Ulanoff: Top PC Peeves for 2005

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Sometimes my kids ask me what I do for a living. I explain that I'm an editor.

This answer never seems to satisfy them. They've both been to my office, and consequently they've formed their own opinions.

My 7-year-old daughter has boiled it down. "You type on the computer all day," she says.

Very, very true. That's really my life. I sit in front of the computer typing. I do this for about 8 to 12 hours a day.

It provides me with lots of time to become extremely familiar with every nuance of desktop computing and to pile up a laundry list of peeves. (I'll mention up front that not every one of these is desktop-based, thus saving those who this might disturb the trouble of carping. Most are about my desktop-computing experiences.) So in no particular order, here they are:

Telling Time: Microsoft Windows XP and Internet Explorer tell me how long it will take to download large files, such as those holding software and videos. This is helpful. Even with broadband, the connection is usually slow enough for me to get a time estimate.

Unfortunately, the estimate means nothing. First the dialog box tells me 99 minutes, then it suddenly drops to 9 minutes, then 6 minutes, then it's back up to 9 minutes again, then 30 seconds, then 60 seconds, and then, unbelievably, 2 minutes.

Microsoft's applications clearly cannot measure time, so why bother trying? There has to be a better and more accurate way of doing this.

Can You Hear Me Now? My sound icon in the task tray (search) recently developed a nasty habit of disappearing. That's probably just happening on my desktop, right?

I've also noticed — on my system and on others — a pattern where there's no sound, even if the icon is there and not marked with the international mute symbol.

Typically, the only solution is not to single-clicking on the icon to bring up your sound slider bar, but double-clicking for advanced controls and finding the one kind of sound (WAV, Line In, CD, and so on) that's set too low. Then you'll hear sound.

What's worse, the audio levels are completely inconsistent. So video sound is low, but AIM notifications and pings are inordinately loud.

I don't think audio controls on Microsoft Windows have changed in a decade. Here's hoping Windows Vista fixes this.

Fast Dial-Up: This is one of the best oxymorons in existence, and yes, dial-up companies continue to roll out ad campaigns for the fastest dial-up ever.

The latest comes from regular offender NetZero. Its marketing and ad gurus cooked up "3G."

I don't know what 3G stands for, but it burns me up every time I see the ad. It looks like NetZero has stopped running the 3G ads, but mark my words, they'll come back again—probably as "4G."

The only solution for this peeve is for the rest of the United States Internet users to get off dial-up and adopt whatever form of broadband (search) they can get their hands on. This cannot happen a moment too soon.

It's Video!: AOL's Instant Messager client is live 24/7 on virtually all my systems. Most times it's great, but every once in a while the top portion of the AIM screen starts running a video ad.

I hate this — one, because I don't want to see it, and two, because if my sound is working, I start hearing the audio for the video, even if the AIM client is not the top window on my desktop.

In general, the Web is now video-happy. (Shameless self-promotion: We even have our own IP-based television show, DLTV. Check it out. It's interesting. We promise.)

Every site wants you to watch its videos. The good news is that most of the feeds are now free. The bad news is that sites like MLB.com promote their video by auto-loading feeds (search) into your browser.

Recently, I was on MLB, listening to the live audio stream for a game. I pay for this service, and I like it, but shortly after I loaded the audio playback window, the MLB homepage in the background began playing a video and drowning out the sound of a key play from MLB Audio.

This is unconscionable. Either Microsoft has to make IE smart enough to know that the Browser window that has focus really has focus or sites that want my business need to stop trying to force-feed me their media services.

Bad Buddies: My list of AOL Buddies is very long — some people have been on it since the mid-1990s. But when I block you, I expect never to hear from you again.

I once made the mistake of putting the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" weekday show buddy on my AIM Buddy List. The daily television show uses its instant-messaging buddies as virtual audience members during show tapings. So, contestants who want to ask the audience for help on a tough multiple-choice question also get to ask the online audience.

This was fun for a few days, but then the daily taping schedule became a grind, and I found myself ignoring more and more of the instant messages. Soon I simply blocked it.

This worked for a few weeks, but then it started up again. I have since blocked this buddy three times. It came back twice. I'm waiting for it to return again.

So who is at fault here? Is it AOL for not keeping its word on blocking, or ABC for finding a way around the blocking technology? Regardless, I'm sore at both of them.

Using Microsoft Word: Not too long ago I turned off Microsoft Word's incredibly annoying Smart Tags. They're useless little overlays and pop-ups, and since they offer no value, I zapped them.

Then they came back. I have no idea how this is possible. If I turn off a global option, I expect it to stay tuned off.

Also, I am tired of having to put "English" on the mouse when I select text. I'm not playing Ping-Pong.

If I shove the mouse the wrong way while holding down the left mouse button, I select the text on the left instead of the right (or vice versa). Sometimes I select the correct text, the mouse shifts a tiny bit, and I've accidentally zapped an entire sentence.

Thank goodness for Undo. Apparently Microsoft developed it to counter its stupidity, not just mine.

Driver, Please! I have yet to download a hardware driver of any kind for my mice, graphic cards or chips, wireless card, webcam — you name it — that has actually made the devices work better with my systems.

Typically the updates either do nothing or actually break something else. The result is almost always a step backwards. I thought Microsoft and its partners solved the whole driver morass in the mid-1990s.

Why is this happening? Please, someone tell me that Vista will fix this too.

Too Many Buttons: Our mice are ten times better than they were in the 1980s and 1990s. No mouse balls and rollers to gunk up, just elegant optical laser systems.

But while the internal mechanics have taken huge leaps forward, the button proliferation is a big step back.

I still use just the two main buttons and sometimes the roller — nothing else. I do not need side buttons near my thumb. My last digit is happy just to grip and move the mouse.

I hate when I accidentally hit a side button that takes me back to my previous Web page, and it always happens at the worst time — just as I nearly finish completing a lengthy Web form.

Pop-Up Spyware Arms Race: Nasty pop-ups are blocked on my system. No, wait. They're not. Well, some are blocked. At least that's what IE and my various toolbar utilities tell me. Please, someone, outlaw pop-ups.

Unreliable Wireless: When I'm on the road, I live by wireless connectivity, but I can be sitting stock still in an airport and watch as the wireless connectivity drops from 78 to 33 percent and then jumps to 50 percent only to drop down to a hopeless 28 percent.

Is this the fault of my wireless card or the hot-spot service provider, or am I getting electromagnetic interference from the Boeing 767 that just lifted off outside the window?

Lousy Tech-Repair People: Not too long ago I was at Radio Shack looking for a wireless adapter that might work with my TiVo Series 2 (sub-peeve — TiVos do not support enough of these adapters). There was little on the shelves and I could not remember what TiVo's Web site had said about acceptable 802.11b adapters.

A clerk and I decided to use the store's in-house cash-register/PC to look up the answer on TiVo's site. The browser was unbearably slow.

I asked the clerk if the store was using business cable for broadband. He said no, it was DSL and noted that a repair guy had just been in to "fix" it.

"It worked better before," he told me. At that moment, it wasn't working at all.

I feel sorry for companies like Radio Shack that have to rely on third-party tech support that doesn't know its ass from its elbow. I wonder if Best Buy, which has a legion of tie-wearing men and women from the Geek Squad, gets any better internal tech support. I certainly hope so.

So ends my rant. Drop into the forums and add some peeves of your own.

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