645 – mobile ad blocking

It's always DNS

The internet just wouldn’t work without the magic that is the Domain Name System, or DNS. If you are not a networking guru, this service is effectively the index of internet hosts (not just websites but also anything else that offers a service on the net), and is used to find the actual address that your computer will connect to, using a name as the reference.

If you put www.bbc.co.uk into your browser, that means you want to connect to a machine called www which belongs to the domain bbc.co.uk, and a beautiful yet simply elaborate system is used to figure out how to find that domain, get the address(es) of the actual host, and provide the info back to your device so you can connect to it and request information.

Being the one service to bind it all also means DNS is often the thing that brings everything to a halt, eg. if your home router can’t connect to your ISP’s DNS server, then you’re basically unable to communicate with the rest of the world as you’d be unable to find anything (unless you hard-code your machine to use a different DNS, like CloudFlare’s 1.1.1.1 or Google’s 8.8.8.8).

Futzing about with DNS can sometimes bring benefits, though. One such is that for the many webpages which contain embedded adverts or clickbait links, if your browser is unable to connect to the source of the advert, then it might just not show the content at all. On desktop computers, you could use ad blocker browser extensions of all kinds, but on mobile devices your choices are a bit more limited.

Stupid Ad from Microsoft Start appIf you rely on mobile apps like Google News or Microsoft Start, which show content within the app and have no ability to install 3rd party browser extensions, you may have to take more action to block out all the insidious and stupid adverts.

A true geek’s solution at home could be to set up a Pi-hole; a DNS server (traditionally targeted to run on a Raspberry Pi microcomputer, hence the name) which will filter out the garbage by deliberately blocking the URL-to-address resolution of thousands of known advertisers or clickbait providers. Great when you’re on the home network, but what about if on the move and connected to another network?

One possible solution here is to use a provider like NextDNS, which has been described as effectively running a Pi-hole in the cloud for you to use.

Enable NextDNS on AndroidFree for up to 300,000 name resolutions (which sounds like a lot, but in reality, isn’t), it’s a snap to try out and if you sign up, you’ll be given simple instructions on how to plug it into your phone, tablet, desktop or even home router, so as to extend protection to every device connecting through that network.

Insidious ad has been silently blockedDNS queries would be routed to the NextDNS service and if the requested host is from one of a plethora of blocked sites – not just ads, but known trackers, phishing links etc too – then it will simply return a dud response as if the site doesn’t exist.

Your app or browser will either show you an empty box, maybe an inline error frame, or it may silently move on and display nothing at all. Just one small victory!

Using a service like this – others are available – can be switched on or off quickly (in Android, it takes the form of a single switch to configure a Private DNS with a URL unique to your account), and works regardless of whether you’re on Wi-Fi or mobile connectivity.

643 – Wireless extensions

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A computer on every desk and in every home”; that original Microsoft motto, all the way back from a time when any sane person would have said it was nuts. Looking back now, though – hands up, who has only the one computer at home?

clip_image004[4]The WindowsKey+P shortcut key has been used since Windows 7, for sending your screen output to another device. At one point, this was maybe a meeting room’s projector – hence “+P”. You’d plug it into the VGA port on your laptop, press Win+P and you’re away. These days, does anyone “project”? Or just mirror or extend their desktop to another connected display or monitor?

You’ll commonly be able to wirelessly “project” to a large screen on the wall in a meeting room nowadays, rather than having to faff about with ceiling-mounted projectors, with all their bulb issues, noisy fans and the multitude of connectors required.

clip_image006[4]Windows 10 and 11 has a nice wireless projection UI, used to “Cast” to a wirelessly-available device, such as a TV which uses the somewhat messy Miracast standard. Either through native support, or by adding a media stick like Roku, Chromecast or FireTV, most TVs can be made to receive the display output of your laptop.

One somewhat underappreciated feature, though, is the ability to set your PC to be the recipient of wireless projection from another machine. This could be used to show something to a nearby colleague, displaying your desktop on their PC, or to share your PC screen to a room where someone else is currently plugged into the screen / projector, and you can project to their machine rather than unplugging them.

