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nest smart homeNest, the smart thermostat maker Google acquired in 2014, is the world’s best-known home automation brand. The company is now selling its smart home products and services in New Zealand.

Smart home technology has been slow to take off around the world. It gets the attention from technology fetishists, but, despite years of hype and marketing, has yet to break into the mainstream. It remains a tiny niche.

Take Nest’s thermostats. They look good. They get rave reviews in technology publications. Users swear they can save hundreds on their power bills with them. Yet Google only sold 1.3 million in 2015.

To put things in perspective, Apple sold 6 million Watches in three months during the same year.

Nest performances disappointing

Some analysts report Google is disappointed with Nest’s performance to date. It looks a long way from recovering the US$3.2 billion it paid for Nest and the US$550 million it paid for Dropcam, which makes home security cameras. The two brands have since been merged.

That doesn’t mean Google’s investment will never pay off. Nest sits alongside Google’s Speaker and Chromecast.

All are part of a “connected home” strategy. The idea is that you can speak to tell Google to turn up the heat and get the devices to display your camera’s security images on your TV via Chromecast. On a good day, it all works.

Smart home still immature

Home automation is still in its infancy. About one in 20 US homes have one or more smart home components. Hardly any have a full suite.

The numbers will be far lower in New Zealand. Apart from anything else, few New Zealand homes have the kind of central heating system that can make full use of a Nest controller.

What’s more the Unisys Security Index shows we’re wary of the Internet of Things. There’s a huge potential for the Internet of Things to make smart home devices even smarter, but for now that’s not happening fast enough.

While companies are quick to embrace the IoT technology that uses sensors, communications, computing and automation to save money or speed processes, doing the same things at home feels like playing with toys.

Your idea of fun?

Make no mistake, home automation vendors are on to this, they often talk about their products being ‘fun’ or use similar language. They also like to use fear to sell. The curious press release from Google about Nest’s New Zealand launch is full of words like ‘worry’, ‘stolen’ and ‘safe’.

Not that there’s anything wrong with home security, but Google lays it on thick.

Nest gets around two of the biggest objections to home automation. First, most smart home products are too expensive to take seriously. Who in their right mind would spend more on an intelligent fridge than a new car?

There are three Nest cameras. With prices between $360 and $550 they are not cheap, you can buy cameras for a tenth of that. Likewise the $220 smoke alarm. You can buy an unconnected one in Mitre 10 for about $10. Yet, these are small investments to get started with home automation.

The second object is that home automation technology is too hard to use or install and the parts don’t tend to work well with each other. Nest gets around this.

Simple, needs to be simpler

When Google wraps the technology in with its Speaker and Chromecast things will be even simpler. Where this leaves households with Amazon or Apple technology is another question.

Perhaps a more pressing question is what are the consequences of huge technology giants like Google owning the home automation market? There will be privacy concerns and the problems associated with technology lock-in, switching from a Google home to, say, an Amazon one would be difficult.

Another issue is where is the business model here? Google didn’t spend the thick end of half a trillion dollars to flog home gadgets. It wants more back from Nest than hardware sales. How will that work for the company and, more to the point, how will that business model work for you?

This year’s premium phones are better equipped and more powerful than most PCs. They also tend to be more expensive.

Phones have been pocketable personal computers for four or five years now. For most of that time their productive capacity has been on a par with desktops and laptops.

While there was no dramatic gear shift in 2017, the performance gap widened. It’s now at the point where there is no longer any doubt about the epicentre of personal computer power.

For most people, in most walks of life, the phone is by far the dominant device.

Smart than your average

Some still call them smartphones. Yet smart seems redundant when few people in rich countries carry non-smart phones.

Even the low-cost not-so-smart phones on sale in supermarkets, dairies and petrol stations meet everyday needs.

You still need a personal computer for heavy lifting. It’s one thing to provide a quick email answer on a phone. Creating a marketing report or writing a thesis needs a bigger screen and a keyboard.

That’s where desktop and laptop computers still rule. Although devices like Apple’s iPad Pro nip at the margins of those applications.

More personal

People often overlook something else about phones. Phones are far more personal than personal computers. You can share a PC with others — tools like desktop virtualisation mean some computers are less personal than others.

Most of us are far less inclined to share our phones and other people are less likely to ask or expect it.

Gung-ho technology enthusiasts get starry-eyed about the idea of wearable computers. They may yet be a serious alternative. But for now, phones perform the same role. They are close to us most of the time. Attaching them to our wrists wouldn’t change things much.

And they are intimate devices. Few of us are far from our phones for long. They go with us everywhere. Chances are, that you’re reading this on a phone and not a PC screen.

