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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

Samsung Galaxy Book S Review: Great battery life but it’s not quite Windows as you know it

I’ve recently had the opportunity to test out one of the first Samsung notebook PCs to grace our shores for some years. Overseas Samsung is quite busy in the notebook space, especially in business and gaming-specific laptops, but here in Australia it’s been a while since it’s offered up any Windows laptops at all.

At $1699, the Samsung Galaxy Book S sits at the premium end of the market, with a focus on folks who want very thin, very light laptops with supposedly excellent battery life. Despite weighing in at less than a kilogram, the Galaxy Book S claims battery life of up to 25 hours.

Now, laptops this thin simply don’t have the space to pack in awesome quantities of battery power, and Samsung isn’t claiming any kind of massive breakthrough in power storage technology.

Instead, it’s opting to use a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx processor in the Galaxy Book S. Like its smartphone Snapdragon equivalents, that’s a processor running on the ARM processor platform, where most laptops use x86-based processors from the likes of Intel or AMD. One thing that Snapdragon processors are very good at is using battery power in a highly efficient way, and that’s how Samsung can manage that battery life claim. It also makes the Galaxy Book S 4G LTE compatible if you slip a SIM card into the base of the laptop.

That battery life claim is pretty fair, too. In a straight line video playback test with all battery saving measures disabled, I was able to clock up 17 hours of continuous playback before it ran out of juice. That’s not how you’d want to watch video, of course, but it does push the screen power usage and processor simultaneously, and it does give it scope to push up towards that 25 hour mark. For such a small laptop, that’s quite remarkable.

Boot up the Galaxy Book S, and you’re not met with smartphone Android, Google’s Chrome or even some exclusive Samsung desktop environment.

Instead, it looks and seemingly acts just like Windows 10 as you’d find on a laptop packing an Intel or AMD processor. The difference here is that it’s running Windows 10 for ARM, and that does introduce some challenges when you come to installing your favourite applications. There are a number of Windows 10 ARM produced native applications, and of course those will work just fine on the Galaxy Book S.

Chances are, though, you’re used to running Windows apps built for x86 laptops, and here’s where it gets a little complicated. Windows 10 on ARM can (to simplify it a little) emulate the x86 environment that any app built on a 32-bit platform and run those software packages mostly, but it can’t yet handle 64-bit code.

A lot of more modern Windows 10 applications are 64-bit only, and it can be tricky to work out whether an application is 32 or 64-bit – or in some cases, if it’s offered in both cases. As an example, setting up Adobe’s Creative Suite on the Galaxy Book S, I found I could install Adobe Photoshop, but not Adobe Premiere or Adobe Audition, even though my subscription should have given me clear access to those applications. Adobe doesn’t produce Premiere or Audition in anything but 64-bit code versions, so they weren’t offered. Even the installer for Photoshop failed, because while it does have a 32-bit version, the Creative Cloud installer defaults to the 64-bit version instead. Digging around on Adobe’s website uncovered the 32-bit installer, and that app did eventually run.

It was the same story for Microsoft’s own Office 365, too, which was a little surprising. The installer downloaded, but then the Galaxy Book S informed me it couldn’t actually install. Again, digging around for a version which explicitly said it was 32-bit solved the problem and I could (for example) get on with writing documents and creating spreadsheets with minimal fuss.

The Galaxy Book S isn’t the only Windows 10 ARM laptop you can buy, either; Microsoft’s own Surface Book Pro X uses a similar Qualcomm processor to maximise battery life but at the cost of app compatibility, at least for now. It’s a pricier proposition than the Galaxy Book S, however.

So, is the Galaxy Book S a bust? It depends on how you’re going to use it. Once Office and Photoshop were set up, I had no real problems using them, and the battery life was superb. The keyboard is a little ordinary for my tastes, but I’ve certainly used plenty of worse keyboard on mobile laptops before. If your entire productive laptop life lives online through browser-based applications in Google Chrome or Microsoft’s Edge browser, there should be no issue at all with using the Galaxy Book S; I could merrily create and edit Google Docs with ease on it for example.

