A Geek's Confession

You will be incredibly impressed with the Fluance XLHTB home theater speaker system. It offers the best value on the market today—premium performance for less than $800.

Published in the March-April 2014 issue of MyLIFE magazine

Is it possible to achieve good sound quality and eye-pleasing aesthetics for a home theater system for under $800? Canadian-based speaker company Fluance has proved it can be done, with its new XLHTB five-speaker home theater.

The components of the XLHTB system feature a beautiful mahogany wood grain veneer and glossy piano-black finish. In the back of each speaker there are two sets of gold-plated five-way binding posts for wiring. The two towers include a pair of 8-inch woofers and two 6.5-inch midrange drivers, which were designed in an attractive metallic baffle.

The towers stand more than 45 inches tall and are just over a foot deep.

The surround speakers have a 5-inch midrange driver and a one-inch silk tweeter. They are incredibly light, weighing only about 8 pounds each.

The center channel speaker is heavier and includes two bass reflex ports on the back.

Sound Quality
The sound of the XLHTB system will be surprisingly good for most people. Avid audio aficionados most likely will not find the audio performance quite up to par based on their standards—but then again, we are talking about system that retails for less than $800.

The towers produce impressive sound for both music and movies, and the woofers’ bass level is equally impressive. However, the center speaker is not as clear as the others and sound can be somewhat muffled—especially dialogue in movies.

The XLHTB system produces good bass and crisp midrange and treble. Its beautiful design makes it appear as though it would be priced much higher. This system is ideal as an entry-level home theater and for those who can’t stand the thought of spending a lot of money for a home theater system—it won’t break the bank, that’s for sure. You can find one at BestBuy.com for $799.99. You can also buy the speakers separately. The XLHTB system comes with a lifetime warranty.

ipad-airPublished in the Jan-Feb 2014 issue of MyLIFE magazine

Apple refreshes its products about once a year. This has been especially true with its popular tablet, the iPad—which currently has an 81 percent share of the tablet market.

But in 2013, instead of just releasing similar hardware with updated parts, the company surprised us by releasing the iPad Air.

The Air is significantly thinner and lighter (with a 43 percent smaller bezel) than its predecessor (fourth-generation) iPad. Pricing starts at $499 for the 16GB base model, and it comes in space gray or silver.

Specs and Performance
Just like the iPad 4, the Air has a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera, as well as a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera for video calling. The camera takes pictures quickly, and colors appear accurate—with little noise. Unfortunately, there’s still no flash, so it doesn’t yield great results in dim environments. The camera can record 1080p HD video and features a retina display at a screen resolution of 2048×1536—which produces a crisp, gorgeous picture. The Air also features Apple’s A7 64-bit processor and free iWork and iLife apps. The dual-core CPU/quad code GPU system on a chip (SoC) performs extremely well. Games designed for Apple’s new operating system, iOS 7, are smooth and perform incredibly well, and other games also have higher frame rates. The screen is responsive and feels snappy.

The new iOS 7 is also 64-bit, which helps other iOS apps to take advantage of 64-bit computing. This yields faster application launches and smoother typing.

The Air comes with 802.11n Wi-Fi and uses multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) speeds, with dual antennas that broadcast at both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. It was a little disappointing not to find 802.11ac. With MIMO, 300Mbps speeds are possible, though.

If you’re looking for more storage space, you’ll pay about $100 more for the 32GB model. The 64GB model will cost you $699, and the 128GB model is priced at $799.

Cellular connectivity (available from Sprint, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile) is priced considerably higher. For the 16GB model, you’ll pay $629, while the 32GB model costs $729, the 64GB, $829 and the 128GB, $929.

Battery Life
We managed to get more than nine hours of battery life in real-world tests at around 70 percent screen brightness, which included some Web browsing, watching a 30 minute television show and about 30 minutes of gaming. Depending on your operating habits, it’s possible to get more than 10 hours of battery life on the Air.

The iPad Air is the best 10-inch tablet on the market. The heavy, bulky body of previous iPads is gone, allowing it to become the lightest full-size tablet on the market. If you’re thinking about upgrading your current tablet or buying your first one, this is the tablet to own.

Photo by James Ivaldi (http://jivaldi.com)

Photo by James Ivaldi (http://jivaldi.com)
Photo by James Ivaldi (http://jivaldi.com)
Wearable communication devices, especially smart watches, represent a hot market segment right now, but is it truly a new and emerging market, or has technology finally caught up to our active lifestyle? The idea for a wrist-sized phone or communication device has been around for decades (think Dick Tracy, Star Trek, etc.), and a watch seems like a natural place to put a communication device, or any device that gives you instant feedback.

Wearable pedometers also have been around for a while, giving you information about calories burned, steps taken and distance traveled. Nike has even carved out a small, but growing, market with its FuelBand, which is a fancy pedometer that turns movement into “fuel” and allows users to track their activities online or with a smartphone.

Technology companies and startups are quickly scrambling to bring the perfect device to consumers. Apple is even rumored to be working on something deep in its lab. Can you expect to see a wrist-sized device that has all the functionality of your smartphone in the near future? Probably not. The limitations of our current technology won’t be giving us a standalone wrist phone anytime soon.

But still, I love the smart watch idea. I want emails and SMS messages on my wrist, with the ability to reply. I want to make and receive private phone calls using nothing but my watch. I want to be able to use it to send contact information to new friends or business associates. I want my watch to vibrate if I happen to be near a friend at a concert or the mall. Is that too much to ask?

