Speeding up your Wifi

Faster Internet speeds are here, so I expect people will be wanting to speed up their wifi to take advantage of it. This article explores the main wifi standards and speeds, and includes a hint to boost your wifi speed.

First, a side note about units. For simplicity, all speeds are listed in Megabits per second (Mbps). Network speeds can also be stated in Megabytes per second (MBps = Mbps ÷ 8), Gigabits per second (Gbps = Mbps ÷ 1000), or Gigabytes per second (GBps = Mbps ÷ 8000).

Until about 2007, the fastest Internet speeds were slower than the slowest wifi speeds. The table below shows the main wifi standards we have in Canada, when they were released, their theoretical speed (*wiki “IEEE 802.11), and the Internet speeds at the time they were released (**google “ncta internet speed history 2016”):

IEEE Standard Release Date Max Wifi Speed* Max Internet Speed**
802.11b Sep1999 11 Mbps 0.256 Mbps
802.11g Jun2003 54 Mbps 4 Mbps
802.11n Oct2009 600 Mbps 50 Mbps
802.11ac Dec2013 1300 Mbps 500 Mbps
802.11ax 2019? 10,530 Mbps 1000 Mbps

The beauty of wifi is that it is backwards compatible: for example, you can connect a 802.11n laptop/phone to a 802.11b router, and vice-versa. However, that compatibility comes at a price: if your modem/router is set to 802.11b compatibility (which many are, by default) the fastest wifi you can get is 11 Mbps.

So, if you are finding your wifi speed isn’t anywhere near your Internet speed, the easiest fix is to change the wifi setting on your modem/router to 802.11n or higher. Beware that any old 802.11b/g devices you have may stop working, but that equipment is at least 10 years old and probably needs replacing anyway.

Finally, a quick note about Internet/wifi speed: as mentioned in my previous article, there is limited value to higher Internet/wifi speeds. Netflix in UltraHD takes about 25 Mbps/channel (HD content only takes about 5 Mbps/channel), so even if you are streaming multiple 4k channels at once, you are likely using much less than 100 Mbps.

What’s in a Number?

Many people shop for computers and computer services by the numbers, but it’s important to know the significance of those numbers so you don’t end up under-buying or over-buying.

One number we all have a fairly good grasp on is price. Typically you get bigger/better/faster for more money, but there are other numbers that are significant when you have choices within your price range.

Did you know that watching a high-definition video program like Netflix, or a game system like Xbox/Playstation, takes only 5 Mbps (megabits-per-second) of bandwidth? So, unless you are frequently uploading or downloading large amounts of data, it’s hard to justify Internet services of 150 to 940 Mbps. Today, most of us have many good choices from 6 Mbps and up.

Computer speed is based on many factors, including CPU speed, RAM size, hard drive speed, video card speed, Internet speed and what you are running. When shopping, start by looking at the aspects you can’t easily upgrade later, like CPU. With laptops and all-in ones, that list includes video chip and screen size.

So how do you determine the relative speed of different CPUs, video cards/chips, hard drives, etc. to make comparisons? Go to passmark.com and look up specific benchmark numbers under CPU Benchmarks, Video Card Benchmarks, Hard Drive Benchmarks, etc.

Keep in mind that, when it comes to computers, small differences in speed are often not noticeable. You may notice something that is twice as fast, but not necessarily if it is only 50% faster. The easiest way to increase your computer speed, without buying a whole new computer, is to switch from a spinning hard disk drive (HDD) to a solid state drive (SSD) or hybrid (SSHD). SSDs are at least 10 times faster than its spinny equivalent. Even SSDs can vary in speed between makes/models/types.

The bottom line is, you want to buy something that meets your needs and expectations of speed, capacity, dependability, and longevity without breaking the bank. To achieve that, know your numbers, or ask someone you trust to help you make good choices.

Next time, I’ll tell you how you could speed up your home wifi with just one setting.

More scams

I like to keep my articles positive, but every year or so, I feel the need to write about scams in hopes of saving someone the hassle of dealing with the fallout.

