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.

Hanging out your shingle

There was a day when “hanging out your shingle” meant simply hanging up a sign to advertise your business. Over time, business advertising expanded to newspapers and magazines, radio and TV, and billboards and passing vehicles. Now, “hanging out your shingle” should definitely include an online presence.

There are many approaches to online advertising, but nothing builds credibility like having your own domain. Would it affect your impression of a company if they had a Facebook page, but not their own domain/website (e.g. joesgarage.com)? Would the quality of their website affect your attitude toward the company? Would it affect your opinion of that company if their email address was joesgarage@gmail.com rather than service@joesgarage.com (i.e. whether or not they used their own domain)?

For many consumers, it would.

To be taken seriously, a company today needs their own domain, an attractive and modern webpage, email addresses at that domain, and a presence on social media like Facebook, LinkedIn, and others. Some larger companies even have a full-time employee (or team of employees) dedicated to their web presence, keeping up their online appearances and responding to online requests.

The sky is the limit for what you can spend on online advertising, but the basics need not be expensive. A typical domain costs $2-$20/year. Webpage hosting starts around $5/month. There are ways to build your own website for free, or maybe you know someone who enjoys building them. Basic social media measures are free.

At this point, you should be asking yourself: If you’re not searchable in today’s online world, how are young folk going to find you?

To quote a great poet: “the times, they are a-changin’”

Best Practices – Internet Security

There are some good practices around Internet security that everyone should know and follow. I’ve said them all, many times before … but it doesn’t hurt to repeat them now and then … so here they are.

Use strong passwords

Use strong (either long or complex) passwords for all your important online accounts. If you use a “local” account to log into Windows, consider switching to a “Microsoft” account for extra security there.

Be confident of your firewall

Between the firewall in your wireless modem or router, and the one in your operating system, you are well protected; in my opinion, there is no need to buy a third-party firewall (like the one included in an “Internet Security Suite”). If you are concerned about your firewall, there are a couple of things you can do. First, reset it; there are posted methods for doing that for most operating systems. Second, test it; I trust the ShieldsUP! page by Gibson’s Research (grc.com/shieldsup) to tell me if my firewall is vulnerable.

If you are running Windows, you should run at least one antimalware program

The built-in “Windows Defender” in Windows 10, or “Microsoft Security Essentials” in Windows 7/8, give you good basic protection. There are other good free and paid programs around as well; just make sure they are always current and running. You should consider running “second opinion” programs (like the free Malwarebytes) every month as well. These measures are valid, but not as pertinent, with other operating systems like OS X, iOS, Android, or Linux.

Use encryption whenever possible

Encrypted websites appear with a lock symbol in your browser. Make sure that symbol is there whenever you are on a site that you would like to communicate with privately, especially for ecommerce. If privacy of your email is a concern, look at using encrypted connections there as well.

Do your updates

Operating-system updates fix known bugs and security flaws, so do them!

Back up

Even if you are being very careful where you click, you may click on the wrong thing one day, and poof … there goes your data. To avoid this, you should have a backup procedure for your data that is either automated, or very easy … and detached from your computer so it doesn’t suffer the same fate as your main data (particularly fire, theft, or corruption). Teky uses the free Windows program SyncBack. You should also consider encrypting your data and/or your backup if they are vulnerable to theft. Teky suggests using BitLocker (built into Windows Pro/Enterprise) or VeraCrypt.

Online Resources

One could write volumes on the topic of online resources. In this space, all I will have a chance to do is mention a few general areas, each with two or three examples, one “more popular”, one “less popular” and sometimes an “honorable mention” or two.

Note 1: Capitals in web addresses are there for readability; web domains are case insensitive.

Note 2: All links are listed at blog.teky.ca where you can comment on (this article only) these resources, and suggest others.

