December 14, 2005

Hey, where did all the wires go?

Wireless is the new black. Everything is wireless these days – first it was the cordless phone, then the mobile phone, then a few years ago Apple released Airport, the first consumer friendly wireless networking solution (based on the 802.11b protocol), then Intel built wireless into their mobile computer chips and suddenly everything is wireless – well nearly everything.

Wireless networking or specifically the 802.11 protocol requires that you are nearby an access point. These are generally pretty easy to find. Millions of households around the world have wireless routers/modems that allow them to surf or check email from anywhere in their house – these same networks have been built in high-traffic areas like airports, hotels and retail strips and shopping centres. The biggest provider of 802.11 wireless solutions in Australia is Azure - check out their website to see if they offer a wireless hotspot near you. If they don’t there is now another option to add to the list of wireless solutions.

Bigpond has just announced their wireless service that runs on their high-speed 1xEV-DO network. If you are out of range the card automatically switches to their CDMA1X that covers up to 98% of the population. The price of the plans depend on whether you need a mobile card or desktop solution, and also what speed of service you want and how much you plan to download. Plans range between $34.95 per month for the desktop solution to $69.95 for the mobile solution. A desktop modem will cost you $199, and a mobile PCMCIA card is $299 on a 12 month contract. On my Mac installation was very simple, I inserted the CD, ran through the installer, entered my username and password, restarted and I was online.

3’s wireless solution uses the 3G high speed network. 3’s product is targeted only at laptop users. For a $99 cap per month 3 wireless customers receive up to $500 worth of internet usage (about 488Mb). With a $49 minimum spend the PCMCIA card is free, however to buy outright costs $540. Setting the 3 card up was easy and hassle free on my Mac. The 3 card does not require a username and password and can also be used to send and receive SMS messages (Windows only).

Like 3’s service Vodafone have also just released a high speed PCMCIA data card. Manufactured by Novatel Wireless (like 3’s) Vodafone Mobile Connect also uses the newly released Vodafone 3 network. Mobile Connect plans range from $29.95 for 100Mb to an unlimited plan for $99.95 while the card costs $399 (off plan). Set-up was easy, and on Mac OS X the Vodafone card uses the built in Internet Connect application. Like the 3 card, Mobile Connect throttles back to the regular GPRS network if the high speed 3G network is unavailable.

In my testing I achieved slightly higher speeds on the 3G based networks (3 and Vodafone) (17.6Kbps) compared to Bigpond’s network (15.7Kbps) and both reasonable coverage around Melbourne. All three products suffered when inside buildings but Bigpond suffered the most. EVDO reception was good in the inner city but poor outside this area. Once the Bigpond card throttled back to CDMA1X it was basically useless. I was testing the 512K service from Bigpond, if you opt for the cheaper plan (256K) assume you will get half that speed (but the same reception). Another thing to consider is that the 3 capped solution is only available while on the 3 network, if you roam on to the Telstra GPRS network you will need to pay extra. Vodafone Mobile Connect roams on to their GPRS network so you’ll need to think only in terms of data. Like Vodafone, Bigpond provides a fixed amount of data regardless of whether you are connected to the high-speed EVDO or the ultra-slow CDMA network.

All solutions are impressive – and work today. If you are on the road and spend most of your time in the CBD (of all capital cities) and broadband speed internet access is critical then all cards will give you good access. If you mainly travel away from city areas I’d suggest the Vodafone Mobile Connect due to the more flexible network roaming and better value for money on the unlimited data plan.

A Beginners Guide to Blogging

According to definitions, blogging is ‘To write entries in, add material to, or maintain a weblog.’ OK, so what’s a weblog. Well, in simple terms a weblog or blog is an on-line diary – however it’s not a private diary (as most are) but rather a public diary where people can read and discuss your thoughts. Blogging is the equivalent of podcasting – just with text.

Blogging has been around for years but lately it has risen to a new level of prominence – and some blogs now generate as much web traffic as on-line newspapers. Anybody can become a blogger – and share their opinion with the world. Another great thing about blogs is that they can be interactive – readers can leave comments and others can even comment on the comments!

Popular blogs can generate a huge amount of interest and therefore traffic. The smart Bloggers try to monetise this traffic by using on-line advertising. Rather then in-your-face banner ads they use smaller more subtle content driven advertising that matches the content of of the blog to the ads. The rationale is that if you are interested in what you are reading about you are more likely to click on the ad about the same topic.

Some of my favourite blogs are Engadget and Boing Boing. Each has a unique style and I often check these sites regularly.

