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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

How often do you spring-clean your PC?

pc-clean

Most people, if given the choice, will try to skip out on doing the evening dishes, or for that matter even loading a dishwasher. It’s not exactly the most thrilling of chores to undertake, but if you don’t clean your dishes somehow, everything ends up dirty and unusable.

It’s much the same story for your computer. Not that it should pick up stray traces of egg and bacon over time unless you’re doing something drastically wrong with it, but simply that over time, the interaction of your own usage and the way software interacts can lead to a system that’s messy and far less optimised than it used to be.

Old school PC optimisation used to involve some very specific tasks that are far less vital than they used to be.

Once upon a time, it was viewed as essential that you defragment your hard drive on a regular basis. This gave the computer time to shift and sort files in order, so that all the parts of a given file were ordered logically within storage for faster access. These days, with faster SSD drives and operating systems that do a considerably better job of managing storage allocations, it’s largely a relic of the past. Indeed, if you’ve got a computer with an integrated SSD — which includes the vast majority of current laptops — defragging will do you absolutely no good at all.

That doesn’t mean, however, that a spring clean of your PC is something you should ignore, especially if it’s a computer you’ve owned for any significant length of time. Human beings are creatures of convenience, and that almost certainly means that you’ve had some sloppy habits when it comes to organising your PC. Add into that the quirks and bumps of software development and the way that different applications interact with each other, and there’s a good chance your computer isn’t running as well as it could.

In many cases, these aren’t hard tasks to tackle with just a few simple apps to keep your system up and running. If you’re using some kind of malware prevention — and you absolutely should be in this day and age, no matter your computing platform of choice — you may even have tools to hand as part of that software that will manage that for you. Those tools can vary quite a lot, however, both in what they check and how they apply it.

You can even “clean up” a new PC to get the most out of it, because many of them come with plenty of applications pre-installed “for your convenience”. It’s popularly known as bloatware (amongst other less, ahem, polite terms), and while some of it may be useful for some users, for many it’s just wasted space, and often intrusive in the way that they push themselves on you. The equally impolitely named (but free) PC Decrapifier is a software tool that scans Windows PCs for commonly preinstalled apps and makes it easy to remove the apps you don’t really want.

If your computer has a few more miles on the clock, it may be worth running a dedicated cleanup program to keep everything as shiny as possible. CCleaner provides both a free and paid tool for monitoring apps that use system resources, cleaning up unwanted files and sorting out any errant registry entries that may be slowing down your Windows PC. There’s even a Mac version for macOS users on systems that may be running at a slug’s pace.

If all else fails, there is always the nuclear option of a complete system reinstall. Make sure you carefully back up everything beforehand, and equally that you’ve got the needed install setup and any registration codes for the operating system and apps. A full system reinstall isn’t as tricky as it used to be, and it’s certainly nothing you should glibly start just for its own sake, but it is a solution that can often deliver you a system that runs faster than you might even remember when it was new.


Have you checked your Facebook privacy settings recently?

fb

Facebook is a service beloved by many, because it makes it so very easy to keep in touch with friends, family, acquaintances and more in an environment that’s generally easy to use and that can be quite fun. It’s one of the world’s busiest web sites, and one of the tech world’s most valuable companies.

It’s also been under increasing scrutiny of how it manages the privacy of its millions of users, and with some alarming results. After the mess of the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, where private details of (mostly) US-based Facebook users were sold for profit, Facebook has been trying its level best to appear more vigilant around privacy issues.

That hasn’t stopped it having privacy issues, however. Most recently, the company admitted that a software bug accidentally led to users who had been blocked from viewing a specific user’s content may have been accidentally reinstated, as though they were still “friends”.

Facebook’s block power is quite a vital one for many people, whether it’s for smaller-scale issues like a simple falling out with friends, up to more serious issues around personal safety and abuse. There’s a chilling quantity of evidence that suggests that in the digital era, tools like Facebook are often used to track the movements of individuals and threaten their safety in ways that Facebook itself says are against its terms of usage. Still, it happens, and that’s where a block system can have real power… when it works.

The issue here is that it didn’t, and for a significant quantity of users.

