by people series about their cars.

However I realised that despite my fine words, I wasn’t actually practising what I preached. Sure I had a nice computer, and lots of cool gadget. However my working environment was less than comfortable because of the cheap lump of plastic and foam I laughingly call an Office chair.

If my Apple is the BMW of computers, what is the BMW of office chairs? Well in my mind there is only one answer. It has to be the Aeron by Herman Miller.

Aeron chair by Herman Miller

The Aeron is a design classic, as seen in advertising agencies, PR companies and architects studios all over the world. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of you gracing one as you read this post.

Unfortunately I’m no hot-shot creative director with a loft apartment and a six figure expense account. So an Aeron, however nice, is a little above my budget. However the Aeron does have a younger sister in the shape of the Mirra.

Mirra chair by Herman Miller

While not quite as flash as the Aeron, it still looks pretty slick, and is supposed to be just as comfortable. So I fully expect this to be the next in a long line of expensive gadgets I obsess about for ages before finally biting the bullet and splashing out on one.

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Entering the digital age | August 1, 2005

Despite being into my gadgets I’m actually a bit of a late adopter. I held out for ages before buying my first mobile phone, got my first DVD player last year and only recently bought myself an iPod. Being interested in photography, most people assume I use a digital camera. However I don’t own a functioning digital camera, and do most of my photography using slide film and an SLR.

However I’ve always appreciated the freedom that shooting digital gives. You don’t have to worry about wasting film, so you can shoot as many experimental pictures as you want, deleting the ones you don’t need. You don’t have to wait for a week to get your slides processed, only to spend a day scanning them all in. So while you may lose some of the “craft”, you gain the benefit of immidiacy.

The other issue is bulk factor. Due to the size of my SLR, I tend not to take it with me unless I know I’m going to be taking “proper” pictures. As such, I tend not to take the type of “people pics” most people take. I also miss out on the kind of opportunistic shots you only get if you have a camera handy at all times.

I’ve been meaning to get an ultra-compact digital camera for a while now, but the recent Geekend in the Cotswolds sealed the deal. Drew had his IXUS50 with him, and I was very impressed. It was the perfect size, produced some great pics, and look the business.

Canon IXUS50

So today I decided to join the digital photography revolution and bought myself a Canon Digital IXUS50 . I haven’t had much chance to play with it yet, but I did take a few pics while having Sunday lunch. And the upshot it, I can now start making use of my flickr account. Hopefully the dozen or so people who have been subscribed to my non-exhistant flickr feed for the last 6 months should be happy.

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