Tips for Gaming Better on a Budget Laptop

Whether you came to college with an old laptop, or want to buy a new one without breaking the bank, making our basic computers faster is something we’ve all thought about at some point. This article will show you some software tips and tricks to improve your gaming experience without losing your shirt, and at the end I’ll mention some budget hardware changes you can make to your laptop. First off, we’re going to talk about in-game settings.

 

In-Game Settings:

All games have built in settings to alter the individual user experience from controls to graphics to audio. We’ll be talking about graphics settings in this section, primarily the hardware intensive ones that don’t compromise the look of the game as much as others. This can also depend on the game and your individual GPU, so it can be helpful to research specific settings from other users in similar positions.

V-Sync:

V-Sync, or Vertical Synchronization, allows a game to synchronize the framerate with that of your monitor. Enabling this setting will increase the smoothness of the game. However, for lower end computers, you may be happy to just run the game at a stable FPS that is less than your monitor’s refresh rate. (Note – most monitors have a 60Hz or 60 FPS refresh rate). For that reason, you may want to disable it to allow for more stable low FPS performance.

Anti-Aliasing:

Anti-Aliasing, or AA for short, is a rendering option which reduces the jaggedness of lines in-game. Unfortunately the additional smoothness heavily impacts hardware usage, and disabling this while keeping other things like texture quality or draw distance higher can make big performance improvements without hurting a game’s appearance too much. Additionally, there are many different kinds of AA options that games might have settings for. MSAA (Multisampling AA), and the even more intensive, TXAA (Temporal AA), are both better smoothing processes that have an even bigger impact on performance. Therefore turning these off on lower-end machines is almost always a must. FXAA (Fast Approximate AA) uses the least processing power, and can therefore be a nice setting to leave on if your computer can handle it.

Anisotropic Filtering (AF):

This setting adds depth of field to a game, by making things further away from your character blurrier. Making things blurrier might seem like it would make things faster, however it actually puts a greater strain on your system as it needs to make additional calculations to initiate the affect. Shutting this off can yield improvements in performance, and some players even prefer it, as it allows them to see distant objects more clearly.

Other Settings:

While the aforementioned are the heaviest hitters in terms of performance, changing some other settings can help increase stability and performance too (beyond just simple texture quality and draw distance tweaks). Shadows and reflections are often unnoticed compared to other effects, so while you may not need to turn them off, turning them down can definitely make an impact. Motion blur should be turned off completely, as it can make quick movements result in heavy lag spikes.

Individual Tweaks:

The guide above is a good starting point for graphics settings; because there are so many different models, there are any equally large number of combinations of settings. From this point, you can start to increase settings slowly to find the sweet spot between performance and quality.

Software:

Before we talk about some more advanced tips, it’s good practice to close applications that you are not using to increase free CPU, Memory, and Disk space. This alone will help immensely in allowing games to run better on your system.

Task Manager Basics:

Assuming you’ve tried to game on a slower computer, you’ll know how annoying it is when the game is running fine and suddenly everything slows down to slideshow speed and you fall off a cliff. Chances are that this kind of lag spike is caused by other “tasks” running in the background, and preventing the game you are running from using the power it needs to keep going. Or perhaps your computer has been on for awhile, so when you start the game, it runs slower than its maximum speed. Even though you hit the “X” button on a window, what’s called the “process tree” may not have been completely terminated. (Think of this like cutting down a weed but leaving the roots.) This can result in more resources being taken up by idle programs that you aren’t using right now. It’s at this point that Task Manager becomes your best friend. To open Task Manager, simply press CTRL + SHIFT + ESC at the same time or press CTRL + ALT + DEL at the same time and select Task Manager from the menu. When it first appears, you’ll notice that only the programs you have open will appear; click the “More Details” Button at the bottom of the window to expand Task Manager. Now you’ll see a series of tabs, the first one being “Processes” – which gives you an excellent overview of everything your CPU, Memory, Disk, and Network are crunching on. Clicking on any of these will bring the process using the highest amount of each resource to the top of the column. Now you can see what’s really using your computer’s processing power. It is important to realize that many of these processes are part of your operating system, and therefore cannot be terminated without causing system instability. However things like Google Chrome and other applications can be closed by right-clicking and hitting “End Task”. If you’re ever unsure of whether you can end a process or not safely, a quick google of the process in question will most likely point you in the right direction.

Startup Processes:

Here is where you can really make a difference to your computer’s overall performance, not just for gaming. From Task Manager, if you select the “Startup” tab, you will see a list of all programs and services that can start when your computer is turned on. Task Manager will give an impact rating of how much each task slows down your computers boot time. The gaming app Steam, for example, can noticeably slow down a computer on startup. A good rule of thumb is to allow virus protection to start with Windows, however everything else is up to individual preference. Shutting down these processes on startup can prevent unnecessary tasks from ever being opened, and allow for more hardware resource availability for gaming.

Power Usage:

You probably know that unlike desktops, laptops contain a battery. What you may not know is that you can alter your battery’s behavior to increase performance, as long as you don’t mind it draining a little faster. On the taskbar, which is by default located at the bottom of your screen, you will notice a collection of small icons next to the date and time on the right, one of which looks like a battery. Left-clicking will bring up the menu shown below, however right-clicking will bring up a menu with an option “Power Options” on it.

 

 

 

 

Clicking this will bring up a settings window which allows you to change and customize your power plan for your needs. By default it is set to “Balanced”, but changing to “High Performance” can increase your computer’s gaming potential significantly. Be warned that battery duration will decrease on the High Performance setting, although it is possible to change the battery’s behavior separately for when your computer is using the battery or plugged in.

Hardware:

Unlike desktops, for laptops there are not many upgrade paths. However one option exists for almost every computer that can have a massive effect on performance if you’re willing to spend a little extra.

Hard Disk (HDD) to Solid State (SSD) Drive Upgrade:

Chances are that if you have a budget computer, it probably came with a traditional spinning hard drive. For manufacturers, this makes sense as they are cheaper than solid states, and work perfectly well for light use. Games can be very demanding on laptop HDDs to recall and store data very quickly, sometimes causing them to fall behind. Additionally, laptops have motion sensors built into them which restrict read/write capabilities when the computer is in motion to prevent damage to the spinning disk inside the HDD. An upgrade to a SSD not only eliminates this restriction, but also has a much faster read/write time due to the lack of any moving parts. Although SSDs can get quite expensive depending on the size you want, companies such as Crucial or Kingston offer a comparatively cheap solution to Samsung or Intel while still giving you the core benefits of a SSD. Although there are a plethora of tutorials online demonstrating how to install a new drive into your laptop, make sure you’re comfortable with all the dangers before attempting, or simply take your laptop into a repair store to have them do it for you. It’s worth mentioning that when you install a new drive, you will need to reinstall Windows, and all your applications from your old drive.

Memory Upgrade (RAM):

Some laptops have an extra memory slot, or just ship with a lower capacity than what they are capable of holding. Most budget laptops will ship with 4GB of memory, which is often not enough to support both the system, and a game.

Upgrading or increasing memory can give your computer more headroom to process and store data without lagging up your entire system. Unlike with SSD upgrades, memory is very specific and it is very easy to buy a new stick that fits in your computer, but does not function with its other components. It is therefore critical to do your research before buying any more memory for your computer; that includes finding out your model’s maximum capacity, speed, and generation. The online technology store, Newegg, has a service here that can help you find compatible memory types for your machine.

Disclaimer: 

While these tips and tricks can help your computer to run games faster, there is a limit to what hardware is capable of. Budget laptops are great for the price point, and these user tricks will help squeeze out all their potential, but some games will simply not run on your machine. Make sure to check a game’s minimum and recommended specs before purchasing/downloading. If your computer falls short of minimum requirements, it might be time to find a different game or upgrade your setup.

PCIe Solid State Drives: What They Are and Why You Should Care

Consumer computers are largely moving away from hard disk drives, mostly because solid state drives have gotten so cheap. Upgrading to a solid state drive is one of the best things that you can do for your computer. Unlike a RAM or CPU upgrade, you will notice a dramatic difference in day-to-day usage coming from a hard drive. The only real benefit of using a traditional hard drive over a solid state drive would be capacity per dollar. If you want anything over 1TB, you’re basically going to have to settle for a hard drive.

Solid-State Drive with SATA bus (compare the gold connectors to the below image)

While SSD prices have come down, SSD technology has also improved dramatically. The latest trend for solid state drives is a move away from SATA to PCIe. Serial ATA, or SATA, is the bus interface that normally connects drives to computers. The latest version of this, SATA 3, has a bandwidth limit of 750 Megabyes per second. This used to be plenty for hard drives and even early SSDs; however modern SSD’s are easily able to saturate that bus. This is why many SSDs have started to move to PCIe. Depending on the implementation, PCIe can do up to 32 Gigabytes per second. (That’s nearly 43 times as fast!) This means that SSDs have plenty of room to grow in the future. There are a couple different technologies and terms related to PCIe SSDs that you may want to make yourself familiar with:

M.2

M.2 is a new interface for connecting SSDs to motherboards. This connector is much smaller than the SATA connector was, and allows SSDs to be much smaller and physically attach to the board instead of connecting via a cable. The confusing thing about M.2 is that it can operate drives over either SATA or PCIe. Most of the newer drivers and motherboards only support the PCIe version. M.2 drives have a few standard lengths, ranging from 16 to 110 millimeters. There are also a few different connector type styles that have varying pins on them. M.2 connectors also support other PCIe devices such as wireless cards.

