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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite vs Google Chromecast with Google TV: Making your smart TV smarter

Smart TVs – flat panels that include some level of integrated internet-based streaming functionality – have been a reality for years now, with a wide array of approaches and compatible apps built right into your living room TV. In terms of an all-in-one solution it seems like a no-brainer, because if your TV can easily access the streaming services you love, you don’t need any extra remotes, or to cast content from a laptop or phone or anything like that.

When you first buy a smart TV and connect it up to your home internet, that may well be true, but there is a problem. Most smart TV makers aren’t always all that good at updating the apps on their smart TVs.

That’s an issue on two levels. As new services — Disney+, which only launched late last year springs to mind — appear, you may find that you’re not able to access them directly from your TV. The app simply doesn’t exist, and if you’ve got an older but still perfectly good TV, you may find that your TV manufacturer doesn’t have any interest in software upgrades for it.

That can also be an issue even for apps that are present on your smart TV anyway. As the services themselves make changes to their quality options, software delivery or user interfaces, some smart TV access can become a non-starter, even though it looks like they should be compatible. The app launches, you see the logo, and then all you get is an error message when you want something enticing to watch.

It’s why I’ve long been a fan when buying a new TV of making sure that you’re getting the best picture quality above all, because that’s a factor that can last years or even decades if you’re lucky, with everything else being a bit of a bolt-on.

Need better audio? Add a surround sound system or high quality soundbar.

Need better smart TV access? Add a cheap smart TV dongle.

Luckily that’s pretty easy to do. Just recently both Google and Amazon updated their smart TV offerings for Australians, via the quite cheap Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite and the slightly more expensive Google Chromecast with Google TV.

The Fire TV Stick Lite is “lite” because in the US, Amazon offers a range of smart TV appliances, with the Lite being the lowest cost option.

It’s the only model sold here in Australia, retailing at $59. It’s a very simple HDMI-connected stick with its own remote control that mostly focuses around Amazon’s own Prime Video streaming service. Prime Video can be subscribed to by itself, but most consumers effectively treat it as a “freebie” alongside an existing Amazon Prime shipping subscription. Alongside Prime Video, it’s compatible with Netflix, Stan, Disney+ and Apple TV+, as well as the major free to air “catch up” services such as ABC iView, 9Now and SBS On Demand.

Google’s sold cheap Chromecast devices in Australia for a few years now, but to date they’ve all relied on casting and control via a smartphone, tablet or Chrome browser. The $99 Google Chromecast with Google TV steps it up a notch with an included remote and a user interface effectively built on the Android TV platform that you find on some smart TVs.

This means that there’s a wider array of apps you can install on the Chromecast with Google TV. It’s got coverage for all the big hitters – Netflix, Stan, Disney plus and even Amazon Prime Video, although you don’t get Apple TV+. Apple and Google don’t like each other that much, at least for now. If you’re wondering what the difference is between this model and the existing Chromecasts, think of it like a super-sized model; you can still cast to the new Google Chromecast with Google TV from compatible devices, but it’s also got an onscreen menu and a remote control as well.

Having tested out both streaming sticks, they’re fine for their basic purposes, but if I was buying, unless Apple TV+ is really important to you, I’d opt for the pricier Google Chromecast with Google TV. Its response is a little quicker than the Amazon Stick, and critically it’s capable of 4K streaming, where the Amazon stick will never go above 1080p.

While that’s also a matter of your subscription tier for selected services, as well as your broadband quality, the reality for the Google Chromecast with Google TV is that it’s eminently portable, so you could take it with you from TV to TV, or when you upgrade your subscriptions or your broadband improves. The Fire TV Stick Lite will always be a lightweight solution – hopefully Amazon will bring more models to Australia soon.


Should you buy a laptop with integrated or dedicated graphics?

Intel has just released a new GPU for laptop builders to incorporate into their designs in the form of the Intel Iris Xe Max. If you’re looking at GPU like I just started speaking in Dutch, it stands for Graphics Processing Unit, the bit of your computer that handles flinging images around onscreen.

