logitech slim combo keyboardLogitech’s Slim Combo for iPad Pro keyboard is a mixed bag. Its good points are excellent. Its less good features are, well, disappointing.

I’m testing the 12.9-inch iPad Pro version. You can buy it nn the New Zealand online Apple store for $250. At the time of writing JB Hi-Fi has it for $230.

This compares with $270 for Apple’s Smart Keyboard. So it’s cheaper than Apple’s keyboard, but not a lot cheaper.

You can’t judge the Slim Combo without reference to the Smart Keyboard. The pair are a head-to-head choice. In some ways they are polar opposites. What one keyboard gets right, the other gets wrong.

Great typing

Let’s start with the keys themselves. Logitech’s Slim Combo feels great when you’re typing. Keys are back-lit. This makes it easier to use in low light conditions.

The keys have positive travel. They move more than on the Smart Keyboard. The keys stretch across 270mm wide and 95mm deep. That’s a little less depth that ideal, but the width is fine.

Each key is about the same size as on a normal keyboard: 15mm square for most keys. The top row of function keys are only half height. They are a little more cramped than on the Smart Keyboard.

In practice this means you can touch type on the Slim Combo without giving it a second thought. There’s no audible click, but enough of a clatter to let you know what’s going on.

If you loves Apple kit, but don’t like the new laptop keyboards, then the Slim Combo and an iPad Pro could meet all your typing-on-the-go needs. It feels better than the keyboard on Apple’s alternative.

The only negative I found with the keyboard is when it comes to reaching up and touching the screen. Somehow that is more comfortable on the Smart Keyboard.

During testing it felt fine. When, after testing, I retried the Smart Keyboard I realised I prefer Apple’s version. There’s not a lot in it and my preference could be a matter of familiarity.

Two parts

Logitech made the Slim Combo in two parts; the keyboard itself and a plastic case. This does two things. First, it turns the Slim Combo into a protective shell when you’re on the move. Second, there’s a Microsoft Surface-Style kickstand.

There is also a nylon loop to store an Apple Pencil. While handy, it looks a little tacky when the Slim Combo is new, I can only imagine it will get worse over time.

This sounds better on paper than the Slim Combo is in practice. While the keyboard is sound, the plastic case has a down-market feel.

It’s not as solid as I’d like. When you use the kickstand on a desk, there’s a disturbing wobble. You can’t use the Slim Combo on your lap — if that’s important to you — because the set up is too flimsy. I also found the Slim Combo doesn’t work as well on an airplane as the Smart Keyboard.

Another negative is the case is a pain to get on and off the iPad. My iPad Pro may be a laptop replacement when I’m on the move, but at home it’s a tablet. The case adds nothing useful at those times. It feels as if the Slim Combo wants you to use the iPad as a laptop all the time.

It adds bulk. While the Slim Combo is light, it is also bulky.

Logitech Slim Combo verdict

Logitech has made great iPad keyboards in the past. This doesn’t live up to the brand’s reputation. There’s not enough here to pull me away from Apple’s keyboard.

That said, the Slim Combo is a welcome alternative to the Smart Keyboard. Some readers might prefer its typing action and there will be others who like the kickstand.

Dragon Anywhere is the iOS version of Nuance’s Dragon speech recognition software. It’s a powerful dictation application that can transform how you work.

It needs to deliver: an annual subscription costs a nosebleed NZ$240.

At that price Dragon Anywhere is not a buy, try, forget app store experiment. It’s a significant investment. It needs to earn its keep.

Worth the money?

For some people Dragon Anywhere will be worth every penny. Accurate speech to text software can unpack a new level of productivity for some people. Not everyone will see a return on the investment.

If you already use desktop dictation software, you’ll have an idea of what Dragon Anywhere can do for you.

Being able to dictate text to an iPhone is a bigger deal than it might sound at first hearing.

The designers made the iPhone for dictation. Let’s face it, writing on a tiny glass keyboard is a challenge if you want to do anything more than send a text or a tweet.

I’ve written 1000 word stories on the iPhone. It’s not fun, nor is it productive. The alternative to dictation is carrying a Bluetooth keyboard. That can be a pain in the backside.

It also means you can replace desktop dictation with your iPhone. Given that your phone goes everywhere you do, it means you can produce text almost anywhere. This explains the product name.

You could, for example, write while in the back of a car or lounging in bed. In practice I found using the iPhone for dictation is more natural than using a desktop or laptop Mac.

Dragon Anywhere

Anywhere

Mobility is important, because ideas do not work nine-to-five in an office. Your writing muse can turn up unannounced at any time. With Dragon Anywhere you can jot down your ideas as they appear. There’s no need to hunt around for a computer or a pen and paper.

