Category Archives: Uncategorized

Twice the Speed? USB C-ing Things!

During this past weekend, I heard from my client from May, on whose Dell PC I had performed a clean Windows 10 installation. Since I last reported, we’ve done a RAM upgrade (from 12 Gigabytes to 16); and we’ve added a spiffy new graphics card. These upgrades have extended the usefulness of the now nearly seven-year-old PC. And it continued to run swimmingly, until a recent video editing assignment took things to a new level.

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A new graphics card can make a huge difference for a PC. Source: MSI.com

The client was handed two portable hard drives, each holding two Terabytes (TB) of footage. This was too much to transfer to the PC’s internal hard drive, so she had to run directly off the externals. That’s not an entirely unreasonable task, as we had installed a USB 3.0 card some time earlier, and that allowed her to input data at five Gigabits per second (5 Gbit/s). But she was still experiencing a frustrating lag when trying to play video directly from the drives. When she called, I asked her to provide me with the model numbers of the drives, so I could get a better sense of what we were working with.

“MU-PT2T0B,” she texted me. This is the model number for Samsung’s T3 Portable Solid State Drive (SSD).

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Samsung’s T3 Portable SSD. Note the shape of the port on the left. Source: Samsung.com

Checking out its specs on Samsung.com, I saw one line that intrigued me:

“USB 3.1 Interface”

I thought to myself, “Three… point… one?

No, just 3.1!

I remembered the blog post I did last November about the advent of Thunderbolt 3, and how it shared the rounded, “USB-C” connector shape with the nascent USB 3.1 format.

Okay, there it was, bottom of the chart:

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This is where things get a little messy. On their website for the  portable SSD, Samsung doesn’t get into which USB 3.1 standard the drive uses: 3.1 Gen 1 (formerly 3.0) with a top speed of 5 Gbit/s; or Gen 2, which, as you can see in the chart above, is twice that speed. All they say as far as speed is, “450MB/s Transfer Speed.” If that seems slow, note the capital “B.” That indicates Megabytes, as opposed to Megabits. It’s a subtle difference, but a Megabyte is equal to 8 Megabits. That means 450MB/s (Megabytes per second, mind) is 3,600 Mbit/s (Megabits per second). Applying the metric system, this becomes 3.6 Gigabits per second (Gbit/s). It’s still within the threshold of USB 3.0’s 5Gbit/s speed, but I wanted to try something nonetheless.

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This chart shows how USB 3.0 became 3.1 Gen 1. Honestly, this whole mess could have been avoided if “Gen 2” had just been called, “USB 4.0.” Source: Kingston.com

Adding USB 3.0 ports had been a simple, effective upgrade. Would it be just as helpful to add 3.1 ports? I went to my local Fry’s Electronics to look into it. If the upgrade was too expensive (or unavailable), then we’d just carry on at 3.0 (or 3.1 Gen 1, whatever you want to call it) speeds.

As it turned out, Fry’s had a wide variety of affordable 3.1 cards. But a closer look indicated that many of them were indeed “Gen 1,” and thus offered no speed boost over the “3.0” card we had installed a while back. I had to keep my eyes peeled for that essential piece of fine print.

I did find a few that offered 10 Gbit/s speeds, but the connectors gave me pause. You see, most 3.1 cards either use just the old, rectangular “USB-A” ports; or they go 50/50, with one rectangular port, and one rounded “USB-C” port. Both potentially work at the full Gen 2 speed, but I was thinking about my client’s Samsung drives. I wanted to go directly from each of their native USB-C ports directly into the computer’s, without using an adapter cable, or a hub (and more on that in a moment). We had two drives, so I wanted two USB-C ports (at that full Gen 2 speed, remember).

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A typical USB card with both shapes of the USB 3.1 interface. Source: Frys.com

Luckily, after a little digging, I found the only card in the store that met my needs: The Xtrempro 11107 PCI-E 2Ports USB3.1 Type-C Card (just rolls off the tongue, don’t it?). It met both my needs: 10 Gbit/s transfer speeds, and two USB-C ports. All that, at less than $30.

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And this is the FRONT of the box! But at least it doesn’t leave anything to the imagination!

I did, though, have to buy some cables: an internal power cable to run from the PC’s power supply to the USB card; and of course, two USB-C cables to connect those Samsung drives to this new card. When shopping for the USB-C cables, I was just as diligent about reading their specs as I had been about the card’s. I didn’t want the cables to choke on the full data rate promised by Gen 2, after all! Several USB-C cables I found were indeed only rated at 5 Gbit/s, so I’m glad I didn’t fall for the old “they all look the same” trap. I eventually grabbed a pair of PPA Int’l cables, after reading on their package, “Up to 10 Gb/s.”

