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.

clip_image006

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

608 – Shopping Season

After clip_image002Americans celebrated “Turkey Day” yesterday, the phenomenon of Black Friday is now well underway. Originally coined for bricks & mortar retailers to kick off the shopping spree in the run-up to Christmas, it’s now exported around the world and applied across all retail channels with consumer electronics being routinely discounted for a few days (stretching through the weekend to what grew to be called “Cyber Monday”).

Around a year ago, the Edge browser debuted the Shopping feature which showcased vouchers from various sites you might visit – similar to the Honey add-in which offers coupons and vouchers proactively when you visit e-commerce sites.

clip_image004There have been some recent updates to Shopping, including a price tracking feature which tells you if a specific item has been reduced in price recently – as with all these things, YMMV depending on the retailer and your own location, but it’s certainly worth a look – find out more, and see which retailers are supporting the Shopping feature with coupons and price alerts.

There are other improvements on the way – including a rare UK-first rollout, of a Bing Shopping collaboration with Good On You to highlight ethically sourced fashion. Have fun on your shopping spree!

607 – How’s you call health?

clip_image002When the pandemic first hit, many people realised that fast, reliable home broadband was an essential utility rather than a nice-to-have. With potentially more people in the house sharing the connection all day, streaming video and doing online meetings, contention in the domestic environment became something of an issue, where one user can hog the available bandwidth to the detriment of others.

The same issue occurs en masse at the broadband provider’s network, where their resources are shared between users on the assumption that they won’t see all of them demanding full speed at the same time: a contention ratio of 50:1 is pretty common, meaning if your neighbours are hammering their connection then it may affect you (assuming you’re on the same provider).

clip_image004By now, we should all be used to the challenge of making your home network better – plugging into a wired network port to avoid poor WiFi signal, making sure other devices don’t do massive downloads during the working day. Check the speed of your network using one of the many tools available – like this one from Microsoft Research; if you search on Bing.com for just speed test then you’ll get a simple speedometer view.

If you’re using Teams or other realtime conferencing tools, it’s arguably more important to look at the latency (or “ping”) and the upload speed, than focussing on the headline download speed; if you have a device uploading lots of data, it might rob your bandwidth and ramp up the latency, which will be the enemy of any kind of synchronous comms. Check your latency over time with an online tool (like TestMy Latency) or download WinMTR to look for spikes in latency.

It’s worth making sure your PC isn’t causing issues itself, by running out of memory or pegging out the CPU and therefore giving a poor experience: the topic of looking for poor home network perf has been covered previously in ToW #533 amongst others.

clip_image006clip_image008Microsoft Teams has added some built-in monitoring and data collection capabilities, reported back to a central admin dashboard (Set up Call Quality Dashboard (CQD), and now semi-realtime data is visible in the Teams client itself. 

clip_image010When in a call, go to the menu and look for Call health. Click on the various “view more… data >” buttons to see further detail, like the size and rate of the video you’re sending to the call you’re currently on. If your colleagues tell you that the quality of your video is poor, take a look in there to see what you’re actually sending.

As an end user, see here to understand how to interpret the various data. Hover over the little info icons to the side of each headline to see a bubble explaining in one-line what this is measuring. It’s quite interesting.

For admin guidance on what bandwidth and latency requirements you should have to perform acceptably, see here.

606 – Cloudy Horizons

clip_image002As the Holiday Season starts to loom (though some retailers’ tasteful décor has been in the aisles since late August), technology fans’ thoughts turn to Black Friday and the inevitable gift flinging that follows. The Global Pandemic™ and its spin-off, The Supply Chain Nightmare®, has dealt a shortage of what uninformed pundits refer to as “computer chips” amongst many other issues.

This means that even if big ships weren’t in the wrong place and there was anyone left to drive the containerloads of toot they ordinarily carry, the actual goods themselves might be in shorter supply than expected. All sorts of consumer electronics from gadgets to motor cars have been affected by shortfall in capacity at silicon fabs.

If you haven’t got your planned-for Xbox Series X console yet, then good luck in finding any in stock – there are numerous twitter accounts and stock scraping websites out there which might help, assuming you don’t want to get scalped on eBay. Maybe you’ll need to stick with what you have already and just wait until 2022 to get the top spec console, or settle for a Series S in the meantime.

Good news for all Xbox console gamers, though – the latest release in the mammoth Forza series has arrived.

Originally a racing simulation franchise to rival the PlayStation’s Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport appealed to driving sim types, but Forza Horizon – a more arcade-style driving game which has you hooning around an open world in all kinds of exotic cars – has reached a far wider audience. Set in Mexico (or a fictionalized variant thereof), FH5 has hit the ground running with over 1 million gamers already.

