Trog Bar Outlook Add-On

Trog Bar

I recently installed a pretty cool add on for Microsoft Outlook called Trog Bar. Not only does it offer some nice features that Outlook alone doesn't have, but it wraps a nice task management system as well.

To the left you can see what Trog Bar looks like. It docks to the edge of the screen, and can be set to autohide if desired. Across the top are quick links to mail, calendar, task list, contacts, compose, and send/receive.

The calendar is great for the simple reason that you can specify more than one calendar to show events for. The fact that the Outlook To-Do bar would only show events from one calendar always drove me crazy. I have a personal account and a work account that uses Exchange, and Outlook will only show one. People have been asking for this simple feature for years. It's great to see someone add this.

The main area is your task list. You can quickly search, view all tasks, view complete tasks, incomplete tasks, etc. If you use Outlook's categories option, you can also assign categories to tasks and view the list by category. Last but not least is a view called Task Sense. Trog Bar has some nice algorithms that populate this list automatically to show the most likely tasks to do at the current time. More on this in a moment. (And no, the tasks shown here aren't my tasks, I grabbed this screen shot off of the product page. Feed mammoth??)

The notepad lets you quickly type in new tasks and store them as "unprocessed". It's very easy to fire off tasks into this application (as it should be). When you have more time, you can click on the Unprocessed Tasks link to show the tasks that still need "processing".

If that sounds annoying or time consuming, don't worry, it isn't. Processing new tasks is really easy. You just click the task to open the task editor (see below).

For a task to be processed, you have to enter in a due date and ideally one or more Categories (think Tags) and Projects (a parent task containing multiple child tasks). This takes about 10 seconds, and then you save it. That's it. The way Trog Bar works is largely based on the Due Date you specify. It is smart enough to treat the Due Date as both a target date as well as an indicator of the urgency of the task. So you are free to treat it as a sort of strength indicator if you choose.

Trog Bar task editor

The Task Sense list seems largely based on this "urgency value". In other words, if you set the Due Date for two weeks later, it isn't that "worried" about you actually doing it on that date (though you can, of course). Instead, this is an indicator that the task is probably of medium-ish priority, and it places it in the Task Sense list accordingly. Three weeks out, lower priority. One week out, higher priority. You get the idea.

It is also has some extra configuration options which, if you choose to set them up, make this list more accurate. For example, you can define a category as an "80/20" category, meaning 80% result for 20% effort. In other words, biggest return on investment. Task Sense will rank these higher in your list. You can also set up an additional calendar containing high-level time blocks, like 8-5 M-F is Work, 6-12 is Home, etc. If tasks with a corresponding Work tag are created, Task Sense will weight them higher between 8 and 5, and Home tasks between 6 and 12. The point being that it builds up the Task Sense list in a fairly intelligent way.

Anyway, I've been using it for a few weeks now and I really like it. First, it is a handy, souped-up version of the Outlook To-Do bar. Second, it is a rapid task entry and organization tool. And third, it does a pretty good job of predicting and showing you relevant tasks at the right time.

The full version costs $35, and there is a free 30 day trial version available. To be clear, I'm not getting a free copy or anything, and am not affiliated in any way with the folks who make it. I just found it useful enough that it seemed worth a blog entry. ;-)

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66% Performance Improvement for Almost Any Desktop System for $279

I was recently contemplating the purchase of a new workstation, since my current system is about two years old. After some research, I ended up choosing NOT to buy a new system just yet, for a few reasons. Read on for an explanation of why, and how a small upgrade kicked up my system performance by two-thirds.

The main reason for the purchase delay has to do with SATA-III. While this new disk connection standard supports up to 6 Gb/sec transfer, and SATA-II is 3 Gb/sec, the reality is that right now the 6 Gb/sec speed is unusable in real life. No traditional hard drive comes close to saturating the SATA-II bandwidth, and they will NEVER get into SATA-III transfer speed due to the physical limitation of the spinning platters. And even the new solid state drives (SSDs) barely fill up the 3 Gb/sec pipe, and come nowhere close to 6 Gb/sec. So spending a bunch of money on a SATA-III motherboard and SATA-III drives is pointless right now.

Over the next 6 months or so, this will change. New SSDs will come out that have faster transfer, and more space, for decreasing price. But until an SSD comes out that actually uses the new bandwidth limit, SATA-III is little more than a marketing gimmick. Once they finally get to the SATA-III speed then I will reconsider.

In the meantime, what I did instead was drop about $279 on a new 600 Gb Western Digital Velociraptor drive. These spin at 10,000 RPM, compared to the normal 7,200 RPM, and this is the fastest non-SSD hard drive on the market. They are roughly 66% faster than a normal drive, basically approaching standard drives in RAID-0. Also, at 600 Gb in size, it can hold my existing system partition (which is about 400 Gb). It came with a program called Arconis TrueImage, so I used it to clone my existing 1 Tb system drive onto the 600 Gb Velociraptor, then pull out the old system drive and put the new drive in its place. Windows 7 boots from the new drive without knowing the difference. The cloning process took about an hour and worked perfectly. So I'm now running off of the 600 Gb drive.

Speed-wise, it's a big difference. I did a few real-world tests:

  • I timed the system boot time from POST until the desktop was fully loaded. By fully loaded I don't just mean seeing the desktop, but having ALL desktop widgets loaded, ALL system tray icons loaded, and until the CPU activity drops back to idle usage. It went from 180 seconds before to 110 seconds after. Result: 63% improvement.
  • I timed launching and building large Eclipse workspace. It went from 56 seconds before to 35 seconds after, a 60% improvement.

So basically, for $279 I've boosted my system speed by nearly two-thirds. That's pretty crazy, considering that swapping the CPU for a faster i7 or going from 1333 to 1600 RAM would probably only generate a 5% or 10% increase, and would cost way more than $279.