Lesser known is the ability to wirelessly extend your desktop to another PC, effectively using it as a 2nd monitor.

clip_image008[4]To kick off proceedings, press Start and type project to find the shortcut to Projection Settings.

If you haven’t set it up previously, you’ll need to add the Wireless Display optional feature; have a look through the others in the same dialog to see if there’s anything else that takes your fancy.

After adding Wireless Display, clip_image010[4]you’ll be able to set various options about how and when to receive connections. Start the “Connect” app on the destination PC and you can run a source desktop in a window or make it full-screen.

clip_image012[4]This projection feature can be used to extend the desktop of your main machine onto a second PC.

If you have a spare laptop or a home desktop PC which has Wi-Fi capability, you could set it up to be the recipient of projection from your main work machine, as long as they’re both on the same wireless network, and without the need to join in domains or have the icy grip of corporate control extended to your own hardware.

Select the option to extend your desktop to the remote machine and you can use it just like an additional monitor.

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As many of us are used to having multiple screens in our home office, it could be worth carrying a second laptop if you go into an actual office where decent 2nd screens might not be available.

Having better kit at home than in the office is just one thing to deal with when going back to a workplace


641 – What’s the Time, Mr Wolf?

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Time-telling technology has always been a hot-bed of invention, from the radically precise first marine chronometer in the early 18th century, allowing more accurate navigation on long sea voyages, to atomic clocks that can measure time with the accuracy of one millionth of a second over 10 years.

clip_image004Computers and smart phones probably never need your intervention to set the time, except when travelling abroad and you want to manually manage the time zone – if you prefer not to let the machine do that for you. To play with the time settings in Windows, just right-click on the clock in the system tray and choose to adjust from there.

clip_image006If you’d like to know what the actual time is, maybe after a power cut has blanked the clock on your cooker or you need to adjust because of Daylight Savings Time, how do you know what the real time is? Call the Speaking Clock? Switch on TV news and wait for the clock in the corner to click over one more minute?

Even better than that, check out time.is, a service synchronized with an atomic clock and which purports to figure out how accurate your computer’s clock is compared with the real time. Open the time.is site on your mobile phone and you’re ready for next time you have to set the clock on your video recorder or bedside alarm.

The chronometer (“time” and “measure”) evolved from a ship’s device for navigation and became a byword for a really accurate watch (they even had competitions until the late 1960s for the manufacturer who could make the most accurate timepiece – right up until the Japanese started beating the organising Swiss at their own game, so they took their ball away and went home). Meanwhile chronographs (“time” and “write”) were devices made to accurately measure time gone by, such as at the request of France’s King Louis XVIII, who wanted to know exactly how long his horse races lasted. Early devices actually marked the passage of time on the dial with a pen.

clip_image008In Windows, you can easily time events or have countdown timers that alert you when your eggs are boiled or it’s time to start working again – look in the Swiss Army Knife that is the Clock app. You can display multiple timers in one window if necessary, make a single timer go full screen (useful if you’re presenting and counting down to getting started) or pop out to a side window.

If you wear an old-fashioned watch, you may have a simple way to measure elapsed time –  some will have built-in timers, and others will have a moveable bezel which lets you rotate the zero-marker to where the minute hand is pointing at the start of something you want to time.

clip_image010clip_image012If you look at the watch a few minutes from now, you’ll see how many markers on the bezel the minute hand has moved on by – not exactly sub-second accurate but it’s good enough for the “about 10 minutes” type measurement.

You could also reverse the process and set the bezel’s 50 minute marker at the minute hand, so counting down 10 minutes towards the zero marker instead. You do need to keep an eye on it as there’s no alarm.

clip_image014Contemporary chronographs are analogue watches with built-in stopwatch functions, usually controlled by start and stop buttons on the side. They may count to fractions of a second marked around the edge, and some sport Tachymetre marking around the outside – designed to let you calculate how fast something is travelling as it goes over a set distance, or how far you’ve travelled if you know your constant speed.

