All posts by Benny Taylor

Ben is a Microsoft-trained freelance consultant and part-time writer. Although a Windows man by trade, he has recently moved his own working life to a MacBook Pro and an iPhone, which he discusses at his blog, http://www.windowstomac.net

Why Nintendo must “up their game”

I’m a huge Nintendo fan, and have been since the 1980s. Nintendo gaming has given me an abundance of wonderful memories: from my first race on Super Mario Kart on the SNES, via Mario’s groundbreaking first 3D outing on the Nintendo 64, to the wow-factor of swinging a virtual tennis racket using the Wii Remote.

I’m remained fiercely loyal to Nintendo over the years, and despite occasional flirtations with other consoles, Nintendo’s uniquely quirky style of gaming has always been my preferred leisure companion.

Nintendo Wii U
Nintendo Wii U

So, it’s with regret that I feel compelled to have a bit of a whine about the current state of play in the world of Nintendo. I own both of Nintendo’s current consoles: the 3DS and Wii U, and I’ve enjoyed many hours with both. But certain things need to improve, or Nintendo’s in danger of being left behind in the next round of the console wars.

Here’s what I think Nintendo must do:

Invest in user interfaces

I said myself (above) that I love Nintendo’s quirky style, and it’s something that’s strongly in evidence within their console menus, right down to the cute download animations.

I don’t have a problem with this, but I do have a problem with the slow UI on the new Wii U. In a world where people are used to the instantaneous nature of their iPhones and tablets, long waits to access system features on a “next gen” console don’t look good at all. Nintendo-haters have, for a long time, referred to Nintendo consoles as “toys” and “kids games,” and slow cutesy menus are hardly going to change their minds.

Improved retro game support

Nintendo’s extensive library of retro games forms an impressive heritage, and is one of the strongest trump cards the company has to play.

Why, then, was there no Virtual Console service ready when the Wii U was launched? Why do people who’ve already downloaded retro games on their Wii have to go through a horribly unintuitive process to migrate them to their Wii U? Why is the Wii integration on the Wii U so clunky, and almost as much hassle as using an emulator?

Most importantly, where they are available, why are Nintendo’s retro games not priced in a way that reflects the fact that they are, in the main, decades old? Many people downloading them will have already purchased them at least once in another format – and the prices should reflect this.

Nintendo could make so much more of their back catalogue by making it easier and more economical for people to actually play the games.

Recommit to first-party game development

Some of the my most significant Wii U launch memories come from third-party games. That’s not good.

I would have been one of the first people to defend the choice of a 2D Mario launch game. Now that I’ve played actually played New Super Mario Bros U, though, not so much. This game should have been huge and varied, and not what is essentially a game of the same size and structure as all the other New Super Mario titles that have gone before, albeit one hidden behind an attractive world map.

Nintendo Land has been fun, but hardly shows off the new hardware and is, essentially, a mini game collection. What has truly impressed me? Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed, a third-party game, and a short demo of Rayman Legends. The latter is truly inventive, in the way that New Super Mario Bros U really should have been.

I appreciate that it’s early days for the Wii U, and that more first-party content is imminent, but Nintendo need to work fast. This year’s E3 conference is only 5 months away, and will probably bring news of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox 720. If Nintendo haven’t brought many more people on board by then, they could have a difficult time in the coming years. As yet, they haven’t done quite enough to persuade this loyal fanboy to start persuading the haters.

The new Apple TV: compact, stylish, and riddled with issues

I really want to love my tiny, stylish new Apple TV box, but I’m finding it rather difficult.

For those that don’t know, the Apple TV is a streaming media device. It connects to your TV via an HDMI cable and allows you to buy and play content from Apples iTunes store and a few third-party providers. It also lets you play shared iTunes content held on other computers on your network, and use AirPlay to mirror your Mac, iPhone or iPad onto your TV.

Or at least that’s the theory.

First impressions were good. The Apple TV’s packaging is typically minimalist and stylish and the unit itself is surprisingly compact. The initial setup was straightforward, requiring me to connect HDMI, optical audio and power. Upon start-up, the unit requested my Wi-Fi details and my iTunes username and password.

