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Author Archives: Adam Turner

Family app sharing saves you money, but check the fine print

familysharing

Sharing apps with your loved ones makes sense in a busy household, but make sure you understand what you’re signing up for.

Apple’s iPhone and iPad kicked off the modern gadget revolution but, unlike a traditional PC, they were never designed for sharing. There’s no such thing as a user profile or fast user switching built into iOS, making it difficult to share your iPad with someone else without granting them access to all your personal data. The whole idea is for you to give up in frustration and simply buy a separate iPad for everyone in the house.

That hasn’t really changed, despite Android’s introduction of user profiles, but what has changed is that Apple and the other gadget makers are now more open to the idea of sharing your apps across your devices rather than expecting you to pay for the same app several times.

If you’ve been using tech for a long time then the Family Sharing options might not have existed when you first created your own account and accounts for your family members, so it’s worth investigating what they have to offer – especially if you have children who are getting old enough to have their own smartphone or tablet (perhaps for school).

The gadget makers are fairly generous when it comes to creating family accounts – both Apple’s iTunes Store and Android’s Google Play let you link six accounts. You can designate some accounts as children’s accounts and grant the head of the family control over their purchases, making it easier to manage your fleet of devices. You can also set up remote tracking should you misplace one of your expensive gadgets.

There are a few other perks when it comes to Family Sharing. It’s easy to share calendars and other information to help you stay organised during the week. It’s also easy to share Apple and Google’s subscription music services, which are two of the most cost-effective streaming music services if you’re catering to more than two people.

Lots of other services also offer some form of Family Sharing, for example Amazon lets you share Kindle eBooks while Steam lets you share game downloads. Meanwhile Netflix lets you create multiple user profiles within your account, so your partner’s viewing habits don’t influence your movie recommendations.

It’s important to read up on exactly how Family Sharing works before you dive in, because there are slight differences across the services. Steam’s Family Library Sharing is frustratingly limited, for example.

If you have two Steam accounts – say one for you and one for your daughter – you can’t buy one copy of a game like Portal and both play it on different computers at the same time. Unlike Apple and Android app sharing you need to buy two copies of the game, one for each Steam account.

This might not seem unreasonable, but what’s more frustrating is that if you buy a copy of Portal and share it with your daughter, she can’t play it on her computer if you’re playing any other Steam game on your computer. As soon as you launch any Steam game she gets kicked out of Portal.

This limitation means you shouldn’t make the mistake of buying children’s games like Terraria on your Steam account, assuming that you’ll be able to share them with your children, because they’ll get kicked out of Terraria every time you launch Portal. You can’t even transfer the game to their Steam account, you’re stuck with it in your account.

Hassles like this can lead to expensive mistakes, so read the fine print and don’t fall for the trap of assuming that all Family Sharing features work the same way.


Are you ready for MasterCard’s Selfie Pay?

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You’ll soon be able to flash your smile to shop online as MasterCard prepares to launch facial recognition authentication in Australia.

The credit card giant has confirmed that MasterCard Identity Check is coming to Australia this year, via an app which uses your smartphone’s fingerprint reader, or facial recognition via the front camera, to confirm your identity. It won’t be mandatory, but rather a free opt-in service for Australian MasterCard holders to use with participating online retailers.

MasterCard isn’t offering “one-glance” purchases, you’ll still need to go via the typical online shopping cart and checkout when buying something online. Instead MasterCard intends to use facial or fingerprint recognition as a form of two-factor authentication to guard against fraudulent transactions. It relies on a deal between MasterCard and your bank, rather than negotiating with smartphone giants like Apple and Samsung.

When you make a payment online with your MasterCard via a participating retailer, the MasterCard app on your phone will pop up a notification requesting you to confirm the transaction is legit, by either swiping your finger on the reader or snapping a selfie using the front camera. The app insists that you blink as it studies your face, to ensure that you’re not trying to trick it with a photograph.

MasterCard’s research says that people trust these kinds of biometrics more than they trust passwords and PINs, but not everyone is comfortable with using their face or finger as a form of ID. Should it be compromised, you obviously can’t change your face as easily as you’d change your password.

