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.)

Tip: B and 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.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Choosing a Wireless Router

Netgear WNDR4000
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.
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 network.
  2. USB
    USB can be used to attach USB storage or a USB printer to the wireless router for network access.
Recommendations:
  1. Apple AirPort Extreme
    If you're into Apple products, this is the wireless router to get. Expensive but recommended.
  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.
  3. Netgear WNDR4000
    Fast, powerful, and capable consumer wireless router. Refurbished units can be a real bargain. WNDR3700 is also very good.
Tips:
  1. Don't "cheap out"
    A cheap wireless router can reduce performance due to poor internal routing speed.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.)
  6. Apple AirPort Express
    The AirPort Express is a great way to extend iTunes music to remote speakers.

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: $11 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.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

eBay goats and sheep

In October 2013, without warning or real explanation, eBay users discovered that saved searches had been changed to "searches you follow", and saved sellers changed to "sellers you follow", together with other changes along the lines of social networking. In the process, important buyer functionality was removed, including the abilities to rename searches and to add notes to searches.

Cries of outrage from eBay users have mostly assumed these changes were due to bad design. Here in eBay's own words is what's really going on:

Sellers: This new experience puts great new tools in your hands for driving sales and developing loyal, repeat customers. You can use the new collections, following, and eBay profile to transform moments of inspiration into purchases of your great inventory. We’ll also be introducing new features and an exciting new look for your eBay Store. From bigger, bolder listing images to new ways to spotlight inventory and share on social media, subscribers will soon have even more tools available to them to turn browsers into buyers. All sellers will have this option by the end of January 2014!

Whether you buy or sell on eBay—or both—we encourage you to explore these new features, to tap into your passions and expertise to create collections of items for others to explore, to follow collections of our curators, valued sellers and eBay members, and to connect to the things you need and love.

In other words, it's all about Amazon (Newegg, etc). This isn't about buyers -- this is about sellers, and further transitioning eBay from a peer-to-peer auction site into a marketplace of storefronts. In the process, users are being transitioned from goats (buyers) into sheep (consumers) that follow sellers, curators, and other buyers. So tools that helped buyers to find what they want to buy are being replaced with tools that push consumers to buy what sellers want them to buy. Welcome to the brave new world. There won't be any going back unless a great many stop using eBay (which probably isn't going to happen), so goats (real buyers) will have to look someplace else.

Sellers are the eBay customers. Buyers are the eBay products.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Great Compact Digital Cameras 2013

Here's how I get great images and video: 

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200
  • Fast f/2.8 aperture across full zoom range
  • 24x optical zoom (25mm wide angle to 600mm telephoto)
  • 12.1-megapixel MOS Sensor
  • Full HD 1080/60p video
  • 1.3MP Electronic Viewfinder
  • 3.0-inch Free-Angle LCD
  • High-speed autofocus
  • Hotshoe
  • External microphone compatible
  • Filter and conversion lens compatible
  • It's what I use
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1
  • Fast f/2.0 aperture
  • 7.1x optical zoom (28mm wide angle to 200mm telephoto)
  • Larger 1/1.7-inch, 12.1-megapixel MOS Sensor
  • Full HD 1080/60i video
  • Electronic viewfinder
  • 3.0-inch high resolution LCD
  • Pocket size
  • Wireless (Wi-Fi and NFC)
  • Great all-around camera for most people
What both Lumix cameras share
  • Fantastic Leica lens (glass matters more than megapixels!) 
  • Optical Image Stabilization
  • Stereo microphone
  • Intelligent Auto Mode
  • Face Recognition
  • RAW image capture
  • Excellent image and video quality
Honorable Mention: Sony Cyber-shot RX100
  • Fast f/1.8 aperture Carl Zeiss lens
  • 3.6x zoom (28mm wide angle to 100mm telephoto)
  • Large 1" CMOS, 20.2 megapixels sensor
  • Optical Image Stabilization
  • Full HD 1080/60p video
  • Compact size
  • RAW image capture
  • Superb image and video quality

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Stereo Sound Off Camera

When my video needs high fidelity audio, I normally use the compact Zoom H2 recorder, selecting microphone pattern and adjusting level with the built-in meter to fit the particular acoustic environment. I place the H2 as close as possible to the audio source.