The basic menu is attractive in high-definition, and looks like something between iOS and the iTunes store. From the initial switch-on, you can see all the latest movies available for rental and purchase, and obtaining something is a simple matter of a few clicks on the diminutive silver remote.

The Apple TV
The Apple TV

So far, so good. Or at least it was until we decided to rent an HD movie. After taking our money quickly and efficiently, our Apple TV told us we had to wait 50 minutes until our movie was ready to watch. The device advised us that we could reduce the waiting time by selecting a lower resolution – but doing this actually increased our waiting time.

Sadly, this delay has occurred on more than one occasion, and it only takes a quick Google search to find that the problem has affected hundreds of unhappy people. Before anyone blames our download speed: we have a perfectly fast home Internet connection, and one that buffers other HD content almost instantly. This is an Apple TV or iTunes problem. Sometimes it doesn’t occur at all – but when it does, it always seems to be when the popcorn is warm and a group of people is waiting – not good.

Unfortunately, our problems don’t end there. One of the main attractions of the Apple TV is AirPlay, which gives you the ability to echo your Mac screen straight to the television. While the screen echo usually works, the audio output transfers to the TV perhaps one in four times. Sometimes it works, other times we must restart the Apple TV or sometimes the Mac’s Web browser. There’s no consistent pattern (and believe me, I’ve read and worked through the forum suggestions).

The outcome of this is that often there’s more fiddling around involved in watching a streamed TV show via the Apple TV than there used to be when we dragged an HDMI cable across the room. So much for progress. Since I’ve had the Apple TV, my meal is often getting cold before my chosen TV show starts.

It’s all a terrible shame, because some of the time the Apple TV works exactly as it’s designed to – and when it does, it’s great. But it’s all not quite good enough.

Aside from Netflix (which is not available where I live), Apple TV ties you firmly into Apple’s media ecosystem. By purchasing one, you are committing to buy a significant quantity of media from the iTunes store, where it often costs more than it would elsewhere.

I was prepared to make this commitment, but the Apple TV simply doesn’t live up to the quality of the other Apple products that have won my heart. It’s not on my “things for eBay” pile just yet, but it’s on seriously thin ice.

My first month with the Nintendo Wii U

The launch day for the new Nintendo Wii U saw my wife and I rush out to buy one like excited children. As committed Nintendo fans we had waited eagerly for our chance, and we were lucky enough to find one in the first shop we visited. With time off work booked in advance, specifically for this moment, we drove quickly home to get started. This article discusses our first month with the new console.

First Impressions

My first observation when rooting through the box was that our shiny black premium console is a serious fingerprint-magnet. I was also quite surprised by the size of the new tablet-based gamepad. It’s far larger than I expected, but not to its detriment – the gamepad is well-built and very comfortable to hold.

I was already aware of the day-one software update. This multi-gigabyte download attracted criticism, but anyone who understands technology should be forgiving. The consoles were probably boxed up far in advance of the final firmware being ready, so I was patient through the download and installation, which took just over an hour.

The Wii U
The Wii U

The Wii U’s TV remote integration must be mentioned here. All it really does is allow you to use the Wii U Gamepad as a TV remote, to change inputs and volume, but it work seamlessly. You really have to own one to know how it changes things in your living room, but read on to the conclusion to find out more.

It’s Mario Time

New Super Mario Bros U, the latest 2D Mario platform game, took up all of our initial hours of gaming. We swooned at seeing Mario in HD for the first time and enjoyed and cursed the “old-school” difficulty level in equal measure. I must confess, however, that we felt some disappointment on completing the main game within about 20 hours of play.

I was quite disappointed by this. Many criticized the choice of a 2D Mario platformer for the launch of a “next gen” console.  While I had no objection, this game needed to be truly epic and, to be frank, it just wasn’t. Extra bolt-on modes do not make for an enormous game, and we were surprised and disappointed to find New Super Mario Bros U on our eBay pile long before Christmas day.