Quite a lot of users, as it happens, with the company admitting that over 800,000 users may have had their account temporarily “unblocked” due to the error. Users who were unblocked couldn’t see content posted and marked for friends only, but anything you posted as public could be seen by them. Normally, of course, anyone you blocked wouldn’t be able to see anything at all, and that’s quite an important privacy principle for many of Facebook’s users.

Facebook says that it’s rectified the error, and that around 83% of those affected only had a single blocked person accidentally reinstated. It further states that anyone who was temporarily unblocked has now been blocked, but as always, if you do have a Facebook block list, it’s wise to periodically check that it’s still active and in place.

Even if you’ve never used Facebook’s block feature before, it’s also a timely reminder that it’s well worth your time to review your privacy and security settings on Facebook from time to time.

As the platform has evolved, Facebook has changed how it manages security and privacy. This can mean that even though you think your account is configured exactly as private (or open) as you might want it to be, over time shifting controls may have left you more open than you might be comfortable with.

The same is true of your friends list, too. Facebook’s algorithms tend to force showing you updates from friends that you’re more likely to interact with. From Facebook’s side that makes sense, because it wants you to use the service more and more, but what that can do is marginalise other friends if you’ve got a reasonably wide list, because it can’t show you everything at once.

A quick audit of your friends list may reveal news you didn’t know, but it can also serve to remind you exactly who still has access to your own updates. Your reasons for dropping someone as a friend, or indeed blocking them can be your own, but if you’ve been on Facebook for a while, you might have friends that you’d totally forgotten about still reading your updates, even if you don’t want them to.


Is it time to consider a Chrome-free world?

browsers

The chances are good that when you browse the web, you’re doing so via Google’s own particular browser, Google Chrome. Chrome has anywhere between 47% to 60% of the browser market sewn up. That might not seem that impressive, but the next largest market share is usually given to Apple’s Safari browser at between 13% to 22%. Chrome is pretty dominant, in other words.

Like so many of its products, Google offers the Chrome browser for free. Realistically, it’s been a very long while since you’ve had to pay for browser software at all. Chrome, to put it politely, isn’t without its issues, most notably around memory management. It can be a real hog, even with only a few browser tabs running. If your PC or Mac is running slow, closing Chrome down is a quick and easy way to get a quick performance hit.

Google’s core business isn’t browsers, or even search as many presume. Instead, it makes its money in advertising, and there are concerns about how much of your online data is being tracked when you use its Chrome browser in its vanilla state. You can mitigate this with the right blocking extensions, but that’s also a hassle.

The problem with closing Chrome to save memory or stop tracking, of course, is that it leaves you without a web browser, because you just closed Chrome!

The solution is to at least look at alternative browser solutions. All you need is a little time to download them at most.

If you wanted the easiest path, you could try Microsoft Edge for Windows 10, or Apple’s Safari browser for macOS.

Both are lean browsers, which is great if you’ve got an otherwise overloaded machine. That can also mean that they’re often less equipped with extensions and ways to customise your browsing experience.

For many users, Edge or Safari are fine, and as you might expect, they’re part of the operating environment and already installed on your computer. The only thing you’ve got to do is run them.

If you’re on an older Microsoft Windows OS you won’t find Edge, but instead the older Internet Explorer browser Microsoft used to develop.

At one time, Internet Explorer was the dominant web browser, right up until Chrome usage started to peak. Microsoft doesn’t develop IE any more, and that means that if it is your current browser of choice, you should switch.

Not for memory and performance reasons, but to ensure that your browsing stays safe. A browser no longer in development is one that’s much more open to malware exploits over time.

Firefox is often cited as a popular alternative to Chrome, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s as lean as Safari or Edge, but with a robust library of extensions to cover all sorts of usage scenarios. Like Chrome, you can set up accounts to share bookmarks or other web information across devices.

Opera is also worth considering. These days it sells itself as something of a pre-configured jack-of-all-trades. This includes integrated ad blocking, battery management features and even a “free” VPN. You don’t get much of a VPN for “free”, mind you. Its VPN services only operate within Opera itself, not across all your web communications. It can also be rather slow when its VPN is switched on.

