Technology

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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Sideloading eBooks Onto The Kindle Reader

kindle_paperwhiteThere are a couple of reasons why Amazon grew to dominate the e-book market early in the game.  First, the store’s selection is first-rate.  A ton of content is key.  But the real brilliance on the part of Amazon was the way the store tied into the Kindle Reader.  Buy a book online and the Amazon website makes it very easy to pop that new book onto a Kindle compatible reading device.  It doesn’t matter if that reading devices is a Kindle branded reader,  iPad, iPhone, Android device, or even a laptop/desktop Mac or PC.  Just click the buy button on Amazon.com and select your destination device (assuming you have more than one device registered in your Amazon account).  Amazon’s backend infrastructure takes care of the rest.  Just buy the book and start reading… very easy.

But what if you buy a book from Smashwords or you download it directly from an authors website?  If that book wasn’t purchased through the Amazon store, getting it onto your device suddenly becomes a lot less intuitive.  Actually, it can be a down right painful experience… Until you know the tricks.  But there is good news.  There are a number of ways to get those books onto your Kindle compatible device.
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Kindle Automatic Book Update Feature

kindle_iconI just noticed something interesting in the Manage Your Kindle section of the Amazon Store:

Automatic Book Update
Opt in for automatic book updates to receive new versions of your books when we have confirmed that improvements were made. In order to retain your notes, highlights, bookmarks and furthest reading locations, ensure that all your Kindle devices and reading apps have the “Annotation Back Up” setting turned on.

This new feature (or feature that is new to me) would then automatically grab the latest updated copy of any book you have bought through the Kindle store. It’s an optional feature that is turned off by default. Still, you might be wondering why it is off by default when it seems like an amazing and useful feature.

First and foremost, some folks don’t like the idea that their precious books could be changing without their knowledge. So it’s best to let people opt into the feature. Secondly, and most important to me, is that any notes, highlights, or bookmarks I’ve made to the book can’t carry over to the updated copy when it downloads. It’s an understandable limitation of the technology. If the books were updating on their own, that novel you spent hours annotating for your thesis, or even this months Group Read could suddenly see all of your hard work literally disappear overnight.
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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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Network— Your Digital Footprint Is NOT Out To Get You

The info surfaced in this 3 minute video is fascinating. It details the sort of information that can be surfaced by evaluating an individuals aggregate digital footprint.

But in the video’s final moments it takes a wrong turn and tries to explain that all of this information is somehow malignant. I disagree. I think that summation is unfair. Yes, the data is out there. No, it is not inherently destructive or damaging. In the end, all of this information is a part of what we commonly refer to as the internet and that is a resource that has benefitted mankind in ways far greater than the sum of its detriment.

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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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VPNGate.net: The Free VPN Project and What it Means

There was a fascinating story on TorrentFreak.com today extolling the virtues of VPNGate.net.  It’s a project brought to us by the Graduate School of University of Tsukuba, Japan.  Essentially, it offers free VPN access to anyone in need.  The goal is to subvert censorship in the digital age.  For example, Iran and China block access to YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.  But internet users in those geographic areas can bypass their nations network filters by configuring their computers to route all traffic through an internationally based Virtual Private Network, or VPN.  For example, a Chinese college student could configure his laptop to use a VPN server in Japan.  When that student’s VPN connection is properly configured, all network access will be tunneled though that VPN connection.  Any web site he visits won’t show his Chinese ISP’s IP address in the logs.  The logs will records the IP address of the VPN server in Japan.

At its most altruistic level, this is a tool of free speech.  VPNGate.net offers a range of VPN server locations based in the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, Italy, Czech Republic, and the UK.  You literally select a desired VPN end point, configure your computer, and off you go!  The project offers a wide range of VPN protocols as well.  The tried and true L2TP/IPsec is supported, as is OpenVPN, as well as SSL-VPN.  This means just about any personal computing device can use the service: Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android.  The project’s web site has documentation explaining how to configure each operating system.

First and foremost, proper configuration of the VPN tunnel is absolutely critical.  And I want to draw special attention to this point since many of the people who use VPN access on a regular basis don’t consider this.  The computers VPN configuration has an option to “send all traffic over VPN connection.”  Your OS might phrase it slightly different, but this is a critical setting.  If you want to obscure your digital traffic to the greatest possible extent, this option must be engaged.  If it is not, only some traffic will route over the VPN.  The rest of the traffic will flow out through your internet connection in a traditional manner and it is neither wrapped in encryption nor routed through the the international network.
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Google Reader to Shutdown, Feedly a Real Contender

feedly_logo_iconLast nights announcement that Google Reader would be shutdown as of July 1st, 2013 was a crushing blow to some.  The web-based RSS reader app was a vital part of the daily work flow for many.  For many— though, apparently, not enough.  Google is pulling the plug.

This marks the first major public facing project Google is disbanding after investing significant time and resources over the course of several years.  Certainly some Reader users would ague that Reader’s development has been largely nonexistent for some time.  Several UI bugs were left to bother users for far too long.  All the same, the core functionality remained and allowed us all to rely on the service.  But no more.

The death of Google Reader will create a vacuum.  Though the demise of Reader was only announced last night, some are already calling it the deathblow for RSS.  Personally I think that’s sensationalistic and inaccurate   RSS has become a vital part of the web.  It’s become a core facility for the dissemination of information across the internet.   Perhaps not in a public facing fashion as the average internet user still doesn’t understand what RSS is or what it does, but it’s functionality is still critical to behind the scenes operations.  The most obvious of which is podcasting.  Right now, RSS cannot dry up entirely because podcasting is 100% reliant on it for subscription based distribution.
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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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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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