The Iris Xe Max is designed for ultraportable laptops that need a little more graphics grunt than you’d get in a standard integrated GPU, so best suited for matters like video editing, rendering and gaming pursuits.

What’s interesting here is that Intel is claiming that the Iris Xe Max can handle 1080p gaming tasks with aplomb but also share its computing power with the standard CPU if you do hit an intense task.

You might not care about gaming per se, but it does represent a big leap forwards in terms of what can be done with an integrated graphics solution, because it really wasn’t that long ago that these units struggled to even shift a single column of excel data across a display.

When you buy a new computer – and most notably laptops although this can be true of desktops as well – there’s a choice to be made between integrated and dedicated graphics processing.

An integrated GPU means that the graphics handling is done in (essentially) the same chip as the actual computing, sharing memory resources and generally lowering energy usage. Conversely, a dedicated GPU can have its own memory and deliver superior performance when needed, but at a cost of power usage, which is why you typically don’t see them on ultralight notebooks, or for that matter low cost models either.

If your computing needs are modest – a little light web browsing, office documents and the like – then dedicated GPUs will be more than enough. It’s a little easier if you’re buying a PC based on Intel processors because Intel doesn’t make standalone graphics cards itself. Typically, what you’ll find on systems with Intel and standalone GPUs are cards using NVIDIA’s GeForce solutions.

Rival AMD makes both CPUs with integrated graphics and graphics cards in its own right, although in the laptop space that’s usually easily determined by the price sticker on the laptop.

While gamers are often cited as the core market for laptops with dedicated GPUs, and there’s an entire class of “gaming laptops” to suit their needs, it’s not the only scenario where a system like that makes sense.

If you do a lot of work involving graphics elements such as photo or video editing, most of the popular software can leverage the power of a good GPU to speed up your workflow. More recently, there was a bit of a run on actual graphics cards for desktops due to the whole cryptocurrency boom, because again their computing power could be leveraged that way – not that I’m advocating for that approach, but it’s another example of how computing power can be shifted around different computing architectures.

It’s also worth bearing in mind if you’re buying a laptop that upgrades beyond memory – and even then it can’t be assumed – are usually not a realistic proposal, and if you’re looking to need more power over time, a dedicated GPU should offer more performance than an integrated one. Every system that comes with a dedicated card can and will drop to the integrated GPU for low-intensity tasks, which means you get the best of both worlds that way.

That being said, for most everyday users, the integrated graphics you get will manage most tasks just fine, and there’s still very much a price differential between systems, and especially laptops, with decent dedicated GPUs.

Outside much older laptop stock – where you run the risk that integrated improvements like Intel’s Iris Xe Max may have outpaced dedicated GPUs anyway – you won’t typically see a dedicated GPU on any laptop under around $900, whereas anything under that price is extremely likely to be relying on an integrated GPU.


Google won’t give up search without a fight

One of the biggest tech news stories of recent months emerged when the US Department of Justice announced that it’s going to take search giant Google to court, alleging that it has violated antitrust laws in a monopolistic fashion. According to statements reported by the New York Times, “nothing is off the table” in terms of remedies, including potentially breaking up parts of Google, a fairly standard approach for cases of this type.

That’s assuming that the DOJ wins the case, and as with all legal matters that could take years to conclude, because not shockingly Google’s said that it’s going to fight the case. That’s where it gets interesting for Australian users of Google’s services, which is pretty much everybody who searches, uses an Android phone or Google-specific services such as Google Maps or YouTube.

Google isn’t the first big tech company to fall foul of US law, with Microsoft infamously being pursued over anticompetitive bundling practices in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That was a case that the DOJ ultimately won, but Microsoft didn’t end up being split up, at least in part because the length of time it took for the case to wind through the courts meant that a lot of the arguments around matters such as bundling an Internet browser had been rendered somewhat moot because the Internet had moved on.

