Something Zany for the New Year

One of my favorite magazines, Consumer Reports, has long had a back page feature dedicated to publicizing exaggerated claims, overreaches and silly errors in advertising. While shopping for a 1TB solid state drive today, I came across a very unfortunately named SSD on amazon.com, something that would be right at home on that page. Here it is, for your end-of-year amusement:

I can only assume that English is not the seller’s first language, because I can’t imagine what he thinks a somnambulist is. (If English isn’t your first language, I will save you a run for your dictionary: a somnambulist is a sleepwalker.) It’s certainly not a characteristic I would want to find in a solid state drive, or a conventional hard drive, for that matter.

Wishing everyone good health, happiness, success and plenty of good humor in 2022!

Windows Wednesdays – Does Windows 11 Force You To Use the Microsoft Edge Browser?

I have a confession to make: I like Microsoft Edge. I’ve been using it as my default web browser since Microsoft came out with the Chromium-based version of it. Chromium is the open-source web browser engine on which Google Chrome is based, and the first Chromium-based version of Edge was almost indistinguishable from Chrome, except for a couple of minor user interface elements. Microsoft has steadily made changes that differentiate it. Some of those changes have been good, like the “under the hood” changes that have improved its performance. Some changes I could’ve done without, such as making downloads Firefox-like, except that Edge makes the downloads indicator in the upper right disappear after a short while, while Firefox keeps it visible. (I find Firefox’s implementation more convenient.) But the main thing that got me to switch to Edge was that Chrome, which had been my default browser, was running slowly on certain sites that I use frequently, and Edge worked with them much faster.

The important thing is that I didn’t notice any of the issues that various pundits have reported about using other browsers with Windows 11 because I was already using Edge as my default browser. However, I’m a fickle web browser customer; I’ve been known to change default web browsers every six to twelve months. So, let’s see how difficult this really is.

First, I decided to try making Firefox my default web browser. That’s easy enough: just run Firefox, go into its Settings, and we see the button to make Firefox the default browser right there, in the first section:

I click on the button and… nothing seems to happen, except that the status changes from a blue face and the description “Firefox is not your default browser” to a yellow smiley face and description “Firefox is currently your default browser”. Wow, that was easy. I didn’t even get a Windows default browser pop-up like the one I used to get in Windows 10 (which also used to display a message alerting me to the presence of Edge and make me click an additional “Switch Anyway” button). Could it actually be this easy? I switched to my e-mail program, opened a message with a clickable link, clicked on that link and sure enough, Firefox opened and displayed the page!

However, if I click my Start button, type a URL, like “https://www.amazon.com” in the search field and press [Enter], the web page opens in Microsoft Edge. Maybe this is what the pundits mean by Microsoft forcing Windows 11 users to use Microsoft Edge, but, to be fair, this behavior is virtually unchanged from Windows 10. In Windows 10, it was all but impossible to get Windows Search to display web results in any browser other than Edge.

Let’s have a look at what’s going on behind the scenes. I open Default Apps (there are a number of ways to do this, but I find the most direct is to click the Start button and start typing the word “default”):

Next, I search for Firefox:

Hopefully, your Default Apps only lists Firefox once (if you have Firefox installed at all). A quick check of the two entries I have reveals that they both have the exact same settings. Speaking of which, let’s click on Firefox (either one, in my case) and see what those settings are:

Well, now, that’s interesting: Firefox was made the default program for file types .htm, and .html, and, scrolling down, we find it’s also the default program for HTTP and HTTPS protocols. Firefox did not make itself the default program for some lesser-known file types, such as .svg and .webp (Microsoft Edge is still the default for those) or for the MAILTO protocol, which is just as well, because I want Mozilla Thunderbird, my e-mail client, to remain the default program for that.

Now let’s see what happens when we make Google Chrome the default browser. The first steps are simple enough: Run Chrome, click the 3-dot button in the upper right to drop down the Chrome Menu, choose Settings and, since the default browser setting isn’t the first thing we see, I type “default browser” in the Search field at the time in order to find it:

I click the “Make default” button, and this time, Windows responds by opening the Default Apps settings:

