Not the best week for my Android

Although I’m a huge Android fan the past week or so hasn’t been too kind to my HTC One M8, which up until now has been spot on in terms of both hardware and software.

Just in case anyone else experiences the same issues I decided to post this to at least make the problem solving process a bit less painful…

OK Google? O… K Google? Oh…

12605596705_75921dc70eMy favourite feature since getting the M8 (just pipping the IR remote) is Google Now and particularly the “OK Google” voice activation. Having an almost-natural voice interface with the device is something that makes me feel like “the future” has arrived, as well as coming in very handy for in-car use for navigation, music playback etc.

Unfortunately the Play Store forced down a bunch of updates recently and now the activate from any screen system has stopped working :(


Seems like I’m not the only one it’s affected judging by the slew of comments on the Google forums. The last couple of posts suggesting it’s fixed in the latest beta look promising at least – hurry up Google and get this fixed!

Wi-Fi in slow-motion

Around the same time I’d also noticed loading web pages on my home Wi-Fi had gone back to 56k speeds, or even worse just timing out. For a day or so I just switched to 4G as a workaround but tonight had to try and figure out what was going wrong. After a bit of Googling this struck a chord:


Indeed as soon as I disabled the Bluetooth connection everything went back to normal. I don’t usually have it turned on but since using Android Auto (more on that soon) Bluetooth tends to get left on when I get out the car. May need to invest in some NFC tags and use the Trigger app to control this.

BlinkFeed replacement

One HTC-specific feature I’ve grown to like is BlinkFeed. Initially I dismissed it as a nuisance taking up precious home screen space but as content started rolling in I started spotting some interesting content that I wouldn’t normally see through traditional browsing methods.

With social network updates mixed in as well it became a really useful at-a-glance content consumption method. Needless to say I don’t like the sound of the replacement if the article below about ad-related content is true:


The joys of continuous updates and a quick word on OneDrive

At least two of the issues above come as a result of the continual release cycle we now find ourselves in these days with cloud-first software and services. On one hand getting new features is good but when the releases break (or even worse remove) key functionality then it’s a very different end-user experience.

It would be nice if Google etc. held their hands up when bugs are found to remove the uncertainty over whether it’s one particular device \ installation at fault or if users are suffering from update-related issues; I for one would value the honesty of saying “it’s broken but we’re fixing it” over saving face and staying silent. Fortunately blogs and forums often step in to fill the gap.

Still at least none of these issues are in the same league as Microsoft’s ludicrous bait-and-switch OneDrive retrospective storage downgrade on it’s consumer user base. I’m moving all my backups onto Google Photos right now then dispensing with OneDrive for personal use once the storage limits are applied early next year.

It’s a real shame as I’ve been using the product right from its early SkyDrive days so in my case the reversal from 40GB (15GB + 10GB loyalty + 15GB camera roll) down to 5GB is a real kick in the teeth. At the start of the year I was likely to move up to the paid plan once I went over my last couple of GB but there’s no chance of that now.

enjoy it while you can…

Fortunately the same stupidity hasn’t been applied to Education (OneDrive for Business) users, which is probably the only bit of good news to come out of the debacle. Ironically all this happened the same week the much-improved (and long overdue) new UI arrived on our O365 tenancy. A real shoot-yourself-in-the-foot moment from Microsoft I feel (as do many, many others).


Microsoft still has time to reverse this before they lose whatever goodwill they had left among consumers but the clock is ticking…

2016… the year of monetisation of the cloud?

What is interesting the the OneDrive move is that Microsoft have effectively blinked first in the game of which provider stops giving more to consumers. In this case MS have gone one step further and will be actively taking away what we already have.

With enhanced ad-blocking features moving across platforms onto iOS and suchlike I wonder if 2016 may be the year the big cloud players start pushing the boundaries to see how far they can go with monetising their services. This is one prediction I’ll be very happy to see turn out wrong!

Tools of the trade

ToolkitBecause the list of all the best little tools and utilities only gets larger over time I’ve decided to take it out of my head and starting writing them out on a post here.

