Tag Archives: Windows

Review: Steed, an attractive file transfer client for Windows

Utilities like text editors and FTP clients may not scream “sexy!”, but for us geeks who perform actual work with our computers, they’re critical tools. Unfortunately, these tools get so entrenched and build such strongly opinionated followings (people still use vi, for Pete’s sake!) that few developers try to build new, better tools.

A brave (or maybe they just didn’t know any better) trio of Frenchmen, calling themselves FrenchFry, decided that it was time to introduce something new into the stale world of Windows-based tools and just released a new file transfer utility named Steed. Inspired by their bravery, I decided to take Steed for a spin.

Overview

You may be asking “Why does this idiot keep saying ‘file transfer client’ instead of FTP?” Good question, jerk. I’m calling Steed a file transfer client because it does more than just FTP. It manages transfers for Amazon S3 and Microsoft Azure as well.

Yes, I named my server Don Johnson. Don't judge me.
Yes, I named my server Don Johnson. Don’t judge me.

Another key differentiator from apps like Filezilla or WinSCP is that Steed’s interface isn’t a collection of seemingly random text fields and buttons. The interface looks to have been heavily inspired by Panic’s Transmit (my file transfer client of choice on Mac). Although not as polished as Transmit, Steed’s interface is clean and coherent.

I liked that Steed supports the sync of server settings via Dropbox and SkyDrive, which sounds like a small thing, but solves a big pain for folks who access lots of different servers. In that same vein, Steed’s bookmark management puts Filezilla’s Server Manager to shame by being much more user-friendly and a lot less Windows 3.1.

The less buttons, the better.
The less buttons, the better.

Most of my quibbles with Steed are due to its newness. FrenchFry tout Steed as being “beautiful” and it is much better looking than their Windows competition, but I don’t think it’s quite there yet. Some of the generic “templatey-ness” that plagues many .NET apps shines through around the edges.

The app never crashed on me, but I did manage to get it to throw some errors while trying to delete folders via FTP. Oddly enough, as soon as I restarted the application, it prompted me to download a patch that wound up resolving the errors I was seeing. So it appears the dev team is actively working on getting things cleaned up.

Final thoughts

I think the comparison to Transmit is an important one. For years, Transmit has been the de-facto file transfer client of Mac web and app developers, and Mac devs who’ve migrated to Windows have been clamoring for a Transmit-comparable file transfer client. Steed isn’t there yet, but it appears to be well on the way. I could see it being very popular in that crowd.

Outside those former-Mac devs, I’m less optimistic. For many developers, the free alternatives will remain “good enough”. If FrenchFry continues building modern features and adding polish though, they might stand a chance of cutting out a bigger niche.

Pricing and availability

Steed is available for a launch-price of $24.99 on FrenchFry’s website. A ten-day trial is also available.

Top 5 Free Antivirus Software for Windows

Antivirus software provides essential protection for your PC from virus, trojan, spyware, worm, adware, root kit and key logger infections. One of these nasty infections could expose key personal information or stop your computer from working. As powerful as the web is, it is also a very dangerous place. However, installing antivirus software does not mean you have to break the bank. Some of the best antivirus software are free and have what it takes to keep your PC safe.

If you’re tired of expensive antivirus packages that slow your PC down then these free antivirus programs are the way to go.

AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition

AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition  is an excellent choice, if not the best for a free antivirus. AVG Anti-Virus Free is a full-fledged antivirus and anti-spyware tool, includes an email scanner, link scanner, scheduled scanning options, automatic updates, and more. AVG has been certified to remove 100% of in-the-wild viruses

Cons: Unfortunately AVG free has grown considerably in size, has very slow scan speeds and advertisements (but they can be disabled). AVG Free Edition does not provide adware/spyware removal (though it is available in the paid version of the product).

Avast! Free

Avast! Free Antivirus is improving its detection rates over the past few years “heuristics engine” and now ranks with the some of the best. Avast has the following features: full real-time capabilities including web, e-mail, IM, P2P and network shields, boot-time scanning, and a behavioral blocker. This program is also very light on resources.AVAST has been making this antivirus product since 1988 and is often cited as the most installed antivirus product. It also has a large user support community in case you need any help.

Cons: Average scores in PCMag’s malware blocking test.

