"Alexa, tell me what's been the hottest gadget of the last few years."
The Amazon Echo range of smart speakers have been a smash hit. They're helping to usher in the next generation of consumer tech, where we can chat to our devices instead of being glued to their screens.
One of the things that makes them so popular is how easy to use they are. They're good to go straight out of the box. Yet even so, there's still a few tweaks you can make if you want to improve an Echo's security and your privacy.
1. Set up a PIN to prevent voice purchases
Alexa makes it easy to shop on Amazon. Maybe too easy. If you'd like to control who can purchase things on your Echo, or put an obstacle in the way of your impulse buys, you can. Sign in at alexa.amazon.co.uk and set up a four digit PIN.
To enter your PIN on an Amazon Echo you have to speak it out loud, so it's not exactly an uncrackable security system. Think of it more as a way to prevent accidental purchases. Alternatively, you can disable voice purchasing entirely. You'll still be able to add things to your cart, but you need to complete the purchase on your phone or laptop.
2. Change the wake word
The Echo leaps into action the moment it hears its name. It's mostly pretty great, but isn't ideal if you've got more than one of the devices in your house, and could become outright annoying if you happen to live with someone called Alexa.
Fortunately, you can change the wake word if you need to, via the app. You don't get to set it to literally any word you want, you have to pick it from an approved list. Your options include things like "Echo", "Amazon" or "Computer".
3. Delete your voice recordings from time to time
If you're concerned about the privacy implications of smart speakers, you can allay some of your fears by clearing out your Voice History from time to time. You can do this on either the app or the website, where you'll see transcripts of all the voice commands you've given to your Alexa device. By default, they'll remain on Amazon's servers forever, so it's a good idea to find and remove any that you don't want to keep (or just get rid of them all).
4. Protect your privacy
Here's a bonus tip for the tinfoil hat brigade. Your Echo only starts recording when you say the wake word, but it is listening all the time. If you aren't comfortable with that you can turn off voice activation entirely by pressing the microphone button. It'll stay off until you press it again (although it can be hard to tell if it's off). If you've got an Echo with a built-in camera, you might want to use the cover supplied to ensure there's no risk of surreptitious filming, too.
And to complete your privacy upgrade, head over to the Echo settings and deactivate the "Use Voice Recordings to Improve Amazon Services and to Develop New Features" option. This prevents any of your recordings being accessible to Amazon workers for research purposes.
5. Don't overuse Alexa Skills
Alexa Skills are little apps you can install to upgrade the functionality of your Amazon Echo. You can use them to control your thermostat, give you a workout, book an Uber, and much more. But whenever third party apps are involved there's a slight security risk.
We'd recommend giving the privacy policies of your chosen Skills a quick once over to make sure they aren't going to snaffle your data; try to stick to popular, well-rated Skills; and uninstall any that you no longer use.
6. Beef up your router's security
Finally, whenever you connect up a new device that's accessible to the outside world, it's a good idea to double check that your router's security is as sound as it could be. Take a look at our guide on how to secure your router for the full lowdown on keeping your home network safe.
Passwords. Ugh! You use dozens of them every day, but do you really give any thought to how good they are? Are they actually keeping your accounts safe, or are they as secure as leaving a key under the doormat?
Online security can seem both complicated and boring, a lethal combination that means we don't take it as seriously as we should. Yet it doesn't have to be. With just a few simple steps you can lock down all your accounts in no time.
Don't re-use passwords on important accounts...
It's hard enough to remember five passwords, let along 50 or 500. That's why we all get lured into creating one decent password and using it over and over again. You've been told this before: it's a really bad idea.
Here's the problem. Online services get hacked all the time; they get infected with malware; sometimes they just go wrong. And it usually results in a data breach that exposes their users' info.
And is isn't just limited to small or obscure websites. Brands of all sizes and all kinds get hit - from TalkTalk to Teletext Holidays to Marriot Hotels. They've all leaked data at one time or another.
Very often it's email addresses and passwords that get exposed. They get posted (or sold) online where anyone can see them, for whatever reason. If your password happens to be among them, and you've re-used it on other sites, all your accounts on those sites are at risk.
You can check if your email address is associated with any data breaches at haveibeenpwned.com. If it has, make sure you didn't re-use the password associated with the breached account. And if you did, change them now, and make sure they're not on the list of most commonly used passwords.
...but you can on unimportant accounts
All that said, there are times when it is perfectly acceptable to re-use passwords, though we'd recommend tweaking them a little bit to include the initials of the site or service just to add an extra bit of security while still being easy to remember.
While you'll obviously want to lock down accounts that contain your personal or financial details, most of us use countless services and sites where security doesn't matter at all. We're thinking online forums, and other random services that you log into once to maybe ask a question or read an article, and then forget about.
For those that don't contain any kind of personal or finiancial information, and you wouldn't care if you lost access to them tomorrow, feel free to use and re-use simple passwords as much as you like. But you do need to be sure that these accounts don't have access to anything else, such as social media accounts, or display any information you don't want public, such as your email address.
Managing your online security is a hassle. By cutting the number of important passwords you need to track, you can make it just a little easier.
Try using a single sign in on unimportant sites
Chances are you have a Facebook and/or Google account. Both of these should be locked down with very secure passwords as they contain a lot of personal and probably financial details - you don't want anyone getting into them. Many sites allow you to create accounts that are essentially tied to your Facebook or Google account, which means you can securely sign in with those credentials without having to create a whole new account and generate yet another secure password. If your Facebook and Google accounts are secure, they should be, too, and in the event that they do get hacked, changing your Facebook and Google passwords means those other accounts are covered as well.