Google may well be in a different position this time round – the Internet absolutely is all of its business and it’s constantly iterating to stay on top of technology movements and changes, as well as investing heavily in external applications and companies that it sees as either complimentary or competitive to its own business. That’s got to be at least part of the DOJ’s point, but it’s a reality that a lot of Google’s projects, both purchased and developed in-house don’t stick around all that long. There’s even a website where you can track defunct Google products, the Killed By Google site.

Google’s not likely to kill off products if it does ultimately lose its case, and it’s not assured that this is what the DOJ would seek, with much of its argument relating to contracts around search specific functions, such as the deal it has with Apple that sees the iPhone maker paid $8-$12 billion a year to remain the primary search platform on iOS. There are alternative search engines out there, such as Microsoft’s Bing or privacy-centric DuckDuckGo, but when you’re the primary preinstalled platform and many folks don’t even consider what service they’re using, it’s got to be pretty hard to get any kind of market traction there.

It’s further complicated by the fact that Google itself reorganised a few years back with different business units, including its search engine under an umbrella corporation called Alphabet. This isn’t a case that will resolve quickly, and the Google that exists by that time could be quite a different company. We’ve seen similar, albeit smaller moves here in Australia through efforts such as the ACCC’s news media code for example.

While crystal ball gazing in technology is a dangerous matter – back when the Microsoft/DOJ case first emerged Google didn’t even exist after all – it doesn’t take too much psychic energy to suggest that Google will both fight this in the courts and the court of public opinion, and while this is a US case, there’s no doubt that effects of losing such a case would ripple through Google product offerings. A huge part of the reason that it’s so big and influential right now is precisely because it can leverage the data we give it every time we search or use its products, whether that’s a direct Google web site search, a Google Maps search or even chasing down the latest viral video on YouTube.


Apple revives MagSafe as it drops chargers from iPhones

Apple recently launched its 2020 crop of iPhone smartphones, comprising 4 different sizes and models that will become progressively available over the next month or so. The realities of the COVID-19 Pandemic have meant Apple has had to stagger its iPhone 12 launch schedule, with the basic iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro going on sale first in Australia from the 23rd October, while those who want either the smallest iPhone – that’s the iPhone 12 Mini – or the largest model, the iPhone 12 Pro Max having to wait until the 13th of November to get their hands on one.

Amidst all of Apple’s hype around faster processors, better cameras and the first 5G iPhone models the company has produced, it also took a step back into its own past in a somewhat unusual way, resurrecting the “MagSafe” brand that it used to use for the proprietary chargers it used for MacBooks up until it started to shift to USB-C charging for its laptop products.

If you’re a longer-term Mac user, you probably fondly remember MagSafe, which used an array of magnets in the charging plug part of the MacBook to ensure that the charger clicked in place. More importantly, it also meant that if somebody tripped or walked over the power cord, all that came undone was that magnetic attachment, not your laptop as it came crashing to the floor. That’s why it was “MagSafe”, you see, because it kept your MacBook safe.

The new MagSafe, however, has nothing to do with MacBooks at all, or at least not to do with any MacBooks Apple is currently selling. Instead, it’s an extension of the Qi wireless charging that’s already present in the company’s iPhones. Qi can be super handy when you don’t have a charging cable to hand, but it does involve placing your iPhone (or any other Qi compatible device) in the right space to line up with magnetic coils within a wireless charger. Get it right, and the juice will flow, but get it wrong, and you may as well have just left your iPhone on any bench for all the extra power you’ll get.

MagSafe for iPhone will use that same idea of magnetic attraction to, as per Apple’s claims, ensure that you don’t have to worry as much about getting the placement right. Magnets in the new MagSafe chargers will line up with the rear of the new iPhone 12 models to make charging more secure. They’ll also be faster, with up to 15W charging where iPhones currently top out at 7.5W, although that’s not a unique MagSafe feature per se – plenty of wireless charging compatible Android phones can charge at 15W or even higher already.