Creating a blog 3 years ago required intricate knowledge of HTML (the language of the web) however now there are websites dedicated to helping you set up a blog. My favourite is Blogspot.

Once you create your blog space you are ready to blog. Simply click ‘New Post’ and start your blog entry. In your entry you can add images and links – I’d suggest adding both to your entry as this makes for more entertaining reading for your audience. And speaking of your audience how can you get people to notice you.

In the Blogger preferences you can add yourself to their directory of blogs – this will generate some traffic. A better way is to email your blog link around to your friends and ask them to forward it on to anyone you think might be interested. Next thing to do is add your blog address to Google to generate even more traffic.

If you do create a blog try to keep in current by updating it frequently – that way you’ll have people coming back to see whats new rather then a once off visit – and you’ll find that it can become cathartic, a new way to vent your angst!

December 7, 2005

The new iPod

People won’t believe you when you tell them. How could they believe that in a device smaller then most mobile phones you can fit up to 15,000 songs, 25,000 full-colour photos AND 150 hours of 30fps video. Well, you better believe it because this week Apple launched the latest its line of iPods. And this time, it comes in black.

Apple has been very busy for the last 9 months cracking out 3 entirely new iPods – first came the Shuffle, a solid state, screenless iPod that serves up your music in random order. In my gym every second person has one. Then, only 2 weeks ago came the Nano – the revolutionary replacement for the Mini. Based on solid state flash memory the Nano is smaller to hold then the average business card and sounds terrific. The Mini was available in four lolly colours; the Nano is available in Black (the new Black) and White (the old Black).

Finally, just last week Apple released its Flagship 5th generation iPod – and yes, this time it does Video. Most major media outlets predicted this but you really have to see it to believe it. The gorgeous, bright 2.5 inch LCD screen (320 x 240 pixel) makes the basic iPod functions like selecting music and playing games even better. Album art looks almost real and video is just crystal clear and a pleasure to watch. I’m still not sure if I’d like to watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy on it but for music videos and hour long TV shows its great.

The new iPod is the thinnest and most portable video player I've seen. The $449 version is about 30% thinner than the previous model, yet it holds 50% more data, and has a larger high-resolution color screen. Somehow Apple enlarged the screen without enlarging the overall width of the iPod.
Apple claims that the 30-gigabyte hard disk on the model we tested can hold up to 7,500 songs, or 75 hours of video, or 25,000 photos. The 60-gigabyte model doubles that capacity for $99 more.

Battery life on both models if very good if you stick to music, however watching videos can drain the battery more quickly. The 30-gigabyte model is rated as being able to show 2 hours of video and 14 hours of music. The 60-gigabyte model is slightly better achieving 3 hours of video and 20 hours of music.

After the Nano was released the public made a fuss of the lack of included case – Apple have made a mends with the iPod bundling a simple carry case in the box. Also in the box is a USB cable (the new iPod doesn’t support Firewire anymore), earphones and software. However, if you’d like to do more with your new iPod you might consider purchasing a universal dock ($59), AV cables (so you can watch videos and photos on a TV) ($29) and a USB charger (for charging while away from your computer) ($48)

In my testing the iPod works like every other iPod. The screen was bright and easy to read and syncing with my Mac was simply a matter of plugging it in. I downloaded some Video podcasts to test out video quality and to my surprise was very impressed. The screen is clear, sharp and bright, and outputs at 30fps – making the whole image very smooth. Audio fidelity is as good or better as previous models and the dock connector is compatible with the full line of iPod accessories. TV output from the iPod was better then I expected, quality was excellent from both my purchased videos and my home made iMovies.

The new iPod however won’t play most video formats (in fact it only supports 3 codecs H264, MP4 or M4V) so if you want to continue watch all of those clips you have saved up you’ll need to convert them across. There are many utilities available on the Internet to do this (most are free) or you can follow Apples instructions here. Please note that this requires a $29 upgrade to Quicktime 7, something Apple should definitely include for free.

In my opinion Apple needs to make transferring video to the iPod as easy as possible to encourage rapid adoption and should release a suite of tools that lets you do this – or at the very least include conversion tools within iTunes (like they have done for music) Until this point, the iPod should be considered as primarily a music player that does video, rather than a Video iPod that plays music.

