KRACK WPA2 Wi-Fi vulnerability–what is affected

Telstra Gateway Frontier modem router press picture courtesy of Telstra

A wireless router set up in the ordinary way as a base station or hub for your home network isn’t at risk of the KRACK exploit

The computing press has been awash with articles regarding a recently-discovered security vulnerability that affects Wi-Fi wireless networks. This vulnerability, known as KRACK, compromises the authentication process associated with the WPA2 security protocols that most Wi-Fi home and business networks implement.

What is affected

But it mainly affects client devices like laptops, smartphones and the Internet of Things which connect to Wi-Fi networks using WPA2 facilitated through software that isn’t patched against this risk.

It also can affect Wi-Fi infrastructure devices that serve as a repeater or client-side bridge in a Wi-Fi wireless network segment – this encompasses Wi-Fi client bridges used to connect desktop computers or smart TVs equipped with Ethernet connectivity to a Wi-Fi network, Wi-Fi repeaters, distributed-Wi-Fi setups and mobile devices implementing “bridge-to-Wi-Fi” functionality.

Data security risks

The security and privacy risk occurs at the media level of your network connection which would represent the Wi-Fi wireless link to the access point / router.

If you use higher-level encryption protocols like gaining access to Internet resources through SSL / TLS encryption which includes “https” Webpages, implementing a client-based VPN or using IP telecommunications apps that implement end-to-end encryption, you have reduced the risk factor for your data security that the KRACK vulnerability poses. Access to LAN-based resources like your NAS or printer from within your network can be a risk with Wi-Fi clients that aren’t patched to mitigate this risk as with unencrypted Internet resources.

Current remediation efforts

This situation has been rectified for regular computers running Windows 7 onwards through a patch that Microsoft rolled out as part of the October 10 security update. Here Microsoft didn’t disclose this vulnerability until there was a chance for all of industry to have patches in beta testing or “ready to roll”. Other regular-computer and mobile operating systems are being updated with security patches that are coming online through the next two months or are already online.

There will also be various pieces of client-side security software that will be updated with extra code that provides extra defence against the KRACK Wi-Fi vulnerability for both the software and the host computer.

The devices you will find as having a strong risk factor for your network are “dedicated-purpose” network devices like Internet AV devices, “smart-home” devices, videosurveillance cameras and the like that don’t benefit from regular firmware updates. This will mainly affect those devices that manufacturers are declaring “end-of-support” on or a lot of “white-box” devices sold by multiple vendors. But check your devices’ manufacturers’ Websites for new firmware that will patch the device against this vulnerability.

This will not affect the typical home or other small network that is based around a wireless router. Nor will it affect networks that implement multiple Wi-Fi access points connected to a wired (Ethernet or HomePlug) backbone. This is because you are dealing with devices that serve as a Wi-Fi base station for that particular wireless network segment.

But if you have Wi-Fi infrastructure devices using some sort of repeater or bridge functionality, check with the vendor for a firmware update for your device.

As well wireless router and access-point manufacturers, especially those courting the business and allied markets, will offer newer firmware to harden their devices against the KRACK vulnerability.

Remember that well-designed devices will implement at best an automatic software-update process or you may have to visit your device’s Settings, Setup or Configuration menu to download new firmware.

As well, the Wi-Fi Alliance have updated their certification tests for network hardware to be sure that such hardware isn’t vulnerable to this risk. These certification tests will be required before a product can show the Wi-Fi Certified logos and will affect products being introduced from this month onwards.

Keeping your network secure until new software is available

If you run Wi-Fi network infrastructure hardware that implements repeater or bridge functionality, disable the Wi-Fi client mode or repeater mode on these devices until your device is running firmware hardened against this vulnerability.

HomePlug AV adaptor

The HomePlug powerline adaptor can help with mitigating risks associated with the KRACK WPA2 Wi-Fi network vulnerability

You may also have to set up your home network with multiple access points linked to a wired backbone as the preferred way to extend the network’s coverage or reach to another building as has been done with this man-cave. A good example of this is to use a HomePlug wireless access point kit which uses your home’s AC wiring for this purpose. If you use a “Mi-Fi” mobile router that supports Wi-Fi data offload, disable this functionality until it is loaded with the latest secure firmware.

Similarly, use a wired network connection such as Ethernet or HomePlug to connect sessile devices like desktop computers, Smart TVs, printers and the like to your home network. This may not be feasible with those devices that only support Wi-Fi connectivity as their network-connection option.

Conclusion

You can mitigate the risk of the KRACK WPA2 Wi-Fi network vulnerability as long as you keep your computer equipment running software that is patched with the latest security updates.

If you use Wi-Fi infrastructure devices that work as a Wi-Fi client like repeaters or client bridges, these have to be updated with the latest firmware from their vendor. As well, use of wired backbones and access points for expanding your home network’s coverage will achieve the proper level of security against this risk if you are dealing with client-capable Wi-Fi infrastructure devices that aren’t updated with the latest software.

Let’s not forget that higher-level encryption protocols like SSL or client-side VPNs do mitigate the risk of data theft through this vulnerability.

Send to Kindle

Laptop Buyer’s Guide–2016-2018

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop at Rydges Melbourne hotelYour old computer is going slow and you are thinking of your next computer. But what do you get? Perhaps, you may be thinking of getting someone a laptop computer as something that could go a long way towards their computing life especially if they move around a lot.

But you want to be sure you buy the right portable computer that suits your needs properly and are gaining the best value for money out of the new equipment. It is becoming more so with the way laptop computers are offering similar levels of functionality to traditional desktops, where you are able to buy high-performance machines that can excel at graphically-intensive tasks like gaming or high-end professional graphics. This is while most of the mid-tier computers offered nowadays are able to do what was expected of last generation’s high-performance computers.

Today’s laptop computers are moving towards areas that were considered by some to be previous off-limits to this class of computer. For example, there is an increase in the number of high-performance laptop computers that can appeal to people playing high-end games or dabbling with advanced computer-graphics work. As well, the Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connection is opening up paths to high-performance computing thanks to the ability to plug in external graphics modules.

What should I pay attention to

There are certain specification that you need to pay attention to when you choose that laptop or 2-in-1 computer so you can be sure it is up to the job you purchased it for.

Pay attention to the class of CPU your computer is equipped with and its expectations. Here, you will find that entry-level processors the Intel Pentium and Celeron processors will get by for most basic computing tasks, perhaps with some casual gaming or video / audio playback thrown in. Expect that Intel Core m or i processor families and their AMD equivalents will do most computer tasks without stressing with the Intel Core i5 being able to suit most tasks effectively. If you are after performance for advanced gaming, workstation-grade graphics or heavy number-crunching, you may need to look towards the Intel Core i7 processors.

The amount of RAM memory in your computer will affect how many programs you can have running concurrently alongside including the ability to have one or more of these programs work with large files. In the case of your Web-browsing efforts, it will affect how many Web pages you can have open at once whether as separate tabs or browser sessions. This is without the computer slowing down or using up battery power because it has to swap memory data out to the hard disk because you, for example, are running Google Chrome with many Websites open along with Microsoft Word which you are using to make that “magnum opus” document that is based on your Web-based research.

Another factor to pay attention to is the amount of storage you will have on your computer because you don’t want to always be moving your files in to or out of the computer via something like a USB hard disk or rent a large amount of space on an online storage service. As well you don’t need to be regularly thinking of what programs or data to be getting rid of all the time.

Choosing to have your laptop computer equipped with either integrated or discrete graphics can affect how well it performs if you end up doing a lot of graphics-intensive work like advanced games, photo/video editing or workstation-grade graphics. It can also affect how well it performs with some other tasks like video transcoding or playback.

A trend that is surfacing with this generation of portable computers is that an increasing number of these computers may have the ability to be connected to an external graphics module to “bump up” the graphics performance when you need it. In most cases, these modules will be sold as an option you can purchase at a later date.

Most often, the screen size has an influence on how portable your laptop will be and whether it can suit certain tasks while on the road. This obviously influences how large the computer is, thus influencing factors like the ability to have larger storage or the kind of keyboard you can work with. Let’s not forget that it can also affect how much workspace you can have at once especially if you are a multitasker.

From my experience while reviewing laptop computers for this Website, I had found that a computer having a screen size of between 12”-14” was able to offer the best balance between comfortable use for content creation while being portable enough to be carried in a shoulder bag or small briefcase. It also is the smallest screen size for a computer that  provides a keyboard that is big enough for comfortable typing, especially of you are a touch-typist.

