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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

5G will be big in 2019 (eventually)

The new year is upon us, and with it, the promise of all sorts of new tech gadgets, with everything from foldable phones to smarter electric cars for sale.

Connectivity is the glue that binds those two quite different concepts together, and indeed just about any other technology you’d care to name, because we absolutely live in an internet-connected world now. The big shift in connectivity in 2019 will come as telecommunication providers across the globe roll out the first 5G networks for consumers to jump onto.

5G follows 4G, and it’s a simple enough matter to explain in one sense, because it’s the fifth generation of mobile telecommunications technology. Where once it was concerned purely with the shifting of voice signals away from copper wires and towards an over-the-air delivery mechanism, 5G instead concentrates almost entirely on data throughput, and especially latency. The idea is that it’s not only meant to be fast, but also super-responsive for potentially thousands of devices on each 5G mobile cell.

So what’s the catch? Well, firstly, there’s the issue of exactly when 5G might roll out in your area. While the big global telcos are all jousting around who’s going to be “first” — a slightly meaningless derivation in real terms because some will use quite different rollout technology than others — there’s really nowhere on the planet that will automatically be bathed in fast 5G signal. Just as the switch from 3G to 4G took time, so too will we see a gradual rollout of 5G capabilities depending on the spectrum available to carriers, and their implementation of new networks.

Of course, a fast network isn’t much use without devices to run on it, and here too we’ll see the otherwise-fast 5G networks somewhat stymied by a lack of devices. As an example, in Australia, the two telcos currently pitching to be “first” there, Telstra and Optus are both stating that they’ll launch with “fixed 5G” broadband services — or in other words, devices that will compete with fixed line broadband services that you might be getting over copper or fibre right now. The speed of 5G does have some appeal in these cases if you can’t otherwise get a fast fixed line service, although the costs involved with mobile data, as well as the highly variable nature of those services means that fixed line is still a (generally) more reliable and cost-effective way to get your broadband fix.

If you’re wondering why nobody’s releasing a 5G mobile phone yet, well… you won’t have to wait long, it seems. Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in late February/Early March is tipped to be the launching point for a number of 5G-enabled handsets, with Samsung widely tipped to show off a 5G-enabled variant of its upcoming Samsung Galaxy S10 handset there. It’s an open question as to when such a device might go on sale, however, because it is something of a chicken-and-egg situation. The device makers don’t want to produce millions of handsets that can’t sell easily because there’s few networks that can run them, after all.

As a mobile technology, it’s not just mobile phones that may well see the 5G treatment. It won’t be long before we see tablets and laptops with embedded 5G modems in them as well, although again there’s not much in the way of announced products with those capabilities this early in the year.

So what does that mean in practical terms? You can expect lots of breathless hype from mobile providers around the capabilities of their nascent 5G networks in 2019, but for most folks, this year will be when 5G networks are bedded in, with the wider array of actual devices that can use the new networks really starting to land in 2020 and beyond.


We’re all still pretty bad at passwords

So, what is your password?

No, don’t answer that. Really, please don’t. Partly because the whole point of a password should be that it’s a secret known only to you, but also because there’s increasing evidence that we’re still not much better at password security than we were last year.

Each year, SplashData (100-worst-passwords-top-50) puts out a report highlighting the worst — which is to say the least secure — passwords uncovered due to data breaches in that calendar year. 2018 has (sadly) been a bumper year for data breaches. That does have a minor upside, because companies are significantly more upfront about when they have some kind of data breach incident, but a much larger downside, because the results of their research are depressingly familiar reading if you’ve followed online security for any time at all.

So what were the top 10 worst passwords?

Well, if you’re using any of the following, stop it, right now:

  • 10 – iloveyou
  • 9 – qwerty
  • 8 – sunshine
  • 7 – 1234567
  • 6 – 111111
  • 5 – 12345
  • 4 – 12345678
  • 3 – 123456789
  • 2 – password
  • 1 – 123456

The worst password lists haven’t changed for years, because, ultimately, we all tend to use our computers to make our lives easier, and human beings are pretty hardwired to go for easy approaches. If it was just one hacker living somewhere on the planet manually typing in random passwords, that might work out OK, because the odds of that one dude hitting your account are going to be pretty low in a world of billions of online users.

The problem is that we’re not talking about facing off against one lone human with the same lazy traits as the rest of us. We’re talking about automated systems that approach the problem of cracking a password as simply a mathematical equation.

