Category: Computing

Cisco Linksys EA4500 is a networking powerhouse

Cisco Linksys EA4500 Wi-Fi RouterYou do not need to spend $169 on a home router. There are plenty of great Wi-Fi routers out there that can handle the basic job of connecting your home to the internet and giving all of your wired and wireless devices the access they need. Find a refurbished model on sale and you might be able to spend as little as $20.

But, if you want to supercharge your home networking experience with a previously unavailable number of features, Cisco’s Linksys EA4500 is about as good as it gets.

The slender, black and silver device has all of the usual features you’d expect in a high-end home router: Dual-band Wi-Fi N (with backwards compatibility for b/g flavours), guest access, printer sharing and even gigabit LAN networking via the router’s 4 built-in ports.

Where the EA4500 really stands apart however, are the extras.

The Cisco Connect Cloud interface lets you see all of the EA4500's critical functions at a glance. Click for larger image.

The EA4500 is one of the first Cisco routers to support the company’s Connect Cloud interface. Connect Cloud does several things to make managing a home router easier and more powerful.

  1. Streamlined interface: Out of the box, a Cisco Linksys router already has one of the easiest control interfaces on the market. Using the included Cisco Connect software, you get a straightforward, panel-based view of your router’s basic functions. Once you complete the free, firmware-based upgrade to the Connect Cloud control panel, this view becomes even more informative, showing you at-a-glance info like network health, how many devices are connected to your router, whether guest access is turned on or off, plus several other handy data points.
  2. The ease-of-use continues on the left side of the Connect Cloud interface with icons that give you one-click access to security settings, parental controls and every major area of router configuration.
  3. Being able to connect a USB storage device to the EA4500 is simple way to share files across your network and access them from the road. Click for larger image.

    Shared storage via the USB port. Plenty of routers will let you share a printer via the on-board USB port, but the EA4500 goes one better by letting you connect any kind of USB 2.0 storage device which becomes accessible over your network to all of your other devices. Given that you can pay hundreds for a NAS (network attached storage) drive, this one feature alone might be worth the price of admission. Once attached, you can set folder permissions (open to everyone, or go user by user for each folder on the drive), turn on FTP (File Transfer Protocol) which lets you access the drive from the internet, and turn on the Media Server which configures the drive as a DLNA/UPnP accessible volume – translation: you can access the contents of the drive from any tablet, smartphone, game console or media extender that supports either the DLNA or UPnP protocols.

  4. Online access to your router. Unlike non-Connect Cloud routers, the EA4500 can be accessed anytime from any internet-connected computer. This might seem like overkill, but if you’ve ever been away from home only to have your kids call to complain that Netflix keeps stalling, you’ll appreciate the ability to log in to your router from the office, hotel etc., perform a re-boot of the device and never once needing to tell someone at home to go and power-cycle the router physically (something that scares me when I have to send an 8 year-old to do the job!)

    The Cisco Connect Cloud app for iOS gives you access to all of the same features from your iPhone and works anywhere you have an internet connection.

  5. Support for 3rd party apps. Yes, I know, apps are everywhere these days and now home routers are no exception. While the usefulness of Connect Cloud apps is limited at the moment (Cisco’s own Connect Cloud app for iOS and Android merely reproduces the features discussed in points 1 & 2 above, on your smartphone, there is a lot of potential in opening up the Connect Cloud environment to developers.

Lest we forget, in addition to these handy new features, the EA4500 also sports some of the longest-ranges in terms of indoor and outdoor connectivity you’ll find on a home router, thanks to its 6 internal antennas.

So if all of this sounds pretty good, but still not quite enough to justify the price, hopefully the best is yet to come. If developers jump on the Connect Cloud  bandwagon, we could start seeing some seriously cool apps that would extend the EA4500’s capabilities even further.

