533 – Revisiting TaskMgr

clip_image002If  you’ve ever had problems with your PC’s performance, you may have turned to Task Manager. It’s been in Windows since the NT4.0 days, when developer Dave Plummer came up with a bit of software he was planning to sell, but decided to donate it to his employer instead:

I’m the Microsoft developer that wrote TaskMgr at home in my den in about 1994 and then the NT silverback devs [ie Dave Cutler] let me check it into the main tree even though I was a greenhorn at the time. So that meant I got to bring it into work and polish it up and make it an official part of Windows, where it remains to this day.

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Dave tells his career story from a talk a couple of years back, but hit the news recently through a Reddit post from which the italic text above originates.

He was inspired to apply to Microsoft in 1993 – having read the Hard Drive book (an excellent historical tome, having inspired at least a few great Microsofties to join up), then went on to write various money-saving optimisations for MS-DOS, and ended up in the NT team, leaving the company 10 years later.

Dave also recommends another great history book – Showstopper!

Back to the current era, Task Manager is still a really useful tool when it comes to figuring out issues with your Windows PC. If you think something is wrong (app starts bogging down, feels like the PC is in a bad way), you can quickly start Task Manager with the shortcut CTRL+SHIFT+ESC (easy to hit with one hand…)

clip_image006In an emergency (if it feels like your laptop it about to blow up, with fan blaring, screen blinking, UI non-responsive etc – maybe joining a Teams call or opening an Excel spreadsheet), it’s usually possible to throw TASKMGR its own special three-fingered-salute, since it isn’t tied to the Windows Shell –  you can use even Task Manager to kill or restart the EXPLORER.EXE that sits under the Start menu, task bar etc.

If you can get to Task Manager, you can run a CMD or Powershell prompt, start explorer or msedge etc.

Practical Example

A colleague pleaded recently that he was having a poor experience with Teams, and queried, did he need to upgrade his 150Mbps internet connection?

To check what kind of network performance you’re actually receiving, there are many speed test apps and sites.

If you’re using the new Edge (if not, why not? Don’t use IE – it’s too old;  stop using old Edge – it’s obsolete; the new Edge is fast and it’s better than Chrome), and you have Bing as your default search engine, all you need do is enter ? speed test into the address bar and you’ll get a speed test gadget to give you an idea of performance.

clip_image008If the base speed looks OK, use Task Manager to inspect what’s happening – fire it up in your favoured way (clicky-clicky-menu, right-click the taskbar, CTRL-ALT-DEL > Task Manager, if not CTRL-SHIFT-ESC) and by default you’ll see the near-useless list of what’s running with no other context. Time to show more details…

On the Processes tab, click on the CPU column to sort by what’s using the processor most – its also worth casting an eye on some other resources to make sure they’re not running out of steam; if you see an app consuming a huge amount of memory, it might be leaking, and shutting it down completely could make all the difference.

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Task Manager lets you kill processes (“End Task”) too, if the app has hung and won’t close cleanly. In fact, Dave said there should be nothing that Task Manager can’t kill (apart from some critical system processes – TM might have been able to kill them, but will also bluescreen the machine … so some protection has been added to prevent the user from doing something that would be instantly fatal to Windows – though TM is able to kill itself).

Back to the Teams troubleshooting scenario – If you don’t see the PC getting nailed by some process (that isn’t Teams itself), then it’s worth looking at the Performance tab, and leave it running for a short while, paying particular attention to WiFi/Ethernet.

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clip_image014If you see sustained high throughput, then switch back to the Processes tab, sort by Network and you can see what service/app it is that’s hammering the connection. You could fire up Resource Monitor if you want to dig in even further, started from the bottom of the Performance tab. ResMon lets you drill down to see what a single process is doing, what it’s connecting to, how much network traffic is going to and from it, and so on. Useful, if you like that sort of thing.

Finally, your network might perform brilliantly most of the time, but every so often you get a blip that feels like it’s dragging, then it picks up again. This could be spikes in latency, the enemy of anything real-time, like video calls.

Try running the Microsoft Research Speed Test appclip_image016 the nice thing is that it keeps a history log, so if you ever think your connection is bogging down, try running a realtime test.

