Microsoft has always been good at having several ways of doing the same thing. Internal competition was encouraged with the idea that if several teams built solutions for the same problem, it would spur them all on and the best would win out. The Best Laid Plans don’t always work, and sometimes politics and machination gets in the way.
One modern incarnation of the multiple-ways principle is electronic mail; despite many attempts to replace email with other means of messaging, persistent chat etc, it’s still a huge deal (especially in business) and it’s still growing.
In the days when companies ran their own IT on-premises, there was Exchange, and the companion mail client Outlook arrived shortly after. Web-based consumer services like Hotmail, Yahoo! and Gmail changed the expectations of many users. Home and work email services have been getting closer in form and function since.
Microsoft’s current email clients are quite diverged: you can use the full-fat Outlook application to connect to your business email as well as your private
The Mail app is pretty good – it can connect to a variety of sources including Office 365, so while it might not be an ideal primary business email application, it can be a good way of connecting to multiple personal email services.
One feature which appeared in different ways across multiple services and apps is the idea of Snoozing your email; initially pioneered by Gmail, others followed suit. It’s a different concept to flags and reminders, rather if you select an email and say snooze until 10am tomorrow, it will literally disappear from your inbox and it would reappear at the top of the pile the following morning.
Well, that’s how it works on some combinations. In the browser versions of both Hotmail / Outlook.com and Exchange/Office365, it works as you’d expect – you Snooze an email and it is actually moved into the Scheduled email folder (and you’ll see when it is later due to reappear in Inbox if you look in there). At the elected time, it shows up again on at the top of the mailbox. Let’s compare to some other Microsoft clients & services…
Outlook client and Office 365 – there is no snooze feature. Sorry. Just be more organised. If you snooze an email from another client, it will disappear from Inbox, but when it reappears, it’ll be in the same place as it was before – eg. if you Snooze a 9am email from the web app until 1pm, it will move into the Scheduled folder – but when it moves back into the Inbox, the Outlook and Windows Mail clients will show it down at 9am again so you might as well flag it and be done.
Windows Mail client with Outlook.com or Office 365 – Zip. Too bad.
Mobile Outlook and Web clients on Outlook.com or Office 365– Mail disappears and shows up again at the allotted time, right at the top of the mailbox. In the web clients, you’ll see the time stamp of the message as if it has literally just arrived; in the mobile version, though the message is ordered correctly (eg a 9am snooze to reappear at 1pm will show up between 12:30 and 1:15 mails), the displayed time is correct but a little clock icon is shown alongside. Clever.
At some point, there is a plan to deliver a single, unified, email client. An Ignite 2020 session talked about the roadmap and further commentary speculated that the One Outlook client may be coming, but isn’t going to be with us for some time yet.
The Xbox console is nearly 20 years old. Launched at Toys R Us (remember them?) in NYC in mid-November 2001, the first generation console (originally referred to as the “DirectX Box” after the PC graphics technology) later made its way to Japan and Europe in early 2002.
The companion Xbox Live gaming service arrived in 2002, and set the high-bar for online and multi-player gaming services alongside the original console and its online and multi-player-enabled games. The Xbox Live Gold service was threatened with a price increase earlier this year, though that was quickly walked back; commentary at the time was that Microsoft was trying to make XBL Gold less attractive in order to push people to using the newer and more comprehensive (also, more expensive) Xbox Game Pass offering.
Game Pass Ultimate is a superset of Xbox Live Gold – and includes access to lots of games as part of the subscription, akin to getting movies through a Netflix subscription rather than buying or renting individual titles. In January 2021, Microsoft said there were 18 million Game Pass subscribers, with the number likely to be a good bit higher now. Different Game Pass levels are aimed at PC games fans or Xbox games, or both – starting at £1 for a month’s trial, up to £10.99 a month for the full kahuna, which includes XBL Gold and both PC & console games.