Well, that’s not very helpful, to say the least! It’s unclear to the average user what they’re supposed to do next. A quick experiment of closing Chrome, reopening it and going back to the Make Default Browser setting reveals that nothing has changed, and Chrome is still not the default browser. It would seem that to make it so, we must manually change the Chrome settings in Default Apps. So, let’s look those up. Type “chrome” in the “Search apps” field, and click on Google Chrome when it appears. Sure enough, we quickly see that Firefox is still the default for HTML files and the HTTP/HTTPS protocols, and the rest of the settings are unchanged from what they were. For Chrome, at least, I have to update the default program settings one at a time. So, I click on the first one, for .htm files, and see something familiar from Windows 10:

I click on Google Chrome, and the setting for .htm files changes to Google Chrome with no further challenge. Now I do the same for .html, .shtml, .svg, .xht, .xhtml, FTP, HTTP and HTTPS. (Most users could probably leave .shtml, .svg, .xht and .xhtml unchanged and never know the difference.) Close Chrome and reopen it, and now, when I check its Default Browser setting, it reports that Google Chrome is my default browser. Go back to my e-mail, click on the link, and, sure enough, it opens in Google Chrome. OK, that was a bit laborious, but not terrible.

Since I actually want to continue using Microsoft Edge as my default browser, I go back into MIcrosoft Edge and click on its “Make default” setting. (I will spare you the details, since you’re probably all Google Chrome fans, anyway! ) As with Firefox, the change is made silently, and if I manually open the Default Apps settings, I see that Edge made itself the default for all the web browser file and protocol types that matter. I might call this a home field advantage, except that Firefox was able to do this, too. Evidently, out of the three most popular browsers, only Chrome needs extra help to make it the default. And it would also appear that most of the pundits who have been writing about Windows 11 are Google Chrome purists.

So, does Windows 11 really force you to use Microsoft Edge? I would say no, not in any way that really matters or is new to Windows 11. But making Chrome your default browser is more difficult in Windows 11 than it should be.

Today’s Silly Tech: The Alexa-Controlled Coffeemaker

Every once in a while, I come across an application of technology that is just plain ridiculous. For example, years ago, I walked into a Norelco store (back when such stores existed) to see about getting my electric shaver fixed (OK, now I guess I’m really dating myself — who fixes shavers anymore?) and look at some new ones. The man behind the counter proudly showed me Norelco’s latest and greatest model, which had some absurdly high price tag on it. Since I didn’t see any gold plating on the thing, I asked the salesperson what made this shaver worth so much. He replied that the shaver had a microprocessor in it that kept its motor spinning at precisely 3600 RPM at all times. OK, that was unexpected. If he had said something about diamond-edged blades or precision combs, it might have made some sense to me. But we were talking about shaving here, not keeping time or spinning records (oops, dated myself again!). So I paused, blinked a few times and then asked the salesperson, “And how, exactly, does guaranteeing a motor speed of precisely 3600 RPM give me a better shave?” He didn’t have an answer to that, so I either handed him my old shaver for repair or purchased a more reasonably-priced replacement, and that was that. But I never forgot the encounter for being an obvious case of techno-gimmickry.

This morning, I experienced another such encounter without even leaving my home. I received an Amazon Treasure Truck notification on my phone, about an amazing, get it while it’s hot, 42% discount on a Hamilton Beach Smart Coffee Maker, just $54.99 instead of the usual $99.99. And what’s so smart about it, you may ask? (Well, you should ask; after all, I did.) Why, you use Alexa to turn it on, that’s what! Don’t take my word for it; see it for yourself at https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B07TFLNDNR/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_19ZZA1WE7RAX4YGF8ZY0

Looking through the photos and description, I suddenly found myself thinking about an episode of the original 1970s-’80s “Fantasy Island”, in which Tattoo excitedly shows Mr. Rourke his new invention, a fly killer, which consists of two wooden blocks. When Mr. Rourke asks how it works, Tattoo’s explanation begins with, “First, you catch a fly…”; you can probably figure out the rest for yourself. Turning back to Hamilton Beach’s technological wonder, we see that before you tell Alexa when you want her to set your coffee a-brewin’, you must first load up the machine with water, a conventional filter and coffee grounds. Oh, and close the loading door. Manually.

Is there a way to connect the machine to your kitchen’s water supply? Nope. Does the machine have a hopper for, say, a pound of coffee grounds or beans so Alexa can tell it, on the fly, how much coffee to make? Nope. Can it eject the spent grounds and filter into a nearby receptacle and clean itself? Nope, nope. So, what, exactly, does Alexa bring to the table here? Uh, she can tell the coffee machine to turn itself on when you’re not there. That’s nice, but my completely conventional Mr. Coffee brewer can do that just about as well, and for less than half the discounted price, with its delayed brew timer. So, all the smart features really do is increase the cost of the machine, and, if the seller has had a lot of practice as a carnival barker, increase his profit margin. I’m going to guess that didn’t work out too well for Hamilton Beach or Amazon, because the latter just put the machine on the Treasure Truck at a much more conventional price, and the former has discontinued the product.

