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?

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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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Consumer Electronics Show 2017–Computer Trends

I am writing up a series of articles about the trends that have been put forward at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The first article in this series covers all of the trends affecting personal computers.

1: Computer Trends

2: Accessories And The Home Network

Computers

Most manufacturers were exhibiting refreshed versions of their product ranges. This is where the computers were being equipped with up-to-date chipsets and had their RAM, storage and other expectations brought up to date.

  • Key trends affecting mainstream computers included:
  • the use of Intel Kaby Lake processors for the computers’ horsepower
  • solid-state storage capacity in the order of up to 1 Terabyte
  • RAM capacity in the order of up to 16Gb
  • at least one USB Type-C socket on mainstream units with Thunderbolt 3 on premium units and / or ultraportables using just USB-C connections with some having 2 or more of these connectors

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

    More of this year’s laptop computers will be equipped with these USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 sockets

  • Wi-Fi connectivity being 802.11ac multi-band with MU-MIMO operation

Another factor worth noticing is the increase in detachable or convertible “2-in-1” computers being offered by most, if not all, of the manufacturers; along with highly-stylish clamshell ultraportable computers. This class of computer is being brought on thanks to Microsoft’s Surface range of computers with some of of the computers in these classes also being about performance. The manufacturers are even offering a range of these “2-in-1” computers targeted towards business users with the security, manageability, durability and productivity features that this use case demands.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 convertible Ultrabook press picture courtesy of Dell USA

More of these convertibles and detachable 2-in-1 computers will appear in manufacturers’ product ranges

Nearly every manufacturer had presented at least one high-performance gaming laptop with the Intel Core i7 processor, at least 16Gb RAM and 128Gb solid-state storage, dedicated graphics chipset. Most of these computers are even equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 connection to allow for use with external graphics docks, considered as a way for core gamers to “soup up” these machines for higher gaming acumen.

Lenovo had refreshed most of their laptop range, especially the ThinkPad business range. Here, this is a product range that makes no distinction between the small-business/SOHO user class where a few of these computers are managed and the large-business/government user class where you are talking of a large fleet of computers handling highly-sensitive data.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon press image courtesy of Lenovo

Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon has been refreshed to newer expectations

The new ThinkPads come in the form of a newer ThinkPad Yoga business convertible, a refreshed ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook and a refreshed ThinkPad X1 Yoga convertible. For example, the ThinkPad Yoga 370 has the 13.3” Full HD screen, the classic ThinkPad TrackPoint button as a navigation option but is driven by Intel Kaby Lake horsepower. This machine can be specified up to 16Gb RAM and 1Tb solid-state storage and has a Thunderbolt 3 connection along with 2 USB 3.0 ports. Lenovo even designed in protection circuitry for the USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 port to protect the ThinkPad against those dodgy non-compliant USB-C cables and chargers. Like the rest of the new ThinkPad bunch, this computer comes with the Windows 10 Signature Edition software image which is about being free of the bloatware that fills most of today’s laptop computers. The computer will set you back US$1264.

Other ThinkPads will also come with either a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 connection depending on their position in the model range. For example the T470 family and the T570 family will be equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 connections. Let’s not forget how the ThinkPad X1 Carbon and Yoga have been refreshed. The Carbon implements horsepower in the Intel Kaby Lake Core i family, a 14” Quad HD display, 16Gb RAM and 1Tb SSD storage, and an expected battery runtime of 15 hours along with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. The X1 Yoga has been given the similar treatment with similar RAM and secondary-storage capacity but can be outfitted with an LTE-A wireless-broadband modem as an option.

Lenovo Legion Y720 gaming laptop - press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

Lenovo Legion Y720 gaming laptop with Dolby Atmos sound

Gamers can relish in the fact that Lenovo has premiered the Legion range of affordable high-performance gaming laptops. The Legion Y720 is the first of its kind to be equipped with Dolby Atmos sound. The Y520 has a Full HD IPS screen driven by NVIDIA GeForce GTX1050Ti dedicated graphics chipset, the choice of an Intel Core i5 or i7 CPU, 16Gb RAM and hard disk storage between 500Gb and 1Tb or solid-state storage between 128Gb and 512Gb, and network connectivity in the form of 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Gigabit Ethernet. Peripheral connectivity is in the form of 1 x USB-C, 2 x USB 3.0 and 1 x USB 2.0 and an audio jack, with this computer asking for at least US$900. The better Y720, along with Dolby Atmos, has a bright IPS screen either as a Full HD or 4K resolution and driven by NVIDIA GeForce GTX1060 graphics chipset with 6Gb display memory. Lenovo was also offering a MIIX 720 creative-arts mobile workstation that eats at the Apple MacBook Pro and Microsoft Surface Pro lineup.

