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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

Windows Phone is no more, so what should you switch to?

lumia

For some years now, Microsoft has persisted with a multi-pronged software approach around its Windows 10 platform, going all the way up to high-performance workstation PCs through laptops, tablets and mobile devices, in order to service every possible computing need. While the general dominance of Windows in the desktop and laptop space is quite solidly entrenched, and Microsoft had mobile operating systems back when the iPhone was just a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye, it’s had significantly less success when it comes to convincing consumers and businesses to adopt its mobile Windows platforms. Figures from Kantar Worldpanel put the mobile market share of Windows Phones in most places on the planet at 5% or less, and in some cases markedly less. In the UK it’s around 4.9%, in Australia just 2.4% and in China you’d be lucky to see a Windows phone at all, with just 0.1% of the market made up of Windows Phone handsets.

All this despite Microsoft doing a generally excellent job of tying its mobile and desktop platforms together, such that its popular Office apps run smoothly on most Windows handsets, and it ties all content together through its cloud based OneDrive service. Still, consumers and businesses voted with their wallets, and Windows Phone has sunk to the point where even Microsoft has admitted that it’s time to throw in the towel.

In a tweet, Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore stated that the company no longer has hardware ambitions for Windows Phone. That’s not exactly a shock, given that the last Microsoft-produced phones, under the Lumia brand are more than a year old, and even the most recently released third party phone, HP’s Elite X3 is reportedly no longer being produced, just sold from existing stock.

So what does that mean if you’re one of the Windows Phone faithful? Microsoft is committed to producing security updates, so your handset should, in theory, stay safe online. But with hardware production essentially ramped down to nothing, it’s likely that sourcing additional batteries or other repair parts may become tricky and expensive in the upcoming years. Realistically, if your existing phone is showing signs of wear and tear, it’s time to jump camps to either Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android platform.

For a user coming from Windows Phone, there are good arguments to be had for either platform. Apple’s “walled garden” approach to apps is one that Microsoft essentially copied (albeit with much less success) for Windows Phone, so if you like a controlled total ecosystem, an iPhone could be a smart pickup option. On the other hand, Android is considerably more flexible in terms of what you’re allowed to do, including some launchers that mimic the look and feel of Windows Phone. That could be a more comfortable choice, and given the wider range of Android phones out there, a more affordable choice as well. In the premium end, if the virtual “Continuum” feature of Windows Phone appealed, then something like Samsung’s Note 8 and the Samsung DeX dock may appeal.

The good news is that in dropping its own-brand phone ambitions, Microsoft is still looking at developing for mobile devices, so it’s perfectly feasible to run, for example, the mobile versions of Office apps on iOS and most Android devices. Microsoft may have lost the mobile war, but it’s not likely to cede any ground it doesn’t have to on apps or services moving forward.


Google sees AI as the future of hardware

googleevent

At its recent “Made By Google” event, Google unveiled a range of new smartphones, new home smart speakers, a new laptop, standalone camera and new smart headphones that it wants consumers to adopt. That’s a lot of new hardware, so you might be mistaken for thinking that the launch was all about physical technology.

Except that it wasn’t. Google made that quite explicit from the get-go, with Google CEO Sundar Pichai taking to the stage to outline the company’s shift from a mobile-first strategy to an AI-first strategy. Artificial Intelligence (AI) relies on hardware on which to run, but at its heart it’s all about the software. That plays out across the entire new range of Google appliances due to go on sale soon.

The least surprising new gadget was the Google Home Mini, which really does do what it says on the tin. It’s a shrunk down, lower fidelity speaker designed to be unobtrusive for both Bluetooth audio and Google Assistant duties compared to the already available Google Home smart speaker. On the other end of the spectrum is the Google Home Max, a much larger speaker with a focus on high-end audio, set to launch in the US at first at just about the same time as Apple’s competing HomePod speaker. The appeal for any of these speakers isn’t that they manage Bluetooth music, because you can get plenty of competing options that will do just that, but that they incorporate Google’s Assistant technology to manage your daily calendar, light news reporting and search queries. Or in other words, they’re speakers that rely on AI.

Google’s premium Pixelbook continues the journey it started with the first Chromebooks, although unlike those devices the Pixelbook isn’t a low-cost option, but instead a premium 2-in-1 laptop with pricing starting at $US999. Once again AI is the star of the show, because while it runs Google’s basic ChromeOS, it also comes with Google Assistant built in, as well as an optional AI-assisted “Pixel Pen” that can intelligently look up items circled with it. The Pixelbook will only ship to the US, Canada and the UK initially, although it appears that Amazon will ship it internationally as well, even if Google won’t.

