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Author Archives: Adam Turner

Personalise your new computer in a snap with these great free tools

win10

There’s no need to waste hours installing and removing apps from a new computer when you can do it with a few clicks.

It’s always exciting to take a new computer out of the box, but setting everything up can be a tedious task. Firstly you need to create a user account and install the latest Windows updates, then you need to remove the bloatware and install the applications you actually need.

Thankfully there are two free tools which can make this process much less painful on a Windows machine; PC Decrapifier and Ninite. Together they can have you up and running in a few minutes.

As the name suggests, PC Decrapifier cleans out all the detritus which typically comes pre-installed on a new computer and can be difficult to remove. When you run PC Decrapifier it identifies all the applications which people typically want to remove, such as a free antivirus or Microsoft Office trial, and lets you uninstall them with a single click.

You can also dip into the full list of applications but proceed with caution, as you don’t want to delete something important. When in doubt, a quick Google search will reveal what each application does and whether you need it.

The next step is to look in your computer’s Start Up folder and disable applications which don’t need to run automatically – which will free up more memory and help your computer boot more quickly.

Once you’ve got everything running smoothly you’d usually start the long and tedious task of downloading and installing all your favourite applications. This is where Ninite can save the day.

On the Ninite home page you can select all the applications you want to install on your computer, from web browsers, messaging apps and media players to photo editors and office suites.

Once you’re done you simply download one file, which runs through every installer automatically while saying no to toolbars and other junk. It even ensures that you install the correct version of all your applications if you’re running a 64-bit version of Windows.

If you’re upgrading from an old computer, or simply adding another computer to your personal fleet, you can also use the sync features built into browsers like Chrome and Firefox to copy across all your settings – they even work between PCs and Macs.

Straight away you’ll have all your bookmarks, browser history and browser extensions at your fingertips, so you can get straight down to business. They’ll stay in sync, making it easier to jump between devices during the day and pick up where you left off.

Buying a new computer needn’t be a hassle when it’s easy to get everything just how you like it.


NBN regional speed boost aims to close the digital divide

The NBN is set to deliver fibre-like 100 Mbps download speeds via its Fixed Wireless network, giving regional Australians a taste of the broadband speeds enjoyed by some cityfolk.

Under the original plan for Australia’s National Broadband Network 93 per cent of premises were set to rely on fibre to their door, but with a change of government came the new-look Multi-Technology Mix which now sees many of those premises reliant on Fibre to the Curb, Fibre to the Basement, Fibre to the Node or the existing HFC pay TV cable networks.

Either way, 7 per cent of dwellings were always considered too remote to reach via fixed line services. The plan was always to connect them to the NBN via SkyMuster satellite or Fixed Wireless towers. While city dwellers can access up to 100 Mbps, depending on the technology running to their home, SkyMuster can only muster 25 Mbps while Fixed Wireless can deliver a more respectable 50 Mbps.

That’s set to change early in 2018 as the NBN introduces a new 100 Mbps Fixed Wireless speed tier, offering upload speeds of 40 Mbps. Of course you don’t actually sign up with the NBN, as it’s only a wholesale provider. As the end customer you sign up with a Retail Service Provider – such as Telstra, Optus or TPG – which uses the NBN network to reach you.

The speed boost will be available across the entire Fixed Wireless network, although if you’re an existing Fixed Wireless customer you’ll need new equipment installed at home to take advantage of the 100 Mbps service. Over time 100 Mbps-capable equipment will be issued as standard with new connections, regardless of the speeds you sign up for.

Unfortunately the changes won’t improve the range of Fixed Wireless NBN, which remains limited to within 14 km of a tower – or perhaps less depending on the lay of the land. So if you’re stuck on SkyMuster, just beyond the reach of Fixed Wireless, that’s not going to change.

As mobile broadband speeds, coverage and pricing improve it can start to look like a tempting alternative to the NBN, but keep in mind that Fixed Wireless connections are more reliable than mobile broadband from Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.

Fixed Wireless isn’t available to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, you can only access it via an antenna on your roof connected to an NBN box in your home. Unlike mobile broadband, Fixed Wireless is more stable, as it limits the number of homes connected to a tower and does a better job of managing the bandwidth.

As we approach the halfway mark of the nationwide rollout, the 100 Mbps speed boost for Fixed Wireless customers will help ensure that the benefits of the NBN reach well beyond the city limits.


Don’t let your telco bully you into switching to the NBN

fibre

You don’t need to stick with your current Internet Service Provider when you switch across to the National Broadband Network, but your ISP will do its best to twist your arm.

While the NBN aims to offer many Australians decent broadband for the first time, for the country’s ISPs it’s a once-in-a-generation game of musical chairs. They want to ensure that you’re their customer when the music stops and you’re hooked up to the NBN – knowing that once you’re on the NBN you’ll probably never change ISP again. This means that the big providers like Telstra, Optus and TPG potentially have a lot to lose.

