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Smartphone chargers just got a powerful upgrade

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment
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This is NOT a sponsored post.

Anker Atom PD-1

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At first glance, the Anker PD-1 may seem unremarkably normal looking. After all, it looks like the small wall charger that came included with your iPhone. It is almost the same size as that iPhone charger, but it delivers a full 30 watts of USBC power (it’s 35-40% smaller than the equivalent MacBook charger).

Ravpower 45W PD Charger

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Ravpower have taken the same technology to greater heights by designing a slim (14mm) 45 watt USBC charger .

Tell me how this is possible

The go to foundation for many electronic components is silicon. Silicon is in everything from computer processors to chargers, but we needed something better to improve charging speed and efficiency.

This is where gallium nitride (GaN) is making an entrance.

  • GaN has a theoretical ability to conduct electricity 1000x more quickly than traditional silicon.

  • GaN also doesn’t get as hot as silicon which means the electricity, not being lost to heat, is used to charge your device faster. It also means we can save 15-20% of worldwide power consumption if all electronic devices switched to GaN.

  • Since GaN chargers are smaller, they require less material, less packaging and are therefore cheaper to ship.

Why Anker and Ravpower?

What makes the Anker and Ravpower so remarkable is that they are the first major brands to release GaN-based chargers. These are first-generation products so we can expect much power powerful GaN chargers in the future, at a much lower price. Anker and Ravpower are charging a premium for these smaller and lighter devices. As the technology becomes more widely available, expect prices to drop dramatically.

Other uses

2019 should be the year where GaN chargers become commonplace. An optimized iPhone and a GaN charger could charge your device 6x faster than today, in a package the same size.

Like many of you, I travel a lot, and a battery backup is critical. Charging a traditional 9000 mAh battery can take 3-5 hours. I recently started testing the Apollo Pro from Elecjet which is a graphene-infused battery that is capable of fully charging in 20 minutes with a 60W USBC charger. Being able to charge your backup battery while you enjoy a coffee is incredibly freeing. Now imagine what will happen when smartphone manufacturers adopt faster charging graphene batteries paired with faster charging GaN chargers. It will be an unbeatable combo.

We likely won’t see any major brands adopting these two techs for their 2019 models, but I am willing to bet you will see a bunch in 2020, probably starting with the Samsung Galaxy S11.

What is a Progressive Web App

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment
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Over the last 18 months, I have seen more and more sites prompting me to "Add to Home Screen" from websites I have been browsing. Then you add this site, it installs itself in the background and is now accessible like a native app from your smartphone.

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What I have just described is the wondrous workings of a fairly new technology called Progressive Web Apps. This technology (called PWA) works even when you are offline and behaves like a "normal" smartphone app.

What are progressive web apps?

PWAs were created by Alex Russell and Frances Berriman. The technology driving Progressive Web Apps isn’t new. What was required was a new recipe to make Progressive Web Apps behave like native apps. This means that a progressive web app will work (as long as the platform supports it) on an iphone or Androis smartphone, a chromebook or ipad, on Windows or Mac.

True cross platform applications without needed to join an app store with super restrictive controls (I’m looking at you Apple).

Why Progressive Web apps

Like many of you, I live in a world with abundantly fast internet. This simply isn’t the reality everywhere. Even in my own backyard of Ontario (Canada), there are communities where internet is delivered via very slow ADSL,

PWAs, once installed, cache the content locally which means they will respond quickly even for those on slow internet connections.

Statistics show that users still prefer native apps to web pages. There are a tone of reasons for this from convenience (single click from your home screen), ability to get push notifications, etc. The web simply doesn’t offer the same bells and whistles.

PWAs offer most (if not all) native functions. They startup with a single click from the home screen and can hook into most native features. PWAs can even offer notifications (like a native app) and therefore remind the user to open and engage with the app.

What is required to build a progressive web app?

This is not a technical instructional article but you need 4 elements to build a Progressive Web App:

Google Firebase Web App Manifest Generator

Google Firebase Web App Manifest Generator

  1. Web App Manifest - It is a JSON file with meta data about the web app, It contains information such as the icon, background color, app name, etc.

  2. Service Workers - Even driven agents that work in the background. They perform tasks like updating the web app or its content.

  3. Icon - You need an icon to represent the Progressive Web App on the home screen

  4. HTTPS - The app and its content must be securely delivered over a TLS session.

Progressive Web app examples

You will find new PWAs every day but here are a couple of cool ones to get you started:

Skyroam Solis Review: a traveller's best friend?

