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In the Zone

Tech Explainer: How gaming PCs keep their cool

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by Kevin Jacoby on 07/22/2021
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Cooling systems are the unsung heroes of PC gaming.

Coolers may not be all that glamorous. They’re quietly efficient. They don’t call much attention to themselves.

But without the right cooling system, your customer’s hot new game would grind to a halt. Nothing glamorous about that.

Why computers get hot

Heat is the archenemy of any computer. So why do PCs get hot in the first place?

It all comes down to one word: resistance.

Every component of a computer, including its processor and GPU, draws electricity. The more powerful the component, the more electricity it needs. Gaming PCs use some of the most powerful components available, so they use a lot of juice.

Now, as all that electricity flows across the circuits and through the wires of a high-performance processor, it encounters natural resistance. That resistance, in turn, creates heat.

In a gaming PC, this level of heat can rise quickly. Without the right cooler, a gaming computer can easily reach internal temperatures in excess of 200 F. Keep that going long enough, and inevitably your system will fail.

So how cool should a gaming PC be? Ideally, no more than 176 F, according to CPUTEMPER, a website covering CPU and GPU temperature issues. That’s why gaming systems need such powerful ways to keep their cool.

Blowing in the wind

There are two main approaches to cooling gaming PCs: air and liquid.

Most consumer gaming PCs are cooled with air. Air coolers aren’t as effective as liquid coolers. But they’re less expensive and easier to maintain.

The cooling starts with the processor itself. A dab of thermal paste helps transfer heat from the top shell of the CPU, called the Integrated Heat Spreader (IHS), to the baseplate of the CPU cooler. From there, the heat gets transferred via one or more heat pipes to a radiator.

Corsair air-cooling system

Corsair A500 Dual-Fan CPU cooler

The radiator’s thin, metal fins are designed to maximize exposure to cooler air, which helps to carry the heat away. In most PCs, this process is aided by a temperature- and sensor-controlled fan. As heat builds up, the fan spins into action.

Some air-cooled PCs also have smaller intake and exhaust fans mounted inside the chassis. These fan create positive airflow, pulling cool air in from the PC cabinet’s front and pushing hot air out of the top, sides and rear.

Liquid refreshment

Liquid cooling systems, such as the one shown in this Asetek video, are more complex and expensive than their air-cooling cousins. But you get what you pay for.

Liquid cooling is not only quieter than air, it’s also more effective and efficient. That makes liquid cooling ideal for high-performance, competitive gaming.

Asetek liquid cooler

Asetek 690LX-PN liquid cooler – approved for Intel Xeon CPU

Just like its air-cooling cousin, a liquid cooling system transfers heat from the IHS to the cooler’s baseplate. This is done via the thermal paste sandwiched in between.

But here’s where things get different. The heat is transferred to the system’s liquid coolant. This coolant then gets pumped away from the CPU and other components via an outlet tube.

At the end of the tube, the hot liquid reaches a radiator. It’s then cooled by air blown through the radiator’s fins by small intake fans mounted on the front of the chassis. A larger fan behind the radiator acts as an exhaust, pushing hot air out through a port in the rear.

Once the coolant’s temperature drops, it begins the return journey. The coolant is pumped back to the CPU via a return tube, and the process begins anew.

Exceptions that prove the rule

While traditional air- and liquid-cooling systems are the most common types, they’re not the only games in town.

In another approach, the PC relies on a sturdy but thin aluminum chassis to dissipate heat naturally. In effect, this makes the entire chassis one big heat sink.

Yet another approach is used for supercomputers that kick off more heat than a standard cooler can handle. Designers submerge the entire computer in a bath of thermally (but not electrically) conductive liquid called dielectric coolant.

This method, known as immersion cooling, draws the heated coolant away and replaces it with cooler liquid. This process is similar to standard liquid cooling, but it operates on a much larger scale.

Stay cool, baby

Gamers are a competitive bunch. They’ll always refer to faster processors and higher core-count GPU arrays as the specs that help them win competitions.

But it’s the cooling system that keeps their gaming rigs running. Without adequate cooling, your customer’s hot CPU would be one hot mess. 

 

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In the Zone

Working from wherever? These mobile apps can help

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by Kevin Jacoby on 07/16/2021
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Forget getting back to normal. The global pandemic has created a new work from home (WFH) culture that’s here to stay.

Mobile apps are making the transition, too. The latest ones will let you and your customers work from just about anywhere.

If WFH taught us anything, it’s that the traditional office isn’t as necessary as we once thought. We can get on Zoom instead of getting on an airplane. We can collaborate on Slack instead of gathering in the bullpen. And we can store big PC files on DropBox, then later retrieve them on our phones.

This genie isn’t going back into the bottle. Sure, vaccination rates are climbing in many major U.S. cities. But there’s no cure for our desire to work smarter, more efficiently and without a long commute.

Office: beyond the office

Is your spreadsheet data reliable? If so, then no one cares where you made it. So why not run Excel on your iPad from wherever you happen to be?

Microsoft’s venerable Office 365, starting around $70/year, is truly cross-platform. You can start a project on your Windows laptop, add some facts and figures from your Android tablet, and review coworker comments on your iPhone while waiting in line for ice cream.