There was a lot of anticipation around Google’s new phones, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, although plenty of details had leaked around what we were likely to see well before the actual launch event. Google doesn’t make its own phone hardware, instead farming out production of the Pixel 2 to HTC and the Pixel 2 XL to LG, although it did recently spend up big buying select HTC IP and a whole slew of HTC engineers to join its Pixel product. Still, again, Google was downplaying its hardware, stating outright that it feels that smartphone hardware has “levelled”, and that it’s in AI and machine learning that we’ll see actual worthwhile advancements in what smartphones can do. Unlike many competitor devices such as the upcoming iPhone X or Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL only have a single camera lens at the rear. Google’s managed to get them to work with a “portrait” mode that creates the kind of camera blur you’d get from a professional DSLR, something that every other camera does with dual lenses. How has it managed this? Again, it’s smart software and machine learning at play. The jury is still out as to how well the Pixel 2 will handle portrait modes versus dedicated dual-lens cameras, but it did outscore every other smartphone camera on the prestigious DxOmark benchmark, which suggests it’s a serious competitor. Also of note, Google’s gone down the Apple path of cutting out the 3.5mm headphone jack, citing the need to deliver thinner smartphones as the reason why.

Google’s even throwing AI into headphones, and you might wonder how that’s possible. Its new Pixel Buds are basically just Bluetooth headphones, and if you pair them with any other phone, that’s pretty much all they’ll be. Pair them with the new Pixel 2 or Pixel 2 XL, however, and Google’s translate will, as per company claims, open up for realtime translation of multiple languages direct to the headphones. Google’s onstage demo, translating Swedish to English in real time was impressive to see, but mechanical translation still has its limitations, and the rather obvious sell-in block of making this only available to Pixel users is a little annoying. Then again, the AI-driven Google Assistant was only initially available on last year’s Pixel phones, and you can find it now across multiple Android handsets, both premium and quite low cost models. So it’s feasible in time that Google will open this up to other Android devices, although it’s much less likely to hit Apple’s iPhone lines.


macOS High Sierra: A worthy upgrade, but not one to leap into

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Apple’s latest major upgrade for its desktop operating system, macOS High Sierra is now available for qualifying iMacs, MacBooks, MacBook Pro and Mac Pro models, and if you pay attention to the counter in the app store icon in your dock, you’ve probably noticed it being ready to download, if not in fact pestered by your system to upgrade as soon as possible.

As is always the case with these major upgrades, a lot of what goes into High Sierra won’t be immediately obvious when you make the switch, because there’s typically a lot of optimisation and security work that happens behind the scenes. While High Sierra features new photo apps, a more streamlined desktop Siri to match her mobile cousin and an updated Safari browser with inbuilt blocking of those annoying autoplay videos that seem to infest so many news sites, one particular new feature makes it quite vital that you backup your system before even starting to download the new upgrade.

That’s the switch in underlying file systems, from the older HFS+ to Apple’s new inhouse file system, AFPS. Apple’s contention is that its new file system is more space efficient and secure than HFS+, but the switch isn’t one that will happen to every High Sierra user, at least at first. At launch, if you’re using a Mac with a solid-state drive (which is most of the more recent laptops, but not some older Macs or those using hybrid “Fusion” drives that mix solid state and traditional mechanical drives), you’ll automatically switch to AFPS as part of the High Sierra upgrade. Apple has indicated that it will release an upgrade for Fusion drive users in the future, but there’s no timeframe for when that might happen.

File systems don’t typically impact you as an end user, except that they’re (more or less) the DNA of your computer, so changing things around is a fairly tricky procedure. That’s why it’s vital that you back up your important files before you start the upgrade, because while it’s a very small risk, if something goes wrong during the upgrade, the switch in file systems could put files in a state where neither HFS+ or AFPS can properly read them. Broken files and lost data in other words, whether it’s due to a sudden power outage or some kind of hardware-level blip in the Mac matrix.

Realistically you should be backing up your data on a regular basis anyway, and Apple’s own inbuilt Time Machine application makes this very easy to do. Many people regard this as a boring chore, and so they avoid it. They’re not wrong that it can be dull. A little dull beats the heartache of realizing that your important files, whether they’re business documents or otherwise unsaved pictures of the grandkids are gone forever.

