UniFi: Restrict Network Device Access On A Guest Network

On my UniFi Dream Machine, I have set up a guest wireless network for those who come to my house and need to use the Internet. I've done this across all routers I've ever purchased, as I prefer to use the main non-guest wireless access point (WAP) just for me as I have a very secure password that I rather not share with anyone.

It only occurred to me a few days ago that my reason for having a guest WAP is flawed. After all, the only difference between the personal and guest WAP's is a throw-away password I change regularly. There is no beneficial security in that. It is time to make good use of UniFi’s Guest Control settings and prevent access to internal network devices. I have a very simple network setup and the only two network devices I want to block access to is my Synology NAS and IP Security Camera.

UniFi’s Guest Control settings do a lot of the grunt work out the box and is pretty effortless to set up. Within the UniFi controller (based on my own UniFi Dream Machine), the following options are available to you:

  1. Guest Network: Create a new wireless network with its own SSID and password.
  2. Guest User Group: Set download/upload bandwidth limitations that can be attached to the Guest Network.
  3. Guest Portal: A custom interface can be created where a guest will be served a webpage to enter a password to access the wireless network - much like what you'd experience when using the internet at an airport or hotel. UniFi gives you enough creative control to make the portal interface look very professional. You  can expire the connection by a set number of hours.
  4. Guest Control: Limit access to devices within the local network via IP address.

I don't see the need to enable all guest features the UniFi controller offers and the only two that are of interest to me is setting up a guest network and restricting access (options 1 and 4). This is a straight-forward process that will only take a few minutes.

Guest Network

A new wireless network will need to be created and be marked as a guest network. To do this, we need to set the following:

  • Name/SSID: MyGuestNetwork
  • Enable this wireless network: Yes
  • Security: WPA Personal. Add a password
  • Guest Policy: Yes

All other Advanced Options can be left as they are.

UniFi Controller - Guest Network Access Point

Guest Control

To make devices unavailable over your newly create guest network, you can simply add IPV4 hostname or subnet within the "Post Authorisation Restrictions" section. I've added the IP to my Synology NAS - 172.16.1.101.

UniFi Controller - Guest Control

If all has gone to plan when connecting to the guest WAP you will not be able to access any network connected devices.

UniFi: Unable To Access Synology On Local Network

Investing in a UniFi Dream Machine has been one of the wisest things I've done last year when it comes to relatively expensive purchases. It truly has been worth every penny for its reliability, security and rock-solid connection - something that is very much needed when working from home full-time.

The Dream Machine has been very low maintenance and I just leave it to do its thing apart from carrying out some minor configuration tweaks to aid my network. The only area that I did encounter problems was accessing the Synology Disk Station Manager (DSM) web interface. I could access Synology if I used the local IP address instead of the "myusername.synology.me" domain. Generally, this would be an ok solution, but not the right one for two reasons:

  1. Using a local IP address would restrict connection to my Synology if I was working outside from another location. This was quite the deal-breaker as I do have a bunch of Synology apps installed on my Mac, such as Synology Drive that carries out backups and folder synchronisation.
  2. I kept on getting a security warning in my browser when accessing DSM regarding the validity of my SSL certificate, which is to be expected as I force all connections to be carried out over SSL.

To my befuddlement, I had no issue accessing the data in my Synology by mapping them as network drives from my computer.

There was an issue with my local network as I was able to access the Synology DSM web interface externally. From perusing the UniFi community forum, there have been quite a few cases where users have reported the same thing and the common phrase that came popping up in all the posts was: Broken Hairpin NAT. What is a Hairpin NAT?

A Hairpin NAT allows you to run a server (in this case a NAS) inside your network but connect to it as if you were outside your network. For example via a web address, "myusername.synology.me" that will resolve to the internal IP of the server.

What I needed to do was to run an internal DNS server and a local entry for "myusername.synology.me" and point that to the internal IP address of the NAS. What was probably happening is that my computer/device was trying to make a connection past the firewall and then back in again to access the NAS. Not the most efficient way to make a connection for obvious reasons and in some cases may not work. A loopback would resolve this.