Microsoft Office mobile apps

Office 365 apps: made for mobile — Windows, Android or iOS

And soon you’ll be able to fire up a full version of Windows in any mobile or desktop browser. Microsoft just announced a new platform it calls the Cloud PC. The new Office 365 will take SaaS a step further by offering a browser based OS and apps accessible from any internet-enabled computer.

Or are you as tired of MS Office as you are of your physical office? In that case, variety is just a click away. Google offers a full office suite. Apple has one, too. Both allow you to import and export native Microsoft Office files.

Slack: not just for slackers

When the pandemic hit, WFHers had to scramble to stay in touch with coworkers throughout the day. Their challenge: find a smart, intuitive platform that meets everyone’s needs.

For many, the answer was Slack. That’s the uber-productivity platform that describes itself as “your virtual HQ.”

Once the worst-kept secret of the BuzzFeed crowd, Slack is now all grown up and ready to do some serious business. Its notable features include multimedia chats, video conferencing, project management, to-do’s and reminders.

Slack on mobile & desktop

Slack: stay in touch via both desktop and mobile

Slack even has a built-in function that enables collaboration among different companies. Imagine a PR firm, ad agency, video crew and client all working together on an ad campaign via Slack.

Slack subscriptions range from free with limited features to around $12/month/user for the full Business+ suite.

But Slack isn’t for everyone. If apps wore clothes, Slack would be compulsively clad in New Balance trainers and an ironic Van Halen T-shirt.

If your thing is more pinstripes and power ties, you may want to take a look at Microsoft Teams. Its super-tight integration with Office apps Word, Excel and PowerPoint delivers equal doses of convenience and sober maturity.

Cloud storage: So many files, so little time

No matter where you’re working, chances are you’re creating a ton of files, some of them quite large. What you need now is easy access to those files on every device, anywhere in the world. That’s where cloud-storage apps such as Dropbox come in.

Cloud storage makes perfect sense for mobile work. While you can easily put together terabytes of storage space on a PC, that’s not so easy with a tablet or smartphone. That’s why leasing space in the cloud — the average rent for 2 TB is around $10/month — will save you time, hard-drive space and sanity all at once.

Dropbox on a mobile device

Dropbox: all files on mobile — without taking up precious storage

And Dropbox isn’t the only game in town. You can also get cloud storage from Microsoft, Google, Apple, WeTransfer, Box, Amazon and dozens of other providers. Most offer a small amount of storage for free, making it easy to try before you buy.

Maximizing mobility

Now that Pandora’s Box is open, will we ever go back to the office again? The answer is both yes and no.

For some, office space is a necessary expense, necessary inconvenience — and necessary evil. For others, it’s an anachronistic ritual to be cast aside in favor of efficiency and convenience.

For the rest of us, we’ll settle into a hybrid solution, one that involves a little bit of mobile commuting as well as a little bit of mobile computing. Free from the earthly bonds of our desks, we’ll rise up, if not to the heavens, at least to the cloud.

It’s a big world out there. Go find a nice place to do some work!

 

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In the Zone

Your guide to personal printers in the age of WFH

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by Kevin Jacoby on 06/21/2021
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Do people still print things? Like, on paper?

As it turns out, yes, they do. Sometimes it’s all about a stodgy government bureaucracy that demands printed forms (in triplicate). Other times the kids just want to print out a homemade birthday card for grandma.

Then there’s the over-40 crowd. They grew up writing and correcting on — gasp! — actual paper, and they just can’t get over it.

To be sure, the days of buying new printers, reams of white paper and endless ink cartridges may yet experience an ignominious demise. But as of mid-2021, we’re still pumping money into the printer market like it’s going out of style.

This must come as something of a relief to the folks at HP. Sure, the company’s printer revenue, which represents half its business, has been in steady decline for over a decade. But even at the lowest point in 2020, printers still brought HP annual revenue of $17.6 billion.

More recently, for HP’s financial quarter ending this past April 30, the company’s printer revenue actually rose 28% year on year. What’s more, those sales delivered an operating margin of nearly 18%. So much for the end of printing!

Killing trees the old-fashioned way

The pandemic-inspired work from home (WFH) movement must surely account for some of HP’s billions. When COVID struck, scads of cubicle-dwellers suddenly found themselves with shopping lists that included laptops, scanners, webcams and, of course, printers.

Were they disappointed to find out that the tech behind today’s printers has hardly changed over the last decade? Perhaps. But maybe they were mollified by today’s printers’ lower retail prices, easier hardware setups, and ability to print wirelessly from just about any device.

In most cases, WFHers chose between the venerable inkjet printer and its highfalutin’ cousin, the laser printer. Both types have been around for ages, and both continue to proliferate in a very if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it kind of way.

To each his/her own

Choosing the right printer is mostly a matter of determining the pros and cons of each type, then deciding which features you consider most important.