Of course, the beauty of the current browser market is that you’re free to try any or all of the above options to see how they compare against Chrome, and decide for yourself.

Some love the innate Apple-ness of Safari, others the flexibility of Firefox or the feature set of Opera. You can easily uninstall them if they don’t suit, and go back to Chrome at any time, but you might just find that a new browser gives your computer a lot of its innate power back.


Apple’s going to fix wonky MacBook keyboards for free

mackeyboarda

Apple sells itself as a premium brand, both in style terms, but also for the quality of the computing equipment it sells. That’s a proposition that can very much become quasi-religious for some folks, although few would suggest that Apple sells bad computing equipment.

Wherever you sit on that spectrum, there’s no doubting that consumers should expect Apple’s computers to be of the highest quality simply due to their asking price.

In recent years, Apple’s made some significant changes to the design of a lot of its computing gear, especially for its MacBook and MacBook Pro laptop ranges. From early 2015, Apple moved from a regular switched laptop keyboard design to a flatter, wider keyboard design with a more delicate “butterfly” mechanism beneath it. Apple’s contention was that the wider individual keys would be easier to type on, and it certainly made for a striking design.

What it didn’t make for was an especially durable design, however, with many users complaining about stuck keys, or in some cases keyboards through simple usage. Anecdotal evidence suggested that even the smallest bits of grit or dust getting into the butterfly mechanism could be enough to disable or stick an individual key, especially if it was heavily used. For a portable device like a laptop, and especially a premium laptop, that’s really not good enough.

Thankfully, it seems as though Apple finally agrees with that proposition. Without admitting liability, it’s announced a worldwide repair program for affected laptops with those kinds of keyboards. Specifically, Apple states that it will repair, free of charge, eligible MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboard where, to quote from Apple, the keyboard may

“exhibit one or more of the following behaviours:
Letters or characters repeat unexpectedly
Letters or characters do not appear
Key(s) feel “sticky” or do not respond in a consistent manner”

Covering the following models:

  • MacBook (Retina, 12-­inch, Early 2015)
  • MacBook (Retina, 12­-inch, Early 2016)
  • MacBook (Retina, 12-­inch, 2017)
  • MacBook Pro (13­-inch, 2016, Two Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
  • MacBook Pro (13-­inch, 2017, Two Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
  • MacBook Pro (13-­inch, 2016, Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
  • MacBook Pro (13-­inch, 2017, Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports)
  • MacBook Pro (15-­inch, 2016)
  • MacBook Pro (15-­inch, 2017)

If you’re not sure about the model of your MacBook or MacBook Pro, click on the Apple menu on the top left hand side and choose “About This Mac”. Underneath the macOS version information, you’ll find the exact model of your computer.

You’ll need to contact your local Apple store or Apple Authorised Service Provider to arrange for a repair, bearing in mind that while your computer is in for repair, you won’t be able to use it. As always for any computer repair, it’s vital that you back up your data before you hand over your machine, both for security and privacy’s sake.

Apple didn’t automatically start this program back in 2015 when it started selling butterfly-style keyboard MacBooks, so there’s the chance that you may have already paid Apple for a repair on a faulty keyboard. If that’s the case, you should be able to get your repair costs refunded in full.

Apple’s providing the repairs outside of any other warranty obligations or AppleCare provisions, so even if you do figure that you’re out of warranty on your MacBook or MacBook Pro, you should be covered, albeit only for this particular issue in this case.


Have you made your desktop your own?

wallpapers

There’s a quick and easy way to make your computer your very own, as well as brightening it up and providing you inspiration every time you sit down in front of it.

There are millions of computers worldwide, but it’s pretty likely that only one — or a handful — are yours. One of the most simple steps you can take to personalise your own computer is to set a backdrop image that reflects your personality, as distinct from the default backgrounds supplied by operating system manufacturers.

There’s nothing wrong with those backgrounds — and indeed, many of them follow some rather specific guidelines I’ll get into in a second — but why be like just about every other lazy computer user when with just a few simple clicks you can identify your own workspace in a highly individual way?