However, if you’re reliant on specific Windows applications on your laptop, it’s certainly going to be a wise move to check that they have supported and updated 32-bit versions of their software good to go. While it’s feasible that Microsoft may introduce a 64-bit emulation layer down the road, there’s no explicit guarantee that this will happen, and for now it’s best to consider the Galaxy Book S a 32-bit only machine. At this price point you could score a pretty nice business or gaming-centric Windows laptop with full app compatibility too – but almost certainly not one with quite as good battery performance.


TPG/Vodafone Merger Could Signal Broadband Price War

After significant tussles with the ACCC, the Federal Court recently gave the green light to the merger of telco giants TPG and Vodafone. While the ACCC has stated that it’s “considering” the judgement – and it technically has 28 days to launch an appeal – it’s almost certain that the merger will go ahead.

Which is all well and interesting if you hold shares in either company at a financial level, but for most of us, the more interesting impact may well be in the prices we pay for broadband and mobile services.

On the mobile side, while Vodafone has the smallest market share of Australia’s actual telco networks, behind Optus and Telstra, it’s still way larger than any of the MVNOs – Mobile Virtual Network Operators – such as amaysim, Boost, Southern Telecom or many, many others. Where Vodafone doesn’t have a lot of presence, because historically it didn’t offer those kinds of services is in fixed line broadband. It’s only been with the build of the National Broadband Network that it’s offered fixed line broadband packages at all.

Fixed line broadband is of course where TPG made its name… or in many cases, acquired other names. TPG’s market position is as a “budget” broadband brand, but it also owns the iiNet, Internode, Westnet and other ISP brands that it trades under, with a variety of price points, packages and deals. Where TPG doesn’t have much market strength is in mobile networks. That’s why the merger makes sense to both parties, because in theory they combine their strong points to create a challenger to Optus and Telstra particularly.

So where does that leave the everyday consumer? The ACCC’s argument against the merger was that it would lessen competition, and fairly obviously TPG (and its sub-brands) won’t be competing against Vodafone anymore once the merger is complete. It’s not terribly likely if you are a customer of one of TPG’s sub-brands that they’ll vanish altogether, although some consolidation is likely. Iñaki Berroeta, current Vodafone CEO and the man who will end up as the CEO of the merged companies took the alternative view, arguing that having a stronger competitor to Optus and Telstra able to bundle services and compete on price would be better for consumers.

That does point rather strongly to the idea that Vodafone (and possibly iiNet, TPG’s other “premium” brand) may start more aggressively pitching you plans that include broadband, mobile phone and fixed line telephony as a complete package. While nothing’s confirmed as yet, it wouldn’t be surprising to see TPG as a brand continue its simple no-frills budget journey competing on price alone.

The reality of the Australian broadband space as the NBN rollout nears completion is that there’s not so much capacity to compete on price anyway, because ISPs make their margin on top of what they have to pay NBN Co for capacity on the network. That’s not so much the case for mobile – both calls and mobile broadband – where networks set their own price and reap their own profits, presuming they can hook in customers. Vodafone is due to launch its own 5G network in Australia by mid 2020, which is also when it expects to complete the merger process with TPG, and it’s then we’ll probably see a lot more marketing of 5G-specific plans to consumers.

All of that is predicated on having coverage for those plans, of course. Vodafone’s coverage has improved markedly over the years, but that’s most notably true in metropolitan and large regional city areas. Its coverage in regional and rural Australia is markedly more patchy, and while TPG actually holds the rights to some critical mobile spectrum that the combined companies will no doubt use, most of that rollout has been in – you guessed it – metropolitan areas.

The other big challenge the merger creates for consumers is in the mobile phone and broadband market. Yes, the combined TPG/Vodafone (which will be known as TPG in share market terms) may well be able to challenge Telstra and Optus at the big end of town, but that leaves the smaller, often more budget-centric virtual operators with even more of a market challenge. Most of those providers use Optus’ network, with only a smattering on either parts of Telstra’s 3G/4G networks or an even smaller number on Vodafone’s network. Whether the new TPG will even open up its network to smaller competitors is largely unknown, but it’s entirely possible some of them may find it hard to continue competing on price alone against the big three players once Vodafone and TPG actually merge.