Dell XPS 15 Notebook press image courtesy of Dell USA

Dell XPS 15 ultraportable in a 15″ size

Dell had refreshed the XPS 13 lineup of Ultrabooks, known for offering the right combination of features, durability, comfort and price. But they also offered a convertible 2-in-1 variant of the XPS 13, again offering that right combination of features, durability, comfort and price. They also released the XPS 15 which is the smallest 15,6” laptop with Intel Kaby Lake processors, NVIDIA GeForce dedicated graphics and a fingerprint reader.

Dell XPS 27 all-in-one computer press image courtesy of Dell USA

Dell XPS 27 all-in-one computer with best bass response in its class

The XPS and Precision all-in-one desktop computers have had their sound quality improved rather than having it as an afterthought. This has led to audio quality from the XPS 27 and the Precision business equivalent being equivalent to that of a soundbar, thanks to the use of 10 speakers working at 50 watts per channel, including two downward-firing speakers to make the work surface augment the bass. Two passive radiators also augment the system’s bass response. Both have a 4K UHD touchscreen  while the Precision certified workstation can work with AMD Radeon graphics and Intel Xeon CPUs.

Like Lenovo, Dell had exhibited their business-grade computers at a trade fair typically associated with goods targeted at the consumer. This could underscore realities like people who use business-tier computers for “work-home” use including those of us who are running a business or practising a profession from our homes. Dell have been on a good wicket here because of themselves selling computers direct to the public and to business users for a long time.

Here, Dell had refreshed their XPS, Inspiron, Optiflex, Latitude and Precision computer lineups with new expectations. They would come with Kaby Lake horsepower under the bonnet, USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 connectivity depending on the unit along with newer dedicated-graphics options from NVIDIA or AMD. The business machines would be equipped with Intel vPro manageability features to work with business-computer management software.

Dell Latitude 5285 business detachable 2-in-1 - press picture courtesy of Dell USA

Dell Latitude 5285 business detachable 2-in-1 – the most secure of its class

In the case of business computers, Dell had underscored a desire to integrate the aesthetics of consumer-tier ultraportable computers with the security, manageability and productivity wishes that the business community crave for. For example, the latest Latitude Ultrabooks and 2-in-1s show the looks but come up with the goods as a business “axe” computer. One of the systems in the Latitude lineup is the Latitude 7285 detachable 2-in-1s which implement WiTricity wireless charging and WiGig docking while the Latitude 5285 detachable 2-in-1 sells on a highly-strong security platform with Dell-developed data-protection / endpoint-protection software and the option for a fingerprint reader or smartcard reader.

Samsung had shown some Windows 10 tablets but they also presented the Notebook Odyssey gaming laptop, available as a 15” variant or a 17” higher-performing variant. Both of these implement “dual-storage” with a solid-state drive in the order of 256Gb for the 15” variant or 512Gb for the 17” variant along with a 1Tb traditional hard disk. RAM is in the order of 32Gb or 64Gb for the 17” variant while these are driven by Intel Core i7 CPUs. Graphics is looked after by NVIDIA GTX dedicated GPU with 2Gb or 4Gb display memory but the 17” variant also has a Thunderbolt 3 connection for external graphics units.

There is also the Notebook 9 which implements a 15” HD display driven by NVIDIA 940MX graphics processor and Core i7 processor. Of note, the Notebook 9 implements a Windows Hello fingerprint reader along with a USB-C port which is its power socket thanks to USB Power Delivery.

HP was not silent but had fielded the Spectre x360 15” convertible Ultrabook, one of the few 15” portable computers that can be a tablet or laptop. It is driven by Intel Core i7 Kaby Lake horsepower and has the quota of 16Gb RAM and either a 256Gb or 512Gb solid-state storage. The 15” 4K IPS screen is driven by an NVIDIA GeForce 940MX graphics processor with 2Gb display memory, but the sound-reproduction has been tuned by Bang & Olufsen while there is an HP-designed noise-cancelling microphone array. The Webcam is an HP infra-red type which is Windows Hello compatible for facial recognition login. Connectivity is in the form of an HDMI socket, 1 USB-C socket, 1 Thunderbolt 3 socket, 1 traditional USB Type-A socket and an SD-card drive. Expect this convertible’s battery to run for 12 hours and be ready to go after 90 minutes of quick charging. The expected price is US$1299 for the 256Gb variant and US$1499 for the 512Gb variant.