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PPA’s USB-C cable. Source: ppa-usa.com

So I brought everything to my client, and we opened up her PC. The next consideration was where I was going to put this card. You see, a motherboard’s expansion slots can be just as prone to the “they all look the same” trap as the cables. And that can make a huge difference. Her motherboard contained six slots, all based on the Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) standard. One slot (labeled 25 in the diagram below) uses the original PCI format, capable of speeds between 133 and 533 MB/s (note that capital “B,” as in Megabytes). The other five use the newer PCI Express format, capable of anywhere between 250 MB/s and 63 GB/s. And that’s a pretty wide range, so let’s narrow it down a bit.

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Dell’s schematic for the motherboard. Note the PCI slots toward the lower-left. Source: Dell.com

Slots 26, 29, and 30 are what’s known as PCI Express x1. This is a “single-lane” link, which means the following, according to howstuffworks.com:

Each lane of a PCI Express connection contains two pairs of wires — one to send and one to receive. Packets of data move across the lane at a rate of one bit per cycle. A x1 connection, the smallest PCIe connection, has one lane made up of four wires. It carries one bit per cycle in each direction.

Slot 28, an x16, was already in use by the snazzy new graphics card we got—and rightly so, as that’s the fastest PCI connection on the motherboard, and where better to put the indispensable graphics processor!

This left #31, which I’ll call, “Goldilocks.” It’s neither too slow, like its x1 siblings; nor too fast, like the x16 slot. This slot runs at x8, which—I checked—the new USB-C card supports.

So I installed the card into that x8 slot; and after running a power line to it from the internal power supply, we were good to go. We connected the Samsung drives directly to the card, and suddenly video that couldn’t even open was now coming up, buttery-smooth. We were no longer at the mercy of a 3.0 card in an x1 slot. We were now coasting at 3.1, Gen 2, via x8. And apparently, those numbers make all the difference.

EPILOGUE

I thought about the prospect of adding a third USB-C component in the future, like another Samsung drive, via a hub. To my surprise, as of this writing, nobody has manufactured a hub that supports the USB-C shape and the Gen 2 speed of 10 Gbit/s. I have reached out to the USB Implementers Forum at usb.org, to see if they know of anyone who has built such a device. I’ll post if and when I hear back from them. Until then, it appears if you want to connect more than two USB 3.1 (Gen 2) devices to a PC, you’ll need to use adapter cables. So make sure they don’t slow you down.

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A typical “USB-C Hub,” from Macally. Except it only connects (right) via USB-C, and the USB-C port on the left is only for passing through a charge into a laptop. The USB ports included are both the older USB-A shape, as well as the slower 3.0 speed! Hopefully, newer, better hubs are on the way.

◼︎

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nuking a Computer

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I assure you, what I did was perfectly sane.

On Sunday, a client contacted me to recruit my help with her Windows computer, a Dell tower. During an overnight video render, it froze up and became unusable. When I came over to check it out, the only thing visible on the black screen was a white cursor. It moved, but there was nothing to click.

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Yep, that’s what it looked like.

She had already attempted a Windows System Restore, but the nearest restore point was from about two years ago. She believed it could have been a virus that trashed her system, restore points and all.

The good news was that in this tower, Windows was installed on its own drive, and the client’s documents and other critical data were held on a separate hard drive. This meant that if there were a software problem (such as a corruption in Windows or a virus); or even if the drive’s hardware was physically malfunctioning, most of what my client needed wasn’t necessarily at risk. But we still needed Windows to work.

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Dell’s Studio XPS tower. Source: Dell.com

I proposed two options:

1. A Fresh Start

When a hard drive fails, data recovery can be an arduous–and, depending on the extent of the crash, pricey–process. But if the only data lost is the Operating System (OS), it can be a much faster process just to buy a fresh new hard drive and reinstall the OS. Some computers don’t lend themselves to having their hard drives removed and replaced. Luckily, this Dell tower allows for its drives to be removed, so this was indeed an option.

A new hard drive is nowhere near as expensive as they used to be when PCs first entered the home market. If my client were to opt to get a new drive, she could pick up a new 500 Gigabyte (GB) Hard Disk Drive (HDD) for under $50 (as of this writing—I can only imagine the price in the future). If she preferred speed over size, she could get a Solid State Drive (SSD) starting at a little over $50 for 120GB.

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Click the above picture for the LinkedIn article, “SSD vs. HDD: What’s the Difference?”

The only other consideration would be the cost of the OS itself. This is one distinction Windows users must concede to their Mac-using brethren: Mac OS has been available for free to all Mac users since 2013’s version 10.9 “Mavericks.” Windows, on the other hand, only offered a brief, free Windows 10 upgrade download to current users of Windows 7 or 8. After July 29, 2016, Windows 10 was only available for $119 for the Home Edition, and $199 for the Pro Edition. Unlike prior versions of Windows, neither version of Windows 10 is available on an optical disc; instead, it comes on a tiny USB flash drive.

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This photo demonstrates how tiny a new copy of Windows is, as well as the importance of a good manicure. Source: Speedtest.net.in.