So what does that mean if you’re on the lookout for a mobile or broadband plan? Moreso than ever before, it’s wisest to sign up for a “no contract” (also known as month-to-month) plan for your needs. There’s little value in being locked into a 12, 24 or 36 month plan if there’s going to be a value war at the big end of town to you, even if it’s nice for the telco to know you’re locked in. It’s always a good idea to shop around, even if you don’t want to change networks or providers, because new deals appear very rapidly. Having that flexibility to move can even unlock the ability to jump onto a better deal from your current provider, too.


Google Maps Hits 15 Years As It Looks To Its Future

Google is best known for its dominance of the online search market, but that’s far from the tech giant’s only software offering. Outside of search, there’s one Google service I use more than any other, and that’s Google Maps.

Google Maps recently notched up 15 years in operation, but what you might not know is that the germ of the idea that would become Google Maps was birthed right here in Australia.

A small four-person startup company in Sydney hit upon the idea of an online searchable map using a tile-based approach to laying out navigational data. I recently had the chance to attend Google’s celebration for the spectacular growth it’s seen in use of Google Maps, and catch up with one of the co-founders, Noel Gordon.

Google Maps actually started life as a program written in the C++ programming language, but a pitch to Google’s Larry Page changed the direction of the emergent maps product, as well as its core.

“Larry said to me ‘Yeah, that’s good… but we like the web’ “says Noel Gordon.

Which left the developers in a pinch, but one that they solved with a not-so-little bit of elbow grease. “We took all our code we moved all to the web within two weeks”, Noel said.

Now, Google Maps wasn’t the first product to think about the problem of online maps, but at that time, they were slow to render and deliver, which made them substantially less useful.

“Even for the higher quality maps that at that time were maybe available… we’d call them ‘coffee cup’ maps, because you could literally go and make a cup of coffee, and by the time you got your coffee ready your map was available”

Google Maps use of a tile-based layout, as well as the team’s efforts to develop a more dynamic web language for delivery made all the difference in the usability of its maps product. While it was developed down under, the first iteration of Google Maps was distinctly US centric, but it was a hit out of the gate.

“We had a what we considered a pretty amazing launch. We served something like ten million maps on the very first day.”

To give that a little perspective, Google’s own announced figures for Google Maps usage suggest that it’s used by over a billion people per day right now. There are competing maps and navigation solutions, but it’s hard to overcome the weight of 1 billion users.

However, in that time Google Maps has shifted from a product that was delivered primarily to desktop PCs to one that’s mostly used on mobile devices. “Mobile data happened for us pretty quickly – we launched in 2005 but by 2007 mobile data was a reality” says Gordon.

With that in mind, much of what’s coming for Google Maps is keyed strongly around its mobile apps, from a new tabbed layout that will emphasise features like fast access to commuting data to making it easier to search the area around you.

Google will also tweak its “Live View” maps feature that lets you overlay augmented reality arrows over a camera view to ensure you don’t get lost, and transit attributes that tell you more about the trip you’re about to take than just its time, including expected temperatures, where crowded carriages might be and, where it’s relevant, which services include female-only carriages in international markets.

Noel Gordon’s pretty upbeat about the future of Google Maps too; while the mapping data it has is being refined on a daily basis he notes that “One of the most pleasing things I get is when I bump into engineers that are still working on Google Maps today and I ask them how’s going they say, you know what it’s one of the most fascinating problems I’ve ever dealt with”

“I really take that to heart because of like as an engineer you’re always curious about things.”


Microsoft reverses its position on Windows 7 updates in the weirdest possible way

Typically, when a company announces that a tech product is no longer supported, it’s because it doesn’t intend to provide any support for that product. It’s too old, it’s too costly to keep providing updates, or the userbase is so small that there really doesn’t seem to be much point anyway.

Microsoft certainly gave plenty of warning recently that it was going to cease providing software updates and support for Windows 7, having formally ceased support and updates as of the 14th of January.