Works well for me as there’s somewhere to refer back to and works well for anyone reading this to discover something very handy that may not yet have crossed your path.

I’ve tried to split into categories so skip to the one that’s most relevant. The list is by no means exhaustive so I’ll keep adding more as I remember or discover them :)


Construction Worker-50Hobbyist

like to create your own electronics? Look no further…



tools for video, audio etc.


Network-50Network & Server

Local and online utilities for your day-to-day networking needs



Development tools and reference


System Task-50System

An assortment of tools for your local machine



Web development tools


Disclaimer: although I’ve used all the tools in the list and recommend them due to their effectiveness and usually zero cost be aware that they may not stay that way forever! Keep a local copy of any program you find especially useful and always watch installers carefully in case the developer decides to go down the adware-supported route at some point in the future. Forewarned is forearmed…

Image credit: Icons8

Intel Compute Stick – digital signage… on a stick

compute-stick-shadowNot sure I’ll get any awards for originality of this headline but in this case the product name really does do what it says on the tin.

I first head of the Compute Stick at the BETT show back when it was a vapourware product so was interested to try one out when they got out to the wider market. Even more so with the fairly low price point that’s currently sitting under the £100 mark courtesy of Amazon.

The reviews don’t lie, but fear not

When I initially read the reviews of the product the signs didn’t sound good, in fact the headline from Gizmodo is pretty damning. Fortunately the last line about really liking kiosk LCD signage is my use-case down to a tee… so we carry on :)

For reference and to save taking loads of identical photos here’s the reviews I’m referencing:

Why buy a Compute Stick?

Until now we’ve either been using recycled PCs that we’ve removed from active service and by combining bits of them together (plus some £20 graphics cards) created something powerful enough to run HD signage effectively.

That’s worked OK until we’ve got to some more recent installs where there’s nowhere to hide an ungainly desktop PC. For those we’ve been getting nettop-esque players that come in around the £300 mark. The Compute Stick comes in around 1/3 the price in comparison and is even easier to mount due to its diminutive size. 

Getting started

Although the Compute Stick comes with a bundled copy of Windows 8.1 with Bing we decided to wipe and reload our own Enterprise license to allow us to join the device to our domain. Some forum posts suggested varying levels of success but in all cases so far a full wipe and reload (from USB media) has been successful.

Unfortunately I can’t say the same about a Windows 10 upgrade though, which got a bit messy on the sole machine we tried before being formatted back to Windows 8.1. The 32GB eMMC storage device isn’t the quickest in the world so large upgrades like this take some time to complete, which makes it a bit galling when they fail right at the end! It seems Intel may start shipping the Compute Stick with Windows 10 as standard soon though.

Tip: before you start I’d advise jumping to the BIOS and enable “Performance” mode.

The Stick hasn’t got a great deal of power behind it anyway so throttling it down further won’t do any favours.


As touched on in the reviews above you only get one USB port to play with so a hub is essential for configuring the Compute Stick. Once you’re done it’s trivial to remote control it via VNC or similar remote access products, which is fine for this particular use case.

One thing to get out the way before you consider one of these devices though… Wi-Fi is awful. No other way of saying it, range is poor, signal drops were common and the Wi-Fi chip seems to somehow slow down the device as well. Seems we’re not alone in experiencing the issue so it looks like a hardware or driver fault

In a way the Wi-Fi issues don’t matter as we run all our signage players wired anyway. A suitable USB Ethernet dongle was soon purchased; we went for this Startech adapter, which works a treat and has been solid in our testing thus far. It’s also the same size as the Compute Stick and makes a neat combo when held together with a suitably sized cable tie.


All in all it’s safe to say the Compute Stick is far from perfect; it’s Intel’s first go at a new platform and I’m sure the next revision will smooth out a lot of the rough edges we’ve seen in this model. With new Cherry Trail powered devices just around the corner there’s no doubt the platform will get a bit of a performance boost too.


There’s already some interesting hardware appearing but not shipping just yet so keep your eyes peeled. If the MagicStick lives up to its claims it should be a rather impressive device…

In the meantime if you need a cheap Windows-based signage solution keep an eye out for offers as retailers clear out this generation of Intel sticks.

