647 – Power of the Toys

imageAfter Windows 95 appeared on 25 August 1995, one of the later updates was to release a bunch of tweaks and addons which had been built to enhance the OS, but not considered mainstream enough to include them in the box – the Windows 95 PowerToys. They included such amazing advances as a round clock, or tools to help manage the country of your modem. Some more history of the PowerToys was covered back in 2005 by veteran commentator Raymond Chen.

In 2019, the Power Toys name was dusted down for a new run at building addins to Windows, this time using an open source approach; the vision document lays out what the team wants to achieve, and they are steadily releasing new versions with fixes, improvements and new features. You can find Power Toys in the Microsoft Store, or if you like to do to prove your geek creds, you can go straight to GitHub and clip_image002download it.

Recently, v0.62 came out and added some new functions, like a draggable box (Screen Ruler) which shows you the exact number of pixels between the start point and the mouse – useful if you’re looking to figure out how large a part of your screen is.

There’s clip_image004a neat Text Extractor tool which can take a selected area of an image and read the text within it straight to the clipboard – handy if you needed to get the serial number from a piece of electronics; take a picture on your mobile of the tiny writing on the back of the device, and quickly extract the details for pasting into some other app or website.

Other PowerToys of note include the Mouse Utilities, which can help find the mouse on screen – a double-tap of the CTRL key and you’ll get a temporary spotlight on the mouse, which can be super useful if you have multiple monitors and are not quite sure where the pointer has gone.

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.

520 – You have the Power

clip_image002When Windows 95 launched nearly a quarter of a century ago, it brought a whole new way of interacting with the windowing environment on users’ PCs. The Start menu was introduced (and the grand launch event had the execs “dancing” to ‘Start Me Up’ by the Rolling Stones – chosen because of its “Start” association, presumably, rather than the lyric “you make a grown man cry”), and after a short-term diversion in Windows 8, the Start menu reappeared in Windows 10, and is still evolving.

After the Win95 initial release, the development team behind the Windows Shell came out with a bunch of useful utilities; things that at one point might have shipped as Resource Kit tools, but were aimed at a slightly broader user base – and so the Power Toys family was born.

There were often capabilities in the OS which could be enabled or disabled by the flick of a setting in the Registry (also new in Windows 95, in an attempt to put all the settings stuff in one place rather than having INI files everywhere). Telling an end user to go an start Registry twiddling is a potential recipe for disaster, so the Power Toys included utilities like TweakUI, which exposed some of the settings.

Various other Microsoft products embraced the idea of Power Toys, but the whole thing was killed off in the wake of the intensive code reviews required as part of the Trustworthy Computing (TwC) initiative in 2002. See more of the history here (though the page is 15 years old so pretty much all the links are dead).

In late 2019, it was announced that PowerToys was coming back – this time, as an open source project supported by the dev team but ultimately driven by a wider community. The goals for v1.0 have been published and recently the 0.15 release was made – get the latest version here.

So far, possibly the most useful app in the current build is FancyZones, which allows you to have more control over window layouts than simply snapping to the left or right – handy if you have a massive monitor or two, and want to tile multiple windows side by side.