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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

Epic Games takes on Apple and Google, but there’s more than gaming at stake

Chances are decent that even if you’re not a gamer, you’ve probably heard of Fortnite, the massively successful online battle shooter game produced by Epic Games that has earned millions upon millions of dollars for its creators. Fortnite is very big business, and it’s a game that’s available across just about every potential gaming platform you could name, from dedicated games consoles like the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One to PCs, tablets and mobile devices.

Fortnite is itself free to play, but it makes its money by selling a virtual currency that can then be exchanged for what are essentially visual flourishes for your player avatar, most infamously dances that the characters can do when they win.

Epic Games has made a lot of money out of selling Fortnite’s inhouse currency, but if you were buying that currency on Apple’s iOS (iPhones, iPads) or Google’s Android platforms, then 30% of that asking price went directly to Apple or Google respectively. That’s the rate that either firm imposes on any app purchases through their stores.

Epic Games wasn’t entirely happy with that set split and engineered a way in-game to sell currency itself, offering up distinct buttons in-game for purchases either directly from it, or from Apple/Google. However, the Apple/Google prices were higher, which naturally would prompt any keen gamer to opt for the better value deal.

That 30% cut is the basis of how Apple and Google run their app stores, however, and neither was happy with Epic Games, promptly booting Fortnite off their services entirely.

That doesn’t mean that if you have Fortnite on your iPhone or Android tablet that it’ll stop working, although future OS upgrades might make that happen.

It’s also very important to note that if you don’t have Fortnite but want it, you should under no circumstances just download the first installer package you find online on a web site. That’s very likely to rapidly become an avenue for malware on your device. Epic Games does still offer an Android installer that you can “sideload” onto Android devices, although it lacks the same ability to offer an installer for any iOS phones or tablets.

Epic Games very clearly knew that the ban would happen, almost immediately (and simultaneously) launching a legal challenge to their ban as well as a PR/charm offensive, using a take on Apple’s own classic and iconic “1984” themed Macintosh ad.

Apple and Google’s position is that it funds running their app stores and applying security and oversight through those funds, so it’s not likely to shift any time soon, even though Fortnite is a very significant title. You may think that you’re not a gamer and this isn’t a story of interest to you, but if you’ve got a smartphone and you buy apps of any sort, there could be some very wide-ranging implications down the track.

In one sense, this is just the jostling of billion dollar corporations trying to seem like the “good guy” to regular consumers, but Epic Games has stated that it doesn’t intend to settle for just a smaller cut for its own products, instead looking for a general lowering of rates across the board.

If that happens – and legal processes being what they are, this could roll on for years through the US legal system – it would alter the economics of app stores markedly, because it could lead to slightly cheaper apps, or developers having slightly more funds to put towards long-term support of their products.

On the flip side, it’s feasible that it could also lead to legal pressure for a more “open” app store setup, but that’s not necessarily a totally desirable outcome. Apple’s position on this – not entirely unjustified – is that its closed model app store encourages security, because it can rapidly block misbehaving apps, as it’s done with Fortnite. Conversely, Google’s more open Google Play Store environment has seen more than its fair share of impostor apps and outright malware.


What to expect from Mac OS Big Sur

Apple has a major update to its macOS operating system coming, although if you’re particularly keen — and happy to take on a few risks — you can install the next generation of macOS onto a qualifying Mac computer right now. I’ve been testing out the new macOS in its beta form for a little while, and Apple’s just made it possible to install as a public beta for anyone who wants to sign up over at Apple’s beta software site.

Be warned however that when Apple says it’s in beta, it’s not kidding; it’s not really a good idea to install this on your work Mac, or a personal one if it’s the only machine you’ve got, because as early software it can be a little buggy at times. In all cases you absolutely must back up your personal files before switching to Big Sur, and that’s advice that will be true once the final version arrives as well.

Formally, it is called macOS Big Sur, but also Mac OS 11, the first numerical update to Mac operating systems in more than a decade. Apple’s been rolling out annual updates over that time, but they were all Mac OS X.1, X.2 and so on.

