#11: Widgets a Go-Go

There’s been a trend in computing and related technologies running back to the birth of the Graphical User Interface in the 1970s at XEROX, for representing real-life things with digital versions that follow their design.

Take your average Calculator app; its form has changed little from the desktop calculator on which it’s based, or any Calendar application used for organizing appointments which still follows the idea of a planner or physical monthly calendar.

This “skeuomorphic” approach has its pros and cons – it might be easier to pick up a new concept through association with the old way of doing it, but that might over-complicate things in the long run or just take up lots of space.

How many people born in the 21st century have ever used a Floppy Disk, or the non-floppy version that is still widely used as the “save” icon? There’s even a meme about that.


When Apple brought out the first Mac forty years ago, the new paradigm of the “gooey” (or WIMP) extended to having a virtual desktop with things on it that might be on or beside your real desk – the wastepaper basket, a clock, a notepad, calendar, inbox and so on. Apple thought of these ancillary programs as “ornaments”, but the Mac and other OSs adopted them as widgets that could run on the desktop behind other application windows.

Apple’s commitment to a widget ecosystem has waned and come back to a degree, as has Microsoft’s – remember Gadgets in Windows Vista?

After parading the Sidebar and its gadgets as a new dawn for Windows, the whole thing was killed off after security vulnerabilities rendered it risky.

Widgets in Windows

Windows 11 introduced “Widgets(press WindowsKey+W to get them, or wave your mouse on the lower left of the screen) and later bulked up the UI with the same stuff you get on Microsoft Start, the Edge home page feed and so on, which probably means few people will use Widgets unless they want to find out about that heater that energy companies don’t want you to find out about, or that one thing (do it) that all Android users should know.

Great news, readers! The ability to switch off the “News” section is coming; at the moment, it’s dribbling out to some users on the Windows Insider program but at some point will be more widely available – read all about it here.

If you get the option (you should see a settings icon at the top of the Widgets board, rather than having to click on your profile photo to get to Settings), you can go into the Show or hide feeds option and be able to switch off the Start feed.

As well as being able to control the entire “feed” of content and present the gadgets on a 2-wide grid instead of a single column to the side, this update lets you choose which account to use to sign in to the Widgety experience, thus allowing users to sign in with their M365 account and use the widgets to surface stull like To-Do lists of tasks, or Outlook Calendar, showing data from their work or school account rather than only the Microsoft Account that it was previously locked to.

At some point, it looks like the Widgets feeds will be supplemented by other sources besides the Microsoft Start one (via the Add more feeds from Microsoft Store link in the show/hide feeds settings), with enthusiastic content providers lining up to publish their high-quality materials for all to consume…

But not today.


578 – Let’s talk about fonts

clip_image002Most people don’t really think too much about which font they’re using in written works. The novelty of having different font designs, weights and sizes soon wears off, especially if you like to try all of them in the same document.

clip_image004Some strange choices do persist, though – Comic Sans on a warning sign at an electricity substation?

Yet, there is a lot of thought which goes into creating a font, especially when considering how it’s likely to be used. Typeface design goes back to the earliest days of printing, with fashions changing from heavy and elaborate block type to lighter and perhaps easier to read lettering. To serif or to sans?

The author Simon Garfield has written extensively on the subject of typography, including articles on What’s so wrong with Comic Sans? or The 8 Worst Fonts In The World and his really excellent book, Just My Type, which delves into the history behind lots of common typefaces and how or why they came about. It really is fascinating.

Even the design of the text used on road signs was a hot topic in the 1950s, with the UK facing a need to choose a standard for the upcoming motorway network, which could be easily read at speed. Designers Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert came up with many road signs and the typeface design still used today (theorising that at 70mph, a driver looking for Birmingham won’t actually read the letters, but will recognise the shape of the word). Trials were done by fixing words to the top of a Ford Anglia and driving it past a group of seated, bemused volunteers, to test the fonts’ efficacy.