Think passphrase instead of password
wgW7!@G%^45P. That's what a secure password looks like. It mixes uppercase and lowercase, numbers and special characters, and is pretty well uncrackable. It's also impossible to remember (and incredibly annoying to type).
An easy to remember password is, by definition, a bad password. But there is a neat compromise. When it comes to passwords, it turns out that length can actually be more important than complexity. So instead of coming up with short but complex passwords, try using a passphrase instead.
What is a passphrase? It's a much longer, more memorable alternative. Just pick four or five random words - they need to be genuinely random, don't use song titles or a line from a book - and string them together. You'll find it a whole lot easier to remember, yet the length gives it its security.
Want a bit of extra security? Use some special characters between words. Not all sites allow this, but where they do, take advantage of it. 'ThisRandomPassphrase' can be harder to crack if it's changed to 'This&Random&Passphrase'. If you can remember something slightly more complicated, you can also switch out letters with numbers and symbols that resemble them. For example, replace 'a' with '@' or 'e' with '3', and you have 'This&R@ndom&P@ssphr@s3'. As long as you can remember your scheme, you're good to go.
Use a password manager
Wouldn't it be great if you only ever had to remember one password? It is possible. Many security experts recommend using a password manager, a piece of software that locks and encrypts all your login credentials in a single place. You only need to remember the master password - so make sure it's a good one.
When you use a password manager you don't have to worry about making passwords memorable, so they can be as complex as you like. Most of the tools will offer to generate them for you. As a handy extra, they'll also automatically fill in your details on websites and apps when you visit them.
The best password managers work across your desktop, laptop and phone. Among the ones we recommend are:
What about getting your browser to save your passwords instead? That's also safe up to a point. Browsers do encrypt passwords, although anyone who's got access to your laptop or phone will be able to use them without any further checks.
And the most low-tech password manager of all? A piece of paper, kept in a safe place. We wouldn't recommend it at work, but for many of us it'll be fine at home.
Set up two-factor authentication
Getting your passwords up to scratch is the first step to improving your online security. There's one other thing you should do to properly lock down your most important accounts: use two-factor authentication (2FA).
The techie name doesn't help, but the idea behind 2FA is really simple. When you try to log in to a website or app that has it enabled, you have to enter both your password and one other piece of information - usually a short code sent to your phone by text or to an app. What it means is that even if someone does get hold of your password, they still can't log in to your account unless they have physical access to your phone.
You've probably used it already. Any time a bank texts you a code in order to verify a payment you're making, it's an example of 2FA in action. You can activate 2FA on all your main accounts - Google, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal and so on - and you really should.
If given the choice, use an app rather than SMS, since it's more secure. Authy is the best app to use, and it's pretty easy to set up, too.
Keep it simple
Managing passwords is no-one's idea of a fun afternoon. But weigh it up against the thought of losing access to your email, or having someone get into your bank account, and you realise it's well worth doing. The tips above show that a good security policy is not only safer, it's simpler too. And reducing the number of passwords you have to remember has got to be a good thing, right?
As you might have noticed, there's an election coming up.
Obviously, broadband is not going to be one of the most important issues for most voters, yet it has played a surprisingly high profile role in the campaign so far, as parties use it as a way to show off their grand visions for Britain in the 2020s.
So what exactly are they promising? Fortunately, we've read the party manifestos so you don't have to. Here's what they're saying.
Conservatives broadband policy
"We intend to bring full fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025.
"We know how difficult it will be, so we have announced a raft of legislative changes to accelerate progress and £5 billion of new public funding to connect premises which are not commercially viable."
The Tory policy is based on Boris Johnson's "full fibre for everyone by 2025" plan that he announced during his party leadership campaign, which we looked at back in August. The reaction at the time was that, while it was a nice idea, the timescale was just too ambitious.
No surprise, then, that the plan has been subtly tweaked. The manifesto now talks about "gigabit-capable" broadband rather than focussing wholly on fibre-to-the-home. This presumably includes Virgin Media's network, and maybe even 5G, as the rollout of that accelerates over the next five years.
The Tories have pledged £5 billion of funding to cover rural and other hard to reach areas. The rest of the estimated £30 billion will come through private investment.
Labour broadband policy
"Labour will deliver free full-fibre broadband to all by 2030.
"We will establish British Broadband, with two arms: British Digital Infrastructure (BDI) and the British Broadband Service (BBS). We will bring the broadband-relevant parts of BT into public ownership, with a jobs guarantee for all workers in existing broadband infrastructure and retail broadband work.
"BDI will roll out the remaining 90–92% of the full-fibre network, and acquire necessary access rights to existing assets. BBS will coordinate the delivery of free broadband in tranches as the full-fibre network is rolled out, beginning with the communities worst served by existing broadband networks. Taxation of multinationals, including tech giants, will pay for the operating costs of the public full-fibre network."
Labour have the most eye-catching policy by far, and either the most exciting or controversial depending on your point of view.
The first part is the renationalisation of Openreach, the BT-owned company that controls the UK's broadband infrastructure, and is part of their broader plan to bring water, the Post Office and the railways back under public control. They would then continue the rollout of the full-fibre network, starting with rural areas, with a target date of 2030. They've allocated four times as much money to this as the Tories, funded largely by taxes on the likes of Facebook and Google.
