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Best Bets for Wireless Routers

wireless router problems

This post was originally published March 4, 2016 in the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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How’s your wireless router doing? Don’t you just love it? Do you even know where it is?

Most of us use the entry-level wireless router that comes with our broadband service. For many using Comcast, that is the big black Gateway device that serves as both your cable modem and wireless router. However, some of you even use your own router on top of Comcast’s, which is not a bad idea. With your own router you can gain more control over your wireless settings, although the newer Gateway devices from Comcast are an improvement of their earlier devices.

Understanding your various options to find the best router to meet your needs, well that’s a bit more complicated. First off, you have 802.11 standards, which are the universal standards for the transmission of wireless data. 802.11 started with “a” then “b” then “g” then “n” and now “ac.” The difference between them is the maximum throughput, so with streaming movies and the large photo and video files, newer standards will serve your purposes better. These days you should have a router that is either 802.11n or 802.11ac. Now you also have to make sure your hardware that is running wirelessly has the newer standards. The “ac” standard is much newer than “n,” so not as much of your hardware may have it, however routers tend to be backwards compatible, so you would still be able to use “n” on an “ac” router.

Next you have frequencies to look at. Most of us have a single band of 2.4GHz in our entry-level, older routers but newer routers come in dual band (there are even tri band, but we are going to skip those for now), which have by 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands included. The 2.4GHz is not as fast but has far reaching coverage, whereas the 5GHz is faster but does not have the range of 2.4GHz. However, by using both bands simultaneously, you spread out your Internet traffic and can reduce interference or your devices battling for bandwidth. An example would be to use the 2.4GHz band for your normal web traffic and then the 5GHz for your media streamer to watch movies and play videos.

Plugging your device directly into your router is the fastest connection you can get. Next, having your wireless router in the same room as your device is going to help you keep a clean connection. Beyond that, there are tools for testing router speed and looking for channel interference, but let’s look at simple fixes first.

The location of your router is important as far as the coverage you can get, so if possible, keep your router in the middle of your home. I have noticed that wireless seems to travel better upstairs than downstairs.

In order to get your wireless signal to those distant corners of your home, you can try wireless range extenders which help to relay your signal or powerline adapters which use your home’s existing electrical wiring to plug in an ethernet cable over distance without any additional internal wiring.

Of course there are quite a few tweaks that can be done to your router’s internal settings, but you can also cause some hiccups there too, so read up before your start working on the internal router settings.

Last, but definitely not least for today, is the reminder to setup a password for your router — do not leave it as an open access point for anyone who wants to jump on it. That is just safe behavior.

Paul Burnstein is a tech handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through www.gadgetguymn.com or email him at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

Image by webhamseter via Flickr, licensed under CC BY

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Make your home smarter

Circuit Board

This post was originally published December 1, 2015 by the Southwest Journal.

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Hello, Southwest Journal readers! Gadget Guy here.

These days, smartphones are virtually ubiquitous. People across a wide range of age groups depend upon their smartphones for communication, entertainment, education, navigation, and more! But there’s also a new “smart” solution that’s emerging with greater popularity — the “smart home.”

Smart homes, or smart home devices, allow people to automate and control home functions such as lighting, heating, and electronic devices remotely from your smartphone or computer.

Some smart homes can be incredibly advanced with “intelligent” feedback systems. For instance, a smart home’s fridge could inventory contents and order additional items as food is used up. But there are also a lot of small steps that you can take to make your home more connected to your environment and, therefore, smarter. Here are smart home solutions that can give you greater control of home functions. Also, some of these examples can actually make your home safer as well.

— Connected thermostat: The Nest thermostat is a great example of a WiFi connected thermostat that can be controlled by a smartphone or computer. It is a learning device that will learn habits and patterns to create efficiencies in temperature and temp control. Nest and other connected thermostats can be connected to other safety, security and comfort and entertainment feature-enabled devices as well. These devices include door and garage sensors to know when you are arriving and leaving, automatic lighting, wearable devices that can tell your thermostat when you are waking up, and more.

