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Scott's Column
Blog, Web Development, Flash Application, New Laptop

October 1, 2006
By Scott Lewis

Things are getting too busy, and they will be getting worse. It has gotten to the point I don't think I can keep up with all of it in this column. This month I will tell you about about my new laptop, web development, creating a Flash application, and some gaming information. However, I did not have room for a MSDN event I attended in Austin, starting a new ASP.NET 2.0 book, Windows Vista Release Candidate 1 (RC!) testing, photo album software testing and building a web site based on my Mini Cooper.

Blogging

The answer to my problem is using a blog (web log) to supplement this site. I have thought about a blog on a couple of occasions. The problem I have with blogs in general is that there are a lot of blogs out there that don't get updated. I would not want that to happen. This column forces me to be creative at least once a month. Blogs don't rely on regular updates... but they do rely on updating. Could I maintain a blog that would actually get updated on a semi-regular basis.

Another personal problem I have with blogs relates to how journalists use them as another form of corporate meandering, something I hope I would not be competing with. When a professional has a blog I largely assume it is at the direction of their employer who wants the eyes on the advertising that are on those blog pages.

When I decided to start a blog I initially started three. One on Blogger, one on Microsoft's Spaces and one on Wordpress. It was quickly apparent that Microsoft's was far more complicated and busy looking than the other two. It also puts banner ads on people's "spaces." Yuck!

I am thinking about sticking with Wordpress, but I have a few concerns. 1) Wordpress is more complicated, but it trades that off by having a lot more options. Blogger is easier, but they have a beta that looks like it is going to compete directly with Wordpress, so I assume more options will mean more complicated. The biggest issue with Blogger is that you can't assign your posts to categories. Since I mix my topics up I would like to have a blog that allows people to look at teh posts related to Windows Vista without scrolling through a bunch of information on the gas mileage I get with my Mini Cooper.

For the moment, here are the two current blogs:

Scott's Blog on Wordpress   
Scott's Blog on Blogger   

Check them out and let me know what you think about them. I hope my blog will supplement this web site, particularly this column. I would like to think that my blog will take advantage of this web site to help tell what I am doing. Please give me your feedback.

Gaming

I have a ton of information about gaming, but it is because of the new laptop you are about to read about. I will save most of the information until next month (and/or put it in my blog). This month I want to talk about Need For Speed Most Wanted and Max Payne. I am doing the career play in NFSMW as well as playing my son across our home network. He plays on my desktop while I play on the laptop. It is very cool. Max Payne is working on my laptop... when I can borrow my son's mini-mouse to attach to my laptop.

I have one big complaint and a few nits to pick at NFSMW. The biggest complaint is that there are no cops in LAN play. This is very disappointing. When my son and I play Need For Speed Hot Pursuit on his GameCube we can race each other in split screen mode and there are other cars with us as well as the police chasing us. I haven't been able to figure out how to have more people or police involved in the LAN games.

Now to the nits: 1) The games does get a bit monotonous. Some of the race challenges are boring, while others are just too difficult. The Difficult ones are mostly the ones where you have to drive under a symbol at a certain minimum speed. Some of the speed traps just have too much traffic and turns to get up to the necessary speed. 2) The cars do not seem to handle different enough. Buying better tires should make a noticeable difference in the grip of the car in corners. It doesn't seem to make enough of a difference. 3) Rain does nothing to the handling of the cars. I like the idea of rain, but the roads should be slippery when wet... for you and the competition. 4) The cars don't take any damage. That's right.. you can crash into anything and everything and you drive along like normal. In fact, crashing through every single street light doesn't seem to slow you down much at all. In Need For Speed High Stakes your car sustained damage that impacted your performance. If you banged up your car too much your speed and handling suffered to the point of losing races. Also, you had to pay to repair your car before you could buy upgrades in NFSHS. This was really cool. I miss it.