Your phone is already your most important computer. Dragon Anywhere takes that further. Depending on how you work, you may be able to ditch the desktop altogether. Although if you don’t want to, Anywhere integrates with Nuance’s desktop dictation applications.

If Dragon Anywhere save you buying a new computer, the subscription starts to look like a bargain. Even if you don’t go that far, your typewriter keyboard may gather dust.

Dragon Anywhere works anywhere there’s a connection

The software doesn’t quite work anywhere. You need a live internet connection. Dragon Anywhere calls on Nuance’s cloud resourced to work its magic. That means you can only use it when you have a live internet connection.

The good news is that it sips data. You might run through a megabyte or so dictating thousands of words. I found after an hour’s use, my data consumption was still measured in hundreds of kilobytes.

Another piece of good news is the cloud round trip is fast. Speak a sentence or two, pause and the text is there on screen. It takes seconds. I found I couldn’t dictate fast enough to get ahead of the cloud connection.

In other words, you can use Dragon Anywhere while you’re on the move. If you have anything but a minimal data plan you can use it without counting the bytes or hunting for Wi-Fi.

Nuance says it encryopts connections, so criminals can’t listen in on your dictations.

How well does it perform?

The performance is impressive. I used it to write a first draft of this review. From the first words I uttered it was catching almost everything without error.

The software stumbled over the word iOS in the first sentence. To be fair, it’s a specialist word. If you think of how you say the name: eye-oh-ess, not picking it up it understandable.

User error

It wasn’t the software that stumbled in the second paragraph. I can take the blame for not figuring out how to say NZ$240 in a way that made my meaning clear. Put this down to user error.

The third sentence was perfect.

Out of the first hundred words, Dragon Anywhere got everything except iOS right. That’s impressive. Remember this was my first try of the software. The software had not encountered my voice or accent before.

In practice it learns a little as it goes along. To see how this worked I read the words again and this time Dragon Anywhere scored a perfect 100 percent. It understood iOS. The software understood my speech far better than Apple’s own Siri software.

If you make an error, fixing your text is easy. The only barrier is that you have to memorise instructions. In most cases the words are obvious, you don’t need to guess them. Some take a little practice.

I ran into a problem with some New Zealand place names. That’s understandable. Dragon Anywhere allows you to add custom words to the system which gets around the problem.

The productivity question

If you notice, I hedged my words when I said the software could be worth the money. Likewise when I said it may transform how you work or make you more productive.

That’s because, good as it is, speech recognition is not for everyone. In my experience it takes longer to dictate stories than to type them. I also find I struggle to compose while speaking. This could be down to 40 years of touch typing. With practice my dictation speed might improve.

There are also times where I need to write and dictation isn’t the best tool. Writing on a train, an airplane or somewhere public would be too much for everyone else.

If you find typing is difficult or run into overuse problems, then its a godsend. If you think by speaking, you’ll love it.

Acronis says True Image 2019 provides set and forget protection. Going by my experience with the 2018 version, I can verify this. The last time I checked the older edition of the software was in May. I know this date is correct because that’s when I swapped to a new iMac.

It has backed up my iMac to the cloud for four months without any attention.

Now I’m using the 2019 version. It’s installed and it’s working. Every evening it updates some 200 GB plus sending it to Acronis’ cloud for safe keeping.

The process is so unobtrusive and the upgrade from True Image 2018 was so seamless that it’s hard to see any difference between the two versions.

Acronis True Image 2019

True Image 2019 differences

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference. The main new feature in the Mac version is Active disc cloning. You can use it to move data from one computer to another, or to make a bootable image on an external hard drive.

The external drive needs to connect directly to the computer being cloned. I couldn’t clone my Mac drive to the home network drive. You can only copy the entire drive. There’s no way to select directories for cloning.

Acronis’ other new 2019 feature is call a Survival Kit. This is like Active disc cloning, you can use it to make a bootable back up of your start-up partition.

In truth these are both variations on Acronis True Image’s main theme, although they give you more back-up options.

Auto-start on connect

Another clever, helpful update is that you can set the software to start backing-up when a new external USB drive is plugged-in. It’s another step towards simplifying backing-up. Let’s face it, the easier it is to make back-ups, the more likely you are to keep everything up-to-date.

The last interesting update in True Image 2019 is that you can now make snapshots of Parallels Desktop virtual machines. It’s a niche feature for sure, but a welcome one.

My year with Acronis True Image 2018 passed without incident. During that time I switched computers twice and carried on backing up. I did a single restore from the Acronis Cloud to a computer, but it was a test, not a real panic recovery.

