27 December 2012

Windows 8 Redux

The last post on this subject was in late October, just before the release of Windows 8, and several weeks before the release of Deep-Sky Planner 6. Now, just eight weeks later, we have a final test report on Deep-Sky Planner 6 running under Windows 8, and an emerging trend with Windows 8 sales.

First the good news

Testing has revealed no problems with Deep-Sky Planner 6 running under Windows 8 64-bit. It seems that the changes made by Microsoft to Windows didn't really affect Deep-Sky Planner. This developer is delighted not to be headed for the kind of new OS woes that occurred with Vista.

Now, the mixed news

Microsoft hasn't released actual sales figures, but Windows marketing/CFO announced in late November that 40 million licenses were sold in the first month of availability, putting it ahead of Windows 7 sales. This figure is the total number of units shipped to end users, computer manufacturers and retailers. That sounds good for MS, except that the press is full of stories of customers buying new computers with Windows 8 and returning them. We don't know how many of those 40 million units will remain sold. Computer manufacturers have been lamenting the lag in end-of-year sales compared to projections, and product reviews seem to be predominately negative or mixed at best.

Bottom line: fourth quarter 2012 sales reports should be illuminating.

Observations and minor gripes

It is blatantly obvious that the GUI design team wanted to make the UI look like that of a mobile device. Slider switches are used in place of check boxes. Live Tiles are used instead of icons. These are just semantic changes that users can deal with. The changes that seem much harder to defend involve widely used features in Windows 7 that have been obscured or removed from Windows 8.

For example, Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) was available for Windows 7 and did a fine job of scanning, detecting and fixing viruses and malware. MSE is gone in Windows 8. Its capability has been merged into Windows Defender. Ok. Windows Defender gets virus updates and scans for malware, but the scheduler is gone.  If you don't leave your computer on all of the time, it is very likely that your computing time will be interrupted by a Windows Defender security scan. Worse, once you find Windows Defender and run it, you'll find that 'Scheduled scans' is missing from the Settings tab.

The workaround suggested by Microsoft is to use the system task scheduler to set up system scans. Wow. How many average Windows users have ever used the system task scheduler? How did this make it through usability testing? (It wouldn't have passed at Knightware.) You can do scheduled malware scans with Windows 8, but why remove a working scheduler from Windows Defender? Can you remember using any security software that didn't include a scheduling feature? I'd hate to be tech support for that one.

Bonus example: have you figured out how to get Hibernate on your shutdown menu? Mobile devices use Sleep (context saved in RAM, CPU in standby) instead of Hibernate (context saved to storage, storage device powered down, CPU in standby), so there must be no need for Hibernate to be handy. Alas, Hibernate can be configured back into the shutdown menu, but why was it exiled from there by the installer? Another hint that Microsoft really wants the mobile device market, even at the expense of their dominating position in the desktop and laptop market.

The bigger picture: the Start Menu

The trend seen by this author is that users with touch screens find the new Windows 8 UI acceptable, but there is little touchscreen hardware in the Windows user base, and there are very few applications that implement the new capabilities. Most keyboard and mouse users either use a third-party utility (e.g., Start8) to bring the Start Menu back to Windows 8, or they revert back to using Windows 7. Surely some stick with the Windows 8 Start page and learn to deal with it. This author is dealing with it but not liking it.

This suggests that there are 2 very separate high-level use cases for a personal/productivity OSes: the tablet/mobile market, and the desktop/laptop market. This is precisely the model that designers at Apple addressed with two separate products (iOS and Mac OS). Whether Microsoft designers can address these two use cases with a single product remains to be seen. It does raise the very fundamental question of why the Start Menu is not even optional with Windows 8 - it is simply gone.

The market seems to be saying that keyboard and mouse users really want Start Menu back. Touchscreen users can do without. That leaves developers watching carefully to see how this plays out.


The story of Windows 8 will be interesting to watch. If you use Windows, you really should watch the show. In this author's use, Windows 8 rates thusly:

  1. Starts from Sleep almost instantly.
  2. Runs some applications faster.
  3. Start page can be configured so that a very few favorite program tiles are convenient.
  4. Good for children's electronic doodling as shown in a current Windows 8 ad.