Apple will initially produce MagSafe chargers itself, although third party brands such as Belkin already have products that will hit the market pretty soon. It’s an interesting technology take, although it does come at a price – and not just the one you’ll pay for a new MagSafe charger. Along with announcing MagSafe as one part of the iPhone charging story, Apple also announced that from now, it won’t include a phone charger or headphones in with any iPhone.

The latter might not be that much of a loss – Apple’s “free” headphones with iPhones have always been bland at best – but the loss of the charger could be a tad more challenging. Apple’s position is that it’s doing so for environmental reasons on the grounds that many users already have chargers – though it will still sell standalone chargers if you need one – but there is a challenge there as many folks may be tempted to simply buy the cheapest charger they can find.

That’s generally a poor idea, and sadly we’ve seen more than one instance of harm – and some fatalities – as a result of the use of poorly built phone chargers. What you save in using a cheap charger could cost you a whole lot more than you expected.


What will the upcoming NBN changes mean for your home broadband?

NBN Co recently announced that it’s spending some $3.5 billion dollars to upgrade parts of the nation’s Fibre To the Node (FTTN) network to full Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) over the next 3 years.

While the NBN itself has been one massive political football, for better or worse, the practical reality of its near-finished state in 2020 is that there’s definitely some “winners” and some “losers” when it comes to the quality and speed (and they’re different matters) of their NBN connection. If you’re already in an area with FTTP connections then you’ve got the current best tech available with the highest likely reliability to boot. However, the majority of the fixed line connections in Australia use the older, slower and less reliable copper network for the last part of the connection.

As such, the news of an upgrade should be very welcome for most of Australia’s broadband users. That’s pretty much all of us, by the way, with recent ACMA figures suggesting that in the financial year 2019-2020, Australian internet usage by population peaked at 99% for the first time.

So if you’re on a FTTN connection with speed or reliability woes, you’re set, right?

Well… maybe. The devil, as always is in the detail, and there’s a mix of unknowns and some catches to be aware of before you start planning for your high speed future. Not shockingly, the rollout (again) of trucks, workers and cabling will take some time, and while NBN Co’s aim is to have at least 75% of the fixed wired broadband network capable of speeds of up to 1Gbps by 2024, their own estimations don’t see much actual accessibility for higher speeds before around 2023.

Then there’s the way the actual rollout is being handled. If you were in an original area serviced by FTTP, then the NBN rollout would hook up to your premises and the choice of plans and providers was then up to you. However, for this upgrade rollout, the plan is to roll fibre down streets where FTTN is present, but only connect up houses or businesses where those occupiers sign up for a higher speed plan.

It’s not at all clear how much of a boost over what you can get you’d have to sign up for, bearing in mind that some FTTN connections barely manage 25Mbps even now. There’s some suggestion that you’d have to sign up to a contract for a decent term as well, not just for a month before settling down to a lower speed, cheaper plan with the better reliability of fibre, either, although again details are scant.

It’s a move designed to make the rollout a little cheaper, although it feels like an odd step from a technology standpoint, because it means NBN Co would be on the hook for remediation in areas that have seen the FTTP upgrade for both the fibre and remaining copper in the streets, effectively running two networks in the place of one.

That 75% figure is important too, because it means that there will still be some premises that don’t even see the option. While some of those will be premises already served by fibre to the basement, there’s still going to be some folks unable to access faster speeds or more reliable connections regardless.

Against this is the rising spectre of 5G networks, with a range of “available” 5G home broadband options. I’m putting “available” in quotes there because while it’s often touted as an NBN beater, 5G has its own challenges in terms of rollout and especially shared spectrum.

A single device on the current sub-6Ghz 5G in an area might be able to punch some impressive download speeds – much less so for uploads, though – but once you saturate an area, as is likely once more 5G phones become available, that spectrum is shared amongst all devices – and you could end up with considerably more variable speeds as a result.

Even the telcos that have built 5G networks have long maintained that they’re more in the space of “complimentary” technologies, with 5G more filling in the cracks where the NBN cannot or will not provide what a broadband user needs.


Will consumer VR ever hit it really big?

