Monday, November 30, 2015

Review: ASUS S1 Projector

I've had this review queued up for exactly eight months - in the interim there's even been a new Chromecast version released (which I have not written a review yet, despite buying one to have it alongside my four original versions) and the anticipated features added for Chromecast apps. When the original Chromecast was released, I initially bought one in the hopes that Google Slides (their replacement for Powerpoint) would soon be able to send a presentation from a smartphone to a Chromecast. Of course, I didn't have this ASUS S1 projector as a display device at the time; I was thinking of a conference room with a flat panel TV already in place.

The ASUS S1 projector does have a full-sized HDMI connection which I have also connected to my tablets and Chrome OS devices, but it is also a natural fit to have a Chromecast there. Especially since the S1 supplies a USB power connection and is able to operate from an internal battery, that combination is entirely wireless. With the Google Slides app now being Chromecast-enabled it is a small presentation system, however you will need Internet connectivity (since your slides are hosted in the cloud).

Like all projectors, the room lights will need to be dimmed or turned off. The ASUS S1 does play the audio from the HDMI interface from an internal speaker that is often quite sufficient, and also has a 3.5mm headphone jack for external speakers. A full battery charge probably would not run for an entire movie, but I've easily done half-hour periods without powering the projector from the wall charger (19VDC).

I'm very well pleased with the picture quality and features. At the time I bought my unit it was $300 USD, with fluctuations of about $15 either way since then. There is not any included tripod to use the standard screw mount on the underside, but they are easy to find for the display characteristics you have in mind.

Next up is when I pair an ASUS "Chromebit" (an HDMI dongle larger than the original Chromecast) that runs Chrome OS with the projector, stay tuned...

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Mattel View-Master "Starter Kit"

At Google I/O 2014, an economical introduction to "VR" (Virtual Reality) was released in the form of a folded cardboard assembly to hold your smartphone running special applications with an image for each eye. Named "Google Cardboard" for the primary material, outside the conference (where it was given away) buying it from third-parties could cost over $20. While I did get the original "Cardboard", my Nexus 6 was too big for it, the construction was complex, and the input mechanism (a magnet that interrupted the phone's internal compass) didn't work with every model.

Google I/O 2015 released an improved model of a more simple assembly, adapted to fit larger phones. The actuation mechanism was changed to a flap that simulated a finger touching the screen, making it compatible with more phones (at this point there are Cardboard apps for the iPhone and of course the Android platform, but not Microsoft's Windows phones). Instead of purchasing the reintroduced version, I bought a Mattel View Master "Starter Pack" that wasn't much more ($29.9x for almost every retailer out there).

While I find the plastic and rubber construction of the View-Master much more sturdy and comfortable, the "Starter Pack" applications want to do huge downloads with little functionality until you make more "in-app" purchases. Running the stock Cardboard demonstration apps works well, and there are several short apps for free in the Google Play Store. Be warned that VR applications drain the phone battery very quickly and generate heat from using the phone's CPU so intensively. In fact, the back of my phone became discolored from using the apps [Addendum: the phone was stained when I put it back in my carry case while it was still warm, and I was able to clean it later], although the phone was never more than being warm to the touch.

There is not a strap to hold the View-Master to your head, although viewing sessions are likely to be 20 to 30 minutes at most with the battery use and heat. The Nexus 6 (with close to a 6" screen) is the largest phone that the View-Master holds, of course it needs to be removed from any third-party case before being inserted into the goggles. The concept isn't advertised for young children (specifically for the View-Master: age '7+'), but my almost 4-year-old Granddaughter loves to watch so much it can be a difficult time to get her to let go.

