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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

How many streaming services is too many?

With many of us choosing to remain indoors for the rather obvious health and safety reasons, there’s been an explosion of interest in streaming media services. These the subscription offerings that provide you with a smorgasbord of viewing choices, delivered over your Internet connection to compatible Smart TVs, set top boxes, laptops, tablets and mobile devices.

Netflix is easily the best known, with Roy Morgan figures suggesting that it’s got around 12 million Australian subscribers all keen for their next Tiger King fix, but it’s hardly alone in this market. There’s direct competitors such as Stan, more focused offerings like the family-friendly Disney+, sideline efforts such as Amazon Prime Video – where the cost of the subscription is also built into the “free shipping” offered on a range of Amazon Prime delivery products – and then there’s Foxtel.

Foxtel is technically the most established of the Australian subscription TV platforms, having been around since the 1990s, but its efforts in the Internet-delivered streaming space have been patchy over the years. Anyone remember Presto, Foxtel’s partnership streaming service with Channel 7? It didn’t last that long.

Foxtel’s current “Foxtel Now” service has lasted a good while longer, and last year it added Kayo, a sports-only streaming service for those desperate for their footy fix. Kayo’s not been able to offer that much live sport of late thanks to COVID-19, but it’ll soon be joined by yet another Foxtel subscription service, simply called “Binge”.

Where Kayo is all about the sports action that so many Australians love, Binge is instead Foxtel’s way of segregating off its drama content, with partnerships in place with the likes of HBO, Warner Bros, Sony, The BBC and FX providing the actual content. It’ll be available from 25 May 2020, but it’s not a signal of the death of Foxtel Now.

Instead, it’s yet another choice in an already crowded market, and like much of Foxtel’s offerings, it’s at something of a premium price. The lowest tier, standard definition only Binge subscription will run you $10/month, with a mid-range dual-stream HD pack at $14, or an $18/month 4-stream top tier pack. There’s no content difference at any tier – just the quality of the signal and the number of simultaneous streams you can have going at any one time. Binge will support Apple AirPlay and Google Chromecast for big screen watching at launch, but there’s no signs of early access to apps for the likes of the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, or for smart TV platforms just yet. To be fair, programming for those platforms takes time, and it’s not as though Foxtel Now was available everywhere when it launched either.

As with any subscription TV service, the real value is only there if it’s got content you want to watch. Foxtel’s big play here is is absolute exclusive on HBO content, although that’s arguably less enticing since Game Of Thrones finished up. It’s not as though the likes of Stan, Netflix or Amazon Prime Video don’t offer drama along with other content, and often at a lower subscription rate too.

Of course, having these services onboard presumes you’ve got Internet connectivity that can handle it, as well as a desire to subscribe to multiple services. There’s no one single service that has “everything”, although research through Telsyte suggests that as of late last year, around 43% of Australians who subscribe to any streaming services at all have multiple subscriptions. Overall, just over 55% of us subscribe to at least one streaming video service, and the recent lockdown has probably accelerated those figures at least a little.


Google’s killing Google Play Music (finally!)

Google is well known for its dominance of the online search engine space, and also for launching a lot of software products, or in some cases buying them and rebranding them as “Google Insert-Service-Name-Here”.

It’s also not afraid to take a punt on a new software idea, even thought that means that many of them end up being discontinued if they’re not meeting Google’s goals.

That’s not exactly the story behind Google’s decision to close down its Google Play Music subscription service, although we’ve known for a rather long time that Play Music was living on borrowed time. Back in 2018, Google announced that it would be discontinuing Google Play Music without giving a specific timeframe for when it would do so. But it wasn’t really about a failure on Google Play Music’s service delivery, or even particularly it seems whether or not it was hitting particular subscriber levels.

Instead, it was because Google already had an effectively competing subscription music service running in parallel. That’s YouTube Music, and it essentially offers the same features as Google Play Music, along with, as you’d expect from a service with YouTube in the title, access to video content as well.

