Tagged: wi-fi

This is how the Robopocalypse starts

Our robotic future is fun... and a little scary? Photo courtesy of Parrot S.A.

Our robotic future is fun… and a little scary? Photo courtesy of Parrot S.A.

This article originally appeared on CTVNews.ca

Yesterday, at an exclusive event in downtown Toronto, members of the press were invited to the official launch of two new robotic products from Parrot S.A., the French company responsible for popularizing so-called “drones” – remote controlled quad-rotor flying platforms that contain a pair of cameras capable of recording high-definition video.

The company has had enormous success with their AR.Drone (now in its second generation), having sold over 700,000 of the $350 devices since 2010. And though there has been an explosion of growth in the drone market, both in the high-end commercial segment and the budget-friendly toy segment, Parrot has maintained a decisive lead by combining high-quality components and engineering with easy-to-master controls thanks to its use of Wi-Fi equipped smartphones and tablets as the “remote.”

Parrot-Rolling-Spider-minidrone-in-flight

Parrot’s two new products, part of a line they call “MiniDrones,” follow in the footsteps of the AR.Drone. The Rolling Spider is a $119 miniature quad-rotor flying vehicle that fits in the palm of your hand. Equipped with detachable wheels that give the Spider an angry-bee-trapped-in-a-hamster-wheel appearance, it can roll along floors, up walls and along ceilings without any danger of the tiny propellers coming in contact with nearby objects. Thanks to a plethora of on-board sensors and gyros, The Rolling Spider is simple enough for a child to operate. It even has a high-res, downward-facing camera that can snap still images during flights. The rechargeable and replaceable battery is good for about 8 minutes of continuous flight. You can fly the Rolling Spider indoors or outside, but because it’s connected via Bluetooth to your phone or tablet, the operational range is limited to about 66 feet.

In practice, the Rolling Spider is a hoot to fly. Amazingly stable yet highly responsive, it emits a high-pitched whine that makes comparisons to bees, wasps or even mosquitoes more apt than to a spider.  Horizontal flight is buttery-smooth while vertical lifts and drops happen incredibly fast.  Irritated by a pilot who decides to fly it too close to your head? Go ahead and swat the Spider out of your way – it will right itself and continue on its flight path as though nothing had happened. We can only assume it doesn’t take such acts of aggression personally.

Parrot uses the same flight control scheme from the AR.Drone with the Rolling Spider and it is truly easy enough to learn that you can fly the Spider confidently after a few minutes of experimentation. Getting the Spider to execute an aerobatic 360 degree flip in mid-air requires nothing more than a double-tap on the smartphone’s screen.

Finally, if you can bare to separate yourself long enough from the Rolling Spider to let your kid play with it, they’ll be delighted to find that Parrot has included a set of stickers that can be used to customize the Spider’s appearance. Most of them make the Rolling Spider look like something that’s about to bite you.

Parrot-Jumping-Sumo-minidrones

Their second product in the MiniDrone line is the $179 Jumping Sumo. A quirky blend of remote-controlled car, mobile camera platform and, well, grasshopper, this two-wheeled vehicle has more in common with a Segway scooter than a garden-variety RC car. Equipped with a wide-angle front-facing camera, the Sumo can stream live video of everything it sees back to the smartphone, giving its driver a first-person perspective. The diminutive vehicle can be driven manually, using the on-screen controls and can perform impressive maneuvers such as 90 or 180-degree turns in an instant, or you can pre-program a specific route which can then be executed at the tap of the screen.

But the Jumping Sumo’s most impressive trick is, as its name suggests, the ability to jump up to three feet into the air, with a level of precision that allows experienced drivers to land it on a surface not much larger than the Sumo’s own footprint. The jumps are accomplished via a powerful, spring-loaded piston that can be primed and released in less than two seconds. Flip the Jumping Sumo “upside down” (a hard position to identify when dealing with a robot that doesn’t seem to care which way is up) and it can use the same mechanism to launch itself away from fixed objects, or “kick” loose objects out of its path. In an impressive demonstration of strength, I watched as a Parrot employee put a sizeable dent in an empty pop can using this technique.

