The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Computer Users

The recent headline news of the industrial-grade hacking suffered by Sony Pictures Entertainment (currently being blamed on North Korea) has data security on the minds of consumers and corporate executives alike. Some experts theorize that a minimal amount of second-level security could have prevented the embarrassing and costly hack that has brought Sony to its knees (both in terms of reputation and money).

Hard drives crash, theft occurs, natural disasters destroy delicate hardware, viruses infect, and thousands of files are sometimes inadvertently wiped out with a single keystroke or tap of a touchscreen. In the digital domain, we seem to be our own worst enemy. Procrastination, sloppiness, ignorance, or just a lousy attitude toward disaster prevention often conspire to wipe out our most precious digital memories.

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The sad part of this equation is that it can all be prevented. Don’t blame the hard drive crash, because you should have had a backup. Don’t blame that flood or roof leak that damaged the spare bedroom where your computer was residing, because you should have had an offsite backup.

Don’t blame the fact that your data is scattered across several devices, because you should have centralized it. And don’t blame the hacker or the virus they gifted you, because you should have been running good, current anti-malware software.

And don’t ever blame the black hat hackers who guess your pathetically weak passwords and steal your identity or siphon your bank account, because you should have created strong passwords—and then changed them on a regular basis.

Yes, all of these very common, yet very painful, digital disasters can be avoided. The TME (time, money, effort) required to secure the digital side of your life isn’t trivial. However, it’s minor in comparison to the possible (and, over time, probable) consequences of mismanaging your valuable data.

Your precious photos, home videos, and school/work documents—and the delicate devices on which these ones and zeroes are captured, archived, viewed, and shared with others—can be secured more easily than you may think. And with a boatload less effort and trauma than if you suffer a digital disaster.

1) Centralize Your Data

Store your files on a single device. No, not your laptop. And no, not even your desktop. I highly recommend a dedicated network access storage device, also known as a NAS. They’re affordable ($100 to more than $1,000 if you want to get fancy), super easy to use, and make backups a snap.

Cost? A few bucks. Effort? Minimal. Simply unbox the NAS, plug it in, and all your wi-fi and Ethernet-connected devices should recognize it.

2) Backup Your Data

Backup software costs from free (build into Windows or Apple’s OS X desktop operating systems) to a few bucks (Second Copy is a great value at only $30). Remember the three golden rules of data backups: Backup on a regular basis (this depends on the rate at which you acquire new data or modify existing files), always make two backups, and always take one copy offsite. Offsite doesn’t mean your basement. Or your neighbor’s house. It also doesn’t mean the other side of the country. It means far enough away from your domicile (or office) that a flood, tornado, or hurricane won’t affect the offsite copy.

The majority of consumers never—as in never, ever—make a single backup of their data. Of those that do manage a backup now and again, they typically never make two and take one offsite. Aside from backing up in the first place, going offsite is the number one delinquency on the part of data owners and businesses alike.

3) Have a Good Firewall

Many devices on your network may provide a firewall. According to Wikipedia, a firewall is “a network security system that controls…incoming and outgoing network traffic based on an applied rule set. A firewall establishes a barrier between a trusted, secure internal network and another network (e.g., the Internet) that is assumed not to be secure and trusted.” Your internet router probably provides a firewall. Your computers may each provide individual firewalls. But don’t play a guessing game. Know which devices have active firewalls, their basic configuration, and learn if you can improve things by updating the rules by which your firewalls allow and deny incoming traffic.

4) Keep Anti-Virus Software Current

The “a virus ate my homework” horror stories have been pervasive enough for so many years that I perceive most people have anti-malware software installed on most of their computers. There’s no excuse for not having a current subscription going on all computers. Why all? Well, your computers are networked by this groovy wireless technology called wi-fi. A single unprotected PC in your home is a gateway for hackers to gain access to your network and all PCs on it.

And don’t give me the excuse that anti-virus software is too expensive. My favorite (and what I use on all of my Windows computers) is Webroot. I purchased a 3-PC, one-year license for $17 on Amazon. Data security doesn’t get any easier or cheaper than this.

5) Have Unique, Strong Passwords

There’s a reason I dedicated a full chapter to the topic of strong passwords in my book Understanding Personal Data Security. If the state of data backup in the United States sucks, then the quality of the average password is even worse. Consider this January 2014 blog post from Slate.com: “The good news is that ‘password’ is no longer the most-popular password on the Internet, according to the latest report from SplashData. The bad news is that it’s still the second-most common—and ‘123456’ is the first.”

Wow. We’re not doing a very good job of securing our online accounts, folks. In the effort of being terse (not my strong suit), let me sum it up, according to Stanford University’s Password Requirements Quick Guide: Longer passwords are better, but shorter passwords are permissible if they are complex. According to Stanford, this means:

  • 8-11 characters: requires mixed case letters, numbers, and symbols
  • 12-15 characters: requires mixed case letters and numbers
  • 16-19 characters: requires mixed case letters
  • 20+ characters: any characters you like

Those are the requirements. But unless you were one of those kids who was actually happy with a passing grade of a C-, Stanford recommends that passwords are a minimum of 16 characters. But how does one remember such a long password? Stanford recommends using passphrases, which are combinations of common words to create a truly unique and uncommon password. An example is “windowelephantpeachrocket.” This 25-character passphrase is considerably more difficult to crack than the most popular password, “123456,” which can be guessed in about one second by even a relatively inept hacker.

For more information (and a really cool infographic), see Stanford University’s Password Requirements Quick Guide.

6) Respect Your Hardware

Ever see people sitting on their bed with their laptop perched on a quilt or blanket? Completely blocking the air intakes, which typically reside on the bottom or sides of the unit? Overheating is one of the primary ways in which delicate electronics get flakey or die. Prevent overheating by positioning your laptop on a flat surface. For desktop units, ensure that intake ports remain unblocked. Airflow is key!