Google’s dual-approach strategy never really made that much sense, but it’s finally come to the point where it’s starting to – albeit loosely – talk about when it’s going to cull Google Play Music, and what you’re going to need to do if you’re a subscriber. Google Play Music will shut by the end of the year, and Google’s plan is to shift folks across to a YouTube Music subscription before that happens. Google says that “most” customers should be able to do so for the same price they’re already paying, although there’s a caveat there that it does reserve the right to change prices based on currency fluctuation. Based on the wavering fortunes of the Australian dollar that could come back to sting us – we’ll have to wait and see. It’s definitely worth remembering if you are a Google Play Music subscriber that there are plenty of other streaming music services to pick from, including Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music and Tidal. You could always switch to one of those if Google’s updated pricing isn’t to your liking.

But what if you want to stick with Google Play Music? Well, you can’t for that much longer, but what Google is claiming it will make simple is a one-click transfer of your existing libraries, playlists and content over to YouTube Music. That makes sense, given it’s one department of Google talking to another department and all they’re really doing is a little light database swapping.

However, you may have to wait, because Google says it’s enabling access to a one-click transfer process on a per-user basis, with the transfer option only appearing in the Google Play Music app once it’s ready for your specific account. It appears to be rolling out in the US first based on online accounts, so it may be a little while before you’re even offered the option.

It may also a be a little bit confusing depending on the precise subscription tier that you’re on, and this is all Google’s fault, essentially. Some Play Music subscriptions already included YouTube Music as well as what it calls “YouTube Premium”, which gives you access to YouTube original content as well as scrubbing out ads in YouTube clips, but other subscription offerings didn’t include Premium as part of the package. Google says those rights will transfer over along with your subscription when the time comes, but only at the same level. If you didn’t have YouTube Premium now you won’t suddenly get it… unless Google changes its mind and subscription tiers once Google Play Music is formally shuttered, that is!

Finally, and this is something Google still has to fine-tune, YouTube Music treats music videos and content that you listen to and watch as part of your overall YouTube usage, and that means that it also affects what it suggests you might like to watch on YouTube if you’re signed in, even if you’re not using your actual music listening device. As such, you may see your music choices pop up in regular YouTube if there’s an associated music video clip. Which is cool if you want to share your tastes… but probably less cool if it reflects to your friends and family that terrible song that you’ve been secretly binge listening to!


Microsoft goes small with its new Surface Go 2

Microsoft’s Surface brand of tablets and laptops has long been the software maker’s “premium” tablet and laptop brand, designed to show off the best of what Windows can offer on some quite compelling hardware.

Microsoft recently announced a refresh for its Surface Book and Surface Go lines, set to go on sale in Australia by the end of the month. The new Surface Book 3 is a genuinely premium laptop/tablet hybrid at a serious price point. Even the entry level 13 inch Surface Book 3 will run you $2,649, and if you want a model with all the trimmings, including a 15″ display, Core i7 processor, 32GB of RAM and a 1TB internal hard drive, you’ll have to part with a hefty $4,759 for the privilege.

Most of us don’t have that kind of change lying around, or for that matter a need for quite that level of power in our everyday PCs. Microsoft has had a few different takes on what a more “affordable” Surface device should be, generally matching up more moderate internal components with the classic Surface design. It pivoted away with that in 2018 with what it called the Surface Go. It was still a more affordable device, but it was also sold on the promise of portability, with a 10 inch display, compared to the 13 inch or larger screens found on the Surface Pro, Surface Laptop and Surface Pro X.

The latest update to the Surface Go line doesn’t have a particularly snappy name – it’s the Surface Go 2 – but it’s had some interesting reinvention, nonetheless. The screen has been bumped up to 10.5 inches, and while that might not sound like much, it’s worth remembering that screen sizes are expressed on a diagonal measurement, so even half an inch extra actually contributes quite a bit more screen space.

Internally, though, there’s some tougher choices to make. The base line Surface Go 2 comes in a Wi-Fi only configuration with an Intel Pentium 4425Y processor and a measly 4GB of RAM, which isn’t that much of a bump up from the first generation Surface Go device, frankly. If you want a small tablet/laptop with a bit more power, you’d have to opt for the Wi-Fi/LTE model – which obviously can also take a mobile data SIM too – which ships with a more capable Intel Core M3 processor and 8GB of RAM. However, that model will set you back a much more hefty $1,199, which is a solid amount to pay for a rather small laptop. Then again, small is kind of the point.

