advice you can use — short and to the point — every Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday

technology  research  practice

All Our Technology Tips

iPads and iPhones have a Shift key, which is handy when you need to type a capital letter.ipad But what if you want to type something in all caps? Pressing Shift for each letter is a pain. No worries though, a simple double-tap on either Shift key will lock them down so you will get all caps as you type. Just tap either Shift key again to turn all caps off.


When adding a picture or clipart to your PowerPoint or Word document, you may run into a situation where you don’t want its background to appear. This happens most frequently to me when I place a logo or symbol onto a PowerPoint slide and its background is a different colour than the background of the slide.
There is no need for a fancy photo editing tool like Photoshop. In Word, PowerPoint and Excel 2010 and later versions you can use the Background Removal tool to easily remove a background from a picture. (Older versions of Office may have the more simplified option of selecting Format – Background – No Fill.) This is how the Background Removal tool works:
First, click on the picture that you want to remove the background from. Next, under Picture Tools, on the Format tab, click Background Removal. backremoveDrag the handles on the marquee lines so they contain just the portion of the picture that you wish to keep. The program will try to intuitively remove areas around the selected portion of your picture.
You can them manually customize what goes or stays by using Mark Areas to Keep or Mark Areas to Remove (click on one or the other and click on elements of your picture), or by drawing lines with your mouse to indicate the buttonsapproximate area you’re interested in keeping or removing. Use Delete Mark to get rid of any drawn indicator lines you decide against or Discard All Changes to start over. When you have removed all the parts you don’t want, click Keep Changes to return to your document and see the results. If you don’t like the result, remember that Undo (Ctrl+Z) will undo your changes.
Tip: Expand your image before starting the Removal Tool to make it easier to see what you are selecting. This is especially helpful if your image has tiny details.


On a PC it is easy to grab an image of what is on your computer screen (aka a “screenshot”), just hit the dedicated PrintScreen key on your keyboard (sometimes abbreviated as Print Scrn, Prnt Scrn, Prt Scn, Prt Scr, Prt Sc or Pr Sc). Doing this places an image of your screen PrtScninto the Clipboard. Pressing the Alt key with PrintScreen will put an image of just the active Window into the Clipboard. You can then paste (as in cut or copy and paste) that image into a document just as you would anything that is stored in the clipboard (Press Ctrl+V or the Paste icon on your toolbar).
More recent versions of Windows include the Snipping Tool – a handy utility for grabbing an image of a portion of your desktop. I have moved the Snipping Tool to my Start menu as I use it almost daily.
There is no dedicated PrintScreen key on a Mac keyboard. However, you can grab a screenshot of the entire screen on a Mac by if you hold down the Command and Shift keys and press the number 3. To take a screenshot of part of your screen, drag a box around it, then hold down the Command and Shift keys and press the number 3. Doing this creates a PNG image file on your desktop that contains your screenshot.
While there are fancier third party programs that let you capture things in more and different ways, the built-in screen capture functionality on PCs and Macs will often meet your needs.


By default, Microsoft Excel gives your worksheets the rather bland names Sheet1, Sheet2, Sheet3 and so on. These default names do nothing to help you remember what is in each worksheet, especially if you come back to work on a workbook many days, weeks or months later.excel

There are a number of helpful things you can do to tweak and change worksheet tabs in ways that will help you find and remember what you have in a workbook. They include:

  • Giving the tab a new name that describes the contents: To do this, double-click on a tab; or right-click on it and select rename.
  • Reorder your worksheet tabs to make it easier to jump between related tabs: Just drag and drop individual tabs to change tab order. The little black triangle shows where a tab you are dragging will be dropped when you release it.
  • You can also change the colour of a tab as well as insert, delete, move, copy or even hide a worksheet by right-click on tab, and selecting the option you want.

Remember these tricks next time you what to make your Excel workbooks more user friendly.


Most of us spend many hours a day browsing the Web. If you are reading an article, or scanning through a long page, it is a pain to reach for the mouse and use the scroll bars, and hitting the down cursor key will only move you one line at a time. Not very fast or efficient.

There is an easier way – pressing the spacebar once will jump you down one screen. This works in all PC and Mac browsers regardless of how big your font size is. Hitting the spacebar once will magically jump you to a full fresh page of text. It doesn’t matter what magnification you are viewing the page at – it just works.

And if you want to go in the other direction – pressing Shift+Spacebar and you will jump up one screen at a time.

Happy surfing everyone.


The Universal Serial Bus or USB cable has become the universal standard for charging and connecting electronic devices. USB cable connectors come in a variety of shapes and they can fit very snugly or usblogooffer very little resistance when you plug them in. Getting the right orientation can sometimes be a challenge, and forcing them in the wrong orientation will damage the connectors. Here is a little tip to help you get it right: look for the USB trident logo, it indicates which side of the connector should face up when you are plugging things in.


We’ve all been there: Waiting for an urgent email, text or call while watching the red battery warning light flash as you are running from one place to another. Dimming the screen and closing open apps will keep your device alive a bit longer, but often it won’t be enough. redbb
In this situation, you end up looking for a place to get a quick charge– but as you are in a rush, you don’t have a lot of time to let your device charge-up. Here are two options that will allow it to charge more quickly:

  1. Close all open apps and put it in airplane mode. This turns all the device’s radios off, allowing the power that would normally run the radios to go to charging the device.
  2. You can also turn it off completely, allowing all incoming power to go to charging the device’s battery.