It won’t take you long once it’s installed to see why Apple’s decided that this release deserves the full numerical point release, though, because it’s both a major visual overhaul of the way the Mac looks, as well as a pretty big revision under the hood.

In terms of the user interface, everything is a lot more reminiscent of Apple’s iOS in terms of the way icons are laid out, as well as the use of colour — and a lot of white space — around application menus. Elements that you might not need are popped out of view until you mouse over them, and design ideas like the control center from iOS are now present for quick checking of WiFi, Bluetooth, volume and battery status on laptop Macs.

It’s a design that’s meant to make you focus more on the apps you’re running, although long term Mac users may find it a bit disorienting at first because it feels like all the menus are missing. Although if you are a long term Mac user, you might be pleased to find out that the classic Mac startup chime is back when you first fire up your Mac running MacOS Big Sur.

There’s a raft of new changes to the core Mac apps such as Safari, Mail, Photos and Calendar of course, and because it’s still in beta there’s some small scope for further changes to appear there.

Under the hood there’s a slew of software upgrades, with a strong focus on security. Apps that run on Big Sur are meant to tell you more about the information they’re sharing online, especially when surfing the web. What you do with that information is up to you, and there may be some balancing required for some sites that rely on tracking cookies for matters like simple sign-in to consider.

Apple’s MacOS Big Sur also looks forward to the next generation of Mac hardware that will run on Apple’s own ARM processors. Current Intel-based Macs will run macOS Big Sur now, but it’s also the software foundation for the Macs that Apple will release in years to come.

The full upgrade to MacOS Big Sur is scheduled to appear as a full non-beta upgrade later this year; Apple typically releases it around the same time we see new iPhones hit the market, but there’s a lot of indications that the pandemic issues of 2020 may see that schedule disrupted a little. It will run on most Macs from around 2014 or later, but 2012 and some 2013 models will not be able to install it when it becomes fully available.


ACCC takes on Google in court, but what can you do to stay private online?

One of the big tech news stories to break recently was the Australian Consumer And Competition Commission’s decision to take search giant Google to court.

The ACCC alleges that Google “misled consumers when it failed to properly inform consumers, and did not gain their explicit informed consent, about its move in 2016 to start combining personal information in consumers’ Google accounts with information about those individuals’ activities on non-Google sites that used Google technology, formerly DoubleClick technology, to display ads.”

Which all sounds very legalese, but what it boils down to is the ACCC alleging that Google wasn’t quite upfront enough about the changes it made a few years back around the way that it harvests users’ data when they use its services. Prior to 2016, according to the ACCC, Google only really tracked user activity on its own sites – services like Google Search and YouTube – and not across the wider web. Thanks to its ownership of at-one-time-rival DoubleClick, it could expand its ability to more directly track users across a lot, if not all of their web activity.

For its part, Google refutes the allegations, saying that it’s played within the letter of the law, and no doubt that is a matter that will very slowly grind its way through the courts. Presuming the ACCC gains some kind of victory eventually, it could lead to more disclosure on individual web sites as and when you land on them, similar to the way websites work in the EU. If you’ve ever travelled through the EU and gone online, you will have quickly realised that many sites require an explicit acceptance of tracking cookies, thanks to an EU law called the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). Australia doesn’t have a GDPR equivalent, but this could be a slow first step towards that kind of transparency.

Many people seem to just assume that Google knows and tracks everything, and it is very much the price you pay for using its services. You’re not paying in subscription terms – mostly – but instead by making yourself a more attractive target to advertisers, because Google can more directly frame ads likely to be of interest to you. For many of us that’s a bargain we’re happy enough with, and if it does fuss you, it’s always feasible to use more privacy-centric browsers such as Firefox or specific cookie-blocking extensions to your browser to limit this kind of activity.

No matter which side of the privacy fence you sit on, it’s worth actually checking what Google knows about you, or at least what it thinks it knows about you. Google provides a simple tool for this purpose within your Google account to check this. Once you’re signed into your Google account – signified in Chrome on a Google page for example by your account icon coming up in the top right hand corner – head to myaccount.google.com and click on “Manage Your Data And Personalisation”.

