Tip o’ the Week #229 – Cortana, let’s rock!

(Another slightly out-of sequence tip as this could be more timely now than in a few weeks)

clip_image001One of the most written-about and eagerly-awaited features in the soon-to-appear Windows Phone 8.1, is Cortana – the “digital assistant”, named after the character in the Halo games.

If you’re desperate to get hold of the developer preview of WP8.1 – bearing in mind it is still a preview, and there’s no going back once you’ve installed it – then there’s still time. The preview did receive an update which made the battery life a bit better, so if that’s the reason you’ve been holding off, then maybe it’s time to dive in. Paul Thurrot detailed how to install 8.1 preview here, and if you are not US based and want to enable Cortana, then you’ll need to fool your phone into pretending to be Septic.

The general feedback on the 8.1 preview has been very positive, though in some quarters, it’s a step back from the Hubs strategy that Windows Phone pioneered, in favour of more monolithic apps – it seems that’s more in line with what users expect. Also, there are some features which draw a parallel with Android – like the notifications that show when you swipe down from the top of the screen.

It’s a fun exercise to play around with the voice input on Cortana – ask her how old she is, where she comes from, who’s her daddy, what she’s wearing (warning: best not do these in public in case you get deservedly funny looks) and you’ll get some amusing answers. Ask her what she thinks of Steve Ballmer, whether she likes Google, or if she’s better than Siri… How we laughed! Still, there are a whole load of useful things you can ask Cortana – a non-exhaustive list appears here. clip_image002

There’s some nice reminder type functionality in there – like “next time Alistair calls, remind me to ask him about what the agenda is for sync week”. Sure enough, next time that person rings you, there will be a small text splash on the incoming call notification, reminding you of whatever it was. clip_image004

There are some less visible but even more awesome Cortana features behind the scenes, though – and some of them you’ll only discover by accident and by using the phone. Here’s just one example – Cortana, your pocket PA, can keep an eye on your calendar and prompt you when appropriate. Here’s an email, for example, where the phone has spotted various terms that correspond to dates and times, and has automatically hotlinked them… tapping on one of these links will offer to set an appointment, in context – so the “how about 4pm” link already knows that the day in question is the next Friday. Very smart indeed.clip_image006

Cortana will also make sure that you’ve got time to drive to your next appointment, if she can recognise an address in your calendar, and can even learn your routine too (e.g. if you visit the same place regularly during the working day, then the settings page will ask you “Is this your work place?”, and if you tend to return to the same place in the evening, she’ll ask if that’s your home).

clip_image007All of this could be seen as a bit creepy but remember that you can always switch any of it off, and that Cortana is using technology pioneered by the Bing search engine to build a model of your world, so she can help you without you always needing to ask, and she’ll never tell you that it looks like you’re writing a letter. Ask her “Do you like Clippy?” if you’re in any doubt.

Sadly, the subject line of this ToW doesn’t quite work – “Cortana, let’s rock!” merely results in a Bing search for the term. However, “Cortana, play some rock!” gets the response “Queuing up your Rock Music”. If you have any jazz music on the phone, that would be lined up instead. Nice.

Tip o’ the Week #221 – Stay safe on WiFi


Following last week’s misty-eyed retrospective on WiFi and Bluetooth, it’s worth pausing a little to pass on a few safety tips too. If you’ve a WiFi network at home which does not have encryption enabled (using a decently strong password – known as a Pre-Shared-Key or PSK – and a modern encryption method, such as WPA2) then you must hang your head in shame immediately, that is, immediately after you go and put a strong password on your WiFi.

What should you call your home WiFi network? Well, if it’s “NETGEAR” or similar, then make sure you call it something else (in case a well-known exploit is found in every NETGEAR router, in which case you’ve just told every kerbside hacker how to break into your network). Also, it’s worth making sure you change the admin password for your router – it’s a piece of cake to find out the default password for well-known routers, such as NETGEAR ones.

How to name your SSID might depend on where you live, if you have any neighbours, if you trust them and so on.

clip_image004Serial ToW contributor Paul “Woody” Woodman has the mischievous idea of setting his SSID to be something eye-opening – in fact, the WiFi network set up by his phone’s Internet Sharing (as covered in last week’s ToW) has an interesting name…

So, Woody’s on the train, using his phone to connect to the internet, and all the other WiFi users in the same carriage are on their best behaviour…

The Huffington Post wrote about this phenomenon a few years back.

