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Author Archives: Justin Trevena

5G is here, and it’s fast — but don’t rush

The next generation of mobile connectivity has launched in Australia. 5G brings with it the promise of faster connection speeds, lower latency and all-new use cases for mobile data.

Well… sort of.

At a technical level, the 5G networks of Telstra and Optus have customers accessing data on them. However this is only under very specific circumstances. It’s worth knowing the fine details before you rush towards 5G.

Optus technically — and it’s a very fine line — “launched” 5G first in Australia, with a range of fixed 5G broadband services with a 50Mbps download speed guarantee in place.

The Optus 5G plans are for folks who can’t (or won’t) get an NBN style service. Or where the NBN infrastructure can’t deliver speeds they need to their homes or businesses.

Optus made the announcement of its 5G plans back in January. To date it has very limited coverage in selected suburbs of major cities in NSW, QLD, ACT, SA and WA.

Optus says it’ll have more than 1,200 sites live by March 2020, but for now, it’s basically testing 5G with a small subset of customers. If you’re not in a coverage area, or even if you are but Optus figures it’s getting enough usage data for what is effectively a live “trial” of 5G, you won’t be able to sign up.

Then there’s Telstra, which has also launched 5G “first” — in a manner of speaking.

Telstra’s 5G services went live to consumers on 28 May. That’s when it first started shipping the first 5G handset, the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G. Since then, it’s been joined by an HTC 5G Hub hotspot device, as well as competing smartphones from Oppo and LG. Telstra won’t stop you from signing up on a contract for any of these devices, and in the case of the Samsung phone, currently it’s the only way you can score one at all.

However, again, coverage is the issue, with 5G only available on Telstra at the time of writing in selected areas of Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, the Gold Coast, Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and Toowomba.

Telstra says it’s working to have 5G available across 35 cities in Australia in 2020, as well as expanding the coverage it has in those launch cities. If you’re not in a 5G coverage area, you won’t drop out of data. You’ll drop down to 4G speeds, the same as most hotspot and mobile devices you can buy these days anyway.

One of the key selling points for 5G is speed.

The ceiling for the 5G specification is massive, but at launch, Telstra’s playing it safe, simply stating that it expects speeds to be “around twice that of 4G” currently.

There are some solid technical reasons for that, to be fair. Telstra’s currently only operating 5G at the 2.4Ghz category while it waits for a fresh round of spectrum auctions to be held by the Federal Government next year to conclude. Once it can get its hands on the millimetre-wave spectrum that the 5G standard calls for, it should (in theory) be able to boost its 5G speeds substantially.

I’ve been testing out the new 5G devices that Telstra’s released to date in the small areas of 5G coverage already available in Sydney, and I’ve got to say that my reactions are quite mixed.

In demonstrations in its labs, I’ve seen Telstra hit speeds between 1.2Gbps-2Gbps (that’s 1,200Mbps-2,000Mbps), which is impressive on a mobile device. Out on the streets, however where there’s a lot more room for interference, I’ve been getting more around the 300-400Mbps mark, and often a lot lower.

Now, from a practical consumer standpoint that’s fine. There’s not too much you’re likely to be doing on just one phone that needs all that much speed yet.

It’s a very similar situation to the one we faced when 4G and even 3G came along, because nobody was making video calls or streaming content at that time. Give it time, and the use cases will emerge for both business and consumer cases.

However, it’s also not living up to the full potential of the network. As such, you don’t really need to run towards a 5G device at this time. The new phones and hotspot are nice devices in their own right, but they’ll be swiftly joined by other models, including more affordable phones.

Telstra will hopefully tweak and improve its network performance in the meantime, too. Right now, Telstra charges no premium at all for 5G, but it’s indicated that it’ll give consumers a 12-month “free” period for 5G add-on charges, after which it’ll ask for $15/month to access its 5G radio waves. If it’s going to go down that path, it’ll need to deliver more speed than it does right now.

Microsoft rolls out OneDrive folder protection for everybody

Microsoft has started rolling out what it’s calling “OneDrive Folder Protection” to users of its Windows operating system.

It’s a fancy name for cloud backup, and in one sense it’s something that Microsoft has offered since it’s had OneDrive (and its predecessors) in the market, because any service that can save data to the cloud for you is, in one sense backup.

The Folder Protection feature was an exclusive for users of Microsoft’s business-centric OneDrive product, but it’s now extended it to any user with a Microsoft account and at least Windows 7 on their PC.

By default, OneDrive picks out three folders — your desktop, documents and pictures folders — and sets them to save your data to a specific folder on your PC only. That way, if you use a different PC (or other Microsoft products, such as its Xbox console) you can save data there and have it appear in your OneDrive folder on your PC.