Devs, if you’re out there, here’s my wishlist:

  • Real-time device monitoring. Sometimes, when I walk by my home office and glance at the DSL modem, I see the activity lights flickering away like crazy. Something is consuming a lot of bandwidth, but I can’t figure out what it is. In our house, with as many as 10-15 Wi-Fi devices on the go at any time, it would be super helpful to be able to pull up that list of device and see in real-time which ones are consuming data and how much. This would not only help assuage my paranoia when I think someone has managed to crack my Wi-Fi security, but could be handy in figuring out of the kids are secretly watching YouTube when they’re supposed to be reading or sleeping!
  • Remote media playback console. If you’ve ever used Plex or XBMC, you know just how much fun it is to be able to access all of your media through a thoughtful and intuitive user interface. But both of these tools require that your run server software on your Mac or PC. I’d like to see a Connect Cloud app that provides this same functionality for accessing all of the media attached to the EA4500’s USB storage port. FTP is nice, but it ain’t pretty.
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Why the Apple iPhone 5 might ditch the dock connector

The iPhone 4/4S as it might look with a Micro-USB port instead of the usual 30-pin Dock Connector

On first blush, when I read the rumour that the next iPhone would be dropping the ubiquitous 30-pin dock connector, the skeptic in me cried “No way!”

Apple has been a rarity in the consumer electronics industry in the sense that they alone have created a multi-billion dollar market for accessories designed exclusively for use with Apple products. Obviously, the sheer number of products that Apple has sold is a big reason why companies big and small have gotten into the i-accessory game, but there’s a subtler, more powerful reason: consistency.

Ever since the advent of the third-generation iPod, Apple has employed the same 30-pin Dock Connector on every single i-device with the exception of the iPod Shuffle. There are hundreds of millions of i-gadgets in use all around the world, and while their technical capabilities vary depending on the model, that same 30-pin connector is on all of them.

How many other product categories in consumer tech or elsewhere can offer that level of compatibility?

So you can see why any suggestion that Apple might be ready to step away from such an overwhelmingly entrenched standard – one that they have the exclusive rights to –  would be greeted with a fair degree of dubious eye-brow raising.

But the notion isn’t completely laughable. In fact, it might make sense.

First, let’s consider the fact that Apple has prided itself on being able to predict the demise of a technology often well before consumers are willing to relinquish it. The first iMac famously debuted with no floppy drive. It was the first mainstream machine to do so. The optical drive was read-only and the only way to get data out of the iMac was to transmit it using the Internet or via an attached USB-device (keep in mind, super-cheap USB thumb drives were essentially non-existent back then). It wasn’t long before other PC makers were stripping out the floppy from their designs, never to be seen again.

Apple’s next big ditch: you guessed it – the optical drive itself which they made an optional accessory on the stunningly thin and light MacBook Air. Again, much like with the iMac, Apple proved prescient and the MacBook Air has become the laptop after which the “Ultrabook” line of Windows machines has been modelled.

Second, let’s take a look at what that 30-pin connector actually does for i-Devices:

  • Recharge
  • Sync data
  • Pass through audio and/or video content (which is simply a specific form of data syncing)

All of these functions are handy, yet none require the 30-pin connector per-se. USB connectors, be they mini-USB or the now-standard micro-USB are just as capable of handling these duties and do so on the myriad smartphones that Apple does not make. Micro-USB can even handle high-definition 1080p output via a newer technology known as MHL (Mobile High-Defintion Link). And thanks to iCloud, you never need to physically connect an i-Device to a Mac or PC in order to sync data. Even iOS updates are now done “over-the-air.” There is virtually no reason, other than to maintain consistency of design, why Apple *needs* to keep the dock connector.

If Apple chose to abandon the 30-pin dock for the the industry-standard Micro-USB (which is unlikely – they will probably create a smaller dock connector), they would certainly please a segment of their customers who would prefer to carry a single, cheap and easily replaced power cord  – but what about that massive eco-system of accessories like speaker docks and alarms clocks whose numbers are now to great to count? Would they have to issue all-new designs just for the iPhone 5 (or “The New iPhone” as I suspect Apple will call it)? Yes and no.