The pros and cons of an inkjet like the HP Deskjet 3755 All-in-One (around $90) look something like this:

Pros:

> Cheap hardware, ink, and paper

> Easy-to-find ink cartridges

> Produces relatively high-quality color photos

Cons:

> Ink runs out quickly

> Printing is slow

> Relatively low resolution

HP DeskJet 3755 printer

HP inkjet printer: cheaper printing, hi-quality photos

On the other hand, laser printers such as the sub-$200 Canon imageClass LBP6230dw have a different set of ups and downs:

Pros:

> Crisp, high-resolution printing

> Longer-lasting toner cartridges

> Fast printing

Cons:

> More expensive hardware

> More expensive replacement cartridges

> Subpar color printing with cheaper models / expensive high-quality color printing

Canon imageClass printer

Canon laser printer: a splurge to buy, but cheaper to run

Adding another dimension

Oh, the future of printing? Yeah, it’s 3D. But you already knew that.

3D printers have been around for ages; early so-called “additive manufacturing equipment” was developed back in the 1980s. But it wasn’t until recently that startups including MakerBot brought 3D printing to the masses.

Today’s 3D printers are readily available and downright affordable. For instance, you can pick up a Monoprice 121711 Select Mini 3D Printer at Amazon for under $200.

Monoprice 3D printer

Monoprice 3D printer: at $200, that’s one low price

Modern 3D printers use various types of filaments, including ABS plastic, nylon, carbon fiber, polycarbonate and polypropylene. The filament is heated until it turns into liquid. Then it’s squirted out of a nozzle, not unlike the way an inkjet printer squirts ink.

However, unlike an inkjet printer, when the 3D printer’s filament dries, the result is not a picture on a piece of paper, but an actual three-dimensional object. Said object could be the prototype of a new cellphone, a hard-to-get replacement part for an engine, or even a life-saving heart valve.

Printing money for the channel

Printers represent an opportunity for the channel the same way they do for titans HP, Brother and Canon.

In many cases, the printer itself is a loss-leader. But the ink, paper, and maintenance they require is anything but. For example, a single ink cartridge for that $90 HP Deskjet printer will set you back $16.

3D printers are another opportunity. Here, channels partners can help their customers use 3D printers as rapid-prototyping devices.

It’s now feasible because prices for 3D printing hardware and filaments have come down far. The right setup could save SMBs millions in pre-fabrication costs while also providing channel partners with a burgeoning revenue stream.

The key to success is right there in black & white. (And color.)

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Tech Explainer: How a VPN can keeps your data private

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by Kevin Jacoby on 06/14/2021
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Remember when getting some privacy was as simple as shutting the blinds and taking the phone off the hook? Yeah, those days are long gone.

Welcome to the Internet Age, where everyone is snooping. From totalitarian regimes to the service provider that sends the internet into your home and office, someone is always looking over your shoulder.

There’s no simple solution. All you can do is employ some modern tech to stack the odds in your favor.

If you’re ready to start stacking, a virtual private network (VPN) is a cheap and easy way to go.

What’s this private network of which you speak?

Essentially, a VPN creates a secure, encrypted connection between your device and a remote private server somewhere on the internet. Because that server obscures the origin of any data request you make, you can remain anonymous.

Reliable, modern VPNs such as Mullvad (recommended by The New York Times) install easily on your computer or mobile device. The automatic setup, with your permission, routes your internet traffic through a secure server that’s located somewhere, anywhere on the net.

Mullvad VPN app

VPN app Mullvad secures not only PCs, but also phones

You can also install a VPN on your router or hotspot. You may get slower speeds than if the VPN were right on your device, but it does bring the benefit of convenience. That way, once the VPN is installed, every connected device will enjoy the same level of security. You won’t have to set up each one individually.

By obscuring your browsing, watching and communicating habits, a VPN essentially hides you from prying eyes. Those could be the eyes of your ISP. Or, for that matter, of anyone that has gained access to your data stream, whether legally or otherwise.

VPN diagram

A VPN sits between you and the public internet (diagram via Privacy End)

For example, if Kim Jong Un demanded to know whether you watched the “Friends” reunion, your VPN could keep the Supreme Leader in the dark. Hey, it could happen.

Do I seriously need a VPN?

No, not really. But should you seriously think about getting one? Well, that depends. Do you…

> Have concerns about government surveillance or censorship?

> Need a remote connection to your company’s intranet?

> Spend a lot of time on public Wi-Fi?

> Want to stream movies from another country’s Netflix library?

If your answer to any of those questions is Yes, then it may be time to shell out $2 to $20 a month for a reliable VPN.

The risk is low. Because a VPN is just another app, there isn’t much in the way of commitment. If the VPN makes you feel safer, keep going. But if it turns out to be just another unnecessary monthly expense, cancellation is only a click away.

What’s the catch?

Yes, there’s always a catch. Always.

VPNs are designed to give you the warm-and-fuzzies while you’re surfing and streaming. But no security solution is foolproof.

Your data has to go somewhere. If it’s not going straight to your ISP, then it’s going to the company that provides your VPN.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But you should know that law-enforcement agencies sometimes subpoena VPN providers to get data. And sometimes these VPN providers comply.

Another issue: A VPN can slow you down. Introducing other apps and servers into your data stream creates latency. With the VPN sitting in front of your internet connection, you could experience slower upload and download speeds.

The slowdown could be a remote issue, too. Your chosen VPN may boast thousands of fiber-optics-connected servers around the world. But the speed and efficiency of each server depends on several variables, including traffic, location, even local weather.