I’ve been running High Sierra across a couple of Macs, and so far it’s a reasonably solid upgrade, but not without its quirks. If you’re using Macs for business it would be sensible to check if there are any known issues (or upgrades) for your vital business software in relation to the upgrade, because it’s feasible some apps may not work identically after upgrade. That’s not unusual for any major software upgrade though, although at least at launch there don’t appear to be too many major offenders in that category.

Apple runs a pretty tight ship when it comes to hardware, and that makes it a little easier for it to offer upgrades across the board in a way that doesn’t always happen smoothly for major Windows updates. It also means that High Sierra stretches back quite far in Mac chronology, with some Macs built in 2009 still eligible for the upgrade. Those systems are more likely to chug a little trying some of High Sierra’s heavier functions, but they’re at least technically capable. If you’re not sure if you qualify for High Sierra, Apple has a comprehensive upgrade site that walks you through the process (and reiterates that point about backups being vital) which you can find online right here.


iOS 11 bids adieu to 32-bit apps: Survival guide

ios11

Apple has recently released the latest update to its mobile operating system, iOS, bringing it to version 11. The new OS has a number of new features, including a limited file exploration app, updated music, photo and email apps, and a number of smaller tweaks to the overall interface and experience of Apple’s mobile products, whether you’re an iPhone or iPad user.

As it does when new mobile operating systems roll around, some older generations of iPhone and iPad users won’t be able to update to iOS, largely due to the hardware requirements of the new operating environments, but even if you are using a new enough device to get the notification about the update, you might want to pause for a while before you actually start the upgrade process. That’s actually generally wise advice for any large scale upgrade, because it sometimes takes time to iron out all the tiny bugs and annoyances that can crop up with new operating system, but for iOS 11, there’s a more pressing reason.

If you’ve been using iOS 10 for a while on your iPad or iPhone, you might have noticed some apps that tell you when they launch that “This app will not work with future versions of iOS. The developer of this app needs to update it to improve its compatibility”. What that’s referring to is the use of 32-bit code behind the app itself, where Apple now makes 64-bit code a mandatory part of the iOS 11 experience.

The difference is that while iOS 10 warned you about future versions of iOS and compatibility issues, iOS 11 is that future version, and 32-bit apps simply won’t launch. They’ll still appear to be installed on your iOS device, but if you try to launch them, they simply won’t work.

If you’re curious, 64-bit code can address more of Apple’s current processor architecture and generally act in a more optimised way. Apple’s been leaning towards 64-bit only for a number of years and iOS generations, so this isn’t entirely surprising news.

If you are on iOS 10, it’s easy enough to see which apps, if any, are going to be impacted by the upgrade. First of all, open up the app store and upgrade any apps that need upgrading, because any upgrades now have to, by policy, be 64-bit ones. After you’ve done that, open up the Settings app, then tap on General, then About, and finally Applications.

There you’ll see the list of apps that won’t work when you upgrade to iOS 11. This presents you with some choices. You don’t explicitly have to upgrade to iOS 11 straight away, although over time it may become advisable to avoid any ongoing security issues. Obviously, if there’s no apps in the list or whatever’s there is an app you no longer care about for any reason at all, you can upgrade without worrying.

If there are apps there that you’d miss if they went, you do have a few options. It may be worth contacting the developer first of all. You should be able to find links to each developer by tapping on each app and checking the developer info in there. You may be lucky, and they may be working on an update, and if so, it’s just a waiting game. You may find that they’re not, however, or get no response at all. There are plenty of abandoned apps in the app store, and if a developer chooses not to recompile their code to 64-bit compatibility, there’s not much you can do to force them. That’s when it’s worth checking the app store for apps with similar functionality. Typically speaking, if somebody’s had a good app idea, the chances are good it’s been copied by someone else. You may even find an app that does extra functions that the old app didn’t if you’re lucky. The one thing you won’t have to worry about is picking up a new 32-bit app, as the other change that Apple has made with iOS 11 is removing the ability to search for those older apps at all. If you can find it on the App Store now, by definition it’s a fully compatible 64-bit app.


Should BlueBorne have you feeling blue?

blueborne

Security used to be one of those factors that was hard-wired into any financial software product or generally security focused-application, but in recent years we’ve seen a massive growth in the number of exploits that attack other software vectors in order to gain control of, or access to a system.

