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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

Is Microsoft about to launch Windows 11?

Back when Microsoft made the jump from Windows 8 to Windows 10 – skipping out on Windows 9 entirely – the software giant announced that its intent was to make Windows 10 the “final” version of Windows that anyone would ever be available to buy.

The idea here was that instead of offering up an entirely “new” version of Windows every few years, it would instead simply iterate on the existing code as it shifted around the way that the company made money. What was once a software business selling licences for software provided on physical media, be they CDs or floppy disks, was transitioning to a business services company, selling subscription products such as Office 365 or Xbox Live. Having a single “product” version of Windows 10 made sense in that context, in the same way that you probably don’t think of the version number of Microsoft Word or Excel any more.

Except that now, it seems very likely that Microsoft has had a change of heart. On the 24th of June, Microsoft’s going to hold an event where it’s promising to show off what’s “next” for Windows, complete with a graphic that many have interpreted as showing off a shadow pattern that looks an awful lot like an “11” – as in Windows 11.

What’s more, one Microsoft Corporate Vice President made it even less subtle, tweeting out that “I haven’t been this excited for a new version of Windows since Windows 95!”

So, it’s fair to assume that there’s more than just a twice-yearly features and security update coming down the line, and that Microsoft wants to hype up its “new” operating system as much as it possibly can.

It’s certainly been working on some interesting projects around operating systems, including a Chrome-like version of Windows called Windows 10X that appears to have been scrapped, as well as a significant visual redesign under the codename “Sun Valley”. That doesn’t mean that it will sell anything called “Windows Sun Valley”; it’s just the internal codename Microsoft is using. There’s a long history of that, actually. The initial release of Windows 10 was called “Threshold 1”, while the most recent update was internally called “Manganese”.

It leaves a lot of open questions, because while Microsoft could bring some new interface features with genuine utility into the operating system space, while also improving general Windows performance, it knows it has to tread carefully to avoid annoying users with too much change. That’s what was tried with the whole “metro” interface of Windows 8, to give it a tablet-style feel, something that most Windows users absolutely loathed.

It also naturally raises the question around upgrades and pricing. It’s safe to assume that if its 24th June event does herald a totally new version of Windows that new PCs would start shipping with that version once the code is finalised, but that will leave millions of Windows 10 PCs in use in the meantime. When Windows 10 launched, Microsoft made it “free” for users of most earlier Windows operating systems to upgrade, but with a stronger shift towards subscriptions, will it still feel so generous?

Microsoft certainly wouldn’t be looking to dump Windows 10 entirely however, because it’s still the bedrock for it to sell all of its other business and consumer subscription products, but we may also see a less-than-subtle push to upgrade for Windows 10 users once the company makes its intentions clearer. If you’ve got a fairly recent PC that might be a smart move, but if your system struggles to run Windows 10 as it is, that might be a less compelling prospect.


Yubikey 5C NFC review: Can a USB key really lock down your online accounts?

We live in a world where it’s entirely feasible to do just about anything online. I can well remember the days of queuing in banks, waiting in government offices for registration papers and a million other physical real-world annoyances that always somehow had to be done within standard business hours – mostly now replaced by simple web interfaces that are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The convenience of those services has genuinely changed the way we work and live, but with them they’ve brought a looming spectre of security issues, because increasing quantities of online services bring with them an increasing need for more passwords and locks to keep that valuable information secure. I love being able to check my bank balance at 3am (if I happen to be up) or pay a bill just after I’ve had breakfast. I’d like the idea of my bank balance being compromised while I’m chewing my toast a whole lot less.

I’ve written in the past about the basics of security around passwords – stuff that’s endlessly repeated but no less vital about not using dictionary words or the same passwords across multiple sites and services – as well as the use of password management software to keep it all to a sane level, but recently I’ve been testing out a different method of secondary authentication, via one of Yubikey’s authentication devices – specifically the Yubikey 5C NFC.

