563 – Remove the Dupes

clip_image001For a long time, storage was relatively expensive so it was a good idea to spend time and money reducing the amount you would needed to use. In 1990, PC hard disks would cost about $0.20 per megabyte, and capacity would be in the 2-3 figure MB range. So, compression software could be used to delay the day you’d need to buy a bigger disk, even if there was a slight impact on performance (through decompressing and re-compressing data while reading from and writing to the disk).

As storage got cheaper, the tendency to just keep old data gained prevalence, though some systems imposed limits due to the relative complexity and expense of managing their data, providing resiliency and backup services.

clip_image003Corporate email quotas were measured in Megabytes, and tools like the Outlook Thread Compressor helped people reduce the amount of space their mail took up. In time, people used it clip_image005to simply reduce the number of messages they needed to read, rather than worrying about the space they’d save – and it inspired the Clean Up Folder function in Outlook today.

When Google launched Gmail in 2004 with a staggering mailbox limit of 1GB – 500 times that which was offered by Hotmail – the rules on what was expected for email quotas were re-written, with an expectation that you would never need to delete anything, and could use search to find content within.

Leaving aside corporate policy on data retention, keeping piles of stuff indefinitely causes its own set of problems. How do you know which is the right version? Can you be sure that you have copies of everything you might need, in case the data is lost or damaged? If you have a backup, do you know that it’s a full copy of everything, and not a partial archive? Having multiple copies of the same content can be a headache too, if you’re not sure which is the true original and which might be later copies or partial backups.

Applications might create their own duplicate content – perhaps through bugs, or through user activity. There was a time when syncing content to your phone or to another machine might risk duplication of everything – like having multiple copies of contacts in Outlook, for example. A variety of hacky resource kit utilities were created to help clean up mailboxes of duplicate contacts, appointments etc; you might want to check out a more modern variant if you’re worried that your mailbox is cluttered up.

clip_image007The curse of duplication can be a problem at home, too, especially when it comes to photographs. Have you ever taken a memory card from a camera, or a backup of an old phone, and copied the whole lot just to be sure you have everything?

Cleaning up the dupes can help make sense of what remains. You could spend money on proper photo archiving and management tools like Adobe Lightroom, or you could roll your own methodology using a mixture of free and low-cost tools – tech pundit Paul Thurrott recently wrote about his approach.

There are many duplicate-removing tools out there – just be sure you’re getting them from a reliable place, free from adware and other nasties. Be wary of anything that purports to “clean” your PC (registry cleaners etc), watch out when accepting T&Cs and don’t allow the setup routine to install any other guff you don’t need. Make sure you have the right protection on your machine, too.

One recommended tool is Duplicate Sweeper – free to try but a princely £15 to buy, but worth the peace of mind that comes with a tidy photo library or Documents folder.

562 – Connect your phone to Your Phone

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A couple of years back, an initiative was launched to more deeply connect Windows to certain Android smartphones, notably starting with Samsung devices. Now the “Your Phone” application is built into Windows 10, and offers an increasing amount of utility for Android users, to sync and share content, notifications and even apps between the two devices.

If you’re an iPhone user, the connected experience is somewhat watered-down and achieved in a different way, and is mostly about syncing content and continuing web browsing from your phone to your PC. Thank the differences in Android vs iOS ecosystems for that…

For various Samsung phones and the Surface Duo, you can also control and mirror apps from your phone on the PC as well as transfer content. If you have a phone with the shiniest of shiny Android 11, you may be able to treat mobile apps just as if they are Windows apps – pin them to Start menu, run them in their own window on the PC etc. See more here.

For most other Android devices, you can’t yet do the mirroring within the Your Phone experience, but you do get to share app notifications on your PC (so you’ll get “toasts” in Windows for WhatsApp etc), exchange photos and files quickly and easily, manage messaging and even, should you want to, take and make calls on your PC.

clip_image004To get it up and running, start the Your Phone app on your PC, and the pre-installed Link To Windows app if you have a supported Samsung or Surface device; if not, then install the Your Phone companion app on the phone to get everything set up.

clip_image006It can be handy getting notifications on your PC that originate on phone apps, especially if your device isn’t next to you – but there may be limited use if all the notification on the phone would normally do is make you tap on it to read the story or interact with the app.

