Cool Yule Tools 2016: Digital disruption at Santa's Workshop

The 17th annual Network World holiday gift guide has something for every techie (and techie-wanna-be) on your list.

silicon santa banner 3 Stephen Sauer
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Home infrastructure (routers, printers, etc.)

Eero Wi-Fi mesh router
$200 each (or three-pack for $500)
More info: www.eero.com

Eero is at the top-of-the class for the new wave of Wi-Fi mesh router systems, which utilize small nodes as wireless access points that get placed around the home. This differs from a traditional Wi-Fi setup, in which a giant router is connected to a broadband modem (or integrated with the modem), and then extenders are connected to expand upon the wireless range.

In the case of eero’s mesh, one of the three nodes gets connected to the broadband modem, with the other nodes being spread out to different parts of your home. Each node then talks with the other, providing for more wireless range and fast speeds (it’s all 802.11ac compatible). In addition, owners can access network functions and statistics via the eero mobile app, including the ever-popular “Pause the Internet” button that gets your kids down to dinner or back to doing their homework.

See the full review here.

-- Keith Shaw

Circle by Disney
$100
More info: https://meetcircle.com/

If you don’t like dealing with parental control options found on most Wi-Fi routers as well as additional filtering options, the Circle by Disney device is worth a peek.

The device attaches to your existing router (via wired Ethernet cable, or you can go wireless if you want) to act as a passthrough device for all Internet traffic on the same network. You can then set up profiles for users on the network (mainly your kids, but you can do this with adults too), based on the devices that they are using. Then you can monitor traffic to make sure they don’t go to malicious sites, as well as control when those devices can get internet access (through scheduling and other features). This is all done through a well-designed mobile application that is easy to understand.

See the full review here to learn more about Circle.

-- Keith Shaw

Roqos Core Wi-Fi router
$19 (plus $17 per month subscription, one-year subscription required)
More info: https://www.roqos.com/

For parents looking to monitor internet usage or regulate how much time their kids spend online, there’s a new class of device coming out that takes those settings away from the browser-based control systems and puts them into smartphone and tablet apps. One such device is the Roqos Core, which builds itself as a “cloud-based Wi-Fi router”, which means you’re getting a lot of services via the cloud – you still have a physical device that sits in your house.

The Core attaches to your broadband modem and provides Wi-Fi coverage throughout the house, but then adds cybersecurity protections (including on-device Deep Packet Inspection) as well as the ability to monitor user profiles (aka your kids) through the smartphone app.

See the full review here.

-- Keith Shaw

TP-LINK Talon 802.11ad router (model AD7200)
$350
More info: http://www.tp-link.us/products/details/cat-5506_AD7200.html

We’re finally seeing products come out that utilize 802.11ad technology, and this router from TP-Link is one of the first routers (on the notebook side, Acer has a model with an 802.11ad adapter). Utilizing the 60GHz frequency (also known as WiGig), the technology gives high-speed data transfer in a very short distance. This short distance (and line of sight requirements) is what seems to limit the usefulness of the technology, especially in a home setting where you have walls, furniture and other things that could obstruct the signal, slowing it down.

Still, many people think that we’ll see new uses for 802.11ad technology, such as wireless streaming of content from a notebook or tablet to a TV or monitor. At some point, when more clients include the 802.11ad technology, you’re going to need a router.

In addition to the 802.11ad technology, the router includes support for 2.4GHz and 5GHz, so all of your older wireless equipment will be able to connect to the router. Like traditional Wi-Fi routers, this includes four Ethernet LAN ports, and two USB 3.0 ports, for connecting a USB-enabled printer or USB-enabled hard drive. Setup is done either wirelessly from a notebook/browser or hardwired Ethernet connection (it was much easier this way). If you’ve ever set up a router before, it will be easy to set up this one.

To test the 802.11ad connection, I attached a USB hard drive to the router and then connected to the router via the 60GHz connection. I used the Acer notebook and then sat about five feet away from the router with a direct line of sight between the notebook and router. I then proceeded to transfer a folder of video files (189 files totaling 14.9GB of space) to the hard drive.

