July 30, 2015
THE TELESTIAL DATA DIET – TIPS FOR DEALING WITH A HUNGRY SMARTPHONE
After many years of horror stories about billshock, people are slowly opening their eyes to the dangers of unchecked data use while roaming. The idea that a few hours of unchecked browsing could lead to thousands of dollars in charges was so horrific to some people, they refused to even use their phone while travelling. In recent years, domestic providers have loosened their iron grip on roaming rates and have started (slowly) to lower their rates in other countries. But there are still places in the world where roaming charges are prohibitively expensive, so it is worth keeping an eye on things.
However, it is not just roaming that is becoming the issue. As we have mentioned in previous posts, there are traps for the unwary at home as well as abroad – autoplaying videos, page bloat, malware – all these things can slow the browsing experience, eat through data allowances and drain battery life. Our smartphones are close to as powerful as a desktop computer these days, but we still take far more care over the security and performance of the latter than we do the former. It doesn’t have to be this way. You’ll need to put your smartphone on a bit of a diet, restricting it from certain temptations that don’t do it any good at all. But if you follow some of the tips in this post, both you and your smartphone will feel a great deal healthier as a consequence.
SMARTPHONE USER, KNOW THYSELF
For the most part, there’s only one person who uses your smartphone, and that’s you. Ten years ago, looking something up online on your phone might have been enough of a novelty for you to remember exactly what you were doing, but these days, it is as much a part of life as anything else, and it’s easy when you have a wifi connection to switch off. Knowing your own habits is a vital piece of the data use puzzle. Use a data calculator to estimate your daily, weekly or monthly mobile internet usage. The important information here is the amount of data you use, not the price – after all, you will be travelling, and will be subject to different rates. You can use past bills to see whether your calculations match up to the estimates. If you are using a Telestial SIM (and because you’re very sensible, of course you are), use the JT Travel App to see what things cost and check your usage is in line with expectations.
DISABLE GREEDY APPS AND FEATURES
Most smartphones also have a data usage tracker these days – simply navigate to Settings > Data Use. This will show how much data you’ve used in a graph, and for an extra line of defense against unexpected costs, you can set a limit on your phone here too. If you scroll down, you will also see exactly which parts of your phone have been using data. This is an excellent way of identifying and disabling apps that you don’t need or don’t want using all that data.
Just because you are not using an App, does not automatically mean that it won’t use any data. Apps are regularly updated, some as frequently as two or three times a week. This can use up several MB of precious data allocation on something you are not planning on using anyway. Limit their access to the web by setting them to only update over WIFI – again, something that can be found under Settings > Data Use. You can also tell your smartphone to cease some or all background data use – that is to say, things such as your location tracker that run in the background even if you are not specifically using them. There is an option to turn this off across the board, but it is better to go through your apps individually, as some of them can still be incredibly useful. There are other third-party apps that you can download which manage these apps in different ways, and giving you even more control. Alternately, you can download a data killswitch, a very simple App that turns absolutely everything off – similar to the difference between switching off the water supply at the mains instead of a tap.
LOSE THE BAD APP(LES)
There have been stories recently about a huge number of Apps in the Apple and Android app stores that are riddled with malware. It is estimated that 5000 apps have infected 20 million phones around the world. While the main goal of these apps is to make it look like the user is clicking on ads (at a rate of 7 per minute), the side effect is that your data allocation is used up very quickly without you ever knowing it, as this malware runs even when the app itself is closed, and could easily eat through 2GB of data in a 24 hour period. Go through your apps and check their reputation online. If it seems like it might be a problem or if it is an App you haven’t used in some time, get rid of it. There are always alternatives.
NO TIME TO PLAY
Social media giants Facebook and Twitter have begun to implement a policy of allowing videos to play automatically – and they are far from the only website that likes to do this. This is fine from the safety of a cable or WIFI connection, but for mobile users, it slows things down and can eat through your data loading videos that you don’t necessarily want to watch. Make sure these videos are not allowed to play automatically, either through the site’s homepage or app settings.
