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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

Apple MacBook Pro 16 Review: Serious computer, serious price

Apple recently released the latest in its long running line of MacBook Pro laptops. While Apple has somewhat muddied the water around what it means by “Pro” with the release of the Apple iPhone 11 Pro and Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max phones, in the laptop space, they’re very definitely meant for folks who need particularly high-end computing power.

That’s especially true for the new MacBook Pro 16 inch model, which ships with either ninth generation Core i7 or Core i9 processors. While Apple has offered some lower-tier processors in earlier MacBook lines, the MacBook Pro 16 only comes in configurations that offer plenty of power.

One catch here is that everything in the MacBook Pro 16 is absolutely soldered in place, and that means that while you can order them with different RAM and hard drive storage configurations, there’s no user-upgradeable parts in them at all. The baseline model of either the Core i7 or Core i9 MacBook Pro 16 comes with 16GB of RAM, but you can bump that up to 32GB or 64GB for a price if need. Likewise, storage starts at 512GB onboard, but it’s possible to pack in as much as 8TB into one of these machines. Again, have your credit card ready for that if it’s needed.

In power terms, though, there’s no doubting the prowess of the MacBook Pro 16. I’ve been using one for audio and video editing work over the past few weeks, and it simply hasn’t missed a step the entire time. That’s even true of the battery, and that’s not something that’s usually the case for larger laptops like this.

While specification bumps under the hood are an essentially expected part of any year’s new computer models, Apple has also made some significant changes to the externals of the MacBook Pro with the 16-inch model. The display screen has minimal bezels, and as such it’s only slightly larger than the MacBook Pro 15 inch line it replaces. The speakers have been punched up a notch, and while you may not need them at work, they do work well for any after-work Netflix binges you may have planned. Just, you know, don’t tell the boss about that.

There’s also a seriously good inbuilt microphone on the MacBook Pro. If you work with pro-grade audio it won’t likely be enough for your tastes, but I recently used it as the backup recording methodology for the weekly podcast I produce, Vertical Hold and it performed very well indeed.

However, that’s not the biggest change in the MacBook Pro 16’s build. That’s in the form of what Apple calls the “Magic” keyboard. For the past couple of years, Apple’s sold all models of its MacBook line, including the Pro models with very flat keyboards using what’s called a “butterfly” style switch. They look good on a show floor, but the keys don’t move much, and many users – myself included – tended to find that they locked up more than they should if even the slightest bit of dust or grit got under them. For the MacBook Pro, Apple’s returned to a more conventional “scissor switch” style keyboard. The end result is a more comfortable typing keyboard that should also be considerably more durable. I’m hoping this means that future 13 inch models of the MacBook Pro will also include the Magic keyboard, but we’ll have to wait and see about that.

Are there downsides to the MacBook Pro 16? Like any 16-inch laptop, it’s large and somewhat heavy, weighing in at 2kg. That might not sound like much at the start of the day, but if you have to carry it around all day, you’ll be feeling that extra weight. Like Apple’s other MacBooks, charging is via USB C with 4 USB-C ports, and any of them can be the charging port. However, that’s your lot, so if you need an external card reader, optical drive or other connection, you’ll need an adaptor to do so. For such a large laptop, it feels like a waste to not have more connectivity running down the sides.

Then there’s the price, as I’ve already alluded to. Apple pitches the MacBook Pro 16 towards the professional crowd, and that’s a crowd that’s willing to pay Apple’s price. The entry level MacBook Pro 16 Core i7 will set you back a hefty $3,799, and the Core i9 model I’ve been testing out runs $4,399. That’s without RAM or storage upgrades, either. Were you so inclined, you could configure a top-end variant of this laptop that would set you back $9,679. You’d get a lot of laptop for that money – but if you spent that much, you’d expect that, wouldn’t you?


Twitter backflips (mostly) on its inactive account push.

Social Media can have profound effects – for good or bad – on the lives of many people, but what do you if your name is, say, Roger Smith or something equally common and you want to make yourself easily locatable on the biggest social media platforms?