In fact, here’s a cool trick: Take your vacuum cleaner hose and routinely suck out the air intake and “exhaust” of your laptop and desktop computers (desktop units should actually be taken apart and more thoroughly sucked free of dust and pet hair, if possible). Dust and hair (from both humans and pets) forms a blanket on delicate silicon chips and circuits, insulating them and holding in their heat.

This simple trick can extend the life of your computers more than you’d imagine. Do it now!

7) Avoid Distractions

If you’re trying to get work done, avoid the distraction of too much multi-tasking by closing tabs in your browser or otherwise limiting the potential pestering of social media. That ding in Facebook, saying nothing more than one of your hundreds of friends has commented on a stranger’s post, is costing you productivity. For the duration of your work, seriously consider shutting down your email, Facebook, LinkedIn, Vine, Instagram, Ello, and however else you engage in social media. Your work, career, and boss will thank you.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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The Reality of Hydrogen Cars

I recently posted to LinkedIn some quotes by Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk regarding the practicality of the current state of hydrogen fuel cells as applied to personal transportation.

The post was inspired by the research I’ve been conducting for my next book, Understanding Alternative Cars. The book will feature a chapter regarding hydrogen-powered vehicles in an effort to eliminate confusion for consumers–while also accomplishing some myth-busting.

My LinkedIn post:

elon musk for twitter 2In January 2014, in an interview with British magazine Autocar, Musk said the following regarding hydrogen fuel cells as applied to personal transportation:

“They’re mind-bogglingly stupid. You can’t even have a sensible debate.”

“Consider the whole fuel cell system against a Model S. It’s far worse in volume and mass terms, and far, far, worse in cost. And I haven’t even talked about hydrogen being so hard to handle.”

“Success is simply not possible.”

“Manufacturers do it [FCEVs] because they’re under pressure to show they’re doing something ‘constructive’ about sustainability. They feel it’s better to be working on a solution a generation away rather than something just around the corner.”

“Hydrogen is always labeled the fuel of the future—and always will be.”

There’s currently quite a bit of contention regarding the topic of hydrogen power for cars. Given Toyota’s recent announcement that it will migrate from fossil fuels to more modern technologies, like hydrogen and electricity, and BMW’s recent statement that it will no longer employ gas-powered internal combustion engines by the year 2025, this is a big deal. The economic and environmental repercussions of the migration from fossil fuels to alternative, modern technologies will be felt by everyone.

A commenter to my LinkedIn post, Joe Wojdacz, who identifies himself as a “disruptive innovationist” within the motion picture and film industry in Los Angeles, posted the following:

“I’m sorry but, what a dumb thing to say by someone claiming the mantle of the incomparable Nikola Tesla! How about looking more than a generation behind at the man himself who found the Cosmos to be a battery. No need for Li or Hydrogen. WTF people?!”

In response, I emailed Mr. Wojdacz the following:

“Joe: I love the ‘idea’ of hydrogen, but every time I research the numbers and efficiency ratio, it makes no sense. The most reputable recent source I consulted stated an efficiency ratio of 1.3 to one. Meaning that 1.3 units of energy are invested to deliver one unit of energy (in this argument, to propel a vehicle).

American consumers love convenience. There’s a fast food drive-thru on every corner and all pizza shops provide home delivery for a reason. Convenience is king, few would argue. Ok, given that, how are we to assume that an expensive network of hydrogen fueling stations is more convenient for drivers than simply plugging in at home or work?

Centralized fueling stations are a thing of the past in an all-EV world. They die, along with the 155-year-old propulsion tech they supported, internal combustion engines.

A factor that will actually generate a surplus of energy on the grid will be rooftop consumer solar power. This will be especially true for those who can afford a storage battery and, thus, engage in the time shifting of energy (charging one’s car after dark/post-work commute, the same way that consumers currently time shift TV entertainment using DVRs).

Even if we assume that the majority of the future hydrogen fuel station infrastructure is derived from stations that currently dispense gasoline, it doesn’t change the fact that consumers will choose the $4 at-home, in-the-garage, overnight refueling over the $50 hydrogen fuel cell, only-at-the-dispensing station, approach.

I would love to engage with an informed and reasonably balanced hydrogen fan/enthusiast/proponent regarding these points. I’m not against *any* clean, renewable tech, given the nastiness of the gasoline production life cycle (fracking, high cost, refineries, and exhaust from tail pipes). But when I do the math for fuel cell vehicles versus EVs, fuel cells always lose by a wide margin.

Unless there’s some magic (and magically inexpensive) leapfrog propulsion fuel on the immediate horizon–like Star Trek-inspired dilithium crystals or something–electricity makes so much more sense that it isn’t even funny.

Joe, thank for you opinion on all this. But is there something I’m missing here? Everything Musk says has made sense to me so far.”

Please consider this post an invitation to both pro- and anti-hydrogen enthusiasts alike to participate in a mature, professional, and educational debate regarding the merits and practicality of hydrogen and electricity as power sources for the next generation of personal vehicles.

I’m sure we’ll all learn something. Because, after all, we share the same planet and we all pay a significant portion of our incomes for personal transportation.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 9

3d1Today’s blog post is another excerpt from Home Theater for the Internet Age and covers more topics that often confuse both new and old hi-fi and home theater fans alike: Ethernet (hard wired, high-bandwidth computer and hi-fi gear networking), separates, and the role of a broadband internet router in a modern home theater.

The internet router is especially important for those who enjoy streaming media (like Pandora, Spotify, Netflix, and Hulu Plus) and have multiple mobile devices sucking down wi-fi.

