Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Wi-Fi Troubleshooting

ASUS USB-AC56
The most common cause of poor or erratic download speed is wireless interference, particularly on the heavily used 2.4 GHz band. To troubleshoot the problem:
  1. ISP to Internet backbone issue
    If your ISP (Internet Service Provider) has its own speed test site (e.g., Comcast XFINITY Speed Test), run several tests on it. If the problem goes away, you probably have an ISP to Internet backbone issue.
  2. Wireless issue
    Turn off wireless in your computer and connect it to the wireless router by Ethernet cable. Run several tests to the ISP speed test (if any) and to The Global Broadband Speed Test. If the problem goes away, you probably have a wireless issue; otherwise you probably have a local ISP issue.
An ISP speed test site is an internal server within the ISP network, so it doesn't test the connection between the ISP network and the Internet backbone, whereas The Global Broadband Speed Test site tests both the ISP network and the connection from the ISP network to the Internet backbone.
If you have a Wireless Issue:
  1. Try different wireless channels
    Access the configuration of your wireless router, and manually switch it to channels 1, 6, and 11 (the primary non-overlapping 2.4 GHz channels), thoroughly testing performance in each case.
  2. Switch to 5 GHz
    If you have a dual band wireless router (recommended), try connecting to 5 GHz instead of 2.4 GHz because it's usually much less crowded, although it may have less range.
  3. Try a different wireless adapter
    ASUS USB-AC53 and ASUS USB-AC56 are two of the best.
See Also:

Monday, February 9, 2015

Mini Jump Starter

Mini Multi-function Jump Starter
Also power and charge cell phones or even computers

You accidentally left lights on in your car, and now the battery doesn't have enough power to start the car. You could call for a jump start, but often that will take well over an hour even in an urban area, and can be expensive if you don't have an auto club membership. You could carry jumper cables with you, but you would still have to find someone willing and able to give you a jump start. Or you could carry an emergency jump start battery.

Until recently jump start batteries were too big and heavy to be practical accessories, but that's now changed. The same advanced lithium ion technology that's given notebook (laptop) computers such long battery life is now available in small and light (mini) jump starters that are practical to carry with you. While they don't have the total capacity of a regular car battery, they are able to deliver sufficiently high current more than long enough to start a normal car. (See Note below) The latest models also have the ability to power and recharge not only things like cell phones but also even computers, and there's even a powerful flashlight.

One of the best current units is sold on Amazon with 1 year warranty by BESTEK and by Bolt Power. It comes with a variety of computer power tips, including one that works for late model Lenovo ThinkPad T-series machines. The USB connector will charge cell phones, but even though rated at 2.1A, it only charges the Nexus 5 Android at slow "USB" rate. (For faster charging see Best USB Car Charger) The included zippered carrying case fits neatly under a car seat. Recommended.

Notes

  1. When jump starting:
    1. Make sure connections are clean and solid.
    2. After turning unit on, wait a few seconds before trying to start the car.
  2. Larger engines need higher starting current. Figure 150A for 4 cylinders, 200A for 6 cylinders, 250A for 8 cylinders, 300A for truck diesel. (These are base values, not peak values.)
  3. Watch out for unbranded (unknown) units with dubious quality, warranty and support.
  4. Check to see if the correct power tip for your particular computer is included
  5. Top up charge every 3-6 months. 
  6. The mAh claim is the sum of the mAh ratings of the 3.7V battery cells, but that's not a valid calculation. Real capacity of typical units is 40-50 Wh (watt-hours).
  7. If you must call for a jump start and don't have an auto club membership, try Allstate Roadside Assistance at 877-469-7650, charged to credit or debit card.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Choosing a Wireless Router


ASUS RT-N66U
Checklist for Wireless Networking

Very Important

  1. Don't settle for a "wireless gateway"
    A "wireless gateway" is an all-in-one device that combines a modem (cable or DSL) with a wireless router. They tend to be mediocre, poor performers, especially those supplied by Internet providers.
    1. Insist on a pure modem. Buy your own separate wireless router.
    2. Make sure the modem is configured in "bridge" (not routing) mode. Otherwise you can have "double NAT" problems.

Important

  1. Simultaneous Dual Band
    The low 2.4 GHz band, commonly found in consumer-grade devices, is increasingly crowded, which can severely limit performance. The high 5 GHz band tends to be much less crowded, and will often provide much better performance. But don't just get a single band 5 GHz device, since some wireless devices only support 2.4 GHz, and avoid dual band devices with a single radio that can only work on one band at a time. In other words, not just dual band, but simultaneous dual band.
  2. 300 Mbps Speed
    Wireless "n" devices work at multiples of 150 Mbps (150 Mbps, 300 Mbps, 450 Mbps, etc), but most consumer wireless devices only support 150 Mbps or 300 Mbps, making 300 Mbps a good baseline, so choose a device with at least 300 Mbps speed on both bands.
  3. Gigabit Ethernet
    Although Fast (100 Mbps) Ethernet is comparable in real world performance to 300 Mbps wireless (actual wireless performance is usually much less than the advertised maximum), Gigabit (1000 Mbps) Ethernet provides much faster wired networking for not much more money and is otherwise good "future proofing".

Nice To Have

  1. Guest feature
    A guest feature is a separate wireless network for guests that lets them connect to the Internet but not to any of your own networked devices. It's a bad idea to give guests access to your own network.
  2. USB
    USB can be used to attach USB storage or USB printer to the wireless router for network access.

