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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

Understanding USB Power Delivery: One cable to charge them all?

One of the key issues for technology is power, and as we’ve shifted to more portable gadgets – from mobile phones and tablets to laptops replacing desktops – keeping them charged has become a more complex affair. Your phone might have one charging plug, your tablet another, and your laptop one more again, leading to a complex nightmare of cables to keep an eye on. Cables naturally love to tangle with each other, get lost behind desks or simply forgotten when you’ve got to go out. Depending on the age of the batteries in your devices, that could lead to a device that’s going to run out of power right when you need it.

If only there was a single charger that could do everything, right?

Well, there is… sort of. For some years now there’s been a shift towards using the USB C standard for power and data.

USB (Universal Serial Bus) has been around for years now, but if you’ve got an older device that uses it, the chances are that it uses the trapezoidal style micro-USB plug. USB C is a slightly newer standard, and it’s very easy to work out if the plug you’re holding or using is a USB C type plug. If it has rounded sides and doesn’t have a ‘wrong’ way to plug it in, it’s USB C.

However, over time we’ve seen a few revisions of USB C over the years that change up the power and data capabilities of the plug type. Some devices can only shift data at lower speeds, and likewise charge a little slower too.

This is where USB Power Delivery comes into play. While many of the first USB C devices were smaller gadgets such as phones, where the expected power input wasn’t terribly high, it becomes more complex if you want to safely and quickly charge larger gadgets. The USB Power Delivery (USB-C PD) standard allows for a single charger to give a verified power rating of up to 100W, depending on the device need.

The smart thing here is that if you’re using a USB-C PD capable device and a USB-C PD charger, the two devices can talk to each other, negotiate a charging rate and then deliver that power as fast as your device can take it. So you can take, for example, a charger for a MacBook Pro that needs a high wattage, and charge a Samsung Note 10 that needs (and can only take) a much lower wattage without impacting safety or even charging speed. Both sides of the charger and device equation communicate their abilities and needs, and charging can happen in an optimal way.

USB-C PD isn’t the answer to every single charging problem, mind you. If your needs are for higher power, as you get with some heavier duty graphics laptops and gaming laptops, USB-C PD can’t quite meet the charging needs you’re likely to have to run a top-shelf PC and graphics card solution. If you’re using a USB-C PD battery pack or charger with an older device that just happens to have a USB-C connector but doesn’t itself use the standard, you’ll drop down to a much slower – but still safe – charging rate, which means it’ll take longer to charge your gadget even though the charger would technically be capable of faster rates. It can also be a touch hit-and-miss with some of the third-party fast charging systems used by some mobiles, although again the standard essentially calls for a dialling down of charging rates if all devices can’t properly communicate the safest charging rates.

Facebook’s news ban is a timely reminder to check what you read online

As you’re probably aware, Facebook’s recently been making some very big changes to the way Australians use its services. Specifically, and in reaction to the media bargaining laws before Parliament, Facebook opted to instead block any Australian user from sharing news from any Australian or International news source, as well as blocking international users from sharing specifically Australian-identified news sources.

While there’s an inevitable political element to much of this – and for the record I think there’s some big flaws in the media bargaining laws and in Facebook’s approach – the reality of their inclusion of a charged fee system for anything identified as “news” – itself rather nebulously defined under the legislation, for both better and worse – gave the company two options. It could work within that system, effectively paying for the links its users actually uploaded, or not at all – and it chose the latter.

This rather quickly became more than just a story about the big masthead newspapers, however, as Facebook’s approach to the problem was to apply an algorithm to determine if what was being shared counted as “news”, and if so block it, as well as hiding posts from any publicly facing page that it also defined as “news”.

Now, that’s arguably fair enough for, say, the Melbourne Age or the Brisbane Courier-Mail, but less clear-cut for health services pages, the Bureau of Meteorology or many small business or club pages that suddenly found themselves bereft of content and unable to share any actual new posts as well. For what it’s worth, Facebook has stated that some of the pages were removed in error and will be reinstated, but it also noted that the broad definition of news didn’t leave it with much choice if it wanted to remain compliant with the law.

It’s something of a stark reminder of the essential power of Facebook, especially if you’ve used it to build up a group or share information, because those facilities were always only offered to you on Facebook’s terms. It’s a private company and, while staying within the scope of Australian law (albeit in a highly problematic way) it can do what it likes with its own web space.

