Review: iPad

We’ve had a few iPads at work since April, and one of them is presently assigned to me as I optimize our web viewer for the WiFi iPad and iPhone. While I’ve taken it home a few times to give it a whirl, our Memorial Day trip to Michigan was my first real serious time using it.  I decided to bring it with me instead of my laptop, just to see what it was like using it regularly. My experience was very pleasant.  Here are some random observations:

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Review: Netgear MCAB1001 MoCA Coax-Ethernet Adapter Kit

(Note: If you haven’t already, and are interested in some of the background of my needs and this testing, you should read my earlier review of powerline networking hardware)

So after the disappointment of the powerline networking experiment, I decided to give MoCA hardware a shot. If it performed as advertised, MoCA made sense in our house: There were already live cable drops in both the rooms in question, and the technology seemed far less jankier than powerline. So I ordered the Netgear MCAB1001 MoCA kit, which included two endpoints. This review will be much shorter than the last one.

I love this hardware. In fact, I really only have two gripes which I could think of:

  • The configuration utility is Windows only, and is basically required due to…
  • One of the endpoints was configured in “All Pass”, which lets MoCA overrun the frequencies used for television.  One of the reviewers on Amazon mentioned this as well, so I knew to look out for it.  Fortunately I was able to use the configuration utility in a virtual machine I already had lying around, so I wasn’t stuck.  But if you’re a non-Windows user, you’d be screwed as far as I can tell. (Update: See the comments for a non-windows way to accomplish this)

Installation of this hardware was as straightforward as the powerline hardware:  Hook up the endpoints and you’re live.  The endpoints even have a button which disables all of the front panel LEDs, which should be a feature on every piece of hardware.  Time to cut to the chase and get to the numbers:

milgrim$ time nc -v -v -n pbook 2222 < big-file.bin
Connection to pbook 2222 port [tcp/*] succeeded!
124.98 real         4.20 user        31.90 sys

(1,073,741,824 bytes) / (124.98 seconds) = 65.5464874 Mbps

Compared to the 15 Mbps I got from the powerline hardware, this was literally night and day.  And this was using the USB Ethernet adapter on my Air, so I doubt it’s fully flexing the bandwidth available.  Almost as important as the bandwidth (and the reason I sat on this review for awhile) is the reliability.  After I wrote the powerline review I learned that I was seeing all kinds of dropouts and failures.  But the MoCA hardware has been seemingly rock-solid. I’ve done many large data transfers over the link and seen no trouble whatsoever.

I’ve been so pleased with this gear, that I’ve considered getting a third endpoint to put in the basement and move some ‘headless’ hardware down there (cable modem, Slingbox, time capsule, etc), as it’d be really easy to run a Coax drop down there.  Actually, I think the only barrier to that right now is that all the power in the basement is on the common circuit of the house, so I’d have to install an outlet that comes off of our breaker panel.  Anyway, I’m rather pleased with this hardware, and if you have similar needs, you might want to give it a spin yourself.

Powerline Ethernet Revisited

So the grand experiment with Powerline Networking has effectively come to a end.  Besides the MUCH lower than advertised bandwidth, which I decided to tolerate (since it was better than my WDS WiFI setup to extend the WiFi range), I’ve seen many dropouts in the past few weeks.  They are rather short dropouts, and always seem to resolve themselves on their own, they are significant enough to disrupt my transfers from the TiVo.  It’s not fun waiting a few hours to pull a 20GB HD Movie off the TiVo just to have the transfer get interrupted.

So I’m going to sell the Powerline gear on ebay and give some Netgear MoCA hardware a swing.  Review TK.

Review: Netgear HDXB111 Powerline HD Plus Ethernet Adapter Kit

Update: This equipment worked less effectively than I had thought when I originally wrote this review.  See this post for an update.

Update 2: Since some people don’t seem to be interested in clicking the above ‘update’ link, I’ll put some detail here.  This hardware is crap, don’t buy it.  Not only is it ridiculously slow, it drops connections all the time making your network useless for transferring large files (or streams).  I unloaded the powerline gear and replaced it with Multimedia over Coax (MoCA) hardware, which allows you to use your Cable TV coax for networking (in addition to TV).


