609 – A modern soliliquy

clip_image002The legendary science fiction writer and 20th century soothsayer Arthur C Clarke famously wrote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. If you have a relatively cheap bit of hardware like an Alexa or a Google doohicky, you’ll be familiar with the wonder when you say something from an adjacent room, and it not only understands you but gives you a response immediately.

And when you’re leaning directly over it shouting “Alexa! STOP!” and it bravely blinks while continuing whatever it was doing, you’ll no doubt curse how stupid the thing is, even though from a computer science perspective, what happens most of the time is truly remarkable. In 1986, it certainly seemed like something belonging to the technological era of dilithium crystals.

We’re now used to giving voice commands to our phone, or to our car – yet many people don’t speak to their PC. Maybe it’s a legacy of not wanting to look like an eejit sitting in an open plan office talking to your computer. Now that most of us are still WFH, though, does it matter?

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Windows 10 had a dictation feature which has been overhauled for Windows 11 – launch it by pressing WindowsKey + H and you’ll get a pop up which will let you dictate into any application or text box – just click the microphone icon to get started.

Settings allow you to auto-punctuate (though maybe not quite as nuanced as one might want), and to keep the voice typing function closer to hand so clip_image006by enabling the launcher,  you can start dictation just by pressing Win+H rather than having to click the mic icon first.

Give it a try – start reading aloud at normal speed from a book or a magazine and here’s betting you will be amazed at the speed and accuracy. It’s certainly quicker than typing, for most people.

For more detail, check out Use voice typing to talk instead of type on your PC (microsoft.com)

Also see What’s the difference between a soliliquy and a monologue?


605 – Snooze la differénce

clip_image002Microsoft has always been good at having several ways of doing the same thing. Internal competition was encouraged with the idea that if several teams built solutions for the same problem, it would spur them all on and the best would win out. The Best Laid Plans don’t always work, and sometimes politics and machination gets in the way.

One modern incarnation of the multiple-ways principle is electronic mail; despite many attempts to replace email with other means of messaging, persistent chat etc, it’s still a huge deal (especially in business) and it’s still growing.

In the days when companies ran their own IT on-premises, there was Exchange, and the companion mail client Outlook arrived shortly after. Web-based consumer services like Hotmail, Yahoo! and Gmail changed the expectations of many users. Home and work email services have been getting closer in form and function since.

Microsoft’s current email clients are quite diverged: you can use the full-fat Outlook application to connect to your business email as well as your private Hotmail MSN Live Outlook.com / Gmail etc account. Then there’s the Windows Mail app, which is linked to the Outlook mobile apps so much so, that you can launch the Mail app by pressing WindowsKey+R then entering outlookmail: to start it (see more here). clip_image004

The Mail app is pretty good – it can connect to a variety of sources including Office 365, so while it might not be an ideal primary business email application, it can be a good way of connecting to multiple personal email services.

clip_image006One feature which appeared in different ways across multiple services and apps is the idea of Snoozing your email; initially pioneered by Gmail,  others followed suit. It’s a different concept to flags and reminders, rather if you select an email and say snooze until 10am tomorrow, it will literally disappear from your inbox and it would reappear at the top of the pile the following morning.

Well, that’s how it works on some combinations. In the browser versions of both Hotmail / Outlook.com and clip_image008Exchange/Office365, it works as you’d expect – you Snooze an  email and it is actually moved clip_image010into the Scheduled email folder (and you’ll see when it is later due to reappear in Inbox if you look in there). At the elected time, it shows up again on at the top of the mailbox. Let’s compare to some other Microsoft clients & services…

Outlook client and Office 365 – there is no snooze feature. Sorry. Just be more organised. If you snooze an email from another client, it will disappear from Inbox, but when it reappears, it’ll be in the same place as it was before – eg. if you Snooze a 9am email from the web app until 1pm, it will move into the Scheduled folder – but when it moves back into the Inbox, the Outlook and Windows Mail clients will show it down at 9am again so you might as well flag it and be done.

clip_image012Windows Mail client with Outlook.com or Office 365 Zip. Too bad.

Mobile Outlook and Web clients on Outlook.com or Office 365– Mail disappears and shows up again at the allotted time, right at the top of the mailbox. In the web clients, you’ll see the time stamp of the message as if it has literally just arrived; in the mobile version, though the message is ordered correctly (eg a 9am snooze to reappear at 1pm will show up between 12:30 and 1:15 mails), the displayed time is correct but a little clock icon is shown alongside. Clever.