Many of the same old scams are still circulating, where you receive a phone call “your computer has been compromised and we’re here to help you”, or you get an immovable popup on your screen asking you to “call this number” … and, of course, phishing emails (e.g. Nigerian Prince). I hope most of you are savvy enough to recognize these old scams.

But there are always new scams, and some can be quite convincing. I have fallen for “too good to be true” scams twice in the past few months.

The first was a website site advertising products with ridiculously cheap prices, specs that were “hard to believe”, and sometimes both. At a weak moment, I was stunned that I could get a 2TB flash drive for $10! (They cost upwards of $1800.) At the time, I was too lazy to research the company or the product, so I fell for it. An hour later, I came to my senses and canceled my order. (I was impressed with the fact that, after a few days, I got a full refund.)

The second scam was for a brand-name, smart thermostat that was advertised on Facebook for $100. I know these are $329 in the store, so I jumped at the chance to get one at this great price! The ad and site looked legit, so I ordered one. I got suspicious when I didn’t receive a confirmation/receipt, and leaped into action once I saw a charge for over $150 on my credit card.

Because I didn’t get a confirmation of my purchase, I had to dig through my browser history just to find the site address (note to self: write it down next time). I wrote to the company, but they said they couldn’t help me without the order number (stalling tactic?). Then I wrote to my credit card company with the details, and they wrote back to me suggesting that this is a known scammer and that I should I send the details to the RCMP via fake@antifraudcentre.ca. When I did that, I got an auto-reply from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre stating that they received my request, but that they were 30 days behind in answering requests. I guess it’s the busy season for scammers.

Again, I hope this information helps someone avoid getting caught by the same sort of trap.

Using your phone or tablet as a computer

Why not?

I see fewer and fewer reasons to need a computer for what most people do. So why not use the power and features of your phone or tablet instead of maintaining a computer?

Is it hard to hold the device while you type on the screen? Answer: You can just prop it up (many stands are available) and use a standard wired or wireless keyboard/mouse. Most phones and tablets allow this.

Is it hard to see because of the small screen? Answer: You can cast it, or connect it, to a big screen. Most phones and tablets can wirelessly cast pictures, sounds, and videos to a nearby smart device with a bigger screen. This works great for reading and streaming, although there is a bit of a delay which can make mousing and keyboarding difficult.

If you want to go “all the way” and use a keyboard, mouse, and monitor with your phone or tablet, you will want to plug those peripherals into your device. Most Android and Windows devices allow this.

I was recently impressed with Samsung’s DeX Pad, which allows you to plug a Galaxy S8 or S9 smartphone into keyboard, mouse, and monitor … effectively turning your smartphone into a functional desktop computer that fits in your pocket. Using this setup, the icons spread out to give you a full-screen experience, DeX-aware apps expand to use the available “real estate”, and non-aware apps still work fine in smaller portrait or landscape windows.

Of course, if you would rather separate your phone/tablet and desktop experiences, there are inexpensive options that make it easy to switch between devices: Chromebox, Chromebit, Chrometop, and Chromebook are all relatively inexpensive devices that give you a similar experience to Android/iOS without the complexity and expense of Windows or OS X.

Yes, there are situations where you just need the full-meal deal, but those situations are dwindling. More and more, traditional desktop/laptop programs are being “replaced” by web-based services, or Android/iOS apps, that are equivalent.

Even gaming and virtual reality (VR) are possible with a smartphone: the hardware cost is a fraction of computer-based gaming/VR, and the experience is nearly as diverse and impressive.

It’s something to consider the next time you go to replace your aging Windows or Mac computer.

Windows 10?

Are you still avoiding Windows 10? Or do you have it, and blame it for all your computer woes?

I’m here to point out that Windows 7 is due to be retired on 14Jan2020, and Windows 8.1 on 10Jan2023, so in a few years, Windows 10 will be the only supported Microsoft platform for workstations. There will not be a Windows 11.

Windows 10 is a pretty good operating system: it is not much “heavier” than Windows 7 or 8, it is very compatible with programs built for this, and previous, versions of Windows, and it is easy to get used to if you have used any previous version of Windows.