The results? Yes, the 60GHz connection does provide a faster data transfer rate (about 34M to 36MBps) than I got sending the same files over the same distance for the 5 GHz (25MBps) and the 2.4 (10.1MBps) connections. However, directly connecting the notebook to the router via Ethernet got me a faster data transfer speed (between 43M to 45MBps). Since I was in the same location, it seems to make more sense to use a wired connection instead of the 60GHz connection. But maybe there’s some future scenario where this makes sense for you.

That said, if you’re looking for a new Wi-Fi router and want to be ready for when more 802.11ad devices and scenarios come about, this model is definitely the front-runner.

-- Keith Shaw

Starry Wi-Fi Station
$300
More info: https://starry.com/station

Wi-Fi routers come in many shapes and sizes, but this is the first one we’ve ever seen that has come in as a triangle. The Starry Station (or Starry Wi-Fi Station as we like to call it) is a Wi-Fi router (dual network covers 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies) with a very cool touchscreen interface. This interface not only makes setup simple, but also provides you with interesting statistics about the health of your network once it’s up and running.

The interface walks you through the steps of setup, providing you with suggestions on both an SSID and passwords via a random word generator. It’s fun just going through the random suggestions, but in the end we stuck with our own names and passwords, which the interface lets you type in quite easily.

Like other new consumer-brand Wi-Fi routers, this one comes with an app, not just to monitor the health of the network, but to bring parental controls front and center instead of managing them through a web browser.

Another great feature – on-demand support – if you’re having problems with anything on the network, you can request a support call from the router, and they’ll call the number that you type in. Very nice!

-- Keith Shaw

Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit Router
$350
More info: http://www.linksys.com/us/p/P-EA9500/ 

So you’re probably wondering why a shiny new Wi-Fi router might make a good holiday gift – after all, whatever broadband service your giftee has included Wi-Fi capability with the router they require. Who, then, needs another one?

Well, I hate to phrase it in this manner, this being the holiday season and all, but that stock router is likely a piece of wireless reindeer dung. Seldom is the performance in terms of throughput or range adequate, and it’s most certainly not the latest available technology with all of the benefits associated therein. Want to stream to the upstairs back bedroom? Good luck!

This again being the season of miracles, that good luck has in fact arrived with the latest barn-burner of a residential router, the Linksys EA9500. Linksys is one of the most respected (and, indeed, storied) names in residential networking, and the EA9500 hits all the high notes – once it’s up and running, anyway (more below). It’s based on Wave 2 of the IEEE 802.11ac standard, which means it includes support for multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO). We couldn’t test this feature because we don’t at present have any client devices that support it, but, rest assured, the technology works and this router is thus about as future-proof (say for three or four years) as they come. And, oh yes, if you need it, aggregate peak rated throughput is 5.3Gbps, spread across one 2.4 GHz. and two 5-GHz. channels, again about as good as it gets today. One caution: it looks like a huge spider on its back, but that should trouble only the most arachnophobic among us.

Setup was a bit of a pain – like most contemporary routers, there’s a faked-up Wi-Fi ID and password used for initially making contact – the details are on a label on the bottom of the unit and in the Quick-Start Guide in the box. Make sure the unit is connected to the internet via the internet (router) port during setup. A firmware update might be performed at this point. Once you’re done with that, you can proceed to setting initial configuration parameters - for my test, just a static IP (which is a bit counterintuitive, involving setting “bridge mode”) and the production Wi-Fi IDs and passwords. Unfortunately, this process took way too long and wasn’t as intuitive as it should be. Beware that changes are applied right away as you make them, meaning you may lose connectivity in the process, and you might even, gulp, need to hard-reset and start over until you get the gestalt of this device. Linksys needs to rethink its user interface (and the skimpy documentation, even if it does come in almost every language spoken on this planet) big time.

But once it’s up and running, the router can hit the infamous upstairs back bedroom with a signal sufficient to handle demanding multimedia applications. We had no issues with radio performance. Since 5.3Gbps is way faster than any residential-class broadband service, you won’t have any worries about performance. But it does beg the question - does anyone really need 5.3Gbps? Well, not really – but routers in this class are really more about capacity and coverage than throughput.

Other key features include an available app for management, eight (yes, eight!) Gigabit Ethernet ports plus the router port (really convenient), and two USB ports (one 3.0, for connecting storage devices and printers). Yes, configuration can be a challenge, but for most it’s a one-off process and then it’s off to the back bedroom for some binge watching – in glorious HD. With a few firmware and documentation improvements, anyway, this one’s a keeper.