The key to doing this is by changing up the default desktop wallpaper on your computer, whether you’re running a Windows PC or macOS computer. It’s an easy enough task, once you know what you’re doing, but it’s also one of those things that might seem daunting if you’re unsure. Here’s how to get started.

Pick a good image at the right resolution
The key to a good desktop image is one that reflects your interests, business or passions, depending on the use you put your computer to. Maybe that’s a picture of a classic car, your grandkids, a stunning nature vista or the vast emptiness of space. There’s no hard and fast rule for what you consider a “good” image, but there are some general guidelines for what makes a workable desktop image.

The subject matter doesn’t actually matter that much, but the variance in colour does, especially if you have a very busy desktop with lots of icons on it. A large bunch of multicoloured flowers might be a beautiful image, but all those mixed-in colours could make your desktop icons difficult to discern.

Resolution is also a key factor. If your chosen picture is low resolution, you’re going to end up with a blocky mess stretched out, or a tiled repetitive image that may be just as distracting as an overly colourful one. Ideally, what you want to do is match the resolution of your desktop picture to the resolution of your screen, although there are a few ways around this which I’ll detail below.

If you’re lacking in inspiration — or photos of your own — there are countless online sites where you can track down desktop wallpaper images to suit any taste. A simple online search for “desktop wallpaper” (or even “insert-your-interest-area-of-choice wallpaper“) will find many sites offering free images. Find a shot you like, save it, and then all you’ve got to do is apply it to your computer. Here’s how:

Windows 10:
On your desktop right click anywhere except where you’ve got a desktop icon for a program. Choose the bottom option, Personalise. From there, you can choose your background picture of choice from the supplied options. You can also choose from a range of presentations, from Fill (which will typically stretch images and can make low resolution shots appear a little odd) to Center (which will show the image at full resolution from the center of your display) to Tile, which will tile it enough times to fill your display. Play around — you may find one look that suits your tastes and image better than others.

Windows Vista, 7, and 8
The process if you’re running an older Windows OS isn’t much different. You’re still going to right click on your existing wallpaper away from any other icons and choose Personalise, but then you’ll need to explicitly choose the “Desktop Background” area. From there, your options and choices are much as above.

macOS
If you’re a mac user, you’ve got a couple of choices when it comes to desktop wallpapers.

If you’ve got a specific image in mind, all you need to do is find it, right click (or control-click) onto it, and choose Set Desktop Picture to make it your wallpaper. If there’s no Set Desktop Picture option (and you’re certain you’ve selected a picture), look for a Services menu, which should have it.

Your other option is to set a folder of pictures to rotate through randomly. This is done through the System Preferences utility. This may already be sitting in your dock, looking like a cog icon, but you can also open it up by clicking on the Apple icon in the top left hand corner and choosing System Preferences from there. Then click on Desktop & Screen Saver. From there you can select from the provided pictures and sources, or from your own photos or a folder of pictures to use as desktop inspiration. You can also use this method to select an individual picture from your Photos app if you only want the one.


Apple won’t merge macOS and iOS

mac-os-new

Apple’s revealed the future of macOS, and while it’s not merging with iOS, it’s going to come awfully close.

Apple recently held its Worldwide Developer Conference (AKA WWDC) in San Jose California, outlining all of its software plans for its mobile and computing operating systems. It unveiled iOS 12, which will launch for iPhones from iPhone 5s or newer later in the year, new versions of watchOS and tvOS, and, as expected, a yearly update for its desktop/laptop operating system, macOS.

This year’s macOS will be known as macOS Mojave, following Apple’s recent trend of using California landmarks as the naming trend, and it’ll appear later in the year as well. If history is any guide, expect it to appear around the same time we see new iPhones in roughly October/November. It’s still in beta right now, however, so there’s always scope for more critical bugs to delay release.

In compatibility terms, macOS Mojave spreads back a reasonable number of years, although owners of much older macs may find themselves stuck on the current macOS High Sierra build when it’s formally available.