With this new iPod Apple have another hit on their hands. In last weeks investor briefing Apple described iPod Nano sales as ‘staggering’ and this was only after 17 days of being available. One can only imagine the adjectives Apple execs will use when the Christmas season passes and Amazon hottest product list looks like this:
1. iPod (white)
2. iPod (black)
3. iPod Nano (black)
4. iPod Nano (white)
5. iPod Shuffle

The colour behind Bluetooth

Bluetooth is that latest wireless technology to hit the vernacular. In fact it is so popular now I often see people driving and walking with these devices attached to their ears. However, Bluetooth is more then just a technology that connects wireless headsets to mobile phones; it can also be used to link up just about any peripheral to anyother. I like to think of Bluetooth as a wireless replacement for the USB cable. In fact, Bluetooth has a range of up to 10m so think of it as a long USB cable.

Whenever you use a Bluetooth device you’ll need to pair the two devices. Pairing is a form of ‘mating’ the two devices so they are secure, and also so they know what each other is capable of. For instance, if you pair a mobile phone with a computer via Bluetooth, on pairing the phone tells the computer what it is capable of (eg. File transfer, SyncML and dialup Internet). The requirement of entering a PIN number is useful so other Bluetooth devices don’t interfere with your unique pairing.

Bluetooth devices have dropped dramatically in price, and most modern mobile phones now come with the technology standard. Typically, this means you can use a Bluetooth headset that lets you talk on your phone while it is in your pocket or bag.

Most Bluetooth headsets only have three buttons – one lets you answer and hang up calls and the other two are for volume. Pairing the device usually requires that you hold down the answer button for an amount of time and initiate the pairing from your phone or computer. You’ll need to consult the headset manual for the required PIN but in my experience it is usally ‘0000’.

If you have a computer that also has Bluetooth you might also consider pairing the headset to your computer. This will allow you to use VOIP applications (like Skype) with your headset and often improves the conversation quality for both recipients. In my experience

Bluetooth is getting better thanks to better support by mobile manufactures and better quality headsets. My first headset 2 years ago wasn’t reliable and battery life was terrible. My current headset works well – the biggest problem is its constant requirement for charging.

If your computer doesn’t have Bluetooth and you’d like to add the option the cheapest way to do it is with a USB Bluetooth adaptor – These should set you back about $90 and simply plug in to either your desktop or laptop and let you use any compatible Bluetooth device.

If you plan to use any electronic device in the future you’ll need to get familiar with Bluetooth – it is the accepted wireless standard to connect devices and will only gain in popularity in the next few years – eventually it will replace USB as it is more convenient and transfers data nearly as quickly.

December 1, 2005

VOIP or Voice over Internet Protocol

Voice Over IP or VOIP is the latest buzz word to hit the IT world, just recently confirmed by the fact that eBay, the internet auction site paid over AUD $3Billion for Skype, providers of VOIP.

VOIP in simple terms is voice communication over the Internet. In practical terms, that means using your computer (or a specialised phone router) and an application (I’ll get to that in a minute) to make regular phone calls. If the phone calls are to others who are also running a similar application then communication is free. However, if the communication is to a regular PSTN or mobile phone, it costs money. The catch here is that it doesn’t cost MUCH money and certainly a lot less then a comparable call from a landline phone.

The two main applications that are available for VOIP are Skype and Gizmo. Both work in a very similar manner. First off, you’ll need to download one or both and install on your local computer. Once loaded you’ll need to create an account (a wizard will help walk you through this process) and then you’ll need to find friends to chat to.

Before you start chatting however make sure you have a good set of headphones and a microphone to plug into your computer. To find people to chat to you can use the built in phone books – these generally work quite well. I was able to find friends of mine in the US and the UK and connect with them. If however you want to take advantage of the cheaper calling rates to normal phones then you will need to buy credits. For Skype these are called Skypeouts and can be purchased in blocks of 10 Euros. As an example, a typical call to a landline in the US costs (at the time of publication) .027 cents per minute.

Alternatively RTX technologies produce a USB cordless dualphone ($199) that works with Skype. Simply plug the phone in to a USB port on your computer (Windows only) and the phone interfaces with Skype so you can make and receive Skype calls like you would normal calls. Additionally, because you are interfaced with your computer your Skype address book is accessible via the phone. Another great feature of this phone is its ability to plug into a regular PSTN line allowing you to make regular local untimed phone calls. In my testing, the USB cordless dualphone worked well for both regular and Skype calls. Setup was very easy but make sure your computer is connected to the internet as the software needs to download the latest version before installation. Voice quality over Skype was generally good but suffered when my internet connection was busy checking emails. This phone is first generation and aimed at people who want to test the VOIP waters but don’t want to be tied down to their computers. At only $50 more then an equivalent DECT phone but with Skype capabilities it is a good purchasing option.