It is also worth paying attention to the screen resolution for your laptop’s integrated screen because this can be a trade-off between how sharp and detailed your display looks and how much battery power your laptop needs to run during the day. In a lot of cases, you may find that those laptops with too high a screen resolution for their screen size can become unbearable to use unless you spend a lot of time adjusting your operating system’s user-interface settings because the text and shell icons may be too small for comfortable use. It is although the newer operating systems do factor in the “dot-per-inch” settings for the higher-resolution displays and maintain that same level of visibility.

In most cases, you can get by with a screen that natively uses 1366×768 as its maximum resolution when you are on a limited budget or use a screen less than 13”. On the other hand, you can use a Full HD (1920×1080) screen resolution in most other situations because this resolution puts up a sharp display without draining your laptop’s battery too heavily.

Key trends to look at

There are a few key trends that are coming strong in the recent crop of laptop computers in addition to faster processors, increased RAM and storage capacity including use of solid-state storage, and integrated graphics subsystems that rival baseline discrete graphics cards.

USB Type-C connectivity

USB-C to be the key connection trend for the current laptop generation

An increasing number of laptop computers released during the 2016-2018 model years will be equipped with a USB Type-C socket. It is being considered as the single pipe that serves power connection along with high-speed data transfer. Some of these USB Type-C connections are also working as another high-speed data conduit like a DisplayPort or Thunderbolt 3 connection which I will be talking about next.

At the moment, this connection is appearing mainly on premium models but is trickling down to mainstream and low-cost computers. It is appearing as a sole connection type on some of the ultraportable computers including some low-end varieties because this connection type is very conducive towards a slimline design. But it will appear on a range of traditionally-designed laptops including most ultraportables and mainstream designs as an extra input-output port alongside the USB Type-A ports.

The USB Type-C connector is also being used as an external DisplayPort-compliant display connector and if you want to connect an existing monitor or projector to these computers, you will have to use a USB Type-C adaptor that is compliant to DisplayPort specifications and support “DP alt” mode.

You can connect existing USB-equipped peripherals to computers that have only these connections by using a USB-C adaptor cable or docking station (expansion module) that suits your needs. Some of the adaptors that have their own power supply even provide USB Power Delivery support so you can charge your laptop or avoid compromising its internal battery’s runtime while using external accessories – this is a feature you must look for if you want to get the most out of your laptop and adaptor device. Here, you can buy these accessories at most office-supply, consumer-electronics or computer stores.

External Graphics via Thunderbolt 3

Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port on Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

Thunderbolt 3 ti open up paths for external graphics on this Dell XPS 13 2-in-1

The USB Type-C connector will serve as a way to provide a Thunderbolt 3 connection which is being exploited not just for direct-attached storage, but for external-graphics modules. Here, this connection is appearing mainly on premium-grade laptop computers including some ultraportables and will end up as a product-differentiating feature

What this allows for is that a person could buy an external graphics module that can be connected to their computer for improved graphics performance. This will come in two forms – a module with an integrated desktop graphics chipset or a “card-cage” where you can install a desktop graphics card.

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 "card cage" external graphics module - press image courtesy of Akitio

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 “card cage” external graphics module – to hot up the Thunderbolt-3-equipped laptops graphics abilities

At the moment, these devices are being pitched primarily at gamers who are wanting to “hot up” their gaming laptops but I would see them as something that permits a portable computer to work in a higher-performance manner for gaming / workstation / multimedia use  at your main usage space. NVIDIA even made it possible to allow workstation-grade graphics setups to work in this context, thus opening up the door towards situations like mainstream laptops heading towards mobile workstation territory.

Solid-state storage as the preferred option

Increasingly, solid-state storage is being implemented on more portable computing devices. This is either as a sole storage device or alongside a separate mechanical hard disk.

The driver for this technology is the the fact that this storage method isn’t demanding on battery power which is very important for portable computing. As well, the typical solid-state drive occupies less space in the computer than a traditional hard disk and is lighter, also making it conducive towards portable use. Let’s not forget that solid-state storage is quicker and more responsive.

But the “cost per byte” for solid-state storage is still more expensive than the traditional hard-disk technology, and is more so when it comes to capacities in the order of 500Gb or more. Typically, this will lead to 15” or larger mainstream laptops being equipped with a 1Tb hard disk as the base option with a 128Gb or 256Gb solid-state drive as a “high-speed system disk” option. Or you may come across a solid-state disk up to 512Gb as the sole integrated secondary storage option as a common specification for most laptop computers.

USB external hard disk

High capacity USB hard disks can be a godsend with laptop computers that have small solid-state storage capacities

If you value what solid-state storage offers in the form of high performance, reduced battery consumption and a lightweight computer, you may find that something around the 256Gb mark may hit the spot. But you would need to consider using a USB external hard disk of at least 1Tb as an “offload” storage device for your data especially if you expect this computer to be your main or sole computer. On the other hand, if you value a combination of performance and storage capacity, a laptop that uses a 128Gb SSD system disk and a 1Tb hard disk as the secondary disk could serve your needs better.

Integrated graphics with the same performance as baseline discrete graphics

Intel has pushed the HD Graphics and Iris Graphics integrated-graphics chipsets to offer the same graphics-performance prowess as an equivalent baseline discrete graphics chipset offered by AMD or NVIDIA. This would be represented by a “budget” desktop graphics card that you would equip a “workhorse” desktop PC with if the motherboard has no graphics chipset on board.

Here, they are investing in the integrated-graphics chipsets due to the fact that they don’t draw too much current and don’t yield too much heat thus being suitable for portable-computer use. This is more so with computer configurations that use 8Gb or more of RAM and they use some of that RAM capacity to “paint” the screen images. What these chipsets are offering is the ability to answer everyday computing including casual gaming or occasional photo and video editing work.

Let’s not forget that nearly all recent-issue laptops that are equipped with discrete graphics are also equipped with integrated graphics. But these setups switch between the graphics chipsets automatically dependent on the software you are running and on whether you are using the laptop’s internal battery or external power as well as how much battery power is left in the internal battery. These automatic-switchover setups are known by trade names like NVIDIA Optimus or AMD PowerPlay and, in most cases, work behind the scenes.

Improved sound reproduction

Most of the computer manufacturers are providing improved sound reproduction for their portable computer products, save for the low-tier models. This is in answer to a problem associated with the way these computers are designed where the sound came out being tinny or lifeless.

Initially the sound functionality in a computer was to provide audio prompts like the familiar “ding” tone but computer users are asking a lot more out of these computers. This is to allow them to enjoy music and video content on these systems thanks to file-based or streaming media delivery; along with being able to use IP-based voice and video communications platforms to talk to distant people.

This trend is being fulfilled by the computer manufacturers working with respected home or professional audio brands to “tune” their products for better sound reproduction. Examples of this include HP initially working with Dr. Dre’s Beats Audio but subsequently working with Bang & Olufsen; or Lenovo and ASUS partnering with Harman, known for JBL speakers or Harman-Kardon home audio, to “tune” some of their products.

System classes

Nearly every one of the main laptop manufacturers are following the same playbook that every one of the popular vehicle builders have followed when it comes to segmenting their product ranges. This is where a particular class of vehicle would be targeted towards a particular driver type such as the standard family cars being targeted towards the typical everyday driver.

Low-tier portables

These are a group of small notebooks that have followed on from the “netbooks” offered around 2009-2011 and have a very similar focus to those computers – a “cheap and cheerful” system that doesn’t have much. One could see these computers as being equivalent to the low-tier small cars that offer a baseline seating capacity of up to four normal-sized adults, a feature set that doesn’t offer much along with a powertrain that isn’t considered to be powerful.

Typically they will have an 11”-14” screen served by integrated graphics and will have a low-powered processor like an Intel Pentium or Celeron. The RAM memory will be this side of 4Gb while the storage will be up to 128Gb. Some of these computers will come as a 2-in-1 design of the detachable kind or, perhaps, a convertible kind rather than the traditional “clamshell” form factor. You will most likely see these computers offered in a bright colour so as to increase their appeal to children especially.

Units with a storage capacity of 32Gb to 64Gb and an 11” screen are being pitched as a Windows-based alternative to an Android tablet or an iPad. This is a way for Microsoft to “cut in” to the market traditionally held by Apple and Google when it comes to personal tablet computers.

Personally, I would see most of these computers serve as a baseline portable secondary computer for those of us on a budget and don’t expect to do much with them. Families could even see them as a “first-computer” option for lower-secondary-school (US: middle-school) students.

If you are expecting them to be your budget option for your only computer, I would recommend looking towards something with 128Gb storage and a 13”-14” screen and, perhaps, making use of an external hard disk. This may be more so for people like the older generation who just want something for basic computing and online-communications tasks but don’t want to shell out much.