Attack of the Chromes: a Google Apps adventure begins

I’ve been watching the growth of Google’s Chrome OS for some time now – scarily about 4 years have gone by since they first appeared on the radar.

Recently I had the chance to get some in to work with first-hand as part of our STEM Centre project. It’s a new modern learning space and part of that vision involves the effective use of mobile devices.

Dell Chromebook 11 ready for action

Why Chromebooks?

There’s no denying the price point and simplicity of the Chromebook model so even though we’re an Office 365 site at present it would be foolish not to try the Google platform, especially with many of our courses already using online resources via Moodle and similar web platforms. This post covers our first steps along the way and a couple of tips and tricks to get you started if you’re in a similar position :)

The Chromebook is an interesting product for education and one that’s been discussed at length over at the Edugeek forums. First revisions of the platform weren’t quite there but looking at Chrome OS now it’s a lot more mature in terms of both concept and implementation. The hardware available has also moved up a level in terms of performance and quality as manufacturers have perhaps shown more faith in the Chrome OS platform.

One interesting point from the past that still hasn’t quite been resolved is Android vs Chrome OS, as it stands still two separate products but with some interesting convergence ideas showing through. On one head there’s ARC Welder allowing Android apps to run in Chrome and then there’s the Microsoft Surface-inspired Pixel C hybrid that could be an effective vehicle for either platform. Just to add another option into the mix you can also now get touch-screen Chromebooks (!)

Which device?

After a video conference with our Google Account Manager to discuss the platform in more detail we decided to get a couple of different devices in on trial. This included the HP Chromebook 11 and 14, plus the Dell Chromebook 11. The latter is particularly interesting as it’s built with the education market in mind and should be a bit more robust in the long term, as proven by this teardown article that pitches the Dell device against the equivalent Acer model:


One word of advice that we were given is to pay the little bit extra for a 4GB RAM model to avoid performance issues when browsing media-rich sites and \ or using multiple tabs. Thus far the Dell Chromebook 11’s haven’t skipped a beat in use thus far so I’d agree with this recommendation.


The HP G3 14″ is an interesting device for its larger screen size, although from reading around I had some performance doubts related to the ARM Tegra processor. We’re not yet sure if 11″ is enough screen estate for students to work comfortably but the pilot projects will give us some feedback on that front. A 13″ device would be ideal, Dell are launching one but it looks somewhat more expensive than the 11″ version and aimed more at business customers.

In the end we bought in 6 Dell Chromebook 11’s from Haptic Networks to use in the STEM centre alongside a parallel trial of Microsoft Surface 3 tablets (more on that another time).

Thus far the people I’ve shown them to have been impressed by their lightweight sturdy build and solid keyboard (something that’s not quite up to the same standard on the HP devices). Battery life also looks very promising.

The only gripe I have with the Dell units is the fact someone, in their infinite wisdom decided to place a grinning lizard as a non-configurable logon screen wallpaper. There’s currently no way to change it from the Chrome admin console and it seems Dell aren’t too bothered about providing a solution either. I’m just glad the logon box covers up most of the image but even so… a lizard… why?!

Getting started tips and tricks

Although Chromebooks are pretty simple to get up and running using the online management portal there’s a couple of tips I’ll share from my initial experiences

Update in Guest Mode before doing anything else

Although our batch of Dells arrived in one shipment they all had different versions of Chrome OS installed where they’d been produced at different times. The visual differences are subtle but noticeable when all running side by side.

The quickest way I’ve found to get them up to date is to log in using the Guest mode option, preferably on a direct Internet connection then navigate to this URL in the browser:


Of course you can do this through the menu but this is so much quicker than pointing and clicking ;)
On two of our devices with the oldest out-the-box OS versions the first update run didn’t get them up to the newest Chrome OS so you may need to repeat the process.

