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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

Are you making the most of parental controls?

parentalcontrols

If you’ve got kids, you may well be concerned that they’re far more tech-savvy than you are. Having grown up with technology as an absolutely expected part of their lives, and with so much IT integrated into school curriculums through their education, it’s pretty easy to feel as though they’re well ahead of you.

That can raise genuine concerns about the kinds of online activities they’re getting up to, not to mention the amount of time they spend on technology in general. Parental attitudes to both content and screen time can vary massively of course, and what you choose to do in relation to your children’s online activities is very much a personal decision, with little in the way of “right” or “wrong” approaches.

It’s useful, however, to know about the range of parental controls that you can access in order to control or limit your child or teen’s online activities. There are any number of applications that sell themselves on providing child control, but you may find that the inbuilt applications on your computer, tablet or even gaming console are enough to cover your needs.

Windows 10
You’ll need to set up a separate account for your child, and under Windows 10 this has to be a Microsoft account.
Open up Settings, then click on Accounts. From there, click on Family & other people and then Add a family member. Choose Add a child, and that’s when you’ll be asked for your child’s email address. In order to fully monitor their activity, it’s best if this is a Microsoft account, and you’ll have the option to click The person I want to add doesn’t have an email address, which will allow you to set one up. Once the account is created, click Confirm, and then Close.

The advantage with this approach is that your child’s new account can then be monitored from Microsoft’s online account portal; signing in there will enable you to monitor activity on their account, block specific web content and set time limits for your child’s computer usage.

macOS
macOS also requires you to create a child account, but you don’t need an email address to tie it to. Open up System Preferences and then Users & Groups. Click on the + symbol under Login Options to add a new user, and choose Managed with Parental Controls.

You can then choose an age bracket for your child, as well as a user name and password.

Once that’s set up, head back into System Preferences and then Parental Controls. This will allow you to manage App use, including use of the mac’s inbuilt camera, mail and web apps, as well as separate controls for managing allowed or blocked websites. You can also block access to the iTunes and iBooks stores, as well as set time limits for usage of the mac itself.

iOS
If your child has an iPad or iPhone, you can set restrictions on that usage by going to Settings, then General, then Restrictions. You’ll have to set a restrictions PIN code, but once that’s done, you can set limits on app usage, as well as whether your child can add or remove applications. You can also restrict access to certain content by ratings level, as well as limit the access apps have to features such as location data or photos.

Android
Precise parental controls do vary by device type and Android version, but one restriction you can put in place is around the Google Play store. You can set parental controls on your child’s Android device by opening up Google Play, tapping the menu icon and opening Parental Controls. It’s once again PIN-based, allowing for content filtering when switched on.

For younger children, you could also enroll their account through Google’s Family Link service for managing hours of usage, app installs and screen time usage.

PlayStation 4
Sony’s PlayStation 4 has parental controls, but they’re not all that easy to find. Head to Settings, then Parental Controls/Family Management and finally PS4 System Restrictions where you can then restrict usage of applications, network features and play time.

Xbox One
If you add your child’s account (which once again has to be a Microsoft account) onto an Xbox One, you can then manage their usage by adding their account to yours under Settings, then Family, then Add to Family. Then you’ll be able to restrict access based on age profiles, filter web results and decide whether or not to show program descriptions through the Xbox One’s OneGuide.

Netflix
An easy one if you’re a Netflix subscriber; your Netflix account allows for the creation of profile-level soft controls that limit content availability by age range. You’ve still got to ensure that your child is using that child-specific profile, but if they do, only “kids” suitable material will be shown. You can also set a PIN code, either for specific content, or to block access to any content above specified maturity level. Those settings apply no matter which device you’re accessing Netflix on.