I am playing my way through Max Payne as well. When I can borrow my son's tiny laptop mouse (A freebie I got at work and gave to him) I will play Max Payne. Overall it is pretty cool. It is just a First Person Shooter (FPS), but they are trying to add this big storyline to it. Overall I have noticed you can ignore the information in the plot. You can't advance the game until you shoot the people necessary to move on. It kind of defeats the purpose when you have absolutely no control over the storyline. However, I appreciate just shooting bad guys with guns instead of mutant creatures from some mad scientist's experiments. I do wish the bad guys were smarter, though. Maybe that will happen in Max Payne 2.

Next month I will have more on gaming... with the new laptop.

Web Development

I installed Microsoft's new Expression products. Well, at least the Expression Web Designer and the Expression Graphic Designer. I plan to play around with these. I am hoping that these products are made available on MSDN. I know they are geared more toward the business/artistic side of the web design world, but they look promising that I want to use them for myself.

I am thinking about starting up my web tool comparison again. In my November 2005 column I started comparing FrontPage to Dreamweaver and Nvu. Dreamweaver is too complicated for my humble needs, and Nvu didn't seem ready to be a true "site manager" instead of a GUI HTML editor. FrontPage 2000 has been doing just fine for me. However, as I play around with more advanced CSS (Cascade Style Sheets) FrontPage is getting long in the tooth. Microsoft has stated that Expression Web Designer is not an upgrade to FrontPage, but an all new product. That may be true, but there is no FrontPage in Office 2007. Without FrontPage we can conclude that EWD is definitely going to replace FrontPage in Microsoft's lineup.

I am thinking about biting the bullet and pitting Expression Web Designer against Dreamweaver. I came across a web site, LearnWebDevelopment.com, that has an Introduction to Dreamweaver MX 2004 tutorial. I don't want to spend a fortune on training for something I will only use casually, but this course is only $27. It might be worth it. 

My First Flash Application

My wife came across a Flash version of the classic Hangman game. You all know it... you have to guess the word by picking letters. Like Wheel of Fortune, but with only one word and no money. My wife teaches third grade and wanted a custom version of this program that she can enter the words. So I wrote a version myself.

I struggled with Flash. It is not intuitive how you have to code in it. But I got through it. It did wet my appetite to really learn Flash. I was thinking about the tutorials from LearnFlash.com, the same place that has the Introduction to Dreamweaver above, but they want nearly $200 for the Intro to Flash course... with mentoring. They don't have a price without the mentoring. My appetite is not that wet.

Here is a copy of my own Flash Hangman game. It has a small list of works. The list of words is the biggest issue. I could use some kind of dictionary list or a list in a database, but that would require a bit more programming. Currently it chooses randomly from a list of 25 words. The version that I created for my wife reads from files. I put a drop down list on the game to select a week (1-34). Each week will grab a different file. My wife can edit these files to put in the words she is teaching that week. Overall it works pretty well. If I get ambitious I may do the database of words (or even use phrases... it's the spaces that will be an issue for display). If I do that I will have to host it myself... or get a web hosting service that supports a database. I am actually thinking about getting a hosting service again and getting back my domain. I have found one hosting place that will host a site that includes .NET and database access for only $4 a month. Not bad. I will be looking into this. I surely need to get busy building my skills on web design with Visual Studio 2005.

I have kept you waiting long enough, it's time to tell you about...

Another New Laptop

It was too much. I could not keep myself from reading online reviews of laptops that would be good for gaming. I ended up buying a laptop. But which one did I get? I would love to get the Dell XPS M1710. However, we talked my son out of an Alienware laptop he wanted just for its looks. We matched the Alienware system to a Dell E1505 for $360 less for my son. I bought the Toshiba P105-S9312 for myself. Here's the thinking that went into that purchase.

I didn't want to be a hypocrite and get the XPS system just because it looked cool. It does, with cool lights pouring out of the vents and speaker grills as well as a light-up touch pad. However, the XPS does come with an awesome 17" screen with a resolution of 1920x1200. This is higher than High Definition 1080i or 1080p (1920x1080). Dell's E1705 laptop and Toshiba's P105-S9312 (available at CompUSA) both have a 17" display with a resolution of 1440x900. However, I did some digging later and discovered that the UXGA option that is available on the Dell E1705 is the same 1920x1200 screen on the XPS M1710.