The latest potentially troublesome vulnerability to be discovered has been dubbed “Blueborne”, because it’s a vulnerability that exploits weaknesses in older implementations of the Bluetooth standard to both attack vulnerable systems and spread itself. Because of the way it transmits over Bluetooth, a Blueborne attack could, in theory, spread simply by walking past another infected device with your own Bluetooth-capable device — for example a smartphone or tablet — which would then “accept” the attack itself, and become a new malware vector.

That’s a vulnerability with a potentially massive scope, because pretty much every smartphone and tablet, and most laptops and even some desktop PCs have inbuilt or add-on Bluetooth modules. The attack targets a common way that the standard uses to initiate communications, so unlike, for example, data transmission over Bluetooth such as file transfers or audio streaming, it’s already present before any user acceptance buttons or warnings would ever pop up on screen.

That sounds grim, and in theory it could allow an attacker to wander around, compromising machines at will simply by walking past them, but there are some silver linings to this particular malware story.

In the first place, the vulnerability was discovered by security researchers at Armis Labs, rather than malware authors. That’s important, because a known vulnerability is one that can be patched over, where an unknown exploit is one that’s not likely to be addressed. It’s the difference between knowing you’ve lost your keys, so the locks need to be changed, and not knowing that there’s somebody out there with a set of keys at all. As such, software patches can be written and some systems should be updated to block anyone trying to take advantage of the exploit. Which doesn’t mean it’s dead in the water, but it does blunt a lot of its potential effectiveness.

This should, by the way, serve as your timely reminder to apply all the available update and security patches to your desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones, because it’s precisely this kind of problem that those patches can block, even if you don’t know that they’re doing so.

The second bit of good news relates precisely to those updates, because the most obvious vector for these kinds of exploits are smartphones. They’re usually all Bluetooth-enabled devices, they’re very mobile and as such they’re far more likely to wander into range of a potentially exploited system. If you’re running up-to-date iOS on an iPhone (iOS 10 at the time of writing, although it’ll be iOS 11 as of 19/20th of September), then you’re already secure. If your device is running iOS 9.3.5 or earlier, however, there may be an issue, and if a software upgrade isn’t available due to hardware age, disabling Bluetooth may be wise. On the Android side of the issue, if you’re using a device on Android 6.0 (“Nougat”) or Android 7.0 (“Marshmallow”) then the September security update deals with Blueborne entirely. However, the spread of that security update varies by Android hardware manufacturer. Hopefully the threat will convince some tardy manufacturers to speed the patching process, but for older hardware that can’t even handle Android 6.0, again there’s a possible threat.

For Windows users, as long as you’re running Windows Vista or better and you have applied the September security updates. Microsoft isn’t supplying security updates for earlier versions of Windows than that any more to speak of, so again, caution is advised. It’s not entirely clear whether the shared source code libraries of Mac systems are vulnerable or not, but you’re definitely advised to upgrade (which Apple does for free for qualifying systems) to at least macOS Sierra, which should be Blueborne-free.


Windows Fall Update will fall onto your PC soon

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One of the key platforms for Microsoft’s Windows 10 operating system was that it was going to be a continuously iterated platform with major releases happening to a regular schedule. Unlike the service packs of old, these wouldn’t just be bug fixes and security patches, but the introduction of new features and services, meaning that after only a few years, the Windows 10 experience you have could be markedly different to the Windows 10 experience you started with.

Microsoft’s already pushed out updates such as the Windows 10 Creators update, although even that had its issues, and its latest “new” version of Windows 10 is dubbed the Windows 10 Fall Update. Yes, that’s a particularly American view of both the world and its seasons, but the good news there is that the changing of the seasons, irrespective of your hemisphere of choice means that the Fall update should fall towards your computer quite soon.

Now, the Fall update will undoubtedly include tweaks behind the scenes for security and stability, but it’s the headline features that should make a difference to your day-to-day usage.

Visually, the Fall update uses a new design language called “Fluent Design” that relies on lighter icons, although you’ll only see those changes come in over time. Don’t stress if you like the way Windows 10 looks now, because these are smaller scale visual changes, rather than a massive functionality shift.

Microsoft has been shifting its business towards cloud services for some years now, and with the Fall update, its OneDrive cloud service will fully integrate with Windows Explorer through a feature called “OneDrive Files On Demand”, which will allow files to appear in your Windows Explorer window without actually being downloaded. Of course you’ll need an internet connection to access them, but this means you can keep files secure and reduce the storage impact locally for files that you may not need local access to all the time.