From there you can check where Google’s tracked your movements on that browser, as well as your ad preferences, which provide an interesting if not always accurate view of what Google thinks that you’re keen on. For example, within my own profile, Google reckons I like Sci-Fi & Fantasy TV shows – accurate enough – but also that I’m keen on sports, and Rugby in particular. Sorry Google, but I’m not in any way interested in Rugby, so I don’t know where that’s come up from.

The My Account portal is also where you can track Google’s location history of you. Depending on your mix of devices and where you’ve logged into a Google account, this could have just a little bit of data on you – or possibly a whole heaping load if you’re using an Android device and constantly use Google Maps, for example.

Again, though, while accessing this data for the first time can be a little eye opening and sometimes alarming, it’s also a useful reminder of the deal that Google strikes. As a user of its services, you’re not actually a Google “customer” to speak of, unless you’re paying for additional services like Google One or YouTube Music. Google’s primary customers are its advertising partners, and they’re paying for the information that you trade to Google every time you search, use Google Maps or watch a YouTube video.


Laptop buying: Windows PC or Chromebook?

Back when Google introduced the concept of a Chromebook – a laptop computer not running Windows 10, Linux or Apple’s macOS, but instead an environment essentially running on Google’s own Chrome browser – they were pitched as low-cost student computers, and built accordingly.

Which is the terribly polite way of saying that there weren’t terribly enticing unless you were already heavily into the Google ecosystem. Sure, they didn’t cost much, but those early Chromebooks had woeful displays, terrible keyboards and ordinary battery life. To make them even more challenging, they were heavily predicated on the idea of always-on Wi-Fi and cloud saving, which made them tricky in an Australian context where broadband access in many places can be a challenging matter.

In 2020, however, Chromebooks have stepped up a lot, with a wide variety of models on sale. Yes, you can still buy very cheap Google Chromebooks for basic needs, but there are also a lot of premium devices that compete much more directly with their Windows 10 counterparts. Apple isn’t even in this discussion, because its cheapest laptop costs far more than the most expensive readily available Chromebook in the local marketplace.

If you’re in the market for a low cost or mid-range laptop, though, you may find yourself faced with the Windows 10 or Chromebook choice. There are obvious differences in matters like screen size and onboard storage to consider, and honestly, both options have their appeal. Here’s the big pros and cons with going down the Chromebook path when buying a new laptop.

Chromebooks: On the plus side:

  • Few malware problems: Because ChromeOS is a highly controlled environment, it’s less prone to malware issues than Windows 10 at a comparative level.
  • Android app compatibility: ChromeOS used to be a closed environment, but it’s now open to running Android apps, so if you’ve also got an Android phone or tablet, you’ll have software ready to go
  • Runs better on lesser hardware: Chromebooks tend to have to do less, and that means they can make do with less in terms of system resources. 4GB of memory on a Windows 10 laptop is a little pokey, but it’s fine for Chromebook use
  • Cloud-based backup: While you can get Chromebooks with expanded local storage, the primary storage concept here is to use Google Drive, which means that your documents are safely backed up online automatically
  • Quick booting: Most Chromebooks wipe the floor with cheap and mid-range Windows machines when it comes to starting up or shutting down.

Chromebooks: On the minus side:

  • App availability: As more apps have moved online or as web-based apps this is less of an issue than it used to be, but it very much depends on the apps you need to use every day. Google’s Docs and Sheets are of course available, and so is Microsoft Office, either through a web browser or their Android apps, but if you need, say, Photoshop you’re not going to be satisfied with a Chromebook
  • Online is still key: You can totally use a Chromebook offline, but it’s not the way that most apps are configured, so if you need a computer that’s mostly offline, a Chromebook could be a compromised choice.

As you can imagine, picking a Windows 10 based laptop rather flips that script. You really do need to look at malware prevention and security on the Windows side of the fence, and that’s very much reflective of the larger market share it holds. While aspects like Cloud backup are entirely feasible on Windows, there’s usually more configuration involved. However, the decades of Windows development means that the whole application ecosystem is far, far wider than it is on ChromeOS.

