Of routers and smart plugs and mice (oh, my!)
By Jim Bray
It's a new year and if you have any money left over from the Christmas giving season - or if you have some gift dollars burning a hole in your pocket - there are innumerable tech solutions on which you can blow the cash, from a new router to a new mouse, and lots in between.
Let's look at a couple of items I've been playing with for a while now, starting with the TP-Link AC3200 Wireless Tri-band Gigabit Router. It's a unit that looks like a cross between an unidentified flying object and my home town's football stadium with its tall towers supporting a giant Bose speaker over the mid field stripe.
I've been through a bunch of routers over the years, but this one appealed to me because its maker said it was built to handle more devices simultaneously, a handy thing in today's increasingly wirelessly connected world. The router's Tri-Band technology lets you run three separate channels, with a combined speed of up to 3200 Mbps. It ain't cheap (it lists for $279.99 CDN on Best Buy's Canadian website, for example), but it's probably the best router I've used as far as dependability and performance are concerned.
It's also easy to set up - for the first time ever I screwed up my own courage and, rather than whine until my tech-consultant son came over and did it for me, I did it myself and it was as easy as pie.
The router is designed for applications (homes, specifically though not necessarily) that have multiple people or devices fighting for bandwidth. In my home it's usually my wife and I with competing iPads, as well as smart TV's and devices; you can almost hear the electronic fisticuffs if you listen really hard.
Dual-band routers like the one the TP-Link replaced in my home generally offer one 2.4 GHz and one 5 GHz Wi-Fi band, but tri-band routers like this one give you a 2.4 GHz and two 5 GHz bands. The extra 5GHz one helps ease bandwidth issues that can cause your device to lose connection or get very slow causing, if you're accessing such stuff as big media files, endless buffering.
I installed it next to my computer in my home office - in the northwest corner of my suburban four level split, plugging it into the network cable stretching from the cable modem in the workshop (well, junk room) downstairs. Then I plugged my external four terabyte media drive into it directly, via another Ethernet cable.
And then the configuration process began, at which time I discovered that the web interface for performing the function turned out to be simple enough even for a simpleton such as me.
Once you've gone through that process that you can configure your devices to interact with any or all of the "networks" it routes through your home - for example, you can tell the device that has your Netflix account to use one 5 Gig network, your iPad for another, or whatever. You can also configure it to set up "guest" networks for visitors, though I can't imagine visitors to my home being any greater risk to my system's security than I am myself. But it's there if you want it.
Changing routers meant I had to get all my devices to reconnect afterward, but this was easy. Since I kept the same network keys and passwords as with the old router, all I had to do was have each device search for the available networks, choose the one I wanted to use and re-enter the network key code. I had to do this for all of the network choices, but it only took a few seconds.
I like the "Smart Connect" feature, too. It helps devices run more quickly by assigning them to the best available channel, as a way to balance network demand. This is basically how I've set it up and it works just fine, with fewer "crapouts" than with my previous routers. And if one "network" is crapping out, my devices connect automatically with the next alternative.
There's a lot more to the router, too - stuff like port forwarding, VPN Pass-through and USB sharing - but as someone who's generally afraid of playing with such things lest I screw up something, I've stayed away from them. Besides, in my application I haven't needed them.
What I like most about this router is that it gives me fast, almost completely "rebuffering-free" performance for all my devices wherever they are in the home. And that includes streaming of 4K files, which are increasingly popular but bandwidth intensive. That's what I was looking for, and the TP-Link AC3200 provides it in spades.
TP-Link also sent me their HS100 Wi-Fi Smart Plug, a $49.99 CDN gadget that controls power to whatever you have plugged into it via your home network and smart devices. You control it via an app that lets you turn stuff on or off from anywhere in the world as long as you're connected to the Internet.
The plug/app also has an "away mode" that lets you turn lights (or whatever) on and off at different times, so anyone casing your casa will think you're home when you aren't. You can also create schedules and set timers to conserve energy and save as much money on your next bill as the utilities will allow between fee hikes.
And an energy monitoring feature can help you analyze a device's power consumption.
You can use the plug, not surprisingly, with anything that plugs in, but it made most sense for us - especially since my review period happened around the holidays - to use it to control our Christmas lights. And it did this just fine, firing up the colourful strings at the time I (well, my wife) wanted and shutting them down on schedule as well, with no issues whatsoever.
My only issue is that the thing is pretty big and that could affect what wall socket you can plug it into. It's also a three pronged plug, so you may have problems using it in an older home unless you have a "cheater plug" that converts three prongs into two.
A Quick Start Guide gets you up and running, and it's very easy to fathom. The app walks you through the connection process as well; all you have to do is follow the on screen instructions and Bob should very well be your uncle. It was in my case, even though Bob is really my cousin.
A Rodent that travels well…
Finally, Microsoft sent me their Arc Touch Mouse, Surface edition, to play with, and it has become my new favourite laptop mouse.
The Arc Touch Mouse is an elegant and small Bluetooth mouse that, in the case of Microsoft's $80 CAD sample, works beautifully. I could use it with my desktop PC with no issues, but (maybe this is why it's called a Surface Edition) I like using it better with my laptop because its small footprint is ideal for travelling.
I'd been a tad nonplussed that the thing never seemed to shut off, but that was before I figured out (no user manuals for me unless absolutely necessary!) that the on/off switch is inside and that, to activate it, you merely fold the mouse flat. Curve it back into its "in use" configuration and it becomes a nice mouse that fits the hand nicely.
The rodent features Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (making it perfect for my sedentary lifestyle!), which is supposed to be less of a battery hog than "old" Bluetooth. Microsoft says the mouse works from up to 30 feet away, too, so you'd better have a big monitor!
I like that the mouse is shaped to match the natural curve of my hand and since if folds flat it's also nicer to pack with you when you're out and/or about. And instead of a wheel between the left and right buttons, there's what's more or less a plastic strip that lets you scroll easily, and it responds to how quickly you drag your finger on it.
Microsoft also says the mouse's BlueTrack Technology "combines the power of optical with the precision of laser for remarkable tracking on virtually any surface," which means you can use it on carpet or your pant leg. I had no issues using it on any surface, including glass.
Well, that's not entirely true. I did have issues using it on the fabric cover for a chair arm in my living room. This was because the cover is full of tears and holes (thanks to having three cats in the house) and the mouse would get hung up on it.
Once I tossed the cover to the floor and used the actual fabric of the arm (which is the same as that of the cover, but solid), it worked great.
As it should!
Copyright 2017 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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