It’s a solid alternative offering both a secure cloud backup and the ability to make local backups at the same time.

Prices

Acronis may seem expensive when compared with other apps, but it costs are on a par with other cloud backup services. You can pay US$50 to buy the software for a single computer. It’s a one time payment and lasts forever, but it doesn’t include cloud storage.

A single year licence with 250GB of cloud storage is also US$50. This rises to US$100 if you want to connect five computers. A three computer option is US$80.

The full monty premium version comes with a terabyte of cloud storage. This is the only version that includes blockchain certification. Acronis fingerprints your files to show no-one else has altered them. This is a way to protect against ransomware. The premium version costs US$100 a year for one machine and US$150 for five.

It’s no coincidence Sky TV reported a $240 million loss days after Spark won the Premier League Football rights. A thread connects the two news stories.

Spark is New Zealand’s rising media power. Sky is still number one, but fading.

You can’t blame Sky’s problems on Spark’s football win. The traditional pay-TV company hasn’t owned Premier League rights for five years now. Yet the move underscores the shift from old school television technology to streaming media.

Football - Chelsea v versus Liverpool

Football key to sport portfolio

The English Premier League joins Spark’s growing TV portfolio.

The telco, yes Spark is still mainly a telco, also has the local rights to Manchester United TV. On the team’s current form that may not be much to write home about. Even so it’s a sound investment. United is the best know and most followed English club outside of the UK.

Spark says it plans to wrap the two football deals into a new standalone sports media business. Spark already has the rights to next year’s Rugby World Cup.

The company has hinted there is still more to come. Sky TV doesn’t have the clout, or the money, it once had. So Spark has an opportunity to prise other popular sports away from the incumbent. If nothing else, New Zealand Netball and Cricket must be possible candidates. And perhaps various motor sports.

Sky FanPass

This is not great news for Sky. But there are chinks of light among the dark. The pay TV broadcaster cut a deal allowing Spark to resell its FanPass service.

Fanpass is now another small, but nicely done plank in Spark’s sports media portfolio. It also means Sky gets to tap a market that it has previously struggled to reach.

Let’s not forget LightBox. Spark’s streaming TV operation may be a pale imitation of Netflix, but it’s a useful value-add for Spark’s broadband business.

Another useful add-on for Spark is that it offers cut-price Netflix to customers signing for long broadband contracts.

Sticky TV

All-in-all Spark already has enough media properties to keep viewers glued to its broadband services. And that’s a critical part of the company’s TV-over-internet strategy: customers who buy a bundle of services are less likely to decamp to a rival broadband service.

Premier League football isn’t New Zealand’s most popular sporting code by a long shot. However, it has particular value for Spark. First, it tends to be watched by relatively well-heeled fans who are willing to pay a couple of hundred dollars or so for a year’s worth of games.

Second, Premier League fans are well used to watching games using streaming. It was the first major sporting property to be picked up by a digital organisation. That was Coliseum Sports Media which had the rights from 2013 to 2016. Spark works in a partnership with Coliseum before BeIn Sport won the rights.

Overseas moves

In a media statement Spark managing director Simon Moutter say his company developed its plan after looking at overseas sports content media moves.

He says: “We’ve carefully considered the different models and will be looking to replicate the good things other businesses have done and learn from the challenges they’ve had — all the while thinking carefully about how sports media fits in a New Zealand context”.

Spark says it will launch its own sport ‘platform’ early in 2019 and will annouce pricing and package deals closer to the launch.

Latch

Spark Sport head Spark hired Jeff Latch to head the Spark Sport operation. He will oversee buying more content rights and will take charge of the ‘platform’. Latch was previously director of content at TVNZ. In that role he was in charge of buying content, including sport. Spark is partnering with TVNZ for the Rugby World Cup project.

Latch says Spark will work with a specialist sports-streaming company. He says the platform used will be different from the one used by Spark’s Lightbox service.

He also said Spark intends its sports media operation to work as a standalone business and not be used merely as a way to woo broadband or mobile customers. To a degree this is what Spark has done with Lightbox.

Netflix close to two million NZ viewers

Had Sky merged with Vodafone it may have fought off the challenge from Spark, although that’s far from certain. Yet nothing could protect Sky from its other threat: Netflix.

Roy Morgan research says Netflix now has nearly two million viewers in New Zealand. The service saw subscription numbers grow 35 percent in the last year to reach 1.9 million viewers. The research company goes on to report:

“Now over three million New Zealanders have access to some form of Pay or Subscription TV, up 13.9 percent on a year ago. The growth in Pay and Subscription TV is being driven by the likes of Netflix along with a suite of rival streaming services including Lightbox, Sky TV’s Neon and Amazon Prime Video.”