If you’re going to enable notifications, be careful – you’ll want to go through the list of apps that are on your phone, and only allow the ones you really need, or you’ll be getting a blizzard of unwanted toasts on your PC, assuming you’re not in Focus Assist mode.

Perhaps the best feature on Your Phone is the rapid ability to copy photos – without having to send them by email or wait for OneDrive to sync them. Using Your Phone, you can copy the file immediately to your PC, or just browse the photos on a larger screen and possibly screen grab bits of interest to insert into documents or emails. Sadly, what it won’t let you do is manage the photos easily, like delete the garbage…

Still, it’s free and it’s potentially useful for anyone with a Windows 10 PC and an Android phone – so definitely worth a look. For more info on how to use and troubleshoot Your Phone, see here.

561 – Password clean up

clip_image001As most of us look to put 2020 firmly behind us and take some down-time over the festive season, there may be a list of jobs which get left to this time of year – filling out the annual tax return, maybe, or clearing out that drawer with miscellaneous stuff in it.

clip_image003You could set your sights higher, even – like gathering all the papers scattered throughout your house (user guides, receipts, utility bills etc etc) and putting them in one place, as recommended by Getting Things Done guru, David Allen.

Or just scan them all in then recycle…

Maybe it’s time to finally sort out all the passwords you use for different websites. Even though Multi-Factor Authentication is gradually replacing the need to enter a username & password every time you access a resource, there’s still often a need to create a username and password combo when you sign up for something. If you’ve used Edge or Chrome to remember your passwords, you might find there are many hundreds of them, and being weak carbon-based lifeforms, we’re quite likely to use the same ones for many sites. Naughty!

clip_image005There are browser addins and other tools you can use to remember the passwords you use, and (using LastPass as an example) can give you the option of generating something strong and unique at the point of signing up on a site, then syncing that username and password back to a central service so you don’t need to re-enter it next time (or remember something truly unmemorable). LastPass recently announced their 2020 stats – they’ve generated 94 million secure passwords and been used to log in more than 10 billion times.

Microsoft Edge offers some password management capabilities – as well as being able to remember passwords within the Edge browser, and sync them between different machines or mobile devices, Edge is also getting to be capable of suggesting and storing complex passwords for new sign-ups.

clip_image007Edge is beefing up its password security in other ways, offering proactive warnings if your passwords have shown up in databases of leaked credentials (at the moment, this is a test feature in the dev builds). One-by-one, you can use Edge’s “fix leaked passwords” function to check what the existing password is for each site, and then click a button to jump to the site to reset it – in some cases, going straight to the change password part of the site.

clip_image009Finally, the password sync feature is getting some extra legs – using the Microsoft Authenticator app on your phone and it’s new beta Autofill feature, you can use that app to provide the username/password for website or even mobile app logins. There’s a Chrome extension too, so if you want to switch back and forth between Edge & Chrome on a PC, your passwords will be available to both.

In some senses, storing passwords and allowing them to be automatically filled in feels like a security risk – anyone with access to your unlocked computer or phone could potentially access your online services. Using Autofill and Authenticator, though, the default setup is to require biometric authentication – so you’ll need a fingerprint or camera, or unlocking with a PIN, before the auto-fill will happen.

Also, it’s more important to have complex passwords that are hard to break or guess, and to have different ones for each and every site or app you use.

This is the final ToW for 2020. Let’s hope ’21 brings us all better luck.

In the meantime, have a great holiday season, stay safe, see you on The Other Side!

560 – Shopping in the Edge

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The pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated digital transformation and societal change in many ways, bringing years of progression into a few months to quite a few industries. That change felt revolutionary in some – working from home in organisations that previously would have thought it impossible – and in others, like retail, it may have brought forward things that were going to happen eventually.

Online retail has been a clear beneficiary of people spending more time at home (and possibly less time working), in some cases having more money (since they’re not travelling for fun, eating out less – if at all – and so on). One aspect of online shopping that has grown over the last few years has been the use of voucher codes – perhaps as a way of trying to award loyalty while combating the dominance of certain online behemoths.
(It’s a really compelling podcast, that one – well worth a listen).