Watch what you don’t pay for

If you do go for a VPN, there’s one more catch: If something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Many VPNs offer a free service tier. But ask yourself: If they’re not making money from your monthly subscription fee, then how exactly are they making money?

The answer might have something to do with selling your private data to the highest bidder. Buyer beware!

That said, a VPN you pay for could be your new best cyber friend. No, it’s not as easy as pulling down the blinds. But for our uber-connected age, it’s definitely a whole lot more secure.

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Bring your podcasts up a notch with this cool high-tech gear

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by Kevin Jacoby on 05/20/2021
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Well, it had to happen: former President Obama and Bruce Springsteen have a podcast together. So do Rob Lowe and Oprah (obvs!).

There are now so many podcasts, it’s as easy to find commentary on turbocharging a 1984 Datsun 300ZX as it is to catch up on President Biden’s latest speech.

As of last month, there were more than 2 million active podcasts offering a total of 48 million episodes, according to Podcast Insights’s, uh, podcast insights.

Do you or your customers have a podcast? If so, the almighty electronics marketplace has your back. Let’s take a look at a few choice pieces of high-tech podcasting gear.

The RØDE to podcasting excellence

If you know about microphones, you probably know the name RØDE. It carries some serious cachet. That may be as good a reason as any to assume the RØDECaster Pro personal mixing console can help produce high-quality podcasts.

At just shy of $600, it ain’t cheap. But what this mixing console lacks in reasonable pricing, it more than makes up for in features, sound quality and ease of use.

RODECaster Pro

RØDECaster Pro: first-in-class features—and a pedigree to match

With 4 discrete microphone inputs, the RØDECaster Pro lets you record up to 4 (vaccinated) people in 1 room. And because of the pro-audio industry-standard XLR mic inputs, this podcasting mixer is compatible with just about any professional mic in the world. Take your pick: anything from the venerable—and cheap—Shure SM58 to the nearly $11,000 Sony C800G Studio Tube Condenser. (How much you wanna bet Obama and Springsteen are using the latter?)

And if you’re on the go, RØDECaster Pro can store your session on an internal SD card. The mixing board can also act as a USB audio interface that sends an audio file to your Mac or Windows PC.

The RØDECaster Pro also has user-programmable buttons, 8 in all. They let you trigger theme music, sound effects, or just about any other prerecorded material you can think of.

Your virtual cameraperson

So here’s the sitch: You’re shooting a video podcast showing how you make the world’s most divine zabaglione. You also happen to be shooting alone in a rather large kitchen. So large, that when the camera is pointed at the counter by the sink, the stovetop is out of the shot. What’s a chef to do?

If the chef has a Pivo auto-tracking device, there’s no problem.

Pivo looks a bit like the bottom of a travel coffee mug. A gripping mechanism on the top holds your mobile phone. Then it swivels to and fro automatically to keep track of either your face or body.

 

Pivo

Pivo (with phone in place): follow the action—in portrait or landscape mode

A Pivo will set you back anywhere from $100 to $150, depending on model. But at least the companion app, available for both Apple and Android smartphones, is free.

To use it, you just snap your phone into the Pivo’s gripper, in either portrait or landscape mode. Then tell Pivo to start tracking you, and hit Record.

As you move around, Pivo will continually center you in the shot. If you happen to wander entirely out of frame, Pivo can automatically rotate the camera up to 40 degrees in either direction horizontally. Any more than that, and you’ll need to reshoot.

So. Super. Simple.

Multitrack recording consoles and rotating camera-phone stands are all very fine and well. But what if you simply want to get down to podcasting business?

Enter the Shure MV5 microphone, It’s a simple option that retails for just under $80.

The MV5 is a simple condenser mic that connects to just about any USB- or Lightning-equipped device. Total setup? Just plug it in.

Shure MV5 mic

Shure MV5 mic: Easy to use? Sure!

Most up-to-date desktop and mobile operating systems will quickly recognize the Shure MV5  and then automatically select it as the primary audio-input device. From there, use either your favorite audio software or the ShurePlus MOTIV audio app (included at no extra cost). Then just hit Record. Simple!

But wait, there’s more…

You can consider the aforementioned products for what they are—solid, reliable podcasting devices. But you could also see them as examples of larger product categories.

For example, for every RØDECaster Pro, there are dozens of other personal mixing consoles. And for every MV5, there are legions of USB mics with staggering arrays of features and price points.

That’s great news if you’re in the market for podcasting gear. Competition is fierce, and that’s usually good for consumers.

It’s also good news if you’re in the business of selling podcasting gear. As the number of active podcasts reaches into the millions, it’s good to know that a gaggle of potential customers is just a click away.

Hey, that would be a good subject for a podcast, no?

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Tech explainer: How do digital trackers track?

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by Kevin Jacoby on 05/17/2021
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It’s 6 o’clock, do you know where your keys are? Or, for that matter, your wallet, laptop or suitcase?

You would if these items were equipped with digital trackers.

Digital trackers are wireless devices that you attach to your things—keys, toys, a wallet, you name it. Then, if those things get lost or otherwise misplaced, the tracker communicates with your smartphone to help you find them.

