Shoppers around the world might go a bit crazy for special deals, and this weekend is likely to be one of the busiest ever for the online emporia too. Not all retailers play the game, though – in the past, some worthy chains have publicly opted out, though every one of them will have some kind of sale or special offer roster on, FOMO and all that.
There are plenty of bargains to be had, of course; retailers will have been planning their sales for months and many now start a week or more before Thanksgiving, and continue well into December.
The Microsoft store has some good deals – in the UK, you can grab £hundreds off new Surface gear, and there’s probably never been a cheaper time to buy a new Xbox One – and with Project Scarlett arriving next year (along with Surface Neo and Duo), maybe it’s the best time to be buying a current Xbox. There’s a fire sale on the disc-less Xbox One S “All-Digital Edition” – £129 means a third off the usual price, with some rumours that it might be the last chance to buy such a device.
The world’s largest bookseller has some great offers too, especially if you want to festoon your house with Alexa stuff or other first-party surveillance gear. If you’re an Amazon shopper, consider supporting homeless charity, Launchpad, by using Microsoftie Fraser Murrell’s affiliate link which he uses to collect a few hundred pounds every year: all you need do is click through to open up the site, go about your shopping as normal, and a slice will go to a good cause.
Scourge of Fakebook, the Money Saving Expert, has a pretty comprehensive list of other UK offers that apply right now – check out their special page for maximum distraction.
Finally, another ‘Softie, Darren Adams, has a great solution if all of this brings out the Grinch in you:
Remember the time when talking to a computer seemed like science fiction?
If you’re an Amazon Echo or Sonos One* user, you’ll already be familiar with barking orders at an inanimate object. If you’re tired of shouting ALEXA… ALEXA!!!, then you can even change the “Wake Word” on the Amazon devices – but not yet others – so you can say other things instead. Handy if your daughter or your dog is called Alexa.
In the Alexa app on your phone, go to Settings, look under the list of devices and if you select an Echo device of some sort, then you’ll find a Wake Word option fairly far down the list. This lets you choose something else, though not yet at the level when you could make up your own wake word…
Anyway, who can pass up the opportunity to pretend to be Mr Scott?
Anyway, recent announcements saw the preview of Cortana joining hands with Alexa and allowing access both from Windows 10 PCs to (some) Alexa functionality, and US-based Amazon users can access Cortana stuff through Alexa-enabled devices.
On your PC, you may need to check your Cortana settings (just press WindowsKey and start typing Cortana to see the settings) to either enable the Hey Cortana key phrase, or press WindowsKey+C as a shortcut, then speak.
Voice-searching on the PC using Cortana can be a pretty handy thing to do, as there are plenty of phrases that will give you a direct response rather than take you to a website. It’s quicker to press the WindowsKey+C option than to say “Hey Cortana”, and you could ask stuff like M-S-F-T, what’s the time in New York, what’s the news, what’s the weather, convert pound to dollar and so on.
You’ll also need to grant permission to share info between the two services, and now be able to do things like add items to your Amazon shopping list from within the Cortana UI, or in the reverse, query your Office 365 calendar from your Echo smart speaker.
YMMV at the moment, but it’ll surely get more integrated in time. Right now, you can’t stream music through Alexa to the PC (or, it seems, control smart home devices that work through Alexa, though that could be a regional thing for the moment) – and if you’ve a UK-based Amazon account, you can’t add the Cortana Skill to your Alexa account, so there’s no option of querying Cortana from the Echo, yet. US users can, though.
Still, Normal People don’t have electronics listening to everything they say… so what if a few nerds need to put up with some temporary friction from having two competing assistants try to work together? Click-Over-bzzzt.
We all get notified of stuff that we’re probably interested in, but which we never get around to reading about in-depth, or trying out. Well, this week’s topic presents both an example of exactly that (for some of us at least) and a potential solution to it – Microsoft Flow, a free-to-use, simple*, workflow tool that can stitch all kinds of things together in a useful manner.
* some may take issue with “simple”. Bah.
Flow promises to do all sorts of groovy things that nobody ever needs, like writing every email to a Google Sheet then sending your calendar a reminder to look at it. But there are lots of potentially interesting and useful things you can put together, either by using the many templates or by building your own custom flow based on simple logic. You could connect all kinds of disparate web-based services together and using triggers, fire off actions based on events happening – like a tweet about a particular topic, or a new event added to a calendar.
Let’s take an example – say, you have an Office 365 work mail account and associated calendar. When you put something in your calendar which is both an all-day event, and is also marked “Out of the Office”, that probably means you’ll be out of the office all day, maybe away on a business trip or possibly even on holiday.