Luckily, I had a Windows 10 Home Edition USB stick, so my client didn’t need to buy a new copy. The way Microsoft had it set up was the installation would only proceed if the user entered a valid license key. A new key comes with each copy of Windows, of course, but I had already used the one that came with mine. Fortunately, Dell was good enough to include a label with the license key on the back of their tower. It was the key for the copy of Windows 7 with which the Dell tower shipped; but Microsoft doesn’t mind that it’s replacing Windows 7, as long as it’s legitimate (which this was, of course).

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An example of a Windows license key label. Source: techingiteasy.wordpress.com.

So we were ready to go with a new copy of Windows 10. I was prepared to go pick up an SSD (because when booting Windows, speed matters more than space), and to get started. I opened the case, and guess what I found: an SSD!

About a year prior, I had upgraded this Dell tower with a 500GB SSD, onto which we had reinstalled Windows 7 from its official DVD. My client then participated in the free Windows 10 upgrade program I mentioned earlier. The upshot is, there was no need to rush out and get an SSD; we had one already. Faced with this reality, I agreed that we should pursue…

2. The Nuclear Option

This is the more cost-effective option of the two, as it uses the existing hardware and saves the step–and the money–involved in buying a new drive. I extracted the SSD, connected it to a “spare” working PC, and ran a barrage of drive integrity scans. The good news was that the SSD was “healthy,” so I could confidently recommend continuing to use the drive. But we were going to want to “nuke” it, first.

Opening Windows’ Disk Management utility, I had at my fingertips the tools to wipe the SSD entirely. Confirming that my client really, for sure didn’t need any files from the SSD, I deleted its Windows partition. I had to use a third-party program to scrape off the last remnant of a “recovery partition;” but once I did that, the SSD was as blank as the day I picked it up at the store. One more disk integrity check, and it was ready to be reinstalled in the Dell.

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Windows Disk Management. Proceed with caution. Source: technet.microsoft.com.

At about 15 minutes beginning-to-end, installing Windows 10 from its USB stick onto this SSD was one of the fastest OS installations I’ve ever encountered. If you ever have to install Windows fresh onto a blank drive, this is definitely the way to do it.

Once Windows was up and running, I installed the latest drivers from Dell and AMD (for the graphics card); as well as the popular suites from Adobe and Microsoft. Since these were purchased online for download as opposed to disks from a store’s shelf, re-installing them with the relevant licenses was an easy, swift process. I enjoy any process that doesn’t require hunting for disks or slips of paper with license keys on them.

Confirming that Windows was now running at “Day One” speed and efficiency, it was time to reinstall the large HDD with all my client’s documents and data on it: a 2-Terabyte (TB) beast we nicknamed “BIGBOY.” After its own antivirus sweep and drive integrity check, I installed it back in the tower, and Windows Explorer found it without a moment’s hesitation.

Everything was as good as, or even better than, new. The computer now contained only the software my client wanted, and there were no trial programs or Dell pack-ins to be found.

Perhaps after hearing how well this went, you’re considering “nuking” your own computer. Maybe your apps aren’t running as smoothly as they used to. Maybe you’re running out of space. Maybe you miss how clean everything was when you first turned on your PC, before years of downloads bogged everything down.

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This is what it sounds like when drives cry.

I still prefer installing a brand new drive, because there really is no substitute for new hardware. It doesn’t have the “miles” on it that are bound to age the drive that came with your computer. Also, when you remove an old drive, you can keep it as an “archive” of the system as it was to that point. You may realize later on that there are files on that drive that you may need, after all.

If you’re just not in the position to get a new drive, then go forth with the Nuclear Option. Just make sure you have a valid copy of whatever OS you plan to install (along with the relevant license key, if necessary); and that before you do anything, that you double- and triple-check that you have copied (or don’t need) the data on your boot drive. You’ll also want to make sure you have the ability to re-download your important programs—unless you have them on their original disks, close at hand.

A spare computer is also a great thing to have, to test the health and integrity of old and new drives before installing or re-installing them in your primary computer. If you don’t have access to another computer, you can continue as planned, of course; but you’ll want to proceed that much more cautiously through each step.

Finally, when it’s all done, take this time to take stock. How quickly do you want to fill up this clean hard drive? Do you really need to download every new app that comes down the pike? How many desktop wallpapers is enough? I’m not saying you have to go completely Spartan, but the idea should be to avoid having to “nuke” your computer again for a while.

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Tempting, isn’t it?

Why Wait? Well…

In technology, timing is everything. When shopping for new equipment, we tend to seek out the newest, latest, greatest in tech—and hopefully for the best price, if we can arrange that as well. That’s human nature. But is there a benefit to waiting, or is our desire for instant gratification justified? It’s not always as straightforward as a trip to the electronics store (or website).

