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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

Google removes viewing images from search, but it’s easy to get back

googleimages

Google has become so synonymous with searching the internet that it’s commonly used as a verb when describing searches of all types. It’s not just simple text searches that Google has near market domination of, either, with searching facilities across popular news sites, videos, shopping and images. Google really does want to be the one-stop shop for all your search needs.

Except, that is, when it pulls back from useful search features. Just recently, Google removed the ability to directly view images — and just images — from any image search you perform using its image search facility. Instead, what you get is a single button to view the site that has that image embedded when you search for it, rather than opening that image into its own tab by itself.

That’s not always going to be what you want, given that often images may be on sites with hefty advertising or other contextual material you don’t particularly care about. Given that it’s been a feature of Google’s image search for some time, you may be wondering why Google would make its image search less useful rather than more. It’s all part of a legal settlement with the well-respected Getty Images. Back in 2016, Getty files suit against Google with the European Union, stating that being able to access high resolution imagery via search was affecting the livelihood of artists and photographers. The EU largely sided with Getty, and part of Google’s settlement was the removal of the view image button.

There’s a line here between reasonable usage and utility, and where you sit on it depends, I suspect on what you’re planning to do with the images you’re searching for. If you do pine for the ability to view images as individual web pages, however, there is respite at hand.

If you’re using Google’s Chrome browser, there are already extensions available that re-enable the “view image” buttons on Google Image searches. That’s due to Chrome’s extensible nature, and while you do have to trust the extension to run it, the “View Image” extension will re-enable that feature. You can install it from here if you’re keen.

If you’d rather not install extensions, your other avenue for this kind of search would be to use an alternative search engine. Back in the early history of the public internet, there were countless choices of search engines, but these days there’s really only a few prominent choices to pick from.

Any Windows user would be aware that Microsoft still operates its competing search engine Bing, often citing faster and more accurate search results, although that’s an endlessly debatable issue.

You could also consider privacy-centric search engine DuckDuckGo. Yes, it’s a silly name, but one with a rather serious issue at its core. Where Google tracks every search you make to build a profile for you, both for better results and to allow advertisers to more accurately serve you ads, DuckDuckGo does no profiling at all. That’s good if you’re privacy-minded, with the rather obvious caveat that as a result, there’s no personalisation in its searches at all. After a while, Google gets very good at tracking your interest areas and delivering honed results, where DuckDuckGo will deliver the same results to every single user with no refinements.


What does the 5G future hold?

5g-logo-1k

You’re probably aware that your smartphone runs on either a 3G or 4G network, although you may be a little fuzzy on what those terms actually mean. You may even be aware that there’s a lot of talk about “5G” at the moment, again without being totally across the potential of a 5G future.

When mobile telecoms operators talk about any number suffixed with a G, what they’re referencing is the generation of mobile technology that it belongs to. The first generation of mobiles brought us mobile calling, while 2G ushered in the world of text messages. 3G was when mobile data started to really matter, while 4G pumped up the data speeds, although a lack of worldwide certification means that the 4G you get somewhere like the USA could have wildly different speeds to the 4G you might see in the UK, Japan, Australia or China. Different providers can (and have) called different bands and technologies “4G”, and while more modern handsets and mobile data aware devices can generally talk across 4G networks if you travel, your speed and connection experiences can vary massively.

5G, the fifth generation of mobile networks is being coordinated much more closely than 4G in an effort to make the experience of 5G a lot more standard worldwide. That’s especially important as it’s intended to be the connection standard for the so-called “Internet of Things”, a term used to define a vast array of mobile-data-aware sensors, smart devices and controllers that should be able to do everything from control your smart home gadgets to monitoring the progress of an autonomous crop harvesting machine in the middle of remote farmlands. At least, that’s the theory.

Most pundits have been picking 2020 as the date that we’d see the first 5G networks, but it now seems likely that in some locations, 5G services will start to be offered from 2019. Those rollouts, set to start in countries such as Australia and South Korea are likely to be smaller scale and confined largely to business users at first.

It’ll take some time for 5G to become purely global, although research by Ericsson suggests that consumers expect to be connecting to 5G within 3 to 4 years of general network availability.

