Tip o’ the Week #229 – Cortana, let’s rock!

(Another slightly out-of sequence tip as this could be more timely now than in a few weeks)

clip_image001One of the most written-about and eagerly-awaited features in the soon-to-appear Windows Phone 8.1, is Cortana – the “digital assistant”, named after the character in the Halo games.

If you’re desperate to get hold of the developer preview of WP8.1 – bearing in mind it is still a preview, and there’s no going back once you’ve installed it – then there’s still time. The preview did receive an update which made the battery life a bit better, so if that’s the reason you’ve been holding off, then maybe it’s time to dive in. Paul Thurrot detailed how to install 8.1 preview here, and if you are not US based and want to enable Cortana, then you’ll need to fool your phone into pretending to be Septic.

The general feedback on the 8.1 preview has been very positive, though in some quarters, it’s a step back from the Hubs strategy that Windows Phone pioneered, in favour of more monolithic apps – it seems that’s more in line with what users expect. Also, there are some features which draw a parallel with Android – like the notifications that show when you swipe down from the top of the screen.

It’s a fun exercise to play around with the voice input on Cortana – ask her how old she is, where she comes from, who’s her daddy, what she’s wearing (warning: best not do these in public in case you get deservedly funny looks) and you’ll get some amusing answers. Ask her what she thinks of Steve Ballmer, whether she likes Google, or if she’s better than Siri… How we laughed! Still, there are a whole load of useful things you can ask Cortana – a non-exhaustive list appears here. clip_image002

There’s some nice reminder type functionality in there – like “next time Alistair calls, remind me to ask him about what the agenda is for sync week”. Sure enough, next time that person rings you, there will be a small text splash on the incoming call notification, reminding you of whatever it was. clip_image004

There are some less visible but even more awesome Cortana features behind the scenes, though – and some of them you’ll only discover by accident and by using the phone. Here’s just one example – Cortana, your pocket PA, can keep an eye on your calendar and prompt you when appropriate. Here’s an email, for example, where the phone has spotted various terms that correspond to dates and times, and has automatically hotlinked them… tapping on one of these links will offer to set an appointment, in context – so the “how about 4pm” link already knows that the day in question is the next Friday. Very smart indeed.clip_image006

Cortana will also make sure that you’ve got time to drive to your next appointment, if she can recognise an address in your calendar, and can even learn your routine too (e.g. if you visit the same place regularly during the working day, then the settings page will ask you “Is this your work place?”, and if you tend to return to the same place in the evening, she’ll ask if that’s your home).

clip_image007All of this could be seen as a bit creepy but remember that you can always switch any of it off, and that Cortana is using technology pioneered by the Bing search engine to build a model of your world, so she can help you without you always needing to ask, and she’ll never tell you that it looks like you’re writing a letter. Ask her “Do you like Clippy?” if you’re in any doubt.

Sadly, the subject line of this ToW doesn’t quite work – “Cortana, let’s rock!” merely results in a Bing search for the term. However, “Cortana, play some rock!” gets the response “Queuing up your Rock Music”. If you have any jazz music on the phone, that would be lined up instead. Nice.

Tip o’ the Week #220 – Wireless networking, 15 years on


It’s amazing how quickly technology goes from an expensive frippery to a cost-insignificant near-essential. It’s not so many years ago that WiFi and Bluetooth first arrived (remember the Ericsson T29 or T68, the latter of which not only had a COLOUR screen but came with Bluetooth support – all you’d need is a £100 “Socket” Compact Flash card†, and your iPAQ could be GPRS enabled).

Bluetooth went from a travelling salesman’s “look at me” blinking earpiece, to wirelessly enabling things that don’t really need to be wirelessly enabled (and the seller’s earpiece is now pretty-much the territory only of airport taxi drivers). WiFi was developing in parallel.

clip_image003Here’s a photo from 13 years ago, where the serving UK Prime Minister was entertained by a demo in the Microsoft TVP atrium, of a mobile app (equipped with smoke & mirrors) which used a WiFi network – but it pre-dated the Microsoft rollout of WiFi, necessitating about £500 worth of kit just to allow the hand-held device to talk to the network.

