The Xbox console is nearly 20 years old. Launched at Toys R Us (remember them?) in NYC in mid-November 2001, the first generation console (originally referred to as the “DirectX Box” after the PC graphics technology) later made its way to Japan and Europe in early 2002.
The companion Xbox Live gaming service arrived in 2002, and set the high-bar for online and multi-player gaming services alongside the original console and its online and multi-player-enabled games. The Xbox Live Gold service was threatened with a price increase earlier this year, though that was quickly walked back; commentary at the time was that Microsoft was trying to make XBL Gold less attractive in order to push people to using the newer and more comprehensive (also, more expensive) Xbox Game Pass offering.
Game Pass Ultimate is a superset of Xbox Live Gold – and includes access to lots of games as part of the subscription, akin to getting movies through a Netflix subscription rather than buying or renting individual titles. In January 2021, Microsoft said there were 18 million Game Pass subscribers, with the number likely to be a good bit higher now. Different Game Pass levels are aimed at PC games fans or Xbox games, or both – starting at £1 for a month’s trial, up to £10.99 a month for the full kahuna, which includes XBL Gold and both PC & console games.
This week sees the launch of the latest edition of one of the biggest PC games from the 1990s; Age of Empires. Originally released in 1997, the civilization-building strategy game was hugely popular and kept growing through community-provided expansion packs and “mods”, despite sporadic attention from Microsoft directly. If you played the original, you’ll probably remember the Priest who could turn an enemy into a friend, or recall losing hours being absorbed in the minutiae of building farms, training soldiers and waging war on your neighbours.
Well, the franchise is being rebooted, in a clear signal that the PC is still considered a major gaming platform. Leading the 20-year celebration of Xbox with a flurry of both PC and console game launches, is Age of Empires IV.
The new release has a variety of campaigns from the Roman Empire to Moscow, Mongolia and Genghis Khan to Joan of Arc. If you’ve already got a Game Pass, and If you fancy whiling away some of the weekend stuck in the past, you’d be well advised to start the installation soon – it can take a very long time to download and install. Wololo!
Month: October 2021
603 – Sysinternals @ 25
A long time ago in a different era, a young engineer and his friend founded a company called Winternals, which cooked up some tools to look inside the way Windows operated. The utilities were used to understand the way things really worked and went on to provide technologists a variety of ways to troubleshoot issues and optimize performance.
Early and popular tools, which went on to be published on the sysinternals.com website, included RegMon – which monitors what was happening in the Windows Registry – and FileMon, which kept an eye on the file system. Both of these tools could help a user figure out what an application is doing, maybe to check it’s not misbehaving, or seeking undocumented settings where the app might be looking to see if a particular file or registry key existed. Sysinternals made the tools free, and since Winternals was acquired by Microsoft in 2006, they still are.
Co-founder Mark Russinovich wrote lots of other fun and useful stuff. For giggles, he built the first BSOD screensaver and a means to remotely deploy it on someone else’s PC, making them think it had crashed, probably causing them to turn it off and on again. Or the ZoomIt tool that he used to great effect in his keynote speeches which were always a highlight at events like TechEd or Ignite. Watching thousands of geeks queueing for an hour to make sure they can get a seat near the front almost invites Jobs-ian comparisons. For what can be relatively dry content, Mark has a great way of talking about how the technology really works and manages to be quite interesting: even if half of the concepts fly straight over your head, the rest is generally worth listening to – like a Brian Cox lecture.
After joining Microsoft, Mark continued to build SysInternals tools and replaced RegMon and FileMon, with Process Monitor aka ProcMon. Another big utility, Process Explorer, is a kind of shibboleth amongst Windows techies… if you’re still using TaskMan to look under the hood, then you’re just not hard enough.
Despite moving to becoming the CTO for Azure and being a member of the most Technical Fellows, he still has a hand in with Sysinternals, culminating recently in a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the first set of utilities. The day-long virtual conference gave deep dive sessions into a few of the most popular tools, along with an interesting fireside chat with Mark and an overview of Sysinternals tools for Linux. See the recording here.
Oh, and one more thing. The Sysinternals Suite is now available in the Windows Store – so you can grab the latest versions of all the core tools (70 of them… yes, that’s right, 70, and for how much?) with just a few clicks.
602 – re-drawing Whiteboard
One thing we all miss about having physical team meetings, is the delight of trying to read an enthusiastic participant’s attempt at getting their thought process across by scribbling on a whiteboard. Often with pens that have too little ink left to be legible. Charts with arrows always point up and left and bullet-point, capitalized text that may just be readable, but can anyone remember what it meant by the end of the meeting? At least you can take a picture to decipher later.