When we first moved into the new house, I initially set up a single WRT54G access point (running dd-wrt) in the office in the back of the house. I quickly learned, however, that this location didn’t provide much signal to the rooms in the front of the house, most notably, the living room. Fortunately, I had a second WRT54G lying around as well as a good place to hide it in the dining room, so I set up WDS and used it to extend the network to the front of the house. This has been our basic network configuration for almost two years now. The equipment in the front of the house which requires network, such as the Xbox 360 and the Tivo, all have wireless adapters which are served by this second access point.

This was mostly dandy for your everyday bullshit web browsing and checking email. But as I started to put more demand on the network by pulling HD content off the Tivo, renting HD movies on the 360, as well as things like Netflix streaming, it started to creak. Truth was that not only was the signal between the office and the dining room pretty lousy, but just using WDS halved the bandwidth available to wireless clients. It was time to find a better solution.

The obvious solution is to use wired ethernet to distribute the network around the house. Unfortunately, our condo is the middle floor of a 3 story house, which means no access directly below or above us to easily run Cat5. While it wouldn’t be impossible to get some Cat5 snaked through the walls into the basement, it wouldn’t be easy or fun. If I took on this project, it would turn into a complete mess. If we hired someone to do it it’d likely be prohibitively expensive. Neither

nor myself are interested in running Cat5 visibly around the house, so that’s not an option either.

Unable to come up with a true solution to this problem, I shelved it, accepting the status quo. A few days ago it occurred to me that there had been some companies developing equipment to send data over the electrical wiring of a home. Reviews on this equipment seemed to be pretty mixed, though. Some people raved about how brain-dead simple it was and how well it worked. Others complained it didn’t work at all. After some hemming and hawing, I decided to just give it a shot and if the equipment sucked I could always just resell it. I ended up ordering the Netgear HDXB111 Powerline HD Plus kit. It advertised a top speed of 200Mbps, but of course, actual data rates may vary…

I received the equipment yesterday and spent part of the evening doing some basic testing. First off, the actual setup of this equipment is just as brain-dead as advertised. I plugged each of the units in on opposite sides of the house and within a few seconds had link. That was it, it just worked right out of the box, no configuration, software, or anything else required. There was one other optional, but important, step, which was to ‘randomize’ the encryption keys used by the device. Out of the box, the key is set to a default value, but there is a ‘pairing’ procedure which generates a ‘random’ key and distributes it among the devices. You hold the “Security” button on the first device, and it goes through some motions and decides it is the primary device and generates a key. Then you hold the button on that device again, a light starts blinking, and you have 30 seconds to hold the button on another device. This distributes the key to the second device and you are, in theory, more secure. It apparently uses 3DES, but that requires trusting Netgear, so as always, it’s in your best interests to never rely on it. There is also some Windows-only (ick) management software you can install if you wish to use your own keys. Either way, it’s a pretty simple procedure and when you are done, you have link.

Before I started testing the speed of this equipment, though, I figured it was wise to benchmark the existing setup. I created an empty 1GB file to use for testing. 1GB might seem excessive, but I wanted to make sure I had enough time to get past TCP’s slow start and get a good idea of the maximum speeds involved. So the first set of benchmark numbers are sending data from my MacBook Air in the Office connected via 802.11g to Corinna’s Powerbook G4 in the Living Room connected via 802.11g to the second AP:

milgrim$ time nc -v -v -n pbook 2222 < big-file.bin
Connection to pbook 2222 port [tcp/*] succeeded!
968.65 real         9.04 user        44.13 sys

(1,073,741,824 bytes) / (968.65 seconds) = 8.45713106 Mbps

So the performance of my existing setup using WDS was so much worse than I had imagined. I had never really bothered to test it before, and was truly surprised at how slow it was. Next up, I plugged in the first Powerline adapter in the office and patched it into the WRT54G’s switch. I set up the second Powerline adapter in the Living Room and connected the Powerbook directly to it:

milgrim$ time nc -v -v -n pbook 2222 < big-file.bin
Connection to pbook 2222 port [tcp/*] succeeded!
545.85 real         7.88 user        65.73 sys

(1,073,741,824 bytes) / (545.85 seconds) = 15.007786 Mbps

For those keeping score at home, 15Mbps is much slower than 200Mbps. Even though I had never expected to get anywhere close to the advertised bandwidth, I was pretty disappointed. While 15Mbps was almost twice as fast as my existing setup, it was still rather slow. I tried removing some equipment from the equation, connecting the MacBook Air directly to the office powerline adapter (so the two laptops were, in theory, “directly connected”), but I got very similar numbers. I then wired both laptops directly into the same 100Mbps switch and re-ran the test, and got around 60Mbps, so the laptops themselves were not the limiting factor. I also tried placing the two endpoints in the same room, using different power outlets on the same wall, and the speed went up a bit closer to 25Mbps, although I managed to lose the hard numbers.