These tools can be useful, but it’s also quite important to clearly explain to your children why you’re using them, if you do. A hard blanket rule against any activity is more than likely going to make it even more desirable to a tech-savvy child or teen, especially if it’s an activity that their counterparts are already engaging in. Often, the most powerful tool you’ll have keeping your kids safe online is keeping up a regular dialog with them to explain your expectations and listen to their requests. It’s better to know what they’re doing in an open environment rather than discovering they’ve been sneaking into online areas you’d rather they didn’t see.


Microsoft adds timeline searching, easy sharing and more to Windows 10

win10update

If you’re using a Windows 10 PC, you’ve probably been alerted to the existence of what Microsoft’s calling the “April 2018 Update” to your operating system. This isn’t some kind of April fool’s joke, or for that matter an update only applicable to women called April, but instead the latest larger-scale update to Windows 10 to be formally released to market. Unlike its regular security updates, the April 10 Update introduces a number of new features, as well as some interface tweaks you may find handy.

If you’re pondering why we haven’t seen Windows 11 yet, it’s because Microsoft’s announced plan is that there will be no Windows 11 to speak of. Instead, it will iterate on the Windows 10 code base for the time being. That does mean no need to upgrade your software licence to speak of, which is a plus, but then a Windows 10 licence is pretty tightly tied to its original hardware anyway, so a new machine means a new licence by definition anyway.

The headline new feature of the April 2018 update is Timeline, an interactive chronological timeline of your Windows 10 PC’s activity over the last month. The idea here is that it should make it easier to find documents, emails or even application activity such as web pages or searches with a visual timeline of nearly everything you’ve done on your computer over the last 30 days. You can scroll through your Timeline to visually find what you’ve been working on, or narrow it down with search parameters, although at launch there’s an obvious bias towards Microsoft’s own applications and services. That’s great if you use Office 365 and Microsoft’s Edge browser, but much less appealing if you’re using Google’s Chrome browser, as the majority of web users do.

The April 2018 update also introduces nearby sharing, which works fairly similarly to the way the “Airdrop” feature on Apple’s macOS does. Nearby sharing allows you to share over Bluetooth or WiFi any video, photo or document to nearby computers, as well as web pages, but only (again) those you’re browsing using Microsoft’s own Edge browser. It’s intended to be seamless and invisible to you, but it’ll use whichever transport method it works out is fastest between the two computers, making it much easier (at least in theory) to quickly share files or ideas.

If you’re the easily distracted type, the new Focus Assist feature might be a bit of a godsend. This blocks notifications, sounds and alerts to a specified time, so that you can get on with whatever it is you need to do. Essentially, Microsoft’s taking the Pomodoro Technique and making it into an app, and while it’s not the first to do so by a long shot, making it part of the operating system probably means more folks will actually use it.

There are many, many other new features in the update, including optimisations to the Windows Hello login feature, a new Game Bar for those who enjoy the odd bit of PC gaming, voice dictation hotkeys and plenty more besides, although your own PC might not yet have prompted you for the update.

That does raise the question as to how rapidly you should update, and the answer, as always, is complex.

As always with these larger updates, if you’re happy with how your Windows 10 PC is running, there’s no need to race into an update. Windows is a very wide and sometimes weird ecosystem, and there are already reports of some users experiencing sound, networking and application problems.

If you’re in no hurry, you can wait while Microsoft irons out those bugs, but it’s not wise to wait too long. Along with all the new features, the April 2018 update also has a slew of its own bug fixes and security patches under the hood, and it’s always wise to keep on top of those in our internet-connected world.


How much data is your streaming taking up?

netflixlogo

The massive rise in popularity of streaming services, especially video streaming services such as Netflix, in recent years has had some astounding effects on the online world. There’s now such a thing as “peak” internet usage time, typically around 7pm-11pm each evening, simply because so many people are using that evening time to binge-watch their favourite new streaming shows, or simply catch up on classic material they want to watch all over again. That’s led to some congestion on some networks, and not a small amount of dissatisfaction as well.