Specifically, macOS Mojave will be compatible with:

  • MacBook Pro (mid 2012 and newer)
  • MacBook Air (mid 2012 and newer)
  • MacBook (early 2015 and later)
  • iMac (late 2012 or newer)
  • iMac Pro (2017 or newer)
  • Mac Pro (late 2013 or newer, or mid 2010 and mid 2012 models with Metal capable GPU)
  • Mac Mini (late 2012 or newer)

The new version of macOS will have a number of new features, but where Apple surprised many was by talking about future plans for the software beyond macOS Mojave. Apple is famously reluctant to say anything about its future plans, after all.

There’s been a persistent rumour that Apple was working towards merging iOS, the software platform for the iPhone with macOS. Apple sells a lot more iPhones than it does mac computers, so it would seem like a logical step, but it’s one that Apple took time out at WWDC to specifically refute. Well… sort of.

Apple’s Craig Federighi took to the WWDC stage to specifically say that Apple isn’t looking to merge iOS and macOS into one codebase, but it is working right now on a “multi-year” project to bring iOS apps to macOS with a common developer framework. In case you drowsed off there, the simple upshot is that Apple’s looking to make iOS apps run on macOS.

The going will be slow, however, with a number of iOS apps heading to macOS Mojave directly from Apple itself. Apple News, Stocks, Voice Memo and Home apps will be preinstalled as part of macOS Mojave, but they’ll actually be the code used for the iOS versions of those applications. It won’t be until next year that Apple opens up development for third party developers to offer their iOS apps to macOS users.

That opens up a lot of apps to the mac world, although it’s not clear if that means that you’ll be able to simply shift apps you’ve already paid for across to your mac, or if you’ll have to pay again for mac-developed versions. That may well be a decision that sits with each app developer when the time comes.

Right now, if you wanted to play with macOS Mojave, you’d need to be a registered Apple Developer to gain access to the early developer beta. Apple has said that it will launch a public beta of macOS Mojave later in June open to just about anybody, but as always, caution is advised. It’s a beta for a reason. It would be very unwise not to back up all your data before even trying the beta, and equally foolish to run it on your only mac computer if you’re reliant on it.

If you’re happy to wait, it’ll be a free release for qualifying macs later in the year. Indeed, you may even want to hold off a little while once it’s “official” anyway, because complex software like operating systems, always has a few bugs left over in it. Yes, even Apple has its not-so-perfect software moments, just like everyone else.


Apple’s HomePod can now talk stereo, but is that smart enough?

homepod-pair

Smart speakers are the new cool gadget in town, not that they’re actually all that “new” to speak of. Amazon and Google have been duking it out with their respective Echo and Home speakers for some time now. In 2018, we’ve also seen a wide variety of new smart speakers from the likes of Panasonic, Sony, LG and JBL.

Apple entered the market with its own take on a smart speaker, the Apple HomePod earlier this year. It’s a premium-priced smart speaker, with a strong focus on audio quality. I’ve tested pretty much every smart speaker on the market, and while you pay a pretty penny for it, you do get good audio output from the HomePod.

There’s a problem though, because at launch, for a smart speaker… it was kinda dumb.

Specifically, there was no way to pair up HomePods in stereo. You couldn’t use HomePods for for multi-room audio either.

They were all tied into the same Apple ID, as just about everything under the Apple umbrella is. But they were solitary little audio islands at the same time.

That’s a big disadvantage against competing speakers from Google or Amazon. Multi-room has been a native function there for some time.

Apple recently released updates for its iOS, macOS and tvOS platforms that had a strong audio focus with what it’s calling AirPlay 2.

AirPlay 2 brings both stereo and multi-room audio features to the HomePod platform. You don’t need to have multiple HomePod speakers per se. The promise is that upcoming speakers from a range of third-party manufacturers will also work with AirPlay 2.

Chances are the speakers you’ve got already work. It’s at least a concession to the mix of speaker systems you’re likely to have around the house.

There are still a few quirks for stereo HomePods, like the fact that you have to manually tell them which one is left or right.

They’ve got onboard AI and microphones, so quite why they can’t fire off a couple of test tones to work this out between them mystifies me. This is especially true as Apple claims the HomePod is always listening to the surrounding environment to adjust its audio quality if needed.

Still, with those sorts of features, it’s a slam-dunk for Apple, right?

Not so fast! If what you want is a smart speaker for music and podcast playback, and you’re already in the Apple ecosystem, then HomePod is a fine, albeit pricey buy.