The timing is of course tricky for Microsoft, given that the portability aspect of the Surface Go 2 is naturally less important to most folks right now. That’s a factor that will pass with time.

Then there’s the classic issue I’ve had with much of Microsoft’s Surface line, and that’s the keyboard. Or, to be precise, the lack of a keyboard. Microsoft positions this as a question of choice, and sure, some folks might not want to use a keyboard all the time, but I’ve never met a Windows user who never needed one. Adding one of Microsoft’s admittedly very nice keyboard covers to the Surface Go 2 will add at least $149 to the cost, or $199 if you want one of Microsoft’s premium Alcantara fabric covered keyboards instead.

So, is it likely to be worth it? I’m still waiting to get a Surface Go 2 in for review, and that price is a tricky one, but then there’s also the fact that there’s not a lot of competition in the actually-small laptop space. You can get thin and light models, usually called “ultrabooks”, but they tend to sit in the premium, $2000+ price space. Microsoft tends to build its Surface devices well, which is a definite plus point too.

I don’t know that I could see myself using a Surface Go 2 as my daily system, but it’s certainly something that could have appeal for more mobile workers, especially with that inbuilt LTE option. If you’re in the position where a secondary PC that moves with you might make sense, it could also be a solid buy.


Nvidia Shield TV 2020 Review: A smarter smart TV box

Australians have fallen hopelessly in love with streaming TV services such as Netflix, Stan, Disney+ and many more over the past few years. If you’re simply watching on a tablet, phone or laptop then the screen is assured, but the question of how to share a show with the entire family on the biggest screen in your home is a rather more open one.

Many gaming consoles offer streaming service access, but not always to every single service. There are simple low-cost solutions like Google’s Chromecast, but that relies on sending video content from a compatible phone or tablet, which can be tricky to fix when it doesn’t work well.

Then there’s the whole field of Smart TVs, where the apps to access streaming services are built in. That’s a super-simple way to access services, but the challenge there is that you’re typically stuck with only the apps that were installed on the TV when you bought it — or if it’s an old model that’s been sitting around the shop for a while, when it was made. Updates for Smart TVs can be few and far between, and it’s not even unheard of for some supported services to lose access over time.

Then there’s the field of what are usually called set top boxes; devices that you plug into the HDMI port on your TV, connect to your Internet connection and use as both the way to run apps and the interface to access them from, typically from a standard style remote control.

Apple’s Apple TV is one well known example, but graphics card maker Nvidia has for some years offered its own take on a set top box via its Shield TV set top box. It recently launched its 2020 generation of Shield TV devices in Australia in two forms; the premium Shield TV Pro and slightly more portable and affordable Shield TV. It’s the latter that Nvidia sent me for review.

Physically the new Shield TV doesn’t look like any other set top box I’ve ever tested. By itself it’s a thin tube with an HDMI and ethernet inputs at the end; it also supports Wi-Fi if your TV of choice is nowhere near your router. The core idea with its shape is that it’s meant to be suitable for travelling with you so that you could plug it into hotel room TVs and the like, and while that’s perhaps less useful right now, it’s an interesting take on how much we all rely on the idea of access to streaming services. The Pro model, which is pitched more towards the gaming crowd looks a lot more like a traditional set top box unit.

Nvidia also upgraded its remote control for the new Shield TV, and again it’s a unique design, but quite a smart one too. It’s a triangular shape that fits well in the hand, but there’s more to it than that. Compared to your regular TV remote that all to easily slips down into a sofa, never to be seen for months, the shape of the Shield remote somehow avoids this, while also being very easy to grasp even if you do have to hunt around for it.

Where the Apple TV set top box is — no surprise — built around Apple products and services, Nvidia’s Shield TV uses Google’s Android TV platform. Like the Android it uses for its phones and tablets, it’s a much more open platform for app development, which means that it’s significantly more flexible in terms of the apps that appear there. If you’ve already got a Google account with Android apps on it, you may find that some paid apps on your phone are available to you at no extra cost on the Shield TV.

Of course, if it’s a fitness or GPS-centric app that doesn’t do you a whole lot of good. But there’s a whole host of streaming apps available straight away, including big hitters like Netflix, Foxtel, ABC iView and many, many others.