Microsoft Security Essentials

Microsoft Security Essentials is a another fan favorite with great detection rates, particularly for rootkits. Microsoft Security Essentials has very few false positives, is light on resources and is good at removal of existing malware. MSE is a great choice for average users because of the minimal user interaction required. It is directly from Microsoft and it’s very easy to see if your computer is secure from threats: if the icon next to your clock is green, you’re in good; if it’s red, something is wrong.

Cons: The main downsides are the slow scan speeds and the lengthy amount of time it takes to quarantine malware.

Panda Cloud Antivirus

Panda Cloud Antivirus  protects you from several kinds of malware threats – viruses, worms, Trojans, adware, and more – just like all the other free antivirus programs in this list. Along with Microsoft Security Essentials, it is an excellent choice for average users with a simple interface and completely automated features with automatic updating and removal of malware. What makes Panda Cloud Antivirus one of the top free antivirus programs is that it does its job from “the cloud” meaning the  antivirus work that typically slows down a computer is done on computers elsewhere on the Internet, freeing up your computer to work like nothing is happening.

Cons: As many free program installs Panda Cloud Antivirus tries to install a toolbar and set Yahoo! as your browser’s home page during the installation process so uncheck the boxes before continuing if you don’t want them.

Avira AntiVir Personal Edition

Avira AntiVir Personal Edition protects you from viruses, Trojans, worms, spyware, adware, and various other kinds of malware, making it a fully functional anti-malware tool. AntiVir does not include web or e-mail scanning capabilities; this is only available in the paid version.

On installation, AntiVir schedules a daily full scan. You can, of course, change the schedule or add your own scheduled events. By default its configuration page shows only basic settings.

Cons: One con about Avira AntiVir Personal was the configuration you have to complete after installation which might be difficult if you’re a computer novice.

Conclusion

A lot of time was spent comparing free antivirus programs and there are many more that are not on this list. Each individual may have a different need or use for antivirus software.

Unfortunately no package excelled in every area. Some were lightweight but less accurate, others were good at detecting malware but had a significant performance on your system.Picking a winner inevitably involves some compromises and may vary depending on your requirements.

After weighing the results the program that gets my first place vote is : AVG Free 2012. It has plenty of features and is lightweight making AVG Free 2012 a good all-round winner of the best free antivirus award.

Seattle shoppers preview Edibly, Bing’s latest mobile shopping app

Microsoft’s Bing has launched ‘Edibly’ for iPhone which will be available in the App Store despite the probable protests from Windows Phone users who feel that the app is exclusively for their platform. The application allows users to browse the Pike Place Market from the portable comfort of their handheld gadgets.

Backing up the move, Microsoft opines that the main aim of the release is to ease shopping stress and help consumers discover new products. The company calls the current release of Edibly a “pilot program on trial” since it currently can only run at a single location in a single city. There are plans for improvement if the pilot programs yields encouraging results.

It is hard to comprehend why a search engine would venture into such an investment. Managing and running this new app will allow Bing to deliver detailed information to consumers hence bettering its portfolio. The fact that the partnership brings more data to Bing is more likely their main goal.

Edibly gives information on what is new in the market and guides you through the entire process of shopping by navigating you through a digital map of whatever shopping site you visit. Apart from giving information about target market goods, the app moves a step further and enables the users to take a tangible action on the good discovered. For instance, entering a query about dinner resorts and reservations will be possible since ‘Edibly’ will morph to state the demand.

Edibly is in trial at Seattle U.S with its developers proposing the following benefits:

  • More shopping confidence courtesy of the market
  • A view page that allows product comparisons thus helping in choosing the best item
  • Save time by navigating through products in the market via a map functionality
  • Discover new products in the market.

Bing’s move to develop ‘Edibly’ shows the search engine’s interest in offering support to local markets by taking them online, where everybody is going. This contrasts against Google’s latest shopping venture that aims at turning the existent US product listings into ad spots. Edibly is currently still on its trial steps with promises of improvement and expansion which will, in due course, be revealed to the public.

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.

Cubby: a simple way to share files across multiple devices

When I first heard about Cubby’s unlimited storage, my immediate reaction was “I must have it.” When I found out that “unlimited storage” meant computer-to-computer syncing I was less enthused. I forgave them, however, because I concede that offering unlimited cloud storage through a free service is foolish at best. And it wasn’t long before I found new reasons to love Cubby.