It’s a tiny key shaped device that looks rather like a USB flash drive, but it’s not about storage, but security. While I’ve been using it as a secondary authentication device, it more formally fits into what’s usually called “multi-factor” authentication, because it adds a step to my logins that increases its security by a very large factor for a very small added quantity of complexity. Typically speaking, authentication levels are usually defined as something you know, something you have, or something you are. That “know” level is the password that every system will insist upon anyway, while that “are” level is usually a biometric measure, like the FaceID on iPhones or fingerprint sensor on some laptops and many Android phones. The Yubikey 5C NFC fits within the “have” category because it’s something you have on you. So even if someone guessed or otherwise located your password, they’d still need that secondary (or tertiary) factor to gain access to an account.

What makes the Yubikey 5C NFC interesting is both its level of encryption and, frankly the level of ease of use across multiple devices, which isn’t always a reality for security devices. It supports a wide array of encryption protocols to keep its own security tight, although you may be at first bewildered by the jargon in play. Thankfully Yubikey has some pretty decent guides to step you through what’s needed for each account type you want to lock down. A lot of systems are supported, from consumer-facing social networks such as Facebook through to cryptocurrency trading platforms, blogging platforms, online cloud storage – and even some password management software apps as well.

The model I’ve tested with was the Yubikey 5C NFC, and it comes with a USB C type connector, but USB A models are also available. Either way, you can authenticate on a PC or Mac by plugging it in (once it’s set up for an account type) and then tapping on the small finger sensor on it to indicate that a human is using it. It’s also NFC enabled, and what that means is that if you’ve got an NFC-enabled smartphone – which is basically any of them that can handle payment systems such as Google Pay or Apple Pay – you don’t have to plug anything into anything, because the same NFC that handles your contactless payments can also be used to authenticate you.

The Yubikey 5C NFC is a solid little product, but it might be overkill if you’re only using it to protect very simple accounts of small value, and it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s only as secure as you keep it.

If, for example, you used it but had an awful and obvious password, then all someone would need to gain access to your accounts would be to steal your Yubikey and guess that password (or locate it if there’s been a breach elsewhere and you’ve used the same password across multiple sites) and they’d have full access. It’s a smart step to take your online security into the real world – but you need to keep it secure there, too.


Apple iMac M1 review: Colourful, powerful, fast

Back when Apple launched its first iMac line in 1998, it had a unique design and a lot of colour in play. That first iMac came in a colour called “Bondi Blue”, meant to be somewhat evocative of the famous Australian beach, but since then Apple pivoted to more businesslike desktop all-in-one machines.

Up until now, that is, as Apple recently launched an entirely new line of Apple iMacs in a wide array of colours. You can still get a basic Silver 24 inch M1 iMac if you want, but there’s also options for Blue, Green and Pink across all models, and Yellow, Orange or Purple if you opt for the higher-specification models.

Colour isn’t the only new thing in the iMac space, however. Apple’s shifted to using its own “Apple Silicon” processor for the iMac. This is the exact same chip that runs on the existing 13 inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, as well the Mac Mini and Apple’s new iPad Pro models.

That shift to M1, which crams processor, graphics and even RAM into a single system on a chip (SOC) design has allowed Apple to make some pretty radical changes to the physical design of the iMac as well. For a desktop all-in-one, it’s almost ludicrously thin. Being Apple, it’s also kind of attractive in a décor sense, which isn’t something you can say all that often about home computing gear.

Also, on the impressive list is the sharp 4.5K 24 inch display, although it’s offset by a rather thick bezel at the top that features a paler shade of whichever colour iMac you opt for rolling through it. While Apple’s laptops have had relatively mediocre 720p webcams for some time now, the M1 iMac gets a much better 1080p capable model. Given the increased focus for many of us around working from home, that’s a great little upgrade option if you’re coming from an older iMac.

The M1 processor is very powerful, and for most small business and just about every home use it’s more than powerful enough, although it is well worth considering if that all-in-one iMac form factor is worth extra money to you.

The reason I say that is because the M1 chip in the iMac is the exact same part as found in the cheaper MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac Mini. While Apple doesn’t have to worry about batteries running out on its desktop lines, and it can manage wider heat dissipation on a larger unit like an iMac, it hasn’t really juiced up the performance relative to any other M1-based Mac model.