Which of course didn’t mean that Windows 7 PCs erupted in a shower of sparks and smoke as though this was some Hollywood movie; for any given Windows 7 PC user the world continued to spin as usual; you were just taking ever larger risks with a Windows 7 PC going online, because any software problems that ensued with Windows 7 would never be patched. There were still plenty of Windows 7 PCs running at the deadline, which makes them an appealing target for malware writers looking to make a quick buck from compromised computers.

That would, in theory, include any bugs that might have snuck in with Microsoft’s last set of actual Windows 7 updates too.

This happens more often than you might think, by the way. Modern operating systems run on literally billions of lines of code, so patching out, say, a bug that eats up memory more than it should can sometimes lead to unexpected results – bugs, in other words – affecting other areas of performance.

Still, Microsoft said it would stop providing updates for Windows 7, so that’s it, right?

Well, as it turns out, not precisely. Microsoft is set to release one, presumably-final-but-who-really-knows-now update for Windows 7 systems. However, it’s not because of a bug that affects security (as far as we know), or even one that eats up all your memory.

Frankly, it’s a weird little bug for Microsoft to commit to fixing.

According to Microsoft’s knowledge base, the very last Windows 7 security update, released on the 14th of January 2019 has a display bug in it. Specifically – and it’s very specific – if you’re using a desktop wallpaper that sets the chosen image to “stretch” (as distinct from fill, tile, center or fit) then your desktop wallpaper might simply display as a black image.

That’s it. It won’t crash your PC; it won’t make your icons disappear. It basically just won’t work, unless of course you flick to some other screen-filling option under Windows 7.

Now, presumably Microsoft must have worked out most of what makes this particular bug problematic, and it must be easy-ish to fix, because it’s said it is “working on a resolution and will provide an update in an upcoming release, which will be released to all customers running Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1.”

Which rather extraordinarily means that it will in fact deliver an update for Windows 7 users after saying it wouldn’t, for an issue which is almost unbelievably minor.

Now, if I were you, I wouldn’t take this as an open floodgate for future updates around much more serious issues. It’s still smarter to start thinking about upgrading to Windows 10, either via a software update or new hardware, because Windows 7 is still potentially open to threats, known and unknown over time.


How long should tech products get updates for?

It’s one of those “how long is a piece of string” questions in one sense, but I’m sure most of us have been through the process of having some piece of technology long enough for it be declared obsolete, unless you’re very keen on buying up new phones, laptops, printers and other devices on a frankly frightening scale.

Sound system maker Sonos has recently found itself in hot water in regards to its support for older speaker models. One of the big selling points for Sonos systems, beyond the audio quality is that the company has provided software updates and compatibility for its products since, effectively, day one. Sonos’ audio gear is premium priced, so the prospect of being able to add older smart speakers to newer systems was a big plus.

There’s a problem there, however for Sonos, because when you’re talking about speakers that may rely on systems that are more than a decade old, and you’re adding new features, you can hit a wall in terms of what the underlying hardware is actually capable of. That’s why the company recently announced that it would be ceasing updates for older Sonos products from May.

Specifically, the company planned to end support for its original Zone Players, Connect, Connect:Amp, first-generation Play:5, CR200 and Bridge devices. Sonos also planned to enable a “recycle” mode to ensure newer buyers wouldn’t be sold second-hand products that might not have newer feature access. However, the recycle mode would also stop those devices from working at all.

For those who wanted to keep with their existing Sonos speakers they could do so, but because Sonos’ smart speaker systems work as part of a group, any newer Sonos products in a Sonos mix that included those older ones wouldn’t get updates either. Sonos (at the time) said that it wasn’t possible to set those systems to co-exist without leaving them behind, feature-wise.

Outrage ensued, because outside physical deterioration, there’s really no reason that speakers shouldn’t be able to present sound for some decades, and making them obsolete just to force upgrades felt greedy to even the most loyal of Sonos’ fans.

Thankfully cooler heads prevailed – which is to say that Sonos appears to have been caught very much off-guard by the reaction it got – and Sonos’ CEO announced that it would backtrack (at least a little) on its plans. Older Sonos speakers won’t get new features, but Sonos intends to provide updates “with bug fixes and security patches for as long as possible.”