As frightening as it sounds, Parrot has even equipped the Jumping Sumo with a “personality.” With a Furby-like set of responses, the Sumo will emit different sounds under different conditions. Perhaps most disturbing is the language Parrot uses to describe these interactions in its marketing material: “Pet its head, pat its body and it reacts to make you understand its affection for you.” Hmm. “Make you understand”… is this merely an awkward translation from French, Parrot’s native tongue, or is it a sign that we are no longer the ones who are in control? If you still have any doubts, consider this: When the Jumping Sumo finds itself in an “uncomfortable” situation, its “eyes” turn from placid green to a menacing red. Stanley Kubrick tried to warn us about artificial intelligence with red eyes…

While it’s clear that these two MiniDrones—which go on sale in August—are very much designed to be toys (parents get ready for the holiday wish-list onslaught), make no mistake, these are highly sophisticated pieces of technology that have more in common with commercial and even military drone applications than their size and price would indicate. With the exception of their operating distances, battery life and perhaps durability, these two “toys” represent cutting-edge technology.

If you’ve ever spent time wondering what your kids will be equipped to do when they enter the job market, perhaps it’s time to introduce them to a MiniDrone. It could set them up for an upwardly mobile career path in our increasingly robotic world.

See the Rolling Spider in action:

See the Jumping Sumo in action:

Review: Sony SRS-X9 ultra premium personal speaker

Image

Despite creating a beautiful, feature-rich and well thought-out wireless speaker, Sony’s SRS-X9 fails to deliver consistently high quality sound over its wireless and wired inputs.

The wireless audio phenomenon in consumer tech is huge and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. It’s into this already crowded category that Sony is throwing three new contenders for your wireless speaker dollars. The biggest and baddest of the three is the SRS-X9, a sophisticated-looking all-in-one affair that straddles the line between bookshelf speaker and home theatre sound-bar.

Competition

The SRS-X9, which retails for $699 CDN, is priced at the high end of the wireless speaker market, placing it in competition with the Sonos Play:5 ($499) or possibly the Sonos Playbar ($749) as well as offerings from Pioneer,BoseBowers & WilkinsPolk Audio and Marantz.

Set-up and Connectivity

As you would expect from such a device, it offers a wealth of connectivity including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, line-in (via mini-jack), Ethernet and USB. It’s also DLNA and AirPlay compatible.

Continue reading the full review on Canadian Reviewer

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.

Review: HP Wireless Audio

We’ve covered wireless audio solutions before here on Sync, and by golly we will continue to cover them – wireless audio is one of those technologies that can change the way you experience media. Well executed, it can bring a goofy smile to your face as you try to contemplate how you ever lived without it. Poorly executed and it leaves you wondering what all the hype is about.

Unfortunately HP’s Wireless Audio falls into the latter category.

Before we get into why, let’s review some of the basics.

The primary goal of any wireless audio system is to let you experience the digital music that you have stored on your computer, smartphone or other device on a set of speakers that are better suited to the task and often located in a different room than the device with the music.

Sometimes the speakers belong to a high-end home theatre system, sometimes they’re just a small tabletop radio with an auxiliary input. But they aren’t the tinny things that come stock with most laptops or PCs which means your music is going to sound a lot better.

There are three wireless technologies that companies have used for this. First is Wi-Fi (or a proprietary version thereof). Its strengths are distance – it can usually cover your whole home and sometimes more – built-in networking (you can do more than just stream music over it) and flexibility (there’s virtually no limit to how many devices can share a Wi-Fi network, and you don’t need extra hardware). It’s drawbacks are mostly related to reliability. Because only a few Wi-Fi routers can help to prioritize one type of network traffic over another, streaming music can sometimes cut-out or fall out of sync with a video source.

Second is Bluetooth. It’s a piece of cake to set up, almost all modern laptops and smartphones support it, audio quality is good and lag is rarely if ever an issue, but it caps out at about 30m of distance and so far, Bluetooth connections can’t be multi-device (I can only stream my music to one Bluetooth speaker at a time).