It’s not just an at-home issue any more, however, because the vast majority of streaming services are mobile-ready, whether you choose to watch on a tablet or a smartphone. While it’s unusual to find a home broadband plan with limited data allocation, it’s still more normal to find mobile plans with rather strict data limits, and excess data fees if you’re not very careful about your usage. Even in the parts of the planet where “unlimited” data plans exist, they’re often asterisked with very small print that either gives you a practical speed limit after a certain quantity of data usage, or simply leaves a vague warning that the highest data users may find their speeds limited. That’s not unheard of for home broadband plans, too, although thankfully it is pretty rare.

How much data are we talking about, though? The issue with streaming TV shows and movies is that they’re much more data intensive than grabbing web pages, downloading emails or even streaming music services by a significant factor. The precise details of how much data you’re using will vary by service, and then by the quality of the image they’re sending to you.

Not surprisingly, if you’re willing to put up with a lower quality picture, you’ll use up less data. Indeed, many services rather explicitly use adaptive streaming technologies to match your connection speed to the quality that you get in order to minimise buffering. The end result is that if you’re on a poor connection, you can still “watch”, but possibly in a more blocky resolution than if you’re on a good one.

To use Netflix as a good example, given that’s it’s functionally a global service, you can expect to burn through the following data quantities in a given hour’s worth of watching:

Netflix Quality Setting Data Usage Per Hour
Low (SD) 0.3GB
Medium (SD) 0.7GB
High (HD) 3GB
High (UHD) 7GB

Netflix uses more aggressive compression for those choosing Low quality video, but if you can stand it, it’s not a bad way to lower the quality. Bear in mind for that service, however, that the default setting for quality is none of the above mentioned settings. Instead, it’s “auto”, which means Netflix will send you video at a level that matches your current internet downstream quality. That relates out to the relative speed you’re getting from your provider, stated by Netflix as follows:

Netflix Recommended Speeds Speeds
Minimum Required 0.5 Megabits per second
Recommended broadband connection speed 1.5 Megabits per second
Recommended for SD Quality 3.0 Megabits per second
Recommended for HD Quality 5.0 Megabits per second
Recommended for UHD Quality 25 Megabits per second

Remember that whatever speed your provider suggests for a given connection, fixed or mobile is typically the maximum speed you’ll see, so you may dip beneath those rates at any time — especially on a congested connection!

If you’re concerned about usage because your plan does charge you for excess data, check if your streaming service offers an offline or download mode. Netflix certainly does, although not for all titles in its library, and many other services are starting to offer that as well. It takes a little more preparation, but allows you to fully download a movie or episode to watch later, skipping issues of buffering or for that matter even simple internet connectivity at all.

Certainly, if you’re a streaming video addict that hits a commute or period where your connectivity is limited or non-existent (such as most plane flights, for example), it’s a highly recommended step.


Where do you store your online photos (and does it matter?)

smugmug

Yahoo! recently announced that it will sell off its photo sharing subsidiary Flickr for an undisclosed sum. While I could speculate as to how much Flickr was worth, the reality is that as a photo sharing service, Flickr has had its glory moment in terms of value, and as such, it was probably worth more five years ago than the price that its new owners, Smugmug paid for it just now.

You might not have thought about Flickr in an era of Instagram, Facebook Memories and unlimited online photo storage through services such as Google Drive or Amazon Prime, but the company still claims to have millions of users passionate about digital imagery.

Flickr has a certain pedigree, because while services like Instagram have heavily targeted the social side of photo sharing, Flickr was always about the quality of the image rather than the story that it told. It has a robust creative commons element where photographers share their images with others, and, frankly, it’s just a great service to browse if you’re looking for a little inspiration for your next photo shooting session, whether you’re a pro photographer or a keen amateur.

For a time, Flickr was exceptionally popular, but now it’s just one amongst many photo sharing and storage options.

Flickr’s new owners say they’re going to “revitalise” the service and make it more relevant to a modern audience, but that’s an uphill battle in the current social media climate. Indeed, there’s the very real risk that any online photo sharing service could be shuttered at any time. Flickr’s numbers have declined, and, operating as a business, there has to be a point where it’s no longer profitable to support Flickr’s vast archives if there’s no revenue stream coming in.