A clever user posted a solution to the issue on the UniFi forum that is very easy to follow and worked like a charm - Loopback/DNS Synology DiskStation.

I have also saved a screenshot of the solution for posterity.

MacBook Pro Charge Limiting for Battery Health

Since working from home, my laptop is constantly left plugged into the mains as there isn’t much of a reason to ever disconnect, especially when you have a nice office to work in. I’ve been told leaving your laptop on charge has a negative impact on the longevity of your battery.

I’ve learnt this the hard way. The battery from my previous laptop, a Macbook Pro 2015, died a slow death until it got to a point where it soon became a glorified workstation. This seemed to happen quicker than I would have liked - within 3 years from purchase. Not something I’d expect from the build quality expected from an Apple product.

I was brave enough to replace the battery myself giving a new lease of life! The post teaser image is proof of my efforts. That picture was taken in when I managed to carefully pry the first cells of the old battery away from the existing adhesive. This was the most hardest part of the whole process!

My old laptop has now been replaced with the most recent iteration of the Macbook Pro, as I needed a little more power and most importantly 32GB of RAM to run intensive virtual environments. I made the conscious decision to actively take care of the battery and not repeat the mistakes I made in how I used my previous laptop. This is easier said than done especially when my laptop is connected via Thunderbolt to my monitor, both powering my laptop and gives dual-screen capability. It’s impossible to disconnect!

My only option was to find a “battery charge limiter” application that would set a maximum battery charge. Now, there is a great debate across forums whether going to such lengths does have any positive impact on battery health. Apparently, MacOS’s battery health management should suffice for the majority of scenarios when it comes to general usage. Going by experience, this didn’t help the lifespan of my previous Macbook’s battery. Hence my scepticism.

One indirect benefit of setting a charge limit is there will be less charge cycles counted, resulting in increased resale value should you decide to sell your laptop. Also, according to the Battery University, setting a charging threshold to 80% might get you around 1500 charge cycles.

If the likes of Lenovo, Samsung and Sony (all running on Windows) provide support software to limit the charge threshold, there has to be some substance to this approach. Unfortunately, you’re very limited to find a similar official application for macOS. But all is not lost. Two open-source variants carry out the job satisfactorily:

Both these apps modify the “Battery Charge Level Max” (BCLM) parameter in the SMC, which when set limit the charge level. The only thing to be aware of when using these applications is that sometimes the set charge limit can be wiped after a shutdown or restart. This is a minor annoyance I can live with. Out of the two, my preference was AlDente as I noticed the set charge limit didn’t get wiped as often when compared with Charge Limiter.

I’ll end this post with one final link from The Battery University on the best conditions to charge any battery - How To Charge and When To Charge.

Preserving Digital Memories

The older I get, the more obsessed I have become with preserving life’s memories through photos and video. With so many companies offering their storage solutions, we’re living in an age where storage is no longer something that comes at a premium. There are a wide variety of pricing and feature tiers for all, benefiting us as consumers. If you have full trust in the service provider, they are suited particularly well for the majority of consumer needs. But as a consumer, you need to be prepared to shift with potential service changes that may or may not work in your favour.

For many years, I have always been conscious that I’m a photo hoarder and believe that there isn’t a bad photo one can take with the help of advancements in phone camera technology. If you ask any of my work colleagues, they’d probably tell you I have a problem. When we go on any of our socials, I’m the first person to whip out my phone and take pictures as they make nice mementoes to look back on and share.

On a more personal note, during last years Diwali I came to the sudden realisation as we all sat down to my mum belting out her prayers that this will not last forever and it dawned on me that these are truly special moments. Being an Indian who is culturally inept in all the senses and cannot speak his native tongue, I would be comforted knowing that I'll have photos and video to look back on many years to come. From that moment, I decided to make an active effort to capture smaller moments like these. Maybe the pandemic has shown me not take things for granted and appreciate time with family more.

I got a little serious in my crusade and took things a step further by acquiring as many family photos as possible by purchasing a photo scanner to digitise all prints for safekeeping. Prints fade in time, not in the digital world.