— IP cams: IP cams can be used for security to simply keep an eye on your home, inside or out. However, they can also be great for those with kids and/or pets. With an IP cam, you can login from your connected device (smartphone, tablet, computer) and check in on what is happening when you are away, or just peek into different rooms in your home to see if your kids (or pets) are getting into trouble.

— Smart lights/bulbs: Smart lights can be as simple as a light bulb that is WiFi connected and plugs into an existing socket. With smart lights in your home, you can turn on lights when you are out of town or simply turn them on from a different room. You can set them to turn on or off at certain times and even to turn on as an alarm clock with a light bulb-enabled sunrise.

— Sensor lights: These are more commonly used for outdoor security lighting that is triggered with motion, but there are sensor lights that are designed to be installed indoors and can be used for safety to turn on lights as you enter the room or turn off lights when no one is present. These lights are great for kids and seniors to turn on room lights automatically.

— Floor lighting: Simple LED light strips can illuminate dark hallways for safer walking at night and can be added to either a simple timer switch, automatic brightness sensor, or other connected devices. This can make finding the bathroom for guests in the middle of the night a much quieter affair.

— Amazon Echo: This is Amazon’s new home “computer” for connecting with other devices and services through your home. Using voice commands, one can ask it questions, instruct it to play specific music, and add items to your shopping list and even do the shopping for you.

— Sonos and Chromecast Audio: With both of these devices, you can wirelessly send music anywhere in your home. Sonos has multiple wireless speakers available and Chromecast Audio connects to existing speakers. Both can make it easy for your music to follow you from room to room.

Some of the above are quite simple and some take a bit more time and effort, but they are each worth exploring. Minnesota Public Radio recently aired an NPR episode of All Tech Considered called “What Happens When Your Lights, Appliances Are Connected To The Internet.” One of the biggest issues raised on the program was around security; once all of your devices are connected to the Internet via your wireless router they can see what other devices on your network are doing and are susceptible to being hacked. This emphasizes the importance of having wireless security with an encrypted router and a strong password. The likelihood of you being hacked is pretty small, but the more connected devices you have, the more possibilities exist for weak security within one of your devices.

Another issue may arise if you want to connect all your devices together. In which case, you are working with disparate systems and they may not communicate with each other. It is getting easier with both Apple and Google coming out with kits to be the hub for your home, but there is no single, universal solution yet. And some devices work with only some hubs while others may work with another hub. Make sure and do your research before buying a bunch of separate devices simply hoping they will work together.

Please share with me some tricks you have used to make your home smarter at paul@gadgetguymn.com.


Paul Burnstein is a Tech Handyman. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul helps personal and business clients optimize their use of technology. He can be found through www.gadgetguymn.com or email him at paul@gadgetguymn.com.

home technology help

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Calm Your Remote Control Chaos

Remote Control Chaos

 

This post was originally published in the July 1, 2015 edition of the Southwest Journal, a Southwest Minneapolis community newspaper.

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I was recently looking at the remote controls around my entertainment center and realized I have six separate remotes!

Count them up, how many do you have? One for the TV, another for the DVD, Blu-Ray, or VCR(?!), another for the stereo. Cable box? Apple TV or Android TV? It is easy to accumulate remote controls. Over time, we learn to use our systems, but what about visitors or even spouses? (Children generally don’t have problems figuring out remotes. Somehow, they always seem to easily figure out how to access their shows.)

Fortunately, there are options to bring order to remote control chaos.

A first step is to look at your current remotes. Many will allow you to program in another device. For example, your DVD remote may also control basic TV functions. In this case, you can stow away your TV remote.

But simply reducing the remote clutter by one or two may not cut it. To really simplify and streamline things, universal remote controls can be a big help.

Universal remotes are capable of being programmed (or taught) to control almost all your devices.