Websites who offer vouchers will often target them to existing customers, possibly previous customers who haven’t been active for a while – they’d email a time-limited code that could get money off, or free delivery and so on, or add a “money off your next purchase” printed code, in the box with the thing you just bought. People will often share these codes with their family and friends, and inevitably a load of websites sprung up purporting to offer voucher codes, though quite a few seem to be a vector for spam and unwanted advertising.

clip_image004The Edge browser has recently added a feature which can help to discover active vouchers for a given site – with the idea that they are known to be good, active and not spammy. The idea is that when you go to a site that has current vouchers/coupons, then a little shopping label will clip_image006appear on the right clip_image008side of the address bar, with initial pop-out text which disappears after a few seconds, but the badge on the icon indicates how many vouchers are available. At the opposite end of the address bar, you’ll clip_image010probably see the handbag icon illustrating, on this site, that it’s safe to shop.

Click on the vouchers icon and a pop-up will show the list of coupons; clicking a coupon copies it to the clipboard, ready to paste into some box during the checkout process.

The Shopping feature in Edge has started rolling out, beginning with the various dev and beta channels. To check if it’s on your build, and to enable/disable it, look in edge://settings/privacy and look for the Save time and money… option as pictured above. Right now, the availability of sites with vouchers may seem thin on the ground, but that’s likely a regional thing (ie concentrating on US retailers for now).

An alternative that was previously being pushed somewhat by the Edge team, is Honey – a simple Edge addin which does much the same as the Shopping feature, but more widely supported. On the example given above (from US retailer www.target.com) the orange Honey icon found lots more coupons that had been submitted and supposedly verified by other users saying they worked, and when. As with any of these things, YMMV.

559 – Teams steams ahead

clip_image002In the same week that Salesforce announced its intent to splurge a load of cash on buying Slack, Microsoft’s Teams team put out a lengthy  blog post outlining a load of new and updated features that are clip_image003shortly coming to the Teams user experience. Some have been talked about before and are now already available or will roll out soon (you can always prod Teams to check for updates by clicking on your profile icon in the top right and choosing Check for updates – any available updates should be downloaded and installed in the background).

clip_image005One new feature is a supposedly AI-powered (isn’t everything that’s vaguely smart these days?) noise suppression feature – useful if you’re on Teams calls and have to share your environment with noisy people/animals etc. Configure your own noise suppression settings within the Devices options, by clicking on Settings under your profile at the top right.

There are numerous new calling features coming, which will help in managing real (PSTN) phone calls and VoIP calls, as well as a clip_image007load of new partner devices that can be plugged into your PC to give you a phone on your desk, if you like that sort of thing.

Read more about the new devices here.

There are also some useful updates to bring other applications into Teams meetings, like allowing you to set up Polls in advance (using Microsoft Forms, configured within the Teams app with an easy-to-use wizard), and using Power Apps and other elements of the Power Platform, it’s never been easier to roll your own apps for including in Teams.

There’s a $45K prize fund available for the best apps that are built and submitted by February 2021, so if you have ideas, better get cracking…

558 – Sharing your holidays

clip_image001A reader suggestion came in recently, sadly too late to be of use before everyone in the US downed tools for days of eating turkey and watching TV sports. It’s reprising a previous tip from nearly a decade ago, but presented here in a reminder to everyone else on the planet who’s planning to take some time off over “the Holidays(or “Christmas” as much of the world secularly and un-offendedly refers to that time of year).

clip_image003When we book time off, it makes sense to mark the days in our own calendar as Busy, or Out of Office – that way, if a colleague tries to book an appointment with you, they’ll see in the Scheduling Assistant (assuming they bother to look) that the time is blocked out and you’re unavailable – purple hatching being OOF, solid blue being busy and hatched blue meaning tentative.

Really progressive people might even be sharing their calendar details with you, so you can see what they’re doing – useful, as all-day busy events obliterate everything else if details are not shown.