Virtual Reality, often shortened to VR is one of those “future tech” concepts, along with hoverboards, jetpacks and teleportation that we always seem to be just on the cusp of… but never quite getting there.

However, unlike teleportation – which conventional physics suggests might be a bit of a non-starter – or the risky nature of hoverboards and jetpacks, VR as a tech has been a reality for some time now, and not just in commercial or scientific research terms.

For some years now, there’s been a push for consumer-based virtual reality in the home. We’ve seen efforts from the likes of Facebook-owned Oculus, HTC with its Vive platform, Google with Daydream, Sony with its PSVR headset and Samsung with its Gear VR initiative.

VR is nothing new in a conceptual sense, but the last five years really saw an explosion of consumer-facing virtual reality hardware, much of it designed to work with devices you already had, whether that was a PC, a phone or a games console.

However, while we’ve seen a touch over five years of consumer-grade VR, which is typically enough time for both the technology to mature and for more widespread adoption of a new platform, that isn’t what has happened to a wide extent.

Samsung, for example, launched its Gear VR platform, an affordable VR system built around its Galaxy smartphones slotting into a specially designed headset back in 2015, but despite revisions to accommodate newer phones, it pulled the plug on its VR ambitions at the end of September.

While there were a few smaller competitors – the likes of LG and Alcatel for example – in that phone-driven VR space, the other big competitor in smartphone based VR was Google with its Google Daydream platform. Like Samsung, the Daydream View headset accommodated a smartphone that you’d slot into a headset, along with a controller for managing your virtual experiences, although Daydream compatibility was across a wider range of phones. I’m using the past tense here because, you guessed it, Daydream is dead too, with Google recently pulling the plug on its own VR ambitions too.

Sony has its play in the VR space via its PSVR headset, which works with the PlayStation 4 console and according to reports will also function with the company’s new PlayStation 5 system when that launches on the 12th of November. As you’d expect, the PSVR experience is heavily game-led, and while Sony’s put a fair bit of promotion into the platform since it launched 4 years ago, it’s not exactly set the gaming world on fire. There are rumours that Sony’s working on a PSVR2 exclusively for the PS5, but no confirmation just yet. It’s not uncommon to see the PS4-compatible version on sale at electronics stores at a significant discount, which is rarely the province of a red-hot must-have tech gadget.

All this is not to say that VR is dead; there’s a lot of work going into commercial and educational applications, and platforms like the Oculus or HTC’s Vive are still continuing along nicely. There are some issues with the technology as it stands, especially if you wear glasses or find things like 3D effects disconcerting.

Back when cinemas pushed “3D” movies above all else, I found them essentially unwatchable due to headaches, so I’m not exactly a prime candidate for VR either. However, I can very much see the potential, because right now our tech interactions are increasingly screen based, and VR removes that friction point by placing you essentially “inside” the experience – whether that’s an action game, movie experience or educational activity.


Nuki Smart Lock 2.0 & Arlo Essential Spotlight Camera: Gadgets to keep your home safe

In recent years there’s been a glut of smart home devices with a strong focus on what amounts to self-managed security. Where once you might have paid an external firm for monitoring services – or just bought a large bitey dog – you can now use technology to tell you what’s happening in and around your home. But how well do these products work? I’ve been spending some time recently with a few smart home security products, including a Bluetooth-connected smart lock and mobile smart security camera.

Nuki Smart Lock 2.0
RRP: $419+

Nuki’s Smart Lock isn’t in fact a lock in its own right. It’s a module that you install over your existing lock with your key placed inside. It then uses a motorised turner to flip the key around as required when you tell it to open or close a given door. Because it’s an add-on module, it’s a nicer option than some smart locks that require a full replacement of your actual lock. With landlord approval, you could pretty easily install the Nuki Smart Lock 2.0 on a rental property if you wanted and take it with you when you left that property later on.

The idea is that you install inside your home, so nobody knows it’s there, but then use a Bluetooth connected smartphone to actually unlock the door as you approach. Nuki also sells a Wi-Fi connection bridge, so you could then manage your lock and its status from anywhere on the planet, although of course the Bridge costs extra.