Easy to remember number sequences that just happen to be on the keyboard in line might seem like an elegant solution to remembering your passwords, but that also means they’re easy for miscreants to guess.

Not that they have to guess any more, because the vast majority of cracking attempts against password systems use automated approaches that can zip through every single dictionary word and keyboard number combination in a frighteningly short period of time.

This is also why using the same password across multiple sites, even if it isn’t “123456” or “password” is such a bad idea. Again, systems doing this kind of cracking will apply that password and email combination to as many services as it can hit in a few seconds, just to see what will work. All too often, it does, and suddenly you’re locked out of your email, buying sports cars in far eastern Russian bloc nations or finding your bank balance completely drained. Sometimes, while you sleep.

There’s a balance here, because nobody’s going to remember a 256 character password containing at least 50 different punctuation marks and at least one Japanese Hiragana character, but then, you really don’t have to. While it can seem as though the modern world is too complex with too many passwords to remember, you can use the approach of the crackers to help you. Which is not to say that you should counter-crack, but instead that you can use machine smarts, by way of a good password management application such as 1Password, Keepass or Dashlane to remember your passwords for you. They can generate complex passwords that you can often either paste or even auto-fill into services, and all you have to do is come up with a single, very strong password to keep those apps secure.

Yes, it’s a little bit of work to set up in the first place. But it’s a lot less work than recovering your finances, email, online social media accounts and everything else that could go wrong if you rely on a weak and common password like 123456.


Facebook data bug leaves photos up for grabs

2018 has been a year marked by some pretty big and significant privacy stories in technology. In one sense, this has been a healthy matter, because it’s made a lot more people aware of what it is they’re sharing online, where their data is tracked and what it’s used for.

There’s plenty of data about all of us that we’d probably rather keep secret, but we’re often not all that aware of how private that data might actually be. If you’re right now thinking “but I’ve got nothing to hide”, think again. Would you tell strangers your credit card number or password details? That’s “private” information too.

Facebook has had a pretty bad year in privacy terms, with the whole Cambridge Analytica scandal showing how the firm has sold and traded data over the years, and it’s ending up the year with another privacy problem, although this one appears to have been more of a bug than a business decision.

An error with the Facebook Photos API — in simplest possible terms, it’s the software that allows third party applications and indeed Facebook itself to upload and share your photos across its social media service — may have left up to a whopping 6.8 million users with photos that were less-than-private, including photos that they may have never fully uploaded and posted to Facebook itself.

On the plus side, Facebook has been quite upfront about the issue, with a Facebook internal developer flagging the issue with its development community.

In the normal course of events, apps that you allow to see your Facebook photos can only see pictures you post on the Facebook timeline. The bug meant that other photos, such as those shared on Facebook Stories or Marketplace may have been accessible, even if you never granted those permissions. Even photos you may have started to upload but then cancelled posting could have been snaffled, because Facebook keeps copies of those in case you change your mind.

In order to be affected by the bug, you would have had to have authorised a third party application to access your photos in the first place, and Facebook does say it’s going to work to notify users who may have had one of the 2,500 applications potentially affected in the coming weeks. If you do get an alert from Facebook that you’re an affected user, it would be smart to check which apps you’ve currently got running with access to your data. That cute game that you maybe played once five years ago could still be sitting there, quietly (and possibly not so nicely) harvesting your data.

It’s yet another circumstance where there’s not that much that you, as an individual user can do, given you don’t write Facebook’s code, and this does seem to have been a genuine software bug, not a deliberate hack or data selling scandal.

It does highlight, however, that Facebook as a service, while super-useful for staying in touch with friends and relatives, has become a repository of our data beyond just names and dates of birth.

Lots of people use Facebook Photos to note important moments in their lives, whether that’s the birth of a child or a stunning vista on a well-earned holiday break.

But that data has value to us, and it’s worth remembering that when you upload it, you do lose some control over what happens to it after that. If you rarely post pictures to Facebook this may not be a big concern for you, but if you do post photos all the time, it’s something worth considering, and maybe changing your approach depending on how much you value your privacy — and of course, the nature of the photos you’re posting up!


What will Microsoft’s switch to Chrome mean for your web browsing?

