Microsoft has a somewhat complicated history with ”mobile apps”. The Windows Phone platform promised much, and though many of the ideas were good, ultimately it went away. The Universal Windows Platform app model was a sound idea in some respects, but when the ‘Phone disappeared, its raison d’être ceased to be.
At one point, there were calls that Windows Phone should be able to run Android apps in emulation, or that Microsoft should embrace Android in other ways. Recent years have seen Microsoft publish a profusion of Android apps, including the excellent Launcher, which takes some of the ideas honed in the Windows Phone UI and makes them available to just about any Android phone.
When the dual-screen Surface Duo phone appeared, it was the first time Microsoft had shipped a device running Android as the base operating system. Recent speculation on the future of the Surface Duo 3 might point to a different form factor, but it’s still very likely going to be running the Android OS.
On the desktop, Windows 11 has been offering Android apps to many users for a little while. Similar in some ways to Windows Subsystem for Linux, which basically lets you run a fully-fledged Linux machine inside your Windows PC, the Windows Subsystem for Android means running Android in a virtual machine and allowing apps to appear in a window alongside native Windows apps.
To run Android apps on the WSA on Windows 11, you first need to install the Amazon Appstore. There are many apps in this store, but since it originally started as a walled garden for Amazon’s own Fire tablets, there are gaps. You won’t find many banking apps, for example, and aside from the thousands of garish games, many of the available apps could just be run in a browser on your PC instead.
The Amazon Appstore app itself is a bit crude – it doesn’t offer much opportunity to filter and sort the apps it presents, so it’s not easy to wade through the many stupid games to find real apps you might want to use. It’s maybe better to peruse what’s available through a browser, and then search specifically within the Appstore app for the app you want to add.
If you wanted to use Android apps that are not published through the curated Amazon store, you’d need to have access to the Google Play store, and that’s not officially an option with the Windows Subsystem for Android.
There are numerous hacks online to enable Google Play Services (and thus the Googley Store) but getting it installed and running is convoluted, and at least one script has already been subverted with malware, so might be a risky endeavour too. You might want to try running BlueStacks or another Android emulator, to get access to the Google Play store.
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 184.108.40.206 or Google’s 220.127.116.11).
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.
If 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.
Free 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.
DNS 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.
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.
Computers 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.
If 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.
In 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.
If 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.
Contemporary 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.
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.
Leaving 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.
One 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.
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.
Bad Actors are all over the internet (not just in your local multiplex), mostly aiming to gain access to data and systems for nefarious purposes, though sometimes they try to do good. Data breaches generally start with the weakest link in the chain: PEBKAC, in other words, It’s Your Problem.
Identity protection company SpyCloud reports that more than two-thirds of passwords which have been breached online are still in use and most users still have the same username and password combo across multiple accounts. If you want to keep your own personal identity and data safe, it’s job #1 to make sure you have unique passwords for each website you use, and that the passwords are not made up of guessable words or phrases.
The Edge browser gives you some tools to manage your passwords better – look for the Password Generator, or the drop-down Suggest strong password option, when you’re registering a new sign-in, and it will generate a long and complex password, stored in your account so in future you can be automatically signed in.
Some sites don’t trigger the password generator or suggestion – perhaps due to how they describe or display the password field(s) – so another option is to use a browser extension like btPass – numerous others are available. It simply drops an icon on the browser toolbar and will show a password of varying complexity and length, which can be quickly copied to the clipboard and pasted into password fields. Since some sites don’t like special characters in the password, you can tweak or edit the text it creates.
Security software company F-Secure has launched a free online password generator, if you’d prefer to create your secrets that way.
The Manage passwords option seen in some password drop-downs – also available from the settings menu or by entering edge://settings/passwords into the address bar – gives access to Password Monitor, which warns you if passwords you have saved are known to have been breached, and can display a list of the sites where your previously-set password has been found in a trove of hacked accounts.
You can quickly check the password used and decide to visit the page to change it – assuming the site still exists – or simply ignore it (on the assumption that you’ll be cleaning up and not using the compromised passwords on any sites you still want to actually visit).
If you install Microsoft Authenticator on your phone and sign in with the same account as you use in your browser, the saved passwords will be available through Authenticator too – so having very complex passwords should be no barrier to usability any more.
Lists form a big part of lots of peoples’ lives – whether it’s a to-do list for productivity afficionados, shopping lists for remembering the essentials or compiling top-five lists of favourite things, just, well, because.