Third is fully proprietary wireless signal. This is used by HP’s Wireless Audio. Proprietary wireless’s main strength is that the devices which use it share a dedicated, highly reliable signal which can be used to deliver a wide range of audio including 5.1 surround sound. The down side is that you have to use a dedicated wireless dongle with limited transmission strength. Depending on the frequency(ies) and power used by the system it may or may not be successful in penetrating walls and other structures.

Thus is the weakness of HP’s Wireless Audio solution. In testing out the review unit, I found I wasn’t able to maintain a connection between the receiver unit and my laptop which had the USB dongle, unless I stayed within about a 15-20 feet “safe zone.” The orientation of the laptop (and thus the dongle) also made a big difference at the edge of the safe zone. This is in stark contrast to HP’s claim of “30m bi-directional range,” using a tri-band combination of 2.4, 5.2 and 5.8Ghz frequencies. If you’re hoping to get your music from one end of the house to the other, the HP Wireless Audio system isn’t going to deliver.

I was also disappointed that HP hadn’t created a free app that I could download to an iOS or Android device so that I could control the audio remotely. That feature exists for both Apple’s AirPort Express as well as Sonos’s wireless solution.

So without the ability to effectively stream music from more than one room away and with no built-in way to control the audio on the computer, I found myself wondering exactly who the system was meant for. Which application had HP envisioned when they created the Wireless Audio?

Then it hit me: The scenario that was made for HP’s strengths without being affected by its weaknesses. For folks who have all of their movies on their computer and want to watch them on their computer’s display but want the audio to run over their home-theatre speakers, the HP Wireless Audio works perfectly.

Distance is no longer a factor because your receiver and computer are in the same room. There’s no need for remote control because the computer is sitting right there in front of you, or at least within arm’s reach. The ability to stream 5.1 surround is big benefit and not running cords from your PC to your receiver is obviously another. Finally, the Wireless Audio’s dedicated signal and resulting no-lag is perfectly suited to movie soundtracks: no one likes watching an actor’s lips start moving a half-second or more before the words start coming out.

But for all its strengths in this scenario, I just can’t see someone dropping $99 for this capability. It’s hard for me to imaging that someone who has a great 5.1 set-up doesn’t have an equally great widescreen TV to match and if that’s the case, a single HDMI cable kills two birds with one stone: you get great audio *and* video.

However, if you were thinking “hey that’s my set-up exactly” when you were reading my computer+speakers scenario, you’ll be pleased to know that set-up of the Wireless Audio was painless. HP provides a dedicated control panel for Windows that lets you sync your receivers (yep, you can have up to 4) to your computer. There are few options and after the install you’ll mostly manage the audio levels for your Wireless Audio from your Windows sound properties.

The receiver itself, while generous with connectivity options (it has RCA jacks, a mini-jack/TOSLINK combo and an RCA-style S/PDIF connector) and uses a nearly universal mini-USB port for power, is nonetheless cheap-feeling with plastic case that is so light weight, one can’t help but wonder why it needs to be so big.

Oh by the way, in case you’re a Mac user, sorry – you’ll have to stick with Apple’s Airport Express or other solution – HP’s Wireless Audio is only compatible with Windows PCs.

Overall, I’d have to say that if you’re looking to build a wireless home audio system on a budget and you don’t mind the occasional lag, Apple’s Wi-Fi and Airplay-based AirPort Express is a much more versatile gadget for the same price.

Sonos SUB: First impressions

I’ll admit it: when I read the press release for Sonos’s new sub-woofer, the Sonos SUB, I was skeptical. Why would anyone need a wireless sub?

When I think “sub-woofer” I picture home theatre set ups- you know the kind- 5, 6 or even 7.1 surround systems with that “.1” referring to the sub woofer which, more often than not, is tucked into a corner, hidden under a plant or sometimes concealed behind a wall panel. What these configurations all have in common is permanence. Your average home theatre buff will spend a fair amount of time figuring out optimal speaker placement and once wired in to their locations, never moves them again.

Why would Sonos seek to market a wireless sub to this group of buyers? Yes, the Sonos sub enables placement options that wired subs can only dream of, but when I tell you that Sonos’s sub is incompatible with every amplified home theatre system on earth, you’re probably going to start scratching your head. I sure did.

