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Friday, 13 August 2010

Which Browsers to Support in 2010

Filed under: Just Great Software,Cyberspace — Jan Goyvaerts @ 11:37

When redesigning a web site, one of the first considerations is which browsers the new design should support. When dealing with an existing site, the best way to find out is to check your web logs.

Though there are plenty of dedicated web log analyzers out there, I tend to use PowerGREP to analyze our web logs. It’s all part of our strategy of “eating our own dog food” as much as we can. You can use the trial version to run the PowerGREP actions linked to below.

First I used buynowbrowsers.pga to get a list of all browsers used to access the buynow.html page on each of our product sites during the previous month. Since the ultimate goal of the site redesign is to sell more software, I want to look at which browsers are used by people who buy rather than which browsers are used by people who just browse.

I found that 46.4% use Firefox, 43.5% use MSIE, and 9.2% use Chrome. The other browsers in my search (Safari, Opera, Netscape, and Konqueror) had (almost) no hits.

Then I used buynowbrowserversions.pga to run the same search and include version numbers in the results. I found that 96.8% of all Chrome users were using very recent releases. The fact that you can’t disable Chrome’s automatic updates must have something to do with that. 92.6% of the Firefox users were using either version 3.6 (the latest at the time) or 3.5. So I decided to check the new design only using the latest versions of Chrome and Firefox.

The picture was different for MSIE users. IE 6, 7, and 8 accounted for 20.1%, 25.6%, and 53.3% of the MSIE users. Thus 8.8%, 11.2%, and 23.4% of all visitors use MSIE 6, 7, and 8. Though Windows Update delivers new versions of IE, it does not install them automatically. The user has to accept a license agreement. I guess that’s why many people are still using IE 6 even though that browser is now almost a decade old. It was released in 2001.

Given these numbers, and the fact that IE 6 is much less standards-compliant than all the other browsers that showed up in our logs, I decided that the new design should look good on IE 7 and 8 and be usable on IE 6. With “usable” I mean that everything should be readable and navigable, but that the site doesn’t necessarily look pixel perfect.

When all was said and done, it turned out that all these browsers render the new design just fine. Even IE 6 correctly handles the HTML4 (strict) and CSS2. Browser-specific issues only cropped up in the Javascript code that sizes and positions the background image. IE 6 users have to do without the background. IE 6 also doesn’t render transparent PNGs correctly, resulting in unintended shades of blue around the images. The non-transparent parts of the PNGs still show up properly, so this still fits the “usable” bill.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

New Site Design to Fit Modern Monitors and Browsers

Filed under: Just Great Software — Jan Goyvaerts @ 11:22

Last month I created a new design for just-great-software.com and the releated product sites. The refreshed design was long overdue. Though the content of the Just Great Software product sites was regularly updated as product updates were released, the design hadn’t changed since 2002. 8 years is a long time on the Internet.

The key difference between the old and new designs is that the old design flowed the text to fill up the full browser width, while the new design uses a fixed width. In 2002 common screen resolutions were 800×600, 1024×768, and 1280×1024. With such low resolutions, you want to make sure your site uses all available space. Letting the text flow was good practice back then.

Today “full HD” is all the rage. Common resolutions range from 1280×800 to 1920×1200. If you allow the text on your site to take up the full width, your visitors will end up with extremely long lines if they have their browser maximized on a full HD screen. Such long lines are hard to read.

So I’ve changed the just-great-software.com design to always use the same number of horizontal pixels to display its content. If the browser is narrower, the user will have to scroll. If the browser is wider, the extra space is filled with a background image.

This is common practice today. But there are two things to consider. First, how wide do you make the site’s content? If you make it too wide, users with lower resolution screens have to scroll horizontally, which is very annoying. If you make it too narrow, you’re wasting space that could have been put to use to put more text above the fold (i.e. visible without scrolling down).

I decided a width of 920 pixels is just right. The text still fits even on older 1024×768 screens. More importantly, on the increasingly common 1980×1200 and 1980×1080 resolutions, 920 pixels fits exactly when the browser takes up half the screen and the vertical scroll bar is visible. In Windows 7 you can easily make the browser (or any other window) take up half the screen by holding down the Windows key and then pressing the left or right arrow key. I find this a very comfortable way to browse the web. It keeps the line length manageable on sites that don’t use a fixed width design. I do this with two monitors, so I can have four web pages visible at the same time.

Another important change since 2002 is the way that browsers zoom web pages. In 2002, browsers did not really zoom. They made the font larger or smaller. Images and other graphical elements did not change. This made it difficult to design pixel-perfect web sites. If you style sheets to set the font sizes in pixels, your site looks good, but the user cannot change the font size at all. If you set font sizes using em or percentages, you can’t predict the font size or how the text will flow. If you wanted your users to be able to change the font size, you had little choice but to let the text flow freely instead of designing your site for a specific width (which didn’t scale with the font).

