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 or Google’s

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.

641 – What’s the Time, Mr Wolf?


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.

638 – Tracking and Mapping

Looking back over the smartphone era of the last 15 or so years, one of the most transformative technologies is the confluence of mapping and geo-location, providing route guidance, finding things and even people. How did we manage to make our way around cities before maps in the palm of our hands? Just exit a tube or subway station anywhere in the world, and observe the herds of people spinning around looking at their phone trying to get a GPS fix.

Although Microsoft ceded the mobile phone space around 5 years ago, effectively leaving Android and iOS as the only options, the Bing Maps service still survives, even if fewer websites and mobile apps make use of it today. clip_image003[4]Windows 11 comes with a built-in Maps app which offers some decent functionality (and offline use), but lacks some of the features of Bing Maps in a browser, like the Ordnance Survey view showing public footpaths and other attractions in the UK (if you have the country setting to United Kingdom, that is).

Given the lack of “Bing Maps mobile” – and the commensurate lack of usage – the data that sits alongside may be less accurate, too; look at the reviews on the Windows Maps app in the store, and the main complaints are from people who don’t want it at all or comments about the map and PoI data being stale.

clip_image005[4]Some neat features in Bing Maps make it stand out from others – the Bird’s Eye view is cool, though not always as fresh or widely available as it used to be.

The team still updates imagery for the web view, provides data to the awesome 3D Cities feature in Windows Maps and contributes to the amazing scenery in Flight Simulator (even if some modders are switching Flight Sim to using Google Maps instead).

Bing Maps in a browser does sometimes offer a City Flyover option, which is akin to the Flight Sim view.

clip_image007[4]clip_image009[4]Bing’s Streetside can be sparse compared to Google’s Street View, even though the Google Maps car is sometimes thwarted with a “None Shall Pass” situation. Search the web and there are many – some NSFW – weird attractions found on Street View.

Some odd things can be found on Streetside too.

Apple used Google Maps data for its own maps app on the iPhone at first, but replaced with its own service which was at first poorly received. 10 years later, Apple Maps – available, of course, only to fruity device users – does a much better job and purports to be less cavalier with the user’s data than the advertising company. Despite a much larger number of users flocking to the universally available Google Maps, Apple Maps provides a good service for iOS users, and is there by default.

clip_image011[4]If you choose to surrender the use of your personal data to the advertising industry, Google Maps does offer some very useful capabilities in recording where you’ve been; it will remind you where you parked your car and let you see if you’ve visited a particular place before, and when.

clip_image013[4]If your family and friends consent, you can also share your whereabouts in real time, showing a pin in the map where they are, and when the location was last recorded.

This could be handy for checking if your kids are where they’re supposed to be, for friends arranging to meet or just knowing when to expect someone to come home. You can enable sharing of your location to each specified contact for a limited time or until it’s turned off, and it will also let you see their name, picture and other info including (!) battery level of their phone.

clip_image015[4]Sign into Google Maps on your computer, and you’ll be able to keep track of people a little more easily, too (as well as manage your own location sharing), and review your own timeline of where you’ve been. It’s usually somewhat fascinating and sometimes a little creepy.

Fortunately, you can choose to edit or remove certain items of data, export it to other formats or disable the collection of it altogether.

You give up some control of personal data, and you get some benefit from it.

As some say, them’s the breaks.

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.

620 – Change your P@ssw0rd!

clip_image002Bad 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.

clip_image004clip_image006The 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.

clip_image008Some 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 btPassnumerous 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.

clip_image010The 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.

clip_image012You 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.

618 – Listing

clip_image002Lists 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.

clip_image004Lists brings a lot of that functionality to the fore, while being extensible through Power Apps and integrated into Teams. There are mobile Lists apps available and in beta too.

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.

clip_image008If 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.

clip_image010You 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.

616 – Feature Power

clip_image002The 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.

clip_image004If 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 clip_image006be 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.

clip_image008Finally, 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.

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.


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

598 – Start me up

clip_image002Back 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.

590 – OneNote Tagging

clip_image002Even fans of  OneNote – either the full-fat Windows x86 version or the versions targeted at other platforms, mobiles and the Microsoft Store, both of which have been covered extensively in ToW passim – will likely use only a fraction of its total functionality. Did you know, for example, that pressing SHIFT+CTRL+> or SHIFT+CTRL+< increases or decreases the font size of the selected text? Or holding CTRL while pressing DEL or BACKSPACE in a block of text deletes the word either side of the cursor, and not just a single character? (Actually, these are true of other Office apps as well, though not Excel, presumably because using Excel for text formatting is considered deviant and weird).

clip_image004There are many useful features hidden in plain sight, like the tagging functionality which sits on the Home tab. In OneNote for Windows, if you have the ribbon expanded, you’ll see a series of icons to mark selected text with a Tag, and for the top 9 you can tag the text by pressing CTRL+n, where n is the number in the list.

clip_image006The idea with tags is that you can quickly reference back to the specific text that you’ve highlighted and tagged, via a hyperlink. As well as the variety of in-the-box tags, it’s easy to add custom ones: click on the down arrow at the bottom of the list and choose Customize Tags… then you can supply your own description and choose the icon and colours.

clip_image008The new tag is added at the very top of the list, so is immediately accessible by pressing CTRL+1 if you like; otherwise, it’s simple enough to shift the order around.

clip_image010Finding previously-tagged text uses the seriously powerful but sometimes obtuse search function in the sidebar; if you use OneNote to take notes from Outlook meetings, by default you might see hundreds of links that appear to be tagged.

Try using the Search filters at the bottom to restrict the results set, so you only show tags within a given notebook location or across all your notebooks, but for a specific time.

clip_image012The “OneNote for Windows 10”, Mac and mobile versions of OneNote handle tags slightly differently; while more-or-less compatible the degree of functionality does vary between the clients. Generally speaking, you can find tags across them all, though you may be restricted in editing or creating them. The OneNote mobile app supports a “To Do” tag, for example. The web clients don’t offer custom tags at all, and don’t allow tag-specific search (other than just text indexing).

In the OneNote for Windows 10 store app, you can search for Tags but custom ones created in the desktop app don’t appear in the Tags list when editing a page. Only a handful of tags are initially offered in the store version, and if you add a custom one it’s still possible to press CTRL+n to use it, but you need to count where your tag is in the list as it doesn’t show you the shortcut.

Custom tags added in the store version don’t appear in the tags list of any other client though do sync across other devices, to some degree.

Given the slight rough edges between the versions if you routinely open the same notebook in mobile, web and store/desktop apps, then Tags may not prove so useful – but if you tend to stick to a single UI – especially if it’s the older desktop one – then it’s worth exploring how custom tags could help you organize your stuff.