Mainstream laptops

Lenovo Thinkpad G50-70 Laptop

Lenovo G50-70 – an example of a mainstream home laptop

This class of laptop computer is seen as the “bread and butter” for consumer and business portable computing ever since these kind of computers became popular as a viable alternative to the desktop personal computer. Over the last two decades, they got to a point where most households and businesses preferred to buy a laptop computer over a desktop computer for regular personal computing requirements.

In the same context to cars, they could be considered as being equivalent to the common family cars, typifying medium-to-large size vehicles that have the ability to seat four or five people comfortably, have a wide range of options and are powered with a powertrain that suits city and highway travel. Like these family cars where vehicle builders offered a range of model varieties with different powertrains (engine and transmission combinations), body styles or feature sets, the laptop manufacturers would provide a large product selection and options list for this class of laptop with some offering the ability for you to “build your own computer” where you have a system with the right product mix that suits your needs.

These computers will have a heavier and thicker chassis and will have plenty of connectivity options along with a larger battery for portable use. Essential features for this class of computer, whether home or business, are a 15” screen with some offering a variant with a 13” or 14” screen for portability or a 17” screen for a large workspace. Here, these screens would be mainly driven by integrated graphics although premium varieties will use discrete graphics.

The horsepower for these machines will typically come from any processor in the Intel Core i family with i3 or i5 being of choice for value-priced variants. AMD A4 or A6 may also be offered as a processor alternative for cheaper options. There will be a minimum of 4Gb RAM with newer machines offering 8Gb at least, and storage will be either in the order of at least 500Gb on a hard disk or 256Gb on a solid-state drive along a good chance of them being equipped with a read/write optical drive, most likely a DVD burner. Some of these systems may come equipped with a 128Gb or 256Gb solid-state drive alongside a 1Tb hard drive. This will be set up with the solid-state drive being your system disk where the operating system and applications are kept, thus allowing for quick starts.

There will be some premium variants that have discrete graphics, a high-performance processor like an Intel Core i7, 8Gb or more of RAM and 1Tb hard disk or solid-state storage. You may come across with some of them being equipped with a Blu-Ray drive as their optical drive. These models will end up being pitched for multimedia (photo/video editing, AV playout, etc), workstation or gaming use. and will appeal to this kind of application. Again, this is equivalent to higher-specification family cars which come with all the desirable options.

Mainstream home laptop

Mainstream laptops that are pitched as home computers will typically have some attention paid to their aesthetics but will miss out on durability, security or manageability features that business laptops would be equipped with.

They will also be sold through department stores, consumer-electronics stores and similar outlets that “Average Joe” would come across. Sometimes the office-supply stores or specialist computer stores may offer these computers as something for ordinary households to benefit from.

Here, you can get by using these computers as a portable household computer which most likely will be one that you can easily stow away in a drawer when not in use. It can also appeal to senior secondary or tertiary students as their first computer that they take with them when the leave the family nest. Some small-business users can get by with using them as their business computer, perhaps with having the operating system upgraded to a “professional” variant like Windows 10 Pro.

Mainstream business laptop

Expect this class of computer to be pitched towards office or field use in the workplace.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook

A traditional business laptop represented by the Lenovo ThinkPad lineup

There will be most of the features and specifications associated with the mainstream home laptop computer although there will be a lot of emphasis on durable construction, security and fleet-level management. For example, there will be the use of fingerprint readers on a lot of these machines allowing for “sign-in with your finger” while there are chipsets associated with data encryption and authentication, including the use of Trusted Platform Modules. You may find that computers equipped with a fingerprint reader would come with a baseline password-vault program of some sort that is tied in with the fingerprint reader so you could sign in to Facebook or Gmail using your fingerprint.

Some of the manufacturers like HP and Dell offer different ranges of mainstream business computers. This is while other companies like Lenovo and Acer offer some models with the mainstream business product lineup, typically the entry-level models, that are focused towards the small business user.

Dell Vostro 3550 business laptop

Dell Vostro 3550 business laptop – an early example of what the Dell Vostro small-business laptop is about

Product ranges like the HP Probook and Dell Vostro range have a feature set very similar to the mainstream consumer laptop except that they would come with the “pro” edition of Windows, increased connectivity including VGA and Gigabit Ethernet ports along with TPM module and fingerprint reader security features as an option at least. With these systems, it is typically assumed that the IT team for a small business or community organisation consists of whoever owns or manages the organisation, along with IT-astute members of their community, and the retailer who supplied them the equipment or business-IT solution.

This is compared to the premium business product ranges like the Dell Latitude and HP Elitebook ranges where these computers come with a wider range of security and manageability features either as standard equipment or as options, along with the increased connectivity options. These machines are typically sold under contract to government departments and larger businesses who have their own IT staff or contract with an IT service provider to look after their computing and communications needs.

The HP Elitebook 2560p – an earlier 13″ example of a corporate-grade business laptop

The mainstream business computers will primarily be sold through specialist computer outlets whether online or “bricks-and-mortar”. It is more true for those outlets who place their focus on selling to the business market with a “solutions-based” approach where there is a strong support cycle. For example, you may approach one of these providers when your shop “grows up” from the old cash register to a fully-computerised point-of-sale system.

The question that may be raised when buying the mainstream business laptop is whether the manageability features that these will be supplied with are a waste of money or not. This also includes whether your supplier will use these features as part of them providing  after-sales support for your system.

Personally, I would place importance on a mainstream business laptop if you value system durability and security for your data or a strong relationship with your IT supplier, which is important for the typical “work-home” laptop that you take around frequently.

But with this class of computer, be careful of your potential supplier over-specifying your system. This is more so when your small business or community organisation is being sold management functionality that isn’t really necessary for their operation. Here, I would ask if they are using any of these features as a tool to provide remote support or for you to have the right level of security over your data in your business’s context.

Ultraportables

Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook on tray table

Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook – one of the first Ultrabooks that defined this class of ultraportable computer very well

The typical ultraportable computer is designed to be light and occupy less space in your bag or briefcase, while running for a long time on its own batteries. A lot of manufacturers even invest a lot of money in developing these models and positioning them as the “beauty queens” of their product lineup. But these ultraportables will offer a level of performance very similar to what most of the mainstream home and business laptops will offer.

Some of these machines that fit Intel’s preferred specifications for an ultraportable are described as Ultrabooks but the others in this class are simply described simply as being ultraportable, thin and light or something else that describes their beauty. There has been an increase in product development in this class of computer due to the fact that everyone else wants to compete against the Apple MacBook product lineup that exudes itself in the beauty stakes.

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook – the latest example of an ultraportable clamshell laptop

Such computers could be seen in the vehicle world as being equivalent to the sporty-looking coupés and convertibles which have improved performance but are styled in a way to exude their beauty – a car to be seen in as well as to drive.They can also be seen as being equivalent to the luxury cars where there is an emphasis on the luxurious driving experience.

Most of these will end up with a screen size of between 11” and 14” with some larger variants coming with a 15” screen. The screens will typically have a resolution of up to QHD (3200×1800) and work from the computer’s integrated graphics processor. As for the horsepower, this will come most likely from Intel Core m or i processor families that are optimised for reduced power consumption and heat output. As for RAM, this will be typically 4Gb-8Gb RAM depending on the model with some premium models offering 16Gb RAM. They will also have a storage configuration of up to 256Gb on a solid-state drive or 500Gb on a hard disk with some top-shelf models offering 512Gb to 1Tb on a solid-state drive.

A lot of these computers will appear in the traditional “clamshell” form while an increasing number of them are appearing as a detachable or convertible 2-in-1 form. As well, most of these computers will be styled to look very elegant, more as fashion accessories and something you can impress others with. This will include use of finishes like rose gold or champagne gold on some of the premium models.

These computers will appeal to those of us who can afford the premium offered for a system that provides mainstream-grade performance in a very lightweight chassis. Units equipped with low-tier processors like some Core m varieties and have low-capacity storage will appeal as “portable-use” secondary computers rather than as main-use or sole-use computers.

High-performance laptops

The laptop is now showing itself as a computer type that doesn’t have to be an ordinary old low-performing unit for pedestrian computing tasks. Increasingly, the manufacturers are offering mobile computing systems that could relate to the high-performance cars of this world whether for work or play and they are being offered under one or two separate product ranges or even as separate brands.

High-performance mainstream laptop variants

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming laptop – a high-performance variant of the Dell Inspiron laptop computer lineup

This is in addition to mainstream consumer and business laptop variants that have been specified for performance like being equipped with high-performance CPUs and discrete graphics processors, along with plenty of RAM. The high-performance variants are typically identified as “gaming” or “workstation” packages but they still have the same conventional look as one of the regular mainstream laptops, perhaps with some detailing that underscores the performance.