Sonos also says it’ll work on a way to split Sonos systems across new and old platforms, so that newer speakers can get updates even if they’re in the mix with older speakers.

Now, that may take some time, and “as long as possible” is somewhat flexible language. It’s feasible that “as long as possible” may not be all that long, although to Sonos’ credit it’s actually provided updates for way longer than just about any smart speaker maker – or indeed many other hardware makers for everything from laptops to e-readers – had already done.

It’s also very interesting in the Australian context, because consumer law here says that anything you buy should last for a “reasonable” period of time, relative to its cost. Now, if you’d purchased one of Sonos’ speakers just a few years ago, you might have had a case even had Sonos gone forwards with its plans for a refund due to the planned obsolescence being forced upon you. Much less so, of course, if you’d bought one back in 2006, because then you’d be looking at a very solid service life relative to its asking price.

It’s also pertinent as we’ve seen more and more internet-connected smart devices in our homes and workplaces. There’s genuine security issues for unpatched devices, and of course access considerations for newer services – or even existing ones for services such as home security – such that not having access to updates can significantly affect their ongoing operation.


If you’re running Windows 10, you need to update it right now

Statistically speaking, you’re probably running a Windows PC – it’s still the world’s most-used operating system, and not by a small margin, and it’s fairly likely you’re on Windows 10. With the recent removal of support for Windows 7 operating systems, it’s even more likely.

Being big and popular means that most applications are written with Windows in mind, and that’s very useful, but it also means that it’s the single largest target for hackers looking to pry into people’s private affairs, whether that’s for outright identity theft, using a PC as part of a botnet or an attempt to get access to your financial affairs or business details.

Typically speaking, when there are flaws in Windows (or for that matter Apple’s macOS) they’re disclosed by security researchers, or quietly patched by Microsoft’s own rather busy security team. As an example, it recently disclosed a security issue with its older Internet Explorer browser, although it’s yet to issue a patch to resolve it. Internet Explorer probably isn’t your browser of choice anymore – even if you wanted to stay in-house with Microsoft you’d be better off with its newer Edge browser – but it’s still lurking in the background of Windows 10 code.

Still, that pales next to the discovery by the US National Security Agency of a very serious flaw in Windows 10 in both its desktop and server implementations. It’s a flaw that undermines the cryptographic security used by Windows 10, and the picture the NSA paints is pretty grim. In its advisory, it states that:

NSA assesses the vulnerability to be severe and that sophisticated cyber actors will understand the underlying flaw very quickly and, if exploited, would render the previously mentioned platforms as fundamentally vulnerable. The consequences of not patching the vulnerability are severe and widespread. Remote exploitation tools will likely be made quickly and widely available.

The NSA’s focus is on businesses and government enterprises that could be compromised by the flaw, but make no mistake – any tool developed to crack those kinds of systems will most likely be flung out far and wide as possible, because while your own files might not be as interesting as some of the US government’s activities, if there’s money to be made, somebody will try everywhere to get it.

So, what should you do? At this stage, you absolutely should make sure that your Windows 10 PC is as up to date with patches as possible. Sadly, there’s some reports that the specific patch to deal with this vulnerability may not install cleanly on some Windows systems – hopefully that’s something that Microsoft can smooth over quickly without issues for most – but it’s absolutely imperative that you at least try.

The easiest way to do this is to type “Windows Update” into the text search box on a Windows PC, where it says “Type here to search” which should bring up a search option that says “Windows Update Settings”. Click on that, and it’ll bring up Windows Update. With some luck it may say that you’re up to date, but in any case, you should click on the “Check for updates” button and make sure that it hasn’t missed any updates or fresh patches.

This may take some time depending on the speed of your connection and the number of updates needed, but it really is vital. In this case, prevention will be way, way better than the possible cure.


How to select your next mouse

You can’t do much at all about the trackpad on your laptop in terms of usability and sensitivity for the most part, but what you can do if your trackpad won’t cut it – or if you just want more features or don’t like selecting with a flat pad – is buy yourself an external mouse to control your PC or Mac.