The chances are that another Roger Smith has already nabbed that username, potentially across multiple platforms. The chances are decent that RogerSmith7896543 is available as a username, but then how do you get folks to realise that this is you? It’s a particularly sharp problem if the actual Roger Smith registered an account across Facebook, Twitter or any other social network many years ago but then seems to have done nothing with it. It almost seems unfair that a username you could use is essentially dormant with no way to claim it for better uses.

Twitter recently announced that it would start enforcing its policy on inactive accounts more vigorously to ensure that usernames and accounts that were no longer active would be reclaimable by the company. You can read the full policy here, but in essence, if any Twitter account isn’t used for at least 6 months, Twitter reserves the right to permanently remove an account.

At that time, at least in theory, the username associated with it might become available for you to grab. Of course, if you are RogerSmith7896543, there’s roughly 7,896,542 other Roger Smiths who would also be keen, so there may well be some luck involved. Twitter didn’t officially say when it might make reclaimed usernames available, although it did appear that the push to start more aggressively pursuing its inactive account policy was going to be an ongoing process. As such, inactive account names might only appear as freshly available over time.

There’s an obvious point to be made here that if you do have a Twitter account you’ve not used in a while, it might be wise to at least load up the app and have a look at it if it’s a contact point you want to maintain. It’s also a timely reminder that any social media platform that offers access for free isn’t looking to you as their customers – you’re the content that they sell, and they can yank that access as suits their needs.

However, in the social media age in which we live, talking about enacting a policy that’s actually been in place for years but not often invoked raises some challenging edge cases. Twitter’s position was largely that it would be reclaiming unused usernames and also potentially complying with legislation across the globe relating to rights to be forgotten and data retention, but it rather rapidly faced an interesting backlash around accounts that by every definition weren’t going to be updated any time soon.

Twitter (and indeed other social media platforms) has been around long enough that there’s a sizeable array of accounts that effectively serve as memorials to their users who have sadly passed away. Twitter’s help channel responded to those complaints, noting that it hadn’t entirely considered that scenario but that it doesn’t really have a formal way to declare an account as an effective memorial.

Digital memorials understandably give some people the shudders, but for others who live (or have lived) substantially online, they’re both a way for friends and family to remember them in their own thoughts, words and tweets, as well as potentially a good historical resource for everything from political discussions to analysis of social trends. There’s also value here, if nothing else, in considering what you’ve done with your own online accounts – social network or otherwise – and who you’d want to have access to them were something to happen to you. That’s true whether you’d prefer an online memorial or for your accounts to be swiftly shut down and cleared in your absence.


Google’s Cloud Print runs out of ink

Google is a company most closely related to search and search-based products, which is why it’s nearly always teetering on the edge of becoming a verb in its own right. Plenty of folk don’t even think of it as “searching” — they simply “Google” their queries day in, day out.

Search isn’t all that Google does, having spent serious money either developing software products in-house, or in some cases buying out interesting smaller companies or competitors.

The brutal reality of being a Google product, however is that despite being owned by one of the world’s biggest tech companies, you’re not actually assured of survival. Quite the opposite actually; the range and variety of applications, services and software packages that Google has killed is so extensive, third parties have actually tracked all of them in a virtual Google graveyard. While there’s plenty of esoteric Google software and services listed there, there’s also some heavy hitters such as Google Reader, Google Inbox, YouTube Video Editor and plenty more besides.

The latest Google service to head to that great big factory in the sky is actually one of Google’s longest survivors in the software space, Google Cloud Print.

First announced back in 2010 — almost a different age in IT terms — Google Cloud Print allowed you to print to any Google Cloud Print-enabled printer from just about any device you’d care to name. If you’ve ever struggled to install a driver on a PC or Mac for a printer, or just pondered how you were going to print if all you had on you was a smartphone or a tablet, you’d appreciate how potentially useful that was. Once connected, a Google Cloud Print enabled printer wasn’t just limited to your home or office Wi-Fi, either; in theory you could print from anywhere, presuming there was somebody nearby the printer to collect the finished document. Google Cloud Print couldn’t deal with other printing annoyances like low ink or toner, or for that matter paper jams, but it was (and for the time being is) a decent solution to the printing problem.