Get the Mattel View-Master for the goggles, not the more expensive applications (although it is certainly expandable if you get further into the Google Cardboard VR experience). I expect more Cardboard apps to appear with time, and phones to improve for CPU use and heat. At under $30 with free applications able to be downloaded, it is a low-cost method to experiment with virtual reality for now.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Google OnHub Review

I get kidded in the office as "Mr. Google" for talking about all of my Google gear (a Lenovo Chromebook and two ASUS Chromeboxes, and four original Chromecasts, with one revised version). So when Google announced a wireless router (produced by TP-LINK, with an ASUS-manufactured version to be released later) named the "OnHub" with 13 internal antennas (one is supposed to check for wireless congestion, so that it can adapt to the network environment for better performance), I thought it might be a good replacement for a re-purposed VisionNet DSL modem I am using as a WAP (Wireless Access Point). Occasionally it drops the wireless signal just long enough to interrupt activity, with much more wireless devices at home than wired.

You know wireless has hit critical mass when a customer asks what the Ethernet cable included with her wireless-capable DSL modem does...

At $200 (and replacing a WAP is otherwise free for me), the OnHub is rather an expensive solution. It turns out there is a 1.4GHz dual-core CPU, and 1Gb of memory inside (along with 4Gb of flash memory), to run a modified version of Chrome OS. So, it is Chromebox as a wireless access point. I did want the dual-band expansion (adding 5Ghz to avoid the commonly overlapped 2.4Ghz wireless everyone uses now), as well as the newer 802.11ac wireless standard.

There is speculation with such capabilities that the OnHub could be expanded later on. An integrated speaker on the top isn't used much currently. Interfacing to the OnHub is done through an app from an Android or iPhone; it doesn't have a web browser or even a Chrome plug-in to change the configuration. As with the Chrome OS, it is your Google account that is authenticated (you can add other Google accounts as administrators later) to change settings, view connected devices, and run diagnostics.

I tested all three modes (in reality, there is also a fourth setting): 'DHCP' (which is the default), 'Static IP', and 'PPPoE'. To change modes, the OnHub is unplugged from the network (only the 12-volt DC power connection) and the app is used to select the appropriate method:

The default 'DHCP' setting will work for most occasions. OnHub plugs in to your existing modem, but serves up IP addresses for the wireless devices connected to it (there is also one wired connection on the OnHub) independently. The Google DNS server values are also a default, but can be changed to automatically obtain them from your ISP or "custom" values.

'Static IP' is for those instances that a manual address is needed for the WAN or your LAN. While I tested this mode, Western New Mexico Communications sets single WAN IP addresses through authentication. There are instances where we transport a subnet of public-side addresses, but a more common occurrence would be using the 'Static IP' mode on your LAN connected to your modem like the 'DHCP' mode.

'PPPoE' is used when you 'bridge' your DSL modem (it "bridges" the DSL signal to Ethernet), and the OnHub does all of the routing for your network. Your ISP username and password are set on the OnHub. This would also be a very functional method in many situations.

In my situation, I have a pfSense firewall that assigns all network addresses, so I set the OnHub in that fourth method I referred to, in a minimal bridged mode where it only connects wireless devices to the network. That is a costly method for just a wireless access point, but so far I haven't seen any wireless dropouts. Much of the OnHub functionality is turned off (I use my own DNS servers as well), but I will be able to have the 5GHz wireless band and faster 802.11ac wireless (of all my devices, only on my Nexus 6 and revised Chromecast for now) with the OnHub.

Despite a listed power draw over 2 amps (at 12VDC), I am powering it using my "roll your own" Power over Ethernet. An excellent disassembly page showing all the internal components is at OnHub Teardown on iFixIt. For the really technical "rooting" process, here is the YouTube video:

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Ethernet Adapter for Chromecast Review

Recently Google released an "Ethernet Adapter for Chromecast", a solution for a weak wireless signal by your display device or circumstance where you want to use a Chromecast on a wired (Ethernet) connection. I bought the adapter in the hope both the wired and wireless Chromecast connections would be active at the same time (so I could cast from two distinct networks without changing the Chromecast configuration). Disappointingly that is not the case, but that won't stop this review short.