A lot of technology we take for granted today has its roots in the 1970s at Xerox’s PARC research establishment or was materially advanced there – ethernet, bitmapped displays, laser printers, the mouse, the GUI, object orientation, distributed computing and so much more – and the two founders of Adobe, who went on to define PostScript, started their work together there. This font-rendering software – along with the Apple Macintosh & LaserWriter and the Desktop Publishing software PageMaker – laid the way to revolutionise the printing industry.

clip_image006Most fonts used until the 21st century had been designed to look good in print, but 14 years ago, Microsoft shipped a new font in Office 2007 and Windows Vista. Designed specifically to be easy to read on-screen, presuming that most documents and emails will be read on a display rather than printed out, that font was Calibri. It became the default font used in Office applications and has remained so since.

But that’s all about to end.


Cloud Fonts” are available to Microsoft 365 subscribers (more info here) – in Word, go to File / Account and look for the optional settings.

Five of the Cloud Fonts collection are being considered to be the new default font for Office apps in the future… which would you choose?



Tip o’ the Week #51 – Five Golden Rules for OCS & Lync


A tip this week concerning best practices for using Enterprise Voice in OCS or Lync for making and receiving voice calls…

Participating in OCS/Lync Calls:

  • Use a wired* connection when you are on OCS/Lync calls. (Performance over WIFI will not be as good)
  • Ensure you use an approved OCS/Lync headset (available from the service desk in TVP and CP).

Hosting a OCS/Lync Meeting:

There is also some best practice for hosting a OCS/Lync meeting – the 5 golden rules. In summary:

If you are hosting the meeting, always set-up 5-10 minutes in advance, to upload presentation(s) and to complete the following steps..

  1. Connect network cable to presenter PC first, then start the meeting
  2. Switch off wireless networking on presenter PC.
  3. Always run “Audio Video“ wizard to make sure that your speakers, micro and webcam work correctly after all audio/video devices are connected.
  4. Avoid noise in the meeting room when microphones are not on mute**
    • typing (e.g. email or instant messaging)
    • rustling papers
    • tapping solid objects
    • be aware of fans (e.g. projector) which are close to PC
    • side talk
    • breathing into your own microphone …
  1. Do not start multiple Live Meetings in the same room – use projector to save bandwidth!

             **Also remember to Mute yourself if you are not speaking

*the reason for using a wired connection is partly due to a behaviour that Windows Vista and Windows 7 introduced – where a PC has both a wired and wireless connection, the PC assumes you are using a laptop and needs to be prepared to be disconnected, so it uses the wireless in preference to wired network.

clip_image006You you can set your PC to always favour the wired network, if one is available…

  • Go to Control Panel / Network and Internet / Network Sharing Center / Change Adapter Settings (or just go WindowsKey-R and run ncpa.cpl)
  • Press ALT if you don’t see a menu, then go into Advanced and select Advanced settings (stay with me)
  • Change the binding order so that Local Area is higher than Wireless…

The downside of doing this is that if you do unplug your laptop from the wired network, it might disconnect you from OCS/Lync and any file copying etc might get dropped.

If you want to check what your network is doing, and in particular, which connection is being used, check the Network tab in Task Manager (start it quickly by pressing CTRL-SHIFT-ESC).

Tip o’ the Week #40 – monitoring your PC’s innards

clip_image002Everyone can see their PC slow down inexplicably, but getting to the bottom of why can be tricky. It could be an occasional task that’s running (like an update being applied to Anti-Virus software), or perhaps something more sinister is going on – a badly constructed web page causing IE to use up system resources, even a virus doing its dirty work. Or maybe it’s just Outlook deciding that it needs to do some lengthy maintenance to large data files.

There are plenty of tools built into Windows 7 that will help tell you what is happening – such as the “CPU Meter” desktop Gadget (right-click on desktop, choose Gadgets, and drag it onto the desktop to see a realtime view of how your computer’s processor – CPU-  is performing, and how much memory is currently in use).