Wouldn’t it be useful to be able to copy that to a calendar that your nearest and dearest can see, maybe even adding all the events from several family members into one place, shared with all the others?
First off, you may want to log into www.outlook.com, go into Calendar and create a new shared calendar (if you don’t have one already) – give it a suitable name (like Family Calendar) and then make sure you’re sharing it with the right people you’d like to be able to see it. They will get an invite to see the shared calendar and it will be added to their own Outlook.com calendar view (as pictured way below).
Now, to create the flow to copy stuff from your work to Family Calendar…
Now you should be able to see any new, all-day events that appear in your work calendar, showing up in your shared Outlook.com custom calendar.
A further refinement might be to add a condition to only trigger the sync when the original meeting is set to “Out of Office” – click on Update flow to edit, then add another step, Add a condition then add Show as equals 3 – that’s the field that denotes the event’s status (busy, free etc), and “3” is the value that means “out of office”.
It’s worth having a play around with Flow, as you can do some interesting things with it (and there are connectors for all kinds of services, including Google mail & calendar, Wunderlist tasks, even grown-up apps like Dynamics or Salesforce. There are mobile apps that can take part in flows, too); do bear in mind that it takes anything up to a few minutes to fire these kinds of events, and if there’s a problem running your logic, then you’ll be notified.
It may be worth adding a debug step that can be easily removed later, by getting the flow to send you an email with the values of the fields you’re interested in…
In a culturally-sensitive and relatively unusual sort of localis(z)ation, Windows 10 has an app called Films & TV. Or Movies & TV, depending on where you are in the world. Whichever, it’s the de facto video player in Windows 10, unless you start by installing your own.
The naming may only be skin deep but in Blighty, still, Kermode & Esler host the Film Review and dear old Barry Norman (and why not?) fronted the Film… franchise for 27 years, keeping sign-writers and logo creators busy as the program name changed annually.
The Films & TV app got a nice refresh to coincide with the Creators Update, recently – so if you haven’t played around with it much, then it’s maybe worth another look.
Films & TV can show off your local video files, or let you explore stuff to rent or buy as well as access previously bought video content. In an ideal world, it would be nice to allow apps to be able to retrieve content from any source, similar to how devices like Sonos can support multiple music sources (Spotify, Groove, Amazon etc). Sadly, for now at least, you can only see content that you bought through the Films & TV (previously Xbox Video) store.
Still, there are some cool touches to the app UI – like the ability to play back video on a Miracast-enabled device, so you can source the file from your laptop yet watch it back on your monster telly.
Assuming Miracast works, that is. Russian Roulette would give you better odds than with some supposedly Miracast supporting gear, but let’s move on…
The new “Explore” section in F&TV lets you see film trailers and recommended movies & TV series, as well as some highlighted 360° videos from sources like GoPro. Check out the Indy cars driving across the Golden Gate Bridge – Monaco it ain’t but it’s still quite impressive.
When playing back ordinary video, you could choose to play it back as 360° video instead – a relatively freaky experience that’s presumably included because you might happen upon 360° video encoded as regular MP4 or whatever, and want to experience that as intended.
If you ever wonder why your home network is apparently bogging down, the blame may not be just down to your broadband provider. As we increasingly use multiple devices on the home network, any one of them may be causing issues for all the others.
If you’re using an ADSL connection, the Asymmetric nature means that preference is given to data download, with only a portion of the available bandwidth allocated to uploads, since most people are browsing, streaming and downloading files more than they are serving data or putting things into the cloud.
One of the downsides to ADSL is that when you do need to upload a lot of data, it has the side effect of hammering the download speeds too. It’s even worse if something you don’t especially care about is killing your download speed through unexpected uploads, or you need to use something that requires decent upload speeds – like a Skype call or an Xbox Live session – and you get poor performance because something else is hogging your bandwidth.
OneDrive is a bit of a culprit – in an experiment, the Network Speed Test app was used in normal run of things, and saw ~18Mbps download and .77Mbps upload, which is fairly healthy.
Starting a big upload by dropping a video file into the OneDrive folder on the PC, and allowing the sync process to get going (verified by the icon in the system tray changing to show a couple of sync arrows, and the pop up balloon saying what’s happening), and things changed radically; a paltry 600Kbps download and just 150Kbps upload speed. A tell-tale is the network delay – or latency – which rose from <50ms to >700ms, which will make anything that needs real-time communications very difficult.