If you’d prefer to get more serious about Skype and ditch your phone provider altogether there are other options. Available in stores now are VOIP boxes from different providers. I tested VOIP services from MyNetFone and Engin.

Engin’s voice box was the simplest to plug-in and get going. Literally, take the box out, plug it in to your broadband router (You’ll need one of these – so if you only have a one-port ADSL router you’ll either need to upgrade to a four-port or buy a hub for $50) and your regular phone line and you are ready to go. We use a DECT cordless phone at home and this worked well with the Engin box. Sound quality was inferior to regular phone call but in most cases adequate. During heavy Internet usage periods voice quality suffered noticeably and the service was unusable. Callers complained of mumbled sounds and most sentences needed to be repeated twice. My wife who is more critical then me complained and made me disconnect it.

Engin’s pricing plans may compensate for the lack of voice quality on occasion. A basic monthly subscription is $9.95 (plus you’ll be spending about $150 on the Engin box) and local and national calls are untimed 10c all day every day, and calls to mobile are 29c per minute. International calls are very competitively priced at 3.5c per minute. Additionally with the Engin service you get another phone number.

Setup for MyNetFone was a little more challenging however I found quality of service was much better then Engin. I tested the MyNetFone service on a NetComm V300 VOIP ($229) router that doubles as a VOIP box and a router. Initial set-up was more challenging but if you have experience configuring routers then you should be fine. If you don’t have this experience I suggest you employ your local technician to get you running. You’ll need to know how to login to the router, add your particular settings (like your phone number, password and IP details). Once setup though I found the service was excellent. The NetComm unit has a feature called QOS (Quality of Service) that instructs the router to prioritise voice data packets over regular packets. In practical terms this means voice quality doesn’t suffer during heavy internet usage periods. In my tests the NetComm router was almost perfect. On some occasions dialling a number didn’t actually place a call – in these situations I had two options, hang-up and try again (this usually worked) or dial ## before the number to use my existing PSTN phone line.

MyNetFone’s pricing is comparable to Engin’s – a mega-saver plan costs $9.95 per month and that gives you access to 10c untimed local and national calls. Mobile calls are billed at 29c per minute with no connection fee. International calls cost as little as 2c per minute (this is comparable to SkypeOut rates). MyNetFone do not provide an additional phone number with their service.

Either way, VOIP promises to bring even cheaper phone calls in the future as the technology becomes more common, and will in the future probably displace regular phones as the commonest means of communicating. For now, if you are really keen I’d suggest buying a dedicated router (like the NetComm V300) and signing up to a service like MyNetFone and giving it a shot. If however you think you’d like to wait I’d suggest downloading and using Skype as a cheaper alternative. Either way, Telstra should beware - VOIP technology will develop quickly and overtake regular PSTN lines over the coming 5-10 years.

How fast is Broadband?

The term broadband simply refers to fast Internet access. I think it easiest to think in terms a water pipe. If you have a narrow pipe only a small amount of water can flow through at a time, however if you increase the diameter of the pipe more water can flow through in the same amount of time. Now, instead of water flowing think in terms of data.

A narrow pipe is called ‘Narrow band’ and is typically what you get when you are using a modem and a dialup connection. There are different dial-up speeds, the most common is 56Kbps. A broad pipe is called “Broadband” and the minimum speeds available are 256Kbps. In relative terms 256Kbps is about 5 times the speed of dial up. For some people this is adequate however in my opinion shouldn’t really be referred to as broadband.

So what about the difference between ADSL and Cable? Well, think about the difference between a black pipe and a white pipe. Both carry water but look a little different. Theoretically, the maximum diameter of each pipe is different but in reality this is unimportant.

The only providers of cable in Australia are Optus and Telstra. In my opinion Optus cable is far superior not because it is fastest, but because Telstra cable uses an antiquated connection system that is often faulty and very unreliable. Both offer similar plans but if you have the choice go for Optus.

With ADSL there are many more providers because ADSL runs over regular phone lines. In fact ADSL can run side by side with your voice line so being on the internet won’t mean your phone is engaged.

In terms of providers I like both iiNet and Optus. Both offer are competitively priced and offer a reliable connection. However, Optus offer a minimum plan of 512Kbps while iiNet (for around the same amount) offer 1500Kbps. On the negative iiNet have just merged with Ozemail and have caused some users much frustration with long support delays and occasional network instability.

Regardless of the broadband provider you choose, make sure you choose broadband. Even if you only send the occasional email, or browse the occasional website broadband will improve your experience. Plus, these days total cost of broadband is often cheaper then dialup – when you factor in the 25c each time you connect.