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2012 Airport Express Review - Better Performance, Less Portability

Apple Airport Express review
The New Airport Express provides significantly improved performance but slightly reduced portability.

+ Extremely easy set-up.
+ The 802.11n simultaneous dual-bands provides better performance and range compared to the prior generation Airport Express.
+ Audio port for Airplay streaming and a USB port for network printing (unchanged from prior generation)

- Not as well suited for travel as the previous generation (slightly larger form factor and it now requires a cord instead of just plugging into an electrical socket).
- No Gigabit Ethernet.

To set-up all you have to do is open the Airport Utility on your Mac (you will need to install this if you are using a Windows PC), it will detect the Airport Express and guide you through the set-up process step by step. Even if you don't know anything about networking, you shouldn't have any problems getting started.

It is the same size as an Apple TV, so it is still quite small, but now requires a cord instead of plugging directly into an electrical socket.

Compared to my previous generation AirPort Express this router has improved performance. The wireless speeds are excellent and the addition of the simultaneous dual bands has definitely improved performance over the previous generation. The range is more than adequate for a medium sized home.

There is now an additional Ethernet port allowing for both wired and wireless connections. The Ethernet ports are both capable of 10/100BASE-T speeds (no gigabit Ethernet). Similar to prior generations there is a USB port that can be used to hook up a printer to be used on your network. Note that the USB port does NOT support an external hard drive like the Airport Extreme or Time Capsule do.

The audio port is similar to prior generations - capable of optical output with an optical cable or analog output with a regular 3.5mm cable. I use this optical cable to stream digital music via Airplay to my receiver - it sounds awesome and works perfectly from iTunes and iOS devices.

If you plan to use the New Airport Express as your home router and don't want to spend the extra money for an Airport Extreme it is a great performing router with easy set-up, small form factor, and excellent features such as network printing and Airplay audio streaming. However, compared to the prior generation, this is no longer as easy to take with you while traveling for secure wifi in hotels. For travel I would give this 3/5 stars, for home use 5/5 considering the price and performance.

Review Summary:
Item reviewed: Apple Airport Express
Description: Excellent performance for the size and cost but offers less portability than previous generation.
Overall rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
Date published: 06/19/2012

WWDC - New 2012 Apple Macbooks

Macbook Pro
At the WWDC 2012 conference held by Apple a number of new updates were announced.  If interested you can watch the Keynote Presentation here.

Both the new Macbook Pros and the Macbook Airs have been upgraded with Ivy Bridge processors, USB 3, and at a minimum Intel HD 4000 graphics.  This is a pretty significant upgrade as graphic performance should see a considerable improvement and USB 3 is extremely fast compared to the old USB 2 we have been living with for years.

The high end Macbook Pro also has a redesigned (thinner) case and a "retina" display that contains 220 pixel-per-inch with a resolution of 2880 x 1800.

How to Wirelessly Sideload Apps to a Kindle Fire Without a Computer

If you have a Kindle Fire and an Android phone, you may have noticed that some of the apps on your phone cannot be downloaded to the Kindle Fire from the Amazon App Store.  Or, if you bought apps from the Google Play Market for your phone, you might want to use them on your Kindle Fire.  Check out the video below or read on for detailed instructions.

Fortunately you can "sideload" apps by installing their apk files on your Kindle Fire. This does not requiring rooting your device. Some apps work on the Kindle Fire even though they are not officially supported, but others do not. For example, some of my favorites I was unable to download directly from the Amazon App Store to my Kindle Fire were Dropbox, Business Calendar, WeatherBug Elite, Google Voice, ADW.launcher EX, and Google Maps. I attempted to sideload all of these, but Business Calendar and WeatherBug do not work.  The others worked great!

Step 1: Let us start with your Android phone and install 2 applications:
  1. Install SugarSync Amazon cloud drive - it is free, supported on the Kindle Fire, and every time you want to add an application you can do it via wifi instead of needing to plug in your phone and kindle into a computer.
  2. Install App Backup and Restore - it is also free and very easy to use. It will create the .apk installation files that you need to install on your Kindle Fire.
Step 2: Get the .apk files you want from your Android phone:
  1. Open App Backup and Restore and select the apps you want to install on your Kindle Fire.  Then press "Backup Selected Apps" at the bottom of the screen.  This will save them to your phone's SD card in a folder called, "App_Backup_Restore."
  2. Automatically create .apk files for any new updates (this step is optional):
    1. Press the up arrow in the right lower corner (or the menu button on your phone) and select "settings."
    2. Check "Auto Backup" and "Auto Backup Notify" - now the new apk files will be automatically updated on SugarSync whenever new versions are installed and you will be notified to reinstall them on your Kindle Fire.

Step 3 - Sync the backup folder to SugarSync and your Kindle Fire:
  1. Now open the SugarSync app on your phone.
  2. Under the "My Devices" section select your phone.
  3. Scroll down until you find the folder "App_Backup_Restore" and tap the circle with the arrow in it on the right.  Now select "Sync" and then "Yes" at the next dialog.