Before I explain this bizarre limitation, let me clarify who the Sonos sub is actually aimed at: people who already own, or intend to buy one of Sonos’s all-in-one speakers, the Play:3 or Play:5 or their Connect:Amp powered receiver for bookshelf speakers.

Now, about that strange incompatibility. Let’s do a quick refresher on the nature of sub woofers. Subs are designed to do one thing and do it well: provide the low-end bass reproduction that standard speakers simply can’t deliver. In home theatres, they are loved for that couch-shaking rumble on movie soundtracks. Audiophiles use them to fill in the lows that their dedicated stereo speakers can’t reproduce. But regardless why you use a sub, your receiver/amplifier plays a critical role. Every system that includes a sub needs a setting known as “cross-over.”  Cross-over is the frequency at which the sounds you are playing are divided into signals. All sounds above the cross-over frequency get sent to the regular speakers. All sounds below that frequency get sent to the sub-woofer. Sometimes, as with inexpensive HTIBs (Home Theatre In A Box) systems, that cross-over frequency is set at the factory and can’t be changed while receivers/amps used in component systems will typically have an adjustable cross-over frequency so you can get the perfect calibration for your specific speaker/sub-woofer combination.

So what does that have to do with the Sonos SUB? Well, just like every other sub-woofer, the Sonos SUB needs to have a cross-over frequency established. On Sonos systems, that cross-over setting is managed in the software and is dynamically set based on the particular combination of Sonos speakers in your room(s). But because the software uses its knowledge of volume levels and amplification of ALL the speakers in your system, it can’t make the necessary adjustments if your system included components that the software isn’t aware of from an amplification point of view. This includes any externally-amplified speakers you are running through one of Sonos’s Connect devices. These devices only pass music signal, not amplification to a set of speakers. Conversely, all Play:5, Play:3 and Connect:AMP components will work with the SUB.

One of the benefits of the Sonos software-controlled cross-over system is that the cross-over frequency can change. Not only can it change based on which speakers you’re using with the SUB but it can also change as you adjust your volume levels which means you’re always getting the optimal amount of low-end for any moment in time. If the engineers at Sonos ever feel the blend needs to be adjusted, they can do so via a software update. The down-side to this arrangement is you can’t tweak the cross-over frequency if you aren’t happy with how the software is dealing with it.

If you haven’t already guessed from the details so far, the Sonos SUB is intended to enhance the enjoyment of music within an existing Sonos set-up. This is not a sub for home theatres. As an acknowledgement of this fact, Sonos took a little more care with the design and materials in their SUB. After all, if your sub-woofer is wireless and can be placed anywhere, why not show it off a little? The SUB’s piano-black gloss finish and striking shape makes for a great conversation piece. But look a little closer and you’ll see that Sonos’s engineers found an intriguing solution to a design challenge.

Their research told them that traditional down or side-firing sub-woofers limit placement options for consumers. Their boxy shapes can be hard to hide and they certainly don’t slide under couches very well. At the same time, rectangular subs, while easier to stow under furniture, aren’t much to look at if you do need to leave them visible. To make a sub that was both elegant when seen and slim enough to be hidden, Sonos employed a “ying-and-yang” arrangement: two speaker cones and ports which fire from opposite sides, but both facing the inside of the cabinet – the donut hole in the centre of the SUB. The benefits of this design are two-fold: because there are no externally facing speakers, you can position the SUB with any of its five available surfaces facing down and sound quality is never compromised (the “bottom” should probably never be used on “top” for balance reasons). Plus, overall vibration on the SUB’s cabinet is reduced to negligible levels thanks to balanced output of the two drivers. It’s the sub-woofer equivalent of a boxer engine.

It’s also worth mentioning that Sonos’s built-in wireless system creates a level of flexibility that wired sub-woofers simply can’t match. If you use Sonos gear in a multi-room configuration, but decide that you don’t need sub-woofer power in each of those rooms all of the time, simply unplug the SUB, carry it to the other room, plug it in, and then associate it with the new room from within the Sonos app on your smartphone or tablet. The software does the rest, including a recalibration step that ensures you get the right balance between the SUB and the speakers in your second (or third or fourth etc..) room.

But how does it sound?

