Wednesday 22 October 2014

Getting clued in to smarter technology can save you cash

Published 06/10/2013 | 05:00

IRELAND may be creeping out of recession, but times are still tough. Can technology help? Is it possible to save a few euro on, or through, our gadgets, mobiles and computers? Here are five wallet-friendly measures to consider.

Saving money with smartphones

Tethering

Hundreds of thousands of people pay for mobile broadband services. This comes mainly in the form of mobile dongles, the small (usually white) sticks that plug into the side of a laptop and have a sim card embedded. Generally, they cost between €10 and €25 per month.

But many people are not aware that you can achieve much the same effect for free by simply 'tethering' a smartphone to a laptop. This doesn't involve any tricky settings or cables.

It's simply the flick of a switch on your iPhone or Android device. When activated, your phone generates a wifi signal that your laptop can use to access the internet.

If you have a 4G phone, the speeds can be impressive: tethered laptops using the 4G networks of Eircom or Vodafone currently get download speeds of over 25Mbs in the Dublin area.

There are just two things to bear in mind, here. First, you will need a decent monthly data allowance: make sure your plan gives you at least 5GB of data if you're going to be doing this regularly.

Second, operators don't like people doing this, for obvious reasons. If people know that they can use their phone for broadband, they're a lot less likely to pay for mobile dongles (or even landline broadband).

SMS substitutes

While many phone plans now offer lots of bundled texts, some still restrict the number to 200 (or less) per month. Thereafter, per-text charges can rise to as much as 45c. Yet if you ask anyone under 30 how they communicate with their friends using their phones, SMS texting will likely be a third or fourth choice.

This group – which marries price sensitivity with technological curiosity – has been responsible for the rise of online messaging systems that have taken off as mainstream alternatives to texting. The main services are Whatsapp, iMessage, Facebook Messaging, Snapchat and Twitter direct messaging.

Any phone can use Whatsapp, which is a free download from Apple's App Store or Google's Play store. This app uses your phone number as your identifying characteristic and allows you to send text, picture or video messages, free of charge. Snapchat, which is also free, does something similar but deletes messages within seconds of them being seen.

SAVING MONEY AT HOME

Gadgets to save money on power

Most normal homes leave things on 'standby' mode. This can be a computer, a TV or any number of other household electrical items. The problem with this is that most of these items use electricity even in standby mode. This can measure anything from two to five per cent of the machine's electricity consumption when fully activated.

'At €7 a month and with no contract, Netflix is an increasingly viable alternative to scheduled TV shows'

One way of tackling this is to get a smart meter or a power strip, such as Belkin's €30 Energy Saving Smart AV Strip. Used with a television, video and game console lineup, this works by monitoring the on/off status of the television.

When off (or on standby), the gadget knocks off power to all attendant devices plugged in on the same extension cord.

If you want something a little more passive that simply tells you what your current electricity consumption is, try an electricity monitor such as the one available from energymeter.ie for €50. This tells you how much electricity you're currently using.

TV, Netflix and Saorview

For those addicted to sport, it is difficult to do without a satellite package. For the rest of us who are casual television viewers with a penchant for a few movies and some preferred box sets, cable or satellite subscription packages are getting harder to justify.

Whatever about BBC or ITV, what exactly are we watching on The Shopping Channel? At €7 per month and no contract, Netflix is an increasingly viable alternative to scheduled TV shows. It's not just four-year-old movies (though there are lots of those): many of the most compulsive television shows are now available on the service.

It's worth subscribing to in the short term simply to binge on Dexter, Breaking Bad and House Of Cards.

For the rest of your television, a Saorview set (which is virtually all new televisions) will give you access to Irish broadcasters free of charge.

Saving money on computers, tablets and laptops

Apple gear

Getting a deal on a new computer isn't easy. Getting a deal on an Apple gadget is almost impossible. They simply don't discount anywhere, any time.

But there are two exceptions. On Apple's website (store.apple.com/ie) there is a section titled 'Refurbished and Clearance' where most of the company's range of laptops, desktops, iPads and iPods are available at between 15 and 20 per cent off the original price. The reason is that the machines being sold were returns to Apple and have been fixed, to be sold 'as new'. Each has a one-year warranty.

The other route to discounts on Apple computers is around this time of year, when the company offers student discounts of 10 per cent and up. Some student websites, such as Campus.ie, offer links to these discounts.

Software

While many in business still default to Microsoft products such as Excel, Powerpoint or Word, there are lots of lower-cost alternatives that give much of the same functionality.

Google Docs offers similar, if stripped down, versions of Office features. Google Docs can also be used offline as well as online.

Other examples include Apache Office (free), NeoOffice (free, designed for Macs) and Olive Office (free for smartphones and tablets).

Using an alternative to Microsoft isn't as scary as it might sound: core functions are present in almost all rivals, and systems like Google Docs also have the advantage of backing themselves up automatically and being available on virtually any internet-connected device.

Knowing which features are mostly froth

If you're buying a laptop or a tablet PC, you are offered lots of optional features that you will likely never use. For example, many laptops offer 500GB hard drives, multiple HDMI connectors and the latest Intel processors.

But while they are often sold as 'future-proof' features, few of us actually use these every day.

Similarly, a '3G' version of a tablet PC typically costs over €100 more than a wifi-only version. Yet you can easily tether a tablet PC to your smartphone's internet connection.

Saving money on cameras

When it comes to buying digital cameras, much of most recent developments centre around gadgetry or non-photographic extras such as flip-out display screens, additional video recording specifications or wi-fi-functionality.

While these are handy, they are not basic items that affect the quality of a still photo in any significant way. A basic DSLR camera with a good lens will take a better photo than an expensive, gadget-rich camera with a modest lens.

This is why it is often a better bet to buy an entry-level DSLR (Canon and Nikon both have good models for under €400) and spend any remaining money on a decent lens.

Thankfully, one of the best-quality lenses available – a 50mm model – is also one of the cheapest, at around €125. If you're looking for a cheap, good quality zoom lens, Canon's 75mm-300mm model produces great shots for a budget-friendly €200.

Other handy tips

Some things are FAR cheaper online

In general, things like laptops and tablet PCs are not actually much cheaper online than offline. However, smaller items, such as memory cards and connection cables, can be considerably cheaper when sourced online.

For example, a 16GB SD memory card for a camera typically costs from €20 to €40 (depending on its speed) in a shop. The same card costs under €10 from a reputable online store.

It is a similar saving for items such as HDMI cables (which connect a TV to a DVD player). Items such as these are what many shops make their margins on, with headline gadgets such as televisions and laptops having thinner profit margins these days.

AVOID unnecessary insurance/warranties

If you're a driver, getting gadget insurance for your smartphone may be futile, as most mobile insurance packages say that they will not cover theft from a vehicle. Also, be aware that some extended warranties are partly made up of rights you already have under consumer law.

Sunday Independent

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