Universal remotes offer the ability to use the most common features from all of your remotes in a single controller. This means you can stick with one remote, rather than four or more. While this option can cut down on remote control clutter, you still can’t quite get rid of your old remotes, as you’ll need them for some of the more advanced features that the remotes can offer such as system settings or things like picture-in-picture.

Universal remote controls come in a wide range of prices from around $10 to hundreds of dollars.

The less expensive ones (under $50) are quite straightforward: power, volume, channel selection, keypad, input selection, and some other common features. You can program them by typing in number codes on the keypad based on the device manufacturer of your components. The process takes a bit of time to load in proper codes, and it often takes attempting more than one code per device before you find one that works. If you add a new device at a later time, it may be difficult to reorder your devices if you want to match input numbers or have a specific order for tracking devices. Operation is very straightforward. Since the basic features are provided, it is not difficult to understand which buttons do what; it does take a little bit of time to get used to ensuring you are on the input (device) that you wish to control.

The pricier (over $50 to hundreds of dollars) universal remote control options allow for online programming. This makes setup much easier. With online programming, you can choose your device, and the appropriate codes are added to the remote control. You can also generally reorder your devices without having to reprogram them all. Other features more common in the pricier remotes include: QWERTY keyboards, LCD screens, touchscreens, and radio frequency (RF) or bluetooth connectivity to devices.

Determining the right solution to fit your needs doesn’t have to be complicated. Below are a few general guidelines.

If you just need to combine a TV and say a DVD player, first see if one of your two current remotes will allow for basic programming. If not, an entry-level universal remote should cover your needs.

However, if you have a TV, DVD/Blu-Ray player, and a home theater audio system, consider getting a pricier universal remote. The $60 range can get a great remote, and I see little reason to jump into the $100 plus range unless you need some of the advanced features like bluetooth or the ability to control with your phone.

Paul Burnstein is a tech handyman and digital dad who lives in Kingfield. As the founder of Gadget Guy MN, Paul focuses on optimizing personal and business use of technology. Contact him via www.gadgetguymn.com or email paul@gadgetguymn.com.

home technology help

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Multiple Phone Numbers on the Same Mobile Device

3 Cell PhonesAs a technology enthusiast, I look to utilize technology to to create more efficiency in my life. That is why even though I have 3 different phone numbers to reach me, I only need one device to receive all of the calls.

Not too long ago, I would have had a personal cell phone, a landline for my home and a landline for my business. From there, I could have had my two landlines forward calls to my cell, but the options would have been to either receive the Caller ID of the call coming in and not know which line was ringing or that the Caller ID would show the line that was ringing (the forwarded line) and not the actual ID of the caller.

Now I just use three different apps on the same cell phone and still have the “landline” at home with a cordless phone (the cordless phone never gets used).

Here is how I have it set up:

  1. My personal cell phone number – this has followed me through a few cross country moves and is still a number from Portland, Oregon that I have not wanted to give up. It is the natural number on the phone and was assigned by AT&T. I used the default dialer on my mobile phone for making and receiving calls with this number.
  2. Google Voice, now using Google Hangouts to make and receive calls. This is my local number for work calls and messages. It is  separate app with a separate ring, but it still uses my phone’s address book to recognize incoming calls.
  3. Vonage. This is my shared (with my wife and my kids when they are older) home “landline” and while it does ring on a home phone, it simultaneously rings on both my wife’s and my phones in the Vonage app. This is great for things like providing to doctors’ offices contact number; it keeps one or the other of us from being the only contact for appointments and such. Again, it uses the phone’s address book to recognize knowing incoming calls.

I have had to tinker a bit to get the best voicemail setups especially between my personal and work numbers. At first I was using Google Voice for the voicemail for both, but I have found it useful to use different services between the two. Once all is setup, I made sure and tested it by calling from different numbers to each and leaving messages to ensure all settings were in place.

Now it is quite easy to see which number I am receiving a call on when my phone rings and I can answer it appropriately.

Let me know if you have any questions.

Thanks for stopping by!

– Paul Burnstein, aka Gadget Guy MN – Tech Handyman and Digital Dad


home technology help