I auditioned the SUB in a small listening room at Toronto’s The Spoke club. Sonos Product Manager Craig Wisneski had two Play:3 speakers set up at either side of the room, configured to run in stereo mode (each Play:3 speaker reproducing just one channel respectively). We sampled several tracks including some reggae standards which are perfect for checking out low-end sound thanks to their bass-heavy rhythms. Without the Sonos SUB, the sound produced by the stereo Play:3’s was already (to my untrained ears) full, rich and satisfying. Adding the SUB to the mix did exactly what you would expect – it filled out the low end that you hadn’t even noticed was missing.

It very much reinforced for me that the SUB has been designed for music – not movies. The effect of turning on the SUB was immediate and noticeable while retaining a subtlety I don’t usually associate with sub-woofers. It many ways, it does what all good audio gear should do. It gives you the impression that you weren’t hearing the full range of music before you added it to your set-up.

Price

Here’s the part that might give you pause when considering if the Sonos SUB is right for you: the price. At $749 the Sonos SUB is more expensive than two Play:3 speakers plus the Sonos Bridge all put together. It’s a big expense for a product that many consider a nice, but optional extra to their music system. And while Sonos has plans to release a slightly cheaper $649 matte-black version of the SUB later this year or possibly early in 2013, that’s still twice what it costs to buy a decent powered sub-woofer for component systems. But therein lies the catch – if you want that deep bass sound to accompany your existing Sonos wireless speaker set-up, there is – for now – only one game in town. Is the SUB $749 worth of sub-woofer? Probably not. But if you value stunning industrial design, the convenience of place-anywhere-wireless convenience and a speaker that has been designed to provide optimal low-end sound for your existing Sonos gear, then it might very well be worth the asking price.

In any event, you’ve got a few weeks to decide/save up – the Sonos SUB starts shipping July 30th if you order online. But if you’ve already made up your mind, you can pick one up right now at selected retailers and installers such as Best Buy, Future Shop but call first as stocks are limited at this point.

3 Wireless ways to get your music anywhere in your home

Unless you’ve been sticking with the same CD collection you’ve owned since the 90s, or you’re one of the hardcore vinyl-collecting crowd, odds are good that most of your music is now sitting in MP3 or AAC format on your PC, MP3 player or smartphone. And while each of these devices are great for organizing your tunes and listening to them privately, they lack the group-listening vibe afforded by our stereos, boomboxes and home theatre systems. Fortunately, there’s never been a better time to widen your music’s horizons. Here are three ways you can get into the wireless streaming game so that you can enjoy your music wherever you are in your home and on any existing audio device.

RIM's BlackBerry Music Gateway

1. RIM BlackBerry Music Gateway ($50)This tiny black module is the absolute cheapest and easiest way to get your digital music to flow through the speakers of your choice. As long as your music is stored on a smartphone or other device that is Bluetooth 2.0 (A2DP) compatible, you can pair it to the Music Gateway and then connect the Gateway to your home stereo using the included mini-jack audio cable. The Gateway needs power but you can use the same Micro-USB cable and AC adapter that you use to recharge your phone. The music is controlled straight from your smartphone. Bonus: If you own an NFC-equipped BlackBerry such as the new Bold 9900, you can skip the Bluetooth pairing process by simply tapping the phone to the Gateway – voila! Instant streaming. Keep in mind however, that Bluetooth streaming isn’t as flexible as Wi-Fi. Bluetooth typically maxes out at 10 m (30 feet) whereas Wi-Fi can often extend up to 300 feet, particularly when used outside.

Apple AirPort Express Base Station

2. Apple Airport Express Base Station ($99)The Airport Express might just be Apple’s best kept secret. This all-white unit, which is about the size and shape of a deck of cards is deceptively simple: A plug for AC power, an ethernet port, USB port and an analog/optical mini-jack. But the list of things it can do is impressive. Most relevant to this discussion is that it can turn any stereo system into a Wi-Fi (or wired) receiver for your iTunes music whether you keep that collection on your Mac, PC or iOS device. Apple’s AirPlay technology which recognizes the AirPort Express on your home network, treats the Base Station as a set of speakers that you can “push” your music to from your iTunes software.

AirPlay shows you the available speakers on your network. Click for larger.