If you’re considering the M1 iMac – or indeed, any M1 based system – the other important detail to remember is that any SOC-based computer is inherently non-upgradeable. The storage, RAM, everything sits on a single chip, and so you can’t boost its RAM or internal storage after the fact at all. Right now there’s a few different internal storage and RAM options for these systems, but whatever you buy is all they’ll ever be in terms of internal components.

The iMac is light enough to move around when needed, with just a single cable for power to worry about, but the similar performance does mean that for many, the MacBook Pro or Air might be a better bet. For sure, you can lug the iMac around the house, but it’s got nothing on the slender form of the MacBook Air, even though both run apps at almost exactly the same speed.

There’s also a pretty sharp difference between the entry level iMac and the higher-spec models, with the higher-end models getting an ethernet port on the power brick, four rear ports and more colour choices, while the baseline model makes do with just two rear ports and fewer colour options.

As a desktop computer then, it’s an interesting device; it’s very powerful, it’s at least luggable if not quite portable, but it’s definitely worth considering your budget and needs, even if you’re already in the Mac camp.


How much care do you take with public Wi-Fi?

2020 saw a lot of us staying at home most of the time, but in 2021 we’re all travelling a little further afield, even though it seems unlikely that too many of us will be hitting foreign shores any time soon.

There was a time when being outside your home or office Wi-Fi environments meant that you were effectively “offline”, but the advent of lots of public Wi-Fi, not to mention increasingly more affordable mobile broadband options has made that a thing of the past.

As we head outdoors even more, whether it’s just to the local shopping centre or for a little mostly-Australia-based tourism, the temptation is right there to jump onto public Wi-Fi, either to save your precious mobile gigabytes for later, or simply because your device doesn’t have its own mobile data connection. I mean, it’s free, it’s pretty easy to log in – what could there possibly be to not like about that?

Quite a bit, just in case you weren’t aware.

As soon as you jump into any unfamiliar Wi-Fi network, you’re opening up a pandora’s box of potential issues. If you don’t have control of a Wi-Fi network, there’s the potential for the data you send and receive to be intercepted by a third party without you ever being particularly aware of it. That doesn’t just cover the obvious stuff like passwords or mobile banking details, but even personal data such as photos. If you’ve got your phone set to backup your photos to, say, Apple’s iCloud or Google Photos, that will kick in the moment it hits Wi-Fi without particularly caring about what the source of that Wi-Fi might be.

Public Wi-Fi networks that rely on you “logging in” in some way can add even more tracking to your online life, or in some shadier circumstances send you compromised websites hosting malware.

Even at a very basic level, if a public Wi-Fi network advises that the “easy” way to log in is via your Google or Facebook account, consider why that is. The reason those social networks are offered as login options is because in many cases you’re opening up your private social life to wider networks, as well as enhancing Facebook or Google’s tracking of your everyday life.

The data on your phone and its value goes well beyond just your passwords, in other words, and things that are “free” aren’t exactly without a cost.

Now, you may be thinking that this isn’t new, and most people already know that public Wi-Fi isn’t safe. You’d be right, but it appears that many of us simply don’t care, suckered in by the convenience instead.

How bad is the issue? According to research conducted by McAfee, some 41% of Australians connect to public Wi-Fi on a regular basis, even though 61% of those surveyed felt that public Wi-Fi was risky. Or in other words, we know it’s not exactly wise, but we do it anyway for the convenience.

So what’s the solution for safer internet access when out and about? Here’s some simple steps to consider that can help to keep your mobile online life safe:

  1. Stick to mobile data when feasible: The days of a gigabit of data costing the same as a family car are well and truly over, with many plans offering up hefty data allowances that can keep you away from more risky public or accommodation-based Wi-Fi networks
     
  2. Consider your real needs: Sure, it’s kind of handy to get some online banking happening while you’re waiting for relatives to emerge from their shopping sprees, but it’s not a good idea if you’re on a public wi-fi network. If it can wait until you get to the office or home on a known Wi-Fi network, leave it until then!
     