  • Part 1: Volume and zero dB, updating firmware, disadvantages of Blu-ray
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance and analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream and Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics

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Curt Robbins


Ethernet

From Chapter 3: Components

Ethernet is a standard for connecting computers and home theater components to your home network. Unlike wi-fi, which is a wireless communications standard, it is a wired scheme that operates over special cabling. Like its cousin wi-fi, Ethernet enables audio and video to be streamed from the internet or a part of your network to your home theater. In terms of audio and video components (specifically receivers, Blu-ray players, and streaming media boxes), Ethernet is a valuable feature that provides a better connection than wi-fi, but may involve more expensive installation of cabling in your home. (For more info, see the Ethernet section of the Connection Types chapter.)

ethernet-cablePersonally, I’d seriously consider skipping components that lack Ethernet. Why? Simply because it’s the best way to connect the pieces of your home theater to your local network and the internet, especially for streaming high-definition video. The media formats of today—and tomorrow—all flow more smoothly when transported via Ethernet instead of interference-prone wi-fi.

From Chapter 5: Connection Types

As you learned in the Components chapter, Ethernet is a wired connection technology from the computer networking world that is used in other types of components, such as home theater and home automation equipment. It supports relatively high speeds, has been around for decades, and is very reliable. Many, but not all, receivers and all major streaming media boxes feature Ethernet ports. This connectivity standard operates over special cabling called CAT5 and CAT6 (the current and most robust standard) and can reach lengths of more than 300 feet (100 meters).

Sometimes labeled “LAN” on a device’s back panel, Ethernet isn’t only reliable, it’s the fastest connection available. In a typical home network, Ethernet is roughly two to 20 times faster than wi-fi (when measuring real-world data throughput)! Although most components don’t take advantage of this speed, future standards—like true 4K video—will benefit from it. Another superiority over wi-fi is the lack of sensitivity to radio interference (such as from cordless phones and microwaves). In addition, Ethernet is much less prone to hacking or unwanted eavesdropping than wi-fi. Ethernet is simply the best connection option for computers and home theater equipment.

In most homes, wi-fi is obviously used by all mobile devices (iPod Touches, smartphones, tablets, and laptops). But your receiver never moves, so it doesn’t need the mobile flexibility provided by wi-fi. It does, however, need a fast, solid internet connection—and especially benefits from one that’s much more immune to interference and several magnitudes faster than its wi-fi cousin (helpful when streaming high resolution audio or video without interruptions or buffering).

For these reasons, I decided to connect my receiver and other home theater components to my home network (and the internet) using Ethernet. Because my components aren’t consuming wi-fi bandwidth, they aren’t competing with the mobile devices in my home. If you’ve already gone to the installation expense or invested DIY time to run CAT6 cable from your home’s internet router to your home theater components, there’s no reason to not supply Ethernet to all of your devices.

Splitting Ethernet with a Switch

Sharing a single cable drop with multiple home theater components can be done easily and inexpensively using an Ethernet switch. Similar to a USB hub, this device simply splits and manages the incoming Ethernet signal from a single cable into multiple feeds (some switches provide five ports, while others offer eight or more). There are a few speed standards supported by Ethernet switches. It’s recommended that you get the fastest possible switch to help future-proof your system. This would be a gigabit switch, which is very affordable, with entry-level models costing only about $35. With even higher definition TV right around the corner, data consumption will only increase exponentially.

ethernet switchA friend of mine was recently shopping for a receiver. He had been plugging his cable box and Blu-ray player directly into his TV. He purchased a Chromecast dongle, but his TV features only two HDMI ports, both of which were occupied. Thus, he was forced to purchase a receiver to accommodate his three HDMI inputs (of course, he’s pumping much better sound to his speakers in the process). Instead of paying more for a receiver that featured wi-fi—he was on a tight budget—we simply ensured that the receiver had an Ethernet port. This allowed him to save $120 by purchasing a model lacking wi-fi—while at the same time delivering a considerably faster and more reliable internet connection to his receiver.

For non-mobile devices and when practical, always choose Ethernet over wi-fi.

Separates

From Chapter 3: Components

One thing this book doesn’t deal with in detail is what in the audiophile world is called separates. These are specialty components that handle specific tasks within your home theater, primarily multichannel amplification or surround processing. These are both tasks assumed by a standard AV receiver, although typically—by audiophile standards—at a lower quality level than can be delivered by separates.

It’s hard to argue with the benefit of different power supplies and avoiding any electrical crossover or interference between separate components. It is, in both theory and actual listening reality, an approach that’s superior to that of integrated receivers. But, as with all areas of life, common sense should prevail. There are poor examples of separates on the market, as well as integrated receivers that produce incredible sound and video with robust power (and better value).

As you might guess, separates can get alarmingly expensive. If you want to research separates on your own, check out Anthem, Bryston, Classé, Emotiva, Integra, Marantz, NAD, Parasound, and Rotel. With the exception of Emotiva and (sometimes) NAD, get ready for sticker shock. Even Yamaha joined the game in 2014 with a $6,000 pre-processor and power amplifier pair.

If I was buying separates today, I’d probably go with Rotel, NAD, or Emotiva. I like Rotel’s Class D digital amps and its reputation for clean, refined audio with a wide soundstage. I love NAD’s understated grey matte finish and its legacy for audiophile-quality sound at all volume levels. I also enjoy Emotiva’s engineering philosophy and how the company throws tons of watts at its separates (although other companies offer classier, more refined component styling). The company’s wattage-per-dollar ratio is off the charts. Unlike most separates manufacturers, Emotiva’s prices won’t motivate your spouse to begin Googling ways to kill you in your sleep.

Broadband Internet Router

From Chapter 3: Components

I know, I know, this is a book about home theater, not computers. But with so many streaming services delivered to your home theater via the internet, having a weak router can be more frustration than pleasure. Dropouts when listening to streaming music and freezes for buffering while watching internet video aren’t any fun (somewhat destroying the suspension of disbelief during engaging movies). While problems like this can’t be completely avoided due to internet traffic and server hiccups (issues completely outside your control), they can sometimes be dramatically decreased with a good dual-band router.