These computers are portable computing’s equivalent of the high-performance variants of a vehicle builder’s common family-car products. Such cars are identified with names that have sport or GT connotations and are referred to as “sports sedans”, “hot hatches” or something similar. These cars are typically equipped with a high-performance powertrain and have exterior and interior detailing that conveys the sporting image.

Gaming laptops

Alienware gaming laptop

An Alienware gaming laptop that can benefit from the Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module

Gaming laptops are being pitched towards the young gamers who expect performance while they play the advanced games. They carry on from the “gaming rigs” – the aggressively-styled desktop computers that gamers tune up for performance during their gameplay.

They will have a highly-strung discrete graphics chipset integrated in to them, typically one of those GPUs that is tuned to work with fast-paced games. As well, they use extra RAM with this being in the order of 8Gb to 16Gb if not more, and a highly-powerful processor like the Intel Core i7 family. There will even be the ability to tweak more performance out of these components through the use of desktop software while they use high-performance hard disks or solid-state storage for their secondary storage. As for the screen, the size will typically range between 13” to 15” with the resolution being at least 1080p Full-HD quality.

Expect most of the gaming laptops to be designed to look aggressive because they convey the image of one of the American or Australian muscle cars that were popular through the late 60s to early 70s; or a car from one of Europe’s well-known sports-car marques. These were vehicles designed from the outset for high-performance driving.

Mobile workstations

Dell Precision M2800 Mobile Workstation courtesy of Dell USA

Dell Precision M2800 – a mobile workstation that also bridges performance and portability

This class of computer will typically be constructed for business performance and will have particular components that are designed to get the most out of a CAD, engineering, statistics, animation or similar highly-powerful business program. A significant number of these systems will be described as “certified” workstations in that they are certified by Autodesk or a similar software vendor to run their software reliably at best performance.

These business-class computers will be at least 15” with high-end business-focused discrete graphics and will use a processor like the Intel Core i7. The RAM memory will typically be at least 8Gb and using particular high-reliability chips while there is a high-performance hard disk and/or solid-state drive on board. Some of these systems will even be serviceable so that the components can be upgraded or replaced at will.

Some, if not most, of the mobile workstations may offer the features associated with a mainstream business laptop such as a fingerprint reader, a TPM module or manageability features. This is especially for those of us who are dealing with plans or blueprints that are considered highly-valuable intellectual property.

What to remember

Should I buy a laptop or a desktop computer?

This question will come up more frequently with those of us who are buying a computer as the main or only personal computer that we use rather a computer we intend to use as a secondary computer.

I would recommend purchasing a laptop or similarly-portable computer if you place emphasis on the portability factor.

For some of you, this may be about having to regularly store your computer away while it is not in use or to move it around the house as required. One of these situations is to use the dining table or kitchen bench as a desk, something you will be asked of if you live in a small home or apartment. It may also be about an aesthetic requirement to stow the computer away when you aren’t using it, even if you maintain a separate home office. This may be of importance where you expect to have your home office serve as a spare bedroom (think of that sofa-bed or something similar you have in there for guests), or you integrate your home office as part of a main living area.

On the other hand, you are taking your computer between two or more locations. For example, you have that “work-home” laptop that you use in the office then take home so you can do further work there. As well, you may be travelling a lot including frequently using public transport or using a café as your “second office” or “office away from the office”. It will also include those of you who are likely to live a nomadic lifestyle where you don’t expect to live at the same address for the long haul, such as people who are on work placements for example.

Setting up a dedicated workstation with your laptop

You can set up a dedicated workstation that is based around your laptop computer so you can work much better at your regular desktop working locations. This practice can work well with the mainstream laptops along with ultraportables and performance-grade computers where you expect to use these computers as a main-use or sole-use computer. It will also be of importance for those of you who have decided to move away from using a desktop computer as your main computer.

Typically, you establish this workstation by installing at least one larger monitor, along with a full-sized keyboard and a regular mouse on your desk and connecting them to the laptop computer. In this context, when you use a large monitor in this way, you may find yourself being able to use two screens (the laptop’s screen and the larger monitor) as a large display space.  You may decide to add better speakers or connect the laptop to a sound system like that old hi-fi amplifier and those old speakers for improved sound reproduction while you could add extra local-storage opportunities like a USB hard disk or optical drive. As well, you may take advantage of a wired Ethernet connection for assured network-connection reliability. Then you disconnect these peripherals from your computer when you take it between locations.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook in tent mode

Tent mode – one way you could set up a 2-in-1 as part of your workstation

Some of you may use a bracket which allows you to hang your laptop computer so it becomes one of the screens in your multi-screen setup. Such brackets will typically anchor to your monitor so you effectively have a contiguous large-screen display and they can apply to the 13”-14” computers. Similarly, a 2-in-1 set up in a presentation-viewer or tent mode can provide a very similar experience.

Minix Neo-C USB-C Multiport Adaptor press image courtesy of Minix

One of the docking stations or expansion interfaces that can be part of your workstation

Most of us would simplify this process using a docking station, which is a fancy name for an “expansion interface” module that simplifies how you connect these peripherals to your computer. Most of these devices simply plug in to a USB 3.0 port while the USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 port on newer equipment allows for a simplified high-speed data-pipe between the expansion module and the laptop computer. As well, an increasing number of these USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 docking stations also provide power to the host computer. It is also worth noting that some of the larger display monitors may offer the docking-station functionality  as a differentiating feature where they have, for example, an integrated multiple-port USB hub. This can save on the cost of another docking station if you are buying that large screen as well if the screen offers the same kind of connectivity that you want.

You could set up one of these peripheral-based dedicated workstations for each regular workspace that you use with the ability to spend more on equipping the workstation you use the most with the better peripherals. As well, you could even get away with “pushing down” peripherals to less-often-used workspaces when you equip your main workspace with better peripherals. This is like what most people have always done with refrigerators or colour television sets where the newer better one ends up where they use it most while older units end up continuing to give service in secondary areas.

To gain best advantage out of these setups, it is a good idea to use a docking station to connect the wired peripherals to the computer. If your computer is relatively new and implements a USB Type-C / Thunderbolt-3 connector, make sure that the docking station has this same connection. If you have a Thunderbolt-3-equipped computer, you could use a USB-C dock as something to start with, then see a newer Thunderbolt-3-equipped dock as something to use in the main workspace.

As well, make sure you buy one with at least all of the connections that you need for your desk-bound peripherals. If you are thinking of using a wireless mouse or keyboard, look towards any of those input devices that use Bluetooth rather than a proprietary connection that takes up a USB connection for its receiver dongle.

The laptop computer as a secondary computer

There are those of us who may find that we can get by with two computers – a fully-specified desktop or large laptop that has all the performance and capacity we need as the primary machine; and an easy-to-transport laptop that doesn’t have all of the specifications but is capable of being a portable-use secondary machine. Examples of these would be the budget portables, most affordable 2-in-1s, or the lower-specified models in a manufacturer’s ultraportable lineup.

Here, we cam shift data and synchronise files between the multiple computers using  shared folders on a NAS; a cloud storage service like Dropbox; removable media or sharing a “file-transfer” folder on one of the computers via your home network. As well, you can install on these computers a reduced complement of software that fulfills the essential tasks that you want to do on the road.

Thunderbolt 3 on this kind of secondary-use computer may also appeal to a range of users who may occasionally seek extra display performance from these computers and simply hook up an external graphics module for this purpose. This may be to turn out a “there-and-then” rough-edit of video taken during a location shoot that is part of your video project; or to “work through” a high-end game while on the road.

This kind of setup would appeal to those of us who want to do some computing work while away from our main home or office location, but keep that location as where you do most of your work.

Should I use a mobile-platform tablet or a laptop as my secondary computer?

Some of you may think that a mobile-platform tablet like an iPad or Android tablet is all you need for a secondary computer device, rather than you purchasing a laptop. The same question can also be raised by some people like those of the older generation who want to purchase a personal computing device like a laptop or iPad but don’t see themselves using it regularly.

This can hold true with those of us who do a lot of content consumption and create very little content while away from your main workspace. Examples of this may just be you writing a small amount of text such as short replies to email or writing up notes. But you may find that using a keyboard accessory like one of the many keyboard cases may have you able to create more content using a mobile-platform tablet.

It can also hold true if you do make use of software that is written for desktop (regular-computer) platforms. Here, the software that is written for these platforms comes with more abilities compared to similar software that is targeted towards mobile platforms and you will find yourself being able to work more productively with this software.

Here, if you are primarily doing activities like Web-browsing, viewing video content, playing casual games or answering a small amount of email, you may get by with a mobile-platform tablet. On the other hand, if you do frequent amounts of content creation including answering many emails or make heavy use of highly-capable regular-computer software, the laptop would earn its keep.

