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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

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.

Which smart speaker should you buy?

We’ve had speakers in our homes for many years now, but the advent of the “smart” speaker is a relatively new phenomenon. If you’re wondering what the difference is, it’s fundamentally to do with the inclusion of a microphone, an internet connection and a smart assistant that can hook into streaming music services as well as run smart home gadgets and answer a wide array of queries you might have.

To answer the obvious question, yes, this does involve having a live speaker in your home, and it’s well worth reading the privacy policies around that and judging on your own comfort levels about how happy that prospect makes you. If you’re uncomfortable, a smart speaker isn’t for you.

If you can leap that hurdle – and despite what some may say, they’re not part of a mass surveillance activity to speak of, although some providers will use search queries and the like to target advertising in other mediums to you – then a smart speaker can be a great way to start the shift to a smarter and more connected home, or to make it easier to get your news, messages and of course enjoy your choice of music.

Right now, three of the biggest tech companies on the planet all have an “entry level” smart speaker in the market at $149. There are cheaper smart speakers, like the Google-owned Nest mini or Amazon-owned Echo Dot, but those are very basic speakers with pretty poor audio output – so much so that the Amazon Echo Dot has an external 3.5mm jack that’s explicitly there for folks to send audio to better speakers!

That $149 price point can buy you some surprisingly good speakers, but you should consider the benefits and drawbacks of each model. I’ve tested all three, and here’s a quick rundown primer on what to think about when making your choice. Bear in mind that while a fair amount of smart home gear will “talk” to any given assistant, you can’t mix and match Amazon, Google or Apple smart speakers and expect them to talk to each other. As such, the choice you make is going to work best if it’s the choice you stick with, no matter which that is.

Amazon Echo 4th Generation
Onboard Assistant: Amazon Alexa

Pros: Of the 3 models tested, Amazon’s Echo 4th Gen has the best microphone pickup if that spoken accuracy is key for you. Amazon’s near-dominance in the smart speaker space in the US also means that there’s a huge variety of devices that work with Amazon’s Alexa assistant, making it pretty easy to integrate with most smart home appliances. It’s also the only one of the three with audio input and output for maximum flexibility.

Cons: The sphere shape of the Echo 4th Gen might make you think that it delivers 360 degree sound, but this isn’t the case. Its speakers are quite directional, so careful placement is a must. If you want a smart speaker for home office or small room music playback, it’s the least impressive of the three.

Apple HomePod Mini
Onboard Assistant: Apple Siri

Pros: Like the Echo Dot 4th Gen, the HomePod Mini is a spherical speaker, but it has much better audio output, edging out the Nest Audio in my tests for the most pleasing tone across a range of music genres. It’s also the showiest, with a swirling LED display at the top that reacts to touch and flares up when it hears the Siri wake word.

Cons: Like a lot of Apple gear, it makes the most sense if you’re already living in an Apple world. Currently it only supports Apple Music where its competitors will generally talk to a number of music services including Spotify. Apple’s HomeKit standard that the HomePod Mini uses for smart home integration isn’t quite as common as Google Home or Alexa compatibility either, so you have to pick your internet-aware gadgets a little more carefully.

Google Nest Audio
Onboard Assistant: Google Assistant

Pros: Google’s Nest Audio speaker is the largest of the three speakers tested, and it’s only just pipped by the HomePod Mini in the audio stakes. However, it’s far more flexible in terms of the music and content services it will work with and broadcast than Apple’s speakers, which could be important if you’re already subscribed to a third-party music streaming service. The flatter design of the Nest Audio makes it a lot less obtrusive than the spheres of the Echo 4th Gen or HomePod Mini if you’d prefer your smart speaker to be heard but not seen.

Cons: Google makes the Nest Audio in a range of 5 colours for the US market, but here in Australia we only get 2 of them, which is rather dull. There’s no audio input, so if you want to send music from a phone it has to be via Bluetooth. If you’ve got multiple Google Home/Nest speakers or phones in the same area, it can also sometimes be a touch confusing working out which speaker is actually replying to a request.

Apple Macbook Air M1: Apple’s first Apple Silicon MacBook impresses

You really wouldn’t pick it from the outside, but Apple’s undergoing a major change in the way it makes its premium priced MacBook laptops. While the external design hasn’t changed at all, underneath the hood of its MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 13 laptops, Apple’s switched out Intel processors in favour of its own ARM-based “Apple Silicon” processors. Specifically a new Apple-designed processor called the M1 that it claims makes its new laptops faster than just about any Windows laptop on the market today.