Don’t get me wrong here. I love technology. I’m in the business of selling and servicing technology. But I will never sell you technology that serves no purpose beyond the product description.

Windows Wednesdays – The Recommended List

I have devoted a lot of prose in this series to the upper half of the new Start Menu. It’s about time we looked at the lower half, cryptically labeled “Recommended”. I say “cryptically” labeled because “Recommended” seems like something of a misnomer. An attentive Windows 11 user notices fairly quickly that the list of entries in that section changes constantly. So, what’s up with that?

The short answer is that this section is actually just the latest variant of Windows longstanding “Recent Files” list. Windows has offered users a way to see their most recently edited files at least since Windows 98. (Prior versions may have had it as well, but my memory is a bit foggy, this has proven to be a bit of an obscure feature, and online documentation about it is a bit scarce, so in the interest of brevity, I will plead ignorance.) The Recent FIles list was hidden by default in Windows XP, Vista and 7, but savvy users could make it appear on the Start Menu by turning it on the Start Menu Properties. It was available in Windows 8 and 10, but those versions of Windows required a bit of navigation to get to it in File Explorer. I have read of some shortcuts for getting to it in those versions, but since this blog entry is about Windows 11, I’m not going to ferret out those details.

In Windows 11, the Recent Files list resurfaces in plain sight, with some improvements (in my opinion), as the Recommended section of the Start Menu. When you first bring up the Start Menu, the Recommended section shows the six most recently accessed items, whether they’re files or recently added programs. The items – calling them “files” would be inaccurate here – are sorted with the most recently used first, and, as far as I can tell, there’s no way to customize the sort. (That makes sense in this context.) Click on the “More >” button above and to the right of the list, and the view changes to a scrollable list of your recently used items. In the case of files, they’ll appear if they were merely opened, not necessarily edited and resaved.

If you right-click on an item in the Recommended list, a context menu will appear. The items on the context menu vary depending on what the item points to (remember, items in Recent Files have never been the files themselves, just shortcuts to them), but the one item that appears on all the context menus is “Remove from list”. This gives you some control over what items you see in the Recommended list, but remember that the Recommended list is fluid, updating constantly as you edit files or install software. If there are particular files in the Recommended List that you want to keep close at hand at all times, then your best bet is probably to right-click on them, choose “Open file location”, and create a Desktop shortcut to them. I explained how to create a Desktop shortcut in last Wednesday’s entry, so I won’t go into it here.

All in all, I like the new Recommended section. I’ve always liked having the list of my most recently used files readily visible, and this new way of showing it on the Start Menu dovetails nicely with the way I work.

My Observations About Open-Source Router Firmware

A number of years ago, I had my first encounter with open-source router firmware. My revelation came in 2014 or ’15, in the form of an old Linksys WRT54G pressed into service by a VoIP vendor. My casual observation at the time (backed up, after the fact, by some research I did for this blog post) was that the router had to be at least 10 years old, and my experience with consumer-grade routers was that they rarely provided more than 5 years of 24/7 service. There were much more powerful, industrial-grade routers to be had in 2014, so it seemed rather odd to me that a commercial VoIP vendor would choose such an old, clunky, outdated router to direct an office’s VoIP traffic. So, I did what came naturally to me: I asked the vendor, politely and diplomatically, of course, about his choice of routers for this application. His answer was that I was correct, a stock Linksys WRT54G would not be an appropriate piece of equipment for handling VoIP. However, this was not a stock Linksys WRT54G; it was a WRT54G whose original firmware had been replaced by an open-source router firmware called Tomato. Tomato not only had the magical power (well, it seemed magical to me at the time) to resurrect a failing consumer-grade router, but it could also unleash capabilities not normally found in consumer-grade routers. Well, that was certainly not the answer I had anticipated, and not knowing what else to do with it, I made a thoughtful face, uttered “Cool!”, or maybe a Mr. Spock-esque “Fascinating.”, and filed the information away in my brain for future reference.