NVMe

NVM Express is a Host Controller Interface that allows the CPU to talk to the SSD. This standard is meant to replace the current AHCI, which was created in the 1980s. This standard is too slow for managing solid state drives, so NVMe was designed specifically for that purpose. It means that CPUs can communicate with the drive with much lower latency. NVMe is largely the reason that current PCIe SSDs can reach speeds over 3 Gigabytes per second.

Solid State is soon to become a universal standard as older machines are phased out and consumer expectations rise. Don’t get left in the dust.

How to Fund Your Project or Organization with Online Crowdfunding!

Image: Edison Awards, 2016

Most of us remember being in high school, and having people try to sell us candy bars at outrageous prices in order to fund their mission trips, charity organizations, abroad experiences, and other such things. I always remember being impressed at the commitment of people, and confused as to how they managed to raise enough money selling candy bars! Of course, in many of these cases, parents and family members were providing much of the funding.

In this new era of interconnection through social media, it is easier than ever to raise money from your social circle using the internet. This kind of fundraising is called crowdfunding, and most of us know it best through Kickstarter.

Kickstarter is a crowdfunding platform which allows people to generate funds for various projects. These projects range from the mundane such as this (for anyone who doesn’t feel like clicking on the link, that is a man trying to raise $15 to make a french toast pancake waffle) to the brilliant (the Pebble smartwatch) , to the truly disappointing and scandalous (the Yogventures video game).

One cool aspect of Kickstarter is that only successful kick starters are able to keep the money. For instance, if your project requires $100, you must actually raise $100 dollars in order to be granted the money. If it is not successful, the money is returned to the donors. This leads people to be more likely to fund projects, as they know that if the project is not fully funded, the creators will not abscond with their cash. In addition, many Kickstarters include rewards to people based on how much they donate. For example, a video game development project might give a cool exclusive skin to people who donate $5, a signed copy for people who donate $30, and a studio tour for people who donate over $1,000.

Now you may be asking, “this is cool and all, but how does apply to me? I have no intention of creating a video game or developing some huge project.”

Crowdfunding does not need to be limited to projects and startups. For instance, if you are a member of an Registered Student Organization here at UMass, you may (ok you almost definitely do) find yourself thinking that you do not have enough money! Maybe you have a trip to go on, or an event you want to host, or equipment you need to buy. Crowdfunding is a great way to raise some funds! The UMass Minute Fund is a website which allows student groups on campus to crowdsource money. For RSOs, the Minute Fund is a better platform to raise money than places such as Kickstarter, because it does not take any cut of the money raised (as Kickstarter and other for profit companies do). This really works too! Here is a trip that I went on, funded by the Minute Fund. Here is the HackUMass Minute Fund (which was also fully funded).

In short, when your organization is running out of cash, your social circle might be able to sponsor you. Create these pages, share them on Facebook, Twitter, etc, and watch the money for your organization roll in!

How to merge Windows Mail and Calendar with iCloud


 

 

 

 

If you using a Windows PC and an iPhone, you might want to merge the calendar and Mail with iCloud instead of registering a new Microsoft account. The services in Apple become compatible with Windows 10 recently. It is very easy to set it up and easy to use.

STEP 1:

Click the Start button or search Settings in Cotana

STEP 2:

Go to Setting and Click Accounts

STEP 3:

Click Add an account

STEP 4:

Select iCloud

STEP 5:

Enter your iCloud email and password. Note: The password is not regular password of Your Apple ID. You need to generate a new password through two-factor authentication in Apple ID website. How to do that?

  • Go to Appleid.apple.com, and Sign in with your regular email and password
  • Verify your identity with two factor authentication
  • Click ‘Generate Passwords’
  • You are all set to use the new password to Log in Windows 10 Account Service

 

 

How to Import your Academic Moodle Calendar into your Personal Google Calendar

How to Export your Moodle Calendar for calendar subscription
1. Navigate to https://moodle.umass.edu/ and log in with NetID and password
2. Click under your name in the upper right hand corner and click on Dashboard
3. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on Go to calendar… in the bottom right hand corner
4. Switch the drop down menu to specify whether you want a specific class or all of your classes bundled under one calendar this is important later at step 6
5. Click on the Export calendar button in the middle of the page
6. Some settings will show up in regards to exporting your Umass Moodle Calendar
a. I would recommend under the Export* menu choosing All events if you decided earlier to bundle your classes in one export, otherwise if you’re exporting classes individually I would recommend selecting Events related to courses for this option
b.I would recommend under the for* menu to choose Custom range because it guarantees all the events to be added
7. Click on Get calendar URL and *triple click* on the generated Calendar URL (as it may overlap with the Monthly view column)
8. You can now import this calendar into any calendar client that allows for import by URL

Note: This export may have to be updated in the future because it won’t add new events retroactively.


How to Import this Moodle Calendar into Google Calendar
1. Navigate to https://www.google.com/calendar and log in with your credentials
2. On the left hand side on Other calendars click the down facing carrot symbol and click on Add by URL
3. Paste the copied URL, this step may take 20 or so seconds to load the new calendar
a. This step will fail if the generated calendar URL was not copied it its entirety.
4. You can rename this calendar by clicking on the down facing carrot symbol to the right of it and clicking on Calendar settings, then changing the field Calendar Name:
Happy Google Calendaring!

Bonus Bit: Surviving the Steam Summer Sale

Ahh yes, the steam summer sale, the glorious and magical two weeks of wallet crushing sales and bundles, whether you are new or a grizzled veteran, there is always something to be found at a price you thought was impossible.  But wait, it’s dangerous out there, take a read through this before you head out into the tsunami of sales tags to make sure you get the most out of your summer sale action.  

 

Quick Details on the Summer Sale

What: Large discounts on hundreds of video games from the largest PC gaming platform
Who: Anyone who owns a computer
When: June 22nd 1pm est until July 5th 1pm est
Where: store.steampowered.com

Changes and Updates to the Summer Sale Format

Veterans of Summer Sales will remember daily deals and flash sales, which are missing from this years sale, instead Steam will curate a list of games already on sale that they think you should take a look at.  This unfortunately limits what Valve can do with the sale, instead of like previous years with games for users to play, like the monster clicker game or being split into colored teams, they have decided to release limited summer sale stickers.  What are stickers you ask?  Stickers act in a similar way to Trading Cards, but instead of dropping from time spent in game, they drop based on certain activities that Valve want to encourage (check steam each day during the sale, etc) and if you fill up your sticker book, you may get a special surprise.  Trading cards are also back this year, and seem to be dropping in the same manner as previous sales, based on how much money (currently each $10 increase gets you a card) you have spent during the sale, with a special badge that can be crafted if you collect all the cards.  

 

Tips for New Commers 

Your first Summer Sales is almost always the most memorable sale, seeing hundreds of games that you want for 60%~95% off embeds a nostalgic feeling that is hard to shake.  Many veterans will complain that the sales aren’t like they used to be, but in reality it is more likely that they’ve picked up the games that they want, and as such it seems to loose a bit of luster to them.  But to the newbie it is all brand new and very easy to get lost in the fray.  To keep you from getting burnt out from the first week of sales I suggest you check out the r/steam and r/pcmasterrace (disclaimer: PCMR is a reddit group by and for pc gaming, there are no political allegiances, mac heathens and console peasants are welcomed) subreddits and the Summer Sale megathreads to keep up the special sales and answer any questions that you have.  

Even though it is a bit outdated I suggest keeping this flow chart in mind as planning your purchases can help keep you from breaking the bank.  Another tidbit is that Steam has a refund option, as long as you have owned the game for less than 14 days and have less than 2 hours of playtime you can refund it, but be careful, Steam refunds whole purchases and not single games, so if you buy 5 games on sale and want to refund 1, you will have to refund the other 4 as well.  Once you get down to playing with your new games, don’t forget to include other people, discord/teamspeak/mumble are great ways of voice chatting with your friends if the steam VOIP service doesn’t interest you and can provide structure if you are playing squad MMO’s.

Remember to stay safe out there, it’s a big sale but with a bit of planning and some self control you and your wallet should stay intact.

 

Content Providers and Net Neutrality: A Double-Edged Sword

Source: http://www.thetelecomblog.com/2016/06/15/fccs-net-neutrality-upheld-in-appeals-court-decision/

Source: http://www.thetelecomblog.com/2016/06/15/fccs-net-neutrality-upheld-in-appeals-court-decision/

Net neutrality is the principle that data should be treated equally by internet service providers (ISPs) and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. Those in favor of net neutrality argue that ISPs should not be able to block access to a website run by their competitor or offer “fast lanes” to deliver data more efficiently for a hefty fee. Imagine if Verizon could stop customers from researching about switching to Comcast, or block access to negative press about their business practices. For ISPs, network inequality is a pretty sweet deal. Broadband providers can charge premiums for customers to access existing network-structures, and control the content viewed by subscribers.

