It’s been a heck of a while since I posted. Looking back upon the recent posts, the sad fact is I can count all the posts, written in the past year, on two hands (e.g. 10). Work and real life have become increasingly demanding and time has simply flown by.

I had some free time this weekend; I decided to spend it on this largely neglected space, first deciding to spruce it up, with some visual tweaks to better delineate pieces of content. I am also pretty partial to both minimalist and Material Design trends, so you might see of that here.

The combination of php and css theme files usually mean I fire up Notepad++ and go to town. But, just before I did that, this afternoon, I recalled we recently launched Visual Studio Code, a light-weight, multi-platform editor, with some handy features you’d normally find in an IDE. The full-blown Visual Studio hasn’t risen to the top of my simple web-editing tools list, but Code looked better targeted. A 50MB download and short install later, I was up and running.

For the few hours’ work, I found four handy features that helped me get things done more quickly and with fewer errors that normal:

  1. File management – I opened up the WordPress theme folder, doubled clicked one of the files and was away. I could view the entire context of the theme files and quickly jump from one to another. Autosave made viewing design changes in a browser just that little bit quicker.
  2. Editor layout – Snapping two, even three files side-by-side was very useful, for editing a post template (or two), while simultaneously looking at the CSS stylesheet. I later found out you can accordian-minimize windows and switch between them, to fit even more, side-by-side.
  3. Search – The modified theme this site is based on includes multiple content type templates. I initially cringed at the thought of adding a new styling class to the content div, included in each of these templates (and more likely elsewhere). However, I discovered the global search function, which suddenly made it trivial to update every file that needed touching. On other occasions, searching for classes in the stylesheet is made simple with file search; result locations are denoted in the scroll bar, so you can quickly jump around between instances, as well.
  4. IntelliSense – IntelliSense has helped make countless developers more productive, and by providing it in Code, there are far fewer context switches to peeks at references. It even has highlighting to tell you when one of your styles is rendered ineffectual by some other property you defined.

All in all, I had a bit of fun, cleaned up the theme, and discovered a new favourite WordPress theme editor.

Card-like Design

Microsoft may have helped usher in the trend of “flat” elements in UI with Metro, all the way back in the Zune days, and Google’s take with several pieces of the Android 4.0 experiences had more than a passing resemblance. However, more recently, Google’s manifestation of the principles are evolving, taking some cues from Facebook and Pinterest. Particularly impressive is the information density that they’ve been able to achieve, while maintaining whitespace, cleanliness, and organization. Take a look at Google+.

Google Plus

And, so, as part of design feedback’s cyclical nature, I’m seeing hints of a similar evolution in Microsoft’s recently announced products, over the past couple days. First came the MSN Preview, ushering in a completely new design and information organization scheme. It includes fantastic ties into the cloud-connected experiences I already use on my Windows Phone. For example, the stocks I follow, added to the Bing MSN Finance app on my phone, show up on the MSN portal, automatically.

MSN Preview 2014

Second, Office Delve, launched earlier today, is all about using information and relationships discovered via the Office Graph to surface relevant content and information (primarily in the form of documents and SharePoint content, from what I can tell). Think of it as Google Now, but for your work content. Not only that, its design and organization are similar, as well.

Office Delve

I, for one, quite like the card-like designs that are popping up. The content chunks reflow well for both large, multi-format displays (everything from 16:9 notebooks to 4:3 iPads, as examples) and smaller, portrait displays, like those found on smartphones. The cards are self-contained entities that give the user enough information and quick-action hooks to either dive deeper or move on.

Lumia 900 (mini) Review

On the eve of Nokia’s expected launch of Windows Phone 8 devices, I thought it’d be fitting to briefly review my past several months with a Lumia 900.

Chassis

The Nokia N9 ushered in a new design direction for Nokia’s smartphones, with its unibody, polycarbonate design. The Lumia 800 took that design, nearly as-is, and applied the Windows Phone treatment. Then, before bringing it to North America, Nokia expanded the display to 4.3″, to cater to this demographic. The design is unique, especially in the two less frequently seen colours on other phones, magenta and cyan, and feels extraordinarily solid and high quality in-hand. The chassis wraps around the internals and display in an elongated oval shape, pinched off squarely at the top and bottom. Taking the most conservative route, I chose a black copy.

