December 24, 2004

Happy Holidays

I find this season brings reflection of the year gone by, the events that shape us, and the people who made all the difference. It's a time to see friends and family, and bring a little warmth and joy to the world.

This year has been a particularly busy one for me. It's seen me transplant my family, add a puppy, a new job, a new town, and a chance to work with some great people along the way. I'm a better person for it, especially with a caring family who keeps me grounded to realize what's really important. In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it." After all of the hustle and bustle, I'm ready to stop and enjoy life for a while. Thus if you don't see me posting much, if anything, over the next week or so, you'll know why.

My warmest wishes to you and your loved ones during this holiday season.

Topic(s):   Other Musings
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December 20, 2004

Two New Wi-Fi Detectors Reviewed

An exclusive LawTech Guru feature review by Jeffrey Beard

Whether you're traveling the globe or working within a wireless office, it's handy to know where to find the Wi-Fi hot spots. With the proper precautions, wireless networking adds a considerable amount of convenience and bandwidth when on the go. I recently had the opportunity to use two of the newest Wi-Fi detector/locators: The WiFi Seeker from Chrysalis Development (around $30 retail), and the HWL1 802.11b/g WiFi Locator from Hawking Technology (between $30-$35 retail). They both work on the same basic principle: Push the button to scan the area for a usable Wi-Fi networking signal. Both display the resulting signal strength as a series of lights, much like the signal indicator on one's cell phone. Neither will tell you if the detected network is open or secured, nor provide the network name, so the rest is up to you. Despite these limitations, it's very handy to find a hot spot without first having to boot up your laptop.

The WiFi Seeker has some nice things going for it. It's the smallest WiFi detector on the market by far, about the size of a regular car or other keychain-sized remote, and you can attach your keys on its ring. It fits comfortably in your pocket and barely takes up any room in a crowded laptop bag. It claims to filter out extraneous 2.4GHz signals from cordless phones, microwaves, and other non-WiFi devices. It also claims to pick out the Wireless Access Point (WAP) and ignores other wireless network client devices, such as other wireless cards in "Ad Hoc" mode. It's also extremely quick at signal detection, usually only needing between a half and a full second to complete its scan when a good signal is present. Once in a while, it would take between 1 - 2 seconds, which is still plenty fast. While I would have liked to see at least a five-segment LED signal meter for better differentiation, the four LEDs work nicely.

In actual practice, I found the WiFi Seeker lived up to all of its claims. It successfully found Wi-Fi networks with ease. Its signal strength meter reported consistent and accurate results. Occasionally, in good areas it would initially lock on with 3 bars, and light the fourth within a second. In exceptionally strong areas, all four LEDs would immediately light up at once. The WiFi Seeker works well directionally. By pointing it in different directions, the varying signal strengths enabled me to figure out which way to walk toward a stronger signal.

The WiFi Seeker successfully ignored other Wi-Fi client cards, as well as a Uniden 2.4GHz cordless phone and a microwave oven. (Only if you placed it within a few inches of an operating microwave oven would it generate a false positive -- which I don't see as any failure in everyday use.) The visual interface works well: Four bright, large red LEDs sweep back and forth during scanning, and become solid when a Wi-Fi signal has been detected. It's drop dead easy to use and read. The large square button is easy to find and press without looking for it. (If you've ever watched the KITT car on Knight Rider, or have seen a Cylon from the original Battlestar Galactica TV show, you'll appreciate the WiFi Seekers' cool visual sweeping pattern during its short scan. It's simple yet effective.)

In comparison, the Hawking Technology HWL1 802.11b/g WiFi Locator also boasts some interesting features per its web site: "The signal filters on the HWL1, filter through all unwanted 2.4GHz signals, such as BlueTooth, cordless phones and microwaves, providing a reliable and accurate reading each and every time." "The HWL1 is also equipped with a flip-open Hi-Gain Directional Antenna that helps you determine exactly where the hot-spot source is coming from."

Styled and sized like a flip cell phone or Captain Kirk's communicator, the HWL1 is 3.6 inches long and fairly thick, so it occupies a good amount of room in your pocket or laptop bag, style notwithstanding. Basically, it's between 2-3 times in width and height, and twice as thick as the WiFi Seeker. In other words, it's really big in comparison. On the bright side, this allows it to have a much larger high gain antenna, and it easily sports five very bright blue lights for its signal meter. While the power button is very small, you only need to press it briefly to start the scan cycle. This provides immediate feedback by having the blue lights blink approximately twice per second for nearly 5 seconds. If you want a longer scan, you can hold the button down longer, and it will continue to scan until you let go.

