Category: Gadget List

Gadget List–Best bets for setting the family house up for the Internet

Introduction

You may have read “Is it worth it to put full broadband in the family house”, which is an article that I wrote about going about setting up a fully-fledged home-network setup with wireline broadband at a house which ends up a “common property” for a family. Typically this place may be a house resided in by one or both of the parents or an occasionally-occupied “resource” property like a holiday house or city apartment.

Here I raised issues like the amount of “online” activity that would take place at this location, the availability of the full broadhand services including the packages and what kind of hardware to get if you go about this.

Your home network

Full broadband service

Netgear DG834G ADSL2 wireless router

A router that is part of a full broadband service

Firstly, identify whether there is either a landline telephone service or a cable TV service in place at the “Family House”. To the same extent, it is worth identifying whether next-generation broadband is available at this location.

A landline telephone service with a regular telephone may be considered highly important due to the desire for a robust ermergency contact arrangement and will be essential to the operation of a medical-alert system if you are dealing with elderly parents who are at a fragile point in their life.

Here, look at the information provided by the telephone service provider or cable-TV company for packages which include the broadband Internet service along with the telephone or cable-TV service.  Some of these packages may also integrate mobile service for your parents or relatives living there. This is more so when you have elderly parents who are loyal to a particular service provider for most of their lives and are hesitant to change providers.

The cheapest Internet-service packages may only suit very casual Internet use such as daily email checking and Web-browsing where regular use of online games (Facebook games, MiniClip, MSN Games, etc) or multimedia (YouTube, Spotify, etc) aren’t part of that activity. A mid-tier service may be more relevant with a busy household, or regular use of Internet-based communications and entertainment like Skype, YouTube, Spotify or Internet radio is expected to be the order of the day. This also includes a “Family House” situation that has relatives or friends who are regularly stopping by as part of business travel or you have teenagers and young adults who regularly visit that location.

Internet Gateway Devices

This is an important piece of equipment when you are getting the “Family House” on to a full broadband service. Here, if you are supplying your own modem router for a cable or ADSL service, you can opt for “wires-only” / “bring-your-own-device” services where the provider can enable the device at the office rather than supplying the equipment.

Most modest retail-grade broadband routers and ADSL modem routers with simultaneous 802.11a/g/n Wi-Fi LAN connectivity and four Ethernet LAN sockets would answer this need. If next-generation broadband is becoming very imminent, I would suggest that the router being purchased has Ethernet WAN connectivity and preferably have Gigabit Ethernet connectivity throughout.

You can get by with carrier-supplied equipment if it is known to work to a similar standard to the retail-supplied equipment. For example, if you are in France, you could get by with one of the newer triple-play “n-boxes” offered by Free or any of the other carriers there.

Network equipment

HomePlug AV segment

Western Digital LiveWire HomePlug AV Ethernet switch connected

The WD LiveWire HomePlug AV switch that fills in the network gap

A good practice with setting up the home network in this location is to create a HomePlug AV segment which uses the house’s AC wiring as its medium. This can be compliant to either the HomePlug AV 200Mbps standard or the newer HomePlug AV 500Mbps standard. The advantage of this medium is that it works on a wired medium without you needing to lay new wires, thus allowing you to set up a reliable semi-permanent network for fixed devices.

You can get going with this by purchasing a HomePlug AV kit and connecting one of the adaptors to the router and the other to another network device that uses an Ethernet connection in another room. These adaptors simply plug in to the nearest power outlet.

Here, the HomePlug AV multi-port switches like the WD LiveWire can come in to their own with clusters of AV equipment such as the TVs. This device provides a single on-ramp to the HomePlug AV segment for equipment like a smart TV, PVR and Blu-Ray player. As well, a spare single-port or multi-port “homeplug” adaptor can come in handy when you need to bring in a network-capable device on an “ad-hoc” basis. The example that I outline below is the situation where an adult child brings around a games console to either entertain the grandchildren or show off a game to his brothers.