So where do I stand on this technology? Disappointed, but likely sticking with it for the time being. Even though the throughput is MUCH lower than I had hoped, it is still better than what I had. And until I can figure out a way to get real Cat5 between the two rooms, I don’t really see any other solution on the horizon. I’m certain that the slow speed is due to some noise in my wiring, but being that the wiring is new within the past 5 years, I’m guessing it is some device creating the noise. I guess I could try to figure out what it is, but I probably won’t. I’ll likely keep dicking around with the devices to see if I can get them to run any faster, and until then I’ll take what I can get. Someday I’ll either get physical wire between the two rooms or find another solution, and then I’ll unload the equipment.. But until then I guess it will have to do.

Review: Frontrunner

“Frontrunner” follows
the presidential campaign of Dr. Massouda Jalal, a woman who ran in
the 2004 Afghanistan presidential election. The film moves from her
impressive performance in the 2002 interim presidental election through her
2004 campaign. Jalal entered a heated political environment emerging from
Taliban rule, and seeing the struggles and successes of her campaign was
fascinating as an outsider.

While this subject was fascinating, the film itself was a bit
disappointing. I just don’t believe there was enough meat for this to be a
90-minute feature film. Sometimes, instead of using other techniques to
communicate some of the periods of waiting, the film just showed the
waiting. This might have been fine once or twice, but it felt overused in
this film. I also would have liked to see more interviews with the
public, both her supporters and her detractors.

This wasn’t a bad film, but I think it may have been better as a
60-minute PBS special (or if it had had more of the public voice).

Review: The Greening of Southie

“The Greening
of Southie”
documents the construction and design of the Macallen
building in South Boston. Macallen is Boston’s first residential “green”
building, and the goal in desigining it was to achieve LEED “Gold” certification. The
film begins with the foreman briefing the crew on day one and continues
through the first residents moving in.

This was a pretty well-paced film, and took time to explain how the LEED
point system worked and how several design decisions effected the score.
Not only were the design and construction phases shown, but the film also
travels to the source of many of the materials, many of which were local to
New England, as LEED emphasizes local materials.

One of the things which struck me about this film was how the
construction workers reacted to the green mission of this building. Some
were skeptical, some embraced it, and others simply didn’t care one way or
another. Most seemed to acknowledge that green methodologies and design
would likely continue to effect their work moving forward. It is in these
interviews where the film finds its heart.

This film is airing occasionally on Sundance, so if
you are interested in green building or just want to see a solid documentary
with great interviews, check it out.

Review: Nerdcore Rising

“Nerdcore Rising” is a
documentary following the first national tour of the Godfather of so-called
“Nerdcore Rap”, Damian Hess, a.k.a. MC Frontalot, and his band.
Featuring interviews with figures such as Prince Paul, “Weird Al” Yankovic,
and Jello Biafra, this film spends some time upfront explaining and
justifying Nerdcore as a genre. From the beginning I was skeptical, and
honestly, I’m not exactly sure when a genre becomes ‘real’. In fact, I
suspect some of the musicians themselves are equally skeptical of the label,
but I guess in modern marketing, everything needs a classification.

Frontalot’s songs lean towards the witty and clever, but as Prince Paul
points out at one point, originally rap was about clever rhymes and
outsmarting your fellow MCs. Their tour resembles many bands first tours,
playing to sparse clubs, but computer nerds tend to be loyal to their own,
and there always seemed to be someone at each show who knew the songs.
There is a solid mix of live footage with backstage/van interviews, as well
as with other musicians and comedians.

I’m still not sold on the viability of Nerdcore in general, but that
doesn’t really hurt the film. Frontalot is charming if awkward, and his
band is a pretty fun funk unit. They are an amusing lot on and off the
stage, and this film does a great job of presenting it’s story.

