If you’re still planning on completing your holiday gift-buying towards the end of the shopping period, you may want to turn your attention to some online offers that will go down well with some – if not all – members of your extended family.
EMEA-based ‘softies can get an online equivalent of the North American retail Microsoft Store “Doorbusters” and the now-finished online “12 days of deals”, through their online employee store. The shelves are looking pretty empty, if truth be told, but you might still snag a 12- or 24-month Xbox Live Gold subscription for a bargain; you just get emailed the code, and it can be added to either a new (free) Xbox Live account to upgrade to Gold, or can be used to extend an existing one.
If you’re not an Xbox Live subscriber already, you could get the first month for only £1, and then apply the above code later should you wish. The public-facing “Countdown” promotion (running as of 22nd December all the way through to the other side of the festivities) has a load of other offers available, especially if you’re also an Xbox Live Gold member. Remind yourself how rubbish 1970s arcade games were for only £3, for example.
Various other goodies are available from the online Microsoft Store website, and the other Microsoft Store – the one with apps, games and entertainment – has a roster of daily deals and other discounts worth checking. Christmas isn’t Christmas until you’ve seen Hans Gruber fall off a skyscraper (act quickly – deal running out).
There’s a Countdown sale on digital content, too, for when you realise the Christmas telly schedules are full of stuff you don’t want to watch, and your Sky Q box is up the swannee and taking an hour to reboot.
Sadly, there are no Groove Music Pass deals to be had this year, unless you’ve never used A Zune, Xbox or Groove Music Pass previously. You can try it for free (for a month), and you’ll be sent a promo code to grab another 3 months free – so well worth a go, especially since the Groove apps for PC and Xbox One have been updated with support for Music videos, and the iOS and Android mobile apps have been given a refresh to keep pace with the UWP versions too.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, see you all in January!
Month: December 2016
Tip o’ the Week 359 – How to win at auction
Auctions are big business, and seemingly growing, fuelled by the internet in no small part. Many traditional auctioneers (purveyors of objets d’art, toby jug knick-knacks, old shotguns, that kind of thing) have moved online, and you can buy all sorts of stuff, even watching the auction streamed live and to bidding in real time.
It’s never been easier to both lose your shirt and end up with something you didn’t want, at the same time.
Auction houses offering online services often go through aggregators like The Saleroom or i-bidder, which let you search across many sources for the thing you’re after, even emailing you when it shows up. Looking for 1970’s Lladro figurines or a 1960’s Rolex? Roll up, roll up.
Auctioneers do charge handsomely for the process, though – often levying 20% buyer’s premium on the hammer price, plus VAT on the buyer’s premium, then some have a 3% internet surcharge (plus the VAT, of course) and you might need to pay a good chunk to get a courier to uplift your item and send it to you, should the auctioneer be on the other side of the country. So, a £100 bargain purchase could soon end up being £150+. Sellers usually pay fees too (maybe 20% of the hammer price), meaning that the only winner in the whole cycle is the auctioneer.
The obvious auction site to think about when considering online trading is eBay (or colloquially, The Bay or Fleabay). Buying on eBay takes a bit of practice, if you’re looking to source the kind of last-minute Christmas pressies that you can’t afford to be fake, inoperable or just not turn up at all. A lot of the same tips apply ot other online auctioneers, though.
One entrepreneur-in-disguise set his teenage kids a challenge one year, where they got some surplus guff out of the loft, and told the kids they could keep half of whatever they achieved on eBay – which set them in action, spending hours figuring out how best to describe the items, looking at what others were selling for to help set pricing, taking decent photos etc. They made a small fortune.
Let’s assume you’re thinking of buying something at auction that’s valuable enough to make you want to put a bit of effort into it (ie it’s no USB charging cable coming from China)…
Do your research
Sounds obvious, really, but when deciding if you want to bid on an item, you should know as much as possible about it – so you can be sure that the one you’re buying is genuine, in good condition and fairly priced. Look on internet forums (where people who do know about the things often share advice on where to get the best deal when buying new, or trade them in “for sale” sections amongst themselves, with no fees and maybe a better feeling of legitimacy). When buying new on eBay, lots of traders will inflate their prices a little to cope with the fees they have to bear, so do make sure there’s not a cheaper or better option.