  3. Encrypt and protect: If you’re doing anything involving passwords, a VPN connection is a must, encrypting your communications on your device before heading through the public Internet. That’s even more true if you’re using public Wi-Fi. The jury is rather more out on mobile malware apps, especially with many reported apps doing little or nothing in terms of protection according to reports.

How to make the most of your streaming subscriptions

There’s a lot of choice right now when it comes to streaming video services online. They’re all built on the same basic premise; you get access to a large library of content to stream for a month, typically (but not always) for around $10 per month. That kind of price can net you access to Netflix, Disney+, Stan, any number of dedicated single sport streaming services and a whole lot of niche content services covering everything from horror films to reality TV binges.

There’s still more coming, with Paramount+ launching in Australia from August 11th, although there’s an element of rebranding here.

Paramount+ is owned by CBS, who already own Channel 10 and operate an existing streaming subscription service currently known as 10 All Access.

That service will vanish the moment that Paramount+ kicks off, so if you’re an existing 10 All Access subscriber, that’s where you’ll find much of the content shifting to. It’s at least going to be slightly cheaper than 10 All Access, however, at $8.99 per month compared to the existing service’s $9.99 per month price point.

That sub-$10 price point plays a nice psychological trick on you, because you don’t need to watch all that much to convince yourself that there’s value there. Most cinemas won’t let you in the door for under $10, so a single good movie within the month could qualify that price point. Or if you prefer to think of the classic video store and that near-standard “6 or so movies for $10” deal that many of them did, 6 titles over 30 days would see you good.

However, it’s also something of a trap, because there’s no one-stop-shop for every single bit of content. Want to watch Stranger Things? Netflix exclusive. Want to see The Falcon & The Winter Soldier? Disney+ only. Keen on Mythic Quest? That’s only on Apple TV+. Fan of The Grand Tour? Amazon Prime Video exclusive. You get the picture – or more to the point, you only get the picture if you subscribe to a lot of services.

Suddenly, those $10 deals stack up, and while you end up with a lot of content to watch, it’s pretty easy to be spending $50-$100 or more on limited time access, and even more if you need to throw Foxtel into the mix.

However, if you’re smart, you can legally watch all the key programs without wasting a lot of money – it just takes a little discipline. While many shows and movies only appear on streaming services for limited timeframes, that’s still usually measured in a number of months, and that gives you the flexibility to shift and turn as new content comes up. Most of these services really do rely on the idea that you’ll simply keep on staying subscribed even if you’re not watching all that much, because it’s easier to set up a direct debit and forget about it, especially when it’s under $10 per month.

The smarter step is to evaluate the content on each service on an ongoing basis. Everyone’s tastes and watching habits are different, but right now, for example, there’s not so much on Netflix that’s catching my eye, so I’ve cancelled my subscription. It only takes a couple of clicks, and it’s just as easy to restart it as and when new and more compelling content comes along.

What this also does is tend to focus your viewing more on what’s available, rather than being overwhelmed by choice on so many different platforms. That means you can maximise your viewing on, say, Disney+ one month, cancel just before your month is up and jump over to Netflix (or Stan, Britbox, WWE, Hayu, whatever takes your particular viewing fancy) for a month’s worth of watching there. While the available content does shift, anything that’s appearing for the first time one month is nearly always there the next month for you to enjoy – and all the while spending less on your streaming subscriptions.


Apple Watch adds ECG in Australia: Here’s how to use it

In Australia, the vast majority of smartphones sold are tied either to Apple or Samsung. Everyone else in a brand sense runs a very distant third. Smartphones are very well established as a category, but they’re linked very closely to smart watches that pair with them. Again, the same kinds of trends emerge, with research suggesting that around 2.5 million smart wearables – a category dominated by smart watches – were sold in the second half of 2020, according to Telsyte’s Australian Smartphone & Wearable Devices Market Study 2021.

Of those, Apple has a commanding market lead, with its Apple Watch long being favoured by Australians for its style as much as its feature set. However, there’s one feature that has been notably absent in Australian Apple Watches, even though it’s been in the hardware since 2018. That’s the ability to take an electrocardiograph (ECG) directly from the watch itself. If you’ve ever had a hospital visit where they stuck lots of sensors on your chest, chances are good that (amongst other details) they were taking an ECG to monitor for unusual heart rhythms.

