Microsoft PowerToys: The Next Generation of legendary system utilities

Microsoft PowerToys is legendary suite of free system utilities for Windows, created as hobby project by people from Microsoft development teams. PowerToys were very popular in the old times of Windows 95, as they provided many additional functions that were not included in standard Windows environment at that time. A special mentioned goes to Tweak UI, a system utility that allowed tweaking of Windows user interface usually by modifying obscure and often undocumented configuration parameters in Windows Registry.

After original release for Windows 95, there was another major release of PowerToys for Windows XP, but then the development stopped. Until recently when a new generation of programmers at Microsoft revived the PowerToys brand and came up with new version created from scratch for Windows 10. PowerToys is developed as open source project, and source code and installation files can be found on GitHub, on microsoft/PowerToys.

Microsoft PowerToys: Settings

PowerToys The Next Generation is completely different from PowerToys of the last century, but one key thing is common – it provides a number of small utility programs to extend the functionality of Windows environment. In the current version it includes the following tools:

  • FancyZones: a window manager that allows to split screen area in rows and columns, and quickly position windows in desired area. In a way similar to Windows Snap is doing, but with more options to customize.
  • File Explorer Preview: this is File Explorer tweak that enables Preview Pane, to preview the selected file. This is very limited in current version, but
  • Image Resizer: Windows Shell Extension that allows to right-click on image in File Explorer and do a quick resize of the picture.
  • Keyboard Manager: allows to remap select keys and customize what happens when the key gets pressed. This can be done for individual key, or for combination of shortcut keys.
  • PowerRename: Windows Shell Extension to help with bulk renaming a large number of files, with support of search and replace or regular expressions.
  • PowerToys Run: instead of using Start menu to launch an app, you can activate PowerToys Run using Alt + Space shortcut and start typing. It will show popup window on the middle of the screen and let you search for an app and launch it.
  • Shortcut Guide: keep Windows key pressed for more than a second, and it will show the helper screen with available Windows + <key> shortcuts.
Microsoft PowerToys: Image Resizer

I especially like Fancy Zones, which helps a lot to quickly arrange windows when working on a wide screen. Windows 10 has standard options to quickly snap selected window to left or right half the screen – just use Windows + Left or Windows + Right key. But Fancy Zones let you easily split the screen on eg. three parts. To do so, you need to launch Zones Editor, select the Columns template, and optionally move the vertical splitters.

One way of splitting can be do define approximately 25% of left and right part of the screen for one vertical window, and leave 50% in the centre for main Window. Left side can be used for let’s say Outlook, right one for Teams, and in the middle you can do whatever you usually do. FancyZones can remember configuration for each app, so this way it will always launch an app in designated part of the screen. Of course, you can undock the app from initial position and move if freely around the screen.

Microsoft PowerToys: FancyZones

Microsoft Build 2020: Virtual conference with a real swag

Microsoft Build (also known as //build/) conference has just finished. This is major annual conference held by Microsoft, targeting software engineers and developers. This year’s conference was quite different, as Build 2020 was all-digital event for the first time. It was originally planned to take place in Seattle, and with physical events getting cancelled Microsoft decided to proceed with a virtual one. And to make it available free of charge for all, requiring just a simple online registration.

And as is the case with most conferences, attendees got a “swag” with some goodies. Being digital conference, Build 2020 has Digital Swag that includes various wallpapers, banners and watch faces. Nothing to write home about, but it can be found at Build2020_DigitalSwag on GitHub. But I was pleasantly surprised when around a week before the start of Microsoft Build, I’ve received a package with real, physical swag! I signed up for the conference some time ago, and I am not sure if Microsoft sent this to all early registered attendants?

Microsoft Build 2020 swag

A package included the following:

  • A lanyard and conference name tag (without a name). Just plastic tag, no embedded RFID tags that Microsoft uses on many real conferences.
  • Two sheets of labels – Azure, Python, Microsoft Learn, racoons. Someone might stick these labels is on their laptops. I won’t.
  • A pair of socks, with unique “Microsoft :heart: Developers” design, great to work from home. Because you probably would not want to be seen wearing them in public. Socks are good quality, soft cotton blend, made in the USA by the Sock Club.
  • A reusable lunch box with cutlery. Made with bamboo fibre composite. It can be useful not just for sandwiches, as it comes with elastic band to keep it closed, while cover has rubber membrane. That should help with keeping some cooked food without spilling, though I wouldn’t dare using it for soups and curries.

It was nice to get a real swag for the virtual conference. Thank you, Microsoft people.

Linguistic clarification is needed – in Australia, “swag” has much different meaning, and refers to a roll-up bed you use when you sleep out in the bush. For the stuff you get at events, in Australia we use terms “goodie bag” or “show bag”. But since virtual heart of Build 2020 was in Seattle, and my Build 2020 goodie bag was sent from the USA, then “swag” it is.

Building a new PC: small, fast, AMD

I am building a new home computer. A design brief to myself is simple:

  • Case should be small(ish). Not Intel NUC-style small, but good PC configuration in a Small Form Factor (SFF).
  • Configuration must be good and fast enough to be future proof without (major) upgrades for at least a few years.
  • Processor will be AMD Ryzen with Zen 2 architecture , undecided yet which model. Sorry Intel, the time to change has come.

What is a bit different than usual SFF builds is that I’m not into gaming or multimedia. This will be machine for my work, which require running many virtual machines in parallel, various business software, a range of software development tools, lots of data crunching and analysis. In this scenario, processor speed, memory and storage are more important than graphics card – though I do plan to get a decent graphics card.

I haven’t built my computer for quite some time, and after decided to build by next PC, I quickly realized that building a Small Form Factor can be a daunting task. Deciding on form factor (in my case ITX), CPU platform (AMD Ryzen), socket (AM4) and chipset (X570) is easy, but that is when the troubles (or fun?) just start.

Adequate cooler is needed, that can cool the CPU but still fit the case and do not interfere with other components. Is standard AMD cooler (Wraith Prism or Wraith Spire) going to be enough? How about liquid cooling? RAM does not only need to match requirements for speed and latency, but dimensions and heatsink are important, so it does not interfere with the cooler. All motherboards are not equal, there are differences in layout, VRMs, chipset cooling, etc. For graphics card it is not just which GPU and memory, but also how is it getting cooled and what are physical dimensions, can it fit the case? Power supply must be in SFX format to fit the case, adequate to power all components, modular to avoid too much spaghetti cables, quiet to minimize noise, and with good efficiency ratings for less heating.

This is gonna be fun.