The pledge to provide free full-fibre broadband to everyone grabbed the headlines, but in truth it looks more like a long-term goal than a firm policy. There's no real detail and no acknowledgement of the ways the broadband landscape will change over the next decade. Plus, there will be at least two more general elections before that 2030 deadline.
"A programme of installing hyper-fast, fibre-optic broadband across the UK – with a particular focus on connecting rural areas.
"Reform building standards to ensure that all new homes built from 2022 have full connectivity to ultra-fast broadband and are designed to enable the use of smart technologies.
"Prioritise small and medium-sized businesses in the rollout of hyper-fast broadband.
"Ensure that all households and businesses have access to superfast broadband (30Mbps download and 6Mbps upload). Invest £2 billion in innovative solutions to ensure the provision of high-speed broadband across the UK, working with local authorities and providing grants to help areas replicate the success of existing community-led projects."
The Lib Dems' main broadband policy - to install a hyperfast network, with an emphasis on rural areas - is similar to what the two biggest parties are promising. It isn't costed, though, and presumably has an open ended timetable given the nature of two of their other more interesting policies: ensuring that new homes can get ultrafast (not hyperfast) broadband, and the guarantee that everyone will get at least 30Mb internet. This is an upgrade on the current 10Mb standard, although still a long way short of the gigabit speeds being promised elsewhere.
The Brexit Party broadband policy
"Partner with service providers to offer free base level domestic broadband in deprived regions and free Wi-Fi on all public transport."
The Brexit Party's stated aim in this election is to target Leave-voting seats in Labour strongholds. With this in mind, their one-sentence internet policy appears purely designed to give campaigners on the doorstep a way to counter support for Labour's own (and more ambitious) free broadband plan. That's about all we can say about it, since there's no detail to go on - "base level" isn't defined, and we don't know exactly who will get it, when, or how much the whole plan will cost.
The Green Party broadband policy
"Better connect rural communities through reliable broadband and mobile internet, delivered through councils who understand local connection needs.
"Roll out high speed broadband."
Nobody is going to vote for the Greens based on their broadband policy, and they know it. They've kept it short: like most other parties they've acknowledged the pressing need to upgrade the infrastructure in rural areas, and that's about it.
Struggling with patchy Wi-Fi coverage around your house? There's nothing worse than having no-go areas in your home where you can't get online to do some work or catch up on some Netflix. But what can you do?
First of all, try and nail down the problem. Load up our Speed Test tool on your phone or laptop, run it in every room and compare the results. It only takes a few seconds each time, and will give you the full picture of how good your Wi-Fi coverage is - or isn't.
And once you've identified the problem, let's take a look at how to fix it. We'll also provide some links to products on Amazon that you may find useful, though you can find many of these products in your local computer shop and many larger superstores as well.
BT Complete Wi-Fi guarantee
Broadband providers are starting to recognise the importance of full Wi-Fi coverage, and are offering performance guarantees so long as you're happy to pay a little extra.
BT are leading the way. Their Complete Wi-Fi service guarantees full internet throughout your house - with a speed of at least 10Mb - and uses special hardware to do it. As well as equipping you with BT's latest Smart Hub 2 router, they'll also give you a single Wi-Fi Disc.
And what is that? A Wi-Fi Disc is a small Wi-Fi extender that you can place upstairs (or wherever else your connection struggles to reach) that helps to push the signal into the furthest corners of every room. While this may sound complicated, it isn't. You can set one up in less than ten minutes, and the process is mostly automatic. In fact, by using the My BT app on your phone, it'll even recommend the ideal place to put the Disc for the best possible signal.
One Disc should be good enough for most homes, but if it doesn't get the job done you can claim another two Discs for free to eliminate any remaining dead spots. And if there's still parts of your house that aren't covered after that, BT will give you a £20 refund, too.
If you're tired of having to deal with spotty Wi-Fi coverage at home, BT's Complete Wi-Fi makes for a pretty compelling offer. You can add it for around £10 a month, or often pick up deals with it bundled as standard. If you're not with BT and don't plan to switch to them, BT Discs will work with any UK broadband provider, and can be purchased on Amazon.
Sky Broadband are also getting in on the act, with a Wi-Fi Guarantee that forms part of their Broadband Boost upgrade.
They promise you a Wi-Fi speed of at least 3Mb in every room. They'll help you get to this by giving you one Broadband Booster device which is similar, but not quite as cutting edge as BT's Discs. Or, if you prefer, they'll send out an engineer to fix any problems. If it still doesn't work they'll refund you everything you've paid for the Broadband Boost service and let you keep the other benefits for free for the rest of your contract.
What are the other benefits? As well as the Wi-Fi Guarantee, Sky Broadband Boost gives you free engineer visits (including evenings and weekends), daily line checks to sniff out problems with your connection, access to the Sky Broadband Buddy app with its parental controls, and 2GB of extra data when your broadband drops for more than 30 minutes - but only if you're a Sky Mobile user.
You can add Sky Broadband Boost to your plan for £5 a month. The 3Mb speed guarantee is quite low - fast enough to stream Netflix in standard definition or to play online games, but a very long way short of the speeds you'll be accustomed to in other rooms. You might be better off looking at some of the other ways to extend your signal first.
How to extend your Wi-Fi signal
If you aren't with BT or Sky, or aren't in a position to switch providers right now, what other options do you have to get full Wi-Fi coverage in every room?
