Category Archives: Tech News

PC Hardware modding – why do some people feel the need?

PC gamers have always sought to have the best equipment so that they can play the latest games. This, of course, plays into the hands (and pockets!) of component and PC manufacturers. Once they have the equipment, they can then try to stretch it to the edge of its capabilities in order to provide a better experience. This has led to a complete sub-culture where patrons try to outdo each other on their PC builds, sometimes spending thousands of pounds for an exponentially small improvement in performance, but giving them bragging rights over their peers.

Of course technology tends to move so fast that within a week or two of their build going public, someone will have improved their design and posted slightly higher stats. This never ending battle to be king of the hill keeps some people busy for MONTHS at a time. And it doesn’t look like it will end any time soon!

There are countless websites devoted to hardware for your PC. They will sell you the latest graphics card or processor and tell you that you need it to compete in online gaming. The reality is that the PC you already have will likely run most games (it won’t play them all!) but it may do so very slowly, with very poor graphics rendering. This is where these sites know you will need to spend money to beef up your system. Generally people who go to mainstream shops and buy a PC need something that will browse the web and open emails for them. They may also want to watch Youtube videos and listen to Radio 4 but in general they won’t be doing anything too taxing.

PC gamers on the other hand tend to be a much more involved buyer. They will want a decent multi-core CPU with a low power draw. The GPU needs to be high end, with as many Petaflops as they can get for their money. Water cooling? That’s right, running water inside your expensive PC! The list of updatable components is not quite endless, but the number of iterations is. A low end gaming rig can be put together for a few hundred pounds, or you can splurge several thousands on a beast.

If you want to compete then you need to read up some more on the subject, and you also better have deep pockets!

EU Parliament fails to protect net neutrality

The EU Parliament today failed to pass a bill which proponents said would protect net neutrality in the EU. The vote, which blocked proposed amendments to legislation already adopted by the EU, could have significant impact on the availability of web services for consumer with a two tier ‘pay to play’ model the ultimate fear for neutrality advocates.

Net neutrality is nothing new. It has long been discussed and championed by eminent figures in the Tech world, like Sir Tim Berners Lee and Elon Musk along with major internet players like Reddit and Netflix. The fundamental principle of net neutrality is that all users should have access to the same services on the internet. The EU failure to implement these amendments now leaves the way open for content providers to charge for their services, or at least part of them.

It also provides an option for zero rated sites. This would offer free content from selected websites outside of a normal data plan, but the worry is that this may stifle innovation and lead to a closed shop system thereby denying everyone the same opportunity to view content. Basically, if you can afford to pay more, then you will see more. Hardly a fillip for emerging economies who are desperately trying to catch up with tech developments using the world wide web.

It is believed that the vote against the amendments was because of a fear that passing the bill would stall the introduction of a the Roaming charges ban (backlink to other article) which was voted for on the same day. The latter is obviously more of a hot button issue and was guaranteed to have widespread support from voters. The unfortunate issue here is that not enough people have been educated on the issue of net neutrality for it to be top of their agenda.

The issue will not go away. It is likely that a further bill will be tabled at some point in the future, and hopefully now that the roaming charges issue has been resolved, there might be a clear passage for such a bill. We’ll update if that happens.

EU Parliament votes to ban mobile roaming charges within the EU

The big news item today is the ban on mobile roaming charges in the EU, which was voted through today and will see roaming charges in the EU banned from 15th June 2017. Rightly this is a triumph for mobile phone users throughout the EU, and especially those who live in border areas which have conflicting signal strength which has led to bill shock situations in the past. Providers will no longer be able to pass on connection charges from that date, although there is an interim cap period from 30th April 2017 where operators will be able to charge no more than:

–          €0.05 per minute extra for roaming calls

–          €0.02 for each SMS sent

–          €0.05 per Mb of data used

Now while it might seem ideal that you won’t have these extra charges to worry about when on holiday, there is going to be a significant impact on the operator profits. That isn’t something they will take lying down. It is very likely that the cost of a standard contract will increase over the next few years to a point where the loss of connection revenue is irrelevant. And that is going to affect you directly. That £30pm contract you currently have is likely to become £40pm within a relatively short space of time.

