Reviews are supposed to be helpful

So I’m watching a short little comparison/review video to find out more about a new-to-me Linux distro. And they’re comparing it to a distro I’m familiar with, so that’s helpful.
But the caliber of the reviewing is leaving something to be desired.


Distro A has a very Windows 10-esque interface, with a solid-black bottom bar that has an application menu (in text/list form) with a search box on it, and icons for apps (not sure if those are running, pinned, or both) running along the bottom on the left, and notifications and widgets on the bottom to the right, at least one of which can launch a panel that slides in from the right with more details. Window chrome is a little bit more macOS-like, with categories on the left rather than a tree, but fairly plain and traditional these days.
Solus Budgie default desktop with application menu visible Solus Budgie default desktop with file browser visible
So, it basically looks like Windows 10 without the Metro touches, Windows 7, or Windows Vista with less transparency.
The reviewer describes it as a “very modern interface”.
Distro B has a more iPad-esque interface, with a translucent top bar for notifications and widgets (on the right), a HUD for searching, a translucent panel on the left that serves as an application dock, and when you open up the application launcher you get a grid of large icons overlaid on the middle of the screen. File browser windows make me think a little bit of macOS: some categories pinned on the left side, a few view/control buttons on the top, but also a file path style display of location.
ubuntu default desktop ubuntu application picker ubuntu search heads-up-display with results ubuntu file browser
The reviewer describes it as a “very modern interface”.

What is “Modern”?

Beyond having a graphical desktop and some panels/menubars arrayed around it, some of which are always visible and some of which can be shown only when needed, there’s very little in common between these two. What even does “modern” mean, in this context? I would’ve thought something more iOS- or Android-esque (Distro B) would be more “modern” in the context of GUI design than something that is basically just a modest evolution of the 2001 Mac GUI (Windows 10, and therefore Distro A).
Unless we’re going with the formal art movement definition and they don’t mean “modern” but “Modern”, in which case Windows 8 is arguably the most Modern GUI with any real market awareness, what with the vast slabs of bright solid colors, flatness, and lack of skeuomorphic elements or even visual cues. And neither of these distros really look anything like that.


This is one of those reviewers who is “scoring” the things they’re comparing. So for each category, they decide which one “wins”. On the GUI front, the reviewer, after going on about how great both GUIs are, and acknowledging that UI has a significant subjective component, declares Distro A the winner. It’s not really supported by what they said, but neither is it contradicted. But I guess someone has to win, right?
Then we get to stability. They talk about how Distro A is pretty new but seems to be stable enough (with no substantiation for the claim). They then gush for several minutes straight about how amazingly stable Distro B is, and how it’s the distro that people use when they want a server that absolutely must not fail ever, and how Distro B has recently extended long-term support from 5 years to 10, and how the reviewer has used Distro B for years for critical production work and never had a problem.
They declare this a tie, awarding a point to each distro.

Mind you, I’m watching this for the info they’re summing up, not their personal opinion. I know that I can’t get a full overview of a Linux distro in a <10-min video. And I might not weigh all the categories that the reviewer chose equally. So I know that the score part doesn’t really matter.
But, yeesh! If you’re going to allow ties, apply them consistently. And maybe you should check to see if the scores you give and the evidence you provide match up, at least superficially.

Using official terminology to minimize understanding

I was reading a review of a laptop recently and saw the typical inscrutable label for its screen resolution (“QHD”, in this case), and finally decided I should find out what the heck that even means. So I poke around, and discover that it’s a morass of thing with conflicting names and ambiguous naming schemes. Who names these things? Why not just use the actual resolution (i.e., 1920×1080, or whatever it is)? Continue reading

Well, that’s a fun new failure mode


When you add a person to (or remove from) a meeting in Outlook, but make no other changes, sometimes it automatically sends the update to all attendees, and sometimes it puts up a little dialog box asking whether you want to send the update to all attendees or just the new people.
send to all attendees
After years of experimenting, I have given up trying to predict whether or not it will give you that option.