How important is that HD resolution on a laptop? I decided it was not that important, and in fact might be a hindrance. I am certainly not going to be watching HDTV on the laptop, and DVD movies are only 852x480 anyway. None of these laptops come with HD-DVD or BlueRay, so I think it would be overkill for me. Icons and fonts on Windows are going to look tiny at 1920x1200... that is until Windows Vista comes out and they have truly scalable fonts and graphic objects (I have tested this feature of Vista and it should be great for such a monitor). Plus, with the more moderate resolution games should play better for quite a while. I would hate to see how slow the GeForce 7900 GS running @ 1920x1200 would be with the latest games three year from now. In fact, ExtremeTech recently reviewed Dell's 2407WFP 24 inch LCD monitor which has a native resolution of 1920x1200, and they had this interesting comment, "Many new games don't run too well at 1920x1200 without some real serious graphics hardware, so we had to run some at a lower widescreen resolution and let the panel handle the scaling, which it did quite well." Keep in mind this was a review of a DESKTOP monitor and they could throw the fastest graphics hardware at it. 1920x1200 in a laptop will be an issue for performance in gaming in the future... as well as now.

Let's take a look at all three laptops in detail. Since the Toshiba is sold by CompUSA without options I decided to match the two Dells to it. Apples to apples if that's possible.

Dell XPS M1710
Core Duo T2500
2 GB Memory @667MHz
120GB 5400 RPM Drive
GeForce Go 7900 GS (256MB)
17" 1920x1200
Double Layer DVD+/-RW
9-cell Lithium Ion Battery
Windows XP Media Center
1 Year Warranty

$2,600
Dell E1705
Core Duo T2500
2 GB Memory @533MHz
200GB 4200 RPM Drive
GeForce Go 7900 GS (256MB)
17" 1440x900
Double Layer DVD+/-RW
9-cell Lithium Ion Battery
Windows XP Home
3 Year Warranty

$2,330
Toshiba P105-S9312
Core Duo T2500
2 GB Memory @667MHz
200GB 4200 RPM Drive
GeForce Go 7900 GS (256MB)
17" 1440x900
Double Layer DVD+/-RW
9-cell Lithium Ion Battery
Windows XP Professional
2 Year Warranty

$2,098


NOTES: 1) All prices were current on August 4th, when I made this chart... and I did not go back and see what happened to the prices later. I didn't want to get buyer's remorse. 2) The day after I bought the Toshiba, Dell lowered the price and increased the specs of the XPS M1710 (which is reflected above). Before buying the Toshiba I did an apple to apple comparison of the XPS to the P105 and the Dell was $2900. When I made the chart above Dell's XPS came out better... but still not good enough as you can see. The XPS system is a serious premium over the Toshiba.

The Dell E1705 is the real problem. I remember pricing it out at a little more than $200 over the Toshiba, a few days before I made my purchase. But I can't remember which screen I configured on the E1705. Since I learned just after getting the Toshiba that the E1705 from Dell could be had with the same 1920x1200 screen as the XPS I thought I should address that here. When I made the chart above after buying the Toshiba, Dell's site changed around some options and made it confusing which package was best. Regardless the E1705 loses big time here. As you can see it was more than $200 higher. But wait... you are thinking about that three year warrantee. Is the extra year worth $232. Well, that would assume that I really did match up the E1705 to the P105-S9312. Since I can load my MSDN copy of Windows XP Professional, I did not include that $149 upgrade for the Dell. Also, the E1705 comes with SLOWER memory. 533MHz vs. 677MHz for the Toshiba and the XPS systems. The 677MHz upgrade on the E1705 was a whopping $350. Ouch! So really, to make this a true apples to apples comparison the Dell E1705 should be priced at $2829. That puts it above the XPS system... without the UXGA screen... which would be another $149 upgrade. Granted, the XPS vs. E1705 could be made closer by swapping the 120 GB drive for the 200 GB drive which reduces the price of the E1705 by $225. If we matched the E1705 to the XPS exactly as above the E1705 would be $2,633 but still included a much better warrantee.