Nintendo Land

Christmas marked our first opportunity to put some serious hours into Nintendo Land, the Wii U’s closest equivalent to the “entire family can play” simplicity of Wii Sports.

Nintendo Land is tremendous fun, and despite the individual mini games being more complex than swinging a virtual racket, the whole family did get involved and enjoy the experience.

What surprised us was that the single player “attractions,” particularly Balloon Trip Breeze and Yoshi’s Fruit Cart, grabbed more of our family’s attention than the much-hyped asymmetric multiplayer options like Luigi’s Ghost Mansion. We passed several hours working away at each other’s high scores, rather than chasing each other around maze environments.

While it’s true to say that the Nintendo Land disk has spent little time inside our Wii U since the Christmas flurry of interest, we’re far from done with it just yet. I think the game may have more longevity than Wii Sports, in our house at least, so this is quite a triumph for Nintendo.

Sonic and All Stars Racing

Once we’d exhausted the delights of Nintendo’s first-party games, we still had Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed lurking below the Christmas tree.

We didn’t expect miracles from this multi-format game, so we were surprised and delighted when it delivered, for us, the most impressive gaming experience so far on the Wii U.  The game’s fast action actually gave us a hint of what our “next gen” HD hardware could do. Nintendo really shouldn’t have left a third-party to show us the capabilities of its new hardware, but that’s for another time and another article.

We also spent some time with a couple of demos: Fifa 13 and Rayman Legends, the latter instantly becoming one of my most anticipated games of 2013 thanks to the variety shown in just three demo levels.

The Miiverse

Finally, the Miiverse needs a mention. This friendly and lighthearted social networking platform is truly unique. The ability to comment at certain points of the gaming experience is more engaging than you would expect, and it’s fascinating to interact with people cursing the same level as you are. I’ve only scratched the surface of the Miiverse so far, but am impressed with what I see.

The Bad Bits

It’s not all been fun and games. Transferring all of the retro Virtual Console games from my original Wii was slow, hateful and unnecessarily convoluted. It seemed like a slap in the face as reward for the serious sums I have spent on these downloads.

In addition, the lack of any real Wii integration with the new Wii U menus was a disappointment. Instead, you must effectively reboot into Wii mode if you want to use any old Wii games – it’s clunky and unappealing.

My final disappointment is the lack of any Wii U Virtual Console at this stage. Making 15-year-old games available for download should not be complicated and I actually think it inexcusable that Nintendo didn’t have this ready for release day.

Conclusion

There’s a lot we love about the Wii U, and bizarrely it’s the universal remote functionality that I mentioned above that deserves a special mention. The simple ability to switch on the TV and change the input to the Wii U without a remote means that all you have to do to begin gaming is grab the Wii U gamepad. This, somehow, ends up makes using the console more of a daily activity that it would have been otherwise. It’s an incredibly clever move from Nintendo.

Gaming wise, the Wii U has pleased me, but Nintendo desperately needs to keep the games coming. Right now, I’m playing a couple of indie games downloaded from the eShop (Nano Assault Neo is my current choice), but when they’re done, I’ve played everything I want to. I really don’t want to see a console I was so excited about lingering unused beneath my TV. If Nintendo had some retro games to tide me over (Gamecube titles please!) then this would be less of a concern.

So, I’m happy with the Wii U, but at the same time feel I need a little more convincing. Please don’t let me down, Nintendo.

iPad Mini shortages – An “own goal” for Apple?

Liverpool v Fulham - Premier LeagueWhen a new product hits the market, there’s often a shortage. It happened with the Nintendo Wii, the original iPod and with numerous different iPhones.

I’m not here to have a detailed debate as to whether manufacturers should, by now, have brought their supply chains up to speed. I will also limit my speculation as to whether sometimes these shortages are engineered to increase hype and demand.

All I’m going to focus on is that Apple’s Christmas shortage of iPad Minis has had an unexpected effect: I’m no longer sure whether I can be bothered to buy one.

