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Author Archives: Adam Turner

Talkative smarthome speakers are the next battleground for control of our digital lives

Apple homepod Amazon echo

With Apple unveiling the Siri-powered HomePod smart speaker, it’s ready to take on Google and Amazon for pride of place on our kitchen benches.

As your home fills with smart gadgets you can find yourself constantly jumping between smartphone apps in order to get things done. Smart speakers aim to be the one smart gadget to rule them all, hanging on your every word and then issuing commands to your various smart devices around the home.

Like a universal programmable remote control, you simply tell your smart speaker what you’re trying to do ­– from dimming the lights to turning up the heating – and the smart speaker takes care of the rest.

Amazon lead the way with its Amazon Echo smart speaker, letting you talk to Amazon Alexa in order to get things done. We might see Amazon Echo later this year when the online retail giant finally delivers on its plans for Australia.

Meanwhile the Apple HomePod and Google Home smart speakers are definitely coming to Australia this year, powered by the talkative Siri and Google Assistant respectively. While Amazon Alexa might have a head start, Google Assistant and Siri are currently better at understanding natural language so you can really talk to them rather than just issuing commands.

Even if you don’t yet own any smarthome gear to command, there are plenty of other good reasons to consider a smart speaker to live in your home.

For starters they offer an easy way to tap into streaming music services, playing your favourite tunes without the need to reach for a computer, smartphone or tablet.

You can dictate search queries to a smart speaker – as well look up the weather forecast and check your calendar appointments – with the results cheerfully read aloud.

Smart speakers also let you add things to your shopping list and even make online purchases, although right now Alexa’s tight integration with Amazon gives it the upper hand in this department.

Your kitchen bench seems like the natural home for this new generation of smart personal assistants, especially as they let you set timers, listen to music and call up recipes hands-free while cooking. Of course depending on the best use you find for your smart speaker you might decide that it’s a better fit in the lounge room, study or bedroom – you might even opt for a few speakers and spread them around your home.

With voice destined to be the future of our relationship with technology, a talkative smart speaker might be the perfect addition to your home.


Google’s free-roaming Daydream headset offers a brand new world of virtual reality

google-daydream-vr

Offering more immersive worlds than smartphone-based VR systems, without relying on a tethered computer or games console, Google’s standalone Daydream headsets are promising to take VR to the next level.

Virtual reality experiences are typically divided into two camps. On one side you’ve got Google Cardboard, letting you slip practically any smartphone into a cheap viewer to get a glimpse of virtual worlds, along with more advanced viewers like Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s Daydream View which are optimised to work with a handful of powerful smartphones.

On the other side you’ve got standalone VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR which have built-in screens that tend to offer a better picture than the smartphone-based headsets. The trade-off is that they rely on a powerful computer or games console to run the show.

The Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR can take advantage of cameras around the room to track your movements in the physical world, letting you walk around in the virtual world and even use sophisticated handheld controllers which are far more precise than the simple Gear VR and Daydream View controllers.

Of course you can’t roam too far wearing these headsets, because you’re tethered to a PC or games console. Even so, they’re still better than the Daydream View and Gear VR which require you to stand or sit still – you can look around but they’re unable to change your point of view if you take a step to the side.

Google’s new standalone Daydream headsets aim to marry the best aspects of both VR systems to allow true free-roaming VR. It will have a built-in screen and processor, allowing it to wirelessly run VR worlds rather than leaving you tied to a computer or games console. The headset will also offer “inside out” tracking, using built-in Google Tango sensors to scan the room so you can move around in a virtual world without bumping into real world walls.

The standalone Daydream headsets will still rely on smartphone-style hardware rather than the grunt of a PC or console, although Google is closing the performance gap with its Seurat graphics overhaul. It will allow Daydream to import PC-based VR worlds – built in professional VR editing suites like Unity, Unreal and Maya – and optimise them without sacrificing much in the way of picture quality and performance. Beyond high-end games, Google is even promising cinema-quality video.

One shortcoming of the standalone Daydream headsets is that they’ll still rely on the basic Daydream controller rather than the more advanced controllers used by VR platforms with external cameras for “outside in” tracking. That’s understandable, considering that cameras built into Daydream headsets will struggle to keep track of your hands when they’re out of sight – such as when you look left while pointing to the right.

It’s still early days for VR, but the standalone Daydream headsets promise to hit the sweet spot between today’s different VR experiences to offer the best of both worlds.


Voice over WiFi can save the day when you’re stuck in a mobile blackspot

Kicking in when your mobile phone reception flakes out, VoWiFi ensures that your calls don’t drop out when you run out of coverage bars.