Current smart watches require a connection to a phone in order to function, and while most of us carry our phones with us constantly, being able to have a watch phone while running, working in the yard or engaging in other activities where you don’t need a full-blown phone would be useful. Technology can’t (yet) cram all of the required cellular radios and batteries into something that fits on your wrist. Charging a smartphone every night is second nature to most of us, but charging a watch? Not so much. Making and receiving private calls is an issue, and the screens are typically too small to be useful. Sure, the idea of watching a movie on my wrist sounds cool, but in reality I wouldn’t make it past the opening credits.

Look at any available smart watch on the market today, and they all fall short of replacing your phone entirely. Each smart watch available does certain things well, such as reading messages, giving you notifications, playing music, etc. But none of them do all of the things your phone can do, nor can they do them as well. Much like the birth of smartphones in the early 2000s with BlackBerry and Palm devices, these devices will only get better with time and technology will find a way to bring us closer to a true wrist phone, but we may never get all the way there.

Published in the Sept-Oct 2013 issue of MyLIFE magazine

internet-privacyThe concept of privacy today is far different from what it was 100, 50 or even 10 years ago. What does “privacy” mean today? Do we still have it? Do we even still want it? While the vocal few on each side wage wars in the media, we’re all left to navigate another water cooler discussion that’s becoming just as sensitive as conversations about abortion, religion or politics.

We’ve all suspected that the government has been spying on us for years, but now we have the evidence to prove it. Even scarier, we’ve had the evidence all along—we just didn’t know what we were looking at. Edward Snowden has provided all of us with clear, concise and concrete details regarding the extent to which the government is willing to go to keep tabs on anything and everything.

Microsoft handing the National Security Agency (NSA) full access to Hotmail, Outlook and Skype shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, especially after Room 641A was exposed back in 2007. Never heard of Room 641A? That’s OK. Most people haven’t (Wiki link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Room_641A). Room 641A consisted of three floors of commercial real estate in San Francisco, owned by AT&T, that carried Internet backbone traffic. The NSA used this room as a direct tap to anything and everything flowing around the Internet from 2003 to 2006. And AT&T allowed it.

All telecommunications companies have been asked by one of the many three-letter acronyms of the U.S. government to hand over data for one reason or another. What’s so shocking about this latest leak of information is that the NSA is gathering data simply because it can, not because it needs to. We’re all familiar with the idea that if the government suspects an individual of a crime or of planning a crime, it can ask for email, phone, text, banking and other records to get a better profile of the individual. The information Snowden provided about NSA projects such as PRISM and FAIRVIEW show that the NSA is simply making copies of EVERYTHING we say, text, email and do online today, simply because the agency just might need it tomorrow.

As social media becomes more and more prevalent, each new iteration of a social network promises greater security, privacy and anonymity. But much like any other industry, the smaller companies are eventually bought by larger ones. It wasn’t too long ago that Facebook bought Instagram. Now, any agreement Facebook has about sharing users’ information extends to Instagram. As we gradually move toward interconnected social, email and banking accounts, we slowly remove the barriers between our private information and anyone looking to get ahold of it.

So, is anything private anymore? You may be able to keep your secrets from your friends, family and neighbors, but not from the government. And how long until even your next-door neighbor has full access to your life? Is privacy dead? Maybe. The government is fairly vocal about its desire to monitor anything and everything on the Internet. And as the government cracks down on companies like Lavabit, who’s existence is centered around anonymity, privacy and encryption, we’re left wondering if any future attempt at privacy and data encryption will be met with swift legal action from Uncle Sam.

Published in the May-June 2013 issue of MyLIFE magazine

cyber-threatsCyber attacks sound nasty, and with all the press the Internet group Anonymous has been getting recently as a result of the attacks on Israel, how could they not? Should you be unplugging your computer, vowing to never make another purchase online, switching back to snail mail for your bills and lining your walls with aluminum foil? Not quite. While these cyber attacks are significant, let’s quickly discuss exactly what’s going on and how you can easily take steps to protect yourself.

The recent attacks on Israel’s infrastructure were Distributed Denial of Service attacks, or DDoS for short. This type of attack is like overcrowding the Internet. Imagine this: You head to the market for milk, but when you arrive, all the parking spaces are full. You can’t access the market because a few hundred people simply wanted a place to hang out. A DDoS attack works much like that—thousands of computers attempting to access a webpage or group of pages for no reason other than to keep legitimate business out. The overcrowding causes websites to crash and servers to meltdown, along with millions of dollars in damage. There’s not much you can do to protect yourself against this kind of attack. After all, your information isn’t at risk here. If the website you’re trying to access is being attacked, you’ll simply have to wait it out.

Another form of cyber attack is called a Man in the Middle attack, or MITM. This attack is pretty self-explanatory. Instead of your messages or credit card numbers going directly to a seller or retailer, they are intercepted by a third party and then passed on to the retailer as if you sent them. Neither the buyer nor the retailer is aware this is happening, which makes this kind of attack fairly common. Protect yourself by ensuring that your wireless network at home is password protected and that you never access your banking or credit card information over public networks, such as those at the local coffee shop. Even when you’re connected to your secured home network, make sure you are only giving your information to trusted and secured websites.

It may seem like the Internet is a scary and unsafe place because of hackers and cyber attackers, but just like your favorite movie, there are bad guys (“black hats,” or malicious hackers), and there are good guys (“white hats,” or hackers who are looking for flaws or security risks so they can be fixed). Many of the safety protocols, procedures and encryption programs currently in use are a result of the white hats doing what they do. While black hats and white hats use exactly the same methods, their results are much different. After performing a DDoS attack, a white hat would typically contact the website owner and explain how to prevent it from happening again.

While this isn’t an extensive list of hacker or cyber attack terminology and methods (we didn’t discuss grey hats, script kiddies, port scans, packet sniffing or phishing, among others), our intent is to give you a little better understanding of what is happening in cyberspace and how taking simple steps can protect you from serious harm.