Product Review

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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ShareMouse: The Software KVM That Works

sharemouse_iconMac users looking for a software solution that allows them to share a single keyboard and mouse with multiple computers have had a likely experienced a great deal of heartache over the years.  Synergy has been around for a long time but it’s always been a bag of hurt.  It’s cross-platform but not user-friendly, let alone Mac-like.  If you can get it to work you should count yourself lucky.  But don’t worry, your luck won’t last long.  One day that setup will just stop working and then the real pain begins.  The problems with Synergy were what made me a big fan of a solution called Teleport.  At one time it was a great solution and far easier than Synergy to configure.  But then the Mac OS was updated and updated again.  And either the developers of Teleport weren’t interested in maintaining support or they just weren’t up to the challenge.  Teleport hasn’t worked properly for me in years!  Looking at the support forum and searching Google quickly proved I wasn’t the only one having trouble.

So where does that leave us?  If you’re a computer user who has more than one computer on your desk, in a perfect world, all of those machines could be controlled using a single keyboard and mouse.  For example, I have a Mac Mini with 2 monitors attached.  But I frequently need to use my MacBook Pro at the same desk.  I want to control both the Mac Mini and the MacBook Pro from the same keyboard and mouse.  And while Synergy and Teleport have either proven unreliable or outright failures, an alternative software solution called ShareMouse, thankfully, has proven an extremely viable solution.
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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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How Pinger Failed. Is This a Problem with Free Apps in General?

pinger_iconI had a bad experience with an iPhone app recently that I wanted to share.  Partially to warn others to keep an eye on their Pinger app, and partially because it’s a problem that could apply to other “free” apps.  We all need to keep in mind that free apps are free for a reason.  Nothing can remain free unless it can become self supporting in some way.  And when you look at the service or feature that an app provides, often there is infrastructure behind it with associated cost.  It could be a web server with a database, or in the case of Pinger, infrastructure relating to phone number allocation and VoIP gear.

Pinger is a free app for the iOS that provides users with a phone number that will ring through on an iOS device.  Phone calls can be made via VoIP.  But the feature I used was limited to SMS and MMS messaging.  This was all provided free to users.  Pinger makes money, in part, by up-selling its service when users make phone calls to non-Pinger number in select circumstances.

Understandably, Pinger expires a users personal phone number after 30 days of non-use.  30 days seems like a rather limited window of opportunity but that’s their policy and their decision to make.  My problem was that my number was taken away at the end of 30 days without so much as a warning.  In the past, I had received a message warning me that I was nearing the end of 30 days and would lose my number if I didn’t use the Pinger app.  So I would use the app and all was well for the foreseeable future.  I was confident that the number that many of my friends used the contact me was relatively reliable.
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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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Which is Faster, Parallels Desktop 8 or VMware Fusion 5?

parallels_logoWith very recent updates from both VMWare and Parallels, the virtualization arms race is once again heating up on the Macintosh.  VMWare recently released VMWare Fusion 5 while Parallels just trotted out the release of Parallels Desktop 8.  Both products are fully Mountain Lion compatible (Mac OS X 10.8.x), and both support that latest from Microsoft: the still iffy Windows 8.

The support for Mountain Lion is a big deal with this update.  Both products had issues with OS X 10.8 in their prior release though each had offered patches to resolve some of the problems.  But the latest versions of both products now support Notification Center, so alert message from the VM will be tucked away in the corner of the Mac’s screen for easy reference.  Both packages offer support for Launchpad making it possible to have Windows based apps interspersed with Mac applications in the Mac Launchpad.  And both make it possible to dictate text into Windows based applications using Mountain Lion’s built-in voice dictation functionality.
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Dropbox: How Does BoxCryptor Compare to TrueCrypt?

Following a post earlier this week extolling the virtues of BoxCryptor, I received an email from a reader asking how it compared to TrueCrypt when it came to securing the contents of a Dropbox.  This was such a great question that it warranted a followup post all its own.  For the unfamiliar, TrueCrypt is a great open-source end to end encryption tool.  It is a software package that does a lot of things and does them very well.  Many of its features are beyond the scope of this post.  We are going to take a look at the features as they pertain specifically to Dropbox.

TrueCrypt allows users to create an encrypted disk image anywhere on the computers file system.  In this case, users have been choosing to create that image inside the root of the Dropbox folder.  This means that the encrypted TrueCrypt image is then synced back to the Dropbox server cloud and all other client systems attached to that Dropbox account.  In order to use this encrypted disk image, the user must first mount it on a Mac or Windows PC.  Once the image has been mounted, files can be copied to and from the image as though the mounted image were an attached USB thumb drive.  The advantage being that any files stored on this mounted image are encrypted by the simple virtue of being saved to the TrueCrypt disk image.

There are several problems with this configuration.  First is that, while the disk image is mounted, the contents of the TrueCrypt file cannot sync back to the Dropbox cloud.  So real time sync is really out.  So the users workflow must consist of mounting the disk image that is stored in the Dropbox.  The user can then copy data to or from the image, or work on files directly off of the disk image saving their revisions back to the image.  When finished, the user then dismounts the virtual disk.  At this point Dropbox picks up the change to the TrueCrypt file and then uploads the entire TrueCrypt disk image file to the Dropbox server cloud.
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BoxCryptor: Secure Your Dropbox

Two factor authentication entered public testing this week and is being welcomed with open arms by the security conscious among us.  But since the very first release of Dropbox, I have hungered for the ultimate in personal information security: the ability to specify a personal encryption key for my account and the data contained within.  While I consider two factor authentication a serious win for security, I still won’t trust the cloud with any truly sensitive information until I know that my files are wrapped in encryption that only I can decode.

Enter BoxCryptor, an application that runs on a Mac or Windows computer.  It creates an encrypted folder, essentially a secure disk image that is placed on the local drive.  Simply save this file into the Dropbox folder and the BoxCryptor folder actually becomes a mounted drive on your Mac desktop.  When creating the BoxCryptor folder, the user is asked to enter their own encryption key.  Any files that are saved into this mounted drive (or into the BoxCryptor folder inside the Dropbox folder since they are one and the same) is then encrypted and synced to the Dropbox cloud just like normal Dropbox data.  The only significant difference is that the data has been encrypted prior to leaving the local computer.
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Disk Drill Pro: Data Rescue for the Mac

Here’s a great file recovery tool to keep handy in your bag of tricks.  Disk Drill is a tool that makes it possible to recover files from corrupted media.  Specifically, and of most interest to me was a corrupted SD memory card that I had a number of photos saved to.  I could not get my Mac to recognize the memory card even though the photos appeared to be intact when viewed in the camera.  The memory card was clearly acting flaky, and in one instance the Mac did mount the card and show me a few of the photos but the majority were invisible on the media.  Something was clearly wrong with the disk.  This is one of the places where Disk Drill comes it.  In many cases it makes it possible to recover the files from flakey or damaged media.

Disk Drill was able to recover the photos in the case of my messed up memory card.  I’m still not sure what the actual issue was with the media.  After a reformat the media seemed to be back in working order so it does not seem to be a physical problem with the memory card.  But Disk Drill, in my case, Disk Drill Pro, did the trick and saved the day.
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