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In the Zone

Tech Explainer: How do SSD drives work?

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by Kevin Jacoby on 10/19/2021
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Solid State Drives, or SSDs, are the oft-misunderstood creatures that dwell within our PCs and mobile devices.

Traditional hard disk drives (HDDs) are easier to wrap your head around. Open one up and you can see the physical mechanisms — magnetic platter, read/write head, etc. — that make it go.

But newer storage tech is opaque. How can a skinny plastic drive with no moving parts deliver terabytes of data in mere nanoseconds?

Maybe it’s time for a primer. With SSDs finally reaching a state of ubiquity, we should get to know how they store our information — and how they can lose it, too.

A (very) brief history of SSDs

SSDs have been in use longer than the collective zeitgeist would allow. In fact, their origins date back more than 40 years. It was 1978 when IBM created the first commercially available SSD, a charge-coupled device with a storage capacity of just 45 MB. The price tag? An eye-watering $400,000.

Charge-coupled storage device, circa 1980

Charge-coupled storage device, circa 1980

It took another 14 years for the market to see a viable flash-based SSD drive. One finally appeared in 1991 courtesy of SanDisk. This drive retailed for a much more reasonable $1,000. But it could store only 20 MB of data.

Flash forward 20 years, and today even the smallest drive on Apple iPhone can store 108,000 MB more than that.

Prices have fallen just as dramatically. Back in 1991, the price/performance of Sandisk’s SSD worked out to $50K/GB. Compare that to the 2020 release of Crucial’s MX500 SSD. Its price per gig: just 10 cents.

How SSDs work

A description of the inner workings of your average SSD could fill a 200-page white paper. But you and your customers are busy people. Let’s do the executive summary instead.

The SSD’s greatest claim to fame is its complete lack of moving parts. Instead of spinning, seeking and scribing like a traditional HDD, an SSD writes data to a series of semiconductor cells.

These flash cells store electrons in a binary floating gate that reads as either charged (“0”) or not-charged (“1”). The cells are organized in a grid called a block. Each row of this block is called a page.

The data on a given device is stored throughout its various pages and blocks. When that data is called upon, it comes rushing to the fore in a matter of nanoseconds.

Yep, that’s fast. Compare that to the 10 to 15 milliseconds it takes for a conventional HDD to respond. (One millisecond is a million nanoseconds.)

One benefit of this breakneck speed is that it lets programmers add myriad must-have features to operating systems, apps and web-based services. With a lesser storage solution, these programming advances would be impossible.

SSDs offer another advantage, too. While they work similarly to RAM, an SSD employs non-volatile memory, meaning it can store data without a power source. A RAM’s data is erased each time its power is cut off.

The downsides of SSD tech

At this point, you might be wondering if there’s a chunk of Kryptonite waiting to ambush Super Man’s SSD.

Sure, there is. There’s always a catch.

Let’s start with pricing. While SSD prices have come way down over the years, they’re  still expensive compared to traditional HDDs. SSD storage currently retails for about 10 cents per gigabyte, roughly double that of HDD storage, which is more like 4 to 6 cents per GB.

Then there’s the issue of reading and writing to a crowded drive. When an SSD drive is empty, its read/write speeds are second to none. But once the drive fills up with data, its performance takes a hit.

That's because, even though an SSD can read and write data at the page level, it can only erase at the block level. To update a block, its entire contents must first shift to an available open block. Unfortunately, this process creates unwanted latency.

It’s a necessary evil we’ll just have to deal with. Page-level overwrites would require high-voltage operations that stress and degrade the storage architecture. Better to have an operational slowdown than a total drive failure.

Another issue with SSDs is their limited write capabilities. Your average 250GB SSD is able to write a total of 60 to 150 terabytes during its usable life. That’s the equivalent of writing approximately 190GB every day for a year — small potatoes for a modern data center.