Forza Horizon 5 is available for PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series S / X. Already available on Xbox Game Pass, it can be downloaded free with the right subscription, though it might take a while to complete the installation…

clip_image004

If you can’t wait to play it (or you just fancy a quick try without spending all day installing it), why not run it from the cloud instead?

clip_image006The smoothness of the graphics probably won’t be quite as good as having it locally, but with Game Pass Ultimate you can try the streaming experience which has been in beta for a while now. Cloud Gaming is available on Apple, Android and Windows devices.

Simply plug in an Xbox controller via USB or connect via Bluetooth, and your device will be the front end to the game which is actually running in an Azure datacenter, on one of many Xbox Series X blades.

Even modest spec PCs like the original Surface Go can cut a credible job for a little Friday night entertainment.

605 – Snooze la differénce

clip_image002Microsoft has always been good at having several ways of doing the same thing. Internal competition was encouraged with the idea that if several teams built solutions for the same problem, it would spur them all on and the best would win out. The Best Laid Plans don’t always work, and sometimes politics and machination gets in the way.

One modern incarnation of the multiple-ways principle is electronic mail; despite many attempts to replace email with other means of messaging, persistent chat etc, it’s still a huge deal (especially in business) and it’s still growing.

In the days when companies ran their own IT on-premises, there was Exchange, and the companion mail client Outlook arrived shortly after. Web-based consumer services like Hotmail, Yahoo! and Gmail changed the expectations of many users. Home and work email services have been getting closer in form and function since.

Microsoft’s current email clients are quite diverged: you can use the full-fat Outlook application to connect to your business email as well as your private Hotmail MSN Live Outlook.com / Gmail etc account. Then there’s the Windows Mail app, which is linked to the Outlook mobile apps so much so, that you can launch the Mail app by pressing WindowsKey+R then entering outlookmail: to start it (see more here). clip_image004

The Mail app is pretty good – it can connect to a variety of sources including Office 365, so while it might not be an ideal primary business email application, it can be a good way of connecting to multiple personal email services.

clip_image006One feature which appeared in different ways across multiple services and apps is the idea of Snoozing your email; initially pioneered by Gmail,  others followed suit. It’s a different concept to flags and reminders, rather if you select an email and say snooze until 10am tomorrow, it will literally disappear from your inbox and it would reappear at the top of the pile the following morning.

Well, that’s how it works on some combinations. In the browser versions of both Hotmail / Outlook.com and clip_image008Exchange/Office365, it works as you’d expect – you Snooze an  email and it is actually moved clip_image010into the Scheduled email folder (and you’ll see when it is later due to reappear in Inbox if you look in there). At the elected time, it shows up again on at the top of the mailbox. Let’s compare to some other Microsoft clients & services…

Outlook client and Office 365 – there is no snooze feature. Sorry. Just be more organised. If you snooze an email from another client, it will disappear from Inbox, but when it reappears, it’ll be in the same place as it was before – eg. if you Snooze a 9am email from the web app until 1pm, it will move into the Scheduled folder – but when it moves back into the Inbox, the Outlook and Windows Mail clients will show it down at 9am again so you might as well flag it and be done.

clip_image012Windows Mail client with Outlook.com or Office 365 Zip. Too bad.

Mobile Outlook and Web clients on Outlook.com or Office 365– Mail disappears and shows up again at the allotted time, right at the top of the mailbox. In the web clients, you’ll see the time stamp of the message as if it has literally just arrived; in the mobile version, though the message is ordered correctly (eg a 9am snooze to reappear at 1pm will show up between 12:30 and 1:15 mails), the displayed time is correct but a little clock icon is shown alongside. Clever.

At some point, there is a plan to deliver a single, unified, email client. An Ignite 2020 session talked about the roadmap and further commentary speculated that the One Outlook client may be coming, but isn’t going to be with us for some time yet.

clip_image014In the meantime, maybe now’s the time to try the switch full time to Outlook Web App? You can even install it like a regular app, pin it to Start and so on.

604 – Empire and Pass

clip_image002The 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.

clip_image003

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 clip_image005campaigns 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!

603 – Sysinternals @ 25

clip_image002A 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.

clip_image004Co-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.

clip_image006After 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.

600 – Welcome to Windows 11

Just in time for the holiday season and for the ranges of updated PC kit that’s coming, clip_image002Windows 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.

clip_image004For 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 clip_image006current 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.

clip_image008There 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.