The next time I thought about this was a year or so later, when my own home wi-fi router started acting flaky. Before running out to buy a replacement, I thought, “Hey, wait, let’s see if maybe this Tomato or Potato or Avocado or Whatever-o (I knew it was some fruit or vegetable ending in ‘o’) can resurrect my dying router. I fired up a web browser, did a quick search, and… no dice. I quickly discovered that Tomato didn’t support my router. It only supported a handful of routers, mainly variants of the Linksys WRT54G. I also found that there were other open-source router firmwares available, such as OpenWRT and DD-WRT, but they didn’t support my router, either. So, I went back to Plan A, and bought a new router. I didn’t think much about it again until 2018 or 2019, when I once again encountered an old, outdated-looking router in an office, only to discover that the router had been loaded with open-source firmware, this time DD-WRT.

Fast-forward to a little over a month ago, when my current router, a Netgear Nighthawk R7000P AC2300 model, started dropping wi-fi connections intermittently. It’s not an old router, but, frustratingly, its problems began just a couple weeks after its one-year warranty ended. Two Netgear firmware upgrades failed to fix it, Netgear’s online help provided no useful information, and all I could find out about it from public forums were posts from plenty of other Netgear R7000P owners who were experiencing the exact same problem, with no solutions mentioned. That’s when I remembered that VoIP vendor’s statement from all those years ago, that third-party, open-source firmware could sometimes fix problems with a failing wi-fi router. My most recent encounter with open-source router firmware was DD-WRT, so I looked up its web site and found that it works with my router. Yes!

I then set about finding out what I had to do to wave DD-WRT’s magic wand over my increasingly malfunctioning router. It didn’t take long for me to come across a stern warning to read DD-WRT wikis and forum posts before beginning, find the correct version of the firmware for my router, and then carefully follow the installation instructions, because there was a very real chance of turning my already unhappy router into a paperweight if I did something wrong. And to emphasize all that, the introductory instructions included the warning that “TL:DR is no excuse”. That did give me pause, at first. But then I remembered that my router was failing anyway, so, if worse came to worst, my attempt to load DD-WRT on it would brick the thing, at which point I’d just go buy a new one.

I’m not going to bore you with the technical procedures that transformed my flaky, stock Netgear Nighthawk R7000P into a DD-WRT-powered wi-fi router that seems to be stable so far. The main reason is that the procedures vary from router to router. Your router might require different procedures, or might not be supported at all. One thing you learn from reading those wikis and forum posts is that no two consumer-grade router manufacturers agree on how to implement the technology, and routers from the same manufacturer might all require different steps for loading DD-WRT. It must have been a maddeningly complicated project for DD-WRT’s developer community to make the product work with as many routers as it supports, and it sounds like an equally maddening project to continue to fix bugs and make improvements to the firmware. The bottom line is that if you want to run open-source firmware on your router, you’ll have to do your own homework, and a lot of it.

I will provide you with my observations, though. First, the results: As of right now, all the major features I was using before the firmware change – Internet routing, wired network switch, wi-fi network, guest wi-fi network and sharing a USB-connected external hard drive over my network – are working, at least for the most part. There appears to be a bug that prevents the 5GHz guest network from working, and attempts to make it work make the other wi-fi connections unreliable, but I can live without that. The parental controls that Netgear included with my R7000P, Netgear’s flavors of OpenDNS and Circle, are gone, but I no longer need those.

Another thing I picked up along the way is why not all routers can be supported by open-source firmware. First and foremost, in order for a router to be supported, its factory firmware must run on Linux. In fact, this is why the original Linksys WRT54G was the router supported by the first open-source router firmwares: it was the first consumer-grade router known to run Linux, which made it hackable. (Note that to programmers, “hacking” is not necessarily a bad thing. It simply refers to writing short, clever program code intended to accomplish a task. Only when we’re talking about a malevolent hacker does the task involve breaking through security and stealing data.) To this day, not all consumer-grade routers run Linux.

Be aware that when you load open-source firmware onto your router, you effectively become your own tech support provider. Open-source router firmware, like open-source application software, is written by consortia of volunteer programmers. There is generally no company bankrolling the project, and there is no company paying tech support agents to help people use it. There are wikis and knowledgebases containing a wealth of information about the firmware, but it, too, is written by volunteers, so it’s not always well-organized, it’s often out of date and it’s not unusual to encounter conflicting information. You can join the support forums for the firmware and post messages there requesting assistance, but if your message makes it obvious that you’ve made no attempt to look in the wikis or for other forum posts dealing with your issue, then you’ll most likely receive a brusque referral to those wikis or posts, or your message may be ignored entirely. And if you cop an attitude by demanding a response, calling programmers idiots or complaining about rude or inattentive support personnel, you will get a frosty response at best, and might even get banned from the forum. Open-source is a very cool concept, but you must remember that when you opt for open-source products, you are nobody’s valued customer.