Continue reading

Define “User Friendly”

This evening I stumbled into a question thread on Quora about Linux and why it’s so user unfriendly. I thought this was funny because yesterday I decided I wanted to switch my Ubuntu install to use the command key (ergonomically located under my thumb, next to the spacebar) as the primary modifier key, instead of control (awkwardly down in the corners of the keyboard where you basically have to use your pinky finger). A single Google search turned up 3 different ways to do it, 2 of which were pretty easy (edit a clearly-identified line of a clearly-identified config file probably being the easiest). Another 10 minutes of reading those pages and some of the alternate answers, and another Google search later, and I found a little application I could install directly from the App Center in Ubuntu that gives a nice GUI interface to swapping keys around. Voila!

For the past few years, I’ve been trying to figure out how to do the equivalent with Windows 7 and 10. The short answer is: you can’t, without administrative access. With administrative access, it’s a royal pain in the butt, and might require registry hacking, and I have yet to find a step-by-step guide to the exact edits to the registry I’d need to make. (Might be mostly-possible with some commercial macro software, but I don’t use MSWindows at home enough to spend money on it, and can’t install software at work.)

Then I wanted to disable the numlock key (or, more specifically, permanently enable it, so that no matter what I do, I get numbers on the number pad). Again, a quick Google search turned up at least 4 ways to do it, each cleverer than the last. More importantly, that same software I installed a few minutes earlier? It simply has a setting for “numlock always on”.

Again, I’ve been looking for a way to do that with MSWindows for years. I figured out how to have it default to on, which is a huge improvement, but if I accidentally hit the button, it still goes off. There might be commercial macro software that can do the trick, and if I had one of a select set of Microsoft-manufactured keyboards, there’s some configuration software that I could probably do it with, but I haven’t otherwise figured out how to do it.

So, what is “user friendly”? I’d say the friendliest system works the way you would like without you having to do anything. But we have varying tastes, so that can’t always be true. Next best would be learning what you want—OS X used to learn a spelling if you typed the same word a certain number of times, so you didn’t have to explicitly tell it “yes, I mean it, and this is a word, so please learn it and stop trying to turn it into something else”. If that’s not possible—or it fails—easy configurability seems like it would be the next best thing.

(BTW, some of those methods I found for Linux would work on OS X, too. But it’s a moot point because it already disables the stupid numlock key, and has built-in GUI tools for swapping around the modifier keys. I’m genuinely surprised that MS hasn’t added that capability yet, given the number of people who prefer MSWindows for its configurability.)

So, is Windows 10 more user-friendly than Ubuntu? I suppose if you want to do everything the way it defaults, then, yes. But if you don’t…

Defaults tend to run the world and choosing how to set things up from scratch is hard, so it’s worth spending a little extra time to set the defaults in the best possible way. If people are used to something that is awkward, I really don’t know whether the “best possible way” would be to continue that bad design, or to choose the better but unfamiliar design. I’m an Apple user, so I’m used to the notion of throwing out the old way for something new (even if I don’t always agree with Apple on which changes are actually improvements—is there really some reason that going from iOS 8 to iOS 9 they had to reverse the direction you swipe to get to the home screen while within the app switcher?). But maybe if you’re used to having the primary modifier key under your pinky finger, switching it to under your thumb isn’t worth the re-learning unless tendonitis forces you.


Whyfor Num Lock?

Quick thought here: (1) Why do extended keyboards—that is, ones with a separate number pad—even have a Num Lock key any more? (2) Why does Microsoft Windows default to it being off? 

I get why there is such a key on keyboards that don’t have a number pad, such as laptops. And it makes perfect sense if the “number pad” keys are also letters and stuff that you’d start with it off. But Windows ought to be smart enough to know the difference and choose appropriately—heck, my Mac can even handle the concept of having numlock on for one keyboard and off for another connected to the same machine simultaneously. 

But, more generally, when was the last time a keyboard was made that had a number pad but didn’t have arrow keys? And does anybody ever intentionally turn numlock off for an extended keyboard, in order to use the number pad as arrow keys (interspersed with a bunch of other keys) rather than using the even-closer dedicated arrow keys?

As near as I can tell (based on complaints I hear at work and online), it is solely a historical artifact, whose only purpose now is to screw up passwords and complicate data entry. 

And while I’m at it: why isn’t MSWindows, after all these years, smart enough to overrule that (and other modifier keys) in software with an easy-to-use interface? It’s clearly possible (since OS X can do it), so why do I have to do a registry hack or play around in BIOS (or UEFI, or whatever they are these days) settings to fix this idiocy?