But beware! If you’re going to put that many miles on your drive, you’d better have a backup. SSDs can fail without warning, especially if they go without power for too long. And SSD data recovery isn’t nearly as easy or affordable as it is with an HDD.

A faster future

As good as SSDs are, their manufacturers aren’t resting on their laurels. Right now, storage engineers are working to provide faster, smarter and more reliable drives.

As usual, Intel stands at the vanguard of solid state storage tech. The company’s Optane SSD technology uses 3D XPoint (pronounced “cross point”) Memory Media to increase speed and capacity.

Intel Optane 9 Series

Intel Optane SSD 9 Series: better performance 

In addition, new technologies including stackable cross-gridded data access arrays have helped make Optane some of the fastest — and most expensive — storage available today.

Is it worth the dough? Popping a modern SSD in your PC is an awfully good way to find out. 

 

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In the Zone

Why smart security cameras could be your new business opportunity

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by Kevin Jacoby on 10/15/2021
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Now might be the right time to start looking at your customers through the lens of smart security cameras. Or, to help them look at their own homes and offices through a security cam of their own.

It’s rough out there. Ransomware attacks are in the news, employees are pilfering copy paper and USB cables, organized criminals are shoplifting pharmacies. In the U.S., a burglary occurs every 30 seconds, according to Safewise.

That’s bad news for home and business owners. But it could be good news for tech providers.

Home renovators alone spent an average of $500 on smart home security upgrades in 2019, according to home-renovation site Houzz. That number should continue to rise as folks get back into the post-lockdown swing of things.

The market for connected security cameras appears headed for real growth. As predicted by Grand View Research, sales should top $11.9 billion by 2027, up from $3.9 billion last year, marking an annual compound growth rate (CAGR) for those years of nearly 16%.

Is there an opportunity for tech providers? You betcha. Fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) is coming to a smart home—or office—near you. If your customers aren’t talking about smart security systems yet, they will be soon.

Let the price wars begin

How much does a decent security cam cost? The answer is complicated. The cheapest security cams are separated from the most expensive by a yawning chasm.

At one extreme, you’ll find super-cheap options on Alibaba starting at less than $2 (that’s not a typo). At the other, you’ll find high-end professional cameras retailing for more than $1,000.

Why the crazy price disparity? It has much to do with how a camera handles, or even offers, such important features as high resolution, reliability, connectivity and night vision.

For example, most entry-level cameras offer relatively low resolutions. They also rely on a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection to a proprietary smartphone app.

These apps — some well-designed, some just terrible — show you a feed from the camera. They also can alert you when an anomaly like unauthorized movement or a pet in distress is detected.

As the price gets higher, the feature set gets richer. Also, the cameras become more complex to set up and maintain. To operate, pro-level security cams often require both a dedicated router or hub and a decently powerful PC.

Amazon flying security camera

Amazon Ring Always Home Cam: ready for takeoff

A few cameras can even launch autonomously and fly around your home or office to focus on a problem area. Such is the case with Amazon’s Ring Always Home Cam, which sells for just under $250 each — if, that is, you’re tight with Amazon. The camera, part of Amazon’s Day 1 Editions program, is available by invitation only.

A Wyze choice?

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that higher-priced smart cams represent the key to revenue growth. But history shows otherwise. A race to the lowest price band is inevitable.

If that’s the case, could the smart play actually be claiming the low ground first?

That’s the bet being placed by Wyze. The much-beloved, bargain-basement smart home brand offers its popular Cam v3 for just shy of $36.

Wyze Cam v3

Wyze’s 3rd-gen cam: high quality, low price

You might think a smart device with a price that low would be a recipe for disaster. But Wyze has been earning critical acclaim for previous versions priced at just $20. Version 3 seems to be on the same track to success, despite its relatively steep price increase.

So how do you make money on a product that cheap? The answer is twofold: sales volume and subscriptions.

Turning up the volume

Here’s how volume works. First, consider that most homes and offices have multiple rooms. Unless your customer lives and works in a small studio apartment, they’ll likely want to monitor various locations.