Installation of the Nuki Smart Lock is an interesting one; you’ve to measure up your lock and ensure it will fit, and then either side bolt it into place if it has a protrusion, or effectively “stick” it on if it’s a flatter lock type. One catch I discovered early on here was that if you don’t get good adhesion, the Nuki lock can pretty easily spin itself out of place through sheer motor force. Placement can also be tricky if you have locks and handles above each other too closely.

Once it’s installed securely, however, I was quite pleased with how well it typically worked. There’s a button at the back so if you’re inside you don’t even need a phone. A simple tap will get the key spinning and unlock the door. It’s also voice compatible with Amazon’s Alexa Assistant or Google Assistant, but you’ll have to invest in the Nuki Bridge if you want that kind of functionality. Likewise, you can integrate with a keypad if you want number pad entry, but that’s an added cost too.

Arlo Essential Spotlight Camera
RRP: $229

Arlo has been around in the home security camera space for some time, but most of its products to date have relied on the idea of having multiple cameras connected to an Arlo Hub that hooks into your home internet connection. You can do that with the Arlo Essential Spotlight Camera, but it’s also designed to act as a standalone unit if you only wanted the single camera in place.

As the name suggests, it’s camera with an integrated spotlight that fires up if the camera detects movement after dark. Once it’s charged up and set up, a process that’s nicely simple through Arlo’s app for iOS or Android, you then have to choose where to place it. It’s rugged enough for outdoor use, although the further it sits from a decent Wi-Fi signal, the more power it’s going to use. One drawback with this model compared to other Arlo devices is that it uses a sealed battery, so when you want to recharge it, you’ve got to move the entire camera offline, unless you’re using in in a situation where you can keep constant power flowing to it.

Actual video pickup is really good, with nicely crisp 1080p images even in low light situations. You do need to be careful about placement however, because the spotlight is very bright, and a few of my family members did comment while I was testing that it was a tad blinding if it spotted them returning home late at night.

Arlo’s proposition isn’t just for hardware, however, and if you do want longer term storage of your footage, as well as advanced features such as object detection and advanced motion zone setting, you’ve got to pay extra for an Arlo Smart subscription package. You get a 3 month trial with the Arlo Essential Spotlight Camera, but after that plans start at $4.49/month.

Bear in mind with a camera like this that if your core interest is in making sure you get alerts on your property when you’re not there, you’ll also need a decent speed broadband service to send images to your phone or other device when you’re away.


Apple surprises with quick release of iOS 14

Apple typically holds a launch event in September for its new model iPhones. Whenever those new phones launch is when the new versions of its mobile operating systems launch as well.

They all used to be called “iOS”, but this now encompasses iPadOS, watchOS, and tvOS. iOS itself covers phones and iPod Touch only.

Usually, you don’t see the new version of iOS until you can lay down some cash for a new iPhone.

This year, that’s not what happened. Apple did hold a launch event with the label “time flies”, but it didn’t announce the iPhone 12. Instead, it announced new Apple Watch and iPad models, as well as announcing that all its mobile operating systems would see an update arrive the very next day.

For iPhone users, that’s iOS 14, and it’s now available for eligible devices to upgrade to.

Which devices are eligible?

Apple’s become a little nicer in this respect over the years. iOS 14 is available for iPhone models released since late 2015.

You can upgrade to iOS 14 if you’ve got one of the models of phone listed below:

  • iPhone 11
  • iPhone 11 Pro
  • iPhone 11 Pro Max
  • iPhone XS
  • iPhone XS Max
  • iPhone XR
  • iPhone X
  • iPhone 8
  • iPhone 8 Plus
  • iPhone 7
  • iPhone 7 Plus
  • iPhone 6s
  • iPhone 6s Plus
  • iPhone SE (1st generation)
  • iPhone SE (2nd generation)
  • iPod touch (7th generation)

How do I upgrade?