To play it safe, MasterCard doesn’t keep an actual copy of your fingerprint or a photograph of your face on file. Instead the app studies the fine details or your face or fingerprint and uses an algorithm to generate a long string of numbers, which is compared to the string MasterCard keeps on file. This information is also encrypted as it travels across the internet, for an extra level of protection.

While Selfie Pay is a catchy name it’s actually a bit misleading, MasterCard Identity Check is more like “Selfie Second Opinion” in order to double-check that you’re really you.

The MasterCard app is linked to your specific device, plus MasterCard Identity Check is only a secondary authentication method – just like the single-use two-factor codes which many online services send to you via SMS. Biometrics alone aren’t enough to complete a purchase, so you don’t need to worry about strangers on the train trying to snap your photo or steal your fingerprint so they can shop online pretending to be you.

MasterCard’s facial recognition doesn’t turn your mugshot into the keys to your digital kingdom, instead it’s just one more tool in the fight against fraudsters who shop online using stolen credit card details.


Australia waits for Amazon’s Alexa to start listening

alexa

Alexa’s name kept popping up everywhere at the recent CES 2017 electronics show in Las Vegas, but Amazon is still tight-lipped as to when its voice-controlled personal assistant will officially come to Australia.

When it comes to online ecosystems Amazon rivals Apple and Google but, unlike its competitors, the US online retail giant has been slow to expand in our part of the world. Amazon supposedly has big plans for Australia, but so far we have very little to show for it.

Back in 2013, Amazon finally started selling eBooks and Kindle readers directly via an Australian website and it recently launched the Kindle Unlimited service locally – offering access to a vast library of eBooks for $13.99 per month. We also saw Amazon Video quietly launch in Australia late last year in time for Top Gear reboot The Grand Tour but, beyond this headline act, the streaming video service has very little to offer local viewers.

Rumours abound that Amazon will significantly expand its Australian retail efforts this year, perhaps getting into fresh produce and even opening its own chain of physical supermarkets. At this time we’d expect to see more Amazon hardware available locally, such as the Chromecast-style Fire TV streaming video dongle and the Amazon Echo benchtop speaker.

Amazon’s Echo benchtop speaker is powered by Alexa, the voice-controlled personal assistant which sits at the heart of the retail giant’s online ecosystem – similar to Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana. Like the others, Alexa’s ambitions is to be your virtual best friend.

Always at your beck and call, Alexa is expanding beyond the Echo speaker to reach smartphones, home entertainment gear, cars and even kitchen appliances such as fridges and ovens. Alexa also talks to a range of third-party smarthome gear such as Belkin WeMo, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings and LifX.

Alexa’s strength is that it’s tied directly into Amazon’s online store, so while you’re standing in the kitchen you can tell Alexa to add things to your online shopping list or even order items directly from Amazon. Alexa is also linked to a wide range of third-party services, letting you flop down on the couch and stream Netflix to your Fire TV while you check your FitBit stats and order a Domino’s pizza.

Of course none of this is officially supported in Australia yet, although it is possible to import an Echo speaker via a US delivery address and then link it to some services. Alexa will keep popping up in more and more appliances around our homes, at least for US users, but it remains to be seen whether Amazon’s plans for Australia in 2017 are all talk.


Packing your summer tech travel bag

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Even if you’re taking a flight to get away from it all, chances are you’ll still want to throw some tech in your travel bag this summer.

If you’re jumping on a plane then noise-cancelling headphones can be a wise investment, especially on a long haul international flight. Don’t expect miracles, you can’t completely block out the sound of the engines but you can dull it down from an overpowering roar to more tolerable background hum.

You get what you pay for when it comes to noise-cancelling headphones, plus their design makes a significant difference – little earbuds aren’t going to do as good a job as large over-the-ear cans which help muffle the sound of the world before you even turn on the noise-cancelling.

The top-shelf noise-cancelling headphones support wireless Bluetooth connections, which helps cut down on cable tangles, but don’t be afraid to skip Bluetooth if you’re on a tight budget. Assuming your music player has a 3.5mm headphone jack, listening via cable instead of Bluetooth tends to offer better sound quality – plus turning off Bluetooth on your music player and headphones should help extend their battery life to help get you through a long flight.

Not every airline seat is blessed with a power socket, which is where a portable gadget charger comes in handy – charging everything from your smartphone and tablet to your noise-cancelling headphones, eBook reader and digital camera.