Essentially, a lack of network neutrality actively promotes discrimination against competitors and encourages ISPs to deliberately limit high-speed data access. This form of throttling speeds when there are negligible costs of production after initial development is known as “artificial scarcity.” Supply is intentionally restricted which makes the item, internet access, more valuable.

Without net neutrality, internet providers have free-reign over deciding which content reaches their subscribers. In 2014, this issue came to a head when Comcast and other broadband suppliers intentionally restricted the data transmission for Netflix services. To appease customers with a paid subscription who could no longer watch the streaming service, Netflix agreed to pay the broadband companies tens of millions of dollars a year. Evidently, a lack of net neutrality creates a conflict of interest between wireless service providers and content firms like Google, Facebook, and Netflix. These content providers want consumers to have unfettered access to their services. Tolls for network access create barriers for internet-based services which rely on  ad-revenue and network traffic.

Despite the threat network neutrality poses to content-centric services many tech companies have been hesitant to vehemently oppose restricting data access. Facebook is investing in creating their own ecosystem. With Facebook as a central hub where you can connect with friends, view businesses, listen to music and play games, the company has little incentive to petition for the free and universal flow of information and Web traffic. From a corporate perspective, every web-interaction would ideally be done through Facebook. In a similar vein, Google has been moving closer and closer to becoming an internet provider themselves. Company initiatives like Google Fiber, Project Fi and Project Loon are the stepping-stone to Google dominating both the web-traffic and web-access businesses. This creates a double-edged sword where unrestricted internet access both helps and harms content-providers. While tech companies do not want restricted access to their sites, they would love to restrict consumer-access to that of their rivals. The burden of protecting a free internet and the unrestricted flow of information therefore lies on consumers.

Password Managers and You

Today we’re going to deal with an issue that I’m sure many of us run into on a daily basis: managing passwords. Given that you probably use a bajillion different services, each of which has its own password requirement, and given that UMass makes you change your password once a year, you probably have trouble keeping them all straight. Luckily for you, there is a tool you can use to keep your passwords tracked!

 

For these tools, you can use one super strong password to keep all your other passwords safe, easily searchable, and all in one place. They can often be used to automatically fill in login info on the web.

 

There are many password managers out there. You can find reviews of them simply by googling “password manager.” The ones I am going to mention here are the default chrome password manager, and Lastpass.

 

The first and easiest one, Google Smart Lock is so ubiquitous that you’ve probably been using it all along! Any time your google chrome asks you to “save” a password, it gets stored in Google Smart Lock. If you want to see your passwords, or manually add new ones, simply go to “passwords.google.com” and log in with your (non UMass) Google account. Voila! You can see all of the passwords that you have saved while using Chrome.

Image result for google smart lock

What about if you aren’t a Chrome user? Or maybe you don’t like the idea of Google storing your data… What can you do?

You can use a manager like LastPass. This browser extension/mobile app can also keep your passwords safe and encrypted. You can even set up 2 factor authentication (so that you would have to have 2 devices on you to be able to see your saved passwords). You can find more information here: https://www.lastpass.com/how-it-works but it works in essentially the same way as Google Last Pass. You can save passwords, add new passwords, automatically fill out forms, etc.

img-vault-tour-1-jpg

So get one of these managers, and never worry about forgetting your many many passwords again!

The New Face of the FCC

With any incoming president interest swirls around cabinet nominees and appointees, many set precedent for the departments, perhaps none more so than Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.  An advocate for deregulation of the FCC and free market ideals, Pai has an unique opportunity to shape our world into something vastly new and different.

Born in 1973, Pai graduated from Havard with a BA in Social Studies in 1994 and a J.D. from the University of Chicago in 1997.  After which he clerked for the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and then working for the Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division where he specialized in mergers and acquisitions.  After which he served as an associate general counsel for Verizon where he dealt with competition matters, regulatory issues, and counseling of business units on broadband initiatives.  From there he served on several subcommittees, until 2007 when he was appointed to work for the general counsel ultimately serving as Deputy General Counsel.  In 2011 he was nominated and unanimously confirmed for the republican party position on the FCC and served until 2016.  

Pai’s controversial stances on net neutrality stem from his view that they are an overly conservative reading of the laws of the responsibilities held by the FCC, claiming that regulations may lead the FCC to regulating political speech.  He advocates for the marketplace of ideas, stating to the Washington Examiner  “I think it’s dangerous, frankly, that we don’t see more often people espousing the First Amendment view that we should have a robust marketplace of ideas where everybody should be willing and able to participate.“  While it will take time for his tenure to have an effect on regulations, he will definitely speed up the pace of work, from a 2012 speech at Carnegie Mellon “we need to start taking our other statutory and internal deadlines more seriously” and “The FCC should be as nimble as the industry we oversee”.  From corporate mergers to changing how radio spectrum is portioned out, changes will be coming.  In the speech Pai shared his view of a different FCC, where the free market is utilized to bring about change and regulations are used to increase competition.  The next 4 years will be written by free market ideals and a furious pace of work, leading to an impact that will hopefully provide better choice and coverage for consumers. 

Pai’s presence as FCC Chairman will leave a lasting change on the history of the committee, some changes will be a step in the right directions, others maybe missteps, but all of them will have the possibility of changing how you interact with the rest of the world.  

Today in “Absurd Tech Stories”: Burger King vs Google

“OK, Google: What is the Whopper burger?”

The internet is all over a story today involving burger giant Burger King and tech giant Google, in which Burger King released a new ad that takes advantage of Google Home, the in home personal assistant created by Google. This device mirrors other in home assistants like Amazon’s Alexa.

Google Home.

The short commercial, titled “BURGER KING® | Connected Whopper®” (shown below), features a Burger King employee using the phrase “OK, Google” to purposefully trigger in home devices or mobile phones with Google Voice capability to conduct a Google search for the Whopper. On the surface, this comes across as a pretty clever marketing ploy by BK, taking advantage of current tech trends to make the commercial more relate-able

However, in true internet fashion, those that wanted to have a little fun caught wind of this ad pretty quickly turned this innocent commercial into something a little more ridiculous.

Asking Google Home the question “OK, Google: What is the Whopper burger?” gives the user a description based on the current Wikipedia article. This rule applies to anything that is searched for in this fashion. Users who wanted to mess around with the first line of the Wikipedia article started to edit the line, making it say things like that the Whopper’s main ingredient was cyanide, and that the Whopper was “cancer-causing”, which would then read out when someone tried to run the voice command.

Within three hours, Google had modified their voice detection to not interact at all with the Burger King commercial. Users could still normally ask the device the same phrase, but it seemed that Google didn’t take too kindly to the small disturbance that this commercial was causing and shut it down as fast as it started.

Stories of internet trolls taking advantage of AI programs are becoming more and more prevalent in recent years. In March of 2016, Twitter users were able to modify TAY.AI, Microsoft’s Twitter chatter bot, to make remarkably inflammatory and inappropriate comments.

 

The commercial can be viewed here:

Browsing the Web Anonymously with a VPN

You may have heard someone say that they use a VPN to protect themselves on the internet. What is a VPN? What does it do? How can you use it to protect yourself?

VPN stands for virtual private network. They are essentially simulations of connections (hence the ‘virtual’ part) to a certain private networks (networks that one can’t normally connect to from outside or over the internet). They allow users to connect to a local private (e.g. corporate) network remotely from, say, their home, or a coffee shop. A VPN allows its users to interact with the local network as if they were normally connected to it. For example, say a developer at a tech startup wanted to work on her project at her local Starbucks instead of commuting into the office, but to protect their intellectual property the startup doesn’t allow anyone to look at their code without being connected to their local onsite network (sometimes referred to as an intranet). However, the developers at the startup aren’t big fans of the cubicle life, and like to roam around and do their work at the library with a book, or at home with their dogs. Fortunately, the startup has a VPN set up so that the developers can log into the intranet and look at their projects remotely. The computer appears as if it actually is physically located in the office and has almost all of the access that it would have if it was literally in the office.

But how does the VPN make sure that only the right people have access to the network? This is where the magic of the VPN is. When you log into your VPN client with your username and password and the server authenticates you, your computer creates a point-to-point encrypted tunnel between you and the VPN server — think of it as a really long tube that runs between your computer and the server in the office that nobody in between can look inside of. That means if you’re sitting at Starbucks and your company uses Comcast as its internet service provider, nobody in your Starbucks can peek into your Wi-Fi signal (this is referred to as a man-in-the-middle attack), and Comcast can’t snoop into what’s in the data that your company is sending to you before it delivers it to you.

Computer Privacy Hood

Just like nobody can see what’s going on here between the computer display and the man’s eyes, nobody over the internet can see what’s going on between the endpoints of a VPN point-to-point encrypted tunnel.

Having a reliable, trustworthy connection to a server over the internet can be a very valuable tool. In a world of big data, hacking, online banking, password leaks, and government surveillance, being able to communicate with anyone securely is very important.