The issue here, however, goes beyond whether Facebook should be contributing specifically to the coffers of larger news organisations, however, because it also highlights another issue that can only get worse from here on out. Facebook has long had a problem with the propagation of false information, whether that’s outright wacky conspiracy theories, poorly researched “scientific” arguments or even opinions-masquerading-as-facts, used to propel a particular argument, sell some specific PR spin, or in many cases con people out of their money.

Facebook’s ban works on the content it identifies as “news”, but it’s far from a precise model. For some time, it was possible to share a news story if you also included any kind of still image or GIF before dropping the link into your post, although Facebook seems to have closed that particular loophole. There’s still some link shortening services that seem to work if you really must share news, but where it becomes a bigger problem is if someone else is sharing more contentious material on a site that Facebook doesn’t classify as news.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that someone shares a very bad bit of advice around the current pandemic, and what you should do. This already happens on Facebook quite a lot, but presuming it passes Facebook’s “this isn’t a news site” check, it would go up, uncontested. You could argue against it – and in the case of that kind of “advice” you’d be smart to – but you wouldn’t be able to cite evidence to the contrary from, say the ABC, Fairfax/Nine or News Corp titles, because Facebook wouldn’t actually let you share them!

As such, while at a consumer level we can’t do much to modify Facebook or the Government’s stances right away, it becomes even more important to double-check what you’re reading on Facebook. It’s good general advice for anything you read online, really, but when the right to reply isn’t present, it’s an even more pressing matter.

Starlink offers satellite broadband options – but how good are they?

Recently, Elon Musk – yes, that Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame – launched a new product in Australia, and indeed globally. Starlink is a satellite based broadband service that spans the globe, technically delivering fast broadband to just about anywhere. While Starlink had been in limited release for a North American audience since late last year, just recently, the company started accepting pre-orders for Australians to hook up to the service, with actual availability promised for mid to late 2021.

There’s a pretty wide variety of broadband options for most Australians, with the National Broadband Network sold by a variety of ISPs the most obvious, but also mobile broadband via 4G or 5G networks, and a smaller quantity of private ISP options using cable or fixed wireless technologies. So how does Starlink compare?

Really, it depends on what your needs are, and most critically what you can currently get where you are. While Starlink’s satellite coverage can technically deliver broadband anywhere in Australia – the benefit of being in orbit is that you can “see” and be “seen” just about everywhere – it’s a more competitive offering for those in the Satellite and Fixed Wireless parts of the NBN, and less so for those with the fixed line FTTN, FTTC, HFC and especially FTTP parts of the network. Although for FTTN customers if you’ve got particularly dodgy copper and can’t easily hit 50Mbps or more downstream, there could be some appeal.

Starlink’s claimed aim is to hit 50-150Mbps down with latency – that’s the speed of transmission between request and acceptance of an online request, important for features like Zoom video meetings – of between 20 to 40 milliseconds. For satellite broadband that’s pretty decent, helped by the fact that Starlink is using a constellation of low earth orbit satellites. Simply put, there’s less distance to travel, so there’s less lag.

There are issues to consider before signing up, however.

Whereas the cost of NBN installation is explicitly covered by the way it’s been built, Starlink is a private enterprise, and setting up one of its satellite dishes will cost you a minimum of $709 for the hardware, plus $100 for delivery. It’s not entirely clear how simple the install process will be, and for some locations that could involve additional cost on top of that.

In terms of ongoing costs, at launch Starlink’s only offering a single plan. $139 per month scores you no metered data at best available speeds, which compares very nicely to available NBN Satellite plans in terms of data and speed, but nowhere near competitively on price. Again, that’s a matter of your particular needs and budget.

Starlink isn’t applying data quotas at launch, and that’s an unusual step for satellite broadband where transmission quotas really do come into play. However, it’s also only offering preorders on a “first come, first served” basis, and there’s absolutely no indication of how many Australian customers they’re looking to serve. Keeping the numbers of customers low will help it keep data speeds up – at least in theory – although this is largely untested too.

Comparatively, while satellite NBN is largely the province of quite remote and regional areas, NBN Co is obliged to offer service to you – and Starlink isn’t.

