Software Redux #3 – Part II – Shortcut Based User Interface

13 09 2010

The User Interface. The part of every media system that makes or breaks it for me.  Is it to hard to earn? To simple to be functional? Etc.  If someone can’t figure out how to use the HTPC then in a way its pretty worthless but on the other hand I don’t want to spend hours making it so they don’t have to learn 3 steps.  It’s a balancing act for sure. To quote Billy Joel slightly inaccurately “I’ve finally found what I’m looking for…”

StarDock’s ObjectDock 1.9 Plus

A simple to use program that allows me to create big ass icons in the middle of the screen organized well. Did I mention it was simple? Oh good…. I had considered writing my own ‘Big Button’ UI but decided it was too much effort and always leaned towards just using a standard windows desktop icons because it was SIMPLE.  But ObjectDock has won my heart. It won it so well that I actually paid the $20 to upgrade to the Plus edition JUST to get tabs to make it even cleaner.

So why did ObjectDock win my heart? Well lets look at the follow screen capture of my ‘home’ screen….

ObjectDock UI Disks Tab

ObjectDock UI Disks Tab

Notice how there is no Windows Task Bar across the bottom? It’s a check box in ObjectDock.  If ObjectDock doesn’t launch guess what… the Task Bar comes back. It’s a beautifully simple fall back plan that makes any UI based emergency NOT exist.  My roommate can easily use Windows to play her DVD.  Notice how there are big buttons that clearly say DVD and one that has a musical note on the Disks tab.  One click and the disk type of your choice starts playing. Lets continue looking at the screen caps as I review what I like about ObjectDock…

UI Web Content Tab

UI Web Content Tab

This next easy to use tab contains my programs for streaming web content: Clicker.com (for videos), Pandora, and Enhanced SHOUTcast Player.  Do you know how I got them there? I right clicked and said ‘Add Shortcut’… and then exactly like in Windows I browsed to the path of the executable file. And if I wanted to add a nice icon I clicked ‘change image’ and navigated to a PNG I got from the internet.  Done. That is it for each icon.  Simple. Next…

UI Server Media Tab

UI Server Media Tab

Oh on the Server Media tab you can see the fancy built-in setting that shows a nice large description of an icon when you hover over it. In this case my cursor (you can’t see it) is over the green transmitting button which calls a WOL program with the correct parameters to … wake up my server to play music off of.  Those white words sure reflect that usage really well and easily… and built-in…. so convenient!

UI Misc Tab

UI Misc Tab

Ah the Miscellaneous Tab. Where else would I put the Standby button (see Power Management post to understand how cool and simple this button REALLY is) and the weather button… which is a built-in part of ObjectDock so I kept it.

UI Admin Tab

UI Admin Tab

And the last Admin Tab where there is a ObjectDock specific button to launch the Start Menu, Open my Server Folders, Launch my Home Server Admin Panel, and Search Google.  A few tools I either use infrequently or mostly for troubleshooting. Right there. In a tab. Easy to use and yet out-of-the-way. Simply amazing!

When it comes down to ObjectDock allowed me to make a custom, big icon, simple to use UI with a single app configuration panel, adequate/simple built-in skin options, AND some Windows Shortcuts. It fits so perfectly into my easy to support and easy to use re-framing its a bit ridiculous honestly. In fact, finding this app is what precipitated me to redo my entire HTPC setup and bail on Boxee because I finally found a way to make a ‘Front End’ to all my other apps that work better than the all-in-one solution of Boxee.

The Best Part?

Only a day after I finished setting the UI up my roommate was using the DVD playing feature. I had given her maybe a 30 second overview of how to work this iteration and she was already using it without asking any new questions.  Proof to me that it worked because she never once used Boxee to play DVDs. Not that she couldn’t have learned but she wasn’t using the device because she needed to ask a question about it and now with no questions/qualms she was using it … success!

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