Review: Big Man Japan (Dai-Nipponjin)

“Big Man Japan” is a
faux-documentary which follows a year in the life of the current “Big Man
Japan”, Masaru Daisatou. Japan has employed a members of Masaru’s family
for several generations as the first line of defense against the plague of
giant monsters attacking Japan on a regular basis. Through a process
involving an electrical substation, Masaru’s size is increased until he is
towering over tall buildings. Unfortunately, while Masaru’s predecessors
were treated like heroes, Masaru is practically discarded.

The special effects in this movie aren’t great, but neither were the
rubber suits they are replacing. The movie isn’t quite logical, but it’s
fun. The various monsters that Masaru has to battle are hilarious, and the
“data sheets” that appear before the battles are great as well. Masaru is
greeted by the public with indifference at best, and he seems to exist
outside of society. The ending ups the nonsense level to 11 and leaves you
wondering if you were actually supposed to understand what was going on.

This movie isn’t for everyone, but if you enjoyed Toho-style monster
movies, you should definitely be entertained. Even if you are annoyed by
the ending, the time leading up to it is full of gems. This isn’t a movie
you need to hunt down, but when it’s available on Netflix, give it a
spin.

Review: Second Skin

“Second Skin” is a
documentary focusing on gamers who play Massively Multiplayer Online
Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs). It follows a few small groups of gamers
distributed around the country, all playing either World of Warcraft (WoW)
or Everquest II (EQ2). All are rather committed to their games, some
consider themselves addicted, with one entering himself into a 12-step
program to try and break is addiction

Given how easily these subjects could have been played for laughs, I felt
this movie was surprisingly even-handed. There were clearly some moments
where humor was at the expense of the subjects, but they were few and far
between. It was suprising in the Q&A with the filmmakers after the
screening that the first question was basically a complaint that the film
showed gamers in a negative light. It seemed clear to me that this person
was just bringing their own baggage to the event.

That’s not to say that the movie didn’t have it’s flaws. The
“storylines” of the various sets of subjects were intercut, and at times it
was difficult to keep track of the relationships and who the various players
were. I also would have liked to see more information about the rehab
facility. The woman who ran the facility seemed to have a very negative
opinion of gamers, accusing them of feigned helplessness and laziness. She
didn’t strike me as emitting the kind of energy that someone in recovery
really needs. And as far as I can tell from the film, her only
accreditation is that her son was an addicted gamer. The film presented her
as a very negative character, and I wonder how true that is.

Online gamers are often dismissed as anti-social losers, but this look
into the lives of gamers and the relationships built between them is an
interesting counterpoint to conventional wisdom.

Review: Transsiberian

The Independent Film Festival of Boston opened yesterday at the Somerville Theatre with the new Brad Anderson film “Transsiberian”. Anderson has a pretty good record so far, with Next Stop Wonderland, Session 9, and The Machinist, so I was rather excited to see his new work.

Transsiberian follows Jessie (Emily Mortimer) and Roy (Woody Harrelson) as they return from an aid mission in China. Roy, as a huge train nerd, wants to take his wife on a bit of an adventure, so they take the Transsiberian railway from China to Moscow. They share a cabin with Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara), a couple who appears to have some secrets. As you may guess, some bad things ensue during this week-long journey.

The previous paragraph sounds makes this film sound cookie-cutter, but I’m happy to report that every time I felt I had the movie figured out it threw me a great curve ball. There were times where I felt the pace bog down a bit, but just as I started to think about it I would get surprised by a twist. These twists didn’t feel contrived, they weren’t bricks over the head, they were subtle surprises that drew you further into the story.

The movie wasn’t perfect, but it was really good. Mortimer was clearly the star, and she delivered a fantastic performance. The supporting actors were all solid as well, although Harrelson’s character was more of a caricature, being the comic relief in a rather serious film.. Unfortunately, his levity felt shoehorned in at times… When the film ended, my first instinct was that it needed about 10 minutes trimmed, but I think this was a kneejerk reaction. In all reality, if it weren’t for the moments of feeling slightly bogged down, I don’t think the payoff of the twists would have felt as special.

After the film, the director, co-writer, and Sir Ben Kingsley himself did a very nice Q&A session, even in the face of some rather rude audience members who were talking over them and getting up and leaving en masse mid sentence. But the three of them gave pretty good, considered answers to all of the questions asked.