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Articles about home, SOHO and small-business IT and networking issues

DLNA on multiple components in a home theatre setup?

As more manufacturers are supplying DLNA-equipped network hardware for the home-theatre setup, it may be worth wondering whether you should have just one DLNA-capable component in your home AV setup and stay at that, or install more DLNA-capable components in your setup as you upgrade equipment.

Here, I am talking about DLNA-capable media-player or media-renderer equipment, rather than media-server or media-controller equipment. This is to cater for setups where a dedicated media server device like a personal-TV service or hard-disk-based media jukebox device is part of the equation due to its role as providing media for the network.

One DLNA-equipped unit in the same rack

It may be more efficient and cost-effective to have just one DLNA Media Player unit such as a DLNA-capable flatscreen TV, network media adaptor or video-games console, in the rack. This may be cost-effective when you are getting your feet wet with network-based audio and video or the setup comprises of a TV and a video peripheral that doesn’t have its own speakers. It may also be easier to manage in relation to integrating with the home network or gaining access to the media on the DLNA-capable media server(s).

Two or more DLNA units in the same rack

This situation will appeal to people who are taking advantage of the fact that, over time, DLNA media playback will appear in more pieces of home AV equipment at price points affordable for most people. It will also appeal to people who upgrade their home-entertainment setup to newer technology on a “piece by piece” basis as and when they can afford it. It involves the same AV rack having two or more DLNA media playback devices like a TV and a home-theatre receiver.

One main benefit of this setup would be to perform network-media tasks with one piece of equipment. This is more so with a network-ready home-theatre receiver that has a good onboard display or is capable of working as a network-controllable “media renderer” because you don’t need to turn on the TV if you just want to listen to music. Similarly, you could have a DLNA-equipped TV show a collection of pictures related to a party you are hosting while your DLNA-equipped home-theatre receiver plays music during the party.

It also allows for the use of components that excel at playing particular types of content like, for example, a network-capable receiver that is highly-tuned for audio content or a DLNA-compliant TV that works with the latest codecs. Similarly, you may have a games console that may run games that make use of media held on secondary storage integrated with or attached to the console or available on the network. A possible example of this could be a “street racing” game of the ilk of “Need For Speed Underground” where the driver chooses the style of musical accompaniment for their drag-racing and drifting challenges.

What should I go for

This depends on your setup. If your setup is primarily a video setup with just a TV and one or two video peripherals, you could just add one DLNA-capable playback device to the setup.

But if your setup has a separate amplifier or you intend to add a home-theatre sound system with its own amplifier and speakers, it may be worth running a separate DLNA media player capable of playing sound independently of the television. Similarly, if your home theatre has a DLNA-equipped plasma or LCD TV that is used for “regular viewing” and a projector-screen that is used for “special viewing” like Hollywood blockbusters or major sports events, you could use a separate DLNA media player like a DLNA-enabled Blu-Ray player with the projector.

Things to remember about such installations

If you intend to install multiple network-ready devices in a home-theatre setup, you will need to make sure these devices connect reliably to your home network. If your network runs WiFi wireless, you might be tempted to connect the devices to the WiFi wireless segment, either through integrated WiFi connectivity that the device has, by purchasing the optional USB WiFi kit that the device’s manufacturer offers or by purchasing an Ethernet-WiFi client bridge device from a computer store. The limitation with this is that WiFi wireless networks can be very flaky at the best and the problem can be made worse with metal shelving or a metal frame; or installations that are close to a brick or stone chimney.

It may then be preferable to use wired networking such as Ethernet or HomePlug powerline to the entertainment rack with the components connected via an Ethernet switch to the Ethernet or HomePlug backbone. This kind of setup will lead to the networked components in the home AV rack operating reliable when it comes to network and Internet activities. There are some HomePlug-Ethernet bridges, available in either HomePlug 1.0 Turbo or HomePlug AV, that have a switch with 3 or 4 Ethernet ports. These units can definitely do the job of bridging a rack of networked AV equipment to a HomePlug segment.

Conclusion

Once you know what direction to go for as far as far as DLNA-capable devices in a single AV rack is concerned, you can then know how to integrate your AV racks in your home’s or business’s DLNA media network.