I tried really hard to get an iPad Mini. I had my eye on the “cheap” one, the 16GB WiFi only model – in white if possible, but I would have settled for black. I tried first to find one in the various electronics stores in my home country of Portugal. I didn’t hold out an awful lot of hope of finding one here straight after launch, but I was unconcerned as I was spending time in London before Christmas.

Everywhere I went in Portugal I found iPad Minis. But there was a problem: all I could find was the 64GB WiFi and cellular model. This costs just shy of double the price of the entry-level model (€669).

The iPad Mini
The iPad Mini

On arrival in London, I headed to the flagship Apple store – no iPad Minis. The next day I made a beeline for Harrods, one of London’s high-end department stores, which has an Apple Store concession. They had iPad Minis, but guess which ones? Yes, you got it – 64GB cellular models at double the price I wanted to spend.

I knew from my visit to Harrods that there was little point in going to any of London’s Apple stores that day, as the shop assistant informed me that people had been arriving from them all day, hoping Harrods had some in stock.

Dejected, I tried the next day to “think outside the box” and headed out of London to the Apple store in Kingston-upon-Thames. By now, I was unsurprised to hear that they only had the 64GB cellular models. They told me the only chance of the 16GB WiFi was to arrive first thing in the morning.

Sadly, by this point, I’d already dedicated too long to the task, and had to spend the rest of my time in London at work. Yes, I could have queued early in the morning, or chanced an online order turning up, but by this point, I was rather put off by the whole experience.

I was beginning to wonder just how many people would end up paying twice the price for a 64GB cellular iPad Mini out of desperation.

The thing is, I was beginning to wonder just how many people would end up paying twice the price for a 64GB cellular iPad Mini out of desperation. I couldn’t help but consider whether this situation was in some way deliberate.

The iPad Mini is in direct competition with lower cost devices like Google’s Nexus 7. The entry-level model is, on that basis, the only one that really matters. It’s going to appeal to those people, like me, who are on the fence about the need for an iPad (in addition to an existing iPhone and Mac) and need a little convincing.

All the messing around looking for one didn’t persuade me to buy an expensive version. It instead made me reconsider whether I really needed one at all. Christmas is over, and I’m sure that within a couple of months, we’ll hear about a new iPad Mini with a retina screen and a better spec. Perhaps I’ll buy one of those. I suspect I am one of many people who feel this way.

Supply shortages may come with the territory, but Apple has scored a real “own goal” with this one. With the amount of time between new, updated models becoming shorter all the time, people really need to the ability to buy products while they still want to – otherwise they may not buy them at all.

Image courtesy: ASHISH1897

What Nintendo must do to make the upcoming Wii U game console a success

Winter 2012 will see the global release of Nintendo’s brand new games console, the Wii U, just in time for the holiday season. As the first TV adverts have been careful to point out, the Wii U is a completely new console, and not just an upgrade to the Wii.

The Wii U comes with a brand new gamepad, which incorporates a large touchscreen display, allowing for a new kind of multiplayer gaming known as asymmetric play.

Asymmetric play allows one player to interact with a game world (thanks to the personal touchscreen) in a different way to the players who are using the TV screen. This provides plenty of potential for chase or hide and seek game scenarios, and gives developers a whole new range of options.

Asymmetric Gaming on the Wii U
Asymmetric Gaming on the Wii U

The success of the Wii U is not guaranteed. Hardcore gamers have already spent months arguing as to whether the Wii U represents the first of a new generation of consoles, or is simply Nintendo catching up with Sony and Microsoft. Here are six things that I, as a long-term Nintendo fan, think that Nintendo must do to increase their chances of success:

1. Remember the hardcore gamers

Nintendo took a lot of criticism for “abandoning” hardcore gamers during the life of the Wii. The Wii gained so much momentum as a casual console that hardcore games often complained that games had become too easy, and that they missed the serious challenges of the Zeldas and Metroids that had gone before.

Nintendo needs to remember the gamers who have supported the company since the 80s, as these are the potential early adopters who will tell the non-gamers how great the new console is.