There are plenty of competing Android TV boxes out there, many of which are quite a lot cheaper than the Shield TV, but where Nvidia’s graphics expertise comes into play is via the graphics processor at the heart of the Shield TV. It’s from Nvidia’s Tegra series — which means it’s something of a cousin to Nintendo’s Switch console, which uses the same processor family — and it’s arguably a little bit of overkill for a streaming TV box.

Now, some of that comes from the fact that it’s also Nvidia’s platform for its own game streaming service, not officially available in Australia, but it gives it particular muscle for streaming and presenting at higher resolutions. The original model Shield supported up to 4K streaming, and that’s true for the new model as well, but what it also adds to the game is the ability to upscale content that’s lower quality than 4K up to “near” 4K via AI in real time.

That’s a feature that’s only available if you plug it into a 4K TV, of course, but what’s particularly interesting here is that Nvidia allows you to toggle the feature on or off and view it in split screen, with the original content and upscaled content side by side. That’s not just a party trick to flex the Shield TV’s muscle, but a good way to work out if the content you’re watching actually benefits from that upscaling. Sometimes it looks quite superb, but for some content it can end up looking rather artificial and plastic. Being able to check it as you watch is actually quite useful in this context.

At around $290 outright, the Shield TV isn’t a low-cost option. However, it’s significantly more powerful than competing Android TV boxes and a lot more flexible than the Apple TV 4K. If you’re after a smart TV box to compliment your existing TV — honestly, even if it does contain some streaming app support — with good future proofing through app updates, it comes highly recommended.


Google will start telling you when it doesn’t know something

Search giant Google is so dominant in that online discovery space that it’s used by many as a verb. You don’t search online for things — you Google them. Google has some trademark concerns around that kind of usage, but it’s not entirely within its control, what with language being a constantly evolving space.

However, it’s a sign of how much many of us rely on Google simply knowing things that we don’t. That could be quite consequential information in a personal, political or scientific sense, or absolutely trivial matters, like the name of that actor in that movie you remember from a few years ago.

The acceptance of Google’s search algorithms being near-infallible even gave rise to a short-lived online game called Googlewhacking. The idea — and this dates back to 2004 — is that Google’s search is so good that there won’t be a single solitary result for any combination of two standard dictionary words without quotes. The quotes are needed because Google treats a search for the two words ice and cream differently than “ice cream” in quotes. The latter will only pick results where those two words are directly next to each other, while not using quotes will return results where those individual words appear at least once on a page. The original Googlewhack site is no longer live, but it’s been indexed on the Wayback Machine if you fancy a look.

Back in 2005 you stood some chance of finding a Googlewhack page, but in 2020 the pickings are very slim indeed, as Google’s indexed billions more pages and refined its search result system a great deal. It uses everything from its own original link valuing system to weighting mechanisms based on human observation and plenty more besides to try to ensure that its search results are as accurate as possible. This does have the effect of many web sites trying to “game” Google’s results to ensure as high a position as possible, because there’s a lot of research that suggests that most of us barely go beyond the first 2 or 3 links in a given Google search result, once you scroll past the paid positions — and even then sometimes not that far!

It’s also worth remembering that the reason that Google has such a vast trove of information isn’t just because it’s good at building search algorithms. Its suite of “free” applications that you probably use every day — apps like Google Docs, Google Photos, YouTube and plenty more — also work as data slurping repositories, getting not only a picture of what you’re likely to look for next, but also what groups of people do as a whole to guide other search results. If everyone in Australia suddenly Googles “sunscreen”, then it’s probably a warm day and Google can adjust both its search results and its ad placements as a result. It’s a constantly growing and dynamic system that very much relies on a lot of people giving this data to Google for free.

Google, however, doesn’t know everything, and it’s even gone as far as admitting that this is so. In a recent post on the Google Blog, Elizabeth Tucker, one of Google’s product managers detailed Google’s plans to be just that little bit more transparent when it comes to search results where it doesn’t have great confidence in the results. Starting in the US — but undoubtedly set to roll worldwide if Google sees good results in it — it’s going to start prefacing search results where it’s not happy that the results match your intent well with the line “It looks like there aren’t any great matches for your search”, along with links to tutorials on how to fine-tune your Google search queries. You will still get the results Google found — but it’s rather more openly stating that they might not meet your needs all that well.