That does mean that if you’re in an area with unsatisfactory broadband options and you’ve got a clear sky view and the rights to install that there’s another option opening up to you – but it could be one with quite a steep price tag. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the current fixed line technologies – and the 4G used for Fixed Wireless NBN is currently in an upgrade phase, with some large promises around future faster speeds if you’re in the right areas and happier to take up higher speed plans once available.

Apple’s next iOS update might solve mask issues (with a catch)

One of the nicest features of Apple’s iPhone range of smartphones is the ability to unlock the phone using nothing more than your face. Apple calls it “FaceID”, and rather than having to remember a passcode or passphrase, you can unlock your phone with just a glance.

Android phones have something similar, with a face unlocking feature, but there’s a critical difference. For the vast majority of Android phones, there’s a straight up warning when you enable it that it can be much less secure than a fingerprint or passcode, and that’s because it’s using a simple flat photo analysis to pick that you are, in fact, yourself. That’s simple machine learning at work, and it’s been shown to be relatively easily fooled by something as simple as a photograph of you. If you’re using an Android phone with a face unlock feature, you do need to keep in mind that it’s not much of a lock, in other words. You would be better off with a fingerprint if your phone has a biometric reader, or strong passcode if it doesn’t.

Apple’s approach involves a multi-camera array at the front of the phone, taking an actual 3D image of the front of your face – and critically, the area around your eyes, nose and mouth for shape and other distinctive features – to properly and far more accurately verify you. That level of security is why Apple switched a few years ago from using fingerprint authentication on its phones (TouchID in Apple parlance) to FaceID.

Which was all well and good, right up until 2020 and the COVID pandemic came and hit us all square between the eyes. The must-have (and still sensible to wear) fashion accessory became the face mask, but that presents an issue for a phone that you’re meant to unlock with your face. Hiding away your mouth and nose – as a reminder, masks are essentially useless if you wear them under your nose – makes accurate FaceID matching all but impossible. That’s frustrating if you want to unlock your phone while you’re wearing a mask, especially as it’s the assumed “default” for iPhone devices.

It appears that Apple’s aware of that issue, and an upcoming update to iOS 14 – iOS 14.5 to be precise – will allow for an alternative, mask-friendly unlock option. As MacRumors reports, the headline feature of iOS 14.5 will be the ability to unlock an iPhone without requiring FaceID if you’ve got an Apple Watch nearby paired to the same account.

There’s two catches here. First of all, of course, you’ve got to have an Apple Watch, and while Apple does have slightly less expensive models on sale, any smartwatch is still by definition a bit of a luxury buy.

The other catch is that, rather like having Apple Pay on an Apple Watch, you’ve got to have a passcode enabled on that Apple Watch. That’s a smart enough step, as it still keeps your private information private if somebody was to abscond with both your Watch and iPhone. You’ll also be limited to only unlocking your iPhone this way – it won’t work for authenticating Apple Pay purchases without a separate FaceID or passcode authentication step.

Apple’s only just released iOS 14.4 to the wider public back on the 27th of January, so there may still be some time before iOS 14.5 goes out for actual public release. As with most iOS releases, Apple tends to push these out automatically to most iPhones, so unless you’ve manually changed the upgrade settings on your device, you’ll most likely see it as an overnight install rather that something you have to chase down yourself.

Laser printer or Inkjet: Which printer is best?

While the quantity of paper I print on has dropped over the years – especially in my own case where far more of my writing these days appears online rather than in printed format – there’s still a solid need for many of us to own a printer of some sort.

While there are some esoteric print technologies out there using things like solid inks or other printable materials – I once got taken through a factory tour by one printer maker where they showed, and I’m not making this up, a printer that could make materials to be cut into handbags, making it effectively a handbag printer – for most of us, the choice falls between laser printers and inkjet printers.

Inkjet printers are pretty easy to explain – the name suggests exactly what they do, using a small jet to squirt ink onto a page as your needs dictate – while laser printers heat up a dried powder – the “toner” in your toner cartridge – to attach it to the printed page.