Recommendations non-Apple

    1. ASUS RT-AC87U
      Outstanding wireless range and performance. High processing power for gigabit throughput. Excellent support. Best.
    2. ASUS RT-AC68U
      Better.
    3. ASUS RT-N66U
      Very Good. All that most people need.
    4. TP-LINK TL-WDR3600
      Excellent range and very good performance. Best Buy. All that most people need.

    Recommendations Apple

    1. Apple AirPort Extreme
      If you're into Apple products, this is the wireless router to get. Expensive but Recommended. Save money safely with an Apple refurbished unit.
    2. Apple AirPort Time Capsule
      Essentially an AirPort Extreme with backup storage built in, so you can keep all your Apple devices backed up over your network. Highly Recommended. Get the largest size you can afford. Save money safely with an Apple refurbished unit.

    Notes

    1. Update Firmware
      Check the support website for updated firmware before installing, and regularly thereafter (e.g., quarterly).
    2. Don't "cheap out"
      A cheap wireless router can reduce performance due to poor internal routing speed.
    3. Use WPA2 AES Security
      Identity theft is just one of the risks from getting hacked, and WEP "security" is essentially useless. Use a different (and equally strong) password for a Guest network.
    4. Set a Strong Password
      Use a random combination of 12 or more mixed case letters and numbers that you don't use for anything else, and do not use common words, names, numbers, etc.
    5. Don't fool yourself
      Network name (SSID) hiding and MAC address filtering are too easily circumvented to provide even minimal security, and they can lead to network problems, so don't use them.
    6. Network Backup
      Network storage is an excellent way to keep your devices backed up. Highly recommended. (WD My Cloud is a very good alternative to network storage on the wireless router.)
    7. Apple AirPort Express
      The AirPort Express is a great way to extend iTunes music to remote speakers.

     See Also

    Monday, February 2, 2015

    Google Plugin Error 1612

    Google Talk
    Google Voice and Video Chat Plugin (also known as Google Talk Plugin) is needed to make telephone and video calls (free as of this writing) from within Gmail. Unfortunately, the plugin can become corrupted, which results in a prompt to install it, but that can result in Error 1612 over and over. The description makes it sound like a download error, but it can actually be due to corruption of the installation on Windows. Worse, there is no good way to uninstall it (for which shame on Google)!

    The solution may be to use the Microsoft Fix It tool to Fix problems that programs cannot be installed or uninstalled. Look for Google Talk Plugin in the list of items to install or uninstall. Then after fixing that, try again to install it.

    Monday, January 26, 2015

    Wireless HDTV Video

    Chromecast
    The ability to beam video to a HDTV screen without wires has been promised for quite some time, but the product methods on offer (DLNA, Miracast, Wi-Fi Direct) have proved to be disappointing, complex and/or problematic. Two current examples:

    Chromecast

    With mighty Google behind it, inexpensive Chromecast would seem a sure winner. But right out of the box it can be problematic because it insists on network capabilities (access to Google Public DNS servers) that make it incompatible with some wireless routers. (See Chromecast Router Compatibility) Past that point things can look good at first blush, as when casting the screen of an Android mobile, or streaming YouTube video. But push it a bit harder and warts appear. Local video (from Android mobile or Chrome browser) is limited to 720p and relatively low bit rate by default, with poor quality, and even when pushed to its limits, quality is still only mediocre at best. So if you care about video quality, Chromecast is really just another Internet streaming option.

    DLNA

    Many "smart" HDTV sets claim DLNA Player support, which should make it possible to beam video to them over a network connection (wired or wireless), and the ubiquitous Windows Media Player includes DLNA Server support. (See Media Streaming with Windows 7) But try to make it work and you're very likely to run into compatibility problems, since many HDTV sets are very fussy about what video formats they will (and will not) play, and Windows Media Player does not support transcoding between formats. (While there DLNA servers that can transcode on the fly, they can be difficult to set up, and the resulting quality is often mediocre. Your best bet is to use Handbrake to transcode to MPEG-4 in advance.) But even when it works, video quality is noticeably inferior to a wired HDMI connection.

    Bottom line: Beaming of HDTV video without wires remains a work in progress. For best quality use a wired HDMI connection.

    Saturday, January 17, 2015

    Record Radio Online

    I've previously described how to record Internet radio with a computer using VLC Media Player. (See Record Internet Radio.) This can be invaluable for time shifting programs not available as a podcast.

    Recording can also be done without a computer using the DAR.fm Web service.
    • With a Free account, you can schedule a single program to be regularly recorded, and (only) listen using a Web browser on a computer.
    • With a Pro account (starting at $40 per year), you can record 5 or more shows, and also download them and/or stream them to smartphone.
    Recordings are broken up into 15 minute segments. You can play them continuously with a playlist, or by joining (and optionally cutting) them with a tool like mp3DirectCut (freeware for Windows, works without quality loss).

    To give DAR.fm a try, click this referral link:

    Saturday, December 20, 2014

    Cell Phone Bargain

    Moto G
    Great phone. Great service. Great value.

    No contract cell phone service is much less expensive than contract service, but you have to buy your own cell phone (instead of having the cost bundled into contract phone service), and an up front cost of several hundred dollars can be a significant drawback.

    The Moto G, a breakthrough Android smartphone with solid specifications and an amazing price of only $180 that made no contract cell phone service much more attractive, is now even better: Net10 Wireless has a special Moto G (1st generation) price of only $120 (as of this writing) that makes it a steal! Although it's not LTE (see below), its 4G speed is still quite respectable.

