Hardware

The Best Way to Blanket a Home in Wi-Fi

wireless_iconA recent Facebook post started me thinking that this was a subject worth covering.  Here’s the original question:

JR: Computer people, what is the absolute, most amazing and powerful wi-fi extender I can get? My current extender is slow and totally unreliable, needing to be reset frequently. I’ve read reviews online, but can’t seem to come up with an obvious choice.

It’s a great question with a few possible answers.  First, let’s make some assumptions about the environment.  Like most folks in this situation, I’m betting that this is a larger house with the router located at one end and that the wi-fi reception on the opposite end is the real problem.  Upstairs and downstairs variations are likely not the issue.  There could be obstructions in the middle of the house the interfere with the signal.  These are typically kitchen related.  The refrigerator and stove can really tank a wi-fi signal.

So what’s the best way to extend the range of the wi-fi router?  There are extenders, but as the question suggests, your mileage may vary.  What are the alternatives?

Option 1: Replace the Router
Replacing the main wireless router with an 802.11n or an 802.11ac version could be the ticket.  If the original router was 802.11a, 802.11b, or 802.11g, then these newer versions offer greater ranger in most situations.  But there’s a catch.  To take full advantage of that greater range, the wireless adapter that’s part of your computer should also be 802.11n or 802.11ac.  If it’s not, you’re not going to get the full range extension.  And upgrading the hardware at the computer could be impractical (adding a card of some kind) or impossible (some laptops, and all tablets).  At some point, the price becomes an issue and option 1 might not be the best route if you’re dealing with legacy hardware.

Also keep in mind that 802.11n and 802.11ac routers drop in performance to match the requirements of the oldest connecting device.  This means that, if you have an old device (only 802.11b 22Mb), your super fast 100+Mb wi-fi will down-step the performance of the entire network to accommodate that old device.  Some of the latest hardware circumvents this issue by putting the older hardware on a different frequency, but in far too many cases, having an old device on a modern network will cause the entire network to slow down.  Worse yet, depending on the router, it might also limit the range of your wi-fi network as it works to accommodate those older specifications.  Few people see that coming.  It’s difficult to anticipate and even more difficult to diagnose, so be aware.
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A Quick Test of a USB 3 Thumbdrive

benchmark_iconNewegg.com had a sale the other day, offering an ADATA 32GB USB thumbdrive (memory stick, flash drive, jump drive, call it what you want) for $17.99 after rebate (free shipping at the time).  Not a bad price given the capacity of the drive, so I figured I would give it a shot.  The drive is by ADATA and I don’t know much about the company, or their product line.  But it’s been my experience that, when it comes to flash memory, you get what you pay for.

For example, a year or two back, I picked up a 16GB drive from a company called PQI.  I forget what I paid for it but it wasn’t much.  And while the drive remains functional to this day, it has also proven to be the slowest damn memory stick I’ve ever seen in my life.  So, I figure I got what I paid for.  In other situations I’ve had thumbdrives that just outright failed after only a minimal amount of use.
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Roll Your Own Fusion Drive: Benchmarks

fusion_drive_iconApple’s new so-called Fusion Drive technology is interesting.  The cost of SSD drives is falling but not at a rate that consumers (or apparently Apple) would like.  To that end, Apple engineers have come up with a novel solution that is proving to be a surprisingly effective middle-ground initiative.  A Fusion Drive is comprised of two separate drive mechanisms.  The first is an SSD drive 128GB or greater.  The second drive is a conventional spinning hard drive, either 5400rpm or 7200rpm, now typically referred to as an HDD.  The HDD can be pretty much any size, currently all the way up to 3TB.

