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.

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Bose offers headphones optimised for Google Assistant

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Bose QuietComfort QC35 II noise-cancelling Bluetooth headset optimised for Google Assistant - Press picture courtesy of Bose Corporation

Bose QuietComfort QC35 II noise cancelling Bluetooth headset optimised for Google Assistant – a sign of things to come for mobile audio accessories

Google

Headphones optimized for the Google Assistant (Blog Post)

Bose

Redefines Sport Headphones with Truly Wireless SoundSport Free (Press Release)

QuietComfort QC35 II Wireless Headphones (Product Page – USA)

– Bluetooth circum-aural closed-back noise-cancelling headset

My Comments

A trend that will be surfacing with the voice-driven personal assistants is that the speaker or headset device doesn’t need to be directly connected to a home network to access the Internet.

Here, some of these devices will connect to a computer or mobile device via Bluetooth or a similar technology but work in an “app-cessory” manner with a vendor-supplied app. Here, this app will serve as a gateway to a voice-driven personal assistant platform which can be hosted natively or through an add-on app, with this function activated through a dedicated button on the audio accessory device.

The first example of these is the Bose QuietComfort QC35 II which is an active noise-cancelling over-the-ear headset, but this setup will also appear with more headphones products from Bose. In this case, the headset connects to the smartphone via Bluetooth and works with a Bose-supplied control app but works hand in glove with the Google Assistant app, available for Android and iOS.

But all audio accessories should be able to work with Siri, Google Now, Bixby and Cortana

There is a special button on the Bose QuietComfort headset that is mapped by the control app to trigger Google Assistant while messages that come in are read by Google Assistant in a text-to-voice manner. You will expect the Google Assistant to do what it can including providing voice-driven access to resources. This is while the headset is optimised to work at its best with voice recognition even when faced with noisy environments like public transport.

As I was highlighting in the last paragraph, such devices will be acoustically optimised for error-free voice recognition, preferably with the chosen platform. One method that will be commonly used would be to implement a microphone array that uses the multiple microphones to focus on the user’s voice.

This will be augmented with dynamic sound enhancement for the voice-driven personal assistant platform so that you can hear the personal assistant clearly when it replies.

But could these headphones and speakers be seen as a gimmick when any wired or Bluetooth headset can work with your mobile platform’s integral voice assistant without the need for any extra software? This is where you can, for example, dwell on the “call” button on your headset to invoke Siri or Google Now, then interact with that assistant to make a call or send a message for example.

Personally, I would just like to see the voice-recognition abilities of an audio accessory improved so that they can work with whichever voice-driven personal assistant you use. This would be in the form of something like microphone arrays or something similar, along with a standard function mapping for voice-assistant buttons. Similarly, audio adaptors and wearables like smartwatches and fitness bands could be focused towards supporting the “visual component” of voice-driven personal-assistant platforms by showing visual information on their displays that augment the voice-driven experience.

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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 if you are a touch-typist.

If you buy a 2-in-1 laptop that can be turned in to a tablet, you may find that the 13″ screen may be too large for use as a tablet. This is because most of us are used to the iPad which is a 10″ screen. But the larger screen on a tablet may provide comfortable viewing for situations where two or three of you are watching online video or browsing through photos or Web resources.

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.

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Controlling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on your iOS 11 device

Articles

If you can’t manage your iOS 11 device’s WiFi or Bluetooth from the Control Center, you may have to go to the Settings App.

iOS Control Centre’s Wireless Toggles Don’t Turn Off Wireless Radios | Lifehacker Australia

My Comments

Apple has just rolled out iOS 11 as an update for your iPhone’s or iPad’s operating system and, as expected with “.0” versions of operating systems’ major functionality updates, there will be a few bugs and issues here and there. This is typically due to Apple, like other software vendors, rushing the major-functionality version of the software out the door to satisfy the vendor’s marketing team’s needs. In this case, the goal here is to get the new iPhone X and new iPhone 8 range, which will be loaded with this operating-system version, ready to sell to the crowds queueing outside the Apple stores and mobile phone retailers on the day they are released i.e. 22 September for the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, and 3 November for the iPhone X.