-- C.J. Mathias 

Linksys RE7000 Max-Stream AC1900+ Wi-Fi Range Extender
$130
More info: http://www.linksys.com/us/p/P-RE7000/ 

Wi-Fi range extenders (also known as repeaters) have been around for some time. What they do in effect is boost the signal from a Wi-Fi router, invisibly and transparently sitting between the router and client. Even the best routers can have issues reaching the upstairs bedroom, the back yard, the garage, and so on, as signals fade with distance and obstructions like intervening walls. Sure, a new router might solve the problem, but even with new routers larger spaces can still find coverage and adequate throughput lacking. Think, then, of a repeater as a device that juices up the radio waves but is otherwise, once configured, invisible in operation.

With 802.11ac now the standard to look for in any new purchase (much improved overall throughput and capacity over the venerable 802.11n), the Linksys RE7000 AC1900+ Range Extender deserves your consideration. Remember, your giftee doesn’t have to change anything in their network infrastructure – just take a few minutes setting this up and it’s like a magic hand has reached into the old router and turned up the volume (which, of course, the FCC would frown upon if there were magic hands). Repeaters, though, are perfectly legal. This one supports the latest Wave 2 802.11ac technology. A big plus as well – there’s an Ethernet jack to connect wired devices – invaluable, for example, a Blu-ray player that lacks Wi-Fi.

Setup was simple – the device itself was small, but it does consume the bottom socket on a standard AC wall-plate. Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) is available, so all one needs to do is push a button on the router to be extended and another button on the RE7000. But this being Network World (no simple shortcuts for us) – a browser-based setup is also available. Plug in the unit, and it fakes up an access point. Connect to that with any browser (we used a Chromebook), and you have complete control over all configuration parameters. There’s even a little graph to help you find the ideal spot for the device. The RE7000 can even function as a regular wired access point, using the Ethernet jack to connect to the backbone network. But most people will want this unit for its repeater functionality. Note that the extended network will have a slightly different SSID from the first, but roaming is supported – no worries.

My house isn’t that big, and I have mostly high-end wireless gear installed, but it did turn four bars into five using one of the older access points. The RE7000 will work with any brand of router.

-- C.J. Mathias

APC Network Battery Backup and Mobile Power Pack
$120 (available at Best Buy)
More info: http://www.apc.com/shop/ca/en/products/APC-Back-UPS-Connect-50-120V-Lithium-Ion-Network-Backup-and-Mobile-Power-Pack/P-BGE50ML

For years, the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) has been something you’d have for a desktop computer system, giving you enough battery power to save your work or get things done if you experienced a power outage. It was big and bulky and you probably never noticed it was there until you needed it.

With advances in computer technology, battery life and the move towards mobile devices, the UPS has likely moved even further back of your mind. But there is one area where having a UPS can be beneficial again (and yes, even as a gift idea) – network/modem/router backup.

The Network Battery Backup and Mobile Power Pack serves two purposes. First, it’s aimed at protecting your broadband modem and one additional device (in my case, I have a separate Wi-Fi router). Plug those devices into this device, and they’re protected by the battery in the device. The second purpose is that the mobile power pack can be removed and act as a portable power charger for use on the road for your smartphones or other USB-connected devices (cables sold separately).

The company says the battery pack offers up to 2.5 hours of battery life when triggered, which should be enough time to continue using mobile devices in order to notify people of the power outage, or make a phone call via your VoIP-enabled phone. Yes, it also means that your kids can continue to use the internet for Netflix, games or whatever else they love doing – this could give you some much-needed peace of mind during those times when the power’s out (although, if the internet provider also has electrical gear beyond your house that goes out, well, then you’re out of luck).

-- Keith Shaw

EPSON Expression ET-3600 EcoTank All-in-One
$400
More info: http://www.epson.com/cgi-bin/Store/jsp/Product.do?sku=C11CF73201#BVRRWidgetID

Another inevitability of life (apart from death and taxes) is that you’ll run out of a specific ink cartridge when you are printing up that crucial document or photo (or worse, for your kids’ homework project). If you don’t have a backup, it means a quick trip to the office supply store to find a compatible cartridge. If you’re lucky, they’ll have the right one, but then comes the sticker shock when you see how much money the cartridges cost.