Retrieving device MAC addresses

You may need to retrieve the MAC address of the devices for your Wi-Fi system or asset management records. The GUI way of doing this is a bit click-heavy and requires you to be connected to a network first. Alternatively you can do it a quicker way:

  1. in the browser navigate to chrome://system
  2. do a CTRL+F on the page and search for ifconfig
  3. the MAC address is listed under HWaddr

Resetting a device ready for enrolment

If you receive your Chromebooks before having completed your Google Apps registration it can be tempting to sign into the Chromebook with a consumer Google Account to try them out. This works OK until you then try to enrol the Chromebook as a managed device, at which point it promptly fails as per Google’s documentation below. The KB article also explains how to completely wipe the device using Developer Mode so you can repeat the out-of-box setup process.


Enrolling a device is simple using a keyboard shortcut that will soon become muscle memory CTRL + ALT + E


Proxy problems

unnamedA page about cloud services wouldn’t be complete without a proxy-related caveat and the Chromebooks are no exception. Initially none of them connected after they switched networks from the direct-connected (NAT) temporary SSID I’d used for setup to the proxied one defined in the policy manager.

My first thought was to switch from Auto Detection using WPAD to a manually-specified proxy address. That change worked wonders almost immediately and I soon had login screens instead of connection failed errors… apart from two devices…

After putting all 6 Chromebooks in a line and rebooting them at the same time I soon found the same two devices failed every time. As far as I knew everything had been updated so it didn’t initially make sense why two were behaving differently from the rest.

After double-checking the Chrome OS versions it then became apparent two hadn’t fully updated and were sitting on Chrome OS 45.x instead of the new 46.x release. After moving them back onto the direct connection for another round of updates they then started behaving.

Moral of the story comes back to my first bit of advice: update, update, update!

It’s also worth running the Chrome Connectivity Diagnostics app on your devices if you suspect any network-related issues:


Next steps

Now the devices are up and running we need to start provisioning users into the Google Apps tenancy. For that we’ll need to install and configure GADS and GAPS to sync users and passwords from Active Directory. For now Gmail has been turned off until a decision is made about where email lives in future (as it’s not something we’d change part-way through an academic year).

Now just a matter of waiting for some initial user feedback to see how they get on with the Chromebooks and in what contexts they become an effective learning tool :)

Random error of the day – Office 365 OWA URL change


This post is another heads-up for Office 365 admins behind proxy servers as we had an odd issue last week that’s an easy fix but wasn’t so obvious to spot…

OWA loading error

In Chrome some of our users were reporting that Chrome returned an ERR_CONNECTION_RESET page when trying to load Outlook from the Office 365 apps tray. It only affected a couple of users and the link was working OK in Internet Explorer.

After a bit of playing with various ways to get to OWA I found that if we removed the end of the URL and simplified it to just the “outlook” subdomain everything loaded OK… strange.

We logged a call with our Bloxx proxy support and they responded swiftly, taking some Wireshark captures on both proxy and client. Their analysis helped pinpoint the cause of the issue…

The captures showed that the client did initially talk to the proxy but then decided to continue the next part of the connection directly, which was then blocked by outbound rules on our firewall. In our WPAD file we have a wildcard entry towards the end that returns DIRECT for any in-house servers and it seemed that the “” part of the OWA URL in the image above was matching the rule and thus trying to bypass the proxy.

What’s changed?

Although the theory made sense on one hand it didn’t on another as we’d never had these issues before. Looking around for what’s changed in our environment put a few culprits in the frame; Google Chrome updates and the Office 365 platform itself.

At this point I went back on my VM, which was now exhibiting the same issue. At one point I had the WPAD file open and the failed web page side by side… then the lightbulb moment!

On one screen I had OWA open with a domain starting but on my VM it was trying to load – that’s new!

Going back into WPAD I then added another explicit traffic entry:

   /* Send Outlook OWA traffic via proxy here*/
        if (shExpMatch(url, "**"))
      { return "PROXY X.X.X.X:8080";}

Immediately OWA started working! It’s bizarre how some applications seem to need these rules in order to route traffic using Auto Detect but it seems to consistently fix issues when they pop up. As for the OWA URL, it seems to be a bit random at present which one gets used, although both are listed in the Office 365 URLs and IP ranges KB article so maybe Microsoft are in the middle of changing them over?

eDiscovery features added to Office 365 Education


A new term begins and with it another opportunity to see how we can make the most of our Office 365 services and this month sees some welcome additions to the Education platform :)

One issue that’s always nibbled away in the background with the E1 plan on Office 365 was that the advanced Compliance tools were locked away in a paid plan. To add them for a mid-large size user base would’ve taken the cost to unsustainable levels so we’ve lived without them and found our own workarounds.