Google Cloud Print was never developed to the point where Google declared it to be out of “beta” status, although that does rather make a mockery of the idea of “beta” software if you’re in beta for a full 9 years. It’s not an issue that Google Cloud Print will have all that much longer, however, because Google has announced it’s killing off the service from December 31, 2020.

That does give you a fair amount of time to work out an alternative solution if you’re an existing Google Cloud Print user. Google notes that the reason for its impending extinction has a large part to do with the way that it’s integrated printing services into its own Chrome browser. It’s what it calls “native print management”, largely aimed at enterprise users, but the advantage of that development for all Chrome users is (in theory) that well before that end-of-2020 deadline, you should be able to set up and access printers from devices using Chrome in any case. That does give you a potentially wide spread of available print types, especially if you’re happy importing documents such as Word or Excel files into Google’s own Chrome-based Docs and Sheets applications.


Disney+ in Australia

This week we’ll see the local Australian launch of Disney+, the latest in a very long line of streaming subscription services. While there’s still clearly a place in Australian homes for free to air television (at least for live events such as sports), it’s also clear that on-demand streaming services delivered over a home broadband connection are where the market’s shifted. Disney+ is just following in the footsteps of services such as Netflix and Stan, although, being Disney, it’s doing it somewhat differently. Here’s the rundown of what you need to know about the House of Mouse’s streaming service.

How much does it cost?

Disney+ will either set you back $8.99 per month on a month-to-month basis, or $89.99 upfront for a year’s subscription, bringing that effective monthly price down to $7.50 per month.

Of note, where some of its competitors offer differentiated pricing for access to HD or 4K content, Disney+ is a one-price-fits-all service, so there’s no additional charge to watch higher definition content, presuming your display screen and Internet connection is up to the task

Can I get a free trial?

Like competing streaming services, it is feasible to get a “free” taste of the content on offer, although Disney+ is a little more miserly than its competitors, with a 7 day trial available to consumers when it launches on 19 November.

What devices will it support?

At launch, Disney+ should work across web browsers, iOS and Android devices, Google Chromecast, Apple TV and the Microsoft Xbox One and Sony PlayStation 4 console platforms. We’re actually getting the service a week later than its US launch, where there’s also support for selected Samsung and LG Smart TVs, but it’s yet to be confirmed if any of the locally available smart TVs will offer up Disney+ at launch or later down the track.

What content will it have?

Unlike competitors such as Netflix, Disney+ is largely targeting a family audience, although that doesn’t mean it’s going to offer only kiddie fare. Yes, there’s a wide range of Disney and Pixar movies both new and old on the service, but it’s also incorporating content from (US) National Geographic channel, and selected titles it’s acquired as a result of Disney’s buyout of 20th Century Fox, most notably the entire current run of The Simpsons. Although in that case US fans are already up in arms, because the 16:9 widescreen presentation of that show has meant early episodes are presented in a frame cropped format, at least for now.

However, like Netflix, Disney+ is also planning on hooking folks in with exclusive original content built around its well-regarded franchises, particularly Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At launch, its flagship show is The Mandalorian, a show set in the Star Wars universe that will see weekly episode releases to keep the fans of Force enthralled. Later down the track we’ll see the re-emergence of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from the Marvel movies in his own show, along with a number of other Marvel-themed shows.

What you won’t see on Disney+ is content aimed at a much older audience than that; in the US Disney is the sole owner of Hulu, a service that includes more content aimed at mature audiences, but for now that’s not going to be part of the Disney+ mix. There have been rumours for years that we might see a Hulu launch down under, but so far, it’s yet to materialise.

One big key component of the launch of Disney+ is that it’s pulling the rights to that content — especially the hyper-popular Star Wars and Marvel movies — from any competing service. Disney’s already announced the end of its streaming deal with Netflix, so Marvel and Star Wars content is either gone or going there. For users of Channel 9-owned Stan, the Disney content it’s been hyping for the last year has been removed mere days before the launch of the service here. The picture is a little murkier for Foxtel subscribers, but it’s entirely likely that we’ll see less Disney-owned content on Foxtel’s subscription platforms over time.

Is it worth it?