Think of a high-end router as serving the role of an internet traffic cop who not only likes to increase the speed limit, but also optimizes your network for the increasingly media-based data pulled down by your increasingly device-filled household.

Wi-Fi Everywhere

Not convinced of the importance of wi-fi in your home? Consider that Roku uses wi-fi even in its remote controls, while Nest sells a wi-fi-enabled smoke detector to complement its wi-fi-based smart thermostat. There are even various models of door locks and LED light bulbs on the market that require wi-fi to configure and operate. From your display panel and AV receiver to your laptop or your child’s iPod Touch, the quality and reliability of your wi-fi connection has never been so important, affecting every member of your family—and even your guests who bring their own mobile devices.

netgear nighthawk r700Better router models provide several advantages, including stronger amplifiers and dedicated antennas to enhance signal strength, range, and overall data speed. Consider that YouTube and Netflix together make up more than 55% of the overall volume of data consumed on the internet. In other words, most of the data streamed online is video—and sometimes HD video in Dolby Digital surround sound. This video consumes a lot of bandwidth, more than any other type of data on your network or the internet.

Also consider that this data isn’t consumed in short bursts, like traditional computer-based internet use involving a web browser or mobile apps for social networks like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Watching a two-and-a-half hour movie on Netflix or Apple TV requires not only good bandwidth, but a data stream that’s consistently reliable. Now recognize that there might be two, or even three, simultaneous video streams from the internet entering your home at certain times of the day (such as after school or work, during the evening, or on weekends). This is when most readers begin to understand the sheer volume of media streaming that occurs in their home and the pivotal role played by their wi-fi router.

When you sign up for internet service, there’s a good chance that your ISP, or internet service provider, will provide you a combination modem/router that includes basic wi-fi capabilities. This is the device that is both bringing the internet into your home via coaxial, twisted pair (telephone), or fiber optic cabling and then, as a second step, wirelessly broadcasting it to your home via a wi-fi signal. Any internet-connected device in your home relies on your router for the upload and download of all data.

The Free One Sucks

For companies like AT&T, Cox, Comcast, and Time Warner to make money, they obviously must keep overhead as low as possible. This means that the modem/wi-fi router box they provide with their ISP accounts isn’t the best available. Not by a long shot. Regardless of the inherent quality of these freebies, they aren’t giving you the best experience possible. With so many mobile and home theater devices in your home demanding a robust and full-time wi-fi connection—and typically streaming bandwidth-hungry audio or video—the role of your router is more important than ever.

Buy Dual Band

First, be sure to purchase a wi-fi router that’s dual-band. This will include support for both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz devices, essentially putting them on different networks and boosting the bandwidth provided to all devices by helping prevent bottlenecks and streamlining data flows.

A benefit of a dual-band router is that you’re guaranteed to have the latest wi-fi standard, 802.11ac (sometimes called gigabit wi-fi). This gives you the fastest wireless connectivity, helping provide the best possible performance, especially with new devices that enter your household that probably support this standard. Routers from ASUS, Cisco, D-link, Linksys, and Netgear are recommended because of their quality, affordability, and long track records with consumers and enterprises.

Buying the best router possible for your home in 2014 is a $130-$280 endeavor. Check out the $200 Netgear Nighthawk R7000 (my personal pick and a PC Magazine’s Editors’ Choice, pictured above), the $130 ASUS RT-N65U or $220 RT-AC68U, or the $230 Linksys EA6900 (another PC Magazine Editors’ Choice recipient). Also consider the top-shelf $280 Linksys WRT1900AC. Another nice contender is the $175 TRENDnet TEW-818DRU (street prices will typically be lower on most models). Not chump change, but by the end of the operation you’ll know you have the fastest, most reliable, and most manageable wi-fi on the block.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

North Korean Cyber Terrorism: You’re Unprepared

It was revealed yesterday, in an announcement from the FBI, that North Korea was responsible for the recent cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The attack resulted in the public release of thousands of confidential (and embarrassing) email messages and documents involving Sony, its executives, popular celebrities, and many of the entertainment company’s business partners—among other misappropriations of intellectual property. This included various Sony films now freely available on pirate sites. According to Patrick Mahaffey, CEO of software consulting firm Room 5, the Sony hack “may have ushered in a new era of state sponsored terrorism against civilian targets.”

the_interview for linkedinThese acts have also caused the controversial cancellation of the release of Sony’s movie The Interview, the comedy drama that was the motivation for North Korea’s actions. In the movie, the characters portrayed by Seth Rogen and James Franco are enlisted by the American government to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. (Spoiler alert: At the end of the film, the two American spies complete their mission; there’s a viral video excerpt trending on social media if you’re curious.)

North Korea’s actions weren’t financially motivated, but rather purely political in nature. However, they were financially impacting. Kim Jung-un’s third world, impoverished totalitarian regime just cost an American subsidiary of a Japanese company $200-300 million in lost revenue—not to mention a severely tarnished reputation. To put this in perspective, Sony Pictures Entertainment, based in Culver City, California, reported $8 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2014.

On December 15, CNNMoney reported that parent company Sony’s stock had fallen 10 percent due to the incident. Then, on December 17, the FBI announced that it considered the hacking incident a national security threat. On December 19, the event elicited public statements from President Barack Obama, who said that Sony Pictures “made a mistake” in cancelling the release of the film and that the United States would respond to the attack “in a place and manner and time that we choose.”

According to Reuters: “‘North Korea’s ultimate goal in cyber strategy is to be able to attack national infrastructure of South Korea and the United States,’ said Kim Heung-kwang, a defector from the North who was a computer science professor and says he maintains links with the community in his home country.”

The general tone among Americans has been that Sony (and, by extension, Hollywood) spinelessly caved to the influence of a rogue dictator. Echoing the President’s comments, social media has been abuzz with anti-Sony sentiment, and even calls for boycotts.