The Network delay is actually key here – if you had more than 1Mbps upload and 5Mbps download speed, that should be plenty – but if your network delay is commonly more than ~150ms, it’s going to start causing problems.

If you have a network connection whose latency fluctuates a lot, there are a bunch of things you could do to seek and troubleshoot: 

  • Is something else on your network uploading huge amounts of data (a backup process, or OneDrive sync maybe) ? This is particularly important if you use an ADSL type connection, where choking the upload will also dramatically reduce download throughput too.
  • Is your wireless network getting interference? (try switching to a wired network, or use a Wifi Analyzer app to see if the channel it’s using has a noisy neighbour?)
  • Pin the blame on your service provider by keeping a log of latency performance over time, using something like http://ping-test.net/. If you can prove that your own network is stable, but there are glitches upstream somewhere, then you may be able to make your ISP turn their attention to their own network – tools like WinMTR will help you validate the performance of the network all the way between your machine and some endpoint; so if your ISP has networking problems, you might see spikes happening.

530 – Edge profile switching

clip_image002The New Edge Browser is evolving rapidly – if you’re still using Internet Explorer, then ditch it ASAP and move to a modern browser. If you already use the new Chromium-based Edge, it’s worth looking at the Profiles capability, which lets you keep several sets of browser settings. At a basic level, you could have a Work profile and a Personal profile, and keep usernames, passwords, favourites and so on, separate between each.

clip_image004clip_image006There’s a profile photo typically found on the top right of the Edge toolbar, and multiple profiles can be added and managed from there. Or enter edge:settings in the browser’s address bar.

Edge has the ability to sync favourites, passwords, credit cards, collections and other browser data all to other machines with the same profile address – so if you have a home PC and a work laptop, then having a “personal” profile on both could mean that suitable info will roam between the machines, but work specific stuff can be kept on your work profile.

Some capabilities – like syncing history between machines – are “coming soon”.

Lately, some versions of the Edge browser have been updated to sync extensions – like Lastpass, or the OneNote web clipper. Jump to edge://settings/profiles/sync within the browser itself to see the gist.

Having multiple profiles lets you consciously separate home and work stuff, keeping social media, web mail or personal interest stuff in one window, and your boring old Sharepoint sites and PowerBI charts in another. Quickly minimizing your “home” window before sharing your desktop on a Teams call is perhaps the modern equivalent of the Boss Key.

One tricky part is when you go to open a web link – other than from within a browser session itself – then the last window you were using could be the one to launch that site, meaning you might be crossing the streams and opening up work stuff in your personal profile or t’other way round. It’s possible to set a particular profile to be the default, or just let the machine decide.

clip_image008One recent addition in the Beta channel for Edge – soon to hotfoot its way to the release version – is the automatic detection of work sites being opened in “other” profiles.

If you try to open a site that wants to authenticate clip_image010using your work or school account but you’re using a different profile, you’d be offered the chance to switch to the correct one, so you can used cached authentication settings, cookies and the likes.

Automatic profile switching is available in Edge versions 83 and beyond – open edge://settings/help in the browser to see what version you have.

To read more about automatic profile switching, how to enable it and how it works, see here.

529 – To Do: Switch off Wunderlist

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Nearly 5 years ago, Microsoft acquired a German developer called 6wunderkinder, who built a cool, cross-platform task management tool, Wunderlist. Over the half-decade since, the back-end of Wunderlist was basically rebuilt so it could run on Azure (instead of its previous cloud platform), and many of the team who had developed Wunderlist moved to working on the Microsoft To Do app suite.

The To-Do To Do apps have evolved hugely over the last couple of years, and collectively are being positioned as the natural successor to Wunderlist.

clip_image004This week, Wunderlist was finally closed down. If you still have the app, you can carry on using it but the data won’t be backed up or synced and you won’t be able to migrate it. You can export the data from the service, and To Do has built-in Wunderlist migration tools that bring more-or-less everything across. Other task managers are also available.

The Microsoft To Do service has clip_image006integration with PowerAutomate (previously known as Flow).