  1. UI changes for laptop and desktop installations have made using Windows more clumsy. This affects productivity, and there is not a compelling feature offered in Windows 8 that counteracts the negative impact on productivity. When is Service Pack 1 coming?

22 December 2012

Mobile Astronomy

I continue to be amused at the capabilities emerging for mobile astronomy. While there are several mobile applications available to astronomers with smartphones and tablets, the combination I have at the moment is Deep-Sky Planner on Windows 7 plus either Sky Commander (digital setting circles) or SkySafari Plus (planetarium software) on an Android phone.

I have found that I can use the extensive planning features in Deep-Sky Planner to create observing lists that I can load into Sky Commander or my phone for use with SkySafari. I am working with a push-to telescope (no GoTo).

The Sky Commander option works well for finding asteroids and other objects that aren't in the Sky Commander database. This is actually my favorite option as I have worked in push-to mode for many years with the Sky Commander and printed charts. The greatest drawback with this method is that Sky Commander identifies custom objects with only a sequential ID number. I have to keep track of ID # 1 = asteroid Toutatis, for example. Users of Argo Navis get the text name which is most helpful. Deep-Sky Planner can format custom files for upload into Argo Navis; I just don't have one.

In my use, the SkySafari option is more or less a digital notepad that also shows the sky context in which the object may be found. It works quite well even though I am operating with a few limitations:
  • I am using the intermediate version of SkySafari - not the pro version. The database is not as complete as I sometimes need. Should this become too great a limitation, I can upgrade to Pro.
  • I am using SkySafari on a smartphone. The screen is small, although it is larger than many models (it's a Motorola phone with a 4.3" screen). I don't find that the size of the planetarium view on my phone is sufficient for every target. This may not be a problem at all for others.
  • I do not use telescope control, so I rely on the coordinates given by SkySafari to use with my Sky Commander digital setting circles. I use the same technique when running Deep-Sky Planner on a laptop at the telescope.
Even with these limitations, I am able to take observing lists anywhere, anytime. It doesn't fit my needs for every observing session, but it's so darned handy! I can also log into the Deep-Sky Planner Plan Library and browse hundreds of plans with the browser on my phone. This is a terrific help when the plan prepared for the evening goes awry and a new one would serve better.

If you want to learn more about using a full-featured observing/imaging planner with SkySafari, please see this knowledgebase article on the Knightware website. It walks you through a complete example of using Deep-Sky Planner with SkySafari on an Android phone.

Search menu on SkySafari (Android) shows Custom Observing Lists

Custom list 'RASC Finest NGC Objects' uploaded from Deep-Sky Planner displayed in SkySafari (Android)

16 December 2012

Bernes Bright Nebulae

An observing plan containing Claes Berne's 160 "bright nebulosities in opaque dust clouds" has been uploaded to the Deep-Sky Planner Plan Library. Announcements of new plan uploads are typically made on the Deep-Sky Planner Facebook page, but this plan deserves a little background information.

Dr. Bernes original study appeared in Astronomy and Astrophysics Supplement Series, vol. 29, July 1977, p. 65-70. The study surveyed optical wavelength photographic plates in an effort to list star forming regions. The original article and abstract are available online from SAO/NASA ADS Astronomy Abstract Service.

The 160 entries in  the study contain reflection and emission nebulae, and many Herbig-Haro objects, a special type of emission nebula surrounding young stars. Some of these objects can be observed in moderate sized amateur telescopes, but others require large instruments and/or dedicated CCD imaging equipment. The objects are distributed across the entire sky so that both northern and southern hemisphere observers can observe many of these objects.

The original publication listed positions referred to epoch B1950.0. The uploaded plan includes updated positions (referred to epoch J2000.0), cross references and magnitudes taken from SIMBAD. Object size, relative brightness codes and some cross references are included from the original publication.

These objects are not suitable for novice observers, but they present a nice challenge for observers with moderate to large instruments and deep-sky imagers.