    Net10 Wireless is one of the best values in cell phone service, with unlimited domestic phone, text, and data (as of this writing) for only:
    • $40 per month with a small amount of high speed data (500 MB)
    • $45 per month (on auto-refill) with a substantial amount of high speed data (3 GB)
    Tips:
    1. With Net10 Wireless, you can choose either the AT&T or the T-Mobile network. AT&T tends to have better network coverage. T-Mobile tends to have higher data speed.
    2. The LTE version of the Moto G (with faster data speeds) is available on Amazon for $190 (as of this writing).

    Sunday, December 14, 2014

    Wi-Fi on the Water

    Alfa Marine USB Wi-Fi
    If you're on a boat, and there's Wi-Fi available ashore, but your computer can't get enough signal for a usable connection, the outdoor waterproof Alfa Marine USB Wi-Fi Adapter can be a good solution.

    The pictured module has an integrated 12 dBi long-range antenna. Although the antenna is directional, the pattern is wide enough that pointing is not critical, and a fair amount of boat movement is tolerated. With clear line-of-sight and a good antenna at the other end, range can be a mile or more.

    The module mounts to something like a stanchion or mast on deck by means of stainless hose clamps or plastic zip ties, with a USB cable running to a computer below deck. Although the cable is limited to 15 ft (5 m) by the USB standard, a USB extension cable may be used for an additional 15 ft.

    Available on Amazon for only $35 (link) as of this writing. Drivers provided for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.

    (Beware of cheaper off-brand units with exaggerated claims of antenna gain or range. Most are junk.)

    Tip: Only one computer is supported, but if the computer has Wi-Fi, software can turn that Wi-Fi into a hotspot for wireless devices. Sharing over Ethernet (cable) is also possible.

    Monday, September 8, 2014

    Extend Wi-Fi Coverage

    TP-LINK TL-WPA4220KIT
    Wi-Fi radio signals all too often fail to adequately cover the desired area, not only because radio signal strength decreases with distance, but also because radio signals are attenuated (blocked) by walls and floors.

    The first thing to try is to locate the Wi-Fi base station (also known as gateway, wireless router, or wireless access point) as near to the center of the desired coverage area as possible in order to minimize distance, but that may be difficult or impossible, or simply not enough.

    If that fails to solve the problem, many people then try so-called wireless range extenders (actually wireless repeaters), but these devices tend to work poorly:
    • Additional radio traffic cuts wireless network speed by more than half.
    • Interference with other wireless networks may increase, often a problem.
    • May be difficult to locate midway between Wi-Fi base station and weak coverage area.
    A better solution usually (but not always) is powerline networking, using existing electrical power wiring (instead of radio) to carry network signals between modules, a base module (left unit in accompanying picture) located next to the Wi-Fi base station, connected by cable to a LAN port, and remote module(s) (right unit) in weak coverage area(s), broadcasting secondary Wi-Fi signal(s).

    For best results it's important to select name brand "nano" units conforming to the AV500 standard, such as the TP-LINK TL-WPA4220KIT, which includes both a base module and a remote module. It's also important to plug these units directly into wall outlets because so-called surge protectors can interfere with network signals.

    Testing powerline networking is easy: plug the modules into outlets at the desired locations, and green "sync" lights will turn on if they work. If so, it's then just a straightforward matter of setting up the secondary Wi-Fi signal. (In some cases they won't work due to electrical wiring issues, so be sure to get a return privilege.)

    Tips:
    • Best Buy stores often stock a Netgear Powerline Wi-Fi kit (link). 
    • B&H is a great low-cost source of such products (link).

    Monday, September 1, 2014

    Extremely Good Travel Mug

    Contigo Extreme
    The great majority of travel mugs on the market are mediocre at best. Poor insulation fails to keep beverages hot or cold. Lids leak. Fragile plastic breaks.

    Fortunately, there is a superior travel mug: Contigo Extreme.
    • Vacuum insulation keeps beverages hot or cold for hours
    • Rugged and durable stainless steel construction
    • Leakproof lid that's actually leakproof (and dishwasher safe)
    • Comfortable carabiner clip handle attaches securely
    • Tapered to fit in standard cup holders
    • Generous 16 oz capacity
    • Lifetime guarantee
    • Sold by Target at discount
    Some longtime fans of this mug complain that it has been cheapened over the years, but even if true, it's still arguably the best travel mug available, and the lifetime warranty covers any issues that might arise.

    Friday, August 22, 2014

    Pandora One Bargain

    Pandora One Gift Card
    Pandora is one of the best streaming music services, offering both a an ad-supported "free" service and a paid ad-free service (a so-called "freemium" business model). A principal Pandora differentiation (as compared to competing services like Google Music All Access, iTunes Radio, Rhapsody, and Spotify) is Music Genome Project technology, which does a good job of selecting music that is similar to music you already know and like.

    In the beginning the free Pandora service was attractive given ads that were relatively few and unobtrusive, but over time ads have become both more frequent and more obtrusive, to the point where they are now downright annoying, which of course pushes subscribers toward the paid service.

    That wasn't so bad when the paid service was $36/year or $4/month, but Pandora ended the annual subscription option and raised the price of new subscriptions to $5/month (⅔ more expensive than the original annual subscription on a monthly basis).