Fortunately, all modern browsers now have real zoom features that scale everything, including images. So using pixel sizes to position and size everything, including text, is the way to go today. If the text is too small or too large, the user can zoom the entire site in our out.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

DataHand for Programmers

Filed under: Hardware & Gadgets — Jan Goyvaerts @ 16:56

The DataHand for Sale Again article I wrote over a year ago is still getting comments. Time for an update. A few months after I wrote that article, datahand.com announced they were out of stock again. That notice stayed up all year. Since a few weeks the site indicates they again have a limited number of Pro II units for sale. The price is still $995. My article from last year still sums up my opinion on the price: get one while you can.

The new units have a USB connection instead of two PS/2 connections (keyboard + mouse). That means you don’t have to buy a PS/2-to-USB adapter if your computer doesn’t have PS/2 ports any more.

Somebody asked me if the DataHand’s use of separate modes for cursor navigation, function keys, numbers and punctuation don’t make programming difficult. While it certainly takes some getting used to, I can easily argue the opposite. If you had learned to type on a DataHand instead of on a traditional keyboard, you’d throw a fit if you had to switch.

When I want to type in numbers, why would I want to reach away from the home row to the top row, or all the way to the numeric keypad, when I could just press down my right thumb? When I want to type symbols and brackets, why would I want to reach away from the home row while also holding down Shift when I could just press down my right thumb? When I want to move the cursor, why would I want to move my right hand away from the home row to the arrow keys when I can just flip the right thumb up key? When I want to use the function keys, why would I want to move my hands away from the home row all the way to the top of the keyboard? And when I want to go back to typing, why do I have to move my hands back to the home row when I could have just kept them there and flipped the left thumb up key?

Programming with the DataHand is more convenient than with a regular keyboard, because you can keep your hands on the home row just like you were taught when you learned to touch type. All of the DataHand’s keys are on its home row. Of course, it’ll take some time to unlearn the bad habits you’ve picked up when you became a programmer and needed to type far more punctuation than your school teacher could have imagined.

The DataHand’s modes are absolute. There is a specific key to access each mode. That key always activates its mode, regardless of the mode you’re in. So you never need to look at the unit to check your mode. Just push the button.

The only exception is Caps Lock, which is a toggle just like on a traditional keyboard. But the DataHand makes Caps Lock unneccesary. Simply push down your left thumb slightly to hold down Shift. You can then type in any text in all caps without straining your pinky or any other finger.

At the end of the day my speed at editing source code with the DataHand is about the same as it was when I used a regular keyboard, before I started to suffer from RSI. But when RSI kicked in, I had to pace myself on the regular keyboard to be able to continue typing at all. With the DataHand, I don’t worry about RSI any more.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Make Backups on External Hard Disks

Filed under: Hardware & Gadgets — Jan Goyvaerts @ 19:43

In my previous post I discussed how to organize data between an SSD and HDD. Though that implies two drives inside your PC, or two sets of drives if one SSD and one HDD don’t offer enough space, a proper data management plan for a workstation requires four drives. The internal SSD and HDD I discussed yesterday, an external backup disk I mentioned briefly, and the remote backup.

Hard disks have come down in price so much that it’s cheaper to back up data to hard disks than to optical media. It’s also much more convenient to organize everything on a big hard disk than to sift through piles of optical disks that may or may not still be readable. The back up hard disk gets used every day, so if it fails you know you need a new one right now. The only thing I still burn to DVD are operating system images that need to be bootable.

The backup drive should be an exteral HDD or an interal model that slides in and out of a SATA bay. I like to use a USB model to back up files because I can connect that to my laptop in case my desktop PC kicks the bucket.

It’s important that the backup drive is removed from the PC after you’ve made the backup. If your PC gets fried by lighting, fire, or superheated coffee, you don’t want your backup to die with the original. Put the backup in a different room, or take it home and put it under your pillow. You don’t want the backup to be stolen along with your PC.

The 4th hard disk is the off-site backup. The purpose of the off-site backup is to safeguard against total disaster, such as the building with your PC and your backup disk going up in smoke. The idea is to always have at least one backup that is not physically near the original data. So the external hard disk with your daily backup doesn’t count, because it’s connected to your PC while you’re making the backup. Having two external disks would work if you rotate them and one of them is always in a differrent building than your PC.

For my own off-site backup I installed a NAS (network attached storage device) on a relative’s home network. It’s actually off-continent. Being an expat in a country where immigration rules change with the season, I want a backup that protects against political risk. Not that I’ve ever had or expect any problems. Risk is irrelevant when storage is 10 cents per gigabyte.

Every day I backup up new files to the NAS via FTP. I don’t transfer operating system images, virtual machine images, and files that I’ll be deleting within the week anyway. That would all take too long on my ADSL line with 512K upload. Having to reinstall Windows is not the end of the world. I’ll likely need a new PC anyway if I ever have to recover using the off-site backup.

I prefer to maintain my own NAS rather than use an online service. If I ever need the off-site backup, it’s going to be because of a catastrophe like my house going up in smoke with computers and backups in it. Having to download a few hundred gigabytes of backup files would simply take too long. It’s faster and cheaper to have my relatives clone the backup disk using the empty second drive bay in the NAS and mail the clone by courier.

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