If you think your network performance is terrible, start by looking in Task Manager – CTRL+SHIFT+ESC – and if you think the Send vs Receive stats in the network performance tab is a bit skewed, then click the Resource Monitor link at the bottom of the window… and look at the Send / Receive columns under Network, to see which application is causing the trouble…
Fortunately, the OneDrive app has the option of imposing upload limits; look in the system tray for the OneDrive icon(s), and right-click then choose Settings. Note that you might have separate OneDrive personal and OneDrive business icons; they can be tuned separately.
Under the Network tab, you can put a value in for KB/sec (that’s Kilo-bytes per sec, rather than the Mega-bits or Kilo-bits per second of the bandwidth measurements above – remembering, of course, that 1 Byte = 8 bits, so 1KB = 8Kb), which will throttle the upload speed used by OneDrive sync. Hover over the OneDrive icon to see the
The “Adjust automatically” option sounds hopeful, but still appears to favour upload speed over download requirements, though there may be more long-term monitoring going on. If you’ve identified OneDrive sync as the culprit to your poor performance, you can also pause it for a period of time – handy if you’re on conference calls with Skype and you want to give all of your bandwidth over to that.
Still, back to the experiment: after setting the limit to 25KBps as above, there’s still plenty of uploading, but not as bad an impact on the downloads…
|Tip 355, eh? This week’s tip is quite timely so we’ll skip over 354 and come back to that later.
As 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…]
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.
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:
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.
The 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…
Back 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.
Microsoft’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 proliferation of delivery methods, formatting standards for TV channels, means of describing the program guide etc.
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.
Kodi.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).
· Install 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.
When the Xbox One was launched, one of its early ambitions was to be a home media hub, with TV and non-gaming content being a big part of the original brief. Things have changed somewhat, with a bigger focus being put back on the games – but Xbox One has all the hardware to support other entertainment uses too.
One of the strengths of the Xbox 360 was its built-in support for Windows Media Center – even if you didn’t want to use it to watch TV via the console, it was a brilliant way of streaming media, showing pictures etc on the telly in the living room. Xbox One came out without WMC support, and now that Media Center is no more, fans have turned to other ways for streaming of content.
One is to sit at your PC and “Play To” (or “Cast To” in Windows 10), by right-clicking on your media file and choosing the Xbox as the place you’d like to play them to. Not bad, but it’s quite slow to get going, and you wouldn’t want to trot off to the PC to browse your media when sitting on your sofa. If you’re sitting at with a laptop, it may be OK, and there are other ways you might be able to send content to the big screen – via Edge, or by using wireless projection. Xbox One will eventually get the ability to receive Miracast streams, so you could use it to play back whatever you’re doing on a plethora of other devices. That said, it’s a feature that’s been in preview for a while, so it could be taking longer to complete than hoped.
It’s possible to stream content to Xbox One using DLNA, but while the Media Player app is functional, it’s a little sparse and DLNA itself has a habit of throwing in random errors just to keep you on your toes. A better solution has been around for a while, but required shelling out for, previously – PLEX.
Plex on Xbox One now free
So, if you have a home NAS box, a PC or Mac that stays on most/all of the time, or even another walking-dead product, WHS2011, then you can install PLEX server on it and stream content to your Xbox One.
The Plex server console is configured and available via the web (and can be controlled remotely, depending on your home network) and can be set to scan ‘n’ serve photos, music, movies, home videos and recorded TV shows.
There’s a Plex app for Windows (PC and Phone) too, and if you subscribe to the Plex Pass premium service for £4/month (which was previously required to use Plex on Xbox), you can take media offline as well as get other content and features.
“A computer on every desk and in every home”; sounds like a good idea, right?
It’s quite unusual to have such clarity of purpose in any corporate mission statement today, let alone in something so radical at the time it was written. 40 years ago, it must have seemed like crazy talk. Nowadays, every desk has had a computer (and use of many computers has outlived their desks), and nearly every home has one – in fact, nearly every room in some homes has at least one.
If you have a proliferation of PCs then you might have a need to make stuff that happens on one be accessible from the other(s). What if you could sit on the sofa (post turkey-fest?) and connect to the others? Use your phone or your tablet to control a corporate laptop that’s Direct Access-connected back to base, refreshing a financial report or some such?
If you’ve a Professional or Enterprise version of Windows (like a corporate Windows 10 laptop), then you’ll have the ability to connect to your machine using the built-in Remote Desktop function, a technology rooted in the Terminal Services feature that first appeared in Windows Server back in the late 1990s.
Checking Remote Desktop is available and switched on
Firstly, have a look in the System application (press WindowsKey+X then choose System from there, or press WindowsKey+ Pause|Break if you have a full-size keyboard). You’ll see if you’re running Pro or Enterprise version of Windows, and you’ll also have the link to Remote settings – have a look in there, and you will hopefully see the Remote Desktop section. Make sure it’s enabled and that you’ve selected the right users to be allowed to connect. Whilst you have that dialogue open, click on the Computer Name tab and make a note of what your machine is called – you’ll need that in a sec. You might even want to rename your machine to something more memorable while you’re there…
If you don’t have the Remote Desktop section available, there are other options– see later in the tip.