Aside from the interconnected nature of 5G devices, the expectation there is that we’ll see much faster connectivity, with Ericsson’s research indicating that most of us are more willing to pay for that than we are, for example, 5G-guided drone deliveries, 3D hologram calling or self-driving 5G-guided vehicles. Mind you, all of those are features that 5G network makers are pitching as part of our 5G future, because the higher speeds and expected robustness of a 5G network should allow for features that existing 2G, 3G and 4G networks simply can’t handle.

There are still some large scale network building challenges for providers to meet before we’re all sending each other holograms, Star-Wars style, though, not to mention the challenge of new devices. If you’ve just bought a 4G phone, or you’re still happy with the one you’ve got, you don’t need to fret, however. Even now, telecommunication providers are all happily stating that they’ll build 5G on top of 4G networks, and it’s expected that the first 5G devices will have 4G fallback capabilities regardless.


Windows 10 S will become Windows 10 S Mode

windows10s

When Microsoft launched its Surface Laptop, it also used the occasion to launch Windows 10 S, a more secure but significantly more locked-down version of its popular operating system.

Windows 10 S will only run apps available from the Windows Store, which means many popular applications that you may run every day simply aren’t available for Windows 10 S users. So far, however, Microsoft has made it relatively painless to switch “up” to the full version of Windows 10 if you’ve purchased a device with Windows 10 S on it, although it claims that around 60 percent of all buyers of low-end Windows 10 S machines have elected to stick with the cut-down operating system. Those figures don’t include Microsoft’s own rather higher-end Surface Laptop, however, which I suspect would have a much higher percentage of switchers.

That’s all set to change, however, with Microsoft effectively making the concept of a “Windows 10 S” laptop all but redundant.

Where previously Microsoft offered an upgrade path for Windows 10 S users who wanted the full Windows experience (along with the security risks that go with it), it will instead pivot to making Windows 10 S available to any system sold as an option, instead of classifying an entire subset of laptops — generally low-end devices, although as with the Surface Laptop, not entirely — as Windows 10 S machines, they’ll instead be sold with the option for manufacturers to provide Windows 10 S across the entire range, sold as “Windows 10 S Mode”.

In effect, you go from having a range of mostly very low cost laptops running Windows 10 S, to one where just about any laptop could be sold with Windows 10 S if that suited your needs, and most predominantly your budget. It’s not likely to become the primary version of Windows 10 moving forwards, and you’re still likely to mostly see it on low-cost laptops, although businesses could presumably order a fleet of more powerful machines with Windows 10 S installed to lock down employee usage of those devices.

What does this mean for you if you buy a laptop where Windows 10 S is the pre-installed option? That will largely depend on which version of Windows 10 it thinks it is underneath, much the same as it does now. If you buy a Windows 10 Home S machine, you should be able to “upgrade” to full Windows 10 at no cost for now, but if you end up with what’s effectively a Windows 10 Pro S machine, that upgrade will incur an additional cost if you needed the full Windows experience.

Microsoft’s treading a very fine line here with that many versions of Windows. It’s not that having different capabilities for different audiences is automatically a problem. Most home users don’t (and won’t) need the features of Windows 10 Pro, with Home being more than enough, but once you add Windows 10 S Mode into the mix, and especially bearing in mind that most manufacturers make laptops on very slight profit margins, you’re creating a recipe for laptops that seem like a bargain but may have costly upgrade paths or limitations you weren’t expecting baked in.

Microsoft hasn’t given a strict timeframe for when S Mode laptops will start being sold, but it’s worth keeping in mind the next time you need to buy a new PC. As always, a little research, and knowing precisely what you’re buying can save a lot of heartache down the track.


Will Apple get the HomePod into your home?

homepod

Apple has recently announced the availability of its first “smart” speaker, the Apple Homepod, set to go on sale on the 9th of February in the UK for £319, in Australia for $499 and in the US for $349 respectively.

In the smart speaker space, that immediately marks the HomePod as a premium priced option, which sits well in line with Apple’s general market positioning. It often offers good value technology, especially for its durability, but it’s rarely, if ever actually cheap.