That got me thinking about where my own photos are stored. For the most part I’m quite a private individual, and that means that the photos that mean the most to me are regularly backed up to both a local storage drive, because that’s quite cheap and easy to do, as well as in an encrypted file online, because that way if my home (and storage drive) go up in flames, I’ll still have a way to recover them. Encryption ensures that I’m the only one that can unlock them, so while they’re stored online, they’re not visible online to anyone but me. Your preferences and needs for online image storage may of course vary, but what shouldn’t vary is a plan that incorporates multiple levels of photo backup.

That’s a pretty important step if you’re keen on keeping your digital memories. We’re long past the time when if you took a photo, you had it printed, with literally billions of images taken every day across the planet. Of course, not all of them are worthwhile printing, but every single photo represents a moment in time that you probably want to keep for as long as possible. Using just an online repository, whether it’s public-facing like Flickr, or just an online cloud storage system like Google Drive or iCloud, is very much putting your faith in those services staying around for the long term.


Will foldable smartphones replace tablets and laptops?

axon-m

We’re at an interesting point in smartphone history, with more than a decade of production between iOS and Android handsets. Purists may well note that Microsoft had an app-centric platform in Windows CE years before Apple (as indeed did Palm and to a lesser extent BlackBerry), but the practical history in terms of mass adoption does start with the first iPhone models.

In that time, phones have become thinner, more powerful, gained battery life and somewhat larger screens, up to a point where most phones sit somewhere between 5.5 inch and 6.5 inch screens, depending on your tolerances. The power of a modern premium smartphone is quite directly comparable to low-end laptops, or even mid-range ones if you go a few years back. We’ve seen a few attempts from phone makers to make their phones work as laptops, including older efforts from Motorola (with its Atrix phones), and more recently Huawei and notably Samsung, with its DeX dock for Galaxy S and Galaxy Note phones.

Still, it might not be the clickable dock that makes us switch from laptops to simply using our phones, but instead a technology switch we’ve been waiting more than a few years to come to market, namely foldable phones. There’s a practical limit to the size of screen you’re going to be happy to put in your pocket or your purse, and we’re probably already there, but by making a handset that can fold in half, you can either make a smaller phone with a larger screen, or a screen with a much larger “full” display than currently available.

Where this could get interesting is in how well (or how quickly) phone makers could pivot to provide a device that could (in theory) meet all your computing needs. Given that the top-end processors in phones are very capable devices, it’s essentially a question of input and screen size, and a foldable phone could solve at least half of that by providing (once unfolded) twice the screen size of comparable handsets. That’s into tablet territory quite neatly, and we’re already seeing tablets touted as potential laptop replacements.

At the same time, desktop and laptop sales have been stagnant for a number of years now. It’s not that we’re not seeing improvements in those designs, but they’re quite marginal in terms of overall improvements, and for many people, they could be “good enough” even if they’re a little slow and old. That’s a recipe ripe for disruption, and a foldable smartphone could be just that disruptive force.

Technically, there’s already one phone available globally that does this. ZTE has a model called the Axon M, which has a hinge in the middle and allows for split-screen style viewing, but most reports peg it as something of an underachieving phone, were you to import one.

Both Samsung and Huawei are being tipped to launch foldable phones by the end of this calendar year. There’s not much known about Huawei’s effort, beyond a November timeframe, but stories of Samsung’s efforts to develop what it seems to be calling the Samsung Galaxy X have been circulating for some time. Most rumours suggest a near-return to the clamshell designs of old, with both screens folding in on each other when not in use, which would also add a layer of protection to your phone when not in use. With Samsung’s existing push for its DeX virtual desktop dock, it seems likely that it would pair up the Galaxy X with a possible redesign of the DeX dock to give it that “desktop” style feel when paired with a keyboard or mouse.