Part and parcel with learning to support your open-source router firmware is learning a whole slew of unfamiliar terms. For example, earlier, I mentioned that I had gotten my “guest wi-fi network” working. You may be familiar with the concept of a guest wi-fi network from your own router, but when you look through DD-WRT’s administration pages, you won’t see any mention whatsoever of a guest wi-fi network. That’s because in DD-WRT, guest wi-fi networks are simply a specific application of what they call “virtual access points”. In a nutshell, to create a guest wi-fi network in DD-WRT, you create a virtual access point, turn on the Unbridged, AP (Access Point) Isolation and Net Isolation options, specify an IP address range and a DNS address, visit another page to set your virtual access point’s password and security settings, and visit yet another page to turn on something called Dnsmasq and type in several arcane-looking lines of code to make Dnsmasq create a DHCP server for your virtual access point. Got all that?!? Probably not, but maybe now you have gained some appreciation of all the things your stock wi-fi router does for you behind the scenes when you activate its guest wi-fi network feature, name it and give it a password. Personally, I had never heard of a Dnsmasq before. I still don’t quite know what one is, although I now have some idea of what it does.

This is my foray into DD-WRT open source firmware so far. It’s going to be an ongoing adventure for me, and I may post more about it in the future if it leads to any new, interesting stuff. I actually kind of hope it doesn’t, because now that my router appears to work reliably again, I would very much like it to go back to being an appliance that just works in the background and doesn’t require me to think about it much. I decided to write this only because I like to post once a week about interesting tech adventures, and this certainly qualifies. But it is not an announcement of a new product or service from Lebowitz IT Services. Please do not ask me to load DD-WRT or any other open-source firmware on your router. If you do, then my reply will tell you that as of right now, I don’t have the experience and in-depth understanding of open-source router firmware to do such a project, very likely followed by an offer to send an estimate for what a new router or mesh wi-fi system would cost.

Windows Wednesdays – Keeping Your Favorite Apps Closer, Part 3

Last post in this “Keeping Your Favorite Apps Closer” sub-series, I promise, and today’s installment will be short. The last place for keeping your frequently-used apps close at hand (not counting programs that have a part that keeps running in the background and leaves a mini-icon in the Taskbar Notification Area) is the Desktop. And adding icons to the Windows 11 Desktop is pretty much the same as adding icons to the Desktop in previous versions of Windows, most notably Windows 10.

The main thing to remember about adding icons to the Desktop is that, for the most part, you want to create shortcuts to the programs you want, not move the icons or program executables there. The reason I mention this is that the most intuitive way to put an icon on the Desktop is to drag and drop it there. But in this case, that’s exactly what you don’t want to do. That’s because unless you’re familiar with the nuances of Windows’ drag-and-drop behavior, you may not realize that when you drag and drop something from one folder to another on the same drive, Windows moves the item. When you drag and drop from one drive to a different drive, Windows copies the item. Personally, I was never very good at remembering this subtlety, but I learned a long time ago (back when Windows XP was the most popular operating system, I think) that if you drag and drop using the right mouse button instead of the left, then Windows pops up a context menu at the destination, and that menu asks you explicitly what you want Windows to do with whatever you just dragged and dropped.

Windows offers multiple ways to do most things, and copying, moving and creating shortcuts in File Explorer are among them, so it may not surprise you to learn that you don’t have to drag and drop with the right mouse button to accomplish what we’re after today. If you hold down the [Ctrl] key while dragging and dropping with your left mouse button, Windows copies the item. Hold down the [Shift] key while dragging and dropping with your left mouse button, it moves the file. And if you hold down the [Alt] key while doing this, it creates a shortcut at the destination. Intuitive enough for you? Me, neither! That’s why we’ll be dragging and dropping with the right mouse button.

(If you’re one of the few, proud, enlightened left-handed Windows users who learned how to set Windows to reverse your mouse buttons, then you normally click and drag with your right mouse button, and you’ll need to remember to use your left mouse button for this exercise.)