Step 4: Enable the Kindle Fire to install the .apk files you backed up:
  1. Set aside your phone, and grab your Kindle Fire. Tap the settings/wifi/battery icon in the upper right corner.
  2. From the drop down menu tap "More." 
  3. Scroll down and tap "Device." 
  4. Then turn "ON" the "Allow Installation of Applications From Unknown Sources."
Step 5 - Download and install your apps
  1. Install Sugarsync Amazon cloud drive on your Kindle Fire.
  2. Open SugarSync and tap "Magic Briefcase" then "Mobile Folders" and finally "App_Backup_Restore" as shown below.
  3. Now select any of the APK files you uploaded - they will download and you will receive a prompt to install them. 
  4. Install your apps and enjoy!
Please note that some applications will not work with the Kindle Fire as mentioned above. ADW.Launcher EX works and will create a normal Android home screen if you prefer the classic Android home screen as mentioned in my Kindle Fire review.  Other apps that I have found that work are Dropbox, Google Voice, and Google Maps (without GPS). You can try any apps you have to see if they work... if they don't, just uninstall them by holding down on the application icon, then selecting "remove from device."

Update 1: Check out my post, Top Kindle Fire Apps to Sideload, to learn about some apps you can sideload to really increase the functionality of your device.

Update 2: The newer Google Voice app no longer works with the Kindle Fire. Versio0.4.2.54 works well and can be found here in the 2nd post at XDA developers.

Pioneer VSX-921-K Review and Proper Setup for the Best Sound

Pioneer VSX-921-K review
I bought the receiver along with Pioneer SP-BS41-LR bookshelf speakers, a Pioneer SP-C21 center channel speaker, and the Pioneer SW-8 subwoofer. I have been very happy with the sound quality - it is excellent for both music and movies.  Unfortunately, the user interface is very outdated.

+ Excellent quality sound
+ Plenty of inputs
+ Automatic configuration with included microphone

- Outdated user interface
- Not very intuitive - it takes reading the manual to figure out how to access a lot of the features

In my opinion this is the most important thing to consider when buying a receiver - will it perform its function well?  Will it sound good? This receiver is capable of generating outstanding sound quality.  With the speakers that I have listed above, both music and movies sound excellent.  I have no complaints with my 5.1 channel setup with regards to sound performance. The overall sound output is quite accurate to my ears, with the lows, mids, and highs all equally represented. This will vary drastically with the speakers attached to this receiver, but it is capable of realistic audio playback.

User Interface:
The user interface looks like it was designed in the 80s - just white text on a black background. But, once you have everything set up, luckily you do not have to deal with the mediocre user interface very much since most of the time you will just be changing the volume and switching between sources which is quite painless.

Accessing many of the features often requires looking in the manual - some of the features are obvious on the remote, but others are a bit less intuitive.

The Pioneer VSX-921-K provides excellent sound quality for both music and movies, but the user interface is very outdated and difficult to navigate.

How to Setup the VSX-921-K or Similar Receivers for the Best Sound:
After you have plugged in all of your speakers, setup is relatively easy with the included microphone - it will measure the levels from each speaker and modify their output accordingly. To do this, on the remote press the "receiver" button followed by the "setup" or "home menu" button.  Then select "Auto MCACC."

After the auto MCACC is completed, I highly recommend checking to make sure all the speakers other than your subwoofer are set to "small."  To do this again press the "receiver" button followed by the "setup" or "home menu" button.  This time select "Manual SP Setup" and then on the next screen, "Speaker Settings."  Now, make sure that all of your speakers are set to "SMALL" and the subwoofer is set to "YES."  If the speakers are set to "LARGE" then all of the audio frequencies will be sent to all of your speakers even if they cannot reproduce those frequencies resulting in muddy sound.  If all your speakers are set to "SMALL" and your subwoofer is set to "YES" then the low frequencies will be sent to the subwoofer and the higher frequencies to the rest of your speakers as intended.  Also, if your subwoofer has a frequency knob, turn it to include all frequencies - the receiver will decide which to send to the subwoofer.  You may need to move your subwoofer around the room to determine the best acoustic location - one easy way of determining this is to place the subwoofer in roughly the position you will be listening to it (watching movies/TV/etc) then walk around the room (in locations that are feasible to place the subwoofer), find the best sounding spot, and then place the sub at that location.
Review Summary:
Item reviewed: Pioneer VSX-921-K
Overall rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Published: 06/03/2012

Refurbished Kindle Fire Review - An Excellent Tablet for the Price

 is an excellent tablet for the price. I purchased a refurbished Kindle Fire when it was the Gold Box deal of the day for $139 and have been very happy with it overall with a few small caveats.
Kindle Fire Review
Should you buy a refurbished Kindle Fire? I highly recommend it.  You get the same 1 year warranty as a new one, and I honestly could not tell that mine was refurbished.  When it arrived it was packaged as if it was new and there were no signs of use whatsoever - it looked brand new, and has worked perfectly ever since!
+ Inexpensive
+ Excellent, intuitive user interface
+ Nice high resolution IPS display
+ Performance - applications, media, and web browsing are fast
+ Tight integration with Amazon media services (video, music, books, etc.)
+ Minimalist design