Now, there are some rather obvious downsides to this approach, because while it would be handy to have just the one computer that you always carried around with you, that also means it would be one point of failure for your entire personal and working life. You would really want to ensure that you had your backups in order in that case, because dropping a dual screen phone would seriously increase the odds of it dropping on the screen, breaking in the process. Annoying right now, but if your job also depended on it, potentially even more disastrous.


Apple’s new iPad shows where it thinks laptops are heading

ipad

Apple recently announced a “refresh” of its iPad line, bringing it into its sixth official generation, although all you’ll find on the box is the name “iPad”, in line with the rebranding Apple went through last year. Right now, there are only three iPad lines to buy, with the iPad Mini still struggling along, the regular iPad and the much more expensive iPad Pro.

The new iPad is an interesting tablet internally, with an Apple A10 processor — the same found in the iPhone 7 — alongside 2GB of RAM and either 32GB or 128GB of non-expandable storage. Apple has never gone down the route of officially supporting expandable storage for any of its iOS devices. You can buy some expansion or Wi-Fi compatible drives that can share data with an iPad or iPhone, albeit generally in a rather clumsy fashion.

The A10 isn’t the freshest or newest processor in Apple’s lineup, but it does give the more “affordable” (Apple hates the word “cheap”) iPad a decent kick in the performance department. If you do want the best iPad performance, you’re still looking at an iPad Pro.

Where the iPad meets the much more expensive iPad Pro line is in adding support for the Apple Pencil, Apple’s much more costly stylus device. It’s a very fine stylus if you’ve got a strong artistic bent, and a large number of iOS apps now support it for selection and text entry chores as well. It’s not standard equipment with the new iPad, however, so if you want one, you will have to pay extra for it.

Apple’s positioning for the new iPad line, and the reason for the inclusion of Apple Pencil support is to give it more of a push into the education market, where cheap Windows machines and Google’s Chromebooks have made progress against Apple in recent years. Whether or not your school (or child’s school) has adopted iPads as yet, Apple is clearly keen to get more of them in the education space, also launching a new creativity-focused curriculum for teachers.

If you’re currently in the market for a tablet and you’re pondering between the iPad Pro and the iPad, you’re more than likely going to get a good enough experience out of the lower-cost iPad, unless you were thinking of the 12.9 inch iPad, which is pretty much a market to itself. Left very much behind in the conversation is the iPad Mini, which hasn’t seen any upgrades for more than a year now.

Frankly, at the asking price, unless you absolutely had to have a smaller tablet for space reasons, there’s no reason not to get the regular and much more powerful iPad instead. It seems likely that we’ll see new iPad Pro models pretty soon too, if only because there’s not a huge justification for the 10.5 inch iPad Pro’s price point when many folks would be able to get by on the cheaper regular iPad.

This is all good news for tablet fans, because the iPad range still very much remains the tablet range to buy.

Where this isn’t great news is if you’re a current user of Apple’s desktop and laptop operating system, macOS. Apple is now, more than ever, signalling that it sees the iOS experience and tablets generally as the future of computing. Certainly, its sales figures for iOS devices dwarf those of its macOS lines, so maybe it’s got a point.

There’s a lot of current convergence between macOS and iOS with features like Siri now built into the desktop system, and it doesn’t take too much of a crystal ball to predict that they’ll merge code bases in the next few years.

Indeed, current rumours suggest that Apple’s developing even more of its own silicon to get away from the current range of Intel processor-based Macs, and that’s most likely when they’ll essentially start selling just the one range of systems. Hopefully by then, it’ll be easier to do things like add storage or non-Apple peripherals to an iPad, because that’s still a sticking point for many users.


Could voice verification quickly become bad security?

baidu

Image manipulation has come so far, so quickly that the industry standard for photographic manipulation has rather rapidly become a verb; just as you might “Google” to find information online, if you’re editing an image, you “photoshop” it. Adobe probably doesn’t like its image editing software becoming a verb, because that brings with it copyright implications, but it’s also undeniably benefitting from all that free publicity.