A while back, Microsoft released a new app for Microsoft 365 users called Lists, which was essentially a front-end to SharePoint, itself a staple of the Office 365/Microsoft 365 offering since the beginning, and providing much more functionality than simply a place to stuff documents. The original SharePoint Portal Server 2001 (codenamed “Tahoe”) is nearly old enough to buy itself a beer in its homeland, and relatively advanced logic and custom data validation & handling has been a major part of its appeal for a lot of that time.
Recently, the Lists experience was made available – in preview – for non-M365 users who could sign in with their Microsoft Account. A “lightweight” version of the app, it’s still pretty functional and pitched at individuals, families or small businesses who need to keep lists of things.
Taking a slightly different tack, the To Do application is a good way of making other sorts of lists – that could be Tasks or flagged emails as well as simple tick-lists to mark off what needs to be done. In something of an overlap with Lists, To Do can share its lists with other people – think of To Do as primarily for personal use that you might share, whereas Lists is for managing shared endeavours first and foremost.
If you’re a user of both Amazon’s Alexa services and Microsoft To Do, you might want to integrate them together; using the Tasks In The Hand skill. Once enabled and correctly configured, you can use Alexa to manage that service’s built-in To-Do and Shopping lists, and these are then synchronized to the Microsoft To Do app.
You can rename the lists which are subsequently created in To Do and which sync with Alexa, though you can’t yet manage additional ones. You could simply use the Alexa app to manage the lists rather than synching them with To Do, but setting up synch gives you more flexibility – To Do integrates with other software and services, like being able to show lists in the Microsoft Launcher app on an Android phone.
The Windows Insiders program which, for a good many years, has provided a way for the product team to develop aspects and features of Windows with the help of millions of early testers, announced some changes in its focus recently. The distinction between Dev and Beta channels will blur to some degree, with A/B testing of new experimental features showing up in Dev before some may make it into future releases.
The path to how new features for Windows 11 will be rolled out is changing a little too. Having previously said that there would be only one Feature Update each year, rather than the spring/fall update cadence that has been with Windows 10 for some time, there are going to be intermediate feature experience packs which will deliver some updates, like the forthcoming Android subsystem which will allow Windows 11 users to install and run a subset of Android apps and games on their PC.
If you’re outside of the US, don’t get too excited about the Android apps – the initial preview needs both your PC region to be US and you need an Amazon account in the US, in order to use the Amazon Appstore (which is the home of the subset of available apps). Enterprising tinkerers have found ways to install the software without meeting said requirements – if you choose this rocky path, however, you’re on your own.
If you want some groovy new features for your PC without grubbing around in the command line or waiting for a future update to arrive, do check out the recently-refreshed PowerToys package. The tl;dr history is that PowerToys started as a collection of side projects built during the Windows 95 days, shipped as freebies for power users to play with. The name was dusted down a couple of years ago to collect up similar skunkworks projects for Windows 10 (and now, 11), and has been updated fairly regularly – though the release version is still way off v1.0.
The New PowerToys comprises a collection of addons which will be of varying interest to your average Windows user, but some are so neat on the occasions you need them that you’ll be glad of having installed the package. Image Resizer, for example, is a File Explorer extension to kick off resizing a large picture to a more manageable size – handy for the kind of website where you need a thumbnail or a profile picture that’s of restricted dimensions. There are other file-related tools like Power Rename, as well as power usage, window-handling and a whole lot more.
Of particular interest (and most recent) are utilities to do with your mouse – how many times have you tried to find the location of your pointer (especially if you have multiple screens) by waggling the mouse or tickling the trackpad? Press CTRL key twice to Find My Mouse and the screens go dark, except for a spotlight that shines on the current pointer location. There’s a Mouse Highlighter which – when activated via a configurable shortcut key – leaves a little short-lived blob on-screen where you clicked the mouse; great if you’re recording a training video or doing a demonstration.
Finally, there’s the somewhat more dramatic Mouse Pointer Crosshairs, which puts a big cross centered on wherever your pointer is, and follows it around. This might be hugely distracting to leave it on all the time, but fortunately, a quick press of the shortcut key will turn it off.
The PowerToys use a lot of different shortcut keys – some configurable – and also have a handy Shortcut Key guide, which displays common Windows shortcuts; none of those used by the PowerToys themselves, though.
Well, 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 the 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.
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.
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.
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.