GeneralEdward Kiledjian1 Comment
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I've been using a Skyroam hotspot for many years now and my 2 most popular blog posts (for the old device and service) are here: 

They recently upgraded their back-end service and global WIFI hotspot, and I wanted to test and review it for you. 

Solis is the latest version of the Global WIFI hotspot sold by Skyroam. For those new to this company, they offer a small portable global WIFI hotspot that works in 100+ countries, costs $10US a day for unlimited data and is activated on demand.
 
Although I had many complaints about the pass purchase process with the original product, their hotspot has been part of my every day (EDC) carry kit for three years now.

The Solis improves on its older brother in 2 days:

  • it now supports LTE speeds on countries were it is available (otherwise it drops down to 3G) 
  • it can now operate as a backup battery (in a pinch) to charge your mobile phone

Nice little intro video

I have had the Solis for several months and have already taken it on a US road trip. It is a well-built successor to the original Skyroad hotspot, but the world has changed.

When I started using the original Skyroam in 2014, my carrier didn't offer a global travel package, and it was a pay per megabyte type affair. It got very expensive very fast. Today my carrier offers a US travel package for $7 a day or a global package (in 80+ countries for $10 a day).

If all you need is access on one device, then your carrier package may be more advantageous since it is immediate and does not require any changes. But.... The Skyroam Solis offers coverage in more countries and can provide wonderful internet goodness to up to 5 devices simultaneously. 

In my case, I still rely on Solis or KnowRoaming when I travel since I know that they will offer service everyone for one set price and it is one less worry when I travel. 

The device

If you look at the above picture, the Solis is a beautifully visible shade of orange. It is made of plastic that should withstand the rigours of travel very well. If the battery does weaken, you can order a replacement from Skyroam.

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I find the Skyroam Solis much easier to carry than its competitors (including the Geefi).

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Using the device

You probably noticed that the device (unlike its older brother) doesn't have a screen. To manage the device, you turn it on and connect to it from your smartphone. You will then be presented with an information page showing signal, passes left, battery level, etc. To use the device "in the field", you turn it on then press the WIFI button on the top. This automatically applies one of your day passes and you get 24 hours of internet. It knows where you are and downloads a virtual SIM for the Skyroam partner in that country. 

You can travel to as many countries as you want during that 24-hour window. All you have to do when you switch countries is turn the unit off and back on. When it starts up, it will identify the local country and download the appropriate country SIM.

You could open the a.skyroam.com captive portal from any device with a browser but it is formatted for smartphones (will look odd on a laptop). Why isn't it responsive?

The Solis is charged with any USBC adaptor which is fantastic if you have a USB C smartphone and laptop. You can charge everything with one adapter.  They provide a mini USB-C to USB-A adapter so you can charge other devices from the Solis but I wouldn't recommend it. WIFI needs every little bit of juice in that battery. 

In my testing (in zones with good LTE coverage and with 1 device connected), I was able to eek out 10-14 hours of usage on a single charge. This number will drop if the wireless signal is weak and/or if you connect multiple WIFI devices to the hotspot. When I tested it with a Chromebook and a Note 8 smartphone, I still got 10 hours of solid use (usage was primarily web pages without heavy streaming).

The software is periodically updated which is a nice touch. I recommend you start the device and let it connect to your local home network (without using a pass) before travelling. If the device needs an update, better to do it now then at a foreign airport waiting for the 15 minute upgrade process to complete. 

How fast is the connection?

I will not post speed test results because that depends on the local carrier, congestion, etc. I will say that in my testing, the Solis achieved LTE speeds comparable to an iPhone 6s Plus. The Note 8 outperformed it with is carrier aggregation technology. 

There is an LTE cap of around 500MB in a 24 hour period. After this, they throttle the connection down to 2G. They claim that this isn't automatic and done to protect the experience for all customers, but I hit this limit consistently (for testing) and saw my speed drop to dial-up performance. At the lower throttled speed, even simple apps like Google Maps took forever to load, and GPS navigation became impossible. 

I understand the need to control their costs but wish there were a way to buy more LTE access if I needed it. 

What about security?

September 2016, I reached out to Skyroam and complained about major security gaps on their online pass purchasing website. After multiple attempts to responsibly disclose the issues (with no follow-up from Skyroam), I wrote an article about it. I am happy to report that the new version of their online portal has fixes all of the issues I previously reported.