Photoshop is the tool of choice for image professionals, but it’s also widely used to create “fake” images, whether it’s comedy meme production or more sinister images for disingenuous purposes. As such, just because you see an image online doesn’t mean it’s an authentic reproduction of that scene, whether it’s a highly photoshopped image of a glamour model, or the sudden insertion of figures into historical photographs.

What if you could apply “photoshopping” to our other senses, though?

Researchers working for Chinese search giant Baidu — essentially the Chinese version of Google, and easily that country’s largest search engine — have revealed their latest research into synthesizing human-like voices.

If you’ve used any of the voice assistants available on smartphone and desktops, such as Microsoft’s Cortana or Apple’s Siri, you’d be well aware that while they’re technically impressive, they’re also notably fake. Speech synthesis has come a long way, but their voices still sound stilted and robotic, especially if they have to pronounce complex words.

That robotic speech could quickly become a thing of the past, with Baidu’s researchers recently announcing upgrades to its artificial speech generation engine, Deep Voice. Where previously generating a passable facsimile of of human speech took more than half an hour’s speech to reliably synthesise, they claim it’s now feasible to produce a passable speech sample with just 3.7 seconds of speech from an individual. So good, in fact, that it can fool automated systems around 95% of the time.

There are some caveats to that for now, however. While automated systems only look for very basic tones, the samples created aren’t likely to fool a human being. Baidu says it needs more samples for that, ideally around 100 or so, but that’s just a little over six minutes of talking time.

The results are pretty impressive, especially when more samples are used. If you’re keen to listen in, there’s a gallery of synthesised samples here.

Baidu’s research could bring voices back to those who have lost them, or provide more nuanced communication for folks who lack the power of speech, as well as making AI-assisted translations much smoother, but there is a darker side, because just like photoshopped fakes, the prospect of creating audio fakes so it sounds like a given person said something raises significant privacy and authenticity issues. Many systems already use voice authentication for secure logins, and just like biometric measurements such as your fingerprint or irises, your voice isn’t something you can readily change to a significant degree.

What all of this means is that voice is likely to rapidly become a deprecated method for single factor authentication, simply because while the precise details of the Baidu’s team’s implementation aren’t exactly known, if you can mimic voice, it can’t be trusted.

As such, it’s likely that we’ll see even more of a shift towards multi-factor authentication, so that even if your voice can be faked, you’ve got other methods of authentication. Certainly, if you’re currently using such a system, or you have to interact with one in your daily life, it’d be wise to ask the folks in charge what their future plans are, because it’s not as though this technology is going to go away. Indeed, it’s only likely to get better, and right now, even in its limited form, it’s pretty impressive.


What are your options if you want to #deletefacebook?

facebook-delete

Facebook sits as the world’s most popular social network, but popular doesn’t always mean that you’re universally loved. For social networks, critical mass is the key success factor. A big part of the reason why Facebook is so big is because so many people use it, which means more people go looking to be social there, which means more people use it, and so it has grown.

Recent controversies around the use of the data that Facebook gathers, and who has access to it, has given rise to a fresh round of calls for people to boycott Facebook specifically. To quickly recap the issue, a US researcher set up a paid survey (for US citizens) to research how much could be defined about a person based on their Facebook activity. Those who took the survey didn’t end up just giving up their information, but also the information of those in their social networks. So while the number of survey takers was pretty low, the quantity of data is estimated to cover around 50 million users.

All of this, and it’s important to note this here, was within Facebook’s rules.

Facebook as a business sells user data, although typically it’s the in the form of being able to deliver highly targeted advertising. If you’re always posting about how much you crave chocolate, you can expect plenty of Kit Kat adverts and stories in your Facebook feed, and so on. Again, most people are aware of this, because as always, if the online service is free, you’re either being sold advertising directly, or being tracked and profiles to more effectively sell ads to.