It is also worth noting that the “2-in-1” computer that can double as a laptop or a tablet may offer a bridge between these two conundrums. Most of these computers run Windows 10 and will run the commonly-powerful office software if you are thinking of using them to work on that magnum opus document, with the 13” varieties having a full-sized keyboard so you can type comfortably. This is while you can engage in social media with most of the social media platforms having their own Windows 10 apps.

 

Should I buy a gaming laptop or a mobile workstation as a high-performance personal computer?

Increasingly, most computer manufacturers are offering a range of high-performance computers in their product lines, whether as performance-optimised variants of their mainstream products or units designed from the ground up as gaming laptops or mobile workstations.

But you may be dabbling with high-end games, or high-end-graphics and video work and are considering this kind of equipment. What kind of high-performance computer should you really go for?

Those of us who are working with high-end games or are doing video editing, computer graphics or animation as a hobby may find that high-performance mainstream laptops or gaming laptops may be the way to go. It can also apply to students who are putting their foot in the door when it comes to architecture, engineering and allied courses. You would be on a winner if the computer you are after is equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 connector because you could buy an external “card-cage” graphics module and a CAD-grade high-performance desktop graphics card at a later state when you can afford it.

On the other hand, a mobile workstation would earn its keep when you head full-time in to the world of advanced graphics, especially if you are using the computer as your “axe” to make regular money.

Which system for whom

Expected computer role

Main or sole computer

You may be upgrading your main “workhorse” computer and wanting to use something a bit more portable. The system could be your “main” computer that you use in your primary working area while you use another computer as your “on-the-go” secondary computer. Or it could just be your only computer that you have.

Here, I would recommend a mainstream laptop computer or, if you can afford something more luxurious, an ultraportable if it’s your sole computer you are taking with you a lot or a high-performance machine for other situations. In all cases, place emphasis on the computer’s storage capacity and RAM memory and buy a system with as much of this as you can afford. You may find that if you are saving towards your computer, a stretch goal you could apply is for a machine that has more RAM or storage capacity than what you initially budgeted for.

Those of you who make light use of a computer like using it just for Web surfing, online communication (email, Social Web and some Skype) and some word-processing may find that you can get away with one of the entry-level laptops. The word-processing application may be the deal-maker that has an entry-level computer overtake an iPad or similar tablet especially if your idea is to create a memoir or some other magnum opus. It can also apply if you are wanting to head towards creating that small-time Website or blog. This is because of these computers having a keyboard more conducive to this activity and being able to run a fully-fledged word-processing or similar program.

Some of you may find that you may not be able to have a lot of storage on your main or sole computer, such as if you are on a budget and are buying a low-tier laptop, or are buying that ultraportable because of your travelling. In this case, I would make sure that the computer you are getting is equipped with at least one USB 3.0 Type-A port or a USB-C port and purchase a high-capacity USB hard disk as a data-offload solution.

Secondary computer

If the laptop or other portable computer you are buying is simply something you are intending to use as a supplementary computer while you keep using your main computer, you may be able to look at different factors here.

In most cases, you may be considering this computer for use while you are travelling while your main computer stays at home or in the office. Here, you place importance on the portability factor. This is where you could consider an ultraportable computer, whether in a clamshell or 2-in-1 form. If you are on a budget, you may find it worth looking at one of the entry-level 14” variants powered by a low-end processor. In this situation, you can skimp on storage capacity if you are sure you can offload data to your main computer.

Some of you may use a secondary laptop at home, perhaps as a “family computer” that you can store away when it isn’t used. Similarly this would be a laptop computer that you may give to your “better half” as a gift and have them keep their data on it. In the same context, you may be considering a “private” computer that you use for your personal data so you don’t store any of it on your business computer. This is more so for those of you who have your laptop supplied and managed by your workplace or rent or lease the IT your small business needs on an ongoing basis.

Here, most mainstream computers with modest specifications may answer your needs. If you are expecting it to be a personal alternative to that “work-home” laptop, you may then have to place emphasis on storage capacity for this application.

Particular usage cases

Highly nomadic user

There are some users who will have a “sole-use” laptop computer but are likely to move between many different locations. These may range from people working in the merchant navy or on oil / gas rigs where they are likely to spend a significant amount of time on that ship or rig; through people who are engaged in placement-based work where they are never sure if they will be in the same work location; to students who are mainly living in temporary accommodation like college dorms / residence halls or short-let housing.

Here, the laptop computer can suit your needs very well. At the moment, most mainstream computers would suit your needs especially if you find that they offer a large amount of storage. This is important for you because you may end up piling music, photo and video content on the hard disk before and during your travels. If you are a gamer, you will most likely be storing all the data related to the games you regularly play, be it the game files or information about your progress in that game.

You may be interested in the high-performance variants like the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming that I previously reviewed if you value performance for gaming or entry-level workstation tasks.

If you are expecting to transport your computer around your destination location such as, for example a college student living in a college dorm who then takes the computer between classes, the library and the dorm, you may want to consider an ultraportable laptop or a 13”-14” mainstream laptop. Such systems can easily be stored in a backpack or other day luggage without taking up much room and they are relatively light compared to the traditional 15” mainstream laptop.

The use of a small-sized high-capacity USB external hard disk may satisfy your needs if you have to buy a computer that doesn’t have enough storage for your needs such as an entry-level laptop. Here, you can easily stow this hard disk in your luggage without it taking up too much room if you need to transport it. This hard disk can simply serve as a backup or offload storage device while you keep what you are working with on the laptop’s own storage.

Similarly, having a computer that implements the Thunderbolt 3 connection and works properly with the external graphics modules can appeal to this class of user.

Work-home use

A more common scenario for those of you who regularly work away from home is to take the same computer between your home and your workplace. Some of you may also be likely to use this same computer for your personal computing needs.

Here, consider the purchase of a mainstream business laptop with as much RAM and capacity as you can afford. The 13”-14” varieties appear as a sweet spot for portability if you use it on the go, but you may have to look at an ultraportable if you are travelling a lot with it.

They also benefit from the “dedicated workstation” approach and should have at least a USB 3.0 port. Personally, I would even go towards a computer with at least a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 port, then use a dock with a similar connection and the desirable peripheral connections for your main workspace.

Conclusion

The first thing to be sure of when you buy a laptop computer tis that you are buying the right unit that suits your usage requirements.

Here, this is about making sure you have a computer that has the right amount of horsepower, storage space and RAM capacity to suit your needs yet is light enough for the portability that you need out of it. For those of you buying a computer for your business needs, you also need to be sure that you aren’t being forced to buy the more expensive overspecified model that can end up being complicated to deal with.

Send to Kindle

Setting up a mobile NAS to work with your home network

WD MyPassport Wireless mobile NAS

The WD MyPassport Wireless mobile network-attached storage – can offer data to the host Wi-Fi network when set up in hotspot mode

Increasingly, data-storage device manufacturers are adding to their mobile network-attached storage devices the same kind of network-based data storage and access features typically offered with a standard desktop NAS device. This is rather than these devices just being a lightweight file server for smartphones and tablets connected to the device’s own Wi-Fi access point.

I had previously reviewed one of these devices in the form of the WD MyPassport Wireless mobile NAS which demonstrated this kind of functionality. In the review, I had called out the DLNA-compliant media server that was part of that mobile NAS’s feature set, where you had the ability to show your photos and videos on one of the latest Smart TVs via the home network the TV is connected to.

Mobile NAS with hotspot mode set for “secure” or “private” mode

As well, some of the increasingly-sophisticated devices like the WD MyPassport Wireless Pro also are offering the same kind of Samba-based (SMB / CIFS) file transfer method that you can do with other NAS devices so you can transfer resources to these devices using your regular computer’s operating-system’s file manager and its network file transfer protocols. Similarly, the devices may implement FTP, WebDAV or other common network-file-transfer protocols primarily to allow you to upload photos and footage from your Wi-Fi-capable digital camera or camcorder to the mobile NAS if the camera honours these standard protocols.

How to have this work properly?

Here your mobile NAS unit needs to be set up for connection to an existing small Wi-Fi network as a client device of that network. It also needs to be set up to share its resources to that client network in addition to the network it creates using its own wireless access point.  Most of this configuration that I would be talking about here would be something you would do using the vendor-provided native mobile-platform app or, perhaps, a Web page that the mobile NAS creates as its management page.