The higher the battery capacity the more times you can recharge your devices before the battery runs flat. These days you’d want at least 5000 mAh in a gadget charger, but don’t be afraid to go higher – especially if there won’t be a power point at your destination and the battery needs to last you for a few days.

The trade-off is that larger batteries weigh more, so you might decide to carry a second smaller battery for day trips.

Some portable gadget chargers have built-in connectors, such as Apple’s Lightning jack. This might be fine if you’re only carrying iGadgets, but if you’re lugging around an eclectic collection of gadgets then you might be better off with USB ports so you can charge practically anything (assuming your packed the charge cable).

Some portable gadget chargers feature two USB ports for charging two devices at once, with 2.1 Amp USB ports for charging power-hungry devices more quickly than 1 Amp ports.

If you need to get a little work done while you’re travelling but you don’t want to take your notebook and AC adaptor on the road, consider whether a Bluetooth keyboard for your smartphone or tablet will do the job. It’s especially handy if you’re flying economy where you might not have the elbow room to use a notebook. Even if you’re travelling with a notebook, if might be worth throwing a Bluetooth keyboard in your suitcase as a backup, to use with your touchscreen devices should something happen to your computer when you’re far from home.

Some tablet cases come with built-in Bluetooth keyboards, making it easy to use your touchscreen device as a makeshift notebook. Otherwise you’ll need a stand for your smartphone or tablet to hold it at the best viewing angle as you type – you don’t want your screen lying flat on the table. Some Bluetooth keyboards feature a slot for holding your screen upright, otherwise you’ll find a wide range of stands which fold up to fit in your travel bag.

It’s worth thinking about the tech you’ll need long before you head for the airport. Don’t wait until you’re on the runway to wish that you’d packed more tech in your travel bag.


Blocking The Pirate Bay is not the answer to Australia’s piracy problem

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Was it worth copyright holders fighting for years in the courts to establish Australia’s piracy filter, when anyone can bypass it in seconds?

Australia’s Federal court has finally decreed that local Internet Service Providers must abide by court orders to block websites such as The Pirate Bay and SolarMovie which are favoured by Aussie pirates. The court orders are at the bequest of rights holders like Foxtel and Village Roadshow, giving ISPs two weeks to put blocks in place which ensure that Australians attempting to visit these sites are instead presented with a notification such as:

Content Denied: Access to this website has been disabled by an order of the Federal Court of Australia because it infringes or facilitates the infringement of copyright.

It’s understandable that rights holders are frustrated at Australia’s high piracy rates, but the problem with website filtering is that it’s literally child’s play to beat. The tricks which school children use to beat filtering and access Facebook in the classroom will also let them beat Australia’s piracy blockade with ease.

Combatting piracy doesn’t involve calling in the lawyers, it requires addressing the reasons why Australians turn to piracy. Often the rights holders are their own worst enemy.

For the first few seasons of Game of Thrones, Australians had the option to buy each episode from the iTunes store or Google Play the day after it screened on Foxtel – an attractive option for people who were prepared to pay for content but didn’t want to sign up for an expensive Foxtel package.

Foxtel then extended its rights deal with HBO to completely lock away Game of Thrones, ensuring Apple and Google couldn’t sell new episodes in Australia until Foxtel had finished screening the entire season. For every person who reluctantly signed up for Foxtel, you can be sure several more turned to The Pirate Bay rather than give their money to a pay TV giant which had squashed any other legal way to watch the show week by week.

Meanwhile Village Roadshow lost millions of dollars to piracy when it delayed the cinema release of The Lego Movie in Australia by eight weeks. After vowing to do better in future, it’s going down the same path again by delaying the release of The Lego Batman movie until seven weeks after the US premiere.

Piracy is primarily an issue of pricing and availability – most people will do the right thing if you give them what they want, at a fair price and in a timely manner. The change of approach would be such a culture shock for rights holders that it’s easier for them to embark on futile legal challenges and demand ineffective piracy filters than it is to actually address the reasons behind piracy and change the way they treat their customers.

Nothing will curb Australia’s piracy problem until local rights holders can admit that they’re part of the problem and change their ways.


Are you due for a summer tech detox?

summertech

There’s no shame in leaving your high-tech gadgets at home while you get out to enjoy the sunshine.