Apple is definitely the late arriving member of the smart speaker family. Amazon has offered its Echo speaker family, using the Alexa voice assistant for a number of years in the US and UK, and more recently in Australia, while Google’s Google Home and Google Home Mini are already entrenched in those markets.

If you’re scratching your head and wondering what on earth a smart speaker is, the recipe itself is rather simple. Take a standard audio speaker, add Bluetooth so it’s simple to pair your phone or tablet with it for audio presenting purposes, and then layer on top of it the kinds of digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Google’s Assistant that we’ve had on smartphones for a number of years now, and you’ve got the basics of a smart speaker.

So they’re not just for playing back your party tunes, but also for audibly checking for the latest news or weather, or controlling any of a number of compatible smart gadgets. It’s even feasible to set up scenarios such that simple commands could (for example), switch on the living room lights, dim them a little, turn on the TV and switch the kettle on just as you settle down to watch your favourite soap opera.

Of interest, while Microsoft has pushed its voice assistant, Cortana heavily into Windows 10, and less successfully into the mostly-dead Windows 10 phone platform, there’s no sign of any Cortana-powered speakers. It’s also interesting to note that while spoken assistants haven’t really taken off in public spaces — we’re all too reluctant to be embarrassed talking to them while out and about — they’ve gained considerable traction in the home, where almost nobody else is listening. But I digress away from Apple, and what its realistic chances are.

Apple’s selling the HomePod at a premium price and positioning it mainly on the strength of its audio quality. That’s a smart play if you’re an audiophile, because while the Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers are markedly less expensive, they’re also not exactly what you’d call hi-fi equipment. Fine for background music, less fine if you care about audio reproduction. That brings the HomePod more into discussion around higher-end brands such as Sonos, for what that’s worth.

Where Apple can also claim a little ground against the likes of Google and Amazon is in privacy. By selling the HomePod primarily as a music speaker than can handle just a few simple Siri-based tasks, it’s not gathering or collating any information about your usage patterns for later analysis, the way Google (which sells ads) and Amazon (which sells just about everything) most definitely does with Echo and Home respectively.

That’s a downside as well, though, depending on your perspective, because that same data collection also gives those services a lot of scope for personalisation, whether it’s making it easier to order goods from Amazon, or simply giving you vocal search results that more closely match your usual usage patterns and needs.

Amazon and Google also have something of a leg up against Apple in the straight smart home space. At the recent CES, I saw countless devices touting their Echo and Assistant compatibility, from the smallest alarm clocks right up to massive smart fridges, but very few gadgets using Apple’s competing HomeKit infrastructure. The HomePod will act as a control hub for HomeKit gear, but there’s much less of it about, and based on Google and Amazon’s head start, Apple will have a lot of work to do there just to catch up. A smart speaker that doesn’t speak the language of your smart gadgets may not be that smart after all.

Apple being Apple, you can expect a significant sweep of marketing around HomePod to try to sell it. If you’re already heavily in the Apple ecosystem, especially if you love listening to music via Apple Music, it could well be a good buy. If you’re more in a mixed environment, or you already use an Amazon Echo or Google Home, it’s going to be a much less exciting proposition.


Google’s Chromecast could be killing your home Wi-Fi

chomecast

Wi-Fi is nothing new, and for the most part, we just take it for granted, typically with the router supplied by our ISPs doing all the heavy lifting. The routers supplied by most ISPs really aren’t all that great if you crave high performance, but for the majority of consumers they’re suitable, if not exciting.

The only time most consumers actually pay attention to their routers is when something goes wrong, typically because you’re trying to use a wirelessly connected device, be it a computer, gaming console, set top box, smartphone or tablet, and you find you can’t actually get access to your Internet resources.

There can be all sorts of reasons for this. Certain types of building construction, some appliances and just the overwhelming quantity of Wi-Fi in constrained areas (especially if you live in an apartment or similar small dwelling) can all play a factor in how well your home Wi-Fi actually works. The same is true for Wi-Fi in business settings as well, because while some routers supplied for business purposes have more robust technology sitting under the hood, they’re all still (essentially) fighting for the same radio frequencies. It can get crowded out there, and that can often lead to connections that appear to “work”, at least in that you get a Wi-Fi signal, but that don’t actually pass any data through to your device.

