Google demonstrates their Google Home concept during Super Bowl 2017

Part of the experience of watching American Football’s annual ultimate playoff that occurs every February is to see the ads that are run during the commercial breaks. This is because, a company has to stump up at least US$5 million per “spot” to get an ad in front of the USA’s many eyeballs who will be watching the Super Bowl. Here, it is also the time that advertisers pull out the stops to show the most impressive and memorable commercials that could end up being run when they want to extend the campaign further.

Google used this year’s Super Bowl to demonstrate the concept of their Google Home voice-activated home assistant platform competing with Amazon Alexa. But is shows what these voice-operated home assistants are all about. Most of the functionality you will see in this ad will require you to install smart-home devices that control your existing lighting or heating.

Have a look at this if you missed it during this year’s “ad parade”.

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Apple to use the UAC connector as its standard connector for headphones

Articles

Dell A2 Performance USB Headset

Feature headphones with digital functionality will be using UAC as an accessory-side connector for widest compatibility

Relax, Apple isn’t introducing another new connector | The Verge

Apple’s Ultra Accessory Connector dashes any hopes of a USB-C iPhone | The Verge

Apple plans new smaller Ultra Accessory Connector (UAC) for Made-for-iPhone accessories | 9 To 5 Mac

What is UAC? Apple’s new ‘Made for iPhone’ accessory and port explained | Trusted Reviews

My Comments

If you have owned a Nikon digital camera, you may have dealt with the Ultra Accessory Connector (UAC) as a method to tether your camera to your computer for, perhaps, downloading. This would typically be facilitated using a USB to UAC cable that came in the box with your camera.

Apple is resurrecting this connector as part of its MFi (Made For iOS) accessories program for iOS devices. There was a lot of confusion in the computing press regarding this connector because it could be about a different socket existing on a subsequent iPhone or iPad, or devices and accessories not working unless “you get with the program” – be part of the Apple ecosystem.

But the Ultra Accessory Connector is about how its use as an intermediary or accessory-side connector on a pair of headphones. It is being called on because an increasing number of newer smartphones and ultraportable laptops won’t be equipped with the traditional 3.5mm headset jack where you can connect a wired headset.

There is also the same appeal where headphones will have integral digital-analogue audio circuitry and there has to he a way to connect these to your smartphone if you are going the “wired” path. It is something very familiar to those of us who use a USB headset with our computers or a Bluetooth headset or audio adaptor with our smartphones. Here, manufacturers will see better digital-analogue circuitry and / or sound-processing technology such as microphone arrays, accessory-side sound-tuning and active noise cancellation as a way to differentiate their product ranges more effectively and  innovate their products.

Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset - USB plug

It will still be feasible to keep a level playing field for headphones that use USB or other wired digital links.

The approach that is being pushed here is for a headset or pair of headphones to have the UAC connection as an accessory-side connection. Typically this will be as a “lump” on the headphone cable like what is used for remote control or a microphone, which comes apart. On the other hand, the most probable implementation for a pair of traditionally-styled “cans” would be a socket installed on one of the earcups similar to what happens for detachable-cord implementations. The headset would then be supplied with one or more application-specific connection cables that have a UAC-connector on the accessory side and the appropriate connector (Apple Lightning, USB-A, USB-C or 3.5mm phone plug) on the equipment side. There is also a goal to have such cables also available through the aftermarket thanks to accessory suppliers like Belkin.

The UAC connection is meant to facilitate a digital connection that works with USB or Apple Lightning norms along with the standard stereo analogue connection. Here, it means that an accessory cable can exist which has the traditional 3.5mm phone plug on it to allow use with equipment that still maintains this connection. This includes still being able to use the 6.35mm headphone jack adaptor to connect your headpbones to hi-fi equipment or the two-pin airline adaptor to plug in to your aeroplane seat’s in-flight-entertainment connection. It also encompasses the goal with the Apple Lightning and USB-C standards to provide analogue pass-through from equipment-side digital-analogue circuitry to cater for the cheaper headset designs.

In the digital context, this can mean that the sound processing circuitry can present itself to Apple’s iOS devices or “open-frame” USB Audio implementations properly as the equipment expects. Apple still sees this as being important because their newer MacBook laptops are being equipped just with USB-C connections and MacOS is still providing class-driver support for USB-Audio devices. But most other regular-computer and mobile operating systems are providing a similar level of support for USB Audio.

But what needs to happen in both camps is for proper operating-system-level support for audio input and output in both the communications and multimedia contexts, along with accessory-side remote control for call management, media transport control and volume control at least. It may also include the ability to use a basic display on the accessory to show information like current time, incoming calls and messages and media-play details, something that can earn its keep with in-line remote-control accessories.

The UAC connection type can lead to the idea of “feature modules” or “enhancement modules” that add extra functionality to or improve the sound quality of existing UAC headphones. For example, they could offer:

  • a highly-strung DAC circuit as an upgrade path for better sound quality with premium headphones;
  • a Bluetooth adaptor to add Bluetooth wireless functionality to a set of existing wired “cans”;
  • an advanced remote control with display so you can keep your device in your pocket;
  • or an extended-power module which allows you to use external battery packs to obtain long operating times out of your smartphone and advanced headset.

What the UAC connector that Apple is pushing for is the ability to headset manufacturers to continue to work on feature headsets that can work across all of the computing platforms. As well, I also see the UAC connector as a pathway to innovation because manufacturers will be encouraged to work on features that work across all phone platforms. This is more so as we invest in the premium headsets to go with our smartphones and computers so we can listen to music or watch those videos while we are on the train.