To illustrate my point, I’m going to point out four types of electronics consumer. There is a fifth that I’ll get to at the end, but I want to start with these four:

1. The Early Adopter

We all know this one—some of us even ARE this one! He downloads beta versions of software before it’s officially released. He reads rumor websites like macrumors.com, and he tunes in to the live feeds of keynote presentations from the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and Apple’s WorldWide Developer’s Conference (WWDC). He pre-orders his devices; and when that isn’t an option, he waits in line all night.

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Talk about dedication! These guys are waiting in line together, AND they’ve got matching outfits! Source: MarketWatch.com

I confess to having a lot of those tendencies. And in tech, these are more often considered virtues than vices. It’s a little stressful knowing that there’s always something “brand new” on the horizon, but that doesn’t diminish the satisfaction of being the “first on the block” with the newest toys. Of the four habits, this one requires the greatest investment of time and money. But The Early Adopter is doing his part to keep tech companies in business, churning out the latest gadgets to meet that demand. And once he’s done his part, spreading the buzz about the tech he’s acquired (through no lack of effort), in steps…

2. The Bandwagoner

There is no crime in waiting a few weeks—or even months—for the supply of a given device to rise to meet demand. In most cases, manufacturers look at their sales and, as long as they don’t run into parts shortages or other logistical obstacles, they can ship out enough for everyone. This is where The Bandwagoner can pick up his device of choice. He’s not one to wait in a line, or to sweat over arcane pre-order processes. No, he’s patient. And this patience is often rewarded with “Version 1.1” (or later) editions, honed if not perfected after The Early Adopter reported any bugs he found in that launch wave.

The Bandwagoner also can enjoy the added benefit of a growing selection of peripherals and accessories for this new gadget. For example, I’m thinking of the varieties of cases for iPads and iPhones whenever a new model comes out. You see, it takes those case makers at least a few weeks to custom-fit their designs every time Apple adds or subtracts a few millimeters to their products. When The Bandwagoner is ready, he can pick up everything in one trip to the store. And if he waits long enough, he’ll slide into the next category…

3. The Mid-Cycler

This is a well-populated, if not-entirely-festive place to be. When a product has been out for several months (or even years, in some cases), it can be frustrating when you’re ready to buy the “latest” device, even if it’s not particularly “new.” For example, I recently had a friend of mine, “J,” text me to ask about the iPad Pro. This was our conversation:

J: I’m torn between the sizes

C: Have you handled both at the store? The 12 was a bit too big for my comfort. But you know there’s likely a new Pro coming out this year…

J: yeah it is a monster – hence my uncertainty. BUT a large factor in why I want a Pro (and not just new iPad) is to draw on. And the big one seems better for that. I’ve heard the new one is only going to come in one size and likely 10″. You heard dif?

C: Nothing official. They did just release a new 9″ non-Pro model. I’d be surprised if a new 12 wasn’t in the works.

J: Though I’d prob still go with a refurb old one. Wonder how much cheaper those would get when new model came out… And WHEN! Damn you Apple.

C: June 5 is their next big conference. WWDC. If you can stand to wait, it almost always pays off

J: Gah! I mean of course I can. This is all just for funzies.

C: 👍

J: But I want it now! Stupid lousy world.

C: Then get it now. Live your life, son!

J: blah. BLAH

C: Lol

I don’t know what he decided to do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he waited a little longer, placing him firmly in the fourth category:

4. The Waiter

In tech, waiting for the next release is almost always a good instinct. What comes out next is almost uniformly superior to what’s out now; and it will either come out at the same price as today’s model, thus reducing the price of what’s out now; or the new device itself will debut at a lower price point. The Waiter loves when this happens, and he typically isn’t shy about gloating to The Early Adopter about the “better deal” he got, just by being patient.

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My hat’s off to anyone who can wait five years to buy hardware or software. Source: XKCD.com

The Waiter doesn’t always seek out the newest gear. Often he sees the new release and, unless it has some “must-have” feature, he happily picks up “last year’s model” at a reduced price. I’m reminded of a conversation I overheard at the Apple Store the other day, when a young woman was deciding between the $269 Apple Watch Series 1; or one of the other varieties, starting with the Series 2 at $369.

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Apple’s current line of Watches. Source: Apple.com, click image to go to their comparison page.

The Apple clerk pointed out that the most prominent additions for the Series 2 are the built-in GPS, and that it’s now water resistant to 50 meters (as opposed to the Series 1, which is simply “Splash resistant”). The young lady thought it over, and said, “I don’t need the GPS, and I’m not going swimming with it.” So the salesman suggested she save the $100 and go with the Series 1. For those who don’t remember, the Series 1 debuted in 2015 for a starting price of $349. So not only did not needing to have the “latest and greatest” save her $100, but she saved $80 just by waiting a couple years!

Apple products almost universally reward The Waiter, despite the “ooh” factor of having the brand-newest iPhone, iPad, etc. In fact, Apple broke typical protocol and teased for their patient Waiter audience that a new Mac Pro desktop is on the horizon for possibly as early as 2018. They never do that. If you’re curious about your own next Apple purchase, you might want to pop over to MacRumors Buyer’s Guide. But as we’re still several weeks away from WWDC, don’t be surprised if that site tells you to wait on everything.