In addition to providing secure connections to remote servers, VPNs provide another incredibly useful ability as a sort of side effect — a VPN can act as a sort of ‘online mask,’ so that you can browse around a website without the website knowing exactly who you are. Generally speaking, your identity to the World Wide Web is your IP address, which can be used to determine your location down to the city/town. When you access a website, you send your IP address to the website’s server (so that the website knows who to send information back to), and your internet service provider (e.g. Comcast) knows that you are communicating with this website (if your connection is unencrypted, Comcast can also see the content of your communications with the website). When you access this website through a VPN server, your request first goes through the encrypted tunnel to the VPN server, and the VPN server then bounces the request along to the website itself (over an unencrypted connection). When the website responds to the VPN server, the server bounces the response back to you over your encrypted tunnel. The website believes that they are just communicating with the VPN server, without any clue that their response is being passed on to anyone else. Comcast may be able to read the communications between the website and the VPN server, but they have no way of knowing that the communication is connected to you.

VPN Server Setup

This diagram shows the path that information travels through between your computer and the internet when you are connected to a VPN server. The encryption between your computer and the VPN server prevents anyone from snooping in on the communications between you and the server.

There are other ways to hide your identity on the internet. You can use a proxy, which appears similar to a VPN on the surface. You can connect to a website through a proxy to hide your IP address from the website, so the proxy also acts like a man-in-the-middle like a VPN does. The difference is that your computer’s connection to the proxy is not encrypted, so from a large enough scope, your communication with the website could be traced back to you. If an internet service provider such as Comcast happened to service both the connection from you to the proxy server, AND from the proxy server to the website, they could piece together that it was you who connected to the website over the proxy, and since the communications aren’t encrypted, they could also see exactly what you were communicating about with the website over the proxy. Proxies also don’t mask your IP address over the entire computer — you have to configure each application individually to send all of it’s internet-based protocols through a proxy server. VPNs are OS-wide, meaning that it protects your entire computer no matter what internet-based protocol is being sent out.

Proxy Server Setup

The layout of a connection to a proxy server. Only individual applications can connect to a proxy server, not the entire computer. Communications are also not encrypted and open to being intercepted.

Thanks to the ability to provide anonymity over the internet, some companies have emerged that make a business out of providing access to their VPN servers. Their business model is that, for a fee, you can connect to their VPN servers to use as an ‘online mask’ however you like, and whatever you do won’t be traced back to you. The catch is whether a particular company is trustworthy or not — some VPN service providers log your activity and give it to authority or sell it to the highest bidder, essentially nullifying the anonymity that a VPN provides. You should always be skeptical and selective when choosing a VPN service provider; and remember, you get what you pay for. There are many free VPN service providers out there that allow you to use their servers for free up to a certain bandwidth; as a general rule of thumb, whether it be regarding free VPN service providers or free social networks, as long as someone is making a profit, if you’re not paying for the product, YOU are the product!

In conclusion, there are many ways to protect yourself over the internet, and selecting the best tool for your needs is the way to go. If you’re abroad and you want to watch a show on Netflix but it’s not available in the country you’re in, you can use a proxy to connect to a US server and stream it over your proxy connection, since encryption isn’t mandatory for this case. If you’re at Dunkin’ Donuts and you’re working on a top-secret project for your startup and you don’t want any tech-savvy thieves stealing your code over your free Wi-Fi connection, you can use a VPN to encrypt your connection between you and your company server. If you want to check your bank account online, but the bank doesn’t have good online business practices and don’t encrypt their web communications by default, you may want to use a VPN when logging into your bank’s website to make sure that nobody successfully fishes for your username and password. And if you’re working on an absolutely, positively, unconditionally classified, top-secret, sensitive, need-to-know-basis document, but you really, really, really want to get a frappuchino, perhaps you should consider getting yourself one of those sweatshirts with the oversized privacy hoods that you can wrap around your computer display, as seen above.

The red iPhone 7, and Why There Should Be More Product Red Products

I recently purchased an iPhone 7 with the Product Red branding. It took a little convincing, but my wallet and I eventually came to an agreement about this. It had been a while since I last upgraded my phone, and the iPhone is the industry standard. And it’s red!

Product Red is an initiative that started 11 years ago, with a goal of engaging companies that sells consumer goods to raise funds to fight AIDS in Africa. Product Red products have a distinctive red branding, and a share of the proceeds go towards the Global Fund.

When Apple announced that they were to ship out iPhones with the Product Red casing, the overall sentiment was that the phone looked good. Real good. Almost makes you wanna trade in your Android good. And if you were already an iPhone owner and was looking to switch to a newer phone, it’s hard to look away and consider otherwise.

Apple has a very rich history with the Product Red initiative, having had branded various iPods with Product Red beginning in 2006. The new iPhone, however, is the biggest slab of red Apple has released so far, and really, it brings up the question: why aren’t there more Product Red phones elsewhere on the market? The only other phone that was ever shipped with Product Red branding was the Motorola RAZR (remember those things?), a decade ago.

Sure, Product Red has its fair share of criticisms. It is, in the end, a marketing ploy, and Apple smartly released this phone a few months before the announcement and release of the next iPhone to drive sales and push out soon to be obsolete hardware from their supply chains. But try and think of the last major product that pledge to donate a portion of the proceeds to any charity of any kind. Unfortunately, they’re few and far between.

Understand that, in today’s world, where the internet should be considered (and is, in some places) a utility, and where our phones and laptops are the main proponents of the internet, it only makes sense that we should demand more products that gives back, even if it’s just a little bit, even if it’s just a marketing ploy. Considering the already questionable ethics of how these devices are produced to begin with, it’s the least that we, as conscientious consumers, can do.

NES Mini

Nintendo recently released the NES Classic, but good luck finding it.

The NES classic is a small, $60, HDMI compatible replica of Nintendo’s iconic first console, the NES, which hit the US market in 1985.  The classic comes with 30 games preinstalled, with the potential for more to be added later.  It includes all of the classics many of us can still remember playing as kids, albeit on our parent’s childhood Consoles.  Now you can play Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros, the Legend of Zelda, Kirby’s Adventure, and more, all in a cute little NES with two controllers (which are compatible with the Wii U) that can fit in the palm of your hand!  Or you could, If it wasn’t completely sold out.

Nostalgia took its toll and Nintendo proved that their games are timeless.  Some stores sold out within 10 minutes of officially selling them, and all preorder lists for stores like Target, Best Buy, Walmart, Gamestop, an even Amazon are long and without a date or shipment size for when they will get their hands on more.

Such a clamor has been made about the new consoles that a site with the sole purpose of tracking mass shipments of them has gotten a nice bump in traffic http://www.nowinstock.net/videogaming/consoles/nesclassicmini/

Some that are ultra desperate to get their hands on the gadget have been shelling out as much as 5 times the original cost(sometimes as much as $300-500) on ebay and craigslist to own the otherwise sold out NES classic.

What’s The Deal With External Graphics Docks?

What is an External Graphics Dock?

Not everyone who likes to play video games has the time, money, or know-how to build their own gaming PC. These people will more often than not opt to get a gaming laptop instead, which with their high cost and TDP/wattage-limited graphics solutions prove unsatisfactory for high intensity gaming. If not a gaming laptop, then they do what they can with their thin & light notebook with integrated graphics that, while great for portability, can not run games very well at all. Using an external graphics dock you can get the best of both worlds! There is minimal assembly required, and you can have your thin and light laptop to bring to class or to work, then when you get home plug into your external graphics dock and have all the gaming horsepower and display outputs you need.

Sounds Great! How Do These External Graphics Docs Work, Then?

egpu
The most basic eGPU dock

The basic concept of an external graphics dock is this: take a regular desktop Graphics Card, plug it into a PCIe slot in a dock, get power to the dock and the Graphics card, then plug that dock into your laptop. After installing the right drivers and performing two or three restarts, hark! High frame rates at high settings are coming your way. The internal GPU is completely bypassed and data is sent from the laptop to the GPU to an external display, and in some cases back to the laptop to power its own internal display. The graphics card will have to be purchased separately, and to see a sizable difference in performance over a dedicated laptop GPU you will be looking at around $200 for that card on top of the cost of the dock. Each commercially available dock has their own benefits and drawbacks, but all of them share some basic properties. They can all accept any single or dual-slot GPU from AMD or Nvidia (cooler size permitting), and have at least two 6+2-pin power connectors to power the graphics card. Along with the GPU support, docks usually also add at least four USB ports to connect peripherals similar to the laptop docks of olde.

So What Are The Performance Numbers Really Like?

In general, performance loss over using that same GPU in a real desktop is 10-15%. This can be due to a reduced bandwidth over the connection to the laptop, or due to bottlenecking from less powerful laptop CPUs. However, even over a dedicated laptop GPU the increase in performance when using an external one is roughly double. Here’s a few benchmarks of recent AAA titles, courtesy of TechSpot. Listed from bottom to top, each graph has performance of the internal GPU, the Graphics Amplifier with a desktop GPU, and that same GPU in a regular desktop PC.

aga bench 1aga bench 3 aga bench 2

 

Let’s Take A Look At What is Available Today:

Alienware Graphics Amplifier (MSRP $199):

aga
Pros – Relatively inexpensive, High bandwidth interface, Good airflow, PSU is user upgradeable
Cons – Only works for Alienware machines (R2 & up), Uses proprietary cable, Requires shutdown to connect / disconnect

Razer Core (MSRP $499):
razercore
Pros – Universal Thunderbolt 3 interface, Adds ethernet jack, Sturdy aluminum construction, Small size
Cons – High cost, Compatibility list with non-Razer computers is short

MSI GS30 Shadow:
gs30shadow

Pros: User upgradeable PSU, Includes support for internal 3.5″ drive, Has integrated speakers
Cons: Only works for one machine, Huge footprint, Dock cannot be purchased separately

Final Thoughts

After seeing all the facts, does using an eGPU sound like the solution for you? If none of the options available sound perfect right now, don’t fret. As the popularity of eGPUs grows, more companies will inevitably put their hats into the ring and make their own solutions. Prices, form factors, and supported laptops will continue changing and improving as time goes on.

