Friday, May 31, 2013

What I Use: Samsung Galaxy S4

Tragedy struck several days ago and my once beloved HTC Trophy was the victim of an unfortunate accident. True be told, I dropped it and while it bounces very well, I soon discovered that it's not too durable. Anyway, I needed to get another smartphone.

Definitely wasn't going to get another HTC Trophy, not because it was a bad phone but because it is limited to Windows Phone 7. I had just upgraded my wife to the Nokia Lumia 822, which is actually a nice Windows Phone 8 device. However, when I started thinking about the functionality that I needed (translation: specific apps that I wanted), Windows Phone 8, while nice, just did not meet my needs like I wished it would. Wasn't interested in getting an iPhone since I already have a work-provided iPhone 5. Then like a light shining from the heavens, I saw the Samsung Galaxy S4 (queue in angelic music now and release the doves to fly by in the background in slow motion).

I have never used an Android smartphone in the past because frankly they were kinda crappy at the time compared to the iPhone. However, with the release of Android 4.2 (better known as Jelly Bean), Android smartphones started looking more attractive. Add to the fact that I use my Nexus 7 tablet daily and recently purchased a 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 for my daughter, my decision to go with the Samsung Galaxy S4 became much easier.

While I am still learning the ins and outs of the Samsung Galaxy S4, the basic specs are pretty impressive:

  • Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean (beneath the highly customized Touch Wiz interface)
  • 1.9GHz Quad Core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 Processor
  • 16GB on board memory + 2GB RAM 
  • 5-inch HD Super AMOLED Corning Gorilla Glass 3 Touch Screen  Display (1920 x 1080)
  • 13MP rear-facing and 2.0MP front-facing cameras
  • NFC
  • 4G LTE
  • Support for microSD up to 64MB
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Removeable battery with a life up to 17 hours (under normal usage)

At 5.4 inches tall by 2.8 inches by 0.3 inch thick, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is comfortable to hold given it's large screen size (and still fits nicely in my pocket). However, unlike other smartphones such as the iPhone and HTC One, it is made of plastic instead of aluminum and glass, which can make it look and feel a bit cheap to some people. Definitely not a deal breaker. 

As I familiarize myself with all the cool features such as Air Gestures and Multi Window (Google Now is cool on a tablet but amazing on a phone), I am pretty impressed by the Samsung Galaxy S4. Like the Nexus 7 tablet, it has shown how far Google has come with the Android mobile platform. This is the idea smartphone to have if you are looking to upgrade your current Android phone or trying to avoid getting locked into devices from Apple or Microsoft.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Building a Computer for A+ Study Part IV: RAM

Part four in a series on the basics of building a computer to prepare for the A+ certification exams.

RAM

RAM is an acronym for Random Access Memory that is also known as volatile memory, because the data it holds is lost when the computer using it is turned off. RAM is used by the computer to store data in the form of files for processing by a computer's CPU.

Contrary to popular belief, RAM does not have any kind of influence on the CPU performance of the computer nor does it have the power of making the CPU work faster. Basically, RAM does not increase the processing performance of the CPU. The CPU searches for instructions that are stored in RAM to be executed. If those instructions are not stored in RAM, they will have to be transferred from the hard drive to the RAM (also known as "loading" a program). So a greater amount of RAM means that more instructions fit into that memory and, therefore, bigger programs can be loaded at once. 

If you want the computer to load a program and it does not "fit" in the RAM because there is little RAM installed or because it is already too full, the operating system would show a message indicating "Insufficient Memory". This is where virtual memory comes into play. Virtual memory is a reserved area of a hard drive used as a buffer or cache that serves the RAM. It is also known as a swap (or paging) file. The files used most frequently by running programs are stored in the RAM so that they can be accessed as quickly as possible. Files used less frequently by running programs are placed in the swap file. They're moved into RAM when required. Since accessing RAM is much faster than accessing the fastest hard drives, the more the system has to use virtual memory, the slower it operates. All of versions of Windows make use of virtual memory, but the more RAM the system has at its disposal, the less it needs to make use of virtual memory. When more RAM is installed in the computer, the probability of running out of memory and having the necessity to make a change with the hard drive swap file is smaller and therefore, you notice that the computer is faster. 