The recent release of the Apple AirTag has made trackers front-page news. But in fact, the lowly and ubiquitous Bluetooth tracker has been around—and selling like hotcakes—since 2013.

Apple AirTag on key ring

Apple AirTag: offering Bluetooth & ultrawideband tracking

Apple AirTags do bring some new tech to the tracker table. They add ultrawideband radio technology and near-field communications (NFC), delivering extra features and precision.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the start.

A long time ago in a galaxy far away…

The first consumer tracker to really catch on was made by a company called Tile Inc.

Tile was crowdfunded into existence in 2012. Within a year, the startup had raised over $2.6 million, pre-selling devices to some 50,000 people eager as all giddyup to locate their car keys the morning after a righteous shindig.

Tile the company still exists, and the Tiles of today bear a striking resemblance to the original version. They’re small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, powered by a replaceable lithium battery, and connect to your mobile device via Bluetooth. And they work with iOS, Android and Windows.

Prices range from around $25 for the Tile Mate and Tile Pro to just shy of $40 for the credit-card-shaped Tile Slim and the adhesive-equipped Tile Stick.

Tile trackers

Tile trackers: your choice of form-factors and colors

The biggest difference from the original Tile is that the current models support the latest, greatest version of Bluetooth. That’s important. Over time, Bluetooth has become more accurate, more reliable, and more accessible, with a usable range that has extended from only about 25 feet to anywhere from 100 to 400 feet.

Specifically, Tile uses a variant of Bluetooth 4.0 called Bluetooth Low Energy (so does the Apple AirTag). As the name suggests, BLE does its job while sipping the very least amount of battery life it possibly can. The tracker you buy today shouldn’t need a new battery for well over a year.

Help, I left my laptop in the seat-back pocket!

Locating a lost tracker happens in one of two ways—either via your phone or via someone else’s.

If your Tile or AirTag is relatively nearby, chances are good your phone will pick up the Bluetooth signal and then point you in the right direction.

You can also hit a button in the accompanying mobile app, causing the tracker to sound an alarm. While these devices are small, their alarms are loud enough to be heard through your average sofa cushion or from the bottom of a laundry hamper.

But what if you left your wallet in your sister’s cousin’s boyfriend’s Honda Civic, and he’s already back home in New Jersey?

You could be saved by networked tracking. In this scenario, you’d create a private, secure network by enlisting other Tile or AirTag owners who have opted in.

First, you’d confirm via the app that your tracker needs tracking. Then all networked devices would keep an eye out for the unique Bluetooth signature of your specific tracker.

If and when your tracker is located, the closest enabled device confirms its location and the information you provided. In the case of Apple, this happens very neatly and efficiently via NFC.

Apple’s one more thing

Unlike Tiles, the Apple AirTag, which retails for $29, can be used only with an iOS device. This may annoy Android users, but it does let Apple offer some useful features made possible by the company’s control of the full hardware/software stack.

One such feature is the AirTag’s ease of use. The inner workings of the relationship between an AirTag and other Apple mobile devices are already built into the OS. So there are no apps to install. And setup is quick and easy.

Further, with nearly a billion Apple devices in users’ hands worldwide, the chances of someone recovering your keys from San Luis Obispo are pretty good—nearly as good as if they were just behind the credenza in your foyer.

Apple Precision Finding

Precision Finding: Apple’s U1 chip guides you to your item

By far the coolest “one more thing” Apple has to offer is the addition of ultrawideband location. That comes via the U1 chip in both the AirTag and Apple iPhones 11 and 12.

Here’s how it works: If you have the right combination of devices, and if the AirTag is nearby, then the Precision Finding feature will guide you right to the AirTag with arrows and proximity measurements. Even better, these pointers get updated in real time as you move closer to or farther from the track.

Track it up, I’ll take it

Both Tile and AirTag trackers are available directly from their respective designers as well as through major retailers such as Best Buy and Amazon.

Tiles come in your choice of form factors and colors. AirTags come in any color you want, as long as it’s white. However, Apple does offer free laser engraving. And a discount, if you buy ‘em 4 at a time.

Now all you need to do is figure out how you’ll spend all the time you’d have otherwise wasted looking for the keys!

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

These 3 gaming monitors get big, bigger, biggest

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by Kevin Jacoby on 04/21/2021
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They just keep raising the bar, don’t they? One day, you have the world’s best gaming rig. The next, you read about some boffo new gear that practically demands more mileage from your already beleaguered credit card.

If you’re currently attending meetings for Gearaholics Anonymous and need to get that monkey off your back, stop reading now. (The first step is admitting you have a problem.)

But if you’re on the lookout for a way to make your or your customer’s gaming habit look like a million bucks, boy, do we have a monitor for you. Actually, three.

Go big or go home

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the craziest/coolest über-display on the list is made by Alienware.

Even less surprising is the Alienware 55 OLED gaming monitor’s nearly perfect feature set. This includes a 55-inch OLED display; a bevy of HDMI, DisplayPort and USB 3.0 ports; and customizable RGB lighting on the back.