Apple by default tends to push you towards automatic updates. It’s possible even by the time you read this that your iPhone may have upgraded itself. If you don’t want to wait, it’s a very easy process.

  1. Open the Settings App
  2. Tap on General
  3. Tap on Software Update

Software Update will check which version of iOS you’re running, and whether you’re eligible for an upgrade to iOS 14.

You’ll need to agree to Apple’s terms and conditions, as well as download the update file, which can be quite large. It’d be a good idea to be on a fixed broadband connection to do this.

The process does take some time to download and install. You can use your iPhone while it’s downloading and verifying. However, once the device reboots it’ll be out of action for a little while as it installs. It’s a good idea to set the process going when you don’t need your phone active.

Should I upgrade?

This is always a tricky question, but the broad answer these days should be yes for most folks.

Apple hasn’t always had the best track record when it comes to how well iOS upgrades take on older hardware. Also, you may not get every new feature if you’re using a much older iPhone.

However, what iOS 14 also includes is all the company’s latest software patches and security upgrades. Those are important to have running, given how much we all use our smartphones as an integral part of my digital life.

Does this mean the iPhone 12 will have iOS 15?

No, Apple won’t release iOS 15 until 2021 on current trends. It just means that whatever hooks Apple wants to use to sell its next generation of iPhones will have to rely on hardware more than software – because you can already get the software running on current models of iPhone

What features do I get with iOS 14 that I didn’t have before?

Some of the changes in iOS 14 are subtle, and some less so. There’s an increased focus on permissions, so when you do upgrade, expect apps to ask afresh for permission to do things like access photos, the local network or your location if that’s what they want to do.

iOS 14 features a new App Library view that tries to automatically group your apps by type, as well as a more flexible (and frankly, Android-style) approach to widgets and default apps.

If you’re curious, Apple has the full set of upgrade details over on its web site.


Lenovo’s Duet Chromebook sings a different laptop song

Chromebooks are laptops that use Google’s Chrome browser as the basis for their operating system. We’ve discussed them before but to date most of the models sold in Australia have tended to be low cost models pitched at the education market.

As a much more controlled computer there’s less that can go wrong with a Chromebook, although they can be a touch less flexible as a result. Still, a Chromebook is a basic laptop computer, right?

It doesn’t have to be so. I’ve recently spent some time testing out Lenovo’s clever new Duet Chromebook. It takes a distinctly different look at the way you might want to use such a device.

The heart of the Chromebook Duo is a 10.1 inch tablet. It’s entirely possible if you wish to use the Chromebook Duo just as a tablet device. Chromebooks support running Android apps, so you could just use it as an Android tablet.

However, it’s a bit more than that, because it also ships with a magnetically attached keyboard that includes its own trackpad.

This is rather similar in design as a result to Microsoft’s lower cost Surface Go 2 2-in-1 device. That’s definitely the kind of market that Lenovo’s targeting for this particular device.

The one downside there is that a 10.1 inch device isn’t going to accommodate a large keyboard as standard. You could always connect one up via Bluetooth or a USB C adaptor if you needed that. Still, the idea is to type on the Duet Chromebook’s smaller keyboard, which does take some getting used to.

It has a single input in the form of a USB C socket that’s used for charging and connecting external peripherals. If you do need external storage or to connect up other devices, investing in a simple USB C hub would be a good idea.

The Chromebook Duet runs off a MediaTek Helio P60T processor with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of fixed storage.

That’s quite a moderate laptop recipe, although for the kinds of tasks most laptops run it’s essentially adequate.

I’ve used the Chromebook Duet to create more than a few reviews during my test period using Google Docs without issue. Of course, as a device that can run any Chromebook or Android app, you can stretch it further than that.

You may want to look at external storage, however, because that 128GB of onboard memory can fill up fast if you want or need a lot of apps on board.

Of course, the reason to be keen on this kind of computing is for the portability, and here the Lenovo Duet Chromebook Duet impressed me.

Not only is it nicely small and light, but it’s also got quite a decent battery on board. Lenovo rates it as good for “up to” 10 hours of usage, but with a simple looping video test, I got more than 15 hours of life.

