Review: Netgear Orbi wireless mesh router

To date I've remained a loyal user of an ASUS router at my home (despite some early bumps in the road). After moving to a larger house earlier this year and finding some spots with degraded or unusable wi-fi, I decided it was time to explore the latest offerings in wireless mesh routers. I was drawn to the idea of having comprehensive coverage managed by a unified setup (instead of using extenders) and was also excited to see if anyone had disrupted the space of home network management.

The system I tried first, Netgear's Orbi Router & Satellite Extender system, definitely offers seamless wireless coverage, but holds on to so many of the problems of traditional home network router management that I'm sending it back.

I'd been researching different vendor offerings and had narrowed it down to products from Netgear (Orbi), Eero, and Ubiquiti (Amplifi or Unifi). This Wirecutter article seemed to reach out from the Internet gods and speak directly to me with definitive advice about what to buy:

For the tech-savvy, Netgear’s Orbi is the only mesh kit we tested that provides the features of a high-end router, from port forwarding to static routing, along with plenty of Ethernet ports on both units; it’s also one of the few that don’t require an Internet connection to set up or control your network. Orbi is the mesh kit that’s most like a router-and-extender combo, without the drawbacks that usually come with that setup.

I'm tech-savvy! I want a high-end router with advanced features! I don't want to depend on an Internet connection or "cloud" services to manage my network! I don't want drawbacks! I was sold, and bought the RBK50 kit (one base router unit and one satellite extender unit - not truly a mesh system as much as the beginnings of a hub/spoke system, but who's keeping track?).

The unboxing experience was quite pleasant and everything was clearly labeled, though I may have said a colorful word or two when I saw how large each these two units are - you'd think I'd bought a new food processor or something.

My disappointment came soon after.

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Dispatches from my Internet of Things

A few years ago I noticed that a couple of different tools and services I was using at the time were offering the option to tweet when I engaged with them somehow. I was interested to try it out but I didn't want to clutter up my human-authored Twitter feed with a bunch of software-authored stuff that I couldn't necessarily control the timing or content of.

So, I created the @JCHThings Twitter account, and it's been a steady stream of activity from the Internet-connected devices and tools in my life ever since.

Sometimes it shares some bad news:

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Review of The Roost Stand

wrote earlier that The Roost Laptop Stand is a part of my daily carry when I'm working away from home. I've been using it since 2014 when I started working regularly from co-working spaces, coffee shops and other places. For the last few months I've been using the second generation of The Roost Stand, so I want to share a few more thoughts on it here.

(Disclaimer: the Roost team sent me a free stand after they saw the Lifehacker post featuring my bag contents. I am not being compensated for this review and am under no obligation to provide positive commentary or any commentary at all.)

In case you're not familiar with what the Roost stand is or does: it elevates your laptop screen to the height at which you might use a traditional computer monitor. This means that long periods of time staring at a screen don't necessarily lead to a sore neck or back from being hunched over. Here's what it looks like in use:

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My programmable world

Unboxing the Twine sensor

I've always enjoyed hooking together pieces of technology in new and interesting ways.

When I was a kid I rigged up a small water pump to a series of pulleys, rope and switches to squirt water at anyone (read: my younger sister) who opened my bedroom door without using a special trick to disable it first.

In junior high school I may or may not have programmed my 1200 baud modem at home to make a certain classroom's phone ring during a certain class I didn't mind having interrupted.

In my first apartment after college, I had motion sensors rigged up to turn on lights in rooms I walked into, and turn them off again when motion stopped.

I like figuring out how to make real world things talk to each other.  Which is why it seems I was destined to live in the emerging "programmable world," this Internet of Things that has developed and flourished in recent years.

I thought I'd share some of the different things I've rigged up to talk to each other in my programmable world.  Some of these have practical uses, many of them are just for fun.  Some of them are products you can buy yourself, some are tools I've created or enhanced with my own software.

Oh, and you should consider consulting with your spouse, partner or housemates before deploying these technologies in a production living space.

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Kickstarting Supermechanical's Twine portable wireless sensor

Unboxing the Twine sensor

In late 2011, I noticed a Kickstarter project to support the creation of a portable wi-fi sensor device called Twine. I was already a fan of Kickstarter and its model of crowd-funding the development and implementation of great ideas, be they for gadgets, business models, artistic creations or otherwise. The idea behind Twine struck a particular chord: "connect your things to the Internet."

Yes, there have been Internet-connected things coming out all over the place for years now, and pretty soon the average consumer of household products will find themselves in a store aisle asking, "what do you mean this model doesn't connect to my home network?" But most of these network-connected devices are using their own proprietary standards and protocols for having those "conversations," and often the information being transmitted is only available through some specialized website or smartphone app. Just like all of the web services you now have individual accounts for, you'll have your toaster username and password, your refrigerator username and password, your lawn mower username and password, and so on.

In contrast to this trend, I was excited to see that Twine was an Internet-connected sensor device designed to be tinkered with, expanded upon, customized and fully integrated in whatever way you could imagine. Almost as soon as the project was announced, the creators were receiving fun and useful ideas for how Twine could be used; clearly there was an unmet need (you know, in that first world sense of the word "need") for a device like Twine.

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Review of CrashPlan for computer backups

I've been using the CrashPlan automatic backup system for my home computing devices for almost a year now, and I offer up this review.

Prior to using CrashPlan, I have to admit that my backup strategy for home computers left much to be desired.  Over the years I had tried various combinations of home-grown scripts and syncing tools that broke too easily or didn't offer enough flexibility in recovery, crusty third-party software that seemed to take hours to configure and then never quite did what I expected or didn't work with all the different devices I used, and even elegant tools like Apple's Time Machine backup system that still didn't offer me the off-site redundancy I wanted in case of physical catastrophe.

The end result was that my backups were happening infrequently, and in ways that did not necessarily guarantee the ability to restore what I would need in the event of a system failure or worse.  For someone who preaches the importance of backups to my friends, family and clients all day long, this was an embarrassing state of affairs. Then, one day a friend's laptop was stolen from his house, and as I listened to the stories of what was lost because of an incomplete backup and imagined what I would possibly lose if the same happened to me, I knew I needed to look for a better system.

That's when I found CrashPlan.

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iPhone iOS4 IMAP mail syncing problems

Market musicianI offer this account of trying to address a known (and I would say, severe) bug in the iPhone 4 mail software, in case it's helpful to others:

Ever since I upgraded my iPhone to IOS4 (the latest version of the phone's operating system), the Mail application has been flaky when it comes to syncing mail messages via IMAP. Duplicate messages, empty/blank messages, messages dated 12/31/1969, messages that are deleted and then re-appear, and so on.

At first I thought it might be my phone hardware, which had been cursed from the beginning (a story for another time), but after that phone died and Apple replaced it with a brand new one with fresh firmware and settings, and it STILL happened, I was convinced it's the software on the phone.  Other people are having the same issue all over the place.  But it can be hard to make Apple believe this - said the Apple Genius Bar worker at the Apple Store in Chicago, "they're probably all just using the phone wrong."  Wha?

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