Want to stream your music to multiple stereos? Simply add more AirPort Express Base Stations. Each one can be labeled according to whatever makes sense e.g. “Living Room”, “Kitchen” etc. and if you’re streaming from a PC or Mac, you can have them all receiving the music simultaneously. Each AirPort Express can be muted or volume-controlled from your computer, but it’s way cooler to do it remotely using your iOS device with Apple’s free “Remote” app. Want to stream from your iOS device instead? Again, each AirPort Express will show up as AirPlay devices in any app that supports AirPlay e.g. CBC’s Music app. The AirPort Express has some other cool features up its sleeve beyond music streaming: it can repeat the Wi-Fi signal from an Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station, giving your Wi-Fi greater reach; it can act as stand-alone wireless router when connected to your DSL/Cable modem via ethernet or if you’re in a hotel room with only wired internet access and finally it can act as a print server when a printer is connected to the USB port – now everyone on your network can print to the same printer.

The Sonos Bridge

3. Sonos Play:3 ($329) plus Sonos Bridge ($60) Long before Apple started to hype their AirPlay technology, Sonos was inventing  the gold standard for wireless home audio. The company has been refining their very successful formula for years now and they’re still the company to beat when it comes to liberating your music. Every Sonos system starts with their $60 Bridge. It doesn’t look like much and it only does one thing: create the SonosNet proprietary wireless network, and allow Sonos devices to access online sources of content. From there however, Sonos users have unparalleled choice. You can buy Sonos Connect receivers that connect directly to your stereos or other powered speakers. Or, you can buy a more powerful Connect Amp which as the name implies, houses an amplifier so you can attach virtually any pair of bookshelf speakers. Or, if you want a more portable solution, their Play:3 and Play:5 speaker systems are all-in-one sound systems combining a wireless receiver, amp and speakers. N.B.: You don’t actually need to buy the Bridge as long as you’re ok with positioning the Play:3 in a location where you can wire it to your router with ethernet cable. In this situation, the Play:3 can create the SonosNet network and act as the Bridge on behalf of the other Sonos devices in your home.

The Sonos Play:3

While more expensive than Apple’s AirPlay scenario, Sonos offers more options too: Each Sonos unit can be individually controlled even letting you choose to stream the same or different music sources to each device. You can also access far more content – in addition to your iTunes collection, you can access subscription services like XM radio, Slacker, LastFM and others. Another plus is that if you keep all of your music on a Network Attached Storage device (NAS) you don’t need your computer to be constantly on to get to your music. Sonos can access it directly. Finally, some Sonos devices can be used as AirPlay devices, as long as you buy an AirPort Express and your Sonos component has line-in support (N.B.: The Play:3 is NOT equipped with line-in). Once connected and configured, the AirPort Express that is connected to your Sonos device will show up as an AirPlay speaker on your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad.

The entire Sonos network of gear can be controlled from any Android or iOS  device through the free downloadable app. Sonos used to make a dedicated controller, but apparently the market for these dried up once people began buying app-driven gadgets. No surprise – you can pick up an 8GB iPod Touch for less than the Sonos controller and you can play Angry Birds!

All McDonald’s restaurants getting free Wi-Fi across Canada

Starting today, over 1,000 McDonald’s locations around the country will be flipping more than hamburgers – the fast-food chain will be flipping the switch on free Wi-Fi access for their customers.

The network, which is being implemented by Bell, will deliver free and unlimited internet access at a very respectable “up to 11 Mbps” which should be more than enough bandwidth for surfing the web, watching YouTube and maybe even the occasional Skype call.

You don’t even have to buy a Big Mac to use the free service; just log-on using the 1-click entry point, which doesn’t require a username or password.

The company expects to have 1,400 or 90% of their Canadian locations enabled with free Wi-Fi by the end of May.

If you’re scratching your head and thinking to yourself, ‘wait a minute, I thought they already had free Wi-Fi,’ you’re right. McDonald’s first implemented free Wi-Fi in their stores back in 2003, but it was a very limited roll-out with service at only a handful of participating stores.