Unlimited computer-to-computer storage

I soon realized Cubby’s true potential as a power user’s best friend. Basically, with Cubby, you can sync an unlimited amount of date (regardless of file type) between two computers as long as both devices are connected to the internet.

File sync can happen in a couple of ways. Firstly, there is the option to create brand new “Cubbies” and label each one as you please before filling them with files. A second option is to merge the Cubbies with folders that already exist on your Mac or PC, so instead of having to curate two Music folders you could simply merge your Music folder with a Cubby labelled Music to share files more seamlessly between your desktop and/or laptop.

I have been using Cubby to keep files organized between my personal MacBook Pro and my less-used (and ancient) HP laptop. The only annoyance so far has been keeping both computers turned on and connected to the internet. And even that seems a small price to pay for easily accessing my files on both devices.

5GB of free cloud storage

There’s more to Cubby than just syncing between computers. Cubby has a feature set similar to other cloud storage services like Google Drive or Dropbox: 5GB of free cloud storage and a home folder – called “My Cubby” in this instance – to hold all those files you’ll inevitably save there.

As for uploading, I found that Cubby synced my files fairly fast and when put head-to-head against Dropbox there was little difference in speed. However, Dropbox places a helpful syncing icon on files that are in the process of uploading and replaces it with a checkmark once the sync is completed. Cubby has no indication of syncing progress when viewed in the Finder or Windows Explorer window and can only be shown through the desktop application.

Since Cubby is still in its beta phase, it’s hard to tell what improvements (if any) they will make in this regard. After all, we’re talking about a brand new piece of software competing with a fairly senior product. That being said, however, it seems like a fairly standard feature to include. Yeah we’re talking to you, Cubby makers.

Cubby is still “invite only” during its beta phase, but you can request an invite if you’re interested in checking it out. There are apps available for Mac, Windows, Android, and iOS (and screenshots below).

What do you think? Would you use Cubby over alternatives like Google Drive or Dropbox?

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Manage your to-do list on Android, iOS, and Chrome with Any.DO

Any.DO started as an Android-only solution to the public’s to-do list blues, and it did a damn good job of cheering us up. As a result, Any.DO became a both popular and critically acclaimed app by tech blogs everywhere. Personally, I’ve been a regular user of Any.DO for the past six months or so and I appreciate its minimalistic approach to list-making.

The strength of Any.DO lies in its simplicity. Rather than overcomplicating a simple task manager with endless menus and options, the focus is placed on entering tasks under simple headings like Today, Tomorrow, This Week, or Later.  The app is definitely gorgeous with bold typography and basic colour schemes, and though the Android version is clean and free of cheesy effects, the iOS app is (nauseatingly) made to look like crumpled paper.

It appears that the designers took some inspiration from Windows Phone, but you won’t hear me complaining about borrowing a few aesthetics from the most beautiful software ever. The app displays black text on a white background by default, but a dark theme allows you to reverse the coloration. Above all, it’s clean.

And if you’re in the market for a new task manager there’s never been a better time to pick up this app, especially now that it syncs across all the major platforms (only Windows Phone 7 is missing). Syncing is automatic once you register with the service or choose to sign up via Facebook.

The iOS App

iOS Any.DO - Home in Landscape
Any.DO on iOS in Landscape

Additional gesture-based controls have been implemented in the iOS version: drag down from the top of the screen to enter a new task (hold down after dragging to enter an item with your voice) and swipe right to cross out a completed task. Additionally, when entering an item for your list the app attempts to predict what you’re trying to type. It’s moderately useful at times — finishing “Buy” with “milk and bread” saves a bit of time) — and when the app adds a handy phone button beside names that exist in your address book.

Tapping on a task brings up a menu that allows you to set it to a higher priority, move it to a specific folder, assign a due date or note, or share it with friends. You can also drag items around to reorder and prioritize certain tasks over others, much like in the Android app. The iOS version takes better advantage of screen real estate than its Android counterpart, however, displaying a calendar alongside your task list when the device is in landscape mode. But with luck, this feature will appear on Android soon.

The Chrome App

Any.DO Chrome - Web Browsing
Any.DO while browsing in Chrome.