The surprising lesson is apparently: do NOT underestimate the impact that a really fast hard drive will have! This should be a nice boost to carry me forward until the SSDs get faster, bigger and cheaper.

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An Awesome Alternative to a Traditional Mouse

Like most of you, I sit in front of a computer for a large part of my day. Over time, sitting and working on the computer has caused me varying physical issues, like back, wrist, and elbow pain. To alleviate this, I bought a desk with an adjustable height, an ergonomic keyboard, and an Aeron chair. These have helped greatly. But the one issue that kept coming back was wrist pain. I tried several types of mice, with varying shapes, but none of them dealt completely with the issue. For me, a big part of the discomfort in my hand and elbow came from constantly reaching over for the mouse, as well as gripping it. It might sound silly to some, but when you do this thousands of times, it adds up!

Then, about six months ago, I found a blurb about the RollerMouse Free on some tech site. Having used it daily for a while, I can say that this mouse is an excellent option to a traditional mouse.

The RollerMouse sits directly under your keyboard, just past the space bar. To control the cursor, you roll a bar up, down, and side to side. It sounds bizarre, but it works very nicely and was easy to get used to. The bar moves very smoothly, and is very accurate. You can easily move it with your thumbs, and you barely have to move your hands off the keyboard, or you can use your fingertips. Either way, it's far better than reaching over for a normal mouse.

I still keep a regular mouse as well, but I use it pretty infrequently (except for gaming!). This odd new RollerMouse is the workhorse now. I just wanted to mention this device in case anyone else has similar problems and was frustrated trying to solve them. I was uncertain about how this thing would work out, but it really does work well. There's a video at the product web site which shows how it works in more detail, if you're interested to see it in action.

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Upgrading from Vista to Windows 7 (And How to Deal with Warnings about iTunes)

Last night I crossed my fingers and upgraded my Vista Professional workstation to Windows 7 Ultimate. I have multiple backups, including Mozy, Windows Backup every night, and a Windows Complete PC Backup (essentially a disk image) every week. As a result, I was very confident that even if all hell broke loose I could restore things quickly. Happily, the upgrade went smoothly and Windows 7 is running great. All of my programs and settings were migrated perfectly.

The upgrade compatibility analysis at the beginning highlighted two potential problems that I dealt with. First, I run two ATI Radeon 4850 video cards to power my three monitors for work, but I enable CrossfireX when gaming, which disables the two outer monitors and puts all the GPU power into the center screen. Windows 7 warned me that my ATI drivers might be a problem after the upgrade. So I simply uninstalled the existing ATI drivers, ran the upgrade, and the installed the Windows 7 64-bit ATI Catalyst drivers after the upgrade. Everything works fine.

The other item flagged was iTunes. I did some research, and it turns out that Apple appears to be using an older and/or unsigned GEAR driver in iTunes. This has to do with CD/DVD recording/burning. I'm not sure why they would do this, but there is an updated driver available at the GEAR Software site. I installed that update and then proceeded with the Windows upgrade, and everything works fine after the update finishes. So if you're getting this warning and want to be sure it won't mess anything up afterwards, I'd install the updated driver.

Overall, Windows 7 is very nice. It looks better than Vista and has many new features like the taskbar, improved Explorer interface, better window management, etc. I'd been using Vista for about 10 months and unlike most people I never had any real issues with it, it worked just fine with no crashes or problems. Even so, the new Windows is definitely an improvement as things seem snappier, and the enhancements are welcome. So as long as your backups are up-to-date and you look over any upgrade warnings carefully, I'd definitely recommend installing it. Hopefully this entry might help others who see these types of warnings, especially the iTunes one.

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My Take on Mac vs. PC

At Broadchoice, everyone uses a Mac. Except me. In fact, it seems like just about everyone in the programming world is jumping onto the Mac bandwagon. Which is fine, I say use whatever you think works best for you. However, that's usually not good enough. When I tell someone I work on an XP box, the floodgates of hate open! Well, not really HATE, but people sure are happy to let you know what they think of Windows and why Macs are so utterly superior. And I've got to tell you, it makes me feel like this:

It can be downright depressing being a "poor PC guy"! It might be blasphemy in this day and age, but I like my PC. It runs just fine. It never crashes. I've got everything set up on it just how I want it, and I'm talking about a lot of stuff: games, development tools, servers (ColdFusion, JBoss, etc.), databases, and all the rest. I don't really want to have to go through all that effort again just to say I'm working off a Mac. Plus, not to brag, but my PC is a monster. 500 GB RAID 0, 4 GB RAM, 4 GHz dual-core Athlon 64, dual GeForce 8600's. And for display:

Yes, that is three 19 inch LCDs. And I use them all, all of the time. I know the Mac has Spaces but its not the same thing. I can actually see everything instead of having to switch to different spaces. I know that I am completely spoiled by this setup but it results in very high productivity for me.

Now compare that to the admittedly very nice Macbook Pro that Broadchoice set me up with:

Yes, it's very nice. Yes, I like OS X. I have nothing against Macs, it's just not my preference. I have this set up with my basic tools and applications. I use it when I'm traveling or presenting, or whenever I'm not at my desk. But surely it wouldn't surprise anyone that I would prefer to work on my very well-appointed PC workstation than on this 15" Macbook.

So please Mac folks, stop giving people the third degree just because they are actually fine working on a PC! I get it, you love your Macs. But seriously, the attitude is starting to go from enthusiastic to arrogant and overbearing.

So I'll open the floodgates to see what the Mac folks have to say, as well as to see if there are any other PC users who feel like they are supposed to be ashamed of daring to use a Windows-based system.

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