Friday, August 22, 2014

Boosting your Tablet and Smartphone's WiFi

More and more people are using their tablet or smartphone to access the internet. Gartner forecasts tablet sales to increase by 54% this year while PC sales are set to decline by 11%. Although I don't have any statistics, my belief is that amongst us RV'ers the numbers are even higher. Who wants to schlep a heavy PC around when you can do 90% of what you want to do on an iPad?

Connecting to the Internet

A lot of people travel with a MiFi card or use their phone as a hotspot. This generally works very well, but data can be expensive. If you want to upload photos, download or stream music or install a new OS version it's better to use WiFi. However, connecting your tablet or smartphone to the campground's WiFi can be a real challenge. It's hard enough with a laptop, but I find my iPad's WiFi not as sensitive. WiFi boosters have been around for a while, but almost all of them require you to plug the booster into your device via a USB connection. But as you know, tablets and smartphones don't have USB connections. So what's to be done?

Setting up your own Boosted WiFi Hotspot

We have a gizmo that connects to a WiFi booster and enables you to set up your own WiFi hotspot. It's called the USB WiFi Repeater. You connect the booster to it via a USB cable (which also powers the booster). You then connect to the Repeater over its own WiFi connection and tell it which WiFi signal to tune in to. Once you've done that, any device that connects to your hotspot (e.g. tablet, smartphone, Kindle, Roku box, Smart TV, WiFi Printer) can access the internet. Even better, you'll have your own network so your devices will be able to talk to each other. This can be useful if for example you want to be able to print from your mobile device.

Each time you move campgrounds you'll have to login to the repeater and reconfigure it for the new WiFi signal. To make this easier, we have a TechnoRV Learning Series which takes you through each stage step-by-step. Once you've done it you'll be sitting outside in your easy chair drinking a cocktail while surfing the web in no time.

Selecting your Booster

You'll still need a booster to connect to the USB WiFi Repeater. Boosters amplify the transmit and have bigger antennas and so amplify the receive (but not by as much). That's worth remembering when you use a booster because WiFi is bi-directional, like a 2-way radio. The signal is also line-of-sight and is significantly impacted by obstructions such as RVs, trees, buildings etc. That's why it's best to put the antenna as high as possible and in direct sight of the campground's antenna.

We have three types of booster:

Desktop WiFi Booster

Our desktop booster can either sit on your desk or ideally, suction on to the window facing the campground's WiFi antenna. Even though it is inside, it is about 20 times more powerful than your mobile device's WiFi and can pull in a signal up to half a mile away. Its advantage is that you don't need to run a cable outside. The disadvantage is that because it is inside, there is a signal loss and your signal is more likely to be obstructed. Having said that, it's probably the best bang-for-the-buck.

To buy this solution, you need the Desktop WiFi Booster and the USB WiFi Repeater.

External WiFi Booster Tube

This booster is the same power output as the Desktop Booster (1W), but it has a longer antenna meaning that it has more gain (8db compared to 5db i.e. 1.5x the signal strength). Since it is mounted outside and is higher, it generally performs better than the Desktop booster.

It comes with a long (15') USB cable and a couple of nylon ties. For mounting, we suggest either the rear ladder, or on the side of the bat wing TV antenna if you have one of the manual crank-up type.

Again, the challenge is getting the cable inside - you can either drill through the roof (eeek), pass it through a vent on the roof (e.g. the refrigerator vent) or pass it through an open window.

Once inside, it plugs into the USB WiFi repeater, just like the desktop booster.

To purchase this solution, you'll need the External WiFi Booster and USB WiFi Repeater.

Super-Long Range Solution (Yagi)

The Yagi antenna is like having a super-large dish on your satellite TV. It's really good at pulling in a weaker signal from say a campground's indoor WiFi. This was the situation that I had at a campground in Webster which doesn't have outdoor WiFi, but does have it in the rec room. Using the Yagi I was able to access this weak indoor signal. Here's a video which I created at that campsite showing how I was able to use the Yagi.

The downside of the Yagi is that it works best if mounted outside which means that you need a way of getting the cable inside. Secondly, you always need to point it at the source WiFi. For this reason, we tend to recommend Yagis more for static installations such as park models, or long term camping when you're not moving around every day. Having said that, it is a good tool to have in your "bag". 

If you're interested in this solution, you'd need to buy the Yagi Antenna, LMR Cable, WiFi Booster and USB WiFi Repeater.


Hopefully this has given you a bit more information on what you'll need to boost your tablet's WiFi. We do also the Learning Series for both the Desktop Booster and the USB WiFi Repeater which gives more information as well as specific instruction on installation and configuring the system.