If you want to get deeper under the hood, there’s always Performance Monitor or its new friend, Resource Monitor (just go to start menu, type “Resource” and you’ll find it).

A quick and relatively simple way of checking what’s hogging your PC’s performance, is the Task clip_image003Manager tool – you can start it by pressing CTRL-ALT-DEL and choosing Start Task Manager from the list, or right-click on the taskbar and see the same option, or (the quickest and easiest way), simply press CTRL+SHIFT+ESC.

Task Manager gives you the ability to see which applications or processes are using the main resources on the machine, and if necessary, gives you the ability to close them down. It’s possible to add other columns to the list, so you could see how much disk I/O each process is generating (so if your laptop’s hard disk is thrashing the whole time, you might see which app is causing it). Resource Monitor adds another layer of detail, and can be started from within Task Manager’s “Performance” tab.

The Über-Monitor
If you’re feeling like all these namby-pamby built-in monitoring tools are too high level, you need ProcessExplorer. This tool came from a company (called Winternals) which Microsoft bought a few years ago, ostensibly to bring on board some nice free tools (and some that now sit in MDOP) and to get the brain of its chief technologist, one Mark Russinovich, who is now a “Technical Fellow” in Microsoft. A Jolly Technical Fellow, no less.

“Technical Fellow” is the highest technical level in Microsoft, equivalent to Corporate VP, and is bestowed on a few legendary folk.  The guy who invented Vax/VMS and designed Windows NT? Check. The guys who developed (with a few friends) the graphical UI, distributed computing, ethernet, the laser printer and the mouse? Take a bow, Butler, Chuck.

clip_image005If you ever get to see Mark give a talk at TechEd, you’ll realise just how deep his knowledge goes. Here are recordings of some of his talks – there’s also a TechEd introduction to some of the tools, here.

Process Explorer lets you see not only what services/processes are hogging the machine, but what is causing them to do it – as with any such tools, you could do a great deal of harm by killing off the wrong thing… but if you fire it up and simply have a look, it’s quite interesting…

For the true die-hards, it’s possible (through the Options menu) to “Replace Task Manager” so that ProcExp is fired up by the same means (CTRL-SHIFT-ESC etc) that Task Manager was.

This could be the new measure of the true geek – only Process Explorer users would qualify.

Tips for optimizing Vista on new hardware

Ed Bott over at ZDNet posted a really interesting article yesterday, detailing the journey he had of making his friend’s brand new Sony Viao laptop work properly with Windows Vista Business. In short, his friend upgraded a trusty old XP Vaio to a new machine which came with Vista, but had a terrible experience of crashes, slow start up, bogging performance etc.

In a nutshell, the advice is pretty straightforward, at least for technically minded folk and backs up the experience of some of us who’ve been using Vista all through the beta program:

  • Start with Vista-capable hardware. It’s almost a waste of money trying to upgrade old PCs to run Vista. New machines which (supposedly) have been designed to run Vista with modern architectures, devices which have a good chance of having decent Vista drivers and enough horsepower to do it justice, are so cheap now, it’s hardly worth trying to tweak anything older than a couple of years old to get Vista working well on it.
  • Use the latest, best quality drivers you can. It still amazes me how many manufacturers ship machines pre-loaded with years-old device drivers, or (conversely), how many update drivers & BIOSes frequently but with poor attention to quality (the device driver certification program is there for a reason; if you have a piece of hardware that comes with a non-certified driver, you have to ask: if the manufacturer of the device cut corners in bothering to get it certified, where else did they trim savings?)

    I got a new Lenovo Thinkpad tablet a few months ago, and it was (and still is) a brilliant piece of kit. Lenovo have done a class-leading job of making it easy to keep everything up to date – including the system BIOS – in a single application, the ThinkVantage System Update. Think of that as a single app which already knows exactly what hardware you have, and checks the Lenovo site to see if there’s anything to update.

