Tip o’ the Week 499 – Cortana resurrection?

clip_image002Cortana was supposed to be the differentiator for Windows Phone. 5 years ago, before Alexa had wormed her way into kitchens of millions of people and forced Google to respond with their range of devices, Siri and Cortana were the assistants in town. When Windows Phone carked it, Cortana transferred her attention to Windows 10, though there have been a few redesigns after feedback from users, such as preferring to have the search dialog shorn of Cortana-ness.

clip_image004In latest news, rumours have surfaced of some kind of Microsoft speaker to be announced, though it’s purely a design patent rather than any details of what it might do – Cortana? Or just a companion device for making Teams calls? Time will tell. The same source unveiled a patent for a Roundtable type device at the same time last year – ahead of the autumn Surface launch event – and nothing seems to have come of that yet.

clip_image006The much-trumpeted GLAS home thermostat (competing with Nest, basically) has dropped Cortana from the device, and the Cortana-powered Harman Kardon Invoke speaker (which, by all accounts, is a really good speaker) has sunk beneath the waves following a fire sale to get rid of stock. Cortana is reportedly disappearing from Xbox too, though a wider speech strategy is in place so she won’t go too far.

Cortana has been repositioned from being a consumer service or device, to a series of services that add value by integrating with your productivity applications and services. Additionally, efforts have gone into making speech/AI assistants interoperable.

In a recent Windows 10 build pushed to Insiders, Cortana is getting a new look – again – and will eventually roll out around the world, rather than be limited to a few locations as it had been previously.

clip_image008If you’re on the insider program for Windows 10 and using a UK language machine, you may find that the new Cortana app doesn’t want to talk to you, unless you set English (United States) as your Windows Display language.

Also click on each entry in the Preferred languages list, and make sure you have all the speech and proof-reading features installed.

clip_image010The original vision of Cortana’s usefulness is evolving so that when you enable the service, it now searches your email and calendars on a variety of sources (Office 365, Gmail etc) and will remind you when you say things in email (eg I’ll give you a call on Tuesday) – it’s vaguely spooky when you first start to use it, but after a while proves to be really useful.

As To Do and the Microsoft Launcher continue to improve and integrate, the original vision of Cortana might well come back to being more than a gimmick to ask for directions or the current weather – a genuinely personal assistant that will help you organise your life and get more stuff done.

Tip o’ the Week 496 – Dark Mode marches on

clip_image002Back in the olden days of computing, wage slaves sat in front of terminals with black backgrounds and lurid green text writing. The advent of the graphical user interface relieved this tyranny with a paper-white background from a bitmapped screen to write your WYSIWYG text, to showcase colourful graphics (and Fonts!).

Fast forward 30+ years and it seems every app and OS is running away from black text / white backgrounds, and heading for monochrome graphics and oppressive white text on a black background again.

Using Dark Mode, either in apps or in the operating system on your computer or phone, promises a variety of benefits – less noticeable flickering, reducing eye strain, avoiding bright lights in a dark environment, perhaps better readability and therefore productivity, and even lower energy costs.

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Dark Mode has existed in Windows for a while – but ultimately, apps need to support the theme, too, and more and more are doing so – like new Edge browser, or Office apps (where you can set the Office Theme).

Microsoft recently put out a groovy video to highlight Dark Mode across a variety of apps and device types, and some commentary about why and when. It’s even come to Outlook.com as well.

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The announcement on Microsoft 365 functionality adds for August 2019 highlighted additional Dark Mode support coming to Outlook mobile apps and Outlook.com, saying, Dark Mode is not only easier on the eyes and may extend battery life, it also enables you to comfortably continue using your device in places where the default bright mode isn’t appropriate, like darkened airplanes and movie theaters.”

So kids, next time you want to go and watch a movie & catch up on your email, make sure you’ve Dark Mode on!