The Apple Watch ECG does that, but because that’s a regulated medical function, it had to pass through the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) guidelines first. It’s hard to say precisely why it took so long – reports from mid-last year suggest that Apple simply hadn’t presented it to the TGA for approval yet for reasons as yet unknown.

However, with the most recent updates to iOS, the operating system that runs iPhones, and the Apple Watch itself, which runs on watchOS, Australians can use the Apple Watch to run a basic ECG on themselves. Here’s how you do it, and what you’ll need.

It’s worth noting that not every Apple Watch is ECG-ready, above and beyond watchOS upgrades. You need to have an Apple Watch Series 4 or newer, so older Apple Watch owners are plumb out of luck here. Apple simply didn’t add that ECG hardware until the Series 4 watches came out in 2018. Your Apple Watch will need to be updated to WatchOS 7.4, which you manage via the Watch app on your iPhone.

You’ll also need an Apple iPhone capable of running iOS 14.5, which is basically an iPhone 6s or newer. Make sure that both your Apple Watch and iPhone are up to date via software update, and you should then be able to set up the ECG function via the Health app on the paired iPhone. It’ll typically ask for your date of birth, as well as other details if you haven’t already configured the Health app before.

Once that’s done, you should then have a little ECG icon amongst your apps on the Apple Watch. It looks much like a heartbeat monitor graph as an icon. Tap on it, and you should be told to put a finger on the digital crown of the Apple Watch, and to wait for 30 seconds.

That process will run an ECG via your Apple Watch, but it’s really important to know the limitations here. The Apple Watch can’t detect in and of itself a heart attack, or a blood clot. While it’s had to be certified for use in Australia, it’s not a precision medical instrument in the way that hospital machines are. What it’s useful for is a longer term view of your heart health, and in terms of an ECG, that’s to do with your heart rhythm. If it detects something wrong, you should seek more qualified medical advice, and naturally, if you feel something’s wrong even if the Apple Watch isn’t detecting anything, that’s not bad advice either.


Apple’s Spring Loaded event provides upgrades and just a few new products

Apple is rather good at creating marketing hype – as well as tech products that a lot of people really do adore – and it showcased that at its most recent product launch event, dubbed the “Spring Loaded” event.

The reality is that Apple mostly just released updated and faster versions of products it already offered, with only one real “new” product to speak of – and Apple most definitely isn’t an inventor in that space, either.

The new headline act for Apple is an updated 11 inch and especially 12.9 inch iPad Pro tablet. These run on the M1 chip already found in Apple’s MacBook Pro 13 and MacBook Air laptops released late last year, although that’s arguably less of a jump than it might seem. Apple’s M1 chips all use ARM architecture, and without getting too deep into the technical weeds here, ARM is precisely what’s been behind the processors of every iPad Apple’s ever made. It’s a newer chip, and it’s faster, although that’s relative to where you’re coming from in iPad terms. Apple made some grand claims here, around it being 75x faster than an original iPad, but that’s a tablet that came out some 11 years ago, so you’d expect it should be faster.

The 12.9 inch iPad Pro also gets a new type of display, miniLED, which should give it far greater colour accuracy thanks to the use of some 10,000 local dimming zones across its larger screen. It’s a tad thicker as a result, however, and if you had opted to buy Apple’s fancy (but pricey) Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro 12.9 already, you’d need to buy a new one, because the new iPad Pro 12.9 won’t fit on it.

M1 chips are also the order of the day for the iMac line of desktop computers. iMacs have had striking designs since their inception, when they came in a whole rainbow of colours, and that’s once again true for the 2021 models. They’re also substantially thinner, although I’m not quite sure what the benefit of “thin” really is for a computer that sits on your desk.

Speaking of colour, Apple did lay out one surprise… sort of… when it came to the iPhone. Nobody expected a new iPhone, because those typically release later in the year, but there’s at least a new colour hue available, with a purple shade available for iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 only.