31 July 2009 Posted by | Home computer setups, UPnP AV / DLNA | | 3 Comments

SFR Hubster mobile Internet device

Link to French language review in DegroupNews

My comments on this mobile Internet device after reading the review

This device, provided by SFR for their “triple-play” (Box SFR, NeufBox) subscribers in France, is primarily a mobile Internet device. Primarily it is the “Webby” terminal marketed under SFR’s banner. But it isn’t the typical mobile Internet device that is in the typical handheld form. Instead, it is designed as a tabletop “mini terminal” for use in the kitchen, bedroom or home office. The French-language article even described the unit as a “mini terminal familiale” (family mini terminal).

Hence it is in the form of a small free-standing device that has a footprint similar to a small radio,with a 3.5” touchscreen LCD display that is mounted on its cone-shaped base. It will connect to your home network via WiFi (with WPA2 security and WPS “two-push” setup) or Ethernet.

The unit has IPTV functionality which works in conjunction with SFR’s IPTV service as well as Internet radio and “widget-driven” information services. The widget-based services focus typically on the local weather, financial information (stock portfolio) and your horoscope for your star sign. You can also get it to monitor RSS feeds, including audio / video podcasts and photofeeds. It has an SD card slot and USB host port so you can load digital audio files or JPEG pictures from your digital camera. A subsequent firmware version will provide for video file support. Of course the unit can work as an alarm clock that is always set to the correct time and can wake you to an Internet radio stream, a digital audio file or a buzzer sound.

When you set up the Hubster device, you will need to visit the Hubster Web site (http://hubster.sfr.fr) as part of registering it. This is where you would customise the local weather, financial and horoscope information.

The reviewers reckon that this device needs more capabilities in order to be a full-on auxiliary Internet terminal. It would need to support general Web browsing, be capable of true cordless operation by working with a battery pack and use a screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio. I would add to this list the support for common video-file formats; and at least UPnP AV / DLNA playback support so it can play media files held on PCs or NAS boxes that exist on the network. The latter functionality would be relevant to SFR “triple-play” subscribers who hook up an USB external hard drive to their “NeufBox 5” or “Box SFR” Internet gateway devices  and use the UPnP AV media server function integrated in these Internet gateway devices to stream out multimedia files held on the external hard drive.

What is this leading to?

The SFR Hubster’s main target was to compete in the nascent “connected information display” market created by WiFi-enabled electronic picture frames, Internet-enabled TVs and similar devices. Here, these devices pull up information of use to the public like news, weather and financial information from selected Web portals and present it on their displays, either as part of a continuously-changing display or on demand when a user selects a particular option on the device’s menu.

These “connected information displays” would thrive on a strong market relationship between companies involved in making or selling these display devices; and the owners of Web portal and information-streaming services as well as their content providers. This could then lead to these displays being considered the “fourth screen” of influence and companies involved in telecommunications and the Internet being considered as of influence as the classic media companies.

31 July 2009 Posted by | Future Trends, Home computer setups | , , | 3 Comments

Now using Internet Explorer 8

Over the past month, I have been running Internet Explorer 8 RC1, but now am running the officially-released version of this browser. The official version has been “tightened” so it can run more smoothly. As well, it has the newer functions like an easy-to-use address bar which highlights the domain you are working in and when you key in a URL, it gives you a selection of where you have been for that URL with the location most visited at the top. Easy as!

There isn’t much of a learning curve for IE7 users and people who have used “tabbed” browsers like Firefox can easily get the hang of it here. But the tabbing has improved with colour-coded grouping if you right-click on a hyperlink and select “Open in new tab”. This is similar if you use any of the new “accelerators” which are task-specific options available at the right-click of the mouse for searching, defining, translating and other tasks.
I would say it is certainly a definite improvement for the Internet Explorer family and one of the best “operating-system native” desktop browsers around. I also think why should the US Department of Justice and the European Union target Microsoft’s inclusion of Internet Explorer with Windows while other proprietary operating-system vendors like Apple supply browsers like Safari with their operating systems or device builders integrate browser function based on their own code in to their device’s firmware. Is this because Microsoft is seen in the same context as McDonalds and Starbucks – the “arch-enemy of world peace”?