Apple sent me a MacBook Air to test out, and I was keen to see just how well that claim stacks up – and indeed what the benefits or drawbacks of this shift away from Intel processors might be if you’re an existing Mac user.

With the new Apple Silicon processors comes a new version of Mac OS known as “Big Sur”. If you’re curious, the last few Mac OS upgrades have all been named for California landmarks, but what makes Big Sur more interesting is that it’s designed for both existing Intel Macs as well as the new Apple Silicon Macs, even though the underlying processor architectures are very different. On an existing Intel Mac, existing Intel apps run exactly as they used to, and when you’re getting new apps they’ll look for Intel-compatible code.

On Apple Silicon Macs, however, there’s two distinct approaches. Newer (or freshly compiled) apps will use what Apple calls a “Universal” App approach. That’s code written for both Intel or Apple Silicon, taking advantage of the new power and efficiency of the Apple Silicon systems, and it’s definitely the faster approach if a universal app exists.

What if it doesn’t? That’s when Apple’s effective emulation layer, called Rosetta 2 kicks into action, running the Intel code through an interpretation layer to allow it to operate. Rosetta 2 apps are a little slower, and in my testing they were also sometimes a little more power intensive as well.

All of this works because the new M1 processor really is impressive in operation. In head to head benchmarks, the M1 – found in Apple laptops that start at around $1,599 – compares fairly equitably with an Intel Core i9 processor as found in the MacBook Pro 16, a laptop that starts at around $4,500. There are other reasons why you might want that pricier laptop, but as a first shot fired against the Intel processor juggernaut, it’s a remarkably effective one for basic processing tasks.

That shift to ARM also brings all of Apple’s apps under the one roof – which means that the MacBook Air M1 can run your iPad or iPhone apps as though they were native Mac apps. That builds on work Apple did to bring mouse and keyboard support to iPads in earlier software releases, because it’s not like the new MacBook Air has a touchscreen to speak of.

All of this is good, but it doesn’t make the MacBook Air an automatic must-buy for every laptop owner. Rosetta 2 tries its best with allowing Intel apps to run, but not every app will work – or work well – within its confines. Apple’s essential argument here is that developers need to get with the Universal App framework, but that’s not going to happen for every single app out there.

Equally, if you were a fan of using Apple’s rather nicely designed hardware but dropping Windows 10 onto it, that’s also not as easy as it used to be. Apple’s “Boot Camp” software, which let you power up directly into Windows is no more with Big Sur, which means you’ll have to use subscription virtual machine style software such as Parallels if you need a Windows experience.

The M1 is a good everyday use chip, but it’s graphics performance isn’t up there with the best – or even arguably the mid-range – of Windows gaming laptops, which is also a consideration for many.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Go Review: Portable and affordable

Microsoft’s been selling Surface branded laptops for years now, most prominently to folks who want high end Windows laptops and tablets and are prepared to part with the cash for those kinds of experiences. Ask Microsoft, and it’s not competing with the likes of Dell, HP, Acer or Asus; it’s instead providing reference standards for what a Windows laptop can be.

Or at least that’s the theory, because having spent a few weeks testing out the company’s new Surface Laptop Go, I’m not sure that it’s not having a go at capturing the wider laptop market looking for a more affordable option. Like the existing (and equally more affordably priced) Surface Go lines, the Surface Laptop Go is a smaller laptop with a 12.4 inch display. It uses a 3:2 ratio, said by many to be better for working than the 16:9 ratio you get for more entertainment-based pursuits.

It’s not a terribly configurable laptop when it comes time to buy. At launch it only ships with a single Intel Core i5 processor, and either 4GB or 8GB of RAM. The cheapest model has only 64GB of storage — less when you consider it has to cram Windows 10 in there — while the top two tiers have either 128GB or 256GB of onboard storage. With side USB C and A type ports you could always add an external drive to boost the storage capacity of the Surface Laptop Go.