Historically, the choice was very simple indeed. If you wanted a low quantity of printing, or you wanted to print in colour, your best choice was an inkjet printer. They were cheap to buy, although less so if you did end up printing a lot, because the cost of those inkjet cartridges was quite prohibitive. It absolutely wasn’t uncommon to find that you could grab a new inkjet printer for less than the cost of a set of replacement cartridges, although some makers did take advantage of that by putting lower-capacity “starter” cartridges into boxed printer units.

If you wanted to print a lot, and especially if you were printing text-heavy documents in volume, laser was the way to go.

For some models of laser and injket printer those observations still hold true, but not universally so, and especially if you’re looking at the consumer end of the market.

What we’ve seen in injkets, for example, is the rise of printers that don’t rely specifically on inkjet cartridges, but instead the use of side-mounted ink tanks. Vendors such as Canon and Epson make these under various brands, and they’re quite a good option if you need intermittent colour or photo printing, but you’re not so sure as to when you might need that volume.

I’ve been using an Epson ink tank printer in my home office for the past couple of years, and while the model I have was originally pitched for a small office rather than a sole user, it’s done me very well in terms of lasting ink and quality. While I’m nicely situated for inks right now, a quick online check suggests a full set of inks would set me back around $70. That’s not free, obviously – but then in three or so years, I’ve not needed to change the inks yet at all, so that’s an investment that’s way, way cheaper than those smaller inkjet cartridges, and more environmentally friendly too.

The flipside of that equation is laser printing. At one time, if you wanted a cheap laser, it would be monochrome and the quality would be only average, while toner costs would be quite high. Sure, it was fast, but it wasn’t great.

These days you don’t have to spend thousands to get a very good, highly capable laser printer for both monochrome and colour work. If you don’t need complex colours or photo reproduction in your work, a laser can often outshoot a comparable inkjet, especially on regular paper. If you are in need of lots of photo printing then better stock paper will give you a much more pleasing result – but then again, you’d still generally be better off with a more photo-capable inkjet in that case.

If you only print a very small amount indeed, or have need of larger format printing there are models available that can handle that kind of work, but it could also be a better bet financially to consider using an external print provider – such as the printing solutions available through your local Officeworks store – to meet your printing needs.

What are your alternatives if Google drops search in Australia?

The battle between search giant Google and proposed media legislation that would require it to pay major news organisations for linked content – which I’ve discussed previously – heated up recently, with Google stating that it would pull its search services from Australia if the rules as proposed become actual law.

There are arguments for and against the new media rules, but the reality for most of us is that we can’t do much to change whether they do or don’t take effect, although Google is clearly giving it a red hot go.

Stating that it would pull its search functions from Australia entirely is a rather nuclear option on Google’s part. It’s not just a question of financials and ad revenue, with Google’s search also underpinning much of what it offers in terms of maps, mail and all sorts of other services.

However, it’s not as though Google is in fact the only search game in town. At a basic level, for just searching the web there are competitors out there. Google rose to prominence amongst a huge field of search engines by dint of offering the cleanest and best results out of most, and it’s fought hard to maintain that dominance. However, even though many folks do view the word “Google” as a verb synonymous with “search”, you can use other search engines, and it’s feasible in the near future that you might have to.

Microsoft’s Bing is easily the best known alternative search engine, and indeed much of its engine is actually the brains behind some of the smaller competitive search services as well. Bing is still dwarfed by Google in the local search market, and while its text searches are often a little behind Google, the fact that it doesn’t just focus on YouTube means it’s actually often better if you’re searching for video content on the Web.

Then there’s DuckDuckGo, a search engine with a strong privacy focus. Where Google makes its money – and improves its search algorithm – is by tracking much of what you do on the web, something that DuckDuckGo specifically says it doesn’t do. Search results on DuckDuckGo are private by design, and it blocks the tracking methods used by many sites to follow you around the web. Not tracking you, however does mean that it doesn’t have a lot of personalised features, and it can’t quite leverage that personal knowledge to deliver you relevant search results in the same way as Google.

If you’re feeling green when you search, you could try Ecosia, a search engine that promises to plant trees from the revenue it makes from advertising. It’s not quite as private as DuckDuckGo – searches are only anonymised after a week – and is also based on Microsoft’s Bing search engine, enhanced with Ecosia’s own algorithms.