Now if you’re serious about free, consider this: Between free Wi-Fi at McDonald’s and free Wi-Fi at Starbucks,  you’re virtually guaranteed to be no more than 5 minutes from free web access of some kind, anywhere within a major metro area.

Okay Tim Hortons… your turn… you don’t want these other guys having all the fun, do you?

Disclosure: Sync is owned and operated by Bell Media.

Motorola Xoom Wi-Fi hits Canada in April

The device that won best of show for this year’s CES, is finally destined for Canada, at least in Wi-Fi flavour.

According to a Motorola press release sent out today, the Android Honeycomb-powered tablet will be in retail “beginning April 2011.” If that wasn’t vague enough, there was no pricing info included either.

Beyond just a repeat of the specs for the Xoom, which most people are probably familiar with by now, the only new info that was offered was a list of the accessories that will be available at launch:

  • Standard Dock for watching videos on the Xoom while you listen through external speakers
  • A Speaker HD Dock “for sending HD content directly to a TV or clearly listening to music through two built-in speakers”
  • A Bluetooth keyboard with Android-specific shortcut keys

And – you guessed it – no pricing on these items either.

So stay tuned. Oh BTW, the 3G version is coming “mid-year”.

Update 2:54 p.m.: Okay looks like we have a price by way of a TELUS press release… $599. Interestingly, nowhere do they say that they have an exclusive on the Xoom, so hopefully more retailers will join the fray before the April launch.

Update Mar 22: You can pre-order the Xoom on FutureShop or BestBuy, both sites selling for $599 for the 32GB version. For some reason Motorola hasn’t seen fit to offer a 16GB version to match the 16GB iPad 2, though some rumours suggest this may yet change.

Related: Check out Marc’s video tour of the Xoom

Hackers can crack your password in 10 minutes

Is this guy hacking your password? (c) Getty Images

Is this guy hacking your password? (c) Getty Images

It certainly makes for a good headline doesn’t it?

Even though that’s not what Business Week used as the lead for their article about password security last month, it might as well have been.

The article lists off a bunch of password combinations including length (from 6 to 9 characters) and complexity (with or without upper/lower case and with or without special characters) and then gave the approximate times it would take a dedicated hacker to crack those passwords.

The first combination, 6 all-lowercase characters with no numbers, change of case or special characters, can supposedly be guessed in as little as 10 minutes. That claim is designed to scare you as well it should.

The last combination, 9 mixed-case characters with numbers and special characters will take a mind-blowing 44,530 years to crack.

Okay then, case closed right? Everyone just needs to use this combination for their password – or even the slightly less secure 8 character version which will still take 463 years to break – and the hackers will be out of business and we’ll all sleep peacefully knowing our precious Facebook status updates can’t be hijacked by some jerk.

While I would love it if things were that simple, I was skeptical after reading the article and decided to reach out to a security expert for a quick sanity check.

Marc Fossi, Executive Editor, Internet Security Threat Report over at Symantec spoke to me by phone and helped shed some light on the whole password security issue.

The bottom line for Fossi?  “There’s no single silver bullet for security.”

“Security is a process,” he says and by that he means that if you’re taking comfort in the fact that you have one of those 44,530 year passwords, you should be thinking bigger-picture.

The fact is, most successful password hacks aren’t hacks at all. They’re the result of malware infecting your computer through a variety of means – perhaps you opened an infected email attachment, or loaded a file of a USB key that had been previously altered or you grabbed a BitTorrent file that had been seeded as a honey-pot. The list, sadly, is long and varied. However it happens, it’s this virus sitting silently inside your PC that is the real thief and threat. It can track every keystroke you make on your keyboard and hand-deliver it to the waiting hacker who simply has to read through the resulting text to find exactly what s/he’s looking for.

And thanks to our own lazy habit of password re-use, which Fossi flags as a serious problem, that one password maybe the only one the hacker needs to gain access to your financial institution(s), email or corporate intranet.

Suddenly that crazy 9 character string of nonsense doesn’t seem so safe does it?

In case you haven’t already guessed, and there really should be no surprise here – Fossi suggests using an security product such as Symantec’s Norton 360. There are other options as well ranging from the free AVG and Avast! to monthly paid options from your ISP.