It stands to reason, then, that your average security cam sale could include multiple units to cover everything from bedrooms to break rooms.

It’s also possible that each camera sold could catalyze the sale of a peripheral product. For instance, Wyze offers a video doorbell, an outdoor smart plug, and even a smartwatch that can deliver real-time notifications triggered by the security system.

Each of these devices is sold separately. So while the customer’s price tag might start at $36, it could end up much, much higher.

Of course, the seller does have to turn a profit, however small, on each sale. Otherwise, volume will just multiply their losses.

The subscription prescription

The subscription model is another smart play. First, the company sells the camera as a loss-leader. Then it makes passive income from an ongoing subscription that could lead to a bounty of profit over time.

Sure, Wyze Cam customers can use the camera without a subscription. But Wyze was also smart to pack its premium package with great features. And it set a low subscription price of just $1.25/month.

The compelling list of premium features includes package, pet, and vehicle detection; unlimited video length (the free version offers only 12 seconds of time-lapse footage every 5 minutes of operation); and an upcoming facial-recognition feature.

Can tech providers share in the passive income from a subscription model like that? The answer is, maybe.

Companies like Wyze often institute channel programs to help drive subscription sales. The remuneration varies widely and can include finder’s fees, product discounts, even long-term subscription revenue sharing.

Are you ready to take advantage of the upward trend in security cam sales? Play your cards right, and your sales could soar higher than Amazon’s flying camera.

 

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

In the Zone

Tech Explainer: How do NFTs work?

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by Kevin Jacoby on 09/28/2021
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Cryptocurrencies and NFTs (short for non-fungible tokens) are in the news nearly every day. Yet few people understand how they work, much less how to take advantage of them.

For those in the know, investing in a blockchain staple such as Bitcoin or Ethereum could be a smart financial play. Options include purchasing, accepting or even “mining” cryptocurrency. (More on mining below.)

NFTs can prove lucrative, too. Just ask Mike Winkelmann. Better known as Beeple, he’s the artist who recently sold a single NFT-based digital collage for a whopping $69 million.

Are you or your customers in need of a blockchain primer? If so, read on. And let your mind wander along a path that could lead to added security, efficiency and perhaps even untold riches.

What is blockchain?

Blockchain is a way to prove the truth.

The truth you intend to prove could be just about anything. You could use a distributed ledger like blockchain to verify a cryptocurrency transaction, the purchase of an NFT, or a vote for an elected official.

The “block” of a blockchain refers to a snippet of code that describes one or more individual transactions. Put together two or more of these blocks, and you’ve formed a “chain.”

With a blockchain, you can prove that a given transaction has both taken place and taken place following the rules. To maintain trust, the system must be able to prove that the coins or other commodities used in the transaction were available in the first place. It must also show that the coins cannot be used again by the same party.

However, trust can be hard-won when strangers are trading billions of dollars’ worth of ones and zeroes. That’s where blockchain’s decentralization and cryptographic security come in.

A new kind of lock & key

Blockchain’s inherent decentralization ensures that no single entity — whether the federal government or a mustache-twirling robber baron — can control or corrupt what’s being protected.

Instead, a blockchain creates a constantly evolving record of all transactions. What’s more, this record exists not in one central location, but instead on myriad privately owned computers, known as nodes, located around the world.

Each node competes tirelessly to collect, authenticate and ultimately add each new block. This competition is known as mining. Nodes that successfully win the right to add a new block to the chain get a reward, usually in the form of the currency they’re keeping track of.

Make no mistake, this can be a lucrative endeavor. But it’s also far from easy.

To maintain security, blockchains such as Bitcoin use hashing, a cryptographic technique that dates back to the 1950s. Hashing creates a long string of algorithmically determined characters from any piece of data. In the case of Bitcoin, these data are the transactions between buyers and sellers.

To help ensure each hash is genuine, a block also stores the hash of the preceding block. It’s the nodes’ job to test the authenticity of every new hash, a herculean effort that takes a metric ton of processing power and energy.