    Fortunately, there is still a way (as of this writing) to get the original $36/year subscription price: Pandora One Gift Card at Target.com (not in Target stores). Where you receive your gift card(s) in the mail, you can add them to your Pandora account by activating them here.

    This probably won't last forever, so you might want to stock up with more than one card.

    Monday, August 11, 2014

    Safer Online Dating

    1. Open a new free Google Gmail account just for online dating (nothing else). You can forward it to your regular email for convenience, but always answer from the dating Gmail account. That way your email can't be used to find you, and you can always close that account if you encounter a real creep.

    2. Buy a cheap prepaid cell phone just for online dating (Net10Page Plus, etc), and pay by cash (not credit card). You can forward it to your regular cell for convenience, but always call from the dating cell phone. That way your phone number can't be used to track you down, and you can always drop it in a dumpster (or donate it to charity) if you encounter a real creep. (Bad guys call this a "burner phone".)

    3. Always do a first meeting in a very public place, make it something cheap (like coffee or tea), and buy your own. That way you'll be safe, and able to walk away whenever you want with no feeling of obligation.

    4. Always drive your own car or use public transport. Never ever give out your home address until you know someone really really well.

    5. Post new photos, not photos you've used anyplace else (Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, etc). Otherwise people can use image search to find and associate these other places.

    6. Use a nickname for online dating, not your real name, to make it harder for someone to look you up online.

    7. Do not use your real city of residence in your dating profile -- use a nearby city instead to make it harder for someone to look up your home address.

    8. Never even start with anyone that doesn't have at least one good photo posted. Having no photos or only bad photos is a big red flag.

    9. When someone gives you a phone number, Google it -- you'll often learn worthwhile things. ;)

    Tuesday, July 29, 2014

    Vehicle Mount for Cell Phone

    Mountek nGroove Grip Universal
    Smartphones can be excellent while driving, especially in vehicles lacking comparable electronics, providing such hands-free services as:
    • Phone calls
    • GPS location and turn-by-turn navigation with voice prompts
    • Playing music and podcasts
    • Streaming Internet radio
    This works best with a mount that holds the smartphone where it can be easily seen and used. Common mounts attach to windshield or dash with suction cups that can loosen over time and which often obstruct the view. Mounts that attach to air vents partially block the vents and can make them hard to adjust.

    If your vehicle has a CD player, a better mounting solution may be the Mountek nGroove Grip Universal, pictured mounted in a Volvo S60 holding a Google (LG) Nexus 5 (recommended) with a Diztronic protective case (recommended). This mount is attractive, solid and secure, tilts and rotates, attaches and removes easily, with no need to remove or modify protective cases. (If you never play CD discs, you can leave the mount attached.)
    • Cable is power from a PowerGen Car Charger (recommended)
    • Connection to car audio is by Bluetooth in the picture, but cable could be used instead
    • App displayed is CarHome Ultra, made especially for driving (recommended)

    Monday, April 21, 2014

    Heartbleed

    Heartbleed (CVE-2014-0160) is nothing short of an Internet disaster. Here's why:

    1. In a noble effort to clean up OpenSSL, the OpenBSD team is reportedly making hundreds of changes per week. Unfortunately, that means new bugs are being introduced no matter how careful the review. You cannot test in quality — it has to be designed in from the beginning. What we should be doing is starting over from scratch with a robust programming languageC and its progeny aren't suitable for mission-critical programming. (Ada would be a good alternative.)

    2. History teaches that a substantial percentage of compromised machines won't ever get patched and will continue to be exploited. Until we all start taking security seriously and come up with a way to rapidly push out a mandatory fix to all affected machines (which ain't gonna happen anytime soon), we're going to have to live with fundamental lack of security. The lesson here is that transmitting sensitive information over the Internet is folly without careful offline strong encryption.

    3. Heartbleed is at least partly a consequence of the cruel hoax of free software, where talented individuals are tricked into working without monetary compensation to the great benefit of commercial enterprises. There needs to be some way to fund essential projects for the public good, especially because we can't afford to continue to rely and depend on wishful thinking.

    Tuesday, April 1, 2014

    Google Sneakware

    Updated 24 July 2014 to reflect the latest Google sneakware.

    Watch out for Google "sneakware" on Microsoft Windows!

    If you use Picasa, Google is installing Google+ Auto Backup even if you don't use or want Google+.

    And Google is enabling Chrome to always run in the background for Notifications and Hangouts with just brief popup notices.

    All are privacy and security issues and a drain on system resources.
    1. To get rid of Google+ Auto Backup, uninstall it in Control Panel.
    2. To stop Chrome running in the background, open Chrome > Settings, Search settings for "background", and uncheck "Continue running background apps when Google Chrome is closed".
    3. To stop Hangouts, open Chrome > Tools > Extensions, go to Hangouts, and uncheck Enabled (or click Delete).

    Sunday, March 30, 2014

    3D Solid Modeling Recommendations

    Corsair 550D

    Software

    • BestSolid Edge
      Many designers prefer Solid Edge over SolidWorks.
    • Market Leader: SolidWorks
      Largest user community and third party support.
    • Also Good: Inventor (Autodesk)
      Cloud integration.
    • ValueSpaceClaim
      Easy and fast, fresh architecture.
    • Honorable MentionGeomagic Design
      Formerly Alibre Design, low cost options.