In the past two years, Apple has been making a bit of a fuss over a wireless audio and video standard they call “AirPlay.”  AirPlay lets you effortlessly stream audio or video from your Mac or PC’s iTunes software to any AirPlay-equipped gadget on your home Wi-Fi or wired network. Apple TV is a great example of this. Not only can you stream hi-def movies from iTunes to your TV via AirPlay, you can stream any music or video from your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch in the same way, so long as the app you’re using has been AirPlay-enabled.

AirPlay has seen a lot of support amongst the top brands in the electronics space. Pioneer, Denon, Sonos, JBL, B&W, iHome and Klipsch  – just to name a few – have all introduced AirPlay-compatible products and that number is guaranteed to grow. Why? Because AirPlay is the new, wireless dock-connector at least as far as bullet number three from the list above is concerned. It’s a new standard and is already supported by nearly every Wi-Fi equipped product Apple sells.

Could Apple be planning an AirPlay adapter for older speaker docks? (click for larger image)

I know – that’s all well and good for new products – they obviously don’t need a dock connector for audio and video, but what about those older products? The ones that are still carrying around a seemingly obsolete dock? Well here’s where we take an even longer drive down the speculative highway…

I think Apple could easily create an AirPlay Dock Adapter, which would snap into any speaker dock and give it AirPlay connectivity. Assuming that the adapter could draw power from from the dock in the same way that an iPod or iPhone could draw power for recharging, nothing else would be needed. Given how inexpensive Wi-Fi radios have become, I’m guessing that Apple could sell these for $50, turn a very handsome profit, and give millions of older speakers etc., a new lease on life.

I’m not the first one to think this is a good idea – at least one enterprising fellow is trying to get some movement on this notion – assuming Apple doesn’t beat him to the punch!

So readers, what do you make of these prognostications? Would you freak out if Apple dropped the dock from the new iPhone?

RIM intros BlackBerry Mini Keyboard for PlayBook

Now that RIM has managed to sell a decent amount of their BlackBerry PlayBook tablets, it’s time for something a little different.

Check out their newest addition to the PlayBook line of accessories: the BlackBerry Mini Keyboard. It’s roughly the same size as the PlayBook itself, it has a 30-day battery life and can be recharged from any Micro-USB connection including the one that shipped with the PlayBook, and it connects via Bluetooth.

And none of those specs are a reason to buy this $119 keyboard, which by the way, ships with that stylish case pictured above.

No, the real reason you’re going to want this keyboard is the integrated touchpad placed right below the space bar. This one feature not only make using the PlayBook for productivity much better than the tablet on its own, it might just make it the PlayBook the best productivity tablet on the market, period. I say this of course without every having tried the device, but if the description from RIM is accurate, this is the rare exception when an accessory dramatically improves the functionality of the original device.

Consider: The touch pad enables full mouse control when using an app called Citrix Receiver – designed to connect you to a remote Windows machine so you can have complete remote-control of that desktop. This means you can move the PC’s cursor, click by tapping, right-click by two-finger tapping and scroll vertically by swiping up and down on the pad with two fingers.

The result is that, unlike using bluetooth keyboards with the iPad, you no longer have to reach for the PlayBook’s screen when you want to interact with an on-screen element. Basically, it turns the PlayBook into a proper laptop replacement, at least from an ergonomics point of view. The trackpad even works when navigating the PlayBook’s homescreens and apps.

The  BlackBerry Mini Keyboard goes on sale next month for $119, but you can pre-order it now from The Source and save yourself $20.

Digital divide: Women more likely to be ereaders

Today, eMarketer released the data from several new reports that show a clear gender-split amongst the U.S. ereader and tablet-owning crowd.  The first survey, from GfK MRI, shows a significant difference between men and women with women being the group that is more likely to own an eReader (Kindle, Kobo, others) while men are more pre-disposed to owning a tablet (iPad, PlayBook etc.).