Naturally, Google can only do this kind of prediction because it’s already got this vast array of language, search and personal data to add into the mix in order to try to discern not only the words used in a search but their likely intent. Somebody searching for “meat pies” is probably hungry, while someone looking for “tile grout” probably has DIY intentions, but that’s the obvious end of the intent spectrum; what Google’s able to do is much more sophisticated than that.


How charged should your laptop battery really be?

There are few things in technology that are more concerning than seeing a laptop, tablet or mobile device with a battery warning alarm. Depending on your circumstances, getting more power to your device could be a tricky matter of finding the right charger, the right cables and even a nearby plug socket in time before everything goes flat. Once you run out of power, no matter how much you’ve spent on a laptop or tablet, it’s essentially just a fancy paperweight.

As such, it’s rather tempting to leave everything plugged in pretty much all of the time, so that when you do need to unplug, you’ve got the most battery power available to you. 100% is better than 90%, right?

Well… maybe. It’s certainly going to be true when you first get your shiny new laptop that its full battery capacity is going to be better in terms of lasting more minutes, but there’s a curious quirk with the way that the current generations of lithium ion batteries work that means that keeping them constantly topped up isn’t always the best way to ensure the longer term life and health of the battery itself.

The chemistry of lithium ion batteries always degrades over time, which is why you can have a laptop that’s never left an office desk for years fail to provide much power even though it might feel like you’ve never particularly taken it out for a fully mobile “drive” to speak of. Anecdotally, one ex-boss of mine had a laptop she never took off the power for more than 4 years of deskbound work, only to find that its battery life could only be measures in the minutes during which it plaintively beeped at her that the battery was about to fail.

Constantly keeping your battery at 100% all of the time, 24/7 can exacerbate this problem, leading to less overall battery capacity in a shorter period of time. All of a sudden, where you might expect a battery to have retained 90% of its charge over a year or so, it might struggle to get 70% — or worse.

Some mobile devices actually handle this internally with features that stop or slow charging at or above 90%, because that way you’re effectively putting less power push strain on the device itself. Apple’s recently announced that an upcoming update to its macOS Catalina operating system – macOS Catalina 10.15.5 to be specific – will also implement similar charging strategies for compatible MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops.

It’s a careful balancing act, of course; you could massively extend the battery life of a laptop by only charging it to, say, 20% in theory, but that wouldn’t leave you with much wriggle room for actual mobile usage when you needed it. Apple’s seemingly indicating that it’ll manage this kind of partial charging to properly balance the needs of battery life with the longer term goals of maximising battery longevity.

Some Windows 10 manufacturers have or do offer similar battery longevity apps to ensure the balance between battery life and longevity, typically maxing out battery charging at around 80%. For most new laptops, that should equate to around 6-8 hours of effective real world battery life, which would get you through most working days unless you’re very heavily on your laptop during the day and unable to charge it up in the meantime. There’s also an inbuilt battery function on Windows 10 laptops that can help you manage overall usage, but it’s more concerned with matters such as hibernation settings and showing you which apps you’re running that are currently chewing up your power.

For Mac users, if you’re running a MacBook Pro from 2016 or newer or a MacBook Air from 2018 or newer, the macOS Catalina update should land later this year at which point the new battery optimisation settings should be available to you. Apple hasn’t yet indicated if there’s much of an option in those settings if you did want to plough ahead with 100% charging regardless – but it’s generally not a good idea to do so.

Equally, it’s not a good idea to ignore the other classic signs of battery failure. Most laptops these days come with sealed batteries that you can’t easily replace, but if they do start to more critically fail, they’ll often warp and bulge in an alarming fashion. If you’re finding that your previously flat laptop – even if it’s a metal body model – doesn’t sit flush with the desk any more, that’s almost certainly a sign of a critical battery failure incoming – and a machine that isn’t really safe to use any more at all.


iPad Pro 2020 Review: A great tablet, but still not quite a laptop replacement

Ever since Apple introduced its iPad Pro line of tablet computers, it’s placed them strictly in the “professional” category, and that’s not just been a matter of slapping the word “Pro” on the end of it and waiting for the money to roll in.