Mobile NAS with hotspot functionality set up for file sharing mode

Typically, you may set this up as part of enabling a “Share Wi-Fi Connection”, “Wi-Fi Hotspot” or similar function that effectively shares a logical network connection between multiple devices that connect to the portable NAS’s access point. This function is similar to what most travel routers offer as a way to share the one logical (and usually permitted) connection to a hotel’s guest-access Wi-Fi service amongst the personal computing devices you and your travelling companions own. Similarly, this same function creates a “trust circle” between multiple devices connected to the mobile NAS’s access point allowing them to be discovered by each other even if the public-access Wi-Fi network that the NAS is connected to is configured properly with client isolation enabled.

When you enable the “hotspot” function on a sophisticated mobile NAS like the WD MyPassport Wireless / Wireless Plus series or the Seagate Wireless Plus, you will have an option to set this function to work in a “private” or “secure” mode or a “sharing” mode.  In the “private” mode, the data held on the NAS becomes available only to devices on the Wi-Fi network created by the mobile NAS’s access point. Conversely, the “sharing” mode will make the data available to devices on the network which has the Wi-Fi segment you connected the mobile NAS to as part of the “hotspot” mode.

Availability of data held on mobile NAS Sharing mode Secure / Private mode
Host wireless network Yes No
Wireless network created by mobile NAS’s access point Yes Yes

To allow the mobile NAS to share its resources on your home network, you need to enable the “sharing” mode or disable the “secure” or “private” mode while setting up the “hotspot” functionality. It is a wise practice not to use the “sharing” mode on a Wi-Fi network used as a public-access network and this function wouldn’t work with these networks that are properly set up with client isolation enabled.

What can the manufacturers do to improve the Wi-Fi bridging functionality on these devices?

The “Wi-Fi hotspot” or “Shared Wi-Fi” functionality could be improved upon by allowing users to create preset operating modes for particular Wi-Fi networks. This would work in a similar way to the way Windows allows the user to classify each network they connect to as being a “home”, “work” or “public” network, causing it to adopt an exposed persona suitable for your home or office network or a private person for that public-access Wi-Fi network. Such parameters could be to determine whether to share resources with the host network or to always clone the client device’s MAC address when connecting along with remembered Wi-Fi network passwords.

Here, as a user connects the mobile NAS to a Wi-Fi network for “Shared Wi-Fi” operation, they are invited to save the configurations they have established for that network. Then, when they reconnect to that network, the mobile NAS assumes the operating modes that the user previously defined. These details can be referenced by the host network’s ESSID or a user-defined name for that network.

Conclusion

Once you know how to set up that highly-capable mobile NAS device and exploit the “private” or “shared” operating modes that these devices offer with setting up the “Shared Wi-Fi” or “hotspot” mode, you can then use them to make resources held therein available to other small networks you connect them to.

Send to Kindle

Smartphones and voice-activated home-assistant platforms help with managing your prescribed medications

Article

‘Alexa, order my meds’ — start-up NowRx pioneers prescription refills through Alexa and Google Home | CNBC

My Comments

There are steps that are taking place to interlink today’s technology with the chore of ordering your prescription medicines from the local pharmacist.

A system that has existed for a few years in Australia and is continuing to run is eRx Express which works with a mobile-platform app and QR codes that are printed on prescriptions. In this setup, a user could send a prescription order to their local pharmacy by scanning that QR code. But they would have to go to that pharmacy to collect and pay for their medicines, unless the pharmacy has established a home-delivery arrangement for the patient.

The main benefit is to allow a person to start things happening for a prescription to be filled from home, work or a shopping-centre’s food court and not have to wait around at the chemist’s while it is being filled. This system is part of an IT solution that is being offered to Australian doctors and pharmacists to improve the prescription-management workflow.

NowRx, a Silicon-Valley startup, have taken this further by providing a Skill for the Amazon Alexa and Google Home so you can use these voice-driven home-assistant platforms to order your prescription medicines. They want to make it feasible for you to request, refill or renew your medications with the last four digits of your prescription number.

Like the rest of Silicon Valley with their approach to traditional business models, they see it as a way to take on the traditional local chemist’s shop by running a robot-driven warehouse and home-delivery service, and at the moment, they have 400 Bay Area doctors as part of their network. NowRx uses Amazon and Google as a facilitation path so that their patients’ medical data isn’t held by the home-assistant platforms; something that is set up to avoid storing that data on systems that aren’t compliant with the US’s standards concerning medical-data privacy.

There are some people who could see these systems as trampling on what the pharmacy is about, including the management of a patient’s medication and the face-to-face interaction with the pharmacy’s customer base. But if these systems are set up as something that augments a local pharmacist’s workflow such as providing an express path for the supply of medication integral to a patient’s continual-therapy requirement, they can be seen as legitimate by most communities. This is more so where pharmacists are able to and encouraged to provide supplementary health-care services like vaccinations or first-aid as well as dispensing medication, a practiced performed in some European countries.

One of the analogies that can be related to with these services is when the financial industry started implementing automatic teller machines. There was the initial fear of these machines were about replacing bank teller staff but they ended up being primarily as an express option or an all-hours option for a customer to withdraw cash. In this case, the eRx and NowRx platforms would serve more as an express path for a patient to get to the medicines they need as part of their long-term therapy requirements.

Send to Kindle

Yamaha’s network-capable stereo receivers can play legacy sources through MusicCast network speakers

Articles – From the horse’s mouth

Yamaha R-N402 Natural Sound Network Stereo Receiver press picture courtesy of Yamaha Australia

Yamaha R-N402 Network Stereo Receiver – can even stream audio from sources connected to it into Yamaha MusicCast speakers

Yamaha

R-N602 Natural Sound Network Receiver (Product Page)

80W / channel 8 ohms 0.04% THD 20Hz-20kHz

(Analogue Inputs: 1 phono, 2 line-level, 2 tape loops; PCM Digital Inputs: 2 Coaxial, 2 Optical)

R-N402 Natural Sound Network Receiver (Product Page)

100W / channel 8 ohms 0.2% THD 40Hz-20kHz

(Analogue Inputs: 3 line-level, 1 tape loop; PCM Digital Inputs: 1 Coaxial, 1 Optical)

R-N303D Natural Sound Network Receiver (Product Page)

100W / channel 8 ohms 0.2% THD 40Hz-20kHz

Analogue Inputs: 3 line-level, 1 tape loop; PCM Digital Inputs: 1 Coaxial, 1 Optical

DAB+ tuner

My Comments

Previously, I had touched on the issue of availability of “full-width” network-capable stereo receivers that have the same expectations as the traditional hi-fi receiver that has been seen as the heart of many hi-fi systems. This was when I had called out the Onkyo TX-8050 network stereo receiver and the Yamaha R-N301 network stereo receiver.

Here I was focusing on people who value the idea of creating a hi-fi system that is about playing music rather than a home-theatre setup that is about showing what Hollywood has to offer. Situations that I think of include creating a formal lounge area where you want to focus your activity on entertaining guests, reading and playing or listening to music; or simply maintaining a separate home-entertainment system optimised for playing music.

Yamaha are still pushing through with stereo receivers that can connect to your home network. The latest examples are underscored with the R-N602, R-N402 and R-N303D Natural Sound Network Receivers which integrate the concept of the stereo receiver with the home network and multiroom audio thanks to the latest iteration of the Yamaha MusicCast network audio technology.

This technology that Yamaha implements in these receivers isn’t interlinked with any overarching multiroom network-audio standard adopted by many manufacturers. But they can also work with network audio sources like DLNA-capable media servers including NAS units, or online sources like Spotify or Pandora. Those of you who use an Apple device running iOS or a recent iteration of MacOS can also use these Yamaha receivers for your device’s audio output.

One of the features I am calling out is the ability to stream audio from a source device connected to these receivers to other Yamaha MusicCast devices. For example, in the case of the R-N602, you could start a record playing on the turntable connected to this receiver in the formal lounge room. Then you use the Yamaha MusicCast Controller app on your iOS or Android smartphone to hear that record through the Yamaha PLUS (WX-030) speaker in the kitchen.

Similarly, these receivers are implementing Bluetooth not just as a source but as an alternate output. For example, one could hear a local radio broadcast on the receiver’s integrated tuner through their Bluetooth headphones without the need to worry about the length of their headphone cord thanks to this functionality.

The Yamaha R-N602 does cater very well for legacy media by providing an integrated phono stage for a turntable equipped with a moving-magnet cartridge, as well as two tape loops which can come in handy if you still record to tapes or other media, including using a computer to archive old recordings. But the Yamaha R-N402 and R-N303D has its analogue inputs being line-level only with one tape loop.

At least Yamaha haven’t forgotten about the network-capable stereo receiver as a product class for devices that serve as a hi-fi system’s hub. Instead, they have made sure that there is a range of equipment that suits different needs and budgets, allowing us to consider how to build out that music system as we want.

