36 posts categorized "Product Reviews"

January 29, 2013

New WiFi routers perform admirably, especially the Asus RT-N66U

Do you use WiFi (wireless internet) a lot at home? You may want to check out the new breed of wifi routers which have exceptional performance. While these routers cost about 2 times the existing routers (100-200 dollars), they are most definitely worth it.

For the past decade, WiFi has worked over the same frequency (2.4Ghz) as your cordless phone and many other cordless devices. When there are lots of 2.4Ghz devices in the vicinity of your WiFi router, interference at long distances (more than 10 feet) will step down the speed and stability of your WiFi connection. Your link may waver and even get interrupted. Some routers simply stop responding and restart on their own. In our neighborhood, we have about 15 networks around us competing for "spectrum". The chart below shows our network (A+A+Aa) on channel 8 competing with 13 other networks. Before we upgraded our router the signal (y axis) was just slightly better than everyone else's upstairs. Click on the image below to see what I mean.

Wifi routers spectrum use
Wifi routers spectrum use

New "dual band" routers do something special - they hop to a new spectrum at 5Ghz where no devices seem to tread (yet). Dual band routers allow you to run 2 WiFi networks - one at the old 2.4Ghz band for backward compatibility and one at the new 5Ghz band where there is much less interference. You can even name each network separately and distinguish them. Not all older devices have the necessary radio to pick up a 5Ghz WiFi network, but rest assured that your connection will be superior at 5Ghz.

Many new routers also "follow" your laptops and tablets by beaming their signal to each device. This provides a steadier and stronger signal as well.

I installed the Asus RT-N66U (aka Black Knight) after reading several reviews online which were very positive. Indeed the speed upstairs in our house went up 7 times (from 3Mbps to 20+Mbps). Our effective bandwidth from Bell is 25Mbps/down, so your really want to take advantage of that extra speed. Skype will work much better now anywhere in the house, as will any video streaming. I moved all of our devices over to the new 5Ghz network by simply selecting the new network name and authenticating from each device. My Dell laptop though did not see the 5Ghz network but performs much better even at the 802.11n 2.4Ghz network.

The new Asus router uses a 19V power supply, 7 more volts than my previous DLink DIR 655 router. That's more power, and to be expected for a radio that is more powerful. This router will use more electricity. Unless you have some activity running at night over WiFi, there should be no issues with turning off a router at night using the scheduling software. Just removing the power too could work but you'd have to remember to do this. 

A new WiFi router is a must if you are not getting your advertised bandwidth that you are paying for in all parts of your home. 

Let's say you get 5Mbps. If you do speedtest from your laptop or tablet in the farthest reaches of your home, and you get close to 5Mps AND your connections are stable I wouldn't consider upgrading your router. But if you pay for 10 or 20Mbps and then still get 5 or less then your WiFi router should be upgraded. I'd recommend the Asus. I will know more in 1 month but early indications look positive. 

Asus RT-N66U aka Black Knight
Asus RT-N66U aka Black Knight

July 20, 2012

Why use a NAS (network attached storage) device over a PC File Server?

Here's why. Time and stability. And size.

image from blog.synology.com

July 18, 2012

Synology Hacking - Run a DNS Server from your NAS

If you have a Synology NAS you may have realized you can install all sorts of open source software on the box by ssh'ing in and using ipkg to install just about anything. I am thinking of installing bind to run my own DNS server. Working to get rid of my dependence on any hosting provider (good bye 1and1!). I feel the Synology NAS can do a better job with lots more control and capability.

In any case this website has over 30 hacks on making your Synology do some amazing things. As if the "apps" capability is not enough, here is more!

UPDATE: There is now a commynity of Synology hackers online with their own repository called SynoCommunity. And this fellow has made several very interesting products run on Synology.

June 25, 2012

Blader Runner Turns 30 on June 25 2012. We are 7 years away from its potential future.

Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's vision of the future turns 30 this year. This vision of the future was released on June 25th 1982 and continues to live on, I believe, as the closest portrayal of our world's future. There are so many fascinating conclusions that this film makes: technological, political, physical, psychological. And the predictions in the film are even more bang on -- it's as if Scott had a crystal ball to look into the future and filmed us an infomercial of a potential world,  warning us to "Be careful of what you want. You may just get it."

Enjoy this short "documentary" on Scott's vision filmed in 1982. This adds yet another layer to a must-see film. See Blade Runner every year as we approach 2019, to remind you that the decisions we make every day lead to our eventuality.