Intel, ARM, and the Future of the Mac

For years, there have been rumors that Apple wants to move away from Intel and x86 processors to something that they design in house. This desire comes from a combination of Intel’s slowing pace and the rapid improvement of Apple’s own A-series chips that the company uses in the iPhone and iPad. Moving to a new CPU architecture is not without it’s challenges, and it would not be the first one that Apple has undertaken. The last major change was from PowerPC to Intel in 2005. That transition was made due to the lack of innovation from IBM. Intel’s future roadmap had much more powerful chips than what IBM was offering. IBM was slowly moving their product line to be more server oriented. They were already having issues meeting the power demands that Apple was trying to achieve.

Much of that same situation is happening now with Intel and ARM processors. For the last several generations, Intel’s improvements have been aimed at power efficiency increases. Many PC owners haven’t had a reason to upgrade their Sandy Bridge CPUs to the latest generation. Intel’s latest generation chips, Kaby Lake, is based on the same architecture as two generations ago. Kaby Lake is the second “iterative” step for the same process architecture. This is mostly due to Intel’s problems with being able to produce 10nm chips(their current chips are based on a 14nm process). Intel has not delivered the increased power that many Mac users have been craving, especially for their pro desktops.

On the other hand, Apple has been one of the leading innovators in ARM processor design. ARM holdings designs and produces the basic architecture design. It then licenses these designs to companies such as Apple, Samsung, and Qualcomm to manufacture their own systems on a chip (SOC). While these chips are not x86, they are much more power efficient and require less transistors. ARM chips are getting to the point where they are almost as powerful as some Intel chips. For example, the iPad Pro benchmarks higher than the 12” Macbook for both single core and multi-core tests. It would totally be possible to produce a high power ARM processor that would replace the Intel chips that Apple uses. With the slow progress that Intel has had, its not a matter of if, but rather when.

Rumors are saying that Apple has already ported macOS from x86 to ARM internally. This rumor has also stated that the new version of macOS meant for ARM chips has many similarities to iOS. While the pros and cons of this are up for debate, its easy to predict from past macOS updates that this is where the platform is going. A switch to ARM would mean that app developers would have to do some work to update their apps, as x86 applications will not natively run on ARM chips. But Apple has made similar transitions from PowerPC to Intel. In that case, the pros and cons were very similar to what they are now, and overall the market was very happy with the switch. Would you be happy with a switch to ARM chips if that meant a faster and lighter machine for you?

JLab Audio Epic2

Image

After the purchase of my iPhone 7 and the tragic loss of my ability to use my Audiotechnicas’s m50xs, I decided that it was time to go wireless. The use of the 3.5 mm headphone jack to lightning was not something that I wanted to use; it would be too easy to lose and just looks silly. I wanted to get good all around earbuds that I could use while studying, biking and walking around campus, working out at the Rec and going on runs. Some of the potential candidates were the Beats Powerbeats3 Wireless,  JLab’s Audio Epic2, Bose SoundSport Wireless and Apple Airpods.

Powerbeats3 currently going for $149.99 on Amazon and $199.99 from Apple. The Powerbeats have a cable that connects the two  I also didn’t want to get such a lengthy cable, but they’re very good for exercise and have a long battery life of 12 hours. They also have a remote and microphone support to take calls.

epic-2-blue-with-earbuds

JLab’s Audio Epic2 had a more modest price tag at $99.99. They have a cable that connects the two wrap-around inear earbuds and also boast a 12 hour battery life. I’ve enjoyed using the Epic2’s over the last several weeks since my purchase. The wireless earbuds come with seven different size and form factor plastic in-ear pieces so they fit comfortably and the wires wrap around the ear for a light and well secured fit.

My one complaint with the ear pieces is that they insulate from outside noise almost too well so they have to be pushed out whenever you want to have a conversation with anyone or purchase a coffee on your commute to classes.

The JLab Audio Epic2s also perform admirably as wireless fitness earbuds. They’re loud and rarely need to be turned up to the max even in a noisy gym setting. They also feel light and well secured and don’t shift with movement which makes them an ideal running or exercise choice for music on the go. They’re also protected against damage from sweat or splashes so you don’t have to worry about short circuiting them; which was a concern by some of the reviews I read on Amazon.

All in all I would say that these are a solid purchase for wireless earbuds. They come at a low price in comparison to their competition, and although they don’t look as flashy as Powerbeats, they perform just as well with the same battery life. I would strongly recommend these to anyone who is looking to go wireless or made the decision of purchasing an iPhone 7.

Technology is Taking Our Jobs

Today April 13, 2017, Elon Musk sent out a tweet stating that his Tesla company plans on releasing their plans for a Semi-Truck line in September. Tesla is the same company that produces electric automated cars. The fact that Tesla is making semi-trucks in itself not important news, it is more about the repercussions that come because of it.  When I first saw the tweet it made me think of the semi-trucks from the Logan film that was recently in theaters. They were automated without anyone driving, basically this would be what Elon Musk and company are striving to achieve, that took movie took place in 2029 and it could be a reality by then as well. The problem that not just the U.S but the rest of the World will face is another industry that is taken over by machines and a loss of millions of jobs. According to Alltrucking.com the U.S has 3.5 Million Truckers, and actually are looking for more. This touches on a larger issue in our society today, more industries are becoming mechanized. With more industries no longer using the same number of humans to create labor, this creates a labor crisis, it’s why Donald Trump was elected he promised to bring jobs to America, but didn’t realize the real problem is not jobs leaving for other countries but our increasing technological advancements. This isn’t just a Trump issue but a problem has been with every leader in the world. How do we create jobs via the government or to get other businesses create jobs and industries that can’t be taken over by computer systems?

If it is not possible for us to make the jobs required, then we must come up with subsidies and an allowance for those people that cannot acquire a job. The Trucking industry maybe the next industry to go, but it won’t be the last and might not even have the most impact. The Oil industry is also an industry that won’t last and it supplies 8.5 million jobs and it will depend on what the governments of the world replace it with if the economy will be able to handle the massive hit.

Why Making the Jump to Linux May be for you

Image result for linux

Do you feel that Windows no longer respects your privacy? Or do you feel that Macs are too expensive? Linux might be just right for you then! Linux is an open source operating system. Although it has been around for some time now, it is slowly gaining more popularity. While Linux is often seen as the geeky computer nerd operating system, it can be perfect for average users too. Linux is all about allowing user customization and giving fine system control to the user.

Linux is Completely Free!

One of the greatest things about Linux is that it is completely free. Unlike Windows or macOS, you don’t need to pay anything in order to use it. As the latest version of Windows or macOS slowly becomes old, you will eventually need to upgrade them. Sometimes this means purchasing new licensing, which can be a unneeded financial hit. If you have the hardware, you can simply find a distribution you like, and install it. Whether this is for one machine, or 1000 machines, Linux will never bother you for a license key.

A Tweaker’s Dream

Image result for linux tweaks

Linux is the dream operating system for someone that enjoys playing around with settings to fine tune their machine. Linux offers multiple desktop environments which completely change how desktop behavior is handled. Each of these have hundreds, or possibly thousands of settings so that a user can make their experience exactly how they envision it. This is contrary to Windows and macOS, which consists one one desktop with fairly limited customization options. Almost everything in Linux has a right click menu which allows for further customization. For the extremely motivated tweakers, there are also configuration files which allow you to modify almost anything on your system. A personal favorite tweak is a use of universal keyboard shortcuts. As an avid user of terminal, I’m able to launch terminal from anywhere with a single touch of a button.

Gaining a Better Knowledge of Computers

Image result for linux terminalLinux features a terminal similar to macOS. Mastering the terminal allows you to tell a computer what you really want it to do. With terminal, you no longer have to rely on menus and clicking. Linux is an excellent choice to learn terminal commands because you will easily learn how to use it whether you need to fix something, or just due to the ease of access.

By using Linux, every user becomes aware of file permissions, and how they work. Users also become adept at using commands like top and ps aux to understand how processes work. Linux users also often learn to use commands like rsync to create backups. Finally, many users that delve a little deeper into Linux also learn about computer architecture, such as how operating systems work, and how storage devices are mounted.

Linux Has Some Amazing Software

Image result for linux beautiful software

While Linux has a reputation for being incompatible with certain software, it also offers an enormous repository of software for its users. Many major programs such as web browsers like Google Chrome or Firefox are also available for Linux. Additionally, many programs have Linux alternatives that work just as well, or even better. Better yet, software on Linux is completely free too. You can get incredibly good productive software like LibreOffice for creating documents, and Okular for viewing pdf files.