The one aspect you’re more likely to hit with either, especially for cheaper laptops is mediocre battery life. It’s one aspect where manufacturers tend to cut corners to cut costs the most frequently, although some models do buck that trend, so it’s worth checking battery capacity and battery life claims carefully before you buy either.


Twitter hacked, but there wasn’t much users could do to stay safe

Late last week, a whole host of very prominent Twitter accounts – folks like Tesla’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, alongside major brands such as Apple – all started promising that they were, quite literally, giving away money.

Digital money to be precise, with the promise being that any sum of cryptocurrency bitcoin that was sent to “their” bitcoin address would be returned in double to anyone who provided their funds in the first place.

If you’re thinking that sounds rather too generous for some of the world’s richest people and biggest brands, congratulations. You’re thinking, and probably not likely to fall for what was a rather blatant scam. Sadly, not everyone thought, and reportedly the scammers made more than $US100,000 very quickly from more gullible folks.

Online scams are of course nothing new, and neither is impersonating celebrities as part of these scams, but what was interesting about this particular scam was that it wasn’t run from fake accounts. These were the actual accounts of those compromised individuals and brands, and it wasn’t the case that each of them had somehow been scammed out of their passwords.

So how did that happen? According to Twitter itself it appears that instead of targeting, say, Kanye West, the scammers instead targeted Twitter employees with access to Twitter’s own administration tools. Access at that level means that they could bypass any passwords or two factor authentication those accounts had, and mass post from them. According to Twitter’s claims on the incident, 130 prominent verified Twitter accounts were targeted, with 45 of them having password resets initiated. A further 8 had their Twitter data downloaded, including private direct messages, which is, needless to say, rather alarming.

In some ways, the fact that the hack was used for what ended up being a pretty rudimentary scam was a minor blessing, because control of tools like that should be more heavily guarded. It’s fair to guess that after this, Twitter will indeed be locking down its most powerful administrator tools more carefully!

In this case, while the odds are low that your account was compromised – the scammers targeted so-called “verified” or “Blue Tick” accounts with celebrity value of some sort – there wouldn’t have been much that you could do.

However, it’s still worth looking over your social media accounts – and indeed any online accounts you have – and making sure that your security is up to date. This includes having a good, strong, individual password for each service. Please don’t use “Password” or “123456”, because that’s just asking to be hacked. If you’re aware of any kind of breach like this, it’s also decent practice to change up your passwords, just in case.

Also, if an online service of any type offers two-factor authentication, such as SMS passwords or the use of external authentication apps or devices, use them. Yes, it’s slightly more inconvenient, but it’s also generally (where admin tools aren’t included) more secure.

No, it wouldn’t have made a difference in this case, but it’s the functional equivalent there of saying that burglars could use sledgehammers to break into your house – which, if they were keen enough, they could – so you shouldn’t have a decent front door lock. Lax security is never a good idea, and with our lives led so heavily online these days, that includes online security too.


Should Mobile Phones Come With Chargers?

Apple’s iPhone lines are incredibly popular with Australian consumers, and they’re also the phone that have the most rumours swirling around them as we draw closer to the expected reveal date for the next generation of premium smartphones.

One rumour that has been growing in volume – while still not being officially confirmed by Apple itself, because it never comments on anything prior to a reveal – is that it might look at not including an in-box charger with new iPhone models.

There’s also a separate rumour that suggests it’s looking to shift away from requiring a charging port – Lightning or USB C – in new iPhones at all, although that one feels like it’s a longer way away from being a reality, because while wireless chargers aren’t hard to come by, they’re slower to charge and far from ubiquitous.

So what would drive that kind of decision? It may well relate to a European Union directive some months ago that sought to push manufacturers towards standard chargers and cables on largely environmental grounds. Apple fought the EU – and lost – on that decision, but not including one at all could be one way to bypass some of the requirements for a standard charger.

The reality here is that modern smartphones have been around for more than a decade, and have sold in their millions. If you’ve been through a few smartphones, the odds are good that you’ve got more than one old charger kicking around.