HomePlug AV adaptor

A typical HomePlug AV adaptor that is worth keeping as a spare

Improving the Wi-Fi wireless segment

You may find that you don’t get good Wi-Fi wireless coverage across the house. This may be due to construction issues such as a thick brick or stone wall or extensive use of metal in the construction of a wall. Even the use of some heat-reflecting materials like Pilkington glass treatment or aluminium-lined insulation may affect radio waves that are part of a Wi-Fi wireless network.

You can answer this problem through the use of a Wi-Fi access point that is connected to your Internet router via a wired backbone such as the HomePlug AV segment. Infact there are some access points that connect directly to a HomePlug AV segment and effectively do their job as an extension access point.

On the other hand, you can repurpose an older router with the same wireless-network technology as your current Internet router as an access point. Here, you have to disable DHCP and allocate it a unique IP address within your network.

Computer equipment

Sony VAIO Duo 11 slider-convertible tablet

Sony VAIO Duo 11

Most portable and transportable computer equipment can work well in the “family house” to underscore the notion of lifestyle computing there. Here, I am thinking of the idea of using these computers around the house and out in the garden to manage email, news, media and similar activities.

  • Apple iPad (tablet, iOS, 10” 4:3 screen)
  • HP Envy x2 (detachable tablet, Windows 8, 11” widescreen) – review
  • Dell XPS 12 (convertible notebook, Windows 8, 11” widescreen)
  • Sony VAIO Duo 11 (slider convertible notebook, Windows 8, 11” widescreen ) – review
  • Toshiba Satellite U920t (slider convertible notebook, Windows 8, 12” widescreen)
  • Sony VAIO Duo 13 (slider convertible notebook, Windows 8, 13” widescreen)
  • Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet (tablet, Android, 10” widescreen) – review
  • Sony VAIO Tap 20 (adaptable all-in-one tablet, Windows 8, 20” widescreen)
    Sony VAIO Tap 20 adaptive all-in-one computer as a desktop

    Sony VAIO Tap 20 – an example of an “adaptive all-in-one” computer

    review

  • HP Envy Rove 20 (adaptable all-in-one tablet, Windows 8, 20” widescreen)
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 series (tablet, Android, 8.9” widescreen)
  • Google Nexus 10 Series (tablet, Android, 10” widescreen)

Printers

Network-capable multifunction printers work well for turning out hard-copy documents. Here, features like the availability of extra-yield cartridges as an option and auto-duplex (double-sided) printing are a must. As well, pay attention to units that use four or more ink cartridges and make sure that you can choose between standard-capacity and high-capacity cartridges so you can choose the capacity that suits the amount of usage your machine is going to have but cater for particular seasons of use.

Fax-capable printers can work as a good substitute to those economy “plain-paper” fax machines that use a thermal-transfer ribbon to print on to the paper which can be costly to run.

HP Envy 120 designer all-in-one printer

HP Envy 120 designer all-in-one inkjet printer

  • HP Envy 120 inkjet all-in-one (review) – a neat stylish all-in-one with duplex printing and its own email address
  • HP Photosmart 7520 inkjet all-in-one with fax – an elegant option that can offers photo printing, colour faxing and separately-replaceable cartridges so you can get rid of that old half-dead costly-to-run fax
  • Brother DCP-J925DW inkjet all-in-one without fax (review)  – an elegant machine that has basic A4 duplex print and a photo tray
  • Brother MFC-J825DW inkjet all-in-one with fax – similar to the DCP-J925DW but is equipped with the colour fax functionalityBrother DCP-J925DW multi-function printer
  • Brother MFC-J4410DW inkjet all-in-one – low-tier version of the MFC-J4710DW reviewed on this site

DLNA Home Media Network

The home network offers up plenty of resources for entertainment and, in some cases, communications. Here, it could be to create a reserve of content that can be “pulled up” and played at a moment’s notice or you simply pulling in content from an online resource like a catch-up TV service, Spotify or an Internet stream hosted by a radio station in your home country or country you love so much.

Network Attached Storage with DLNA

Seagate GoFlex Home NAS - an example of an entry-level NAS

Seagate GoFlex Home NAS

A network-attached storage device allows you to store and retrieve data via the network without having to keep a computer switched on all the time. Similarly, the computer doesn’t underperform due to it handling data that it keeps for other devices.