The history of web browsers is fascinating if you’re of a geeky bent, from the early days of NSCA Mosaic through to the explosive growth of Netscape and its eventual ousting by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) browser. If you’re not that geeky, you’re probably more used to clicking on an icon to access the web, and you may not even care what that icon is. Current browser usage figures suggest it’s most likely Google’s popular Chrome browser.

Microsoft’s moved on from IE, and it’s also moved well on from the days when IE commanded a majority share in the browser market, but that hasn’t stopped Microsoft from competing with its own Edge browser, pre-installed with its Windows 10 operating system.

Microsoft has expended significant time and money in promoting its Edge browser as faster and safer than competitor Google’s Chrome browser, but it’s recently shifted gears in a rather radical way.

The next version of its browser will still be called Microsoft Edge, but underneath the shiny icon, it’ll be running on the open-source Chromium engine. As the name suggests, that’s the same rendering engine used for Google’s Chrome, as well as a number of open-source alternative browser choices.

Microsoft’s not quite waving the white flag and asking Google to get on with the job of delivering new browser experiences, however, stating that it intends to work on developing and improving the underlying Chromium engine from within its own developer ranks, before sharing those improvements out for other Chromium browsers.

So what’s the practical effect likely to be if you’re already using the Edge browser? Microsoft’s claim is that it’ll slowly shift its desktop browser over to Chromium rendering, at which point web developers will be able to ditch Edge-specific optimisations or layout instructions and instead concentrate on a mostly-Chromium web. Apple’s still got Safari, there’s still Firefox and Opera as well, so it’s not quite a 100% Chromium web.

That update should be effectively invisible to you, because the icon’s not likely to change, although it does bring with it the prospect of Chrome extension accessibility within the Edge browser. It also means Microsoft can expand the range of its Edge browser, offering it for competitor Apple’s macOS platform. Microsoft used to develop a macOS version of IE many years ago, but it’s long been an obsolete app there.

It could well be a net win for Internet security as well, as long as Microsoft’s properly sharing out its improvements to the Chromium engine over time.

You should see web pages appear more consistently across devices too. Right now, if you load some pages in Edge and the same pages in Chrome, the text content should be similar, but you’re likely to see small differences in how they handle layout and some interactive page elements. It’s a big problem for a lot of businesses, especially if functions like text entry boxes or drop-down menus don’t work properly, and this should help minimise those frustrations.

So is it a net win for Internet browser users? Edge’s overall market share as a used platform is tiny, even though it’s present on every Windows 10 machine, so in that sense it’s not much of a loss. Where it could be interesting is if a third party develops an even better browser with newer features. Google’s Chrome appears unassailable right now in the browser space, and even moreso now with Edge in tow, but then, the same thing could have been said about Internet Explorer at one time.


What a YouTube publicity stunt tells us about device security

Just recently, 50,000 printer owners got an unexpected result out of their devices. Not so much a paper jam or out of ink message — we’ve all been there — but instead a message imploring users to subscribe to Internet “celebrity” PewDiePie’s Youtube channel and unsubscribe from an Indian-produced channel that in recent months has surpassed his in popularity.

The size of the Internet being what it is, the odds are actually pretty good that very few — and quite possibly no — recipients actually cared either way, except that it was wasting both their time and printing resources to do so. It’s a very Internet-age prank, and it’s at least substantially less destructive than matters such as malware, or even the decades-old equivalent of sending pitch black pages to faxes in order to waste paper and resources.

However, it’s still a hearty reminder about of the consequences of living in an always-connected world, because the way the message was sent was directly to the affected printers. This wasn’t a message that the 50,000-odd users opted to print from their own emails, or even a malware package on a PC or Mac directing their printers to do so.

That’s because all of the printers involved had direct Internet connectivity in their own right, part of what’s broadly been called the “internet of things” approach. An Internet-connected printer can be a remarkably useful device, for a couple of simple reasons. Firstly, if the manufacturer does have a software upgrade to fix bugs or add new features, it can deliver it direct to the printer at a time when it’s not in use. You don’t have to mess around with downloading fresh firmware upgrades and applying them, and you don’t miss out on any new improvements simply because you didn’t know about them.

An Internet-connected printer can also, obviously, print from just about anywhere, which could be very useful if you know you’ll need a print copy of a document the moment you get into the office or back home, without having to wait to connect at home for it to produce your documents. Some manufacturers have taken this concept further, with on-demand printing services that can deliver a variety of information to your printer on a schedule.