On the ‘bay, if something looks like a bargain, is that because the seller doesn’t know what they’ve got (which could be great news, or really bad news) or, do they know it’s a dud, and the reason there’s no other interest in it is because everyone else does too? Similarly, on Gumtree (home to even higher percentages of charlatans than eBay), if someone’s selling a brand new item at 1/10th of it’s real value, then it’s very likely not completely Chicken Soup.
Set your maximum ££ and stick to it
If buying at an auction – a physical one especially, but equally applicable to a streamed online one – make sure you know how much the item you want will cost you; a ready reckoner in Excel with all of the fees that will be added to the hammer price might help. Decide how much you think the thing is worth to you, landed and in your hand; set yourself an absolute max, and if the bidding gets to your maximum then consider yourself lucky, as someone else is going to overpay for the thing, according to your expert and considered opinion, right?
Many online auctions – and eBay – let you put in a bid in advance (up to a maximum amount), where you will automatically bid on an item and its price will go up in set increments until nobody is prepared to bid higher. Again, if you set the maximum and you’re outbid by only one buyer for just £5 more, then you might wish you’d put a bit more on the maximum, but the other buyer could have set a much higher threshold and all you’d have done is escalate the price.
eBay supports a particularly sneaky way of buying, using a sniper service. These are, in short, third party sites that log into eBay using your supplied credentials, and inject a bid right at the last few seconds of an auction. Using snipers might seem like cheating a bit, but if it means you outwit all the others who’re sitting at their screen in real-time trying to bid, and you don’t cause excessive price inflation by bidding-up early on, then you’re the dog and they’re the sheep.
There are some fairly detailed advice articles on when to use a sniper to best effect; the tl;dr version is that if there lots of people watching an item, and you see a lot of bidding activity way before the auction is due to complete, then sniping may not be all that effective, especially if it looks like 2 or 3 bidders are constantly outbidding each other.
Even when sniping, you’re in competition with everyone who’s set up an autobid in eBay already. Having said that, there’s no sweeter feeling than swooping in 2 seconds before an auction ends, and scooping something up for less than the maximum you were prepared to pay (since the snipers let you set a max bid too).
Buy the seller
It’s never more important than when trying to buy something that is going to cost you a chunk of change, and especially if it’s something you expect to retain value and possibly be resold in future (moreso cars, jewellery, artworks etc, than relatively disposable or quickly depreciating things like clothing or consumer electronics).
If buying from an online auctioneer, how established are they? Look at their past sales (most let you browse their catalogues to show previously achieved prices, or the auction aggregators may show that too) to see if they sold things at a premium compared to others or if they looked like they were happy to flog shonky gear. You’d be amazed at the Frankenwatches that some supposedly reputable auctioneers punt onto unsuspecting buyers.
On eBay, check out the seller – look at their previously sold items, and their seller feedback. Have they got plenty of history of buying and selling? If they’ve just registered with eBay, have no feedback and are based in some far-flung place, then proceed with the utmost caution. Smarter con artists will try to cover their tracks by registering an account, and racking up loads of small trades to get history and good feedback (maybe they’ve got dozens of accounts that are all busy selling things to each other and saying “A+++ buyer” with positive feedback on each one…). If they don’t look like they’ve got history of selling expensive stuff, then your spidey sense should be on maximum attack.
If the seller has an external website and trading presence, check that out too – if they’re a UK limited company then they’ll be registered at Companies House, where you can get company details but often also the home address of the named directors. Plonk the address into Bing Maps and think, does this look like the house where someone trading in £2,000 handbags might live?
Find out how much “Best Offers” went for on eBay
eBay doesn’t make this easy – you can easily search for previously sold items to see what they went for in open auctions (using the Advanced Search, check the box for Sold, though the Completed Items check box can be useful as it shows things that reached the end of their auction and were not sold). If the seller set a fixed price yet allowed a “best offer”, it’s quite possible they ended up accepting a figure a long way short of their asking price. That’s worth knowing if the seller regularly shifts the same thing (like garden furniture), or when you’re trying to guage the real price for something.