Hashing diagram

Hashing turns coherent source data into a string of random characters

Now here’s where the rubber meets the road: Changing even the smallest piece of a block’s data will change the entire hash. So if a ne’er-do-well were to alter some code in an attempt to cheat the system, the hash would no longer prove the authenticity of the block it came from.

In that event, the nodes would see the bad hash and refuse to authenticate the block. The result would be a voided transaction at best, prison time for that ne’er-do-well at worst.

Where do NFTs come in?

You can think of an NFT as a digital coin with a difference: Instead of representing a type of currency, the way Bitcoin and Ethereum do, an NFT represents the authenticity of a piece of virtual property. That could be a graphic, an audio file, or even the short tweet (“just setting up my twttr”) that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently sold for an amazing $2.9 million.

Here again, the key to a successful transaction is trust. As it happens, the creators of Ethereum have been willing to lend their trust to the burgeoning NFT market.

They did this by updating the Ethereum blockchain. Now Ethereum can track and authenticate more than just its native currency, Ether. This change to the code base gives digital content creators the ability to demonstrate their guaranteed ownership of a unique, original work. That’s important when they’re communicating with potential buyers.

Beeple's "Everydays" NFT art

Beeple’s “Everydays – The First 5000 Days” NFT fetched a cool $69M

But couldn’t you just make your own copy of their art? Sure. Today, a copy of Beeple’s “Everydays — The First 5000 Days” is as easy to come by as an image of Monet’s famous water lilies. But Beeple’s work will still have only one true owner—whoever bid that $69 million this past March at Christie’s.

Are we rich yet?

Some of us are, and some of us ain’t. If you were savvy enough to buy a few dozen Bitcoins back in 2009, when they were first introduced, then hold them for a while, you’re probably reading this on the beach while sipping an ice-cold mai tai.

The rest of us will have to keep looking for opportunities to leverage blockchain technology. These opportunities could be as banal as a trusted accounting system. Or as fantastic as a successful Initial Coin Offering (ICO) of your very own (see Dogecoin).

One thing is certain: We’re witnessing the dawn of a new city of gold. And this is just our first trip around the block.

 

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

In the Zone

Hitting the road? Follow these 4 rules to choose the right mobile peripherals

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by Kevin Jacoby on 09/10/2021
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Now that people are traveling again, however hesitantly, this could be the perfect time for you and your customers to build a great mobile setup.

But pick your gear carefully. The ideal mobile workstation requires a thoughtful balance of peripherals. These days, there are quite a few to choose from: portable keyboards, mice, chargers, stands, controllers, and printers, to name just a few.

Choosing the right gear could be the key to increasing your productivity — and maybe your free time, too. Choosing the wrong gear could tie you up in endless support calls, pointless app downloads, and the tearing out of hair you’d rather keep.

It’s not always easy to pick the right tools for the job. But don’t worry. While mobile accessory perfection may be in the eye of the beholder, here are 4 common signposts on the road to peripheral nirvana.

Rule #1: Beware the one-trick pony

Is there an iPad in your hand right now? If so, Apple would very much like to sell you the matching keyboard. Ditto for Microsoft, Samsung and all the other big names for whom the vaunted accessory upsell is a matter of vital importance.

But at nearly $300, Apple’s Magic Keyboard for iPad may not be the best bang for the buck.  Sure, it’s got some nifty features. But only when you’re using an iPad.

By contrast, Logitech’s K780 Multi-Device Wireless Keyboard offers a more satisfying narrative: Spend a fraction of what you would on Apple’s gear, and get a small, light keyboard that switches between 3 devices with the mere touch of a button.

Logitech K780 wireless keyboard

Logitech K780: switch easily among 3 definable devices

Starting at just shy of $60 — or less than a third of the price for Apple’s Magic Keyboard — Logitech’s offering is truly mobile and truly cross-platform. It connects via Bluetooth, runs on two AAA batteries, and pairs seamlessly with iOS, Android and Windows Mobile.