The ability to use common standards to add and view content is very important. For example, using the SMB standards to transfer content to and from a NAS is important if you use a portable computer based on a regular-computing operating system like Windows, Mac OS X or Linux. Similarly, you can add a file manager to most Android and iOS devices so you can transfer files out between these devices and a NAS.

The DLNA requirement is important for whenever you want to gain access to audio, photo and video files from that smart TV or Blu-Ray player.

  • WD MyBook Live
  • Seagate Central
  • Seagate GoFlex Home (review)

Some Internet gateway devices have the ability to be connected to a USB hard disk and work also as a network-attached storage device. These typically provide SMB-compliant file transfer from regular computers and also have DLNA and / or iTunes media server functionality.

TV or video peripheral with DLNA and / or Skype

Here, I am covering either Internet-enabled TV sets which come in to their own if the goal is to upgrade one of the TV sets, especially any set installed in any of the main living areas. On the other hand, I would recommend using Internet-enabled video peripherals like Blu-Ray players / home-theatre systems, games consoles or Skype cameras where a TV is working very well and satisfying the current needs for the area it is installed in.

  • Most recently-built Samsung, Sony, LG or Panasonic smart TVs. These sets come with online video, DLNA player / renderer, and Skype functionality on most currently-built units, if not all of the units of the popular screen sizes. You could even consider the Skype cameras that the manufacturers make available for these sets so you can run them as a large-screen Skype videoconferencing terminal which is a feature I recommend for families separated by distance.
  • Panasonic Blu-Ray players especially the DMP-BDT220 which offers Skype and DLNA at a reasonable price for a good-quality machine even with the TY-CC20W Skype camera. The Panasonci SCC-BT480 Blu-Ray home-theatre system and similar models in the Panasonic lineup are enabled for Skype and DLNA, which can be of value if you are factoring in a home theatre system with the speakers in to the equation. These use the same Panasonic Skype camera to work as a Skype terminal and exploit the speakers so you can hear the people whom you are talking to clearly. More expensive models in this lineup offer the Viera Cast smart-TV functionality so you can enable other TVs to become smart TVs and have access to online content.
  • The Sony BDP-S390 Blu-Ray player (review)
    Sony BDP-S390 Blu-Ray Disc Player

    Sony BDP-S390 Network Blu-Ray Player – a Blu-Ray player that adds DLNA to an existing TV

    and the newer Sony Blu-Ray home-theatre systems add smart-TV functionality and DLNA connectivity to existing TV sets. But they don’t offer Skype connectivity which may put you back if you are thinking of Skype on your TV at affordable costs. The mid-range and premium Sony Blu-Ray players also are Skype ready with the same optional Sony camera if you are considering this function for your TV set.

  • The Logitech TV Cam HD Skype camera which simply adds Skype functionality to most flat-screen TVs.

Games consoles

Sony PS3 games console

Sony PS3 games console – best brought around as needed

You may think of keeping a games console connected to a TV at the “Family House” but this may work if you have a TV in a secondary lounge area and the console is going to be used by the grandchildren. On the other hand, one of the adult children who owns a games console can bring it to the “Family House” on an as-needed basis and connect it up to the TV there especially if the idea is to entertain the younger children.

But they would need to have it be part of the “Family House’s” home network and this setup routine for the Wi-Fi network only needs to be done the first time a Wi-Fi-equipped console is used there. On the other hand, the previously-mentioned spare “homeplug” can come in handy for linking a console that has an Ethernet socket on it to the home network. Of course, some older people may find that the games console would be difficult to use, including playing a game or navigating the user interface. These are best used when you are with the younger people who regularly play games on these devices.

Network-enabled music systems, wireless speakers and receivers

Sony CMT-MX750Ni Internet-enabled micro music system

Sony CMT-MX750Ni 3-piece music system

These music-system and receiver suggestions can fit the bill of you want something that can play content held on the DLNA-capable NAS or take advantage of online media resources such as Spotify or the “new short wave” i.e. Internet radio.