Where this story got complex is that the researcher then on-sold that data to a right wing US marketing group that used that data to specifically target stories that may have had an influence on US and possibly UK political affairs. That’s a side of Facebook that far fewer users were comfortable with, even if it does sit well with your personal politics. Facebook apparently did ask the group to delete the data, but not terribly stringently, and it’s still not that clear how far the data spread, or who might have similar troves of Facebook information about all of us.

That’s how we get to the #deletefacebook movement, but how do you actually do that?

There’s a couple of approaches you can consider. It is possible to sign out of Facebook and never sign back in again, but then anything already there exists as an online profile of you. Equally, you can opt to remove your Facebook account, but this isn’t made easy, with a period of up to 90 days where you can step back in before it’s gone for good.

Then there’s the tricky issue of Facebook logins. Many other online sites and services will let you sign into their platforms using your Facebook ID. It’s an easy route for you to minimise the number of passwords you have to recall, and a good deal for them and Facebook, because it again expands your online profile to more directly target you for advertising. However, if you’ve used that convenience in the past, you’re going to have to forensically go through your online accounts and see how feasible it is to switch to another login method, presuming you still want access.

If you’re keen to continue with the deletion process, Facebook hides it away somewhat, but there’s a very good guide at deletefacebook.com that can step you through the process of deleting your Facebook account.

Then there’s the issue of what you actually use Facebook for itself. If you’ve got a reasonably small social network, it’s feasible to switch to alternate services, although many of those may well do the same things that Facebook has annoyed so many about.

There’s also the issue of Facebook’s ownership of popular services; if you figure you could switch from Facebook to Instagram for your photo sharing services, be aware that Facebook owns Instagram.

It’s the same story for switching away from Facebook Messenger to Whatsapp, although at least there Whatsapp’s encryption should keep your private messages more private.


Is Samsung’s S9 too much smartphone?

s9

At the recent Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona, Samsung absolutely dominated the headlines with the launch of its Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ smartphones. That’s partly due to the fact that, in the smartphone world, the majority of premium sales go either to Samsung’s Galaxy ranges or Apple’s iPhones, with everyone else a long way behind in both sales and revenue, so a little extra attention is warranted.

It’s also because Samsung’s launch of the Galaxy S9 saw numerous smartphone manufacturers simply decide to “skip” launching flagship phones. Huawei’s holding off on the launch of its new P-series phones until the end of march, opting instead to launch new tablets and 2-in-1 laptops at MWC, LG simply updated its V30 line into the awkwardly named LG V30 ThinQ, and only Sony launched a true “flagship” phone in the form of the Xperia XZ2… but even that won’t actually be available to buy for a few months.

Samsung’s Galaxy S9 is available to buy now, however, and the hype is inescapable. But is it any good?

I’ve been testing out the Galaxy S9+, the larger and slightly better equipped variant of the Galaxy S9, and it is, as the price should suggest, a very good smartphone indeed. Its headline feature is the “reimagined” camera, which features a single dual aperture lens for improved low light capability. On the S9+ (but not the S9) you also get a 2x telephoto lens for more close-up possibilities, as well as a selective focus mode that Samsung calls “live focus” that can be used to create bokeh-style effects for portrait photography.

The Galaxy S9 can also shoot slow motion video at 960 frames per second, albeit only for 0.2 seconds. Those 0.2 seconds are then stretched out into 6 full seconds of playback. It’s a fun feature that can reveal a lot about the world around us, although Samsung’s hardly the first to market with 960fps slow motion. Sony had that in last year’s Sony Xperia XZ Premium, and its new XZ2 will allow for shooting slow motion at full HD 1080p, where the S9 tops out at 720p.

Samsung’s also taking on Apple with its take on the “animoji” concept, via what it calls “AR Emoji”. These take a selfie shot of your face, and create your own virtual cartoon avatar for emoji purposes, as well as the option of a variety of “funny” animal faces. AR Emoji are pretty limited, with not much mouth movement, and honestly, they’re a gimmick that gets attention, but not one that you’re likely to use over the longer term.