Now, the reality here is that you could drop less than $10 and pick up the cheapest options available, which will work (at least for a time). But if you’re smart, you’ll buy a mouse that meets your needs for years to come. Everyone’s needs with a mouse are going to be a little different, but here’s what you should consider when making your choice beyond the simple matter of your budget:

  • What sensitivity do you want or need? Typically expressed as DPI (dots per inch), the sensitivity of a mouse directly relates to how frequently the optical sensor reads the surface below it, which translates into both the accuracy of its movement and the speed at which your operating system moves it around the screen. Higher end mice – especially gaming-centric mice – may offer variable DPI switches so you can go from fast to slow as your needs suffice. That’s not just a gaming play, however; if (for example) you’re doing photo editing the ability to more precisely tune your mouse’s output can make them much easier to work with.
  • How many buttons do you want? Every mouse will come with two, but that’s just the start of what’s feasible with a good quality mouse. Again, gaming mice tend to dominate in the multi-button space, but with configuration options open to you it’s feasible to configure additional buttons for macro functions to meet your needs.
  • Wired or wireless? A wired mouse should offer dependable connectivity without the need for batteries or recharging, but it also brings with it cable clutter – and of course you’ve got to have a spare USB port to plug it into. Wireless mice can be had at surprisingly affordable prices, but again you’ve got choices to make, typically between 2.4Ghz wireless mice that require USB receivers to operate, and Bluetooth mice that don’t.
  • Do you want your scroll wheel rough or smooth? Rather like peanut butter, it’s possible to get mice with the central scroll wheel that runs with a smooth action, or with a rougher, more ratcheted action. Again, look to gaming mice if you want both options; some users find a more granular approach fits their mousing style, while others prefer an infinitely spinning wheel.
  • PC or Mac? These days most mice will work just fine across either Microsoft’s Windows 10 or Apple’s macOS Catalina, but if you are buying a fancier mouse for use with a Mac, check that it has specific drivers for macOS. What typically happens here is that macOS will identify any mouse with more than two buttons as a “keyboard”, and unless you’re able to run specific software to configure those buttons, it’ll drop to only looking to the primary left/right button configuration.
  • Ergonomic? Lightweight? Heavy? Cheap mice tend to opt for a simpler oval shape, but there’s near infinite variety in the way that better mice will take your hand grip. If you’re left-handed, there are options for mice that will fit you a little better than the assumed right-hand shape. If you want the lightest mouse touch option, some specialised mice come in at under 100 grams, while others allow you to add weights to make your mouse work the way you want it to – although predictably, you’ll pay a little more for those.

How bad are your passwords in 2020?

A friend of mine recently went through an issue with his Facebook account. Unbeknownst to him, it was posting links to dodgy “investment” opportunities seemingly promoted by major Australian celebrities.

Quick tip: If you see an investment “opportunity” on Facebook, run a mile. Maybe two or more, because they’re ALL scams, and, sadly enough they’re wildly profitable for the scammers. According to the ACCC’s figures, Investment scams of all types were the most prevalent way that Australians were defrauded in 2019, with more than double the losses of the next most common scam type, relating around romance and dating.

Now, this friend had changed his password a few times, so I advised him to carefully check the apps that he’d given posting access to in Facebook. If you’re curious, the easiest way is to go into the settings section of Facebook, select apps, and you’ll be told exactly which apps and services have access. In her case, the best approach was to deny access to everything, and then only permit access on a needs basis.

But it was his comment about passwords that got me intrigued. He said he was “running out” of passwords, which suggested to me that he wasn’t really thinking that hard about new password combinations.

Which is a big mistake, but it’s one that many of us fall victim to.

Each year, security firm Splashdata releases its list of the worst passwords revealed through leaks and breaches that are still in common circulation. You can read the full list here but the top ten makes for rather depressing reading.

You can probably guess what some of them are outright, and any password that a human can easily guess isn’t a security measure at all. Let alone one that any kind of computer might be pointed towards, because the technology there can scan through literally billions of combinations in near no time at all.