Fortunately, there are digital equivalences – you could be in a Teams meeting and co-authoring a document, where multiple people are editing at the same time and marking up comments. You could be watching someone share their 4K screen so they can walk through only a few dozen PowerPoint slides, or you might even have had a play with the shared Whiteboard app that’s been around and been part of Teams for a while now.
Well, the Whiteboard has had some pretty major updates recently.
The whole UI has been given an overhaul in line with the latest colourful design ethos, and there are lots of neat new features like the automatic shape recognition for mouse-driven drawing. Hold the Shift key down while you’re drawing with a mouse pointer or a Surface pen, and it’ll straighten lines for you.
It’s available in a variety of guises; there’s a web UI (app.whiteboard.microsoft.com) and it shows up in the menu on the top left of Office 365 web applications, such as subscribers would find by going to office.com and signing in with your ID. It’s on iOS and Android, though updates may flow through at different rates to other platforms.
Of course, it’s as a Microsoft Store app too; if you’re already a Windows 11 user, you may want to check out the new Store and look for the Library icon on the lower left, showing you what you’ve installed previously and also which apps have been most recently updated (and am Update button to kick off that process). Sadly, looking at an app’s page in the Store (still) doesn’t tell you what the current version is or when it was last updated.
To start Whiteboard in a Teams meeting, just go to the Share menu and look for the Whiteboard option, just under the part where you’d share your whole screen or individual window.
You can pin whiteboards to Teams channels or chats too; just add a Tab, select Whiteboard from the app list, and the content will persist within that context rather than a point-in-time meeting.
601 – Time and Focus
Twice a year, it seems, there’s a ToW article (passim) about the shocking time zone change that is about to hit us. Or may have already – some parts of Australia (NSW) have just moved into summer time while neighbouring areas (QLD) stayed on year-round time. Much of Europe is about to head back into winter time on the last day of October. One week later, most of the US will return to standard time, meaning that the US and Europe will be one hour closer for those 7 days. Arizona will revert to having a single time zone for the whole state.
Many Windows 10 users may have escaped knowing about the app known as Alarms & Clock, and the groovy World Clock which shows a map with pinned locations of your choice, detailing the current time in each.
The cartographically obsessed may note that when compressed into a small window, the exact locations of some pins might look awry, but expand it properly and they’ll move around as you would expect. In the example above, London looks to be in Bordeaux, Budapest has swapped with Bangui while NYC has inexplicably relocated to eastern Peru.
Especially useful when figuring out relativity of time zones and future dates, is the Compare feature which lets you see what the time will be at a chosen point for each of your pinned cities, on a particular date. Take for example, Monday 1st November, when in the space of one month, Sydney has moved two hours further away from London, yet the Atlantic is temporarily one hour shorter.
Well, the Clock app, as it’s now known – even though it doesn’t actually feature a clock per se, but let’s not split hairs – has been given a UI polish as part of Windows 11, and one additional new feature pane – Focus Sessions. It was shared with Windows Insiders a couple of months back, but is now mainstream for Windows 11 users.
Long-time ToW readers may recall an internal-to-Microsoft app called FocusTime, which let the user run a timer to focus on a given task, while putting Outlook into Offline mode so you didn’t get any new emails, and setting Office Communicator/Lync status to Do Not Disturb so you didn’t get annoying IMs. Well, Focus Sessions in Clock is doing a similar job though without (yet, at least) the integration to Outlook and Teams.
As well as tracking the number of Focus Sessions you have, the app can also let you create and pin tasks with Microsoft To-Do to achieve at a later focus time. One slight grind at the moment is that the app only allows you to sign in with a Microsoft Account, not your
The Focus Sessions feature is newly released and the team behind it is looking into how to integrate with other tools and services, such as the Focus Assist feature in Windows (which quietens notifications, formerly known as Quiet Hours). If you’d like to see improvements or new features in the Focus Sessions section of the Clock App, make sure you go to the Feedback Hub and either upvote existing suggestions or add your own (instructions here). For some more tips on using Focus Sessions, see here.
600 – Welcome to Windows 11
Just in time for the holiday season and for the ranges of updated PC kit that’s coming, Windows 11 is nearly here – ETA October 5th 2021.
In December 2009, when ToW was only #1 (it took a year before the internal-to-Microsoft emails were published to the web, and years after that before www.tipoweek.com arrived), Windows 7 was only 6 months old, having replaced the Windows Vista predecessor which everybody loved so much (for some great insights into what happened during the dev cycle of Vista, see here and here).