This means buying a phone is an important decision; the most important personal technology decision you make.

I’ll leave it to you whether you choose an Android or an iPhone. In general I’ve no sage advice recommending one over the other. If you use Apple computers or an iPod, then an iPhone makes sense. If you’ve invested in iTunes music or apps, then an iPhone makes more sense than an Android.

Likewise if you’ve invested in Android software or in Google, you might do better with Android. Windows fans can go either way.

Which to buy?

People often ask me which specific phones they should buy. Here I can help with more direct, practical advice, even if I don’t name names.

Buy a phone that you can afford. Don’t stress your budget to have the latest or greatest model. Don’t feel you need to update every year or even every two years. Many three or four-year old phones are often good enough for most purposes.

Look after your device; it should go on doing whatever it did when you first bought it for its entire physical life. You may have to forego software or operating system updates towards the end of its lifespan.

If you are upgrading, get the most powerful processor and the most storage you can afford. If money is tight, compromise elsewhere before skimping on these features. Android users can often buy phones with a nominal amount storage and add a memory card.

While Apple and Samsung phones are, in general, a cut about their rivals, all the well-known brands are good. Sony is often overlooked, but the phones are great. The new Nokia models seem fine, although it’s too soon to say for certain. Huawei is solid. Oppo phones are cheaper, but are not second-rate.

Most technology writers assume readers have unlimited budgets. I’ve always been aware than paying the thick end of $2000 for a phone is beyond many people. You can find many bargains for half that amount.

Even phones costing a third of that price tend to be worthwhile. Apple fans can pick up an iPhone SE for NZ$600. There are many solid Android options at around this price.

There are no bad premium phones at the moment. And life in the second rung isn’t too shabby.

Surface book

Consumer Reports has pulled its recommendations for Microsoft’s Surface products, citing an industry-worst failure rate.

Source: Consumer Reports: Microsoft Surface is Dead Last for Reliability – Thurrott.com

Reliability is one of the hardest things to cover off when reviewing hardware.

It’s no accident that Apple, which sits at the top of the reliability league table lends hardware to journalists for extended review periods. That makes for better reviews on two counts.

First, you can dive a lot deeper into the product and use it more like a buyer would. I often wait  until a month or more before writing about Apple kit. I write about my experiences using the product in real, everyday work.

There’s no need to run through artificial tests which is what happens when you only have something for a few days. A longer test means a better understanding of quirks and nuances, and what they mean in practice.

Testing for reliability

Second, you get a better feel for reliability. If you use a computer for a couple of months without a glitch, there’s a good chance it will last for 12 months or longer without a problem.

A third benefit of extended review periods, is that a reviewer can find something they are so comfortable with, that they are happy to spend their own money on. It’s because I spent quality time with Apple hardware I chose to buy that brand later.

Something similar happened when I borrowed the HP Spectre. I loved it so much that I’m writing this post on mine.

 

I didn’t see anything wrong with the review Surface Book. But I only had it for a little over a week. I did notice a minor hiccup with the Surface Pro 3, but didn’t write about it at the time because it happened once and just may have been user error. A longer review might have shown me it was a device problem.

 

LibreOffice 5.4With version 5.4 The Document Foundation has made the free, open source LibreOffice 5.4 more compatible with Microsoft Office1.

If you like your productivity software to come as a big, sprawling, all-encompassing suite, you can buy an annual Microsoft Office subscription.

Or, you could get the power of Office without paying a penny. LibreOffice is free and open source. When I tested LibreOffice 5.2 a year ago I found it was a solid alternative, but lacks polish.

There’s still no polish. The Document Foundation has stuck with a retro user interface. It says this will be the last LibreOffice 5 version. The next will be LibreOffice 6. That may see the software get a make-over.

While LibreOffice 5.4 make look dated to some, the comments in the earlier post show some users are comfortable with the older way of working. The fancy Microsoft Office ribbon interface doesn’t help you get things done any faster. It’s just cosmetic.

Writer

Whether you like LibreOffice’s look and feel or not, the power of the software is beyond question. The Writer app has almost all the features found in Microsoft Word. If anything is missing, it’s something almost no-one ever uses.

This time around LibreOffice adds the ability to import AutoText from Microsoft Word DOTM templates. In plain English this means you can import the default styles and custom elements that determine how documents look. If you work with others who run Microsoft Word, you’ll be able to create documents in the same style.

The 5.4 update also means you can export and paste number or bullet lists as plain text while keeping their structure. There is a new ability to create watermarks and LibreOffice has updated menus for working with sections, footnotes, endnotes and styles.

