Sunday, April 28, 2013

Gadget of the Week - USB WiFi Repeater

Almost all WiFi boosters need to be plugged into a computer and require drivers to be installed, which can be quite troublesome. Not any more. This gizmo requires no drivers and lets multiple computers connect to your booster.

As long as you have one of TechnoRV's Boosters, simply plug it into the Alfa Repeater. That's all the installation that is required.

What the repeater does is take the boosted WiFi signal and then repeat it or re-broadcast it over a new local WiFi, kind of like your own WiFi hotspot.  Each of your devices then connects wirelessly to this new hotspot and can thereby talk to the boosted WiFi signal and hence the internet. It's very cool. You can even give your hotspot signal a name and password protect it to stop those pesky people from trying to use your cool gear.

Here's a diagram (okay, I know it's a house but your RV is a house, right, it just has wheels):


Those devices can be other computers (PCs or Mac's running any operating system), Smartphones, Tablets, Smart TVs, Roku boxes and even stuff that hasn't been invented yet! Plus, you can connect your wireless printer to the hotspot and allow all those devices to print because the WiFi Repeater is also a router meaning that it will connect all of those devices together on your own network. Plus you have the added bonus of no wires, so you can sit outside with your cocktail and iPad while surfing your very own boosted WiFi signal!

The only catch is that you do need to tell the repeater what WiFi signal to 'tune in to.'  You do that by connecting a computer to the repeater (either by ethernet or wirelessly) and then selecting the appropriate signal. Don't worry, it comes with instructions and we also have a Learning Series that comes with it.

If you'd like more info, here's a short YouTube video with Phil talking about the Repeater. I'm using a  RadioLabs version as an example, but everything I say applies equally to the Alfa version.


Saturday, April 27, 2013

App of the Week - GasBuddy

I recently drove from Lakeland, Florida to Goshen, Indiana. On that trip, I saw gas prices vary from $3.89 in Florida to as low as $3.11 in Costco, Charleston, SC. That's a 78c / gallon difference! Just with my little RV, that's $50. So the trick that we all face is to figure out where to fill up and where to just put in the minimum to hobble through.

Enter GasBuddy. GasBuddy uses customer input to compile a US wide database of gas and diesel prices. You simply press the home button and it will display all the nearby prices in a list or on a map. What is also very useful is the ability to enter a city (e.g. your destination) and see if the gas is cheaper or more expensive there. I used this quite effectively just recently to make sure that I arrived in South Carolina empty and made sure I filled up, since IN was a lot more expensive. It works better if you have a larger tank than my piddly 70 gallons, but hey, every penny counts!

There are other gas pricing apps, and like everything, you can read good and bad reviews, but it works great for me (and is rated 5 stars from more than 90,000 reviewers), and I find that generally, most pricing data is less than a day old. Check it out, it's free!

Friday, April 26, 2013

iPhone vs Android - Getting Started (Part 1)


This series of articles is meant to provide you with a perspective on Android Smartphones from the perspective of someone who is very familiar with the iPhone. It is intended to be impartial (as best I can) and does provide some comparison of features, although is not a detailed manual or training class. For that, I would suggest attending the TechnoGeek Learning Rally or becoming a member of the Geeks on Tour to access their training videos. It might prove useful if you are considering a Droid or iPhone, or have just bought a Droid and want some help figuring it out. Good luck! By the way, I do not profess to be an expert on Droids. If I say something that is incorrect or misleading, I apologize. Let me know and I will correct it. Promise.

First Day

My first task on my new adventure was to decide which Droid to purchase. You will recall that the term Droid (short for Android) is actually the operating system that these phones run (like iOS that the iPhones run). It is the software that runs the phone and gives it its "look and feel". Android is developed and owned by Google which explains its close integration into all things Google (more on this later).

My choices were quite simple. It came down to the Motorola Razr Max HD or the Samsung Galaxy 3S. I'm not going to compare the hardware, there are other sites that do a better job on that than I could (e.g. TechCrunch). In summary, I preferred the Razr's larger screen and longer battery life.