Being premium phones, the Galaxy S9 features a high end internal processor. You’re either going to get Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 845, or Samsung’s own Exynos 8910 processor. That’s the version I’ve tested, but plenty of reviews back up the idea that the Snapdragon 845 is a solid processor in its own right as well. Battery life on the S9+ has been excellent in my test period.

Here’s the thing, though. Pretty much everything I’ve written above is exactly as it should be, because whether you buy a Galaxy S9 outright or on contract through a carrier, you’re going to pay a premium price. Something would be seriously wrong if a premium phone didn’t deliver premium performance!

The Galaxy S9 is a really nice smartphone, but we’re at the stage where for the vast majority of users, it may just be overkill. The camera is amongst the best I’ve ever tested, but these days, even a mid-range phone can deliver solid camera experiences within the limitations of smartphone photography. If you want more, look to a low-cost DSLR, because there’s really only so far that it’s possible to stretch sensors of the size found in modern smartphones, even premium ones.

That marks the Galaxy S9 out as highly desirable, but not entirely essential. It’s the smartphone equivalent of buying a Ferrari or Lamborghini — an absolutely beautiful machine with top-notch performance, but not something that you must buy, just something you might want to.


What are you meant to do when your smart speaker laughs at you?

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Smart speakers are everywhere these days, whether you’ve bought into the hi-fi audio of Apple’s HomePod speakers, the general utility of Google’s Home or Google Home Mini, or the many shopping-centric variants of Amazon’s Echo family. Aside from being basic Bluetooth speakers, they’re also easy ways to audibly keep track of your day, catch up on the news, and of course control an ever-expanding array of smart home gadgets.

Indeed, that smart home control is quickly becoming a key factor in how the different smart speaker manufacturers differentiate their products, and in some circumstances, even how they do business with each other.

Amazon (home of Echo speakers and its Alexa assistant) has recently been bouncing Nest (owned by Google, home of the Google Home and its Google Assistant) out of its online stores, a boldly competitive move that saw Google strike back by removing easy access to its YouTube subsidiary from Amazon’s FireTV set top box range.

Amazon, meanwhile, has been busy slurping up smart home companies, most recently spending $US1 billion to acquire smart doorbell company Ring. That’s also a move that will play into Amazon’s retailing strength, because Ring’s primary product is a video doorbell that could see a drop in doorstop theft of delivered Amazon packages. Ring already works with Amazon’s Alexa assistant for Echo speakers and other devices, but it’s presumed that Amazon will work to more closely integrate it now that it’s a wholly owned subsidiary.

Not that all is entirely rosy in the Alexa world, however. While as a platform it’s the most open in terms of the way external developers can make what Amazon calls “skills” — essentially ways to integrate other services, whether it’s checking your bank balance or ordering a pizza — those services only really work if you’re happy having a speaker that’s also a microphone in your home at all times. Amazon’s position on this is that it’s not listening in until invoked with its key phrase, but a recent outbreak of unusual behaviour from Amazon’s Echo speakers did cause some serious concern.

Then again, you’d be worried if your smart speaker suddenly, and for seemingly no reason started laughing at you. That’s what many Echo owners reported recently; that their otherwise mute Echo speakers would suddenly start laughing for no discernible reason.

Amazon’s eventual explanation was that there was a minor chance that Alexa was mishearing the command to laugh (typically, “Alexa, laugh”) and figured it was doing what its owners wanted it to do. The solution will be a software update — most smart speakers handle these themselves without much input from you, thankfully — that switches that command up to “Alexa, can you laugh”, with a verbal response from Alexa (“Sure, I can laugh”) before she actually starts chuckling.

As a solution, that straddles the line between removing the whole HAL 2000 vibe of an AI suddenly chortling at you, and being rather less convenient in pure command terms if you did happen to want Alexa to laugh. Then again, it’s unlikely you’d ask an actual human to laugh on command, so why should an AI be any different?


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