I would argue that North Korea’s actions amount to a terrorist act on the part of a communist totalitarian nation, in the form of a cyber attack that, akin to an act of war, brought Japanese Sony, American-based Sony Pictures Entertainment, and American partners like Snapchat to their knees. I would also argue that this event can be—in the long run—good for us. Here’s why.

It’s easy to become too internally focused when you’re in one of the most technologically, culturally, and economically advanced nations in the world—and a shining example of democracy and progress, despite all of our internal bickering and ideological and religious contention.

the_interview_3_for_linkedinFortunately, we have organizations like the FBI, CIA, and the military’s various internal counter cyber-terrorism groups. Before you laugh and begin schooling me on how none of these organizations can be trusted (and bring up torture and waterboarding), remember “same team” (and 9/11, if you have a short memory).

This isn’t the time to be pointing out how the family dog crapped on the rug a few times. Rather, we should be thankful that Rover keeps the house safe from intruders and kills pesky rodents before they begin living in the garage or digging into that 50-lb bag of bird seed. It’s our bird seed, dammit, and Rover—rug pooping and all—helps protect it from thieves.

North Korea’s recent acts of cyber terrorism are a wake-up call not only to large corporations like Sony, but also to middle class Americans. Although I’m certainly not an expert on this topic, I don’t think it was a wake-up call to our government’s security agencies or the military. I believe they’re in the loop on this one.

Kim Jong-un for linkedinWe middle class consumers, however, are sloppy with our data and online accounts. Our passwords suck, most of us never backup our data, and asking us about our firewall is like inquiring about the pH balance of our lawn; we simply don’t know. And, all too often, we don’t give a damn. Again, we’re too busy dealing with social media, work headaches, and our kids to bother with the likes of password strength and data backups. As Americans, we’re pinnacle procrastinators. Watching The Voice or True Detectives is more important to us than personal data security. We prove it every day.

The revelation of North Korea’s cyber attack on Sony Pictures proves that we’re much more vulnerable than we think. If a black hat hacker anywhere, foreign or domestic, wants to steal your identity, copy or corrupt your data, or blackmail or embarrass you, even a moderately talented cyber thief can do so with relative ease. The reason it hasn’t happened to you is because you haven’t been targeted. At least, not that you’re aware.

According to Daniel Solove, a research professor of law at George Washington University Law School, “All of our personal data is at significant risk. At home or at work, your personal data is at risk. Whether in the cloud, or on your computer, or in an email, your data is at risk. The internet wasn’t built for security; it is a very risky zone, like wandering a minefield.”

Computer and networking technology, along with the common skills of hackers, have evolved to the point that, regardless of motive, these cyber bad guys can swoop in, steal or corrupt your data, and leave almost no trace. You may have been hacked and have no idea. The IT departments of major retailers like Target, Home Depot, and Neiman Marcus have been hacked and suffered the theft of point-of-sale data for tens of millions of customers. And, in some cases, they barely learned that it happened. If $100 million IT departments are vulnerable, what do you think can happen to you and me?

the_interview_2_for_linkedinThe reason most of us haven’t had our data or personal home networks compromised is simply because we’re not big targets—not because our data or networks are secure. If a frustrated, psychotic co-worker, spurned lover, mean ex-husband, angry neighbor, or pissed-off friend really focused on messing with your data, they could do so with relative ease. It just might involve hiring a savvy teenage nerd to make it happen. Don’t assume, because a person doesn’t possess computer skills, that they can’t be responsible for a data attack on you and your family.

Statistics from a variety of sources indicate that the majority of Americans never (as in never) backup their data. Surveys and metrics also indicate that our passwords—even for things like bank and investment accounts—are pathetically weak. Do you have any “password1234” passwords in your collection? How about a derivation of your name (or your pet’s name)? Do you use the same password, or a slight variation, on all of your accounts? I know; it makes them easier to remember. It also makes you extremely vulnerable to hacking.

There’s plenty of books and resources available to help you improve your data security. I won’t push my book, because the point is simply to get you to improve your personal data security, not necessarily buy something from me. But do something.

james franco for blogCyber terrorism and hacking activities, from governments, large corporations, and individuals, are only going to increase. We’re all susceptible, from Sony Pictures to your next door neighbor. However, there are many things you can do to help prevent digital disaster that results in identity theft, public embarrassment, and financial loss.

Learn about what you can do. Make a plan. Execute it. Maintain your efforts. Be diligent.

Take it seriously.

Did you, or one of your friends, ever run a car out of gas? Wasn’t there a feeling of incredible stupidity and regret? Wasn’t there a realization that a brief stop at a local gas station could have been made oh-so-easily, preventing the embarrassment and expense of your negligence and oversight?

Well, get ready. Because the Sony Pictures hack by North Korea is only the beginning. Organizations and individuals that aren’t prepared will, sooner or later, suffer.

Try not to be one of them.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Apple: The Myth of Too Expensive

[Updated July 31, 2015]

I often have friends approach me asking for purchasing advice for consumer tech products like computers, TVs and home theater gear, and home automation gadgets. I try to be as objective as possible. But my advice often involves recommending an Apple product.

Typically, the first response I get is “But Apple stuff is so expensive.” I’m not claiming this is a wholly undeserved reputation on the part of Apple. But one doesn’t get a Porsche for the price of a Prius. Better gear costs more. Period.

Proving It

apple tv for blogHowever, the perception that Apple’s products are vastly more expensive than the competition is, for the most part, a myth. In this short blog post, I’ll prove it.

First, let’s take a look at the increasingly crowded market for streaming media set-top boxes. One can choose from Apple TV, three Roku models, Amazon Fire TV, and others. All of which are priced at $69. I’m not going to argue that Apple TV is the best in this category; that’s for you to decide. But it’s certainly as good as the others. One’s particular lifestyle and the entertainment and hardware ecosystem into which they’re vested really determine the best choice.