What turns these two disparate drives into a Fusion Drive is the way they’re formatted.  Apple’s Core Storage API includes the ability to effectively stripe the two drives into a single logical volume.  Think of the single volume as a hybrid: the best parts of SSD (fast, fast, fast) with the best parts of the HDD (lots of cheap space).  But what makes the Fusion Drive truly remarkable is what happens to the data on the drive automatically and invisibly once formatting is complete.  Once the SSD and the HDD have been merged into a single Fusion Drive, the Mac OS becomes responsible for distributing the data across the two separate drive mechanisms.  It does this allocation with intelligence.   The most used data files, or files that benefit most from faster access times are stored on the SSD.  Larger or lesser used files are stored on the HDD’s spinning platters.  The idea being that the files on the SSD can be accessed more quickly, having vastly superior read and write times.
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Bad Apple: The iPhone No Longer Has the Advantage

It pains me, truly, but Apple has a real problem on its hands.  That problem is called Android.  Apple’s iPhone has essentially become the same 800 pound gorilla that Microsoft was in the 1990’s: it achieved critical mass and has become slow to adapt as a result.  While Google iterate quickly with every release of the Android operating system, Apple’s iPhone is now evolving slowly in comparison.  And that inability to evolve is costing Apple.

Software is only half of the what it takes to win.  Apple still has a great thing going with the iOS.  It remains the gold standard.  It’s the mobile operating system one can hand to a novice with confidence that they can find their way alone.  People who are not accustomed or comfortable with traditional computers can grok the iOS because it has a uniform user interface and controls which remain consistent from one app to the next.  This is an area where Android is, and always has been, lacking.  But every version of Android improves dramatically.  Apple needs to pay more attention to that threat.

The significant threat to Apple’s dominance, at the moment, is the hardware running the Android operating system.  Because, to put it plainly, some of the latest Android phones are down right sexy.  They have large, high quality screens and very fast, multi-core processors.  Hardware development is advancing quickly— far faster than Apple can counter.  And, for whatever reason, Apple seems strangely reluctant to make even the most obvious hardware updates to offset their deficiency.
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802.11g vs 802.11n and the iPad: What Does it Really Mean?

wireless_iconMany of us have wireless devices that we connect to wi-fi networks.  Those wi-fi networks then connect to the internet via a broadband connection of some kind.  But many people fail to realize that the speed of their wi-fi is often much slower than the speed of their internet connection.  The truth is, if you’re just tooling around the web, surfing Facebook, or updating Twitter, that speed won’t matter.  But if you’re playing games or download files, you might be missing out!

For maximum performance and reliability, a wired connection is king.  Wireless is susceptible to interference from cordless phones, microwave ovens, baby monitors, even that FBI field van sitting down the street.  It’s almost impossible to tell what might be wreaking havoc with your wireless signal at any given point.  So, if you have the option, go for a wired connection if you have the opertunity.  Especially if you’re running a server of some sort in the house.  Particularly media servers, and devices serving up high bandwidth audio or video files.  Wi-fi networks are only half duplex, meaning data is either sent or received at any given time.   Wired networks are full duplex meaning that the network line sends data while at the same time receiving it.  When it comes to network throughput there is no question, full duplex is your ultimate goal.
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Apple’s Fusion Drive, Can You Roll Your Own?

Apple’s new Fusion Drive technology sounds interesting.  If you go strictly by the name and the brief description of the technology, you might be under the impression that Apple is using those old hybrid drives that never really took off.  The ones that were a conventional spinning disc with a SSD portion built into the same drive mechanism.  It was supposed to enhance the performance of the HDD but not require the price tag of the SSD.  Nice theory, but the drives never took off.  But, good news!  Apple’s Fusion Drive is something entirely different.

Apple’s Fusion Drive is a hardware/software solution that takes 2 disparate drive mechanisms inside the Mac and merges them together at an OS level.  The SSD is used for the OS, applications, and the most frequently used data.  Data that is not speed sensitive or frequently accessed is stored on the HDD.  But the creative bit that Apple has here, the “secret sause,” is that the operating system moves this data between the drives automatically.  No user intervention required.  In fact, even though there are two separate drives in the Mac, the user only sees one logical partition.
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MonoPrice.com Thunderbolt to DVI Adapter Better Than Apple’s

I’ve got a 15″ Unibody MacBook Pro with Thunderbolt support and a Dell 2405FPW 24″ LCD display.  The display worked perfectly with my previous generation 15″ MacBook Pro, but when I upgraded to my current model, the first release to offer Thunderbolt (Early 2011 release), I quickly became frustrated by my laptops inability to put the 24″ Dell display to sleep.  When the energy saver settings shutdown the laptops internal display, the external display is supposed to go into sleep mode.  My Dell display stays powered up and displays an ever present “No Signal Present” message.  No power savings there.  No help in extending the life of the display— likely shortening it!