First Impressions

I was SO excited when I opened up the box. I loved the sexy sleek black look, BUT, it took me 5 minutes just to figure how to turn it on! Once that major hurdle was overcome, it goes through a very cool boot sequence and I was in. Now what? To be honest with you I was completely lost. Now I know how most of my customers feel when they come to our seminars or onto our booth. Luckily I'd sat through enough of Chris Guld's wonderful Smartphone seminars to know what a few of the buttons do.

Already you can see my dilemma. I was used to the iPhone's single center button. Now I had 4 to worry about!

The Home button is similar to the iPhone's Center button so I started there. It takes you back to the Home Page. The Back button is kind of like an undo. It takes you back through all your mistakes to where you were. I use it a lot. It's your friend.

Applications

Now the Apps button is a bit weird for an iPhone user. It takes you to a whole different parallel universe - one where your apps live. This is going to freak you out. Apps live in this parallel universe and can also appear on your Pages, like your Home Screen. However, they don't have to. The icons on your Pages are like links to your Apps "real" home which is in this Apps parallel universe. If you delete an App off your Page, it still lives in your Apps Universe. To completely get rid of an App you have to go and attack it on its home turf by removing it in the Apps Universe. Whew, pretty unnerving stuff. But wait, it gets weirder. Apps can also be Favorites (at least on the Razr) which means they also have a link on a Favorites Page. Again, remember that they can only really live in one place (the Apps home). This is a useful way of quickly finding your favorite apps.

One of the first things you'll want to do with your new phone is get some cool new apps. Even if they are serious apps, you get them at the Google Play Store. Click on the Play Store app and search for your app. When you install it, it will go and live in your Apps Parallel Universe and make an entry on one of your Pages.

Before I leave apps, there's a new app-like thingy on Droids which is called a Widget. It's like a mini-version of the app and is always running, meaning that it can be a quick way of getting information. Examples include a widget showing a traffic light (green or red) with your home commute time showing based on live traffic conditions, another would be a simple clock, or a window to your favorite pictures. Have a play with them, they are fun and don't exist on the iPhone.

Pages


Pages are like screens, or sheets of paper laid out side by side. You can scroll between them by sliding your finger left or right. As I mentioned, Pages are where you can put links to your Apps or Widgets to give you access to information quickly. To put an App on a Page, use the App Button to go to the App Parallel Universe, and hold down the App. You will then see a small version of your Pages where you can drop your App in the right place. You can then move that App around by holding it down, or remove it (and send it back to its parallel universe) by moving it up to Remove.

Settings

Just like on the iPhone, there's an App called Settings which takes you to the phone's settings. This is where you connect to WiFi, set up a hotspot, manage your sounds etc. On the Razr Maxx you can also get here by swiping left (or is it right?). There's a lot in Settings, so here's some pointers:

  • Avoid the Verizon apps (e.g. Backup Assistant Plus). They are crap and try to charge you money
  • Make sure you visit Security / Screen Lock. You can set Face Recognition (cool, but rubbish - much too slow) or Pattern which is excellent (wish it was on the iPhone)
  • Use Sound to select you notification sounds and ring tones
  • Visit Backup and Reset and check Backup my Data. This backs everything up to your Google account and is a VERY good idea, and is free
  • Setup your Voicemail - this is done through the Verizon Voicemail app or by dialing *86


Ring Tones

Street credibility dictates that you HAVE to have a custom ring tone. Having a 10-year old Nokia with the default ring tone says so many things about you, most of which are not complimentary. There are many places you can get them for free, but I got mine from Zedge. "Bad to the Bone" as a ring tone and the "Star Trek Computer" for my notifications. I admit it, I'm a trekkie. There, I'm outed.

Mute

Imagine my disappointment when after all this set up, I kept missing calls. My phone was a mute. It wouldn't emit a sound. I looked everywhere for the mute button but couldn't find it. After a couple of days I noticed when I turned it on there was a speaker icon on the left. I'd never noticed it before as I was always in a state of trepidation when turing on my phone. The little grey circle was in the left position. By sliding it to the right, my phone regained its full faculties (unlike me).