Another interesting trend highlighted at CES 2017 has been an increase in the number of “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers.  This is thanks to use cases like augmented-reality / virtual-reality gaming and an emphasis on aesthetics for desktop-based computing and has been brought about by the likes of the Intel Skull Canyon NUC. One of these was a range offered by Elitegroup with computers powered by Intel Braswell, Apollo Lake and Kaby Lake processors.

Zotac Mini PC press photo courtesy of Zotac

The latest Zotac Mini PC that is the hub of a “hi-fi” approach to computing

But Zotac approached the NUC trend in a manner not dissimilar to the “micro component” hi-fi systems, especially some of the premium offerings that emerged from Japan through the early 80s. These premium “micro-component” systems offered for their amplification needs a control amplifier and a power amplifier so as to provide more power output, along with their source components being a tuner and a cassette deck. In the case of Zotac, they offered the C-Series NUC midget computer which could be powered through its USB-C port thanks to USB Power Delivery. It came with the Intel Kaby Lake processors, NVIDIA GeForce dedicated graphics, a Thunderbolt 3 connector along with a few other features. The C-Series even has corporate manageability and security abilities such as Intel vPro and AMT system management along with the UNITE secure conferencing feature.

But Zotac offered an external “card-cage” graphics dock with a PCI Express x 16 expansion slot for graphics cards, 3 standard USB 3.0 ports and one USB 3.0 port supporting QuickCharge, but being able to supply power to the host computer via the Thunderbolt 3 port using USB Power Delivery. The graphics module’s power supply has a power budget of 400 watts and the module is known to be compatible with NVIDIA and AMD graphics cards.  They even offered their own NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 Mini graphics card as a partner card for this dock.

The goal here was to supply a two-piece high-performance computer setup with a system unit and a module that can serve as its graphics subsystem and power supply. But users still had the ability to install better equipment when they felt like it. Or the graphics module could be purposed to provide extra graphics horsepower to portable, “all-in-one” and other small computers that are Thunderbolt-3-equipped as well as supplying necessary power through this port to host computers that honour USB Power Delivery.

Mobile Devices

Even though Samsung had suffered a deep blow with the exploding Galaxy Note 7 phablets, the mobile-computing platform has not died yet. It is although we may be hanging on to our smartphones for longer than the typical two-year contract period in order to save money.

At the moment, the phones that are being given an airing are the mid-tier Android smartphones like the Huawei Honor 6X with a dual camera and the ASUS Zenfone 3 Zoom which is one of the first to have an optical zoom on the rear camera’s lens.

Samsung launched their Galaxy A3 and A5 Android smartphones which are still positioned in the mid-tier segment. This is while Sony came to the fore with the XPeria X2 premium smartphone which has a 5.5” 4K display and 5Gb RAM, just above the baseline expectations for RAM capacity in a desktop computer.

LG had launched a range of low-tier Android smartphones that are equipped with user-replaceable batteries. The K3 is a compact unit with a 4.5” display while the K4 comes with the standard 5” display. There is the K8 5” selfie smartphone which has a highly-optimised front camera for taking those selfies to appear on Instagram or Facebook. Then LG brought the 13 megapixel camera featured in the G series lineup to the K10 5.3” smartphone. They also offered a Stylus 3 phablet with an integrated fingerprint scanner.

The next in the series will cover high-resolution monitors, computer accessories and the home network including the distributed-WiFi trend.

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Dell’s XPS 13 convertible laptop underscores value for money for its class

Article

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 convertible Ultrabook press picture courtesy of Dell USA

The convertible 2-in-1 variant of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

Why The Dell XPS 13 2 In 1 Is The Best Convertible Laptop | iTech Post

Laptop Mag CES 2017 Awards: Best Mobile Tech | Laptop Mag

My Comments

Previously, I had written an article about Dell underscoring value for money with their XPS 13 Ultrabook laptop. This was about choosing the right mix of functions and features that represent what most users are after when they are after that kind of product and offering it at a price that won’t bring “sticker shock” to most potential customers.

Initially I had a chance to review the first generation of the XPS 13 Ultrabook, finding it as a valid secondary notebook computer option for those of us who have a desktop or large laptop but want something to use while “on the road”. But Dell had consistently improved the computer over the subsequent generations, factoring in the newer features that would improve the user experience while keeping a highly-durable compact product that runs for a long time on its own batteries.