Switching devices is as easy as pushing a button. Three easily accessible keys shift the keyboard’s wireless connection between user-definable devices.

Button 1 could be programmed to connect to a standard desktop PC or laptop. Click the next button and, viola, you’re typing on a tablet seated in the integrated mobile device holder.

Button number 3 may be the one you hit while sitting on the train. Once connected, you can type a lengthy email on your smartphone without succumbing to fat-thumbs-typo-disorder (FTTD).

Rule #2: If you must print, do it wirelessly

Luckily for the Earth’s remaining trees, the printed page is fast becoming an anachronism. But there are still some presentations, board meetings and signs taped to office refrigerator doors that require an ounce or two of ink on a thin slice of wood pulp.

For those who must print on the go, Epson would like to suggest a wireless, battery-operated printer small enough to nestle in next to your tablet.

The Epson WorkForce WF-110 Wireless Mobile Printer is designed to print over a wireless area network (WAN) or communicate directly with just about any tablet or smartphone.

Priced just on the shady side of $300, it ain’t cheap. It also ain’t in stock at Epson. But don’t worry, Best Buy has you covered.

Epson WF-110 wireless printer

Epson’s WF-110 printer: wireless & battery-powered

But the WF-110 does offer crystal clear prints at resolutions up to 5760 x 1440. And the durable, instant-drying Pigment ink will make fast work of your print jobs — without blackening your fingers.

Rule #3: All work and no play makes…well, you know

In case you missed the memo, cloud gaming is now totally a thing.

Are you game to give it a go? All it takes is a subscription to your favorite service and a decent game controller. This brings us to our most enjoyable mobile accessory, Razer’s Kishi Universal Gaming Controller.

Gamers in the know tend to love Razer for its forward-looking design and cross-platform compatibility. Kishi has both.

Razer's Kishi controller

Kishi by Razer: cross-platform gaming on the go

Razer very smartly designed Kishi to hug either side of your iOS or Android phone. When attached, the two sides of the gamepad combine with your smartphone to create something that looks and feels a lot like the hugely popular Nintendo Switch.

Pro gamers may argue against the ergonomics of Kishi. And indeed, it’s not as battle-ready as, say, a PS5 Dual-Sense wireless controller with a phone mount.

But what it lacks in hardcore gaming cred, it more than makes up for in portability. At just over 5 inches wide when collapsed, Kishi will fit into just about any pocket.

Rule #4: Use just enough to get the job done

When discussing accessories, the late, great fashion designer Coco Chanel would advise, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”

Chanel’s counsel is apt to technology, too. With so many great choices, it’s easy to end up with too many accessories. So many, in fact, that traveling with your mobile workstation could feel like lugging around the entire office.

It’s down to the intrepid road warrior to decide which mobile accessories are vital and which are superfluous. Choose wisely, and you may find yourself getting a good day’s work done from some of the world’s most amazing locales.

Happy trails!

 

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

In the Zone

Tech Explainer: How gaming in the cloud works

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by Kevin Jacoby on 08/26/2021
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Gaming is moving from the console to the cloud. That’s good news for both casual and enthusiast gamers who want variety, convenience and instant gratification. And who don’t want to spend a bundle on specialized hardware.

But how does cloud gaming (CG) work? Think of it as Netflix for games. Just as streaming movies took the focus off DVDs and videotapes, CG takes the focus off costly gaming PCs and consoles like Xbox.

Instead, CG relies on powerful remote servers, devices able to send 60 frames per second (fps) screaming down the pipes to your personal device. That makes CG — sometimes known as Gaming as a Service — like a movie you can control from just about any screen, anywhere, anytime.

That said, gamers ready to take control will still need at least 1 piece of hardware: a gaming controller. Preferably one that includes a d-pad, joysticks and a full complement of buttons and triggers.