    I’ve had so many PCs where the vendor’s driver download page needs you to know everything about the internal bits of the hardware (Dell, stand up and be counted) – after choosing the machine type, why do I need to know which iteration of network controllers it has, or whether it’s got the optional super-dee-dooper graphics card or bog standard one? Can’t the manufacturer figure that out, especially if they ask for a serial number to help identify what the machine is?

  • Don’t put any unnecessary crapware on it. This starts off as a fault of the OEM who supplied the machine (sorry Dell, I have to single you out again, but you’re far from unique). It’s worth making sure you don’t install any old junk from the internet and leave it lying around on your machine. Ed Bott even suggests doing some basic installs (like Acrobat, Flash etc) then taking a full machine backup, so you can always revert to a nice starting point. Combine that with the Really Rather Good backup software in Vista (or even the Windows Easy Transfer software) which can make sure your data is safe, and it’s not unthinkable that every six or twelve months a savvy user could easily blow away the machine and recover the starting image & last data backup to be in a good state again.

    Most people accept that they need to service a car regularly to keep it running well – a modern PC is a good bit more complicated than a car (albeit with generally less terrible consequences if it all goes boom).

Part of Ed’s summary neatly encapsulates his thinking…

Well, for starters, Vista doesn’t suck. And neither does Sony’s hardware. That four-pound machine with the carbon-fiber case is practically irresistible, as my wife continues to remind me.

But when you shovel Windows Vista and a mountain of poorly chosen drivers, utilities, and trial programs onto that beautiful hardware without thinking of the customer, the results can be downright ugly. That was certainly the case with the early-2007 vintage Vaio, and it’s still true today, with too much crapware and not enough attention to quality or the user experience.

Windows Media Center query-based recording

Here’s a tip for anyone running Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate editions (the ones with Media Center functionality), if you have a suitable tuner set up and configured. I mentioned this in passing to someone who uses Media Center as their primary TV tuner, and they didn’t know it was possible – largely because it’s a bit obscure and not exactly easy to find.

I don’t use Media Center as my primary TV – we have a Sky HD box to do that, and although I’m generally happy with the functionality and reliability of the Sky box, its UI isn’t anywhere near as flexible as MC’s. The Guide is one example of that – Sky lets you browse the guide but the options to search it are a bit thin, so it’s OK if you know there’s something you want to record. MC allows you to query the schedules (including all the obscure channels you might never watch) to find specific named programs, or even ones where the metadata matches your search.

My PC in the study has a cheap Hauppauge USB Freeview tuner installed, and an XBox 360 in the living room allows us to watch stuff that gets recorded on the PC.

If you go to Recorded TV on the main MC menu, and select to Add a Recording, you get:


… meaning, you can record something based on searching the Guide. If you choose the "Create a custom recording" feature, however, you can have MC automatically record a programme that isn’t scheduled yet, on the off-chance that it will be shown again at some point. Useful for catching up with old films that appear every few months.

In this example, maybe I want to record Ghostbusters. Select Keyword from the custom list:


Now, selecting any of the first 4 options will search against the current guide, and if there’s nothing scheduled, you won’t be able to select it. If you pick Generic keyword, however, and you get a slightly different UI:


Media Center will allow you to save your query, and will record anything that shows up in the guide at some future date, which features the word you just entered..


If you want to check what custom recordings you have scheduled, start again from "Recorded TV", and select "View scheduled" – you’ll see a list of anything that’s set to record, but only if it exists already in the guide.

image To see what you have set to record on schedule, choose the "Series" option on the left, and anything that shows up as "ANY CH" means it will record whenever the guide can match your query.


As I said, not exactly obvious… but very cool!

Dell’s “anti-crapware” initiative doesn’t go far enough

My wife’s small business has recently had a requirement to upgrade a couple of PCs, after 5 or 6 years. Since I am ultimately responsible for all their IT (and I am not proud of what they have – I cut all sorts of corners to make my life easy, but they don’t know how lean it is), I’ve always bought Dell kit for them since it’s been good quality, relatively cheap, it’s quick and easy.