Photo Backup Strategy

Whether I take photos on my phone or my FujiFilm X100F camera, the end destination will always be my Synology NAS where I have the following redundancies in place:

  • RAID backup on all hard disks.
  • Nightly backups to the cloud using BackBlaze.
  • Regular backup to an external disk drive and stored off-site.

As expected, my phone gets the most use and everything by default is stored within my Google Photos account using free unlimited storage. I then use Synology Moments that acts as my local Google Photos where my photos are automatically stored to my Synology in original quality.

My camera gets mostly used for when I go on holiday and events. I store the RAW and processed photos on my Synology. I still upload the processed photos to Google Photos as I love its AI search capability and makes sharing easy.

At the end of the day, the layers of redundancy you put in place depend on how important specific photos are to you. I like the idea of controlling my own backups. I take comfort knowing my data is stored in different places:

  • Synology
  • Backblaze
  • Google Photos
  • Offsite Hard Drive

Cloud Storage and Shifting Goalposts

The fear I had pushed to the back of my head finally came to the forefront when Google changed its storage policy.

The recent news regarding the changes in Google Photos service gives me a sense of resolve knowing I already have my local storage solution that is already working in parallel with Google Photos. But I can’t help but feel disappointed by the turn of events though. Even though I can to some extent understand Google's change in their service, I can't help but feel slightly cheated. After all, they offered us all free unlimited storage in exchange to allow them to apply data mining and analysis algorithms to improve their services. That's the price you pay for using a free service. You are the product (this I have no grievances with)!

Now they have enough of our data, they can feel free to cut the cord. We all know Google has a history of just killing products. Google Photos may not be killed, but life has certainly been sucked out of it.

It may come across as if I’m solely bashing Google Photos, when in fact this is a clear example of how companies can change their service conditions for their benefit and face no repercussions. We as users have no say on the matter and just have to roll with the punches. It just seems wrong that a company would entice so many users with a free service to then strip it away. This is a classic monopolistic strategy to grab market share by pricing out its competitors to now demand money from its users.

For me, Google Photos provided a fundamental part of the photo storage experience by making things easily accessible to family and friends. No longer will I be able to invite friends/family to contribute to shared albums unless they opt for the paid plan. Now when you’re surrounded by iPhone users, this creates another barrier of entry.

This has cemented my stance more so to ensure have control of my assets and service, which is something I have been doing.

Final Thoughts

If I have carried out my photo archival process correctly, they should be accessible to future generations for many years to come and continue to live on even after I’ve expired. This should be achievable as I’ll continue to maintain this time-capsule as technology continues to evolve.

The most important take-away: If you strip down my approach to the barebones, I’m not giving in to the monopolistic behaviour of the tech giants - Google, Apple or Microsoft. Just using them as a secondary thought to compliment my process. It’s just my NAS doing the heavy-lifting where I set the rules.

These priceless heirlooms is a legacy and my gift for future generations to come.

Setting A Radio Alarm On A Google Nest Hub: The Long-winded Approach

I love my Google Nest and it truly is a revolutionary piece of kit. Not only does it display my photos but it also forms a key part of some basic smart-home automation. I really have no gripes. But there is one small area I feel it's lacking. The Radio Alarm. I'm the type of person who detests alarm sounds and prefer my sleep cycle to be shattered by something a little softer, like a radio station.

How difficult is it for Google to add a feature that will allow one to wake up to their favourite radio station? I would have thought this key feature would be very easy to put in place, after all, the Nest Hub can carry out much more complex operations. There are varying reports that this feature is available only within the US, which I find very odd to why this is the case. Does Google not know here in the UK we also would find this feature useful?

In the meantime, whilst I await an official release (that may not come anytime soon!) I managed to concoct a somewhat preposterous way to get some form of radio alarm automation. You will require the following:

  • An Android phone with Google Assistant capability
  • Google Nest Hub (standard or max)
  • Phone stand to sit next to your Nest Hub (optional)

The premise of the approach I detail is to get an Android phone to fire off the alarm at the desired time and when the alarm is dismissed manually, the phone will utter a phrase that will be picked up by your Google Nest Hub and play your radio station.