4G or 5G Mobile broadband: 4G, or even the fledgling 5G, broadband is now a viable alternative to a fibre plan. As far as Wi-Fi coverage is concerned it comes with one big benefit: you can be a whole lot more flexible about where you position your router. Because it doesn't need to be connected to a phone line you can place it wherever you like - even upstairs if that gives you the best coverage. You can use Wi-Fi extenders to further beef up the signal, too. Want to know more? Check the latest 4G Mobile Broadband deals.
Wi-Fi extenders: There are different types of device that can extend your Wi-Fi coverage. A basic Wi-Fi repeater (such as the TP-Link RE300 or the Netgear EX2700) that makes your signal travel further will do the job, but a better option is a full Wi-Fi mesh network. Something like the Google Wi-Fi Whole Home System works on similar lines to BT's Wi-Fi Discs, and gives you full coverage wherever you need it. They are a little pricier, but these plug-and-play hubs require zero technical know-how to set up and use.
Powerline adapters: A more techie solution, but potentially just as effective, are powerline adapters. These devices come in basic packs of two - you plug one in to a power outlet near your router and the other wherever you need it, and the internet signal travels between them via your existing electrical cabling. You have the choice of using the adapter as a Wi-Fi point at the other end to cover all devices in the room, or use ethernet cables to connect devices with where you might want a more stable connection, such as TVs and games consoles. If you find need more rooms covered then you can buy larger packs, or even easily add more at a later date. A well-rated product is the TP-Link TL-WPA4220T starter kit, though there are plenty of others to choose from.
Get a better router: All broadband providers will give you a router to use when you sign up. If you've had Wi-Fi problems in the past, make sure you know what router you're going to get when switch suppliers: some are very definitely better than others! We've got all the details in our Broadband Providers guides. If you're looking to buy a router with a bit more oomph, you could consider the ASUS AC66U or the TP-Link AC1750.
Check the position of your router: Your other option is just to make sure you're got your router set up in the best possible way. Wi-Fi signals can be blocked by large physical objects, like walls, doors, floors, bookcases and so on. They're also susceptible to interference from microwaves, cordless phones and other devices that emit radio waves. If possible, try and move your router to a different position where there are as few obstacles as possible. With the Christmas season coming up, it's also worth mentioning that decorations such as tinsel have been known to cause problems, so bear that in mind if you want to make your router look festive!
You already use their phones, browser and search engine, and pretty soon you might be using Google for gaming as well. But the upcoming Google Stadia is not a new console, it's something altogether different.
If you're tired of continually updating your PC so you can play the latest titles, or wish you could carry on playing your favourite console games when you leave the house, Stadia might be for you.
So what exactly is Google Stadia, and when can you get your hands on it? Let's take a look.
What is Google Stadia?
Google Stadia is a new kind of gaming platform. It isn't a console, and it doesn't need a high end PC. It's a streaming service.
The idea is that, instead of running games on a piece of expensive hardware sat underneath your telly, the games run on Google's remote servers and are streamed to any device that can run the Chrome web browser, or to your TV using a Chromecast Ultra dongle.
It means you can play triple-A games on a cheap computer, or even on an expensive computer like a MacBook that normally has very few gaming options. You'll also be able to play on compatible phones and tablets, making full console games truly mobile. There's another benefit, too. You don't have to download, install or update any of these games. They're ready to play anytime you want.
Stadia is a subscription service. It costs £8.99 a month, with a free plan set to launch some time in 2020. Some have described Stadia as being the "Netflix of gaming", but there's one big difference - unlike on Netflix you'll still have to buy most of your games in addition to your subscription.
How to play on Google Stadia
Google are selling an official Stadia Controller to play games, but the service will also work with any other compatible USB controller. Stadia hasn't launched at the time of writing, so we'll have to wait and see how it performs, but it looks promising. Google's systems will be far more capable than any machine you'll have in your living room, and the company has said that latency - a measure of how responsive or laggy a game is - won't be an issue. Early testers have said it's at a similar level to something like a PS4.
To a certain extent, performance will be determined by your internet connection. Because while you don't need pricey hardware to play games on Stadia, you do need fast broadband. The service streams the games at 60 frames per second at resolutions up to 4K - it's going to eat through a lot of data in a very short amount of time.
When does Google Stadia launch?
Google Stadia launches on 19th November in the UK, along with the US, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden. The launch will be staggered, so not everyone is certain to be able to play on day one.
The first gamers to get access will be those eager early adopters who bought the Google Stadia Founders Edition bundle - long since sold out - which included a Chromecast Ultra, controller and other goodies. Next in line are those who bought the Premiere Edition bundle, a similar package available from Google now. And then there are the subscribers to the Stadia Pro subscription service, followed by the free Stadia Base users next year.
At launch, Stadia will work on any laptop or desktop computer that can run the latest version of the Chrome browser. Smartphone compatibility is initially limited to just Google's own phones, the Pixel devices, models 2 to 4. There will be Android and iOS apps as well, but you'll only be able to manage your account on these at first, not play any games.
How much does Google Stadia cost?
There are different price options that help to make Stadia as accessible as possible.
Google Stadia Premiere Edition - priced at £119, it gives you everything you need to get started: a Stadia Controller, Chromecast Ultra, three months subscription to Stadia Pro, and early access to the service.