Tip o’ the Week 495 – Your Phone updates

clip_image002As Samsung recently released the new Galaxy Note 10 premium phone (some versions later than the now infamous Note 7 with battery issues), one prominent new feature may have inadvertently caused a headline during the last week. “Microsoft’s Your Phone App is Down” might have made some readers question, what is Your Phone anyway? (It’s back up now, btw).

Your Phone is a PC and companion iOS or Android app that lets the user of both device sync data and other experiences between them. Initially focussed on photo sharing, it grew to encompass other areas like allowing you to view and reply to text messages on your phone, using the PC’s screen & keyboard instead, thus avoiding any embarrassing auto-correct moments.

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The photo sync between phone and PC is more real-time than synching via OneDrive or similar, and it’s a bit more usable for many. But since the May 2019 update to Windows 10, there have been a load of other changes to Your Phone.

It’s possible to share notifications from mobile apps – so you could see Android notifications shown on your PC, too – the goal being that in time, you’d be able to view and respond to them on your computer. If you set it up, do so carefully – you don’t want to be getting notifications on your PC that your phone has sent, for stuff that the PC is already notifying you for… like Outlook, or Teams. Otherwise, you’ll be getting a blizzard of notifications to the point of ignoring them all.

Finally, if you have a Samsung device on the extensive list of currently one, you can share your screen between phone and PC. The plan is, this would allow you to fully operate your phone – including making and taking calls – from your PC, and it’s likely that this will end up growing to other Samsungs and to other manufacturers.

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Tip o’ the Week 488 – Time Zone Travelling

clip_image002Heading somewhere nice this summer? Perhaps somewhere hot and busy, such as Las Vegas?

When moving between countries, one of the tricks the traveller needs to decide is how to handle the switch of time zone. Do you set your watch to the destination time as soon as you board the plane, or only when the pilot announces, in his or her ever-so distincive pilot tone, what the local time is on arrival?

If pilots all sound the same, what about air-traffic controllers?

Also, do you wait for your phone to pick up the destination time zone automatically, or do you set it manually? If you have a Fitbit or other wearable, do you want it to pick up the time from your phone or do you force it on departure? Decisions, decisions…

Frequent travellers tend to have pearls of wisdom on how to deal with jet lag – like get your mind in the destination time zone and keep it there (ie. If you’re out having dinner after arrival, do not keep saying that it’s really 4am; it’s 8pm now and you can’t go to bed for at least another two hours), or get the sunor even a bright light – on the back of your knees. It’s a lot easier to handle the differing time zones using your PC…

clip_image003Outlook – whenever an appointment is created, its date and time are recorded as an offset from UTC, and the time zone it’s due to take place in is also noted. If you’re creating meetings or appointments which are in a different time zone, like travel times, then it may be worth  telling Outlook by clicking the Time Zone icon in the ribbon, and then selecting the appropriate TZ – especially useful if you’re moving between clip_image005time zones during the appointment itself, and don’t want to run the risk of horological befuddlement.

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If you’re booking a load of appointments in another time zone – eg. you’re working in another country for a few days and creating appointments with people in that locale – then it’s even worth switching the TZ of your PC whilst you do the diary-work, to save a lot of clicking around in setting the appropriate time zone specific to each meeting.

The best way to do this would be to show your second time zone in the Outlook calendar – in the main Outlook window, go to File | Options | Calendar and select the second one to show; when you’re ready to switch between your local TZ and the remote one, just click the Swap Time Zones button to switch the PC (and Outlook) between the different zones.

clip_image009Windows 10 – In the Settings | Date & time menu, there’s an option to tweak how Windows deals with time and time zones – some of which might be applied by policy and therefore greyed out for you. Like phone OSes, Windows 10 has the option of setting time zone automatically.

If you’re going to use the time zone swapping in Outlook as per above, switching time zones before you actually travel, then it’s worth disabling the automatic mode as Windows can get itself properly confused; the default time zone will change, and Outlook will end up showing the same time zone for both primary and secondary.

clip_image011Using the old fashioned Windows control panel time settings applet, you can choose to show a second time zone in the clock on the system tray – in the Date & time settings, look to the right and you’ll see Add clocks for different time zones.