588 – Inside(r) Windows 11

clip_image002If you were hiding under a rock, you may have missed the unveiling of the next release of Windows. Early adopters on the Windows Insiders program (which can be joined in from the Windows Update settings page on Win10) can already upgrade to Windows 11; currently that means being in the Dev channel (the most aggressive in terms of pushing our updates), so if you’re willing to run the risk of suffering a bit of discomfort, then you can get access to the preview bits now – or maybe wait until a bit later in the year and a more complete and stable build will make it to the Beta channel. If you have a Thurrott.com account, see what Paul thinks about whether you should try it out or not.

clip_image004Windows 11 promises not only a design refresh, but an under-the-covers shift from a security and reliability perspective, which means the compatibility list is pretty restrictive – it’s being targeted at newest hardware that supports updated security and performance management features. While many fairly recent machines will pass the test, DIY home PCs and older laptops are not likely to cut the mustard. The Windows 11 update and support cadence has been unveiled recently too. Maybe the ideal solution will be to buy a new PC when Windows 11 arrives…

Microsoft people who set up their Insider enrolment as being associated with a @microsoft.com email address will see additional options around which Branch or Ring to use – if that’s you, then unless you’re technically self-sufficient and very comfortable with the level of pain you may feel, be careful. External users get to join Dev / Beta / Release preview Channel.

clip_image006

Improved and updated functionality includes not just the fancy new Taskbar and Start menu – there are lots of areas where deeper integration with app functions and the OS itself will help to make it a slicker experience overall.

The virtual desktop experience has been improved somewhat – you can set up multiple desktop environments, then easily switch and drag/drop apps between them, but there are improvements over the same feature in Windows 10 – you can set different backdrops/themes for each and they persist between machine reboots.

Press WindowsKey+TAB to see the desktops and manage the apps – that’s the same key that used to control the Win 10 Timeline feature which has now been removed.

clip_image008When it comes to moving windows around, there’s a greatly enhanced Snap experience, so you can arrange windows by either dragging them to the appropriate corner of the screen or by pressing WindowsKey+Z to bring up a dialog that will snap your current window to the selected location. Newly added is a 3-line view if you have a portrait-aspect display.

Some features that have been disclosed – like running Android Apps on Windows – will be delivered in later previews, and doubtless some that are present now will change before final release. There’s already been an update which adds more tweaks and fixes some bugs.

A “Windows Health Check” app was released briefly which would report if your PC was suitable for Windows 11, but was short on information as to why a particular PC might not be upgradeable, so the team has pulled the app for now and instead points to the info on Windows 11 Specifications. At least while it’s in Dev channel, it is possible to get Win11 on machines which don’t meet the bar, though there is a warning that your experience may not be all there and some things won’t work. YMMV.

585 – Heading to Viva

clip_image002Back in the mid/late 20th century, the mainstream car market in developed countries was quite localized, where certain brands were seen as the default. Italians drove Fiats and Lancias; even until fairly recently, pretty much all you’d see in French towns were Citroëns and Renaults. The biggest blue-collar rivalry for Brits, Aussies and many Americans was undoubtedly… are you a Ford family, or a GM family?

In the UK’s 1970s, Ford had the Fiesta (small), Escort (mid), Cortina (large), Capri (sporty) and Granada (executive). GM operated in mainland Europe as Opel (Kadett/Rekord/Monza/Senator etc) and in the UK, as Vauxhall (Chevette/Cavalier/Carlton etc). Brits of a certain age may fondly? remember the Escort-sized, everyman family car: the Vauxhall Viva. The announcement of the employee wellbeing platform, Microsoft Viva thus brought a misty-eyed moment of reflection for some…

clip_image004Since the unveiling in February 2021, Viva functionality has been gradually added to a variety of Office 365 experiences from Topics (based on what was called Project Cortex), Learning (highlighting online learning materials from a selection of company-curated sources, including stuff from LinkedIn Learning), Connections (a modern take on the company intranet) and the first module which was available, Insights, which is accessed via an app in Teams.

The Insights-defined “Virtual Commute” and calendar-blocking Focus Time has been mentioned previously in ToW #577, but it’s had a new shot in the arm as well as announcements about forthcoming improvements, such as the ability for Teams to quieten notifications when you’re in a focus period, and quiet time when Teams and Outlook will shush pinging you outside of working hours.

Now rolling out to Viva Insights is a set of mindfulness and meditation exercises curated from Headspace, who produce a load of online video as well as Netflix series and in-flight channels. See more about Headspace in Viva Insights, here.

clip_image005