A recent bug in Google’s popular Chromecast home streaming devices has been shown to be capable of also knocking your home Wi-Fi around in a rather unexpected way. When waking from its sleep condition (so, for example, if you were getting ready to cast some video from an Android device or a web browser using Google’s Chrome), the Chromecast could (in certain circumstances) flood the network with thousands of request packets accidentally. In very simplified terms, think of what the post office is usually like around Christmas time; a chaotic mess of parcels and letters all flooding in at once, overwhelming the service. That’s what Google’s Chromecast was doing (at least in some circumstances), leading to seriously degraded network performance. Google has admitted the issue, and started to roll out patches to deal with it to Chromecast devices.

It’s worth noting that the presence of a Chromecast device in your home network isn’t an automatic cause of poor Wi-Fi performance, but it’s once again another reminder of why it’s quite important to keep your home network devices as up to date as possible. Google has said that it will roll out updates to Chromecast devices and the casting software offered through the Google Play store, and those should be (more or less) automatic updates that you don’t have to do anything about. Major router manufacturers, including Netgear, Linksys and Asus have all committed to patches for their popular routers, and that’s something you’ll need to check against your router model. Most routers have simple web interfaces that let you check for firmware updates within them, so it’s worth making some investigations if you’re unsure. You may also find (especially if you’ve never really touched the firmware on your router) that you get simple performance boosts along with the Chromecast fix. If you’re unsure about your router model, especially if it was sourced through your Internet provider, check with them, as they may have custom firmware or specific advice on how and when to update your router’s software.


Intel gets cosy with AMD on new systems at CES 2018

8thgen

For decades now, if you were buying a PC, you essentially had two choices when it came to the processor that ran it. For the most part, Intel’s processors under various branding such as Pentium or Core were what you were most likely to hit, with rival AMD’s CPUs generally found in lower-cost machines, or in some cases in machines pitched towards enthusiast markets such as gaming. It’s long been a race between the goliath that is is Intel and the smaller AMD.

AMD, however, had one particular advantage in that, back in 2006, it purchased one of the two big graphics card manufacturers, ATI. That gave it something of a positional edge when it came to integrating graphics performance onto systems running its chips, with ATI’s Radeon GPUs onboard.

Intel could pitch towards ATI rival NVIDIA to an extent, but that was essentially in the form of add-on dedicated graphics boards, which is fine and accepted for the gaming crowd, but problematic for a wider audience. Intel did persist with its own inhouse graphics solutions, but these were always lower-tier products.

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, amidst a lot of news around its plans for everything from 5G to autonomous vehicles, Intel also announced a new tie-up to bring the embedded graphics on its systems up to scratch, by the unusual method of signing up with… AMD.

Yep, the two arch rivals are working together on Intel’s new “Kaby Lake G” processors, more formally for laptops the Intel Core i5-8305G and Intel Core i5-8305G and for desktops the Intel Core i7-8706G, i7-8709G and i7-8809G CPUs. All will feature Radeon GPUs onboard, with the laptop models featuring RX Vega M GL and the desktop versions running the more powerful Radeon RX Vega M GH graphics onboard. For its part, AMD is custom-producing the silicon that will go into these new processors, so they’ll be a little different from its existing models and the graphics drivers will have to come from Intel.

While there’s not much in the way of independent benchmarks to show performance, Intel’s suggestion is that on the laptop front, we’ll see new systems with solid 3D performance better than most chunky “gaming” style laptops by the middle of the year, while their desktop alternatives will allow for lower-cost entry into VR and AR experiences such as Windows Mixed Reality, the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive.

At CES 2018, only a couple of manufacturers showed off laptop systems running the new CPUs. For its part, Dell debuted the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1, a thin and light fully foldable laptop with a gore fabric chassis for heat dissipation and a new “maglev” keyboard. HP also showed off an updated version of its highly regarded Spectre x360 running on the new processors, with options for a 4K display. Both Dell and HP expect to ship in the US in March, with global availability to be advised.