The Alarms & Clock app in Windows 10 shows a map of the world with your choice of locations, and the moving daylight line so you can see what’s happening around the globe. A good alternative to that exec boardroom display nonsense, that you might expect to see gracing the wall of your average corporate hot shot.

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Tip o’ the Week 478 – O365 and Windows’ Mail and Calendar

clip_image002On the mobile platforms that still survive, the highly-regarded and rightly popular “Outlook” mobile apps have no relation to the Outlook desktop Windows app which first appeared with Office 97, before smartphones were a glint in anyone’s eye. Mobile Outlook has hundreds of millions of downloads on both iOS and Android; quite a feat, as later this year Windows Mobile sinks quietly beneath the waves.

The genesis of Outlook on the phone as we know it today, is perhaps the acquisition of a company called Accompli 5 years ago, and a great deal of refinement and effort since.

clip_image004Somewhat interestingly, traces of the same app have come to Windows as well – namely the Mail and Calendar app(s) that are in the box on Windows 10. Look back to ToW 445, and you’ll see that the names for the apps are outlookcal, outlookmail and outlookaccounts. Stick a “:” on the end and you can run them from a prompt.

e.g. Hit WindowsKey+R then enter outlookcal: and you’ll jump straight into the Calendar app.

Both have come a very long way – at first release, they were pretty basic, but they’re now so well featured that most people could use them as their primary email and calendar apps, most of the time.

clip_image006The Calendar app is functionally pretty similar clip_image008to the Outlook desktop app, except when it comes to working with other people – there’s no way to view someone else’s calendar, for example, but for a personal diary of appointments it’s really very good. And if you want the best of both worlds, you can connect your Office 365 account to both Outlook – as might be your primary way of working – and to the Mail and Calendar apps, for some side benefits and quicker ways of getting some things done.

Go into the settings on the Calendar app, then Manage accounts, then + Add account… or just Win+R then outlookaccounts: and you’ll be able to add your Office 365 account onto both Mail and Calendar.

If you have multiple calendars connected – like home Office 365, Gmail or Outllook.com accounts as well as your corporate one – you could selectively enable them for display in the app, and the set of calendars that are shown will also appear in the agenda if you click on the clock / date on your taskbar. You can also see your upcoming appointments in a live tile on the Start menu, if you still use such things.

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You’ll also see your next appointment on the Windows Lock Screen if you have it enabled under Lock screen settings.

You may want to go into the Notifications & actions settings page (just press Start and begin typing notif…) and turning off Calendar notifications, or you’ll get a blizzard of reminders from desktop Outlook and the Calendar app.

Tip o’ the Week 465 – Cortana, remind me To-Do sync

clip_image002The ongoing post-Wunderlist improvements to To-Do, continue apace. The app has clip_image004been updated again recently, to include a bunch of additional functionality, like Cortana integration.

In fact, the Store listing name for To-Do is now appended with some additional context of what it can now do, at least if your language is English and you’re in US, UK, India or Australia.

clip_image006By asking Cortana to remind you of something, she’ll add it to your Outlook Tasks and To-Do reminders – if you’re set up that way – and you can manage lists within the To-Do app itself, or access the same To-Do Lists or Reminders from within the Cortana Notebook.

clip_image008You don’t even need to go into the Cortana UI (or say “Hey Cortana”) to add things to be reminded – any app that implements Share functionality, like the Edge browser’s Share page toolbar command – will let you target Cortana Reminders.

clip_image010clip_image012You can set a reminder time, which will then sync to Outlook Tasks and on to To-Do, if you’ve set up Office 365 or Outlook.com integration, and will trigger a reminder using those mechanisms (get ready for toast overload…) Alternatively, get Cortana to ping you when you arrive at a place or next talk with a known contact.

Cortana’s past tells a good story, and her future is changing somewhat – after deciding to stop positioning her as a potential competitor to Amazon Alexa or Google assistants, a forthcoming release of Windows 10 will break the bond between Windows Search & Cortana, and the voice prompts from Cortana during Windows Setup will be silenced when installing a non-Home version of Windows too.