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WWDC, likely Apple’s next opportunity to announce new products this year, starts June 5, 2017. Source: Apple.com, click image to learn more about WWDC.

There’s only one scenario in recent tech history where waiting was not only not rewarded, but outright punished. This past week, Nintendo announced that they have discontinued production of their surprise Holiday 2016 hit, the NES Classic. Those who didn’t wait in line or jump through the typical “Early Adopter” hoops for it aren’t going to get to be Bandwagoners for this one. At this point, one can only hope that Nintendo will release a “Version 2.0” follow-up edition (perhaps including Super Nintendo games, or even the ability to download and install games legally?). With the focus shifting to Nintendo’s even bigger hit, the Switch, it’s more likely that Nintendo aren’t thinking about any further “Classic” offerings for a while. But hey, maybe they’ll surprise us. We’ll just have to… wait.


 

Finally, there is a fifth category I’d like to bring up:

5. The Archaeologist

There’s waiting, and then there’s WAITING. This category is mostly populated with hobbyists who have their “daily driver” computer or whatnot; but they seek out “vintage” (or to put it less kindly, “obsolete”) devices with the aim to restore them to original release condition… even if that original release was in the 90’s, 80’s, or even earlier. Sometimes, they see what they can do to augment the original hardware with more modern features, like adding a Solid State Drive (SSD) to devices never built with such a drive in mind, like an iPod from 2002. It’s nowhere near practical, but it can be entertaining to watch them succeed—and just as entertaining, if not more so, when they fail.


For your viewing pleasure, here are David “The 8-Bit Guy” Murray…

…and Ian “Druaga1” Anderson. You may not want to try these at home.


 

What category to do you fall into? Do you have to have the latest gadget before everyone else? Do you know to “never buy a console at launch?” Have you never paid launch-day prices? Or do you not care about such things, and you buy what’s available when you need it (and not a second earlier)? Each position has its merits. And sadly, each has its pitfalls. I think the best course of action is to “pick your battles.” That is to say, some devices merit rushing out and grabbing them on day one (I, for one, have no regrets standing in line outside Best Buy for my Nintendo Switch). On the other hand, most of my other tech purchases have put me firmly in the “Bandwagoner” or even “Waiter” categories. And I’m fine with that.

I mean, until they announce what’s coming out next. ◼︎

“Did You Send This?”

On Sunday, I received an email, purportedly sent by my client, “Leigh.” Sometimes friends, family, and even clients will send me friendly email links to online greeting cards, games, or other social networking services. Perhaps this was one of those?

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The email in question.

The message came from interaction@zorpia.com, with the subject “Leigh wrote a message for you.” I had no idea what zorpia.com was, so I went to the site.

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Zorpia.com’s sign-in page. I didn’t rush to join just yet.

There wasn’t much to it, but it certainly looked real. I dug a little deeper, finding the Wikipedia entry for it.

Zorpia (Chinese: 若比鄰) is a social networking service, popular in India and China. Zorpia is one of the few international social networks with a Chinese Internet Content Provider license.  The social networking site reports 2 million unique users per month and a total worldwide user base of 26 million.

So, good. It’s real. And a bigger deal overseas than here, but okay. But is Leigh a member, and she’s using it to send me messages? Something didn’t smell right.

So I did what I usually do when I get an unexpected email with a link. I don’t click the link. Ever. Instead, I emailed Leigh at her primary address.

Dear Leigh,

I just got an email from Zorpia.com that claims to be from you. Did you send me something there? If so, I’ll go ahead and click the link. If not, you might want to check and see if you have an account with them that is being used without your permission.

She wrote me back promptly: “I did not send this. I receive one from my sister and clicked on it. What should I do?”

As I learned after a little research, clicking the “message” linked in the email automatically accesses your computer’s contacts list and sends this “auto-join” message to everyone you know. Not unlike a virus.

Luckily, since it’s not technically a virus (that is to say, other than spamming your contacts list, it likely won’t do any other harm to your computer), there is a method for stopping it in its tracks.

First, don’t click the link to read the message, naturally. Second, there is a link that’s okay to click. At the bottom of the message, it reads, “Block future emails like this.”

I clicked it, and this is what came up:

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And hopefully that will be the last I hear from them!

 

I replied to Leigh that she do the same, and to advise her sister of that step as well. It won’t unring the bell of Leigh’s contacts getting a phony message, but as long as everyone exercises common sense and practices safe internet, no further harm should be done.

A reminder: if you aren’t 100% sure of the origin of an email (and heck, even if you are), go ahead and reach out to the “sender” by phone or an alternate email address. It only takes four words to help keep your computer (and address book, bank data, etc.) safe:

“Did you send this?”

