For the last few years I’ve been following with interest a tiny little program called Notepad2. Essentially it’s just a text editor (very similar to Notepad included with Windows), but it does have a few tricks up its sleeve.

For starters, it has syntax highlighting. And I argue, very very nice syntax highlighting. I much prefer it to other editors I have installed on my computers (Dev-C++, Visual Studio, Emacs) as well as others I’ve used in the past (GEdit, Kate). Arguably though it’s not as complex as any of these editors. In addition, it does line wrap, line numbering, and more. Pretty much every part of the editor is configurable. It also automatically detects between Windows, UNIX and MacOS 9 line endings (very useful when you swap source code between Windows and GNU/Linux).

Notepad2 editing a Patch file
Notepad2 editing a Patch file

There’s a lot of things it doesn’t do though. It’s not a fully-fledged IDE, by any means. It has no idea about projects, function parameter hinting, Makefiles, or anything like that. If you want an IDE, look elsewhere. Which is why I have Visual Studio installed. It does everything, and then some more (in a few gigabytes of disk space).

Above all else though, there is one very handy reason why I have Notepad2 installed. It’s because it can completely replace Notepad. Because Notepad2 is only a single file, like Notepad, with no other dependencies except Windows itself, it just slots in. After removing all the security on the Notepad.exe file in the Windows folder, you can just copy and paste Notepad2 in. And then all the links and file extensions pointing to Notepad just open Notepad2 instead. If this sounds pretty cool, you can learn how to do it here (XP) or here (Vista). I wish there was an installer for Notepad2 that did all this automatically; at the moment Notepad2 is just distributed as a bare executable file. But I certainly won’t be complaining too loudly.

If you’re looking for a simple editor for when a full IDE isn’t necessary, or you’re still using the default Notepad for everything (shock horror), then I’d definitely give Notepad2 a go. Even if you don’t fully replace the original Notepad, it’s still a pretty cool upgrade from Notepad.


Customizing Windows

I just thought today I might share with you some of the customizations I’ve made to my Windows Vista installation to make it a bit more friendly.

Last week I stumbled upon this blog post from LifeHacker, and I’ve since implemented it’s suggestions fully (click for full size):


Basically the idea is to double the size of the taskbar and then create groups of icons for the most commonly used programs. Instead of having to click twice to get into Outlook or PuTTY, I now only have to click once. The hardest part is working out which icons are the best to put onto the taskbar. The image above is missing Notepad2 and Firefox, since I originally left them off. They have since been placed on the taskbar as well.

The instant messsaging client I use is Pidgin, and apart from Skype (which it doesn’t handle), it’s the only IM client I ever use. Since about 50% of my time on my computer is wasted in chatrooms and such, Pidgin has a high importance for me. Thus, I’ve made the Buddy List window dock into the side of my screen, so it’s never behind any other window, even when the other window is maximised. It’s best explained with a screenshot.

What happens is that when the Buddy List is the approximate height of the screen, floating, and is then dragged to either side of the screen (I used to have it on the left), it will snap into place and become sort of a taskbar as far as other windows are concerned. To do this with Pidgin, you’ll have to enable this functionality:

  1. Go to the Tools menu, and select Plugins.
  2. Scroll down the window until you see ‘Windows Pidgin Options’. If it’s not enabled (the tickbox on the left), enable it.
  3. Otherwise, click on it once to highlight it and click ‘Configure Plugin’.
  4. In the window that comes up, click the tickbox next to ‘Dockable Buddy List’, and click Close twice.
  5. You can now drag your Buddy List to either side of the screen and have it docked, ready and waiting to start a new conversation.

If you’re the type that notices such things, you’ve probably noticed that I’m not using the Aero interface (the see-through window effect). And for good reason too. As far as I can tell, all it does is hog memory and CPU, and make my machine very sluggish. Here is a good tutorial on how to do it.