At some point, there is a plan to deliver a single, unified, email client. An Ignite 2020 session talked about the roadmap and further commentary speculated that the One Outlook client may be coming, but isn’t going to be with us for some time yet.

clip_image014In the meantime, maybe now’s the time to try the switch full time to Outlook Web App? You can even install it like a regular app, pin it to Start and so on.

603 – Sysinternals @ 25

clip_image002A long time ago in a different era, a young engineer and his friend founded a company called Winternals, which cooked up some tools to look inside the way Windows operated. The utilities were used to understand the way things really worked and went on to provide technologists a variety of ways to troubleshoot issues and optimize performance.

Early and popular tools, which went on to be published on the sysinternals.com website, included RegMon – which monitors what was happening in the Windows Registry – and FileMon, which kept an eye on the file system. Both of these tools could help a user figure out what an application is doing, maybe to check it’s not misbehaving, or seeking undocumented settings where the app might be looking to see if a particular file or registry key existed. Sysinternals made the tools free, and since Winternals was acquired by Microsoft in 2006, they still are.

clip_image004Co-founder Mark Russinovich wrote lots of other fun and useful stuff. For giggles, he built the first BSOD screensaver and a means to remotely deploy it on someone else’s PC, making them think it had crashed, probably causing them to turn it off and on again. Or the ZoomIt tool that he used to great effect in his keynote speeches which were always a highlight at events like TechEd or Ignite. Watching thousands of geeks queueing for an hour to make sure they can get a seat near the front almost invites Jobs-ian comparisons. For what can be relatively dry content, Mark has a great way of talking about how the technology really works and manages to be quite interesting: even if half of the concepts fly straight over your head, the rest is generally worth listening to – like a Brian Cox lecture.

clip_image006After joining Microsoft, Mark continued to build SysInternals tools and replaced RegMon and FileMon, with Process Monitor aka ProcMon. Another big utility, Process Explorer, is a kind of shibboleth amongst Windows techies… if you’re still using TaskMan to look under the hood, then you’re just not hard enough.

Despite moving to becoming the CTO for Azure and being a member of the most Technical Fellows, he still has a hand in with Sysinternals, culminating recently in a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the first set of utilities. The day-long virtual conference gave deep dive sessions into a few of the most popular tools, along with an interesting fireside chat with Mark and an overview of Sysinternals tools for Linux. See the recording here.

Oh, and one more thing. The Sysinternals Suite is now available in the Windows Store – so you can grab the latest versions of all the core tools (70 of them… yes, that’s right, 70, and for how much?) with just a few clicks.

601 – Time and Focus

clip_image002Twice a year, it seems, there’s a ToW article (passim) about the shocking time zone change that is about to hit us. Or may have already – some parts of Australia (NSW) have just moved into summer time while neighbouring areas (QLD) stayed on year-round time. Much of Europe is about to head back into winter time on the last day of October. One week later, most of the US will return to standard time, meaning that the US and Europe will be one hour closer for those 7 days. Arizona will revert to having a single time zone for the whole state.

Many Windows 10 users may have escaped knowing about the app known as Alarms & Clock, and the groovy World Clock which shows a map with pinned locations of your choice, detailing the current time in each. 

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clip_image005The cartographically obsessed may note that when compressed into a small window, the exact locations of some pins might look awry, but expand it properly and they’ll move around as you would expect. In the example above, London looks to be in Bordeaux, Budapest has swapped with Bangui while NYC has inexplicably relocated to eastern Peru.

Especially useful when figuring out relativity of time zones and future dates, is the Compare feature which lets you see what the time will be at a chosen point for each of your pinned cities, on a particular date. Take for example, Monday 1st November, when in the space of one month, Sydney has moved two hours further away from London, yet the Atlantic is temporarily one hour shorter.

Well, the Clock app, as it’s now known – even though it doesn’t actually feature a clock per se, but let’s not split hairs –  has been given a UI polish as part of Windows 11, and one additional new feature pane – Focus Sessions. It was shared with Windows Insiders a couple of months back, but is now mainstream for Windows 11 users.

Long-time ToW readers may recall an internal-to-Microsoft app called FocusTime, which let the user run a timer to focus on a given task, while putting Outlook into Offline mode so you didn’t get any new emails, and setting Office Communicator/Lync status to Do Not Disturb so you didn’t get annoying IMs. Well, Focus Sessions in Clock is doing a similar job though without (yet, at least) the integration to Outlook and Teams.

