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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Personal Data Security: Password Basics

securityThis post is an excerpt from my new book Understanding Personal Data Security, which covers centralized data, backups, strong passwords, and malware protection. The following is from Chapter 4: Passwords.

Also check out the previous posts in this series, including Personal Data Security: Backups, 3-2-1 Backup Rule: Get Offsite, and Personal Data Security: NAS.

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Curt Robbins


Basic Password Rules

There are some basic rules that will help prevent hackers from stealing your passwords, gaining access to your online accounts, or stealing your identity. While following these rules doesn’t guarantee that your accounts won’t be compromised, it vastly improves the resiliency of your online accounts and protects you about as much as possible.

You’re creating what is known as a “strong password,” meaning it has a mix of letters (both lower and upper case), numbers, and symbols and is of a minimum length.

  • Make a Strong Password: Use a minimum of 16 characters that are a mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols. Don’t use easy-to-guess phrases, such as “iloveyou” or “MaryHadALittleLamb.” While “MaryHadALittleLamb” has both upper and lower case letters and is of appropriate length, it lacks numbers and symbols. Also, hackers look for common phrases, using dictionaries and even terabytes of Wikipedia and Bible content as a “check against” list. Guess it’s time to change that “yabbadabbado123” password.
  • Change Your Password Frequently: You should change your password/passphrase every six months. This is the rule few people follow (simply because it’s a hassle), especially if all of your online accounts feature unique passwords. Nobody ever said protecting your accounts and data was a total cakewalk.
  • Use a Unique Password on Each Account: Nobody likes this because it’s such a pain (especially when you should change all passwords with such frequency). This is where password vault software comes in handy. In 2014, nearly no one has only one or two online accounts. A dozen or more accounts is not uncommon. As you’ll learn below, password vault apps that store all of your passwords in a single password-protected program or app are a solid strategy for keeping several long, strong passwords at your fingertips.
  • Tell Nobody: This means nobody. Putting effort into creating strong passwords that are difficult to crack and then simply giving them away to a friend or co-worker is stupid. Even if your friend/family member has no malicious intent, they can easily get sloppy and expose your password to others (like by writing it on a sticky note and slapping it on their computer monitor!). There’s no reason for anyone else to know your passwords. It’s simply antithetical to the cause!

Even if a hacker doesn’t get your password from you or your devices, the bad guys can compromise a password database held by a service provider (your bank, email service, large retailers like Target or Amazon, social media like Facebook or LinkedIn, etc.). Once the hacker has gotten into the password database (often by breaking its encryption), they then have to guess the passwords. Something like “P@ssw0rd1” will be guessed in mere seconds. Regardless of the quality of your home or office firewall or the security of the individual devices you use to access your accounts, the password itself must stand up to the most robust cracking attempts that will most likely be perpetrated on the organization with which you have an account.

Strong Passwords

You have already learned that the strength of your passwords is determined by their length, complexity, and lack of predictability (why you don’t want “maryhadalittlelamb” or “ILoveNY”).

The password “Tr0ub4dor&3” seems like a relatively strong password on the surface. Although it’s too short (only 11 characters), it features both lower and upper case letters, numbers, and a symbol. However, a hacker with a computer capable of producing 1,000 guesses per second (an old computer can do this) will require only three days to guess this password. Compare this to “correcthorsebatterystaple,” a passphrase that requires 550 years to crack (at the same rate of 1,000 guesses per second). And this passphrase doesn’t even include upper case letters, numbers, or symbols! By adding these elements, you would have a passphrase that, for all practical purposes, is nearly impossible to crack (unless it’s the NSA trying to get it) and relatively easy to remember.

Longer, more complex passphrases are also more difficult for others to steal through simple observation. Sometimes, passwords are nefariously obtained by the act of observing the owner type them. Short, simple passwords and passphrases can be learned by watching the owner input them only once or maybe a few times. If someone really wants your password, they may even use a wi-fi-based webcam or security camera to record your keystrokes! Don’t underestimate the lengths to which a hacker or enemy will go to steal your information, identity, or money.

One of the best ways to understand strong passwords is to consider weak examples. Weak passwords include those that:

  • are shorter than 16 characters
  • include personal details such as your name or the name of a family member, a pet’s name, your street or address, your birthday, etc.
  • include complete words or sequential number strings (like “qwerty” and “12345678”)
  • lack a mix of upper and lower case letters
  • lack numbers
  • lack symbols

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.