Apple also updated its Apple TV 4K set top box with a faster processor and an interesting colour calibration feature that uses an iPhone as a light sensor. If you’ve got the existing Apple TV 4K – but not the older 1st or 2nd generation models known only as “Apple TV” – then you can access that feature now.

The sole “new” product in Apple’s lineup are AirTags. They’re Bluetooth connected tags that you can use via Apple’s existing “Find My” feature to find, well, anything that you connect them to, in theory. Outside Bluetooth range, the U1 chip in the AirTags uses the FindMy network that effectively runs through every iPhone out there to allow for triangulation and discovery.

While Apple’s had “Find My” on its iPhones and other devices for years now, this represents a step up for the company, but not one that’s massively innovative to speak of. Tile has offered Bluetooth and crowdsource-found tracking tiles for years now, Samsung’s got a take on that concept and there are numerous cheap third-party Bluetooth tracking tiles on the market as well.

None of that may matter to Apple, which can leverage that Find My network, plus its marketing hype to sell AirTags as though they’re new and innovative. They’re not – but they may well be a spark, as many other Apple products have been, to drive some actual innovation in that category.


Does it make sense to subscribe for printer ink?

With many of us working from home through 2020 and 2021, and the increasing needs for families to print items such as school assignments and permission slips, the humble consumer printer isn’t going to go away any time soon.

A little while back, I gave you a rundown on the differences between home inkjet and laser printers for consumer and small business use, which is well worth checking out.

One of the challenges for Inkjet printers is the cost of replacement cartridges. It’s been stated many times – and it’s still generally true – that printer ink is more valuable than gold, or indeed caviar or fine champagne. Although it is less valuable to keep in a bank account, and by no means should you attempt to eat or drink it.

Recently one of the bigger players in the consumer printing space introduced a not-entirely-new concept that does rather change the economics of using a home inkjet printer. HP’s bringing what it calls “Instant Ink” to around 80% of its existing printer families.

Why is it “instant ink”? Because it uses special – and rather large – ink cartridges that use an online connection to report their status back to HP on a more or less continuous basis. They’re not tracking the actual content that you do print, but simply the number of pages that you get through, because the Instant Ink subscription package works on the number of pages that you print.

The cheapest plan costs $1.99 per month, but for that you only get 15 pages to print. $5.99 pushes you up to 50 pages per month, $9.99 gets you 100 pages, $19.99 buys you 300 pages and the top tier plan provides for 700 pages per month at a cost of $39.99. Beyond that, and you’re probably a small to medium sized business better served with a print management style product, which have existed in the market for a very long time now.

If you do want to go “over” your page allotment within a given month, you can step up to the next tier of printing subscription with a payment, although that’s then the tier you’d be on for the following month unless you then remembered to step down a tier. That’s a classic kind of play that you see in markets like mobile plans at play.

Because the print cartridge and printer track usage, they’re also communicating ink needs, so as the cartridge nears the end of its capacity, a fresh cartridge is ordered for you and delivered before the old one runs out. You get a prepaid envelope to send the old cartridge back for recycling and re-use, so it’s an environmentally sound idea – or at least about as environmentally sound as printing can get, anyway.

Instant Ink isn’t a new product overseas, and indeed both Canon and Epson have variants on this idea already available in the USA, but HP is the first to bring the idea to Australian consumers.

So, is it a worthwhile idea?

There’s some interesting calculations that you need to make in order to work out whether HP’s Instant Ink might be worth it for you. There’s no calculated difference between a printed text page or a printed photo, even though quite logically one would use quite a bit more ink than the other. If you’re spending a lot on photo printing with occasional text or colour pages, that could tilt it towards being decent value. HP’s own estimates state savings of up to 50% on cartridge costs, but then HP wants to sell you an ink subscription, so it’s hardly going to say it’ll cost more, now would it?

There’s definite convenience in this idea, but you are paying a price for that convenience, especially if you’re someone who only uses a printer a very small amount.

That entry level $1.99 per month price feels very low. It’s $23.88 per year, generally cheaper than any set of replacement cartridges – but if you are only printing 15 or fewer pages per month, you might do just as well (or indeed better) hitting up your local Officeworks store.

