Putting those holiday gift cards to use

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Now that the Holidays are over and all the gift wrapping has been recycled, it’s time to figure out what to do with all those gift cards from Amazon, Visa and American Express you probably received. Perhaps I can make a few suggestions from some of the review items I’ve recently received to look at.

One of the cooler ones is a new tiny PC. As you may remember from earlier blog posts, I’m a bit of a fanatic about very small form-factor PCs, with a variety of Intel NUCs (Next Unit of Computing) here in my office and around the house. Most of these are Core i3, i5 or i7 models, though there’s a Celeron unit somewhere in the mix.

Recently, Ocktel sent me a review unit of its Sirius B Black Cherry PC. While the Intel NUCs are small, about 4 x 4 x 2 inches, the Sirius B is tiny, measuring just about 4.5 x 1.5 x 0.5 inches and weighing in at about 2 ounces. That’s about the same size as several of the USB portable hard drives I have here, and not much larger than a deck of cards.

Part of the reason they can make it so small is that they put a pretty low-powered CPU in the case, along with a fairly limited amount of memory — an Intel Atom x5-Z8350 and 4GB of RAM memory. That’s not a lot, nor is the CPU a powerhouse, though the included Windows 10 seemed to run pretty well on my test unit. There’s also 32GB or 64GB of storage, and room for a microSD card if you want or need more.

I nuked the few apps that were preinstalled on the test unit, and installed LibreOffice 5, the free office suite that’s very compatible with Microsoft Office, as well as added a Kingston 32GB microSD card in as well to hold my data files. In this configuration, I was not unhappy with how it ran. The Sirius B has 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which is pretty fast, and just enough ports to be usable, including an HDMI port and two USB ports, which I filled with a wired keyboard and mouse. A wireless set would have left me with an open USB port.

At $279 for the 32GB model and $329 for the 64GB model, the Sirius B isn’t going to replace most desktop PCs. But even with its small AC power supply, it’s a good bet for taking along to a client for use with their display and input devices. And, if you need the occasional space PC in the office, the Sirius B fits easily into just about any desk drawer, even one that’s half full.

On the road again

I recently had the chance to travel out of the country. My cell phone has an international plan, so I was pretty sure I would get my email. But I hate getting cut off from the Internet, even for a few days. Rather than take a laptop, I selected a new tablet from my collection. This was an 8-inch Amazon Kindle Fire HD that I got on sale for $30. It runs a proprietary operating system that’s based on Android, and comes with a Silk browser that works well, at least in the fast Wi-Fi environment I have here in the house. I figured that for $30, it would be no tragedy if it was lost, damaged or stolen (which it wasn’t).

Just before I left, I was offered a Roaming Man test unit to try. This is a portable 4G Wi-Fi hotspot that works in about 100 different countries around the world. It’s small, measuring about 4.5 x 2.5 x 0.66 inches, weighs just a few ounces, and comes with a padded carry case. Along with serving as a hotspot, the device also works as a 6,000mAh power bank and can recharge most phones up to three times. It rents for $9.99 per day with unlimited data usage, plus an additional $19 for insurance, which is always a good idea when traveling.

I found it exceptionally easy to use. When it powers up, it displays a network name and password on an LCD front panel. Enter these into your Wi-Fi device (phone, tablet or laptop), and you’re off to the races. At least sometimes.

While the Roaming Man works well when it has a clean cell signal, it’s entirely dependent on having access to a 4G or 3G cellular network. In the city in Mexico where I was staying, cell service is somewhat spotty, with the house I was staying in pretty far from the cell tower. So it wasn’t just the Roaming Man that was somewhat sporadic — my iPhone was as well. Exacerbating the problem was the construction of the home I was staying in, which was built out of brick and rebar. Depending where in the house I was, the rebar (which are steel supporting rods used in construction) tended to block the cell signal. It took a bit of fiddling with placement to locate a consistent cell connection.

Once you do connect the Roaming Man to a good cellular signal, it works well and offers up to 15 hours of use before you have to recharge it. My review unit did not come with a charger, but my iPhone charger worked fine. And once you have connected the Roaming Man to a cell network, you can connect up to five Wi-Fi devices to the device.

Sure, you can turn most smartphones into a hotspot these days. But when you do, you lose the ability for the phone to actually function as a phone. And using a smartphone as a hotspot often tends to drain the battery very rapidly.

I’m traveling less these days than I used to, and my travels seldom take me out of the country or to a place where there’s uncertain access to the Internet. But I’d certainly consider renting a Roaming Man for any trip where I was uncertain about Internet access, with the caveat that I’d also want to make sure the cellular service in the area was adequate. It’s well worth the 10 bucks a day (at least to me) to not have to fiddle with SIM cards, have Internet access, and have a device that just works when its turned on.

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Hardware and software High performance computing