In the end I saw the Toshiba as the best bang for the buck. I really didn't want to go over $2,000, but I wanted the extra warrantee with the Toshiba. I could have gotten away with spending $1,849 if I was willing to live with a one year warrantee. I NEVER would have thought I would buy a laptop with the intent to do serious gaming. The Toshiba smokes through games. As a gaming laptop my only concern is the widescreen. Many games do not support wide screen resolutions. Need For Speed Most Wanted only goes up to 1024x768. Plus I don't know how common my 1440x900 resolution will be. I am hoping that the resolution will be less of an issue in the future as more and more wide screen systems get out there.

Overall I am very pleased with the Toshiba. It looks very nice. The "TruBrite" screen is somewhat reflective, but as long as I don't have a bright light source behind me is looks excellent. I really do like the widescreen. I leave windows open more, each sized reasonably so I can see more applications at once.

The Toshiba has a unique feature that may be its biggest downfall. The P105 has a "full size" keyboard WITH A NUMERIC KEYPAD. This is very unusual for a laptop. However, when they added the keypad they had to jam the arrow keys in somewhere and that is where the problem starts. If you look at the picture you can see that they squeezed the dedicated arrow keys in to encroach on the Enter key. This also squeezes the size of the spacebar, enter key, shift key and period. You can also see where they added a second backslash (\) key. I guess this was to provide a symmetrical appearance. As it is I tend to use the arrow, home, end, page up and page down keys from the numeric key pad. I rarely hit Num Lock to use the keypad for entering numbers. Finally, there is no dedicated Home and End keys... just the ones that are part of the numeric keypad. I have found this arrangement does not work on some things and have had to page down until reaching the end of something when the Ctrl-End key combination should work.

The back of the screen is a nice, almost metallic looking orange. It looks like anodized aluminum. Very slick! My son loves the Longhorns (University of Texas), and the laptop looks like it should be a Longhorn laptop. Maybe I can find a Longhorn decal to apply to the laptop. Because of the orange color and the fact that I tend to name my computers for superheroes, I named the Toshiba Aquaman. Maybe I should forego the Longhorn symbol for a green pin stripe.

Performance is excellent. I was doing a bunch of work and didn't even realize that my anti-virus program was doing a full scan... that is until it popped up the results window. For the first time that I can remember I finally moved my e-mail from my desktop computer to my laptop. Wow! This is serious. At this point my desktop is going to become more or less a game machine. I still keep Microsoft Money and our budget in an Excel spreadsheet on the desktop. I may or may not change this. It is easy enough for my wife and I to balance our check book if it is in a place we both can get to easily. I'll have to give this some thought. The extra resolution of the laptop makes the spreadsheet easier to fill out.

I have loaded all my development tools on the laptop. This includes Visual Studio 2005. I tried the Express editions of Microsoft's tools with my old laptop, but now it is time to get serious. I really need to start learning about building advanced E-Commerce sites so I can do web development at work.

Regrets

Do I have any regrets? I do get a little concerned that I should have waiting for Windows Vista to come installed on a laptop. But it does not bother me too much. I will load Vista on this laptop as soon as I know I will be able to get its touchpad and wireless connection to work. I was a little more concerned with Intel's Core 2 Duo CPUs. This laptop is a Core Duo (in essence... 1). But I read this little blurb when reading CNet's review of the Core 2 Duo equipped XPS M1710, "But with the same graphics card as its predecessor, this new version of the XPS M1710 doesn't realize any gains in gaming performance." With a statement like that I guess I don't have any regrets.

Conclusion

Well, that was another long column. Check the blogs for tid-bits on what's coming here.

Until then, happy gaming.

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