Here’s the top ten list; if any of your passwords are here, I have no psychic powers – and you really don’t have a “password” at all.

10. 123123
9. 111111
8. iloveyou
7. 12345
6. 12345678
5. 1234567
4. password
3. qwerty
2. 123456789
1. 123456

Mind you, if you find your password anywhere in the top 100, or in any dictionary, you’re also running a huge risk of being compromised online in some way. That could be with your Facebook account posting dodgy ads in the guise of your personal recommendation – or the loss of access to your own bank accounts.

So, what’s the solution here? Use strong passwords, preferably secured behind an encrypted password manager, because that way you only have to remember one strong password, not many of them. Use two factor authentication when it’s offered, because while it does introduce a layer of difficulty while you procure your secondary authentication code, it also enhances the security of any account you add it to.

It’s 2020. It’s far past time we got past simple to use but simple to remember passwords. It’s a little more work to keep yourself safe online, but with so many of our activities, from simple social media to online banking to just about everything else being secured this way, it’s vital that we all take it much more seriously than using a password such as “123456”.


Best tech of 2019

Technology moves at a rapid-fire pace and picking the “best” technology in a given year is always going to be a highly subjective enterprise, coloured by everything from assumed budgets to technology needs. Still, in my day-to-day work as a technology writer, I’ve come into contact with just about every gadget released this year. The following list is far from comprehensive, and it’s almost entirely personal – albeit from a quite well-informed perspective.

Best Smartphones: Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, Google Pixel 3a, Nokia 800 Tough

Three very different phones, with very different price points and target markets, but each of them represents a “best of breed” approach.

After a number of years where Apple rather coasted on its iPhone laurels, the iPhone 11 Pro Max brought it to the fore, not because Apple was innovating – triple cameras and good battery life are nothing new – but simply because it brought together a real “complete package” of a smartphone. It’s not cheap, to put it politely, and were it not for Huawei’s ongoing issues with the US government and uncertainty around what that’ll mean for its future for Android phones, the Huawei P30 Pro could well hold that premium spot.

Mind you, most of us don’t have the budget for a premium handset, and that’s where the excellent Google Pixel 3a comes into play. With a clean simple Google interface, size that’s easy to slip into a pocket and a truly great camera experience, it’s enough phone for just about anyone’s everyday use. Google set itself a bit of a trap with the more affordable Google Pixel 3a this year, because following it up with the more expensive Pixel 4 left it too large a mountain to climb.

If you’re in the camp that doesn’t want a “smart” phone but still needs the basics of calling and texting, you’re left with far fewer choices. I was astonished at how much I actually liked HMD Global’s Nokia 800 Tough, a feature phone with the essential Google experiences baked in, great battery life, and above all durability baked in. I’ve never been quite so cruel to a handset as I was the Nokia 800 Tough, throwing it down stairs, directly onto concrete and even off a balcony – and somehow it survived it all! I don’t recommend you try that, by the way, but the point here is that it’s an astonishingly durable phone if you’re stressed about breakages.

Best laptops: Apple MacBook Pro 13/Microsoft Surface Pro 7

Laptops are a super-mature market, so there’s much less innovation at play here. It’s entirely feasible to buy a very good laptop for general everyday use for a budget price, but in that space there’s almost nothing that really “stands out”, apart from perhaps scoring a bargain on a model that has more RAM in it than a comparable model from another vendor.

Which is why my picks here come down to Apple or Microsoft’s portable own brand devices. The Microsoft Surface Pro 7 is definitely coasting on its momentum in its 7th generation, but the basic design and experience is still absolutely top notch. Microsoft has signalled that it’s going to move into new designs in 2020 for its Surface range, so the Surface Pro 7 might just be the last model we see with that familiar kickstand-and-keyboard-cover design. I do wish Microsoft would bundle the keyboard cover with it as standard, however.

I did have to consider whether to pick the MacBook Pro 16 I recently reviewed on the Apple side of the fence; I do like its superior keyboard quite a lot. However, it’s big and bulky, and the 13 inch model gains the portability that I’d prefer while still providing plenty of power. Apple does charge a premium for its brand, but my own experiences with it tend to suggest that both resale value and outright durability are a tad better than with many comparable Windows laptops.