If you’re a user of Microsoft’s own Surface laptops, or any other pen-enabled tablet-style Windows 10 PC, you should also benefit from system-wide stylus support. Windows has had a rocky transition from being purely mouse-driven to allowing touch and stylus input, and the changes in the Fall update will include native pen-driven scrolling, better handwriting support and even GPS location tracking for your last used pen device, should you choose to enable that feature.

Speaking of tablet approaches, many tablets and 2-in-1 PCs allow for tent or full tablet modes where the keyboard is either hidden or disabled, which means relying on the onscreen keyboard. That can be a frustrating affair for any longer text entries, but the Fall update will include access to Swiftkey, a swipe-based keyboard app that you may have already used (in one format or another) on your smartphone. It lets you run your finger from letter to letter, intelligently predicting words based on your movements, and it can be much faster than regular touch typing on a glass panel.

As with other Windows 10 updates, the Fall Update will be pushed out automatically to PCs running the Windows 10 operating system as a free update. It’s likely to be a large file that will take some time to install, so it would be wise to plan ahead and allow it to run overnight or at some other time when you can do without your PC. With a little luck, Microsoft will have learned important lessons from the tricky rollout of the previous “Creators Update” and make it a smoother process for all PC users.


Ransomware on the rise, but what practical steps can you take?

ransomware

In the early days of computer security, viruses were largely destructive while often relaying self-aggrandising messages about their authors, or straight up offensive statements about precisely how stuffed your system now was, thanks to corruption of storage media, system BIOSes or other critical computer components. They were the brainchild of often bored and seriously immature minds that found thrills in trying to get away with destructive behaviour. It’s been long time since viruses and malware were simply interested in destruction, however.

Indeed, a lot of malware really doesn’t want to call attention to itself at all, whether it’s sitting silently on a compromised system slurping up personal information and passwords at will for financial gain, or turning your computer into part of a larger network of “zombie” machines for attacks on other systems. The whole idea of that strain of malware is that you’re not meant to know that it’s there. This doesn’t mean that it’s beneficial or you shouldn’t want to know that it’s present, just that its developers design it to stay hidden.

In recent years, though, we’ve seen the re-emergence of malware that actively wants you to know that it is present. Unlike classical viruses that splashed up a DOS screen of flashing text to let you know it was time to buy a new computer, newer malware acts as ransomware, encrypting your computer’s precious storage and offering to provide a decryption key for a set sum, quite often given in the cryptocurrency bitcoin.

Modern ransomware attacks are gaining in sophistication, using a variety of exploits to worm their way into systems, as well as to then try to propagate to newer internet-connected PCs as well. Even as new ransomware strains are detected and blocked, they’re iterated upon with a variety of new exploits, meaning it’s a perpetual game of cat and mouse to keep them under control.

How bad is the rise of ransomware? One security vendor, Symantec reports that it’s blocked some 319,000 attempted ransomware infections in the first half of 2017, compared to 470,000 for the entire calendar year of 2016. Bear in in mind that this is just one security vendor’s reporting, so the total numbers of attacks are likely to be significantly higher.

One interesting statistic to come out of Symantec’s research is the amount typically asked for by ransomware authors, which has now stabilised around $US500. That suggests that the ransomware authors have worked out a sum they feel is worth their time but isn’t so high that people simply won’t pay. Which, and I must stress this, you shouldn’t be doing in any way, shape or form anyway. By definition, you’re dealing with criminal types who cannot be trusted. Once they’ve got your money and your system compromised, you have no guarantee of getting a proper decryption code, and you’re essentially bolstering their illicit criminal model.

So what’s your best course of defence against ransomware? It’s critical to keep your computers (no matter the make, model or operating environment) up to date, because most ransomware will probe using multiple known exploits based on the idea that many systems aren’t upgraded to cover those exact same security holes. Equally, keeping antivirus/antimalware security software up to date is vital, because while it can’t cover every problem, it can solve for many, as well as making you aware when there is or may be a problem with your computer.