Linux is Efficient

Linux fits on small systems and large systems. It works on slow computers and fast ones too. Linux is engineered by efficiency-obsessed engineers that want to get every ounce of computing power out of their machines. Most flavors of Linux are designed to be lighter weight than their Windows or macOS counterparts. Linux also offers excellent utilization of computer hardware, as the operating system is built to efficiently handle resource management.

The storage architecture of Linux is built in a way where any dependency for a program never needs to be installed twice. All programs have access to any dependency that is already installed. However, in Windows, every program that you install needs to have all of its dependencies packaged with it. This often leads to programs having the same exact software packaged together and thus taking up more space on the harddrive.

Hardware Just Works

Perhaps you have an older laptop, or maybe new cutting edge PC. A common problem for these types of hardware is a lack of drivers. Older computers often have hardware that is no longer supported by new operating systems, and new hardware occasionally plagued by buggy driver support. On popular distributions such as Ubuntu or Linux Mint, driver support for almost all hardware is provided. This is because the Linux kernel (or core) is designed to have these drivers, whereas Windows often requires them as a separate install. Additionally, Linux drivers are much more generic than Windows, which allows Linux to reach a broader spectrum of hardware, even if the driver was not designed for older or newer hardware in mind. Finally, Linux’s amazing hardware support is a product of its users. If you ever decided to dig around in the Linux kernel, you would find an enormous amount of very specific hardware drivers simply due to various Linux users over time. Unlike Linux, Windows does not have a way for an average user to create a driver for their hardware. Linux’s software and distribution model empowers users to create their own drivers if hardware is not supported.

 

Overall, Linux is a finely tuned operating system that deserves a look. With its many features, it is able to offer an experience tailor made to any user. You can reclaim control of your computer, and make it exactly the way you want!

 

IOT: Connecting all our stuff to the network of networks

What is the IOT?

The Internet of Things (IOT for short) is the common term for devices that have become integrated with “smart” or internet connectable technologies that use the global infrastructure of the Internet to bring both accessibility and highly improved product experiences to millions of users of common electronics. In this article I’ll be discussing some implications that IOT has on the landscape of the Internet, as well as some IOT devices that have become commonplace in many homes across the nation.

Some things to note about IOT

Many IOT devices offer very promising integrations with online services that make their usefulness indispensable, however, this usefulness can come at the cost of security so it’s always good to understand the implications of adding an IOT device to a network. A most notable event that underscores the importance of securing these connected devices was the Mirai Botnet attack carried out on DynDNS on Friday Oct 21 2016, relevant article here.

Some of the Things:

Amazon Echo

A smarthome hub created by Amazon with the ability to integrate with various devices and services to command and control your smart home and allow for easier access to informational resources. The Alexa service provides an easy to use interface for interacting with various services via speech, a query to Alexa can perform web searches, interact with online services, as well as control some of the devices in this article. More information can be found here.

Google Home

Google’s equivalent to Amazon’s Echo, recently released as of November 2016, the Google Home is able to integrate with about the same amount of services as the Echo, as well as integrates more directly with the Google smart home ecosystem. The ability to stream directly to a Google Chromecast device connected to the same network as the Home is one of it’s notable features.

 

Nest Product Line: Cam, Thermostat, Protect

These smart products aim to keep your home automated yet safe, the Cam is a webcam that is accessible via the internet, has the ability to perform speakerphone functions. the Thermostat is a remotely controllable thermostat that adjusts based on user presence in the home. The Protect is a smoke-detector with internet connectivity that can perform remote alertive actions as well as speaks based on the location of the source of the smoke.

Smart Lighting Products: Phillips Hue, GE Link, LIFX

Smart lighting affords users the ability to customize lighting based on their location data, as well as by time of day. Being able to remotely turn on and off lighting also affords users some peace of mind in being able to determine whether they forgot to turn of the lights before leaving the house. These products typically connect to a Zigbee based hub, which can be used with all Zigbee compatible devices.

Smart Appliances: Coffeemaker, Dishwasher, Clothes Washer and Dryer

Various smart appliances allow for remotely starting, stopping, and manually controlling settings individualized settings.

 

Smart plugs: TP-Link Smart Plug

The smart plug allows for remotely turning on and off a device that is connected to the socket. This type of smart device allows extending remote capabilities to anything that uses a standard power socket.

Smart wearables: Apple Watch, Android Wear, Tizen and Pebble

These devices allow for data to be gathered from our person, heart rate/fitness information, location based information, and remote notifications are some of the data that can be gathered on these devices for display to the user.

Be sure to secure your things, as the data they collect and create become increasingly more critical the more integrated into our lives they become.

 

 

Hard Drives: How Do They Work?

What’s a HDD?

A Hard Disk Drive (HDD for short) is a type of storage commonly used as the primary storage system both laptop and desktop computers. It functions like any other type of digital storage device by writing bits of data and then recalling them later. It stands to mention that an HDD is what’s referred to as “non-volatile”, which simply means that it can save data without a source of power. This feature, coupled with their large storage capacity and their relatively low cost are the reasons why HDDs are used so frequently in home computers. While HDDs have come a long way from when they were first invented, the basic way that they operate has stayed the same.

How does a HDD physically store info?

Inside the casing there are a series of disk-like objects referred to as “platters”.

The CPU and motherboard use software to tell what’s called the “Read/Write Head” where to move on the platter and where it then provides an electrical charge to a “sector” on the platter. Each sector is an isolated part of the disk containing thousands of subdivisions all capable of accepting a magnetic charge. Newer HDDs have a sector size of 4096 bytes or 32768 bits; Each bit’s magnetic charge translates to a binary 1 or 0 of data. Repeat this stage and eventually you have a string of bits which when read back can give the CPU instructions, whether it be updating your operating system, or opening your saved document in Microsoft Word.

As HDDs have been developed, one key factor that has changed is the orientation of the sectors on the platter. Hard Drives were first designed for “Longitudinal Recording” – meaning the longer side of the platter is oriented horizontally – and since then have utilized a different method called “Perpendicular Recording” where the sectors are stacked on end. This change was made as hard drive manufacturers were hitting a limit on how small they could make each sector due to the “Superparamagnetic Effect.” Essentially, the superparamagnetic effect means that hard drive sectors smaller than a certain size will flip magnetic charge randomly based on temperature. This phenomenon would result in inaccurate data storage, especially given the heat that an operating hard drive emits.

One downside to Perpendicular Recording is increased sensitivity to magnetic fields and read error, creating a necessity for more accurate Read/Write arms.

How software affects how info is stored on disk:

Now that we’ve discussed the physical operation of a Hard Drive, we can look at the differences in how operating systems such as Windows, MacOS, or Linux utilize the drive. However, beforehand, it’s important we mention a common data storage issue that occurs to some degree in all of the operating systems mentioned above.

Disk Fragmentation

Disk Fragmentation occurs after a period of data being stored and updated on a disk. For example, unless an update is stored directly after a base program, there’s a good chance that something else has been stored on the disk. Therefore the update for the program will have to be placed in a different sector farther away from the core program files. Due to the physical time it takes the read/write arm to move around, fragmentation can eventually slow down your system significantly, as the arm will need to reference more and more separate parts on your disk. Most operating systems will come with a built in program designed to “Defragment” the disk, which simply rearranges the data so that all the files for one program are in once place. The process takes longer based on how fragmented the disk has become. Now we can discuss different storage protocols and how they affect fragmentation.

Windows:

Windows uses a base computer language called MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System) and a file management system called NTFS, or New Technology File System, which has been the standard for the company since 1993. When given a write instruction, an NT file system will place the information as close as possible to the beginning of the disk/platter. While this methodology is functional, it only leaves a small buffer zone in between different files, eventually causing fragmentation to occur. Due to the small size of this buffer zone, Windows tends to be the most susceptible to fragmentation.

Mac OSX:

OSX and Linux are both Unix based operating systems. However their file system are different; Mac uses the HFS+ (Hierarchical File System Plus) protocol, which replaced the hold HFS method. HFS+ differs in that it can handle a larger amount of data at a given time, being 32bit and not 16bit. Mac OSX doesn’t need a dedicated tool for defragmentation like Windows does OSX avoids the issue by not using space on the HDD that has recently been freed up – by deleting a file for example – and instead searches the disk for larger free sectors to store new data. Doing so increases the space older files will have closer to them for updates. HFS+ also has a built in tool called HFC, or Hot File adaptive Clustering, which relocates frequently accessed data to specials sectors on the disk called a “Hot Zone” in order to speed up performance. This process, however, can only take place if the drive is less than 90% full, otherwise issues in reallocation occur.  These processes coupled together make fragmentation a non-issue for Mac users.

Linux:

Linus is an open-source operating system which means that there are many different versions of it, called distributions, for different applications. The most common distributions, such as Ubuntu, use the ext4 file system. Linux has the best solution to fragmentation as it spreads out files all over the disk, giving them all plenty of room to increase in size without interfering with each other. In the event that a file needs more space, the operating system will automatically try to move files around it give it more room. Especially given the capacity of most modern hard drives, this methodology is not wasteful, and results in no fragmentation in Linux until the disk is above roughly 85% capacity.

What’s an SSD? How is it Different to a HDD?