Naturally the apps you use and matters like volume, brightness and network usage could drain it a lot faster than that, but as a go-to portable device there’s a lot to like about the Lenovo Chromebook Duet.

The one drawback is that you’re not playing in that super-cheap typical Chromebook space. Pricing online varies a little, but the Lenovo Duet Chromebook typically retails in Australia for around $599. That’s cheaper than the comparable Surface Go, or indeed an Apple iPad and one of its additionally priced keyboard folios, but still higher than you could pay for a simple laptop.


Apple iMac 2020: The last great Intel iMac?

When Apple announced recently that it was going to shift from producing computers using Intel processors to its own “Apple Silicon” it also said that it would still produce some Macs with Intel inside over the next couple of years.

That’s just what’s happened with the very first Mac Apple’s released since dropping its Apple Silicon news being an Intel-based upgrade to its venerable iMac line. I’ve been testing out a review iMac for the past couple of weeks to see where it still impresses – and ponder on whether it’s worth buying what might be the last of the Intel iMacs at all.

Design:

Physically Apple’s done very little that you’ll notice at first with the 2020 iMac line, for better or worse. Apple isn’t alone in the all-in-one desktop space, but its iMac design remains quite eye catching, with a thin profile and simple but durable aluminium stand that looks great. The 2020 iMac ships with either a 27 inch or 21.5 inch display, and it’s the former I’ve been testing out.

While it’s a design that looks nice, there are elements that irk me that have never changed, and probably never will. The iMac isn’t particularly upgradeable, with only the included RAM being user changeable, because everything else is fused to the primary motherboard. This means choosing your storage is vital when buying, because if you want more onboard storage, you’ll have to plug in an external drive. Apple has shifted over purely to using SSDs in this year’s iMacs where it used to offer “Fusion” drives that combined SSDs and traditional mechanical hard drives, which does give them a potential speed boost.

I’m also not a fan of the way that Apple hides all the ports at the back of the iMac. I get that it’s aesthetically nice, but if you do add or remove USB peripherals or plug headphones in or out, it’s a chore to stretch around to the back, or play the guessing game as you try to negotiate them by feel.

Screen size aside, there’s one other upgrade perk with the new iMacs, in the form of an anti-reflective nano texture coating on the primary display. My review model had it, but after several weeks I can’t say I can entirely see the $750 upgrade in it, but I suppose if you were constantly annoyed with reflection on the standard glass of an iMac in a very bright area it might be worth it.

Performance:

The real changes are of course underneath the display, where the iMac sells with a variety of 10th generation Intel processors, and optionally AMD graphics processors in the higher end models. My review model featured a 3.6GHz Intel Core i9 processor and a hefty 32GB of RAM, which is on the pricier side of the iMac family.

Predictably it means it’s a very fast machine that tends more towards the professional end of the spectrum. Also on the welcome side is a Full HD webcam where Apple’s “FaceTime” cameras on Macs have been only 720p in prior years. In a year where I’ve been doing a lot of remote working and video conferencing, the difference in video quality jumping from 720p to 1080p is quite noticeable.

Still, there’s that prospect of this being perhaps the last Intel iMac looming over the whole enterprise. Apple has said that the next generation of macOS, “Big Sur” will work across both Intel and Apple Silicon Macs, and while it won’t be drawn on precise timelines, it seems likely that there should be at least 3 or so years of actual macOS upgrades that will still work in an Intel world.

Verdict:

The 2020 iMac is, ultimately, a very nicely built Mac, and a good upgrade if you’ve got a much older iMac.

For those looking long term it’s probably wise to hold off at least until the first Apple Silicon Macs emerge. Given the late in the year announcement of this iMac, and Apple’s statement that it will release a Mac running Apple Silicon before the end of 2020, that’s likely to be a MacBook of some stripe, but at least that will give us an idea on pricing and capabilities – and it’s not as though the end of 2020 is all that far away anyway.


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