What about the general security? It is as secure as your home internet connection. My standing recommendation is to use a VPN where/when possible. You can get a VPNUnlimited lifetime VPN subscription for 5-devices for $18 (promo link), so you have no excuses.

So should I buy a Skyroam Solis?

So the question you are asking yourself is "Should I buy the Solis?". There is no simple answer. If you used the old version, then the Solis is a wonderful upgrade. Every time I tried it, it worked flawlessly without a hitch. The cost is predictable, and I have a bunch of passes purchased ready to use when needed. 

If you are a European with an EU SIM travelling within the EU, you get free roaming anyway. If you are an American with one of those great TMobile plans with free global roaming, you probably don't need this device either. 

A Skyroam PR rep had said months ago that additional functionality would be unlocked on the device (like Bluetooth and GPS), but since they are not available today, I can't factor them in as a benefit. 

For everyone that travels more than twice a year (and doesn't have free roaming), you really should consider it. The best recommendation I can make is that I own one and carry it with me every day (even when in my home country). I will be travelling considerably over the next four months (within the USA and globally) and will be using this thing a lot. 

If you travel once a year and don't want to buy a Skyroam Solis, you can rent one directly from the company. They will mail it to you or you can pick it up (US pickup is available in San Francisco, Atlanta and Austin.)

Improve your internet security right now, easily and for free

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment
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Quad9 is a new DNS service launched by a non-profit consortium (founding members are IBM Security, Packet Clearing House & Global Cyber Alliance). The promise of the Quad9 DNS service is good security using the knowledge of some of the world's leading security research firms, by merely changing your default DNS server and ALL for free. 

The service is (not so creatively) called Quad9 because the DNS address is 9.9.9.9

Is the Quad9 service fast?


I used the free DNS Benchmark tool by Steve Gibson with connections from Canada, the USA, the UK and Switzerland. I performed ten tests from each region, and in every test, the Quad9 service was in the top 3 fastest DNS services available. In most cases coming in first. 

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Quad9 is lightning fast because they use anycast routing which automatically finds and uses the nearest DNS server to the user. 

At launch, the service is powered by 70 servers in 40 countries, but the intention (in 2018) is to grow the fleet to 160 servers.

So how does it improve my security?

So why should you switch from your existing DNS service to the free Quad9 DNS service? Quad9 is a security and privacy enhancing DNS service that delivers much more security than any other DNS service currently available to consumers (more than your ISP, OpenDNS, etc.)

Quad9 says " Quad9 blocks against known malicious domains, preventing your computers and IoT devices from connecting malware or phishing sites." The threat intelligence is provided by the IBM X-Force but also includes 18 additional threat feeds from partners. Typically companies would pay tens of thousands for this level of protection and they are offering it for free.

You can configure your home router to use Quad9 and all device inside your house would be automatically protected (including that cheap easy to hack $29 webcam you bought from a shady online reseller). 

If a device (using Quad9) tries to contact a "bad" site, they will get back an NX domain error code (aka not found). This is how they prevent devices from being directed to dangerous sites.

Remember that a known good site could have been compromised and therefore could attempt to pull content from a shady site. Quad9 will prevent this from happening. 

Quad9 will continue adding features to further improve your security.

What about false positives?


They maintain a list of the 1,000,000 most used sites on the internet as a whitelist. This means that they cannot (mistakenly) blacklist an important site and make it unavailable. 

It looks like a well designed and well thought out platform.

What about my privacy?

The first thing you should realise is that most home connection use the DNS services of their ISP, and I consider most ISPs as the least trustworthy operators in your computing chain. Most are willing to sell your data cheaply to anyone willing to buy it.

Quad9's privacy statement is clear "No personally identifiable information is collected by the system. IP addresses of end-users are not stored on disk or distributed outside of the equipment answering the query in the local data center. Quad 9 is a nonprofit organization dedicated only to the operation of DNS services. There are no other secondary revenue streams for personally identifiable data; and the core charter of the organization is to provide secure, fast, private DNS."

Conclusion

I switched to Quad9, and it has been everything they promised. I recommend everyone reading this switch and try it out. It is one more layer of protection, and this one is easy & free.

New US Border Control rules for Canadians

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment

Since the tightening of US border entry rules, readers have been emailing asking:

What should I do when crossing the USA / Canada border?

Canadian readers (and non-US) travelers to the US wanted to know what the new tighter controls mean when crossing into the US. 

