Author Archives: mmascio

A Quick Look at Home Theatre PCs

Are you one of those people that loves watching movies or listening to music while at home? Do you wish you could access that media anywhere in your home without lugging your laptop around your house and messing with cables? If you answered yes to these questions, then a Home Theater PC, or HTPC, may be for you.

An HTPC is a small computer that you can permanently hook up to a TV or home theater system that allows you to store, manage, and use your media whether it is stored locally or streamed from a service like Netflix, Amazon, or Spotify. Although several retailers sell pre-built HTPCs that are optimized for performance at low power, many people use a Raspberry Pi computer because they are small, quiet and relatively inexpensive. These are key features because you don’t want a loud PC with large fans interrupting your media experience, and a large computer won’t fit comfortably in a living room bookshelf or entertainment center.

The HTPC hooks up to your TV via an HDMI cord which will transmit both video and audio for watching movies. If you have a home theater system, your HTPC can connect to that to enable surround sound on movies, or streaming music throughout your home. It would also require a network connection to access streaming services. Although WiFi is convenient, a wired Ethernet connection is ideal because it can support higher speeds and bandwidth which is better for HD media.

The back of a typical AV Receiver.

 

Once you have a basic HTPC set up, you can upgrade your setup with a better TV, speakers, or even a projector for that true movie theater experience. If you want to be able to access your media in several rooms at once, you can set up multiple HTPCs with Network Accessed Storage, or NAS. This is a central storage location that connects directly to your router that all the computers on your home router can access at once. This is a more efficient option than storing all of your media on each computer separately. They can even be set up with internet access so you can stream your media from anywhere.

USB C- The New Standard

We all know the frustration of trying to insert a USB plug into our computers or phones, flipping it over and trying again, only to find we were actually right the first time. The problem is that both sides of a USB plug look the same has plagued us all. Apple had fixed this problem with their proprietary Lightning connector which was omnidirectional (i.e. it could be inserted on either side). But this connector could only be found on Apple devices. The cell phone industry in particular was in need of a new solution.

Think back to the first cell phone you had. For many, this was in the early 2000’s (or even earlier), and think about what kind of charger you used. Most phones came with a charger that plugged into the wall, and they were largely incompatible with other phone brands. As cell phones became more popular, manufacturers decided to settle on one standard plug type that could be used by any phone. Enter the Micro USB Type B:

MicroB_USB_Plug

This plug should look familiar if you have an Android phone, but it has also become almost ubiquitous as the connector for most portable devices including cameras, tablets, and smart watches. A notable exception to this standard is Apple who has used proprietary connectors since the introduction of the iPhone.

However, since 2007 when the micro-USB was introduced, the needs of the industry have changed. Data speeds have gone faster, devices require more power, and the need to connect more types of devices calls for a new type of universal plug for all. This is the motivation behind the development of the USB-C connector.

USB_Type-C_macbook

The USB-C is omnidirectional like Apple’s Lightning connector so there won’t be any more trouble with which way the plug is facing. They support the USB 3.1 data standard, which can transfer up to 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps). Possibly most interesting, USB-C is capable of carrying 100 Watts of power, meaning that in addition to becoming the primary data connector type, it could also replace most power cords in the near future.

Also of note is Apple’s adoption of the USB-C connector. They have redesigned their newest version of the Thunderbolt connector to be USB-C compliant, meaning that one can use a USB-C cable, but get Thunderbolt 3 speeds of 40 Gbps. It is worth emphasizing that although the connector on Apple’s Thunderbolt 3 is the same as USB-C, the data transfer specification and therefore transfer speed is not the same. However, Apple’s adoption of the new plug type in conjunction with the rest of the industry means that USB-C is is a truly universal connector.

With its higher data speeds, power support, and ease of use, USB-C is getting ready to be the port trend all ports. Indeed, the USB Implementers’ Forum (the organization responsible for USB specifications) has declared that they intend USB-C to be “future-proof”. As technology demands increase over the next few years, we will see if this new connector can live up to its promises.