However, with folder protection, you can flip this arrangement, so that data you deliberately place into those folders will synchronise with OneDrive and be stored online in Microsoft’s servers. That not only makes it accessible (with the right password protection, of course) from other locations, but also provides a level of backup security for those documents.

It also gets past the single factor that leads far too many people not to backup their files. Specifically, it’s often difficult, and it’s always rather boring. Many people figure backup can wait… right up until they need a backup, at which point they realise quite how vital it actually is.

Cloud backup has its limitations, naturally. It’s designed to sync across all devices, which is very handy if you’re working on a document or file over a long period of time so you don’t end up with multiple, confusing versions, but it also means that if you do delete a file from your cloud based storage (whether it’s OneDrive or not) it’ll be deleted from any PC that your OneDrive is connected to. So you do need to be careful, because it works like a “live” backup, rather than a static backup recording of a point in time.

There are also limitations in the way OneDrive works with specific file types — most notably, Microsoft advises that it won’t backup Outlook .PST files. You’re also logically limited to the amount of cloud based storage you’re actually paying for. Microsoft by default offers 5GB of ‘free’ storage, but if you’re storing more data than that you’ll have to pay a monthly fee.

One way around that (if you’ve got the time and you’re careful) is to take advantage of other free online cloud services such as Dropbox or Google Drive to store files you want to secure as well. You’ll then have the trickier task of remembering where you’ve stored a file, and you’ll have to more manually make sure you’re backing up to those services in some cases.

Now, there is a very separate discussion around whether or not it’s wise to back up your data to cloud servers you don’t actually control, depending on your need for data privacy. That’s a matter of your own personal preferences and security needs, and one I can’t decide for you. But do you need backup? Yes, you absolutely do, whether you’re running a small business or simply storing family photos from your smartphone.

A cloud backup shouldn’t necessarily be your only backup — there’s convenience to having a locally stored backup, such as on an external hard drive – but it’s a whole lot better than nothing.

Google’s switching up its music streaming apps

In the world of online music streaming, there are a number of big-name players. Spotify is the best known, and Apple has its own play in Apple Music. Users of Google’s Android operating systems are probably more familiar with Google Play Music.

Google’s approach to Google Play Music has always been an odd one from a branding perspective. If you subscribed to Google Play Music in a country that also offered Google’s Ad-free YouTube alternative, YouTube Red, you got access to that service.

The deal worked vice versa too, so if you subscribed to YouTube Red, you got Google Play Music. Even if all you ever wanted was ad-free YouTube, it was still there.

That’s all set to change, with Google recently announcing a rebrand (and slight uptick on prices) for YouTube Red. It will morph into two distinct services, YouTube Music and YouTube Premium.

As the name suggests, YouTube Music is a pure music play, set to arrive in many countries on 22 May 2018, with wider global availability in the coming weeks.

Google is promising a revised YouTube interface for desktop users, alongside a new mobile app. Subscribers can download tracks for offline listening, as well as minimising the player itself for background playback.

If you minimise YouTube on a mobile device, playback stops, but this won’t happen with YouTube Music. There will be a free tier of YouTube Music if you don’t want to pay. Like regular YouTube, you’ll get ads inbetween tracks, and won’t have the minimisation or download abilities.

YouTube Premium is more akin to what YouTube Red used to be. It offers the ability to download any video files for offline playback. You also get access to YouTube’s small library of original content productions. The flagship offering of YouTube Red/Premium right now is a series called Cobra Kai, a followup to the classic 1980s film The Karate Kid.

If you remember the original fondly, it’s recommended, but right now, YouTube Red won’t have the likes of Netflix quaking in their boots yet. It simply doesn’t have enough content to compare.

There’s no free tier of YouTube Premium, and most of the premium content is also locked behind a paywall. Although you can catch the first two episodes of Cobra Kai on regular YouTube if you’re curious.

Where this gets complex is if you’re already subscribing to Google Play Music, or YouTube Red.

Along with the name changes, Google is also jacking the pricing up for YouTube Music/YouTube Premium. Pricing varies depending on your global location (and availability of the services). It’s not a huge rise, but it will be more expensive.

Where that gets interesting is around Google’s statements for existing Google Play Music and YouTube Red subscribers. Google has stated that existing subscribers won’t see a price rise. They won’t lose features either.

What that means is that if you’re already a happy Google Play Music or YouTube Red subscriber, it’s going to be worth keeping your subscription. Let it drop, and you’ll have to pay the new YouTube Music/Premium prices for the same content.

YouTube Red will shuffle away, replaced by YouTube Music/Premium, but it’s not exactly clear what will happen to Google Play Music. As a player it’s present on millions of Android devices, and Google may well keep it around for a while longer.

Some reports have pegged a close date of the end of 2018, and that may well happen. Google could still bump up prices to match, although it’s you should get plenty of warning if that happens.

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