21 March 2009 Posted by | Home computer setups, Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Keeping the WiFi public hotspot industry safe

There are an increasing number of WiFi wireless hotspots being set up, mainly as a customer-service extra by cafe and bar operators. But there have been a few security issues that are likely to put users, especially business users off benefiting from these hotspots.

This is becoming more real due to netbooks, mobile Internet devices, WiFi-capable smartphones and other easily-portable computing devices becoming more common. The hotspots will become increasingly important as people take these devices with them everywhere they go and manage their personal or business data on them.

The primary risk to hotspot security

The main risk is the “fake hotspot” or “evil twin:. These are computers or smart routers that are set up in a cafe or bar frequented by travellers, business people or others who expect Internet access. They can be set up in competition to an existing hotspot that offers paid-for or limited-access service or on the fringes of an existing hotspot or hotzone. They offer the promise of free Internet access but exist for catching users’ private information and/or sending users to malware-laden fake Websites hosted on the computers.

Standard customer-education practices

The common rhetoric that is given for wireless-hotspot security is for the customer to put most of their effort into protecting their own data without the business owner realising that their hotspot service could be turning in to a liability. This can then lead to the hotspot service gathering dust due to disuse by the customers it was intended to serve.

The typical advice given to users is to check whether the premises is running a wireless hotspot or if there is a hotzone operating in the neighbourhood before switching on the wireless network ability in your laptop computer. Then make sure that you log on to a network identified by a legitimate ESSID when you switch on the wireless network ability.

Other suggestions include use of VPNs for all Web activity, which can become difficult for most personal Web users such as those with limited computer experience. Some people even advise against using public Internet facilities like Internet cafes and wireless hotspots for any computing activity that is confidential on a personal or business level.

But everyone involved in providing the free or paid-for hotspot service will need to put effort into assuring a secure yet accessible hotspot which provides a high service quality for all users. This encompasses the equipment vendors, wireless Internet service providers and the premises owners.

Signage and operating practices

When Intel promoted the Centrino chipset for laptop computers, they promoted wireless hotspot areas that were trusted by having a sticker with the Centrino butterfly logo at eye level on the door and the premises being scattered with table tent cards with that same logo. Similarly hotspot service providers and wireless Internet service providers used similar signage to promote their hotspots.

But most business operators, especially small independently-run cafes and bars, tend to deploy “hotspot-in-a-box” solutions where they connect a special wireless router that they have bought to their Internet service and do their own promotion of the service. This may simply be in the form of a home-printed sign on the door or window or a home-printed display sign near the cash register advising of WiFi hotspot service.

An improvement on this could be in the form of the ESSID matching the business’s name and listed on the signage, which should have the business’s official logo. Similarly, the network could be set up with WPA-PSK security at least with the passphrase given to the customers by the business’s staff members when they order hotspot service. Most “hotspot in a box” setups that list the customer’s username and password on a paper docket list the ESSID and WPA-PSK passphrase on these dockets. As well, I would modify the login page to have the business’s look with the business’s logo. A complimentary-use hotspot could be secured with a WPA-PSK passphrase and the customer having to ask the staff member about the passphrase. This could allow the facility to know who is using the hotspot and the organisation who runs that hotspot can have better control over it.

It may be worth the industry investigating the feasibility of using WPA-Enterprise security which is associated with different usernames and passwords for access to the wireless network. Most portable computers and handheld devices in current use can support WPA-Enterprise networks. This can be implemented with the typical “paper-docket” model used by most “hotspot-in-a-box” setups if the authentication system used in these units works as a RADIUS server and the built-in wireless access point supports WPA-Enterprise with the unit’s built-in RADIUS server. The same setup could work well with a membership-based hotspot service like a public library with the RADIUS server linked to the membership database. But it may not work easily with hotspot setups that work on a “self-service” model such as paid-service hotspots that require the user to key in their credit-card number through a Webpage or free-service hotspots that use a “click-wrap” arrangement for honouring their usage terms and conditions.