It’s hardly red-hot technology, but millions of watches have this fantastically complicated but nowadays basically useless feature. They have to sell wrist furniture somehow.

Perhaps the most over-sold and fantastically-named wrist watch from the 1960s was the now re-issued Croton Nivada Grenchen Chronomaster Aviator Sea Diver – a single device that could be used for so many things as it combined various chronograph and bezel-rotating features in one 38mm-wide watch, billed as a “wrist-sized computer”.

Just make sure you have a magnifying glass handy to be able to read all the tiny markers and numbers on it.

634 – M’aidez, m’aidez

Quick Assist logoThe internationally recognized distress signal “May-day!”, as used by pilots heading for trouble among other scenarios, was chosen as an anglicisation of the French “m’aidez”, or “help me”, due to difficulties of understanding other terms over poor quality radio.

With much less serious consequences, those of us with a technical bent might often be asked to help family or friends who have problems with their computer, and may turn to remotely taking over their machine –  from desktop sharing in Teams or Skype, to using software that should be simpler for the technologically challenged to initiate so you can help them out.

TeamViewer is one such bit of software that’s relatively easy to install and configure, so it’s unfortunately a fave of the scammers who prey on vulnerable people by phoning them up and warning that Microsoft has detected a problem with their computer, and they need to get help to fix it.

Microsoft will never proactively reach out to you to provide unsolicited PC or technical support.

Quick Assist updateIf you do want to get or give help from a Windows PC, a venerable in-box inclusion called Quick Assist could be worth a look – it has recently been updated and is delivered via the Microsoft Store, which now has support for any Windows app and not just UWP and PWA. More on that announcement from Build, here.

Sharing security codeThe gist with Quick Assist is that you over the phone, you could talk your victim friend through the process to start it up (Start -> type assist ENTER), then you do the same. The first screen gives an option to enter a code provided, or if you are the one doing the remote assisting, click the button to Assist another person, and you’ll be given a time-limited alphanumeric code to provide the other party.

They type this is to the dialog on their end, and a secure connection is established, whereupon they can choose to share their screen in view-only mode, or they can offer to give you control.

After a couple of prompts to validate that this is really what they want to do, you would see the recipient’s desktop in a window and have a variety of control icons around it, like a short cut to run Task Manager on their machine, shut it down or send messages back and forth between both of you. Unfortunately, the chat history is not preserved but it’s a good enough way to give short instructions.

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626 – Android Link

clip_image002Leaving aside dewy-eyed recollections of Windows Phone, Android and iOS mirror Windows and MacOS in many ways – the latter being more closed and single-supplier while the former is relatively open and available from a large number of providers. Android has a far larger market share than iOS, even if the cognoscenti seem to flock to the Apple device.

Microsoft has made great strides in the Satya Nadella era to embrace other ecosystems, from releasing Office apps for iOS to wide support of Android to emulate some of the best bits of Windows Phone.

clip_image004One way of making your Android device more integrated to your Windows PC has just been refreshed and renamed – Phone Link.

Previously known as Your Phone, this app lets you access a variety of features of your phone from your PC; from reading and sending SMS messages and working with photos easily, to making and taking calls using your PC as a headset to the phone.

clip_image006The UI has been updated to follow Windows 11 design, the app is easy to set up and activate – head to aka.ms/phonelink.

There are some things you can’t easily do with Phone Link, though – while it will mirror notifications you receive on the phone, it doesn’t necessarily allow you to interact with the app that generated them (eg a notification from Twitter won’t let you open the Twitter app to view the full thing). It does allow you to clear notifications though, so if you’re the type with loads of unacknowledged notification badges on your phone, this could be a good way to get rid of them.

While on the topic of mirroring, it is also possible to use WhatsApp on your PC – so you can type messages and paste photos etc into WhatsApp messages, without dealing with the vagaries of autocorrect on the phone.