Of course, given its home on conventional desktops and laptops, the Any.DO Chrome app lacks the gesture-based controls of its mobile brethren. But the aesthetic remains consistent, though you’re unable to change the color scheme from the default white. Check marks are used to indicate completed tasks instead of swiping, but can still be reorganized by clicking and dragging. The app opens from an icon to the right of the address bar and drops down over your current browsing session — no need to open a new tab or window. But the option to pop Any.DO out into its own window is there for those of you who’d prefer.

Conclusion

As a light user of task-based apps, Any.DO is the one and only solution to my needs. The new Chrome and iOS apps mean I can finally sync lists across my Nexus S, iPad, and MacBook Pro (running Mac OSX and Windows 8 Release Preview).

The fact remains, however, that if you’re a heavy user the lists can get a bit cumbersome. Most items end up lumped into the Today category if they don’t have a due date so lists can get out of hand if you don’t pay attention. I still think it’s worth a try for anyone in need of a new task manager since it’s free and using folders may lessen the organizational load. If you do try it out, let us know what you think.

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Microsoft Says Farewell to Aero Glass in Windows 8

When I first booted up into Windows 8 with my beloved Samsung Focus mobile phone at my side, I was appalled by the jarring visual differences when switching back and forth from the Metro start screen to the traditional Windows desktop view.

On one hand, there was this amazingly simple Start screen with a bold interface daring to standout from the crowd. On the other, an ancient and tacky faux-glass-themed, cluttered, and – quite frankly – ugly desktop interface.

I found it incredible that after putting so much thought into the Metro UI’s design, Microsoft seemed to forget about the desktop altogether. I thought they changed. I thought they cared about details, the user experience, and beauty! My disenchantment became so bad that up until a week ago I had given up on ever experiencing a truly simple and beautifully designed version of Windows.

What changed? Microsoft is getting rid of Aero Glass in Windows 8, baby!

First introduced with the debut of the ill-fated Vista, the Aero desktop design has outlived its relevancy. The days of transparency, gradients, and shadows are long behind us and especially do not belong in a modern interface like Metro that relies on flat icons and bold colors to garner attention. According to Microsoft, they also see the drawbacks of their current design and promise to start “flattening surfaces, removing reflections, and scaling back distracting gradients.”

Microsoft doesn’t see the desktop as a mode, but rather “a paradigm for working that suits some people and specific apps.” But Microsoft isn’t willing to forfeit compatibility with existing programs by drastically changing the desktop UI. To preserve their existing user base, Windows 8 will continue to use black text on a light-colored background as opposed to the white-on-saturated-color look of Metro.

In short, Microsoft gave their desktop UI a mini Metro makeover. The default color that surrounds the windows is white, rounded corners on icons and windows are now squared, and the taskbar blends even more into the desktop wallpaper. Even the ribbon will see some changes with icons treated to the same squared-off edges and stripped of all gradients to “make them feel more modern and neutral.”

Unfortunately, the Release Preview hasn’t fully abandoned the Aero theme and it won’t be fully replaced until the final release of Windows 8. We would have liked to see what it looked like in action, but it just wasn’t in the cards.

If you’ve ever wanted to read a comprehensive history of Windows design over the years, then hit up this post from the Building Windows 8 blog.

Windows 8 Boots Too Quickly to Be Interrupted

Boot Options Menu

We previously told you that Windows 8 could manage a cold boot in eight seconds flat, and that still holds true, but now there are reports that an SSD-equipped PC can manage it in under seven seconds. It’s not a huge difference in boot time, but it does create a minor and rather curious problem. Mainly, the user no longer has enough time to interrupt the boot menu.

Chris Clark, program manager at Microsoft’s User Experience team, explains in a Building Windows 8 blog post that a mere 200 millisecond window is all the time available to users if they want to make changes to a PC’s boot setup.

A new method

Since the Windows software and general computer hardware have become too fast for us puny humans, the days of reading “Press F2 to enter setup” are over and Microsoft recognizes the need to offer an alternate way of accessing the familiar boot menu. They found their top tappers could only manage about a 250ms frequency and catching that elusive 200ms opportunity was based a lot on chance. In other words, the added speed became the opposite of user friendly.

In response, the team came up with three solutions that work together to solve the issue. Clark notes in his post that “no one should need to learn how Windows is built” and the team wanted the new boot options to “just work”. A refreshing choice of words as Windows is notorious for requiring complicated work arounds for simple problems depending on hardware, software version, and general computer skills of the user. But keeping with their new, simplified design aesthetic Microsoft has decided to make a single menu for every boot option.