Nowadays, we’d rock up at an airport and be disappointed not only if there wasn’t WiFi, but there wasn’t some kind of freely available service. Buses have free WiFi. Often you can price-check online as you’re walking around the department store. We expect WiFi to connect our phones without racking up 4G charges. Time marches on.

It was 1999 (with the adoption of the 802.11b standard) before wireless networks (becoming known as WiFi or Wi-Fi depending on your degree of pedantry) started reliably working with kit between different vendors. This opened the door to successful adoption and eventual embedding in all sorts of devices. Bluetooth also developed apace, and has now carved out a niche (especially with Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE) for data comms over relatively short-range and comparatively low-power (against WiFi’s longer range, with higher power drain).

clip_image005Although both standards offered options for peer-peer communications and operating in an “infrastructure” mode where there was an established network to connect to, Bluetooth only ever took off as a means of linking devices directly, and the vast majority of WiFi is deployed as a network of base stations.

Windows Phone 8 GDR3 and Windows 8.1

One neat function that was included in the latest major update to Windows Phone 8 (released under the “Lumia Black” moniker for Nokia handsets), turns your phone into a WiFi hotspot that can be remotely controlled by Windows 8.1. If you go into settings -> internet sharing on the phone, and set up internet sharing for the first time, it’ll give you a broadcast name and a numeric password.

You can now connect from some other device to the phone over WiFi, and use its data connection to get on the internet. Once you’ve set the connection up for the first time, with your laptop or tablet is running Windows 8.1, you can establish the connection any time without even needing to get your phone of the pocket – just swipe from the right, look under the network settings and tap to connect.


† Whilst on the topic of old networking kit, here are some old Bluetooth bits that I found in my Man Drawer. The PCMCIA wireless cards have all gone the way of the Dodo – these ones evaded the net on the basis of their size and the amount of money they costs to procure in the first place.

How can you throw something away that cost hundreds of pounds in its day and is now worthless for any reason other than as a curio?

Might as well keep them and maybe someday they’ll be worth something as a museum piece…

Tip o’ the Week #213 – London travel with Windows Phone


There are plenty apps that help travellers to and from the city of London, some of which I’ve mentioned previously in Tips gone by. Apologies somewhat to international readers as many of these will be of little use to you, unless you choose to visit the cradle of parliamentary democracy, in which case you should install them all before your trip.

Commuters in London have had to deal with industrial action on the Tube in recent months, and may face some more to come unless BoJo and BoCrow can kiss and make up. Install these apps now, so that next time you’re stuck in a queue or wedged on a train studiously not making eye contact with your fellow passengers, then you’ll have something to occupy yourself with. You could try singing the Amateur Transplants’ “London Underground” song to yourself: Warning – NSFW. Seriously, very sweary NSFW. About as sweary as you can get NSFW.

If you find yourself trying to traverse the capital on unfamiliar modes of transport (with other strange songs ringing in your mind), you could do worse than check out Bing Get Me There – it’s a multi-modal travel app which will plot routes on Tube, bus, overground rail & DLR, as well as link up the walking bits at either end too. The London Travel app is also very good – it shows you when the bus is due at your stop, among many other useful functions.

clip_image003Some other mainstream apps also feature great functionality for navigating the city – everyone should have Here Maps installed and benefit from being able to plan your journey on Shanks’s Pony even if you are stuck in a crawling underground train with no signal, since the maps are all stored offline.

Tap on a train or Tube station and the maps even show the real over-ground and underground layout (ie. where the tube lines lie under the streets – a revelation to new visitors to London is when they realise that sometimes it’s just a lot quicker to walk than to change lines on the underground, as the famous Tube Map isn’t anything like to-scale). Select a bus stop, and it’ll show you the numbered bus routes which that stop serves, and where they go to. Here Maps also gives you great turn-by-turn walking sat-nav so you can figure out exactly where to go when you get off the transit.

Ceri Morriss helpfully points out that as well as using the Bus Checker app, many routes – including the TVP courtesy bus – are also in Nokia’s excellent & free Here Transit phone app, which lets you plan a route by public transport not only in London, but other cities too. 740 of them around the world, apparently. Yes, other cities are available. Even the BBC knows this now.