- Some applications in the Amazon App Store are not available for the Kindle Fire
- Besides music, Amazon Cloud Drive is not fully integrated into the OS
- No "advanced features" such as GPS, bluetooth, or wireless 3G (honestly, you can't really expect these at such a low price point)

The design is minimalist - the only thing on the front of the tablet is the display.  There is only 1 button (the power button) on the bottom of the tablet next to the micro-usb charging port.  There is a headphone jack on the other side of the micro-usb port.  There are two small speakers on the top of the device, but are barely noticeable as they are incorporated into the bezel. The back is made out of rubberized plastic which feels soft in your hands and is not slippery.

If you are reading this review you have probably already looked at the specifications - I won't rehash the processor speed, RAM, storage space, etc.  I will say that the processor and RAM are more than adequate for anything that I have done - applications load quickly and run well, videos and music play without any problems, and web browsing with the silk browser is fast.  I was worried that the 8Gb of storage (about 6Gb user available) on the device would not be enough, but since essentially everything but your applications is in the cloud, I have not even come close to maxing out the available storage.

User Interface:
I have plenty of experience with both Android and iOS devices. Before buying the Kindle Fire I was skeptical about the heavily modified android OS it uses. It turns out I was pleasantly surprised.  The "home screen" is much different than most android devices.  At the top there is a search bar and tabs for all of the Amazon services (newsstand, books, music, video, docs, apps, and web).  Underneath that is a carousel of recently used apps, and at the bottom are your favorites - these can be applications, specific web pages, books - pretty much anything you use often and want to put there. This works well as the web, applications, and all Amazon services are just one touch away.  The only downside to this is that there are no widgets unlike other android devices.  However, if you really like the typical Android OS home screen with widgets, you can install (via "side loading") a launcher (for example ADW.launcher EX is known to work well) that will create the typical home screen and allow widgets.

Amazon Products & Services:
The Kindle Fire OS was clearly designed to be integrated with all of Amazon's digital content. Any books, magazines, music, videos, or applications that you have purchased are available to you from the cloud and synced or streamed to your device seamlessly.  The built in applications for reading books or magazines, listening to music, and watching video work very well and are easy to use.

If you have an Amazon Prime account there are thousands of TV shows and movies to watch for free and books that you can borrow for free each month.  Any music you have bought from the Amazon's MP3 music store will appear on your device automatically. Any music you have bought through other services can be uploaded to your Cloud Drive and will then be playable from the Kindle Fire.  You get 5Gb of free storage space (the things you buy from Amazon do not count towards your 5Gb limit).  You can pay to get a larger cloud drive if necessary (20Gb is only $20/year) - if you go to any paid version of the cloud drive you get unlimited music storage (i.e. none of your music counts against your storage limit).

One thing that I was disappointed with is that non-music files in your cloud drive are not easily accessible.  Unlike music, which shows up immediately under the music tab in the OS, documents, pictures, videos, etc.that you have uploaded are not accessible except through the browser - no different than on your PC. I don't understand why the rest of the cloud drive is not integrated into the OS - perhaps it will be at some point, all it would take is a software update. There is a way to send documents via email to your Kindle Fire or through a new application that can be installed on your computer, for your Mac, or Windows.

Since the Amazon App Store was launched it has come a long way in catching up to the apps available in the Google Play market.  Now, almost all of the major apps are available in both locations.  The Kindle Fire's built in web browser and email application work quite well.  I enjoy the "reading view" mode in the browser - it reformats the website's text into a kindle like format for easier reading without all of the extraneous sidebars, ads, etc. Unfortunately there is no built in calender application, although you can buy 3rd party applications, such as CalenGoo, that will work.

One of the most disappointing things I have come across using the Kindle Fire is that even though most applications are available in the Amazon App Store, some of them are not available for the Kindle Fire. For example some of the apps I use: Dropbox, Business Calendar, WeatherBug Elite, and FlightTrack are not currently supported by the Kindle Fire.  I assume this may be due to the fact that the Kindle Fire does not have some of the services built into the stock Android OS such as location or Google calender services, but I am not sure.  Some apps, such as Dropbox, are not supported by the Amazon App store for the Kindle Fire but actually work fine if they are "side loaded" but others will crash or not install if you attempt to install them outside of the Amazon App Store.  I imagine as time goes on this will improve as more app developers create Kindle Fire versions of their apps.

If you already have an Amazon Prime membership or plan to get one, you cannot go wrong with the Kindle Fire.  It is an excellent, fast, well designed tablet for using Amazon services.  Most major Android apps are available and work great, but some applications are not supported by the Kindle Fire even though they are available to other devices in the Amazon App Store.
Review Summary:
Item reviewed: Kindle Fire
Overall rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
Published: 06/02/2012
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