To get a more reliable connection, it’s worth setting your WiFi channel to be something that interleaves well with your neighbours, so you’re not both trying to blast out on Channel 6 – as a guide, check here. Try using a bit of software called inSSIDer to sniff your neighbourhood, see what their networks are called and what channel they’re on, then set yours to something complementary, if you can.

Stay Safe Online

Yvonne Puley made a suggestion about checking what WiFi networks you connect to, after reading a report on the BBC website and seeing an article on the BBC’s Click programme. The gist of the piece is that public WiFi networks – a hotspot set up by your local coffee shop, or even well-known WiFi networks provided by telco’s and the like – are not necessarily all they seem. A simple scam could be for a ne’er-do-well to set up a spoof WiFi network on their own laptop, and the unsuspecting browsers could connect to it and all their online movements could be recorded and tracked. Other hackers could stage a “man in the middle” attack using software that intercepts traffic on legitimate networks and can even decrypt supposedly secured SSL traffic.

In short, there’s no way for you to guarantee that what you do on any public WiFi network is safe from prying eyes. Europol (not to be confused with Interplod, as Arthur Daley might have ventured) says, basically, don’t use public WiFi networks for anything private, like online banking. If you want to scare yourself silly, then watch this Click clip.

clip_image006Anything that goes over VPN or DirectAccess should be OK, as the encryption mechanisms used are less susceptible to having a breaker on the side. Even when connected back to base using a more secure connection, though, ordinary web surfing and background updating of apps will typically go out via the public WiFi network. It’s worth also making sure you don’t give too much away – like when you first connect to the network, unless you control it, then you don’t want to “find PCs, devices and content” etc.

For more info on this setting, see here. Looking in the PC’s settings at the connection properties (as described in that article) also lets you see what kind of encryption you have running on the network. If you’re connecting to a WEP network (the traditional method for putting a password on a wireless connection), then think twice about trusting it – Wired Equivalent Privacy is anything but, and can be relatively easily cracked.

Tip o’ the Week #220 – Wireless networking, 15 years on


It’s amazing how quickly technology goes from an expensive frippery to a cost-insignificant near-essential. It’s not so many years ago that WiFi and Bluetooth first arrived (remember the Ericsson T29 or T68, the latter of which not only had a COLOUR screen but came with Bluetooth support – all you’d need is a £100 “Socket” Compact Flash card†, and your iPAQ could be GPRS enabled).

Bluetooth went from a travelling salesman’s “look at me” blinking earpiece, to wirelessly enabling things that don’t really need to be wirelessly enabled (and the seller’s earpiece is now pretty-much the territory only of airport taxi drivers). WiFi was developing in parallel.

clip_image003Here’s a photo from 13 years ago, where the serving UK Prime Minister was entertained by a demo in the Microsoft TVP atrium, of a mobile app (equipped with smoke & mirrors) which used a WiFi network – but it pre-dated the Microsoft rollout of WiFi, necessitating about £500 worth of kit just to allow the hand-held device to talk to the network.

Nowadays, we’d rock up at an airport and be disappointed not only if there wasn’t WiFi, but there wasn’t some kind of freely available service. Buses have free WiFi. Often you can price-check online as you’re walking around the department store. We expect WiFi to connect our phones without racking up 4G charges. Time marches on.

It was 1999 (with the adoption of the 802.11b standard) before wireless networks (becoming known as WiFi or Wi-Fi depending on your degree of pedantry) started reliably working with kit between different vendors. This opened the door to successful adoption and eventual embedding in all sorts of devices. Bluetooth also developed apace, and has now carved out a niche (especially with Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE) for data comms over relatively short-range and comparatively low-power (against WiFi’s longer range, with higher power drain).

clip_image005Although both standards offered options for peer-peer communications and operating in an “infrastructure” mode where there was an established network to connect to, Bluetooth only ever took off as a means of linking devices directly, and the vast majority of WiFi is deployed as a network of base stations.