  1. Search Engines: Google.ca DuckDuckGo.org
  2. Encyclopedia: Wikipedia.org Everipedia.org
  3. Shopping (so many!): eBay.ca Amazon.ca Walmart.ca
  4. Used goods: UsedCowichan.com VarageSale.com
  5. Real estate: Realtor.ca ZooCasa.com
  6. News: news.Google.ca CBC.ca/news CHEKnews.ca BBC.com
  7. Newspapers: SouthCowichanLife.ca TimesColonist.com CowchanValleyCitizen.com
  8. Social media: Facebook.com Twitter.com
  9. Maps: maps.Google.ca Trailforks.com Wikiloc.com
  10. Weather: TheWeatherNetwork.com/ca Weather.gc.ca/city/pages/bc-29_metric_e.html
  11. Books: Amazon.ca/books GoodReads.com
  12. TV: CTV.ca Knowledge.ca
  13. TV+Movies: Netflix.com Amazon.ca/movies
  14. TV/Movie Databases: IMDB.com RottenTomatoes.com Next-Episode.net
  15. Music: play.Google.ca/music Shoutcast.com Spotify.com
  16. Videos: YouTube.com Flixxy.com
  17. Travel: TripAdvisor.ca Yelp.ca
  18. Phone book: YellowPages.ca canada411.ca

Next month, I will explain what the http:// and https:// signify at the start of these web addresses, and the related change that is on the horizon.

Mixed Reality

The term “Mixed Reality” (MR) encompasses the concepts of “Virtual Reality” (VR) and “Augmented Reality” (AR). Just like other Star Trek-like technologies, these are slowly making it into the mainstream, so it’s probably time to introduce you to them.

Virtual Reality immerses you in a 360-degree world with a head-mounted display, optional headphones, and optional controllers (usually some sort of 3D joysticks). Augmented Reality also has these components, but instead of immersing you, it incorporates aspects of the real world around you using cameras or transparent screens. As already mentioned, Mixed Reality loosely describes both.

First and foremost, these technologies are for gamers … immersing them in their virtual worlds. But lately we are seeing more applications that appeal to a larger audience: slideshows, movies, and other art—both produced and homemade—take on a new dimension (pardon the pun) when viewed in 360-degree surround. Cameras that take spherical pictures and videos are now available at affordable prices ($200+), as are 3-dimensional art and design programs, so we are seeing a lot more 360-degree content.

The hardware to enjoy this content ranges from the affordable ($20+ headset with your existing smartphone) to the more serious ($900+ PC with $300+ video card and $600+ headset).

I think the “killer application” for MR will be design collaboration. Whether you are designing programs, cars, or buildings, you can now do it in a virtual 3D environment … and even collaborate with others who live and work in other parts of the world.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, just google videos on “Windows Cliff House”, “Ford HoloLens”, “Fuzor”, “Nvidia Holodeck” … or simply search YouTube for “360 video”. Of course, to fully experience Mixed Reality, you’ll need to get yourself inside a head-mounted display.

eReader and eWriter Devices

By now, most people know what an eReader is: a device that has advantages over computers, tablets, and smartphones when it comes to reading eBooks and eMagazines. Let me recap those advantages.

eReaders have longer battery life and work much better in bright light that those other devices. Some models also have self-lighting options for low-light situations. eReaders are typically smaller, lighter, and less expensive than their tablet counterparts because:

  • they are simpler devices because they are purpose-built
  • their price is somewhat subsidized by eBook purchases you make on them

The eReader has been around for more than 10 years … but now we have the option of the eWriter: a device with many features of an eReader, but with the added ability to act like a paper notebook or notepad. Sony quietly offered one model in 2014, discontinued it in 2016, then re-released it in 2017 as the DPT-RP1. Just this year, a startup company called Remarkable (remarkable.com) introduced a similar product: the RM100.

eWriters are big—roughly the size of a sheet of paper—but also thin, light, and durable. You can work anywhere with them, but they need wifi to transfer documents to and fro. They accept PDFs, and the Remarkable also accepts ePUBs. You can mark up these document types, or initiate your own notes.

These devices are great as oversized eReaders, but also as document markup tools, note-takers, and sketchpads. Think of that busy lawyer who takes notes in meetings and marks up existing documents, but must then get those scribbles off to their secretary for typing/editing. Or that person-on-the-go who is forever writing on scraps of paper … and then losing them. Or any designer who wants to save/share their sketches. eWriters are great in all those situations.