Finally, there is a slew of similar train-opco-supplied apps, many off the same code base. For travellers going Reading-London, the most obvious is the clip_image005FGW app, which lets you see plan journeys, buy tickets, see the status of current trains (so you can see how late they are running), view departures from your favourite station (and as you can see how late the trains are running, you can give yourself another few minutes before rushing out of the house).

The coup-de-grâce though, is the ability to see which platform a given train is going to depart from; often, it’s displayed in the app before it shows on the board in the station, so you can be smugly luxuriating in your double seat before the hordes start descending from the main concourse.

Tip o’ the Week #211 – Manage your battery on WP8


The world – at least if you listen to ex-PayPal squillionaire Elon Musk – is destined to move from fossil-fuel-fired transport to electric vehicles that might be charged by the power grid rather than carrying around their own means of energy conversion. Some say that centralised generation (in the form of power stations) is more efficient than hydrogen fuel cells or petrol/hybrid,  and even coal-fired power stations are ~60% efficient, says the Hyperloop space cadet. We’ll see.

Hyperloop: Near-supersonic travel in a driverless capsule fired along a vacuum tube suspended monorail style, over-ground along the San Andreas fault. What could possibly go wrong?

Whatever, the current generation of plug-in electric cars – some of which are expensive and impractical hairshirt statements, some (like Musk’s Tesla S) a genuine move forward to a new world – brings a new phrase into the lexicon, which is also recognisable to many other technology users – range anxiety. In other words, the fear that there just isn’t enough power left to get you home.

Users of any smartphone will be familiar with the idea that you’re only a few steps away from running out of power, particularly the times when you are using it – and maybe need it – the most. Like when you’re travelling on trains, hanging around at airports etc. You have time on your hands, you’re reading and writing emails, maybe you’re listening to music or using your phone’s navigation, ergo the phone gets drained more quickly.

clip_image004Laptops have nice big batteries, at least in comparison to phones. Laptops need bigger batteries, but if the laptop is in your bag, did you realise you might be able to use it to recharge your phone, even if the laptop is asleep or even powered off? Look on the back of your machine and you may find a small electric flash symbol next to the port – which signifies you can charge devices using this port when the PC is not running.

USB ports will one day be able to drive up to 100W of power supply to other devices, but you might find the ports on your laptop today aren’t labelled yet one of them can power USB devices when switched off – trial and error may prove useful…

Another option is to control what’s happening on your phone itself – you could check that the background tasks section in settings / applications / background tasks and disable and apps you don’t want to run in the background (which inevitably drains battery life). A great tip (if slightly more drastic) comes from ToW regular Simon Boreham:

If one is more interested in battery life than Facebook & Twitter updates, etc. you can go into the Data Sense app, and under settings set restrict background data to always.  The results are amazing  ~70 % battery still left at the end of the day!  Incidentally I found out about this whilst traveling, there is an option to set it when roaming and clearly there are data volume advantages to setting it as well as battery life.  Obviously this restricts live tile updates etc, but it is a trade-off.

Whatever, keep a micro-USB cable on your person all the time. You never know when you’ll need it.

Tip o’ the Week #210 – Beam me up!

In the last few weeks, Nokia has shipped the Lumia Black update and it’s widely available. There are some cool additions that the Finns have made to the Phone platform, some new and synched with Black. Nokia now publishes loads of addons (some available for other phones, many only application on Nokia handsets), under both the Nokia and Here brands.


This is an evolution of the PhotoBeamer app that came out a while back, except the Beamer app lets you share your screen, the map of where you are, or the output of your phone camera, to many internet connected devices simply by visiting http://beam.nokia.com and scanning the displayed barcode on your phone. Hello Computer?!
(Great typing skills, btw, Scotty)

Focus, Focus, I think he’s trying to Focus

Many a gadget fan and itinerant story teller couldn’t wait to sample the Lytro camera, which promised to capture enough of a digital photograph that it would banish the problem of focus being in the wrong place.