The Surface Laptop Go sells in three colours; there’s a rather standard “Platinum” silver and a more showy Ice Blue or Sandstone finish available. The one catch here is that the Platinum colour is the only one available in the cheapest 64GB/4GB configuration; if you want Ice Blue or Sandstone you’ve got to jump up to the 128GB/8GB model instead. That’s what I’ve been testing with, and it’s arguably a smart move anyway. Windows 10 can run on 4GB of RAM — but it’s never going to run terribly well, and like many laptops sold today, you can’t upgrade the RAM post-purchase if you work out it’s not enough.

That Core i5 processor is solidly a mid-range option in the ultrabook space, and that does peg the Surface Laptop Go as an everyday computing solution, best suited for students or folks who have to shuffle around a fair quantity of documents; while you can use it for more intensive processes like video editing, it’s going to struggle to handle more complex rendering tasks. That’s also true for gaming, where its integrated Intel UHD graphics chip can’t really fling too many polygons around.

Microsoft’s Surface devices have generally had good battery life for tablets and laptops in their class, but here the Surface Laptop Go slips slightly, at least comparatively. I managed a little over 9 hours of direct 1080p video looping on the Surface Laptop Go, where the smaller Surface Go managed over 15 on the same test. As with most Surface devices you get Microsoft’s magnetic “Surface Connect” charger to juice up the Surface Laptop Go, but it can also charge via its USB C port. That’s going to be slower, and not every charger will work, but it’s a nice bit of flexibility.

Microsoft’s bigger and fancier 2-in-1s and laptops typically tip the scale north of $2,000 and upwards, but this is where the Surface Laptop Go makes its pitch. That baseline 64GB/4GB model sells locally for $999, while the 128GB/8GB model will set you back $1,249 and the top tier 256GB/8GB model costs $1,549.

That’s certainly not the cheapest laptop you can get, but it’s fairly priced for both the underlying power and portability, as well as the build quality of Microsoft’s Surface lines.

Microsoft Xbox Series X Review: Nice improvements, but no need to rush

Microsoft recently launched its fourth console generation with the arrival of the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S. They follow the original 2001 Xbox, 2005’s Xbox 360 and 2013’s Xbox One generations, although many of those had smaller and bigger revisions throughout their lifecycles.

Where prior Xbox generations launched with a single console, Microsoft’s opted for two; the cheaper and slightly less powerful $499 Xbox Series S, which works with digital games only, and the higher tier $749 Xbox Series X. Microsoft sent me the latter model for a fortnight’s testing recently to see what’s good – and what’s not – with the next generation of gaming consoles.

While PC gaming hardware generally sees smaller iterative improvements over time, but not much in the way of “generational” leaps, the whole console business is built on the idea of a single gaming box that should last five or more years until the next box – or in this case, the next Xbox – comes along.

So, it’s no surprise that the Xbox Series X is a powerful device, because it’s going to be expected to carry the gaming expectations of consumers not just for today, but for at least half a decade or so. The Xbox Series X is capable of some truly stunning 4K visuals through the right software, and the use of SSD storage means it’s also considerably quicker at loading games than prior Xbox generations.

Visually, the console itself looks like a small black PC case, ideally placed like a monolith in your living room, and Microsoft’s only really tweaked around the edges of the Xbox controller. That’s also because the Xbox Series X/S consoles will work quite nicely with existing Xbox One controllers, so they really couldn’t change much.

One detail I do wish Microsoft had changed is the actual interface. It’s a mess of boxes that calls back to that “tiled” display that Microsoft seemed to think everyone wanted with Windows 8, and it honestly makes getting to anything except the games or content you’ve been playing quite recently a bit of a chore. There’s time to make changes, I guess, and that familiar-if-arguably-a-bit-broken interface at least won’t confuse anyone used to the Xbox One systems.

It’s been a misnomer for a while to think of these machines as purely “gaming” consoles, because both Microsoft and Sony have pushed them heavily as home entertainment centres as well. As such, either the X or S consoles can access a wide range of streaming services, such as Netflix, Stan, Disney+ and Apple TV+, while the pricier Xbox Series X also supports 4K Blu-Ray playback if physical media is your thing.

A key part of Microsoft’s particular play this generation is the ability to play existing Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One games natively on the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S. It’s not a 100% path all the way back to every game released for a Microsoft console since 2001 – Microsoft maintains a list of compatible games here if you’re curious – but it has two distinct advantages.