Microsoft xCloud

Microsoft xCloud: keep the game going while on the move

But choose carefully. Not all controllers are compatible with each CG platform. That’s why Google offers a specific controller for Stadia. Both Microsoft and Sony offer proprietary controllers for their cloud gaming systems, too.

Stadia for the win (because Google)

Gaming in the cloud isn’t all fun and games. Popular CG platforms from the likes of Google, Microsoft, Sony and NVIDIA require some serious server-side hardware. To make cloud gaming work, a lot of variables have to fall in place. Take, for example, Google.

Google may not run the whole internet, but sometimes it seems that way. And Google’s cloud gaming platform, Stadia (starting at $9.99/mo.), will likely bolster the company’s virtual dominance.

Stadia

The secret to Google’s cloud-gaming success is infrastructure. Google has some of the most powerful, fiber-optic-connected server farms in the world.

What’s more, Google has also managed to spread those server farms around, and a great deal more than most of the competition. Chances are good there’s a Google server near you right now.

Why is a nearby server farm so important? Because close proximity is a key factor in lowering latency — the time a remote gaming server needs to respond to your commands.

For cloud gaming, the lower the latency, the better. In fact, you could say low latency is what makes cloud gaming even possible.

Latency isn’t much of an issue when you’re streaming a movie. Let’s face it, a few extra milliseconds before the opening credits probably won’t affect your experience one way or the other.

But for an avid gamer, latency is huge. When you’re in a boss-level battle for world domination, those same milliseconds can mean all the difference between glorious conquest and ignominious defeat.

To be sure, proximity isn’t the only factor that determines latency. Server processing power, network speed, code-base integrity and client-side device speeds can also increase or decrease communication time. Every variable has an impact.

Cloud gaming on the go

How about mobile cloud gaming? Yeah, Google is going for the win there, too. 

Consider: Roughly 7 in every 10 smartphones worldwide run on Android, Google’s mobile operating system, according to Statista. With a user base that large, Google can easily roll out a constant stream of OS updates that add features and squash bugs. And with every Android update, the Stadia experience improves.

However, having the world’s most popular mobile OS doesn’t solve every issue. Some factors involved in mobile cloud gaming go beyond the control of even the internet’s behemoth.

For one, not all mobile devices are created alike. Devices with slower processors and older screens will stand in the way of a great mobile gaming experience.

For another, there’s the issue of mobile data connection speeds. Google recommends that for mobile gaming, you have a connection of at least 10 megabits per second (Mbps). Fortunately, most high-speed wireless networks can provide that.

But to stream the latest popular titles like “Assassin’s Creed” and “Metro: Exodus” in 4K at 60 fps, Google says you’ll need at least 30 Mbps. Only the fastest and most consistent 4G and 5G connections can provide that kind of bandwidth.

And the high cost of mobile data? Yeah, that’s part of the mix, too.

Assuming you’re lucky enough to grab that kind of speed from thin air, you’ll be eating up your bandwidth allotment at a rate of 15.75 GB/hour.

To put it another way, at that rate, it would take only 65 hours to chew through a common 1 TB data cap. If you think 65 hours is a lot for gaming, just ask the nearest 15-year-old how much time they spent playing “Minecraft” last month.

Inexorable ascension to the cloud

Google’s Stadia is only one of many cloud platforms trying to change gaming forever.

Microsoft’s xCloud is currently in beta and looking mighty good. Yes, the company is a bit late to the party. But if anyone has the wherewithal to go after Google, surely it’s Microsoft.

And don’t forget Sony. The company’s PlayStation console has been king of the hill for many years. So it’s no surprise that Sony’s cloud gaming platform, PlayStation Now, is ready to pick up where the PS5 left off. The service offers literally hundreds of games on demand.

With competition like that, the cloud gaming market has got some serious game.

 

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

In the Zone

Cloud Services: which should you choose?

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by Kevin Jacoby on 08/13/2021
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Cloud services are big business. Thats good news for you — but also bad.