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As well as tracking the number of Focus Sessions you have, the app can also let you create and pin tasks with Microsoft To-Do to achieve at a later focus time. One slight grind at the moment is that the app only allows you to sign in with a Microsoft Account, not your Office Microsoft 365 / work identity, so you won’t be able to seamlessly integrate with other task management tools you might already be using, like Outlook Tasks or an M365 To-Do list.

The Focus Sessions feature is newly released and the team behind it is looking into how to integrate with other tools and services, such as the Focus Assist feature in Windows (which quietens notifications, formerly known as Quiet Hours). If you’d like to see improvements or new features in the Focus Sessions section of the Clock App, make sure you go to the Feedback Hub and either upvote existing suggestions or add your own (instructions here). For some more tips on using Focus Sessions, see here.

600 – Welcome to Windows 11

Just in time for the holiday season and for the ranges of updated PC kit that’s coming, clip_image002Windows 11 is nearly here – ETA October 5th 2021.

In December 2009, when ToW was only #1 (it took a year before the internal-to-Microsoft emails were published to the web, and years after that before www.tipoweek.com arrived), Windows 7 was only 6 months old, having replaced the Windows Vista predecessor which everybody loved so much (for some great insights into what happened during the dev cycle of Vista, see here and here).

Windows 7 was the bomb, then Windows 8 came along and failed to set the world on fire to quite the expected extent. Windows 8.1 fixed a lot of the complaints and generally speaking, all was good. Windows 10 came out 6 years after Windows 7 and for some was its true natural successor, and since mid-2015 it’s been very widely deployed, even if the mobile ambitions were less than realised.

clip_image004For a while it was thought there would be no new releases of Windows, just incremental updates (Windows as a Service if you like), but we are now on the cusp of the next big milestone – Windows 11.

There’s a lot to like about the major update from Windows 10, such as its refreshed UI, easier window management (especially if you have multiple monitors), improved security and streamlined performance to take better advantage of modern hardware, like the new range of Surface products which will ship with Windows 11.

Existing users will get the upgrade free of charge after October 5th, either by kicking it off proactively or by waiting for Windows Update to offer it.

If you feel like a weekend project and want to upgrade a home PC to Windows 11, there are ways to grab it sooner than 5th October – join the Windows Insiders program if you’re not already in (it’s free – just go to Settings / Windows Update and you’ll see an Insiders option), and you can choose to receive the Beta preview, and download it from Windows Update.

If you’d like to manage the upgrade a bit more (or do a clean install), you can grab the Beta Channel ISO file and run the update from there. The clip_image006current Beta version (stay away from Dev Channel unless you really know your onions) will be very near to the version that’s released (if not actually the same in everything but name), so going Beta now will get you on the ladder to receive the final bits very soon.

clip_image008There are some downsides, though – creaking old PCs may not be compatible – find out if yours is, by running the Health Check app.

The specs required to run Windows 11 were somewhat controversial when announced – only modern processors are supported, even though an older but powerful PC with beefy CPUs and lots of memory would normally be considered fine.

Trusted Platform Module 2.0 is also a requirement, as part of the base security platform: generally speaking, A Good Thing and not an issue for modern laptops. Older desktops – especially home-built ones – are less likely to have a TPM chip on board, and if there is, it’s probably not enabled by default.

Some features are still waiting to be delivered; the unveiling in June showcased the new Microsoft Store, and that would include Android apps which could be used in emulation on the PC – that’s still “coming soon”, along with a number of in-the-box app updates (like Paint, Photos, Mail & Calendar and more) which will arrive “later”.

If you want to get your hackles up on everything that’s wrong, check out Windows Weekly. It’s a fair accusation that the primary driver for Windows 11 is to add some juice to the PC market by encouraging people to buy new machines rather than keep upgrading old ones; but if your existing computer will run Windows 11, it’s a great looking and functionally improved update.

598 – Start me up

clip_image002Back when some execs danced badly to a highly-priced tune, “Start” was the menu button you’d press to get to the programs and settings on your computer. The Start menu begat the Start button on your keyboard, whose logo evolved with different versions of Windows.

Now, Start is a new thing – a relaunch of Microsoft News.

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Users of Windows 11 in preview – due to release soon – can see the widgets for news on their task bar, or any users can go to MicrosoftStart.com. If you feel ` reducing the clickbait and garbaj, you can tune the sources and types of news you’ll receive and save the settings with your Microsoft Account.