In the article, I drew an analogy to most if the mid-tier Panasonic (National) VHS home videocassette recorders offered in Europe, Australia and New Zealand through the mid 1980s, and the Sony mid-tier MiniDisc decks like the MDS-JE520 offered through the mid-to-late 1990s. Both these product ranges came with the features that were considered important for their end-users but at a price that was affordable to them.

But Dell went further when they released the Kaby-Lake-based iteration of the XPS 13 Ultrabook. Here, they issued a convertible variant of this model alongside the traditional clamshell variant. But they didn’t just attach “convertible” hinges to the XPS 13 Kaby Lake laptop. Rather they made sure it had the proper features and specifications associated with the XPS 13 lineup and for a similarly-affordable price.

For example, a baseline “secondary-computer” variant with Intel Core i5 horsepower, 4Gb RAM and 128Gb solid-state storage could set you back US$999. The limitation with the Intel Core i5 and i7 processors offered with the 2-in-1 is that they are based on the Kaby Lake equivalent of the Core M processors and are really targeted and tuned for “on-the-road” use with emphasis on power efficiency and reduced heat output, but wouldn’t perform well for advanced computing tasks.

With this model, there will be a need to buy extra accessories like a USB-C expansion module to connect most USB peripherals, external displays or digital-camera SD cards. But this is more engineered as a highly-portable computer and who knows what the next iteration of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook or convertible computer could be like.

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Mohu offers a traditional indoor broadcast-LAN TV aerial for more than just cord-cutters

Articles

Mohu AirWave broadcast-LAN indoor TV antenna - press picture courtesy of Mohu

Mohu AirWave broadcast-LAN indoor TV antenna – first of these for the US market

Mohu’s wireless AirWave antenna makes cord-cutting simple | Engadget

Attention cordcutters: Mohu AirWave bundles your local TV channels into handy app form | CNET

From the horse’s mouth

Mohu

Press Release

Product Page – AirWave

My Comments

The Winter CES 2017 in Las Vegas has shown up one of the first “broadcast-to-LAN” indoor TV antennas for the North American ATSC-based over-the-air TV landscape.

Mohu are pitching this device at the current generation of “cord-cutters”, who are an increasing number of American households that are dumping traditional cable or satellite TV services for classic over-the-air TV and Internet-provided “over-the-top” video services.

But unlike Europe, Australia, New Zealand and other countries where a healthy traditional free-to-air TV service is regularly received and just about every building maintains an outdoor TV aerial (antenna) or “master antenna TV system” for larger buildings, most of urban USA have headed towards a “cable-only” approach since the 1980s with buildings not having these TV aerials. What is now happening is that most American households who want to dump cable TV are connecting their TVs to indoor TV aerials to receive the local TV channels.

Mohu are offering a range of improved “flat-plane” indoor TV antennas that are able to provide better reception than the traditional “rabbit’s ears” or spiral-shaped indoor TV antenna that typically was used to do this job. Here, they have built this design from a radio-antenna design for military vehicles that they worked on where the antenna for the vehicle’s radio equipment is part of its mudflaps.

The AirWave device is infact a broadcast-LAN server which can stream over-the-air TV in to one’s existing Wi-Fi network so it can be viewed on a laptop, tablet or smartphone thanks to a Mohu-designed app. The native app for the supported mobile and TV platforms or the Website provides an aggregated view of the content offered by the local free-to-air stations and the over-the-top TV services.

There still are some questions to be raised about the Mohu AirWave as a broadcast-LAN device. One of this is whether it uses more than one front-end tuner. If it does, it could be feasible to watch or record multiple broadcasts concurrently. Another question that would be raised is whether the Mohu AirWave can expose the local TV channels in an open-frame manner like SAT-IP or DLNA. This can allow other companies to develop their own software or exploit existing software to view or record TV content rather than relying on Mohu’s front-end app or Webpage.  Similarly, it may be worth wondering whether this device uses an Ethernet connection to allow for reliable network connectivity when you use it with an Ethernet or HomePlug powerline network segment.

It may be feasible to think of this broadcast-LAN antenna device as being just fit for “cord-cutting” but it can do more than that. Even if this device isn’t its own Wi-Fi access point, you can have it work with a Mi-Fi router to become part of a mobile Wi-Fi network. For example, using it with a tablet or laptop computer could make it serve as a temporary TV-viewing setup for doing something like keeping tabs on that sports fixture or news event at the office or job site during the lunch break.