The main complaint I hear about Windows 10 is the default setup: Microsoft kept “tiles” from Windows 8, and it is rather forceful in pushing its own browser, mail tool, and certain games. It only takes a few minutes to remove those nuisances (refer to my previous article “Tweaking Windows 10”).

Windows 10 is pretty mature now: it was released more than 3 years ago, and we have seen five major updates to it over that time. The main problems we have seen with it have been with drivers and updates. Driver issues are fading away, but we still see some update issues (as we always have with Windows).

In September, it was announced that Windows 7 users will have to pay for updates if they want to keep using this 2009 operating system past its retirement date. The monthly fee has not yet been announced.

What all of this means is: if there is a reason you need Windows, Windows 10 is the best choice. If you have a legal copy of Windows 7 or 8, there is still a legal/free way to upgrade to Windows 10.

So what’s stopping you from joining the mainstream?

Next month, I would like to explore further the need for Windows. Unless you are a developer or gamer, there are few reasons to maintain a Windows (or Mac) computer when there are so many other choices: ChromeOS, Android, iOS, Linux, and others.

Networking 101

It’s a good idea to have some understanding of the basic components of your home network; your computers and smart devices depend on them to share files, and printers, and the Internet.

If you live in this area and you have Internet, you probably have a modem from Shaw or Telus. If that modem is relatively new, it will have a built-in wireless router and switch. If your needs are simple (i.e. you have four or fewer wired devices, and only short-range wireless needs), then connect your devices and you have a home network.

Wires are not passé. If you are trying to decide between a wired connection and a wireless one, remember: a wire is nearly always faster, more dependable, and more secure. And if you are sensitive to wireless signals, you can turn off the wireless feature. But if you want to connect more than four wired devices, you will need a “splitter”, more accurately called an “Ethernet switch”.

But wireless is handy. If you need better range or coverage for your wireless, you have several options: a stronger router, a wireless access point (WAP), a wireless repeater, or a set of mesh devices.

A network should not have more than one router on it, so if you opt for the “stronger router” approach, have Shaw/Telus “bridge” your modem, thus disabling the one built into the modem before you attach your own. Bridging can usually be done over the phone in a few minutes.

If you simply want to extend your wifi range in one direction, you could add a WAP (connected to the main router with a wire) or a wireless repeater (connected to the main router via wifi). And if you want the best speed/range/coverage, you might create a mesh network … which is basically one wireless router and one or more wireless repeaters configured in a grid layout. Mesh networks used to be out of reach for home users, because of their price and complexity. But now they are relatively affordable (lower cost than some high-end routers) and relatively easy to setup (via smartphone app).

If you are considering replacing one or more components of your network, it’s good to have a basic understanding of your options before you begin … that’s the best way to get the features that suit your needs.

That same basic knowledge is good if you have problems getting online. Know the components of your network so you have an idea of what to reset before calling for help: all network gear is meant to recover from a power outage, so it’s a good first step to unplug each component from power, wait 10 seconds, plug it back in, wait 5 minutes, and try accessing the Internet again.

Traveling with Technology

Not everyone wants technology when they travel, and I get that: sometimes it’s good to “just leave it all behind”. However, there are a few technologies that can make a trip more enjoyable.

Last month, I wrote about GPS technology that helps you locate yourself, share your location and routes with traveling companions, and reassure those at home. This technology is very useful when you travel, but then so is blogging, taking digital photos, using roaming data and roaming power.

If you want to share news of your travels with others, but not everyone on your Facebook list, you can create a custom Facebook group, but I like the simplicity of blogging: you can create a custom address (e.g. antartica2018.blogspot.com), share with select people, write with any number of devices/apps, include pictures/videos/sounds, and refer back to it for years to come.

Digital photos are ubiquitous. Most times, memory cards are large enough to store your photos for an entire trip. However, if you want to share pictures on-the-fly, or take more pictures and videos than will fit on memory cards, you need to give it some forethought.

If you are going on an extended trip, or just plan to take a lot of video, you might think about bringing a hard drive and a method of transferring your data to it. Memory cards tend to store tens of GB, while hard drives can usually hold hundreds or thousands of GB.