If you’re still here and intrigued by this approach, let's get to it!

The first thing we need to do is set up a “Good Morning” routine on the Google Nest Hub, which can be done through the Google Home app on your phone. It is here where we will carry out the following:

  1. Assistant will section: Adjust media volume to 40%.
  2. And then play section: Select Play radio and enter the name of a radio station.
  3. Save the routine.

Now when you utter the magic phrase “Good morning”, the Google Nest Hub will do exactly what we set up in our routine. Now we need to add some automation to do this for us and this is where the alarm feature on your Android phone comes into play.

I cannot be sure if the alarm feature on all newish Android phones gives the ability to define a Google Assistant routine. If it does, you should see this as an option when setting the alarm. We need to carry out a similar process as we carried out (above) when setting a “Good Morning” routine on the Google Nest Hub:

  1. When I dismiss my alarm: Adjust media volume to 50%.
  2. Select the “Add action” button and under the “Enter command” tab, enter the following text: Hey Google. Good Morning.
  3. Leave the “And then play” section to do nothing.
  4. Save the routine.

Your phone will ideally be placed in close proximity of your Google Nest Hub for the “Hey Google. Good Morning” utterance to be heard. In my case, I have my phone right next to the Nest Hub on my bedside cabinet to make it easy to dismiss the alarm.

I have to concede the approach I have to take comes across quite lame. It just seems ridiculous that you have to rely on a phone to fire off a process to allow one to have the radio to play automatically. Why can’t routines be more flexible at Nest Hub level?

I’m unable to determine whether my approach comes across naive or clever. Maybe it's somewhere in between.

Sony Android TV - Resolving Internet Access Issue

I thought I should write a quick post for those who may also experience lost internet connection on a Sony TV (running Android OS) as my parents encountered a couple weeks ago. My parents have had their TV for a few years now and never experienced connection issues... unless the Internet was truly down.

The TV is connected to the internet modem via an ethernet cable. Even though the network status was marked as "connected" there was no Internet connection. Other household devices were connected to the Internet successfully, which confirmed there was solely an issue with the Sony TV. Luckily, after a lot of fumbling around the settings and a lot of Googling, there was in fact a simple solution requiring no technical knowledge.

The issue occurs when the date-time is incorrect. This needs to be corrected by carrying out the following steps:

  1. Press the Home button on the remote control.
  2. Select Settings (cog icon) found on the top right.
  3. Go to System Settings and select Date and Time.
  4. In Date and Time, select Automatic date & time set to Use network time.
  5. Carry out a hard reboot by pressing and holding down the Power button on the remote.

I’d also recommend checking if there are any OS updates at the same time just to see if Sony has released any fixes for the issue. At the time of writing, it doesn’t look like this issue has been resolved. I can confirm I checked for any outstanding updates to which there were none.

Even now I don’t understand how the date-time on the TV shifted out of sync. This shouldn’t happen again as we have now set the date-time to be set automatically via the network.

So why are there Internet issues if the date-time isn't correct on a device? Ensuring the correct time on a device is more important than you might think. If the clock on a device manages to diverge too far from the correct time (more than a few hours), the Operating System and applications that are dependent on Internet-based services and authorisation will be rejected. As a result, either cause issues where some applications do not function, or on a wider scale where connection to the Internet is dropped in its entirety.

UniFi WiFi Router Is Really A Dream Machine!

Ever since I’ve been forced to work from home over the last 3 months, I noticed in the first few weeks of the coronavirus lockdown my network performance has been subpar. Not ideal when a stable internet connection is ones only gateway to the outside world and enable you to work from home.

My current network setup is quite simple and consists of:

  • ISP router - set to modem mode
  • Billion 7800DXL wireless router
  • Synology 4-bay NAS
  • Wireless Access Point
  • Wireless Security Camera

The bottle-neck out of the whole setup is the Billion router. It’s not a basic router by any means and it has served me well since I last upgraded my network back in 2014. After being in use 24/7 over the last 6 years, signs of wear were starting to show. My internet connection would just randomly drop or wind to a halt. Carrying out a factory reset did not resolve the connection stability. Next step was to check for the latest firmware, but it seems that Billion has a really short firmware release cycle - not something you’d expect for a router costing just under £200. The last firmware was released in 2015, which I had already installed.