Back when feature phones were the norm, chargers were varied and often specific to a single manufacturer, but the vast majority of phone chargers – and more than a few tablet chargers as well – use a standard USB A type socket and can charge plenty of other devices with the right cable plugged in. There can be some charging differences in terms of speeds, and there’s a few oddball standards out there used by some phone manufacturers for even faster charging, but by and large they’re interchangeable if you just want to add a little power to your phone.

With that in mind, there’s an argument to say that they’re not an essential part of the packaging, especially when you consider that some may end up heading to landfill, which isn’t ideal. Smaller packages mean that in bulk they also weigh a lot less, which is another environmental win. Of course (not that Apple’s likely to make this part of any kind of announcement) it would also be cheaper for Apple to do this, while still potentially selling chargers as an add-on device for those that needed them.

What Apple does tend to do is set the industry trend, especially in smartphones. While it technically wasn’t the absolute first to offer up a phone without a headphone jack – if you like trivia, that was Oppo with the Chinese-only Oppo Finder phone back in 2012 – it was the removal of that port in 2016 in the iPhone 7 that really set the ball rolling there. If Apple does it, expect it become “standard” pretty quickly.

The flipside of that beyond potential extra cost for consumers buying their first smartphone is one of potential user safety. It’s been very common (and not unsurprising) for folks needing a new or replacement charger to buy the cheapest one they can find.

The problem there is that cheap phone chargers are often built poorly, and sadly they have led to injury and even in some cases deaths in Australia. You may think that power is just power, but the care and quality put into providing that power can make a massive difference in safety for a charger. That risk might not be apparent fresh out of the box when a charger might perform just fine, but over time as it breaks down it could become increasingly unsafe. I shouldn’t have to say that this isn’t a risk worth taking.

It’s still something of an open question, and Apple could well opt to continue shipping chargers with new phones. If you’re in the market for just a new charger, however, it’s a good reminder not to simply opt for the cheapest model you can get. It could cost you a lot more than you expect.


Mac users beware: Don’t fall into the EvilQuest trap

While it’s nowhere near as common as on Windows platforms – and that’s largely been a matter of platform popularity over specifically any other factor – malware has become part of the reality of using the Mac platform in recent years.

The issue here is that a lot of Mac users are rather complacent when it comes to security protections on their Macs, because, according to the common wisdom, “Macs don’t get viruses”. Apple’s advertising used to poke fun at the disparity in terms of viruses on each platform, but that was a long while ago.

A good case in point emerged recently, with malware researchers uncovering a particularly nasty instance of malware targeting Macs specifically, dubbed “EvilQuest”. Spread primarily at this point through illicit torrents of popular Mac apps, the malware presents itself as the installer for a popular app, which appears to install in the regular way Mac apps do, including asking for administrator permissions during the install process.

If you’ve ever installed any Mac app you’ve legitimately downloaded, you’d be familiar with this process, and you’d probably authenticate via your password or TouchID to expedite the process.

However in this case, what the malware does is check if your Mac is running apps that might spot what it’s about to do, disable those apps and check if it’s also running in a virtual machine… before starting to encrypt all of your files. You’re then presented with a demand for payment through Bitcoin and a 3 day deadline before your files are wiped forever. Nasty stuff, as most encryption malware scams tend to be.

Now, at this stage EvilQuest is relatively easy to dodge, because you really shouldn’t be pirating software in the first place. If you’re not, there’s not been much sign of it beyond that route onto your Mac anyway.

However, it’s a timely reminder that any platform that a malware writer thinks that they might be able to make money out of is one that they will try to do so.

Blithely trusting any installer for any app you get online is risky behaviour, but there’s a few simple steps you can take to reduce that risk. Obviously, not installing pirated software is one of them, but it’s also wise to ensure that you’re getting software and apps from sources you trust in the first place. Unless you’re keen to decompile packages and software applications, there’s often little to pick the fakes from the real stuff. If it’s being offered for “free” when it’s usually paid and expensive, ask yourself why and double check that it’s actually coming from a legitimate web site.