And until you hear back, don’t click the link. I’d even say to go ahead and delete the email. Worst case, your friend did send it, and they are slightly inconvenienced, having to re-send their cute online card or whatnot. Serves them right for not telling you to expect it in the first place. ■

My New Sound System’s Got Me Surrounded

I recently picked up the new 3D Blu-ray Disc of Marvel’s Doctor Strange. It’s a great presentation of an audio-visual spectacle, and one of the few movies in my collection that really “pops” in 3D. Sadly, upon first viewing, I discovered that my sound system wasn’t able to deliver the complete experience.

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Pretty wild, right? And that’s just the BOX! (Source: BestBuy.com)

Last month,  I mentioned my Sony STR-DG820 surround-sound receiver. It’s been the centerpiece of my home theater for the better part of a decade, and it handled everything I threw at it… until I went 3D.

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A good receiver… just not good enough, anymore.

Ironically, the 3D TV fad may be on the way out; but in the here and now, I’ve got some movies (and I’ll pick up the occasional new title like Doctor Strange) that take advantage of that format. My 3D TV, a 55” Sony flatscreen, displays 3D video flawlessly. The problem only comes when you want to hear the movie.

Doctor Strange was encoded with 7.1-channel DTS-HDMA audio. When connected to a capable sound system, the disc has audio to play out the front left, center, and front right; and surround left, back left, surround right, and back right speakers, with a healthy .1 “LFE” channel for the subwoofer. However, if the receiver doesn’t support DTS-HDMA, it will downmix the audio to standard 2.0 stereo, out the front left and right speakers only. This is what happened to me.

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The DTS-HDMA logo. Click it to visit the DTS “At Home” website.

Wowed by the visuals, I made it through almost the entire movie before realizing that only the front speakers were engaged. I don’t have 7 surround speakers, but the 5.1 setup I do have should be substantial enough to provide an enjoyable immersive audio experience. I tested the surrounds by switching the movie to its Dolby Digital 5.1 French audio track. While, admittedly, Stephen Strange’s initial trip into the Astral Plane is no less impressive en Français, I was going to need to improve my setup if I wanted to experience anything with proper surround-sound in my native tongue.

Deciding it was high time for an upgrade, I looked at my local electronics retailer’s selection, and I narrowed it down to two higher-spec receivers: one from Sony, and one from Denon.

I was leaning toward the Sony STR-DN1070 because of two factors: the first being a not-entirely-rational sense of brand loyalty; and the second being that, due to the aforementioned brand loyalty, I would be connecting this new receiver to a Sony BD player and a Sony TV.

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The Sony STR-DN1070. Source: AVProductReviews.com, click photo for their review.

But then I compared it to the Denon AVR-S920W. They were the same price and each boasted 7.2 channel surround sound. The first big difference I could see was that the Sony offered a healthy six HDMI inputs (to contrast, my STR-DG820 only offered four); but the Denon included a whopping EIGHT HDMI ports (seven in back, one in front). The other big difference I could find was the Sony’s lack of DTS support. This may be an oversight on the part of Sony marketing, but I didn’t want to take the risk of buying a not-inexpensive piece of equipment in the hopes that it supports Doctor Strange’s DTS-HDMA audio as an unadvertised feature.

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The Denon AVR-S920W. Source: GearOpen.com, click photo for their review.

So I took the plunge and bought the Denon. Setup was relatively painless, and all five of my speakers and the sub connected without incident. Connecting it to my TV was even easier than its predecessor. Both TV and receiver now supported the one-cable ARC standard, so I could hook up a single HDMI cable between them and know that all video signals (from any one of eight potential sources, remember) would make it to the TV. Over the very same cable, the audio from one of my TV’s built-in sources like Amazon or Netflix would make it, in full surround-sound glory, out of all the speakers in my home theater.

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HDMI.org’s diagram showing the Audio Return Channel (ARC) connection between receiver and TV. Click it for their page on this and other combinations.

Once I hooked up my BD player to the Denon receiver, I wasted no time going straight to Doctor Strange‘s Chapter Five, “Open Your Eye,” (see below) to see how it would handle the 3D picture and surround-sound audio. I was legitimately concerned that the receiver would detect that I didn’t have all seven speakers plugged in—only five, remember—and therefore would downmix to 2.0 stereo. I’m happy to report that it gave me the benefit of the doubt and played as much of the rear audio as I could support, for a truly enjoyable “behind you” sound experience.

NOTE: The above YouTube clip is just to show which scene I played. This format does not do the scene justice. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend viewing it in 3D and surround-sound.

One additional feature that the Denon includes is built-in wifi with Pandora internet radio. Since I could listen to Pandora directly from the receiver now, I could disengage my Amazon Echo from the home theater, rendering my Echo adventure from February  essentially redundant. I boxed up the bluetooth adapter and TP-Link Smart Plug and returned them, since I wouldn’t need them anymore.