  • Sony CMT-MX750Ni music system. (review) This system has FM and DAB+ for regular broadcast radio, a CD player as well as an iPod dock. But it can work with DLNA-hosted media content as well as online music services including Internet radio.
  • Sony CMT-SBT300WB music system – This is anther 3-piece music system that follows on from the CMT-MX750Ni music system but uses Bluetooth local connectivity as an audio path as well as being able to connect to your home network and supporting AirPlay functionality for Apple devices.
  • Denon CEOL and CEOL Piccolo music systems (review).
    Denon CEOL music system (Image courtesy of Denon)

    Denon CEOL music system

    These systems work as part of the DLNA Home Media Network and can pull in online music sources including Internet radio and Spotify. They also have an iPod dock and support Apple AirPlay but the CEOL also has a CD player and FM radio tuner.

  • Onkyo TX-8050 Stereo receiver. If you are thinking of a stereo receiver rather than a home-theatre surround receiver, this Onkyo unit can also provide access to
  • Most home-theatre surround-sound receivers that are placed in the mid-tier of the market also come with home network abilities including DLNA, Spotify, Internet radio and the like.  But listening to audio-focused content on a lot of these systems typically requires you to use the TV to navigate for the content.
  • Marantz Audio Consolette speaker dock (review).
    Marantz Audio Consolette speaker dock

    Marantz Audio Consolette speaker dock

    This is one of a few iPhone speaker docks that connect to the home network as a wireless speaker for Airplay and DLNA-capable mobile devices or an Internet radio, yet yield that high-grade sound.

  • Boston Acoustics MC-i200 Air wireless speaker (review). One of a few wireless speakers that excel on the sound but works primarily with your home network.
  • Denon Cocoon speaker docks – A more affordable speaker-dock setup that doubles as an Internet radio or can accept the popular iPhone 4S or iPod Classic.
  • Sony SA-NS410 wireless speaker (review) – A DLNA / AirPlay wireless speaker that can be used around the house and doubles as an Internet radio
  • Sony SA-NS510 portable wireless speaker (review) – A highly-portable DLNA / AirPlay wireless speaker with Internet radio functionality that runs on its own batteries thus being appealing for the garden or other outdoor use.

Network audio devices

NAD C448 network media tuner

NAD C448 network media tuner connected to an amplifier

These units can be connected to a regular stereo or home-theatre system via a vacant line-level input to serve as an audio-focused network media player. They also have an integrated broadcast-radio tuner which you may use in lieu of the FM or AM tuner that is part of your system or could replace a regular tuner component for broadcast-radio reception.

  • Sangean WFT-1 FM/DAB+/Internet network audio tuner – An economical way to add digital broadcast radio, Internet radio and network-hosted audio to your sound system
  • NAD C448 FM/AM/DAB+/Internet network audio tuner – The first “full-band” hi-fi tuner and network audio adaptor with serious hi-fi credentials
  • Onkyo T-4070 FM/AM/DAB+ Internet network audio tuner – Onkyo’s “full-band” tuner and network media adaptor for the hi-fi system
  • Denon DNP-720AE FM/AM/Internet network audio tuner – A similar “FM/AM/Internet” tuner with network media playback for the hi-fi system.
  • Yamaha CD-N500 Network CD player – This CD player can come in handy with a sound system or speaker dock by being able to play CDs as well as tuning in to Internet radio or playing content held on your network-attached storage

Conclusion

Of course, there are better and newer devices that would fill the needs for a house that either serves as an older parent’s residence or commonly-resource property as well as a family hub.

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Gadget List–Essential smartphone and tablet accessories

You have just bought that new smartphone or tablet and want to make sure it is complete when it comes to accessories. These are about charging that “do-it-all” device up or running it from external power; connecting the device to other devices like speakers or car stereos; or simply allowing you to operate your device safely and protecting it from unnecessary damage.

Power supply

Each charger should have at least one USB Type-A socket so you can connect the smartphone, tablet or other mobile device to it via its USB data cord. Some devices that use a DC plug or other connection form can be connected to these chargers using a USB power-adaptor cable which may come with the charger or can be picked up as an accessory.