Windows Phone 8 GDR3 and Windows 8.1

One neat function that was included in the latest major update to Windows Phone 8 (released under the “Lumia Black” moniker for Nokia handsets), turns your phone into a WiFi hotspot that can be remotely controlled by Windows 8.1. If you go into settings -> internet sharing on the phone, and set up internet sharing for the first time, it’ll give you a broadcast name and a numeric password.

You can now connect from some other device to the phone over WiFi, and use its data connection to get on the internet. Once you’ve set the connection up for the first time, with your laptop or tablet is running Windows 8.1, you can establish the connection any time without even needing to get your phone of the pocket – just swipe from the right, look under the network settings and tap to connect.


† Whilst on the topic of old networking kit, here are some old Bluetooth bits that I found in my Man Drawer. The PCMCIA wireless cards have all gone the way of the Dodo – these ones evaded the net on the basis of their size and the amount of money they costs to procure in the first place.

How can you throw something away that cost hundreds of pounds in its day and is now worthless for any reason other than as a curio?

Might as well keep them and maybe someday they’ll be worth something as a museum piece…

Tip o’ the Week #219 – OneNote takes flight

clip_image001In case you missed it, OneNote had some interesting news a few months ago. The application has a great following amongst fans who crave being organised (at least some GTD aficionados too), more so than maybe any other application (even Outlook). If you’re a user of OneNote, make sure you check out the brilliant & free OneCalendar and OneTastic add-ins.

OneNote is now free, on all platforms. That’s right – free download on Windows (desktop and “Modern”), Windows Phone, iPhone, iPad, Android, Web and even now, Mac. It is worth noting that the free Windows version isn’t quite as functional as the regular full flavour OneNote, and it’s for home/school use only.

A change to the way add-ins are surfaced online also coincides with the release, with extension apps providing additional functionality like the ability to snap a web page with a single click and add it into OneNote. There are a bunch of Featured Apps listed, including others like mod, a company selling Moleskin-style paper notebooks that include a service of scanning them in when you’re finished, and uploading them to OneNote for you.

clip_image003Clippy is back

To set up the Clip to OneNote feature, see this page. Essentially, it adds a snippet of script to your Favourites bar, one click of which will snap the current web page to the “Quick Notes” section of OneNote. If you don’t use the Favourites Bar (or you’d like to use the feature in Modern UI IE), then add it to any regular Favourites folder, and you may have to use 2 clicks…

clip_image005The snip just drops an image of the web page into OneNote, however once you have the page, then OneNote can extract text from the image and can be indexed to make it searchable too. It’s a quick and easy way of grabbing whole web pages; perfect for when doing online research, price comparisons and others when copy & paste is a little hit & miss.

Tip o’ the Week #218 – Have you got the touch?


Using “touch” in computing has evolved so much in just the last five years. First phones then tablets evolved a new UI around using your fingers rather than a pointer & mouse, and with Windows 8, touch really got mainstream on regular PCs too. How many times do you prod the screen of a laptop then realise it’s not touch-capable?

Well, more advanced means of using touch have sprung up in ways other than just the screen. Most laptops nowadays have ditched the “Pointing Stick(careful if you go searching online for the other terms one might use) and have adopted a touchpad of some sort. Originally, this was just an annoying way of moving your mouse around with repeated swipes, but as people are more used to them, and they’ve got more effective, it’s generally the preferred way of pointer movement on a laptop.

Unless you have a real external mouse, of course, which is always better.

clip_image004Microsoft’s been working with partners for a while now on a new generation of touchpad, called a “Precision Touchpad”. The idea with the Precision TP is that it replicates the gestures you might use on-screen – see more information here. Check if your machine has a PTP by looking under the Mouse and touchpad section in PC Settings. (sorry about that last link).

If you prefer using one of the growing band of touch-enabled meeces then you should make sure you have the Microsoft Mouse and Keyboard Center installed on your PC. If you’re equipped with an appropriate rodent, you can do all sorts of one, two and even three-fingered gestures and your machine will respond without fuss or complaint. Well, it will once you’ve practiced a bit…

The excellent Wedge Touch Mouse (essential equipment for anyone with a laptop not bristling with USB ports – ie most of them – since it doesn’t need a USB dongle to work, given that it uses Bluetooth) sadly doesn’t support the full gamut of multi-digit expressions, however it does allow you to scroll horizontally and vertically – useful for navigating the Windows 8.1 start screen or simply moving around in long documents.