The iPad Pro has represented the best of what Apple can do in a tablet form factor, and given iPadOS’ absolute dominance of that tablet space, essentially the best you can get in a tablet, hands down. I’ve spent the past few weeks testing out the 11 inch model of Apple’s recently refreshed iPad Pro line to see just what it’s capable of.

At first glance, you might not pick that much different in the 2020 model. The design is much the same as it was for the 2018 iPad Pro line, with USB C connectivity – there’s no sign of Apple’s own Lightning connector here, because Apple reckons Pros want and need USB C in their lives. Given a recent EU directive, Apple might drop Lighning altogether, but for now, USB C is an iPad-only style of connector. The display is lovely and sharp at 2,388×1,668 pixels on the 11 inch model, but there are still noticeable bezels if you don’t like that style.

What’s new lurks around the back, with a square camera array that incorporates wide and ultrawide lenses, as well as a LIDAR sensor for depth sensing applications. Apple’s pitch for its LIDAR sensor is that it will make future Augmented Reality (AR) apps even more accurate as they use light measurement to place “virtual” objects in the real world. Right now, about the only app that uses the LIDAR is Apple’s own measurement app, and I’ll be honest and say that I struggled to see much accuracy difference between the iPad Pro and a regular 2019 iPad Air. It’s very much a case of forward-looking tech, but not a reason to upgrade to speak of.

Equally, the way that iPadOS can now work with touchpads and mice for a more PC-like experience is quite neat, but it’s not exclusive to the 2020 iPad Pro models. Apple will next month start selling what it calls the “Magic Keyboard”, which includes a touchpad and is exclusive to the new iPad Pro models, but it’s ferociously expensive. $499 for the iPad Pro 11 inch, or $589 for the iPad Pro 12.9 inch model… for a keyboard. That’s once pricey keyboard!

The other new tech in play here is Apple’s own A12Z Bionic chip, which is extremely fast in straight line benchmarks. Apple’s claim is that it’s faster than many comparable laptops you might buy, and in a straight processing sense it might just be right. However, that’s arguably not entirely a relevant metric. It’s certainly powerful and I have no issue with that, but the fundamental way that iPadOS works in terms of app multitasking, file access and even app deployment means it’s a noticeably limited approach relative to a comparably priced laptop. For single task productivity work it can fly, as long as you have a supported app, and preferably with a keyboard case – Apple makes its own but any Bluetooth keyboard should work – but I’d be able to do multiple tasks and watch them work on a standard MacBook or Windows 10 PC in ways that the iPad Pro simply doesn’t approach. It’s just not as flexible an operating environment as a standard computer, because it wasn’t built that way from day one. That does give some advantages in terms of security and virus protection – you’d have to write a virus that Apple approved through its App Store to get one running officially on an iPad Pro – but for most productivity-centric types it’s a big ask.

That Pro suffix also brings with it a hefty price point. The cheapest iPad Pro comes with 128GB of onboard storage for $1329, and that’s with only Wi-Fi connectivity and of course no keyboard. Adding 4G LTE if you want that will adds $250 to the price of any iPad Pro model, which means you can pump that pricing all the way up to a seriously crunchy $2429. That does buy you 1TB of onboard storage and LTE, but that kind of price point could buy you any other laptop, including several MacBook models if Apple’s your passion.


Broadband usage surges as Aussies stay home

Amidst the current health crisis, an increasing number of Australians are doing the right thing and isolating at home. For some, it’s a chance to catch up with their home gardening, or clean out those cupboards or learn a new language.

For many, however, they’re working, studying or passing the time by using broadband internet. I’ve already written up some tips for more effectively working from home, but the open question was always going to be how Australia’s broadband infrastructure held up under a much higher usage level than previously predicted.

Typically speaking, the heavy usage periods for the national broadband network have tended to be in the evening hours. That’s when everyone returns from work or school and logs on to binge watch streaming services, play games or do other internet activities in large numbers. It’s why when you do look at any given NBN plan, the provider will talk about “typical evening speeds”. It’s because that’s when the network load is the heaviest, so it’s a figure that shows (in effect) the worst “average” performance you should see on its plans. There’s certainly a lot more that goes into the line speed you get than just your provider’s typical speeds, however.