Windows 7 was the bomb, then Windows 8 came along and failed to set the world on fire to quite the expected extent. Windows 8.1 fixed a lot of the complaints and generally speaking, all was good. Windows 10 came out 6 years after Windows 7 and for some was its true natural successor, and since mid-2015 it’s been very widely deployed, even if the mobile ambitions were less than realised.
For a while it was thought there would be no new releases of Windows, just incremental updates (Windows as a Service if you like), but we are now on the cusp of the next big milestone – Windows 11.
There’s a lot to like about the major update from Windows 10, such as its refreshed UI, easier window management (especially if you have multiple monitors), improved security and streamlined performance to take better advantage of modern hardware, like the new range of Surface products which will ship with Windows 11.
Existing users will get the upgrade free of charge after October 5th, either by kicking it off proactively or by waiting for Windows Update to offer it.
If you feel like a weekend project and want to upgrade a home PC to Windows 11, there are ways to grab it sooner than 5th October – join the Windows Insiders program if you’re not already in (it’s free – just go to Settings / Windows Update and you’ll see an Insiders option), and you can choose to receive the Beta preview, and download it from Windows Update.
If you’d like to manage the upgrade a bit more (or do a clean install), you can grab the Beta Channel ISO file and run the update from there. The current Beta version (stay away from Dev Channel unless you really know your onions) will be very near to the version that’s released (if not actually the same in everything but name), so going Beta now will get you on the ladder to receive the final bits very soon.
There are some downsides, though – creaking old PCs may not be compatible – find out if yours is, by running the Health Check app.
The specs required to run Windows 11 were somewhat controversial when announced – only modern processors are supported, even though an older but powerful PC with beefy CPUs and lots of memory would normally be considered fine.
Trusted Platform Module 2.0 is also a requirement, as part of the base security platform: generally speaking, A Good Thing and not an issue for modern laptops. Older desktops – especially home-built ones – are less likely to have a TPM chip on board, and if there is, it’s probably not enabled by default.
Some features are still waiting to be delivered; the unveiling in June showcased the new Microsoft Store, and that would include Android apps which could be used in emulation on the PC – that’s still “coming soon”, along with a number of in-the-box app updates (like Paint, Photos, Mail & Calendar and more) which will arrive “later”.
If you want to get your hackles up on everything that’s wrong, check out Windows Weekly. It’s a fair accusation that the primary driver for Windows 11 is to add some juice to the PC market by encouraging people to buy new machines rather than keep upgrading old ones; but if your existing computer will run Windows 11, it’s a great looking and functionally improved update.
599 – Time for a short survey?
There was a time when visiting a website gave you a 1/10 chance of being offered a user survey, asking why you’re visiting today and how you feel about the company. Presumably, response rates were low enough that such surveys are largely replaced with annoying cookies and tracker software so the company can see what you’re doing without needing to ask you why.
Surveys in email can be a lot more useful, though, when trying to garner feedback about a particular topic. Outlook has had Voting Buttons since it first appeared in Office 97. They provide a simple way of asking a single question and getting recipients of the email to respond so that the sender can see what the votes cast are. You can take the defaults or add your own custom options, separated by semicolons.
Recipients get prompted in Outlook and can vote with a single click, rather than having to type a response, and the sender can see a Tracking tab on the message in their Sent Items folder to get the results.
One downside of voting buttons, though, is that they only work in Outlook – there’s no Web App or mobile support, so it does restrict the usability somewhat. Great news, though – a more modern approach is available; not only does it work using the Outlook mobile apps and the browser but it’s a bit more in-your-face for most Outlook users too, with a simple and quick way of responding.
The Poll feature in Outlook appeared in March 2020 but may have been easy to miss, given all the other stuff that was happening then. It’s accessible from the Insert menu on a new message, or if you look at the bottom of the Use Voting Buttons drop-down menu, it’s been added there too.
Clicking on the icon gives you a single question with two or more options; it’s powered by Microsoft Forms, but there’s no fancy branching or data validation – it’s a straight “choose one of these short text responses” feature and all the better for it.
If using Outlook (desktop or mobile) or OWA, when a recipient in your organization receives an email with a Poll included, it’s shown right at the top and is super simple to reply to. If the recipient is using a mail client that doesn’t understand the Poll, there’s also a link to the web-based version too.
Since it’s delivered as part of a Microsoft 365 / Office 365 subscription, it’s a little less slick when dealing with users outside of the organization / tenant (the inline previews don’t show up, so outsiders will need to click the link and use the web UI, and will need to type their email address into the response too), so think of it as a friendly and visible way of collecting simple internal votes.
598 – Start me up
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.