Those are the three biggest changes I’ve made to the user interface in Vista, and all have made me much more productive. If only my laptop had a second screen…

Review: PreSonus AudioBox USB

Since July last year I’ve owned a nice laptop, and haven’t been using a desktop computer much at all. Laptop computers are great, but as I pointed out in my review of the one I bought, the onboard speakers suck. I can wear headphones with my laptop, which produces quite reasonable sound, but unfortunately wearing headphones all day becomes a pain (literally). So in January I bit the bullet and bought a new external audio interface for my laptop. There were a number of considerations for my purchase:

  1. It needed to sound good (or rather, not sound like anything at all). I have plans to do a bit of audio recording via this hardware, and it is important that as little of my audio equipment as possible taints the sound.
  2. It needed to be portable. Although I don’t often move my laptop outside my bedroom, the option to do onsite recordings would be very handy. This means no external power supply, and no large rackmounted equipment, no matter how sexy it was.
  3. I wanted it to connect via USB. I have all the external devices on my laptop connected via a USB hub, and a single Firewire device would mean a second cable. While true recording engineers might scoff at the idea of putting the sound hardware on the same USB hub as any other device, in practise I haven’t seen any difference, and it sure makes it a lot easier to manage.
  4. MIDI would definitely be a bonus, though with most MIDI controllers today coming with USB connections, this wasn’t crucial. Besides which, I don’t have a MIDI controller, and can’t play the keyboard anyway.

After a bit of research, the two options I found were the Tascam US-122L and the PreSonus AudioBox USB. Both of these interfaces did roughly the same thing, though the Tascam device did not have balanced outputs (although I don’t currently have an amplifier with balanced inputs, I may do in the future). In addition, the Tascam device only had one intrument (high impedance) input, whereas the PreSonus device had two. And the price? The Tascam box was $370AUD, and the PreSonus box $365AUD. After twisting the salesman’s arm, I managed to get the PreSonus for $345AUD, and get a bonus Rode T-shirt and three year warranty as well.

Included in the (relatively small) box were the following contents:

  • The AudioBox USB itself.
  • USB cable.
  • Drivers CD.
  • Cubase LE4 CD.
  • Several installation manuals, one for the drivers and one for Cubase.
  • Some foam.

Close inspection of the front of the AudioBox reveals two inputs on the left hand side, each of which can be used for either a microphone or a instrument input. The power LED and button are in the top right of the front of the device. Also on the front are 5 knobs, two for input gain, one for headphone volume, one for main output volume, and one to mix between computer output and the inputs (in real use, one would expect to keep this set to computer output most of the time). On the rear of the device are found the USB connector, MIDI input and output, two 1/4″ balanced outputs, and a headphone out.

The device itself is quite heavy (around 2.5kg) for the size, mostly due to being manufactured out of large pieces of steel. Negative points for enviromentalism here, but when you’re constantly picking up and moving it, like would be expected from a portable unit such as this, I can see that this is a great idea. I haven’t been game enough to try and scratch the unit, but I don’t think you could ever remove more than a thin layer of paint.

The first thing I can report on is that the drivers for this device suck. I was told by the salesperson in the shop that it would be supported on my Vista x64 machine, and if it didn’t, I could always use ASIO4All. The drivers on the CD don’t support Vista x64. And after a bit of thought I realised that ASIO4All wouldn’t help at all, since I’d need WDM drivers anyway before that would work. In the end I reformatted my machine to use Vista x86, and installed the drivers included on the CD. Unfortunately, those drivers only support ASIO or WDM, but can’t do both at the same time. So I could use iTunes, and that would work, but any attempt to open Cubase would crash the machine. I’ve since downloaded the newer drivers off the Internet, and everything seems to be working fine for the moment. One thing to note is that PreSonus do not digitally sign their drivers. In this day and age, that is a very poor performance.

On to sound quality (which is the most important thing, really). It has to be said I’m very impressed with the audio quality for both recording and playback. There is no distortion of the sound that I can hear (playing back songs I know well, such as Time by Pink Floyd or Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day). I don’t have the equipment to say whether it produces a perfect sound, but then again, that’s relative anyway. As for recording, I’m also quite impressed. There is very little noise added to recording above that from the room I’m in. The converters are obviously quite high quality, and very clear. PreSonus’ specs state a >95dB signal to noise ratio for digital to analog conversion, which is comparable with most devices in this lower-end range.

Summing up, this unit is a mixed bag. I love the features, I love the hardware, but the drivers that come with this machine are utter crap. If you have an older operating system such as Windows XP, I can imagine it would be a bit less painful, but if you own a newer machine running Vista 64bit, I’d consider buying a different audio interface. Once you’ve got that sorted out though, you’ve got a powerful and hard-to-kill unit that performs quite well. 3.5 Stars.