Looking around on their site, I figured the new Dell Vostro desktop range might be worth a look – and since the machines were shipped with “Just the Software you need – no Trialware installed” then it would save me time in rebuilding the systems when they arrived (as I’d generally do).


There’s a great discussion over on Steve Clayton’s blog, about tweaking Vista, and on Computerworld on how to take the garbage off your new system. I’d hoped to avoid any of this by just going with a well-tested, modern, high-volume desktop, so that everything just works with software that’s been available for the best part of a year, on Vista Business (no downgrade to Windows XP for us – even if Dell is now offering it as a “feature”).


The Out-Of-Box-Experience was typical of a decent PC – lots of boxes, lots of packaging, printed manuals in about a dozen languages (which all go straight in the bin). It’s pretty straightforward plugging everything together now, and in no time we’re up and running.

I bet if this was a new Mac, it would have a lot less spurious cables and bits of paper.

No Trial-ware but plenty of crap-ware

ZDnet has talked about the problems of “crapware” (including relative to Dell) cluttering up new PCs, slowing things down, frustrating end users and annoying power users by giving them hours of work to clean things up.

On starting up the PC, we had Google Desktop indexing everrything, even though Vista was doing that already. We had a Dell/Google Browser Helper Object just waiting to redirect every bad URL or search, to a site that showed Dell adverts (called Dell’s Browser Address Redirector). Welcome to the world of “choice” – I’m almost surprised they didn’t install Firefox, Opera and Safari, just in case the end user felt like installing a different browser without bothering to download it. Pity the users who don’t want all this guff and have to take it off.

There are 3 separate ISP sign-up applications which are irrelevant to this small business, as well as a bunch of other bits & pieces which come from neither Dell nor Microsoft. Each of them has a program group in the start menu, and an entry in Control Panel’s Remove Programs section.

There are obviously some useful 3rd party addons (though I was going to rip out the – trial version – McAfee anti-virus, spyware and firewall, and replace with OneCare), such as DVD decoder, or CD burner. But even they don’t always work smoothly – there’s some Roxio software which as well as writing CD/DVDs, also seems to monitor folders on disk for some sharing function.

These machines are sold for small business use – why would I want to have 3rd party software cluttering up the system tray and occupying memory & CPU, monitoring folders for sharing media, on the LAN? In looking to switch off the monitoring, I right-clicked on the system tray icon and (not seeing any other option), choose an option to do with Managing the folder sharing, on the basis that it might give me an option of switching it off.

Boom. Visual C++ 6.0 runtime error. Every time. On both machines.

I don’t want to beat up on Dell specifically, but this is an example of a poor customer experience that is 100% down to the PC OEM to fix. Don’t install all this software on a PC unless it’s essential – or at least make it easy for users to revert to some kind of vanilla OS.

How many customers would assume this C++ runtime error was a Windows problem? Or would blame a slow machine on spurious Vista performance issues, when it’s every bit as likely to be caused by unnecessary and unwanted software running on the background, because the ISV has paid the OEM to include it on new machine builds..?

Maybe Microsoft should get into building PC hardware, and at least will have soup-to-nuts control over the hardware and software experience.

BBC iPlayer kicks up a stink

It’s been interesting reading various news articles about the fact that the soon-to-be-released BBC iPlayer application will initially be available only to Internet Explorer and Windows XP users. The Register reports that a group called the Open Source Consortium is due to meet with the BBC Trust since the service will not be available at all to users (for example) of Firefox or Linux OS.

The Guardian‘s coverage points out that the same issues behind the iPlayer are shared with the commercial broadcasters’ services (ie Channel 4 and Sky). Channel 4 says:

Will I be able to access 4oD on my Mac?

Unfortunately not at the launch of 4oD.
This is an industry-wide issue caused because the accepted Digital Rights Management (DRM) system used to protect online video content, which is required by our content owners, is not compatible with Apple Mac hardware and software. The closed DRM system used by Apple is not currently available for licence by third parties and there is no other Mac-compatible DRM solution which meets the protection requirements of content owners. Unfortunately, we are therefore unable to offer 4oD content to Mac users at this stage.