It is important to note that there are fewer distractions with eReaders and eWriters than with other devices. Your smartphone or tablet have similar functionality, but those devices are also bombarding you with email, texts, posts, and advertising.

The eWriter is a great new product, but at $879+, I would suggest most people wait for their prices to drop.

The Next Big Thing?

I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t really know what the “next big thing” will be … but I do like to keep on top of the cool new tech.

In summer 2017, I thought Google Home was “it”: a device that can answer simple verbal questions, play music, and control certain devices around the home. It was originally priced at $209, reduced to $179, then to $149, and it still wasn’t flying off the shelves. A few months later, a Google Home Mini was released in Canada for $79. Acceptance is probably the issue here: Are you ready to ask Google questions verbally instead of typing on a keyboard or touchpad?

Another potential “next big thing” is Mixed Reality (MR): a technology that ranges from “Virtual Reality” (VR) to “Augmented Reality” (AR). Virtual Reality is a 360-degree world that blocks out the real world when you don the goggles, while Augmented Reality projects 2D and 3D images onto things in the real world. For some, the challenge may be wearing something on your head that covers your eyes and ears … and holding a motion controller in each hand … all-the-while looking pretty nerdy.

As you might expect, gamers have been the first to accept this technology. I believe the second group will be the developers: those designing programs, buildings, or other complex products, alone or in a team. Aspects of their design can be constructed in different virtual rooms of a virtual building, giving them access to as many 300-inch screens, or 3D models, as their design needs. Discussing aspects of their designs as a team in the same virtual environment as the design will save countless hours of travel and teleconferencing.

For the rest of us, our interest will grow over time. Want to escape to your virtual mountain chalet to sit by the fireplace and read? Want to meet people (via their avatars) from around the world in a virtual tropical paradise? Or would you like to take in a dome-theatre movie without having to drive to the nearest Omnimax theatre? Slip on your HMD (head-mounted display) and escape!

This will all be part of Windows 10 with Microsoft’s Fall Creators Update. For more info, google “Microsoft VR announcement” and look for any mention of their 03Oct2017 announcement date or 17Oct2017 release date, particularly the related videos

Smart Lights, Outlets and Thermostats

It seems like the electrical industry is trying to catch up with the electronic industry.

Technologies like those mentioned in my last two articles (Logitech Harmony and Google Home) are part of the slow movement toward home automation. I says “slow” because home automation has been a catchphrase for decades … a technology that seems perpetually “on the horizon”.

Now that we have smartphones, smart TVs, smart speakers, smart thermostats, and other smart devices, the next step is smart lights, outlets, and thermostats. Oh, they’re out there now, but their price will have to reduce substantially to make them affordable enough to entice you to replace their “dumb” equivalents.

With smart lights, you currently have a couple of choices:

  • you can get smart light systems that includes a “bridge” that wirelessly connects each smart bulb to your home network
  • you can get smart light switches/dimmers that replace your existing switches/dimmers and wirelessly connect to your home network

With smart outlets, you simply plug a wifi-enabled outlet into an existing outlet and join it to your home network.

The going price for smart light switches is around $50/switch, and smart outlets are around $40/outlet. Philips has a smart light system called “Hue” that needs their bridge, but you can control up to 50 of their smart lights with that one bridge. Their starter kits (that start at $70) come with a bridge and 2 or 3 smart bulbs. Philips Hue lights have the added bonus of colour and dimming control.

The beauty of smart lights/outlets is: you can control them locally or remotely using a smartphone app, you can control them by voice by using Google Home, or you can program them to go on/off on a timer to make it appear that you are home. Some will even monitor the amount of power you are using with connected devices.

With smart thermostats, you can put one in place of an existing thermostat and connect it to your wifi. From that point, you can wirelessly/verbally perform the functions you would manually, including adjusting scheduled temperature changes. These devices are still in the $220-$320 range.

“OK Google, submit article.”