As shown on the included card, the connections for the Ethernet adapter are very basic. Without the Ethernet cable shown as the blue line, the Chromecast would connect to the router wirelessly. I found that once the Ethernet cable was plugged into the powered adapter, the Chromecast would immediately attempt to connect to that network, and switch off the configured wireless network. Any ongoing casting by wireless would be interrupted in less than a minute. Disconnecting the Ethernet cable would cause the Chromecast to (re)connect to the configured wireless network.

The MAC address reported by my adapter is that of an ignoble Realtek Electronics chipset. I plan to further investigate if an easy method can be contrived to switch between the wireless and wired (Ethernet) network, or to have both active concurrently. With some additional work, a "Power-over-Ethernet" could be designed and/or another method to switch the Chromecast network electronically. I am powering the four Chromecasts I have by multiple-port USB chargers otherwise.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Microsoft Windows 10 "WiFi [Non]Sense

With the release of Windows 10 on Wednesday, a new feature (used previously by Windows Phones) has been included that has me shaking my head. Microsoft calls it "WiFi Sense", but it lacks common sense. When a Windows 10 computer connects to a wireless network, there is an option turned on by default to "share" it with your contacts (including on Hotmail, Skype,, and even Facebook friends). The wireless password is then stored (at least in encrypted format) on a Microsoft server, for the occasion that any one of those contacts that come close enough to your wireless signal, is given that password for their Windows 10 system (or Windows Phone) without having to ask you!

Say you have an associate over that wants to show you how great his new Windows 10 tablet is. Are you comfortable with your wireless password being shared with anyone that happens to be one of his contacts? I provide an open wireless connection for guests, but that is from the "DMZ" (Demilitarized Zone, just like in military terminology) interface of my firewall, unable to touch the main network for my family. My network equipment is even on a separate "administrative" network without a WAP (Wireless Access Point), locked down to a few computers only I run.

Despite that easily accessible "guest" network, there have been instances where family members have provided the wireless password to their friends (I'm not saying any names). I reserve IP addresses for every single known device on the network (yes, down to my thermostat and security camera DVR system), and as commented earlier, have any interfaces for equipment I access out-of-reach of others. My security level, however, is tempered by knowledge gained during presentations by Sean-Philip Oriyano and others at IT Pro TV, Steve Gibson on TWiT's (This Week in Technology) "Security Now!", and experience over the years.

There are ways to minimize the threat from WiFi [Non]Sense, but you are forced to rename your wireless network(s) to have "_optout" on the end of the name. WiFi Sense is enabled by default, and if the person connecting the Windows 10 system simply chooses to share it with their contacts, it can't be undone. I advise having your network as secure as possible, and to check the resources I have linked for help.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Micro Center WinBook TW700 Continuing Review

After applying Windows updates, the WinBook TW700 is no longer prompting me that 1GB of RAM is too small for the way I run the system. I also purchased a WinBook TW801 (with a full-sized USB 3.0 port, and 2GB of RAM, I will review it soon as well) while I could still find one, Micro Center has discontinued that model for some reason. The TW802 replacement is back to a full-sized USB 2.0 port, and a more power-efficient CPU.

The ability to charge and run the system from a USB power source (which is only 5 volts DC) for an extended period of time is a particular strong point for me. My new ASUS S1 portable projector (another upcoming review) is able to supply USB power, so I have a big-screen system that doesn't need to be plugged in to watch a movie and more. The Dell Venue 11 Pro (yet another review) has a micro-USB port for charging, but the accompanying (23 watt, typically supplying over 7VDC) charger must be used, or the unit complains.