I probably receive the most proclamations of Apple being too expensive in terms of personal computers. Yes, you can spend thousands on a MacBook Pro with Retina display (optioned out, one of these little beauties sells for more than $3,200) or a Mac Pro (the 6-Core model with dual GPU starts at $4,000). But these models are at the top of their classes—and are probably the best available in their respective categories. They’re extreme examples from Apple’s catalog.

237844-apple-macbook-air-11-inchMacBook Air

A more reasonable consideration is the MacBook Air. Apple’s svelt and most popular thin-and-light notebook computer (it’s barely thicker than the iPad) starts at $900. Apple quality and reliability for under $1,000 is quite a deal. I realize it doesn’t work if your budget tops out at $500 or $600. But remember the value of your time when that discount Dell or HP model croaks and you’re faced with hours invested in tech support, returns, and maybe exchanges. Not to mention lost productivity and sheer frustration. Time is money.

Mac Mini

For desktop computing, there’s the Mac Mini. Beginning at $500, this dependable little PC is the least expensive way to jump into the OS X universe without breaking the bank. At only 7.7 inches across, this cold aluminum square can deftly handle the computing tasks of the vast majority of consumers. Yes, you still have to add your own keyboard, monitor, and mouse or touchpad. However, this can actually save you money by allowing you to use peripherals you already own or less expensive competing models—although I recommend Apple across the board for these items also. (The exception is the monitor, where a much wider variety of non-Apple models can be had for a fraction of the cost.)

iphone5c-gallery2-2013iPhone 5S & 5C

And then there’s the iconic iPhone. I realize everyone wants the latest and greatest in mobile gadgets. But technolust aside, there are some great deals to be had. You can get an arguably superior Apple phone for less than many Android models. For example, take last year’s models, the iPhone 5S and 5C. On a two-year contract (the way the vast majority of consumers in the United States obtain smartphones), the 5S can be had for only $100. And the 5C can be obtained for…wait for it…free.

The next time you hear someone complain about the absurd prices of Apple’s products—and especially if they use it as an excuse for purchasing or recommending inferior products from competing companies—kindly inform them that they can have their Apple and eat it, too.

And, for goodness sake, stop imagining bloated pricing where it doesn’t exist. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get my work done on my Mac Mini so I can binge watch Deadwood on HBO NOW this evening using my Apple TV….

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Curt Robbins

[For more of my Apple rants, check out Back to Apple, Apple vs. Google: Where Focus Meets Buckshot, and Need a Computer? Think Apple.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Need a Computer? Think Apple

A friend recently approached me with a request for help in purchasing a new laptop. She knows that I’m a technical writer and said she wanted the best bang for the buck—and that she wasn’t afraid to pay for quality. Knowing her needs as a grad student and being familiar with her overall lifestyle, I immediately recommended Apple’s Macbook Air (it should be noted that she owns a desktop iMac, of which she’s very fond).

She then admitted that she had her eye on a Levono Yoga. Although I’ve never owned a Lenovo product, I cringed. It wasn’t just because I had no experience with the company or its relatively new schizophrenic laptop-cum-tablet. It’s because she wanted something that wasn’t from Apple. But, lest you think I’m simply a bigoted fanboy, let me explain….

macbook air for blogI’ve owned laptops since 1988, when I got my first grayscale Zenith SupersPORT 286 in college. More important, I’ve experienced nightmares with quite a few brands and models. Topping the junk list are Dell, Toshiba, and HP. I’ve owned desktop and laptop computers from all, many of which experienced serious problems. [Because my blog doesn’t accept advertising revenue, I can actually be honest about these products.]

Forget Toshiba

A certified repair tech confided in me that Toshiba had a known design flaw that resulted in overheating in the particular model I owned—which caused the unit to spontaneously shut down (always nice when I’m in the middle of document or video editing). Instead of fixing the design problem, Toshiba chose to simply replace the motherboard. Twice. Each repair resulted in similar headaches; the problem never really abated.

Forget Dell

After purchasing a top-of-the-line Dell XPS laptop in 2011, I had to spend countless hours fighting the Austin-based company to get two—count ’em, two—replacements (very similar to the Toshiba nightmare). The second replacement’s Blu-ray player died after only a week; the tech who replaced the drive couldn’t get it to work and cited a bad motherboard. Even the second replacement (third overall unit) experienced problems.

Can you say quality in the crapper?

If I wanted to consider myself a good person, I wasn’t going to allow my friend to walk into a similar situation. However, to save a few bucks—and because she was intrigued with the Yoga’s design—she went ahead and got it. I cringed a second time. Oh boy, here we go, I thought.

Sure enough, after only a week or so, she experienced problems with the Yoga and decided to return it. Thankfully, she made this decision within the 30-day return window and didn’t experience any hassles from the reseller.

And with what did she replace it? A MacBook Pro. I smiled and breathed a sign of relief, knowing she would have several years of dedicated service and a great user experience.

Proof in the Pudding

When I was consulting for USAA in San Antonio, I produced a ton of training videos for the company’s IT department (we created nearly 700 in just over three years, in fact). I don’t cite that number for bragging rights; I mention it to reveal the intense dependability and reliability of the two computers I used to do most of that video production: A late-model MacBook Pro and a 27″ iMac.

(BTW, video editing is basically the heaviest lifting your computer can do. It’s the true test of the reliability and power of a PC.)

Prior to the instructional designer/video producer gig at USAA, I had never owned a Mac. Many of my friends had, though—all of whom raved about their precious Apple hardware as if they had drunk a gallon of the Cupertino Kool-Aid. Their zealotous enthusiasm for their Mac computers was almost frightening.