Mohu could also court the European/Australian/New-Zealand market with the AirWave broadcast-LAN TV antenna by offering a DVB-T/DVB-T2 variant that can receive the free-to-air broadcast stations offered in these territories using this standard.

What is being shown here is that the concept of a broadcast-LAN tuner setup which exposes TV broadcasts to a home or other small network is being extended to traditional broadcast TV through a device that is more than just “rabbit’s ears”.

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Investing in an external graphics module for your laptop

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module - press picture courtesy of Razer

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module

Just lately, as more premium and performance-grade laptops are being equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 connection, the external graphics modules, also known as graphics docks or graphics docking stations, are starting to trickle out on to the market as a performance-boosting accessory for these computers.

The Thunderbolt 3 connection, which uses the USB Type-C plug and socket, is able to provide a throughput similar to a PCI-Express card bus and has put forward a method of improving a laptop’s, all-in-one’s or small-form-factor computer’s graphics ability. This is being facilitated using the external graphics modules or docks that house graphics processors in the external boxes and link these to the host computer using the above connection. What it will mean is that these computers can benefit from desktop-grade or performance-grade graphics without the need to heavily modify them and, in the case of portable computers, can allow for “performance” graphics to be enjoyed at home or in the office while you have battery-conserving baseline graphics on the road,

Acer Aspire Switch 12S convertible 2-in-1 - press picture courtesy of Microsoft

Acer Aspire Switch 12S convertible 2-in-1 – can benefit from better graphics thanks to Thunderbolt 3 and an external graphics module

The devices come in two classes:

  • Integrated graphics chipset (Acer Graphics Dock) – devices of this class have a hardwired graphics chipset similar to what is implemented in an all-in-one or small-form-factor computer.
  • Card cage (Razer Core, Akitio Node) – These devices are simply a housing where you can install a PCI-Express desktop graphics card of your choice. They have a power supply and interface circuitry to present the desktop graphics card to the host computer via a Thunderbolt 3 connection.

What will they offer?

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

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 “card cage” external graphics module

All these devices will have their own video outputs but will yield what the high-performance graphics chipset provides through the host computer’s integral screen, the video outputs integrated with the host computer as well as their own video outputs. This is in contrast to what used to happen with desktop computers where the video outputs associated with the integrated graphics chipset became useless when you installed a graphics card in these computers.

I have read a few early reviews for the first generation of graphics modules and Thunderbolt-3 laptops. One of these was Acer’s integrated graphics module kitted out with a NVIDIA GTX960M GPU, known to be a modest desktop performer but its mobile equivalent is considered top-shelf for laptop applications. This was ran alongside an Acer TravelMate P658 and an Acer Aspire Switch 12S, with it providing as best as the graphics would allow but highlighting where the weakness was, which was the mobile-optimised Intel Core M processors in the Switch 12S convertible.

Simplified plug-in expansion for all computers

Intel Skull Canyon NUC press picture courtesy of Intel

The Intel Skull Canyon NUC can easily be “hotted up” with better graphics when coupled with an external graphics module

Another example was a manufacturer’s blog post about using their “card-cage” graphics dock with one of the Intel Skull Canyon “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers which was equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 connection. This showed how the computer increased in graphics performance once teamed with the different graphics cards installed in that “card-cage” module.

It opened up the idea of using an “AV system” approach for enhancing small-form-factor and integrated computers. This is where you connect extra modules to these computers to increase their performance just like you would connect a better CD player or turntable or substitute an existing amplifier for something more powerful or plug in some better speakers if you wanted to improve your hi-fi system’s sound quality.

This usage case would earn its keep with an “all-in-one” computer which has the integrated monitor, the aforementioned “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers or simply a low-profile desktop computer that wouldn’t accommodate high-performance graphics cards.

Software and performance issues can be a real stumbling block

What I had come across from the material I had read was that as long as the host computer had the latest version of the operating system, the latest BIOS and other firmware to support graphics via Thunderbolt 3, and the latest drivers to support this functionality then it can perform at its best. As well, the weakest link can affect the overall performance of the system, which can apply to various mobile system-on-chip chipsets tuned primarily to run cool and allow for a slim lightweight computer that can run on its own batteries for a long time.

At the moment, this product class is still not mature and there will be issues with compatibility and performance with the various computers and external graphics modules.