However, at the same time, Nintendo should also….

2. Remember the casual gamers

OK, so the first two points may seem contradictory, but Nintendo must also make sure that they hang on to the same Wii Sports / Just Dance / Wii Fit market that they cornered so beautifully with the Wii.

If the casual market takes to the Wii U, it allows Nintendo to steal a march on Microsoft and Sony before they release the Xbox 720 and PlayStation 4 respectively.

3. Keep Advertising

TV advertising played a huge part in the success of the Wii, and will be even more important for the Wii U. Potential buyers need to understand that they are looking at a new system – something that won’t be helped by the fact that it looks a lot like the original Wii and supports the original Wii Remotes and “nun-chucks.” Nintendo will have to ignore the hardcore gamers’ inevitable complaints about “lame” adverts and stick to making sure the casual market understand the Wii U.

4. Keep the Marios, Zeldas and Metroids coming

Gamers are a fickle bunch. One minute they complain that they want more Mario, then Nintendo brings New Super Mario Bros U out within months of New Super Mario Bros 2 on the 3DS and they complain that they are seeing too much 2D Mario.

Nintendo should pay no attention – these characters sell consoles, as was demonstrated by the huge surge in 3DS sales when Super Mario 3D Land was released. Nintendo need to keep more of these titles flooding onto the market.

5. Be generous with retro

Nintendo has a rich and highly enviable back catalog. They need to make sure people download these games by publicizing them well and charging a fair and attractive price. Many Wii users have never been near the Virtual Console – they are perhaps unaware of all the classic games within, or put off by their arguably high price. Nintendo have already made vast sums from these games – it’s time to pile them high and sell them cheap.

6. Take online seriously

The Wii U is Nintendo’s last chance to get online right, and the signs are good that the console is going to make a far from half-hearted attempt. We need online modes in all the first-party games and attractive downloadable content. Mario Kart for the Wii U with downloadable track packs and extra cups would make Nintendo a fortune.

What do Nintendo need to do to make you buy a Wii U? Let me know in the comments.

Why I think businesses will ignore Windows 8

Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning; I’m no Microsoft hater. I’ve designed networks around Windows for many years and happily supported them. I have many client companies going about their business with no Apple products or Linux boxes in sight.

But, I’m going to stick my neck out on one thing: I think a large number of businesses will completely ignore Windows 8.

Windows 8’s user experience represents the biggest change to how the operating system works since Windows 3.1 evolved to Windows 95. Ever since the first developer previews of Windows 8 hit the scene, I’ve chatted to fellow-techies and canvassed their opinions on the new OS. Their views range from indifference, to total bafflement as to exactly what Microsoft is trying to achieve.

Here’s why I just cannot see my clients taking an interest in Windows 8.

The Windows 8 Start Screen
The Windows 8 Start Screen

1. Users don’t care

When an individual gets to the office, they don’t really care what their computer’s user interface looks like – they just want to get their work done without the machine slowing down or crashing.

If you want proof of this, just consider the fact that Computerworld recently reported that 41% of the world’s PCs still run Windows XP – which does everything any business needs it to do. Yet, I don’t hear users complaining that their machines are “out of date.”

2. Users don’t like change

I’ve recently migrated a number of user groups from XP to Windows 7. Sure, the users do become familiar with it quickly, but they don’t embrace changes and enjoy new features in the way that computer enthusiasts do.

Remember that the fact you are reading this article places you in the small percentage of the population interested enough in technology to visit an IT website. Many corporate computer users are still getting their heads around copy and paste.

3. Businesses have no intention of buying touch screens

None of my clients will be easily persuaded to buy touch screens, just because they allow Microsoft to do things in a more “modern” (or more iPad-like) way.

Businesses spend money to do new things, or so they can do existing things better (or more quickly). They don’t spend money just to do things differently.

4. Windows 8 doesn’t know what it wants to be

Is it a tablet operating system, a touch operating system or a desktop operating system? To me, and to many of my associates, it’s trying to be all the above and not succeeding particularly well at any of them.