However, for some products (Lync \ Skype for Business) the limitations meant that we couldn’t be confident that we had sufficient visibility of what was going on from an e-safety and Safeguarding perspective.

New features

I’m pleased to report that’s all changed – no doubt in some small part thanks to Google offering “Vault” as part of the core Google Apps offering. This competition is a great thing for us end-users as both companies have to constantly feature-match each other, giving us more functionality for the same (lack of) price!


compliance search

Accessing the Compliance Center

complianceLogging into an account with Global Administrator rights shows a new Compliance option under the Admin section.

Alternatively it can be accessed directly via

Full instructions for how to use the new features (search, archiving, legal hold, user permissions) can be found at


Configuration steps

Update: Having gone into the system today to try out the functionality we stumbled at the first hurdle, experiencing the error below when trying to add an Exchange mailbox as a source:

“The connection to the search service application failed”

A bit of further research provides a list of steps that need to be completed before nominated users (which are added to a dedicated eDiscovery Security Group) can search across all content within the Office 365 tenant:


If you’re an active OneDrive for Business user you’ve got some fun ahead to add the required permissions to each ODFB site!


Once done the search works as expected, although it’s not exactly speedy. Archiving an entire mailbox via this method may take some time, although it does provide access to the Purges folder in the case of a user hard deleting items (which otherwise can only be accessed via MFCMAPI as outlined here)

Name changes

At the same time Microsoft have rebranded all the the “E*” plans as Office 365 Education, no more worrying about E1, E3 and so on. Fortunately as mentioned in the blog the change doesn’t affect any licensing scripts that are already in place… phew!

For more detail see plus of course the main Office 365 page for a glossy summary

Office 365 PowerShell – watch out for the Object Graph error


Whilst in the Office 365 admin console the other day we noticed that many of our new user accounts that are being readied for the new term were missing their Office 365 licenses. We run a script every night to automatically license our users so something wasn’t right… let the investigation begin…

Everything *looks* OK?

Initially I thought maybe the scheduled task on the server wasn’t firing so I logged on and verified the script had completed successfully the night before, at least it appeared that way as the last result code was 0x0 (success).

I double-checked the script to ensure the logic was still sound in light of changing our MIS database and subsequent student rollover for the new academic year… nothing out the ordinary there as the script just checks for users starting with a student ID code where no licenses are applied.

Run the script step-by-step

My next plan of attack was then to run the script manually in a PowerShell window line-by-line to see what was going on. The first parts were OK, authenticating into the Office 365 service with no issues then I ran the initial filter command:

Get-MsolUser -All | Where-Object {$_.isLicensed -eq $false}

But instead of returning a list of users the command bombed out with this error:

The formatter threw an exception while trying to deserialize the message: There was an error while trying to deserialize parameter The InnerException message was 'Maximum number of items that can be serialized or deserialized in an object graph is '65536'. Change the object graph or increase the MaxItemsInObjectGraph quota. '. Please see InnerException for more details.

Looking around it seems the error is fairly common, I’m not sure whether it was triggered either by the number of users in our tenancy going past a certain level (and thus exceeding the query limit) or maybe a software update.

Either way the solution is explained clearly by the posters on a thread on

Basically the process goes as follows for an x64 server:

  • navigate to C:\Windows\Microsoft.NET\Framework64
  • go into the correct version folder based on the version of PowerShell you’re using
  • edit the machine.config file with the lines summarised in the link above
  • save and close config file

One step that isn’t mentioned was in my case the change didn’t seem to take effect until I rebooted the server

Running the unlicensed user query again after the rebooted returned the expected (large) list of unlicensed users, which I then followed up with a full run of the script to sort out all the student accounts. After that the list of unlicensed users was back at normal levels (shared mailboxes, archives etc.)


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