While those are must-do steps, for ransomware particularly there’s a simpler step that you should be engaging in anyway, and that’s backing up your own data to an external source, whether that’s cloud backup or more localised backup to an external drive or writeable media source of some type. That’s because if the worst does happen and your system gets locked down by ransomware, and you have a backup of your own documents, photos and other files, you can easily give the whole issue the flick by resetting your entire system, and restoring your files from backup. Yes, it’s a pain, and you’ll have to reinstall the operating system and software applications, but that’s something (especially with online delivery of software) that’s just a matter of time to cover off on. Your own files are the irreplaceable part of the equation, and a backup removes them from being at threat. Just remember to regularly backup, because that way you can access your own content recently created, where an older backup may miss important files or modifications.


Samsung makes its productivity play with the Galaxy Note 8

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Samsung recently announced its latest premium smartphone, the Galaxy Note 8 at a flashy event in New York City, followed up very rapidly by opening up pre-orders for the device in Australia less than 24 hours later. That’s the fastest I think I’ve ever seen a newly announced device go to a sales channel, although actual devices won’t ship until September 22 in any case.

Samsung is hoping to erase the terrible failure it had in the Galaxy Note 7, which, if you remember, had to be recalled at massive expense owing to a battery failure that could lead to the devices spontaneously catching fire. Samsung sent out new Note 7 devices… and then they started catching fire as well. The Note 7 was essentially written off in most markets, although Samsung has re-engineered some Note 7 hardware for selected markets with (as per Samsung’s claim) significantly safer batteries.

As it’s done for some years, Samsung pitches the Note series as its productivity devices, thanks in large part to its sizeable 6.3 inch display on the Note 8 and the inclusion of an inbuilt stylus that Samsung dubs the “S-Pen”.

I’ve been a big fan of the Note series in recent years, but I don’t find I use the stylus all that much. Then again, I’m much more of a keyboard user in any case. Alongside the productivity focus, the Note 8 will also feature Samsung’s first dual lens camera on the rear, with options for both wide angle and telephoto photography. Samsung likes to think of the Note series as a productivity powerhouse, but the reality is that it has plenty of fans who are just regular consumers too.

The extra weapon that the Note 8 will be able to rely on is Samsung’s DeX docking station. This is the charging and screen relaying dock it launched back with the Samsung Galaxy S8 that promises a desktop-style experience when you drop your phone into the DeX dock. I’m yet to test out the Note 8 with a DeX dock, but I have had extensive testing experience with the Galaxy S8 and DeX to work out whether it lives up to Samsung’s claims. The Note 8 should be a little more powerful, and it’s promising better overall full-screen Android app compatibility, but can it really replace your laptop as a go-to machine?

I’ve got my doubts, based on what it’s like using the DeX dock with a Galaxy S8. For very basic, fundamentally web-based tasks it’s adequate, but really only just when compared to using a full laptop with proper multitasking and apps built for that environment. Pairing up the phone with a keyboard and screen is simple enough, and it’s useful that it will also charge the phone when docked, but the experience of working on what is still fundamentally a small-screen touch interface blown up full screen still isn’t overly competitive against even a mid-range laptop experience.

That’s not to say that it’s a solution with no users; I could well see certain work niches where it could work very well. A builder acquaintance of mine is a big fan of the Note series and uses the stylus frequently, as well as a little light email and invoice generation work from his phone. The prospect of dropping it into a dock and taking that fullscreen after a day’s work could be a real lifesaver for him.

Ultimately the DeX dock is just an add-on for what’s already a premium priced phone. If you’re already keen to upgrade to the Note 8 (or for that matter, you’ve got a Galaxy S8 already) it’s reasonably priced at $199, and works acceptably well for what it is. Will it replace everyone’s laptop along the way? It’s not likely, but it does bring focus to the fact that today’s smartphones are getting very powerful over time.


Has the time come to switch to SSD?

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You probably don’t think that much about the storage inside your laptop or desktop, excluding those times when you start running out and your computer complains about the lack of overall storage.

A quick primer, as a tiny digression. If you look at the specifications of your computer, it’ll list two types of storage: the memory and the storage (sometimes just referred to as the hard drive). You might think the two are the same, but they’re not. Memory is (in human terms) short term memory active only when your computer is on. Think of it as a digital blackboard that gets wiped clean every time the power goes down, and may indeed be cleared progressively as you use different applications, while the storage is more your long-term memory, where anything you create, download or install is stored.

It’s feasible to upgrade the memory (or RAM) in many systems, especially desktops, although some thinner laptop designs used sealed memory compartments that can’t be upgraded. Storage is an easier solution, however, because you can add external devices such as thumb drives or full external hard drives to gain extra portable storage for any laptop or desktop with a spare UBS port.