Now that it has been established that visiting an average page from one of the top 1000 websites costs you up to 2MB, it’s time to take greater control of your browsing. Not all sites will cost you that much, but there are many that will cost you significantly more, up to from between 9-12MB for the worst offenders. News sites are amongst the worst offenders, but really, any site with a lot of content that is regularly updated usually suffers from page bloat because of the amount of deals they need to make with advertisers to keep making money. While this is an issue that will become more important in the future, we are focussing on your vacation here, and so action needs to be taken. Consider looking at an alternative browser for your mobile device. The ones that come as standard work well enough, but they are not designed for a smartphone diet. Take a look at some of the others, taking note of the ones that are faster, lighter and optimized for mobile use. If you really want to slim down, consider a browser that takes out everything but the text.
Installing an ad-blocker on your device is also a very wise precaution. While ad-blockers and their use is becoming a moral issue, it does not change the fact that online advertising is, at its best, seriously inconvenient. Getting rid of ads while you are browsing abroad just makes good sense and will save you money on your data allowance. If you feel guilty about denying web publishers their revenue, download or purchase an app for that site, if there is one. Apps also have adverts, but they are under tighter control than with mobile browsing. Also, if you have paid for the app, you have paid the publisher and can rest easy that you are not putting them out of a job.
ALWAYS CARRY CACHE
Many of the things we do online don’t actually need to be done online. With a bit of time and planning, it’s possible to pre-load important, useful or other information onto your phone before you travel. Smartphones come with a decent amount of storage as standard, but higher-end models can come with as much as 32GB of storage space – enough room for several movies or a TV series, and plenty more besides. Maps can be pre-downloaded and stored. Unless you are streaming, music playlists can be prepared and added, as well as web pages that you might want to read later. The list goes on – so the biggest problem that a carefully curated mobile web cache could cause would be whether you actually have time to look at all this extra stuff!
By taking a bit of time to follow these steps and looking closely at your own mobile data habits, you can very quickly identify and eliminate problems, while at the same time giving you more power over your devices. Pretty soon, you’ll see that using data on your smartphone isn’t something to be despised or scared of, and you’ll be able to take control… without taking out a loan.
July 20, 2015
CARRIERS, MANUFACTURERS AND THE FUTURE OF THE SIM CARD
The internet is abuzz with stories this week about a new technology called e-SIMs and the coming death of the SIM card (again). Smartphone manufacturers are in discussion with the GSMA, a trade association representing network operators from around the world, to come up with a new standard in SIM cards – the e-SIM. Instead of a physical SIM card, these new electronic SIM cards come hard-wired into the device itself. The spin behind this is that it will be far easier to switch carriers and plans in the future(in a way not dissimilar to the Apple SIM that now comes with iPad Air 2 tablets), doing away with phone locking and giving consumers more choice over which plan they choose to use. The reality is, of course, a little more complicated.
First, it’s important to understand why this is happening. A good deal of it is to do with how US phone contracts and plans have changed in the last few years. Phones used to be sold at a subsidized cost as part of an arrangement with the carrier. In return for a two-year contract that locked the phone and the user into using only that carrier’s network, networks sold phones at a lower price. This money was reclaimed by way of higher service fees throughout the life of the contract, but as the price of smartphones continued to rise, they found themselves occasionally making a loss. At the same time, a new player came onto the scene with the intention of making a lot of noise, taking customers away from the big players and changing the game completely.
In March 2013, T-Mobile started launching deals which did not subsidize the cost of the handset. Handsets were sold at their full price, with the offer of financing if it was needed. The subsequently lower rates for calls and data proved very popular, and T-Mobile’s increasing market share (gained at the expense of the bigger players) could no longer be ignored. It was not long before everyone else had followed suite. Now, there are significantly better options available in terms of smartphones. Customers can buy them as new from the carrier for the full price, or they can bring their old or second-hand handset with them. Carriers are no longer making a loss from subsidizing handsets, and are now in fact starting to turn a profit from handset sales. It is estimated that carriers will have up to $35 billion in handset financing to sell, further boosting their bottom line.