But a smart speaker can be much more than a simple audio system. It can answer questions based on its own AI and abilities, as well as control a range of smart home appliances such as security cameras, lights and alarms.

Here, HomePod still lags behind the competition. Both Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant devices can talk to a wide range of home appliances as well as leverage web services to perform a range of tasks automatically.

Against that, Apple has a cut-down version of its Siri AI and its HomeKit platform for smart home accessories. HomeKit has a decent range of supported devices, but it’s dwarfed by its competitors, and sometimes requires you buying a specific HomeKit-compatible hub or converter to talk natively to a HomePod. That’s a nuisance that many consumers won’t want to deal with.

Even within the high-end audio fidelity space Apple has competitors, most notably Sonos, which offers multi-room audio as it has done for years, as well as its own Sonos One speaker, which has audio that’s almost as good as the HomePod’s at a much lower asking price.

The Sonos One is also remarkable in that it’s already Alexa-capable, covering the Amazon ecosystem, will shortly talk AirPlay 2 as well, and is promised to also support Google’s Assistant platform some time this year. It will also talk to many music sources where Apple’s HomePod works with Apple Music only. If you’re not in the Apple ecosystem automatically, the Sonos is well worth looking at.


Google’s Chrome browser set to make the web more secure

chromeicon

If you’re a user of Google’s popular Chrome browser — and with anywhere between 60-80% of the web’s traffic delivered to Chrome, the chances are pretty good that you are — then come July, you’ll see a significant change in how the web pages you visit are presented.

That’s because the version of Google Chrome that will be released to the wider public in July will include a feature that gives strong preference to sites that incorporate a level of security directly into their sites, using the HTTPS protocol.

If you’ve been online for any period of time, you’ll be aware that web sites (like this one!) are prefaced with “HTTP”, which stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol. It’s the standard — essentially the language — by which information is sent for hypertext, the underlying way you view most web pages. HTTP has a long history, dating back to 1989, and while it’s proved a robust protocol, it wasn’t particularly built with security in mind.

That’s where HTTPS comes in. HTTPS is the secure version of HTTP, with the extra S standing for “Secure”. HTTPS data transfer allows for a site to properly identify itself, to avoid fakery, as well as encrypting information entered on that page, which is why so many sites that deal with financial information have long used HTTPS.

After all, you wouldn’t want your bank details to be easily sniffed out when you’re checking your balance, nor your credit card details grabbed when you’re making an online purchase.

The problem is that many sites don’t use HTTPS, leaving them significantly less secure. Right now, most browsers will identify a secure site with a padlock at the very least near the address bar, or in the case of current Chrome, the word “Secure” next to the address.

It’s great to know that online shops, banks and other merchants have security in mind when it comes to your valuable information, but Google’s moves with its Chrome browser will go an extra step when it rolls out.

That’s because rather than highlighting a positive, when sites are using secure encryption for all data on a site, it’s going to highlight the negative, when they don’t. Sites that only use HTTP will be marked as “Not secure” automatically when loaded on the Chrome browser, making users much more aware of where it’s safe to surf the web and where it isn’t.

Google has a long history in pushing the adoption of safer web standards, having started shifting insecure sites down its powerful search rankings some years back. Google’s position as the premier name in search meant that doing so gave sites a strong reason to invest in the encryption necessary to regain those vital early search position. There’s a lot of research that suggests most users never leave the first page of any Google search result, so being high up the rankings has actual real-world value.

So what does all of this mean to you? If you have some kind of presence online that you want others to find, making sure your site is running with HTTPS is essentially vital, and smart work in any case. It’ll mean you’re not falling foul of Google’s existing preferences for secure sites, or sending away folks who may be concerned when your site is shown as insecure.

If you’re just a web user, rather than someone with a site, it’s going to be worth keeping an eye out for. Any site that comes up as “not secure” isn’t automatically a haven for malware or identity theft, but it’s certainly one that you should think twice about giving any of your details, because they’re certainly not doing much of job of keeping them secure.


Google’s switching up its music streaming apps

ytm

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.