Viewer numbers are growing slower for Sky TV’s Neon service. It was up 1.7 percent in the year to reach a total of 1.6 million viewers. Lightbox is the second most popular video on demand servide with 830,000 users. That’s up 43 percent on last year, growing faster than Netflix. Vodafone TV has 295,000.

Galaxy Note 9 sets new bar for Android phone price

This year a lot of people will pay NZ$2000 or more for a phone.

Apple set the tone at the end of last year with an NZ$2100 iPhone X. Now Samsung has joined the party with an NZ$2000 Galaxy Note 9.

You can pay less. A basic iPhone X with 64GB of storage costs NZ$1800. The more expensive model has 256GB.

Samsung has an NZ$1700 Galaxy Note 9 with 128GB of storage. The NZ$2000 model comes with 512GB.

Whether you need that much storage when cloud storage is plentiful and mobile data is cheaper is beside the point.

Inflationary

These are two examples of how New Zealand’s Consumer Price Index or CPI is the nearest thing to an official measure of inflation. In the most recent year, it was 1.5 percent.

That means consumers paid 1.5 percent more for a typical basket of goods and services in the year to June 2018 than a year earlier.

Expensive

At NZ$1700, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is $100 more than last year’s Note 8. That’s 6.25 percent higher: more than four times the CPI increase.

Apple’s iPhone X doesn’t have a year earlier model to compare.

Instead, we’ll look at the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8. When it launched the iPhone 7 was NZ$1200. A year later the iPhone 8 went on sale at $1250.

That’s a four percent increase. Apple’s markup is smaller than Samsung’s, but still well ahead of the CPI.

Everyone is at it

It’s not only Samsung and Apple. The prices of Huawei phone models climbed over the years.

Even Oppo, where the phone’s low price is the most important feature, has increased prices.

If anything, Huawei and Oppo’s price increases have been steeper than Samsung and Apple’s because they come off a lower base price.

But don’t phones get better

You might argue that the newer phones are better so phone makers can expect to sell them for more money. There’s something in this, see below.

Phone prices were stable during for years while annual upgrades meant huge leaps in functionality. Today’s upgrades are incremental while prices leap.

Apple shows the way

Apple has always lead the way on phone prices. It’s no accident it is the world’s biggest company and enjoys large profit margins. That trillion dollar valuation didn’t come by chance.

When it launched the iPhone X last year, Apple showed it could push phone prices above the NZ$2000 mark without denting sales. That opened the door for its rivals to charge more. They won’t admit it in public, but the iPhone acts as their benchmark.

Apple sells fewer phones than Samsung or Huawei.

The iPhone makes up around 20 percent of the handset market worldwide. It accounts for around 80 percent of profits from phone sales. Almost all the remaining profit from phone sales goes to Samsung.

Profits

It’s not clear how profitable the other main phone brands are. It’s not even clear if they are profitable. The companies don’t break out figures in the way that Apple and Samsung do. Yet it’s clear they are not making big margins.

Until a couple of years ago the Android phone market taken as a whole ran at a loss.

Things have changed. In part that’s because phone makers have pushed up handset prices ahead of inflation. It helps that some of the big names have either gone to the wall or wound down their operations.

Price rises have two sides

Inside the phone business, people talk about the average selling price or ASP.

According to IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker:

…”climbing ASPs continue to dampen the growth of the overall market”

…”Consumers remain willing to pay more for premium offerings in numerous markets and they now expect their device to outlast and outperform previous generations of that device which cost considerably less a few years ago.

IDC says worldwide phone ASPs are up 10 percent in the last year.

Sharper prices lower down the market

Phone makers love to tell investors they have managed to increase the average selling price of their phones.

In some cases, they have done this by bumping up prices on their flagship models while fighting tooth and nail further down the market.

You can still get bargains. Spend NZ$500 to NZ$600 and you can end up with something great. It won’t have the latest camera or tonnes of storage, but not everyone needs those features.

High prices could be here to stay

New flagship phones are expensive to make, but the cost of building a phone is a fraction of the selling price.

Putting more lenses and more camera sensors may cost a phone maker a dozen or so dollars. OLED displays, curved glass add to costs. Perhaps the biggest extra cost is the memory chips needed to boost a phone’s storage, there is a trend towards higher storage in phones.

Higher phone prices are unlikely to go away soon. The glory days of fast-rise phone sales are over.

People are now holding on to phones for longer, squeezing more value from the money they have already spent. So it becomes important for each sold phone to contribute a little more profit.