The way that, in its default state, Windows 8 keeps flicking between the tiled Metro view and the traditional Windows desktop is strange and illogical. If it stresses me out as a techie with Microsoft certification, I know what the users are likely to think.

Sure, there are already plenty of published ways to disable Metro – but if you’re going buy Windows 8 only to turn it back into Windows 7, then what’s the point? Why not just accept that…

5. Windows 7 does it better

I’m sure there will be plenty of home users and enthusiasts with touchscreen PCs who’ll grow to love Windows 8. Business users, however? I just can’t see it. With years to go before support for Windows 7 is withdrawn, consultants like me will edge them towards safety and supportability.

And what happens then? It’s quite simple. Windows 7 becomes the new XP, and Windows 8 becomes the new Vista.

iOS 6: The Good and the Bad

iOS 6, the most recent incarnation of Apple’s mobile operating system, was met with mixed reviews on release.

Some people lamented the fact that it seemed like a rather insignificant change, hoping for a major design overhaul to something that has looked and felt very unchanged for quite some time.

Others criticized specific features, with Apple’s new Maps app first in line for a hammering. The first iteration of Apple’s replacement for the Google’s Maps app was lambasted widely enough for reports to make the headlines of some national newspapers.

I installed iOS 6 immediately after release, and have now been using it for long enough to give my own assessment of the good and the bad. Here’s what I think:

The Good

Maps

I’ll begin controversially: Apple Maps really isn’t that bad. In fact, where I live (in Southern Portugal) the mapping is more accurate and up to date than it was from Google. Our apartment (and car) is actually visible from the satellite imagery, where Google displayed a building site dating back several years.

The turn-by-turn navigation works well too, and everyone has the option to use Google Maps and the multitude of other available mapping apps to fill in the gaps. I think people should give Apple a chance – we are, after all, talking about “version 1.”

Facebook Integration

Facebook integration was long overdue to iOS. Now it’s here, and it works well. It does a good job of explaining the implications of synchronizing contacts and works competently with Siri.

Safari

The iOS browser has always been great, and the subtle tweaks here make it even better. Full screen view makes a surprisingly significant difference to readability, and the reading list functionality is great – even though most enthusiasts probably already use something like Instapaper to save content for offline reading.

The ability to share tabs with Safari on a Mac via iCloud is a good idea too – but not good enough to tempt me away from using Chrome on my laptop.

iOS on the iPhone 5
iOS on the iPhone 5

The Bad

The App Store

I can honestly say Apple have lost revenue from me as a result of redesigning the App store. The new layout might work on an iPad but it looks cut off and a little silly on my iPhone 4S. It’s simply less fun to browse, and as a result, I buy fewer apps. Surely this wasn’t the intention?

Data Usage

I don’t know exactly why, but I used to crawl very slowly through my monthly 500MB cellular data allowance. Since iOS 6, I’m eating through it rapidly and keep incurring extra charges.

Judging by the Web forums this is a rather common occurrence. It needs sorting out.

Design Inconsistencies

I understand that Apple may have given the phone keypad and music browsing interface a white background so that things look newer, but why do these design changes not carry through once you actually select a song? The changes just don’t reflect Apple’s usual impression of quality – and seem to simply be a last-minute way to make iOS 6 look a bit different to its predecessor.

Conclusion

Overall, then, iOS 6 has proved to be inoffensive (other than the data charges) but also rather inconsequential. Though I see no reason for iOS 7 to be different for the sake of being different, I wouldn’t mind something a little more exciting.

Apple OS X Mountain Lion – First Impressions

You don’t have to look very hard on the Internet to find reviews of Mountain Lion, Apple’s new revision of the OS X operating system.

This review is slightly different. As a cynical, old school techie, I’m never particularly wowed by or interested in sparkly new features. All that really concerns me is exactly how upgrading my Mac’s operating system will affect my day-to-day computing life. So, that is the angle I’m coming from with this report.