    Hardware

    Objectives: Performance, Stability, and Affordability
    • Maximized clock speed for single-thread performance
    • Maximized cores/threads for multi-thread performance 
    The key to this hardware recommendation is the Intel Core i7-4930K, essentially a bargain 6-core version of the very expensive top-of-the-line 8-core Xeon that retains the advantages of the Xeon architecture like 4-channel memory, with ample air and water cooling to allow stable overclocking.
    Total cost of just over $2,000. Good source for assembled custom systems: Central Computers

    The conservative "Fast" setting in ASUS Auto Tune yields a clock speed of 4.25 GHz, 25% faster than standard clock speed. (Higher clock speed is possible with more aggressive settings.) The performance of this system must be experienced to be appreciated.

    Thursday, February 27, 2014

    eBay Save Search

    One of the more frustrating and annoying aspects of the horrid eBay change from Saved Searches to Searches You Follow (see eBay goats and sheep) is that searches can no longer be (re)named, so non-trivial searches get long, painful names.

    Here's a work-around that temporarily turns off Javascript, thereby exposing the old Save (and name) Search functionality: When you have a search on eBay that you want to save, click on the URL at the top of your browser, append "&_jsoff=1" (without the quotes) to the end of the URL, and press [Enter]. That should reload your search with the old Save (and name) Search functionality.

    Update: Another way to still name Searches has been to use the official eBay app for Android, but the ability to name searches was removed in version 2.7.0.142, so to retain this capability, don't upgrade beyond version 2.6.1.2 (which still works fine as of this writing).

    Monday, February 10, 2014

    Free VPN

    Secure Wi-Fi with VPN is updated with a very good free VPN service:
    • VPNBook
      Free PPTP and OpenVPN. No registration required. No bandwidth limits. Privacy protection. Easy to set up. Free Web Proxy. Commercial service available at $8 per month. Headquarters in Switzerland. Servers in USA, UK, and Romania.

    Tuesday, February 4, 2014

    Anti-Malware for Windows

    Malware (adware, spyware, trojan, virus, worm) protection is now so essential for computers running Microsoft Windows that free trials of commercial anti-malware software (anti-virus, Internet security, etc) are commonly included in new computers. The catch, of course, is that they aren't free forever, and that they won't provide proper protection without regular ongoing updates. But not to worry, because excellent free protection is readily available, so uninstall those commercial products and use these free tools instead:

    Microsoft Security

    Microsoft now provides both good firewall (Windows Firewall) and good anti-malware (free Security Essentials for Windows Vista and 7, Windows Defender included in Windows 8). Tips:

    Malwarebytes

    Since no anti-malware tool is 100% reliable, it's a good idea to supplement Microsoft security by periodically downloading and running a scan with Malwarebytes free.

    HitmanPro

    Another good periodic scanning tool for things that might be missed by Microsoft security.

    Tuesday, January 28, 2014

    Earphones with Mic for Android

    Klipsch Image S4A (original)
    Your Android smartphone (or tablet) may have come with earphones/headphones, but the sound quality is probably mediocre at best. You could spend literally hundreds of dollars for the best possible sound, but roughly $100 is the point of diminishing returns, in part because "a chain is only as strong as the weakest link", and the cheap audio components in most smartphones will limit the sound quality if you spend more than that. So this list focuses on products under $100 (street price) with these characteristics:
    • Designed for Android, with single button remote
    • Mic for phone calls with good sound quality
    • Cords designed to minimize rubbing and bumping noises
    • Comfortable fit
    • Good construction
    • Good value, sounding better than the price

    GOOD: Sony MDR-EX110AP ($21-25)

    Cords could be better (thicker and more rubbery), but they aren't terrible, and the design is otherwise good, with sound quality comparable to products at double the retail price point, comfortable fit, light weight, and small size that keeps them inside the ear, minimizing wind noise outdoors. Available in a variety of colors. A bargain.

    GREAT: Klipsch Image S4A ($45)

    Excellent sound, good build quality, but the app is problematic, and fit with the oval tips can be a problem. The newer S4A (II) version features tangle resistant flat cables and other minor tweaks, but many prefer the original version, which can still be found and is usually less expensive. Tips:
    • Replace the oval ear tips with Shure memory foam "olives" (EABKF1), which install perfectly, fit comfortably, seal out noise, and improve sound by enhancing bass and taming treble just a bit. The latest version has an ear wax screen.
    • Forget the app.

    GENERAL TIPS:

    • Don't limit sound quality with low bit-rate audio:
      • Many streaming apps (Google Music included) default to a lower bit-rate that limits quality, and there may be a Setting for higher quality (at the expense of more mobile data).
      • The bit-rate of your own audio audio files (MP3, AAC, etc) should be 175-245 Kbps. (With good encoding, higher than that won't sound better.) LAME V3 profile is a good way to get the best possible sound with the lowest possible bit-rate. 
    • Take high end audio claims with a grain of salt. Many do not stand up to serious scrutiny.