This of course isn’t just a Mac thing either. If you’re a Windows user, the exact same advice applies.

Also, in the case of encryption scams, the single most powerful thing any single computer user can do is have a ready and regularly updated backup of all of their files.

If you can restore all of your data, even if the very worst happens, you can ignore the encryption scam demands – and there’s no telling if they’d deliver the decryption keys even if you did pay, because, hello, they’re criminals – wipe your system clean of operating systems and malware and start again without losing your own precious data. Is that a painful step? Yes, it is, and it will take some time, but it’s way less painful than losing all your files.


What will Apple’s shift to “Apple Silicon” mean for consumers?

Later this year, Apple will start selling a new Mac computer. While Apple – like most technology firms – loves a bit of hyperbole, it’s absolutely going to be true to say that this will be a Mac like no Mac ever before.

That’s because amidst announcements around new versions of its iOS, iPadOS, WatchOS and macOS operating systems, Apple also announced that it’s going to stop using Intel x86-based processors for its Macs, and instead switch to “Apple Silicon”. The first Apple Silicon Mac will go on sale later this year, although it’s far from clear if it will be a desktop style unit – either an iMac or Mac Mini – or a new MacBook laptop device.

Intel’s processors have been powering Mac computers for the past 15 years, and the x86 architecture they use has been the bedrock for Windows for multiple decades now, although AMD also has presence there with its own x86 processors. So what’s “Apple Silicon”, and why is it different or worth switching to?

At one level, Apple Silicon is just a marketing term – remember how I said tech firms love a bit of hyperbole? More to the point, it’s using the same ARM-based architecture as Apple’s existing mobile devices such as every iPhone and iPad it’s ever made, including the recent iPad Pro as well as its Apple TV set-top-box.

ARM isn’t an unknown quantity on the Windows side of the fence either – the Galaxy Book S I reviewed here runs on a processor based on ARM – but Apple’s shift to ARM isn’t just about the usually claimed benefits in battery life specifically. It also allows Apple to fully design and implement its own ARM processors, rather than being stuck on the cadence of Intel’s development for its Core series x86 processor line. Apple loves having as much control over its processes as it can, and controlling the essential processor will give it a wider grip on the whole Apple ecosystem.

While Apple didn’t say much about new Apple Silicon hardware products, aside from making an Apple Silicon based Mac Mini available to developers so they can convert and develop new apps, it did detail what that means for folks owning current generation Intel-based Macs, or those planning to buy them.

The next version of macOS will finally make the jump from Mac OS X. That’s X as in the Roman numeral 10, and with the next version it’ll finally jump to version 11, a journey which has taken some 19 years. Strictly speaking, macOS 11 will more formally be known as macOS Big Sur.

Apple used to call its operating system after large felines, but switched a few years back to California landmarks, if you care. The key feature here for macOS Big Sur is that it will support both Intel x86 and Apple Silicon developed apps, as Apple shifts towards making its entire computer line Apple Silicon based.

What that means in practice is that any Intel-based Mac will still be able to run at least macOS Big Sur, and probably its replacement OS as well for their effective service life. According to what Apple execs said at WWDC, they plan to shift to only offering Apple Silicon based computers within the next two years, but that they will still offer and develop new Intel-based Macs in this period.

What about if you opt to jump to a new Apple Silicon machine? We still don’t know what they’ll cost or what forms they’ll take, although it seems likely Apple will at least at first offer spins on their existing MacBook and iMac lines, because plenty of people like them as they are.

Apple Silicon based Macs will be able to use emulation software, called Rosetta 2 to run x86-based apps that already run on existing Macs. It will be interesting to see how well they run, because there’s a similar kind of emulation already at play with Windows 10 machines like the aforementioned Galaxy Book S to run x86 apps there. It’s a bit hit and miss, to be honest, and given the wide variety of apps and developers I doubt Apple’s going to promise 100% compatibility.