So, let’s get started. The most logical place to look for a program you might want to access from the Desktop is the All apps menu. (Why? Because if you’re sophisticated enough to be running “portable” software from your Downloads or some other folder, then you probably aren’t reading my blog.) So let’s click the Start button and go there:

Next, we click on the “All apps” button (circled), and then go look for something we want on the Desktop. It would be nice to have a shortcut to my printer manual on the Desktop, so let’s right-click on that:

That opens a File Explorer window with the shortcut I want to have on the Desktop. The window may contain multiple program shortcuts; in this case, it contains only one. Now, right-click and hold on the program shortcut you want to copy to the Desktop, drag it out of the window, and drop it on the Desktop as indicated by the arrow:

As shown in the picture, a context menu will appear. Left-click on “Create shortcuts here” (circled). Voila, you now have a Desktop shortcut to the program you want, and you may close the File Explorer window.

It’s even easier to do this from Start Menu search results, because “Open file location” is in the context menu when you right-click on the item in the search results.

But wait… what if you right-click on an item, but you see an unfamiliar context menu that lacks “Open file location”?

If that happens, it means you’ve clicked on an app that came from the Microsoft Store, what I often refer to as a Windows 11 Sandbox App. (in my case, I right-clicked on “AudioDirector for MSI”.) You can’t create a conventional Desktop shortcut from those because they aren’t run from executable files or shortcuts in File Explorer windows. There is a way to get such apps on the Desktop, but that involves looking up long, arcane strings of gobbledygook, then right-clicking on the Desktop, choosing “New”, then “Shortcut”, and keying them into the Create Shortcut dialog box. That is beyond the scope of this blog entry.

I hope this helps make your programs more convenient to access. Next week, we’ll move on to something completely different.

Windows Wednesdays – Keeping Your Favorite Apps Closer, Part 2

Start Menu Pinned Section

Last week, we saw how to pin program icons to the Taskbar. This week, we will have a closer look at the improved Start Menu.

In Windows 11, as in Windows 10, the Taskbar is “prime real estate”. In fact, it’s the most valuable prime real estate, since it displays key controls, like the Start button, clock and network status, pinned program icons and icons for programs that are running. Taskbar behavior in Windows 11 is somewhat more intelligent than in Windows 10, at least to a point. In Windows 10, an overloaded Taskbar used to spawn a second, hidden tier with an up/down arrow control to the right for switching between tiers. It was a usable solution, but a bit clumsy. In Windows 11, the Taskbar decreases the size of the icons as you open more programs. When there are too many icons to display at once, the Taskbar sprouts a vertical separator line, like this:

The separator line is indicated by the red oval.

It’s not clear to me, as of this writing, how to access the overflow icons on the right side of the separator. However, the Taskbar’s usability is effectively negated long before the vertical line appears. By the time you have a dozen programs running, the Taskbar is essentially just a long, unsorted list, and it’s too difficult to recognize the reduced-size icon of any program you might be looking for. At that point, it’s easier to use another method of task switching, such as [Alt][Tab], to switch between programs. So, it’s best to only pin your most frequently used icons. For most people, that’s just three or four. But what about the icons for your not-so-frequently used, but still favorite applications?

The most logical place to put those icons is the Start Menu. Microsoft greatly simplified the Start menu in Windows 11. In Windows 10, pinning icons to the Start Menu was something of a free-for-all. You could pin as many as you wanted and move them around, and there was even a way to organize them into sections. But moving and organizing icons in the Windows 10 Start Menu was cumbersome and unintuitive, so most users never learned how to do it. In Windows 11, the Start Menu has just two sections: a Pinned section and a Recommended section. For today, we will focus our attention on the Pinned section.

The Pinned section of the Windows 11 Start Menu can display up to 18 icons at a time. You can pin more, but if you do, then your Pinned section will grow additional panels: a second one when you pin the 19th icon, a third one when you pin the 37th icon, and so on. You’ll be able to navigate among the panels using a series of vertical dots, an up arrow and a down arrow to the right of the icons, similar to how the home screens on a smartphone work. But I’m not going to show you this, at least not now, because having that many icons on the Start Menu detracts from its convenience. Besides that, few people have that many favorite applications, so 18 icons are more than enough.

You can also unpin icons from the Pinned section of the Start Menu, and you can drag and drop icons to rearrange them to your liking. Let’s see how this works.