This week sees the launch of the latest edition of one of the biggest PC games from the 1990s; Age of Empires. Originally released in 1997, the civilization-building strategy game was hugely popular and kept growing through community-provided expansion packs and “mods”, despite sporadic attention from Microsoft directly. If you played the original, you’ll probably remember the Priest who could turn an enemy into a friend, or recall losing hours being absorbed in the minutiae of building farms, training soldiers and waging war on your neighbours.
Well, the franchise is being rebooted, in a clear signal that the PC is still considered a major gaming platform. Leading the 20-year celebration of Xbox with a flurry of both PC and console game launches, is Age of Empires IV.
The new release has a variety of campaigns from the Roman Empire to Moscow, Mongolia and Genghis Khan to Joan of Arc. If you’ve already got a Game Pass, and If you fancy whiling away some of the weekend stuck in the past, you’d be well advised to start the installation soon – it can take a very long time to download and install. Wololo!
A long time ago in a different era, a young engineer and his friend founded a company called Winternals, which cooked up some tools to look inside the way Windows operated. The utilities were used to understand the way things really worked and went on to provide technologists a variety of ways to troubleshoot issues and optimize performance.
Early and popular tools, which went on to be published on the sysinternals.com website, included RegMon – which monitors what was happening in the Windows Registry – and FileMon, which kept an eye on the file system. Both of these tools could help a user figure out what an application is doing, maybe to check it’s not misbehaving, or seeking undocumented settings where the app might be looking to see if a particular file or registry key existed. Sysinternals made the tools free, and since Winternals was acquired by Microsoft in 2006, they still are.
Co-founder Mark Russinovich wrote lots of other fun and useful stuff. For giggles, he built the first BSOD screensaver and a means to remotely deploy it on someone else’s PC, making them think it had crashed, probably causing them to turn it off and on again. Or the ZoomIt tool that he used to great effect in his keynote speeches which were always a highlight at events like TechEd or Ignite. Watching thousands of geeks queueing for an hour to make sure they can get a seat near the front almost invites Jobs-ian comparisons. For what can be relatively dry content, Mark has a great way of talking about how the technology really works and manages to be quite interesting: even if half of the concepts fly straight over your head, the rest is generally worth listening to – like a Brian Cox lecture.
After joining Microsoft, Mark continued to build SysInternals tools and replaced RegMon and FileMon, with Process Monitor aka ProcMon. Another big utility, Process Explorer, is a kind of shibboleth amongst Windows techies… if you’re still using TaskMan to look under the hood, then you’re just not hard enough.
Despite moving to becoming the CTO for Azure and being a member of the most Technical Fellows, he still has a hand in with Sysinternals, culminating recently in a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the first set of utilities. The day-long virtual conference gave deep dive sessions into a few of the most popular tools, along with an interesting fireside chat with Mark and an overview of Sysinternals tools for Linux. See the recording here.
Oh, and one more thing. The Sysinternals Suite is now available in the Windows Store – so you can grab the latest versions of all the core tools (70 of them… yes, that’s right, 70, and for how much?) with just a few clicks.
One thing we all miss about having physical team meetings, is the delight of trying to read an enthusiastic participant’s attempt at getting their thought process across by scribbling on a whiteboard. Often with pens that have too little ink left to be legible. Charts with arrows always point up and left and bullet-point, capitalized text that may just be readable, but can anyone remember what it meant by the end of the meeting? At least you can take a picture to decipher later.
Fortunately, there are digital equivalences – you could be in a Teams meeting and co-authoring a document, where multiple people are editing at the same time and marking up comments. You could be watching someone share their 4K screen so they can walk through only a few dozen PowerPoint slides, or you might even have had a play with the shared Whiteboard app that’s been around and been part of Teams for a while now.
The whole UI has been given an overhaul in line with the latest colourful design ethos, and there are lots of neat new features like the automatic shape recognition for mouse-driven drawing. Hold the Shift key down while you’re drawing with a mouse pointer or a Surface pen, and it’ll straighten lines for you.