The combined large sheet of glass and relatively thick polycarbonate shell makes the Lumia 900 relatively heavy. Compared to a Samsung Galaxy S II, also a 4.3″ display smartphone, the Lumia 900 is nearly 40% heavier (albeit also including a larger battery). The battery is not removable, and there’s no back cover at all. Buttons protrude from the right side of the device and headphone, micro-USB, and micro-SIM adorn the top. FCC and other certification notices dot the bottom, leaving the back a smooth landscape, aside from the camera surround brightwork.

It’s not perfect (but nearly is). The bezels (both top/bottom and sides) are wide, so the footprint of the device is larger than it could otherwise be. I’ve become accustomed to it, but picking up the Samsung Focus (4.0″) recently was surprisingly positive, for both size and weight. Furthermore, unlike the Lumia 800’s absolutely stunning curved display, which flows effortlessly from the curved chassis, the display on the 900 is flat, and furthermore, it’s bordered by a raised, plastic edge, which appears to be needed to help hold the display in place, within the chassis. For the side-to-side flicking that’s a significant part of Windows Phone (the panoramic apps), it makes itself painfully apparent.

Here’s to hoping the future phones trim the bezels and, at the very least, remove the protrusions around the display.

Display

The Lumia 900 has a 4.3″ ClearBlack AMOLED display. It’s a WVGA (800×480) panel, with a standard RGB subpixel structure. Compared to the multitude of high end phones with 1280×720 displays recently, it’s not as sharp, but the regular subpixel matrix helps sharpness, and I prefer it over the same resolution, but Pentile 4.0″ AMOLED display of my Samsung Focus. Perhaps once we have 720p displays, it’ll be a case of trying to go back to an iPad 2 from the new iPad’s display (i.e. you cannot), but for now, I’m content with the display quality.

The polarizer that plays a part in the “ClearBlack” naming makes outdoor use more than tolerable. However, as a result, it appears to impact how close the panel itself is to the surface of the glass. Especially since I have a Lumia 800 to compare against, the 900 doesn’t showcase the same effect of the picture nearly “floating” on the surface of the glass. Thankfully, it has some resistance to fingerprints and only requires a quick wipe (or some time riding in a pocket) to be cleaned.

Overall, the display is pretty nice, colours are oversaturated, but, as a result, make the Windows Phone tiles pop, and the AMOLED nature makes the blacks meld into the bezels, creating a nice, seamless display effect.

Camera

I’m a photo junkie, so I’m always interested in the photography capabilities of the cameras in these smartphones. The rear one in the Lumia 900 isn’t so impressive.

Part of that has to do with the sensor itself. While I haven’t been able to dig up the actual part number to take a look at its exact characteristics, empirical evidence shows that it’s likely a fairly small one, replete with poor high-ISO performance (and even noisy shadows at low ISO). It’s apparently not backside-illuminated, like the iPhone 4S’s, for example, and despite the Carl Zeiss branding, the lens (no matter how good) can’t elevate the sensor’s performance to above average.

With the recent 8779 Windows Phone update and the associated Nokia update, two issues are fixed. 1. exposure is now weighted around the focus point, during touch-to-focus. 2. white balance seems to be significantly improved.

However, several issues remain. Autofocus accuracy tends to be poor in difficult lighting conditions. For example, when photographing a peach on a tree, with a shadow across it, I could not get a single in-focus shot, after trying perhaps 5 or 6 times, instead, focusing on the leaves well behind it (both normal and macro modes attempted). Dynamic range is limited, so taking photos in bright conditions usually results in blown-out skies or very dark foregrounds. If you’re careful with the direction of the photo (versus the sun) and now that exposure can be weighted around the focus point, it’s possible to get some pretty good shots.

This is one area I’d love to see improved on future iterations of Nokia’s WP lineup. If the PureView rumours have any grounding in reality, I will be extremely excited.

Performance

Windows Phone isn’t setting any benchmark records, and its hardware is now a couple generations behind leading edge. That said, Windows Phone has a penchant for making good use of the hardware at its disposal, producing fluid animations, little delay in action-reaction, and enables a good experience on reasonably-priced hardware.

The Windows Phone soft keyboard consistently remains one of the best typing experiences I’ve ever had on a touchscreen. Autocorrect is active, but not overwhelming, unintentionally “correcting” words. The IE web browser is good, but sometimes get tripped up by headers, paragraph styling. You can sometimes see this in odd-looking font sizes, for example.