All of these convenience features, however, rely on the underlying security being essentially sound, and that can be a somewhat tough task. There’s a lot that can go wrong to make a seemingly secure device less robust, from the way the device itself is configured, to any firewall rules sitting on a router or connected computer, and even to the way the rest of your home or work network is actually configured.

So what can you do at a practical level to prevent this kind of prank (or worse) hitting your printer? Here’s a couple of steps to follow:

  1. Make sure your printer software is up to date. This is a bit of a no-brainer, but it’s worth repeating, because in the wake of this particular effort, it’s reasonable to expect to see a wave of updates addressing the kinds of flaws that left so many vulnerable systems out there. Security bugfixes are pretty common in printer updates, and it’s worth staying up-to-date
  2. Consider if it’s worth having your printer online in the first place. If you only ever print from home, and especially if it’s only via a connected USB cable, disable those features.

This will vary by printer model — it’s usually a software setting that will reference either printing from the Internet or “cloud” printing or similar — but if there’s no way for you to do it from an online source, there’s no way for the miscreants to do so either.

Disabling online printing won’t stop you printing from your computer on the same network or via a cabled connection — it’ll just stop the wider world from peering in if there is a security flaw.


Quick battery tips to keep your laptop or phone running longer

We live in a world of portable technology, which gives us access to information at the tap of a keyboard or the touch of a finger. Which is great when you need GPS directions in an unfamiliar city, need to check your work email for a vital document or simply want to confirm who the actor was in the terrible 1960s Doctor Who cinema movies.

It’s not so great, however, when your laptop, tablet or mobile device indicates that it’s about to plunge into darkness because you forgot to charge it, or because it’s been used so much today between charging opportunities that it’s going to go flat quite soon.

It’s an incredibly common complaint, especially as manufacturers have tended towards devices that are thinner and lighter. That gives them less space for batteries to be packed in, with less overall power as a result.

There are no real hard and fast “wins” in battery life, but if you’re constantly vexed by low battery woes, try out the following tips to give you that bit more power endurance:

  • Disable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth: This is contentious, because without Wi-Fi, you’ll be using mobile data, which can be pricey. Still, if you don’t need it (or you’re outside an area where you can easily hook into free Wi-Fi, or you don’t use Bluetooth accessories such as headphones often, disabling those radios can save serious power. That’s because both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are quite “chatty”, constantly seeking out new connections if none are present.
     
  • Dim your display: Again, circumstances such as working outside can make a brighter screen a necessity, but where you can, work with a screen with as low a brightness setting as possible. The larger the screen the more power it uses, and you can’t cut down your screen size easily. Dropping the brightness can save serious power — and afford your screen a little more privacy along the way.
     
  • Close apps and browser tabs: Again, it’s very common in the always-online world to have a number of tabs open in your browser of choice. When you’re plugged into a wall that’s no issue, but for mobile use, those tabs are all burning power just maintaining themselves. You’ll not only save system resources such as processing power by shutting them down, making your system run faster, but also power as well. The same is true for apps you’re not using consistently; while they may take a little power to relaunch, if they’re left open, they’re using up your power.
     
  • Make sure you’re patched and secure: Most modern operating systems do a pretty decent job of power management, and many laptops and phones have special “low power” modes that limit performance to keep them going as long as possible. If you’re using a laptop, however, you should also make sure your anti-virus software is up to date. Malware doesn’t just try to get at your bank accounts, but also the processing power of your system, and with it, your overall battery performance. A clean system isn’t just safer — it’s also one that has optimal battery performance as a result.
     
  • Consider replacements — for batteries or devices: The reality of battery chemistry is that, no matter how careful you are, your battery performance will degrade over time. For some laptop models, you can see that off with a replaceable battery that you fit yourself, but for most mobiles (and some ultrathin laptops) you’ll need to get it properly fitted by the manufacturer or specialist. It’s always worth weighing up the costs of such a replacement versus any benefits you might get out of a newer or faster system, but as a simple way to boost your battery power, a replacement battery is usually much cheaper.
     

It was Peter Cushing in those Doctor Who movies, by the way, if you were still curious.


Apple’s new iPad Pro is powerful, but it’s not for everyone

Apple’s recently released its latest range of iPad Pro tablets, with a specific pitch towards creative professionals. That’s due to the underlying A12X Bionic processor, a more powerful version of the chip found in its Apple iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and iPhone XR phones. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks testing and evaluating the new 12.9 inch iPad Pro. Apple also makes a slightly less expensive 11 inch model with the same internal processor if you favour a little portability over screen size.