It’s available in a variety of guises; there’s a web UI (app.whiteboard.microsoft.com) and it shows up in the menu on the top left of Office 365 web applications, such as subscribers would find by going to office.com and signing in with your ID. It’s on iOS and Android, though updates may flow through at different rates to other platforms.
Of course, it’s as a Microsoft Store app too; if you’re already a Windows 11 user, you may want to check out the new Store and look for the Library icon on the lower left, showing you what you’ve installed previously and also which apps have been most recently updated (and am Update button to kick off that process). Sadly, looking at an app’s page in the Store (still) doesn’t tell you what the current version is or when it was last updated.
You can pin whiteboards to Teams channels or chats too; just add a Tab, select Whiteboard from the app list, and the content will persist within that context rather than a point-in-time meeting.
Twice a year, it seems, there’s a ToW article (passim) about the shocking time zone change that is about to hit us. Or may have already – some parts of Australia (NSW) have just moved into summer time while neighbouring areas (QLD) stayed on year-round time. Much of Europe is about to head back into winter time on the last day of October. One week later, most of the US will return to standard time, meaning that the US and Europe will be one hour closer for those 7 days. Arizona will revert to having a single time zone for the whole state.
Many Windows 10 users may have escaped knowing about the app known as Alarms & Clock, and the groovy World Clock which shows a map with pinned locations of your choice, detailing the current time in each.
The cartographically obsessed may note that when compressed into a small window, the exact locations of some pins might look awry, but expand it properly and they’ll move around as you would expect. In the example above, London looks to be in Bordeaux, Budapest has swapped with Bangui while NYC has inexplicably relocated to eastern Peru.
Especially useful when figuring out relativity of time zones and future dates, is the Compare feature which lets you see what the time will be at a chosen point for each of your pinned cities, on a particular date. Take for example, Monday 1st November, when in the space of one month, Sydney has moved two hours further away from London, yet the Atlantic is temporarily one hour shorter.
Well, the Clock app, as it’s now known – even though it doesn’t actually feature a clock per se, but let’s not split hairs – has been given a UI polish as part of Windows 11, and one additional new feature pane – Focus Sessions. It was shared with Windows Insiders a couple of months back, but is now mainstream for Windows 11 users.
Long-time ToW readers may recall an internal-to-Microsoft app called FocusTime, which let the user run a timer to focus on a given task, while putting Outlook into Offline mode so you didn’t get any new emails, and setting Office Communicator/Lync status to Do Not Disturb so you didn’t get annoying IMs. Well, Focus Sessions in Clock is doing a similar job though without (yet, at least) the integration to Outlook and Teams.
As well as tracking the number of Focus Sessions you have, the app can also let you create and pin tasks with Microsoft To-Do to achieve at a later focus time. One slight grind at the moment is that the app only allows you to sign in with a Microsoft Account, not your
The Focus Sessions feature is newly released and the team behind it is looking into how to integrate with other tools and services, such as the Focus Assist feature in Windows (which quietens notifications, formerly known as Quiet Hours). If you’d like to see improvements or new features in the Focus Sessions section of the Clock App, make sure you go to the Feedback Hub and either upvote existing suggestions or add your own (instructions here). For some more tips on using Focus Sessions, see here.
Back when some execs danced badly to a highly-priced tune, “Start” was the menu button you’d press to get to the programs and settings on your computer. The Start menu begat the Start button on your keyboard, whose logo evolved with different versions of Windows.
Now, Start is a new thing – a relaunch of Microsoft News.
Users of Windows 11 in preview – due to release soon – can see the widgets for news on their task bar, or any users can go to MicrosoftStart.com. If you feel ` reducing the clickbait and garbaj, you can tune the sources and types of news you’ll receive and save the settings with your Microsoft Account.
Apps are available for iOS and Android, on the web, the Windows taskbar / widgets, and on the new tab page on Microsoft Edge (like it or not).