The interesting aspect with both systems is that while they should offer high-end graphics performance, neither is in the classic “gaming” laptop style, which typically favoured huge displays, heavy carrying weights and massive fans. Instead, they’re machines that look like they should just be simple productivity offerings, but instead will pack some real punch.


What will Intel’s processor bug mean for your computer?

spectremeltdown

Usually when you hear about large scale security problems, it’s because there’s been an obscure exploit of some incredibly complicated code that somebody’s worked out a way around, leading to the need for software patches, or an entirely human error where access was pilfered via purely social means. Hardware flaws that affect computer security aren’t unheard of, but they’re (thankfully) pretty rare.

Or, at least, they were. It’s been revealed that there’s a major bug affecting processors supplied by Intel, and also possibly AMD and even the ARM processor architecture that runs most smartphones and tablets. While the full extent of the issue isn’t entirely public, because companies are rushing to release updates to mitigate its severity, the worst affected has to be Intel, simply because of the chip giant’s massive presence in this space. Chances are pretty darned good that if you’re reading this on a computer, it’s got an Intel processor inside. Even Apple got on the Intel train many years ago, and to give some perspective, the issue relates to processors up to 20 years old. If you’re running a computer more than 20 years old, you’re probably safe, but you’re also probably painfully slow compared to what a modern computer can do.

Dubbed collectively Spectre and Meltdown, the issue relates to the way that modern CPU architecture does what is called “speculative execution”. That’s pretty much what it sounds like; the CPU performs a task that it estimates may be needed before it’s actually asked for, because that way if you do require that task, it’s already done and performance can be boosted remarkably for just a little potential overhead. Speculative execution has been part of computing for a long time now, and the Meltdown issue essentially attacks the areas of the CPU that store that speculative information, potentially allowing malicious parties access to it.

To put that in more concrete terms, imagine you’re using a password manager (which, if you’ve been reading this column long enough, you should know I encourage you in no uncertain terms to do) on your computer, and your actions lead the CPU to think that you might need a password soon for some task. It speculatively fetches that information, stores it for a very brief time and then moves on, whether or not you needed the password. While it’s storing it, the Meltdown bug could (in theory) make it accessible via the exploit.

You’ll notice I’m couching my terms here, and the good news is that while the existence of the exploit is public, the specifics are not, and as such there’s no clear evidence that any systems, personal or major have been attacked in this way just yet.

The Spectre bug (which may also affect AMD’s processors and the ARM architecture that runs most phones and tablets) works in a broadly similar way, although both Apple and Google say that most updated phones and tablets should at least be partially hardened against attacks. Apple says that while there’s potential for exploits, doing so would be “very difficult” for hackers. That’s not quite the same thing as impossible, but if you’re updated, you should be fine.

The same advice is true on the PC/Mac end of the scale, although at the time of writing major software updates were still pending for Windows 10 and macOS to cover consumer and business systems. As always, patch early and patch often to keep yourself safe, but also be ready for something of a performance hit.

That’s to do with our old friend speculative execution again. In order to fix the issue, its ability to preconfigure scenarios before execution has to be dialled back, and that means a potential system performance hit.

Now, quite how significant this will be is a little tricky to gauge right now. Some early reports suggested the hit could be as bad as 30%, while Intel’s own releases suggest a more moderate hit for most systems, possibly as low as 5% or less. Bear in mind that it’s not just your own PC that may see a slowdown, with many of the world’s largest servers that provide web services also potentially liable for slowdown issues. Having said that, some, like Amazon, have indicated that pre-existing patching and security is already present on most of its services, so the impact there may be lessened somewhat.

So what should you do? In short, make sure everything’s updated, from any hardware updates that your computer manufacturer supplies, through to software updates and even browser updates, because when (not if) attacks do come, they’re likely to be delivered over the web. Make sure you’re running anti-virus software with up-to-date security as well, because while again that’s a cat and mouse game, keeping your system safe in 2018 is going to be, well, rather important.