Alienware 55 OLED gaming monitor

Alienware 55 OLED: sometimes bigger really is better

What may come as a surprise is the price. At just over $3,000, the Alienware 55 OLED costs more than your average gaming PC.

Is this monitor worth so much dough? Well, yes and no.

On the positive side, there’s no question that OLED is king of the hill in terms of response rates, black points and general performance. If you’re looking for photorealistic immersion, then a giant OLED panel is the way to go.

But the plus-sized Alienware 55 OLED also has some drawbacks. For one, it’s not very bright. Topping out at 400 nits means this monitor works better in a darker room, which isn’t always convenient.

Also, in smaller rooms, the Alienware monitor’s sheer size may be a negative. Sure, a screen this size can paint a glorious picture. But remember, this is a monitor, not a TV. That means the recommended distance between your eyeballs and this 55-inch display is an expansive 7.7 feet.

If you’re not prepared to put that distance — the equivalent of a pro basketball power-forward — between you and your screen, then you might need a different device.

A different screen

The Acer Predator CG7 offers a 43-inch display that can be used as a TV replacement, but feels a lot more like a monitor. The price is also easier to swallow, clocking in at around $1,200, or less than half the price of the Alienware 55 OLED.

However, the Acer’s vertical alignment (VA) panel won’t give you anything like that gorgeous OLED look. For one, the blacks simply aren’t as black.

Acer Predator CG7 gaming monitor

Acer Predator CG7: 43 inches of 4K glory

What the Acer does provide is an insanely fast 1 msec VRB response time, 178-degree x 178-degree vertical/horizontal viewing angles, and an overclocked 144Hz refresh rate. Combined with 4K resolution and Vesa Certified DisplayHDR 1000 color, it can deliver all the immersion you might crave.

Coming soon from Dell

We don’t know a lot about the new mega-displays coming from Dell, but we do know they’re slated to arrive in the U.S. by the end of June.

We also know that the flagship model will be a 3440x1440, 34-inch ultra-wide with a sexy 1800R curve.

Like the Acer, Dell’s new glass will be a VA display with a 144Hz refresh rate. However, it’s not clear whether that refresh rate is native or overclocked.

No, these Dell screens don’t have light-up Alienware logos on the back. Nevertheless, they look cool in a staid, no-nonsense sort of way. The picture provided by Dell (see below) shows svelte black bezels, a sturdy mono-foot, and easily accessible USB ports on the bottom.

Dell 34-inch gaming monitor

Dell’s new monitor throws a stunning curve

The preceding short list of displays is just that: short. But there are plenty of other fish in the sea, and more are hatching every day.

The trick is to find the perfect display for a given use-case. How far will the budget stretch? Are deeper blacks more important than screen brightness? What’s the ideal 4K refresh rate?

Answering these and other related questions should help you first narrow the field, then zero in on a display that’s absolutely perfect.

Until, that is, something better comes along.

 

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In the Zone

Virtual jam software: how musicians collaborate during a pandemic

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by Kevin Jacoby on 04/12/2021
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By all accounts, the music biz has been pretty hard hit by the pandemic. Lockdowns in virtually every country put an end to the rehearsals, performances and recording sessions that normally keep musicians connected and creative.

But surely musicians could use Zoom and FaceTime to play together, right? Wrong. The inherent latency of virtual meeting spaces makes it nearly impossible to play in time with another musician.

Why is it so hard?

The problem begins and ends with latency. That’s the time it takes for data to be transferred between its original source and its destination. In the case of virtual music creation, the data we’re talking about is the audio signal produced by each participating musician.

The timing of musical notes is crucial. Latency as low as 5 to10 milliseconds can mean the difference between a groove that makes you shake your rump and one that lays there like a cold, dead fish. Virtually connecting, say, a drummer and a bassist requires extremely low latency for any rump-shaking to occur.

Tech to the rescue?

Spoiler alert: There’s no easy or perfect way to bridge this particular divide. Creating a low-latency, high-quality connection among musicians is difficult. Many have tried; fewer have succeeded.

Right now there are 3 popular virtual-jam contenders: JamKazam, Jamulus and JackTrip. Each has its own pros and cons. The pros are compelling indeed. But the cons may leave you wondering, is it worth it?

Giving the virtual session game a shot may require heroic feats of IT trouble-shooting. Another alternative is to simply give up on the ideal of creative transcendence and instead settle for “good enough.”

Getting into a jam

At first blush, JamKazam seems to be the most accessible of the 3 services. Its “freemium” pricing structure offers 4 tiers ranging from free to $20 a month.

Paying for Premium gets you features that include unlimited playing time, 1080p video, 1:1 email and chat support, and an audio bitrate of up to 512 kbps.

JamKazam virtual jam session

JamKazam lets far-flung musicians play together

In addition, JamKazam lets users either create their own sessions—whether alone or with other musicians—or join public sessions. Musicians can also use this software service to conduct teaching sessions, make recordings and livestream performances.

Jamulus, by contrast, is a bit more of the DIY variety. Available for Windows, MacOS and Linux, this open-source software requires an onboarding process that may have some musicians reaching for the ripcord before they play even the first chord.

However, Jamulus is free. That’s possibly the only phrase your average musician loves more than “free beer at the gig.”