NBN Co had already taken some measures to help deal with any predicted speed bumps, adding 40% bandwidth (effectively) to its ISP partners to help manage the load. So how well did it stand up under the pressure of all those Zoom videoconferences, online teaching moments and folks watching weird Netflix tiger documentaries in the middle of the day?

To the surprise of nobody, NBN Co recorded peak usage unlike anything it had ever seen before, with a peak of 13.8Tbps per second for evening hours. That’s well up on the usual figures, and NBN Co has started to break out what’s happening during the day too, with an updated scoreboard of usage across all usage hours. For what you’d call “business hours” – NBN defines this as from 8am to 4:59pm – usage is up 21% to an average of 9.4Tbps. That’s a lot of data, but then services such as videoconferencing have seen triple digit growth and more in the recent period, and they’re notably huge data hogs.

Usage fluctuates a lot during the day, with some really high peak periods contributing to that figure, too. According to NBN Co, on the 20th of March at 11am, its wholesale data figures were up some 70% over typical baseline daytime levels.

What’s impressive here is that while network congestion – and that’s where you’d most likely see actual speed dips if you’re reliant on your NBN connection to work, learn or play – isn’t markedly up, even though that 9.4Tbps figure represents a 21% jump, and evening usage is even higher at up to 30% increase over regular rates. NBN Co states that average congestion is up slightly at 38 minutes per week, compared to 36 minutes for the previous period.

That’s a figure that does need some context, because it relates to how well NBN Co’s wholesale network is operating. Your ISP can still have congestion issues depending on its own purchasing of bandwidth from NBN Co and how it chooses to provision it out to users in your area, but it does point, generally speaking, to Australia’s broadband network holding up well for now.

Does that mean the NBN is perfect and done? Far from it. There’s still plenty of folks who can’t get the kinds of speeds they’d need for decent videoconferencing, or sharing amongst a family group. The upgrade path for the majority of users on copper-based Fibre To The Node (FTTN) isn’t clear, leaving it a very much a tiered system where those lucky enough to be part of the earlier Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) build have a generally more stable and faster internet future.


MacBook Air 2020 Review: Apple’s best value laptop

Alongside an updated – and rather pricey in its own right – Apple iPad Pro, Apple recently announced an update to its MacBook Air line of laptop computers. The new iPad Pro is a rather specialised system launching at a very unfortunate time for Apple, but the MacBook Air remains Apple’s play towards the more “affordable” Mac buyer.

Apple being Apple, that’s still at the pricier end of the laptop spectrum, with the cheapest MacBook Air selling for $1,599 with an Intel Core i3 processor, 256GB of onboard storage and 8GB of RAM. There’s also a slightly faster model with a Core i5, 512GB of storage and 8GB of RAM for $1,999, which is actually what I’ve been testing.

That’s still a very solid chunk of change to drop onto any laptop in this day and age, although I’ve long liked Apple’s MacBook Air line for being very portable while still being very solidly built.

The big physical change with this generation of MacBook Air is the inclusion of what Apple’s calling its “Magic Keyboard”. For some years now, Apple’s used very flat keyboard with butterfly switch mechanisms beneath them. They look very stylish, but they don’t allow much key movement under your fingers, which is a huge problem if you’re a touch typist. If you do get small quantities of dust or grit in there – and these are laptops used portably and in all sorts of environments, so that’s pretty much a given – the keys can stick or work erratically, which isn’t good for what are meant to be premium laptops.

The Magic Keyboard – which Apple first installed on last year’s much more expensive 16 inch MacBook Pro lines – do away with the flat butterfly switches and return to a much more traditional scissor switch arrangement for the keys. Apple used to do this on MacBook Pro laptops about 5 years ago, so it’s not so much a new development, but it is a very welcome one. The MacBook Air is a joy to type on, with good spacing between the keys, a responsive trackpad and no sign of Apple’s annoying virtual Touch Bar that you get on the MacBook Pro either.

You are still limited in some key ways – there’s only two USB C type ports for peripherals and charging, and they’re both on the same side, which can get tricky if you’re charging up the MacBook Air and have a chunkier USB C peripheral to plug in. The 13.3 inch display is fine for light productivity work, but at only 1440×900 pixels by default it can look a little cramped if you’ve got lots of apps on the go. It does support higher resolutions, but you’ve got to push it to use them.