Now that I could actually hear my phone ringing, I then had the issue of trying to answer a call. Gone are the days of pressing the green button, or "Send" (remember that?). Now you have to slide the thingy all the way to the right to answer. This really bugs me. It's hard to do with one hand and if you get it wrong, my phone takes great delight in hanging up the call.

Summary

I was exhausted after my first day, but had achieved a lot. If you're in the same boat, the only real way is to play, curse, throw a tantrum, play some more, threaten the phone with sudden death and then play some more. OR, attend the next TechnoGeek Learning Rally where we spend 3 days talking about Geek stuff, mostly around Smartphones.

So how did my first day experience compare with when I got my iPhone? It's a little hard, as the iPhone was my first true love and so will always have a certain special place in my heart. But seriously, I found the iPhone to be a fun, pleasurable and easy experience. With the Droid, I felt like I was fighting it all the time. Even now after 3 months, I still don't find it as intuitive as the iPhone and I still have to think how to do something or where to find something. Maybe its just me, but I'm not one to give up.

Next up I'll be looking at managing your Contacts, something which really bamboozled me.

Legal disclaimer: TechnoRV does not represent Verizon, Apple or Motorola. All opinions in this and subsequent articles are my own and if you don't like them, well no one forced you to read my article. 

iPhone vs Android - Photos (Part 4)

I can't remember exactly when it happened, but it happened fairly quickly. I just stopped carrying my camera around. Perhaps it was a couple of years ago, it doesn't matter. But, what is important is that before that I always had my camera with me. It was just something I did. That's why I liked the small pocket size cameras with as good video as possible (I had a Sanyo which was a pistol grip, pocket size and shot HD quality when most people didn't even know what it meant).

There were a couple of things that spurred me to do this. First was the ease of sharing. No more copying photos over to the computer, organizing, editing and then uploading. One click of the button and my photos were shared with Facebook, PhotoBucket etc. Second was the fact that my phone had a built-in GPS which meant I could always see where my photo was taken - so many times before when we traveled I forgot where the photo was taken. Thirdly, it was just pure convenience. One less thing to carry. According to CNET, almost one third of all photos taken are with Smartphones, up 10% from the previous year, mostly at the expense of point-and-shoot cameras.

So what does this mean in the context of iPhone vs Android? For me it means that the way phone camera's quality, ease of use and management / sharing of photos is very important. So let's take each of these in turn.

Camera Quality

On paper, they both seem very similar. Both have an 8MP camera and shoot video at 1080p and 30 fps.   But a long time ago I learned that you can't judge a camera on paper and the same goes here. Let me share with you a photo that I took here in Goshen and you'll see what I mean.

Motorola MAX HD
iPhone5
It's hard to compare photo quality on a website since the browser distorts colors and the quality is reduced for loading times (click on each photo to download the original photo). So now we get personal as a lot of this is subjective. BUT, first of all, the Droid is widescreen, which I prefer. Secondly, the clarity seems better if you look at the clock face, but most importantly, the colors seem brighter and more vibrant. In fairness, this is done in software and can be compensated for by transferring your photos to a computer, but as I've already described, it's rare that I do that now.

Ease of Use

This is where it starts to get interesting. First of all, the iPhone5 allows quick access to your camera without having to unlock your phone. On the Droid, you have to first unlock your phone, go to the home screen if you're not already there and then go into your Camera.









Once the camera is loaded, the Droid does offer many more features such as Night Portrait and Sunset as well as prompting you to switch to HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode if needed. On the other hand, sometimes my phone says "Cannot initialize camera" and won't let me take any photos without re-booting which is REALLY annoying. Other times it decides it doesn't want to make the shutter noise or update the little photo with a picture of what it's taken. The iPhone5 is therefore much more reliable as a camera.