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Improved Wi-Fi technologies as the deluxe option for your Internet service

Article

Waoo Smart WiFi kit press picture courtesy of Waoo.dk

Waoo Smart WiFi kit offered in Denmark

Premium Wi-Fi is a growing opportunity for service providers, both to differentiate and to increase ARPU | Videonet.TV

From the horse’s mouth

Waoo (Danish ISP) – (Danish Language / Dansk Sprog)

Smart WiFi – Product Page

Promotional Video –  Click or tap here to play / Klik eller tryk her for at spille

My Comments

Recently, at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, some of the major home-network hardware providers offered distributed Wi-Fi network setups which provide a simplified method to improve your home network’s Wi-Fi wireless coverage.

D-Link Covr router and wireless extender package press image courtesy of D-Link

D-Link Covr router and wireless extender package – could be offered by your ISP or telco

These have been offered either in a mesh-based setup or as a “router and extender” setup with simplified setup and operation procedures. The mesh setup creates a wireless backbone mesh between each of the “nodes” in such a way that any node can obtain a strong high-throughput signal from two other nodes and there is a failover process where if one node is out-of-action, other nodes can keep the coverage going. On the other hand, a “router and extender” setup works like most of the wireless extenders on the market but implements a simplified setup and roaming experience between the router and extenders.

Some of the distributed Wi-Fi network setups also allow for the use of a wired backbone which can cater for difficult wireless-network situations, multiple building setups or even as a robust high-throughput option.

There has been a need for these setups thanks to increased streaming of video content like Netflix along with heavy use of highly-portable computer devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones. But the typical Wi-Fi setup ends up being compromised by many different situations such as routers being installed at one end of the premises, the use of dense or metallic building materials in our houses and apartments or even “white goods” or metallic furniture like filing cabinets installed in a cluster against interior walls. As well, the existence of multiple Wi-Fi networks in a neighbourhood can make things works.

But there are some telcos, cable-TV providers and Internet service providers are offering distributed wireless setups as an extra-cost option for all of their customers, and / or as “part of the package” for their top-shelf packages. This kind of service is also of interest to other ISPs who are wanting to offer that more value to their customers, and is in response to complaints that customers aren’t benefiting from the headline or contracted bandwidth at their devices especially when they are using the Wi-Fi wireless network.

Examples of this are Singtel in Singapore, and Midco (Midcontinent Communications) in the USA are offering a distributed Wi-FI system as their “premium Wi-Fi” option offered as an extra-cost option while Waoo in Denmark are offering it at no extra cost to subscribers who take up their premium Internet packages that they offer with it available for extra cost for people who subscribe to the cheaper packages.

Here, the distributed Wi-Fi setup would be part of the modem-router normally offered as customer-premises equipment with it being managed and serviced by the ISP.  Some of these setups also have TV set-top boxes that also work as access points or as part of the mesh ecosystem, typically using a wired (MoCA, HomePlug AV500) or wireless backhaul. There may also be the use of dedicated access-point nodes around the premises to provide the extra reach to the other areas.

The ISPs are, at the moment, seeing this as leading towards increased customer satisfaction due to the increased stability and throughput realised at the end devices. It is also seen as being equivalent to cable-TV services where customers rent a PVR-based set-top box, because such customers see this as being better value for money therefore less likely to walk away from the service.

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Two niche video-on-demand providers are starting to show up strong

From the horse’s mouth

Acorn TV – SVOD provider offering the best of British telly to the USA

Native Clients

Mobile: iOS, Android

TVs and Set-top Devices: Apple TV (tvOS), Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV (newer)

SBS On Demand – AVOD provider offering foreign and art-house content to Australian audiences

Native Clients

Mobile: iOS, Android, Amazon Kindle Fire, Windows Phone

Regular Computers: Windows 10

TVs and Set-top Devices: Apple TV (tvOS),  XBox 360, XBox One, PS3, PlayStation 4, Humax, Fetch TV, Telstra TV, Telstra T-Box, Sony Bravia Smart TVs, Android TV, Google TV, Samsung Smart TVs, LG Smart TVs, Panasonic Viera Smart TVs, HBBTV, TCL TV

My Comments

As the mainstream “over-the-top” video-on-demand market becomes saturated with service providers who try to cover all the bases, a few companies are rising up or will rise up to offer an “over-the-top” video-on-demand service that targets a niche audience.

Some of these companies are based on an existing media-publication or distribution platform that already courts that particular niche like a home-video distributorship, a TV broadcaster or a bookstore. Here, I would simply see a niche video-on-demand provider very similar to an art-house cinema or a specialty bookstore.

The different companies provide these services on one or more of the following three business models

  • AVOD (Advertising Video-On-Demand) – advertising-funded with TV commercials run during the show like with traditional TV. It is commonly used with services that started out as “catch-up TV” services offered by TV broadcasters who sell advertising.
  • SVOD (Subscription Video-On-Demand) – funded by users paying a monthly or yearly subscription fee to see all of the content offered by the video-on-demand provider. It is the same kind of business model that Netflix operate on.
  • TVOD (Transactional Video-On-Demand) – viewers pay to have access to a particular movie or series title either on an infinite basis or for a certain time period. It is similar to the video offerings provided by the platform app stores (Apple iTunes, Google Play or Microsoft Store).

These providers may find that the business model that they choose may please the audience that views their content, especially if they are capitalising on their media-distribution heritage. On the other hand, they may have to operate the different business models together such as taking a “freemium” approach with an advertising-funded service but allowing viewers to subscribe to a premium ad-free service.

There are two services I am calling out in this article that are answering to the niche video-on-demand market.

 

Screenshot of Acorn TV website

Acorn TV – the best of British telly in the USA

One of these is Acorn TV, a subscription video-on-demand service that is supplying the best of British telly to the American market. It was based on the Acorn imprint which sold British shows on packaged home-video media (VHS videocassettes and DVD / Blu-Ray discs) in to the USA since 1994. Acorn are even heading towards creating their own content as well as redistributing the content offered by the British TV channels in to the USA. It appeals to British expats who have moved to North America along with Americans who appreciate the high-quality content that British TV is known for.