On Early Adoption

I had a bad experience when I upgraded from Snow Leopard to Lion. Lion slowed down my laptop and, initially, I cursed myself for being an early adopter. I should qualify this by saying that after installing a few OS revisions and upgrading my RAM to 8GB, I was once again perfectly happy with the performance of my MacBook Pro.

With this previous experience in mind, I’m not really sure why I jumped at Mountain Lion so soon after release, but a contributing factor was that the Mac forums gave me little to worry about. Many people reported performance improvements and nobody seemed to be complaining about anything of significance. So, after a good cleanup of my applications and files, I crossed my fingers and hit the download button.

Installation and Getting Started

The installation itself made me doubt my bold decision, especially as I went for an upgrade install rather than the “clean installation” that many people champion. During the installation process, the progress bar seemed to stall many times, and once the remaining time went down to “under a minute” it stayed there for over half and hour while I wore down my fingernails and cursed myself for being an early adopter once again.

My blood pressure didn’t go down after the first successful boot either. My Mac was horrifically slow at first, but this turned out to be due to the Spotlight search facility completing an initial index of my system. Once this was done, performance was back to normal.

Once I was using my Mac normally once again, I found little to initially impress me. In fact the only noticeable differences were slight graphical changes to the icon dock and the addition of the notifications bar, an import from iOS which collates notifications from various apps and puts them all in an easily accessible place.

OS X Mountain Lion Running on a MacBook Pro
OS X Mountain Lion Running on a MacBook Pro

I’m not massively sold on the idea of notifications as part of a computer operating system, but I have grown used to seeing the subject line of new emails popping up in the corner of my screen. Outlook on Windows used to do this and it is a useful timesaver. Beyond this, however, I have felt no need to click the notifications button. Still, it’s there, it doesn’t bother me and I have noticed no performance implication.

Performance

On the subject of performance, I can subjectively say that the overall “snappiness” of my system seems slightly improved compared to OS X Lion – things certainly haven’t got any worse. Boot time may be slightly faster, but it’s still not back to Snow Leopard standards. I accept that a clean install would probably change this, but have neither the time nor inclination to do this now.

New Features

In terms of additional features, there’s little that has jumped out at me to date, although I do, of course, know about the numerous subtle enhancements. I am aware that Safari has had a substantial upgrade, so I did switch all my browsing over to it for a day or two – but, as I type, I am back with Google Chrome as I adore its fast simplicity.

One feature that has truly wowed me it is the new Apple dictation facility. Having had horrible experiences with systems such as DragonDictate, I didn’t expect much from it. However, it has delivered almost 100% accuracy every time I’ve tried it. Now all I need to do is get used of forming my thoughts so that I can actually dictate into my computer without getting flustered. Once I do, I can see myself making plenty of use of this feature.

As I said at the start of this review, my move to Mountain Lion was less about trying out every tiny new feature and more about how the upgrade might improve my day-to-day experience on my Mac. With this criteria in mind, my upgrade experience is favourable if not particularly exciting.

Conclusion

While I’m aware of other features that I may eventually use, such as Twitter integration and AirPlay, for now I am simply satisfied that I did the right thing by upgrading. Apple seem to have the first iteration of Mountain Lion right, which makes me look forward to the gradual improvements across subsequent revisions.

While Mountain Lion may not be an essential upgrade, it’s certainly not one to be unduly wary of.

Why Microsoft is wrong to discontinue Small Business Server

Small Business Server 2003

As an IT consultant who delivers services to small and medium businesses, I have spent a vast amount of time with Microsoft’s Small Business Server product range. Early versions of SBS (the original “Back Office” incarnation and SBS 2000) had various quirks and problems. Since SBS 2003, however, Small Business Server has been a refined, solid and well-behaved product – the kind of product you can put into a business with confidence, with a good set of features and a high level of configurability.

With this in mind, I was actually quite sad to hear the news that Microsoft decided to discontinue the product range, on the grounds that “small business computing trends are moving in the direction of cloud computing.”

I don’t deny that there is “trend” toward the cloud. Indeed, I have clients who have migrated to Office 365 instead of moving to SBS 2011. However, just as many have no interest whatsoever in migrating to the cloud.