One of these is the inability to manage Wi-Fi and Bluetooth from the Control Center on your iOS device even though the buttons do exist there to enable and disable this function. Here, you may want to disable one or both of these functions for your privacy when in the vicinity of Wi-Fi networks you don’t trust, to save battery runtime when you are not connected to a Bluetooth peripheral or a Wi-Fi network or simply as part of troubleshooting a Wi-Fi network or Bluetooth peripheral connection.

The symptom shows up in the form where pressing the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth icons in the Control Center has no effect on the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth functionality. But you can work around this by going to the Settings app on your iOS device. Then you tap on WiFi or Bluetooth to select the appropriate function you want to control.

Disable the appropriate function by sliding the switch to the Off position whereupon you will see no references to Bluetooth or Wi-Fi activity and the green marker will disappear. Or enable the appropriate function by sliding the switch to the On position where you will see the green marker appear and references to the Bluetooth or Wi-Fi activity appear.

Of course, keep an eye on the Settings app for newer “point-release” versions of the iOS operating system and update your iOS device with these newer versions as they arrive. Here, these versions will typically rectify bugs, security exploits or weaknesses that become knowledge to Apple.

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Companies now to support multiple voice-driven home assistants

Articles

Harman now has smart speakers for Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant | Engadget

The Sonos smart speaker with microphone hits the FCC | The Verge

Sonos to announce new smart speaker on October 4th | The Verge

From the horse’s mouth

Harman

WHEN VOICE MEETS SOUND (Press Release)

Introducing JBL® LINK Series: Immersive JBL Sound Now Available with the Google Assistant (Press Release)

HARMAN introduces Harman Kardon Allure with Amazon Alexa to the Voice Activated Speaker Family (Press Release)

My Comments

Harman Allure smart speaker press image courtesy of Harman

Harman Allure smart speaker powered by Amazon Alexa

The Internationaler Funkaustellung trade show has been and gone but this time more manufacturers were premiering smart-speaker products based on either the Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant platforms.

One of these is the Sony LF-S50G speaker that looks like Apple’s Siri-based HomePod smart speaker but has an integrated display while Panasonic were also launching the GA10 which is a box-like smart speaker. Both of these speakers work with Google Assistant.

But a few companies have put their feet in multiple ponds by supporting two or more platforms. One way is to offer different models or product ranges that are based on different platforms. The other is to attempt to have the one smart speaker able to be set up to work on one of many platforms that the user chooses.

JBL Link smart speaker range press picture courtesy of Harman

JBL Link smart speaker range powered by Google Assistant

The former approach has been taken by Harman who have multiple names of respect in the hi-fi, sound-recording, PA and allied industries under their wings. Initially, they offered the Invoke smart speaker that is based on the Microsoft Cortana platform. Now the premiered the JBL Link range of smart speakers that work on the Google Assistant platform as well as offering the Harman-Kardon Allure smart speaker that is based on the Amazon Alexa platform.

Pioneer and Onkyo recently underwent a “Renault-Nissan” merger of their home audio and AV businesses and offered a few smart speaker models based on the different platforms. Here, Pioneer premiered the Smart Speaker F4 which is based on the Amazon Alexa platform while Onkyo launched the Smart Speaker G3 based on the Google Assistant platform while maintaining the Alexa-based VC-FLX1 smart speaker that was launched at CES 2017.

The latter approach has been taken by Sonos with their S13 prototype smart speaker that is intended to be released on October 4. Here, they put forward the idea of having the user to have this speaker work with Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant rather than being stuck with one platform. It is seen as a premium-level attack at the Apple HomePod which will be based on Siri.

The approach of a manufacturer supporting different voice-driven-assistant platforms like Alexa or Google Assistant in different product ranges may appeal to companies who see one of the platforms offer a particular premium-level cachet which can tie in with their premium product ranges. This is while a popular platform like Alexa or Google Assistant could end up being focused on to popularly-targeted products.

Compare this with the idea of having multiple platforms supported by the same smart-speaker or similar device. Here, it can appeal to TVs, hi-fi / home-theatre components and allied devices that are expected by customers to run for the long haul or with premium network speaker products.

Either trend could be support by many different manufacturers while the devices that you interact with for these platforms could end up being more than just the cylindrical benchtop speakers.