Now, Nokia has launched the Refocus app (as usual, if you’ve a Nokia handset…) and a website to allow non-Nokia users to have a play. Here’s one I made earlier – all in the interests of research, y’understand.



Very nice. Now there’s at least half a dozen different camera apps on my phone.

Tip o’ the Week #209 – Shhhhhhhh!


How many times have you been awoken by your phone, tablet or PC blaring an alert first thing in the morning, telling you it’s someone’s birthday (worse, someone you hardly even know)? Or reminding you it’s time to go to an optional conference call in the middle of the night (your time), that was sitting unnoticed in your diary?

As mobile platforms have evolved, sometimes favoured functionality in old versions gets sacrificed in the name of quick progress, and may be eventually added back in future. The Windows Phone 7 journey is a great example – compared to Windows Mobile 6.5, there were lots of features which didn’t exist yet most people either didn’t notice, or they did notice but quickly stopped whining, dried their eyes and got on with the rest of their lives.

Windows Phone 8 misses one feature that was present in many old mobile phones, (including that first “Stinger” phone, the Orange SPV, which showed up more than 11 years ago), namely the idea of sound profiles – you could set up several named settings (Meeting, Silent, Outdoor, Normal, etc), and easily switch between them, maybe even automatically. Later versions of Pocket PC-based phones had an array of 3rd party software that could not only create & manage profiles – a feature that didn’t exist on the PPC platform – but could even switch profiles on a schedule, so when you went to bed, the phone went to quiet mode but came back to life in the morning so the alarm still worked.

Windows 8.1 and Quiet hours

clip_image004Here’s a handy added-feature to Windows 8.1 which could be particularly relevant to hypnagogic tablet users, namely the ability to shut the machine up for specified periods of time. It’s even enabled by default.

To set up your preferred Quiet hours, either navigate through settings (Settings charm | clip_image006Change PC Settings | Search and apps | Notifications) or save yourself a lot of clicking or poking, by typing quiet hours at the Start screen, and select from the search results.

Maybe we’ll see the same Quiet Hours functionality built into the next generation of Windows Phone…? In the meantime, at least you can quickly switch between ring mode and silence by just pressing one of the volume controls on the side of the phone, then tapping the sound icon on the top right of the screen.

Tip o’ the Week #203 – Remote control of Office

clip_image002Anyone who regularly presents will have had the occasion when there’s a need to wander around the stage, or instead be marooned behind a lectern on the side, yet if there’s no presentation “clicker” provided, it’s difficult to control the flow. A/V professionals complain that they can never keep hold of clickers as they grow legs and walk, so unless you bring your own, you might be out of luck.

There have been any number of attempts to build remote control software for Pocket PCs, Stinger smartphones, but none have been altogether successful – usually requiring faffing about with esoteric networking to make them work. There was also the snappily-named Microsoft Wireless Notebook Presenter Mouse 8000, which could be flipped over from its primary rodent function, to expose PowerPoint clicker type buttons below. It’s so bulky, maybe the mouse’s best use in retirement is to torment cats with its laser pointer.

clip_image001Enter Microsoft Research, who recently produced Office Remote – and a means, with your Windows Phone in paw, to remotely operate Office apps using a Bluetooth connection direct to the PC.

Frankly, controlling a remote Word doc (by jumping around the structure of the document, zooming in/out etc), or Excel (moving about, using Slicers/Filters/Pivots, as well as the jumping/zooming around) is something of a novelty. How many cases will you find yourself where you’re looking at a screen showing your document from your PC, but you don’t have the means to control the document directly?

Where the remote control really comes into its own, however, is with PowerPoint. You can read speaker notes and even use your phone screen as a virtual laser pointer on the main screen – as well as swiping back and forth to move through the slide being shown on the main PC.

There are two routes to go about installing the software – there’s an agent that needs to run on your PC, and an app on the clip_image003 phone. If you run the Setup app on your PC, then look under the “OFFICE REMOTE” tab in your Word/Excel/PowerPoint apps, you can remotely install the controller app on your phone. Or start with the phone install first.

Simply install the app on both PC (running Windows 7 or 8.x) and on your mobile device, bond the two together in Bluetooth settings (part of the setup to add a new device) and you’re off. Simple, effective and free. Thanks to Simon Boreham, Ant Austin, Rina Ladva and others for recommending the application.