SBS On Demand Windows 10 platform app

SBS On-Demand (Windows 10 native app) – foreign-language TV in Australia thanks to SBS

The other of these is SBS On Demand, an advertising video-on-demand service that is supplying Australian viewers with foreign and art-house content. This service evolved from a “catch-up TV” service that SBS, a publicly-funded radio and TV service that focused towards Australia’s ethnic communities since the late 70s, ran in conjunction with their free-to-air TV service. Here, they have become the Australian TV outlet for the rising classes of subtitled content like Nordic Noir crime fiction even before such content came on the scene in the UK and USA. SBS still create their own edgy TV content to show on their regular TV service or directly on this on-demand service.

Most of these providers work on traditional content trees with content grouped primarily by the standard content genres with opisodic content listed by series title. But as this class of on-demand video provider evolves,  there will be the curated thematic content groups appearing in their content trees, focusing on particular themes like content classes that underscore the niche very well like the “Golden Age of British Comedy”.

What needs to happen is the ability for those niche video-on-demand content providers not to just represent themselves as just another app in your smart TV’s or mobile device’s app store but to expose the fact that they provide a particular class of content.

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Hyperoptic branches out to providing FTTP to UK housing estates

Article

Hyperoptic Brings 1Gbps FTTP Broadband to its First UK Housing Estate | ISPReview

From the horse’s mouth

Hyperoptic

Press Release

My Comments

Hyperoptic are one of the Internet service / last-mile infrastructure providers operating in the UK who are providing next-generation Internet service to particular communities there in a manner where they compete with established Internet infrastructure providers like Openreach. Here, they have been focusing on apartment towers in most of the UK’s major cities and have even gone as far to provide this service to one of London’s marinas. They were even known to provide “month-by-month” Internet service to people who weren’t likely to be occupying an apartment for the year due to such realities like business placement.

This time, they have broken from their mould by installing FTTP infrastructure and providing next-generation Internet service to a housing estate in Welwyn Garden City, one of London’s commuter towns based in Hertfordshire. The new-build housing estate, known as Bellway at QEII and built where the QEII hospital used to exist, has been established by Bellway homes and consists of traditional standalone homes along with some apartments and “coach houses” (apartments built on top of one or more garages), with the property count coming to 163 premises. The typical price being put up is around GBP£319,995 for a two-bedroom coach house to GBP£484,995 for a four-bedroom house,

But Hyperoptic have put the hand up for the Internet service that will be available at this development by offering the service as a fibre-to-the-premises kind, where they can offer a double-play Internet and landline telephone service. This is a symmetrical service with the Internet connection being up to 1Gbps bandwidth. Here, Bellway have found that access to very-high-speed reliable broadband Internet is considered by potential homebuyers and renters as important as access to good schools and transport infrastructure.

New homeowners will be offered a free trial service of up to 1Gbps Internet and phone service that provides free evening and weekend calls for the first three months. This is compared to the meagre offering of a 20Mbps package offered as the trial package.

With landline phone Broadband only
Bandwidth First 12 months Onwards First 12 months Onwards
20Mb GBP£18 GBP£25 GBP£16 GBP£22
100Mb GBP£28 GBP£38 GBP£26 GBP£35
1Gb GBP£48 GBP£63 GBP£46 GBP£60

Broadband-only consumers will be paying a GBP£40 connection fee, but all users will have a 12 month minimum-term contract and will be supplied with a wireless router for their home network and benefit from unlimited “all-you-can-eat” Internet usage and 24/7 support. Personally, Bellway could come to the party in a better way by offering people buying the new-built homes the ability to have their home wired for Ethernet as a deal-making option for their home-building package, with at least a data socket in the living room and the home office.

This isn’t the only “conventional house” development on a large block of land that is benefiting from Hyperoptic’s fibre-to-the-premises effort. They are looking towards knocking on developers’ doors around the UK and competing against BT, Virgin Media & co to “wire-up” new-build developments of this kind in the UK with fibre-optic Internet.

Here, it is one of the examples of where other companies “go it alone” to provide better Internet service in to neighbourhoods even if the main service provider like NBN or Openreach works at a snail’s pace to provide the same level of service.

Personally, I wouldn’t put it past someone like TPG to approach developers who are building “conventional house” residential developments and offer more than what NBN are willing to provide.

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Dual-device videocalling–how about it?

Arcam of Cambridge: Solo Movie system incorporate the latest technology and components from Arcam’s 2016 AVR & Hi-Fi ranges, including the acclaimed Class G amplification, High-End Blu-ray and DVD Replay and full App Controlled music networking / streaming. www.arcam.co.uk. PR by Robert Follis Associates Global - www.robfollis.com

TV setups with large screens and powerful sound systems could also appeal to videocalls where many people wish to participate

A reality that is surfacing with online communications platforms is the fact that most of us prefer to operate these platforms from our smartphones or tablets. Typically we are more comfortable with using these devices as our core hubs for managing personal contacts and conversations.

But there are times when we want to use a large screen such as our main TV for group videocalls. Examples of this may include family conversations with loved ones separated by distance, more so during special occasions like birthdays, Thanksgiving or Christmas. In the business context, there is the desire for two or more of us to engage in video conferences with business partners, suppliers, customers or employees separated by distance. For example, a lawyer and their client could be talking with someone who is selling their business as part of assessing the validity of that potential purchase.

Old lady making a video call at the dinner table press picture courtesy of NBNCo

This is more so when there is that family special moment

But most of the smart-TV and set-top platforms haven’t been engineered to work with the plethora of online-communications platforms that are out there. This is although Skype attempted to get this happening with various smart-TV and set-top platform vendors to allow the smart TV to serve as a Skype-based group videophone once you purchased and connected a Webcam accessory supplied by the manufacturer.