If you’d like to tell other people you’re going on holiday, then you should create a 2nd appointment and invite your colleagues to it; but there are 3 important steps to take when you do this so you don’t muck up their calendar and annoy them to boot. When creating your second “FYI” holiday appointment:

  • clip_image005Change the Show As drop-down box to be Free. This way, the all-day event doesn’t appear at all in the Scheduling Assistant, and therefore doesn’t mess up other peoples’ views of your recipients’ calendars.
    (wow, lots of plurals in that last sentence, and thankfully no grocers’ apostrophes either)
  • Set the Reminder drop-down to None – your friends don’t need a reminder to fire to tell them you’re away, and they certainly don’t need to be woken up by their phone either.
  • Set “Response Options” so people don’t need to accept your invitation; that’s a few clicks saved for everyone who is on the meeting invite. All 3 of these options are ticked by default and you might want to clear them all.

While we’re setting the appointment up, it’s OK to not use Recurrence too – some people think that the way to make a multi-day appointment is to set a one-day meeting that recurs every day for a week. Don’t do that.

Just set the start and finish clip_image007date of the appointment as appropriate and check the “all day event” box. The appointment will run from the start of the first date to the end of the second date so in the example here, we’d be returning to work on Tuesday 5th Jan.

Now all you need to do is create a suitably informative and entertaining Out of Office message and you’re all set!

557 – Making URLs more friendly

clip_image001The URL – Uniform Resource Locator, to give its full name – is familiar to everyone as a way of accessing their favourite sources of online titillation, propaganda and knowledge. Most people pronounce the term “yoo arr ell” though some stick to calling it Earl. Few “regular” users have any idea what magic occurs behind the scenes when you enter an address in the browser.

Early browsers might have been pedantic about the user entering the protocol into the address box, since the application wouldn’t know if you wanted to use ftp, gopher or this new-fangled http thing to try to open the page. So you had to spell out the whole address – with the right number of slashes and colons, sometimes even having to get upper and lower case parts of it exactly correct – or just get denied.

Of course, it’s easier to enter URLs these days – a good proportion of end users just type the thing they’re looking for (eg “bbc news”) into the address bar, and it will search on their favourite engine to display a list of results upon which they then click. Others will know that if you enter a term in the address bar and press CTRL+ENTER, the browser will add the www and the .com to either side of it, and on Chrome, the clip_image002address bar even hides the display of the https://www bit.

Still, pasting a URL into a document or email can sometimes look messy, especially if it’s a link to a file on a Sharepoint or Teams site. Public websites sometimes will have an address which tells the story – like https://www.upi.com/Top_News/Voices/2020/11/19/SpaceXs-Starlink-satellites-are-ruining-stargazing-for-everyone/9351605790233/ – but a new feature in Edge browser aims to make things a whole lot more friendly.

In the latest versions of Edge, instead of pasting the raw address (with all of its slashes, symbols and numbers), when you add a URL into an Office document, the link will use the title of the page as the “text to display” instead of the URL itself. As a result, the UPI story above would look like “SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are ruining stargazing for everyone – UPI.com”.

When pasting a link to a shared document, instead of it showing up like https://microsoft.sharepoint.com/:b:/t/Store%20Planning%20Team/EX3o-R5PRT5Kk-Ndmh5GKFgBx0OfjIWI9d4CGT4nZGi0Dw90980 or similar, Office apps will try to fetch the source document’s details and render its name as the displayed text, hiding the URL under it:

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If you’re sending the link in an email, it will even check if all the recipients have permission to open it, and offer to help you fix that by changing the permissions or by attaching the document instead of a link to it. This might even realise the dream that one day, people will stop emailing documents to each other and instead will use proper collaboration tools. We can but hope.

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clip_image006If you’d rather keep the raw URL, paste it into your document using the Paste Options / Text only choice. If you don’t like the new feature, you can switch it off in the Edge settings – navigate to the Share, copy and paste settings, or just enter edge://settings/shareCopyPaste into the browser address bar to jump straight there.

This useful feature was a preview in the Edge beta, but is now part of Edge 87 that released last week.

One potential side effect, though, is if the website you’re looking at doesn’t properly manage its page title (as displayed in the browser tab), it could paste as the wrong thing: some sites might set the title when you search for something, but then not set it properly when you click through into the results. You can always right-click the link and Edit Hyperlink to fix the issue if that occurs, and hope that enough people complain to the site owner so they fix it.