Now, from another Windows machine, you should be able to connect to your PC – type Remote at the start menu to see the Remote Desktop Connection app – or just press WindowsKey+R and enter mstsc to launch the same thing (the executable is named after Microsoft Terminal Server connection, before the technology was renamed Remote Desktop Servicess).
If you have multiple machines you might want to connect to, then mstsc /v <name> will jump straight to each one, and the Most Recently Used list for the Run command will offer you previous-used entries. This can be a handy way of remembering the names for the machines you might use regularly, so isn’t as counter-intuitive as you might think.
If you just open the mstsc app on its own and click Show Options then you’ll be able to tweak the settings such as quality of display, whether you want to run full screen or in a window, or even use multi-monitors where available. When you’re happy with the settings for each machine, you could save them out as a separate .RDP file, and you can launch the session in future by opening that file directly.
There’s a Remote Desktop Windows 10 modern app too – here – which is touch-friendly and also keeps a handy list of previously-accessed machines, though it doesn’t offer quite the same level of control of the user experience as its desktop counterpart described above. Some users of the modern app use it to run regular x86 Windows applications on their Surface RT.
If you see Remote Desktop switched on as above, but you can’t connect to the machine from your other client, there are a number of obvious things to check (Are you connected to the same network? Have you got the name right? etc) but there are a couple of Windows Firewall related things that might trip you up.
It’s worth checking that the PC you’re looking to connect to thinks it’s on a home network, not a public one – have a look in the Network and Sharing Center old-fashioned Control Panel applet, and make sure your PC thinks it’s connected to a Private network. If you need to change from Public to Private, launch the HomeGroup control panel applet, and you can switch from there.
Even if you think everything should be tickety-boo but you still can’t access the remote machine, double-check that the appropriate Firewall Rules are enabled – go into the Windows Firewall with Advanced Security control panel app, and under Inbound Rules, make sure the rules beginning Remote Desktop… are all enabled (showing a little green tick).
If your home PC isn’t running Pro or Enterprise versions of Windows then there are still options to allow you to remotely control it – a load of third party software purports to do this, though like any freeware you find on the internet, be careful… when running the setup process, make sure you’re not installing any other guff you don’t need, and maybe even think about removing the software as soon as you’ve used it, if you don’t anticipate needing it regularly.
Another warning, though: the fact that TeamViewer is free means it’s also the favoured tool of the shysters calling people up and claiming to be from Microsoft, so they can access the hapless user’s computer. Make sure if you do install it, you’re getting it directly from the official source, and that you it’s as locked-down as you can make it.
Sense the network: Use the Force.
One of the cool new features in Windows Phone 8.1 is “WiFi Sense” – it’s enabled by default and, in a nutshell, is used to let other people access WiFi networks you already know about, without them having to type in the network password. It also lets you connect to known open networks or secured ones shared by your friends.
If you connect to a network and put in a password, and you’ve allowed WiFi Sense to do so, then your contacts of a given type (who also have WP8.1), will be able to connect to that same WiFi network without needing to know the password. The actual passcode itself is not shared with the contact directly, but it is sent to their phone in a hashed way that means it can be presented to the network for access, without their phone even knowing what the password is. If you’ve only just shared your home network, it could take a couple of days for it to percolate through the WiFi Sense system and show up on your friends’ phones, so take it easy and give it some time.
In practice, this means that if you set a password on your home WiFi, your pals who have WP8.1 will be able to use your home network without needing your password (or, in fact, your permission – they’re your friends, after all…). If you live in an apartment block in the city, you might want to be careful about this as you could well have neighbours you know leeching on your broadband, but if you live in a more rural location then perhaps you can trust that the only people within range of your network will be those that you invite onto your property.
The benefit of having WiFi Sense turned on is that your phone will automatically connect to known networks, and use them instead of racking up bandwidth charges on your phone bill (especially handy when travelleing).
The service not only lets you connect to networks enabled by your friends, but open networks are shared by everyone with WiFi Sense switched on (via a crowdsourcing arrangement), and are connected to automatically, accepting T&Cs, providing details like your name & phone number etc. As it happens, the phone comes with a usefully vague set of default information (check it out by going into WiFi settings / WiFi Sense / edit info).
WiFi Sense is available in most countries – for more details or to see more info on how it works, check out the WiFi Sense FAQ.