LibreOffice says Writer has cleaned up how it deals with imported PDFs. I’ve not tested this yet.

LibreOffice 5.4 improves file compatibility

You may notice an improvement in file compatibility between LibreOffice ODF and Microsoft .docx formats while in LibreOffice Writer. This still doesn’t work so well the other way around when you’re in Word, but that’s not The Document Foundation’s fault. There are still incompatibilities, but they are fewer and less difficult to deal with.

Taken as a list, the upgrades to Writer are incremental, it’s not a big upgrade. There’s a little more going on with the Calc update. LibreOffice has added pivot charts among other things, but it is still an incremental update. You can check the wiki for a full list of changes.

Is LibreOffice 5.4 right for you? It is if you need a full software suite and don’t want or can’t afford to pay for Microsoft Office. You might also ask yourself if you need a suite at all. That’s another post.


  1. Not that it wasn’t already compatible enough for most people. ↩︎

ipad-pro-12-9-inch second generation Smart Keyboard
Apple’s Smart Keyboard cover gives the second generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro basic protection from knocks and scratches.

Apple made the large screen 12.9-inch iPad Pro to travel. It may not be as portable as the 9.7 or 10.5-inch iPads, but the bigger display makes up for that. It is fast becoming my first choice travelling computer1.

The 12.9-inch screen on the second generation iPad Pro is tough. Even so, there is no point taking chances. What is the best way to keep it from damage?

Apple’s NZ$269 Smart Keyboard Cover is the obvious first option. It is light; only 340g. The 12.9-inch iPad is 723g. Together they weigh a shade over a kilogram. That’s a little more than the MacBook which weighs in at 920g.

Smart Keyboard cover

The Smart Keyboard Cover turns the iPad Pro into an effective laptop replacement. I’ve found it is good to type on. Not perfect, but good. One advantage is that it is as wide as normal laptop keyboard.

It is more comfortable for touch typing than the Surface Pro 4 keyboard. It compares with many modern laptop keyboards. This isn’t so true of the 9.7 or 10.5 inch Smart Keyboard Cover. I find the keys are almost too close together for comfort.

The larger keyboard is one reason why I prefer the larger iPad Pro.

In practice I’ve found the Smart Keyboard Cover provides enough protection around the house. It also works if I put the combination in my briefcase to travel to a meeting or work in a client’s office. The only downside is that it doesn’t accommodate the Apple Pencil.

More protection for 12.9-inch iPad Pro

You can walk about town with no more protection than the Smart Keyboard Cover. I have an Apple-made first generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro Silicon case. It’s helpful guarding against knocks and drops. This is also an Apple-made leather shell for the first generation model. Neither of these are still available on Apple’s New Zealand site. There are third-party shells.

The Leather Sleeve protects the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in style.
The Leather Sleeve protects the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in style.

Apple’s new protective case is the NZ$269 Leather Sleeve. As the name says it slips over the computer. There’s enough room inside to accommodate the Smart KeyBoard Cover as well. Apple has added a space to take the Pencil.

Leather Sleeve showing the Apple Pencil slot
Leather Sleeve showing the Apple Pencil slot

Although it is expansive, in practice it works better than the Silicon shell case. It is lighter and takes up less room. I’ve found it works great on airplanes, if you’re a regular flyer I recommend you invest in one. I also use the Leather Sleeve when I’m ducking out for a quick meeting in my car and don’t need to carry anything else.

Snugg Leather Sleeve

If the price of the Apple Leather Sleeve is too much, Snugg has a solid alternative. I first reviewed and used the Snugg MacBook Air 13 Wallet Case with my MacBook Air. It is ideal for protecting my 12.9-inch iPad Pro. After all, 12.9 inches is not a long way from 13 inches, so it fits well.

Snugg MacBook Air Leather case
Snugg MacBook Air Leather wallet case works well with the larger iPad Pro

You don’t get the dinky Apple Pencil holder, although there is more than enough space in the Snugg case to take that. I’ve come away from meetings and conferences with papers in my Snugg case alongside the iPad Pro.

One other thing, the Snugg case is chunkier, or if you like, more rugged. It can take more punishment than the Apple Leather Sleeve. There are plenty of colour options, including a soft pink if you feel the rugged look is not for you.

I’ve left the best thing about the Snugg to last. At US$25 plus postage, it works out at around a quarter of the price. The problem is that Snugg product is out of stock, although you can still find some on sale online. Snugg makes tablet cases, but I prefer the Wallet case.


  1. I’m thinking of from switching from a MacBook plus 9.7-inch iPad to a desktop iMac plus a 12.9-inch iPad Pro. ↩︎