Then there’s Dogpile, which takes the interesting approach of using multiple search engines in the background – including Google – to deliver you what it thinks are the best search results for a given query. It’ll be interesting to see how well Dogpile works when and if Google stops offering search in Australia – although that also depends on whether Google simply blocks Australian IP addresses from using its search functions to comply with the media code, or if it stops indexing those results altogether. The former seems more likely, but we’ll have to see how this ultimately pans out.

The other option that may be open for search users who don’t want to switch away from Google would be to use a VPN to make it appear to Google’s servers that you were in another country. That’s a common approach to get around the geoblocking of content – accessing different Netflix libraries worldwide is rather common this way – that should, in theory, allow one to bypass any block Google puts into play.

At CES 2021, Razer shifts from gaming to health with the world’s smartest mask

Every year since 1967, the US Consumer Electronics Show, or CES for short shows off the latest in technological innovations and products that manufacturers are hoping to bring to market. Back in 1967, that would have encompassed a lot of radio and TV products.

You don’t so much see radio as a key part of CES these days, although TVs are still strongly represented each year as visual technology improves.

Then again, CES 2021 wasn’t like any CES I’ve previously attended in Las Vegas.

For a start, it wasn’t in Las Vegas, and neither was I.

The realities of the pandemic meant that the CES organisers switched to an “all-digital” online only format, with fewer manufacturers showing off their wares, but no need for all that exhausting travelling or slightly greasy US food, either.

CES isn’t just about what will come to market that year, but also a lot of effectively speculative technology, either in the form of prototypes that inventors are hoping to drum up enough attention to in order to get funded, or concept designs from the big manufacturers that may one day make it if there’s enough general consumer and retailer interest.

For many years now, gaming brand Razer has used CES to show off not only its new gaming gear – this year it was a refresh of its Blade gaming lines – but also more conceptual ideas. At previous CES events it’s shown off some wild designs, including a triple-screened laptop that folded outwards. That one never came to market, partly due to cost, and also because one of the prototypes was rather brazenly stolen from the CES show floor.

This year, like many others, Razer was considering the realities of living with and through a pandemic, developing a product that doesn’t just target gamers. Razer’s Project Hazel is what it calls “The world’s smartest mask”. By itself, it’s an N95-grade mask with respiratory filters, but that’s not what makes it smart.

The Project Hazel mask uses detachable filters that can be popped out and sanitised under UV light, removing the need for washing and drying, as well as a clear faceplate so that both expressions can be seen by others – and those with hearing difficulties can lipread.

Where Razer so often throws RGB lighting into its gaming gear for sheer show-off effect, the Project Hazel’s lights are designed for low-light situations, so even after dark you’ll be able to be seen and understood. Razer is still Razer, mind you, so you can still customise the colours of those RGB lights, like you could with a Razer keyboard or mouse.

That’s also because unlike a standard mask that can muffle speech, the Project Hazel mask uses an embedded microphone to allow you to speak clearly to anyone. The same case that provides UV sterilisation also allows you to charge up the mask when not in use, too.

All of which sounds like a great and quite workable concept… but there’s a catch. Like the other concept devices it’s shown off in years past, the Project Hazel device is just a concept for now. Razer wasn’t alone in showing off tech-inspired medical tech to meet the challenges of the pandemic, and I get the feeling it’s going to have a lot more interest in this mask than some of its gaming concepts – or the Project Brooklyn gaming chair it also showed off at CES 2021 – but for now, we’ll have to wait and see whether it ever becomes a product you and I could actually buy.

4K, 8K, Full HD – What’s the difference?

As I’m writing this, the Consumer Electronics Show that would usually take place in Las Vegas is instead being staged entirely online, due to the ongoing pandemic issues. CES has for the longest time been the place where big consumer electronics companies show off their latest TV innovations, and while it’s not debuting this year, there’s a whole slew of very impressive 8K TVs on show. Or, on virtual show, but you’ve got to do what the times permit, I guess.

Over time we’ve seen TV (and for that matter PC monitor) technology improve in leaps and bounds. Old school CRT TVs managed resolution a little differently, but once we shifted into flat panels, it got a little easier to compare TV resolution types.. as long as you understood what you were looking at.

In TV terms, you’re mostly going to be picking between 4K and 8K TVs this year, although there are still a few, mostly much smaller TVs on the market that don’t even go that far. That’s the domain of either HD (720p) or Full HD (1080p) screens.

