Tip o’ the Week 354 – Alone in the Dark

clip_image002Now that the northern hemisphere has put the clocks back, and a new age of darkness has begun, it seems a good time to share one reader’s tip for making things go dark on your Windows PC. Deep Fat suggested this is a good way of using your PC in places where bright lights may not be welcome, that it can help reduce eyestreain and there’s probably a power saving element to it too.

There’s a school of thought that it’s easier to read light coloured text on dark backgrounds than the other way around, even though we’re conditioned to have black text on white paper. It’s largely a personal preference thing, so might be worth having a play with a few options within Office & Windows (and a few other apps) to see how you fare.

clip_image004In Windows 10, the color settings page lets you pick the various system colours to be used, but also lets you choose the theme for apps to use – not every app necessarily respects the theme, but most of the modern applets (like the settings pages themselves, the calculator, clock, even bigger apps like Groove or Film & TV) will switch between a predominantly white background and a black one.

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Go into Settings -> Personalization -> Colors to tweak the app mode on your PC.

The Edge browser inexplicably ignores the app mode on the main settings page, but does implement its own light/dark theme, accessed via the Settings (click or tap the … in the top right, then Settings).

clip_image008In Office, go into File -> Options and look for the Personlize your copy… option on the General page. The default option is Colorful (ie mostly monochrome with the odd accent of colour) but you can choose a few alternatives, including black. It can look a bit weird at first, as all the menus turn to black with white text, but the main document / email you’re working on stays regular black on a white background…

Users of Visual Studio and the Azure Portal probably know this already but they also feature dark themes…

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Tip o’ the Week 355 – How to buy a FBTV

Tip 355, eh? This week’s tip is quite timely so we’ll skip over 354 and come back to that later.

clip_image002As the retail calendar year gets ready for the madness that is Black Friday, some “early majority” adopters will deem the time is right to invest in a new TV. 80s kids who knew their boombox as a BFR might have other monikers to give to their new big TV.

[Warning: these next 2 links are a bit racy – don’t click on them unless you’re familiar with Danny Boyle’s controversial film of 20 years ago…]

Trainspotting is coming back, after all.

Like every technology which moves on, buying flipping big televisions can be a minefield. Time was, you got the biggest you could afford and accommodate, and that was it. But now, a blizzard of new logos and features means you need to know what you’re doing otherwise a savvy sales person might tuck you up with a set that’s obsolete immediately.

Does anyone still watch 3D TV?

The Dawn of 4K

At the beginning of the HD wave, TV manufacturers were selling “HD Ready” sets, which had no means to receive High Definition broadcasts and only natively supported 720p (ie a resolution of 1280×720) from external sources like Blu-Ray, so a step up compared to standard definition (which had a resolution of up to 720×576), but not quite as much as Full HD 1080p (of 1920×1080).

The 4K revolution – otherwise known as Ultra-HD or UHD – promises resolution a of 3840×2160, meaning a Full HD picture would fill only one quarter of a 4K screen, even if 3840 isn’t exactly 4K (as that would be 4096)…

4K content is available in some areas, now – via cable or satellite (like Sky Q for UK users), but mostly through on-demand services such as Netflix or Amazon, or even streaming from YouTube. Since most 4K TVs are “Smart”, the various apps for those services are likely to be built-into or at least downloadable for the TV in question. Do check the apps you need are available for the screen you’re thinking of, and don’t be disappointed if existing apps don’t feature 4K content, yet – Planet Earth II’s cutesy animals & stunning visuals don’t show up on 4K, sadly.

HDR

If you’re going to buy a 4K set, make sure you get one that supports High Dynamic Range, or HDR. Photographers may know about HDR already – essentially, it’s a process of taking several photos with different exposure settings and combining them together to make one image that’s detailed and bright. Here’s an illustrative example:

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HDR on moving images means you can combine the detail and contrast of a low-exposure shot with the brightness and definition of a high-exposure one. Here’s a discussion about HDR TVs and why, basically, you shouldn’t buy a 4K TV without it. Arguably, HDR will have a more positive impact that the extra resolution of 4K.

There are 2 different HDR standards, and that introduces some confusion – there’s proprietary Dolby Vision, and open standard HDR10. Dolby Vision isn’t part of the Blu-Ray specification per-se, and if you buy a 4K Blu-Ray player then it most probably won’t have Dolby Vision support. It’s arguable about whether 4K Blu-Ray is even viable – paying a premium for a higher-definition version of a format (Blu-Ray) that may still be growing, but not as fast as its predecessor (DVD) is shrinking: good luck with that. The future’s all about streaming, really.

clip_image005The Xbox One S supports both 4K and HDR10, and will upscale non-4K content to the full resolution – so if you want to buy a 4K Blu-Ray player anyway, you might as well just get an Xbox One S and bring Cortana, Groove Music and the growing number of Xbox-targeted UWP apps into your living room, as well as whatever apps you might get from your Smart TV. Just make sure it’s the One S you’re buying, as the old (black) Xbox One doesn’t do 4K.