556 – Using MFA more widely

{10B132AF-CB81-488A-9B6B-27D6F996ACBA}Previous Tips have covered making use of 2FA – or 2 Factor Authentication – with your Microsoft Account (ie your account from Outlook.com/Hotmail/MSN/Passport etc) and how to manage passwords better, so you don’t end up with P@ssw0rd1 for every single one of your website logins. Dealing with passwords can be complicated and since humans are typically weak and seek the path of least resistance, this can often lead to huge security lapses.

So 2FA – or its cousin, Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) – is a better way to secure things, as a remote system can validate that the user knows something which identifies them (their username & password, secret phrase, date of birth etc etc) but also has something that identifies them too; a security token, smart card, digital certificate or something else that has been issued, or even just a mobile phone that has been registered previously with whatever is trying to validate them.

Although such systems have been around for a while, the average punter in the EU has been more recently exposed to 2FA through a banking directive that requires it for many services that involve transfer of funds, setting up payments or even using credit cards. In some cases, the tech is pretty straightforward – you get a SMS text message with a 6-digit one-time code that you need to enter into the mobile app or website, thus proving you know something (you’re logged in) and you have something (your phone), so validating that it really is you. Or someone has stolen your phone and your credentials…

MFA is stronger than 2FA, as you can combine what you know and what you have, with what you are. An example could be installing a mobile banking app on your phone then enrolling your account number, username & password; the know is your credentials, and the have is a certificate or unique identifier associated with your phone, as it’s registered as a trusted device by the banking service that’s being accessed. Using your fingerprint to unlock the app would add a 3rd level of authentication – so the only likely way that your access to the service (for transferring funds or whatever) could be nefarious, is if you are physically being coerced into doing it.

2FA and MFA aren’t perfect but they’re a lot better than username & password alone, and Microsoft’s @Alex Weinert this week wrote that it’s time to give up on simpler 2FA like SMS and phone-call based validations, in favour of a stronger MFA approach. And what better way that to use the free Microsoft Authenticator app?

Once you have Authenticator set up and running, It’s really easy to add many {6CB942E5-5D57-48E1-BE97-E89CA2CF482B}services or apps to it – let’s use Twitter as an example. If you’re using a browser, go to Settings and look under Security and account access | Security | two-factor authentication.

{3D294F5C-25AA-4DA7-8C84-C13CF43B7321}If you enable 2FA and tick the box saying you want to use an authenticator app, it will ask you for your password again, then show you a QR code which can be used to enrol in the app.

In the Microsoft Authenticator app itself, add an account from the menu in the top right and then choose the option that it’s for “other” – presuming you’ve already have enrolled your Work or school Account (Microsoft/Office 365) and your Personal account (MSA, ie Outlook.com etc).

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After tapping the option to add, point your phone at the QR code on the screen and you’re pretty much done; you’ll need to enter a one-time code to confirm it’s all set up – rather than getting an SMS, go into the list of accounts in the Authenticator app home screen, open the account you’ve just added then enter the 6-digit code that’s being displayed. This is the method you’ll use in future, rather than waiting to be sent the 6-digit code by text.

As you can see from the description, there are lots of other 3rd party apps and websites that support MFA using authenticator apps –

555 – checking Accessibility

clip_image002The word “accessibility” has been used for decades as a catch-all for how people of differing abilities can interact with their surroundings, and often applies to technology which can help to overcome barriers. It’s very easy to go about your day with no thought to how others could be affected by things that you don’t even notice, whether as a result of actions you do or just objects you encounter. Design plays a big part in helping people who have disabilities or who may find certain things more difficult, and good design means that assistive technology does not get in the way of anyone who doesn’t need it.

These technologies often spawn wider usage in unforeseen ways, and in many cases are developed not for goals of making a fortune or having global influence, but to help a particular individual:

Microsoft has a long history in pushing accessibility technology – Windows 95 was the first clip_image004operating system to ship with accessibility options built in, and has developed a variety of tools and platform services aimed at developers. Windows 10 has many built-in options, grouped mainly under the Settings | Ease of Access applet.