As for power capacity, I would recommend using a charger that works at 2.1 amps if you are using a tablet or are likely to charge two or more devices at once. It is also worth noting that you can use a charger as a way of powering the phone or tablet in a manner to conserve battery runtime. This comes in handy when you are, for example, using your phone for navigation or music as you drive or using a smartphone as a network access point.

AC-USB charger

AC USB charger

AC-USB charger

You never can have too many of these chargers especially if you need to top up a phone or tablet that is always running out of juice or being used heavily.

The small USB chargers can be useful as part of a small accessory bag that you take with you when you travel, even as you go out and about. Similarly, there are the USB chargers that have an integrated AC socket as well as the USB sockets. These are very handy if you come across situations where lamps and appliances are constantly unplugged by people wanting to charge up their smartphones or tablets or run these devices at home without compromising their battery runtime.

On the other hand, a self-powered USB hub with its power supply can serve as an AC-USB charger for up to four or seven devices.

Cigar-lighter-USB car charger

USB car charger

USB car charger which plugs in to a vehicle’s cigar-lighter socket

The USB car chargers that plug in to a vehicle’s cigar-lighter socket can be very handy whether you drive a vehicle or not. In some cases, they can come in very handy with other accessories that work on the same voltage such as Bluetooth audio adaptors and most of these are as big as a thumbnail thus not occupying much space in your accessory bag.

External battery pack

USB external battery pack

USB external battery pack

These accessories come in two forms – a rechargeable battery pack that is charged by a USB connection or a battery holder that takes two to four AA batteries and converts the power from the batteries to USB power for your phone.

There are variants of this device that are designed for the older Apple iPhones which use the legacy 30-pin dock connector. Here, these units can be charged from an Apple-compliant dock and be clipped on to the iPhone they are to power. Further variants of this device come in the form of a case that the iPhone sits in rather than a battery pack that clips on to the iPhone.

Similarly, some of the rechargeable battery packs may use an integrated or accessory solar panel to allow you to charge them from the sun. These typically are to allow you to operate your phone independently of the AC power and are sold on an “eco” or “green-living” promise, but they take a long time to charge up fully from the sun and require the charger to see bright sunshine.

Lower-capacity devices may work well for charging up a smartphone once or “boosting” (adding power) to a 5” smartphone or tablet. This is compared to higher-capacity devices which could charge up a smartphone two or three times or a tablet once or twice; or simply be effective in providing “long-run” power to the smartphone or tablet.

It may be worth noticing with some of the rechargeable battery packs that have two or more USB output sockets in that if they are connected to a charger and switched on, they could supply power to two or more devices. This can come in handy if you want to cut down on the number of AC or car chargers you take with you.

Cables

USB data cables

USB data cable

USB data / power cable

This cable is essentially how you get power in to your phone or tablet and it should have a Type A USB connector on one end and the connector that fits your device on the other end. This typically will be a MicroUSB connector for most non-Apple devices, a 30-pin Apple Dock connector for older Apple devices or the small Lightning connector for new Apple devices. You could get by with one or more cables that have the Apple Dock connector and some Dock-Lightning plug adaptors if you have a mix of Apple devices that have the different connectors.

Audio connectivity

For any portable audio device, I consider the following cables as essential to keep with the device:

  • A cable with a 3.5mm stereo mini phone plug at each end
  • A cable with a 3.5mm stereo mini phone plug at one end and two RCA (phono or cinch) plugs at the othe end
  • A cassette adaptor which slots in to car cassette players and connects to your phone or tablet
3.5mm to 3.5mm stereo audio cable

3.5mm to 3.5mm stereo audio cable

The first cable comes in handy with an increasing number of car stereos, home-theatre receivers and other AV devices that use a 3.5mm (1/8”) mini phone jack on the front. This is to allow you to walk up and connect portable audio devices to these units and have them play through the system’s speakers.

3.5mm stereo to 2 RCA plug audio cable for most audio equipment

3.5mm stereo to 2 RCA plug audio cable for most audio equipment

The second cable comes in handy with connecting your phone or tablet to just about every piece of home audio equipment, including some mid-range and higher-end “ghetto blasters” made through the 1980s and 1990s just by using any vacant line-level input i.e. a “tape”, “CD”, “tuner” or “aux” input.