DDR3 RAM

Different motherboards require different types of RAM, depending on the CPU, chipset, and a variety of other factors. Current desktop motherboards use a memory module called a DIMM (dual inline memory module). Double-Data Rate Three or DDR3 DIMM memory is the most common memory type used for desktop computers today. DDR3 RAM is the newest memory protocol that supports both dual and triple channeling (as long as the motherboard supports it) and is effectively twice as fast as DDR2 RAM, which in turn was twice as fast as DDR RAM. DDR3 RAM modules may contain as much as 16GB per stick, so it's definitely the RAM of choice if you want a lot of memory in your computer. While DDR3 RAM is a 240-pin module, it's not backwards compatible with DDR2 or any prior memory technology.

PC Rating

The PC Rating as it refers to RAM is a measurement of the total theoretical bandwidth of data moving between the memory module and the CPU.  For example, a DDR3 DIMM module running at 1600MHz with a 64-bit (8-byte) data path is known as PC3-12800. You calculate this by taking the transfer rate of 8-bytes and multiplying it by 1600MHz, which equals to 12,800 MB/second. This means that the PC Rating for the DDR3 DIMM will be PC3-12800. It is also important to note that PC2 refers to DDR2 and PC3 refers to DDR3.

What I picked

I purchased 4GB Corsair XMS3 DDR3 1333 (PC3-10666) RAM that operates at 1333MHz.  The RAM also has a heatspreader, which dissipates heat by exposing it to cool air over a greater surface area. While you can shop for RAM based on price, you want to make sure you are getting quality RAM for your money. Corsair is one of the most popular and trusted names in computer memory manufacturing and their RAM tends to be both reliable and fast. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Building a Computer for A+ Study Part III: The Motherboard

Part three in a series on the basics of building a computer to prepare for the A+ certification exams.

The Motherboard

The main circuit board in a computer is called the motherboard. It is also referred to as the systemboard or mainboard (or logic board if you are working in the Apple world). "Mobo" is also a common technical term used to refer to a motherboard. The motherboard is where all the internal components of the computer are connected. Because it can be the most complicated component to purchase when building a computer, you have to pay close attention to a motherboard's form factor, CPU socket type, and chipset since those things ultimately determines both the capabilities and limitations of your computer.

The Form Factor

The form factor of a motherboard refers to the physical size and shape of the board. The form factor also determines what type of case and power supply will work with a particular motherboard. Most desktop computer motherboards use the ATX standard form factor but there are other form factors that are variations of the ATX (Mini-ATX, Micro-ATX). ITX and BTX are two other motherboard form factors available for modern computers. In addition, some smaller form factor motherboards of the same family will fit larger cases. For example, an ATX case will usually accommodate a Micro-ATX motherboard.


The Chipset

A chipset forms an interface between the CPU's front-side bus, main memory, and peripheral buses. The chipsets define the capabilities and characteristics of the computer.Basically, the chipset help process and direct data for the CPU. The chipset is designed to support a select few CPUs particular to that motherboard. So you have to make sure the CPU you buy is compatible with the chipsets on the motherboard.

The CPU Socket

A CPU socket type and motherboard chipset must support the CPU series and speed. The CPU socket is basically the connector on the motherboard that houses a CPU. It is keyed to ensure the proper insertion of the CPU. Many CPU sockets use a pin grid array (PGA) package where pins on the underside of the CPU connect to holes in the CPU socket and then a lever is closed to secure the CPU in place. This is known as zero insertion force (ZIF). Alternatively, CPUs with a land grid array (LGA) package are inserted into the socket and then a latch plate is put into place atop the CPU  locking it into place.

Other Slots, Ports and Connectors

The motherboard connects everything inside your computer. There are slots for installing RAM as well as expansion slots for installing additional components such as graphics cards and sound cards. Additionally, a motherboard will also have several internal connectors and ports for many integrated components such as SATA drives, VGA, DVI and/or  HDMI connectors for an integrated graphics, S/PDIF output for integrated sound, RJ-45 port for 10/100/1000 Mbit networking and connectors for USB 2.0/3.0 just to name a few.


The BIOS

Another important aspect of a motherboard, but not necessarily a major determining factor in purchasing one, is the BIOS. The basic input/output system or BIOS makes sure all the components in a computer function together. In a nutshell, the BIOS is special software, usually stored on a flash memory chip on the motherboard of a computer, that interfaces the major hardware components of your computer with the operating system. The BIOS software has a number of different roles, but its most important role is to load the operating system.

