Getting the most from your home technology
TalkTalk engineer Isaac Fofie joined us to tackle a host of technological problems being faced by Mumsnetters. Find out how to boost the wireless signal in your house, get tips on improving broadband speed and find out why you should consider cloud storage.
Isaac has been a part of TalkTalk's engineering team BrightSparks for four years. Brightsparks help with everything from setting up broadband and connecting new devices to making sure everything is running as fast as possible.
Q. PigletJohn: I have a cable wireless hub with a number of plug-in ports on it. The house is three-storey and the more distant parts get poor wireless. If I want to cable up the house, and possibly add another wireless hub at the far end, what do I need to buy and do? I'd like to be able to use internet TV in future, as well as laptops and smartphones.
A. Issac: Not many people know about them, but powerline adaptors are a really handy invention which transmit a broadband signal around your house using your mains electricity - you just plug them into your electrical sockets. They're especially good for houses like yours where the wireless signal doesn't extend all the way around. It also means you don't have to worry about lots of cabling, which might not look nice. And they are really easy to set up.
You need one powerline adaptor for your router and then one for each device you want to connect it to. Typically, powerline adaptors were designed for wired connections. So you plug one adaptor into a socket by the router and connect it with an ethernet (network) cable. Then you plug the second adaptor in the room of your choice, and connect the device you want to use – say your computer or a set-top box - and connect those two together using an ethernet cable. You can use as many of these as you want throughout the house.
Now you can also buy powerline adaptors that have a built in feature called a 'Wi-Fi extender' which is what it sounds like you want. This will set up a mini Wi-Fi network in the part of the house that your router's wireless doesn't reach. You can buy powerline adaptors from most electrical stores like Currys, PC World or Maplin Electronics, or places like Amazon. Just make sure to look for one that has built in wireless capability.
Finally, I would say that to get the best broadband performance you should use an ethernet cable where possible. Obviously, that won't work for things like your smartphone but with your laptop you may want to use a cable from the powerline adaptor. Another tip is to plug the powerlines into the main power sockets rather than an extension strip – it helps ensure they work properly.
Q. Glittertwins: I'm considering adding another wireless hub in my house. We have a gadget that plugs into a router on the second floor while its partner is plugged into a TV on the ground floor so we can watch films stored on the PC two floors up. But what do we do with the TV on the first floor? Can we get another D-link gadget and add on to the existing set up or do we need another hub to talk to the original?
A. Issac: I think you are using powerline adaptors that use your electricity mains to transmit a broadband signal to another part of the house. You can add as many powerlines as you'd like really, so you just need to buy another one for the TV on the first floor and follow the supplied instructions, (you just need a single powerline rather than the two starter packs that they often come in as you already have one connected to the router).
Q. MmeLindor: I would like to know about wireless speakers. We are having the house rewired, and I would like to install small speakers in the kitchen and living room, they would work via iPhone or iPod. I can have wires installed when we have the house rewired, but would I be wasting money to do this? Should I just install wireless speakers instead?
A. Issac: Usually the cost and hassle of wiring means that it is better to opt for wireless speakers though the fact that you are having your house rewired means that it would be easier for you to go for wiring than for most. Having said that I personally prefer wireless speakers and there are now some really good options available that use your home Wi-Fi network. They have the added benefit of being flexible so you can take them with you if you move and also move them between rooms if you want. You may want to talk to the people who are rewiring your home to see what they think as well, in terms of what the effort and cost will be.
Q. PhineyJ: My desktop connects to our home broadband wirelessly using a gadget whose name I forget (plugged in things that look like walkie talkies, one connected to desktop and one to the router downstairs). This was the only way to do it as there's only one phone point on the ground floor. Recently, when I try to access the internet via the desktop, it works for about an hour and then cuts out. We have two other laptops and an iPad which don't have this issue (unless the router needs rebooting, but we've checked and it's not that). There are no other issues with the desktop, which was recently serviced.
Any idea what the problem might be? The desktop and all the other office devices are plugged into an extension which plugs in behind a rather heavy filing cabinet - which is why I haven't investigated this thoroughly yet.
A. Issac: Given that you're not having problems on the other devices this does sound like it could be a problem with your PC rather than the broadband. Alternatively, it could be the powerline adaptors that you are using (the things that look like walkie talkies).