In a big country like Australia there are always going to be spots where the mobile coverage is questionable, not just when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere but even when you’re out in the suburbs. You don’t need to live too far from the centre of town to find yourself in a mobile blackspot where you need to stand on one leg in the front yard just to get a decent phone signal.

One workaround is to invest in a mobile repeater for your home, which can pick up the faintest traces of the mobile network and amplify them around your home, but most repeaters are banned under Australian law due to their tendency to interfere with other nearby mobile devices. You’ll find a handful authorised by telcos such as the Telstra Mobile Smart Antenna.

Another option is a femtocell, like the discontinued Optus Home Zone, which is basically a tiny mobile base station which connects to your home broadband network. If the mobile signal from the nearest tower isn’t strong enough, your phone roams to the femtocell, letting you use your phone as normal but diverting your calls across the internet.

Voice over WiFi offers a much easier way to deal with mobile blackspots, as it doesn’t require you to install any special equipment in your home. Instead it lets your smartphone make calls over your WiFi network, which behave like normal mobile calls and are billed accordingly.

VoWiFi can even seamlessly transfer active calls between mobile networks and WiFi. There’s no need to use a special app on your phone to use VoWiFi, unlike the Optus WiFi Talk app or third-party apps like Skype. One drawback is that text messages don’t work over VoWiFi.

Unfortunately VoWiFi is only supported by a handful of smartphones in Australia, but the list is slowly growing. Telstra introduced VoWiFi late last year, with the list of handsets including Samsung’s Galaxy S6, S7 and S8 along with the iPhone 6 and more recent Apple smartphones. To get it working on the iPhone you need to update to the latest version of iOS and install a carrier settings update which adds the WiFi Calling option under the Phone/ Settings menu (it’s disabled by default).

Meanwhile Optus supports VoWiFi on the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, while Vodafone has talked about supporting VoWiFi but is yet to come to the party. If the mobile coverage at your home often lets you down then it’s worth checking whether Voice over WiFi can come to your rescue.


Samsung sparks television format war with HDR10+

Samsung_HDR10plus

Samsung has unveiled a new High Dynamic Range standard to help reveal what lurks in the shadows, challenging Dolby Vision supported by Samsung’s arch rival television maker LG.

Rather than improving the picture by adding more pixels to make it sharper, High Dynamic Range works by boosting the range of colours and shades that each pixel can display. As a result you see more vivid colours along with extra detail in the bright highlights and dark shadows, regardless of the screen size and resolution.

The HDR10 standard has been around for a few years, it’s available on many Ultra HD Blu-ray discs along with streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Video. Then Dolby decided to go one better with Dolby Vision, which builds on HDR10.

Whereas HDR10 sets the brightest whites and darkest blacks for the entire movie, Dolby Vision includes extra metadata to vary these scene by scene. It also allows for brighter screens and supports more colours than HDR10.

The trade-off is that Dolby Vision players and screens require a special chip licensed from Dolby, so you can’t just add it to old home entertainment gear with a firmware update. Netflix is Australia’s only source of Dolby Vision content, with compatible Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and players coming later this year.

Thankfully Dolby Vision content is backwards-compatible with HDR10, so if your television only supports HDR10 then Dolby Vision will look like HDR10 content. To further confuse things, some televisions have “Ultra HD Premium” written on the box – which basically means they support HDR10 but don’t quite meet the exacting standards of Dolby Vision.

You’ll also hear about Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG), but this is an HDR standard developed for broadcast television and doesn’t apply to streaming services or movies on disc. Many new televisions support HLG but we’re not likely to see HLG free-to-air broadcasts in Australia any time soon.

As if all that wasn’t confusing enough, now Samsung has thrown HDR10+ into the mix, developed in conjunction with Netflix rival Amazon Video which recently launched in Australia. Amazon Video already supports Dolby Vision and plans to add HDR10+ later this year.

Building on HDR10, the new HDR10+ format adopts Dolby Vision’s trick of embedding extra metadata to help a HDR10+ compatible television vary the HDR settings for each scene in a movie. It still falls short of Dolby Vision when it comes to maximum brightness and colour range.

As you would expect, Dolby Vision and HDR10+ aren’t cross-compatible. If you try to watch Dolby Vision content on HDR10+ home entertainment gear it will only look as good as HDR10, and vice versa.

Right now this isn’t a deal-breaker when buying a television, you should still shop for the best picture quality within your budget, but it might become a problem down the track if the major movie studios start to choose sides. It remains to be seen whether the two formats can coexist or whether one format will fade into the shadows.


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.


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