If you do have any questions, as always, comment on the blog or drop me an email.

Friday, August 15, 2014

iPhone vs Android - Security (Part 7)

We're nearing the end of our iPhone vs Android comparison. In this section we talk about mobile Security. It may be something you haven't really thought about. "Why would anyone want to hack my phone?" you might ask. Well, let's think for a second about the amount of personal data you have on your smartphone.

If someone has access to your phone, they can usually easily access you email (and where are your passwords sent when you click "Forgotten Password')? Then there's your location information, your social networks, your internet searches, the websites you've been visiting, your bookmarks, photos and contacts. See what I mean?

There are two aspects to securing your phone, physical and virtual. Being vigilant to the rising risk of smartphone theft is becoming increasingly important. For example, nearly 2,400 cell phones were stolen in San Francisco alone last year, a 23 percent rise from the year before. According to the  FCC, one in three robberies in the US involve these high-value devices. Not leaving your phone on view or sitting on a coffee or restaurant table are good habits to get into. US lawmakers are in the process of enacting legislation requiring cell phone manufacturer to build a "kill-switch" into their phones (Minnestoa has already passed this law and California isn't far behind). This should help reduce the theft issue by making the stolen devices effectively worthless, but for now, it's still a major issue.

On the virtual front, there are a number of simple things that you can do to protect yourself.


First of all, make sure that you "Lock" your phone with a code. It's in General / Passcode Lock. This can be either a simple 4-digit code or a more complex password. I suggest also enabling "Erase Data" which will delete your phone's contents after 10 failed attempts (don't forget your number). You should also enable Find My iPhone which enables you to track your phone, lock it, remotely wipe it and prevent it from being reactivated without your password. Of course, you should regularly backup your phone ... see my earlier article on backup).


The situation on Android is a little more complex. Apple’s iPhone is generally deemed to be secure due to its ‘sandbox’ configuration. This stops applications communicating with the phone and means the platform accounted for only 0.7% of mobile malware in 2012. Google's Android operating system is built on an open model which means that it is much easier to post malicious apps which can hijack your phone, send text messages to super expensive phone numbers, monitor your calls or online shopping.

To protect yourself, first of all, only download your apps from Google's Play Store. (make sure Settings / Security & Screen Lock / Unknown Sources is unchecked).

Next, always check the permissions that the app is asking for when it installs itself. For example, Angry Birds doesn't need permission to send text messages.

Next, just as on the iPhone, make sure that your phone has a lock. On my Motorola Droid, this can be a pattern, face recognition or a PIN. I've tried the face recognition and it's crap. It can take multiple attempts and is slow. I used to use a pattern because I thought it was cool and easy to remember. Then I met a chap who ran the FBI's Cyber-Crime Prevention team. When he saw me swipe my phone to get into it he said "Don't use a pattern, it's way too easy to crack. Just hold your phone up and look at the screen sideways. You'll see the smear pattern left on the screen. Just trace it one way or the other way and bingo, you're in." Now I use a PIN. Interestingly, he also said that at last count they had over 100,000 known malware and virus' on the Android, but none on the iPhone. I couldn't believe it. None is incredible.

Next, make sure your phone automatically locks (Settings / Security & Screen Lock / Automatically Lock) and that Verify apps is checked (Settings / Security & Screen Lock / Verify apps).

Finally, I'd recommend installing at least one security app. There are many to choose from, but I'd recommend either Lookout (my preference), AVG Mobilation Antivirus or Avast Free Mobile Security. These apps will check for malicious apps during installation, premium telephone numbers, find your phone, remotely lock and wipe etc. Having used them on my Droid, they can slow your phone down and cause some hiccups, but in general I believe it's definitely worth any downside.

Remember the saying "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"? So be sure that you're regularly backing up. On Android that's easy. Just enable your Google+ backup (Settings / Accounts / Google and then make sure everything is checked). You can also see my article on Phone Backup.

So Which Offers the Best Security?

Like everything, it's personal preference. I like the iPhone because it offers excellent security without any need to install third party apps which can cause issues. On the other hand, it doesn't offer app permission or the ability to encrypt the phone and SD card. The real take away is to protect yourself by taking these simple steps:
  • Be vigilant when using your phone, especially when out and about
  • Lock your Device
  • Make sure you've recently backed up
  • Keep your OS and Apps up-to-date
  • Be careful what you click on
  • Only download apps from Google or Apple
  • Install a mobile security app if you're on Android
  • Be careful with public or unsecured WiFi