Tip o’ the Week 464 – Previewing PDFs

If you spend time handling files in Windows Explorer (or File Explorer, as its now called), you’ll likely be famclip_image002iliar with the various options for clip_image004tweaking the views that you’re presented with.

If dealing with photos, particularly, it’s great to show extra-large icons clip_image006and switch on the Details pane, which will give you additional stats about any one file if you click on it – even if some of the data points are somewhat lost on a point & shoot phone camera user.

But when dealing with many pictures where you could be looking for subtle differences in multiple similar files, or if browsing documents that you want to quickly identify without having to open them all up, the Preview Pane becomes very useful.

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It’s especially so if you resize it to be more like 50% the window width, when you may want to read the first chunk of a document rather than just see its general shape.

clip_image010Windows 10, however, doesn’t have a built-in handler to preview PDF files, so you’re forced to open them up one-at-a-time unless you install some software…

Even if you like using the default PDF viewing facility in Edge browser (or favour some other reader): in order to preview within Explorer, you’ll need to have the Adobe Acrobat Reader installed, though it doesn’t have to be the default app to handle PDFs.

  • Start by going to https://get.adobe.com/uk/reader/ and clicking the big Install now button, having first decided if you want to allow the other guff that the publisher suggests you might wish to enjoy as well
  • clip_image012At the end of installation, you get to choose whether to have Acrobat as your default PDF app, and if you wish to stop it nagging you should you decide “No”.
  • Now launch the Acrobat Reader, and it will show you an empty list of previously opened files. Go to the Edit clip_image014| Preferences menu, and under the General settings group, choose Enable PDF thumbnail previews … and after a brief spot of installing another component…
  • Et voila!
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Tip o’ the Week 458 – Grabbing pictures from websites

clip_image001There are plenty of reasons why you might want to get the URL of a picture that is embedded on a web page, and some of them don’t even risk breaching the copyright of the image’s owner or page author!

Legitimate examples might include things like downloading a company logo from its website so you can include it in a PowerPoint slide; try going to just about any major company site and you’ll probably find it’s not straightforward to save the image file. Ditto all sorts of clever pages that might stop you simply saving the picture to your PC.

clip_image003clip_image005Normal behaviour is, mostly, to just right-click on an image and in Edge, you’ll be able to save the picture (or use Cortana to try to give you more details on the image, even trying to guess what’s in the image depending on how straightforward it is – it’s surprisingly good). Ditto, if you’re using Chrome, except you can search Google instead. Try the same on a company logo, and you may find you won’t get the option to save or search.

If you want to grab the actual URL for an image on a web page, the clip_image006foolproof way of getting it is to look at the source – if you don’t mind fishing through maybe a few thousand lines of HTML. It’s not too bad if the image is at the top of the page, but it could prove tedious if elsewhere. In Edge, an easier solution would be to right-click on the image and choose, Inspect element. You may need to press F12 to get these options in your right-click menu. Chrome has a similar thing, simply called Inspect, and can be invoked by CTRL-SHIFT-I.

The Inspect Element funciton in browsers is designed to help web page debugging; it’ll let a user or designer jump straight to the section of a web page’s source, and inspect or even modify the code behind the page.

clip_image008As an example, right-click on the logo on www.microsoft.com and Inspect Element. You’ll see the highlighted section is the bit where the logo sits on the page, and immediately next in the hierarchical representation of the page code, you’ll see the <img> tag, denoting that this pertains to the image itself.

Look for the src= part, double-click on it and you’ll see the URL of the image in an editable text box, meaning you can easily copy that to the clipboard and get ready to paste it wherever you need it clip_image010to go. Try pasting it into a new browser tab just to check that all you’re getting is the logo.

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Using a search engine

Of course, there may be easier ways to get an image – using Bing or Google search, for example.