When looking at a previously sold item on eBay, if you grab the eBay item number from the listing and paste it into the Keywords field on http://www.watchcount.com/ then click the Show Me… button, it’ll reveal the actual selling price, or send you to a deep link in eBay which does. They also have a worthwhile search feature, showing sold prices including best offers.
There are other tools out there like Goofbid’s Best Offers Tool that will show you, based on the seller’s ID, what offers have been made and whether they were accepted or not.
Pay with care
Finally, if a seller gives you any reason to pay them by direct bank transfer or means other than PayPal, be very careful, the only arguable exception being if it’s cash on collection, where you’re actually meeting them and get to inspect your item before handing over the cash and taking it away. If you bank wire someone the money to sell you something, and all they ship you is an empty box, you may find it very hard to get your money back…
Tip o’ the Week 358 – MSPAINT becomes Paint 3D
Some Windows apps have been around, in one form or another, for donkey’s years. If you press WindowsKey+R to bring up the Run command, you can delve into some real 1990s history with the likes of CALC, NOTEPAD, WRITE and until recently, MSPAINT.
Budding artist and man of culture, Andrew Fryer, has more to say about Paint 3D…
Paint hasn’t changed too much since it got the Office-style Ribbon back in its Windows 7 iteration.
About the only time I use it is to quickly resize images, and a few other things – like using it to arrange screen grabs from online maps that are too big to fit on one screen. Otherwise, it has been languishing on our desktops unused and unloved.
That is about to change – in the latest Creators Update for Windows 10 announced at Ignite we got an early look at its successor, Paint 3D (not to be confused with 3D Paint!).
This is now publicly available for free in the Microsoft Store provided you have the creators build of Windows 10 – i.e. Build 14800 or greater. Note this does replace Paint ,so be aware of that if you are a fan of the old version. There are a couple of hacks to be able to restore the original MSPAINT if you don’t like the new-fangled 3D one, but let’s jump in with both feet.
The new design surface brings new brushes and finishes, along with a nice, modern UI that’s mouse, touch and pen-friendly.
Here, I’ve used each tool except the eraser, but notice that reflection of what I have done at the bottom of the screen – as though the page I am using is standing upright on another surface. This is the first clue that we are in a 3D world and if I select the cube on the toolbar at the top of the screen I get some 3D models. At the moment there only a few of these, some primitives like cubes and cones and some real world objects like fish..
The handles allow us to spin the fish and move it closer to the background it is in front of…
If I go back to the painting options, I can quickly paint the object; clever, as it’s applying paint to the 3d surface of the fish not the background.
Here I am trying to make a well-known clown.
It can be tricky to paint eyes with available tools, but there is also a stickers function, which allows me to add from a palette of predefined stickers or can be imported from any existing 2d image (.png, .jpg etc.).
These can be resized and stuck on to the 3D object. I then play spin the fish to paint and decorate the other side.
Stickers, once positioned, can be stuck with the stamp tool so they move with the object. Now I can change the mood with the lighting tool on the top toolbar.
Now I can share my work or I could find some friends for my creation by going to the community site…
When I am done I too can share my work from the application menu, which also allows me to print if I have access to a 3D printer, and the save options allow me to output to a variety of other 3D formats and as a traditional 2D picture.
As ever with these preview tools it’s essential to give feedback so we get the options we want in future realises.
There are some tutorial videos if you’d like some further tips on Paint 3D.
Tip o’ the Week 357 – Launching Windows Apps
How do you like to start your applications?
In Windows 3.x days, you double-clicked on an icon in Program Manager (or PROGMAN aka Program Mangler) and you got to manage groups of icons to help you organise your applications. There was an accompanying File Mangler too, that might still be usable on modern OSes if you fancy it, and you’ve decided that you have too much time on your hands.
Most normal people these days will start applications from the Start menu, or the programs list that shows up when you press the Windows Key or click the Windows logo on the task bar. The app list has evolved somewhat, so now shows most-used apps near the top, and if you start typing a name (like outl) then you’ll be shown the relevant shortcut for that particular app.
If you know an exact app command that you want to execute (eg outlook /safe to launch it with no addins), you can run it by pressing WindowsKey+R and entering the command, but you get little in the way of help in finding the right thing to type. Simply pressing the WindowsKey and starting to type will show you a load of options for a simple app launch that you might be looking for.