Mobile operators will hope that people continue to buy new contracts. They make very little money from the service plan (and less after this ruling) but manage to get you to pay extra for a flashy handset, at interest rates which allow them to offset the small gains made on the service plans. I would expect that this business model will be aggressively pursued to keep shareholders happy.

So is there a way to combat any increase?

Well I believe so. Buying your handset outright is a much better option financially. A reasonably specced large screen 4G smartphone running the latest version of android can be bought for as little as £50 sim free, which means that you only need a sim package to get up and running. There are some notable players in this market such as Giffgaff  and the more recent (and untested at this  point) FreedomPop who offer a free sim with free calls, texts and data.

So while it might seem that the abolition of roaming charges is a fantastic deal for consumers, it might only be a short term benefit. It might be worth looking at the longer term to see if really does save you money!

Wearables – What happens when business figures out just how useful they will be?

You are a walking mine of information. Companies pay extraordinary amounts of money to specialist companies who record everything you do. From how often you purchase a particular brand of peas, to when you last had a cold. We don’t like to think too hard about the data we give up every day in the most innocuous ways. Your supermarket loyalty card is perhaps the one that we all think of as the most obvious. You visit the store or their website, you buy goods, and the supermarket gets to know what you bought and when. This helps them to plan their future purchasing and bring you the thing you like, or at least that’s what they tell us.

But that area of data collation is pretty benign. No-one is complaining too much about letting Tesco and the rest know what type of cheese they like, and how often they eat it. The new area you should be looking at is the wearables market. Ok, so it hasn’t quite taken off just yet, but it is coming, and in a big way. Several of the major watch manufacturers have announced their intention to get in on the act, and these guys don’t normally follow trends, they are the people who set them.

So what is the problem? Well whereas your supermarket loyalty card or your browser habits can tell a company all sorts of useful information, it can’t quite get to grips with the human side of purchasing. Until now, that has been the holy grail. Retailers have long known that emotional state has a part to play in purchasing. That’s why websites are bright and colourful, and supermarkets spend a lot of time and money planning the layout of their aisles. How they present offers to you can alter your mood. If you are happier, you will relax and spend more. It’s basic psychology which they have known about for decades. Until now they have had to rely on focus groups to assess the likely result of any particular campaign they decide to introduce. Small data groups are limited in their usefulness but they are the only way retailers have to gauge public opinion.

Where wearables add a new dynamic is because they will provide biometric data. Got the Tesco clubcard app on your phone? At the moment that is as useful to Tesco as your clubcard keyring. It doesn’t tell them any more than they have been getting for the past 5 years or so. However, if you have the app, and then buy a wearable, they suddenly can tweak the app and get not only your purchasing habits, but your body responses to the purchases you made. One supermarket has already fitted out their store with LEDs which transmit data to your phone to let you know what items are in the aisle in front of you. Well that’s great, because it means you can be more efficient when going around the supermarket. And that is true. But what it will also allow them to do is gauge how you feel about what you are looking at.

You see, if they know where you are in the supermarket, and what you are looking at (because the LED system is tracking you to exact items) then they can use the wearable to determine your pulse, respiration, perspiration levels etc. These combined can give a pretty powerful picture of your emotional response at any given point throughout the shopping trip. So when you look at a big 50% off sign for your favourite widget, they will know just how you reacted.

Don’t like tomatoes? Chances are your body will respond when you pass them, and the supermarket suddenly knows that they shouldn’t send you offers for their new range of tomato based sauces. That of course is just for the bricks and mortar stores. If e-tailers can get you to download an app for their site, then they will have access to the same information.

Advocates for privacy have long been warning of the dangers of the internet, and the problems giving up too much data can pose. Those very real issues have had little coverage in the mainstream press, because most media have an agenda. They need to sell advertising space to survive, and writing articles telling us hoe evil these advertisers are doesn’t sit well with the accountants. So we have reached a point where we accept that we give up some data in return for a more tailored experience. It isn’t really costing you money, and it doesn’t eat into your time.