Best tablet: Apple iPad

The tablet market is essentially Apple’s to lose; while you can buy Android tablets for very low prices, there’s really no standout models to speak of that make the most of Android. Indeed, Android can often be stymied by apps designed for much smaller screens, a problem that hasn’t been the case for iPads since the very first generation.

Apple did release new iPad Air and Mini models this year, but for most folks the basic entry level iPad covers the essentials of what you’ll want out of a tablet. Apple keeps pushing the idea that tablets can be productivity tool, and while that’s somewhat true depending on your needs, realistically most folks use them for web browsing, content watching and games. The entry level iPad can handle all of that quite nicely, and while the 2019 iPad Air and 2019 iPad Mini are technically more powerful, that’s a distinction you’ll really only notice if you put them side by side.


Windows 7 support is about to end: Here’s what you should do

Windows 7 was first introduced by Microsoft back in 2009, which means that’s just a shade over a decade old as I write this. While we’ve seen Windows 8 and Windows 10 since then, a lot of figures suggest that the number of computers still using Windows 7 isn’t insubstantial, with some stats suggesting that around a third of all Windows PCs are running the older operating system.

This is a big issue, because Microsoft has announced the end of support for Windows 7, and it’s a deadline that’s very rapidly approaching. To be specific, from the 14th of January 2020, Microsoft will no longer publish software or security updates for Windows 7 PCs, and it won’t provide technical support for any issues you may have with it either.

If you are amongst that up to a third of PC users, you’ve got a few hard choices to make, and it’s well worth knowing the range of those choices, as well as their potential consequences. Microsoft has reportedly been alerting Windows 7 users with pop-up screens to let them know about the end of its support period, but you might be confused about what that really means.

It doesn’t mean that on the 15th of January you’ll wake up and your PC will be inaccessible. In one respect, Windows 7 PCs will continue to chug along as they always were, so you won’t automatically be locked out of your PC.

However, the fact that Microsoft won’t produce any further security updates means that using a Windows 7 PC after that date automatically becomes a risky prospect if that PC is ever connected to the Internet. If you’re using that PC in a totally standalone way, then in theory you’re no worse off than you were before. However, any Internet-connected Windows 7 PC will from then on be on its own when it comes to vulnerabilities that malware could exploit. Windows is the world’s most widely used operating system, and that means that it’s constantly under attack from malware authors looking for software gaps, bugs and weaknesses to exploit. That’s what security patching looks to overcome, but there won’t be any more patches for Windows 7 after mid-January.

If you’re on Windows 8 PC, by the way, you’ve got until 2023 before you face this exact scenario.

So, what are your options? It’d be unwise in the extreme to continue to use a net-connected Windows 7 PC for any considerable time after mid-January, which means some kind of update is in order. When Microsoft first introduced Windows 10, it did so with a “free” upgrade offer for Windows 7 and Windows 8 PCs. If you’re still running Windows 7 you presumably avoided that offer, but some reports suggest that if you are prompted to upgrade (and never did so before) Microsoft’s servers may give you that upgrade still for free. It’s by no means guaranteed, however. You’re not risking much by clicking the upgrade prompt and seeing what the server says, however – the worst it can do is tell you to pay for the upgrade.

There’s an open question about whether that’s a worthwhile matter, however. Not that I’m advocating for a macOS or Linux approach, but more that a Windows 7 PC by the nature of its age is going to have more than a few years on it, and with that, a few years of wear and tear. A Windows 10 Home software licence upgrade will run you some $225, and it may make more sense to consider this an opportunity to look at an upgrade to an entirely new PC instead. If you’re still rocking on with a Windows 7 PC that was sold back in 2009, even the PCs that typically sell in the $299 price range will run quicker than it does anyway.

Microsoft’s position on Windows is that while support for Windows 8 will cease in 2023, it’s viewing Windows 10 as its permanent software platform, with no intention to shift to a “Windows 11” at all. That does mean that once you make that jump up to Windows 10, it’s not a scenario you should have to face again at all.


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