Apps are available for iOS and Android, on the web, the Windows taskbar / widgets, and on the new tab page on Microsoft Edge (like it or not).

One notable absence from the announcement?

The Microsoft News app for Windows. Install it while you still can.

596 – Sorry for the eye-chart

clip_image002Before The Event, you’ll probably recall being presented at in a stuffy airless room, mainlining caffeine to stave off the postprandial doldrums in attentiveness. “On this slide…”, the presenter might have said, before reading out all the text that’s now being shown on a slightly-too-small screen.

Some would apologize for the fact that the chart/table of data/timeline with 6pt text annotations etc, was too small for the audience to read. “I know this is an eye chart, but…”

So hurray when all such in-person meetings were banished to Teams or Zoom if you’re lucky, or if you’ve been a horrible person in a previous life, you may have inflicted upon you Webex, Amazon Chime or whatever Google calls Hangouts these days.

When presenting in Teams, there are some simple best practices to follow; some have been covered previously in ToW 576, with more online elsewhere.

clip_image004As an attendee, however, the Teams UI can get a bit busy if you want to follow online chat and see other attendees as well as the content being presented. You can make life a bit easier by going full-screen, from the view control in the top left.

As well as tweaking the layout, and hiding/showing components like chat or the participant list, you can zoom the Teams client in and out by using CTRL = and CTRL – (or CTRL + / – on your numeric keypad if you have one), or by holding CTRL and moving the mouse wheel up and down, if you have a suitably-equipped rodent connected. This method, however, just makes the Teams UI get bigger and smaller, so although it might increase the size of the pane being used to present content, it is a marginal gain.

clip_image006Enter, a greatly useful tip espoused by Belgian usability maestro, Ingmar Boon – click on the content being shown in a meeting, then use CTRL+mousewheel (or if you have a Surface device and the touchpad is enabled then use the pinch in & out gesture on the touchpad). Teams will now let you zoom in & out and pan around the content being shared. C’est manifique!

595 – Emoji reboot

clip_image002Emojis can trace their roots back to the first 🙂 from September 1982. Originally knows as emoticons or simply smileys, many of us have adopted these icons like a form of punctuation, especially in social media / Yammer / Teams type comments. This topic was last visited 4 years ago in ToW 391.

Emojis are mostly agreed and defined by the Unicode Consortium, which controls the Universal Coded Character Set, adopted by many systems to maintain compatibility between each other. When a user sends a symbol in a text message, the phone of its recipient needs to know which character was being sent or confusion may occur. Interpreting what the actual emoji symbol means is still down to the end user, and there are many pitfalls to avoid.

clip_image004Once both sender and recipient of a message or comment agree which emoji to display, the application or platform they’re each using still has to decide what it will look like, and sometimes the iconography – and therefore the subtext – will have changed over time; see the Pistol Emoji (emojipedia.org) as just one example.

Microsoft decided to adopt a “flat” emoji look in the Windows 10 timeframe, but that is starting to change again with the upcoming release of Windows 11 and the evolution of Microsoft 365 – as Art Director and “Emojiologist” Claire Anderson previewed, we’re going 3D and Fluent, due late this year. Oh, one more thing…

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ToW reader Paul Robinson draws attention to the shortcut way of inserting emojis in Windows – it’s been a feature for a while now – just press WindowsKey + and it will allow you to insert emojis into pretty much anywhere that accepts text.

The UI for the emoji panel is changing in Windows 11 too, with GIFs and other types of symbol being included and the whole thing is easier to search. A useful tooltip shows you what the symbol represents, though as said before, be careful with the potential interpretation of some of them. Peachy.

clip_image010In Windows 10, the same keystroke brings up a simpler yet slightly more confusing UI. Both old and new (under the Symbols grouping) provide a neat way of finding and inserting clip_image012other special characters; arguably quicker than fishing about in the Office menu, and certainly better than faffing around with typing in ANSI codes.

Paul likes to start Teams channel names with an emoji, and if you want to illustrate one difference between old world and new, try using them in email subject lines and see just how they appear in Outlook clip_image014versus Outlook Web App… clip_image016

592 – Take Note

clip_image002The simple text editor Notepad has been around since the dawn of Windows – it’s one of the few apps that was in the box with Windows 1.0 and is still there 36 years later, in Windows 10 and 11. Many people will encounter Notepad because they open a txt or log file, but some still fire up Notepad to quickly scratch something down, like a number being read out to you over the phone, when they say “do you have a pen and paper handy?”. Normally, It should take you under to two seconds to get Notepad running from anywhere – Press WindowsKey+R notepad ENTER.