Google Stadia Pro - priced at £8.99 a month, this lets you play at resolutions up to 4K, with 5.1 surround sound. You also get free games on a regular basis, starting with Destiny 2: The Collection, along with discounts on other titles. You have to bring your own controller, and Chromecast Ultra if you want to play on your TV.
Google Stadia Base - the free plan for those not keen on the idea of paying for games, and paying to play them. It launches at an as-yet-unspecified time in 2020 and lets you play at up to 1080p resolution with stereo sound. It works with the same games as the Pro plan, but you don't get the free titles. You also can't stream it to a TV through a Chromecast.
You can switch between the Pro and Base plans whenever you like. Any games you've bought under one plan will still be playable after you switch.
What broadband speed do you need for Google Stadia?
Google Stadia needs fast broadband to work well, and the resolution you can play at will change depending on what speeds you're getting. Use our speed test tool to find out how fast your broadband is.
Google's recommendations are:
10Mb for 720p gaming with stereo sound
20Mb for 1080p gaming with HDR video and 5.1 surround sound
35Mb for 4K gaming with HDR video and 5.1 surround sound
In all cases, these are minimum speeds, and you need to meet them consistently rather than just every now and again.
So, given the way broadband speeds can fluctuate based on things like the time of day or how many other people are online at the same time, what does this mean in practice?
Most likely it means that the old, standard broadband packages will struggle to handle Stadia. You'll need a cheap fibre deal even if you're only planning on being a Base subscriber. For 1080p or 4K gaming you should probably be looking at a faster fibre plan, with an average speed in the region of 60Mb. Of course, if you're in a busy household with people constantly watching Netflix or YouTube, or downloading large files, then you might need to go for something even faster.
Google Stadia has already attracted a large number of big-name publishers and big-name games. They range from console favourites like Red Dead Redemption 2, to next year's hotly anticipated Cyberpunk 2077, to the notoriously resource-intensive Football Manager 2020. It's expected that games will be full price, although it remains to be seen what kind of discounts will be offered to Pro subscribers.
Here's the full list of titles announced so far:
Assassin's Creed Odyssey
Baldur's Gate 3
Destiny 2: The Collection
Destroy All Humans!
Farming Simulator 19
FINAL FANTASY XV
Football Manager 2020
Ghost Recon Breakpoint
Gods & Monsters
Just Dance 2020
Mortal Kombat 11
Orcs Must Die! 3
Red Dead Redemption 2
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
The Crew 2
The Elder Scrolls Online
Tom Clancy's The Division 2
Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition
Watch Dogs Legion
Need more help in finding the right broadband plan? Check out our guide to broadband for gamers to find the best deals for Stadia users, along with PC, Xbox and Playstation players.
We all know the basics of online security: the need for a good Wi-Fi password, the importance of anti-virus software, and so on.
But how much thought have you given to how secure your wireless router is?
Not much, you say?
That's not a surprise, since most people don't realise just how vulnerable their router or hub can actually be. Left unprotected it could be prone to all kinds of attacks, from random snoopers to malware that puts all your connected devices at risk.
So how can you lock down your router to make it more secure? Let's take a look.
1. Change your router's password
Every router comes protected with a password already in place. The trouble is, the default passwords for every model of router are freely available for anyone to find. Anyone can log in - whether it's a nosey neighbour or a gang of hackers on the other side of the world. Back in 2017, Virgin Media had to advise more than 800,000 of its customers to change their router's password due to the fear that the devices could become compromised.
You don't need to wait for something to go wrong. If you only do one thing to lock down your network, this is the change to make.
So how do you set a new router password? First, you need to log in to your router settings. You do this by typing in a numerical address in your web browser, then entering the password. The address is normally something like 192.168.0.1, but you'll need to refer to your instruction manual or look on your broadband supplier's website for the exact details. Once in, we'd suggest changing both the password and the username to make it even more difficult to crack.
Bonus tip! If you've got any devices connected to the internet - like a home CCTV system, a smart doorbell, or even a child's toy - that are still using the default password, considering changing the password right away. There are countless stories of hackers taking control of these devices, along with the cameras and microphones inside them.
2. Change the SSID
To make it easy for you to find and connect to your Wi-Fi network, routers publicly broadcast their name, known as the SSID. Ironically, this is also one of the things that makes your router vulnerable, since the SSID normally contains either the manufacturer's or your broadband provider's name. Any unauthorised snooper can use this to know what type of router they're dealing with.
While you're logged in to your router's settings page you can change the SSID, and can set it to anything you like. It's worth doing, but be warned that you will need to reconnect all your devices again afterwards.
If you want to go a step further you can tick the box in your router's settings to hide the SSID entirely. This will make your network invisible to anyone within range, and if they can't see it they can't connect to it. It's inconvenient, though: you'll have to manually type in the SSID every time you want to connect a new device.
3. Enable the router firewall
Most routers have a built-in firewall that checks all the incoming and outgoing traffic for suspicious activity. It blocks anything that should not be allowed. The firewall should already be turned on on your router, but if not activate it now. As with most of the other things here, you'll find the option in the router settings. You don't need to configure it in any other way.
4. Keep your router up to date
Routers are one of the weak points in any network. They are vulnerable to exploits that can expose connected devices to hackers, send masses of spam, or worse. New threats emerge all the time. What makes it especially serious is that hackers don't need to be within range of your Wi-Fi signal, they can be anywhere and can target thousands of compromised devices in one go.
For this reason you must keep your router up to date to make sure it's always protected against any new flaws. Fortunately, you shouldn't need to worry too much about doing it. Most third party routers will update automatically whenever a new firmware update becomes available, while broadband providers like Sky or Virgin Media will push out updates for their own dedicated hubs.