The A12X Fusion is indeed very fast, and there’s a lot of promise as to what it will be able to to with applications that are set to arrive on the iPad very soon. Key to this will be Adobe’s range of applications, including Adobe Photoshop. Apple’s shown demos of Photoshop running very quickly on an iPad Pro, and in combination with the Apple Pencil, it could be a great creative canvas to rival approaches like Wacom’s tablets or Microsoft’s Surface Pro line.

Apple’s tinkered with the Apple Pencil too. It now magnetically attaches to the side of the new iPad Pro, and charges when it does via inductive charging. As such, it should never really go “flat” to speak of. I’m not much of a visual artist, so I can’t say I’ve detected major changes in sensitivity, although the new double tap to change tools feature has a lot of promise.

There’s a big catch if you’re a fan of the existing Apple Pencil, and especially if you own one and are considering an upgrade to the new iPad Pro. The older model charged over lightning, but Apple’s swapped that out for USB C charging on the new iPad Pros, so you would’t be able to charge it, but it’s actually more fundamental than that. The old Apple Pencil won’t connect to the new iPad Pro, and the new Apple Pencil won’t connect to the old models either. That means if you want to upgrade, you’ll have to buy an all-new Apple Pencil, and you won’t be able to share its use with owners of older iPad Pro models either.

I’ve been using the iPad Pro as my secondary computer over the past couple of weeks, and that’s for a reason. It’s very powerful, and as a writing tool — which is what I do — it works well, especially paired with Apple’s new Smart Keyboard Folio case. Still, while it’s powerful and the battery life is good, it’s still an iOS device. That means that while you can plug in USB C accessories, not all of them will work the same way they might on a PC or Mac computer.

External drives, for example, aren’t well supported, and it’s a bit of a guessing game for other peripherals. Apple maintains iOS as a locked down and secure system, and while that has advantages for security memory management — the iPad Pro does stuff with just 4GB of RAM that you’d never see on a full Mac with that little memory — it also limits what you can do in choosing apps to install, moving files around and even multitasking.

At its asking price, the iPad Pro could be a good match for your professional needs if you’re highly portable and the applications you rely on don’t rely on much multitasking, or save exclusively to the cloud. However, it’s not inexpensive, and if what you want is more in the standard “watch, read and listen to content” tablet model, the regular iPad, which is much cheaper, is still the better bet. The iPad Pro is great, but it’s a computer for perhaps 10% or less of the tablet market. For the rest of us, a regular iPad is a better buy.


Foldable phones will lead to foldable laptops

It wasn’t all that long ago (in strictly historical terms) that the majority of computers sold were in desktop form. That’s the style with a central case, external monitor, keyboard and mouse, although that description also suits many of the integrated systems such as Apple’s iMac lines are as “desktop” PCs.

We’ve now shifted well and truly to an era where the majority of computers sold (and therefore owned) are laptops — portable (or at least semi-portable) units where all the components of the computer are in a single case, including monitor, keyboard, mouse (typically in trackpad form) and batteries for power. Of course, some notebooks are more portable than others, and there’s a wide variety of styles, approaches and price points, from cheap student laptops all the way up to hyper-expensive gaming or ultraportable laptops for business use.

While there’s been some challenge to the laptop of late via tablets, most notably Apple’s range of iPad and iPad Pro devices, there’s not been a lot of change in laptops to speak of. That could be about to change, however.

Samsung recently showed off a prototype of an upcoming Samsung Galaxy handset at its Samsung Developer Conference using what it calls the “Infinity Flex Display”. It’s a foldable smartphone, with a choice of screens depending on how you want to use it.

It’s easiest to describe the function as Samsung’s revealed it around the idea of a book. The front cover is an essentially smartphone-sized panel that works like a current smartphone, but when you open it up, revealing what would be two “pages” in a book, you’ve got a larger, more tablet-sized device. Samsung hasn’t said when it might bring a phone to market with its Infinity Flex Display on board, but it’s already got a lot of competition lining up. Chinese maker Huawei is expected to launch a foldable phone device sometime in 2019, while makers such as LG, Motorola and even Apple have patents that describe very similar devices.