The good news: Tech providers and their customers can now get gigabytes of cloud storage and a suite of productivity apps for absolutely free. Thats thanks to tech titans like Google and Apple.

The bad? With so many major players offering so many must-have features, you and your customers can be forgiven for experiencing a little option anxiety.

So where should you start when choosing a cloud platform?

For many customers, the go-to metric is price. But a price point can be a red herring that belies the disparate features these services offer.

In fact, the value proposition is far more nuanced than just how much space for how much money. Other factors include application design, the price for additional storage, and capabilities for file management.

Applications: Rent a better workflow

Some of today’s best cloud service providers (CSPs) offer suites of thoughtfully designed productivity apps. These suites can help a user create and manage the files they keep on a CSP’s servers.

Providers like Apple and Google give away their productivity apps with any free account. Others include the apps as part of a paid suite that includes upgraded storage and support as in the case of Microsoft and Dropbox.

Typically, these suites include an integrated word processor such as Microsoft Word, Google Docs or Apple Pages. They may also offer cloud-based spreadsheets, email clients and presentation software such as PowerPoint.

Not to be outdone, relative newcomers including Dropbox and WeTransfer also offer productivity apps. Dropbox’s Paper, for instance, not only does word processing, but also integrates seamlessly with the Dropbox ecosystem.

Paste screenshot

Paste: a unique alternative to PowerPoint

To match PowerPoint, WeTransfer recently upgraded Paste, its above-average slide-deck app. Paste now provides better team collaboration as well as the ability to import and export PowerPoint files.

Additional storage: Be prepared to pay

How about storage space in the cloud? Well, anyone with an Apple device — and therefore an iCloud account — already has 5GB of storage, whether they need it or not.

Along the same lines, Dropbox gives you 2GB just for signing up. And Google carves out a generous 15GB of Google Drive space, at no extra charge, for the millions of people with free Gmail addresses.

Why all the freebies? Because these companies are thinking two steps ahead. They know their most likely upgrades will come from customers who have filled up the space they got for free. These users can’t help clicking that little button to get more.

It’s a smart play. By making it easy to relieve the pain of a full drive for the “low, low price of just $9.99/month,” the CSPs are practically guaranteeing an upsell sooner or later.

That common price tag of just under $10 buys you varying amounts of storage space, depending on your provider. With Apple, Google or Dropbox, that $10 a month gets you 2TB of storage. But over at Microsoft, OneDrive takes it three steps further; there, for the same price you’ll get 6TB.

If that’s still not enough, providers including Amazon and Microsoft also offer enterprise storage solutions. Prices for these expanded accounts are usually calculated on a case-by-case basis. But take heed: Fees can quickly reach into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars per month.

File management: Make it easy

All the free storage in the world won’t help if you have to deal with a poorly designed cloud system. That’s why the best CSPs also make it easy and convenient for you to search, sync, manage and share files — and with both your desktop and mobile apps.

Dropbox proves this maxim by constantly developing thoughtful features. One example is the company’s Smart Sync technology. It automatically identifies files you use only rarely, and then offloads them.

Dropbox file storage menu

Dropbox Smart Sync: stores files locally or online 

That saves you hard-drive space by ensuring only the files you use most often are actually stored on your computer. All other files will remain in the cloud, waiting to be downloaded whenever needed.

Better deals ahead

As good a bargain as cloud storage is now, it’s likely to get even cheaper over time. In part, because an ever-growing installed base will enable CSPs to achieve even greater economies of scale.

Bandwidth costs should drop, too. Especially as 5G ultra-wideband and fiber-optic connections become the norm.

All this points to a likely increase in value for both you and your customers. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find the cloud platform that works best for you — and to help your customers do the same.

As part of that, keep a careful eye on the market. Watch for the signs that inevitably precede a major shift in technology, features and pricing.

In other words, keep your head in the cloud.

 

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

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. 

 

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

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!

 

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

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.

 

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