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AVM adds mesh functionality to more of their network infrastructure devices

Article (German language / Deutsche Sprache)

AVM FRITZ!Box 3490 - Press photo courtesy AVM

Newer AVM Fritzboxes, FritzWLAN and FritzPowerline part of a mesh network

Neues FritzOS mit Mesh-Funktionen für mehr AVM-Repeater | ZDNet.de

From the horse’s mouth

AVM

IFA 2017 Press Release (Vergrößern Sie Ihr WLAN – mit Mesh).

Product Page

My Comments

Previously, I have covered how AVM, a German home-network infrastructure company, have approached the idea of a distributed home network. This is through a firmware update to some of their newer Fritz!Box routers and network-infrastructure hardware (Wi-Fi repeaters and HomePlug AV access points) such as the Fritz!WLAN 1750E repeater and Fritz!Powerline 1240E HomePlug access point.

What also impressed me about their approach is the use of a wired or wireless backhaul rather than just sticking to a wireless backhaul. Here, it can be about serving areas which are out of the router’s radio range, including providing support for multiple-building home networks. This is while providing a simplified setup and operating process for your home network.

Initially this was a beta firmware update that may not be considered stable and only applied to a few devices. But AVM have got the firmware to a stable condition and have written it to work with more devices. This includes the Fritz!Powerline 540 and 546E HomePlug AV500 802.11n single-band dual-stream access points and the Fritz!WLAN 1160 802.11ac dual-band and Fritz!WLAN 310 and 450E single-band 802.11n repeaters.

Of course they have underscored a simplified setup experience with firmware delivery and network configuration. This includes a Web-based configuration dashboard which shows how the network is set up as well as the condition of the wired and wireless backbones. The support for a HomePlug wired backbone will please those of us who live in stone or double-brick houses where HomePlug is more surefire as a backbone or who have multiple buildings on that large property.

Like with other distributed Wi-Fi setups, there is an emphasis on bandwidth optimisation such as steering high-throughput Wi-Fi devices to the sparsely-occupied 5GHz band if they can support it. Let’s not forget the fact that these systems set each access point on a Wi-Fi channel that they determine works best.

But why should AVM support single-band access points and repeaters that work the 2.4GHz band as part of their mesh? This may work out by allowing these devices to, perhaps, provide infill coverage on that band using a different channel. For example, other devices that work on that band like Bluetooth or 2.4GHz DECT devices, or the microwave oven may cause interference for Wi-Fi devices and a properly-designed mesh system could re-optimise the channels to avoid the interference.

What I still like of AVM’s approach to distributed Wi-Fi wireless setups is that they are enabling this functionality simply through deploying newer firmware to existing products rather than requiring users to buy a new system. This saves the users money when it comes to hardware costs as well as seeing newer hardware in to the long term.

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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.

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Acer raises the bar for convertible 2-in-1 laptop performance

Articles

Acer goes after casual gamers with upcoming Nitro 5 Spin convertible laptop | Windows Central

Acer Nitro 5 Spin: Gaming Convertible with 8th Gen Core Power | Laptop Mag

From the horse’s mouth

Acer

Press Release

My Comments

Before, the idea of a 2-in-1 convertible or detachable laptop having any sort of gaming or mobile-workstation acumen was considered ludicrous. These systems were simply more about computing that matched your lifestyle rather than something that was about performance.

Lenovo offered the 15” Yoga 720 which was specced with a NVIDIA GTX 1050 graphics processor but this was pitched more as a productivity machine or, should I say, a “prosumer” machine for video hobbyists, animators and the like.

But Intel recently announced the 8th Generation “Coffee Lake” range of Core CPUs with a focus towards high-performance portable computing. Acer came hot on the heels of this announcement by announcing a 2-in-1 convertible laptop incorporating this technology optimised for casual gaming.

Here, the Acer Nitro 5 Spin, which is a 15” convertible laptop equipped with the 8th generation Intel Core i7 CPU and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 GPU, is optimised and promoted specifically for casual gamers. There is up to 512GB of solid-state storage space which makes this machine earn its chops as your primary or only computer where you would harbour a lot of data. The display is a 15” Full HD display while the sound is looked after with a 3-speaker setup involving 2 properly-placed speakers and a subwoofer.