That said, if you wanted to check in from time to time to see if there are any updates available, that wouldn't hurt. And if you're using your own router, and it's pretty old and no longer supported, it might be worth upgrading to a newer model. Chances are you'll get performance benefits from that, too.
5. Update your network's security settings
Routers support a few different security protocols to protect your wireless network. The most common two are called WEP and WPA2. You don't need to know the technicalities of these, just that WEP isn't very secure - it only still exists so the router will work with really old devices that don't support newer standards - and that WPA2 is the one that you should use.
It should be set as the default anyway, but if it isn't log into your router settings to change it. You'll need to reconnect all your devices again, but the slight inconvenience is worth it.
While you're there, here's a couple of other tweaks to make:
Consider turning off WPS. This system was designed to make it easier to connect devices to your Wi-Fi just by pressing a button on the router. However, the general advice from security pros is to disable it. Just keep in mind that some devices, from a Sky Q box to many printers, do still use WPS to connect.
Disable any other unused features. Most routers come with lots of extra features that most home users don't need. These often include remote management tools that let you access your router even when you're out of range. Unless you specifically need this - and you almost certainly won't - make sure it's turned off.
6. Use Wi-Fi scheduling
Some routers offer a Wi-Fi scheduling feature that lets you control when your wireless network is and isn't available. Some broadband providers also offer this as part of their parental controls apps. It's worth using for security reasons if nothing else, since you can effectively shut down your Wi-Fi when nobody needs it, like throughout the night or when you're at work during the day.
7. Create a Guest network
Finally, one of the simplest ways to take control of your online security is to change your passwords on a regular basis. Your Wi-Fi password is no different. You'll hand it out to dozens and dozens of people over the years - friends, visitors, random workmen - to the point where you have no idea who can use your internet.
But constantly changing the Wi-Fi password is a real faff because you always have to go round and reconnect all your devices.
A quick fix for this is to set up a guest network, assuming you're able to. Sometimes you can do this on the router itself, and other times through your broadband provider's mobile app - BT, Vodafone, and Virgin Media are examples of suppliers who let you do this.
The idea is that you keep your main password for just you and your family, and everyone else gets the guest password. You can change that every few months, ensuring that people who don't need access to your Wi-Fi forever won't get it.
Router security is easily overlooked, but it's easy to fix. A few changes to the settings here and there will help to protect you and all the devices connected to your network. Need more security tips? Check out our guide to the five ways to stay safe online.
Over one and a half million of us in the UK work from home, and the number is growing rapidly. But balancing out the sheer joy of being able to work in your pyjamas is the knowledge that you no longer have an IT-guy to sort out all your tech troubles.
And the biggest of all these troubles is your broadband: if it goes down, you'll lose money.
Let's take a look at how to find the right broadband for your home office.
What speed you need
Whenever you compare broadband deals, finding the right speed is your first priority. For your home office, any fibre deal should offer fast enough downloads for most needs.
However, you need to consider who else will be using your internet while you're working. If it's just you, then fine. But if your kids are going to be jumping onto YouTube and start FaceTiming as soon as they get home from school, you might want to opt for a faster fibre deal to ensure you won't have any interruptions.
Don't overlook the upload speed, too. You need a good upload speed if you do a lot of video conferencing, or need to send large files to clients. For this reason we'd recommend steering clear of a cheap standard broadband plan, as the upload speeds are usually dreadful.
Reliability and support
When you rely on your internet connection to earn a living you need to be confident that it will work reliably. If there are problems you need access to good customer support to fix them. To make your decision a little easier take a look at our customer reviews for all broadband providers. They show ratings for speed, reliability, support and overall satisfaction.
There's often a link between reliability and support, and price. Cheaper services from less established players tend to attract more negative reviews and lower satisfaction levels. It might be worth paying a little extra for a plan from one of the bigger brands.
Also, keep an eye out for speed and performance guarantees from the different broadband suppliers, which will help you avoid being left high and dry should problems strike. On BT Plus plans, for example, you'll be sent a 4G Mini Hub to keep you connected if your broadband ever develops a fault.
Static IP address
So far, the issues we've looked at are ones that you'd consider when buying any broadband service. Next up is a factor that mostly applies only to a subset of remote workers: the need for a static IP address.
In simple terms, an IP address is the address of your computer on the network. With all home broadband packages it's assigned dynamically, so you get a new one each time you connect. A static IP address means you keep the same address permanently.
Why might you need a static IP address? There's plenty of reasons, like if you're running a server or hosting your own website, or if you need a secure way to remotely log in to your employer's computer systems.
You get a dynamic IP address with all home broadband products and you'll need to check if your chosen provider can offer you a static address instead. As an example, Plusnet will give you a static IP for a one-off fee of £5, but BT won't let you have one on their residential packages. You need to switch to a business plan instead.
Full Wi-Fi coverage
You don't just need to find the right broadband, you need to get it working well enough, too. And that means making sure your Wi-Fi coverage extends to wherever you set up your office. Now, if you're just working from your dining room then you're probably already good to go. But if you're planning to convert your loft - or even your shed - into an office, you should hold off on that trip to Ikea until you're sure you've got your internet sorted first.
Your Wi-Fi signal is less likely to reach into the furthest corners of your house or garden. Even if it does, a weaker signal will mean slower speeds. Grab your laptop and head out to your office location, then use our Broadband Speed Test tool to find out if your connection and speeds are up to scratch.