I typically record WAV-48kHz-16bit. While the H2 is capable of 24bit recording, I've not found a significant difference over 16bit recording in carefully controlled tests, and 96kHz is only needed for critical mastering.

To make syncing easy, I start the camera recording, start the H2 recording, then rap the H2 with my finger. It's dead easy in post-processing to match the "thunk" of the rap in the H2 audio to the rap in the video. (I don't use camera audio for matching because of audio delay at the camera.)

When I convert for YouTube, I encode video with AAC audio at a variable bitrate of 192 Kbps.

Why Stereo is Problematic for Camera Mics

A stereo camera microphone typically consists of two mono cardioid microphone capsules mounted next to each other, each of which has a pickup pattern like this (capsule facing upward in the diagram):


If the capsules are mounted in parallel (side by side), they will have largely overlapping patterns with poor stereo imaging.

A more common arrangement is with the two capsules angled 45° to the left (red) and 45° to the right (blue), 90° angle between them, which results in much better stereo imaging, but with much more side and back pickup of sound/noise.

Thus with a stereo camera microphone, generally speaking, you're either not going to get good stereo, or you're going to risk pickup of extraneous sounds from sides and rear, or both.

This is why for high fidelity ambient sound I prefer to use a good external recorder like the Zoom H2.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

External Microphones for Digital Camera Video

RØDE VideoMic on Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200

Roundup and Mini Reviews

Many digital cameras are capable of good video recording, but typically have poor microphones (and noisy preamps) that produce poor audio. For cameras with audio input jacks, an external microphone can be used to greatly improve audio quality.

Directional microphones (e.g., shotgun) are designed to pick up sounds from in front of microphone and camera (typically across an angle of 70-90°) and reject extraneous sounds and noise from sides and rear. Usually monophonic. Roundup:
  • Audio-Technica ATR-6550
    Thin sound. Lacks shock mount. Lacks continuous power on light. Not recommended.
  • Bronstein BRN-900
    Not readily available.
  • Opteka VM-100
    Re-branded RØDE VideoMic (original version) at much lower price. Includes wind muff. Best buy.
  • RØDE VideoMic
    Good sound. Good directionality. Output level pad. Switchable noise filter. Good shock mount. Plastic construction. May pick up RF interference (e.g., from GSM cell phones). Original version pictured above; new version has red Rycote Lyre Suspension System.
  • RØDE VideoMic Pro
    Good sound (about the same as original VideoMic). Good directionality (although not quite as good as original VideoMic). Output level pad. Switchable noise filter. Fragile shock mount. Plastic construction. May pick up RF interference (e.g., from GSM cell phones). Compact. Fairly expensive.
  • Sennheiser MKE 400
    Thin sound. Good directionality. Fragile shock mount. Metal construction. Switchable noise filter. Lacks continuous power on light. Not recommended.
  • Shure VP83 LensHopper
    Very good sound. Output level pad. Good directionality. Switchable noise filter. Metal construction. Good shock mount. Resistant to RF interference. Compact. Expensive. Best.
  • Shure VP83F LensHopper with Flash Recording
    Same as VP83 LensHopper plus high-quality integrated flash memory recorder, great for cameras with automatic level control. Best.
Ambient microphones (e.g., omnidirectional) are designed to pick up sounds from all directions when that is desired, but noise pickup from camera can be a problem. You will generally get much better results from a good external recorder like the Zoom H2. Examples:
  • MegaGear Shotgun
    Thin sound. Inexpensive. Widely available. (Not a true shotgun.)
  • Panasonic DMW-MS1
    Decent, but could and should be better for the money.
  • RØDE Stereo VideoMic
    Good sound. Output level pad. Switchable noise filter. Fairly expensive.
  • RØDE Stereo VideoMic Pro
    Very good sound. Output level pad. Switchable noise filter. Expensive.
2.5mm male to 3.5mm female
headphone adapter cable