One friend described how her late-model Mac laptop, one of the old white plastic models, had literally not been turned off or rebooted for years. She worked long hours as a nurse and simply closed the lid when she left the house (Apple’s operating systems have always been based on Berkeley UNIX, the most stable, solid OS in the world).

apple logo for blogI now own a Mac Mini. My kids log some serious hours on this machine and give it a strong workout with all the streaming video they watch on YouTube and Netflix. The Mini is rock solid, has been rebooted only a few times in the past two years, and basically never experiences tech glitches. It’s so problem-free, in fact, that my kids pretty much forget it’s even there. The “computer” seems to be the display and mouse. Ah, a computing experience the way it should be: Trouble-free.

Hello MacBook Pro

My laptops, unfortunately, aren’t Apple products. They’re still functional and get the job done, so I can’t justify the purchase of new units yet. But when one of these Dell POS laptops bites the dust (which you know won’t take all that long), I’m headed directly to apple.com or my local Apple Store and picking up a Mac.

While most known for its iconic and ubiquitous iPhone and iPad lines, Apple makes the best computer hardware (and software) in the business. Period. The slight uptick in price is well worth it. (One of the hallmarks of failure in life is the inability to understand the value of one’s time; servicing and replacing defective laptops is no walk in the park.)

The next time you or one of your friends is in the market for a new laptop or desktop computer, seriously consider a Mac and stay away from the HP, Toshiba, and Dell models. If the slight increase in price concerns you, realize that a MacBook Air can be had beginning at $900. Under $1,000 for a brand new MacBook Air that’s barely thicker than a freaking iPad.

Don’t allow uninformed friends and co-workers to talk you out of a Mac because it’s “too expensive.” That’s just culture war crap and haters talking. Sometimes-immature Apple fanboys boast about having superior hardware and software, while Windows users do the same. It becomes a pissing match comprised of 12-year-olds.

Then again, if you’re a masochist, jump on that discounted Dell and smile knowing there’s a good chance you’re in for a bumpy ride. It’s your money. It’s your time.

Spend both wisely.

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Curt Robbins

[For more of my Apple rants, check out Apple: The Myth of Too ExpensiveBack to Apple, and Apple vs. Google: Where Focus Meets Buckshot.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Zealth Audio: Great American Speakers

3d1When I was doing research for one of my latest books, Home Theater for the Internet Age, I knew I couldn’t get lazy with the Speakers chapter. So I put a lot of time into the topic. In the process, I discovered some neat, small speaker companies.

Most of the experts I truly respect in the areas of hi-fi and home theater agree: You should put the bulk of your budget into speakers (for a wide variety of reasons that I won’t go into here).

One of the more unique and affable companies I encountered during my research was Zealth Audio. Based in San Diego, Zealth isn’t your father’s speaker. To learn more, enjoy the following excerpt from my book.

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Curt Robbins


Zealth Audio

If you’re one of those people who likes to talk about supporting the little guy, but ends up plunking down your hard-earned on speakers from a big international corporation, you might want to consider your options. Independent manufacturers, some of which are as small as one full-time craftsman working with one or two part-time assistants, are increasingly common. Fortunately, some of these little guys can also save you significant money while putting a hand-crafted speaker in your living room that’s actually attractive and sounds great.

One such option is Zealth Audio, a small operation in San Diego that hand-builds four models of multi-directional floor standing loudspeakers, all of which are designed to enhance surround sound—although they work well in stereo applications as well. Like Mirage, Pinnacle, and Axiom, Zealth stands out in the sometimes copycat world of direct-firing loudspeakers by offering a unique design that caters to the realities of modern surround sound.

What truly differentiates the speaker-design brainchild of company founder and sole full-time employee Kevin Nelson is the fact that it’s designed to work in a two-channel stereo sound system with as few as one—yes, that’s right, one—speaker. Zealth employs a patented Cross-Fire Imaging Technology, which comprises both front-firing and 45-degree up-firing Picture-002drivers. Zealth also sells a three-way speaker that adds a side-firing subwoofer.

Nelson claims that all of his configurations “enhance your existing surround sound-enabled investment and bring home theater sounds to breathtaking life,” referring to the experience as “multi-dimensional sound immersion.” Nelson is so confident in the immersive quality of his speakers, in fact, that he says you can replace a conventional five-speaker system with only two of his models. When I asked him if one could also avoid the expense of a subwoofer by going with his top-of-the-line side-firing Gold Series model, he said yes.

If you’re as curious about Zealth as me, check out the company’s entry-level ZAL-22 ($450 a pair), the midgrade ZAL-36T ($890 a pair), or the big daddy ZAL-DLX Gold Series, a 36-inch tall model featuring the aforementioned side-firing 10-inch subwoofer ($1,450 a pair). Nelson is also introducing a new faux leather finish ZAL36 Slimline model that will be priced at $980 a pair.

All Zealth speakers are made-to-order, hand-built from American materials, and available in more than a dozen beautiful wood finishes (a nice alternative to the trendy high-gloss piano finishes that are all the rave—and one advantage of Zealth’s small-scale fulfillment system). The company produces muscular models that, according to veteran audiophile reviewer Steve Guttenberg, sound as good as they look.

Check out Zealth. You’ll not only be supporting the little guy, but also getting a killer set of very affordable speakers. The ZAL-36T is what I plan to use in a new two-channel system dedicated to music.

[According to Molly Stillman at rAVe Publications, who interviewed Nelson for her blog in April 2014,Speaking with Kevin was truly a pleasure and an honor. He was extremely humble, very honest, funny, witty, and clearly very smart. I think the industry could use a few more Kevin Nelsons.” You can read Ms. Stillman’s blog post regarding Zealth Audio here.] 


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 8

3d1In the previous blog post, we discussed how the room in which you place your home theater (or two-channel audio system) can greatly affect the quality of the sound produced. In this post, let’s explore room correction and room dynamics (the size and shape of the room and the nature of the stuff in it).