I’ve come to think of men and women of the same age and income as having very similar habits when it comes to technology adoption, so at first these stats surprised me. And then I started thinking about how people in my immediate social circle have been buying (or receiving as gifts) these gadgets and the trend from the study was surprisingly accurate.

I gave my wife a Kobo a year ago for Mother’s Day. My step-mother received a Kindle from her son. Our neighbour bought a Kobo for his wife on our recommendation and I was originally introduced to the Kobo by a female coworker who had bought one almost as soon as it had become available in Canada. Rhonda Callow just tried her first ereader and was pleasantly surprised by the experience.

And while some of these women have iPads or other tablets in their households, none of them bought or were given these gadgets. Why is this so?

It may be as simple as this: Women read more books than men. At least that was the finding of study of U.K. respondents in 2009 as reported by The Telegraph. I couldn’t find any studies to explain why men have taken to tablets in greater numbers but here’s my theory: Tablets are not cheap. At least not compared with eReaders. You can pick up an amazing Kindle for $139. The base iPad 2 will run you $519. That’s a big gap. So going out on a limb here, I think men have an easier time prioritizing a high-priced tech purchase over other needs (wants) such as clothing, travel or food. Most of the men I know have drastically lower clothing budgets than their girlfriends/wives/partners.  Is this a massive over-generalization? I’m sure you’ll let me know in the comments :)

As second study that took a look at online shoppers provides a slightly different perspective and includes age and income data. Bizrate Insights and Forrester Research together found that tablet ownership is dominated by older, wealthier people with the average age and income at $109,690 and 44 respectively.

But also clear from the study is that these demographics are going to changing rapidly over the coming months as the reported average income of those who intend to buy a tablet is only $83,740 – still a well-off group, but less so than current owners. While the variety of tablets on the market is increasing constantly, Apple’s share of that market has changed little. And since Apple isn’t going to be dropping their iPad prices anytime soon, these numbers strongly suggest that tablet ownership is becoming something that more and more people consider a necessity.

[Source: eMarketer]

Just for fun, let’s see where Sync readers fall in the gender vs. ownership landscape. For the sake of this poll, if you bought one of the gadgets yourself, or it was given to you as a gift, you own it. If you have one in your household but you did not buy it yourself or get it as a gift, you don’t own it.

Are you a tablet or eReader owner?

Why Thunderbolt (Light Peak) changes everything

The new Thunderbolt port as seen on Apple's new MacBook Pro. Image courtesy of Apple.

The new Thunderbolt port as seen on Apple's new MacBook Pro. Image courtesy of Apple.

Have you ever looked at the back of your desktop or the sides (and back) of your laptop and wondered why there are so many ports? Multiple USB ports, VGA, HDMI, Ethernet, two flavours of FireWire (IEEE 1394 and the newer 800 standard), eSATA and on some models you’ll find DisplayPort and Express Card slots too. Regardless of their shape, name or quantity, in the end, they all do the same thing: allow your computer to talk to external devices or networks.

The computer I’m writing this post from has a grand total of 10 such I/O interfaces and until today this abundance of connection options was something I took a sort of pride in. After all, the more and varied ports on a PC, the more and varied devices you can connect to.

Today however, all of that changes.

The Thunderbolt icon. Image courtesy of Apple.

The Thunderbolt icon. Image courtesy of Apple.

Imagine a world where a single, small port on the side of your laptop is all you will ever need to connect to any peripheral or network – including external monitors. Now imagine that this port allows your computer to swap data with those connected devices at a staggering 10 Gbps (that’s 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and fast enough to transfer a feature-length full HD movie in 30 seconds) and that it can pass along up to 10 watts of power to those devices so they need not rely on additional power supplies. Truly plug and play. Now stop imagining.

This new port exists (exclusively for now on Apple’s new MacBook Pros) and is called Thunderbolt.