Tips

  1. Use a wind muff ("dead cat") to reduce wind noise when outside.
  2. Bronstein WM-21 Wind Muff is good, inexpensive, and will fit the RØDE VideoMic (and Opteka VM-100).
  3. Get as close to your subject as possible. Directional microphones are not like telephoto lenses - they don't amplify sound - they just reduce extraneous pickup from sides and rear.
  4. Use highest output level without distortion to minimize noise pickup from cable and camera.
  5. 2.5mm male to 3.5mm female headphone adapter cable will be needed for cameras with 2.5mm sockets.
  6. Best output pad setting I've found for RØDE VideoMic (and Opteka VM-100) on Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 is -10.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Surge Suppressors

SurgeX Power Pro
Many surge suppressors, particularly the inexpensive ones commonly found at retail, do a poor job of protection. Surge suppressors built into quality uninterruptable power supply (UPS) units tend to be better, but for best results, use commercial grade surge suppressors -- more expensive, but worth it.

At a minimum, make sure that any point of use surge suppressor is UL 1449 listed/recognized at a suppressed voltage rating (SVR) of at least 330 volts. For endurance, the surge suppressor should also be Classified in Accordance with ANSI/IEEE C62.41-1991, Recommended Practices. (UL 1449 listed products are not necessarily classified for endurance.)

Good commercial grade surge suppressors include:
One of the best commercial grade values is the SurgeX Power Pro, available through Home Depot for $99 (as of this writing).

Tripp Lite Isobar, some of the best standard grade suppressors, are available through Amazon.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Great Coffee by the Cup

Pod-type coffee brewers (e.g., Keurig, K-Fee, Nespresso) are all the current rage, but they trade aroma and taste for convenience, chiefly because you're not getting freshly roasted and freshly ground coffee, which are the keys to a great cup. In addition, the brewing machines can be quite expensive. Fortunately, there are simple and inexpensive ways to get great coffee by the cup with easy cleanup:

Aerobie AeroPress

What makes Aerobie AeroPress special is the plunger for forcing brewed coffee out of grounds with air pressure, thereby ensuring full extraction for maximum strength, espresso-type drinks in a hurry.

Clever Coffee Dripper

What makes Clever Coffee Dripper special as compared to a standard cone filter holder or coffee maker is that ground coffee is kept in contact with water for the entire brewing period by means of a valve in the bottom of the holder, which ensures full brewing like a French press, but without the problem of sediment, especially if a paper filter is used (rather than a gold metal filter).

Grinding

For best results use freshly ground coffee, ideally by grinding your own with a good burr mill -- see Coffee Grinders under $100.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Powered (Active) Speakers with Remote

Boston Acoustics Soundware XS Digital Cinema
Samsung TVs have fixed audio out level that cannot be changed by remote control, so to have remote volume control of external speakers, you need to use:
  1. Receiver or home theater system with remote
  2. Soundbar with remote
  3. Powered (active) speaker system with remote
Option #3 is difficult, because there have been few good yet affordable powered (active) speaker systems with wireless remote, and most that previously existed have been discontinued (e.g., Creative I-Trigue L3800, Klipsch iFi, Onkyo HTX-22HDX). But, as of this writing, the Altec Lansing PT6021 (or similar SLS6221) is available on both Amazon and eBay. (Much more expensive options are the Audioengine 5+ and Bose CineMate Series II.)

Update 1: Unfortunately, the Altec Lansing PT6021 does not live up to its specs and is therefore not recommended:
  • AC hum is a problem, especially during soft passages, as acknowledged in the User's Guide: "Some low hum may be detected when your speaker system is powered on without an audio source playing, or when the volume is set at an extremely low level." (That's simply unacceptable.)
  • Sound quality is mediocre, lacking in clarity. 
Klipsch ProMedia 2.1
Update 2Boston Acoustics Soundware XS Digital Cinema is an excellent more expensive option, but can be found (currently) for as little as $180, making it a great bargain.

Note: If you don't need remote volume control, try to find a good used Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 system -- it's head and shoulders above other affordable powered 2.1 speaker systems: dazzlingly clear sound, smooth response with strong bass, and ample volume.