Why do we remain so bad at passwords?

password

2017 was a year of some very large security breaches across all sorts of companies, from smaller online merchants all the way up to bigger brands, such as the uber-leak that came out of, well, Uber, where a data leak saw the records of some 57 million users worldwide compromised.

As such, you would think that overall, Internet users might be becoming a little smarter about how they operated online.

Sadly, it seems you’d be wrong. Despite all the breaches, despite all the warnings about what can happen with lax security, it seems that we’re all still way too addicted to using readily guessed passwords all over the place. What’s worse, the same culprits top the lists of most commonly found passwords online, year in and year out, and 2017 was no different.

Research from Splashdata showed that the same password combination was the most commonly found bad password online. Want to take a guess what it was? I’ll put a list here, so you can try to guess:

  • 123456
  • password
  • 12345678
  • qwerty
  • admin
  • login
  • starwars
  • test
  • computer

If you guessed “123456”, congratulations. Then again, if you’re actually using 123456 as a password anywhere (or anything else in that list, which just makes up a fragment of the top (really, it should be the bottom) 100 bad passwords of 2017) then please, please, stop doing so immediately.

It’s not that hard to see why folks use simple passwords, because they’re easy to remember, after all. If you’re online, the odds are that you don’t have just one password, but probably dozens to recall.

The problem is that if you’re using an easy password, and especially if you’re using it across multiple sites and services, it’s like having one easily guessed key. Even if you’ve got a more complex password that you use in multiple places it’s a bad idea, again because it’s a single point of failure. At least with a complex password, you’ve got a base level of security. With 123456, you’re essentially inviting people to come and peer into your digital life, identity and bank accounts. I’m going to take the guess that you don’t want to do that.

If there’s one trend I’d love to see reversed in 2018, it’s the prevalence of stupid passwords, and the rise of people properly using apps such as password managers. They can compute strong passwords for you and then store them in a single vault, giving you a simple way to cut down on password clutter and keep yourself secure online. That would be an ideal way to make 2018 less of a disaster year in security terms, but it won’t happen unless individual users change their security habits.

There’s no shortage of apps to choose from, including lastpass, dashlane, 1password, keepass and others that will manage your passwords for you at low or zero cost. Just like it’s all but essential to maintain malware protection on your PC, it should be essential to maintain a clean and properly secured password regime too.

It’s sadly all too inevitable that we’ll see further security breaches in 2018, and the control of those services may be beyond your control. Securing your own access with unique passwords, ideally managed by a secure password manager can make sure that even if there is a leak, its effect on you will be minimised.


Can’t afford a holiday this year? Let Street View take you further than streets.

world

The ambition behind Google’s Street View was (originally) to provide a little more human context to people’s map searches. It’s all very good to say that a journey will take so many minutes, or that you need to make this sequence of turns in order to get to your destination, but it’s long been a hallmark of Google to use information more intelligently than that. That’s why Google’s Maps application can also provide loose traffic guidance as well, because the thousands of users running the app while driving provide it with a lot of speed data that it can crunch in real-time.

Still, Street View takes that a level further, giving you a visual representation of your destination, which can be extremely handy if you’re travelling somewhere you’ve never been before. After all, if you were describing your home to a friend, you’d most likely not only give them the address, but also quantify it with details, whether it’s the proximity of obvious landmarks or the colour of the roof to assist with them finding you.

Not that everything on Street View has to be quite that serious, because Google has also used the power of its 360 degree cameras to map out some slightly more out-of-the-way places. You might never get there for reasons of practicality or budget in the real world, but if you’re hankering for an end-of-year escape, all you need is a browser and Internet access.

So what’s on offer, then? Google has taken its street view cameras both high and low to unearth some really fascinating views and perspectives on the world today.

If you fancy somewhere up high, you can take in multiple views of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Not high enough for your liking? How about a quick tour of the International Space Station, no space suit required?.

For those with vertigo, that might be a little bit much.

But there’s plenty of attractions back on solid ground to explore instead. Take a dive through the world heritage listed Great Barrier Reef or trek though the watery streets of Venice. If you’re more into hot holidays than wet ones, how about a live volcano in Vanuatu? Although that’s probably not one you should try to drive, all things considered.