    Tuesday, January 21, 2014

    Mini Wireless Multifunction Routers

    Apple pioneered this category of capable mini devices with the AirPort Express, and now there are less expensive alternatives. Multifunction capability is what makes them special, the ability to be configured as:
    • Router (base station)
    • Access Point (supplement existing router)
    • Client Bridge (wireless connection of wired devices)
    • Repeater (extend wireless coverage)
    Apple AirPort Express (latest version)
    • Pro: Easy setup with AirPort Utility, simultaneous dual band wireless, printer server, AirPlay client for wireless audio
    • Con: Expensive, N150 speed, separate power adapter
    Satechi Wireless Multifunction Mini Router
    • Pro: N300 speed, QoS
    • Con: Single band wireless
    TP-LINK Mini Pocket Router TL-WR700N
    • Pro: Inexpensive, small (like original AirPort Express)
    • Con: N150 speed, single band wireless

    Saturday, January 18, 2014

    Best USB Car Charger

    PowerGen Car Charger
    You purchased a "fast" car charger for your mobile device (smartphone, tablet, etc), but you find that the actual charging rate is slow, possibly not even able to keep up if you use the mobile device at the same time. What's up with that? Is the charger defective? Not really a "fast" charger?

    It's the fault of the USB standard, not necessarily the charger. USB was conceived as a connection standard, not a charger standard, and to keep costs down the original standard provides only a modest amount of power, a maximum of 500 mA. But as USB gained traction as a connection standard, it also gained traction in chargers.

    500 mA (½ A) is fine for a low power device like a mouse, but insufficient for fast charging of a current smartphone (~1000 mA), much less a tablet (~2000 mA). The USB standard is evolving to deliver greater amounts of power, but adoption takes time, and current USB products could be damaged by high power drain, so device manufacturers have resorted to non-standard tricks for fast charging with USB connectors:
    1. Shorted data connection: This is frequently used by Android devices (e.g., Nexus 5), which won't try to fast charge if the data connection isn't shorted, displaying (USB) rather than (AC) on the Battery screen.
    2. Non-standard data voltage: This method is used by Apple devices, with different voltages signaling different maximum charging rates. They similarly won't try to fast charge when those voltages aren't present.
    Since no standard USB port should do these things, a device can assume it's on a charger rather than a USB host. But since there is no single method, and since both methods can't be used at the same time, a charger that's fast for Apple devices may not be fast for Android devices, and vice versa. So either make sure to choose the right type of charger (which can be tricky), or choose a charger that has both methods, like the excellent PowerGen 4.2A/20W Dual USB Car Charger:
    • High power for fast charging even tablets
    • Dual ports for charging 2 devices at once, one Android port and one Apple port*
    • Good physical design for secure fit and durability
    • Compact size
    • Great value: $10 at Amazon.com
    PowerGen Wall Charger

    Best USB Wall Charger

    All of the same considerations apply, and PowerGen comes to the rescue here as well, with the PowerGen 2.4-Amp (12 Watt) Dual USB Wall Charger. Another great value: $13 at Amazon.com

    UPDATE: There is now a more powerful version: PowerGen 3.4-Amp (17 Watt) Dual USB Wall Charger. Even better value: $10 at Amazon.com

    * If a device is connected to the other type of port, it will still charge, but the rate may be slow.

    Saturday, December 28, 2013

    T-Mobile VPN Fix

    Virtual Private Networking (VPN) is a secure (encrypted) way of connecting to private resources (business LAN, home computer) over the public Internet. To make a VPN connection, VPN client software typically connects to VPN server software. VPN types include Point To Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP, deprecated but still useful) and OpenVPN (recommended, secure). But you may have a problem making VPN connections over T-Mobile USA wireless data.
    The Symptoms: You are able to do things on your mobile device over T-Mobile data (browse the Internet, send and receive email, etc), and you are able to make VPN connections over Wi-Fi wireless, but you are not able to make VPN connections over T-Mobile wireless data. 
    The Cause: T-Mobile apparently pushed out a data configuration in late 2013 that set APN Protocol to IPv6. That works properly for most things on mobile devices, but it prevents PPTP (built into Android) and OpenVPN (OpenVPN Connect) clients from making VPN connections.
    The Cure: Open Settings > Wireless & Networks > More... > Mobile networks > Access Point Names > T-Mobile GPRS (fast.t-mobile.com) > APN protocol, and change the selection from IPv6 to IPv4/IPv6 IPv4 (see update below).
    The Caveat: This cure was tested successfully with a Nexus 5 running Android 4.4.2 KitKat on a Prepaid plan, and it might not work properly on other devices or plans. Use at your own risk.
    Update: IPv4/IPv6 currently causes issues with some websites (example), so try IPv4.

    Saturday, December 14, 2013

    Junctions for Cloud Backup

    "Cloud" (just a new name for "online") is all the rage, and "cloud backup" can be a computer backup option with advantages, despite Internet speed limitations, including protected remote storage, no need for local backup hardware, and access/syncing with multiple devices.

    Many paid cloud backup services are readily available (CarboniteCrashPlan, etc.), but good free options are also available, including Google Drive (currently 15 GB for Drive, Gmail, and photos) and Microsoft SkyDrive (currently 7 GB, integrated as of Windows 8).

    The immediate obstacle to using Google Drive or SkyDrive for backup is that both services sync only a single folder to the cloud, and it would normally be a hassle to keep all important stuff in the single sync folder, but fortunately there's an easier way to set up backup syncing in Windows: NTSF Junctions.

    An NTSF Junction is a symbolic link to a folder, which has several advantages over a Windows Shell Shortcut (.lnk), including content sync by Windows SkyDrive software. (Shell Shortcuts will be synced, but not the content they point to.) So if, for example, you create a Junction to My Documents in your SkyDrive folder, then Windows SkyDrive will sync My Documents content to the SkyDrive cloud. If you keep your important items in My Documents, this will give you excellent online protection. You can add other folders to sync the same way with their own NTSF Junctions, even Desktop.