You might not care so much about a foldable phone, but the reality for this technology is that could easily have a transformative effect on the laptops of tomorrow as well.

While there’s likely to be a space for a foldable phone that can become a tablet, depending on the strength of your flexible material, there’s also scope for larger displays and virtual keyboards — which means that you could scale it up to a more standard laptop size while delivering a device that folds away much more neatly for travel purposes while still giving you key information.

Imagine one of today’s smaller tablets, but one that could fold outwards into a larger display. We’re already some of the way there with devices like Microsoft’s Surface Pro or Apple’s iPad Pro, but adding a literal twist to the display formula opens up a whole world of possibilities when it comes to both shapes for aesthetic purposes and functional design for new laptop form factors.

None of this means that the existing world of laptops will simply vanish overnight. After all, you can still buy desktop PCs if you prefer that style, or simply want a machine that’s a little easier to upgrade. The first foldable laptops will no doubt attract premium prices, keeping them just for a niche of cashed-up users at first.

Over time, though, and as the technology improves, we could find ourselves swapping out the old-fashioned idea of having a phone, tablet and laptop for one single device that expands and contracts to meet all of these needs at once.


Is now the time to consider smart lightbulbs?

Lightbulbs, in one form or another, have been around for over 200 years. The first light bulbs were highly experimental, highly expensive, and not entirely practical up until Thomas Edison’s twist on the bulbs that had been produced before made it more practical for everyday use. We’ve shifted (largely) from those early incandescent filament lightbulbs into a world with compact fluorescent bulbs and, increasingly, LED lit lightbulbs. They’re lighter, brighter, safer, longer lasting and generally lower in their power usage.

Then there’s so-called “smart” lightbulbs. These are generally of the LED type, which means that they can not only be produced in different shapes and with differing intensities and base colours, but also depending on the precise make and model, can also be semi-programmable. That sounds complex, but for the majority of lights, it’s a simple matter of using a phone-based app to select the brightness, in some cases the colour temperature and in others the actual colour of the bulb to best suit your mood.

Smart app-controlled lightbulbs have been around for some years now, but what we’re increasingly seeing are lightbulbs that aren’t only smart in the app sense, but that are also smart to the world of personal digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri (and accompanying HomeKit platform), Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant. This means that with a little tweaking for your smart home speakers, you can control your lights, group them into sensible patterns for events such as parties, movie watching, or just when you get home after work or up at night to get a glass of water and much more all with just your voice. For want of a better term, they’re “smarter” lights.

There’s plenty of them, however, under a wide variety of brand names, all with slightly different features. So what should you look out for when buying smart light bulbs?

  • Will it work with my digital assistant? Some bulbs will work only with Google Assistant, or Alexa, or Siri. Some will work with all three. If you’ve got a mix of Amazon, Android and iOS devices, flexibility could be a big plus, but if you’re only using one platform, it doesn’t make sense to spend extra if you don’t have to.
  • What kinds of shapes can I get? Bulbs are bulbs, right? Well, not so much if you have fancy light fixtures they have to work around, or bulbs mounted vertically in walls. You may want to check if the brand you’re choosing offers alternate shapes or sizes to accomodate other light fixtures around them.
  • Can I do colours? Most lights will let you change the intensity of the brightness, and some may let you change the colour temperature, from cooler white/blue mixes to warmer white/yellow types. Others, however, offer a full disco style experience, so if you want that low red room for romance (or Halloween!), you can do it. Not a vital feature for some folks, of course, but if you want it and your brand doesn’t support it, it’s a problem.
  • E27 or B22? There are two common light fixture types worldwide. E27, often called the “Edison” or “screw” type uses a simple threaded screw to fit in, and is more common globally, but you may have B22, or “bayonet” types, distinguishable by the prongs that stick out from the sides and form the fixture point for your lights. If you’re looking at changing over your entire house over time, it’s worth checking each bulb, as some houses — especially those with a few years that may have seen a few odd electrical choices in their time — might surprise you.
  • Do I need new wiring, or a central hub? Some devices act as standalone bulbs with no need for a central hub, although this type often doesn’t work together in groups because of that fact. Other bulb types, such as the Philips Hue bulbs, work off a central “hub” device that acts as the brains. Check carefully before you start buying, because it makes sense to keep within the one system if at all possible.
  • Do you want remote control when you’re out of home? Internet-connected lights can be checked while you’re out, which is super-handy if you can’t remember if you’ve switched the lights off, or just want a light to go on for security reasons. Again, not all lights support that kind of functionality, and quite how well it works can depend on the speed and reliability of your Internet connection.
  • Do you already have dimming switches? If you’ve got existing dimmer switches for traditional incandescent lights, it’s worth checking how your brand of choice handles those. Most standard smart bulbs can dim themselves, but they don’t much like the electrical variance of an actual dimmer switch.
  • How quick do you want to change over? One of the nice things about integrating smart lighting solutions is that you don’t have to change every bulb all at once. A friend of mine is just about done with his switchover to smart lighting solutions, but he’s taken more than a year to do so, adding a bulb at a time and building up a full profile (in his case, through Google’s Home application) to cover everything from what happens when he gets home to how he wants his lights to dim when there’s an important match on he wants to watch.