If you’re a fan of HBO’s very popular Game Of Thrones, you can take a risk-free walk through many of the show’s most iconic locations in Street View. If you like your TV shows with a bit more longevity behind them, the BBC has even managed to sneak in Doctor Who’s TARDIS into street view by parking a police box in Earl’s Court in London – although that one you have to tap or click specifically on the police box to enter.

Street View can even take you places you can’t actually go any more, such as Uluru in Australia’s Northern Territory. There, Google combines its Street View camera views with spoken word guides to provide a complete tour that you couldn’t get any other way, and a fascinating insight into the world’s oldest continually surviving culture as well.

And if all this virtual wandering gives you itchy feet and you’re keen to travel, you can even use Street View to explore the inside of an Emirates Airbus A380, although no complimentary peanuts are provided for the trip.


New Windows laptops will have all-day battery life… with a catch

snapdragon

Ever since the computer market shifted from desktop PCs to laptops, there’s been a significant balancing act going on between the needs of computer users for processing power to run programs, and the needs of those same users for battery power to keep their laptops going. At a simplified level, the harder you push a laptop (or the faster it can go) the more likely it is to chew through the available battery power. It’s a delicate balancing act that some laptops manage better than others, and one that’s often regulated by price. Buy a cheap laptop, and you’re more likely to get the more compromised end of that power/battery performance ratio with a slow machine that doesn’t have much battery life.

Microsoft recently unveiled what it’s calling “Always connected” Windows 10 laptops that, as per manufacturer claims, will be able to manage 20+ real hours of battery usage before conking out, and quite possibly at very attractive price points to boot. Moreover, thanks to the inclusion of built-in wireless modems, as the name suggests, they’ll be able to stay connected to the Internet pretty much wherever you are, albeit at the cost of a little mobile data through whichever carrier you prefer.

So if classically you couldn’t have both without significant cost, you might be wondering what the catch is. The difference with these new computers is that you won’t see any advertising with that familiar “Intel Inside” chime, or for that matter Intel stickers at all on these new machines, set to be built by companies such as HP, Asus and Lenovo. That’s because they’re instead using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 processors, the same systems used on popular high-end mobile handsets such as Google’s Pixel 2 phones, Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium and certain models of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8. In the mobile world, the Snapdragon 835 is a powerhouse system, but in the laptop world, it’s a very different kind of proposition.

That’s because while standard notebooks running Intel or AMD processors use what’s called x86 architecture and apps written for them, Qualcomm’s processors use what’s called ARM architecture. Without going into heavy detail, it’s a different way of handling computing instructions that can often be massively more power efficient, but not perhaps as powerful in quite the same way as a processor.

Microsoft has been down the ARM path before; its first generation Surface RT 2-in-1s were ARM-based machines that could only run apps from the Window app store specifically written for the Surface RT. That was a flawed approach (and not a terribly good laptop for its time), but it appears that Microsoft has learned from that approach, at least a little.

Microsoft has substantially rewritten the version of Windows that will run on these new machines to work with most Windows 10 applications, but possibly not all, because it will be emulating x86 commands to run on an ARM processor.

What that means in effect is that it may well be slower to run on these new machines, and some more esoteric applications may not run at all. Microsoft is promising that all larger and more prominent apps, such as Adobe’s widely used Photoshop will run, but it’s not likely to run at the speeds you might see on a standard x86 laptop.

The default OS on the new systems will be Windows 10s, already available on the Surface Laptop devices. By default Windows 10S only runs apps from Microsoft’s own Windows store, but you will apparently be able to upgrade to full Windows 10 at no charge if you do so quickly enough after purchase. The new Always Connected laptops are expected to go on sale worldwide in 2018, with pricing expected on the lower side.

So again, what we’ll return to is a tradeoff between power and battery performance, albeit on a different axis. If you’re a light user of, say, just the Office applications and a web browser tab or two they might be a decent buy, especially if you do need long battery life, but it’s not likely that they’ll supplant years of x86, largely Intel-based laptops in the short or medium term.


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