I even went so far as to contact Apple tech support about the issue, something I loathe to do.  Apple support did what seemed to be due diligence and kicked the issue up the support chain for a while but in the end concluded that it was some sort of timing issue with the video signal that was unique to my Dell display.  Apple support suggested that I contact Dell support with the issue.  Perhaps see if there was new firmware for my display.  There was none.
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Sprint’s 4G Wireless vs AT&T’s 4G Wireless

Apple released iOS 5.1 this week, and with it made an interesting change to iPhones that make use of the AT&T network.  The new update changes the AT&T 3G logo in the upper left corner of the screen to now read as 4G when connected to HSPA+ networks.  Keep in mind that no magic has occurred in the iOS device.  No new radios have been added, activated, or even upgraded.  Its simply a matter of semantics.  AT&T wants their service to compete with other services like Sprint that currently advertise 4G wireless network access.

AT&T can call it whatever they want, 3G is a commonly understood wireless standard at this point but the definition of 4G wireless is still a topic of great debate.  Does a network qualify as 4G simply by being able to attain a set base level of performance?  Does a 4G network require specific hardware or must it implement certain technology?  Or is a 4G network simply any 4th generation version of any wireless service?  It depends entirely on whom you ask and what their company has to gain from the answer.

With all of vagary associated with 4G, only one thing really matters to the users– and that’s the speeds at which they access the internet.  So, putting aside all of the jargon and getting right down to real world numbers, lets see how Sprint’s 4G wireless compares to AT&T’s “4G” wireless service.

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Solid State Hard Drives (SSD): You Have to See it to Believe It

I visited my local Apple retail store over the weekend and left with the crushing urge to spread the word about solid state hard drives (SSD from here on).  I went into the store to have the guys at the Genius Bar take a look at the battery on my MacBook Pro.  The battery had developed a bulge and was actually causing the back panel on my laptop to bend and twist.  The good news is that they guys at the Genius Bar took one look at the issue and promptly swapped out my battery with a brand new one at no charge.  I call that truly great customer service since my MacBook Pro was no longer under warranty.

But I digress.  While I was talking with two technicians at the Genius Bar, I mentioned that I had installed an SSD as my boot drive.  This really got their attention.  One of them politely asked if I would mind firing up the laptop so he could have a look.  Like many of us, he had read blurbs online indicating that an SSD could breath new life into an aging laptop.  Both gentlemen noted that they had each been considering the SSD option for their older MacBooks.  Obviously they both had the chance to play with the SSD powered MacBook Air’s, but they understood there was a big difference between the latest hardware and what they were running at home.
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Quality Time with the OWC Mercury Elite-AL Pro Qx2

drive_iconI recently had the opportunity to spend some quality time with the OWC Mercury Elite-AL Pro Qx2.  It’s a drive enclosure that supports up to 4 SATA drives in a variety of RAID configurations.  It is Mac and Windows compatible and offers a wide range of connectivity options including USB 2.0, FireWire 800, and eSATA.  Powerful functionality packed into a sexy brushed aluminum drive chassis.

The first thing I noticed about the OWC Mercury Elite-AL Pro Qx2 was the excess of care taken in packing the device for shipping.  The drive chassis was packed in a large heavy-duty cardboard box encased in layers of packing foam.  The foam layers protect the drive bay, but they also encased the 4 2TB SATA hard drives that were included in the version I tested.  The drives were shipped with insulating foam separating each mechanism from the other contents of the box.  All of this added up to a very large shipping container, but one that should easily stand up to the depraved hands at FedEx or UPS.  Clearly no expense was spared when it came to shipping material.  This is a bonus for the customer since the drive case and mechanisms are very well secured.
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