Tip o’ the Week #184 – ActiveSync account limits

clip_image002Various people have commented on issues they’ve had whilst setting up new PCs, especially after the upgrade to Windows 8.1 Preview. The upgrade process is a lot like a reinstall which happens to remember a bunch of settings, and one of the side effects is that it sets up the Mail (and associated Calendar) client as if it was a new PC connecting to your mailbox.

Now, one gotcha you might not be aware of is that Exchange Server can impose a limitation on how many ActiveSync devices are connected – it’s part of the numerous controls IT departments could place on synchronising with mobile devices, such as not allowing certain types of device (eg inherently insecure Android phones) to connect and sync, or by forcing a certain  password policy on the phone so it locks when not used for a while.

Windows 8 and 8.1’s inbuilt Mail client uses the ActiveSync protocol to connect to the server, rather than the “Outlook Anywhere” method that the regular Outlook mail client uses. This means that if you reinstall/upgrade your Win8 PC, it could start to chalk off entries on the list of ActiveSync clients associated with your mailbox – and if you think how many phones you might have had in recent years, that number may be close to the limit. You may receive a notification email that there was an “error with your new mobile phone partnership” – strange stuff given than you may be just installing Windows…

clip_image004To solve the problem (if it affects you) or to prevent it from happening at some future and doubtless inconvenient moment, simply:

  • Go to Outlook Web Access (whatever the URL is for your installation), and login
  • Go to Options in the top right and See All Options (after selecting a Groovy Theme, should you so desire)
  • Go to Phone / Mobile Phones and look at the list of devices set up to synchronise – you may have a number of WindowsMail “phones” as well as a couple of kosher mobile devices.


Selectively delete some WindowsMail (or old phone) entries that haven’t synched for a while – they’re presumably old and dead. If in any doubt, select a device and click on Details to see the OS type and name of the machine, amongst others.

Tip o’ the Week #171 – eWallet on your phone

One attribute of your phone is that it tends to be with you all the time, so it makes a great place to store information that you want to get access to when you’re out and about – the details of your car insurer, the password for your online banking site, your frequent flyer numbers etc. The long-established iLium Software has offered eWallet for years on a variety of Windows Mobile systems and PCs. There’s a Windows PC desktop version, and a Windows 8 Modern App version, as well as the various fruit and malware-ridden-Googly-device versions.

clip_image002iLium’s current offering on Windows Phone isn’t very well organised – the main eWallet app (which is quite complex) is only on iOS and Android, but there’s also a simpler (though still very flexible and powerful) application called eWalletGO! The Windows Phone version isn’t quite as capable as some of the others, but it’s still a decent app and it’s so useful to be worth persevering with.

The model is simple – you can have a Windows PC (or Mac) version of the app, and a corresponding mobile version too. You create your single wallet (there’s no File menu or anything) and can backup and restore to/from online services DropBox and Google Docs.

So to get the wallet on your phone, you either create it in situ or else build it on your PC and perform a backup (to DropBox) and then restore it down to the phone – a faff, but one that can be done fairly quickly and since the wallet probably doesn’t change much once established, it’s not too hard.

If you buy the Windows PC version (well worth a few quid investment) and want to sync its data between machines, there’s a simpler way than using backup/restore to keep it up to date on multiple PCs… well, it’s simpler once you have it set up…

The eWalletGO! application stores its data in your user profile folder – after installing, just run the app for the first time and create a dummy wallet, press WindowsKey+R to get the Run dialog, then paste %userprofile%\appdata\Roaming\Ilium Software into the box and hit enter. You should see an eWalletGO folder….