When you turn on your computer, the BIOS does several things during the boot sequence such as check the CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) Setup for custom settings, load the device drivers, determine which devices are bootable and perform the power-on self-test (POST).  It also displays text describing things like the amount of memory installed in a computer, the type of hard drives and so on.

What I picked

The motherboard for this project is the Gigabyte GA-A55M-DS2. It has a Socket FM1, which is used by AMD A-series mainstream Fusion (Llano) processors. It's a good match for the AMD A6-3500 Llano 2.1GHz CPU that I chose. It is based on the AMD A55 chipset and also supports AMD Dual Graphics technology, which allows you to increase graphics performance by adding an additional discrete AMD Radeon HD 6000 series graphics card to the computer. This means that it will utilize the processing power of both discrete and integrated graphics processors. The motherboard has both a PCI Express x16 slot and a PCI Express x1 slot (both PCI Express 2.0 standard). There are four SATA 3Gb/s connectors supporting up to four SATA 3Gb/s devices capable of RAID 0,1,10. Two DDR3 DIMM sockets supporting up to 32 GB of system memory (DDR3 1866/1600/1333/1066 MHz memory modules).


More detailed information about the motherboard is covered under the PC Hardware Domain (1.2) of the 801 exam for the A+ certification.

What I Use: Nexus 7 Dock


After waiting an eternity (ok, so it really wasn't an eternity but it felt like it), I was finally able to get my hands on the ***OFFICIAL*** ASUS Nexus 7 dock. While the dock has been available for awhile through third-party retailers (wasn't going to pay the inflated prices that some places were selling it for), it became available through Google Play in recent months. Unfortunately, it quickly sold out but became available again recently and I quickly ordered one.  

It's a simple, yet stylish, dock for your Google Nexus 7 tablet. There are basically two connectors that are available on the dock.  One is the micro-USB connector that is used for charging the tablet and the other is a dedicated 3.5mm jack that allows stereo output through speakers. It is important to note that it does NOT come with a USB cable or the charger that plugs into the wall nor does it come with an audio cable. There is no HDMI port to output video to a larger screen nor will you be able to transfer data via a USB port. All you can do with this dock is charge your tablet and output audio to a set of speakers. That's it. For many people, that is all they really need.

What I love most about the dock is that it allows me to very easily drop in my Nexus 7 to charge it and pick it up when I am on the go. The dock takes advantage of those four little gold contacts (also called pogo connectors) on the lower left side of the tablet, allowing you to charge the device. No having to disconnect any attached cables or manipulating some type of lever or latch to remove the tablet.  Plus, it minimizes the risk of damaging the micro-USB port at the bottom of the tablet from constantly connecting and disconnecting the charger. 

In addition to landscape-mode docking and drop-in charging, placing the Nexus 7 in the dock turns on the Daydream screen saver feature that's available in Android 4.2.2. It automatically gets triggered once you place the Nexus 7 into the dock. By default, it's a simple desk clock but you can go to Settings>Display>Daydream on your tablet for more options.


Overall, the official Nexus 7 dock from ASUS is a very simple dock that charges your tablet and outputs audio.It is a very nice accessory for Nexus 7 owners and it just works.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Building a Computer for A+ Study Part II: The CPU

Part two in series on the basics of building a computer to prepare for the A+ certification exams.

The CPU

One of the most important items that you need to consider purchasing for the computer you are building to help you prepare for the A+ certification exams is the CPU. The CPU (central processing unit) or processor is the brains of the computer. It processes instructions, manipulates data, and controls the interactions of the other components in a computer.

The two most recognizable manufacturers of CPUs are Intel and AMD. You can refer to the manufacturer’s website for more specific information about their individual CPUs. It is important to remember that both Intel and AMD use different sockets than one another so the motherboard must be designed for that particular manufacturer's CPU.

One of the first things to consider when buying a CPU is how fast does it need to be. The processor frequency is the speed at which the CPU operates internally. Basically, the higher the frequency is for a given CPU, the faster it is. The CPU frequency is measured in Hertz. The frequency of current processors is expressed in Gigahertz (GHz), which equals to 1,000,000,000 Hertz or 1,000,000 kHz, or 1,000 MHz. Unless you are looking to overclock the computer, there is no need to be overly concerned about the frequency (other factors come into play on how well the computer performs). The motherboard's firmware automatically detects the CPU speed and then adjusts the system bus speed accordingly. The only thing you have to be concerned with is buying a CPU that operates at a speed supported by the motherboard you purchase.