Now, if you’re a little lost already, that’s OK, because it’s not as hard as you might think. When we talk about resolution on any screen, you’re numbering the pixels — those are the individual “dots” that make up each image — first horizontally and then vertically. At a very basic level, the larger the pixel number within a screen, the finer detail you can display, because you can present an image with a lot more difference between each pixel. If you think about it like old school LEGO bricks, think about the difference between building out a picture from single-stud standard LEGO bricks… or trying to do the same thing in the same space with much larger infant’s DUPLO bricks instead.

So for old-school CRTs, the effective resolution (more or less) was at best just around 720×480 pixels. That’s what’s also called “standard” definition, although it’s becoming much less common and certainly not desirable for most folks. Stepping up, you have 720p (the p is a discussion for another column), with 1280×720 pixels in a frame, also known as HD (“High Definition). HD’s bigger contemporary brother is Full HD, or 1080p, with 1920×1080 pixels to use. The step up from that — and the most common TV type available right now — is 4K, with 3840×2160 pixels.

That’s a big step up as you can imagine, and there are — many years after the first 4K TVs went on sale in Australia — a fair number of 4K video sources to watch, including many of the most popular streaming services if you’re on the right tier and have the bandwidth to handle it.

8K ups the ante to 7,680×4,320 pixels, so at a pure technical and numbers level, it’s the best in terms of the types of pictures it may be able to present. I say may there, because right now, there’s basically no actual native 8K content out there for you to enjoy at any substantial level. That’s the exact same story as 4K TVs had a few years ago, so what the TV makers are instead promoting around 8K is its ability to “upscale” existing content for smoother pictures while we wait for more 8K content to be available.

This can be very effective, because while there’s a number of quite high-priced 8K TVs to pick from, what’s also been developed in the past few years is more work around artificial intelligence to better sharpen and improve lower quality images into ones that are more aesthetically pleasing.

So for example at this year’s CES, Sony’s debuting a new AI processor in its 8K TVs that it says will analyse the images being displayed, upscale them but also process them to mimic the way our eyes focus on dominant action in the screen we’re watching. The end result — according to Sony, anyway — is that they’ll be even more lifelike. Not surprisingly, competitors such as Samsung, LG and Panasonic have broadly similar claims around their own 8K panels as well.

This kind of image improvement itself also isn’t new – even if you opt for a 4K or Full HD TV, there’s some kind of image scaler and interpreter working behind the scenes to improve images, which is part of the reason why you can get better images from a quality TV with a good scaler than a bargain basement one, even if on paper they’ve got the same resolution.

So do you need an 8K TV right away if your budget permits? Not yet, I’d say. 4K panels used to be the price of small family cars, but they’re now far more affordable from a range of brands and matched nicely with content that can actually take advantage of all those pixels. 8K may well get there in time, although given the shift to streaming video, we’ll all need reasonably good home broadband to go with it to make the most of it.

Tado Smart AC Control V3+: How smart can your aircon get?

Like many Australians, I survive our hotter summer months thanks to the invention of air conditioning. Not that I can’t sweat it out when I have to, but equally, a good AC unit can make a hotbox of a home into something considerably more comfortable. Air conditioning isn’t a new invention – I looked it up, and the first Aircon was installed all the way back in 1902 – but the technology behind air conditioning has certainly come along in leaps and bounds in recent years.

If you’re installing a new air conditioning unit you can spend up big and get a high powered unit that’s ready to roll with internet connectivity and voice control, so you can perform fancy tricks like setting your AC to fire up when you’re away so that your home is pleasantly cooled – or nicely warm – when you do return.

But what if you’ve got a sturdy older unit that doesn’t think in terms of Internet at all? Tado recently sent me its Smart AC Control V3+ unit to test out. The core idea here is that it can take any standard AC unit that works off an IR remote – which is functionally speaking all of them – and give it the essential smarts to work in an interconnected way via a smartphone app or its own control panel.

Installation of the Tado Smart AC Control V3+ is a simple enough affair, with an easy app-led install that walks you through registering your device, and then placing it in a way where it’ll work with your already installed air conditioning unit. That’s a line-of-sight question, although IR is pretty good at bouncing off walls. I tried pretty hard to find a sane spot in my living room where it wouldn’t work, and outside burying it under the sofa it always functioned nicely.