Like any subscription streaming TV service, the value you get out of it depends on how much entertainment it affords you. I doubt too many Aussies would be clamouring to spend $8.99 per month to watch 1969’s “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” (even if it does star Kurt Russell), but for quick access to everything Star Wars and Marvel, including content that won’t be legitimately found elsewhere, at a price point less than its competitors could make it a genuine family hit.

That being said, you’ll need a decent internet connection, especially if you want to watch in HD. Video is very data intensive, and if you’re still on an older non-NBN connection, or just on a slower-rate NBN 12Mpbs plan, you might find the Disney+ experience — and indeed any streaming video service — a bit more miss than hit.


What’s your bushfire tech survival plan?

We’re in the middle of a particularly fierce bushfire season here in Australia, and sadly that’s included not only loss of property but also loss of life.

Bushfires are part of the Australian ecosystem, it’s true, and if you live in an area that’s likely to be affected by them, it’s wise to have a survival plan, whether that’s to leave at the first sign of trouble — and I’ll be honest, that’s part of my own strategy, if only for breathing reasons — or to be well prepared to stay and fight as long as it’s safe to do so.

Anyone in an area that could be impacted — which is, let’s face it, most of the country — will probably have a plan, and if you don’t, you really should. You’re usually advised to have important documents to hand if you do have to flee, as well as survival necessities, but have you considered what you should do in technology terms?

Now, if you’re in a situation where you have to leave immediately, it’s too late, but just like preparing for any other aspect of bushfire survival, a little planning can go a very long way.

Indeed, a little judicious technology planning can make a huge difference in ways you might not have considered. This isn’t an exhaustive list of things to take into account, but should give you food for thought, even if you’re not in an area where bushfires are usually a concern.

Backing up your documents: Look, I’ve mentioned many times before here that you should have a backup of your own files, if only because hard drives and computers can and do fail at the least opportune times.

Extreme heat is no friend to computers, and there it won’t matter much if you’re using a newer solid state drive or an older mechanical one, because a melted heap is melted either way.

But in a bushfire scenario, having an encrypted online vault of your precious documents — preferably both certified copies of important legal documents such as insurance details, house titles and the like — but also scans of your physical photos and backups of your digital ones. Photo albums are frequently the kinds of things people regret losing the most, but if they’re stored online, even if your computer doesn’t make it, your photos will. Taking the time to scan in those precious photos doesn’t just mean you can share them with family overseas — it could be a vital part of a strategy to keep them even if the original photos are sadly lost.

Using online resources to stay safe: There’s no shortage of online resources that you can use to keep yourself aware of both fire restrictions in your area, but also any ongoing fire actions, whether they’re controlling an actual fire or backburning to reduce future risk. That’s not just a question of being ready to leave if a bushfire is approaching, but even simpler health issues such as staying indoors if there’s a planned backburn in your area if you have breathing issues. Doing a simple Google search for your state or area and “bushfire map” can reveal a store of resources that may track more quickly than waiting for a radio or TV broadcast to alert you.

Keeping resources with you — especially a well-charged smartphone — can keep you updated even if you do have to leave an area, and of course you can use that same smartphone to alert friends, family and workmates about your situation. It’s not a bad idea in those circumstances to have a spare battery pack for your phone, as you may be some time between recharges.

Working out what you can take with you: That 65 inch TV? Not likely to fit into the car, and even if it did, it’s going to be heavy and difficult to move. But working out if you’ve got a backup drive, or a laptop that can be quickly put into a bag along with the rest of your bushfire survival kit can give you a useful tool for communication, as above, as well as elminating one of the more pricey items you’d otherwise have to claim against insurance. Bear in mind that if you do have to leave your home and your tech items are lost, the key content there is anything you’ve created. There’s much less point in saving, say, software that you could almost certainly get online again anyway, but if you lose your photos, your business account files or that great Australian novel you’ve been working on, there’s going to be no way to get it back again.


Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 Review: Third time’s the charm

Microsoft used to be a software-only company, leaving the practical work of actually building PCs to partner companies such as Dell, HP, Lenovo and others. In recent years it’s branched out with its Surface range of tablet 2-in-1s and more recently, Surface-branded laptops. Microsoft recently sent me the Surface Laptop 3 to assess. As the name suggests, it’s the third generation of its line of laptops, with just a few new tweaks under the hood.