Photo Management

iPhone

The iPhone makes managing and sharing your photos very easy. If you have a Mac computer, you just connect your iPhone to the computer and it will bring up iPhoto to transfer, store, manage, edit and share your photos. iPhoto comes free on a Mac and works pretty well (easier to use than Picasa, but that's not a very high bar). If you have a PC, I understand that you just connect it and it mounts as a drive so you can use your program of choice to transfer the photos (or Microsoft's own if you want to live dangerously). If you don't have a computer, or just don't want the hassle of transferring your photos, you can enable iCloud (Settings / iCloud and then turn on Photo Stream. This will automatically download  all your photos with all your Apple devices (other iPhones, iPads or Macs running the latest OS). You can view these online although in my opinion, it is a little complicated and there are much better ways of doing it such as Facebook or Photobucket.

Android

The Motorola Razr Max has a microSD card on which you can store your photos, but you have to tell it to save them to that card (Camera App / Settings / Storage Location). I would recommend this for as number of reasons. First, if your camera has a melt-down, you can always pop out your card to get your photos and nothing is lost. Secondly, it makes it easy to expand your phones storage or put in a new card if you're on a trip and need more space. Thirdly, you can use the card to transfer the photos to your computer (cumbersome, but it works).

To transfer your photos physically to your computer, plug in your phone and it will mount as a drive and pull up your program of choice to transfer your files. A more elegant way is to turn on the Google+ photo share (Settings / Accounts / Google / Google+ / Instant Upload). The nice thing about this is that it will automatically upload your photos (at full resolution) to your Google+ photo account. You probably don't realize that you have one, but if you have an Android phone, trust me, you do. Any photos that get uploaded are PRIVATE. They CANNOT be seen by anyone unless you go in and share them. This makes it very easy to not only share your photos, but have them as a backup. In my opinion, this is a better solution than Apple's Photostream which can get confusing. Not that this will also work for videos, but can be data hungry so watch your plan!

The one big downside that I haven't mentioned is the speed of the camera. On my Droid, it is SO slow, especially compared to the iPhone5. In a quick experiment I was able to take 35 photos on the iPhone in 30 seconds vs 15 on my Droid. Roughly speaking, that's more than twice the speed. Not a biggie, but it can be important when trying to get the right photo for example with children or animals etc.

Summary

I'm in a quandry. I like my Droid's color balance, widescreen format, options (sunset etc), SD card, and Google+ integration, but I hate it's unreliability, speed and clumsiness. On the other hand, the iPhone is easier to use as a camera and faster, but lacks some of the Droid's features. Perhaps the Samsung Galaxy overcomes some of the Motorola's short comings. Perhaps I need a third phone? If you have a Samsung Galaxy, let me know what you think of it as a camera.

It's worth mentioning that Samsung has a phone / camera hybrid called the Samsung Galaxy Camera EK-GC100 which is like an Galaxy phone melded with a point-and-shoot camera. It has built-in connectivity via AT&T or WiFi and all the cool features of an Andoid phone including editing with apps and uploading to Facebook, Google+ etc. But then it's back to carrying a phone and a camera. Ahhhhhh!

Personal Update



There's an old Chinese saying (actually more of a curse) which says "May you live in interesting times". Just when life begins to settle down, it becomes "interesting" again. For the last 2 weeks of February and first 2 weeks in March, Tracey, Ally and I were in Mexico on a working vacation. Our friend has a house just outside Puerto Vallara and offered for us to stay there. It's a block from the beach and is wonderful. Since we were down there we decided to have some medical work done (see my article). Long story short, Tracey had a mammogram and it turns out that she has breast cancer. I must admit, it was unexpected as she's not even 50 yet and there was no lump. Following so close from the loss of our son Josh last year it tested all of our strength and then some.

The good news is that we caught it early (stage II) and it hasn't spread too far. If we hadn't gone to Mexico I really don't know what would have happened. So in a way, it was a blessing that we went to Mexico and found it (I'm sure our guardian angel Josh had something to do with that).