Are you making the most of parental controls?

parentalcontrols

If you’ve got kids, you may well be concerned that they’re far more tech-savvy than you are. Having grown up with technology as an absolutely expected part of their lives, and with so much IT integrated into school curriculums through their education, it’s pretty easy to feel as though they’re well ahead of you.

That can raise genuine concerns about the kinds of online activities they’re getting up to, not to mention the amount of time they spend on technology in general. Parental attitudes to both content and screen time can vary massively of course, and what you choose to do in relation to your children’s online activities is very much a personal decision, with little in the way of “right” or “wrong” approaches.

It’s useful, however, to know about the range of parental controls that you can access in order to control or limit your child or teen’s online activities. There are any number of applications that sell themselves on providing child control, but you may find that the inbuilt applications on your computer, tablet or even gaming console are enough to cover your needs.

Windows 10
You’ll need to set up a separate account for your child, and under Windows 10 this has to be a Microsoft account.
Open up Settings, then click on Accounts. From there, click on Family & other people and then Add a family member. Choose Add a child, and that’s when you’ll be asked for your child’s email address. In order to fully monitor their activity, it’s best if this is a Microsoft account, and you’ll have the option to click The person I want to add doesn’t have an email address, which will allow you to set one up. Once the account is created, click Confirm, and then Close.

The advantage with this approach is that your child’s new account can then be monitored from Microsoft’s online account portal; signing in there will enable you to monitor activity on their account, block specific web content and set time limits for your child’s computer usage.

macOS
macOS also requires you to create a child account, but you don’t need an email address to tie it to. Open up System Preferences and then Users & Groups. Click on the + symbol under Login Options to add a new user, and choose Managed with Parental Controls.

You can then choose an age bracket for your child, as well as a user name and password.

Once that’s set up, head back into System Preferences and then Parental Controls. This will allow you to manage App use, including use of the mac’s inbuilt camera, mail and web apps, as well as separate controls for managing allowed or blocked websites. You can also block access to the iTunes and iBooks stores, as well as set time limits for usage of the mac itself.

iOS
If your child has an iPad or iPhone, you can set restrictions on that usage by going to Settings, then General, then Restrictions. You’ll have to set a restrictions PIN code, but once that’s done, you can set limits on app usage, as well as whether your child can add or remove applications. You can also restrict access to certain content by ratings level, as well as limit the access apps have to features such as location data or photos.

Android
Precise parental controls do vary by device type and Android version, but one restriction you can put in place is around the Google Play store. You can set parental controls on your child’s Android device by opening up Google Play, tapping the menu icon and opening Parental Controls. It’s once again PIN-based, allowing for content filtering when switched on.

For younger children, you could also enroll their account through Google’s Family Link service for managing hours of usage, app installs and screen time usage.

PlayStation 4
Sony’s PlayStation 4 has parental controls, but they’re not all that easy to find. Head to Settings, then Parental Controls/Family Management and finally PS4 System Restrictions where you can then restrict usage of applications, network features and play time.

Xbox One
If you add your child’s account (which once again has to be a Microsoft account) onto an Xbox One, you can then manage their usage by adding their account to yours under Settings, then Family, then Add to Family. Then you’ll be able to restrict access based on age profiles, filter web results and decide whether or not to show program descriptions through the Xbox One’s OneGuide.

Netflix
An easy one if you’re a Netflix subscriber; your Netflix account allows for the creation of profile-level soft controls that limit content availability by age range. You’ve still got to ensure that your child is using that child-specific profile, but if they do, only “kids” suitable material will be shown. You can also set a PIN code, either for specific content, or to block access to any content above specified maturity level. Those settings apply no matter which device you’re accessing Netflix on.

These tools can be useful, but it’s also quite important to clearly explain to your children why you’re using them, if you do. A hard blanket rule against any activity is more than likely going to make it even more desirable to a tech-savvy child or teen, especially if it’s an activity that their counterparts are already engaging in. Often, the most powerful tool you’ll have keeping your kids safe online is keeping up a regular dialog with them to explain your expectations and listen to their requests. It’s better to know what they’re doing in an open environment rather than discovering they’ve been sneaking into online areas you’d rather they didn’t see.


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