Send to Kindle

iTunes downgrade to permit tethered iOS app deployment–Apple could do better here

Article

iTunes Store

iTunes losing its ability to install software to iOS devices from version 12.7 onwards

Apple Releases New iTunes 12.7, What You Should Know | AppleToolbox.com

My Comments

An issue that will face iOS device users who make use of the iTunes desktop media-management applications is that starting from iTunes 12.7 onwards, they won’t be able to upload iOS apps from their regular computer to their iOS mobile device in a tethered manner using this software. This is in addition to omitting the iOS App Store from the iTunes Store shopfront integrated in iTunes. It is also part of a direction that Apple is enforcing with iOS where you manage your iPhone or iPad from its screen and update its software “over the air”.

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 inch press picture courtesy of Apple

Apple could still provide desktop management of their iOS devices through separately downloadable software

Tethering is where you connect a computing device that can normally function alone to another computing device, typically a regular computer, by a wired connection. This is typically to allow a smartphone to be a modem for a regular computer or to transfer data stored on one device to the other device. In this case, it is to transfer iOS apps stored on your regular computer running macOS or Windows to your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch that you have connected to the computer.

But there are people who use a Mac or Windows regular computer to deploy iOS software to iPhones and iPads. For example, in your business or household, you may want to deploy the same app to multiple iOS devices and want to save bandwidth by caching the app to your regular computer’s hard disk then deploying the same app by tethering each iOS device to your regular computer. As well, some of us may use this as a way to get around a dodgy Internet connection by downloading to a laptop used at a location with known-to-be-good Internet service then deploying where it’s more convenient.

Apple offered a make-do update for iTunes by offering the iTunes 12.6.3 software. This has the feature set associated with iTunes 12.6 including access to the iOS App Store and tethered app deployment for iOS devices. But it has under-hood improvements which allow it to work with iOS devices that are running iOS 11 or newer versions. This is alongside iTunes 12.7 which is focused as a media-management tool and iTunes media storefront.

Personally, I would like to see Apple approach this situation in a better manner for both the Mac OS and Windows operating systems. This would be in the form of a separately-installable “iOS-desktop-manager” program that provides add-on functionality to either the Mac OS operating system for Macintosh computers or to the iTunes Windows port. It would at least provide desktop access to the iOS App Store along with tethered app deployment for iOS devices.

As well, the “iOS-desktop-manager” program could provide device backup and management abilities so you could do things like backup an iPhone or reset a faltering iPod Touch. This is more so where the Wi-Fi or wireless-broadband modem in an iOS device or its network connection can be a point of failure and it isn’t realistic to restore from an iCloud backup if the iOS device’s Wi-Fi is so slow or intermittent.  Similarly, using something like your local backup infrastructure such as your NAS or a USB external hard disk of your own means that you aren’t necessarily ceding control of your mobile-created data to others, something that can be of importance when it comes to privacy.

Send to Kindle

Lenovo does a Wurlitzer with their iconic ThinkPad laptop

Articles Lenovo ThinkPad 25 Anniversary laptop press picture courtesy of Lenovo

Lenovo Releases Retro ThinkPad At 25th Anniversary Celebration | Lifehacker

Lenovo’s retro-inspired ThinkPad Anniversary Edition 25 now available to order | Windows Central

From the horse’s mouth

Lenovo

ThinkPad 25

Product Page

Happy 25th Birthday ThinkPad (Press Release)

My Comments

.. just like this classic Wurlitzer 1015 One More Time juke box

There are always those times where a design that celebrates a particular product type and what it’s about is revisited. With technology, this is approached by maintaining the look of the legendary original design but implements newer technical expectations on the inside.

IBM released what they defined as the ThinkPad laptop in 1992 with the black-finished clamshell housing, the red thumbstick, the blue Enter key and the 7-row keyboard. This was an effort to define what a portable business computer is to be about.

But like Wurlitzer with their legendary 1015 juke box which symbolised the rock’ n’ roll culture of the 1950s where these machines were playing the latest hits at the diners and “greasy spoons” where teenagers worked at and met up with their friends after school, this computer ended up being seen as an icon for highly-portable business computing in 1992.

Lenovo, who had taken over IBM’s personal-computing business, had just lately released their equivalent of the Wurlitzer 1015 One More Time juke box. The “One More Time” illustrated here kept the look of the original 1015 rock’ n’ roll machine but implemented higher-power solid-state stereo amplification along with the ability to play from 50 7” 45-rpm singles rather than the original’s 10 78-rpm record capacity and low-power valve-amplification technology.

In the case of the ThinkPad Anniversary Edition 25, Lenovo kept the look of the 1992-original ThinkPad but implemented today’s expectations in it. These manifest in the form of Intel Core i7-7500U providing the horsepower along with 16Gb RAM and 512Gb solid-state storage and discrete graphics processing handled by NVIDIA GeForce 940MX GPU with 2Gb display memory serving a 14” Full HD LCD screen. Let’s not forget that this laptop is much thinner and lighter than the original machine.

There is also other new expectations like the use of a Thunderbolt 3 connection, enhanced security with an Intel RealSense camera and fingerprint reader, dual-stream 802.11a/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, 3 USB 3.0 sockets, HDMI video output and Gigabit Ethernet.  This totally underscores that the Lenovo ThinkPad Anniversary Edition 25 is really the “One More TIme”.

At the moment, Lenovo is releasing it as a limited edition for US$1899 from their Website. But they will be releasing it through other local online storefronts under similar conditions including pushing it as a limited edition.

Happy 25th Anniversary to the ThinkPad laptop design that defined what a business laptop is about!

Send to Kindle

WD cracks the 14 Terabyte barrier for a standard desktop hard disk

Article HGST UltraStar HS14 14Tb hard disk press image courtesy of Western Digital

Western Digital 14TB hard drive sets storage record | CNet

From the horse’s mouth

HGST by Western Digital

Ultrastar HS14 14Tb hard disk

Product Page

Press Release

My Comments

Western Digital had broken the record for data stored on a 3.5” hard disk by offering the HGST by WD UltraStar HS14 hard disk.

This 3.5” hard disk is capable of storing 14Tb of data and has been seen as a significant increase in data-density for disk-based mechanical data storage. It implements HelioSeal construction technology which yields a hermetically-sealed enclosure filled with helium that leads to thinner disks which also permit reduced cost, cooling requirements and power consumption.

At the moment, this hard disk is being pitched at heavy-duty enterprise, cloud and data-center computing applications rather than regular desktop or small-NAS applications. In this use case, I see that these ultra-high-capacity hard disks earn their keep would be localised data-processing applications where non-volatile secondary storage is an important part of the equation.

Such situations would include content-distribution networks such as the Netflix application or edge / fog computing applications where data has to be processed and held locally. Here, such applications that are dependent on relatively-small devices that can be installed close to where the data is created or consumed like telephone exchanges, street cabinets, or telecommunications rooms.

I would expect that this level of data-density will impact other hard disks and devices based on these hard disks. For example, applying it to the 2.5” hard-disk form factor could see these hard disks approaching 8Tb or more yielding highly capacious compact storage devices. Or that this same storage capacity is made available for hard drives that suit regular desktop computers and NAS units.

Send to Kindle

Google to answer Amazon with their own express shopfront

Article

Walmart voice shopping on Google Home is now live | CNet

Anti-Amazon Alliance Ad Unites Google, Walmart, Target, Costco And More | AdAge

From the horse’s mouth

Google

Google Express shopfront

Google Express TV ad (North America) – Tap or click to play

My Comments

The voice-driven home-assistant war between Google and Amazon has heated up further. This time, it is taking place in the form of express online shopping services where you can ask the assistant to order common household items and have them delivered to you. Here, it is more focused on you knowing what you are after and wanting to purchase a particular item of a kind.

Amazon has established this service through the Prime marketplace which requires a paid membership with them. This works with the Amazon Dash “push-to-order” infrastructure which is based around network-connected buttons and appliances with similar functionality available from their control surfaces; along with their Alexa voice-driven home assistant.

But Google answered them by offering the Google Express online storefront which works with third-party retailers that have partnered with Google. There is no paid subscription or membership fee and the goods can be delivered for free subject to the retailer’s free-delivery requirements like minimum order value.

At the moment, Google Express is partnering with Walmart, Toys R Us, Costco, Whole Foods and Target; all who are household names in the USA. But Google has pushed out their Google Home voice-driven home assistant to other countries like most of Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand with some of these countries not yet supporting Amazon Alexa.

If Google wanted to establish local presence for Google Express with markets that have Google Home established, they would have to work with local household names in the retail scene. This may be about dealing with one or more local full-line supermarket / hypermarket chains who have a strong presence in these other countries as in Tesco or Sainsburys in the UK; Auchan or Carrefour in most of Continental Europe; or Coles or Woolworths in Australia.