622 – Lights, camera, action!

Movie Maker logoMany years ago, computer operating systems competed for the attentions of those who cared about such things by bundling other apps and experiences that might previously have cost extra – media players, web browsers, simple word processors and the like. After the turn of the millennium, as consumer digital video started being a thing, editing packages were added to that list and Microsoft joined the fray with its Movie Maker offering, initially included as part of the much-maligned Windows ME.

Movie Maker is sadly no longer with us, and if you find something online that purports to be Movie Maker then it very likely isn’t. Bowing out finally in 2017, Windows Live Movie Maker (because everything was Live in the days, just as everything was .NET before that) had been developed to be a freely-downloadable and pretty capable video editing package, offering simple to use features to crop and adjust video, add incidental titles, music and the like. It was replaced with some much more basic video editing clip_image004capabilities in the Photos app, also appearing as “Video editor” if you search for that from the Start menu.

There must be a lot of stored up love for Movie Maker, as searching the web for it will give you hundreds of “Movie Maker alternative” downloads, many of which are even published in the Microsoft Store.

Be careful of the “Free+” clip_image005labels in the store, though… it probably means that after you spend an hour figuring out the often confusing UI of whatever app you’re trying out, it’ll knobble your video by only allowing you to save the first 2 minutes, or slapping a watermark on it unless you pay extra for the not-quite-so-free version.

Shotcut video editor

If you’d like a fully-featured, completely free† video editing application and are prepared to put in a bit of work to figure out how to use it, then look no further than Shotcut. It’s open source, cross platform, and has numerous extensions and addins to enable pretty much any kind of effect you may want.

† It’s in the Store, too, meaning it’s clean and keeps itself updated too but costs $10 since you no longer need to visit the ad-supported website to get updates, thus supporting the developer. Comme ci, comme ça.

Clipchamp video editorClipchamp

Another video editor of interest which manages to do a good job of having lots of powerful features but without being bewildering to use, is Clipchamp. It, too, is in the Store, though it’s actually browser-based so you can just go to the site, sign up for a free account and start playing.

The free version is missing functions from the paid-for ones, and also only lets you export video at DVD-quality resolution of 480p. Great if you’re planning to watch your vids on a 1990s CRT television.

If you want to use the more 2010 HD-era 1080p (the max res for Clipchamp, unlike the 2020s 4K that Shotcut and every modern smartphone can support), then you need to pay extra; a not-inconsiderable $19 per month, at least. A fact not lost on Brad Sams and Paul Thurrott at First Ring Daily, who commented on the fact that Clipchamp is being included in forthcoming versions of Windows 11 as a built-in app. Maybe pricing will change in time.

Yes, Microsoft acquired Clipchamp 6 months back, and hopefully its evolution will mean that in these tough times, it becomes a little less swingeing to use it properly. Find out some more about using Clipchamp, here.

Oh, one more thing. Sign into the Clipchamp app with a Microsoft.com email address rather than a Microsoft Account, and you’ll get an activation link sent via mail. Click that and you’ll be in the high-fidelity, first-class-travelling set of Business Platinum, for free. Bonus!

614 – Good Game, good game!

clip_image002Well, it seems that gaming is the portal to the metaverse. Brad Sams from First Ring Daily had an idea on how to get rich from “the mesh”, but maybe producing a blockbuster game is a sure-fire way to success. Or almost accidentally make one and give it away.

“Wordle” became a synonym (or even an anthimeria) for a “word (or tag) cloud” from clip_image004the mid 2000s – the idea being that you feed text into an app to generate a diagram showing the most common words in varying arrangements. The original “wordle.net” site has now disappeared, though since it needed Java to be installed on your computer to actually generate the image, it’s been defunct for over a decade.

Other Wordle sites still exist.

In late 2021, another Wordle appeared – a play on the name of its creator (Josh Wardle), a simple word game which has taken the internet by storm. It deliberately only had one round per day (so as to not rob the player’s attention like many other games do), and aims to be free to play and commendably ad-less. If you’d prefer to have your attention stolen so you can repeatedly play the game, try clone Wheeldle instead.