I would suggest you start by using an ethernet cable to work on your desktop rather than connecting wirelessly. Just plug one end into the powerline and the other end into the computer. You should also make sure that the powerline adaptor is plugged directly into the wall socket rather than into an extension strip as this can affect how well it works. If you're still having problems, then you may want to get back in touch with the person who serviced your PC recently or you could also try contacting your broadband provider.
Q. Hatchypom: Why do I still have to use DVDs when all my CDs are on iTunes?
A. Issac: I'm sure you're not the first person to ask this question and probably won't be the last. To cut a long story short it's because of copyright protection. DVDs are made in such a way that you can't copy the content onto your computer. In fact, while it may seem hard to believe, it's actually illegal to copy songs from a CD to your computer. The government is currently looking at changing the law around this but your DVDs will still be encrypted.
There are lots of different options available now instead of DVDs, such as connecting your computer to your TV (or using a games console or internet TV) and watching films from iTunes or through services like LOVEFiLM and Netflix.
Q. OneLieIn: How do I back-up data over the internet? I have thousands of photos and songs that all need a home on the internet where I know they are safe. I cannot figure out which to use (if any) and what the downsides are.
A. Issac: This seems to be something lots of people are asking about at the moment. Backing up over the internet, referred to as 'in the cloud', has become increasingly popular, especially with the arrival of Apple's iCloud service that offers you free back-up of all your music, films, TV programmes, apps and so on so that you can access your content on any of your different Apple devices (Apple gives you 5GB free not including anything you've bought from them and you can also buy extra storage).
Amazon Cloud Drive also gives you up to 5GB of free space, which will store about 2,000 photos and then you can buy additional storage. There are also services like Dropbox that let you share your photos, documents and videos with other people or yourself from different locations and machines.
However if you have lots and lots on your computer that you want to back-up then you may still want to use an external hard drive, or a mixture of different options (so I use iCloud for my music and recent photos but all the photos I've taken over the years are stored on an external hard drive).
Q. TurnipVontrapp: Do laptops have a shorter life than desktop PCs? I'm worried about losing my photos, so I bought an external hard drive, which then helpfully blew up. I love technology when it works but hate it when it goes wrong and takes up all my precious evenings to fix.
A. Issac: Poor you! You absolutely did the right thing by backing up on an external hard drive so that's really bad luck that it went so wrong. As you said, we now have so many important and precious things on our computers that we need to take precautions protecting them, just like we do with our belongings in our homes.
There isn't really much of a difference now between the life span of a laptop or a desktop. The two things I would recommend are firstly to make sure that you have up-to-date security software – you can try your broadband provider for this if you don't have some already. Many of the issues people experience are caused by viruses and this can be easily avoided by having up-to-date security in place. Secondly, do back-up and don't be put off by your bad experience. You can do this with an external hard drive or there are options available that store things 'in the cloud' which basically means it's stored online.
Lots of companies offer these kinds of services, including Apple, and it may be that your broadband provider offers a solution. The one downside is that it could take quite a long time to upload everything, depending on how much you have stored and how fast your broadband is. As a result lots of experts still recommend using an external hard drive as your main back-up. Please don't be put off by your awful (but thankfully rare) experience. You might also want to look at my answer to OneLieIn's question.
Q. Stuntnun: I would like to back up my photos and iTunes library (so over 100GB) to cloud storage or similar, so that I won't lose them if my computer dies/gets stolen/house burns down. What's the best way to go about this? I'm particularly worried about iTunes, as last time I replaced my computer iTunes wouldn't let me copy the files to a new hard drive and I had to rip all the CDs (about 300) all over again.
A. Issac: Apple now offers its own cloud back-up service called iCloud, which helps protect against exactly what you are worried about. It's linked to your Apple account. You get 5GB of free storage and after that you have to pay, but all the music, films, apps, books and TV shows that you buy from Apple don't count towards this. Another option is to see if your broadband provider has a solution they offer to their customers. You may want to look at the answers to OneLieIn and TurnipVontrapp's questions as well.
Q. Funwithgrandma: I have a PC with a D-Link WiFi hub. I also have an iPhone 3GS with internet access. I use Google Chrome and it's very slow and often freezes and tells me to either wait or kill pages. It's very frustrating! I've tried Firefox, which is even worse, and Internet Explorer, which is much the same. Any suggestions please?
A. Issac: You haven't mentioned what the speeds are like on your iPhone (if it connects to your home broadband), but from what you are saying about being told to kill pages it sounds like you have a problem with your PC rather than the broadband.