Without meaning to seem like an ad, a typical A4 printed page there would run you 10c – which equates out to only $1.50 for those 15 pages.

It’s also worth considering the value of the printer you’re putting that Instant Ink cartridge into. Ink technology and efficiency has only gotten better over the years, and with competitors like Epson and Canon offering printers now with actual ink tanks that you put actual ink into for larger print capacities, it’s well worth doing your sums and working out your total cost of printer ownership over a year or so. Divide that up into monthly instalments, and you’ll get a much clearer picture of your real printing needs, costs and value propositions.


LG exits the smartphone business – so which phone should you buy?

LG recently confirmed something that had been doing the rumour mill rounds for a couple of months. The South Korean technology giant has declared that it will exit the smartphone business by the end of July.

It brings to an end LG’s smartphone ambitions as it sought to take on the other big South Korean smartphone player, Samsung. Over the years, LG’s brought a number of unusual innovations to the smartphone space, more than a few excellent handsets, and a handful of not-terribly-good phones. Whether the handsets were good or not didn’t seem to matter that much to the wider Australian phone buying audience, which tended to mostly buy either Apple or Samsung handsets.

It’s fairly likely that while LG will cease producing phones under its own branding, it’s not the end of its work in the smartphone market. LG is actually a group of companies that produce both LG-branded products and a wide variety of components such as batteries and displays. As an example, if you’ve purchased a fancy OLED TV in the past few years, the odds are exceptionally good that while it might bear branding such as Sony or Panasonic, the underlying panel was in fact produced by LG.

Still, LG’s exit from the smartphone business does raise a few questions worth pondering.

What happens if you’ve just purchased an LG phone?

In essence, not too much that wasn’t already in play. Australian consumer law protects you in terms of a reasonable warranty period for normal use, for a start. Just because a company opts to no longer sell a product doesn’t mean it washes its hands of its obligations towards existing customers, especially for a company like LG which still very much trades in Australia for a wide variety of other technology products.

LG has also confirmed that it intends to provide updates for what it deems its “premium” phones for up to three iterations of the Android operating system. That’s in line with what other vendors such as Samsung are currently offering, although LG’s track record in OS upgrades in a timely fashion wasn’t always the best. The choice of the words “premium” there are important as well. If you purchased one of LG’s 2020 Velvet 5G handsets, that would apply, but less so for the cheaper lines. LG’s official line on this is that “LG premium phones released in 2019 and later (G series, V series, VELVET, Wing)” will get the three year upgrade promise, while select 2020 models such as the Stylo and some K series phones may see two updates. We’ll have to wait and see.

LG’s promise for OS upgrades means that it’ll also have to keep on track for Android security updates for its phones as well. Again, LG’s track record here wasn’t the best or the worst, but it remains a vital step for smartphone users to make sure their phones are up to date.

Is it worth buying an LG phone now?

It’s obviously a rather open-ended question. There won’t be “new” LG phones coming to Australia, so we won’t officially see the rather weird sliding LG Wing phone officially for example, but if you can get a decent LG phone for a reasonable price, it could still be worth considering. LG isn’t a junk brand, and while its phones didn’t excite consumers in the way that releases from Apple or Samsung have, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t produce a decent phone. I’d definitely be looking for a discount from the regular RRP if I were you, and I’d also suggest that you check reliable online reviews to ensure that the phone you’re getting does what you want it to do, relative to its price point.

What does this mean for smartphone competition in Australia?

LG’s local market share wasn’t huge – after all, if it was, it wouldn’t be dropping out of the smartphone race – and at one time, losing LG would have been a bigger drop in the competition space than it now is. We’ve seen a few brands leave the local market before, Sony being the most obvious example. Sony still makes Android phones, but opted a few years back to quietly exit the Australian market on the basis of low sales. Like LG, it supported the phones it had sold for a while after it departed the local market, but it had a different story to tell, as internationally you can still buy new Sony phones. That won’t be the case for LG.

At the same time, however, we’ve seen a lot of new brands in the smartphone space, mostly Chinese brands such as Oppo, Xiaomi, Motorola, HMD Global/Nokia and realme bring phones that range from budget-space models to the fanciest premium brands. There’s still going to be a fair amount of choice open to you when you buy your next mobile phone – it’s just likely that it won’t include LG in the mix.