In recent years, a new technology has become available on the consumer market which replaces HDDs and the problems they come with. Solid State Drives (SSDs) are another kind of non-volatile memory that simply store a positive charge or no charge in a tiny capacitor. As a result, SSDs are much faster than HDDs as there are no moving parts, and therefore no time to move the read/write arm around. Additionally, no moving parts increases reliability immensely. Solid state drives do have a few downsides, however. Unlike with hard drives, it is difficult to tell when a solid state is failing. Hard drives will slow down over time, or in extreme cases make audible clicking signifying the arm is hitting the platter (in which case your data is most likely gone) while solid states will simply fail without any noticeable warning. Therefore, we must rely on software such as “Samsung Magician” which ships with Samsung’s solid states. The tool works by writing and reading back a piece of data to the drive and checking how fast it is able to do this. If the time it takes to write that data falls below a certain threshold, the software will warn the user that their solid state drive is beginning to fail.

Do Solid States Fragment Too?

While the process of having data pile on top of itself, and needing to put files for one program in different place is still present, it doesn’t matter with solid states as there is no delay caused by the read/write arm of a hard drive moving back and forth between the different sectors. Fragmentation does not decrease performance the way it does with hard drives, but it does affect the life of the drive. Solid states that have scattered data can have a reduced lifespan. The way that solid states work cause the extra write cycles caused by defragmenting to decrease the overall lifespan of the drive, and is therefore avoided for the most part given its small impact. That being said a file system can still reach a point on a solid state where defragmentation is necessary. It would be logical for a  hard drive to be defragmented automatically every day or week, while a solid state might require only a few defragmentations, if any, throughout its lifetime.

The little smart watch that could: A pebble love story

If you’ve ever wondered what the geekiest gadget is to own you may get a few different responses. Maybe its a drone, maybe its a ringtone that is an anime intro song, but for a lot of tech nerds it was the Pebble watch.

Why do gadget heads love it so much? Well, Back in 2012 Pebble did a kickstarter campaign to fund the would-be watch company. It ended up being the most funded kickstarter ever. And geeks love a good kickstarter story. It’s the nerd version of David vs. Goliath.

But we also loved the technology behind it. Pebble watches were always water resistant. The battery life was about a week. The display is a e-paper display, and tech savvy people love discussing how much they love e-paper displays. Looking at the first generation apple watch, pebble had more battery life (7x more, actually), it had swimming support, and it did it all years before anyone else did.

By far, pebble watches have the most battery life compared to other popular watches

Pebble’s starting price is half of the next best watch AND has more battery life and swimming support.

Pebble and the Apple Watch 2 are the only watches on this list with swimming support. Remember that this is the basic pebble time watch. The pebble time 2 + heart rate has even more athletic support

Pebble was the under dog that never stopped impressing.

It’s app store had 1000 applications. That’s a ton for the little smart watch that could. You could attach the time piece to your bike and it would track your speed. The pebble watch 2 with heart rate could track your sleep schedule and calories (full disclosure, I bought one of these yesterday and am currently waiting for it to come via snail mail). It vibrates when you get a text or email; and unlike the latest and greatest Fitbit Charge 2, you can respond to text messages from the watch! All while maintaining incredible battery life.

Back in 2016, pebble was bought out by fitbit. A worthy adversary. And for a company that was primarily funded via kickstarter, it was an entrepreneurs’ dream. This means that pebble is selling off all of their inventory, so get yourself a pebble watch before they go away forever. Then you too can have the geekiest gadget around.

Good bye Pebble. You were dearly loved.

Apple Expands Reach on USB-C: What’s Next for Future Devices?

The USB Type C port on the new 2015 Macbook

The USB Type C port on the new 2015 Macbook

In 2015, we saw Apple relaunch what was the complete overhaul of their former flagship laptop line before making the switch to the Pro/Air series. The new Macbook, which included many new features that were relatively brand new to the laptop world, hit the shelves with its new Intel Atom processor, butterfly keyboard, and beautiful Retina display. This product was praised for its innovation in many areas, but what took the technological world by storm wasn’t any of those features, the display, or even debuting in 3 different finishes. Yes, the big discussion were its ports, or lack thereof.

This Macbook featured a single port, a USB type C port, opposite of the 3.5mm headphone jack on the other side of the computer. This notebook, the smallest and thinnest among its family in the Macbook line, left any other port besides these two off of the case and into the world of adapters. While many were left scratching their heads, Apple was not only selling many of these devices but also was praised for product innovation and debuting the next new type of USB to its devices.

Fast forward to Fall of 2016. Apple’s newest line of Macbook Pro’s are just announced, featured, and released. Amidst the new keyboard previously seen by the lower level Macbook and even the Touch ID touch bar sitting atop the keyboard, again the question brought up is this: What about it’s ports?

The new Macbook Pro w/ USB-C ports

The new Macbook Pro w/ USB-C ports

Now that Apple has brought the USB type C port to its higher end of Laptops (all of the Macbook Pro line), what can we expect from future devices? Will Apple learn from the likes of Google and Motorola and integrate the newest port to its iPhone and iPad (and iPod?) lines?

What’s next in line for an overhaul among Apple’s core devices is in fact the Macbook Air. Praised as the perfect everyday computer, it really isn’t needed for heavy usage and professional applications, but it is perfect for the average user and student for its longevity on the battery side of things and ease of use and efficiency fit into a small form factor. Featured already are its Magsafe 2 charging port, two USB 3.0 ports and a headphone jack.

We have already seen Magsafe 2, which was the hyped-up successor to the original charging port of the older Macbook Pros/Airs in the Magsafe 1 port, is now phased out on two of three Macbook lines. What is due up next is removing this port on the Air. This would be paving the way for the Air to upgrade to the next level of innovation and include a Type-C port for charging, fitting right in with its brothers in the line-up. While introducing this next port for charging, it is also lightning fast for data, so remove the other USB ports and you got yourself a Macbook Air, with multiple Type C ports and a headphone jack, along with the improvements in display and keyboard that should come with it.

But what does this mean? Is the adapter life going to consume us for the rest of time? That answer we do not know yet, but it is worth thinking about. For Apple and many companies that should follow suit, this is a huge market to breach in customers purchasing different dongles and adapters to hang like winding branches off their laptops. For the likes of HDMI, Thunderbolt, Ethernet, and many other ports very much still necessary in this day and age, will companies phase them out and stick to adapters forever, or will Apple learn from the adapter game and start to integrate these ports back into their devices, using these next models as sort of a “testing phase”?

For now, we’ll see where this brings us for the product releases in the spring and fall of 2017, but something to know is this: USB Type C among Apple devices is here to stay, and there’s no getting around it. Maybe we will see this dominate every device from the iPhone, iPad, Macbooks, and even maybe into desktop computers.

Amazon’s Echo and Alexa: A User’s Experience

Introduction:

Over the holiday break a new acquisition in technology took place in the Afonso household, we purchased an Amazon Echo Dot. At $50, the price seemed reasonable enough that it was worth a shot to try and get on the cutting edge of smart home technologies. Unfortunately, due to a lack of smart devices in our home, we were unable to use Alexa’s greatly touted integrations with things like the Nest Products or Zigbee based lighting products. However Alexa can be used for much more that controlling a smart home, I’ll speak to some Alexa Skills (the Echo’s version of Applications) that we tried and our experiences with them.

Built-In Functionality:

Out-of-the-box, the Echo can be easily configured for integration with a wide array of streaming media services. Built-in are Pandora, Spotify (restricted to premium accounts), iHeartRadio, and Tunein Radio. This makes a the Echo a perfect candidate for the smart radio, as it has a small speaker built-in (low fidelity mono speaker so another speaker is recommended) as well as Bluetooth connectivity to connect to larger and better audio equipment. Built-in news, weather, and sports integration which at setup time needs to be configured using the Amazon Alexa app (available for both iPhone and Android) There is also built-in smart device detection which I was unable to experiment with that detects smart devices and performs a pairing procedure that allows you to perform actions with keywords like (“Turn on, Turn off”) additional smart home skills are needed to perform in-depth control of other smart-devices.

The Skills:

These can be turned on for use with your device by stating “Alexa, enable *insert skill name here*”.

To use any skill, state “Alexa, open *insert skill name here*”.

To use a skill and pass it information, state “Alexa, ask *insert skill name here* to *insert parameter name here*”

Anymote Smart Remote:

After configuring the skill using the Anymote App for iPhone (instructions are openly available), I was able to control my Roku Smart TV device using my voice. Simply stating “Alexa, open Anymote” followed by the remote input you’d like to perform such as “Volume up”, “Home Button”, “Up Button” will interact with the device you’ve configured it with. Overall, a very useful skill for those looking to remote control any of their network connected devices.

Jeopardy J6:

This is a shortened version of the classic game show that allows the user to answer questions from a recent airing of the show. Alexa will provide responses with whether the question you provided to the corresponding answer was correct. The performance of this app was superb, and really allows for an interactive experience with Echo.

Twenty Questions:

This is another classic game that allows you to think of any object (limited to a category set) and within 20 Questions, Alexa will aim to guess what you’re thinking of. The interactivity with this app is also superb, and the shock when Alexa get’s those obscure guesses correct is pretty amazing.

Ooma Telo:

This skill is perfectly utilitarian – it allows the user to place a call via the Echo, with a caveat, the call must be completed using an existing phone line and cannot proceed via the Echo. Essentially, once you ask Ooma to place a call it will initiate a three-way call between it’s VOIP service and the phone you choose, thus it’s limited to initiating calls.