So why is it important that manufacturers such as Apple and Samsung are involving themselves in this new SIM technology? After all, on the surface, very little has changed – consumers still get their handsets from carriers, and the full cost of these handsets is still passed on to the manufacturers. But now that consumers are paying these costs themselves, the prices are too high for things to continue as they have been. A brand-new iPhone 6, for example, costs $649; a top-spec Samsung S6 without a contract costs just under $1000. Under these circumstances, people are upgrading their handsets far less frequently than they used to. They are also looking at alternatives, such as second-hand phones. Industry figures suggest that the habits of consumers have changed, leading to a rise in the period between handset upgrades from once every 15 months to once every 2 years. Shipment forecasts of handsets to the US will rise at a much lower rate for the next few years, down to 5.3% from 8.9% last year.
If people are not buying the latest handsets, they aren’t taking advantage of the latest technology and this was always one of the biggest selling points for new smartphone handsets. They are looking for a way to regain control, and they may have just found it. After all, if the SIM card is hardwired into the phone handset, then there’s really no need to purchase your phone from the carrier at all; you can just get it directly from the manufacturer, no doubt with a similar financing plan. It also gives the manufacturer the power to decide which networks they allow on their e-SIM. Given these considerations, it is no wonder that industry experts are expecting a push-back from networks. That said, many operators are already on board, including AT&T, Deutsche Telekom (who own T-Mobile), Telefonica and others have all signed up to the talks.
It paints a very bleak picture for travelers. You currently have several options while abroad – you can roam using your domestic operator, or you can swap out your SIM for a local or roaming SIM card. In the future, it is your phone handset that will dictate your choice (singular) for you. There are other potential issues. Apple is an incredibly profit-hungry business – it provides 20% of the global smartphone market, but pockets a staggering 92% of the profits - and it has never been one to play well with others. One hypothetical situation that could come about would be in a country with two providers, one bigger than the other (in the same way that AT&T is bigger than T-Mobile). Apple could decide that it is working exclusively with the larger company and, even if the smaller company is cheaper, more competitive or offers better coverage in certain areas, the iPhone user won’t have any opportunity to switch to a better service. Also, it’s entirely possible that if Apple makes a deal with one operator, Samsung will make a deal with the other. And it could be that some companies do not wish to make a deal with either, and therefore their service will not be available at all.
These new SIMs, which are expected to arrive by 2016 (and it is rumored will be in the iPhone 7) will, at the very least, add a new dimension to the current wrangling over the abolishment of international roaming within the EU Member States. Last week, European politicians only had every telecoms operator in the Union to deal with; now, at the very least, the must tackle the looming giants Samsung and Apple as well.
Meanwhile, in case you were wondering whether any of this is actually new or not, rest assured: it is not. The technology is a bit different, but the concept has been around a good while. It’s already possible to get a SIM card that works in multiple destinations, that automatically switches to the best deal or strongest connection, and with a choice of network operator in each country. There is also a place where you can find affordable, unlocked Android handsets that don’t require a finance plan to purchase. And the name of this remarkable, cutting-edge website? Telestial.com.
July 16, 2015
SMARTPHONES – IS THERE ANYTHING THEY CAN’T DO?
We are living in the data age – not simply because of the increasingly important role that technology is playing in our lives, but also because of the vast amounts of information being collated about our habits. While the wholesale interception of data and information by various governmental security services makes the headlines for all the wrong reasons, there are a number of studies that have recently been produced that have far-ranging implications. A surprising amount of them are to do with our relationship with our smartphones.
For example, there is a huge amount of information about what we do with our phones when we use them. For most Americans, their smartphone is the first thing they look at in the morning, and the last thing they check at night. During the day, most people check their phone on an hourly basis. People devote up to 85% of the time they spend using a smartphone on apps. Given the vast array of apps, from games to social networks to mapping and other useful tools, you might be forgiven for thinking that this time would be spread over dozens of different apps. In reality, we only use about 5 apps per person (though of course, one of them is bound to be the JT Travel App).
In terms of apps, we’re really only now starting to realize what our phones are capable of, and we are taking several steps closer toward making a reality out of what had before only been possible in science fiction. From using smartphone alerts to double the amount of lives saved from cardiac arrests, to helping manage epilepsy treatment, your phone will soon be able to tell if you are pregnant. Recent studies of usage habits show that the amount of time you spend with your handset might be an indicator that they might be suffering from depression. It won’t be long before the smartphone becomes more useful than Stark Trek’s tricorder – after all, if they can both diagnose any illness or injury within seconds, then surely the device that can do all that and play the latest Taylor Swift single is better. Unfortunately, it is not all good news – because smartphones are so useful for accessing information, lab results and other studies, doctors have been using them in surgeries and hospitals, but not treating them with the same level of hygiene as they do other devices – this is leading to the spread of disease.