As is often the case with open-source software, Jamulus does not offer official tech support. Instead, you direct your questions to a community of regular users. Of course there’s no guarantee you’ll get a useful answer.

Jamulus discussion board

Jamulus discussion board, aka tech support

Also with Jamulus, the physical proximity of the musicians has a direct bearing on the latency. In other words, a guitarist in Chicago will sound better with a keyboard player in Boston than in Belarus.

Quite a trip

The best-sounding of the three options is JackTrip. It offers HD audio quality at up to 96 kHz.

Developed in partnership with Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics and various Silicon Valley software entrepreneurs, JackTrip offers the best performance for the price.

Musicians can operate JackTrip in either peer-to-peer (P2P) or hub-and-spoke configurations. P2P creates a direct connection between each player, which lowers the total latency. Hub-and-spoke manages the session from a central server, requiring less computing power from each participant.

JackTrip architecture diagrams

JackTrip offers a choice: hub-and-spoke or P2P

When it comes to pricing, however, JackTrip tends to be a little cagey. Instead of actually listing a price, the JackTrip FAQ page coyly suggests that perhaps every musician on the session would like to own a $149 dedicated audio interface and microphone to match. (For the record, you can use your own.)

But JackTrip does make it plain that the managed servers behind its Virtual Studio service are free, at least as of today. But come this July 1, pricing will range from $1 to $25 a  month, based on the number of musicians and hours used.

Strike up the band

As you can tell, virtual jamming is neither cheap nor easy. But some options deliver varying degrees of facility. That’s more than any musician could say even 10 years ago.

The key to this particular journey is patience and perseverance. Even when the pandemic ends and it’s safe to venture back into the studio, virtual jam software will continue to progress.

And as the software gets better and easier to use, creative minds around the world will use it to connect. Only good can come from that.

In other words: Yes, it’s worth it.

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Wearables: Moving way beyond smart wristbands

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by Kevin Jacoby on 03/22/2021
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Due to the popularity of Fitbit, Apple Watch and other similar devices, you might think the wearables category begins and ends with a tiny computer just north of your knuckles.

But tech designers and engineers are now burning the midnight oil, thinking up new silicon-powered toys to adorn our bodies.

When the fruits of their labor are realized, the wearables category will encompass thousands of futuristic devices. And they’ll be designed to enhance not just our wrists, but every body part from the bottom of our feet to the crowns of our heads.

Gatorade: The sweat measurer

Think you’ve seen everything? How about a sports-drink brand hawking a disposable, single-use smart patch that tells you when you need to drink more sports-drink?

You have now:

Gatorade sweat patch and app

Gatorade’s smart patch tells when it’s time to chug

Available now for your saline measuring satisfaction, Gatorade’s Gx Sweat Patch comes two to a pack for around $25. An athlete’s profuse perspiration is measured by the patch and then reported via the free Gx app. The app is currently available for Apple iOS only. (Sorry, Android fanboys.)

Gatorade’s Gx app will tell you how much fluid and sodium you’ve lost during your workout, as well as the rate at which you sweated. Once the connected system feels you’ve output enough salt water, it will notify you that it’s time for some delicious electrolytes.

Looking for the app to recommend a Gatorade flavor? For that choice, you’re still on your own.

Behold the smart mask—because COVID

Famed gaming-gear maker Razer made headlines at the recent CES 2021 with a prototype of its new smart mask. Dubbed “Project Hazel,” the mask is the latest in personal protection equipment (PPE).

Razer Project Hazel PPE masks

Razer Project Hazel smart masks: the future of PPE?

Hazel, according to Razer, is “the world’s smartest mask.” Well, it boasts a slew of gee-whiz features, including:

> Replaceable filters, providing filtration comparable to an N95 mask

> A translucent front panel with custom LED lighting to help people read your lips

> Active ventilation that adjusts automatically based on ambient air quality

> Auto-sterilization via UV lights in the carrying case

> Voice amplification technology—because masks (ugh!)

However, Razer has made it clear that this smart mask has not yet achieved FDA approval. Nor has Hazel been blessed by the CDC, OSHA or any other official body.

That could change soon. Razer says it’s working with a team of scientists and medical professionals to develop Project Hazel into a top-of-the-line, medical-grade smart mask that meets the company’s vision. So far, that’s all we know.

But even if Project Hazel never makes it into production, the concept is a harbinger of smart things to come. COVID-19 was not our first viral pandemic, and it likely won’t be our last. Smart masks like Project Hazel could save lives while also making the day-to-day pandemic slog a little easier.

In which fabric grows a brain

The Apple patent junkies over at PatentlyApple.com recently delivered some intriguing news about Apple’s latest patent for smart fabric buttons. That may sound like small potatoes, but the implications are far-reaching

Apple’s patent filing noted that fabric buttons may contain capacitive and resistive sensors. These sensors, in turn, can detect various types of light, sound, motion, gyroscopic readings, and inertial measurements.

Apple fabric button patent application drawing

Technical drawing from Apple’s patent filing for smart fabric buttons 

When added to clothing and accessories, these miniature devices could fulfill thousands of varied functions. For instance, smart buttons could help improve personal safety by warning the wearer of a would-be attacker or an unseen speeding car. Similarly, a sensor could automatically activate a parka’s battery-operated heating system, switching it on when the air temperature falls below a user-defined level.