One notable absence from the announcement?
The Microsoft News app for Windows. Install it while you still can.
The simple text editor Notepad has been around since the dawn of Windows – it’s one of the few apps that was in the box with Windows 1.0 and is still there 36 years later, in Windows 10 and 11. Many people will encounter Notepad because they open a txt or log file, but some still fire up Notepad to quickly scratch something down, like a number being read out to you over the phone, when they say “do you have a pen and paper handy?”. Normally, It should take you under to two seconds to get Notepad running from anywhere – Press WindowsKey+R notepad ENTER.
Another handy use of Notepad is to quickly strip text of formatting; you might find that copying and pasting text from multiple documents often drags unwanted font choice, size, colours etc. In many apps you have the option of pasting something as Text Only, but if not, then putting the decorated text into Notepad first, then selecting and copying it again from there will mean it pastes quickly and cleanly into the destination document. Sometimes, it’s actually quicker to use Notepad as a middleman too (especially if you favour the CTRL-C / CTRL-V method of clipboard interaction).
Some people – for whatever self-flagellatory reasons – actually use Notepad for taking notes during meetings or calls, and then maybe format their raw text into something more structured afterwards. ZDNet’s Microsoft commentator Mary Jo Foley is devout Notepad user. The fact that it’s simple and quick appeals to many, it seems.
Notepad was turned into a Store app in mid 2019 and has gained a few tweaks to functionality, though nothing that normal people might notice. It’s getting a new icon in Windows 11, and who knows what other advanced functionality might follow.
Despite its relative simplicity, there are some obscure features – like the ability to add content to the header and/or footer of a page that’s being printed, even if there’s nowhere to save that setting (since a TXT file is just that, until you start getting into the intricacies of different text file formats and what that might mean to applications which may consume the text file you’re editing).
Following last week’s F4 tip for Office apps like Excel, ToW reader Flaviu Comanescu-Balla goes one better in highlighting that pressing F5 in Notepad will insert the current date and time, so if you are keeping phone notes or something, you can quickly annotate them.
In fact, Flaviu also spotted an even more obscure feature, where if you put .LOG as the first line in a Text file saved from Notepad, every time you open that file, the current date and time is appended at the end, so you can jot something down, save it again and keep a log of activities.
Subscribers to Office 365 / Microsoft 365 obviously get a load of services like email, OneDrive storage, SharePoint and so on, as well as client apps like the full-blown Office suite. Over the years, the app experience has got quite a lot closer with the web clients sometimes advancing faster than the desktop or mobile apps, meaning that it’s increasingly viable to live your life entirely in the browser.
The Office home page – on www.office.com when you’re signed in using your M365 account, or maybe even installed as an app on your PC – shows a list of available apps if you click the grid icon in the top left. Initially you’ll see the most popular or your own most recently used apps, but try clicking on “All apps” for the full list of what else is offered.
What you’ll see depends on what kind of subscription you have and what previews you might have opted into, as well as what apps may have been published by your subscription’s administrators (eg internal HR website or IT support desk sites could be listed there).
To keep things interesting, you can also install most of these web apps as Progressive Web Apps on your PC – using Edge, go to the Settings “…” menu in the top right, and look for the Apps menu option. They will then appear in the Start menu, can be pinned to the Task Bar and run in their own discrete window, just like a “real” program would.
One app which could roll back the years for a lot of people is Visio. Microsoft bought the diagramming software company at the turn of the century, for what was the largest acquisition to date – check out the list of other deals and see if you can remember many of those other $100M+ names…
Microsoft Visio became a premium addition to the Microsoft Office suite, latterly being sold as an add-on like Project. The software has continued to evolve over the years and has its own band of fans who use it for mind mapping, flowcharting, network diagrams, room layouts and so much more. You can even build Power Automate workflows using Visio (see more here).