The rise of the smartphone has been both a blessing and a curse for those of us who want, or perhaps need, to stay connected while we’re out and about. An all-singing, all-dancing smartphone can act as your music player, portable cinema, digital camera, camcorder, sat-nav, personal organiser, computer, map and compass – if you strapped a Swiss Army Knife to the back you’d have the ultimate survival tool. But keeping a smartphone in your pocket when you’re off in the wilderness also means that the worries of the world are never far away.

It’s easy to frown at that person you see checking their messages at the beach, or firing off a few emails while pushing their kid on the swing, but some people don’t have the luxury of disappearing off the face of the Earth for four weeks every year. Sometimes striking a balance requires taking your work with you, rather than remaining tied to your desk or staying behind on that family trip.

You might not be able to go cold turkey and drop off the grid for weeks at a time but that doesn’t mean you’re trapped by your tech. Even leaving your phone on the kitchen bench while you sit on the couch or slip into the backyard can offer that feeling of freedom which comes from having nothing in your pockets.

You might rely on your smartphone for entertainment and swear that you’re relaxing, but holding your phone can still blur the line between work and play.

If you can’t get away from business with your phone in your hand then perhaps it’s worth investing a separate tablet which is just for entertainment. This can help draw a clear line in the sand both for you and the people around you who still struggle to know whether it’s work or play when you reach for your phone. Better yet, go old-school and pick up a real book, turn on the radio or head down to the shops and buy the newspaper. Or just sit back and become reacquainted with the concept of having nothing to do.

If your phone can never leave your side then perhaps you can give yourself a break by turning off push notifications and only manually checking your messages. Unless you’re getting paid to be on call, most things can wait an hour or two. Perhaps you can set up rules to alert you to the handful of messages that really can’t wait, so you’re not constantly interrupted by mundane things which drag you back into work mode.

For some of us a tech detox might mean simply abstaining from social media to escape the Controversy of the Day. The 24/7 news cycle has many of us feeling that we need to constantly stay up-to-date with the world and it’s easy to lose perspective.

Don’t miss out on much-needed downtime due to your Twitter-induced Fear Of Missing Out. In the words of personal development guru Ferris Bueller; Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.


Google’s Chromecast might outgun the streaming features on your Smart TV

chromecast

While the latest Smart TVs come with all the streaming bells and whistles, sometimes you’ll get better results from Google’s budget streaming media player.

Last year I bought a new television for the bedroom, just a basic 32-inch Sony Bravia W700B to sit in the corner so we can occasionally watch television in bed. Not that we watch a lot of free-to-air broadcasts in my house, the real attraction was built-in Netflix as well as the Plex media app for streaming video from Plex Media Server running on the Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive in my office.

With these features built into the television you wouldn’t think that I’d need to worry about any kind of external media player, but after a while the television’s shortcomings became clear.

I realised that we couldn’t watch high-def MKV video files in the bedroom, streamed from the NAS via the Sony television’s Plex app, because the video would choke and stutter. The same videos play without any hassles via Plex on the 4th generation Apple TV in the lounge room.

At first I thought the trouble was due to the weaker Wi-Fi signal in the bedroom, as the television occasionally encounters networking issues, but testing Google’s $59 Chromecast in the bedroom put that theory to rest. The same high-def MKV files play perfectly in the bedroom with the Chromecast plugged into the television.

The trouble might be due to Sony’s stingy video codec support, or perhaps the mediocre Opera TV Store version of Plex available for the 2014 Bravias. Either way, the Plex Media Server running on my NAS is forced to convert my high-def MKV files on the fly to a format that the television will handle (a trick known as transcoding).

While my NAS has the grunt to transcode standard-def MKV for the Sony television without too much trouble, it runs out of puff when trying to transcode high-def MKV files.

It’s easy to see the problem when I log into the NAS and watch its CPU and RAM usage, which skyrocket when I try to play a high-def MKV file using the Sony television’s Plex app. Play the same file in Plex on the Chromecast or the Apple TV and the NAS stops groaning under the load.

You can also look at the Now Playing section of the Plex Media Server’s web interface and click on the “i” to see whether a file is playing as a “direct stream” – as it does with Plex on the Apple TV and Chromecast – or whether it’s “transcoding” as it clearly does with Plex on the Sony television.