Overall, it worked fairly well. However, since it was released after the WiFi Seeker, I expected the HWL1 to excel in some way that never materialized. While it mostly does what it says, I found several annoyances, and one glaring functional problem. First, the annoyances: The signal lights do not stay solid, and they tend to jump around a lot between blinks, which makes it rather difficult to determine the signal strength. For example, while holding it rock steady, the HWL1 WiFi Locator's lights would often jump between two, three, and four lights during its scan cycle. From my end-user perspective, this shouldn't be happening when the Wi-Fi signal is constant and the WiFi Locator is stationary. At times, the directional antenna would help me find the Wi-Fi source, but just as likely, the lights would jump around so much it was nearly impossible to tell which direction had the better signal.

The HWL1 WiFi Locator also seemed to be more sensitive than the WiFi Seeker overall, which is both good and bad. On the plus side, the HWL1 might help you find more Wi-Fi access points than the WiFi Seeker, but they would likely be the weaker signals. Thus those signals may not be strong enough to be usable by your Wi-Fi card. In comparison, the WiFi Seeker from Chrysalis Development appeared more discriminating, which from my perspective increases the likelihood of it detecting a usable signal. With that said, if you're really desperate for any Wi-Fi signal, then the HWL1 may detect it, or it may also send you on a wild goose chase.

Which brings me to the one glaring problem I had with the HWL1: In a family member's home devoid of any Wi-Fi signals, the HWL1 lit up the full five bars. The only wireless signals present were being generated by a Uniden 2.4GHz cordless phone set (my laptop and its Wi-Fi card were powered down at the time). In the same house, the WiFi Seeker did not detect any signal, so it properly distinguished the cordless phone from an 802.11b/g signal. I then confirmed there were no rogue neighbor Wi-Fi signals via my laptop's wireless networking utility and running NetStumbler. As the HWL1 also registered a higher signal in the same room as the cordless phone, I felt I had ample reason to conclude the HWL1 was fooled by its 2.4GHz signal.

The flip-up antenna is also a drawback when you're toting baggage -- it takes two hands to open it, unless you prefer doing the one-handed Kirk-style communicator flip with your wrist. Unlike the WiFi Seeker, whose large power button is conveniently accessible on the outside, you must open up the HWL1 to access the power button to do your scan. Overall I was just less impressed by this device. On the plus side, it does detect 802.11b/g networks, but the jumpy signal lights effectively canceled out any advantage the larger directional antenna provided, if any.

After using both, the smaller WiFi Seeker was the better device in my experience; sometimes good things do come in small packages. If the HWL1's larger high gain antenna made any significant difference, then I could see some value associated with its chunkier size -- but it didn't. In comparison, the WiFi Seeker appears more discriminating, and it works well directionally. It was also consistently easy to read its results. Therefore, it's fun to use, and I can be more discreet using it than the larger HWL1. Overall, I've been very satisfied by the WiFi Seeker's size and performance, and can easily recommend it if you're looking for a good tool to make your mobile life just a little easier. Incidentally, the WiFi Seeker is also branded as the WiFi Spy, PCTEL WiFi Seeker, and the Mobile Edge WiFi Signal Locator.

Topic(s):   Feature Articles  |  Mobile Tech & Gadgets
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December 17, 2004

To VoIP or not to VoIP

PC World has a great article for those of us considering going VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), "Is an Internet Phone Right for You?" Many folks are looking at their monthly broadband, landline, and cell phone bills, and searching for ways to pare them down without losing functionality.

VoIP is an option, but there are some notable differences and trade-offs to address. VoIP may or may not be a good choice depending on your overall data and voice needs, and ability to do disaster planning. For example, landlines still work when the electrical power is out. If you need a backup Internet connection when your cable goes out, dial-up will still work.

However, as the article points out, you can still have VoIP functionality if you purchase an UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply, and not Universal Power Supply per the article) to power the broadband modem, VoIP telephone adapter, and I'll add, your network router. Note that sooner or later, the UPS battery supply will run down. Same problem with using a cell phone. (I'm not willing to drain my laptop's battery to charge the cell during a power outage, nor do I want to run my car to charge it either.) But over the long run, VoIP can provide some interesting cost savings, and so I remain intrigued by it.

Here's a tip of my own: If you go VoIP, make sure your network router (wired or wireless) has a QoS or Quality of Service feature. Multiple transmissions can occur on your network (e.g., downloading a multimedia stream on your PC while someone else is using the VoIP phone). When that happens, QoS automatically enables your router to grant higher bandwidth priority to the VoIP phone, so it doesn't stutter or cut out. Some routers, like Linksys, have recently added QoS features to their new and existing routers via a simple firmware upgrade. So if your router doesn't support QoS, visit the manufacturer's web site to see if it's been added since you bought it.

Having more choices is a good thing, as long as you know what you're getting yourself into. In this regard, PC World has done a great job of answering many of these questions in nearly plain English, and they list nine major VoIP service providers to save you some Googling. I haven't let go of my home landline yet, but I've been tempted greatly this year. It's a heck of a wake-up call for the traditional phone companies (pardon the pun).

[Thanks to Sabrina for the link.]