EPSON (which is fully in this business, mind you) wanted to develop another way to deal with ink, so it developed its EcoTank system, which uses bottles of ink instead of cartridges. You fill up ink tanks with the four colors (black, cyan, magenta and yellow), and then hopefully you can go for a long, long time before you run out of ink. EPSON says the initial system contains enough ink to print up to 11,000 pages of black and up to 8,500-color pages before you need a refill, which is the equivalent to about 50 ink cartridges.

There is a higher up-front cost, of course, so deciding to go this route means that you’ll have to forgo the less expensive printer options at the time of purchase. But in theory, you should be able to either recoup those costs or save money depending on your ink usage.

The all-in-one printer also includes scanning and copying features, making this excellent for a small business or work-at-home user who wants both good document and photo printing. There’s only one paper tray (unlike some systems we’ve used that have two), so if you switch between printing emails and photos you have to remember which paper is in the system. The ET-3600 also connects to your Wi-Fi network quite easily, as well as EPSON’s other print-based smartphone apps (although we were disappointed it didn’t support the new EPSON Creative app).

One bit of warning – make sure you wear gloves and have covered the surface below the printer when you’re adding the ink from the bottles. You may think you’re the most careful person in the world, but you will likely get ink on your gloves and will clean up some drops of ink when adding to the tank from the bottles.

-- Keith Shaw

Peerless HDS300 peerAir Pro Wireless A/V Multimedia System
$500 (Amazon)
More info: https://www.amazon.com/Peerless-HDS300-Peerair-Wireless-Multimedia/dp/B01A60Y4OQ/ref=sr_1_sc_1

Many people, myself included, want to send HDMI-based video somewhere in the house where the cable box just isn’t. Wireless seems like the ideal solution here, but every single wireless HDMI product I’ve ever tried (and I’ve tried a lot of them) has been a disappointment. Some were spectacular failures, and the rest had enough freezes and dropouts so as to render them useless. HDMI bridges using Ethernet cables are available, but that requires running wires. Bummer.

Enter the HDS300 peerAir Pro system from Peerless. I’d never heard of these guys, but the reviews elsewhere were practically glowing, and, wireless technology having advanced over the years, the holiday gifting season presented a good opportunity to dip my toes back into the wireless HDMI space once again. If it works, after all, who wouldn’t want one of these this holiday season? Especially since it supports 1080p (full HD) video.

The required transmitter and receiver boxes are identical in size, about the equivalent of a tiny bread box. Stands are included for vertical placement if desired. The transmitter supports three separate HDMI sources (and thus an integral HDMI switch) and HDMI out, so you don’t need a splitter to connect to a TV at the transmission point. It also has connections for Ethernet (if you’d rather use a wire to connect the two boxes) and USB (for firmware updates only), a PC via a VGA connector, and a stereo-audio jack. There’s also a jack for the included IR sensor, which allows remote-control signals to be sent to the other end as well. The receiver has a single HDMI out, component and composite video outputs, the corresponding IR jack, stereo audio out on RCA jacks and a 3.5 mm jack, and, again, Ethernet and USB.

The over-the-air technology is 802.11n in the 5-GHz spectrum, but these units do not attach to any existing Wi-Fi networks you might have – they just consume a radio channel, which is set automatically. Security is via WPA2, the same as any other well-equipped Wi-Fi solution today. Multicast is also supported, with the possibility of up to six distinct receivers in a single installation - interesting. There’s even an IR remote control to select video inputs and outputs. This one really has it all – the most complete implementation of any product of this type that I’ve ever seen.

But does it work, and how well? After placing the transmitter and receiver and connecting (via 1080p HDMI, of course) to a Chromebook on the send side and a monitor on the receive side, both units were powered up. About 30 seconds later – it works! Latency (the specification was 40ms), was imperceptible. Video quality was absolutely excellent. Finally, the infamous Farpoint Group Video Torture Test – wireless HDMI from the basement to our Wireless Media Facility, a/k/a the second floor back bedroom. Flawless! Hold all calls – we finally have a winner!

I want one. You want one. Anyone getting one of these for the holidays will be your friend forever.

-- C.J. Mathias

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