Another handy use of Notepad is to quickly strip text of formatting; you might find that copying and pasting text from multiple documents often drags unwanted font choice, size, colours etc. In many apps clip_image004you have the option of pasting something as Text Only, but if not, then putting the decorated text into Notepad first, then selecting and copying it again from there will mean it pastes quickly and cleanly into the destination document. Sometimes, it’s actually quicker to use Notepad as a middleman too (especially if you favour the CTRL-C / CTRL-V method of clipboard interaction).

Some people – for whatever self-flagellatory reasons – actually use Notepad for taking notes during meetings or calls, and then maybe format their raw text into something more structured afterwards. ZDNet’s Microsoft commentator Mary Jo Foley is devout Notepad user. The fact that it’s simple and quick appeals to many, it seems.

clip_image006Notepad was turned into a Store app in mid 2019 and has gained a few tweaks to functionality, though nothing that normal people might notice. It’s getting a new icon in Windows 11, and who knows what other advanced functionality might follow.

Despite its relative simplicity, there are some obscure features – like the ability to add content to the header and/or footer of a page that’s being printed, even if there’s nowhere to save that clip_image008setting (since a TXT file is just that, until you start getting into the intricacies of different text file formats and what that might mean to applications which may consume the text file you’re editing).

Following last week’s F4 tip for Office apps like Excel, ToW reader Flaviu Comanescu-Balla goes one better in highlighting that pressing F5 in Notepad will insert the current date and time, clip_image010so if you are keeping phone notes or something, you can quickly annotate them.

In fact, Flaviu also spotted an even more obscure feature, where if you put .LOG as the first line in a Text file saved from Notepad, every time you open that file, the current date and time is appended at the end, so you can jot something down, save it again and keep a log of activities.

589 – When I’m naming Windows

clip_image002Great News! Another family of products has been announced during Inspire – previously a mega event held in Las Vegas, now a carefully-choreographed series of pre-recorded sessions being shown as-live with real people providing Q&A support. Many companies have moved their productivity and communications services to the cloud (Office 365 largely being supplanted by Microsoft 365 as more security and management stuff was added), and shifted some or all of their server estate to someone else’s datacenter too. Increasingly, if people were physically sitting in an office anymore, the only on-premises compute would be the PC they’re using (plus some networking gear, and a printer or two).

Windows 365 delivers a “Cloud PC” – literally a machine running Windows, which is remotely accessed by an end user and stays just like they left it when they disconnect, but is managed and secured centrally. As you may expect, there will be various SKUs depending on how capable you want it to be; Paul Thurrott opines that there will be many options, as “Microsoft is addicted to tiers”.

General Availability is due on 2nd August; it’s sits on top of the existing Windows / Azure Virtual Desktop, offering a per-user/per month pricing model (rather than a per-hour of use price) and providing a simpler management layer. Eventually, you’ll have the option of running Windows 11 but for now it’s Windows 10; there’s also the ability to run just an application and stream that to a remote device.

clip_image004Initially, at least, Windows 365 will be offered only to businesses already using Microsoft 365; the model being that you choose how many machines you want, and what size they’ll be (datacenter location, how much memory/CPU/storage etc), and the actual machine will be running in the Microsoft datacenter, allowing you to remotely access it from anywhere and on any device.

According to Mary Jo Foley, it will be reassuringly expensive so use cases will be carefully chosen rather than thinking everyone will sit at home running W365, accessing it over some ancient PC. For more details on machine sizing and the mechanics of provisioning and managing Windows 365, see here.

Interesting examples given during the announcement were the remote government of Nunavut, or having hundreds of interns joining Microsoft for the summer; normally they’d come to the office and be given a PC but since they’re all at home, the cost and time burden of configuring the PCs and shipping them out would have been high. Instead, they’re given a virtual desktop via Windows 365 – created en masse in a few minutes – and they connect to that from whatever kind of device they already have at home. When their tenure is up, their access is removed and there’s no data left behind on their iPad/Mac/Chromebook or home PC. Maybe 2022 could finally be the Year of the Linux Desktop?

For the rest of us; Windows 10 is still moving forward and the latest release due later this year has entered its latest stage of testing – Windows 10 21H2. And Windows 11 got another update to 22000.71, offering a variety of tweaks and polish. Even though Windows 10 is a modern OS with lots of great functionality, if you have already switched to Windows 11, using a machine with Win10 feels like going back in a time machine.