As of this writing, my Start Menu looks like this:

First, let’s remove a couple of unused icons. I don’t use the Facebook app, and I’ve never used the Windows Tips app. So, I right-click on Facebook, and click “Unpin from Start”, as shown:

Repeat this for the Tips icon, and now my Start Menu looks like this:

Next, I’ll pin a new icon to my Start Menu. I use Firefox frequently (along with Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome), so it would be nice to have it closer at hand. Pinning an icon to the Start Menu is very easy in Windows 11, because when you right-click on any program icon in Windows 11, no matter where or how you found it (in the Taskbar, search results, the All Apps list, the Desktop or File Explorer), the context menu includes “Pin to Start”. So, I’ll search for Firefox, right-click on it and click “Pin to Start”:

Almost done! My Start Menu now looks like this:

But it would be nice to have all my web browsers grouped together. This is also quite easy, as it’s just a couple of simple drag-and-drop operations. I start by clicking and holding (with the left mouse button) on the Firefox icon, and dragging it next to Edge, as shown:

The other icons obligingly shift to the right to make room, and when I release the left mouse button, the Firefox icon drops right where I want it, next to Edge. After I repeat this for Google Chrome, my Start Menu looks like this:

Now it’s your turn. Try unpinning icons you don’t need, pinning icons you want to get to more quickly, and rearranging icons on your Start Menu to see how much better you can make the menu work for you!

Windows Wednesdays – Keeping Your Favorite Apps Closer, Part 1

Start Menu Pinned Section

Everyone who has used Windows for awhile knows how to keep your most frequently used programs close at hand: just create a desktop shortcut for that program, of course. But what if you’re one of those desktop packrats whose Windows desktop is an unsorted, edge-to-edge array of program shortcuts and data file icons? Enter the Start Menu shortcut.

Displaying the Start Menu has been simple enough in all versions of Windows since Windows 95 (except for Windows 8, which used a “Start Screen” that behaved differently, but we’ll ignore that for now). Just click your Start button or press the Windows key (the key with the Windows logo on it), and there it is.

Pressing the Windows key also makes the Windows 11 Taskbar appear, if you have yours set to automatically hide itself when you aren’t interacting with it. If you didn’t set your Taskbar to auto-hide, then it’s visible all the time. Either way, this Taskbar functionality is identical to prior versions of Windows, going back all the way to Windows 95. What has changed in Windows 11 is that it’s easier to pin frequently-used icons to the Taskbar that it was in Windows 10 and Windows 8, and that’s what today’s Windows Wednesdays installment is all about.

The steps for pinning an icon to the Taskbar vary, depending on where you find the icon. For example, if you find the icon in the All Apps list…

… then right-click on the program icon you want to pin (Audacity, in this example)…

… then click on More, which displays a fly-out menu …

… and, finally, click on “Pin to taskbar”. Your icon is now pinned to the Taskbar, as shown here:

It’s actually a little easier to pin an icon from Windows Search. Click the Start button or press the Windows key on your keyboard to display the Start menu.

Then begin typing. Optionally, you can click first in the “Type here to search” field, but if you don’t, Windows will know to send your keystrokes to that field. In this example, we’re searching for Audacity. As indicated by the gray characters at the end of the word in the “Type here to search” field, as shown below, even before we finish typing the name of the program, Windows has already made a good guess as to what we want!

Now, right-click on Audacity from the search hits, and “Pin to Taskbar” appears in the context menu, as shown below. Just click “Pin to Taskbar” to finish up.

It’s easier still to pin an icon that’s currently on the Start Menu. But why would I want to do that? After all, both the Taskbar and the Start Menu are prime real estate in Windows 11, aren’t they? The most logical reason to pin something that’s already on the Start Menu to the Taskbar would be as the first step in moving it from the Start Menu to the Taskbar. I would only do this for an icon that I use very often, so often that I don’t even want to have to click the Start button to get to it.

Calculator is an app that I use often enough that might want to move to the Taskbar, so I’ll use that as an example. First, click the Start button.

Next, right-click on the Calculator icon.

Finally, click “Pin to Taskbar” from the context menu.

That’s all there is to it.

There are still more “Pin to Taskbar” instances I could show you, such as pinning an icon from File Explorer or from the Desktop, but this is already a very long post, so I think I will save those for later installments about managing the Start Menu and changes to File Explorer.