Finally, you might be wondering if you need a specialist business broadband package when working from home, or if you're okay with a normal home deal. It depends on what type of work you're doing, and what's specified in your provider's terms and conditions.
BT say that their broadband is only for personal use; John Lewis Broadband say that "occasional home working is acceptable"; while Virgin Media offer the HomeWorks upgrade for £9.99 a month, which adds remote worker-friendly features to a residential plan. In all cases, a residential call plan will be strictly limited to personal use - so don't go setting up a call centre in your kitchen.
Business broadband will get you the option of a static IP address, better customer support - usually 24/7 - and better security options as well. Prices from suppliers like Plusnet aren't all that much higher than what you'd pay for home broadband.
Want more on finding the right internet service for your remote working needs? Check out our full guide to home office broadband.
If you've ever looked into ways of improving your security or privacy online, or want to access content in a different country, you might have come across the idea of using a VPN. At which point you probably asked yourself: what exactly is a VPN?!
Let's take a look and see what a VPN can do for you.
What is a VPN?
By default, the internet is not terribly private or secure. Your broadband provider can see every website you visit; every website you visit can see where in the world you're located; and this information is often just floating around for anyone else to snoop on if they were so inclined.
A VPN - or virtual private network - fixes this. It encrypts your connection and hides your location. It can significantly enhance your security and privacy online, and bring other benefits, too.
To use a VPN you need to install special software on your computer, phone, tablet or other device, and to sign up to a VPN provider. When you run it all of your internet activity is filtered through a secure connection between your computer and one of the VPN provider's servers. This makes it hard for anyone to snoop on your data or online activities, including your broadband supplier.
When connected, you also adopt the IP address (the address of your computer on the network) of the VPN's server. Most VPN services offer multiple servers based around the world, so you can give the impression that you're connecting from another location, or even another country. That has its own advantages.
With all this in mind you might be wondering, are VPN's legal? Simple answer: Yes! In fact, VPNs aren't just completely legal, they're absolutely necessary. As much as we'll focus on the consumer benefits of the technology, the fact is that any business that allows its teams to connect to a work server from outside the office will do so using a VPN.
Why do you need a VPN?
When you talk about masking your online activity it makes it sound like you've got something to hide. That isn't true - there are many reasons why all of us should use a VPN:
It's more secure. Your connection to the VPN is encrypted. This means all the data you download or upload is also encrypted, including the login details for all your online services. This is important at the best of times, but even more so if you ever use public Wi-Fi hotspots, like those in a hotel or when you hop on the network in your local Costa. You just don't know who else is connected to those networks, and if they're trying to intercept your data. Encrypting it protects you.
It protects your privacy. Normally, when you connect to the internet you publicly broadcast your IP address. This is the virtual address of your computer on the network, but it can often translate to a very precise physical location. Take a look at whatismyipaddress.com and you'll see the location information every site you visit receives. All those location-aware ads you keep seeing around the web? This is one of the ways they track you. A VPN gives out, in effect, a fake IP address, making it much more difficult for sites to follow you online.
It stops your activity being logged. Broadband providers are legally required to maintain a log of all the websites you have visited in the last 12 months. You don't need to be doing anything dodgy to regard this as a bit of an invasion of privacy. A VPN will allow you to browse the web in peace.
You can bypass region restrictions. VPNs can also help you if you're on holiday abroad or an ex-pat living in the UK and want to access region locked content from your home country, such as local television streaming services or content in your first language. You may even be able to access region locked content on Netflix. VPNs offer you a choice of servers around the world. When you connect to one overseas you'll be able to access previously unavailable content specific to that area. Just select the country you wish to connect via and then access the web or apps as normal. Of course, there's no guarantee that some services won't block access to your account in future, and there are already services, particularly for video games, that already enforce region locking based on payment address or the origin of your payment card.
VPNs can bypass internet restrictions. A VPN will enable you to access blocked websites, and you should probably also know that your kids can use one to bypass your broadband provider's parental control filters...
What are the downsides to a VPN?
Nothing comes without potential downsides, of course, and VPNs are no different.
A VPN can slow down your internet connection. You should always shop around for one with the best performance. Most fast fibre broadband deals will be good enough to withstand any performance overheads, though.
They require trust. Because all your traffic goes through the VPN, the VPN provider can potentially see which sites you're visiting. The best ones have clear privacy policies that state they don't log your activities, but not all are like this. Either way, a little trust is needed, although the encryption will at least ensure your data itself is never compromised.
They can block region-specific content. Remember how we said you can access international versions of Netflix with a VPN? It works the other way, as well. Log into BBC iPlayer with your VPN running and it won't let you watch because it'll assume you're not in the UK. VPNs can also interfere with any other location-dependent services.
Free VPNs may not actually be very private. Free VPN apps on phones and tablets often have a reputation for hoovering up your personal data - they have to fund their service somehow! You're usually better off going for a paid option.
Where can you get a VPN?
The big brands include companies like NordVPN and ExpressVPN. We also like some of the smaller ones such as the Sweden-based Mullvad and Swiss-based ProtonVPN, which is developed by MIT and CERN scientists.
It's so important to keep your kids safe when they're on the internet. But they rack up so many hours a day online that it's impossible to monitor everything they do. A little helping hand is always welcome, and making use of the free parental control software offered by broadband providers is one of the best places to start.