And this never before published letter from Philip K. Dick, the author of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", the short story on which Blade Runner is based:

image from www.philipkdick.com
And for some Google/Nexus humour:

DECKARD: What’s this?

BRYANT: Nexus 6. Runs Ice Cream Sandwich. Incept date 2012. Flagship model. Optimum self-sufficiency. Probably the leader.

[new phone appears rotating on screen]

BRYANT: Galaxy S. Talk about ‘Beauty and the Beast’ — she’s both.

[new phone appears rotating on screen]

BRYANT: LG Genesis. Your basic pleasure model. They were designed to copy the iPhone in every way except for their applications. The designers reckoned that, after a few years, they might develop their own smartphone ecosystem. You know, cases, boom boxes, charging docks… so they built in a failsafe device.

DECKARD: Which is what?

BRYANT: Four hour talk time.


June 01, 2012

Try Chromium OS on any laptop with a Bootable USB stick

When experimenting with cloud apps, I am finding that older, out of date or low on memory computers are not great at running sleek, modern browsers like Chrome and Firefox. That netbook sitting unloved because Windows XP chews up memory and makes it run slow? Or that 10 year old desktop with 1GB of RAM and the hard drive that churns and churns and churns as you open your huge Outlook folders?

You can give it new life with Chromium OS. Chromium was launched in November 2009, and it has come a long way in 2+ years.


With that in mind, I tried the latest build of Google's Chromium OS. This operating system is as simple as possible: When you start, you just login to your Google account (gmail for example) and then you are presented with a Chrome web browser. Settings from Google's sync mechanism are available to you so your default bookmarks and tabs are brought over into Chromium. Basic things like touchpads, graphics, sound are supported without any drivers. I've tried this now on an Acer AspireOne netbook and an IBM Lenovo with success.

To give this a try, load up Chromium on a USB stick. I used a 2GB stick with success, although some websites suggests a 4GB stick. 1GB sticks or less won't do it. You're not going to be storing too much on this stick anyways, everything you access will be in the cloud! But if you need to store documents locally you will need some space for local files, although other filesystems (hard disks, DVDs) will be accessible from the "Google Drive" option.

Here is a step by step:

1. Get the "vanilla" build of Chromium OS from hexxeh. The latest build is probably best. The download is about 250MB and you will want to extract the .img file from inside the .zip file.

2. Use Win32DiskImager or this command line utility flashnul to create a USB stick with Chromium OS downloaded in Step 1. There are Mac and Linux utilities available online for writing IMG files as well. This will erase the contents of your USB stick, by the way!

3. Boot your computer holding F12 at the BIOS screen or F2 to get into the BIOS and tell the computer to boot off the USB device. This is key. If you cannot boot of a USB stick you will have to see other methods to try this out.

4. Be patient when you boot off the USB stick for the first time. It may take a 5-10 minutes for the video to be recognized and boot into the welcome screen. Follow the steps.

UPDATE: Using the USB drive as a way to run Chromium long term is not ideal. The speed of the USB key will severly hamper the performance of Chromium. So it is best to experiment and then when you are ready install the OS right onto your hard drive. Note that this will erase your hard drive completely, so be careful.

UPDATE 2: Flash is not being included with new Chromium builds. Something called Pepper is being built by Google to support Flash. Here's how you install Pepper (Flash for Chromium).

5. To turn on your mouse pad tap with 2 fingers simultanously. There are new swipe modes available in Chromium. And tons of keyboard short cuts. Use control-alt-shift-? to see a popup cheat sheet of all the keyboard short cuts.

6. Enjoy a super fast browsing experience, and remark how your computer feels brand new. Install Chrome apps, play games, go to Gmail, try a few websites. Load up youtube. It all works surprisingly well. Try Google Print in the Cloud. You can print to your printers at home from anywhere on the Internet, securely!

Google is selling a Chromium desktop and laptop now for $500, but you can reuse that old desktop, netbook or laptop quickly with this nice 15-20 minute project. Here's what Chrombooks look like:


Here's a video on Chromium OS in plain English:


Let me know what you think in the comments below!

March 02, 2012

NextBox 2.0 from Rogers - "No I don't have the service, and never will."

Rogers just announced their next generation set top box and whole home PVR service called NextBox 2.0. There are a lot of very compelling features that many some people are now used to having with services like Boxee, AppleTV and FibeTV from Bell. Rogers is using the Cisco set top boxes, which is the newly minted Scientific Atlanta acquisition from several years back. Hinted at selling the full set top box business, Cisco reiterated to their support for this product line. Good for Rogers -- you would not want to offer the next generation set of hardware on a product line that is on its death bed.