Google Nest Hub 2nd Generation Review: A smart display with less-than-smart sleep tracking

Google recently updated the smaller of its two smart displays, the Google Nest Hub, with a 2nd generation model that doesn’t change much visually if you’ve ever seen the original model.

For those coming to the party late, Smart Displays are effectively smart speakers – think devices like the Google Nest Mini, Amazon’s Echo speakers or Apple’s HomePod Mini – with screens on them to display contextual information, photos, videos and in some cases to act as integrated security cameras.

The original Google Nest Hub has had a lot of success in Australia, where Google’s Assistant is the dominant brand in smart assistants with between 64-80% of the total smart speaker market.

The new model is a little cheaper than the original was when it first came to market, although there’s been a bit of late rush recently of the first gen model being on sale even cheaper. While the design is much the same – a 7 inch screen that sits in front of a speaker wrapped in either a grey or black fabric – Google has made some interesting changes behind the screen.

The speakers haven’t changed in terms of output power, but Google’s claim is that they’ve got improved bass thanks to a larger internal chamber where the speaker sits. You pretty much have to sit two of them side by side to notice it markedly, but it’s an improvement no doubt.

The general features that make the Nest Hub attractive for many are still present; you can ask Google Assistant just about any question you’d throw into a Google search and it’ll either speak the answer, show you the answer or where it can do so, give you both. The 2nd Gen Nest Hub increases the microphone count from 2 to 3, and here I’ve seen some solid improvement in its ability to catch my voice from across a room, even when a noisy TV was running.

One of the defining aspects of the original Nest Hub was that it lacked a camera, with Google citing privacy concerns at the time. If you wanted that for security monitoring or for video calling through Google Duo, you had to pony up for the much pricier Nest Hub Max.

The Google Nest Hub 2nd Gen doesn’t quite have a camera, but it very nearly does. Specifically, it uses Google’s Soli radar technology, also seen in the Google Pixel 4 phone and Nest Hub Max for a couple of key features. You can access specific screen commands without touching the screen, thanks to radar tracking of your hands, although as with the Nest Hub Max this is a little bit quirky in real world use. The other area – and the one that’s drawn a lot of attention in tech circles – is the ability for the Nest Hub 2nd Gen to manage sleep tracking without you needing to wear a special tracking band or bracelet, or anything at all if you’re that way inclined!

Instead, you set it up by placing the Nest Hub 2nd Gen in your bedroom. Google reckons a lot of its Nest Hub users already do this, but the Nest Hub 2nd Gen’s radar can then grab a radar image – not a photo or video – of your form on top of your sheets. Then when you go to bed, it uses machine learning to track your sleep and provide you with metrics over a period, as well as advice on how to improve your sleep.

As technology goes it’s very cool, and Google’s at some pains to state that the actual tracking data stays on the device itself. Google says it’s not watching you while you sleep in that way, and in any case you’ve got to explicitly opt in to sleep tracking to even start using it.

In my experience, it’s surprising in a way how good the sleep tracking is on the Nest Hub 2nd Generation, but it’s far from flawless. It tended to overstate my sleep, and on more than one instance didn’t track when I was awake during the night due to some insomnia. That may improve over time, given that the Nest Hub itself has added all sorts of features such as video streaming since its first model debuted, but there’s another issue here. Google says that Sleep Tracking is a free feature for at least a year from now, but that indicates that it intends to charge for it, presumably at some point in 2022 or later. Right now I don’t know that it’s accurate enough to be worth paying for, and that’s assuming that you can get past the slightly-creepy factor of having radar watch you while you sleep.

Still, if you’re keen on a smart display, the faster processor and better microphone pickup in the Google Nest Hub 2nd Gen make it an easy enough recommendation. If you’ve already got a first generation model there’s not enough here to make it a must-have upgrade, however.

The Google Nest Hub 2nd Gen retails for $149 in either Charcoal or Chalk (Black/Grey) finishes, and you can pick one up from your local Officeworks store.


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