Of course, you won’t receive any messages or calls while you are in airplane mode or when your device is turned off, but your device’s battery will charge noticeably faster. Either of these tricks will get you off and running with more of a charge in your battery. Nice to know the next time you are in a rush and that red battery light starts flashing.


Anyone who has spent a lot of time using Excel will occasionally make and error when excelentering data or a formula. Thankfully, Excel is programmed to tell you that you made a mistake, and it will even give you an error message that will suggest what the problem is. These are the error messages that Excel will give you, and an explanation of what they mean:

  • ###### = value is too long to display (make the column wider to fix this)
  • #VALUE = the wrong type of argument or operand has been used
  • #DIV/0! = a formula divides by 0 (zero)
  • #NAME? = Excel doesn’t recognize text in a formula.
  • #N/A = a value is not available to a function or a formula
  • #REF! = a cell reference is not valid
  • #NUM! = a problem has occurred with a number in a formula or function
  • #NULL! = you specified an intersection of two areas that do not intersect

Remember these error messages next time you are troubleshooting an error in Excel – they will help you find and fix the problem.


When it comes to purchasing things, I will admit that I tend to be a tad on the anal side. I always spend a ton of time researching the available options. This has been a lifelong issue for me.
In the old days (read pre-Internet), one of my favourite sources of information and reviews was Consumer Reports Magazine. It is still a go to resource for me and now also has extensive online information (mostly behind a subscriber wall), and there are now many more online sources of similar information. The trick now is finding information you can rely on.
Thanks to a tweet by thewirecutter Rick Klau, a few days ago I stumbled across an amazing site: The Wirecutter. It is aimed at people who don’t want to take a lot of time figuring out what electronics, gadgets or gear to get. They have a top recommendation in different categories for just about every kind of device or gear you can think of. They also have a bunch of holiday gift guides and some cool collections like The Wirecutter’s Best Everyday Things for $50, $100, $200. Sister site The Sweethome takes a similar approach for home goods like bedsheets, blenders, duct tape, screwdrivers, etc.
I reviewed a bunch of their recommendations and was pleased to see my final choices on some recent and upcoming purchases were the same as their top recommendation (called “Our pick”) or some the options that they considered decent alternatives to their top pick. The reasoning behind each top pick is explained, as are the strengths and weaknesses of close alternatives. The explanations they give will help you in making a purchase decision, whether or not you go with one of their recommendations.
The recommendations they make come from weeks or months of research and testing by their team, including interviews and data from the best editorial and user sources around, and the help of other engineers, scientists, and experts. Most of their recommendations aren’t for top-of-the-line models that are loaded up with junk features or overpriced; rather they are typically of the “good enough” variety because this is generally where common needs and more reasonable prices come together.
Yes I will still do my research, but for future purchases I think my starting point will be The Wirecutter. Consider visiting this site if you have any gadgets or gear on your holiday gift list.


When you create a cell reference in an Excel formula that refers to another cell, that cell reference can be relative (the default) or absolute. A relative cell reference adjusts to its new location when the formula is copied or moved. An absolute cell reference does not change when the formula is moved.

Consider this example: Starting in A1 you have a 3×3 table with some figures in it. Cell D1 contains this formula: =A1+(B1*C1). If copy this formula to cell D2, the cell references will change relative to the new location and the formula will automatically change to =A2+(B2*C2).

Now consider this example where you have a constant in a formula: You have a column of costs in Canadian dollars and you want to add a second column that gives the US dollar equivalent. And in particular you want to set it up so you can adjust the US conversion rate in one location on the sheet so you don’t have to do it multiple times if the exchange rate changes.

So in the first column you have your $Cdn figures (A1, A2, A3…). Your conversion rate is in cell D1 (e.g., 1.10). In cell B1 at the top of the second column you have this formula: =A1*$D$1. The $ in front of the row and column references indicates an absolute cell reference. So if you copy the formula in B1 to B2, it will become =A2*$D$1. The first part of the formula is relative and is changed, but the second part is absolute and did not change (if it had done so, it would have referred to the cell below the cell with your conversion rate.

Absolute and relative cell references can twist your brain, but they are real handy in the right circumstances. Note that you can also have a cell reference in a formula that is a mix relative and absolute. Will save an example of that one for another day.

So recognizing that a $ sign is used to indicated an absolute row or column reference, here are some examples of relative and absolute cell references:

  • A1 (relative column and relative row)
  • $A$1 (absolute column and absolute row)
  • A$1 (relative column and absolute row)
  • $A1 (absolute column and relative row)

And now for the tip. It should be obvious that typing $ signs in one or more cell references in a formula will be tedious and error prone. The brilliant programmers at Microsoft save you a bunch of grief with some keyboard shortcuts: Click on a cell references in a formula and press F4 on a PC, or Command+T on a Mac, to cycle through the 4 possible relative and absolute combinations for that cell reference. Very helpful indeed!