First impressions are very solid, and that’s a deliberate choice of words. I’ve been testing out the black model of the Surface Laptop 3, and the style is very deliberately minimalistic, almost brutally so.

I’ve started to refer to it as the “monolith”, after Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, because outside a reflective Windows logo on the top, there’s almost no adornment at all. Where Microsoft’s offered up fuzzy Alcantara keyboards on some of its Surface devices of late, for the 15 inch model you can only get a more standard plastic-and-metal keyboard.

I’m perfectly happy with that, as my own experience with Microsoft’s Alcantara keyboards has been that they’re often dust and grot magnets. While it’s a laptop keyboard, so key response and travel isn’t exceptional, it’s a perfectly acceptable keyboard.

The Surface Laptop 3 features a pair of USB ports – one USB C and one USB A type – located on the right hand side of the laptop body. For such a large laptop, it feels a little odd not to offer up more ports. It’s not as though there isn’t more space around either side. It depends on your need for plugged in peripherals, but if this was going to be my everyday laptop, I’d definitely budget for a USB-C connected hub to make the most of it.

The model I’ve been testing out is the 15 inch model running on an AMD Ryzen 5 2.1Ghz processor. Microsoft’s making the Surface Laptop 3 in a variety of configurations, with either AMD or Intel processors, although there’s a slightly odd choice there depending on what colours and what integrated CPU you actually want.

The smaller and more portable 13.5 inch Surface Laptop 3 only ships with Intel Core i5 or Intel Core i7 processors with either 8GB or 16GB of RAM. The 15 inch model in Australia sold to consumers ships with an AMD Ryzen processor and either 8GB or 16GB of onboard storage, although there is a business model of the 15 inch version with Intel processors inside.

At its asking price, the AMD Ryzen model with 16GB isn’t the most powerful you could get in overall performance terms. I’ve hit relatively few issues myself with essential browsing, word processing and just a little light gaming, but for the $2799 Microsoft wants for this model, you could pretty easily score an equivalent Intel-based laptop from other makers with integrated NVIDIA GPU power behind it. Many business users might not push the Surface Laptop 3 that hard, and certainly some competing alternatives aren’t as nicely built as the Surface Laptop 3 is.

Battery life on laptops is always a highly subjective matter. Microsoft states that the Surface Laptop 3 is capable of “up to” 11.5 hours of “typical device usage”. My own experience suggest that you’d have to be using it fairly lightly to get to that figure, but then it’s not unusual for 15 inch laptops not to be absolute battery life monsters.

The Surface Laptop 3 uses Microsoft’s own magnetically-connected “Surface Connector” charger that clips in on the right hand side for charging. I’m a big fan of magnetically attached laptop chargers, if only because if somebody trips on the cable, it simply detaches rather than pulling your laptop crashing to the floor. At the same time, the Surface Connector is very custom cabling, and it’s a little annoying taking it everywhere with you. Break it or lose it, and Microsoft’s your only port of call for replacements.

Microsoft has long viewed the Surface line as a template for other manufacturers to follow. With the Surface Laptop 3 it’s delivered a slightly mixed message. I can’t fault the build quality or indeed the style, both of which are excellent. At the same time, for the asking price the 15 inch models’ AMD processors aren’t exactly cutting edge, and I do wish it had more expansion ports down the sides.


Apple iPad 7th Generation review: Good basic value for most tablet buyers

Apple recently refreshed its basic iPad line of tablet computers. I’ve got to be very careful in describing them, however, because while you might think of an iPad as a tablet, it’s actually a range of tablets. At the top end of the price and performance scale is the Apple iPad Pro, then moving down there’s the iPad Air, then moving down in size, the model that’s just the “iPad”, and then the smallest model, the iPad Mini.

To make things even more confusing, the iPad Mini actually has a faster processor and better display technology than the model that’s just called the iPad. But it’s this model — the Apple iPad — that Apple has most recently updated, and I’ve spent the past few weeks testing one out to see how it compares to the rest of the range.