For years, the external drives you increased your storage with weren’t that much different to the drives within your computer. They were mechanical drives with read heads, encased in enclosures that provided power and not much else, although many external drives used smaller physical size drives than their desktop counterparts. In recent years, there’s been a growth in the use of solid state drives, that use memory that’s not terribly dissimilar (at a basic level) to the memory used for RAM. Solid State Drives (SSDs) are quieter, thinner, and generally more power efficient, but their real benefit is in pure speed.

I’ve recently been testing out Samsung’s T5 SSD, the company’s latest generation of its external solid state drives. They’re very small, very lightweight and very fast indeed. Connectivity is via either of two cables provided in the box, covering both standard USB (USB-A) and the newer round USB-C standard, and the drives are available in 250GB, 500GB, 1TB and 2TB sizes. Samsung also supplies a simple utility to encrypt the data on the drive if you’re thinking of using it for business purposes, or even if you just want to keep your family photos truly private.

Connecting up the 500GB T5 SSD to a 2016 MacBook Pro, I was able to hit an impressive 513.5Mbps real world read speed, and write speeds of up to 482.7Mbps. You’ll never see that kind of speed from an external mechanical drive, although if you do have a laptop or desktop with an internal SSD, it’ll be even faster again, because the realities of shifting data from an external interface will always introduce some overhead.

All well and good and robust, but there is a catch, and it’s one worth knowing about. SSDs have been favoured by speed freaks, but to date they’ve been the more costly option against standard mechanical drives. Samsung’s new drives start at $199 for the 250GB version, all the way up to a wallet-scaring $1,249 for the 2TB version. Considering you can pretty easily buy a 2TB mechanical drive for less than $199, you’ve got to balance your storage needs against your need for speed. That being said, when the first external SSDs emerged they were both slower than the T5 and much more expensive. That price and storage gap is shrinking, and as it does, expect to see more and better SSD bargains along the way.


Time to relearn all your password rules

Closeup of Password Box in Internet Browser

For just about any online service you’d care to name, you’re going to be requested to set up a password in order to securely access those services. This may be for a relatively trivial reason, such as one-time access to a site you’re not sure you’re going to use regularly, or something far more serious such as your online banking.

Either way, you’ve probably been hit by a set of password rules that required you to, generally, pick a unique password (always important) with at least one capital letter and one number as part of the combination. There’s a reason why those rules have permeated across the internet which can be traced back to a US security document from 2003, which laid out the (at the time) understood best practice for password creation.

There’s just one problem. The rules that were laid down then were built on both a limited understanding of passwords, and an even more limited subset of “bad” passwords to work from, most of which dated from the 1980s. They recommended, amongst other things, that passwords should be regularly changed, as frequently as every 90 days.

For many of us, this has led to really lax practices, such as re-using passwords across multiple sites, or using really simple ciphers such as appending a number (usually a 1) to the end of a new password to make it easy to remember. Many folks adopted the use of numbers to replace letters, so that “e” becomes “3”, “A” becomes “4” and “O” becomes “0”, for example.

There’s a big problem here, because that creates a recipe for passwords, and it’s one that, especially as processing power has grown, has been ever easier for computers to crack. The author of the original password document now states that they’re not terribly suitable for human beings to use, because they promote passwords that are hard for humans to remember, but easy for hackers to crack.

So what’s the solution? The new rules being proposed change up the way that traditional passwords were thought of.

Out with mandatory numbers, because we’re (generally) lazy and always tend to append them to the ends of our passwords.

Out too, with forced changes of passwords, because that should only be necessary if there’s a known breach of a given service or site.

Users should be encouraged to use passphrases, because you can generally remember a phrase much more easily than a random jumble of letters, whether it’s a song lyric, a poetry phrase or simply a string of words that you happen to like and can find memorable.

Of course, you can still mix it up a little and, for example, use methods such as Diceware, where you roll dice to pick words from a random list, or use acronyms based on the lyrics of your favourite song.

The new rules also stipulate password lengths of up to 64 characters, but before you panic at that length, they also suggest allowing password fields to support pasting in passwords. That means they should work with password managers such as Dashlane, 1Password or Keepass, and that’s good news if you have many passwords to remember, as so many of us do.

With a decent password management app, all you need is one decent passphrase or password, and then you can let the app do the calculations and creation of new passwords for you on the fly, unlocking the app with your master password and pasting in new passwords as needed.


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