Most big brands are well represented so that all you should have to do is tell the app the make and model and it’ll work out the functions available to you as a result, but you can also add features if it misses out on a button on your remote that you’d like to replicate.

You can then use the app itself or the Tado touch panel to quickly adjust your home’s AC parameters, or connect it up to existing smart home speakers for voice controlled temperature control. It still feels all rather Star Trek to me every time I tell Google to switch on my air conditioning, and in my experience it’s marginally slower that way – because Google then has to talk to Tado’s servers, who then talk to the actual Tado device that then sends the final IR command up to you. We’re still only talking a matter of a few seconds in any case.

Tado’s claim is that the Tado Smart AC Control V3+ goes further than just replicating what your remote can do with additional features such as geofencing to smartly turn your AC off even if you forget when going out, as well as air quality controls and open window detection, to help you save money and energy.

Geofencing naturally relies on the app and the location sensing of your connected smartphone, and can work pretty well if you do often leave the home without switching your AC off. The other features are designed with health and wealth in mind, although in my own experience they can be a bit hit and miss – especially that open window feature. My own living area is quite open plan, and from time to time the Tado app’s tried to notify me of an open window when none was open; all I can guess is that it’s detecting air temperature shifts in a larger area as an open window.

The overall question here of course is one of value. If you’re happy enough with a basic AC remote control then this is adding some convenience, and could save money over the longer term by limiting your accidental power usage, whether that’s due to leaving the AC on or leaving windows open. I’m forever scrambling to work out where my kids have left the AC remote – yes, it has its place, but like the TV remote, it seems to like to travel – so it’s quickly become a very welcome addition to my own home.

Google’s year in search says a lot about our 2020 priorities

While it has a lot of products in the tech space, for many people Google is synonymous with the product that made its fortune in the first place. Indeed, for a lot of folks, the words “search” and “Google” are freely interchangeable when they’re talking about looking up online content, no matter what that content is.

Google makes the vast bulk of its money off advertising that works contextually around those searches, which is why when you go researching garden rakes, you then get weeks of endless garden rake ads in your search results afterwards. Collecting and sorting all that data for the billions of searches worldwide each year is a mammoth task, but it also enables Google to announce yearly search trends by location, including Australia. The results aren’t always what you might think, either.

The list of the top overall searches makes for a rather grim picture, although there is some variance in there, with everything from the US Elections to the NBA, at-home-videoconferencing software Zoom, Fires Near Me and of course the coronavirus all appearing in the top 10.

You might think that the coronavirus would utterly dominate the news related searches as well.

You’d be wrong; Coronavirus managed three spots in the top ten news searches for 2020, but it was beaten to the top spot by the US Election, coming in at 2nd for the broad search term, and then 4th and 10th for Coronavirus Victoria and Coronavirus NSW respectively. Other newsworthy searches covered fires near me – no doubt most prevalent earlier in the year when the nation was beset by terrible bushfires — Qantas share prices and toilet paper. No, really.

Mind you, 2020’s other search results definitely had more than a taste of the pandemic about them. In recipe searches classics like Spaghetti Bolognese, Crumpets and Anzac biscuits made it into the top 10, but the most searched-for recipe across the nation was instead for homemade hand sanitiser. That was also the most popular search for the term “How to…?”, anything with “DIY” in it and 2nd in the “Can I” section for where it could be purchased.

Otherwise, there’s a strong streak of Australian can-do attitude in the searches, with Australians searching for how to use Zoom, make self-raising flour, buy shares or make whipped coffee amongst the top searches for how to make different things.

Google’s search results also track our sporting obsessions, and while 2020 was obviously also a difficult year for sports fans, international codes dominated our search obsessions. The NBA’s experiment with its Disney “Bubble” was the most commonly searched sports term, followed by the English Premier League and then State of Origin 2020. The NBA also rather sadly got the top spot for celebrities passing away with the untimely death of Kobe Bryant being the most searched for celebrity loss in 2020, joined by Chadwick Boseman, Kenny Rogers and Sean Connery amongst others.

You can check out all of Google’s top 2020 search trends at its Google Australia blog here.

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