Sync application data between PCs using SkyDrive

Now, if you want to sync this to SkyDrive, simply carry out the following…

  • install the SkyDrive desktop application (here, if you haven’t got it already) and copy the eWalletGO folder above into the SkyDrive folder that is Synced to your PC (by default, %userprofile%\SkyDrive). Once it’s copied, we need to fool the eWalletGO app into thinking it’s accessing its own folder, and instead redirect it to SkyDrive.
  • Let’s say that you’ve dropped the eWalletGO folder into the root of your SkyDrive folder… (ie %userprofile%\SkyDrive\eWalletGO), now go back to %userprofile%\appdata\Roaming\Ilium Software and delete the eWalletGO folder
  • Fire up a command prompt with administrative privileges (press WindowsKey, simply type cmd, then CTRL+SHIFT+Enter) and then click on Yes to approve the use of admin privileges
  • Now we need to create a symbolic link – it’s basically a special folder within the Windows file system which redirects from one place to another – ie if an app thinks it’s accessing c:\foo\whatever, then “whatever” could be a symbolic link to c:\foo\bar.

So, when you have your admin cmd prompt up and running, copy this following command to the clipboard and paste it into your command window …
mklink /D "%userprofile%\appdata\roaming\ilium software\eWalletGO" %userprofile%\skydrive\ewalletgo  
(modify the \skydrive\ewalletgo as appropriate to point to your real location of your eWallet folder if it’s not in the root of your SkyDrive storage… and put quotes (“) around that section if your location has any spaces in it)

Now, if you fire up the ewalletGO app and make a change, then exit, you should see the ewalletgo.wlt file in your SkyDrive  location has been updated – proof that not only do you have an automatic backup of the important data, but that if you repeat the exercise above on PC #2 (apart from the first step that copies the eWalletGO folder into SkyDrive, since it’s already there), you have an automatic replica of your data onto multiple machines, even though the application doesn’t realise it.

This technique can potentially be applied to any application that doesn’t realise it can replicate its data to the cloud – or in the case of eWalletGO, that it can copy data to the cloud, but just does it to the wrong cloud.

Tip o’ the Week #168 – Loving some Windows Phone 8 tips

clip_image001At a recent “Love It” internal event hosted in Microsoft UK’s Reading campus, a whole series of tips and tricks were shared amongst other Microsofties. Did you know, for example, that with an application called ZipApp (www.zipapp.co.uk – check it out), you can build a Windows 8 app in a few minutes without writing any code?

DPE’er Andy Robb said, “Yesterday I helped a couple of people create a dummy app for their customer complete with logo, draft content, a couple of social feeds, in about 30 mins… Customer walks in, sees their app on the Start menu, has a play on a touch device and they ‘get it’ better than any pitch deck could do.“ … BOOM!

Phone gurus Jon Lickiss and Natasha Joseph presented a great session on Windows Phone, with a slew of great tips and apps that  they recommend – they’ve promised to write up the session so we may feature it here in future. In the meantime, here are 3 of the tips to get cracking:

clip_image002Here Maps

Nokia has released mapping software available to any Windows Phone 8 user, which they called Here Maps. The great thing about Here Maps is that you can download the content offline, so they can be used on the tube (say) or when abroad, without racking up career-ending roaming charges.

The downloaded maps data is shared between Here Maps and Here Drive, the new name for the sat nav software that’s free (in beta) for any Windows Phone 8, as well as Nokia Lumias. If you’re on a non-Nokia device, Here Drive only allows access to the maps where the phone’s SIM is registered, but if you’ve a Lumia then you can use maps all over the world,, still get turn/turn navigation.

Here Maps also has a feature analogous to Bing Maps’ own capability to show details of what’s inside buildings – like shopping centres. Here’s a pic of the Oracle centre in Reading, as seen by Here Maps…

Where are you…?

If you’re arranging to meet up and want to tell your friends your current 10-20, you could text them a description – or try this neat function that was new in WP8. Go into the Messaging (ie text) app, start a new text message, then tap on the paperclip icon normally used to attach something – select “my location” to insert a Bing Maps link to your current whereabouts. See here.

Screen grab

A quick and simple way to capture the screen of a Windows Phone. To snap the contents of the phone screen, press the Windows logo on the bottom of the phone then quickly press the power/standby button. It may take a little practice to get the timing right, but once you’ve figured it out, you’ll see the results in the Screenshots folder within the Photos app.

To get them to your PC for further use, it’s probably easiest to just go into the folder, view the picture then Share it via email or NFC, if your new PC supports it