How it works

Microsoft’s solution is a three-pronged approach:

  1. The various boot settings that have previously been scattered from one end of Windows to the other will now be available in a single boot options group
  2. The menu will automatically appear whenever Windows is prevented from booting up correctly
  3. Microsoft is providing the user with plenty of different ways to bring up the new menu at will.

Basically, although you will no longer be able to access the boot menu from the start up screen, you’ll still be able to check it out once your PC has finished booting up. Specifically, you can bring up the menu through Advanced startup on the General tab of your PC’s settings. From there, you can choose to Restart now and choose a new start up volume during a reboot.

There’s an even quicker method built-in, simply holding down the Shift key while click Restart in your computer’s shutdown menu will cause Windows 8 to reboot into the boot menu as well.

One important note is that these changes are only applicable to newer PCs with UEFI BIOS. This exclusion, according to Chris Clark, can be chalked up to the speed restricitions of older hardware, meaning they will spend enough time booting up for a user to interrupt with the F8 or F2 keys.

Windows 8 ‘Release Preview’ Brings New Apps and Updates the Old Ones

As we assumed when various apps in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview were marked with an “App Preview” tag, the core Metro apps have been updated in the Windows 8 Release Preview. The updated applications feature some improvements to the user interface (there were some apps that really needed it), a unified app settings bar, and even some all-new applications.

The preview pages of some revised apps have been floating around online via the Windows Store, but this is the first time we are seeing the new apps in action. Though it isn’t surprising that the core apps have been updated, we are still extremely excited to see the makeover results. Some of the apps were just plain difficult to use and lacked cohesion, ease-of-use, or basic functions.

To kick things off, we begin by applauding the unified look of the app bar that drops down from the top of the screen. The options may be app-specific, but it’s nice to see a cohesive design structure being employed.

Updated Apps

Photos

The new Photos app (pictured above) features a new smart screen complete with a full-size background photo chosen from your own collection, and smaller thumbnails pulled from your local library, SkyDrive, Facebook, and Flickr are displayed overtop. It’s very easy on the eyes and closely resembles the Windows Phone version.

Calendar

In the Consumer Preview, the Calendar app was missing a simple search function. Maybe not a problem for the average user with two or three appointments in a week, but incredibly troublesome for the power user with a growing number of time commitments. Thankfully that search function has been implemented in the latest release and answered our dearest prayers.

Music

The most exciting change in the Music app is the integration of Zune Pass, which means all of your cloud-based music is finally accessible via the Windows 8 desktop.

Mail

When we first started working with Windows 8, the Mail app haunted our nightmares. It was unreliable and clumsy at best, and though the new version still lacks threaded conversations (really!?), it’s been optimized and crashes a lot less often. The user experience has become actually, well, usable now.

Inboxes are listed on the left-hand pane, doing away with the hellish way of switching inboxes in the App Preview, which involved pressing the back button a whole lot of times. You can also pin specific accounts to your start screen in order to choose whether to check your personal or work email before launching the app. It’s still not as feature-packed as say Gmail or Hotmail, but we must admit that it’s gorgeous.

Web Browsing

The most interesting and innovative change to IE this time around comes in the form of “Flip ahead”, a feature that uses crowd-sourcing to predict which web page a user will click on next. So instead of needing to click on the suggested page, you can simply swipe or click the on-screen forward button to navigate there. At the moment it works best for flipping to the second page of an article, but hopefully with time the algorithm will prove more useful. “Flip ahead” will be turned off by default, so you’ll have to enable it manually.

Sharing options are built-in now, which isn’t too exciting, but worth noting. Flash has been enabled as well, which was inevitable. But what rocks about Metro IE’s implementation is that it’s plug-in free by default so Flash works without any additional setup.

Weather and Maps

Nothing much has changed here. The Weather app is still beautiful and information-packed. We thought Maps lost it’s dedicated search function, but it was only moved into the Charms bar.

Lock Screen

The lock-screen saw a mini-refresh as well. You can now adjust the volume and pause or skip tracks without unlocking your device, which we love.

Brand New Apps

Most of the new apps are Bing-centric, which makes sense for Microsoft’s clear dedication to all things Bing. The moniker of Bing seems a bit redundant since the apps are obviously powered by the search engine, but you can’t blame a company for tooting its own horn. Besides, each app is gorgeous, works great, and beats the pants off the competition.