Apple is pretty insistent that the iPad is much more than just a content consumption device, but that’s an argument it pitches more heavily towards the more expensive and powerful iPad Air or iPad Pro lines. The Apple iPad is much more entry level, but the 2019 iteration does bring with it a few tweaks that can make it more than just the device you browse the web or do a little light Netflix watching on.

Last year’s model of the iPad brought with it compatibility with Apple’s Pencil stylus, sold separately, which is a nice inclusion if you’ve got artistic inclinations. This year, it’s got the side connector to make it compatible with the Apple Smart Keyboard for tablets. It’s very nice keyboard that also folds up into a front protective case for the iPad, but it would want to be — Apple charges a rather hefty $235 for it.

The new iPad also has a slightly larger display than the previous model, with a 10.2 inch 2,160 x 1,620 pixel screen. It’s still running the same Apple A10 Fusion processor as last year’s model, which means in the iPad heirarchy it’s the least powerful model you can buy. That includes the Apple iPad Mini, which runs on the A12 Bionic that also powers the Apple iPad Air.

Which is not to say that the 7th generation iPad feels low powered. I’ve been throwing a number of titles from the new Apple Arcade service at it, and it’s rarely missed a beat. It’s fully capable of the kinds of multi-tasking that iPadOS can handle, and while I won’t be replacing my laptop with one any time soon, if you do need to shift from, say, the Safari Web browser to a Pages document, it’s pretty easy to do so.

Battery life is decent; Apple’s claim is that it’s capable of up to 10 hours of battery life, and I’d agree with that figure for most uses outside really intensive games or AR applications.

So what do I not like? I’m not a big fan of the fact that the baseline model only comes with 32GB of storage. You can’t upgrade the storage on an iPad, so the only way to store “more” on an iPad is to pay for Apple’s pricey iCloud storage and keep content online only. The included camera is good for video calls over Facetime, Skype, Duo or your calling app of choice, but the rear camera is awkward for photo taking, and not really up to the standard set by Apple’s iPhone line.

Still, in the tablet space, Apple remains well ahead of its Android competition, and given the lower price, if you’re after a tablet for the first time, or an upgrade from an older iPad, the baseline Apple iPad is a great choice.


Which keys are vital on your keyboard?

While there’s been an explosion in touch-led interfaces in recent years as we’ve all adapted to using devices such as smartphones and tablets, the humble keyboard is still king for data entry and general interaction with our PCs.

Which is amusing when you think that the current standard QWERTY layout was designed in an era of entirely mechanical keyboards. There’s a very popular myth that it was laid out in its rather non-alphabetical style in order to slow typists down and prevent key jamming, although that’s been rather widely debunked; it now appears more likely that QWERTY came about because the first alphabetical keyboards were confusing to rapid-fire telegraph operators seeking out individual letters.

Still, working at a keyboard isn’t as simple an issue as sitting down to just any keyboard, however – or at least it shouldn’t be. If you’re using just the one notebook and nothing else you’re rather stuck with whatever option your laptop manufacturer went with. Some more expensive laptops can have nicer keyboards on them, but again what you consider “nice” could be “awful” for others. I’m generally a big fan of Apple’s MacBook lines, but I absolutely hate the newer “flatter” keyboards it’s been using of late, which is why I’m clinging to my 2015 MacBook Pro with tenacity – it’s the last Pro model that has a nice depth of travel for each key, which suits my typing style.

Of course, if you work with an external keyboard, whether that’s plugged into a laptop for docking or comfort purposes, or with a desktop PC where it’s a necessity, your choices become much wider. If you don’t do much typing, then just about any $10 or less USB connected keyboard is generally fine, but it’s entirely feasible to spend quite a bit more to meet specific needs. I’m typing this right now on a HyperX gaming keyboard, not because I’m playing a game, but because the feel of its fully mechanical keyboard suits my typing and writing style.

At other times, I use a Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard, because to put it rather impolitely, I’m not getting any younger. Decades of thumping out millions of words on keyboards of varying quality has had its impact, and a keyboard that aids in comfort is very much appreciated! If you do have issues with wrist or finger comfort when typing, it’s well worth looking into the alternative keyboards that are available. There’s typically an all-new learning curve with those keyboards thanks to their unusual shapes, but the benefits can quickly become clear.