I mentioned 'movies', which I stream from services like Netflix and Google Play (like many of my other devices), but since it is a Windows device, an external DVD drive can be attached via USB (typically there is a cable with a second USB plug for power, as so there is not too much current draw from the computer; I will document the solutions I use at some later point). The viewing application I have installed (for Windows and many other platforms) is 'Kodi' (formerly called XBMC). Kodi can also stream other media context (one method I use to watch TWiT (This Week in Technology, run by Leo Laporte)

The WinBook TW700 tablet is so low in price (often below $60) because the no-cost 'Windows 8.1 with Bing' operating system installed. There are the limitations that Remote Desktop cannot be used as a client or host (I use the better Chrome Remote Desktop anyway), it can't join a domain (but can be part of a workgroup), can't install BitLocker, and I discovered it has PowerShell 4.0 pre-loaded (other versions of Windows 8.1 have PowerShell 2.0, and can only be upgraded to PowerShell 5.0). Windows 8.1 with Bing (other search engines can be selected, and other browsers installed) is still very functional, and may qualify for the free Windows 10 upgrade (which includes Windows 7 computers, in addition to Windows 8.1) when it comes out this Summer.

Other ways I have made this tablet more functional is to have a USB-to-Ethernet adapter (for a possible wired connection if needed), and a USB-to-Serial adapter (to allow consoling into network equipment). Older 'Prolific' chipsets for the serial adapter aren't supported under (any version of) Windows 8.1, so make sure you get the newer version if you take this route. Having a small, separately powered USB hub is handy for using more than one USB device at a time, and won't draw battery voltage from the tablet.

Speaking of power, the TW700 is powered by an Intel Atom Z37xx class CPU, same as the bigger TW80x tablets and Dell Venue 11 Pro. In this case it is a 1.33GHz (burst to 1.83GHz) Z3735G, limited to a 1Gb memory controller. I'm finding the 1Gb of RAM less of a problem than the 16Gb of flash for operating system and program storage. My attempts to have the 64Gb micro-SD card formatted as NTFS (so it can be used by Windows as an area for folders and applications instead of the flash) is proving problematic, as the card corrupts frequently.

Doubling the flash memory size to 32Gb, with 2Gb of RAM, was the primary reason I also purchased the TW801. Both tablet sizes also include a two-device licence of Office 365 Personal (Office applications are free on smartphones, so the other license would likely be used on a PC or Apple) valid for a year. The WinBook TW801 review is next up, stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Micro Center WinBook TW770 Beginning Review

I'm skipping a partially written topic I have, and moving on to my first entry in three months. This is a review for a small Windows 8.1 tablet I recently purchased. It does have limited resources but is able to run all of the single tasks I have tried. There is a slightly larger version (the TW801) at double the price if you do need more resources. The price is the primary factor why I bought it, as low as $59.99 from the manufacturer.

It is a complete Windows 8.1 installation (not Windows RT) and includes two licenses of Office 365 valid for a year. I've bought additional accessories that make the unit much more functional, which I will show below. The main limitation of the WinBook TW770 is only 1Gb of DDR RAM memory (the TW801 has 2Gb of DDR3 RAM). The flash RAM drive is also small (16Gb, which is close to the capacity of many Chromebook models), but if you are accustomed to working from the cloud you will be able to adapt (the TW801 has 32Gb SSD storage).

A single full-sized USB port provides some functionality, but I wanted more, as well as an ability to run USB devices from an external power supply (not from the limited battery of the tablet). The device I found is exactly what is needed, shown here ($9.99 on Amazon):
With USB an Ethernet adapter, Prolific serial port (make sure you have a chipset version that works with Windows 8.1), and external drives are possible. I also use a Logitech USB travel mouse (rather than Bluetooth, because I can shift it to other equipment I have). Speaking of Bluetooth, I run the tablet in a Logitech K480 ($49.85 on  Amazon), which is also able to operate with two other devices (I connect both my phone and Chromebook).
Other helpful accessories are a micro-HDMI cable for connecting to a larger display, the small Amazon cases and pouch to carry it around and a 64Gb micro-SD memory card. I'll include links to all of these accessories from Amazon below. The next topic will be how the TW770 operates, including pictures of how I use it.

Logitech K480 Bluetooth keyboard:
Kirin Micro-USB powered hub:
Amazon 7-inch tablet sleeve: