Mike Swanson

  • Mike Swanson's Blog

    Microsoft Fingerprint Reader

    • 209 Comments

    Update on 3/26/3009: I recently received an official communication from our hardware group that is germane to this old blog post:

    Thanks for your interest in Microsoft Hardware products.  The Fingerprint Reader is no longer being manufactured by Microsoft but we recognize it may still be available from retailers and resellers.  The product runs on 32-bit versions of Windows XP and Windows Vista. Microsoft will not be releasing any updates for the product to run on 64-bit versions of Windows XP or Windows Vista. The product is not supported on Windows 7 (32-bit or 64-bit).  To ensure this is clear to our customers, the product will not install on Windows 7 (the user is warned that the application will not run). 

    If you currently use the Fingerprint Reader and are unable to use your product with 64-bit versions of Windows XP or Windows Vista or the Windows 7 beta release, please visit the following Web site for assistance: http://www.microsoft.com/hardware/support/fingerprintreader.mspx.

    For a couple years now, I've been happily using a DigitalPersona fingerprint reader. It was given to me at one of our internal events, and I had let it sit on my shelf collecting dust wondering why I'd ever need a biometric security device to logon to my machine. Then, one day, I ran across it while looking for something else, and I decided to plug it in and give it a try. Unfortunately, the personal edition of the DigitalPersona device wouldn't allow me to logon with my fingerprint unless I was using the Windows XP Welcome Screen option (and I prefer the Windows Classic Logon). So I was just about ready to disconnect it and put it back on the shelf to collect more dust when I read that I could use it to provide usernames and passwords for web sites I frequently visit. Interesting.

    Basically, you visit a site that requires authentication, touch the reader with one of your registered fingers, then tell the fingerprint software what it should enter into selected fields on the web page. You can also indicate whether or not you'd like the "submit" button on the page to be pressed. That's it! Now, the next time you visit that web page, you just touch the fingerprint reader, and everything is done for you. It's really that simple, and it makes logging into secure sites a breeze. I suppose it could be used for any site that has fields you'd like to fill in, but I've used it exclusively for authentication.

    I knew that we had recently come out with our own Fingerprint Reader, and I figured that I could use my new computer purchase as an excuse to try it out. So, even though the DigitalPersona reader had never given me a single problem (other than the Windows XP logon restriction), I purchased the newer, slimmer, and sleeker-looking Microsoft version. And guess what I quickly discovered? It's also made by DigitalPersona! I was very happy to learn this, although I wondered if our version would provide any benefits over the older reader.

    The Microsoft Fingerprint Reader does allow you to logon to your machine, even if you're using the Windows Classic Logon screen like me. Plus, the interface that allows you to configure fields and buttons on a web page is improved and very straightforward. As you can see in the screenshot, the software highlights the field on the web page (in this case, a Hotmail password field) that corresponds to the field that you are registering. Then, you can tell it which button to use to submit your information. In my case, it automatically selected the "Sign In" button for me. After I press OK, I'll never have to type these credentials again...I can just use one of my registered fingers.

    One word of caution. I've discovered that the reader will not work more than a couple times when plugged into a Belkin F5U237 Hi-Speed USB 2.0 7-Port Hub. If I plug it directly into my computer, everything works as advertised. The fingerprint reader appears to require 260mA of power from the USB port, and from what I've read, the USB specification states that devices may use up to 500mA before they need to provide their own external power source.

    I'm not sure why it doesn't work reliably when connected to the Belkin hub, but I've tried a number of things to diagnose the problem: I've plugged the hub directly into the wall (instead of through a surge protector), I've tried all of the ports on the hub, I've tried another hub of the same make and model, I've upgraded all of my USB drivers, and I've spent about 30 minutes on the phone with Belkin technical support. Although the support person I spoke with was very helpful, we were unable to successfully resolve my problem. I'll probably try a different USB hub to see if the issue I'm having is limited to this specific make and model. Update: I installed an Adaptec USB card, and everything now works fine. It appears that the problem is with the USB chipset on my motherboard (VIA).

    Regardless of this slight hiccup, I am very happy with the new reader. For around $41 (or $39.88 if you live near a Sam's Club), this is a nice piece of hardware that offers a lot of convenience. If you're looking for unique and useful gift ideas for the upcoming holidays, this is one I'd highly recommend.

  • Mike Swanson's Blog

    SyncToy for Windows XP

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    If you're like me, you probably have thousands of digital photos and documents that you want to backup or copy to external media. In my case, I copy everything to an external 160GB XIMETA NetDisk for safe keeping. I have used the free version of Allway Sync in the past, and I've had very good results. However, we recently released a handy tool for Windows XP called SyncToy, and based on my few days of experience, it appears to do everything I need. Here are a few of its features:

    • Provides easy and flexible copying, moving, and synchronization of files in different directories
    • Manages multiple sets of directories at the same time
    • Can combine files from two folders in one case, and mimic renames and deletes in another
    • Keeps track of renames to files and will make sure those changes get carried over to the synchronized folder

    Configuring SyncToy is as easy as setting up one or more folder pairs and corresponding actions for each pair. For example, I might setup one pair to synchronize changes between two folders (which works both ways) and setup another pair to simply echo changes from one folder to another (echo is the action I use for backup purposes). If you want to get more specific, there are additional options that can be configured.

    If you'd like to know what operations SyncToy would perform on your folder pairs, you can run the convenient preview feature. The preview feature analyzes the folders, then tells you what it would do if it ran, but—most importantly—it doesn't actually make any of the changes. This is a great way to get comfortable with the tool before letting it loose on your precious files. And if you want to automatically process your folder pairs, there's even a topic in the help file (lookup Schedule in the index) that explains how to schedule SyncToy to run on a periodic basis.

    Download SyncToy v1 Beta for Windows XP or to learn more, grab the whitepaper titled: Synchronizing Images and Files in Windows XP Using Microsoft SyncToy.

  • Mike Swanson's Blog

    TiVo Gadget for Vista

    • 85 Comments

    For awhile, I've wanted to try my hands at writing a gadget for the Windows Sidebar in Vista, but I could never come up with a project idea that was small enough to accomplish and useful enough to justify. Since we recently added two TiVo HD units to our home network, I thought it'd be handy to expose their Now Playing lists. I knew the data was available over our home network, because the TiVo Desktop software displays a lot of it. Turns out, the TiVo Developer Resources section of their site contains just enough to get going.

    Without going into too many details, recent versions of the TiVo software on certain units (TiVo HD and TiVo Series3 HD, I think) contain a small web server that can be issued requests. These requests are passed via the query string and return their results as XML. For example, our downstairs TiVo unit has an IP address of 192.168.1.104 (you can find the IP address of your TiVo by navigating to Messages & Settings, then Settings, then Phone & Network). If I open my web browser and navigate to https://192.168.1.104/TiVoConnect?Command=QueryContainer, I'll receive an XML response that includes information like the title of the unit and a URL to obtain the current Now Playing list.

    If you try this same request with your own TiVo (using the correct IP address, of course), you will first run into a security certificate warning. If you decide to continue, you'll then be asked for credentials. The user name is always tivo, and the password is your media access key. Your media access key can be found in the right column by logging in to your TiVo account online or by navigating to Messages & Settings, then Account & System Information, then Media Access Key on your TiVo. For a more "friendly" Now Playing list, you can also navigate to https://192.168.1.104/nowplaying/index.html using a similar procedure.

    When I started writing the TiVo gadget, I could not successfully complete an XMLHttpRequest for the XML data because of the certificate warning (which I couldn't see, since this was all happening behind the scenes of the gadget). I soon figured out that the actual certificate is issued to the service number of the TiVo unit, but since the requests are being made to an IP address instead, the mismatch causes the warning. It's kind of like saying that I trust Mike Swanson, but I don't trust Swanson, Mike (same person, but represented differently). Ideally, then, I would want to issue my request to the service number of the TiVo so that the certificate would match.

    On most networks, you can reach a machine by its IP address and its name; that's because the machine shares its name on the network. Unfortunately, the TiVo doesn't share its name (the service number) on the network like other devices. To resolve this issue requires a few steps, and if you decide to download and try the TiVo Now Playing gadget, you'll need to perform them:

    1. In Vista, click the Windows Start menu, then navigate to All Programs, Accessories, then right-click on Command Prompt and choose Run as administrator. From the command prompt, type:

      notepad %SystemRoot%\system32\drivers\etc\hosts

      You need to add a new line at the bottom of the HOSTS file that associates your TiVo IP address with its service number (you can find the service number on your TiVo by navigating to Messages & Settings, then Account & System Information, then System Information). For example:

      192.168.1.104    123-0000-4567-7f7f

      Choose File/Save in Notepad. Then, File/Exit. Then close the command prompt window.
       
    2. Open IE7, pull down the Tools menu and choose Internet Options. Click on the Security tab, then Trusted sites. Click the Sites button, and where it says Add this website to the zone, type https://123-0000-4567-7f7f, but use your service number instead. Click Add, then Close, then OK.
       
    3. Still in IE7, navigate to https://123-0000-4567-7f7f/TiVoConnect?Command=QueryContainer (but with your service number).  When you receive the certificate warning, select Continue to this website (not recommended). Provide your user name and password as described in the post above and select OK. Right-click anywhere on the page (which should now contain some XML data), then choose Properties. Click the Certificates button, then Install Certificate... When the Certificate Import Wizard appears, click Next, then choose Place all certificates in the following store. Click the Browse... button, and choose Trusted Root Certification Authorities. Click OK, then choose Next. Click Finish, then Yes to confirm the certificate. You should receive a message stating that the import was successful. Click OK three times to close the dialog boxes.

    Whew! Sorry that you had to go through all of that, but I'm not aware of any other method (short of possibly installing a custom ActiveX control) to get around this certificate issue. TiVo could solve the issue by broadcasting its service name on the network. Perhaps they'll do that in a future version of their software.

    Assuming you've made it this far, you can download the TiVo Now Playing v1.0.1 gadget (182KB) and install it on your Windows Sidebar. Click the little "wrench" icon to configure the gadget. Enter your service number in TiVo address(es), and your Media access key. If you have more than one TiVo on your home network, you can enter multiple service numbers separated by semicolons. Note that all TiVos in a single household share the same media access key, so you only need to enter one of those.

    This post is already rather long, so I'll quickly summarize the current gadget features:

    • Configure Folders if you want shows from the same series to be grouped together (like Kitchen Nightmares in the screenshot).
    • When the gadget notices a new recording, it will ding (if you have sound enabled).
    • If you configure more than one TiVo, click the friendly name of the unit (like Downstairs in the screenshot) to switch to the next unit.
    • Click the name of the show to see its description. The details flyout will contain more data in a future version...just didn't have time to add it for the first release.
    • Your settings will survive a gadget removal/add thanks to Todd Northrop's handy Settings Manager for Windows Vista Sidebar Gadgets.
    • When the gadget refreshes its data, it will close any groups that are open. While not technically a bug, it is annoying, and I hope to improve this later.

    I'm sure there's more I could say, and I'll probably say it in a future post. Please enjoy the gadget, and pass along any comments, suggestions, or questions via e-mail or by leaving feedback.

    Update: If you downloaded version 1.0 of the gadget and you're not seeing any of your programs listed, please try version 1.0.1. Hopefully, this will fix the issue.

  • Mike Swanson's Blog

    What About Halo 2?

    • 58 Comments

    I've had a few people e-mail me this morning to ask why I haven't posted about today's release of Halo 2. Well, although I was part of the beta program, and I think Halo 2 is a very good game, I'm personally much more excited about next week's release of Half-Life 2 for the PC. Don't get me wrong...I love my Xbox. But, I generally prefer first-person PC games over first-person console games because of the improved graphics, depth of experience (which isn't always better, but can be), and...

    Controls.

    What!? Controls!? Yes...call me crazy, but I still maintain that a mouse and keyboard player always has an advantage over a console player when it comes to first-person games. I can "twitch" a mouse and leverage mouse acceleration to change my perspective and aim much more quickly and accurately than I could ever hope to achieve with a pad or stick. For games that aren't first-person, I don't think there's as much of a PC advantage. I do owe it to myself to check out the SmartJoy FRAG adapter...I just haven't had the time.

