The first time I actually bothered to check the preferences over at Face-book, I was shocked. While nothing there seemed overly difficult to grasp, I realized that most members never bothered to look, and thus opened themselves to spam, ads, and other unwanted content, not to mention exposing potentially private information to your online friends.
Since then, Face-book has made at least some effort to reform the design, giving you a better picture of the risks, and how to protect yourself, at least to some degree. But I still have occasional episodes of The Tech Night Owl LIVE that feature security experts to remind you of the risks and the current issues.
On Saturday night’s show, for example, we introduced well-known information survival expert John Sileo, who revealed the best tips and tricks to protect yourself against identity theft, and how to improve security on your favorite social networks, with the emphasis on Face-book and Twitter.
In the opening segment, author and commentator Kirk McElhearn delivered the requisite year-end roundup that focuses on what the future of the Mac OS might bring. And, yes, he and Gene disagreed sometimes on these issues.
Our closing segment for the last episode for 2010 featured our favorite cutting-edge columnist, Daniel Eran Dilger, of Roughly Drafted Magazine,” who returned with a fearless analysis of Apple’s successes and the failures of their rivals to provide real — rather than pretend — competition.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast, co-hosts Christopher O’Brien and Greg Bishop join Gene to conduct a special “In Search of the Men in Black” roundtable. Are the MIB real government agents, jokesters, psychic beings, or alien visitors? Along for the ride are Tim “Mr. UFO” Beckley, Claudia Cunningham, and T. Allen Greenfield.
Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt. We’re taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.
I have to tell you that, whenever I need a new gadget for a particular purpose, I first look at Apple’s catalog to see if they have a product that fills the bill. The first significant Wi-Fi router solutions came from Apple, the original AirPort. In fact, I suspect millions of owners still say AirPort rather than Wi-Fi when asked what they are using for wireless connections at their home or office, and that makes perfect sense. In a field where most entrants provide Web-based, and exceedingly obtuse, configuration panels, AirPort stands out for its relatively simple setup routine.
My experience with various AirPort models through the years has been quite good; that is, until I moved to a new apartment recently and everything fell apart.
My AirPort product is a two-year-old Time Capsule variant, which melds an AirPort Extreme with a 1TB network drive. In my former location, I had few problems. Connections from my office area (one of the bedrooms) to the master bedroom were pretty solid.
The problems all began when I wired everything in the new apartment. The Time Capsule was situated near the wall closest to the master bedroom, roughly in the middle of the apartment. My MacBook Pro was placed on a table about 25 feet away, yet couldn’t receive a usable signal. The iPhone survived halfway through the living room before it lost the signal.
Don’t forget that a Wi-Fi router is basically a two-way radio, and the quality of reception doesn’t just depend on distance. The design of the home, how much metal is used inside the walls, and potential interference from other wireless gear (routers, telephones, and lots more), particularly from your neighbors, can hurt your reception big time.
After trying several locations, I fiddled with the channel settings using AirPort Utility. I switched from the automatic setting to several alternatives, finally settling on Channel 11, which delivered a passable signal on the MacBook Pro; Internet access was slow, but at least it worked. The iPhone still crapped out before I reached the master bedroom. We’re not talking about a large apartment here.
After doing a little research of various online reviews of different routers, I found that, at least at the 2.4MHz band, which is required for the iPhone, Apple’s Wi-Fi gear delivers middling scores for range and throughput, and that applies even to the enhanced simultaneous dual-band models that are now available.
Now most every Wi-Fi router seems flawed in one way or another, but I took a chance on the Cisco Linksys E3000, which has achieved above average ratings for range and throughput, particularly in the 2.4MHz band. In choosing this model, I was sacrificing the network storage capability; I wanted to save cash after a move that cost more than we expected. The E3000, with an average street price of around $150, can support a USB hard drive, although performance is not very good, according to most reviews. I already have two backup drives, plus offsite storage, so I decided I was reasonably well protected.
And, yes, the dealer, Best Buy, said they’d take it back if it proved unsatisfactory. In passing, I should note that routers tend to be among the gadgets returned most often, simply because setup instructions tend to confound most regular people. Cisco’s solution is an app called Cisco Connect (yes there’s a Mac version) that does most of the configuration behind the scenes. You even get a default family friendly network name (such as HappyHarry, although I changed that quickly to something more suited to my setup), and a strong password consisting of random upper and lower case letters and numbers. Since Apple still expects you to make those decisions for yourself, Cisco has the upper hand here.