You can jump straight to many of the settings applets by running ms-settings:easeofaccess-keyboard or ms-settings:easeofaccess-speechrecognition and so on.

clip_image006If you don’t need to use assistive technology yourself, it’s good practice to think about how your work might impact people who do – and there’s a tool built into Office applications which will give you tips to make sure your document or email is suitable for users with accessible needs, such as having the contents read out by the machine, or making sure there’s adequate contrast in text colours, for improved reading ease.

The Check Accessibility option on the Review tab in Office apps like Word and Outlook, should be run just as you’d check the spelling of a document when you think it’s finished. The tool will give you a series of recommendations with guidance as to why it may be better to change aspects of the document. Not every one will be viable – you may want to have images in a particular place on the page, for example, rather than just in-line with text – but many are quick to correct.

clip_image008If you’ve inserted graphics or charts, for example, then it’s worth adding “Alt Text” to describe what it is, so screen-reading software can read your description of what it is. Right-click on your image to add the text, or have the PC generate a description for you – sometimes with amusing results…

clip_image010Thanks to Jon Morris for providing feedback on ToW #554, about email signatures – Jon rightly points out that many of us have tiny logos (Twitter, LinkedIn etc) or other icons in our email .sig, but don’t have Alt Text on them.

One call to action would be update your own sig to add Alt Text, or to mark the images as decorative so screen reader software ignores them.

For more tips on how to write documents which are more accessible, see guidance from Microsoft or from the University of Washington. Some resources for developers or web page designers from the UK Gov, with plenty of links to other sources – Testing for accessibility – Service Manual – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).

554 – Outlook signatures shortcut

clip_image002Email signatures – or .sigs – were once an important means of self-expression. As email exploded in use and became established as a de facto means of business communication, its use as a social tool has diminished in favour of a myriad of social networking and real-time comms tools. So the .sig of today is less about showing a funny, clever or inspirational quote and more about legal disclaimers and providing your own contact info.

Still, having your LinkedIn photo (and a link to your profile) along with salient information makes a lot of sense, especially when emailing someone for the first time. You can edit your signature in Outlook directly, by going to File | Options | Mail | Signatures, though you may find it better to do the creative stuff in Word, then copy/paste the results into the Outlook dialog.

If you feel like freshening up the signature you use, there’s a nice template document with 20 sample signature designs to give you inspiration, here, and some instructions on how to make best use of it, here.

The signature that you create is stored by Outlook as a collection of files in a folder on your PC – if you want to look and see, press the Windows key to bring up the Start menu, paste %appdata%\microsoft\Signatures and hit enter. There was a previous Tip (ToW #267) on how to set up synchronisation between multiple PCs using OneDrive, if that kind of thing is of interest.

clip_image004By default, when you respond to an email in Outlook, it shows the reply in the main Outlook window, in the preview pane location – a feature that you can disable if you prefer to open in a new window. Go to File | Options | Mail and scroll down to find Replies and forwards.

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When sending mail in a new window, you get the full ribbon menu of options, which includes the ability to insert your signature in the message – handy if you have it set to not include by default (eg in replies, where you might not normally want a full signature).

clip_image008If Outlook is configured to write replies in the main window, you don’t get the Insert menu, so you’d either need to Pop Out the message into its own window, or you could start typing sig in the Search box at the very top of the window.

The search box will show you a bunch of content from search results as well as relevant actions from the many menu options in Outlook – it can jump to pretty much every feature, if you can’t remember where to find it clip_image010otherwise.

The Signature action is the same as the menu option which lets you choose from one of a number of possible signature blocks to insert – in this example, there is only one, called .sig.

clip_image012Finally, if you regularly need to insert your signature, you could add it to the Quick Access Toolbar in the main Outlook window. Just click the downward arrow at the right side of the QAT (in the top left of the window bar) to Customize it, and select More Commands to find the right one. Change the drop-down box to All Commands then scroll down to find Signature then click the add button to put it on your QAT.

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Now, when you’re replying to an email in the main Outlook window, the insertion of your signature block is only a couple of clicks away.