    That said, Halo 2 is fun on Xbox Live, and the graphics are definitely improved. Plus, the ability to simultaneously wield two weapons is sweetness. I thought about going out last night to one of the midnight events at our local Best Buy, but I ended up deciding against it. Did anyone else make it out at midnight?

    Update: Here's a MSNBC article on the phenomenon.

  • Mike Swanson's Blog

    Half-Life 2 Review

    • 56 Comments

    Well, it's been almost one full week since I purchased Half-Life 2, and in that time, I've managed to set aside around 18 total hours to play this game from start to finish. Valve has truly created an interactive masterpiece...one that will no-doubt set the bar for other first-person games for quite some time. In the process, they've created a top-notch game engine that renders stunning environments that put both Doom 3 and FarCry to shame. I'm very much looking forward to future games that leverage the power of the Source engine.

    Like many people, I spent about 40 minutes Tuesday night trying to connect to Valve's Steam internet service to activate my copy of Half-Life 2. I received various arcane errors that made it obvious to me that Valve hadn't planned very well for the onslaught of traffic they received on the first day. Needless to say, I was quite frustrated. Not only had I been waiting for 5+ years, but the box and DVD were in my hands! It surprises me that Valve doesn't have a 30-day grace period like Windows XP product activation. Anyway, after a bit of persistence, I was finally able to activate and fire up the game.

    I was elated to discover that I could configure the game to run at 1,920 x 1,200, the native resolution of my recently purchased 23" Sony LCD monitor. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that the game recommended setting everything to "high" for my dual Opteron workstation. Running the video performance benchmark that's included with Counter-Strike: Source reveals that my system is capable of around 70fps at these settings...more than enough for smooth game play. I guess I made the right decision to delay my computer purchase until this release.

    Unlike the original Half-Life, Half-Life 2 doesn't include a separate training level. Instead, it introduces new concepts as you play the game. When you encounter a situation that warrants the use of a new feature, the system displays a short message on the screen telling you which key to press to access the functionality. They really did a good job with this, because the situations don't seem contrived, and they provide just enough to get you used to the new feature.

    There is a very deep sense of immersion into the environment. As I mentioned, the graphics are downright stunning. Even my wife (who isn't a game player at all) was impressed with the quality and watched me play for a little while. The shadows, light, and surface reflectivity all lend an air of realism to the scenery, and there are some scenes that are nearly photographic. The audio is also extremely good. I was immediately thrown back to the original Half-Life game when I heard some of the very familiar sounds. Also, the weapon effects have a satisfying depth that I found missing in Doom 3.

    On top of all that, the game physics add even more to the realism (courtesy of the Havok engine). For example, you can push and lift many of the boxes and barrels in the game world, and this capability is used for some very clever puzzles. You eventually get a "gravity gun" that allows you to pick up or push much heavier items like refrigerators, televisions, and rusted-out cars. There's nothing like "throwing" an old car at a group of approaching enemies and watching the ensuing rag doll physics. Priceless.

    Unfortunately, I frequently encountered the nefarious stuttering problem that has plagued so many players. But, unlike many of them, I decided to continue playing despite the fact that it tends to jar you away from the storyline. The only other negative that I can think of is the simplicity of game play on even the medium difficulty level. Although I had to replay a few areas many times, for the most part, it was nothing like my experience with Doom 3 or FarCry. This is a minor complaint, since it's still a fantastic journey.

    Overall, Half-Life 2 is an excellent title. If you're a fan of first-person shooters, or if you like interactive fiction, this is a worthwhile purchase. It's smarter and brighter than Doom 3, more moody and beautiful than FarCry, and miles ahead of Halo 2 (which isn't a totally fair comparison, since Halo 2 is limited by the aging Xbox hardware). This is truly one of the best games I've ever played, and as a matter of fact, it might become the first game that I play through a second time. Kudos to Valve for a very polished and immersive experience.

    If you'd like to read another perspective, I found Scott Hanselman's review to be both unique and insightful.

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