Reception was noticeably better, but not quite what I needed, so I had to go to the “Advanced settings” option, which takes you to a typically obtuse Web-based set of configuration pages, and choose — you guessed it — Channel 11.
Once the E3000 restarted, I felt relieved and vindicated that my choice was the right one. The MacBook Pro once again achieved good Internet performance. The iPhone got two of three bars in the far corner of the master bedroom. The acid test, however, was the Apple TV. I choose a recent feature for rent, and, within seconds, it was ready to view. This time, I was able to watch the entire two hours and 28 minutes of “Inception,” in high definition, without suffering from that chronic rebuffering symptom I encountered at the old apartment, where the Time Capsule was installed.
So was it the fault of the Time Capsule all along, or did the latest Apple TV software update fix the problem?
While I chafe at using a non-Apple hardware as part of my computer network, the Linksys E3000 is doing quite well, thank you. Maybe Cicso can teach Apple a thing or two about building robust network hardware.
In passing, I should also mention that my cable modem is a Cisco, as is the DVR, from their Scientific Atlanta division. But don’t expect me to abandon any of my other Apple gear. It goes to show, however, that you can’t always rely on a single source for everything.
To put this commentary in perspective, recent surveys show that AT&T isn’t delivering satisfactory service in many parts of the U.S. From frequent dropped calls, to the lack of any service whatever, there are sure to be a whole lot of customers who are ready to buy their next iPhone from Verizon Wireless once that carrier has them available.
At the same time, AT&T has claimed it doesn’t expect a whole lot of defections, or at least substantial impact to its bottom line, once the iPhone is available from a second source.
While AT&T’s statement may be nothing but corporate spin, they may have a point. First and foremost, they have been doing their level best to retain customers simply by allowing many iPhone users to upgrade to the latest and greatest without penalty after but a single year, rather than the usual two-year timeframe. While I grant this decision might impair profits from each sale, it also cements a customer relationship updated in 2010 until at least 2012. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar deal for the iPhone 5.
If that’s the case, I expect that a fair amount of customers will just stay put, unless they’re so disenchanted with AT&T’s service that they are willing to sustain a hefty early termination fee.
If you happen to live in a part of the U.S. that isn’t well served by AT&T, you might be prepared to make a fast exit regardless of the added expense. At the same time, theyr will soon be rolling out 4G service — as will Verizon of course — and that might help matters in those major cities where AT&T doesn’t do so well now, such as New York City and San Francisco.
What’s more, switching to Verizon Wireless may be a case where the grass on the other side of the tracks isn’t necessarily greener, just different. While I realize their network might be superior, at least for now, there’s an open question of the imitations of Verizon’s CDMA network. Unless changes arrive, you won’t be able to talk on the phone and surf the Internet at the same time. This is one huge advantage that AT&T delights in promoting. Once Verizon’s LTE — or 4G — network rolls out, that limitation will vanish, but it’ll likely take a couple of years for that upgrade to reach most of their customers.
I also have to tell you that I have found AT&T to provide more responsive customer support than Verizon, which has gotten worse in recent years. On a few occasions, in helping a close relative deal with the complexities of their Verizon handsets, I’ve run into a spate of rude and downright ignorant techs, and have had to escalate the issues to higher authorities.
AT&T has been quite decent, even when I’ve had problems with connectivity in my neighborhood. They’ve pushed service upgrades to help, and they have, at least somewhat. Also, call quality and reliability has grown noticeably better as more and more cell towers and network enhancements have been rolled out. I seldom see a dropped call in my wanderings in and around Phoenix nowadays, although those Customer Reports surveys continue to rate AT&T as subpar here. Then again, some of those surveys may be as much as a year old, and the situation has probably improved.
Certainly having a direct competitor for iPhone sales will, if nothing else, spur AT&T to expand and enhance their network as quickly as possible. Competition does that. In the end, when the iPhone 5 arrives, I do not expect to abandon AT&T. That situation may change between now and summer 2011, and I realize some of you will be only too happy to jump ship.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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