Sharing your photos and videos on-the-fly means you will need a dependable Internet connection. To get online while you travel, you have several options: hope for WiFi spots, buy a local SIM card for your smart device, get a roaming plan for your smart device, or (if you have several devices you want to keep online) consider the latest gadget from Skyroam. You can buy or rent a Skyroam device, and get data on a reasonably-priced daily or monthly plan. The resulting WiFi is “unlimited” for up to 5 devices at once, but is somewhat limited for speed: fast (3G/4G speed) for the first 500MB per day, then slow (2G speed) for the remainder of the 24-hour period. Actual speeds will vary from location to location.

Roaming power can also be an issue in some circumstances. If you don’t already know what a “power bank” is, have a look at them, because they could provide the power you need when you can’t get to a power outlet. The latest Skyroam device also doubles as a power bank.

Happy travels!

GPS – Still a Ways to Go

The Global Positioning System is a fantastic technology. Whether you are navigating on land or sea … via car, bike, or foot … on the roads or on the trails … GPS can keep you from getting (or feeling) lost. Additionally, it can give you the ability to share your position/routes with others, or follow theirs.

The US started launching GPS satellites in 1978. So far there have been 72 launches, and there are currently 31 satellites in orbit. In order to use the system, all you need is a GPS device (standalone, or built into your smartphone or smartwatch) that is powered on and in range of at least three of those satellites. The current publicly available system can place you within 5 meters.

It is a great system, and it is getting even better.

The Russian positioning system, called GLONASS, have had satellites orbiting since the 80’s, but only in the past 10 years have they been accessible using commercially-available GPSes. Devices that use both systems produce position information faster and more accurately (within 2 meters) than those that only use GPS technology.

The US plans to launch more a more accurate system (30-centimeter accuracy) starting sometime this year, and many other countries are launching their own systems over the next couple of years.

So improvements are coming for speed and accuracy, but I’m hoping to see advances in software that make these features more user-friendly. Automotive GPSes are quite mature and easy to use, but there is room for improvement for handheld devices.

Sharing your position, or your route, can be daunting for some; but following someone else’s tracks can be even more challenging. Automotive GPSes auto-route you very nicely, but the same is not true (so far) for handheld GPSes on trails. We are patiently waiting for better software, and at the same time we are slowly building databases of trail maps. You can help the latter by supporting sites like HikeTheIsland.com, wikiloc.com, and OpenStreetMap.org (which is more than just streets).

As these technologies improve and get into the hands of Joe Public, we may never get lost again; at least not geographically.

Do you really need Windows or OS X?

If you are thinking of replacing your computer, it’s a good time to take stock of what you actually use it for.

Most people user their computer for researching, reading news, reading and posting social media, collecting pictures, listening to music, streaming videos, playing games, audio/video/text chat, and reading and writing emails, documents and spreadsheets.

You really don’t need a full-blown Mac or PC to do those things; they can be done using other operating systems like Linux, Android, iOS, or ChromeOS. The beauty of these operating systems is that they tend to be less expensive to buy, and both less expensive and easier to run.

One reason that devices running those operating systems are less expensive to buy is that they are not as demanding on hardware, so they don’t need the latest, fastest, most expensive hardware. Another reason is that those operating systems are free. They are cheaper to run because the apps that run on them tend to be less expensive, or free … they use less electricity … and they can often be run without additional security software because they aren’t prone to infection.

Those other operating systems tend to be easier to operate because they are built with the legacy of Windows/OSX as a model, without having to support the legacy of Windows/OSX. PCs, in particular, put in a lot of effort to be backwards compatible with (in some cases) decades-old systems.

A quick note for PC gamers: save yourself some money and switch to a video game console … they are a fraction of the price.

If you are hooked on one or more particular Windows or OS X programs that aren’t available on other platforms, then you have no choice. But in most cases, there are alternatives. So, if it’s time to replace that aging Mac or PC, give some serious consideration to Chrome/Android/iOS/Linux/console devices.