Another option could be to follow a process familiar to Windows Phone users, though with a slightly different mode – if you click on one of the letters or symbols that show up at the top of each group of applications, you’ll get a grid of letters just like on the phone – tap or click on one of those to jump quickly to the right group of apps within.
The same approach shows up in some other Windows apps too – like in Groove, where you can select the list of artists or albums etc, based on the letter, rather than scrolling up & down.
This is redolent of the much-vaunted Semantic Zoom feature in Windows 8, which seemed like – and was – a truly great idea at the time, but was fairly poorly implemented by mainstream app publishers who just wanted to port mass-grid iOS and hamburgerised Android apps to Windows. Oh well, back to the day job.
Tip o’ the Week 356 – How not to send mail accidentally
An ohnosecond is the small measure of time between a luser doing something seemingly innocuous, then realising the true magnitude of what you’ve done.
Frobbing a scram switch without knowing. The dawning reality that a protest vote might actually result in that thing actually happening. Sending an email to someone you didn’t mean to, that kind of thing.
Fortunately, most of us have a limited ability to truly mess things up (leaving aside Darwin Awards candidates), but something that most of us will have done at some point, is that unintended sending of mail. The situation could come up for a number of reasons:
- Someone is copied on the mail that you’re replying to, and you either don’t realise or you intended to remove them from the list but forgot. Maybe you went on to theorise about their capability or speculate on their intent. Normally just embarrassing, could be career-limiting.
- You accidentally add someone to the TO: or CC: line of a mail, intending to remove them, but don’t. This is basic carelessness which can be avoided by not adding people to the TO: or CC: lines of your email unless you genuinely intend to send the mail to them… [coming to a Bedlam expansion pack sometime]
- You Reply-All by default to emails, maybe asking to be removed from the mailing list. Don’t do that. Seriously.
- You send an email then just after, realise that a later message has changed the conversation and that, if you’d read that first, you either wouldn’t have replied, or if you did, you’d say something different.
There are a couple of easy things anyone can do to avoid these issues, apart from thinking before sending and maybe re-reading all of what you’ve written before sending it to what you know to be a large group, or with important people on the list.
- DON’T put people on the TO: or CC: line as a way of looking them up in the address book; it’s an easy trap to fall into; maybe you just want to check how someone’s name is spelled, or find out who their boss is, etc. If you want to do that, go to the main Outlook window (ie not the email editor, if you happen to have that as a separate window), and just press CTRL+SHIFT+B to bring the address book to the fore. Or, click the Address Book button on the Home tab, or just type the name into the box above it.
- Try delaying the sending of new messages – in principle, keeping outbound mail in the special “Outbox” folder on your PC until some period of time before actually pushing the message out to the recipients.
- One option might be to delay specific messages, probably more for impact – if you want people to receive mail at a particular time (following an announcement that you know is going to happen at a set time, for example), then you can force that message to sit for a while – an extended time, maybe – before being put into the sending queue. See the Delay Delivery icon on the Options tab within the message window.
One downside to putting stuff in the Outbox is that when you’re running Outlook in the default “Cached” mode, then the Outbox is a special folder on your PC – so if something is sitting there waiting to be sent, and you put the PC to sleep or it goes offline, then the message will stay there until the next opportunity presents itself when your PC wakes up and is online.
There is a slightly more convoluted way of putting delayed mail in the Outbox on the server – see veteran ToW #30.
- To delay every message for just a few minutes, to give you an opportunity to yank them from the Outbox, then create a rule…
- On the Home tab in main Outlook window, try creating a new rule by going to Manage Rules & Alerts then, and choosing New Rule, then under “Start from a blank rule” choose “Apply rule on messages I send”
- On the new rule dialog, select “Next” to apply the rule to every message sent (on the “Which condition(s) do you want to check” tab), then on the “what do you want to do with this message” page, select the “Defer delivery” option and choose the number of minutes, then hit Finish / OK to apply the rule and return.
Now, when you send a message, it has the property set that delays it for however many minutes you wanted to wait – if you need to send it quickly (so you can disconnect or shut down, for example) you can go into the Outbox folder, open the message, change the “Delay Delivery” option on that individual message and press Send again.