What we do know won’t make the transition at all is Apple’s “Boot Camp” software. This allows you to install Windows onto its own partition on any Intel-based Mac and run it like it was a Windows laptop entirely. With no x86 core, Apple isn’t going to offer Boot Camp at all any more.

What it is promising 100% compatibility with are existing iOS and iPadOS apps, and that’s another part of the Apple Silicon story. In theory any iOS app on your iPhone or iPadOS on your iPad should be able to be installed and run on any Apple Silicon laptop or desktop computer. That opens up a pretty wide range of app experiences, as well as the question as to whether Apple might finally offer a laptop computer with a touchscreen, given how many iOS and iPadOS apps are touch-centric by design.


Surface Book 3 Review: Unique but not compelling

Microsoft diversified its Surface portfolio of tablet devices a number of years back to include more laptop-style designs, including the Surface Laptop – no prizes for guessing what that is – and the Surface Book design. At first glance you might just think that the Surface Book is just another Surface Laptop with a weird rippled edge hinge for some reason, but in the laptop world, the Surface Book is actually unique. I’ve spent a couple of weeks testing out the latest model, the Surface Book 3, which brings with it a range of quad-core 10th generation Intel Core processors as the major new significant improvement over previous generations.

Still, that’s not why you might want to buy a Surface Book 3. The major selling point for the Surface Book 3 is that, like the Surface Pro, it’s also a tablet. However, where the Surface Pro line is sold as tablets that can also clip on a keyboard at extra cost, the Surface Book 3 rather flips that assumption. Out of the box, you’re facing a rather starkly designed – but still quite attractive – laptop. It looks like a laptop with either a 13.5 or 15 inch display – I’ve been testing out the smaller variant, for what that’s worth – standard keyboard and trackpad, and of course standard Windows 10 installation. So far, so good, and Microsoft’s big pitch for the Surface Book line is that it’s meant for digital creative types.

That’s where the tablet bit comes in. There’s plenty of models on the market right now that can flip their screens around to become effective tablets, with the bottom of the tablet then being the exposed keyboard, but that’s not what the Surface Book 3 does. Instead, at the press of a button, the entire display actually removes from the keyboard, becoming a full standalone tablet device. Microsoft has some interesting engineering at play here, because it mechanically separates and docks every time you switch it from being a tablet to being a laptop, or vice versa. Nobody else quite does this kind of approach, and it’s very cool technology – but it does have some drawbacks to keep in mind.

There’s a few different configurations of the Surface Book 3 depending on how much you want to spend, but they all rely on using reasonably powerful Nvidia GPUs (Graphics Processing Units) to give them power for creative tasks like photo or video editing, or CAD, or pretty much whatever you’d like to throw at them. Those Nvidia GPUs are physically present in the “keyboard” bit of the Surface Book, but that means they’re not connected when you have them in tablet mode. Instead, you drop back to Intel’s own significantly less powerful Iris Plus GPUs on board, making them more useful for less intensive tasks like web browsing or video presentation.

The mechanical nature of that dock and the essentially unchanging design of the Surface Book 3 also means that it’s fairly heavy for what you might expect out of a premium laptop in 2020. Most of Microsoft’s competitors produce what are usually called “ultrabooks” in this price range, trading on weighing in at around 1kg complete. The full Surface Book 3 with keyboard weighs in at between 1.53-1.64kg, depending on configuration choices for the 13.5 inch model, and of course more for the 15 inch variant. That might not sound like much if you’re working at it on your desk, but if that’s the case most of the time, a laptop with a detachable head is probably overkill.

That detachable base does at least give the Surface Book 3 reasonable battery life, even if you push it hard. Like the GPU, Microsoft splits battery capacity between the base and tablet/screen part, so you can expect less power if you’re using it as a screen only. Still, I could pretty easily get through a day’s work on the Surface Book 3 without too much fuss, although to be clear, I mostly used it as a laptop first and tablet second.

Microsoft also charges a fairly hefty premium for that detachable technology, and I’m left wondering exactly how many creative use cases there are for it that aren’t met by those flippable type ultrabook models, many of which can be had for much less than the Surface Book 3 costs. Local pricing starts at $2,649, but can go as high as $4,759 depending on screen size and internal storage and processor choices, so these aren’t cheap systems by any stretch of the imagination.