I had to make a decision to either waste time on faffing around with the Billion router or look for a replacement. I decided on the latter.

UniFi Dream Machine Router

UniFi Dream Machine Boxed

I knew straight-away what router I wanted to purchase - UniFi Dream Machine by Ubiquiti. I was sold on the name alone!

Ubiquiti are known for making high-quality network solutions that are suitable for consumers and businesses alike. You can start off with a small setup based on your infrastructure needs knowing at a later point (if needed) you have the option to purchase additional hardware and upscale your network. From the reviews I’ve read online, the company really makes nice hardware that can seamlessly integrate with one another - part of the Ubiquiti eco-system.

I was so tempted to go overkill on my new network set up just so I could do some additional tinkering, but the Dream Machine Router provides all the functionality I need and more.

Form Factor

The Dream Machine isn’t like any other router I’ve purchased previously where the form factor has been a boring horizontal slab with two or three antennae poking out - a piece of hardware I would always hide away in my cabinet. But the Dream Machine is a nice looking piece of kit and even comes across very applesque. It can stand proud and upright in full view for all to see. Plus it has has a really cool blue ring light.

It’s definitely heavier than any of my previous routers, which isn’t surprising from the amount of tech being crammed into this oversized mint tic tac, containing:

  • ARM Cortex Processor
  • Cooling Fan
  • 4 Port Gigabit Switch
  • Integrated Wireless Antenna 2.4/5GHz

Setup

I love the fact that from the moment you take the router out the box and connect to mains, you can literally get online and everything set up in no longer than 10 mins all from within the UniFi Network Controller mobile app. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to go through setting up a network device before. The mobile app makes things really simple that even my parents wouldn’t have a problem in carrying out the setup steps. I think I spent more time thinking about what I should call my wireless network. :-)

I won’t go into too much detail here on the setup steps, but they consist of the following:

  • Find and connect to the device via Bluetooth.
  • Create a UI.com account, or login using your existing credentials.
  • Set auto-optimise settings.
  • Setup Wi-Fi network.
  • Set a firmware update schedule.
  • Perform network speed test to dial in with the speeds provided by your ISP.

Once those steps are carried out, you just need to let the device go through its configuration process. Once complete, you can join the network wirelessly.

If in the future, you decide to expand your network with additional UniFi devices, the setup process will be the same.

“Prosumer” Configuration/Monitoring

For a device that costs around £300, don’t think for one second the UniFi mobile app is the only route to making configuration changes. The mobile app is a protective bubble for the standard consumer who just wants a secure and reliable wireless setup without being too exposed to the inner workings. If I didn’t have a home NAS and didn’t feel the need to control how certain wireless access points could connect to devices, the mobile app would have more than sufficed.

UniFi Network Controller App Home Screen

Phew! The UniFi Network Controller App is telling me "Everything is great!".

I get a real kick out of seeing the vast array of network analytics and see how my internet usage has increased since working from home. You have at your disposal overall statistics on hardware performance, internet speed, threat maps, device and application usage to name a few.

UniFi Traffic Stats

If like me, you require more control over your network, this can be done by logging into the web interface, which is just as intuitive as the mobile app. Here I was able to configure port forwarding, network groups, firewall and guest network. Trust me, there is a tonne more configuration options you can change really easily making you feel like a network pro!

UniFi Web Interface

Security

In addition to wanting a more stable and reliable network device, security also played a big factor in the reason why I purchased a Ubiquiti device.

Unlike all the routers I’ve had in the past that probably only received 2-3 updates in their lifetime, Ubiquiti has turned that on its head. By just looking at their software release page, it’s a hive on activity. Up-to-date firmware enhances the longevity of the device by fixing any possible vulnerabilities as well as ensuring the device continues to function at its optimum level. To ensure you are always running the most up-to-date firmware, Ubiquiti have made the process very easy. The device will automatically install newly released firmware automatically based on your set schedule.