3-2-1 Backup Rule: Get Offsite

HBK11Render (1)In my previous blog post, I provided an excerpt from my new book Understanding Personal Data Security. It was about an element of data security that pertains to everyone, not just power users: Backup. Future blog posts will cover other areas of the book, including viruses and malware, centralized data storage, and strong passwords.

Also check out Personal Data Security: BackupsPersonal Data Security: NAS, and Personal Data Security: Password Basics.


As middle class consumers, we create, collect, consume, and archive a relatively massive amount of data. From our digital photos and high-resolution videos to our music collections and work or school documents, it all resides someplace. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops are the home of most of this data. More often than not, our personal bits and bytes are scattered across multiple devices. It’s typically a mess.

Which means that a solid backup scheme is even more important. Getting all that data archived on a reliable storage device and safely stored is a goal most consumers don’t achieve (or even attempt). Whether through ignorance or just plain laziness, the majority of us (yes, I’m talking about you) don’t have a current and complete backup of our personal data.

As in other areas of life, like dieting, exercise, or even homework, we need a routine. A system. A habit. For personal backup, this digital discipline is embodied in the 3-2-1 Backup Rule.

The 3-2-1 Backup Rule involves three simple steps that will help ensure the integrity and resiliency of your personal files:

  1. Maintain three copies of any important files (a primary and two backups).
  2. Store the backup files on two different media types (such as hard disk + optical media or Dropbox + hard disk) to protect against different types of hazards.
  3. Store one copy offsite.

First, let me make things even easier: You can forget about Step 2. It’s much more important that you focus on adhering to your backup schedule like a religious rite. Backing up digital data is like dieting: Everyone cheats. So instead of attempting to emulate an enterprise organization and worrying about different media types for your multiple backups, let’s step back and simply worry about creating your backups with regularity in the first place.

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Three copies? Why three copies, Curt? Isn’t backup about the main data and a backup copy—used to restore the main data if it becomes corrupted, accidentally deleted, or the device on which it’s stored craps the bed? Yes, at a high level, that’s the goal. However, the reality is that you must store a copy offsite. Get it the heck out of your house or office.

Why? Because the event that destroys your primary data could very likely also damage or destroy your backup copy. Have you or anyone you’ve known suffered flooding? How about a fire? What about theft? While less common, what about tornadoes, hurricanes, and typhoons?

During the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, hundreds of businesses were severely compromised because their backup copies resided in the same location as their primary data. When buildings were severely damaged or even collapsed, both the primary and backup copies were destroyed. As a result, many of these businesses went bankrupt. One simple deficiency affected the jobs of thousands of Americans and service to millions of customers.

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Most consumers, when considering the backup of their personal data, erroneously think that offsite backup is only for enterprise organizations. It’s not. Offsite backup is essential for anyone. Fire, flooding, and theft is simply too common. And your personal data too precious.

Everyone creates or collects data at a different rate. Some people (like me) take photos or videos on nearly a daily basis. Most of us do so several times per week. Thus, the frequency of your backup schedule is subjective. But regardless of that schedule, you need to stay true to it. If our doctor said, “If you don’t stick to this diet, you’re going to die in a month,” most of us would stick to the diet. Likewise, if I told you that, if you don’t stick to your backup schedule, you’re virtually guaranteed to lose some or all of your valuable data, how would you respond?

When considering an offsite storage location, ensure that it’s far enough from your house that it won’t be affected by whatever takes out your primary data. Thus, a shed in your backyard isn’t an option. Neither is the glove box in your car that’s sitting in your garage or driveway. Consider a safety deposit box, your office or school, or the house of a friend or family member. But just get it the heck out of your house and out of your neighborhood.

However, don’t go so far offsite that it becomes difficult to maintain your offsite swap schedule. Assume you make a backup once a week. Thus, you would also need to take a copy to the offsite location once per week. If that site is three hours away at your parents’ house, it becomes impractical and simply won’t happen. Think practical. Think doable.