OLED vs LED/LCD

Another decision matrix when choosing the screen, is whether to go for the newest OLED display (which still attracts a pretty premium in the price), or to get a more established – and perhaps, more refined – technology such as LCD with LED backlighting? See an in-depth discussion about the two technologies here.

Ultimately, if you buy OLED now you may get a better screen but in a year’s time, you could probably get an even better one at the same price as an LCD screen costs today. Entry level 55” OLED screens will skin you the best part of two large, whereas you can get a similarly-featured 55” LCD 4K with HDR, for little more than a monkey.

Right, now that’s that done. Off to watch that new Top Gear in 4K.

And on that bombshell

Tip o’ the Week 353 – Killing me Softly, part II

clip_image001Back in the day, when it was an ambitious plan to have a PC on every desk and in every home, one frontier that was foreseen was the battle for the living room. Before the advent of cheapo streaming sticks, the only way to consume media on your big telly (apart from stuff broadcast to it or recorded already) was to invest several large in a dedicated Home Theater (sic) PC, or htpc.

clip_image003Microsoft’s early entrance into this market was a project called “Freestyle”, which offered a so-called 10’ remote control experience to browse and play back photos, music & video already stored on the PC, and later (with the advent of still-shonky standards like DLNA and the rise in home NAS appliances), networked media too.

There was also the promise of being able to tune your htpc into broadcast TV signals and use it like a PVR, though this took a long time to be realised internationally, what with the clip_image004proliferation of delivery methods, formatting standards for TV channels, means of describing the program guide etc.

Windows Media Center was a standalone version of Windows XP, then an optional features in premium versions of Vista and Windows 7, before being put to the sword in Windows 10. RIP WMC.

What now?

Well, the fashion for having a full-size, fan-blaring PC in your living room is largely done away with, as games consoles and the aforesaid streaming devices (along with built-in SmartTV functionality) largely make the idea redundant, but for some uses (a student bedroom maybe, or a PC in the den) it could still be a smart idea to be able to watch and record TV signals, for which there are a profusion of freely available alternatives to WMC. Let’s look at one of the most widely used.

clip_image006Kodi.tv sprung out of an initiative to build a Media Center-like application (called XBMC) for the original Xbox, and is now pretty well developed (with a UWP app and everything). It can provide the front-end UX for playing back media, recording & watching TV, though it can be a bit of a mission to set it up at first, as it relies on a series of 3rd party pieces to allow it to tune in to broadcast signals – a tuner, some codec software and an electronic program guide, all presented to Kodi as a kind of back-end service.

· UK users might choose all manner of tuner hardware, but you could try getting a £20 USB cheapie tuner from your favourite bookstore, or any other DVB-T2 tuner hardware (T2 includes Freeview HD, whereas simple DVB-T is just standard definition).

· clip_image008Install NextPVR – it’s an application that can drive the TV tuner and also manages download of programme metadata to form the EPG guide – so you could use it standalone, or else it can be the back end that Kodi uses.

· It’s quite possible that if you install NextPVR and it doesn’t work properly, you’ll need the right codec software, such as the LAV filters – get the latest installer from here. It’ll also allow DVD playback.

It’s even said to be possible to stream UK Freeview channels to a Kodi addon running on machines that don’t have their own tuner hardware, and non-UK types may be able to receive those channels away from Blighty. Apparently.

Here’s Killing me Softly, part I, in case you missed it.

Tip o’ the Week 352 – Skype for Business Custom Presence

clip_image001Everyone who has used Skype for Business/Lync/OCS/LCS etc will be familiar with the power you get from having presence: seeing who is available, what they’re doing (to a degree) and the contextual knowledge of whether they are contactable; all very valuable.

Many years back, OCS added the capability to present different custom states too – but it’s always been a bit of a faff to achieve consistently. Skype for Business doesn’t make it a great deal easier, but thanks to a few enterprising types, it is still possible to enable without too much trouble.

Custom presence allows users to have up to 4 custom status fields defined, in the status of Online, Busy or Do Not Disturb, which can be used to show even more context – like I’m in a meeting but can IM, or I’m busy presenting with customers so don’t disturb. There are a couple of ways to achieve said nirvana…

clip_image003Try running Skype for Business Presence Control – download this tool, save it locally, right-click on it and Run as administrator, then enter your own Skype custom status in a dialog box.

clip_image005clip_image007After entering your chosen phrases, hit the Set … Presence button, then sign out of Skype for Business to apply the changes, which you’ll see next time you sign in. It’s that easy.

The downside is that the Presence Tool starts with 4 blank presence states, so you can’t easily modify what you have already – and setting 4 empty entries will clear all custom presence from the client. Also, it only lets you choose online or busy as the available status.

A more complex but more comprehensive approach would be to use a technique developed by MVP

Ståle Hansen, to use a PowerShell script to create the config file which sets presence states.