While you will pay a little more for smart light bulbs, they can be very practical and useful for a wide number of scenarios. One of the more useful aspects, of course, is that they’ll still work just fine from regular light switches as well, and you generally don’t have to do any additional installation or wiring tricks to get them to work. If you buy one and decide they’re great, you can go the whole hog, but equally if you work out they’re not for you, you can simply use the bulbs you’ve already bought as regular lights, and leave it at that. Uninstallation is as simple as unscrewing a light bulb, and while there’s probably a terrible old joke in how many people that might take, typically it’s pretty easy.


Does the Surface Pro 6 hit the sweet spot?

Microsoft recently announced updated versions of its Surface Pro line of tablet/laptop hybrids, complete with 8th Generation Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processors. I’ve had a few weeks to test out the Surface Pro 6 and see if it does live up to Microsoft’s hype, and also the rather serious price points that Microsoft attaches to it.

Easily the most striking thing about the new Surface Pro 6 is the new Matte Black finish. While black laptops are nothing new, previous Surface Pro generations have all tended to come in silver — Microsoft refers to it as “platinum”, but they’re not fooling anybody — finishes only. I reviewed the new Black model, and it’s definitely a nice looking, if somewhat familiar looking device.

That has its benefits and drawbacks. The basic Surface Pro design is a very good one for a productivity tablet, with the same kickstand at the back that can accomodate multiple angles, a solid and secure build that doesn’t feel cheap and a screen that definitely focuses your attention towards your work, it’s also running on what are now older technology choices.

There’s a USB port, but it’s the older USB A, rather than USB C, and there’s only one of them. You get a mini DisplayPort interface, but Thunderbolt 3 would have been more flexible — and would have allowed for an external GPU to be added to the Surface Pro 6 for added power. Microsoft’s own Surface Connect charger is easy to use, but the lack of USB C means you must carry it around with you to keep it topped up.

In many ways, it feels like Microsoft might just be treading water with the Surface Pro 6 before doing any proper tinkering with what it wants the Surface Pro line to actually be. It’s not as portable as the Surface Go, but it is a more powerful machine overall, especially if you opt for the Core i7 version.

Where Microsoft had previously offered a quite low power Core m3 Surface Pro previously, the baseline Surface Pro 6 is a Core i5 model with 128GB of onboard storage. You can pump the storage up via microSD, with a card reader cleverly hidden under the hinge, but as always it’s wiser to buy as much storage as you think you’ll need, because Windows 10 will eat it up faster than you might think.

Battery life in my tests was fine for all-day usage as long as I wasn’t pushing it too hard. Microsoft’s own estimates put it at around 13 hours of video playback, but that’s not all that useful a test unless you only want it as a video screen. For more productivity-centric work, I’d say that 8 hours should be nicely feasible.

But should you buy one? Well, as always that depends. It’s not quite the innovative machine that previous Surface Pro devices have been, but it’s still a very good example of how to make a quality hybrid device. The fact that Microsoft still doesn’t bundle the keyboard in with the Surface Pro 6 rankles. You’ll have to pay extra for one, and I can’t imagine any Surface Pro 6 user not doing so.

You should definitely compare your options, with manufacturers like HP, Lenovo and Dell making some very spiffy 2-in-1 devices to take the fight direct to Microsoft. It feels likely that Microsoft will make some big changes for the Surface Pro 7 to stay ahead of the pack, because while the Surface Pro 6 is a fine machine, it’s really only an under-the-hood specifications bump rather than a radically new machine.


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