It’s not just Plex’s transcoding that’s the problem, many of the television’s streaming video features tend to be slow, clunky and unreliable. I’ve even noticed that when Netflix stutters on the Sony television, insisting it has encountered networking issues, the same clip plays without any trouble on the Chromecast. As a result the Chromecast has earned a permanent spot in the bedroom so we no longer need to fight with the television’s streaming apps.

Your mileage may vary between devices, this is a 2014-model Bravia and the newer models may be better behaved or have improved Android-style Plex apps. However you’re streaming video around the house or across the internet, the results will depend on your playback devices, how much grunt they have under the bonnet, the video codecs they support and the calibre of their streaming video apps.

If your so-called Smart TV tends to play dumb then it’s worth checking whether Google’s budget Chromecast player can do a better job.


Freeview app puts live television in your pocket

freeviewfv

Australia’s free-to-air broadcasters are moving with the times, with the Freeview FV mobile app letting you watch live television on the move.

The five major broadcasters have offered streaming Catch Up TV for a few years, making it easy to get up to speed with your favourite television shows, but in the last 12 months they’ve also embraced live streaming – letting you watch their free-to-air channels online. The new Freeview FV app puts all these streams at your fingertips, making it easy to watch live broadcasts when you’re away from your lounge room.

Available for iOS and Android, the free app puts up to 19 live channels at your disposal, depending on where you live. They run on a 30 to 60-second delay and you can pause the streams but you can’t fast-forward, rewind or record them to watch later. This means you need to sit through the ad breaks, just as if you were sitting on your couch watching the television.

Along with watching live streams, via Wi-Fi and mobile broadband, you can also tap into listings for Catch Up TV from all five networks. If you find something you want to watch the Freeview app launches the Catch Up app from that network, such as ABC iView, SBS on Demand, Plus7, 9Now or Tenplay. Unfortunately the show doesn’t play automatically, you need to search for it again in the Catch Up app.

Another frustration with the Freeview app is that there are gaps in the live streaming. Some live sport is missing, because telcos like Telstra and Optus have locked away the online streaming rights. It’s annoying considering that live sport is the only reason why some people would want to watch television on the run.

There are also large gaps in Network Ten’s streaming schedule, with the broadcaster seemingly much more reluctant than the others to embrace online simulcasts.

Freeview FV is certainly a step in the right direction as broadcasters try to win back the streaming generation, but there are still times when it’s going to leave you in the dark.


Foxtel – friend or foe to Australian viewers?

vod

While Australia’s pay TV giant is dangling the carrot of lower prices and free samples to encourage us to sign up for its Foxtel Play streaming service, it’s also wielding a stick by denying competitors access to popular shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

For all of Foxtel’s faults, it’s done a better job of preparing for the arrival of Netflix than Australia’s squabbling free-to-air broadcasters. Not too long ago the idea of accessing premium Foxtel content without a home subscription and lock-in contract was fanciful, but now Foxtel Play delivers hit HBO shows like Game of Thrones online for less than the entry-level home package.

These days Foxtel even offers a free taste of new HBO shows, with the first episode of Westworld available free online for anyone to watch.

Better yet, Foxtel Play’s upcoming price restructure in December will place the Showcase channel – home to HBO content – in an entry-level $15 p/m package so there’s no need to buy a bundle of channels you don’t want just so you can watch the few shows you’re really interested in. Next year the subscription video service is also upgrading to high-definition streaming.

That all sounds like great news for Australians, going a long way to repair Foxtel’s tarnished reputation in the eyes of many viewers, but then the pay TV giant undoes all that good work by locking down shows so Australians can no longer purchase episodes week-by-week from online video stores.

Zombie apocalypse thriller The Walking Dead is the latest show to get such treatment, leaving Australian fans in the lurch. Until this season, Australians who didn’t want to pay for Foxtel have had the option to purchase episodes the next day in standard or high-definition from the likes of Apple’s iTunes, Google Play or Fetch TV. This arrangement has changed as of Season 7, with iTunes and the others unavailable to sell any episodes in Australia until Foxtel has finished screening the first half of the season in December. The second half won’t be available until April next year.