Drive Time:

This skill is the perfect companion for a commuter, since Alexa has no built-in time estimation for destinations, Drive Time allows you to ask for driving times to favorited locations that the user must configure. There is no search function, and locations must be stated before-hand in the skills settings in order to use them.

Experience Summary:

Alexa can do some really remarkable things, and at this point due to it being released about 2 years ago (2014), the Skills that have been developed allow functionality to be extended to a variety of platforms and devices. The Echo Dot does beg for a better speaker, but at the $50 price point, it’s expected, and also provides incentive for buying the Dot’s larger brother, just the standard Echo. The overall versatility of the connections on the device (3.5mm output, Bluetooth Connectivity, Wireless Connectivity, and Zigbee via Wi-Fi hub) make it perfect for controlling audio and other devices.

Gaming on a MacBook Pro

Despite what the average internet person will tell you, MacBooks are good at what they do. That’s something important to remember in a time where fanboying is such a prevalent issue in the tech consumer base. People seem eager to take sides; binary criticism removing the reality that machines can have both good and bad qualities. MacBooks are good at what they do, and they also have their disadvantages.

One of the things MacBooks aren’t good at (mostly due to their architecture) is playing games. If you’re looking for high-performance gameplay, Windows machines are objectively better for gaming. Despite this, there are plenty of games and workarounds that’ll still enable you to have fun with friends or in your dorm room after a long stressful day even on a MacBook.

Note: I’ll only be listing the methods and games I’ve personally found to work well. There are likely tons of games and methods that work great, but I haven’t tried yet.  While I’m aware you can always install Windows via Boot Camp, I’ll only be touching on methods and games that don’t require altering the OS or running a virtual machine. Below is a screenshot of my machine’s specs for reference.

Screen Shot 2016-11-18 at 10.37.22 AM

Actually Getting Games  

Do you like games? Do you like sales? Do you often fantasize about purchasing AAA games for prices ranging from Big Mac to Five Guys? Steam is the way to go. You can get Steam here, and I highly recommend you do. Steam is great because of its frequent sales, interface, and ability to carry over your purchases between machines easily. A good amount of Steam titles are supported on Mac OS, so if you’ve been previously using a Windows machine and have a huge library, you won’t have to repurchase all of your games if you switch to a new OS. You can also purchase some games off of the App Store, though the selection there is far smaller in comparison.

Configuration 

If you’re planning on playing an FPS on your MacBook, you’re likely going to want a mouse. A mouse is far more accurate and comfortable than a trackpad when it comes to interacting with most game interfaces. However, after plugging in your mouse you might find that it feels…weird. It accelerates and slows itself down sporadically and probably feels like it’s fighting you. No need to worry! This is a simple fix.

Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 2.58.31 PM

First, launch Terminal and enter the following command:

defaults write .GlobalPreferences com.apple.mouse.scaling -1    

This will disable Mac OS’s built in scaling and allow you and your mouse to have healthy bonding time without it suddenly deciding to perform an interpretive dance in the style of the plastic bag from American Beauty.

Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 3.02.36 PM

Another bonus piece of advice would be to go to System Preferences > Keyboard > and check the option to use the function keys without having to press the fn key. If you’re playing games that require usage of the function keys, you’ll find it easier to only have to hit one key vs having to take your hand off the mouse to hit two.

 

Finally, I recommend you keep your system plugged in and on a desk. Just like with most laptops, demanding processes like games can drain the battery faster than Usain Bolt can run across campus and make your laptop hotter than that fire mixtape you made in highschool.

Solo game recommendations

So, you’ve set up your mouse and keyboard, installed steam, and you’ve got some free time to play some games. What now? Well, not every game that is listed as “compatible” with Mac OS actually works well with Mac OS. Some games lag and crash, while others might run at a high frame-rate with no problems. Here are a few games I’ve found work well with my system. (Reminder: Performance may vary)

1.h a c k m u d

Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 3.10.31 PM

“h a c k m u d” is a game that is set in a cyberpunk future where you’re a master hacker. This isn’t Watch_Dogs though. You’re not “hacking” by pressing a single button; rather, every single bit of code is typed by you. If you don’t know how to code, the game does an alright job at teaching you the basics of its own language (which is like a simplified mix of HTML and Java). The first hour of the game is spent locked in a server where you’ll have to solve some interesting logic puzzles. Once you escape the server, the game suddenly becomes a fully functional hacking MMO entirely populated by actual players. The game runs well on Mac OS, as it’s almost entirely text-based.

2.Pillars of Eternity

Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 3.14.22 PM

Do you like classic CRPGs? If the answer is yes, you’ll probably love Pillars. It’s a CRPG that fixes a lot of the problems the genre faced during its golden age, while not losing any of its complexity and depth. The game runs well, though do expect a loud and hot system after just a few minutes.

3.SUPERHOT

Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 3.11.59 PM

Do you often dream of being a bad-ass ninja in the matrix? SUPERHOT is a game where the central gimmick is that time only moves when you move. More accurately, time moves at a fraction of a second when you aren’t moving your character. This allows for moments where you can dodge bullets like Neo and cut them in half mid-flight with a katana. The game runs great, though your system will quickly get super hot (pun intended).

4.Enter the Gungeon

Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 3.12.48 PM

Enter the Gungeon is a cute little rogue-like bullet hell where your goal is to reach the end of a giant procedurally generated labyrinth while surviving an endless onslaught of adorable little sentient bullets that want to murder you. The game is addictive and runs well, though one common issue I found was that the game will crash on startup unless you disable the steam overlay. It’s a shame though that you can’t enjoy the co-op feature…

…or can you?

MacBook Party 

Who wants to play alone all the time? This is college, and like a Neil Breen movie, it’s best enjoyed with friends by your side. Here’s a tutorial on how to set up your MacBook for some local gaming fun-time.

First things first, you’re going to want some friends. If you don’t have any friends installed into your life already, I find running “heystrangerwannaplaysomegameswithme.exe” usually helps.

Next, you’re going to want to get one of these. This is an adapter for Xbox 360 controllers, which you should also get a few of here. Plug in the USB adapter into your MacBook. Now, Mac OS and the adapter will stubbornly refuse to work with each other (symbolic of the fanboying thing I mentioned at the beginning of this post), so you’re going to have to teach them the value of teamwork by installing this driver software.

Once you’re all set, you should be able to wirelessly connect the controllers to the adapter and play some video games. One optional adjustment to this process would be to connect your MacBook via HDMI to a larger display so everyone can see the screen without having to huddle around your laptop.

Enter the Gungeon has a great two-player co-op mode. I’d also recommend Nidhogg and Skullgirls for some casual competitive matches between friends.

And there you have it! Despite what some very vocal individuals on the internet might tell you, it is possible to enjoy some light gaming on a Macbook. This is the part where I’d normally make some grand statement about how the haters were wrong when they said it couldn’t be done; but alas, that would merely be fueling a war I believe to be pointless in the grand scheme of things. Are we not all gamers? Are we not all stressed with mountains of work and assignments? Are we not all procrastinating when we should be working on said assignments? While our systems may be different, our goals are very much the same. And with that, I hope you find my advice helpful on your quest for good video games.

Best,

Parker

Basic Wi-Fi Troubleshooting on macOS

From time to time, you may find yourself in a situation where Wi-Fi isn’t working for you on your computer whilst on campus. This is a quick and basic guide to helping you getting back online.

Disconnect & Reconnect

This is the easiest method to execute. While holding the Option key, click on the Wi-Fi icon in the Apple Bar. You’ll see something like this:

menu

Click on “Disconnect from eduroam”, and the Wi-Fi icon will dim immediately. Seconds later it will reconnect, provided you are on campus where your computer is picking up eduroam. This will solve the majority of issues that are related to connectivity.

Deleting the Eduroam Profile

This will be a multi-step, but simple process. Begin by opening System Preferences, and click on Profiles button.

profile

In the Profiles menu, select the Eduroam profile, and hit the delete key on your keyboard.

profile_menu

The system will prompt you if you are sure you want to remove. Confirm the removal.profile_pop

Once the profile is removed, consult this article to set up Eduroam on your laptop. This method will solve a vast majority of authentication related issues, particularly after a password reset.

Rearranging the Order of Preferred Networks

There will be times that your computer, for one reason or another, is configured to connect to the UMASS network over the Eduroam network. Whereas the Eduroam network is secured, and does not require a log in each time you connect, the UMASS network is not secure, and will prompt for log in information, preventing usual network access.

To change this, first open System Preferences, and then click on Network.

network

Once in the Network menu, hit Advanced.

advanced

In the Advanced menu, under the Wi-Fi submenu, make sure that UMASS is underneath eduroam. This tells the computer to attempt to connect to eduroam before attempting to connect with UMASS.beforeafter

Hit OK, and close the menu. The computer may prompt you if you wanted to apply the settings – hit Apply.

Gathering information for UMass IT

If any of the methods above did not work, and our consultants are not able to resolve your issue over email, we may ask you for certain technical info, such as BSSID, IP address, and MAC address. Most of the info we ask can be easily retrieved when you click on the Wi-Fi icon while holding the Option key.

wifi_info

Hope this information was helpful!