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The Denon receiver’s “Online Music” screen. If I still had a SiriusXM Radio account, I could listen to that, too. Source: Denon.com

See, sometimes my tech sagas leave me with fewer gadgets at the end! ◼︎

Happy Daylight Savings! Isn’t It Time for Self-Setting Clocks?

At one minute past 1:59 am on Sunday morning, our clocks “sprang forward” to 3:00, to usher in Daylight saving time (DST). When I woke up later that morning, I was pleased to see how many of my household clocks had already followed the time change and were on the correct time. These included the time readouts on my land-line phones (to say nothing of my cell), my cable boxes, my Nest thermostat, and even my “Radio Controlled” La Crosse Technology wall clock.

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It sets itself. Watching it rush ahead an hour must be what time travel feels like.

Sadly, there were still some devices that needed a more “hands-on” approach to catch up. This is the story of those stragglers.


Printer: HP LaserJet Pro CM1415fnw

The only reason this device even needs a clock is for its fax function. Admittedly, that is the least-used aspect of this printer in my home office, but that doesn’t mean it should be incorrect! As I describe below, some of the devices I had to change make it as simple as switching the “DST” setting to “on.” This printer had no such option; it simply required a manual entry of the correct date and time. It’s an eight-step procedure. (Following for each device is the text directly from the manufacturer’s online manual):

1. From the Home screen, touch the Setup button.

2. Touch the Fax Setup menu.

3. Touch the Basic Setup menu.

4. Scroll to and touch the Time/Date button.

5. Select the 12-hour clock or 24-hour clock.

6. Use the keypad to enter the current time, and then touch the OK button.

7. Select the date format.

8. Use the keypad to enter the current date, and then touch the OK button.

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The LaserJet Pro’s touchscreen control panel. That “wrench” icon at the top is where you change the time and date.

It’s tedious, but there is hope. HP has, in the past, included in some of their printers the option to synchronize with a network time server, using NTP (Network Time Protocol). When it’s time to shop for a new printer, I’ll include NTP support among my list of “must-haves” (or at least, “would-be-nices”). Until then, it’s those eight steps above, twice a year.


Game System: Sony PlayStation 3

The oldest “connected” device in my home entertainment setup, the PS3 gets much of its functionality from its wifi connection, and this includes the time. Indeed, the PS3’s Settings menu does include the option to “Set Automatically” its internal clock; but strangely, the option for DST is a manual “Standard” or “Daylight Saving” choice. So, just like my HP printer, this is an update I have to do twice a year, when I switch from Standard to DST and back again.

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Just because it’s from 2006, doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be on the correct date and time! (Click the photo for the relevant page of the PS3 online manual.)

According to its online manual, the PlayStation 4, on the other hand, has included automatic “spring forward” functionality:

Adjust Daylight Saving Automatically

Your PS4™ system automatically adjusts for daylight saving time. To disable this feature, clear the checkbox for [Adjust Daylight Saving Automatically].

This setting is available only if the region set under [Time Zone] is one that implements daylight saving time.

And for those of you wondering why I haven’t upgraded to a PS4 yet, stand by for a future blog post on that topic. But for now, moving on to another Sony device…


Television: Sony XBR-55X850B

Here, the option to access time settings was in the “Preferences” menu on its Home screen. From there, I had to select “Clock/Timers,” then “Current Time.” I have my set configured to automatically acquire the current time over its wifi connection; but again, I must manually change DST from “Off” to “On.” It’s a bizarre quirk that I must attribute to the older TV interface this time. Shortly after I got my TV, Sony switched to the Android interface, and today’s equivalent to my model now features full “Automatic date & time” setting.

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Sony’s “legacy” TV menu screen. The Settings icon on the upper right (boxed in red) is where the time and date changes are made.


Game System: Nintendo Wii U

Not even acknowledging the existence of DST, Nintendo’s previous flagship console has a procedure reminiscent of that HP printer I opened with—if even a little longer!

The Calendar screen allows you to change the Wii console’s date and time settings. The time is in military time (a 24 hour clock) and does not automatically adjust for Daylight Saving time.

To make a selection, point to the desired option and press the A Button.

What to Do:

Select the Wii button from the Wii Menu.

Select “Wii Settings.”

Next, select “Calendar.”

How to Adjust the Date:

Select “Date.”

Select the up or down arrows that correspond with the month, date, and year to adjust each setting.

Depending on the language the system is set to, the date format may be different. Check the List

Select Confirm to save any changes.

How to Adjust the Time:

Select “Time.”

Select the up or down arrows that correspond with the hours and minutes to adjust each setting.

The Wii console uses a 24 hour clock (military time). For example 1:00 p.m. is displayed as 13:00.

Select Confirm to save any changes.

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The Wii U’s friendly, if not particularly advanced, settings screen.

So once again, despite the console being connected to the internet, no NTP or automatic DST setting is offered. This is just one more way in which the Wii U’s successor, the Switch, is an improvement: when I turned on my Switch Sunday morning, I saw that it had updated its clock to DST either while asleep, or immediately upon waking. Well done, Nintendo. It’s about time (heh).