Of course, a question that can be easily raised is whether the express online shopping platforms that Amazon and Google are pushing are being seen as an intent to “rub out” the convenience stores, mid-size supermarkets and the like that exist close to people’s homes. A similar question was raised regarding the arrival of automatic teller machines and their impact on smaller bank branches. Here, these machines were seen more as an “express” path or “always-available” path for the common bank transactions while the branches were able to serve people whose banking needs were met better through in a “face-to-face” manner. But in the case of the convenience stores and mid-size supermarkets, these places may suit people who prefer to visit a place and buy many goods or services or do their shopping “face-to-face”.

But operating Google Express as simply an “interface” storefront between their platforms and third-party retailers may allow them to deal with more of these retailers rather than run their own online store. As well, Apple, Microsoft and Samsung need to watch what is going on in this space especially as the idea of express online shopping is something that will be part of the competitive platform that is the voice-driven home assistant.

Send to Kindle

Qarnot to use edge computing to heat your shower or swimming-pool water

Articles

Yarra's Edge apartment blocks

Qarnot will be satisfying the hot-water needs of residents in buildings like these for free

AMD’s Ryzen Pro is doing double duty as a processor and house heater | PC Gamer

Asperitas and Qarnot Collaborate in Liquid Cooling | Inside HPC

Deal puts cloud computing in boilers and heaters across Europe | EE News Europe

From the horse’s mouth

Qarnot

1500 AMD Ryzen PRO will heat homes and offices next year in Bordeaux, France (Blog post)

Asperitas

Green edge computing partnership (Press Release)

My Comments

Qarnot Q.Rad press image courtesy of Qarnot

using the same kind of technology as the Q.Rad heater

The high-performance computing industry places importance on keeping the processors cool and one way this has happened is to use liquids which works in a similar manner to how the engine is kept cool in most vehicles. This is where a loop of liquid coolant is passed between the engine block and the radiator and heater core to shift the waste heat away from the engine and, in the typical passenger car or commercial vehicle, keep the passenger cabin to a comfortable temperature when it’s cold outside.

In the computing context, it is implemented in some of the most advanced and tricked-out gaming rigs through the use of a water loop and cooling blocks attached to each processor chip along with a radiator that disperses this heat. Qarnot and Asperitas are implementing it as a way of heating water for free using the distributed-computing “micro data center” concept that Qarnot is known for with the Q.Rad data-processing room heater.

This is also in conjunction with Qarnot implementing AMD Ryzen CPUs in the next generation of the Q.Rad because these workstation processors implement perform better than the previously-used Intel CPUs yet yield the same heat output. This is important due to the fact that Qarnot’s distributed-processing market is focused on 3D rendering and visual effects for the movie and TV industry or risk-analysis in the financial industry.

Gaming rig

and the same kind of liquid-based cooling technology used in some of these gaming rigs

But the Qarnot / Asperitas approach to harvesting the processor heat for water heating is focused primarily around providing domestic hot water for the building’s occupants or to heat the water in a swimming pool or spa installed in that building. It would be seen as having a similar environmental and running-cost advantage to a solar hot-water installation used for the same purposes. Let’s not forget that a larger number of the “edge-computing” servers that dissipate their heat in to the building’s hot-water infrastructure using this approach can provide the right amount of heated water that a building needs.

It also yields an advantage for Qarnot either during the summer season or in areas that have warmer climates because they can maintain the distributed processing concept in these areas due to their need to heat water for our year-round hot-water needs.

Send to Kindle

Amazon now provides Alexa improved access to landline and mobile telephone services

Article

Using the common household phone

Amazon now is the first voice-driven home assistant to provide a fully-functional equivalent to the traditional household telephone

You Can Now Place Outbound Phone Calls to Most Numbers With Your Amazon Echo Devices | Droid Life

From the horse’s mouth

Amazon

Echo Connect product page

My Comments

Recently Google stepped ahead by providing North American Google Home users the ability to make landline and mobile phone calls across the USA and Canada from their Google Home device. Amazon couldn’t take this lying down so they added the ability to call any landline or mobile phone in the USA, Canada and Mexico to their Alexa Calling and Messaging functionality. Here, you can say a phone number that you want Alexa to call and she will call that. This also applies to any contact in your mobile phone’s contact list that is bound with your Alexa setup.

Amazon Echo Connect adaptor press picture courtesy of Amazon

The Amazon Echo Connect box enables your Amazon Echo speakers to be your traditional household telephone

You still had the same limitations that were associated with Google Home’s calling functionality where your caller wouldn’t see your phone number on their Caller ID display. Nor could you take calls through Alexa or use the 911 national-emergency-number service to call for help.

But Amazon took this further by offering the Echo Connect which is a telephony interface device that connects between your home network and your standard telephone line or VoIP adaptor’s “FXS” socket. What this box really does is create a connection to your regular telephone service so you can use any Alexa-based device to make or take calls as if you are using your ordinary old telephone.

But they could improve on this by offering the Echo Connect functionality as software to be integrated in VoIP-capable Internet gateway devices so you don’t have to add extra boxes to your home network in order to provide this functionality. Similarly, they could look towards providing exchange-side software for telephone exchange / central-office equipment to facilitate a full-function landline telephone bridge for existing telephone-service customers.

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

Then this device now becomes your home telephone

When you make calls using the Echo Connect, your phone number will show up in your caller’s phone’s caller-ID display. In most cases, this would show up as a reference to whoever is calling you. Similarly, if someone rings you, Alexa will announce who it is that is calling you including the name of the contact in the previously-mentioned mobile contact list. Then you just ask Alexa to answer the call if you want to and your Echo device works like a speakerphone. Add to this the ability to call 911 from your Amazon Echo if you had to.

Again, this would be seen as retrograde with millennials who see the maintenance of a home phone line as being too quaint and outdated, whereupon you should “get with the program” and use a smartphone, preferably an iPhone, as you only telephony device. But these phones are still being seen as a common “catch-all” contact number for a household or for older people who have lived with the traditional telephone. The latest Amazon and Google efforts are carrying this concept of the traditional landline number over to the current online era. Infact, through the use of the Echo Connect device, Amazon have been the first company to enable their voice-driven home assistant platform serve the role of the traditional landline telephone in the context of both making and taking calls.

Send to Kindle

Visual support–now a key trend for voice-activated home assistants

Article

Amazon Echo Show in kitchen press picture courtesy of Amazon

The Amazon Echo Show – the first to prove the idea of an augment visual interface for the voice-driven home assistant

Amazon’s Echo Spot is a cuter version of the Echo Show | Engadget

From the horse’s mouth

Amazon

Amazon Introduces a New Member of the Echo Family: Echo Spot (Press Release)

My Comments

A trend that is surfacing for the voice-activated home assistant device is for these devices to provide a display which works alongside the voice-activated assistant by providing some sort of visual feedback. The display can be physically integrated in the smart speaker or similar device or appear on another device that ties in with the home-assistant device such as a TV equipped with a Chromecast or similar dongle.

Amazon Echo Spot press picture courtesy of Amazon

Amazon Echo Spot – the smaller brother of the Echo Show

Amazon kicked this off with the Echo Show that has an integrated colour touchscreen and augments Alexa replies with visual information as well as being an IP-based videophone. Then Sony integrated a clock display in to their Google Assistant speaker that was being premiered at IFA this year.

Now Amazon premiered their Echo Spot which is about the size of a traditional alarm clock and uses a circular touchscreen as its display. This device was being offered as the smaller bedroom-friendly version of the Echo Show.

But what is this functionality about?

This functionality is about providing visual support to a user’s interaction with a device that is based on a voice-driven home assistant platform. This can range from constantly-displayed information like the current time or the weather to written information that augments an answer offered by Alexa or the Google Assistant. It can also be information that is dependent on current or upcoming events like reminders, information about the music that is playing through the device or the status of an appliance or other device connected to your smart-home setup.

Setups that implement a colour graphical display, whether integrated or as an outboard screen, could take this concept further with photos, album cover art and other material that are part of the visual interface. Examples of this could be Alexa showing pictures of restaurants in response to a query about the best-value eats in town or the device being an electronic picture frame, referring to a collection of photos hosted on the network or the cloud. Let’s not forget that devices with a colour graphical display would implement the screen as a display for a compatible network video-surveillance camera or video intercom.

Of course, whoever programs the skills for Alexa, Google Assistant or other similar platforms will be wanting to write in the visual support and have to provide text as a baseline visual display. Personally I would see this feature as part of how Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Cortana and Siri will evolve in the voice-activated home assistant context.

Send to Kindle