To try to narrow this down I would start by running a speed test. Your broadband provider should have one on their website, otherwise you'll find lots through Google. To get accurate results you should connect your PC to your router using an ethernet (network) cable; in fact to get the best performance from your broadband you should always use an ethernet cable to connect your PC.
Running a speed test will tell you whether you are getting slow speeds or not. To give you some idea, the average broadband speed in the UK is 9Mbps, you need around 1Mbps to watch BBC iPlayer or 3 Mbps to watch it in HD. If your speeds are slow, then your broadband provider should have some suggestions on things you can do yourself to improve them – you can see TalkTalk's suggestions here. You may also want to contact your broadband provider to see if they can give you any further help.
If your speeds are fine (and indeed you're not having problems on your smartphone) then you probably should get your PC looked at. The first step is to make sure you have up-to-date security software and to run a virus check as viruses can really slow down your computer and cause things to crash. If none of this helps, then it may be time to consult a PC expert like Geek Squad who'll be able to take a detailed look at your computer. If your computer is old then, unfortunately, it may be time to upgrade to something newer – if your machine is older than five years then you probably won't be getting the maximum speed your broadband can offer.
Q. Bramshott: I live in a rural area (about 50 miles from London, so not the back of beyond) and our broadband is terrible. I get about 0.3mb on ADSL because we're a long way from the exchange, and a slightly faster but less reliable service with a mobile dongle from Three (the only one which covers us), which has to hang in the upstairs window pointing in the direction of the mast. I run a business from home and it's very difficult.
What's the solution for rural communities? Can technology help or do we just have to resign ourselves to getting more and more left behind (I just laugh when people talk about watching iPlayer).
A. Issac: There are lots of factors that will affect your broadband speed and, as you point out, your distance from the exchange is a really important one. If you are a long way from the exchange then unfortunately this is going to mean you get lower speeds because ADSL technology can only push the data so far.
If you haven't done so already (though from reading your question I suspect you have) you can contact your broadband provider to see if there's anything they can do to help and make sure your home set-up is optimised (you can look at TalkTalk's tips here). However, it could also be that this is the best speed that your line can possibly get, which I recognise is frustrating.
The good news is that faster broadband – often referred to as fibre or superfast broadband – is being rolled out around the country. It's currently available to about 30-40% of homes and this will increase to around two-thirds of the UK by the end of spring 2014. The government is also putting in funding to extend this to 90% of homes by the end of 2015. You can see if and when your exchange is due to be upgraded to superfast broadband here.
Finally, if you run a business from home you might want to look at whether you could get faster speeds through a business broadband package as there are some different technologies that might be available to you (called Ethernet). This will be more expensive than what you pay for your residential ADSL broadband but you might decide that it's worth it for your business.
Q. CambebridgeBlue: I'm in the same boat as Bramshott - rural(ish) area, far from the exchange, absolutely dreadful broadband. I also run a business from home and can just about do the basics of surfing and emailing but anything like iPlayer/YouTube/backing up to Cloud etc is pointless because it takes so long regardless of which device I use (Mac connected directly to router, iPad, iPhone, Kindle Fire). It's incredibly frustrating and I'd welcome any tips - we are with TalkTalk and have had a visit from a BrightSpark engineer, so I assume there's not much more that can be done
A. Issac: If you've already had a visit from one of my colleagues then unfortunately it may be that you are getting the best speed that your line will allow. I would take a look at the response to Bramshott and if you also want to send us your account information via Mumsnet then we can take another look at this for you.
Q. BigBlackBagBorderBinLiner: My computer periodically has a software failure, which it blames on 'Guru Meditation'. Any ideas?
A. Issac: Wow... I have to confess that this is not something that has come up in my job so far. Guru Meditation is basically like the 'blue screen of death' you get when PCs crash, but on the Commodore Amiga PCs which were sold in the 1980s and 90s. If you are still using one of those and getting this message then I'm afraid to say I think it might be time to buy a new computer.
Q. Oodsigma: We are setting up a home cinema. Any tips regarding hard drives, projectors and sound systems? We don't want to end up with the next Betamax!
A. Issac: There are lots of things you might want to consider when setting up a home cinema, not least how much money you want to spend! There's a really good section on the Which? website where you can find reviews of home cinema systems. You'll also need to decide whether you want a 5.1 surround system – six speakers and used by all the best sound formats – or if you're happy with a 2.1 system which is good for smaller rooms.