There’s other bad news too. Smartphones are making us more forgetful, they are affecting our concentration, making us dumber in general, and making us more forgetful (and did I mention that they are making us more forgetful?). They are also being blamed for the decline of the traditional family unit. Not surprising, when studies have revealed that one in eight of us are addicted to our phones.
There are some surprisingly positive findings too. Millennials, the name given to the generation born after the 1980s, are cooking more than ever before thanks to the ease with which smartphones can make recipes available. We can use them to find lost dogs. We are even able to study issues of human morality.
One of the places where smartphones are having the greatest impact is Africa. This is a country where the number of people who have landlines is almost non-existent. In just 10 years, they have gone from having very few cellphones and minimal access to the internet to leading the world in terms of mobile banking. It has become a hugely important resource that is drastically changing normal life.
There are a vast array of smartphones out there, from no-frills handsets to gold-plated, diamond-studded pieces of technological art. But you don’t need the very latest models, nor do you need to go for a particular brand. Cheap, unbranded handsets have just as much capability and processing power as the very newest models. So even if you are not going on holiday, grab an affordable Telestial smartphone today, and see how it can begin to change your life.
July 16, 2015
THE AD-BLOCKER DILEMMA
The television was invented in the 1920s, but it was not until 20 years later that the first advert aired on American TV (for a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies). Compare this with the internet, which was first made public in 1991. It took only three years before the first banner ad appeared online. It’s fair to say that the internet and advertising are inextricably linked. The largest and most popular search engine in the world, Google, is also the largest and most popular advertising platform in the world. But in their attempts to keep us engaged with their creations, advertisers risk damaging the internet in a way they never considered.
To some extent, we’ve only got ourselves to blame. While we accept in principle that they are a useful and necessary tool for companies to offer their products, we would rather not have to deal with them in practice. This has led to things such as banner blindness, where we train ourselves to subconsciously ignore the squares of bright colors and urgent text around a particular web page. Seeing that we were ignoring all but the content, advertisers then tried to make the advert the content itself (similar to an infomercial). Web-users are getting wise to this trick too, and are developing a similar method known as content blindness, where they switch off the second they suspect that there is a sales pitch hidden in an otherwise innocuous-looking article. Others use ad-blocking software to get rid of as many online adverts as possible, and have a far more pleasant browsing experience as a consequence.
The problem with this practice is this: excluding the price you pay to your network provider to use the bandwidth necessary to browse the internet, the vast majority of the rest of the world wide web is provided for free. And while a few people are not looking to monetize their blog or website, everyone else is wondering how they will get paid for all their work. Unless you’re selling a product or service, there is no income available, except via selling the empty spaces on your page to advertisers. By and large, this is a harmless exchange – advertisers pay for the space, website owners are remunerated for their time and effort, and the user, while they may not be thrilled by the occasional pop-up window or self-starting video, can browse in peace.
The difficulty we are now facing up to is the fact that things have gotten out of hand. Compare a page from Wikipedia, a non-profit website that does not host adverts and is funded by user contributions. A 2000 word article will load in under a second and “cost”, in terms of bandwidth, under 1MB to load. But as this study shows, a similar sized page from the New York Times takes 5 times as long to load, and while the actual content and photos of the page are visible pretty quickly, there’s a lot of stuff going on in the background that will, if you remain on the page, take 4 minutes to fully appear and cost 2MB. This too, has a name: page bloat.
Now that half the world is accessing the internet via their mobile device, page bloat is becoming a problem, not merely for roaming users, for whom 2MB of data per page can very quickly turn into a real expense and a massive drain on battery life. With thousands of users using the web not via cables or fiber but using a network connection over the air, page sizes like these slow the browsing experience down for everyone. Which is why it is not just users who find themselves turning to ad-blocker software, but increasingly, mobile phone manufacturers as well. The problem that we will find ourselves facing in the future is this: if no one can see their adverts, advertisers will stop paying sites to display them – so how will these sites keep running?