Optus has been in the papers recently for its heavy-handed tactics when it comes to moving customers across to the NBN. While NBN has promised that homes have 18 months to switch to the NBN once it’s declared Ready For Service in their street, Optus is rushing to push customers off its HFC cable network to the NBN so Optus can shut down its cable network.

By threatening customers with a tight 30-day switch over deadline and the fear of forever losing their home phone number, Optus is ensuring they re-sign as an Optus NBN customer before they’ve had a chance to consider the alternatives. After bowing to public pressure Optus is now offering a 90-day switch over window, but its sales people are still doing their best to coerce customers into sticking with Optus when they move to the NBN.

While Optus was caught red-handed, it’s not the only ISP pressuring its customers to remain loyal when they move across to the NBN. Some are also threatening customers with unreasonable disconnection deadlines, and they’ll soon find their tactics exposed in the media.

ISPs are also being more subtle, using the carrot rather than the stick. For example they’re doing their best to sign up customers on long-term contracts just before the NBN reaches your street. This way you have no choice but to stay with the same provider when you move onto the NBN, unless you want to pay to break your contract. They also offer set-top boxes and other hardwire locked to their services, rendering them useless if you move to another ISP.

It’s worth looking at the NBN rollout schedule. If the NBN is coming to your street in the next year or two then you should think twice about signing up for a new long-term contract with your current ISP, unless you’re absolutely sure you want to stick with them when it’s time to move to the NBN.

As the switch over gets closer you’ll be harassed by lots of ISPs offering amazing deals over your current broadband connection, such as ADSL, but they’re in it for the long haul. It might be a great short-term deal, but the goal is to ensure that you’re stuck with them when the NBN reaches your door.

Meanwhile your ISP will do everything it can to make you stay. If it goes too far, don’t hesitate to contact the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman. Don’t let any service provider use strong-arm tactics to lock you in.


Are you ready to swear allegiance to a smart home ecosystem?

smarthome

There’s a wealth of new smart gadgets vying for a spot in your home, but for a truly smart home you’ll want all your smart gadgets to speak the same language.

Wandering through your local homemaker centre you’ll find a smart device for every room and every occasion – from smart appliances for the kitchen and smart players for the lounge room, to smart home automation, security, air-con and lighting. You can control all these smart devices remotely, via various smartphone apps, but when you’re shopping for smart devices it’s important to consider whether they can all talk to each other.

Technology giants Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon each have their own smart home platform, plus gadget maker Belkin offers its extensive WeMo smart home ecosystem. Meanwhile whitegoods makers like Samsung, LG and Whirlpool are amongst those offering apps which let you talk to your kitchen and laundry appliances from afar.

Smart whitegoods open up a world of possibilities, such as checking the contents of your fridge while you’re at the supermarket, pre-heating the oven so it’s ready to bake when you get home and firing up the heating in anticipation of a cold night.

The trouble with all these smart devices is that they can leave you with a haphazard collection of smart home apps on your smartphone – just like the clutter of remote controls which can pile up on your coffee table in the lounge room.

The solution is to commit to a single tightly integrated smart home ecosystem which preferably lets you control everything from a single app – just like investing in a universal remote control for your lounge room. Not only does a tightly integrated smart home make your life easier, it also helps the people you live with who might be less tech-savvy or simply less tolerant of tech hassles.

Ensuring your smart home devices are compatible with each other doesn’t just make your smart home easier to manage, it can also make your smart home smarter. All these smart devices can work together and start making smart decisions on your behalf, perhaps linking to cloud-based smart home platforms like If This Then That (IFTTT) which lets your smart devices tap into a wealth of online services.

In a truly smart home, your smart security cameras can act as motion detectors which automatically trigger events such as turning on your lights and sending alerts to your smartphone. Meanwhile your smart thermostat can check the online weather forecast to fire up your air-conditioning just before you get home from work, then turn on the garden sprinkler to keep the grass green.

When winter comes a smart power switch can automatically turn on your electric blanket on a chilly evening, or switch on the bathroom heater and boil the kettle on a cold morning.

By talking to your smartphone, your smart home can also know when you leave the house and arrive back home – letting your smart home anticipate your needs without you needing to lift a finger.

While it all sounds great in theory, don’t assume that all smart appliances can automagically talk to each other. It’s important to do your research before you spend any money. Don’t start by setting your heart on a particular device or service, instead figure out what you want to achieve and work backwards – taking into account the devices you already own and services you already use.

The smart home can certainly make life easier, but only if you make some smart buying decisions upfront.


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?

mastercard_identity

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

vacationpc

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.


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