Firstly, if you’re already in possession of a library of games, you can keep playing them. Secondly, the Xbox Series X uses its faster internal storage and processing power to significantly lessen load times and, in some cases, improve visual quality on compatible games. I’ve honestly spent most of my reviewing time playing through some genuine classics that never looked quite so good or loaded quite so fast before.

Part of this is cheating in a way. Drop an original Xbox or Xbox 360 game into the drive on the Xbox Series X and what it’ll do is download a full copy of the game from Microsoft’s servers into the internal storage, so it can load it that way. At that point, the disc you have purely serves to authenticate that you’re still allowed to play the game in question. Naturally that does mean that there’s no way to validate disc games on the disc-free Xbox Series S, although existing Microsoft Xbox One digital-only download purchases should still be redeemable on those new consoles.

However, while I applaud the backwards compatibility angle, it also does serve to rather paper over the cracks, which in this case can be expressed by the low number of available, genuinely “new” games for the new console platform. That’s an inevitability – and it’s much the same story over on rival Sony’s side of the fence with its new PlayStation 5 console – but it did serve to remind me that the longer expected lifespan of a new console means that it’s often not always the best move to rush to buy on day one.

Sure, there are folks who simply must have the latest and greatest as soon as they can – but outside that backwards compatible library, they’ll face a decent wait for genuinely new and actually exclusive games to play. I’ve seen some online auction sites awash with folks trying to sell the new generation of consoles for literally thousands of dollars – or scam folks by selling empty boxes or “pictures” of consoles – but I’d honestly bide my time if I were you. The Xbox Series X is nice device, no doubt – but it’s one that will only improve with a little time and patience.

Google’s latest Chrome update brings serious speed

When you’re browsing the web, the one thing that you don’t want is slow. Nobody likes to be left waiting, but all too often we’re stuck staring at a half-loaded page or a spinning animation letting us know that something is happening – but rarely what it might be.

Google’s Chrome browser currently has the lion’s share of the browser market on desktop devices – it’s a slightly more complex story on mobile devices where the popularity of Apple’s iPhone and iPad lines keep its Safari browser in a strong position – but it’s often decried as being slow and clunky even if you don’t have any extensions running on it.

Google, it seems, is listening to this outcry for speed, announcing recently that the latest version of its Chrome browser has been specifically tuned for performance and speed. Chrome version 87 is, according to Google’s claims, now capable of launching 25% faster than Chrome 86, with typical page loading speeds up to 7% faster as well. Smart optimisation of memory allocated to tabs means that it’ll give more grunt to the active tab and less to ones that you’re not currently looking at.

If you’re guilty of having too many tabs open at once – whether you define that as “more than six” or “so many I can’t make out any individual tab names any more”, you can always free up a little memory by closing a few tabs you don’t need any more. However if all those tabs are vital to your online experience, Chrome 87 is also introducing “tab search”, letting you search for a specific tab even if you can’t make it out through your messy tab organisation.

Chrome 87 will also introduce more of what Google calls “actions” in the address bar. That’s where you’d normally put in the URL of a site you wanted to visit. Most folks are probably aware that you can directly search Google there as well – so if you type “pet kennels” there it’ll return a Google search page on that term, or any you pick. New actions in Chrome 87 focus strongly on privacy and security, including the ability to manage your passwords if you store them in Chrome by typing “Edit passwords”, or to launch an incognito private page simply by typing “incognito” and clicking on the button that appears under the address bar when you do.

How do I tell which version of Chrome I’ve got?

Google’s Chrome browser typically handles updates automatically for you, so you generally don’t have to go chasing updates, which are usually applied when you open and close the application itself. If you’re curious, however, it’s pretty easy to check your current Chrome version and kick off an update session if required.

Open up Chrome on your computer and click on the three little dots that are sitting stacked vertically at the top right of the browser window. You’ll get a pop-up menu with the word “help” at the bottom. Move your cursor down to that help word, and you’ll get a sideways stacked menu that should have “About Google Chrome” at the top. Click on that, and Chrome will open a new tab that tells you the version of Chrome you’re using, as well as setting off an update check for a newer version. If it finds one, it’ll download it, and typically prompt you to click a button to restart Chrome.

If you’re jumping from Chrome 86 to Chrome 87 – as I’ve just recently done – that should be a nicely speedy task relative to its usual sluggish pace. I do try to keep my tabs under control, but anything that can make browsing the web faster and less stressful is good news in my book.

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