There is also an option to enable Threat Management (currently in beta) that will protect your network from attacks, malware and malicious activity. Does this feature slow down the incoming traffic? The answer is no. The device has a whopping 850Mbps throughput limit. Amazing!

Conclusion

I purchased the Ubiquiti Dream Machine a couple of weeks into the start of the Covid-19 lockdown and I’m happy to report my network is more speedy then I could’ve hoped for. This is something you immediately notice when performing large file downloads/uploads. In fact, my parents log onto my Synology remotely and even they have noted an improvement.

I’ll admit even after numerous research before making the purchase, I was still questioning whether spending such a large amount on a wireless router was worth it. But this concern was soon quashed knowing I have a piece of hardware that is more future-proof than what its competitors are currently offering and can later tie into a larger network architecture when needed.

By buying this router you’ll be living the network dream!

Digitising Photos With The Plustek ePhoto Z300 Scanner

Making the transition in moving photos from physical to digital form can be quite an undertaking depending on the volume of photos you have to work with. Traditional flat-bed scanning and Photoshop combinations aren’t really up to the task if you want a process that requires minimal manual intervention. It can all be quite cumbersome, from placing the photo correctly on the scanner to then carrying out any photo enhancements, cropping and exporting. Yes, you get a fantastic digital print but it comes at a cost - time.

If you are really serious in digitising a bulk load of photos, there are a couple viable options:

  1. Photo-scanning service where you post all the photos you wish to digitise. The costs can be relatively low (around 1p per photo) and is good if you have a specific number of photo’s to digitise.
  2. Purchase a photo scanner where photos are scanned manually in a document feeding process, which makes for a less intensive job.

Due to the large number of photos that have accumulated over the years, I preferred to purchase a photo scanner. Sending off photos to a photo-scanning service didn’t seem viable and could prove quite costly. I also had the fear of sending over photos via post where I do not have the original negatives. They could be lost in transit or handled incorrectly by the photo-scanning service. Not a risk I was willing to take. Photos are precious memories - a snapshot of history.

The most ideal photo scanner for a job of this undertaking needs to be sheet-fed, where the photos are fed through a scanning mechanism. There are quite a number of these type of scanners, mostly being document scanners, which isn’t the type of scanner you want. From personal experience I found document scanners lack the resolution required and the feeding mechanism can be quite rough on photos.

I decided to go for the Plustek ePhoto Z300 as it seems to fit the bill at a really good price (at time to writing £170).

Initial Impressions

The Plustek scanner doesn’t look like a scanner you’ve ever seen and almost looks other worldly. Due to its upright position, it requires very little real-estate on your desk when compared to a flat-bed scanner.

All functions are performed from the software you can download from the Plustek site or via the CD provided in the box. Once the software is installed and scanner calibrated you’re good to go.

Software

I’m generally very reluctant to install software provided directly by hardware manufacturers as they encompass some form of bloatware and prefer a minimum install of just the drivers. The software provided by Plustek is very minimal and does exactly what it says on the tin - no thrills!

Just to be sure you’re running the most up-to-date software, head over to the Plustek site.

When your photos are scanned you’ll be presented with thumbnails in the interface where you can export a single or group selection of images to the following formats:

  • JPG
  • PDF
  • PNG
  • TIFF
  • Bitmap

I exported all my scans to JPEG in high quality.

There is a slight bug-bare with the Mac OS version of the software as it doesn't seem to be as stable as its Windows counterpart. This only became apparent after installing the software on my Dad’s computer running on Windows. I noticed when you have collected quite a few scans, the Mac OS version seems to lag and crash randomly, something that doesn’t seem to occur on a Windows machine. This is very annoying after you’ve been scanning over a 100 photos.

The hardware specifications on both machines are high running on i7 processors and 16GB of RAM, so the only anomaly is the software itself. A more stable Mac OS version of the scanning software would be welcome. In the meantime, I would recommend Mac users to regularly save small batches of their scans.