The organisation who runs the hotspot should also be aware of other public-access wireless networks operating in their vicinity, such as an outdoor hotzone or municipal wireless network that covers their neighbourhood; and regularly monitor the quality of service provided by their hotspot. Also, they need to pay attention to any customer issues regarding the hotspot’s operation such as “dead zones” or unexpected disconnections.

People who own private-access wireless networks should also keep these networks secure through setting up WPA-secured wireless networks. They should also check the quality of their network’s service and keep an eye on sudden changes in their network’s behaviour.

When wireless-network operators keep regular tabs on the network’s quality of service, they can be in a better position to identify rogue “evil-twin” hotspots

Improved standards for authenticating wireless networks

There needs to be some technical improvement on various WiFi standards to permit authentication of WiFi networks in a manner similar to how SSL-secured Web sites are authenticated. This could be based around a “digital certificate” which has information about the hotspot, especially:

  • the ESSID of the network ,
  • the BSSID (wireless network MAC) of each of the access points,
  • the LAN IP address and MAC number of the Internet gateway
  • the venue name and address and
  • the business’s official name and address.

The certificate, which would be signed by public-key / private-key method could be part of the “beacon” which announces the network. It would work with the software which manages the wireless network client so it can identify a wireless network as being secure or trusted if the signature is intact and the network client is attached to the network from the listed BSSIDs and is linking to the gateway LAN IP.

The user experience would be very similar to most Internet-based banking or shopping Websites where there is a “padlock” symbol to denote that the user is using an SSL-secured Website with an intact certificate. It will also be like Internet Explorer 7 and 8 where the address bar turns green for a “High-Assurance” certificate which requires higher standards. In this case, the user interface could use colour-coding and / or a distinctive icon for indicating a verified public network.

The provision of cost-effective wireless-network management software

There are some programs that can turn a laptop computer in to a wireless-network survey tool, but most of them don’t show much useful information, are hard to operate for anyone other than a network technician or are too costly. They miss the needs of people who run home or small-business wireless networks or wireless hotspots.

What needs to exist is low-cost wireless-network management software that can work with the common Microsoft or Apple platforms on computers that have common wireless . The software should be able to use commonly-available wireless network adaptors such as the Intel Centrino platform to perform site surveys on the WiFi bands and display the activity on these bands in an easy-to-view but comprehensive manner. The software should be easy to use for most people so they can spot interference to their wireless network easily and can “tune” their wireless network for best performance.

Similarly the popular smartphone and PDA platforms like Applie iPhone, Symbian S60 / UIQ, Blackberry and Microsoft Windows Mobile could have low-cost wireless-network management software written for them so they can make a handheld PDA or mobile phone work as a site-survey tool for assessing quality of service

Once this kind of software is available for small business and home users, it empowers them to assure proper coverage of their network and check for any “evil twin” or other rogue hotspots being set up to catch customers.

Summary

There needs to be more effort put in to setting up secure public-access wireless networks so that people can benefit from portable computing anywhere without forfeiting the confidentiality of their personal or corporate data.

It also will encourage people to gain the maximum value out of their WiFi-enabled portable information devices whether for their business life or their personal life.

12 March 2009 Posted by | Home computer setups, Internet Access And Service, Network Security, SOHO / Small business computer setups | , | Leave a comment

Comments about the Intel vPro Anti-Theft Technology

Intel Demonstration video of vPro Anti-Theft technology in action

Linked through from the IntelChannel YouTube channel

My comments in relation to small businesses and home setups

The Intel vPro anti-theft technology as presented in the above YouTube video is promoted for use by larger companies or schools who have a fleet of notebook computers and people in their regular hire who manage their IT needs. This is typically represented by the segment where the user is working at a software or Web-based “console” to administer the “poison pill”.

This kind of facility may not be available to households or small organisations who manage their own IT needs unless the remote management functionality is available as a cost-effective service. Such a service could be offered by security firms who sell their services to residential and small-business customers and these firms could integrate the “secure notebook” as part of their business-security packages or as a stand-alone service.

10 January 2009 Posted by | Home computer setups, Network Security, SOHO / Small business computer setups | , , | Leave a comment