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Of course, many other word games are available as apps and sites – like Wordle, the word-search mobile app which has been around for years, along with a load of clones of the viral 6-line Wordle web app; they may not be free and may not be free of ads. Apple has already weilded the ban hammer to several Wordle rip-offs.

If you’ve not been much of a word puzzle gamer previously but you’ve taken to Wordle, try out Wordament – a venerable app available on mobile devices and Windows PCs alike. It’s also available online. However you play it, you will need to put up with some ads on the way.

Or just wait until the following day so you can tell Twitter how your Wordle quest went. Aaerm

608 – Shopping Season

After clip_image002Americans celebrated “Turkey Day” yesterday, the phenomenon of Black Friday is now well underway. Originally coined for bricks & mortar retailers to kick off the shopping spree in the run-up to Christmas, it’s now exported around the world and applied across all retail channels with consumer electronics being routinely discounted for a few days (stretching through the weekend to what grew to be called “Cyber Monday”).

Around a year ago, the Edge browser debuted the Shopping feature which showcased vouchers from various sites you might visit – similar to the Honey add-in which offers coupons and vouchers proactively when you visit e-commerce sites.

clip_image004There have been some recent updates to Shopping, including a price tracking feature which tells you if a specific item has been reduced in price recently – as with all these things, YMMV depending on the retailer and your own location, but it’s certainly worth a look – find out more, and see which retailers are supporting the Shopping feature with coupons and price alerts.

There are other improvements on the way – including a rare UK-first rollout, of a Bing Shopping collaboration with Good On You to highlight ethically sourced fashion. Have fun on your shopping spree!

607 – How’s you call health?

clip_image002When the pandemic first hit, many people realised that fast, reliable home broadband was an essential utility rather than a nice-to-have. With potentially more people in the house sharing the connection all day, streaming video and doing online meetings, contention in the domestic environment became something of an issue, where one user can hog the available bandwidth to the detriment of others.

The same issue occurs en masse at the broadband provider’s network, where their resources are shared between users on the assumption that they won’t see all of them demanding full speed at the same time: a contention ratio of 50:1 is pretty common, meaning if your neighbours are hammering their connection then it may affect you (assuming you’re on the same provider).

clip_image004By now, we should all be used to the challenge of making your home network better – plugging into a wired network port to avoid poor WiFi signal, making sure other devices don’t do massive downloads during the working day. Check the speed of your network using one of the many tools available – like this one from Microsoft Research; if you search on Bing.com for just speed test then you’ll get a simple speedometer view.

If you’re using Teams or other realtime conferencing tools, it’s arguably more important to look at the latency (or “ping”) and the upload speed, than focussing on the headline download speed; if you have a device uploading lots of data, it might rob your bandwidth and ramp up the latency, which will be the enemy of any kind of synchronous comms. Check your latency over time with an online tool (like TestMy Latency) or download WinMTR to look for spikes in latency.

It’s worth making sure your PC isn’t causing issues itself, by running out of memory or pegging out the CPU and therefore giving a poor experience: the topic of looking for poor home network perf has been covered previously in ToW #533 amongst others.

clip_image006clip_image008Microsoft Teams has added some built-in monitoring and data collection capabilities, reported back to a central admin dashboard (Set up Call Quality Dashboard (CQD), and now semi-realtime data is visible in the Teams client itself. 

clip_image010When in a call, go to the menu and look for Call health. Click on the various “view more… data >” buttons to see further detail, like the size and rate of the video you’re sending to the call you’re currently on. If your colleagues tell you that the quality of your video is poor, take a look in there to see what you’re actually sending.

As an end user, see here to understand how to interpret the various data. Hover over the little info icons to the side of each headline to see a bubble explaining in one-line what this is measuring. It’s quite interesting.

For admin guidance on what bandwidth and latency requirements you should have to perform acceptably, see here.