Most new computers have a multi-core CPU. Essentially, a multi-core CPU is like having two or more CPUs on the same chip for enhanced performance, reduced power consumption, and more efficient processing of multiple tasks simultaneously. Each core operate at the same frequency, but independently of each other. For example, a CPU that is considered dual-core can support four instructions at once. One with four cores (quad core) can support eight instructions at once.

 

Once installed in a computer, the CPU will generate heat and can get overheated quickly. This can damage the CPU as well as other components in your computer. This is where a good heatsink and fan assembly is important. A heatsink sits on top of a CPU to help keep it cool. Heatsinks are generally made of aluminum or copper. A grease-like substance known as a thermal compound (or thermal paste) is placed between the heatsink and the CPU. The thermal compound helps draw heat from the CPU. If you buy a boxed CPU that includes the heatsink and fan assembly, there may already be thermal compound preapplied  to it. In addition, there are other ways to cool the CPU such as liquid cooling systems, but remember to keep it simple with your first build. 

What I picked


For my build, I choose the AMD A6-3500 Llano 2.1GHz CPU. Great performance for the price. It provides plenty of speed for a basic build (it's a triple-core CPU). Furthermore, since this would be used primarily for studying for the A+ exams, it won't be running high-end, graphic-intensive applications, which would normally require a separate graphics card. All video playback is great straight from the APU (Accelerated Processing Units). If I need to do so in the future, I can add a separate AMD Radeon graphics card to take advantage of both the discrete graphics card and the APU's graphic power (This is know as AMD's CrossFire technology, which allows multiple GPUs to be used in a single computer to improve graphics performance).


More detailed information about the CPU is covered under the PC Hardware Domain (1.6) of the 801 exam for the A+ certification.

Friday, May 10, 2013

What I Use: urBeats earphones

Working on a university campus, I see students everyday with all the different flavors of Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. However, I have been skeptical on buying a Beats product because I thought I would be buying just a name. Plus, they are pretty expense for headphones. After going through another pair of cheap in-ear headphones, I decided to bite the bullet and bought a pair of urBeats in-ear headphones from Target. I have to admit that after a few hours of use, I am pleasantly surprised by how good they are compared to other earphones I have used including the ones from Apple.

Normally, I would buy "birdy" earphones. You know the ones that you find at Walmart for under $20 (cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap...get it). If I lose them or they tear up (fraying or breaking), no big deal because I would just go buy another cheap pair. At $100, not only are the urBeats  more durability than the cheap earphones I would regularly buy but they also provide better sound. The sound quality was clean and crisp as I listened to several songs from Prince, Fourplay, Ice Cube, 2 Live Crew and Luther Vandross. The bass was deep but not overly exaggerated. Best of all, they fit comfortably in my ear without falling out.

I was also surprised at the attention to detail with the packaging of the urBeats earphones. Cheap earphones were packed in a generic, sometimes hard to open plastic container about the size of a candy bar. The packaging for the urBeats was almost Apple-like. Not only do you get the urBeats earphones, there is also a nice, equally durable storage pouch and four pairs of additional ear tip fittings. You don't get that with the cheap earphones you buy at Walmart. 


So far, I have been pretty impressed by the quality of the urBeats earphones. Only long-term regular use of the urBeats will determine the overall durability of them. Based on my initial use I would still recommend them for anyone looking for a new pair of earphones and don't mind paying $100 for them.

Recommended Books for A+ Preparation

CompTIA's A+ certification has been around for a long time and has been a very popular certification to pursue for those looking to start a career in the IT field. Naturally, there are a ton of books and study guides to choose from to help a person pass the required exams. Choosing which one to buy is hard because most of them are good books. Below are four books that I recommend to those preparing for the A+ exams.

  1. CompTIA A+ Certification All-in-One Exam Guide, 8th Edition (Exams 220-801 & 220-802) by Michael Meyers
    Recommended for those who really want to dig deep into the material and those who really have no experience with computers. Provides a lot of detailed information and great to keep on-hand for reference. This is generally the book most IT professionals recommend.
  2. CompTIA A+ 220-801 and 220-802 Authorized Exam Cram (6th Edition) by David L. Prowse
    Recommended for those who might find Michael Meyer's book a bit too much. Detailed but not overwhelming.
  3. CompTIA A+ 220-801 and 220-802 Authorized Practice Questions Exam Cram (5th Edition) by David L. Prowse
    Recommended for those who have already read an A+ study guide or taken a formal training course and is looking for additional practice before sitting for the exams. Perfect companion guide and for that last minute cram session. 
  4. CompTIA A+ Rapid Review (Exam 220-801 and Exam 220-802) by Darril Gibson
    Recommended for those who have some years of experience working on computers, taken a formal A+ training course in the past or looking to update their credentials. Good refresher book. 