The Scanning Process

The speed of scanning varies depending on the resolution set from within the software, where you have either 300 or 600 dpi to choose from. I scanned all my prints at 600 dpi, which taken around 15 seconds to scan each 4x6 photo, whereas 300 dpi was done in a matter of seconds. I wanted to get to the best resolution for my digitised photos and thought it was worth the extra scanning time opting for 600 dpi.

Even though Plustek ePhoto Z300 is a manually fed scanner, I was concerned that I would have to carry out some form of post-editing in the software. By enabling "Auto crop and auto deskew” and “Apply quick fix” within the scan settings, all my photos were auto-corrected very well even when accidentally feeding a photo a that wasn’t quite level.

To save time in correcting the rotation of your images post-scan, just always ensure you feed the photos top first.

Conclusion

The Plustek Scanner performs very well both on price and performance. I have been pretty happy with the quality when scanning photos in either black and white or colour.

The only thing that didn’t come to mind at time of purchase is scanning is a very manual process, especially when churning through hundreds of photos. It would be great if Plustek had another version of the Z300 that encompassed an automatic feeding mechanism. There were times when I would feed in the next photo before the currently scanned photo had finished, resulting in two photos scanned into one. This didn’t become a regular occurrence once you have got into the flow of the scanning process.

Not having an automatic feeding mechanism is not at all a deal breaker at this price. You get a more than adequate photo scanner that makes the tedious job of digitising batches of photos somewhat surmountable.

My Essential iPad Accessories and Applications

Following up on my previous post about the joy that is using my new iPad Air, I thought I’d write about what I deem are essential accessories and applications. It’s only been a couple of weeks since making my purchase and has surprisingly found the transition from Android to iOS not too much of a pain. It’s fast becoming part of my daily workflow for creative writing and note-taking.

Here are some applications and accessories I use…

Accessories

Keyboard Case

Apple’s own Smart Keyboard Cover felt very unnatural to use and didn’t provide enough protection for my nice new tablet. The Inateck Keyboard Case is an absolute pleasure to use and the keys have a very nice responsive rebound. I can literally use this anywhere and feels just as stable on my lap as it is when being used on a desk.

The only downside is the connectivity relies on Bluetooth rather than Apple’s own Smart connector which would normally power the keyboard. Nevertheless, the pairing has no latency and the battery lasts weeks even with daily usage.

Apple Pencil

The iPad Air is only compatible with the first generation pencil and has a really ridiculous way to charge using the lightning connector. Apple could have quite easily made the iPad Air work with the second generation pencil. If the iPad Pro was a cracker, then the second generation pencil would be the caviar.

Regardless of the design, it’s refreshing to scribble away notes to store electronically. Previously to keep track of my written notes, I would write on paper (oh how old fashioned!?) and then scan digitally using Evernote on my phone.

Draw Screen Protector

Writing on glass using the Apple Pencil is a little slippery and need something that gives the texture to almost simulate the friction you would get when writing on paper. There are a handful of screen protectors that provide this with varying degrees of success. The most popular being is Paperlike, which I plan on putting an order for when I’ve worn out my current screen protector.

My current screen protector is Nillkin and isn’t too bad. It provides adequate protection as well as giving enough texture with enough anti-reflection qualities that doesn’t hinder screen visibility. Added bonus: a nice light scratchy sound as you'd expect if writing with an old-fashioned pencil!

Applications

I'm deliberately leaving out the most obvious and well-known apps that we are well aware of such as YouTube, Netflix, Gmail, Kindle, Twitter, Spotify etc.

Jump Desktop

I wrote about this very briefly in my previous post. If you want a link to your laptop/workstation from your iPad, Jump Desktop is your best option. Once you have the application installed on your iPad and host machine you are up and running in minutes. Judging by past updates, it’s getting better with every release.

Evernote

I don’t think I can speak about Evernote highly enough. I am a premium member and is one of my most highly used applications across all mediums. Worth every penny! It organises my notes, scribbles and agendas with little effort.

Evernote is effectively my brain dump of ideas.

Notes haven’t looked so good with the use of a recent feature - Templates. On creation of a new note, you have the option to select a predefined template based from the many Evernote provides from their own Template Gallery.