    The primary limitation of this approach is that Windows SkyDrive does not monitor NTSF Junctions for changes the way it does the regular contents of the SkyDrive folder, so sync of NTSF Junction content must be manually initiated either by restarting Windows SkyDrive or by modifying something in the SkyDrive folder. (Regular sync could also be initiated with Windows Task Scheduler.)

    To create NTSF Junctions, Windows has only the command line tool mklink, which is painful to use. An easier and better tool is (free) Link Shell Extension.

    So what about Google Drive? Unfortunately, as of this writing Drive doesn't support Junctions for content sync, so the only way to sync a folder like My Documents is to move it to the Google Drive folder. That's quite easy to do as described here and here, and works quite well in most cases.

    Friday, December 13, 2013

    HDTV Antenna

    ClearStream 2V
    With increased online HD quality video streaming from the likes of Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube, and with cable TV bills climbing ever higher, it's becoming more attractive and practical to cut the cable, especially if you can get free digital TV signals (HD quality) over the air.

    You have the legal right to install your own antenna for over the air reception, and you can check to see what channels you may be able to receive at TV Fool.

    Some of the best antenna options for relatively short range reception, as tested in San Francisco (TV Fool report).

    Antennas Direct ClearStream 2V

    Easy to assemble. High quality construction. Solidly pulled in all green and yellow stations reported by TVFool, both VHF Hi and UHF.

    If you need or want the best in this range class, this is the antenna to buy.

    If you need longer range reception, Antennas Direct also has more powerful options, as well as a good indoor option, Micron R, which may be available at a bargain price refurbished.

    RCA ANT751

    RCA ANT751
    Relatively easy to assemble, except a bolt was missing, purchased replacement from local hardware store. Also purchased cable zip ties to secure coax to mast and boom. One element was loose enough to wobble freely due to poor riveting, had to insert shims to stabilize.

    Pulled in all green stations reported by TVFool, both VHF Hi and UHF, but not solid on yellow.

    Good value.

    Summary

    ClearStream 2V definitely more sensitive than ANT751, in addition to better construction quality, clear on yellow UHF channels that break up on ANT751, also picked up a very weak (unwatchable) VHF station not found by ANT751.

    However, ANT751 may be sufficiently good for many purposes (if yellow stations are not of interest), and is much less expensive ($50 vs $100).

    Resources

    Sunday, November 17, 2013

    Windows Virtual PC Resolution

    This specifically applies to Windows XP guest on Windows 7 host running Windows Virtual PC. It may also apply to other configurations.

    When Windows XP is run as a guest without Integration Features, guest desktop resolution can be changed with Properties, but when Integration Features are enabled, that won't work -- the guest starts with a resolution of 896 x 600; resolution can be changed only by resizing the guest window; and when the guest is restarted any change is lost.

    To start the Windows XP guest at a specific resolution (e.g., 1024 x 768) with Integration Features enabled, the settings file for the virtual machine must first be edited manually:
    1. Log off host and then back on to make sure virtual machines are shut down
    2. Click Start and enter "%localappdata%\Microsoft\Windows Virtual PC\Virtual Machines"
      (without quotes)
    3. Locate the settings file (.vmc) with the same name as the virtual machine
      (You may want to make a backup copy of this file for safety)
    4. Right-click the settings file, choose Open with, and select Notepad
      (If Notepad is not an option, use Choose default program to associate it)
    5. Find the tag <resolution_height type="integer">
      and change to the desired value (e.g., 768)
    6. Find the tag <resolution_width type="integer">
      and change to the desired value (e.g., 1024)
    7. Close Notepad, saving the settings file
    8. Start the virtual machine

    Friday, November 1, 2013

    iGoogle Alternative

    iGoogle was an excellent tool for customizing your own Web landing (start) page with a wide variety of sources conveniently arranged in multiple tabs. I say "was" because Google shut it down on November 1, 2013, just as it has shut down other valuable and important services before it, including Reader. (See Google Reader Lessons)

    If you were a user of iGoogle, or are simply looking for a good custom Web landing page, I recommend My Yahoo, which has an excellent mobile view in addition to its standard view. It has much of the functionality of iGoogle, although not as many Packaged Pages (widgets), but that can often be remedied with RSS feeds. (Yahoo Widget development was shut down in 2012, so the longer term outlook for My Yahoo is uncertain.)

    Other alternatives:

    Monday, October 28, 2013

    Tripods Recommended

    Micro Tripod

    Sometimes you need a really small tripod, like for taking a "selfie" (picture of yourself) with a smartphone, or (in my case) as a stand for a digital audio recorder. The usual mini tripods (even the smallest GorillaPod) are a bit clunky. A cool alternative is the sleek, neatly folding Jelly Legs Micro Tripod by Square Jellyfish. The legs can be adjusted and locked for uneven surfaces. There's even a micro ball head available, and a bracket to hold your smartphone. Recommended.


    Standard Tripod (Photo and/or Video)

    A good, affordable tripod for general purpose photo and video use that's relatively light in weight but still solid is the SLIK U8000 Photo/Video Tripod. Features: 3-way fluid effect pan head. Quick release shoe for easy mounting and removal of camera or camcorder. Oversize, single action, speed release leg locks for adjusting tripod height in seconds. Geared center column. Length folded 23 1/4 in, Height extended 59 1/12 in, Extension center column 11 5/6 in, Weight 3 lbs 5 oz. Recommended.