There is the backlit keyboard as expected for premium computer setups while the computer is secured using a Windows-Hello-compliant fingerprint reader. As for connecting to your home network, its 802.11a/g/n/ac MU-MIMO Wi-Fi infrastructure is augmented by Acer’s OmniAmp omnidirectional antenna setup which avoids your computer losing the optimum connection no matter how you set it up. It is also worth noting that Acer places a promise for the battery on this computer to run for 10 hours before it dies out, but I am not sure if this is with the computer running a game or video content, or simply doing light computing tasks.

As the sales pitch goes, the use case would be someone who is a casual gamer rather than the core gamers who want the highest-performing computers. The class of user would be someone who, for example, plays one of the Civilization games to while away the long flight or plays games streamed from a console that has the ability to play a console game on a regular computer. But the Acer Nitro 5 Spin would also appeal to people who view the game streams like what is offered on the Twitch platform.

Let’s not forget that the powerful CPU and GPU in the Acer Nitro 5 Spin makes the computer earn its chops with people who are dabbling with video editing, animation and the like. It could also appeal as a “foot-in-the-door” towards mobile workstation territory for engineering, graphics arts and similar students, but I would like to be sure it has a Thunderbolt 3 connection for use with eGPU modules kitted out with Quadro or similar workstation-class graphics cards.

The initial price that Acer called for the Nitro 5 Spin in the US and Canada market is US$999.

Personally, I would see Acer’s Nitro 5 Spin underscore the viability of integrating the versatile positioning abilities of the 2-in-1 convertible with the concept of high-performance computing for a lot of applications.

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Photos not the right way up on your TV?

Media contents in Dropbox folder available on DLNA-capable Samsung smart TV

Pictures that are copied in using Windows Explorer may not always appear the right way up

A problem that can surface with some photos that you view using your Smart TV, set-top device or similar equipment is that they don’t appear the right way up.

It happens more so with those pictures that come in from an email whether as attachments or downloadable links, or from a cloud-storage service. Similarly it also happens if you transfer the pictures from your device to your computer using the operating-system’s file manager i.e. Windows / File Explorer or MacOS Finder by using the file-copy procedure. This latter process is something most of us do when we want to make digital pictures that we took at someone’s location available on their computer.

These cameras record information about the photo orientation as part of the picture file when you click the shutter

The main problem is that today’s cameras and mobile devices record the orientation of the photo in the file that represents the image as part of machine-readable EXIF metadata. Most of the file managers recognise this metadata and use it for creating the thumbnail that is seen for each file. Similarly, when you upload photos to an image-sharing or social-media site, you will find that these pictures will be shown the right way up thanks to this metadata. It is also true of image management software which even creates copies of the imported files that are the “right way up” as part of the image-import process.

Windows 10 File Explorer

Copying photos from your camera using Windows / File Explorer or other file managers may not guarantee the best results with photo-rotation metadata

But a lot of hardware media players like smart TVs, set-top devices and electronic picture frames don’t recognise this EXIF picture-orientation flag and show the picture with the incorrect orientation. It can be exacerbated with DLNA media-streaming setups where the DLNA media server doesn’t use this flag to rotate the picture to the correct orientation when it is being served to the client device. The same problem also extends to some photo-viewer and presentation software that doesn’t understand the EXIF photo-orientation tag properly.

Another situation that always surfaces with photo orientation is if you are photographing something on a table, floor or similar horizontal surface. Here, the camera or smartphone doesn’t properly register the orientation due to the orientation sensor being driven by gravity. In this situation you would still have to manually rotate the image even if you were importing it with software that understood this EXIF orientation metadata.

How can you work around these problem when you want to show images that are drawn in from email or copied over from that digital camera?

Cast To Device option to show picture on DLNA video player – may not always work properly with the EXIF photo-orientation metadata

One way would be to open each portrait image using a photo editor or bitmap image editor that understands the EXIF photo-orientation tag like Windows Paint or Adobe Photoshop, then save the image as a JPEG file using the software’s Save As command. This will typically rotate the image the right way up and strip off confusing EXIF tags. It would appeal to situations where you are preparing a folder of photos to be shown, perhaps on a USB stick or using “Cast To Device / Play To Device” on your Windows computer and a DLNA-capable video device.