Smart fabric buttons could also help find lost children, send EMTs to the location of a fallen senior, or translate the hand movements of a deaf person’s sign language into an amplified, virtual voice. That’s pretty smart.

Change the channel to wearables

For the channel, emerging smart wearable tech should be an epic opportunity.

Smartwatches helped prove that wearables were a popular and lucrative market. But it’s the wearables of tomorrow that will separate the channel winners from the channel also-rans.

Perhaps the path to the gold medal is as much a question of anthropology and biology as technology. All human beings sweat, breathe and wear clothes of some sort.

These fundamentals of human nature powered the imaginations of Gatorade, Razer and Apple. The rest was simply the logistics of filling our needs and desires.

Surely there’s a lesson in their example.

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Tech Explainer: When will 5G deliver on its promises?

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by Kevin Jacoby on 03/15/2021
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5G mobile technology is hot. Maybe too hot.

To be sure, 5G is pushing smartphone sales to new highs. Market watcher IDC expects 5G to account for 40% of all smartphone sales this year. That could translate into as many as 539 million 5G-enabled smartphones shipping worldwide this year, according to Gartner.

Yet 5G is also still in its infancy. Over-hyped marketing messages make more promises than the mobile tech can deliver.

Yes, 5G will eventually deliver on its promises of high-speed cellular broadband, life-saving telemedicine and autonomous vehicles. Yes, 5G will eventually connect some 50 billion IoT devices. And yes, 5G will eventually obviate wired cable, DSL and fiber-optic internet connections.

But all those changes are in the near-to-middle future. For now, you’ll want to read the fine print. Because first, we have some antennas to install and some physical barriers to overcome.

Not ready for prime time

For an example of how 5G gets hyped, take a look at Apple’s recent introduction of the iPhone 12, the company’s first smartphone to support 5G. Apple sure knows how to make a splash.

During the iPhone 12’s unveiling, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg strutted his stuff next to Apple’s Tim Cook, both of them extolling the virtues of 5G. They might have been delivering a miracle cure to a long-beleaguered populace. But the only cure they offered was for their own smartphone sales figures, which have been declining since early last year.

Apple iPhone 12

Apple iPhone 12: Connects to a 5G signal—if you can find one

Were Hans and Tim lying about the brilliance of 5G? No, they just neglected to mention how much time will be needed to achieve it.

3 ways to 5G

To understand why 5G is still a work in progress, it helps to know a bit about the technology. One important fact is that there are actually 3 types of 5G networks:

> Low-band 5G: Uses a frequency range similar to 4G (600 to 800 MHz), but offers slightly better performance by delivering 30 to 250 megabits per second (Mbps).

> Mid-band 5G: Currently the most widely deployed 5G signal, it operates on 2.5 to 3.7 GHz microwaves and offers speeds of 100 to 900 Mbps. It’s a speed bump, to be sure, but not the one we’ve all been waiting for.

> High-band 5G: The most widely anticipated and yet least deployed version. Its 25 to 39 GHz millimeter waves are capable of delivering download speeds that would be world-changing—if only they could travel through walls and windows.

Hide and seek

5G is here now, kind of. Your snazzy new iPhone 12 or Samsung Galaxy S20 can jump on a high-band 5G signal right now—if, that is, you can find one.

Big metropolitan areas such as New York City and Philadelphia have a few millimeter-wave antennas here and there. If you stumble onto the right spot, connecting to one of these antennas is as easy as waking up your phone. But keeping that delicious high-speed goodness? That’s another matter entirely.

Millimeter waves are notoriously weak. They don’t like to travel long distances. And unlike their lower-frequency brethren, they can’t float through solid objects.

So if you’re lucky enough to find a high-band signal, you’ll have to enjoy it while standing still. Walking half a block could demote you from gobs of gigabits to a mild megabit mélange.

A 5G future

Like any new technology, 5G will need to get through its growing pains. Then it can mature into the basis for vast, reliable high-speed networks.

In the near future, low-band 5G will be relegated to emerging nations. The industrialized world will perfect mid-band coverage while also taking successive steps towards wider deployment of high-band 5G.

5G for smart transport

Qualcomm envisions a 5G-connected smart city

When that near future comes to pass, we’ll start to see a wave of disruption in a wide range of verticals. For example, gaming will finally cut the cord and begin to live its best mobile life. Similarly, ISPs will wake up to the harsh reality that we don’t need their gigabit pipes anymore. (Why would we, since we’ll just grab those gigabytes out of the air?)

5G should also make smart cities a reality. A great, silent conversation will begin between smart devices—including smart cars, phones, sidewalks, traffic lights and billboards—and the businesses that line Main Street, USA. If that sounds today like a sci-fi flick, tomorrow it’ll just sound like home.

For now, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with only marginally faster mobile data. Until the eggheads in Verizon’s basement figure out how to bring millimeter waves to the masses, it’s mid-band all the way.

Is that all we hoped for? Is that all we were promised? No. But it does let us peek into the not-too-distant future of high-band 5G. For now, that’ll have to do.

 

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