The fact is, all of these services are being required to use DRM since they don’t own much of the content they’re “broadcasting”, and the content owners are saying that they’ll only allow it to be broadcast if it can be protected. And nobody has (yet) built a DRM system that is up to the job of securing the content, for the other platforms in question (with the exception of FairPlay, which Apple won’t license).

Someone from the BBC comments about the fact that the Windows DRM may be a target for hackers…

“We expect it to get broken. When it gets broken, Microsoft releases a new version [of DRM] and the application gets updated. It’s an imperfect solution. But it’s the least imperfect solution of them all.”

So, it’s interesting that the Open Source Consortium is threatening to take this whole thing to the European Union under an anti-trust banner. What’s better – provide an innovative service to 70-85% of the market, or have no service to anyone because the content providers won’t allow it? Sure, the latter example is “fairer” since it doesn’t favour one platform vs another, but is it really in the best interests of the end users…?

Finally, a sidebar gadget worth having

Oooh, that’s a bit flippant. The whole Vista sidebar thing has kind of passed me by, though it really does make sense on widescreen monitors.

Kitten has nothing but destruction on his little mindI set about looking for a particular gadget today, though – one of my cats managed to knock my home PC over last night (it’s a desktop which I have standing vertically under the desk, propped up on a couple of old plastic floppy disk boxes to allow airflow under).

Following Arnie’s destructive rampage, the PC refused to boot. So I had to drag it out from under the desk, and start pulling it apart to figure out what was wrong. After a process of elimination, I figured that the CPU must be the problem and sure enough, the CPU cooler had come loose. On closer inspection, the CPU itself had been yanked out of position (by the weight of the huge heatsink/fan combo) and managed to mangle numerous of the 478 pins…

… which is never going to be a good thing.

Anyway, I eventually gave up trying to straighten the pins (that’s one way to make you go cross-eyed) and decided to sacrifice the CPU from another PC that happens to be elsewhere in the house. By the time I’d taken *that* one to bits, put the CPU in my main machine, reassembled both and reinstalled the system unit under the desk, I was pretty happy.

Until about 5 minutes in to using the thing, when it abruptly shut itself down and emitted a selection of beeps on restarting… uh oh, sounds like a thermal shutdown where the system throws itself on its own sword rather than bursting into flames.

It turns out the CPU fan cable had got wrapped around the fan itself so the cooling forces were less than optimal (ie none, apart from the heatsink). After fixing that and reassembling/reinstalling the machine, I went looking for SpeedFan, a great little bit of diagnostic software that displays all the temperatures, fan speeds, voltages etc from the numerous internal sensors within the case (if your system supports it).

There’s even a beta SpeedFan gadget, which will report any of the info that Speedfan can grab, right there on the sidebar. Excellent!

More information here.

PS – another tip for Sidebar usage… Windows Key + Space bring it to the fore.

Windows Live Mail Desktop – replaces Outlook Express for Hotmail use

I’ve been running the “dogfood” version of Windows Live Mail Desktop (WLMD) for a while now, and found it to be really stable and usable. It’s basically a superset of the built-in Windows Mail application from Windows Vista, which supercedes Outlook Express.

WLMD is now available for beta testing (on Windows XP as well as Vista) from http://ideas.live.com and it works against MSN/Hotmail (including the mail from Office Live, so if you sign up for your own free domain name you can pick up the mail without being in a browser), POP/IMAP accounts and other providers’ mail services, such as Yahoo!, AOL and GMail. It seems it’s been available for some time, in fact 🙂

I was prompted about this when Steve Clayton was being interviewed today on TalkSport Radio, and a caller had asked why Vista no longer gave him access to Hotmail… I guess he was meaning that since Outlook Express isn’t the box any more, he was trying to use the supplied Windows Mail program, which doesn’t offer the ability to connect to Hotmail… so the solution is to either stay with browser-based mail or to use WLMD.