Bing is actually quite a bit better in this regard. When you click on an image in the results from Bing’s Image search, you’ll see a larger preview of the picture along with a few actions you can take – like jump to the originating page; search for other sizes of the same image; use Visual Search to run a query on just some selectable portion of the image; or simply just view it in the browser, thereby opening just that image and showing you the direct URL to it.

In the case of both Google and Bing, if you click on “Share”, then you’ll get a link to the search result of that image rather than the picture itself – so if your plan is to embed the image in another web page or upload it to some other place, then you’ll be frustrated.

clip_image012Another legitimate use of the original URL for a logo might be to change the icon in Teams – assuming you have permissions to Manage a team site (click the ellipsis to the right of the clip_image013name and if you’re suitably perm-ed up, when you click on the Manage Team option, you’ll see a little pencil icon on the logo if you hover over it. Click that to change the picture).

Simply choose Upload picture, paste in the URL of the logo you want to use and you’re off to the races.

Figuratively speaking, anyway. You might have to jigger about with the proportions of the image by downloading it first and editing it elsewhere, as the image will need to be more-or-less square. Built-in icons in Teams appear to be 240×240 pixels in size so you could try to target that if you’re resizing.

Tip o’ the Week 457 – Clipboard improvements

clip_image002Windows 10’s latest update – the October 2018 Update – has now started rolling out again, after a series of issues reported by some users about data going missing. Here’s how to get it if you don’t have it already and don’t want to wait until it trundles along via Windows Update. 

One of the neat new features is a revamped clipboard – something that has been tried a few times before, supporting additional features like keeping a history of what you clip, and/or allowing clips to roam across different machines. This has at times been achieved in standalone apps (eg via The Garage), or through individual apps managing the process – did you know, for example, that Office had a clipboard that supported clip_image004multiple items, back in 2000?

clip_image006And it’s still available – in some respects – today, where you can see previous stuff you put in the clipboard; just click the little expand arrow out on the bottom-right of the clipboard tile on the Office Ribbon, to show the list or set the options for using it. It’s an Office feature, but will also remember items clipped from elsewhere.

In Windows 10 with the October 2018 update (version 1809: to check your version, press WindowsKey+R then enter winver), there’s a new paradigm for managing the clipboard right across Windows applications – and it harks back to the old CTRL-V key combo that is more than 50 years old itself… from ToW #133 (from mid-2012):

CTRL-V goes back a loooong way. Its first use was years ago in the “Quick Editor” – aka QED – co-developed by Butler Lampson, one of the giants of computer history, now employed as a “Technical Fellow” in Microsoft Research.
There are some other alumni of Xerox PARC nestled inside Microsoft too (as was Chuck Thacker, RIP) – in a few years in the 1970s, they invented or developed/perfected the mouse, Ethernet, the graphical bitmapped display, laser printing, the GUI as we know it, distributed computing and a whole load of other technology. If you’d like to read more about what they got up to at PARC, check out Dealers of Lightning.

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The new clipboard clip_image010 mechanism is an opt-in arrangement, where you can carry on using the one-hit clipboard as normal, or you can enable history or even cross-device Syncing to allow multiple machines to get the same history, just like browsing history, Timeline etc can roam across different machines if you wish.

clip_image012To access the new Clipboard UI, press WindowsKey+V. There isn’t much obvious control over the experience (other than enabling it via Settings).

For more on how to use the feature, see here or here.

Tip o’ the Week 456 – Alexa on PC

clip_image002[4]There’s no doubt that Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant has been hugely successful – and Black Friday will likely have a load more offers to tempt users. Despite Windows 10 closing in on being the most-used OS around, other commentators predict that in future more people will interact with a digital assistant than use a traditional computer. Cortana is perhaps less-fancied, though partnering with Alexa has been underway for a while, and was previously covered in ToW #444.

Amazon meanwhile has brought the Alexa app to the PC, not just on select new machines but for everyone running the latest release of Windows 10. See here to install.

This gives you the option of talking to your PC to control the plethora of 3rd party devices that support the Alexa ecosystem, as well as all the other stupid stuff you might ask of Alexa already. Find out more, here.