Physical Security is Important Too

Although Cyber Security Awareness month is over, that doesn’t mean you can forget to lock your computer. One should always remain vigilant to protect their personal data. One aspect of security that is often overlooked by most people is physical security; the protection of the devices themselves.

On an individual scale, physical security is as simple as not leaving your phone/laptop/tablet unattended in dining halls or the library. If you must leave your laptop, be sure to lock your screen and get a laptop lock. A quality lock can be had for around $20 and is well worth the cost when compared with the cost of a new laptop, and losing any data you don’t have backed up. Also consider that many people store their passwords in their browser such as Google Chome’s auto-fill feature. While this is convenient for the user, if someone steals your laptop and is able to log in, they now have access to all of your online accounts.

One might argue, “Isn’t that the point of having a login password on my computer?” and they would be correct. But there is a saying in the security industry: Physical access is total access. This means that once someone has your device in their hands, they can do whatever they want given enough time. That is why in professional industry, security conscious businesses will have security experts conduct a “penetration test”. A security expert will go unannounced to the office being tested and try to circumvent the security in place at the office. This can be in the form of lock picking, social engineering (i.e. “look like you belong”), or simply finding an open door. Once the expert (or an actual criminal) is inside, they now have physical access to the company’s computer systems and data. From there, they can install key logging or other data gathering software, or simply steal encrypted hard drives to be broken into later.

While having a strong password is a good start to keeping your data secure, the importance of physical security cannot be overstated. One should always take precautions to prevent others from gaining access to their computer in any and every way possible.

Don’t Be A Victim Of Data Loss

If you own a computer, chances are you have a lot of important data stored on there. It may seem safe and sound, but tragedy could be waiting to strike. Data loss from a failed hard drive is an all too common but preventable problem that could happen to anyone. So, how do you prevent it?

Most computer storage is on a hard drive disk, which consists of a series of spinning disks, or platter, on which data is stored, and a moving arm, or read-write head, which reads and writes data. The platter motor spins the platters at over 5400 rpm (and sometimes up to 15,000 rpm), and the head motor moves the read-write head over the platters. The Hard drive is one of the only moving parts left in the modern computer, and as such is one of the most vulnerable to damage. Always avoid dropping or shaking your computer, especially while it is on. This could cause the parts in the hard drive to bump together (literally your computer crashing).

HDD.jpg

https://kristin-itgs.wikispaces.com/Hardware+and+software

Unfortunately, sometimes hard drives fail through no fault of the owner. One possible way a hard drive can fail is if the files on it become corrupt. This can be caused by an operating system update getting interrupted or malware. When this happens, your computer may continually try to reboot, or display errors when starting up. Whatever the case, usually most data can be recovered by doing what is called an archive reinstall. This process can repair or overwrite damaged system files. Any member of the 5 College community experiencing this problem can check in their computer to our repair center to get an archive installation done. Just stop in to the Help Center and we can help decide if that is necessary.

Another issue that can be more serious is mechanical failure. What this means is that the hard drive is not spinning or the read-write head is unable to move properly. When this happens it can be very difficult to recover any data because there is a risk of causing physical damage to the platters where the data is stored. This problem is often accompanied by strange noises coming from your computer in addition to failure to boot. Generally, this requires a professional data recovery service to retrieve files, and can be expensive.

The best way to prevent data loss from a failed hard drive is to keep backups. Although it can be impossible to prevent a failure, it doesn’t mean you have to lose your data. An external hard drive can be a great way to keep dated copies of files so you can restore any file to a specific version of it. Important files can be kept on a CD or flash drive. These are not suitable for all your files since they have limited space, but they are also less prone to failure.

One of the best ways to back up data is to use a cloud storage service such as Google Drive or Dropbox. Since the files are stored by the service, you don’t have to worry about losing the flash drive or mechanical failure. All you need to access your files is an internet connection. And, all UMass students, faculty, and staff get access to unlimited storage on both Google Drive and Box. Both of these services can be used not just to store your files, but also access and share them anywhere.