In future, the data you provide might not be limited to just the supermarket you choose to shop with. Once the data has transferred, it belongs to the store. So the state of your health is now prime data that your supermarket has. Can they sell it? Well yes they can, and they will. You might find that your wearable is telling them that you have a high pulse and respiration rate, perhaps indicating an underlying health condition. They can then use that to either sell you one of their own healthcare products, or they could sell it on to a healthcare provider who might then try to sell you a medical procedure or medical insurance (and you can’t lie on the form because you’ve already given them data on the state of your health!).

So before you jump on the bandwagon and get a shiny new watch with downloadable faces, think about what the implications may be. Do you want to allow the businesses in your life know about your heart murmur? I’ll lay money that if they asked you in store you wouldn’t tell them.

Like everything in life, better informed is better prepared. Take your time after buying your wearable, and check the terms and permissions of the apps you download for it. They might save you having to lift the phone from your bag or pocket, but could mean you start getting more calls from life insurance companies that you’ll need to screen and filter.

Is computer gaming just for kids?

Gaming is ubiquitous these days. There are games on your PC, on your tablet, and on your mobile phone. Well, at least the option is to have them there!

But aren’t games just for children?

Well no. The demographics for gaming have changed massively over the past ten years or so. They are no longer the preserve of pre-teen and teenage boys who need to release testosterone in a non violent manner, or want to impress their mates with a high score on Pokemon. No, they’ve come a long way from then.

Games started out as side scrolling platform based games, the Donkey Kong and Sonic of yesteryear. These were repetitive, linear and formulaic. Jump, collect things, and then rescue the maiden. Even someone with no co-ordination could practice and become quite good. These were run on first gen consoles, or the Commodore C64 (I actually started on a ZX81!) which limited the graphics to 8 bit technology. This was the main reason for the limitations in graphical output.

The introduction of the Super Nintendo began a new era in gaming. It was so user friendly, with such a massive leap forward in graphics that it started to get older kids and even some of the adults engaged. This was followed up with the Wii some years later, and the introduction of fitness apps (and games) brought a whole new audience. Suddenly middle aged women wanted to own a gaming console.

Where the real leaps came though was in the world of the Personal Computer (PC). PC gaming in the past tended to be the playground of nerds and geeks. On the PC, they could tear apart the code behind the game and tweak the files to introduce new characters and gameplay options. This ‘modding’ has been the driver behind some of the best games ever to hit your screen, and without that free development community working for them, many game studios would have struggled to make their mark and survive in a multi-billion pound business.

The latest big leap has been the introduction of mobile gaming. Almost everyone has either a smartphone or tablet these days, and the app makers were quick to realise that if you could create a killer game, then stick some adverts into it, then you could create a very solid income stream for little cost. If you look at the most popular games of recent years (think Angry Birds TM or Candy Crush Saga TM) the developers had a ready made audience. All of those users of mobile devices now needed content to go with the device capabilities. Large screens and decent graphics units meant that bright and fast paced was the way to go. It didn’t need to be complicated, it just needed to engage the user.

A new article published very recently (insert link to original article or BBC and credit it here) has shown that playing games is the new health boost that we need for our brains. In one of the studies (granted it was carried out on a small test group, and I see no evidence of a control element in the study) a remarkable 30% increase in cognitive abilities was detected in those over 60. It has also shown that cognitive functions in all age groups seem to benefit from the stimulation that learning to play a game needs. So it may well be that research into some degenerative neural complaints may need to look at introducing gaming as a method of stimulation, perhaps in conjunction with drug based trials.

I suspect that even if further studies were proven to have impressive health benefits, there will always be a section of society that thinks such activities are either the preserve of the young or of those dying of old age. I have been asked before by some (slightly) older family why I play games, and no matter the reasoning I provide, it is always dismissed out of hand as a waste of my time. Perhaps when they are older and can’t remember what day it is but I can still remember that I need to pull my zipper up after using the bathroom, I might just be able to justify all those ‘wasted’ hours I spent on various battlefields talking to people from all over the world, all the while improving the neural activity my brain needs to keep me functioning.