For Windows users, especially those who regularly copy photos to their computer using Windows Explorer / File Explorer, there is a free program that can batch-rotate photos in a folder correctly. The program is called JPEG Autorotate and is freely available from its author’s site. Once installed, it appears as a secondary-menu (right-click) option to allow you to rotate a single image or all the photos in a folder including the subfolders without quality loss.

If you are using a computer as the primary storage or “staging post” for your digital image collection, the best path is to use the photo import functionality that is part of the image management software installed on it. Typically this will be Windows Photos, Windows Photo Gallery or Photos for MacOS (formerly iPhoto) that will be with your operating system. As well, make sure that the “rotate photos on import” option is selected in your software’s import settings.

This information will help you with making sure that digital pictures appear the right way up no matter the device you are using.

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Another effort to turn a smartphone in to a pathology lab

Article

Android main interactive lock screen

An add-on could allow a smartphone to become a portable pathology lab

Researchers create tech that turns your smartphone into a medical diagnostic tool | Fast Company

University resources

Multimode smartphone biosensing: the transmission, reflection, and intensity spectral (TRI)-analyzer | Professor Brian Cunningham, University of Illinois

My Comments

In most situations, pathology testing has required that the samples be sent away to a central laboratory to be analysed in to something meaningful for the professionals who prescribe them. This would typically take more than a day unless the laboratory was co-located with the facility that collected the sample such as in a hospital.

But there are some steps being taken to use a common smartphone as the equivalent of a pathology lab for most of the common tests. The goal with these devices is to allow the analysis of the sample and communication of the results to the end-user with a very short lead-time.

The first one of these solutions was a portable spectrograph device developed by Columbia University that connected to a smartphone’s headphone jack and worked with a special app to identify the presence of pathogens associated with certain diseases. There was also a view to have it work with less-expensive devices that could run user-installed software like the iPod Touch or low-tier Android phones, along with the ability to work on very low power.

The second one of these solutions attaches to an existing compatible smartphone and makes use of that phone’s camera and LED “flash” light to analyse the sample. It could also be set up to work with an integrated green-light laser diode as an alternative analysis light source.

This time, the sample of blood, saliva or urine is collected in a special microfluidic cartridge which means that the same “lab” could be used for multiple tests. There is a goal with this technology to adapt most of the common pathology tests to be performed with this hand-held “path-lab” and the goal can be achieved by reprogramming the software that is the companion app for this device to suit the test.

Personally, I would see these technologies initially work with the common ailment-specific “screening” tests or various “wellness” tests like cholesterol tests. There will also be an appeal to implement them with various drug tests where there isn’t a goal to achieve forensic-level accuracy. Similarly, medicine-level tests associated with chronic-illness treatment could be evolved to this technology.

But why is the idea of purposing a smartphone or similar device as a portable pathology lab appealing?

The key driver is to obtain there-and-then results suing highly-portable cost-effective equipment.

One use case is to do one or more pathology tests on a patient as they are transported in an ambulance to hospital and have the results communicated to the emergency department before the patient arrives. This also extends to situations where there are many casualties such as on a battlefield or other disaster zone. In this case, the smartphone with the handheld “path-labs” would be able to provide better-quality information for on-site treatment teams, rather than having to transport many samples to ultra-busy laboratories who may not communicate the results in time.

The rural community will also benefit in the context of routine tests especially where the nearest capable pathology lab is a long distance away from the village or town. Here, flying-doctor services, district nurses and the like can perform the common tests at the patient’s home and pass them on to regular general-practice doctors or specialists as well as making the patient and carer known of these results. It also augments the use of mobile devices as part of telemedicine efforts that can benefit this community.

But the same situation also applies to delivering healthcare in to third-world countries, something typically facilitated by the many volunteer organisations who answer this need. Here, the volunteer organisations can use this technology for identifying disease risks or organising the right treatment in a “there-and-then” manner.

Then there is the ability to use this technology as part of at-home healthcare programs including supporting the concept of ageing-at-home. This can be about using it as part of medicine management or monitoring long-term illnesses and assessing the effect of treatments without needing to go to a doctor’s clinic or hospital.

What is being seen here is the ability for cost-effective smartphones and similar highly-mobile devices that are based on platforms that support user-installable software to be used as part of personal healthcare in any part of the world.

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