Leaving my office and my living room, I was confronted with those clocks not connected to internet-enabled devices: namely, my gas range, my microwave, and two clocks in my bathroom.


Gas Range: Frigidaire FFGF3011LWC

Okay, this one is pretty straightforward.

To set the clock:

1. Press clock once (do not hold key pad down).

2. Within 5 seconds, press and hold the ⌃ or ⌵ until the correct time of day appears in the display.

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It’s a tiny black-and-green display, but it’s so irritating when it’s wrong. (Source: specsserver.com)

And that’s it. So it’s a two-step procedure twice a year. But isn’t this the age of the “Connected Home?” The “Internet of Things?” Shouldn’t there be ovens that go online at this point, and download their time from the internet?

Actually, we’re getting there.

General Electric is leading the “smart oven” wave. According to their website:

WHEN THE REMOTE ENABLE BUTTON IS ENGAGED ON WIFI-CONNECT OVENS, YOU CAN USE YOUR SMART PHONE FOR THE FOLLOWING:

• Preheat your oven remotely by turning it on from the App

• Get notifications when preheated, when Timer finishes, or when meat probe* reaches temperature

• Determine time remaining

• Monitor and change the oven temperature

• Turn off your oven

• Adjust your oven control – Set Clock, Tone Volume, Sabbath Mode, and more

Here’s GE’s promo video showing the app in action:

Strictly speaking, they’re not saying if the oven can set its own time; or if you just have the option to do it from your phone, as opposed to the control panel on the oven itself.


Not to be outdone, I had to see if there were similar advancements in microwaves.

Microwave Oven: Panasonic NN-SN661S

My microwave is actually the newest kitchen gadget in my home, but it’s still pretty “dumb.” The clock-setting procedure takes three steps.

Setting the Clock

Example: To set 11:25 a.m. or p.m.

  1. Press timer/clock twice. Colon flashes.
  2. Enter time of day using the number pads. Time appears in the display window; colon continues flashing.
  3. Press timer/clock once. Colon stops fashing; time of day is entered.

From what I could find on their website, GE has not added microwave ovens to their “GE WiFi Connect” family yet (nor may they ever, given how microwaves can interfere with wifi signals).

Indeed, none of the big appliance makers is currently offering an internet-connected microwave, and the closest I could even find was a bizarre 2015 Kickstarter page for the “MAID” oven:

So this one may be stuck in the old-fashioned time changing method for now (or even forever). But it raises an interesting question: other than the cooking timer, why does one even need a clock on the microwave in the first place?


In the bathroom, I have two clocks: one facing my mirror, and one in the shower on my radio.

“Mirror Clock”: Martek Nurdanian Clock

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This is what the clock really looks like at 9:27…

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…and this is what it looks like in the mirror.

This “backwards clock” lets me see the time in my reflection, displayed correctly due to the inverted numbers and retrograde motion. This is a novelty item, and it doesn’t look like La Cross is planning to make a radio-updated version. But there are interesting moves in the world of mirrors with smart clocks built right in.

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The built-in clock is just one of the features advertised at ElectricMirror.com (click photo to visit that site).

While there are indeed commercially-available mirrors with integrated clocks (see above), none of them appears to have native internet connectivity, so they’re no more convenient to set than my cute plastic clock.

Dutch engineer Michael Teeuw built his own “Magic Mirror” with a Raspberry Pi DIY kit; but the work involved  is a far greater headache than spinning the hands of an analog clock ahead or behind one hour, depending on the time of year.

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Yes, it’s very cool. But the process of making it is not for amateurs. (Source: michaelteeuw.nl).


Finally, my shower radio clock:

Shower Radio: Sangean H201

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Sangean’s waterproof shower radio. (Source: sangean.com)

This one took seven steps.

  1. The clock will start running when the batteries are installed or when the radio is connected to the mains supply. The display will show ” – : – – “
  2. The time can be set with your radio switched off or on.
  3. Press and hold down the Time Set button for approx. 2 seconds until the hours digits flash in the display with a beep.
  4. Press the Tuning Up/Down buttons to set the required hour.
  5. Press the Time Set button, the minute digits will  ash in the display.
  6. Press the Tuning Up/Down buttons to set the required minute.
  7. Press the Time Set button to complete time setting. The second will start to count.

From what I could find, even the “smartest” waterproof radios and bluetooth speakers draw the line at automatic time adjustment. Oh, well. I like to run my shower radio a bit fast anyway, so I don’t linger under the water.


So in the final analysis, if I really wanted to, I could upgrade several of my appliances and electronics to save the hassle of having to re-set their clocks twice a year. And honestly, I’m considering it!

I admit it; I’m spoiled. But then, perhaps I’m just cranky because I missed an hour of sleep. If only there were a a gadget to fix that… ■