The first important truth most travelers need to accept is that "entering another country is a privilege and not a right". Although the controls may have tightened a bit, they haven't changed materially. Having visited over 40 countries in the last 30 years, I accept the fact that anytime I cross a national border, I am subject to the controls of that country and prepare accordingly.

The cardinal rule of information security is "know your risk". The first step is to determine all your risk factors (status entering that country, data you will be traveling with, travel history, your background, travel risk level of the region you are entering, etc).

Before you leave

  1. Minimize the amount of information you travel with. People often forget the treasure trove of information they carry on a daily basis. Your smartphone (as an example) contains all your contacts, login information for all your social networks, health information, GPS location history, networks you have connected to, etc. Anytime you cross a border (not just the USA but this applies to any national border crossing), the agents are tasked with protecting that county and may "take" any information you are entering the country with to determine your traveler risk. Do not take anything you wouldn't want to hand over.
  2. Minimize the amount of devices you travel with. This may sound stupid but I have seen business travelers cross the border with a personal smartphone, work smartphone, a personal tablet, a work tablet and a work laptop. Understand that anything you enter the country with can be seized or taken  for analysis. With all the Snowden, Vault7, Wikileak dumps, its clear that if a border agent touches your device, you shouldn't use it anymore. You should assume it has been permanently hacked. Where possible, do not bring devices with you. If you do, try to bring "disposable" devices you wouldn't mind throwing away if need be.

What should I do before crossing the border?

  1. Remove all information from your devices that you do not absolutely need to bring with you.
  2. Anything you could need, try to move it to the cloud and securely delete your local copy.
  3. Delete any apps from your smartphone for which you don't want to hand over login credentials to.
  4. If you use a password vault solution synchronized with the cloud, you may want to delete that (Lastpass, 1Password) and reinstall it after you enter the country.
  5. If you use a cloud synchronized 2-factor authentication solution, you may want to delete that (Authy) and reinstall it after you enter the country.
  6. If you can, leave the device at home. If you have a work phone, bring it with you but leave your personal back home.  Instead of bringing a tablet, try to load your content on the smartphone.
  7. If you can, travel with the least complex device possible (chromebook instead of a laptop or tablet instead of a laptop)
  8. Ensure device encryption is turned on.
  9. Turn off your devices before crossing the border.
  10. Switch the unlock mechanism from fingerprint to password based.

At the border

Never lie to a border agent. Never! Ever! Ever!

Any foreigner that refuses to comply with a border agent request (any border not just the USA) will likely be turned away and sent back to their home country. In extreme cases, you can even be bared from entering that country again.

This means that you are "forced" to comply with any request made by the border agent. If asked for your device password, you can provide it and cooperate or defy them. If you defy the request, they will likely take the device and send it for investigation while denying you entry (maybe even keeping you for secondary questioning). Either way, once you "lose control" of your device, you should assume it has been permanently hacked and that a clean re-install will not make it trustworthy again.

They may also ask you for your social media login information. Even if you do not have the app installed on your devices, they know you have an account and can ask for the credentials. Never lie. Refusing to cooperate can cause you to be detained for additional questioning and given an entry ban.

What should I do while crossing the border?

  1. Always be polite and respectful. Remember the agent is doing his/her job.
  2. Never lie. Always be truthful. 
  3. If asked to hand over a device or password, I would do it without putting up a fight. Once you are at the border, you have decided you are engaged and have to cooperate. 

After crossing the border

If your work device was accessed at the border, notify your company information security group immediately. 

If your personal device was accessed, you have to think long and hard about what you want to do. Know that there may be a permanent (un-removable) backdoor or tracker installed on the device. In some cases even a complete factory reset won't remove it. What do you want to do? In the security space, we recommend throwing the device away and buying a new one but this is a personal decision especially with a $1000 smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Also if they accessed your device or asked for your social media login information (username/password), assume they downloaded you social graph (all of your contact info and the contact info of your contacts). I would change all my social media passwords and double check my account information (email address, recovery phrases, telephone numbers, etc). Also notify your network that you lost control of your social media account and to be extra vigilant with requests and the information being shared with you. 

Other recommendations

If you travel to the US regularly, think about applying for a Nexus card (if you are a Canadian). Having a Nexus card means you have been deeply vetted and all of your fingerprints are on file. My experience has been that the Nexus has made crossing into the USA much easier. 

If you are a tech neophyte, take the time to read up on device security and security best practices. The truth is you are solely responsible for your privacy and security.