The features are as follows:

  • a PVR with a 1TB hard drive to record hundreds of hours of content
  • watch TV on any TV in your home, live or recorded
  • Start watching on 1 TV show, finish on another TV or Tablet
  • Rogers Live TV allows you to use your tablet to stream many of the channels on an iPad or Android tablet

The review after the break...

Continue reading "NextBox 2.0 from Rogers - "No I don't have the service, and never will."" »

December 09, 2011

The Plex Media Server

The Plex media platform appears to be an evolving "standard" for running a media server on any PC or NAS device. You can configure Plex server to serve up and collect/manage media from variety of sources and formats. You then can use Plex clients to stream and view content in your home and on the Internet. Again, you are making your own media cloud. It looks like plex clients are available on LG TVs, Android, iPhone and even AppleTV with the Firecore atv Flash extension.

It turns out the the Plex team is adding support for the Plex Media Server to even run on a variety of NAS devices which usually run Linux. For now Synology Intel-based NAS devices are support in the Labs section. Unfortuantely most lower-end Synology NAS devices are ARM-based are not yet supported. The lowest end device supported costs close to to $600 WITHOUT hard drives.



November 22, 2011

Synology Videos Galore - Hybrid RAID and More on the DSM

Synology makes a few excellent presentations describing the DSM (the OS of the NAS enclosures) and the Synology Hybrid RAID (SHR). SHR allows you to maximize usage of various sized disks in a RAID array and includes data redundancy. 1 drive can fail and the RAID array continues to operate without fail.

DSM videos

Part 1


Part 2


Synology Hybrid Array webinar


November 20, 2011

Synology NAS enclosures - your own cloud and media center

UPDATE July 13 2012: Synology will release DSM 4.1 (in beta now!) which will include a full blown video media centre system capable of transcoding, real time streaming, and even HD recording functionality. This will transform the NAS space in an incredibly good way. Now you can have Plex-like functionality on any Diskstation platform (and without needing to install plex).


I've been experimenting with a solution to back up all your media off your computers and onto a central place in the home. The main problem with media like movies, photos and music is that if they are available on a USB stick or a hard drive on a laptop or computer, then they are usually unavailable easily to any other device. If your home computing situation involves several laptops, an AppleTV or Boxee/Roku, an IPad or Android phone or tablet then you want to be able to share the media between them.

You also want to be able to backup your files and have them stored on a server somewhere hidden away in a closet, but you don't want to do too much to maintain it. It would be nice to have facility to allow streaming off the media to any other device. And hey how about ability to store home surveillance streams/pictures from your wireless IP cams? And a "download station" to download your favorite content while you sleep? Oh and yes, make it available to the Internet and run your own "private cloud" to access the content from anywhere!

Well you can build your own Network Attached Storage (NAS) device for a few hundred bucks or try out the Synology line of products. I got the DS111 device that supports just 1 drive, but Canada Computers has the new DS211j on sale for $159 after a $30 rebate. This is a terrific deal for a 2 bay device that pretty much does everything short of cook your breakfast.

The most amazing thing about this device is that after formatting your hard drive(s) it installs the latest version of what Synology calls DSM. The DSM is the operating system of your NAS and have no fear this is a full Linux kernel running a browser based operating system that allows you to install applications that extend the functionality of your NAS beyond what you get out of the box.Here is a screen shot of the DSM OS to give you an idea of how it works.


Synology DSM

Synology DSM Screen Shot


The list of applications is very impressive, although I have not tried them all. The sharing capability to setup a Windows or Mac (SMB or AFP) file server works really well. You can stream content to any device over your network. There is support for a DNLA UPnP server for Xbox360 and Playstation3. There is an FTP server, a Webserver, and even PHP supported to run your websites (!). The "download station" supports RSS feeds (use feedburner.com for the best compatibility) and can download your RSS feed content in the background as the RSS feed updates as per a user-configured update interval.