The same thing happened with Game of Thrones two years ago, punishing Australians who were doing to right thing by paying for episodes rather than downloading them illegally. The move reinforced the resentment that many Australians already felt towards Foxtel.

The first episode of The Walking Dead Season 7 is available for sale on the US iTunes store, but Australians miss out. What’s particularly frustrating is that Australians weren’t told about this change and in the days that followed the season return no-one wanted to accept responsibility for it – not Foxtel, not the show’s Australian distributor eOne which licenses the show to Foxtel’s FX channel, and not the online video stores.

It’s possible the lockdown is due to FX’s deal with eOne rather than with Foxtel but that makes little difference to Australian viewers – especially when FX is a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox, sister company of Foxtel’s part owner News Corp Australia. Regardless of where the blame lies, it’s a shabby way to treat loyal customers who have been doing the right thing. And they wonder why Australia has a piracy problem.


Will your home end up relying on the NBN’s Fibre to the Distribution Point?

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After starting out as a minor player, FttDP appears destined to play a key role in Australia’s National Broadband Network.

The NBN has become a political football over the last few years, with the network design changing several times along the way. As a result it’s hard to know exactly what kind of connection will bring the new broadband network to your front door.

The original plan was to extend Fibre to the Premises to 93 per cent of Australian dwellings – running a fibre optic cable all the way into your home which could deliver 100 megabit per second download speeds with the potential for gigabit speeds in the future. The remaining 7 per cent of homes in regional and remote Australia would rely on satellite or fixed-wireless broadband.

A change of government saw the NBN ditch its nationwide FttP plan in favour of the Multi-Technology Mix. In an effort to reduce costs and speed up the rollout, the NBN would also rely on Fibre to the Node which runs fibre to within a few streets of your home and then relies on the copper phone lines to cover the last few hundred metres. The technology delivers between 50 and 100 Mbps, depending on your home’s distance from the node, and it’s not designed to match the performance of Fibre to the Premises.

The NBN also decided to keep Telstra and Optus’ HFC pay TV cable networks which run through some suburbs, intending to go back along the streets with cable and hook up every home. The HFC cables are capable of delivering fibre-like speeds, but only if the NBN doesn’t skimp on the backend upgrade.

Initially the plan was to upgrade both networks and roll them into the NBN, servicing several million homes across Australia’s state capitals, but the NBN recently conceded that Optus’ HFC cable network isn’t worth salvaging.

Rather than shifting all the Optus cable homes across to Fibre to the Node, the NBN now plans to connect many of them using Fibre to the Distribution Point – a newer broadband technology which runs fibre to the footpath and only relies on your copper phone line to cover the last few metres into your home.

In terms of performance, the closer the fibre gets to your home the better – Fibre to the Distribution Point doesn’t quite match the performance of Fibre to the Premises but it’s certainly an improvement on Fibre to the Node.

Up to 700,000 Australian premises will now end up relying on FttDP, which might include you if the Optus pay TV cable runs down your street but the Telstra cable doesn’t. FttDP will also be used in small patches elsewhere but until now the NBN had insisted that FttDP was only intended to fill small gaps in the network and there were no plans for a major FttDP rollout because it’s generally cheaper to deploy FttN.

The NBN insists it is under instructions to build the network as economically as possible, which makes embracing FttDP a surprising change of heart. It will be interesting to see how much more fibre they can weave into the Multi-Technology Mix over the next few years.


Recent News

lgsmart

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Sharing apps with your loved ones makes sense in a busy household, but make sure you understand what you’re signing up for. Apple’s iPhone and iPad kicked off the modern gadget revolution but, unlike a traditional PC, they were never designed for sharing. There’s no such thing as a user profile or fast user switching… More 

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If you’ve travelled internationally, and especially in the USA, you may have hit the opportunity to use internet services while flying. This is usually at a cost, sometimes a quite severe cost depending on your flight status and quantity of access required. For many of us, stepping onto a plane is precisely when we step… More 

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It’s best to play it safe when you’re out of the office using someone else’s Wi-Fi network. Mobile data has traditionally been rather expensive in Australia so we’re in the habit of jumping onto free Wi-Fi networks wherever we find them—from cafes and shopping centres to sporting stadiums and airport lounges. These days mobile data… More