While I have listed the books that I generally recommend to people looking to take the A+ exams, it is important to remember to perform a little research on your own to find the book(s) that fit your particular reading style and study habits. 

Good luck!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Building a Computer for A+ Study Part I

Speaking from experience, there is nothing more fulfilling for an aspiring IT professional or geek than building their first computer. If you've never done it before, the idea of building a computer can seem very intimidating. Most people think that building a computer is a complicated process. In reality, if you can put together IKEA furniture, you can build a computer. All it takes is a little research and a bit of patience. 

Building a computer is great practice for a person studying for the A+ exams. It gives them the opportunity to install, configure, upgrade, diagnose, troubleshoot and perform preventive maintenance on a computer and it's internal components. It also reinforces the material you are learning from whatever A+ study guide you are using.

Before you start buying parts left and right, you should create a checklist to ensure that as you are gathering parts, you don't forget anything. I suggest using a spreadsheet application such as Microsoft Excel to keep up with everything you need. A spreadsheet is also helpful with keeping track of costs so that you can compare the prices of the parts you are purchasing. Here's a list of what you'll need at the bare minimum:
  • CPU
  • Heatsink and fan (may be included with the CPU)
  • Motherboard
  • RAM
  • Hard Drive
  • Optical Drive
  • Case and Power supply (purchased together or separately)
  • Operating system
The one thing that I do strongly suggest to those building their first computer for A+ study is to build a budget system appropriate to your needs.  Here are examples of some of the parts that I will be using to build the computer for this series (please note that I will be adding some additional "tweaks" to my build as I go):

CPU

Motherboard

RAM

Hard Drive

Optical Drive

Case (w/Power Supply)

Operating System
Windows 8




Trust me when I say that it’s not as daunting as it sounds. Picking your parts is actually the hardest part of the process. Research into what parts you need is the most important stage of the process. If you are preparing for the A+ exams and this will be the first computer you have built, you want to look for the least expensive options possible while still giving you full functionality to prepare for the exams. Remember, you are building something to be used as a learning tool, not to play Battlefield 4.

Building your first computer can be frustrating if you don't know where to start or what parts you need, but once you have a basic understanding, the process becomes much more simple. Best of all, if you are studying for the A+ exams, it is a fantastic hands-on educational experience. Hopefully my series of articles will help you in your journey.

Part II - The CPU
Part III - The Motherboard
Part IV - RAM
Part V - The Hard Drive
Part VI - The Optical Drive
Part VII - The Case and Power Supply
Part VIII - Putting it all together

*The parts and prices reflect above are those listed at www.newegg.com at the time of writing this article.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

New Tablet for My Daughter: Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0

Like many other public schools, our local school system is jumping on the B.Y.O.T. (Bring Your Own Tech) bandwagon. Of course opinions about this vary and there are concerns but the bottom line is that the school system is making an attempt to educate students using modern technology as an alternative to the ancient technology they currently are stuck with because of the lack funding (don't get me started on that subject).

My daughter has always had access to the latest technology because of her old man. Awhile back, I gave her my old Dell Streak 7 tablet for her to play around with. It worked perfectly for her, at least until she took it to school for B.Y.O.T and it died in the middle of a lesson. Naturally, she was a bit upset about it because she could not finish participating in the lesson. So after discussing it with my wife, I decided to buy her a new tablet that she could call her own. I picked the 8GB WiFi Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0

When I took it out of the box to set everything up, I was surprisingly impressed with how responsive it was. I am a Google Nexus 7 user and I have to admit that the Galaxy Tab 2 felt a bit faster. However, I was disappointed that it was only running Android 4.1.1 but for what my daughter will be using it for in school it was sufficient. Reality is that most users only care about the available apps and not the actual Android version like us geeks. Downloaded a couple of apps for her and she was ready to go. Heck, I even got an additional 50GB of space on Dropbox for it (okay, it's only for 12 months but it's something).

Needless to say, my daughter was extremely happy with her new tablet. A major upgrade from the Dell Streak 7. If she's happy now, wait until she sees what she's getting for her birthday this summer....