In terms of actual power, the newer 10th Generation Intel processors on the new MacBook Air models do a fair job as long as you’re not looking for heavy duty app usage. That, after all is where Apple places its MacBook Pro line of laptops. For most of us, however, the level of power will be entirely appropriate for document creation, spreadsheet juggling and web browsing applications. It’s even feasible to run a few games past the MacBook Air, although with only Intel’s own inbuilt Iris Plus graphics, they won’t run fantastically well. Again, though, that’d be a target for a more gaming-centric notebook from the likes of Dell/Alienware, Razer or Asus.

So, is the new MacBook Air worth your money? Leaving aside the Windows/macOS divide, Apple’s produced some very nice hardware in this generation of MacBook Air. It’s super portable, the keyboard is once again excellent, and my own experiences with Apple’s laptop lines has led me to favour them simply due to durability if nothing else. At this price point there are other options you could consider – but the MacBook Air should definitely be in your pile of worthy contenders.


Coronavirus isn’t stopping the online scammers

The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic – which is, let’s not mince words here, a very serious issue indeed for every Australian – is seeing some swift and much-needed changes to the way we live our lives in order to maintain public health in these very difficult times. There are numerous businesses that are suspending operations, or in some cases shutting down entirely in response to the crisis.

Sadly, the folks who would prey on the susceptibility of people to be conned aren’t taking a break at all. The ACCC has noted a serious spike in reports of scammers using fear around the COVID-19 Coronavirus to take advantage of people. Those are scams that – in this day and age – are much less likely to take the form of someone knocking on your front door but are far more likely to be delivered online.

“We’ve had a wide variety of scams reported to us, including fake online stores selling products claiming to be a vaccine or cure for coronavirus, and stores selling products such as face masks and not providing the goods” said ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard in a statement.

“Scammers are impersonating official organisations such as the World Health Organization and the Department of Health or legitimate businesses such as travel agents and telecommunications companies” Ms Rickard said.

That’s astonishingly horrible business, but then scammers never really cared about the impact they were making on their victims, aside from the financial toll they could extract from them.

So how can you really tell that the information that you’re getting is legitimate? There’s the fairly obvious stuff, like anyone offering to sell you a “cure”, for a start, or someone sharing a Facebook post of “tips” for beating the virus that also ask for money, but some scams can go deeper than that with impersonation of credible bodies.

As government stimulus packages start to kick in, it doesn’t take too much crystal ball gazing to see that being a popular scammer’s target, offering you ‘stimulus funds’ in return for giving across your details. Before you know it, you’ve compromised not only your personal identity details, which are valuable in themselves, but also potentially your bank account too.

The ACCC also notes that it’s seen a rise in scams relating to “investment opportunities” around the pandemic, or retailers insisting on direct payment or funds transfer for goods. Then there’s the classics of the genre around pretending to be from your ISP or Microsoft – while those trade in different “viruses”, with so many more folks working from home or in isolation there’s all too much possibility of them being hit by these kinds of scams too.

That’s where it pays to do your own research and stay on top of the current understanding around COVID-19, not relying on what a random social media post might say. I’ve seen everything from the suggestion that drinking silver (no, really) or bleach (again, it sounds incredulous, but still) might protect you. They won’t, and there’s a lot of hucksterism around them.

“There is no known vaccine or cure for coronavirus and a vaccine isn’t expected to be available for 18 months. Do not buy any products that claim to prevent or cure you of COVID-19. They simply don’t exist” said Ms Rickard.

The Federal Department of Health has excellent and scientifically credible resources around the ways you can keep yourself safe and help stop the spread of the coronavirus, and that’s a great one-stop shop for details that are locally relevant. If you want a more global outlook, the World Health Organisation has detailed information on the effect it’s having across the planet.

Like most online scams, there’s a lot of use of fear to motivate decisions in all of these scams, and it’s entirely understandable that people are frightened in these times. However, it’s very important – as with any decision you make relating to this particular crisis – to stop, calm yourself and do your own research. Contact companies independently to check any claims, don’t respond to any unsolicited messages that ask for your financial information, and if you do fear you’ve been the victim of a scam, contact your financial institution directly and rapidly.

It’s a different kind of staying safe from isolation and handwashing, but one that’s also very important.


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