  • Part 1: Volume and zero dB, updating firmware, disadvantages of Blu-ray
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance and analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream and Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, separates, and broadband internet routers

 

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Curt Robbins


Room Correction

Many AV receiver models, especially those manufactured within the past five to eight years, feature something called room correction (also called auto-calibration or automatic EQ). In a nutshell, room correction, as its name implies, makes small adjustments to the speaker outputs of the receiver based on your particular room layout in an effort to improve your sound—with a focus on surround sound and the combined effect of all of your speakers.

The task of room correction involves a small microphone that plugs into your AV receiver. The receiver produces a series of test tones from each individual speaker that are “heard” by the calibration microphone, which provides feedback to the receiver. The receiver uses this information in two ways. First, it adjusts the relative loudness of your speakers so they’re all producing sound at the same level (based on the position of the microphone during testing). Second, it attempts to determine how your specific room acoustics are affecting and harming the quality of the output of your speakers and applies equalization (EQ) to try to improve the situation.

Don’t downplay the importance of good room correction. “I didn’t realize how much better [music] could sound until I finally took the 30 minutes to run the [room correction] program. Wowza, what an experience! The surround channels seemed to come to life, and the bass response throughout the room was much more consistent and pleasing to the ears,” said David Vaughn in a receiver review for Sound & Vision magazine.

If your receiver doesn’t feature built-in room correction (many don’t, especially entry-level models), you can use a supplemental tune-up disc (a good example is Sound & Vision Home Theater Tune-Up, available for about $15 from resellers like Amazon). Most products of this type offer a comprehensive set of tests and tools to adjust and enhance both your audio and video, including speaker placement, sound levels, and other audio settings. Another, albeit more expensive, option is hiring a certified technician to calibrate your home theater (installers often offer this service).

Speaker Position & Room Dynamics

As you learned in the A Word About Your Room section of the Components chapter, it’s important to realize that the room in which your speakers reside has a dramatic effect on the quality of the sound produced by them. This includes the volume, clarity, and dynamic range perceived by you and your listeners. Rooms that provide too much sound wave reflection, or, conversely, too much sound absorption, will color the audio produced by any speaker. The shape of the room also heavily influences the path traveled by sound waves before they reach your ears, significantly influencing your perception of the sound.

The position of speakers is also critical and applies to both two-channel systems as well as 5.1 and larger surround configurations. Not only is the position of speakers relative to each other significant, but also their locations relative to the room and walls. Is your home theater environment fully enclosed? Partially open? Mostly open? What is the nature of the surfaces of the walls? The ceiling? Is the floor highly reflective ceramic tile, or a deep-pile sound-absorbing carpet? How dense is the furniture and decor in the room? These are all important considerations that go beyond the inherent quality of the speakers themselves.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 7

3d1I’ve recently been experimenting with writing in different parts of my house. My wife and daughter were serial binge watching something on Netflix that I found distracting, so I took my laptop, iPad, and coffee and headed to the “Club Room,” the name my wife gave to the spare bedroom we turned into a second home theater.

Despite the fact that this room’s system isn’t as nice as that in the living room, it sounds better. In fact, I can barely describe it—especially for two-channel music. But I’m getting that itchy feeling of deja vu. Probably because I already wrote about this in Home Theater for the Internet Age. Enjoy the A Word About Your Room section below.

In the next blog post, I’ll share the Room Dynamics & Speaker Positioning section from the Speakers chapter.

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Curt Robbins


A Word About Your Room

We can talk about home theater components all we want, but how good yours sounds is highly dependent on your particular room. It’s size, the number and nature of the items filling it, and the surface characteristics of the ceiling, walls, and flooring—including the number of windows and amount of ambient light—all have a significant impact on your listening and viewing experience. For audio, it’s necessary to adjust your receiver and the output it provides to your speakers (something you learned about in the Room Correction section above). Don’t blow off doing a good room correction for your system. Equally important is speaker position and the direction in which they fire (point). To learn about speaker placement, see the Room Dynamics & Speaker Positioning section of the Speakers chapter.

Use Case: Room Dynamics

In 2013, I upgraded one home theater in my living room and installed a second from scratch in a spare bedroom (that serves as a dedicated theater, complete with theater lighting and a dorm fridge in the closet). The main living room system is nicer and involves better rear speakers and components. In fact, the only thing that’s consistent across both systems is the Blu-ray player (Pioneer Elite BDP-62FP units), Apple TV, and front speakers (comparable B&W mains and center channels). All other components are superior in the living room theater. The rec room, however, offers the advantage of being an entirely physically enclosed environment, and doing so within the relatively small space of a spare bedroom. It contains only a wall-mounted display panel, three-person sofa, and adult-size beanbag chair, with all components in a closable closet.

I have a friend who’s a big movie buff. He recently made a social visit to my house, the first time he had been exposed to these home theaters. We watched two modern feature-length movies, one in the spare bedroom and one in the living room. Each was a big-budget film on Blu-ray involving nice lossless surround sound and modern CGI effects. We cranked the volume during each movie (really utilizing the subwoofer in the living room system).

After my friend had watched both movies, I queried him regarding his perception of the sound quality of the respective experiences. He said the sound in the spare bedroom was better. This was despite the fact that the room lacks a subwoofer, has lower grade rear speakers, and the receiver features a lower-quality amplifier with slightly less power.

The lesson here: One of the biggest determinants of the quality of the sound produced by your particular home theater is the room in which it resides. Don’t get too focused on the role of components and the nuances of their pros, cons, and stats when the room in which you drop them plays such a pivotal role. Your environment may be inherently good or bad for a home theater. This also illustrates why you might not want to invest thousands of dollars on an upgrade that will provide marginal improvements to your audio and video quality.

Maybe the solution is simply to move the theater to a different room.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.