The To Do team also updated the mobile apps (as announced on their blog), with a collection of new features and views of tasks, and the Windows app has also been tweaked lately too. New features include new Smart Lists, such as “All”, which shows everything in one huge list, grouped by category.

“Tasks” across different apps are being integrated more and more – To Do now lets you create tasks from flagged emails, or integrate tasks from Planner. Teams is going to rationalise tasks into a single UI too.

See here for more tips on using To Do.

528 – Shorten your meetings (again)

{F5531DA9-D8B1-4DA1-8EB1-EAD491380F60}Last week’s tip talked of the philosophy around 22 minute meetings, and shared a way of forcing Outlook to adjust the start and duration of meetings by default, to help you enforce the discipline.

Eagle-eyed reader John Westworth pointed out that a simpler way of doing much the same thing exists within Outlook already, if you’re on the Microsoft365 subscription. The feature arrived back in March 2019, in version 1902 (Build 11328.20146). Note: to find the version of the Office suite, go into Word – not Outlook itself – and under File | Account you’ll see what version you’re currently using.

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This year-old but hitherto little-known feature is called “End Meetings Early”: it lets you choose a value to over-ride the default meeting duration, so if you create what is ostensibly a 30-minute meeting, I’ll actually end some number of minutes early.

In Outlook, go to File | Options and look under the Calendar section on the left, to set your favoured options.

If you create your appointment or meeting – remembering that a meeting is just a special type of appointment, to which other people are invited – either {8EF536C3-747C-4C6E-AFEC-FBCC614F7707}{C15F5AF5-2086-4A14-A3DF-22BF92D72970}by using the New… option on the menu or by double-clicking on a gap in your calendar, the adjustment will be applied after the item is created (and before it’s sent, if it is a meeting).

With most of the world still WFH, it’s a handy way of making sure you don’t get in back-to-back meetings during the day, with no chance to get away from your screen. Assuming, of course, that everyone obeys the finish time rather than just over-running to the next half or full hour boundary…

If you use the Teams client to create meetings, it doesn’t currently have the functionality to shorten them, so for now, it’s best to stick to Outlook for setting the meeting up.


527 – 22 minute meetings

clip_image002One observation of the C-19 lockdown has been that as many of us are living in Teams, it’s quite easy to end up with back-to-back meetings lasting for hours, with no opportunity to get refreshments, go to the bathroom etc.

The old excuse of walking in 5 minutes late to a meeting because you were in a different building, is no longer available. “Sorry, my other call over-ran” is about the nearest you can get.

This behaviour gives cause to revisit and update a ToW from the distant past – October 2013, to be precise (though it was published online in December 2013, it was sent via email a couple of months earlier).

clip_image003Ex-Microsoftie Nicole Steinbok built a great and prescient short presentation on having better meetings, even covering the basics of handwashing. Like the “how to wash your hands” posters, Nicole produced one for summarising how to hold a better meeting, starting with making it only 22 minutes long.

See http://22MinuteMeeting.info.

Nicole partly blames Outlook for having the default meeting time set at 30 mins, and there’s also an argument for not starting on the hour, but delaying the posted start time to a little later. Imagine if we could tweak Outlook to set a different default than the fixed 30 minute block, starting either on the hour or at the half hour?

Well, it takes a few minutes to add some custom code to Outlook, but if you can follow simple instructions and can use copy & paste, you could have it up and running in a few minutes…

Voila – ToW 196 – Change Outlook meeting duration

Open the steps for #196 up in a browser and have it side/side to Outlook (or on another screen) – they still apply clip_image005to the current version of Outlook, though you may need to explicitly show the Properties dialog for the step about renaming Class1 to clsMeeting –  press F4 if you don’t see Properties in the lower left of the screen when you get to that point.

clip_image007The code in the sample defaults to having 45 minute meetings with a 5 minute delay to the start; if you want to be as fundamentalist as Nicole, you could substitute 22 and 4, as an example. This means that if you create a new meeting in Outlook, either by using the menu or just by double-clicking on the calendar, the start time and duration get tweaked by the code you’ve added, at the point the new meeting or appointment is created.