It was recently announced that Visio is coming to a good many Office 365 subscriptions next month, for no extra charge. The “lightweight” web app approach is not going to supplant the full application for more complex purposes, but it still offers a wide range of templates that can be used to start some fairly snazzy drawings, all done in the browser.
If you’d normally turn to PowerPoint to try to create graphical documents like flow diagrams or simple org charts, keep an eye out on the All Apps list to see when Visio makes an appearance, and give it a try.
For some years now, Microsoft has produced an application for mobile devices, which allows easy scanning of bits of paper, photos from physical whiteboards or importing of contact info from business cards.
The “Office Lens” app was originally produced for Windows Phone before being ported to iOS and Android. Later, a PC version came along but with the death of Windows Phone it hardly seemed worth keeping going, since scanning docs and business cards etc is so much easier from a handheld device. As a result, Office Lens on the PC is now gone – dispatched at the end of 2020; if you had installed it previously, you could still use some of its functionality, though the smarter online services that sat behind it are no longer available.
Instead, the old Office Lens mobile apps on the surviving smartphone platforms has been renamed “Microsoft Lens” – along with the release of some improvements and new features.
There are tweaks to the algorithms used to detect edges of documents when scanning pages or turning a receipt snapped at an angle into a square-on image. It’s not always perfect, but you can drag the apices to tidy up the process, and save pages as images on their own or multiple pages of a document into a single PDF file, straight to OneDrive or local on the phone.
There is also a new “Actions” feature which lets you interact with reality – grab text from something you point the camera at, and potentially feed it into the Immersive Reader so the phone will read it out to you. You can also extract a table from the physical world, or scan a QR code or barcode from something in your hand.
The QR scanning is pretty slick, focussing on URLs or files, quickly enabling you to follow the link or view the doc (and ignoring some types of QRs used for encoding a membership number or serial number of a device, etc).
Similarly, barcode reading just brings back the number, whereas some other apps will provide a bit more context – Lightning QR Reader for Android, for example, can read any text encoded in a QR code and will also give some more details for barcodes, like decoding ISBN codes on books to let you search for more info on that specific title. Still, Lens provides a neat & quick solution for scanning or capturing all kinds of info.
There was a time when archiving email meant taking a few Megabytes of data away from the restricted space within your mailbox, and possibly storing it for posterity in an a PST file on your PC, where the mail would stay until eventually the file is either corrupted or deleted with no backup being taken first, whichever inevitable event happened first.
Thanks to Moore’s Law, mailbox capacity is now less of a constraint. Having too much clutter and the distraction that it causes is a more pressing issue than not having enough space.
There are tools – some mythical and magical – to reduce volumes of unnecessary emails, and automatic processing via features like the Focused Inbox or Clutter can help to filter out stuff that is getting in the way, but fundamentally the decision on whether to delete, defer, delegate or just leave it lying about, rests with the user.
There is still an AutoArchive function in Outlook, but you probably don’t want to use that.
Instead, look at the simpler “Archive” feature, which is available for Microsoft 365 users and appeared first in the web client before making it into desktop Outlook. If you haven’t used the Outlook Web App for a while, it’s worth having a look since it has evolved massively over the years, and often leads the way for new functionality and integration, compared to its desk-bound precursor. There is a view that eventually, the web client will replace Outlook on the PC.
If the Archive option shows up in the web UI (with suitable icon), the folder should also be visible in desktop Outlook in the main folder tree. Just like you have an Inbox, Drafts, Sent Items and so on, it will have been created for you but you may need to expand the view to locate it. And no, you can’t rename it…
Check out the Archive folder properties, and you can see its size on your own machine or on the server (assuming that you’re not storing everything in your mailbox within your Outlook cache).
To fire an email into the Archive folder from the desktop Outlook client, just press backspace if you’re currently viewing the message in the preview window. The default shortcut key to archive a message in Outlook Web App is E though you can reconfigure the app to use different shortcut schemes, in case you’re more familiar with other web clients. To see the shortcuts in Outlook web app at any time, just press the ? key.