One client said,

“Our last system has been perfect for four years, we just want the same, but newer, and we’re not interested in the cloud.”

Another took one look at how long it took to save a large file via Office 365 on their broadband internet connection and laughed in my face.

Then there are the clients who cannot risk the data protection implications of cloud storage, those who simply have an objection to paying a monthly fee and those who are put off by the fact that, with the best will in the world, it’s going to take weeks to migrate their existing 500GB of file data.

Microsoft have effectively decided to abandon all these customers, and I’m sure that every one of the thousands of IT consultants just like me have plenty of them.

Now, I have no doubt people will be keen to point out that Microsoft has announced an “Essentials” version of Server 2012 aimed at small businesses. I accept I could recommend this to some of my clients, but it only supports up to 25 users. What about the 25-75 user segment of SME who could previously use SBS? They are now on the same licensing model as a large corporation, which doesn’t seem very fair. And what about Exchange and SharePoint?

Let’s be clear: I’m not “anti-cloud.” I use hosted Exchange myself. I have migrated companies when it has been a good fit, and I would recommend it to plenty of startups, but I think Microsoft’s decision to try to force SME in the Office 365 direction is misguided and out of touch with reality. What it will do is lead them to discover simpler, cheaper alternatives like iCloud, Dropbox and Google Apps.

Small Business Server allowed me to swoop into a company and give them an IT system that made them feel like they were working for a large corporation. When they wanted to use features like public folders and decent shared contact lists, they were there waiting. I’m sure people will disagree, but working on an Office 365 is simply not the same.

Microsoft has taken away my ability to provide the perfect system without compromises. If I have to cobble solutions together for clients, then I may well end up doing so without so many Microsoft products. Given that Apple seem to be winning over the consumers, it seems insane that Microsoft seem willing to risk letting go of the SME market too.

TunnelBear easily allows access to location-restricted websites

TunnelBear

As someone who lives and works between two countries, I am the typical target market for the many companies offering locational VPN services. These VPN services allow those browsing the web in one country to appear as if they’re in a different country.

There are various reasons why someone might do this, but one of the main reasons why most people use VPN services is so they can access streaming TV content that would otherwise be blocked in their country.

One such VPN service is a snazzy little application called TunnelBear. Available for both Mac and Windows, TunnelBear is a very straightforward app with just two controls — an on/off switch and a switch to select between US and UK VPNs. These controls are laid out on a rather old-looking funky transistor radio background.

How it works

TunnelBear can be downloaded for free, but it’s limited to only 500MB of monthly bandwidth, which will disappear quickly if the service is used to watch streaming media. The free version gives everyone a chance to try the program out, but anyone using it frequently will want to pay for a monthly or annual subscription ($4.99/month or $49.99/year). TunnelBear also offers an extra 1GB of traffic to anyone who promotes the app via Twitter — a pleasingly innovative way of spreading the word. 

The program itself works almost faultlessly. Start the program, select US or UK, switch it on, and within ten seconds or so you have a US or UK IP address that will allow you to access anything you could access if you were in that country, including regional TV-on-demand services, cloud gaming platforms and region-locked YouTube content.

Is it legal?

The legality of using these kinds of services is certainly a grey area to say the least. For example, in the UK, citizens need a TV license to watch broadcasts from the BBC. If a UK citizen and license-payer were to travel abroad on holiday and use TunnelBear to watch BBC iPlayer, it would simply seem nonsensical for this to be illegal. However, those wishing to ensure they stay on the right side of the law may want to check legalities with the media services they plan to use. These VPN services do work, and many of them are promoted specifically as being for the purpose of watching streaming media, but his doesn’t always mean it is permitted.

Conclusion

TunnelBear is a great app and it has its uses beyond just viewing media, such as the ability to search Google in another country (useful for web and SEO work). The only problem you may experience is a flaky internet connection if you quit the app while it is still connected to the UK or US. However, this is a minor complaint for a piece of software that does what it is intended for, and does it very well indeed.