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523 – Raise your hand

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As more of the world is in lock-down and pretty much everyone who can is working at home, apps like Teams have taken a more central role in many lives. Alongside adding 12m users the other week, there was a substantial increase in resources dedicated to running the back-end – millions of additional CPU cores were provisioned to the Teams service.

clip_image004Mobile Teams users are getting some new functionality, and the blog post about the 40% growth in usage teased some features that are coming later in the year, notably background noise-cancelling (to supress the tap-tap-tap of the typical team-mate’s typing), and a new action which lets attendees ask for help or offer to contribute by “raising their hand”. That might help avoid people talking over each other.

This feature is in test currently and is expected to appear a little later this year, along with a raft of other improvements, like having custom backgrounds (in addition to blurring of the existing background), and the ability to break out chats into separate windows rather than have everything in one.

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clip_image008When the hand-raising feature is rolled out, assuming you can see the People pane to the side of the Teams window, anyone who has their hand raised will be listed with a hand icon, meaning the organiser could ask them to chime in.

On the COVID-19 pandemic – the WHO publishes a view of the spread of the disease, with the help of Microsoft’s ISV partner ESRI, using their ArcGIS platform. See the global WHO dashboard, or look at the county-by-county map of the US, here. It’s all very sobering. There’s a Coronavirus Tracker on Bing and a load of other resources on Microsoft.com.

522 – Teams best practices for WFH

clip_image002In these uncertain times, many organisations are scrambling to enable their workers to be able to carry on even when the rest of the world is seemingly losing control. At least the meme creators are busy.

Ex-Microsoftie Allister Frost has some wise words to share about Working From Home, and given that he was Chief Puppy Controller for a well-known marketing team, he knows things that are currently relevant.

Microsoft Teams may have had a couple of bumps since the Covid-19 virus started to cause people to stay at home; early in the week there were a couple of outages that have been swiftly resolved, but it’s since been announced that the service added 12 million daily active users in the last 7 days – that’s a 40% increase in usage, so it’s no surprise if the infrastructure creaked a little as it grew.

There are many tips for making good use of Teams –

Stay at home, stay safe, and follow Buzz Aldrin’s advice.

521 – Earth mapping

The last couple of decades have seen a revolution in user apps which offer location awareness and guidance. clip_image002 Automotive sat-navs were available some years ago, dating back to Honda’s electro Gyro-cator (now that’s a name) in 1986. CD and HDD based satnavs in cars became available over the years since, but typically were many thousands of dollars/pounds/etc as an option.

clip_image004Google Earth was first launched in 2001 as a desktop app, and Google Maps followed in the browser, a few years later. Microsoft launched “Virtual Earth” shortly after that, though it was initially more like “Virtual North America” as its global coverage was very lacking. Over time, Bing Maps launched a bunch of innovative services, like Birds Eye, which used licensed 3rd party images from spotter planes to stitch together a “45 degree” view rather than the typical straight-overhead aerial view.

clip_image006The source data for Birds Eye is a little out of date in some areas – though is still being updated in, er, North America (eg. see here and here), and maybe in other areas over time too. Point Birds Eye at Microsoft’s UK campus, and it shows Building 5 under construction, so the images are at least 8 years old, though since they no dates other than “© 2020”, there’s no obvious way to tell.

Google’s Street View shows the dates of images if there are multiple – click the down arrow next to “Street View” in the top left to view the history.

Meanwhile, as well as rowing back some of the nagging to get Edge browser users to move to Chrome, Google released Google Earth in the browser – it’s maybe not quite so smooth as the desktop app, but it’s quick to use – https://earth.google.com/web/ … see Microsoft UK’s TVP campus, here.

The Washington Post reports that Google changes the view of maps depending on the country the user is in, removing disputed borders and the likes – so it’s a complicated world. According to that same article, Bing Maps is a very minor player in map usage, with Apple Maps (after an inauspicious start) has grown to be the second-most-used mapping platform, due to mobile usage, either on the Maps app directly or via other 3rd party apps which use location-awareness from the mobile device.

clip_image008Bing Maps is used in many online services and other apps, however – like Microsoft’s forthcoming reboot of Flight Simulator, which supposedly features every airport in the world and uses data from Bing Maps, real-time weather reports and rendering in Azure, to provide a realistic flying view. There are some amazing videos on the Flight Simulator channel.