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets
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December 10, 2004

New Releases of Zempt & w.bloggar Blogging Clients

Bloggers may want to check out the latest releases of the Zempt and w.bloggar blogging clients. Both version updates have been long in coming and add some much-needed features. Either one is a welcome tool in addition to the native blog entry interface found in most online blogging systems. In particular, they add much-needed HTML and spell-checking features.

Zempt 0.4 provides a more refined GUI and toolbar interface than its quirkier 0.3 release, several new features, and fixes a number of other peculiarities and bugs. Overall, it's a welcome set of refinements. I've used Zempt for over a year despite of its numerous rough edges because it supported all of Movable Type's fields and features. In comparison, w.bloggar 3.03 only had support for Movable Type's Main and Extended Entry fields (and the latter only through a proprietary HTML tag). It did not support MT's other fields and especially MT's multiple category selection. Zempt was developed specifically to support Movable Type. Zempt 0.4 also has improved support for TypePad posts. Be aware that most, if not all, of the new Zempt download mirror links are broken. However, Zempt's support forum posted this SourceForge download link to provide access.

With all that said, w.bloggar wins hands down for having a well-polished GUI interface for quite some time. It has excellent HTML and other editing features, and has great support for uploading and coding images into your blog posts. Whenever I have a post with an associated image, I automatically turn to w.bloggar because it's just so easy to use for this task. It also supports a large number of blogging systems. Up to now, the trade-off has been the lack of full MT field and category support. w.bloggar 4.00 Release Candidate 2 (RC2) is available for download, and has added much of the missing Movable Type feature support to finally bring it on par with Zempt for MT users. While I haven't experienced any problems with RC2, be aware that it's not a final release -- more like a late beta. The final version 4.00 release is slated for December 16th.

Topic(s):   Blogging Tips
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December 03, 2004

Get a Great Wi-Fi Seeker for $10 at CompUSA

Until I can post highlights of my Mobile Lawyering presentation, I wanted to pass on a great deal on a good Wi-Fi signal detector: This week, CompUSA has the Mobile Edge Wi-Fi Signal Locator on sale for $19.99 with a $10 rebate, so it's only $9.99 after rebate. (This is not a typo, as I bought one myself).

To my knowledge, this makes it the smallest and lowest cost Wi-Fi signal detector on the market -- well, at least for the remainder of this week on price. So hurry if you want to get in on this deal. It probably went on sale this past Sunday, so you may only have today and Saturday to get the full sale and rebate savings. Otherwise, it generally sells for $29.99 retail, and between $25-$30 at most online stores before S&H (although eBay has them between $19-$22 before S&H). They also make great presents.

This is the same unit as I've posted about previously. It's made by Chrysalis Development and is also branded as the Wi-Fi Seeker, WiFi Spy and the PCTEL WiFi Seeker.

I'm currently evaluating several Wi-Fi signal detectors and will be publishing my experiences shortly. This was such a great deal that I had to pass it along in the interim.

[Update 12.05.04: It looks like this was just a one-week special. As CompUSA now has it marked up to $39.99, it's more expensive than even the manufacturer's site. Froogle has better online deals listed for the Mobile Edge branded version as well as the Wi-Fi Seeker version.]

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets
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December 02, 2004

LawTech Guru Goes Platinum

Upon returning from the long, snowy drive from the 2004 Midwest Law & Technology Conference in Chicago, I was pleasantly surprised to see my blog surpassed the one million hits mark for the year.

The jury is still out on the statistical reliance on site hits, especially since some of them are caused by web bots, spiders, crawlers, and the like. However, as this site intentionally has very few graphic files, the vast majority of the hits relate to the substantive content. While it may not be a perfect measuring stick, surpassing a million hits is a noteworthy accomplishment, especially on a non-commercial site run by a single person. So say what you will about hits, but I'm pretty excited.

Looking back, what a difference a year makes. For me, the real "sparking moment" for LawTech Guru came during Tom Mighell's and Sabrina Pacifici's incredible blog presentation at the ABA TECHSHOW 2003 -- talk about a valuable take-away. It felt like a 60,000 watt light bulb went on in my head. I already had the domain name, but was seeking something much more dynamic than a conventional web site.

Seeing Rick Klau blog live from TECHSHOW via Wi-Fi clearly illustrated this was a giant leap forward from what came before. Updating a web site was now as easy as sending a lightly HTML-formatted e-mail from any location and device with Internet access. I discovered early on that RSS news feeds added tremendous reach. I think most bloggers will agree that when the heart of a passionate writer meshes with an enabling technology, the result is a quantum leap. That, and it definitely helps to have fantastic colleagues like Dennis Kennedy, Jerry Lawson, Larry Bodine, and Rick Klau. They let me bounce a number of ideas and blog designs off them, gave me plenty of food for thought and a nice introduction into the blogosphere. Thanks guys.

In addition, thanks to all of you who've stopped by this site or downloaded an RSS feed. It's very satisfying for me to give something back through this blog, and I'm glad to see so many are finding it interesting and useful.

Topic(s):   Blogging Tips  |  Other Musings
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