The Skype situation required users to log in to the Skype client on their TV or video device along with buying and installing a camera kit that worked with the TV. This was a case of entering credentials or searching for contacts using a “pick-and-choose” or SMS-style text-entry method which could lead to mistakes. This is compared to where most of us were more comfortable with performing these tasks on our smartphones or tablets because of a touchscreen keyboard or hardware keyboard accessory that made text entry easier.

Apple TV 4th Generation press picture courtesy of Apple

An Apple TV or Chromecast that has the software support for and is connected to a Webcam could simplify this process and place the focus on the smartphone as a control surface for videocalls

The goal I am outlining here is for one to be able to use a smart TV or network-connected video peripheral equipped with a Webcam-type camera device, along with their mobile device, all connected to the same home network and Internet connection to establish or continue a videocall on the TV’s large screen. Such a goal would be to implement the large-screen TV with its built-in speakers or connected sound system along with the Webcam as the videocalling-equivalent of the speakerphone we use for group or “conference” telephone calls when multiple people at either end want to participate in the call.

Set-top devices designed to work with platform mobile devices

A very strong reality that is surfacing for interlinking TVs and mobile devices is the use of a network-enabled video peripheral that provides a video link between the mobile device and video peripheral via one’s home network.

One of these devices is the Apple TV which works with iOS devices thanks to Apple AirPlay while the other is the Google Chromecast that works with Android devices. Both of these video devices can connect to your home network via Wi-Fi wireless or Ethernet with the Apple TV offering the latter option out of the box and the Chromecast offering it as an add-on option. As well, the Chromecast’s functionality is being integrated in to various newer smart TVs and video peripherals under the “Google Cast” or “Chromecast” feature name.

Is there a need for this functionality?

As I have said earlier on, the main usage driver for this functionality would be to place a group videocall where multiple people at the one location want to communicate with another . The classic examples would be for families communicating with distant relatives or businesses placing conference calls that involve multiple decision makers with two or more of these participants at one of the locations.

Social networks and mobile messaging

Most of the mobile messaging platforms offer some form of videocalling capability

In most cases, the “over-the-top” communications platforms like Facetime, Skype, Viber, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are primarily operated using the native mobile client app or the functionality that is part of the mobile platform. This way of managing videocalls appeals to most users because of access to the user’s own contact directory that exists on their device along with the handheld nature of the typical smartphone that appeals to this activity.

It is also worth knowing that some, if not all, of the “over-the-top” communications platforms will offer a “conference call” or “three-way call” function as part of their feature set, extending it to videocalls in at least the business-focused variants. This is where you could have multiple callers from different locations take part in the same conversation. Such setups would typically show the “other” callers as part of a multiple-picture “mosaic” on the screen. Here, the large screen can come in handy with seeing the multiple callers at once.

How is this achieved at the moment?

At the moment, these set-top platforms haven’t been engineered to allow for group videocalling and users would have to invoke screen-mirroring functionality on their mobile devices once they logically associate them with the video endpoint devices. Then they would have to position their mobile device on or in front of the TV so the other side can see your group, something which can be very precarious at times.

How could Apple, Google and co improve on this state of affairs?

Apple TV - Mirroring on - iPad

Should this still be the way to make group videocalls on your Apple TV or Chromecast?

Apple and Google could improve on their AirPlay and Chromecast platforms to provide an andio-video-data feed from the video peripheral to the mobile device using that peripheral. This would work in tandem with a companion Webcam/microphone accessory that can be installed on the TV and connected to the set-top device. For example, Apple could offer a Webcam for the latest generation Apple TV as an “MFi” accessory like they do with the game controllers that enable it to be a games console.

When users associate their mobile devices with a suitably-equipped Apple TV / Chromecast device that supports this enhancement, the communications apps on their phone detect the camera and microphone connected to the video peripheral. The user would then be able to see the camera offered as an alternative camera choice while they are engaged in a videocall, along with the microphone and TV speaker offered as a “speakerphone” option.

What will this entail?

It may require Apple and Google to write mobile endpoint software in to their iOS and Android operating systems to handle the return video feed and the existence of cameras connected to the Apple TV or Chromecast.

Similarly, the tvOS and Chromecast platforms will have to have extra endpoint software written for them while these devices would have to have hardware support for Webcam devices.

At the moment, the latest-generation Apple TV has a USB-C socket on it but this is just serving as a “service” port, but could be opened up as a peripheral port for wired MFi peripherals like a Webcam. Google uses a microUSB port on the Chromecast but this is primarily a power-supply and network-connection port. But they could, again, implement an “expansion module” that provides connectivity to a USB Webcam that is compliant to the USB Video and Audio device classes.

These situations could be answered through a subsequent hardware generation for each of the devices or, if the connections are software-addressable, a major-function firmware update could open up these connections for a camera.

As for application-level support, it may require that the extra camera connected to the Apple TV or Chromecast device be logically enumerated as another camera device by all smartphone apps that exploit the mobile phone’s cameras. The microphone in the camera and the TV’s speakers also would need to be enumerated as another communications-class audio device available to the communications apps. This kind of functionality could be implemented at operating-system level with very little work being asked of from third-party communications software developers.

User privacy can be assured through the same permissions-driven setup implemented in the platform’s app ecosystem that is implemented for access to the mobile device’s own camera and microphone. If users want to see this tightened, it could be feasible to require a separate permissions level for use of external cameras and audio-input devices. But users can simply physically disconnect the Webcam from the video peripheral device when they don’t intend to use it.

An alternative path for app-based connected-TV platforms

There is also an alternative path that smart-TV and set-top vendors could explore. Here, they could implement a universal network-based two-way video protocol that allows the smart TV or set-top device to serve as a large-screen video endpoint for the communications apps.

Similarly, a smart-TV / set-top applications platform could head down the path of using client-side applications that are focused for large-screen communications. This is in a similar vein to what was done for Skype by most smart-TV manufacturers, but the call-setup procedure can be simplified with the user operating their smartphone or tablet as the control surface for managing the call.

This could be invoked through techniques like DIAL (Discovery And Launch) that is used to permit mobile apps to discover large-screen “companion” apps on smart-TV or set-top devices in order to allow users to “throw” what they see on the mobile device to the large screen. As well, the connection to the user’s account could be managed through the use of a session-specific logical token established by the mobile device.

This concept can be taken further through the use of the TV screen as a display surface, typically for communications services’ messaging functions or to show incoming-call notifications.

Conclusion

What we still need to think of is to facilitate “dual-device” videocalling with the popular mobile platforms in order to simplify the task of establishing group videocalls using TVs and other large-screen display devices.

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Consumer Electronics Show 2017–Accessories and the Home Network

In this article about the Consumer Electronics Show 2017 that occurred in Las Vegas, Nevada, I will be covering the trends affecting computer peripherals and accessories and the home network.

1: Computer Trends

2: Accessories And The Home Network

Peripherals and Accessories

A very dominant usage case being highlighted for laptops and 2-in-1 computers is the creation of a fully-fledged workstation at your main workspace or game-playing space. This involves connecting the portable computer to at least one larger-sized screen along with a desktop-grade full-size keyboard and mouse. Such workstations may even be the place where you connect extra non-portable storage devices like USB hard disks or optical drives or connect to your network via a blue Ethernet cable rather than the Wi-Fi wireless connection for improved reliability.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon USB-C Thunderbolt-3 detail image - press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports will be seen as the way to connect expansion docks, peripherals and the like to your laptop

The USB-C connector and its higher-speed variant, the Thunderbolt 3 connector have been valued as a way to provide a single-cable connection option between your laptop and the normally-sessile peripherals once you used an expansion module, commonly known as a docking station or dock. Here, you would connect all the peripherals to this expansion module then connect your laptop computer to that same device via USB-C or Thunderbolt. This is also underscored by a significant number of these devices being equipped with USB Power Delivery to power the portable computer from that same device, underscoring that “one cable to connect” goal.

Let’s not forget that some manufacturers are integrating this “dock” functionality in to some of their display monitors so that these screens are where you can connect your keyboard, mouse and external hard disk.

Lenovo had pitched the ThinkVision P24h and P27h monitors which have a qHD (2560×1440) display resolution and an sRGB high colour gamut “out of the box”. These monitors, with the super-narrow bezel, implement a USB-C connection to the host computer facilitating a DisplayPort 1.2 connection, the data connection, and a Power Delivery connection with a power budget of 45W, along with a four-port self-powered USB hub.

LG's 32" 4K monitor with HDR10 - press picture courtesy of LG USA

LG’s 32″ 4K monitor with HDR10

LG had teased a 32” 4K monitor which has the narrow bezel and can handle HDR10 video but also offer this similar USB-C connectivity and USB hub. They also tweaked the monitor’s integral speakers for that bit of extra “kick” from the bass. They also are pleasing the gamer clans by offering the UltraFine 34” 5K and 4K UHD gaming monitors with features like AMD’s FreeSync technology and 1ms motion-blur reduction.

Dell had advanced a range of monitors including the UltraSharp 32” 8K UHD model and the 27” Ultrathin monitor which has its electronics housed in its base. This monitor implements USB-C connectivity to the host along with a QHD display.

Dell UP3218K 8K 32" monitor press image courtesy of Dell

It’s not 4K resolution in this Dell 32″ monitor, it is 8K resolution

They even advanced the 24” Touch monitor with an integral 10-point touchscreen along with the 24” Video Conferencing Monitor which has an integral Full-HD IR Webcam that has a privacy shutter. This monitor’s camera also adds on support for facial-recognition login under Windows Hello while the sound is catered for with a pair of 5-watt speakers and a noise-cancelling microphone built in.

Dell S2718D 27" slimline monitor press image courtesy of Dell

Dell’s slimline 27″ monitor with its electronics in its base

Even households aren’t left out with a range of monitors from Dell that are designed with aesthetics and high-grade on-screen experiences. For example, the Dell 24 and 27 monitors (S2418HX / S2718HX) implement the ultra-narrow-bezel design being implemented in most of Dell’s laptops and all-in-ones plus the ability to support HDR along with Waves.Maxx sound tuning.

For those of us who have a screen that currently “ticks the boxes” for our computing experience at our desks, most of the manufacturers are offering highly-capable Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C docks. Remember that you can daisy-chain 6 Thunderbolt-3 peripherals from the same Thunderbolt-3 bus, which can open up a range of possibilities.

For example, Lenovo and Dell are offering these expansion modules as part of their official accessory lineups. Lenovo’s contribution is in the form of the ThinkPad Thunderbolt 3 dock (US279) with video connectivity in the form of 2 DisplayPort, HDMI and VGA ports; 5 USB 3.0 ports; audio jack for those speakers; a Gigabit Ethernet port; and USB Power Delivery for the host computer with a power budget of 60 watts. There is a USB-C variant that offers similar functionality for computers not equipped with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity.  But Belkin have previewed the Thunderbolt 3 version of their original Thunderbolt 2 Express Dock, which will have 3 USB-3 connections, 2 Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C connections, two audio connections, a DisplayPort video connection and a Gigabit Ethernet connection. This device can supply a USB Power Deliver power-demand of 85 watts, again reducing the need for extra power supplies for your computer.

In the last post I wrote about CES 2017, I had cited Zotac’s external “card-cage” graphics module which uses Thunderbolt 3 connectivity as a way to enhance their “midget PC” product. This isn’t the only product of its kind to appear at this show. MSI also premiered the GUS (Graphics Upgrade System) “card-cage” external GPU system. This is styled for gaming and is a refresh of their original GUS external graphics module that they launched in 2012, but implementing the Thunderbolt 3 standard. It has a 500W power supply and USB 3.0 Type-C and Type-A connections.

Beyond the docking stations or, should I say, expansion modules, there have been a few other computer accessories with one being of note in the form of a Kingston 2Tb USB thumb drive.

The home network

A key trend affecting the home network this year at the CES 2017 is the concept of distributed Wi-Fi wireless systems. This consists of kits that use multiple devices to spread the Wi-Fi network’s coverage over a large area. They have appeared because most householders have run in to issues with their home network’s Wi-Fi wireless segment not providing reliable wireless coverage everywhere in their house.

They are typically based on a single chipset and most of them implement a dedicated wireless backhaul between the slave devices and the master access point. A significant number of these devices implement a “mesh” topology where there is a “root” node that works as a router along with multiple access point “nodes” that connect with each other and the “root” node to provide Wi-Fi coverage, using multiple backhaul connections for load-balancing, fail-safe operation and increased bandwidth. Other systems implement the traditional router and range-extender method with a single upstream connection but have a simplified setup method and properly-simple roaming between the access points.

The problem with these systems is that you have to use equipment that is offered by the manufacturer as part of that same system. This means that there isn’t any of the interoperability available which, at the moment, is stifling innovation.

Qualcomm launched their Wi-Fi mesh chipsets which can implement Bluetooth, CSRMesh and Zigbee also to support the “Internet Of Things”. The software is based also around a dedicated software framework and cloud-services. But these systems also support wired backhauls and multiple-hop mesh setups.

D-Link Covr router and wireless extender package press image courtesy of D-Link

D-Link Covr router and wireless extender package

D-Link had premiered the Covr distributed Wi-Fi system which consists of a router and a wireless extender that implements the automatic setup and simplified roaming. For those of us with existing home networks, they also offered a Covr HomePlug system consisting of two wireless access points linked by a HomePlug AV2 powerline backbone. Another example that purely uses a Wi-Fi backbone is the NETGEAR Orbi which implements a router and a satellite extender device.

On the other hand, Linksys provided a true-mesh setup in the form of the Velop Wi-Fi system that implements multiple nodes. The Velop system even is able to work with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant such as controlling the guest Wi-Fi network or asking Alexa to quote your network’s credentials. Click or tap on this link to see a Linksys YouTube video which explains what Velop is about if you can’t see it below.

As well, Linksys have launched the WRT32X Gaming Router which implements the Rivet Networks Killer Wi-Fi chipset similar to what is implemented in the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook. Here, it is optimised to work with client devices that implement the Rivet Networks Killer chipsets but is a 3×3 802.11ac MU-MIMO system that supports 160kHz bandwidth. There is also the EA8300 Max-Stream AC2200 Tri-band MU-MIMO Gigabit Router which is a more affordable device based on a 2×2 802.11ac three-radio design. Both these routers are equipped with Gigabit Ethernet for LAN and WAN (Internet) connections.

Linksys even offered a WUSB400M dual-band MU-MIMO 802.11ac USB wireless network adaptor as a way to retrofit your existing laptop or desktop computer for the new-spec Wi-Fi segments. This network adaptor connects to the host computer via USB 3.0 and can work at a 2×2 AC1200 setup.

What Linksys have been offering is a representative of another trend affecting the home network’s Wi-Fi segment where Wi-Fi network infrastructure hardware is working on a simultaneous three-band approach, operating on the 2.4GHz, 5.0GHz and 5.8GHz wavebands at the same time. As well, Wi-Fi repeaters are even being setup to implement the 5GHz bands as the preferred backhaul. Amped Wireless is another company also offering the three-band Wi-Fi network-infrastructure equipment in the form of a router and an extender.

NETGEAR Nighthawk S8000 Gaming And Media Switch press picture courtesy of NETGEAR

NETGEAR Nighthawk S8000 Gaming And Media Switch – for the home network or home entertainment unit

NETGEAR’s not silent here with the Nighthawk S8000 Media Switch which is a media-optimised Ethernet switch implementing some of the quality-of-service technologies in their managed switches but optimised for household use. As well, this house-friendly switch can support functions like link-aggregation for increased throughput on supported devices like desktop computers and NAS units with two Gigabit Ethernet connections supporting this mode.

This is also intended to complement the Nighthawk X10 gaming and media router which has an integrated Plex Media Server for USB Mass-Storage devices connected to this router’s USB ports. It is also one of the first few home routers to offer 802.11ad WiGig (60GHz) same-room wireless network LAN segment capable of a throughput three times that of the fastest 802.11ac Wi-Fi network; along with the 802.11ac 4×4 MU-MIMO three-band Wi-Fi wireless LAN segment.

As well, there are 8 Gigabit Ethernet ports which can also support port-trunking for failover or high-throughput operation like the Nighthawk S8000 switch along with the WAN (Internet) side being looked after by a Gigabit Ethernet connection. The processing horsepower in this performance router is looked after by a 1.7GHz four-core CPU and it can support VLAN setups of the port or 802.1q tag variety.

Both these devices are pitched at “core” online and VR gaming enthusiasts with those hotted-up gaming rigs along with people who are in to streaming 4K ultra-high-definition TV content. But they can also earn their keep with those of us who run our businesses from home and want “big-business-grade” connectivity for IP-based communications or cloud computing.

Another trend that is surfacing is security-optimised broadband routers for the home network. These offer the “unified threat management” abilities associated with business-grade Internet setups but in a manner that appeals to the ordinary household. The latest from this class of network-Internet “edge” device is the Norton Core router. This device implements content-filtering and security software that is also focused towards the Internet-of-Things devices in your household due to the increased awareness of security risks and poor software maintenance practices associated with these devices.

The self-updating router works with Symantec’s DNS service to prevent DNS hijacks as well as implementing deep-packet inspection on unencrypted traffic to screen for malware and network intrusions. As for encrypted traffic, the Norton Core router will inspect packet headers for and connections of this traffic class. It also comes with Norton Core Security Plus endpoint-protection software which is a variant of the business-grade Security Premium endpoint software and can be run on 20 devices running either Windows, MacOS, iOS or Android but the router is dependent on this endpoint software for the full protection..

Lenovo Smart Storage home NAS press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

Lenovo Smart Storage home NAS

Most of the network-attached-storage units were focused on the “personal cloud” trend with the device being the centre of your data-storage universe while software and services work to locate these devices from afar. Similarly, some of them are using rich media servers which can do things like obtain further data about your media content. One of these devices is one that Lenovo launched called the Smart Storage 6Tb NAS which implements facial image recognition along with event-driven recognition to make it easier to identify and organise pictures of people just like what Facebook and Windows Photo Gallery were about. This unit has 802.11ac 2×2 Wi-Fi for portable use but can be connected to your home network via an Ethernet cable.

The next article about the 2017 CES will be highlighting the trends affecting home entertainment including the new smart TVs that will be showing up.

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Right-to-repair for consumer electronics being pushed forward in the USA

Articles

Dell Vostro 3550 business laptop

A demand is taking place to make sure portable computers and similar equipment such as laptops that suffer a lot of damage is able to be repaired by independent technicians

Right to Repair bills introduced in five states | Engadget

Five States Are Considering Bills to Legalize the ‘Right to Repair’ Electronics | Motherboard

From the horse’s mouth

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Defend Your Right To Repair (Issue Page)

The Repair Association – representing independent repairers

Consumer Electronics (Issue Page)

My Comments

Samsung Galaxy Note Edge press image courtesy of Samsung

Even those smartphones that end up with cracked screens or are dropped in the swimming pool

An issue currently being raised in the United States Of America is the ability for us to repair our own consumer-electronics equipment or have it repaired by independent repair technicians. This is becoming more important with smartphones, tablets and laptops that often fall victim to accidental damage such as that familiar cracked screen. As well, the batteries in this portable equipment lose their performance over the years and an increasing number of this equipment is supplied with batteries that aren’t user-replaceable, which leads to this equipment being “disposable” once the batteries cease to hold their charge.

The manufacturers prefer us to have the equipment serviced by official outlets but this can be highly onerous both in cost and time without the equipment. It is something that is made worse if a manufacturer doesn’t implement an authorised-repairer network for some or all of their products or severely limits the size and scope of an authorised-repairer network.

On the other hand, independent repairers like the phone-repair kiosks in the shopping centres are able to offer value for money or perform simple repairs like replacing damaged screens or end-of-life batteries quickly but they find it hard to have access to official parts, tools and know-how to perform these jobs.  In some cases, it can lead to the equipment being fitted with “known-to-work” parts salvaged from other broken equipment or a grey-market full of generic parts being available, some of which may have a huge question mark over their quality or provenance. These generic parts have come about because the parts manufacturers have been fulfilling enough orders of them that they can sell them as a commodity.

What is currently happening is that the manufacturers and distributors are exploiting various intellectual-property-rights legislation to prevent the sharing of repair knowledge to third-party repairers. As well, they have been reducing the number of official repair facilities along with reducing the availability of original spare parts and tools thus making it more onerous financially and time-wise to keep your device in good repair. In some cases like Apple with its iOS devices, they could limit the scope of their authorised-repair program so that it is harder for anyone but a select few to repair a particular class of device.

The issue that is being raised is the ability for an independent repair workshop to obtain proper spare parts, tools and knowledge from the products’ manufacturers or distributors so they can perform repairs on customers’ equipment at a cost-effective price. Here, they don’t need to be turning away customers because they don’t know how to fix a particular piece of equipment. This also includes the ability for independent repairers to discover solutions to common faults and share this knowledge along with the ability for us to see our devices work in an optimum manner for a longer time, thus reducing the “e-waste” which can be destined to the landfills.

This call is also about legitimising the ability for independent technicians to modify equipment to suit newer needs. Examples of these procedures may include “upsizing” the storage in a device with fixed storage like a smartphone, PVR or games console to a higher capacity, modifying equipment so it is accessible to those with special needs or simply adding an officially-supplied “optional-function” module to existing equipment. As well, it also encompasses the ability to continually provide support to equipment that has been abandoned by the manufacturers.

A similar situation that has been happening in the motor-vehicle market is that as vehicles became equipped with highly-sophisticated computerised subsystems, it became harder for independent repairers to service newer vehicles. This typically ended up with motorists taking their vehicles to the official repair workshops that were part of motor vehicle dealerships to keep their vehicles in good order. But some recent activity in the USA has made sure that independent garages could continue to repair and service the newer vehicle fleet by requiring the vehicle builders there to share this knowledge with them.

What is happening now is that five US states (Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Massachusetts and New York) are pushing forward laws that allow repairers to buy the tools and documentation from manufacturers. A similar law had been pushed in Wyoming to extend the “right-to-repair” principle to farm machinery. This action follows on from the Massachusetts effort in 2013 to establish “right-to-repair” for motor vehicles, causing a de-facto federal approach by the US’s vehicle builders to share this knowledge with the independent vehicle-repair and roadside-assistance trade.

The issue of “right-to-repair” also relates to the implementation of standards-based or platform-based design for equipment along with competitive-trade and consumer-rights issue. In these cases, it could be about repairer availability whether based on locality or satisfying users’ needs; the ability to increase value for money when it comes to equipment maintenance or insurance coverage for equipment damage; along with the equipment being able to last longer and not end up as landfill.

Small businesses and community organisations are also in a position to benefit because their budget isn’t affected heavily by capital or operating expenses for the equipment they own.This is because they could seek repairs to broken-down equipment at a cost-effective price or have existing equipment overhauled more frequently so that it is highly available and helping them operate. They can also purchase a high-grade domestic-rated unit like, for example, a premium domestic “bean-to-cup” superautomatic espresso machine to be used as part of a coffee stall, without being refused repairs or servicing or having to pay a higher price because it is used in a “commercial” setting.

Nowadays, what needs to happen is that jurisdictions legislate or enforce “right-to-repair” laws that allow independent technicians access to parts and knowledge so they can keep consumer equipment lasting longer.

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NETGEAR keeps the tradition coming with their network infrastructure

For a long time, NETGEAR have been known for offering cost-effective hubs and switches for use with twisted-pair wired Ethernet segments in homes and small businesses. In the early days, this meant very small five-port unmanaged 10/100Mbps hubs and switches that didn’t cost much and could allow you to easily consider wiring for Ethernet.

To the same extent, they released a 56k dial-up modem router with an integrated four-port hub which was the first product of its kind to offer dial-up Internet across a network without the need for a computer to be running. But it was considered a product ahead of its time thanks to ADSL or cable broadband Internet not being available in many areas and not many home networks being set up for the Internet. But it led on to some of the most capable NETGEAR modem routers to surface like the DG834G which had won a significant amount of accolades in its day.

NETGEAR GS-110TP Gigabit PoE-supply Smart Switch

NETGEAR GS-110TP Gigabit PoE 8 Port Smart Switch

Subsequently they were one of the first companies to offer some affordable unmanaged Gigabit switches that can be a Power-Over-Ethernet power-source device. This was offered on half of the ports on these devices but they gradually offered some Web-managed models that had all of the ports covered.

Another approach was to offer Web-managed Ethernet switches that had a focus on eas-of-use. This was about a “big-business” feature where an Ethernet network can be managed to do things like manage quality-of-service or segment a LAN for further control. But NETGEAR’s approach not just provided the Web-based dashboard on each of these switches but provided an “automatic-transmission” approach to quality-of-service management in a manner to make this concept appeal to the small network. One of these switches that NETGEAR offered was even designed to be able to be powered using Power-Over-Ethernet, something that could appeal to “regional” switches or those devices serving a cluster of network equipment at a table or desk.

NETGEAR Nighthawk S8000 Gaming And Media Switch press picture courtesy of NETGEAR

NETGEAR Nighthawk S8000 Gaming And Media Switch – for the home network or home entertainment unit

But NETGEAR took this concept further with a gaming-grade network switch that has the features of a business-grade network switch but is pitched towards gamers and multimedia enthusiasts. The Nighthawk S8000 Web-managed switch has the ability to be managed like the typical business-grade managed switch but invokes the “automatic transmission” approach like some other NETGEAR switches for QoS management. It is presented in a style that makes it attractive to use in the home entertainment centre where a 4K UHDTV, XBox One or PS4, and similar devices are installed and you want something better than Wi-Fi for online gaming or video streaming at Full HD or 4K UHD.

This unit even implements link aggregation / port-trunking for up to four Ethernet ports so that the Nighthawk S8000 switch can be purposed as an “off-ramp” for a high-speed link to a gaming rig, router or NAS with this kind of connectivity. In this case, the bandwidth offered by the aggregated ports is treated as one high-speed link. Let’s not forget that this unit can be integrated into a sophisticated VLAN-driven network and NETGEAR put a tentative price of US$99.99 for this unit intended to be released around March 2017.

The goal with all of these products is to offer something that could be considered only fit for big business but at a cost-effective price and with an approach that reduces operational complexity.

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Solwise adds Power Over Ethernet Plus and HomePlug AV2 in a single device

Solwise PL-1200AV2-POE HomePlug adaptor product picture courtesy of Solwise

Solwise PL-1200AV2-POE HomePlug adaptor combines HomePlug AV2 MIMO and 802.3at Power-Over-Ethernet in one device

In 2013, Solwise became the first to offer for the UK market a “homeplug” that could work “best case” with a HomePlug AV500 segment and provide power to Ethernet-connected devices “over the blue wire” using the 802.3af Power-Over-Ethernet standard.

Now this UK-based network-equipment supplier have raised the bar with a Power-Over-Ethernet “homeplug” which works to the HomePlug AV2 MIMO 1200Mbps standard. This high-throughput standard offers a more robust powerline network link highly suitable for multiple-building setups like this example or small business and community organisations using HomePlug technology for temporary or semi-permanent networks in traditional business-grade premises. It is facilitated by use of all three wires (phase/active/line, neutral and earth/ground) of the standard AC plug to transfer the data along with the other improvements associated with high-throughput, robust data transfer.

Power Over Ethernet concept

Power Over Ethenrt concept

But wait, there’s more! This GBP£74.78 device doesn’t just provide Power-Over-Ethernet power through its Gigabit Ethernet port according to the baseline 802.3af standard but to the high-power 802.3at Power-Over-Ethernet-Plus standard. This can allow for multiple-band multiple-radio access points answering to 802.11ac standards, highly-powerful access points or IP videosurveillance cameras that can yield high-quality pictures.

This Solwise device could allow for a two-piece HomePlug AV2 access point setup with this ceiling-mount 802.11ac 1350Mbps access point (GBP£71.40), this ceiling-mount 802.11ac 1750Mbps access point (GBP£118.36), the “smoke-alarm” 802.11n 900Mbps access point (GBP£70.14), the IP55-compliant (weatherproof) outdoor 802.11ac 1200Mbps access point (GBP£175.24) or the IP55-compliant (weatherproof) outdoor 802.11ac 1750Mbps access point (GBP£186.66).

HomePlug link between house and garage

Perfect for this kind of setup

As well, the Solwise HomePlug AV2 Power-Over-Ethernet-Plus adaptor  could facilitate surveillance of your outbuildings like your garage where the classic car is being kept, the shed where you have those precious tools or the barn where your livestock are being kept when you team it with this traditional-style IP66-compliant (weatherproof) “bullet-style” 1 megapixel standards-based infrared-capable IP camera (GBP£164.92).

The fact that this Solwise “homeplug” combines HomePlug AV2 MIMO and 802.3at Power-Over-Ethernet Plus opens up a lot more possibilities for what both these technologies offer.

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