Thunderbolt is actually the consumer name chosen by Apple and Intel for a technology that the two companies partnered on known as “Light Peak.” Not that Light Peak is a bad name, but Apple has a spectacular record for finding catchy names for new or existing technologies (consider FireWire, MagSafe and FaceTime just to name a few) so Thunderbolt it is. They’ve even designed a clever little lightning bolt icon to stamp on Thunderbolt ports and cables.

The Mini DisplayPort found on older MacBooks - identical in shape to the new Thunderbolt port.

What makes Thunderbolt unique (other than its groundbreaking speed) is that it was designed from the ground-up to be display-friendly. While it’s true that you can attach external displays to USB ports, this has always been a bit of kludge – a clever workaround that forces USB to do something it was never intended to do. Thunderbolt on the other hand, includes both DisplayPort and HDMI technologies within its architecture. In fact, take a close look at the Thunderbolt port (top of this page). Now look at the current Mini Display Ports (image above). Yep, they’re the same shape. This means that existing Mini Display Port cables can snap right into Thunderbolt ports, no adapters required.

The other clever thing about Thunderbolt is that it can be daisy-chained. Apple has always been a big backer of daisy-chain technologies, first with SCSI, then with FireWire – and now Thunderbolt keeps that ability alive. In essence, this means if every Thunderbolt-compatible device had two ports, you could string them all together (up to 6 in total), one after the other, and plug the device that was closest to your PC (the monitor perhaps?) into a single Thunderbolt port on your computer. Voila – instant access to all of your devices and only one cable to keep organized. Sounds very Apple doesn’t it?

Is this the end of USB?

Not likely. At least, not in the near-term. The fact is, almost every single peripheral on the market today was built using USB, so it will be several years before people no longer need USB ports on their computers. And so far, no USB-to-Thunderbolt adapter has been announced (though that’s probably in the works as we speak). Where USB will be most greatly impacted is the development of USB as a future standard. USB 3.0 was only recently released and since then we have seen precious few peripherals with the new port and finding a PC that ships with a USB 3.0 port is very difficult indeed. My guess is that Thunderbolt will effectively kill any future investment in USB 3.0 making it a lame-duck technology.

And what of eSATA?

Since eSATA’s core benefit is higher transfer speeds when compared to USB 2.0, I have a feeling it too will eventually sunset in the face of Thunderbolt’s blistering speed and 10-watt power supply (it’s very hard to find bus-powered eSATA hard drives).

Cost benefits?

It might be a little naive of me to think so, but I’m hoping that the architectural simplicity that Thunderbolt creates will eventually result in lower costs for PC manufacturers. It just makes sense that a single port is cheaper to produce than 10. Whether this turns out to be the case and whether manufacturers end up passing along these savings to consumers is tough to call, but competition being what it is, I remain optimistic!

Gorgeous: Thermaltake Level 10

level-10-angledIt’s not often that I find myself wanting a desktop computer these days. After finally getting rid of my aging desktop PC last year in favour of a 17″ Dell laptop, I’ve been perfectly happy without a big box taking up space under my ridiculously small home office desk.

And yet, every now and then, a product comes around that screams so loudly at my geek soul that I experience a moment of pause while I reconsider my new allegiance to portability.

Today, that product is Thermaltake’s Level 10 Case. In a word: stunning.

The black tower made of extruded aluminum, with its red striping and lighting accents evokes imagery ranging from 2001: A Space Odyssey to the exquisitely designed digital cameras systems made by RED. And that’s just the cosmetics.

On the practical side, this beast has hot-swappable SATA drive enclosures, separate compartments for every major component and an integrated cooling system that is both effective and silent.

The Level 10 should be available for purchase later this month at an estimated price of $700 USD, which will put a huge dent in the pocketbooks of those whose hearts have been stolen. That is, if they can get their hands on one. Given the general reaction that geek sites like Maximum PC are having to the Level 10, it may be in short supply.

More photos for you to drool over…

level-10-frontlevel-10-sidelevel10-open