Cassette adaptor

A cassette adaptor that allows you to use your smartphone with a cassette-based car stereo

Some of you may see the cassette adaptor as a dated accessory especially with an Apple iPhone but it still has its place with your smartphone or tablet. For example, you may be using a late-70s / early-80s classic car that is kept “true to its era” and have tracked down and fitted a cassette player or retained the factory-supplied cassette car stereo in the dash of that car to keep the car that way. Similarly, some of you may have kept a cheap old car radio-cassette stereo with that “fast-forward / eject” button in that old car because you are in a risky neighbourhood and a nice car stereo would be asking for a brick through the window. You may also deal with a late-80s or mid-90s car that has an integrated cassette car stereo and you can’t substitute it easily with aftermarket car audio equipment. Here, the cassette adaptor effectively converts the cassette mechanism, hence the cassette slot, in to an auxiliary input through the use of a head mounted in the adaptor that inductively couples with the cassette player’s playback head to pass the sound to the player’s amplification circuitry. This means that even if the mechanism was prone to “chewing” the tape when it played tapes, it can work with these cassette adaptors.

Realistic car stereo radio-cassette (12-1892) - 1981 catalog shot - RadioShackCatalogs.com

With a cassette adaptor, you can play your smartphone or other device through this old car stereo

Other accessories

Removable windscreen mount

Another accessory that I find very important for smartphone users is the removable windscreen mount. Here, this device “grips” the phone and sticks to the windscreen (windshield) using a suction cup so you have the phone in a stable position. This is important when you are using the phone with a good maps app for navigation, as a music player / Internet car radio, or want to be sure whether to answer that incoming call when it rings. The fact that you can remove the removable windscreen mount is important if you need to take your device between cars that don’t have a phone mount, such as rental or borrowed vehicles, or want to conceal the phone mount thus avoiding the chance of your car being broken into.

Bluetooth audio adaptor with microphone.

Nokia BH-111 headphone adaptor connected to headphones

Now these good headphones or other audio device can work as a stereo Bluetooth headset for your smartphone with a Bluetooth audio adaptor

A device that can come in very handy with any smartphone or tablet is a Bluetooth audio adaptor like the Nokia BH-111 or a recently-issued Kogan Bluetooth adaptor. These devices effectively work as Bluetooth handsfree kits by supporting headset or hands-free operating modes as well as the A2DP media-streaming operating mode, but are connected to headphones or external audio equipment for their audio output.

This can be handy with temporary setups where you want handsfree telephony or audio playback through existing equipment such as with home or portable audio equipment or rented or borrowed cars.  For car use, they may be best secured to the middle of the dashboard with double-sided tape or a good amount of Blu-Tack.

A lot of these devices will have an integrated microphone so you can speak to your caller during that call. There may be some good Bluetooth portable-handsfree kits which have an integrated speaker that may also have a 3.5mm stereo mini phone jack as an audio output especially when streaming music content from your device. This kind of setup may feed the Bluetooth Headset / Hands-Free Profile audio to the integrated speaker and the Bluetooth A2DP stereo audio to the external device.

Wraps or covers for your device

Any of the wraps or covers that are available for your particular phone or tablet work well in protecting the device as well as conveying your sense of style to your device. Some can range from a simple vinyl finish to a luxurious leather finish which has that look of that special wallet and, of course, the more you pay the more likely it will last for a long time. But, if you use an NFC-capable Android phone or tablet, you have to make sure that the wrap or cover doesn’t interfere with the NFC functionality. Similarly, you may find your Android device thinking it has cottoned on to an NFC device if you store your “touch-and-go” transport card or security pass in your billfold-style device cover with your device.

Conclusion

When you equip your smartphone or tablet with these accessories, you have the ability to gain more flexibility out of your mobile device. This is whether to avoid compromising your device’s battery runtime or have your device highly available; or to make it work with a wide range of computer or audio equipment; or simply be able to use the device safely and protect it from damage.

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