That’s even leaving aside what kinds of keys you want on your keyboard of choice. It wasn’t that long ago that computer keyboards were really just standard typewriter keyboards, supplanted with a range of function keys at the top. In more recent years, many ship with a “Windows” key as standard, and often a separate function key that modifies the behavior of the top row of function keys themselves. Microsoft is about to start selling an even more complex set of keyboards with dedicated keys for its Office suite and a key specifically to engage an emoji mode, for example.

If you do a lot of spreadsheet work, or for certain game and app purposes, a keyboard with an integrated number pad is a bit of a must, but for others it’s just an extension that takes up desk space.

Again, it’s a question of matching to your needs; if you use a lot of emojis in your typing it could be an absolute boon, and if you don’t, it’s a key you can either ignore or potentially remap to a more useful function instead.

When was the last time you considered your keyboard strategy? There’s no shortage of choices when it comes to making your computer time more productive, or simply just more enjoyable, so it’s a factor in your computer setup well worth considering.


macOS Catalina: New features and problems mean it’s worth waiting

Apple released the latest full version of macOS for its range of desktop and laptop computers recently. It’s a free upgrade to macOS Catalina as long as you’ve got a qualifying iMac, Mac Pro, MacBook, MacBook Air or MacBook Pro model, with the promise of plenty of new features. Most of macOS’ core applications have been given a significant redesign with streamlined workflows. There’s a new feature called “Sidecar” that lets you use any Apple iPad compatible with the Apple Pencil as a secondary display for your Mac.

Those who disliked how bloated iTunes had become over the years can rejoice, because just like it said it would, iTunes is no longer the one-stop shop for your music, video app and iOS device backup needs. Instead, they’re handled by what are essentially ports of their iOS counterparts, except for device backup and syncing, which is handled directly within the Finder. If you’re an iPhone user on a Windows PC, however, iTunes is still where all of those services reside; it’s only on the Mac side of the fence that Apple’s killed off iTunes.

The general sensible advice on any major update like this is to hold off until the bugs are ironed out. That holds true too for macOS Catalina, because despite a public beta period that undoubtedly quashed a number of software problems, there’s still plenty of reports of unusual app behaviour from early macOS Catalina adopters.

Some of these issues are with Apple’s own included apps, but there’s also the prospect of third-party applications misbehaving, at least until their developers patch around or fix issues with those software packages running smoothly on macOS Catalina.

It’s an issue exacerbated by the fact that macOS Catalina drops support for 32-bit apps entirely. That’s a step Apple underwent some time ago for iOS devices, but the Mac’s history of apps with only 32-bit support stretches back even furhter than iOS. If you do run older apps (and especially if you’re already getting the warning that the app will be “unsupported” on future macOS upgrades, you may find that they don’t work at all once you do upgrade.

To further complicate matters, if they have their own uninstallers, you’ll need to run those before you upgrade, because the odds are pretty good that if the core app itself is only 32-bit, then the uninstaller will be too. You could be left with an app you can’t use or in fact even easily remove from your Mac if you’re not careful!

So how can you know if it’s ever going to be safe to upgrade? Thankfully it’s not too tricky to check your Mac for apps that won’t work under macOS Catalina if you’re using the prior version, macOS Mojave.

Open up Spotlight search by pressing command and the space bar, and type in System Information. Press enter, and it will show you the details of your Mac in a new window. Scroll down to the area headed up with “Software” and there should be an entry labelled “Legacy Software”. These are all the apps you’ve currently got on your Mac that won’t work with macOS Catalina.

If there’s nothing there, you’re at least OK from a direct apps support point of view for upgrading. If there’s lots of applications there that you rely on, the smart move will be to at least check if you can get upgrades to 64-bit versions, or find equivalent applications that will fulfill the same purpose.


Microsoft’s new Surface range could show the future of Windows

When Microsoft announced its very first range of Surface laptop computers, it very prominently stated that it wasn’t going into direct competition with hardware partners such as Dell, HP, Lenovo or Acer. Indeed, at the time, such a move would have been very foolhardy for Microsoft, because a huge proportion of its revenue came from the Windows licences attached to machines sold by those firms.