But even the combination of strong passwords and a comprehensive security suite can’t provide 100% protection. Especially in our wireless world of Wi-Fi. Unlike with many password-protected websites which often limit the number of incorrect login attempts, thus keeping the brute-force method somewhat at bay, there is no such protection on most home Wi-Fi routers, leaving them open to a hacker in a car with a powerful laptop. Fossi notes that even the outrageously long times cited in the Business Week article could be cut in half or much more with today’s modern quad-core processors. Worse yet, if the hacker has access to a network of cloud-based computers, the total number of CPUs that could be brought to bear on the cracking of your password could number in the hundreds. The article simply doesn’t say what machinery was used to come up with those numbers.

So while there may not be a “silver bullet”, there are still some best practices when it comes to keeping your data from prying eyes:

– Definitely use a “strong” password of at least 8 mixed-case letters with numbers and special characters. It may not provide complete protection but it is far better than a simpler password.

– Having trouble remembering that combination? Use what Fossi calls a “pass-phrase” instead of a password: Take the first letters from the words in an eight-word phrase that is easy for you to remember, for instance “Honey Can You Please Take Out The Trash” and convert it into: HcYpT0T#  (note the “O” from “Out” is now a zero and “Trash” has become the # sign).

– Use anti-virus software, keep it up to date, and make sure you scan ALL files and attachments

– If you have Wi-Fi at home, make sure to use WPA2 as the security protocol – it is FAR more secure that the older WEP and WPA protocols

– Change your passwords regularly. Even if a hacker manages to get one of your passwords, it may be days, weeks or months before they get around to trying it – hey they deal in volume after all – by that time you will have moved on and they’ll be locked out.

Readers, do you have any suggestions to add to this list?

Verizon’s iPhone 4 gets Wi-Fi hotspot feature

Verizon's iPhone 4 will feature a Personal Hotspot tool

Verizon's iPhone 4 will feature a Personal Hotspot tool. Image courtesy of TechCrunch.com

Oooh, colour me jealous! Today, Verizon announced to the relief a huge number of U.S. residents, that they will (finally) be carrying the iPhone and breaking the exclusivity that AT&T has enjoyed since the first edition of the device back in 2007. That’s a long time to wait.

But that’s not the part that has me excited. Thankfully Canada is one of the few markets where Apple has not continued its practice of exclusivity for such a lengthy period of time. But I digress..

What really gets me pumped is the fact that the Verizon edition will include a feature called “Personal Hotspot”, which as the name suggests, allows up to 5 users to connect to the phone via WiFi for the purpose of internet tethering. You can also tether via USB or Bluetooth, but these connections are one-to-one, not one-to-many.

There is no word yet whether Apple will release this feature to iPhones on other carriers via the next version of iOS (4.2.5) which the Verizon model will run at launch. But I believe we have reason to be optimistic. The HTC Desire Z, for instance, has this feature too and you can use it freely (i.e. without any additional data fees) on the Bell network. Likewise, devices such as the MiFi offer the same functionality.

Why am I so keen to get this feature on the iPhone? Simple: It’s all about choice. I bought an Apple iPad without the 3G option because 99% of the time I know I will be using it with WiFi networks. But on the rare occasions when I can’t connect to a Wi-Fi network, I want to be able to use the iPad, and I didn’t think paying the extra $150 for a 3G version (plus a data plan) made any sense for such limited use. But there is no way to connect that device (or any other Wi-Fi only gadget) to my iPhone.

A WiFi hotspot feature would be the answer to a lot of problems.

Here’s hoping that Apple sees the intrinsic value to its users and makes this an upgrade to all iPhones with the next iOS release. After all, if Android can do it….

[via TechCrunch]

Update Jan 12, 4:16 p.m.: BGR has claimed, and we have confirmed with Apple –  that this feature will be made available on existing iPhones, but that it will be subject to carrier approval. No word yet on which Canadian carriers will support it, or if there will be additional fees involved. We do know that Rogers requires a separately purchased plan in order to use the hotspot feature on the new Palm Pre 2, so that may be an indicator of how they will treat the feature on their customers’ iPhones. Rogers and Bell include tethering on their smartphone data plans.

Related:

disclosure: Sync is owned and operated by Bell Canada