Finally, the new atv Flash (black) media player works really well with this NAS, which is the most important thing. There is a good discussion of preferred NAS devices at the firecore support forum. One thing I found is that my wifi router was acting up a lot, dropping connections. Once you have streaming setup from a NAS, your wifi router may start to hiccup more. To fix this, check the channel you have set for your router -- if you have lots of wifi hotspots in your area you will want to turn off "auto scan" on your router and select a channel not frequently used by default. I used channel 8, which seems to be working. Here is the screen shot from my DIR-655 router to indicate the setting. This is crucial for wifi success, because if you have a persnickety router dropping your connections your NAS will be sitting there useless because your clients won't be able to connect to it. Autoscan

UPDATE: Note that any hard drives you put into a Synology NAS enclosure WILL BE REFORMATTED in ext4 format. That means you will have to load up your hard disks with backups of your files. You can use a USB key or an external hard drive attached to one of the USB ports on the outside of the NAS. There is a one-button copy feature that places all the files in the "public" folder, and then you can move the files using the DSM. The upload over the network feature out of DSM is slow and probably not the way you want to go if you plan to load up the NAS with 10-several hundred GB of files at the outset. This is the only part of the process that's not ideal. MAKE BACKUPS OF EXISTING FILES FIRST!


November 17, 2011

TV finally gets real - 1.0 of atv Flash (black)

Firecore, a small company in Colorado, recently released v1.0 of the much awaited AppleTV solution, called atv Flash (black). This "hack" allows the black AppleTV (2nd generation) device to gain several important pieces of functionality. To start and give you an idea of what is now possible with the very affordable AppleTV check out this video from firecore.

Now that you've checked it out, here are some thoughts on strategy and where Apple ought to be going. At this rate, the hacking community will turn the AppleTV into the most amazing little piece of technology to hit the TV since the remote control. You can be sure of that.

Firecore has created something that is very unusual. By providing a "jailbreak" of the AppleTV they have enabled added functionality to be added to the AppleTV WITHOUT removing the existing functionality previously available. So by installing atv Flash (black) you get to keep the out of the box experience Apple provides AS WELL AS have additional functionality.

At every firmware OS release Apple provides (currently at 4.4.3) Firecore essentially enables you to upgrade to this OS and then keep the added functionality running along side new Apple featuers. This is unprecedented. It's as if Apple has gained a kick butt developer of functionality of new AppleTV features, all for less than $30 per year of support.

The features you get are not trivial -- along side simple added features like interactive weather and RSS feed reader you get a full featured Media Player that can play videos, music and pictures off ANY shared Windows or Apple hard drive or NAS. You get a fully HTML5 compliant web browser called Couch Surfer Pro, which of course does NOT run Flash or Silverlight. But it does support HTML5 embedded video and audio. There is zero chrome on this browser -- your TV bezel is the chrome on Couch Surfer Pro.

And you get a terrific implementation of Last.fm radio. The last.fm implementation looks like it was done by Apple -- it's that good. Apple-like touches live inside of the last.fm application in atv Flash (black). When a song is playing AppleTV goes into screen saver mode and shows beautiful pictures of the artist. Last.fm may make you dump your MP3 collection for good -- it's available for use in several countries but not the whole world.

atv Flash (black) is not for the technically challenged. It does require you to "jailbreak" your AppleTV which means support from Apple is effectively gone. You will also need to apply updates should you want to update your firmware, because automatic software updates from Apple are effectively turned off. Firmware updates will have to be done using the "jailbreak" software each and every time.

Lastly if you use 4.4.x of the AppleTV OS (iOS5) you will find that rebooting (menu+down until fast blinking LED) or power cycling the AppleTV requires a "tethered" reboot. This means you have to connect your AppleTV via USB cable to a PC or Mac and "help" it reboot properly. It won't reboot on its own, as it will show an iTunes + USB cable icon. Previous 4.3.x AppleTV OSs allowed "untethered" reboots, and Firecore will most likely support this once the community has figured out how to the reboot the AppleTV without help from a PC. Sleeping (holding down play/pause until sleep) and returning from sleep mode on the AppleTV does NOT require tethering, to be sure. This is definitely the biggest draw back, as I've had to reboot several times due to unresponsiveness in the browser so far.

The final analysis is this: Apple better get cracking on an AppleTV that provides a lot more functionality than the current AppleTV. atv Flash (black) is the best $30 you will spend in 2011, that is for sure, especially if you love your AppleTV. And Firecore is just getting started. This is v1.0 of the next generation of television.

ps. Reading the forums leads you to believe that AppleTV can now run Boxee, XBMC and various other plugins. Have fun and stay safe! Remember you can always restore back to the original AppleTV OS by restoring in iTunes after you connect the AppleTV to your iTunes-enabeld PC/Mac via your microUSB cable.