Tracey is now back with her family in the UK and is receiving excellent medical care. She's started chemo and is doing very well, keeping her spirits up, despite us being apart. So far it's been 1 month and 5 days that we've been apart, the longest time in 24 years. I plan to go out to be with her in August after the major rallies and we'll take things from there.

So for now it's Murphy and I traveling the US together. I must admit, the RV seems much larger! We're currently in Goshen getting ready for the Holiday Rambler rallies and then working our way to FMCA International and Escapade in Gillette. Driving and navigating on your own is a new experience!

I do have one small favor to ask. Since I will be on my own at most of our upcoming rallies, if you could be patient with me at the booth that would be great as I hate to keep people waiting, but you might have to wait a little longer than usual as everyone tends to come at once! Ally might come out to help and I'm trying to line up some other help, but we'll have to see how that goes.

In the meantime, please join me in wishing Tracey well. She's such a trouper and I'm so proud of her. She misses being here terribly and would much rather be traveling than stuck in one place, not to mention having to deal with what she's going through. You can always email tracey (same as mine with her first name) or message her using Facebook or Whatsapp.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

WiFi Boosters - A Case Study


We're staying at the Florida Grande Motor Coach Resort just outside Webster Florida. It's a very nice class-A only resort, but it doesn't have any in-park WiFi. It does have WiFi in its recreation room, but that's about 250 yards from where we're parked. I tried looking for it on my laptop and nothing. Not a peep. What's a TechnoGeek to do? Consider it a challenge of course!


The first thing to try was my range of external boosters. These are mounted on the back of my rig and I've been experimenting with different brands and configurations so this was ideal timing. Interestingly, none of them was able to see the rec-room signal which surprised me as their theoretical range is 0.5 to 1 mile. After investigation, the problem was two-fold.



First, I took a look from the roof of my RV. Instead of a clear line of sight over to the rec-room, there was a metal roofed building in the way. This is one of the biggest problems with WiFi - you need as clear a line-of-sight as possible. RV's and especially metal buildings kill the signal.


To solve that problem I decided to try our Desktop booster from the front of the RV as this had a clear line-of-sight to the rec-room. The good news is that I could now see the signal, but the signal strength is -60dBm (70%) with a link quality of 50 - 60%. The connection was intermittent at best and rated at only 1 Mb/s. It certainly wasn't usable. I knew that the Alpha could easily reach that distance, so what could the problem be? It turns out that the problem is not on the transmit side, but on the receive side. The rec-room only has a small home-style WiFi router. These are designed to cover a room or floor of a small house, but definitely not 250 yards of campground. What I needed was a way of boosting the receive side. I needed a bigger pair of ears!

Enter the new Yagi antenna that we've just finished testing. It's 16dBm which means that it is more than 10x more sensitive than the 5 dBm antenna that is standard on the desktop booster. After connecting the Yagi to the booster and lining it up with the rec-room I went back to my laptop. The connection was solid, the signal strength improved by 7 dBm (4x), the link quality by 20 - 30% and the speed increased to 6 - 9 Mb/s. That's nothing to write home about BUT, compared to not seeing a signal at all on my laptop, I was pretty jazzed. 

Now remember, the 6 - 9 Mb/s is the theoretical maximum speed that a WiFi link of this quality will support. WiFi 802.11g under "perfect circumstances" is 54 Mb/s. What you actually get depends not only on the link quality, but also on the load from other users as campground WiFi is a shared resource. It's like your water pressure dropping on a hot day if everyone starts watering their lawns. I ran a Speakeasy speed test and got 0.49 down and 0.24 up which while not great, was useable, and best of all, FREE!


The Yagi antenna can be mounted inside your rig like I did, or mounted on a pole outside (I actually mounted mine on an extendable RV wash/wax pole that Josh bought me). Of course, since by its very nature it is highly directional and needs to be pointed at the WiFi source, but it is a great "tool" to pull out when you need it. Best of all, it connects directly to the desktop booster so makes a great add-on. Visit the Yagi Antenna on our website for more details or give us a call / comment on the blog if you'd like to ask questions or get advice. Happy connecting!


Testing our WiFi Solutions - Case Study