Research shows that nine out of 10 parents think that these tools are useful, and even 65% of 11-16 year olds are in favour. So who offers these parental controls, how do you use them, and do they actually work? Let's take a look.
Who offers them?
All broadband providers have some form of parental controls, and you can take into account what each one offers when you're comparing broadband deals. Here's a quick summary of what you'll get from the big players:
Sky Broadband - Broadband Shield is free for all users. You can restrict content via three age range settings, or for specific categories or websites. There's also the option to pay extra for the Sky Broadband Boost service, which gives you access to the Broadband Buddy app and the ability to fine-tune your settings.
Virgin Media - All broadband users get access to the Web Safe service which includes Child Safe, a tool that automatically blocks eight categories of web content when activated, along with more that you can add optionally.
BT Broadband - BT Parental Controls lets you set strict, moderate or light filtering levels, and configure them to allow or restrict access to specific sites. You can also control the hours during which the filters work. On top of that, there's the Homework Time feature to limit access to the web at certain times of the day.
Plusnet - Plusnet SafeGuard lets you block websites based on category, as well as up to 30 individual sites of your choosing.
TalkTalk - HomeSafe is free for all users. It blocks websites in 11 optional categories as well as access to sites known to be infected with malware, although it is not a replacement for anti-virus software.
How to set up parental controls
Most parental control systems are centrally managed. As the account holder it's your job to set them up, and they'll apply to every device connected to your broadband network. In a few cases the provider will offer you a security suite instead. That combines things like content filtering and anti-virus, but needs to be set up on all your devices, assuming they're compatible.
When you first sign up to a new broadband deal you'll be prompted to set up your parental controls, which you can do via your provider's website. They're usually pretty simple - it's just a case of picking what content you want to restrict, as well as any other options you're given. The online safety organisation InternetMatters.org has instructions for many leading broadband providers. It may take a couple of hours for your settings to start working, and you can change them again later if you need to.
You mostly restrict content by category, and the available categories vary from one provider to another. Some offer large numbers of categories, ranging from obvious areas like adult content or violence, to more benign subjects such as fashion or gaming. Others can be much more vague - blocking things like 'inappropriate content', whatever that means.
Providers use large, continually updated lists of websites in each category and block access to those blacklisted sites. By default, they can't differentiate between users, so if you block your kids from seeing gambling sites you won't be able to see them either. Broadband suppliers normally strike a balance between security and privacy: you won't be alerted if someone tries to access a blocked page.
Parental controls can offer other features, too, including being able to limit access to the internet at certain times of the day. These work best when the provider also offers a mobile app that lets you customise the limits for specific family members.
Do parental controls work?
Having parental controls in place can give you peace of mind, especially as it isn't possible to supervise your kids' internet use constantly. But there are still some nagging questions: how good are they, and could your kids bypass them if they wanted to?
So do they work? There are few things to consider:
Parental controls will block every site on their blacklist in each of your chosen categories. But that doesn't mean they will block every single site that exists in that category, or that they won't block perfectly acceptable sites by mistake. There's often a lack of transparency about what exactly is being blocked - you might not know until you chance upon one of the taboo sites.
In most cases the controls affect all devices connected to your network. Set them too strict and you'll end up blocking sites that you want to look at yourself.
Some providers let you tailor your controls for specific users. Sky, for example, offer the Broadband Buddy app that enables you to set different filter levels for different family members, and also limit their internet time. However, these controls are device specific, and only available on phones and tablets.
Your broadband provider's parental controls only work on your broadband network. When your children take their tablets or phones to friend's house, or even connect via a mobile network, the safeguards will no longer be in place.
While most providers will let you restrict access to social networks there's a good chance you won't want to do this - you might use them yourself. So even though you can block access to certain categories of website it won't stop your kids from seeing similar content on services like Snapchat, Reddit or Twitter.
Can your kids bypass parental controls?
Any tech-savvy child - or one with a tech-savvy friend - will know that there are a few ways they can easily bypass content filters.
They can use proxy sites that divert their traffic and hide it from the broadband provider so that it cannot be blocked. Some of these sites can actually be pretty dodgy themselves, serving up assorted malware to infect PCs or hijack web browsers.
They can also install a VPN app. A VPN encrypts the connection between a device and the broadband provider's servers, so that the provider doesn't know what pages are being accessed and is unable to block them. There are loads of free VPNs in the iOS and Android app stores and they don't need any know-how to set up.
Failing that, a quick web search will show up plenty of results with suggestions for bypassing the parental controls of specific broadband providers.
Parental controls should really be seen as making up one part of your toolkit for keeping your kids safe online, not as a complete solution on their own. They'll help to prevent your children from stumbling upon content that they wouldn't want to see, but they aren't perfect and they aren't foolproof. It isn't a replacement for supervising internet use as far as you can, or for teaching your children about online safety, including the importance of not sharing personal information.
It's the time of year where students around the country are heading to university, either to start their studies or return for a new academic year.
Whether you're heading to uni for the first time, returning to your student accommodation or about to start out in a new student house share, now's the time to look for a good student broadband offer to keep you online over the next 9 months.
Both of those option mean that you can avoid paying for broadband costs should you head home or go off on travels in the 3 months between academic years. But of course you don't need a special student exclusive offer to get short contract broadband from other suppliers, for example NOW Broadband, Plusnet and Hyperoptic also have competitive 1 month rolling contract offers that even undercut BT and Virgin's prices.