As well, not all graphics cards will work with every “card-cage” graphics module. This can be due to high-end desktop graphics cards drawing more current than the graphics module can supply, something that can be of concern with lower-end modules that have weaker power supplies, or software issues associated with cards that aren’t from the popular NVIDIA or AMD games-focused lineups. You may have to check with the graphics module’s vendor or the graphics card’s vendor for newer software or firmware to be assured of this compatibility.

Multiple GPUs – a possible reality

A situation that may have to be investigated as more of these products arrive is the concurrent use of multiple graphics processors in the same computer system no matter the interface or vendor. The ability to daisy-chain 6 Thunderbolt-3 devices on the same Thunderbolt-3 connection, along with premium desktop motherboards sporting this kind of connection along with their PCI-Express expansion slots, will make the concept become attractive and easy to implement. Similarly, some vendors could start offering Thunderbolt-3 expansion cards that plug in to existing motherboards’ PCI-Express expansion slots to give existing desktop PCs this functionality.

Here, the goal would be to allow multiple GPUs from different vendors to work together to increase graphics performance for high-end games or multimedia-production tasks like video transcoding or rendering of video or animation projects. Or it could be about improving the performance and efficiency of a multiple-display setup by allocating particular graphics processors to particular displays, something that would benefit larger setups with many screens and, in some cases, different resolutions.

Highly-portable gaming setups being highlighted as a use case

A usage class that was always put forward for these external graphics modules was the teenage games enthusiast who is studying at senior secondary school and is ready to study at university. Here, the usage case underscored the situation where they could be living in student accommodation like a college dorm / residence hall or be living in a share-house with other students.

The application focuses on the use of a laptop computer that can be taken around the campus but be connected to one of these modules when the student is at their home. I would add to this the ability to carry the graphics module between their room and the main lounge area in their home so that they could play their games on the bigger TV screen in that area. This is due to the device being relatively compact and lightweight compared to most desktop computers.

That same application can cover people who are living in accommodation associated with their job and this is likely to change frequently as they answer different work placements. An example of this would be people whose work is frequently away from home for significant amounts of time like those who work on ships, oil rigs or mines. Here, some of these workers may be using their laptop that they use as part of their work during their shift where applicable such as on a ship’s bridge, but use it as a personal entertainment machine in their cabin or the mess room while they are off-shift.

What could be seen more of these devices

Once the external graphics modules mature as a device class, they could end up moving towards two or three classes of device.

One of these would be the integrated modules with graphics chipsets considered modest for desktop use but premium for laptop use. The expansion abilities that these may offer could be in the form of a few extra USB connections, an SD card reader and / or a higher-grade sound module. Perhaps, they may come with an optical drive of some sort. Some manufacturers may offer integrated modules with higher-performance graphics chipsets along with more connections for those of us who want to pay a premium for extra performance and connectivity. These would be pitched towards people who want that bit more “pep” out of their highly-portable or compact computer that has integrated graphics.

Similarly, it could be feasible to offer larger-screen monitors which have discrete graphics chipsets integrated in them. They could also have the extra USB connections and / or secondary storage options, courting those users who are thinking of a primary workspace for their portable computer while desiring higher-performance graphics.

The card-cage variants could open up a class of device that has room for one or two graphics cards and, perhaps, sound cards or functionality-expansion cards. In some cases, this class of device could also offer connectivity and installation options for user-installable storage devices, along with extra sockets for other peripherals. This class of device could, again, appeal to those of us who want more out of the highly-compact computer they started with or that high-performance laptop rather than using a traditional desktop computer for high-performance computing.

Portable or highly-compact computers as a package

Manufacturers could offer laptops, all-in-one and other highly-compact or highly-portable computers that are part of matched-equipment packages where they offer one or more external graphics modules as a deal-maker option or as part of the package. These could differ by graphics chipset and by functionality such as external-equipment connectivity or integrated fixed or removable storage options.

This is in a similar vein to what has happened in the hi-fi trade since the 1970s where manufacturers were offering matched-equipment packages from their lineup of hi-fi components. Here they were able to allow, for example, multiple packages to have the same tape deck, turntable or CD player while each of the package was differentiated with increasingly-powerful amplifiers or receivers driving speakers that had differing levels of audio performance and cabinet size. It still was feasible to offer better and more capable source components with the more expensive packages or allow such devices to be offered as a way to make the perfect deal.

Conclusion

Expect that as more computers equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connection come on the market the external graphics module will become a simplified method of improving these computers’ graphic performance. It will be seen as a way for allowing highly-compact or highly-portable computers to benefit from high-performance graphics at some point in their life, something that this class of computer wouldn’t be able to normally do.

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