There's been quite a long debate about the merits of LCD (liquid crystal display) and DLP (digital light processing) technology, but nowadays the technology for both has improved so much that it doesn't make a big difference for most people. There is a newer display type available called LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) but this is more expensive and not so commonplace yet.
One tip I do like is using a projector-screen-size calculator – you can find one via Google - these help you calculate the best-sized projector for you based on the distance from the projector to the screen.
Q. Fossil971: I want to listen to BBC iPlayer Radio on a radio! ie on a portable device I can carry from room to room. I don't want to have to plug it into a phone or computer and trail wires around or be in the wrong room!
We have the normal broadband/PC set-up and we do have internet radio on a Sony MIDI system, but it doesn't seem to have any iPlayer services. Can you recommend a make/model that will interface with iPlayer Radio?
A. Issac: The BBC has a really useful support page about listening to BBC Radio using BBC iPlayer which you can find here. The main point though is that while you can listen to the BBC Radio service over the internet through an internet radio, to be able to listen to catch up through BBC iPlayer you need to do it via a computer, games console or mobile device like an iPod or a tablet.
As it sounds like portability is the most important thing for you, then it might be worth looking into something like an iPod which you can then 'dock' into a set of speakers, that you can move from room to room.
Q. FannyBizarre: I have an iPhone and iPad and have remote control sockets to switch things like the modem and speakers off and on. Can I control the remote control sockets via the iPhone or iPad?
A. Issac: There are a couple of products available that let you do this – Belkin offer something called WeMo and there's also a company called LightwaveRF who specialise in this kind of technology - but if you've already bought your remote control sockets then I don't think you'll be able to find an app that works with them.
Devices like the iPhone and iPad are creating a whole new market for things like this so while it may not quite be mainstream yet, I'm sure it won't be very long until they are.
Q. Babycarmen: I have an energy metre thing that I got free from my energy provider, it shows you how much energy you're using. It has been sitting in the box for about a year now. Is it really worth getting out and setting up or not?
A. Issac: It sounds like you are talking about an energy monitor. While they won't help you save money on their own, they can be a really useful way to show you where you might be able to cut back on your energy use by changing your habits and, as a result, reduce your bill. So I would say if you're looking for ways to save some money – or you think you might be paying too much – then you should set it up! Once you have done so, you may want to try turning everything you can off in your home and then going through turning things back on one by one. This will show you which things use the most energy, and help you identify which things you should make sure to turn off between uses.
Q. MrsPearH: I'm going to ask a stupid question. How do I connect my TV to my computer? I am pretty sure I don't have a stick for internet access but a box; so I need a cable, but which one? What I want to be able to do is watch catch-up eg BBC iPlayer, on the big box.
A. Issac: It's not a stupid question at all. Unfortunately, the answer depends on what TV and computer you have. There are a number of different types of connections that you could both on your computer and TV, depending on the make and how old they are. You might need two different cables, one to transmit the picture and another for the sound.
Without knowing what kind of laptop or TV you have I'm afraid I can't be of much more help – I'd suggest having a good Google search using the specific makes and models of both your computer and laptop or even going in to an electronics store and asking them to find the right cables for you.
Q. Rainand: Can you recommend a tablet that I can use to browse the internet & watch iPlayer? Preferably it can edit Word documents too.
A. Issac: There are a whole range of different tablets out there and as you'd expect they range dramatically in price. At the top end of the scale you have the iPad, which starts at £329 for the full-sized model with 16GB of storage. If you don't want to spend that much, then the Google Nexus 7 by Asus and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 are also very popular. The screen is smaller than an iPad (7 inches diagonal compared to 9.7 inches for an iPad) but for most people that's absolutely fine for browsing the internet and watching TV on demand. Prices start at around £159.
Microsoft and Samsung both also offer tablets that are more up at the Apple end of the scale – a lot of your decision depends on whether you are an Apple fan or not. The Google Nexus and the Samsung Galaxy both run off Android which is (obviously) Google's platform of choice and there are lots and lots of apps available on both Android and Apple.
Finally, for editing Word documents you can download an app that will let you view and edit Microsoft Word documents – Kingsoft on Android gets good reviews as does Pages on Apple.
Last updated: over 3 years ago