It’s relatively straightforward if you follow these steps:

  • Save this script file to your PC then navigate to the folder where it’s stored (eg your Downloads folder)
  • Right-click on the script and (unless you already have PowerShell editing capabilities) choose Open With –> Notepad
    • Edit the custom presence states as appropriate – set the availability=”do-not-disturb” or “busy” or “online”;  you can define up to 4 custom states, with up to 64 characters to express yourself
    • The neater among you might want to change the place where the config file gets created – if so, look for the line $CustomPresencePath=”$env:SystemDrive/_CustomPresence” and modify as appropriate (eg $CustomPresencePath=”$env:UserProfile/_CustomPresence”)
    • Save the file when done
  • At the Start screen, type PowerShell, then right-click on the Windows PowerShell icon and choose Run as administrator
  • In the script window, enter Get-ExecutionPolicy (tip: in PS, you don’t need to type the whole thing – it’ll fill the command in for you, so typing Get-Ex then pressing the TAB key will most likely do the trick)
    • If the result is restricted then you’ll need to temporarily set the ability to run scripts; enter Set-ExecutionPolicy unrestricted and press Y to accept the change
    • Double-check that it’s OK by re-running the Get-ExecutionPolicy command and look for it being unrestricted
  • clip_image008Change to the location where you saved the file – if it’s in your Downloads folder, then enter cd $env:userprofile\downloads then run the script file by entering set-CustomPresence.ps1 (as per earlier, just type set-C then tab)
  • Don’t worry if you see red text in the output – that’s to be expected. To make sure the script has run OK, press WindowsKey+R and enter %userprofile% to jump to your profile directory, and you should see a _CustomPresence subfolder.
  • It’ll also have plonked a registry setting at HKLM\Policies\Microsoft\Office\16.0\Lync, pointing to the XML file that’s in the subfolder. If you want to go back and change the custom states at a future time, jump to that subfolder/XML file and edit it with Notepad. Save the result, sign out of Skype for Business and back in again to enjoy your results.
  • Assuming everything is working OK, if you had to change Execution Policy in the step above then you should revert back – eg Set-ExecutionPolicy restricted

The benefit of using this script rather than manually configuring everything is that it can be easily shared with others, or just re-run across multiple PCs so you have a consistent set of presence options.

Now look at your friends in Skype for Business to see who has the most creative custom state …

 

NB: If the above doesn’t work (and you’ve checked the registry entry points to a correctly-formatted XML file etc etc) then it may be a policy on the server that’s preventing it. One possible solution would be to host the XML file on a suitable web site that lets you reference it directly using https:// and point to that in the registry instead.

Tip o’ the Week 351 – Searching the GAL

When Exchange clip_image001Server first appeared in 1996, to deliver email like nothing ever seen before in the land of corporate email, one of its defining features was the directory service that held all sorts of details about users & groups, and could be populated with phone numbers, manager-employee reporting relationships and all sorts of other data, custom or otherwise.

The Directory fed the Global Address List, or GAL, that was visible in the Exchange Capone mail client and later in Outlook – so that’s what you see as the address book when looking stuff up (tip: at the main Outlook window, just press CTRL+SHIFT+B to open the Address Book).

Ever since Outlook 2003, the predominant way of looking up the address book is to refer to an offline copy called the OAB, and there’s a bunch of management that can be enacted on the OAB generation, by the operator of the Exchange Server. By and large, it’s a seamless exercise that users won’t notice, but you do sometimes see a bit of lag – like if a change is made to the directory (a user’s mailbox being created or deleted, for example), it could take many hours to make it down to the address book on the client. Also, not all information is stored in the OAB, so looking for pictures or reporting line information, for example, will need your client to talk to the directory server, meaning it seems to lag behind everything else and won’t work at all when you’re offline.

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Since 2000, Exchange has used the Windows Active Directory rather than Exchange’s own; in fact the AD traces its own roots back to the Exchange one – including various detritus of the X.500 standard that was part of the original Exchange directory).

One of the seemiclip_image003ngly lesser-known features of the Offline Address Book in Outlook, is that contents themselves are indexed and searchable. Sure, you can search in the address book by “Name only” but all that does is jump to a place in the sorted list of the GAL; the sorted list that doesn’t let you sort and filter by any of the column headings – blame 1996 code for that…

If you want to search other fields, just change the Search radio button to “More columns”, enter your text and hit Go. Sadly, you can’t use wildcards or anything, but you can join different searches as the logic seems to be combining all the words in an AND rather than OR fashion – so searching the Microsoft GAL for “ewan” currently returns 7 users and one DL, but searching “ewan UK” brings back the 3 of us based in the UK.

There’s one thing to be aware of, though – the matching is still pretty basic – it only searches clip_image005from the start of each field, so if there’s a Bob Robertson then looking for Robert or Roberts in the More columns search, will return Bob’s details but only if the “Surname” field is filled in (in other words, if you only had the display name of “Bob Robertson” then it wouldn’t get returned). Ditto, searching for “son” won’t return Bob.

Still, if the naming convention is orderly enough, it could still be useful – at Microsoft we do have a reasonably consistent naming scheme, so try searching for all the Steves in Edinburgh, or all the Patels in Hyderabad (hint – look at the location or department fields, and if the first few characters denote the building name or the division of the company, you could use that to search against). Or the Mc-somethings who work in building 9…?

[The location field for Redmond employees starts with their building number – so 9/1234 would equate to room 1234 found on the first floor of building 9 – the trailing slash in the search example above stops results from building 99 being returned as well]