    Sunday, October 27, 2013

    Windows 8.1 Woes

    Work-Around Windows 8.1 Update Problems
    (Error 0xC1900101 - 0x30017)

    As predicted here in Windows 8 Preview, Windows 8 has been a big disappointment, confusing users and contributing to poor sales of Windows personal computers and tablets. Microsoft has attempted to respond to some of complaints with Windows 8.1, a free update, which restores the ability to boot to the familiar desktop and a Start button of sorts, but it failed to address other big issues, and missed opportunities raised here in Windows 8 Misses the Mark except for better integration of SkyDrive cloud services.

    Still, half a loaf would seem to be better than none, except the update has been problematic for many users. Boot problems from the RT update were well-publicized and are now apparently corrected, but there are also less well-publicized problems with the standard update. Real world case in point (with possible causes and solutions):

    Correct Windows 8.1 update
    Starting point was a relatively current desktop PC with quad core Intel processor and large hard disk running Windows 8 without any apparent problems. Prepared for the 8.1 update with best practices: (a) checked hard disk for errors, (b) ensured backup was current, (3) applied all Windows 8 updates, (4) rebooted system. Opened Store app and encountered Problem 1: Instead of "Update to Windows 8.1 for free", the offer was Windows 8.1 "Preview", which shouldn't have appeared. Assumed this was just a display issue, and proceeded with install, but differences with a normal update suggest it may have contributed to the later problem (below). Problem 1 work-around (discovered later): Open Search, run "msreset" (to reset the Store cache), then open Store again. (It boggles the mind that Microsoft would create a utility to do this rather than fix the system to prevent the problem, but that's Microsoft.)

    That started the update process, which is quite lengthy, in part because the update is a huge 3.6 GB, a long download even on a fast Internet connection. Even when the download is complete, the update is still a lengthy process, even on a fast system, as it slowly steps through checks, installs, configuration, etc. Problem 2: Finally, well over an hour into the process, it rebooted, but instead of starting Windows 8.1, it started checking the hard disk for errors (despite the disk being error free). After a long process it rebooted, and again started checking the hard disk for errors, repeating the same long process, but after another reboot, it then displayed "Restoring your previous version of windows". So yet another long process, followed by a reboot back into Windows 8, whereupon it reported that Windows 8.1 update had failed due to error 0xC1900101 - 0x30017 (a singularly unhelpful message, but again, that's Microsoft).

    msconfig
    Searching online failed to turn up anything definitive on the error code, just hints that it might be due to device driver and/or software compatibility problem, notwithstanding all the time taken for "compatibility" checking in the update without any reported issues. (It boggles the mind how there could be such issues in Windows 8.1 that are not in Windows 8, but that's Microsoft.) Suggested Problem 2 work-arounds:
    1. Update all devices drivers to versions known to be compatible with Windows 8.1 (link).
    2. Check all software for compatibility with Windows 8.1 (at vendor and Windows Compatibility Center), and remove any that are incompatible.
    3. Disable all non-Microsoft services with msconfig (System Configuration) during the 8.1 update. (Click Services tab; check Hide all Microsoft services; then click Disable all.) Reverse process after the 8.1 update.
    4. Disable all non-essential Startup with Task Manager during the 8.1 update. (Click Startup tab; select all items; then click Disable.) Reverse process after the 8.1 update.
    In this particular case, Dragon NaturallySpeaking version 11 was identified as a possible problem in Step 2, so it has been removed (along with some other non-essential software). Unfortunately, the huge update has to be downloaded again (why?!), so it will take some time to find out.

    UPDATE: The update did complete successfully with Problem 1 work-around and Problem 2 work-around 2. (It was not necessary to use Problem 2 work-around 1, 3, or 4.)

    OTHER ISSUES
    1. Microsoft Account part 1: Initial setup of Windows 8.1 seems to demand an online Microsoft Account. This actually isn't necessary. To use the existing Windows login, click Create New Account, then Cancel, and log into Local Account. (For more information see Quick Tip: Change to a local account in Windows 8.1Microsoft should make this easier and clearer.)
    2. Microsoft Account part 2: Some apps in the Store ask you to login to a Microsoft Account. This is actually only necessary for paid apps. 
    3. Default printer was changed by the update from the Epson printer installed on the computer to Microsoft XPS Document Writer. It was simple enough to change back, but this should not have happened.

    Friday, October 25, 2013

    Disk Usage for Windows

    One of the annoyances in Microsoft Windows is the lack of a good built-in tool for managing disk space like the crude but effective UNIX (Linux) du utility that displays directory (folder) sizes.

    True, there is the Sysinternals Disk Usage utility, but it only reports usage for a single directory, which isn't terribly helpful when you need an overall picture.

    Here are some solid third-party alternatives that are free for personal use:
    • GetFoldersize
      Comprehensive multi-pane text display, but lacks helpful graphics. Explorer shell integration. No cleanup capability, just deletion. Print capability. No menus, just toolbars. Fast. Very good.
    • TreeSize Free
      Simple hybrid text and graphics view. Administrator mode. Threaded for speed, very fast. Print capability. Integrated update check. Limited, paid version more capable. Good.
    • WinDirStat
      Clone of Linux KDirStat for Windows. Small and efficient. Threaded for speed, fast. Useful (and colorful) "treemap" display. No Explorer shell integration, but can be hacked manually. Cleanup capability. No print capability, but can email report. Recommended.