Bing News

The Bing News app opens up to the top story of the moment and as you scroll right, you’ll find more top headlines pulled from several different categories. The app bar serves as a way to drill down into specific sources or trends. Of course, you can pin any category or custom topic to your start page for quick access to personalized news feeds.

Bing Travel

Basically a Metro version of the site’s trip planning feature, Bing Travel lets you do research and flight / hotel booking. If you don’t already have a destination in mind, the home page serves to inspire you by displaying a collection of pictures and travel articles from featured destinations. Once you choose a place to visit, the app provides you with plenty of helpful details ranging from maps to weather stats and local prices.

Bing Sports

As you may have guessed, Bing Sports helps you keep track of your favorite sports teams and general news stories in the realm of athletics. A top story is displayed on the home page by default and as you swipe to the right you’ll be greeted by more articles, game schedules, and a place just for you called “Favorite teams.” This section of the app is pretty self-explanatory, type in a team name and you’ll receive personalized information relevant to that team like standings, rosters, player stats, etc. And from the app bar up top, you can filter news stories by sport if you could care less about specific teams.

Conclusion

What do you think? Will Windows 8 be the next big thing or the next big flop? Sound off below!

If you’d like a more in-depth look at the Release Preview, a slideshow of all the apps (new & improved) has been provided for your viewing pleasure.

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Microsoft Small Business Server 2011: A Techie’s First Impressions

Microsoft’s Small Business Server features prominently in my life as an IT consultant. Its combination of Windows Server, Microsoft Exchange and SharePoint at a low price-point makes it a compelling proposition for smaller firms.

Dislike of Windows Vista has resulted in many of my clients continuing to maintain systems running SBS 2003 and Windows XP. Now these products are approaching the end of their support lifecycle, many of them are migrating to SBS 2011 and Windows 7. Now that I have completed the first of these migrations, I am in a position to present my first impressions.

First Impressions of Small Business Server 2011

As with previous incarnations of Small Business Server, SBS 2011 is designed to appear easy to use. In many ways it is, with wizards designed to make frequent tasks such as adding users, configuring software updates and sharing printers simple and intuitive.

As with earlier versions, however, these wizards are running on top of Microsoft’s complex and sophisticated Windows Server and Exchange technologies. While much of the server configuration can be done using the wizards (accessed via the SBS 2011 Administration Console), some essential tasks throw admins way into the server configuration deep-end.

Small Business Server 2011
Small Business Server 2011

As an example, I encountered a complicated feature when I increased the maximum incoming email size from the default. This landed me at the Exchange 2010 command line interface – daunting enough for someone raised on SBS 2003 – and I imagine utterly impenetrable for a non-technical person!

New Features for Admins

The Administration Console provides access to all the key server features and maintains an ongoing “traffic light” style alert system which informs admins of any issues with software updates, security and backups. These alerts link in with daily emails sent to the people in charge of the system to provide quick notification of problems.

I particularly like the fact that SBS 2011 appears to place emphasis on any significant errors listed in the Windows event logs, which encourages administrators to proactively investigate all problems in the continuing quest to obtain green “OK” statuses across the board!

Adding new PCs to the SBS 2011 network is a slick process with better integration than previous versions. For example, if an administrator grants a user delegate access to a mailbox, Outlook picks this up and adds the mailbox to their Outlook folder tree with no client configuration required.

New Features for Users

From a user’s perspective, there is a fair amount of new functionality in this incarnation of Small Business Server. How much users will notice, however, depends on how much of the old functionality they were making use of.

The new remote access portal now provides access to shared files via the Web browser – a valuable enhancement in the “Dropbox age,” and is a compliment to the existing options of remote controlling an office PC, or accessing email via Web-based Outlook. The richly featured Exchange 2010 Outlook Web App now provides this.

At the desktop level, less has changed. Essentially, users access shared files and interface with Exchange via Outlook. SharePoint looks shinier than before, but in my experience, few small businesses actually make much use of it.

Conclusion

In a world where many small businesses are considering a move to the cloud, there’s still a place for Microsoft Small Business Server. It is hugely configurable and delivers enterprise-level IT services at a reasonably competitive price. Businesses just need to make sure they have someone reliable to look after it – there’s still a lot of complexity hidden behind that shiny admin console.