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Consider your lifestyle and personal habits. Don’t allow theory to overtake reality and craft a backup strategy to which you’ll never adhere. Remember: You have to maintain your backup scheme forever. Being diligent for only a few months and then gradually forgetting or getting lazy means you’ll still eventually lose data. It’s just the sad reality of how it works.

Surveys and studies reveal that 35-40% of Americans never—as in never—backup their data in any way. According to Pivotal IT, 140,000 computer hard drives fail every week in the United States, destroying data. Losing precious memories of loved ones or special events sucks (let alone tax records and work documents).

You may or may not suffer from OCD, but in the case of the backup of your personal data, you might want to start getting obsessed. If not, you’ll be crying in your beer because those kindergarten photos of your kids or that novel-in-progress just got sent to digital hell.

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Curt Robbins


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.

Personal Data Security: Backups

Today’s blog post is an excerpt from my book Understanding Personal Data Security. It’s straightforward and a very quick read. It covers four areas of personal data security: Centralized data, backups, passwords, and viruses/malware. Below, you’ll find a section from Chapter 3: Backups.HBK11Render (1)

Future blog posts will provide excerpts from the other core chapters of the book, including Chapter 2: Centralized Data, Chapter 4: Passwords, and Chapter 5: Viruses & Malware. Also check out Personal Data Security: NAS and 3-2-1 Backup Rule: Get Offsite.

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Curt Robbins


Scary Stats

In 2011, website Backblaze conducted a data backup survey, learning that only 7% of respondents performed daily backups. It also found that 35% of computer owners never backed up their data. 51% of owners backup less than once a year. 31% of PC users have lost all of their data files. According to photographer Peter Krogh, a vocal proponent of regular backups, there are two groups of people: Those who have already suffered a storage failure and those who will experience one in the future.

In 2012, anti-virus company Trend Micro released a study of 1,000 Americans that revealed that 40% of them never—as in never-–backup their data (results very similar to those revealed by the Backblaze survey). If their hard drive crashed tomorrow, nearly half of all people would lose everything. Interestingly, half of respondents reported being married. Yet, 83% of those married didn’t have a backup of their wedding photos (they can’t all be on the verge of divorce)!

In August 2014, it was reported that Russian hackers had amassed a database of 1.2 billion (as in billion) stolen user names and passwords and had gained access to half a billion email accounts. According to Hold Security, the combined attacks reached every area of the web and more than 400,000 websites. The New York Times hired an independent security expert, who verified the authenticity of the stolen account information. “Before, we were amazed when 10,000 passwords [went] missing,” said Alex Holden, Hold Security’s chief information security officer. “Now we’re in the age of mass production of stolen information.”


If you haven’t suffered a data failure (and with it, forever lost some precious memories of loved ones and special occasions), try to avoid being one of the sad people who are good at conducting regular backups because they have experienced such digital disaster. If you haven’t suffered a loss, take it from one-third of your friends, family, and co-workers: It sucks. The relatively minor investments of time and money you will make in educating yourself and securing your data can prevent all of the heartache of those who have suffered “catastrophic data loss.”

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Regardless of the efficiency of your backup plan, don’t be afraid to spend some money on the best hardware you can afford (in the case of backups, this would be the NAS [Network Attached Storage] and internal and external disk drives). Again, you’re protecting your cherished digital photo albums and home videos—not to mention other important files, like legal documents, school papers, and heirloom family recipes.

Secure Backup Rules

Following the simple rules below will help you create a successful backup plan that can be executed on a regular basis. Should disaster strike and your primary hard drive craps the bed, these rules will also help ensure a smooth and successful restoration of the data from the backup device or service.

  • Backup either daily, weekly, or bi-weekly (depending on how frequently you create or acquire new data).
  • Create two backups, one for onsite storage and one for offsite.
  • Determine and strictly adhere to an offsite storage schedule.
  • Do not encrypt or compress your backups.
  • Automate your backup(s). This is child’s play with the available software. Do not assume you will run a manual backup with regularity and passion. You won’t.
  • Even if you have very little data to backup, don’t use a USB flash drive, which is slower and less reliable in the long run than hard disk drives.
  • Perform incremental backups (described below).

Assume the hard drive (or drives) on which you store your important personal data crashes tomorrow. Will you lose data? How much? This is really the litmus test. If your primary data storage (called your master data or primary copy) crashed and burned an hour from now, how would it affect you? If this happened to the majority of people, they would lose most or all of their data. In other words, most people have either zero backup or an old, out-of-date copy.

