Software // Enterprise Applications
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8/27/2003
02:42 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: Three Technologies Worth Watching

After months of hands-on use, Fred Langa updates his experiences with powerline networking, GPS, and white-box PCs.

In "Powerline Networking Comes Of Age", we discussed the emergence of devices that let you "use your existing electrical wiring to create a local area network for your PCs, Macs, Linux boxes, or other network-enabled devices." The beauty of powerline networking is that any building that has normal electrical service already is wired for a local area network. Any place in the building that has an electrical outlet also automatically has LAN access. This means that users can roam with powerline networking almost as easily as with wireless LANs.

So why not just use a wireless LAN? In a word: Security. Radio-based wireless LANs often can be hacked with ease. There are dozens of free "warez" programs around to help crack the 128-bit encryption most commonly used to try to secure wireless LANs; and there's a whole cottage industry involved in making snooping hardware that's almost absurdly simple. For example, hackers can make highly directional WLAN antennas from (believe it or not) the aluminized tubes used to hold Pringle's potato chips. In some cases, these makeshift antennas have allowed people to snoop on wireless LANs from literally miles away.

In contrast, powerline networking offers much better security because no signal is broadcast into the surrounding space: To eavesdrop on a powerline network, a hacker would normally have to make a physical connection to your building's wiring. He or she could not, for example, break into your LAN from a car parked outside your building, or listen in from miles away using nothing more than snack-food packaging. Thus, powerline networking offers a great way to have much of the mobility afforded by wireless LANs, but without the huge security risks.

In my original report, I compared the Siemens SpeedStream Powerline series and Phonex Broadband Corp.'s NeverWire devices. I liked them both, seeing portability as the main strength of the compact Siemens unit, and ease of setup as the Phonex's major plus.

I've since added more powerline units to my office network, and have modified my views a bit: I've settled on the Phonex models for both portable and permanent use. To my surprise, the slight added bulk of the Phonex unit is more than offset by its ultra-simple operation, and I now carry it around with my laptop so I can roam freely from room to room. I even use it outdoors to work on the deck or patio in good weather, for example, using an ordinary extension cord to supply both electrical power and LAN connectivity to my laptop. It's now been many months since I've used my office's wireless LAN, and I see no reason to activate it any time soon. Powerline networking gives me wireless-like freedom without the risk of easy electronic eavesdropping. To me, that's an unbeatable combination.

White-Box PCs
We've discussed generic, unbranded, or small-brand PCs in the $200 to $400 price range twice before in this space (see "In Praise Of White-Box PCs" and "White-Box PCs Revisited"). I'd thought that the bang/buck ratio in this category had just about maxed out, but man, I was wrong.

Some of the systems we covered earlier have become almost unbelievably inexpensive: You can find PCs equivalent to the $200 units we previously discussed that now cost under $100.

And a "sweet spot" seems to be emerging at around the $400 price point. I just acquired a system with a 2.4-GHz CPU selling for under $400 that's actually nicer in almost every way than the name-brand 2-GHz PC I've been using as my primary system for the last two years. That name-brand unit cost about $1,800 when new.

The new sub-$400 unit is as well made as many major-brand systems I've seen: The case is spacious and well-ventilated, the power supply is ample, the motherboard clean and neatly laid-out; and the ancillary devices properly configured and connected. It has none of the cobbled-together, Frankensteinian feel that some low-end systems had in years past: This is a well made, polished PC. It's also totally legit: The system shipped with a pre-activated, valid copy of Windows XP, and a modest pile of productivity software besides. I have absolutely no qualms whatsoever about placing this system in normal production in my office.

These aggressive prices have put pressure on the major brand system vendors, most of which now also offer systems in the $400 to $600 price range. But on a feature-for-feature basis, the small-brand systems usually are still less expensive; or, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, the small-brand systems usually give you more.

Of course, there still can be good reasons to opt for name-brand systems--and we covered them in some detail in the previous articles, cited above. But white-box/small-brand systems have come so far in quality and offer such aggressive prices, that they're worth checking out for any PC purchase.

There are many small brands to choose from, and models come and go rapidly (that's why I'm not giving a specific brand or model number above--that unit may no longer be available when you read this). But good search tools such as Froogle can help you see exactly what's available now, and you'll probably find something that fits your needs and budget.

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