IE is Finally Gone in Windows 11… Or Is It?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you know that Microsoft has been telling everyone that Internet Explorer, the web browser that everyone seems to love to hate, but that nevertheless was the de facto standard web browser for nearly 20 years, is dead, gone, over and done with. Since 2016, Microsoft has been telling developers, including holdouts like those working for governments and large corporate intranets, to find themselves a new standard browser. Since its initial version of Microsoft Edge proved unsuitable as a replacement for Internet Explorer (meaning it didn’t support all the web technologies that Internet Explorer did), Microsoft announced a new Edge based on open source Chromium in 2018, developed it over the course of 2019 and released it in mid-January, 2020. At some point, an Internet Explorer Compatibility Mode was added to Edge, and now Microsoft is again touting Edge as a replacement for Internet Explorer. (I’ve used Edge in Internet Explorer Compatibility Mode for things that previously only worked in IE, including an Exchange Server 2013 Administration Console and several government sites, and it works.) And for the last year or so, Microsoft has been saying that Internet Explorer will be disappearing from desktop versions of Windows in the near future. Did Microsoft make good on this threat/promise in Winodws 11. Let’s find out.

When we open Windows 11’s list of all programs (click the Start button, then the small All Apps button towards the upper right), we see in short order that Internet Explorer is, indeed, missing:

IS is not in Win11's All Apps

Since there’s nothing unusual about software failing to appear in Windows’ (any version) list of all programs, though, let’s try a search:

IS Doesn't Appear in Program Search

Nope, no Internet Explorer here; just offers to extend the search to the Internet. How about if we check Settings / Apps & Features?

IE is not in Apps & Features

So, it would seem that as far as Windows 11 is concerned, Internet Explorer is not installed. But just to be thorough, let’s check the legacy Programs and Features from the legacy Control Panel. (Clicking start and the either searching for Control Panel or appwiz.cpl gets us there.)

IE is not in Programs and Features

But wait… in previous versions of Windows, you could install or uninstall Internet Explorer by clicking on “Turn Windows features on or off” from here. Let’s try that:

IE is not in Windows Features

Wow, it sure looks like after all these years, the ol’ buzzard is finally gone, doesn’t it? But just for kicks and giggles, I opened up File Explorer and took a look behind the scenes, in C:\Program Files, and look what I found:

IE is in Program Files

Why, those look like the Internet Explorer executable files, right where they’ve been since Windows XP! So it would seem that Internet Explorer is not quite as gone as I originally thought. But when I double-click the main executable file, iexplorer.exe, something very interesting happens: instead of the familiar Internet Explorer web browser opening up, all I get is a new tab in Microsoft Edge. Now, if we look back at the file listing above, we see another curiosity: File Explorer reports that iexplore.exe file was last modified on 10/21/2021, which happens to be the day that I installed my Windows 11 upgrade. When I look at the same folder on my desktop PC, which runs the latest build of Windows 10, iexplore.exe has a date of 9/14/2021, which appears to be part of a cumulative update that was installed on 9/15. That’s a newer file than I expected to find, but Internet Explorer opens right up and runs perfectly on my desktop. Microsoft announced some time ago that at some point, they would make Internet Explorer redirect to Microsoft Edge, and it appears that in Windows 11, they have done just that.

My laptop came with Windows 10 Build 20H2 on it, and I updated it to Build 21H1 before installing Windows 11. Prior to the Windows 11 installation, Internet Explorer most definitely ran. At this time, I don’t know if the legacy Internet Explorer files are used for anything (such as Edge’s IE Compatibility Mode) or if they can be safely deleted; a quick search turned up no information about this. I would be very interested in seeing if a computer with a clean Windows 11 installation, rather than an upgrade, has any legacy Internet Explorer files on it. As of this writing, I have yet to see a clean Windows 11 installation, as I have no compatible computers on which to try one, and I may not see a new computer that shipped with Windows 11 for a month or more. I will have to revisit this in a later post.

Don’t Get Phished While You’re Out Surfing!

A significant chunk of my weekend was spent helping a home client deal with a serious data breach. It’s not clear if they got phished, fell for clickbait that took them to a compromised site or fell prey to some other ploy, but they somehow ran a bit of malicious code that deviously (meaning using methods that go unnoticed by mainstream anti-malware software) dropped the portable version of a popular remote access program on the computer and then set a scheduled task to run it after a period of inactivity, allowing the criminals to look through the files on the computer at will.

This morning, I received an e-mail from PCMag.com that, serendipitously, included an article about how to spot malicious web pages. As much as I enjoy writing about the technological ups and downs that I encounter as an IT consultant, Neil J. Rubenking’s career as an author of technical articles dates back to before my own career began, and he said it better than I ever could. Consider this article a must-read! https://www.pcmag.com/how-to/how-to-avoid-phishing-scams