517 – Try the preview…

clip_image002Several of Microsoft’s standard apps within Windows ship updates regularly, and increasingly are offering willing early adopters a peek at what’s coming through a  “Try the preview” clip_image004or “Coming Soon” option, usually in the top right of the main screen.

clip_image006You might need to force an update on your apps to get the latest version; go into the Store app and in the ellipsis menu on the top right, select Downloads and updates then hit the Get updates button. If you don’t like clicking menus, you could jump straight there by opening a run dialog with Win+R and entering ms-windows-store://DownloadsAndUpdates/

To find the name of any installed Store app, so you can run it from a command line or dialog, fire up powershell (just press the Start button and type that) then paste:

foreach ($p in $(get-appxpackage)) { foreach ($n in (Get-AppxPackageManifest $p).package.applications.application.extensions.extension.protocol.name) { $p.packagefullname + “`t `t `t -=- ” + $n } }

… and enter that. You’ll get a list of long app names followed by a one-word name that can be used to invoke the app. To run a Store app from a Run dialog or the Start menu directly, use that one word with a colon at the end – to start the Store version of OneNote try typing Win+R onenote: (for example).

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clip_image012The Calendar app – improbably named outlookcal: even though it has nothing to do with the desktop Outlook, other than it too can display a calendar – has recently received an opt-in preview which adds a funky new UI with background graphics reminiscent of Wunderlist, and nice icons to help you quickly switch between different calendar sources.

The preview will only show up (for now) if you’re a Windows Insider. Fortune favours the brave

516 – More Teams Sharing

clip_image002[4]When you use online meeting technologies, there are usually ways to share content with attendees. Even years and years ago, lots of people felt the easiest way to present a PowerPoint slide deck was to “share their screen” while running the PowerPoint application.

Some folk have the good sense to “present” clip_image004[4]that PPT fullscreen while screen-sharing, whereas others would merely flick through the slides within the PowerPoint app, consuming 30% of the screen real estate with menus, slide sorter, and other visual detritus of not only the app, but their host operating system as well.

Top tip – when you’re presenting, don’t be a doofus – please present, don’t share your screen then move through slides.

PowerPoint itself, OCS, Lync, Skype for Business – they’ve all tried to provide easy ways to present content online or through a meeting. Not wanting to throw in the towel to the screen-sharing crowd just yet, Teams has a few more tricks up its sleeve too.

clip_image006[4]clip_image008[4]Try for yourself – go to the Calendar node (remembering that you can switch between them by pressing CTRL+ the number from the top, so CTRL+4 in this case will jump to Calendar – though current versions of the Teams client will allow you to reorder the nodes by dragging & dropping them), and on the top right of the screen, click Meet now. This will give you a one-person playground to try stuff in. Read more here.

When you’re in a meeting, if you wave your mouse around or click/tap on a blank area within the main window, you’ll see the meeting controls toolbar, which you’ll use to control your audio/video, look at the text chat or participants list within a meeting, and also the Share option.

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clip_image012[4]clip_image014[4]Rather than sharing Desktop or Window, check out PowerPoint – if you don’t see the slide deck you want to present in the list of the most recently used ones, click on Browse and you’ll be able to navigate to it throught Teams channels and libraries (if your content is already in there), or you can upload it from your elsewhere.

The Teams client will render your presentation on each viewer’s machine, using less network bandwidth than screen-sharing does, and allowing more seamless multi-user control – so if you have multiple presenters in a single meeting, they can take over presenting the deck without having to be given overall control of the original presenter’s computer.

clip_image016[4]If you decide to put your PowerPoint file into a Teams channel and share / present it from there, it’s worth double-checking the formatting though; under the covers the Teams client will use the same rendering as if were previewing the file in a web browser.

You may find some slide transitions, animations or even some text layout will be a little different to how you’d see it in full-blown PowerPoint – to check that everything is OK, just navigate to the file within the Teams channel, and preview it from there.

If you do find the slides get mangled, you may be able to tidy them up within the Teams preview, or else you have permission to do the dastardly desktop sharing method.

For more information on sharing content within Teams meetings, see here.