What’s more interesting to me is that Microsoft’s now into its third generation of detachable screen Surface devices. There’s quite a few competitors or imitators for the other Surface style devices, and that’s very much within Microsoft’s plan. It’s always pitched Surface devices as being templates that others could build on, because it didn’t want to go to market war with the likes of Dell, HP, Acer and the rest when it very much relies on them for so much of its Windows revenue. However, in the years since the original Surface Book emerged, it’s really not been grabbed by any other maker as a viable market model to copy. Sometimes, new innovations in technology might be cool, but if they’re not particularly desirable by more than a niche market, they can really struggle to take off.


Adobe Photoshop Camera: Some fun filters (and some limitations)

Adobe is one of the big names in productivity software, with the vast majority of creative professionals relying heavily on applications like Premiere Pro, Audition and especially Adobe Photoshop. For better or worse, Photoshop is the expected default image editor for everything from print publications to the web, so much so that it’s often used as a verb in its own right. You don’t edit a photo – you photoshop it.

Adobe recently made a free app called “Photoshop Camera” available for Apple iPhone and selected Android devices for free, and you might expect that with a name like that, it’s the app that creative professionals know and love boiled down for smartphone cameras.

It’s not quite that, however. I’ve spent a little time testing it out on a couple of devices to see what it can and can’t do, and while there’s some impressive features – and it’s a little tricky to argue with that price point – there’s also a few catches to be aware of.

First off, if you’re using an Android device, you’ve got to be using a specific Android phone in order for it to show up in the Google Play store at all. This is quite a common matter for many apps, because Google by default hides apps that aren’t explicitly designed to work with specifically named phones, but it can mean a frustrating search for an app that doesn’t seem to exist!

If you’ve got a newer Google Pixel or Samsung Galaxy Phone then it should be compatible. There’s less of a challenge on the iPhone side of the fence, with the app available for any phone running iOS 12 or newer – basically if you’ve got an iPhone 6s or newer you should be fine.

Photoshop Camera also ties into Adobe’s pitch for its online Creative Cloud package, so the first time you set it up you’re obliged to log in with either an Adobe ID (if you’ve already got a Creative Cloud account) or your Facebook or Google ID in order to use the app at all.

Once you’ve got past that, you’re met with a picture of your own face. That’s because Photoshop Camera defaults to taking selfies when it first starts up, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to change that if you prefer taking, say, landscape shots from the rear cameras.

Where Photoshop is all about complex and precise image manipulation, Photoshop Camera is all about keeping things simple, with a range of filters – Adobe calls them lenses, but every other social imaging app calls them filters so that’s what they really are – that you can apply to the camera before shooting. There are predictable options like AI-adjusted portrait modes and scenery modes, as well as more “out there” options for pop art style effects. Photoshop Camera only comes with a handful of these lenses/filters already downloaded, so while it’s free, adding more can involve a bit of a wait as they download to your device.

Filters in and of themselves aren’t new and many popular apps and most inbuilt camera apps can handle basic tasks like monochrome effects or enhancing the look of food photos. Photoshop Camera does also allow you to do a little post editing, with a take on Photoshop’s own AI tools to enhance photos you’ve already taken, and simple contrast/exposure/saturation style controls for those who like a little more tweaking. One impressive aspect here is that if you grant it permission, you can use it to adjust photos you’ve already taken on your device, sometimes with quite stunning effects.

Still, Photoshop Camera sits in a really odd space. Actual photo pros aren’t likely to be taken with lens effects because they’re more likely to use actual Photoshop to more finely tune their photos. It’s intended as something of a bridging step to get the wider public into the whole Adobe ecosystem, and while it does work nicely, it lacks the kinds of central integration into photo sharing/social apps that the likes of Instagram or Snapchat have readily baked in. That means it’s an extra step between taking and filtering your shots before you’re sharing them with the wider world, which I suspect many snap-happy phone users will find an extra step too much.


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