Compared to my Samsung Focus, which uses a Qualcomm QSD8250 1GHz SoC, the Lumia’s QC MSM8255 at 1.4GHz (and not to mention a GPU nearly twice as quick) is noticeably faster, especially when it comes to loading applications and scrolling through lists in some applications (e.g. Facebook).

While the day to day operations of phone are rarely hampered by the quick single core SoC, the generational leap to something quite a bit more powerful with this first generation of Windows Phone 8 devices will unblock the few remaining obstacles to a completely fast and fluid experience.

Wrap Up

No, the Lumia 900 (nor any current generation Windows Phone) will not get an upgrade to Windows Phone 8. It’ll be stuck on WP7.8 for the foreseeable future. However, at its current $49 price on contract, it simply represents a solid phone with a unique design and quality. Windows Phone’s guidelines and closer software-hardware integration means you’re getting a high quality smartphone experience.

Next for Nokia, whatever they launch on September 5 (looks to be a Lumia 820 and Lumia 920), I’m hoping they add a bit of polish to a solid product. The unibody design is fantastic to hold, lends durability, and looks great (not to mention, can be made into all sorts of wacky colours). Simply by the capabilities enabled by Windows Phone 8, a number of hardware features will reach at least parity with other operating system (multi-core SoC’s, high resolution displays). Hopefully the PureView rumours pan out and the smartphone camera reaches new heights of photography.

Not much longer now.

A New Outlook(.com)

Outlook.com, a preview of Microsoft’s new webmail experience, launched last week to some pretty positive commentary.

Design and layout

Over the past couple years, the Hotmail team made some changes to the user experience of the webmail client. However, it still had numerous design challenges, like multiple layers of action/navigation toolbars, colour gradients, and too many borders and lines explicitly dividing the page (busy). It was distracting from the main purpose of the experience, reading and writing emails.

Outlook.com

Outlook.com significantly reduces these extraneous visual flairs and simplifies the interface significantly. The search box is now located where you navigate through folders (it used to be top-right, above the email previews for some reason), the header has been reduced in height to free up space for content, and the multiple rows of navigation links have been reduced to a single, context-aware set.

The focus is on content, and that’s great.

Organizing Email

I don’t receive a whole ton of email, but they do range from personal emails to newsletters from some store or another. The sweep and mailbox cleanup functions are fantastic for clearing the inbox out of old, crusty content. Then, to further tease out the really important emails, there are some predefined filter views, which will highlight shipping notifications (tracking numbers), emails with document or photo attachments, or any other flagged content.

Again, it’s about breaking through

The Sidebar

Ads have become far less intrusive this time around. In Hotmail, ads were colourful, prominent and irrelevant. That’s the most basic and crude way of getting someone’s attention, but almost always, it did so in a negative sense.

In Outlook.com, the focus appears to be on surfacing deals. There is only a limited attempt to make these relevant (and in fact, Outlook.com says it’s explicitly not reading personal emails, only newsletters, which is a pretty good indicator as well). It appears to occupy a similar amount of space on the right-hand side of the screen, compared to Hotmail’s ads.

It occupies this area until you move into an email from a human. Then, the ad suddenly transforms into the sender’s latest social update, if you’ve linked something like Facebook or Twitter with your Microsoft Account. (Ads only appear when no email is selected or the email is from a mailing list, newsletter, etc.) It’s a pretty neat feature, certainly much more contextual and relevant than the ads. There are inline buttons that allow you to take action on their updates, but for the most part, open up a new tab to the service’s site to perform the action. Facebook “Likes” appears to be an exception, and can be done without leaving your emails.

Other

Then, there’s the little message bubble icon that will replace all that with an integrated Messenger sidebar. You can kick off conversations, stylized in the Windows Phone or Windows 8 app manner. It fits well and feels integrated, as opposed to the little floating windows at the bottom of the page. Even more, message history can be saved into a folder.

Also more publicized than before is the idea of email aliases. If you don’t want to give out your primary email address, you can create an alias, which can be filtered to a subfolder. You can then send email from either the primary email account or from the alias. It’s simple way of keeping your private and more public identities somewhat separate, but conveniently access it all from a single interface.

Now, go on, give it a try, or upgrade your Hotmail account!