Instead, Microsoft’s stated aim was to show an effective “reference platform” for what a Windows device could be. Surface devices have typically been amongst the most expensive in their class, whether you’re talking the regular Surface tablet that ships sans keyboard, the Surface Book or even the Surface Laptop. They’ve also typically been amongst the best Windows machines you can buy, which was how Microsoft could justify the asking price.

It wasn’t much of a secret that Microsoft had a number of new Surface devices it was planning to launch, and just recently, it did just that. On the slightly more mundane side, it launched the new Microsoft Surface Pro 7, a 12.3 inch Windows 10 tablet device with optional keyboard and Surface Pen accessory to update that line, and the Surface Laptop 3 with either a 13.5 inch or 15” touchscreen in a more traditional laptop form factor. They’ll go on sale in Australia from the 22nd of October, but you’ll need to save your pennies. Even the entry level Surface Pro 7 will set you back $1299, and that’s without the keyboard that I’d consider an essential component of the Surface experience. The Surface Laptop 3 is a little more pricey again, especially as you up the storage and processor specifications.

In any other year, Microsoft might have stopped there. But it didn’t, instead announcing a third device we’ll see this year, as well as offering a tantalising glimpse into the very future of Windows itself.

The Microsoft Surface Pro X is a 13 inch laptop that looks somewhat like the halfway position between the Surface Pro 7 and the Surface Laptop 3, albeit with a much flatter Surface Pen. That’s not the key difference here, though. Where Microsoft’s other Surface devices have tended to use Intel or AMD x86-based processors, the Surface Pro X runs on a Microsoft co-designed, Qualcomm Snapdragon processor with an ARM base. It’s not the first ARM-based Windows 10 laptop, although it’s Microsoft’s first since the Surface RT, which was part of the very first generation of Windows Surface devices.

The difference here is that the underlying software architecture means that some Windows applications won’t compile natively for ARM, especially older 32-bit Windows applications. It’s rather hard to say that older apps will or won’t run, and while that’s a somewhat familiar story with Windows generally the further back in its history you go, it’s especially true for Windows on ARM, because it uses an emulation layer to run any 32-bit app. The big players in the Windows space should work, however.

So why go ARM in the first place? It’s a question of mobility and battery life, with a lighter carrying weight, inbuilt LTE connectivity and up to 13 hours of battery stamina. The Surface Pro X is pitched pretty heavily at the travelling laptop crowd, and it’ll go on sale in Australia in late November. Again, though, it won’t be cheap, with pricing starting at $1699.

That wasn’t all Microsoft had to show off, however, although its last two devices I can’t even give you pricing or specifications for. That’s because the Microsoft Surface Duo and Microsoft Surface Neo won’t go on sale for at least 12 months. Both feature twin screens in folding arrangements. Although unlike devices like the Samsung Galaxy Fold, they don’t use continuous screens, but instead hinges in the middle.

The Surface Duo will be Microsoft’s first phone since it folded its Windows 10 Mobile ambitions, running Android with Microsoft’s own launcher on top. More enticing is the Surface Neo, a full double-screen laptop device. Imagine two screens folding in on each other, and you’ve got the Surface Neo, but with an optional keyboard that can be placed on the bottom screen, either to give you a wide activity bar at the top, or touchpad at the bottom.

Windows 10 will see yet another version when the Surface Neo launches, with Windows 10X its core operating system. It’s being modified to work on the Surface Neo’s unusual structure, although at its core it’s still Windows 10.

Microsoft clearly sees this kind of more modular, heavy-screen based laptop as the future, as it’s indicated that its hardware partners such as Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Asus which will also use Windows 10X. That’s an interesting development in itself. Many of them have toyed with this kind of concept idea in the past, but it’s been hamstrung by lack of actual Windows support, making them a “best fit” kind of hodgepodge device. With a version of Windows built from the ground up with this kind of device in mind, they should be much better overall.

Which raises the question of just how touch-centric Windows can actually get. Microsoft’s been down this path before with Windows 8, which defaulted to a large screen, large icon display that plenty of Windows users absolutely hated. It’s not looking quite that way again, but it’s still got to tread carefully to keep in mind all those Windows users who are used to a more traditional approach to the way Windows works.


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