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Local vs. Cloud Backup

There are two primary types of backups: Local (comprised of both onsite and offsite copies) and cloud-based. Local backup simply involves copying your primary data to a hard drive hanging off a computer sitting on your home network or a redundant drive in a RAID 1 NAS. Cloud backup means using your broadband connection to upload your data to be backed up to a remote server somewhere on the internet. Dozens of companies offer consumer-grade online, or “cloud” based backup services. To learn more about cloud-based backup, see the Cloud Backup section below. [Sorry, you’ll have to buy the book for that one.]


Curt Robbins is a technical writing consultant and instructional designer who 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.

Kevlar Woofers & Affordable Home Theater

3d1When I had to choose the backdrop photo for this blog, I instinctively opened the folder on my network storage device that contained my most recent photos. I had one I especially liked that I perceived to express the tone and flavor of this blog: The yellow Kevlar woofer from one of the B&W surround speakers in my living room.

I realized how small the world can be sometimes. The device on which I had archived and from which I was accessing this photo was one of the central topics of my latest ebook, Understanding Personal Data Security. But the content of the photo itself, the funky Kevlar woofer, was one of the many topics covered in two of my new books, Understanding Home Theater and Home Theater for the Internet Age. In all honesty, the purpose of this blog is to share ideas covered in this new series of books—available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Basically, this blog is a supplement (think of it as the free dessert that comes with your ebook meal). Which makes it ironic if you’re reading it standalone, but I’m glad it can work that way in this funky web 2.0 intellectual property economy.

About this time you might be asking “What’s so cool about yellow Kevlar woofer cones?” Well, first, they represent passion, commitment, and technical excellence. I know, that sounds dorky, but hear me out. They really do. Especially if we use objective metrics like money or time to measure the importance of a topic like home theater, which the yellow woofer obviously represents. Speakers featuring kevlar woofer cones, from companies like B&W and Noble Fidelity, are typically a tad better than your average variety.

If you’re a hobbyist, you put real money and plenty of time into your hobby. For my wife, it’s the springtime bonanza of gardening and flower landscaping that consumes a decent amount of money and tons of her time. For a buddy of mine in Colorado, it’s an expensive carbon fiber racing bicycle and race entry fees. For yet another friend in Texas, it’s cruising around the Gulf of Mexico in his 30-foot sailboat. In other words, most middle class consumers have one or more hobbies and, by definition, drop a considerable amount of disposable income into them.

Kevlar woofer in a B&W 705 speaker.

Kevlar woofer in a B&W 705 speaker

Another function of this blog is to lend transparency to my books. If you’re a real tech geek or connected consumer and want to dig deeper, this blog is the free value-add for my books. Because my entire book catalog must be updated bi-annually (based on the dynamic pace of the technical topics covered), this blog gives you an opportunity to provide feedback and maybe even influence the content of future editions.

Now, back to home theater.

One of the things that prompted me to publish Home Theater for the Internet Age and the subset, Understanding Home Theater, was the fact that consumers of all income levels can now enjoy quality big-ass display panels and real surround sound involving five or six speakers. Yes, there’s certainly a difference between a $2,500 home theater system and one costing ten times as much. But what can be purchased for between $2,000 and $15,000 is truly mind blowing. The convergence of computer, wireless networking, and home entertainment technologies—combined with the proliferation of media streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora—has resulted in price points and functionality that even the most optimistic home theater fan could not have imagined a decade ago.

In addition, the production quality of even mediocre television content and basically all films involves widescreen high-definition video and surround sound comprised of at least six separate audio channels, including a dedicated subwoofer feed that you can feel as much as hear. This, plus the affordability of popular media streaming services like iTunes, Google Play, and Rhapsody has resulted in a very consumer-friendly home theater market. This consumer-friendliness is in terms of both the raw capabilities of the receivers, Blu-ray players, and streaming media boxes that consumers are installing in their living rooms and also how bloody affordable even mid-grade examples of these product categories have become. Go entry-level and you’ll really blow your mind in terms of what you can get for your money in 2014.

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Curt Robbins

[See also Home Theater Basics, Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics, and Take My Remote, Please.]


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.