Grammarly

Grammarly is a must for all writers to improve the readability of your content. I myself had only started using Grammarly since last year and now can't think of writing a post without it. In the iPad form, Grammarly forms part of the keyboard that carries out checks as you type. This works quite well with my writing workflow when using Evernote.

Autodesk Sketchbook

If the Apple Pencil has done anything for me, is to allow me to experiment more with what it can do and in the process allowing me to try things I don’t generally do. In this case, sketch! I would be lying if I said Autodesk Sketchbook is the best drawing apps out there as I haven’t used any others. For an app that is free, it has a wide variety of features that will accommodate both novice and experts alike.

1.1.1.1

Developed by the team who brought you the Cloudflare CDN infrastructure comes 1.1.1.1, an app for providing faster and more private internet. This is something I always have running in the background to have a form or protection using public hotspots and to stop my ISP from snooping where I go on the internet.

When compared to other DNS directory services, Cloudflare touts 1.1.1.1 as the fastest. As everything you do on the internet starts with a DNS request, choosing the fastest DNS directory will accelerate the online experience.

Searching For A New Tablet and Going Back To iPad

I’ve been looking for a tablet for quite some time and doing some in-depth research on the best one to get. I am always a stickler for detail and wanting to get best for the time based on budget and specification.

Only having ever owned two tablets in the past - an iPad 2 and Nexus 7. Being someone who has semented himself in the Android/Google ecosystem, I automatically got along with the Nexus and quickly became my daily driver for web browsing and reading the vast variety of books from Amazon and Google Books. That was 5-6 years ago. The tablet game has changed... No longer is it just about viewing information, watching videos with some minor swipe gestures and basic gaming. It’s more!

Ever since Microsoft released the first version of their Surface tablet computer, it shifted the industry standards to what we should now expect from a tablet, which then led to more innovation such as:

  • Keyboard support
  • Writing with palm rejection (not that old school stylus from yesteryear!)
  • Multitasking with the ability to view multiple apps in one screen, which is only getting better by the day!
  • Near laptop replacement - We’ll go into this a little later

I wasn’t so quick to jump on the new iterations of tablets entering the market as I was waiting to see the proof in the pudding and for prices to go down. I just don’t think its worth spending over £600 on a tablet - looking at you iPad Pro! Nevertheless, from initially piquing my interest, it now got my full attention. For the first in a long time, I could see how having a tablet be useful in my day to day activities again.

Do I Really Need A Tablet?

Short answer: Yes.

If you asked me this question last year I would have more than likely have said no. My Pixel 2 smartphone fit the bill for for my portable needs. Tablet life was soon being relegated to just holidays and long weekends away.

The only thing that has changed is the increased amount of blogging and writing I now do. Typing on a smartphone really made my thumbs tired for long periods of time for when I didn’t have a computer to hand. On the other hand, I found lugging around my MacBook Pro 15" just for writing was a little excessive and lacking all day battery life.

I could see myself buying a tablet along with a Bluetooth keyboard for easy quick note taking for when going to conferences and for writing something a little more indepth. For anyone who writes, they will probably tell you when you have a sudden spark of inspiration you need to just write it down.

Conundrum: To Android or Not To Android

There seems to be a real lack of good Android tablets going around that has good build quality, vanilla OS with accessories to match. It’s guaranteed that if you go for an Android tablet, you’ll be subjected to inferior cheap cases and hardware. This was indeed the case when looking for a nice flip case for my old Nexus 7.

One would be forgiven for being given the impression accessory manufacturers don’t give Android tablets the light of day - very annoying. I still love the nice leather Kavaj case I purchased soon after getting my iPad 2. My iPad 2 may not be getting used, but still looks the part resting on the bookshelf! I guess it’s understandable why accessory manufacturers are not providing the goods for where there is limited demand. It all comes down to a lack of flagship Android devices and I was hoping the Pixel Slate would change this. Not a chance! I really wanted to go for the Pixel Slate but the main unknown factor for me is the longevity of a device that starts at £749.

The only choice was to consider an iPad.

What About The Microsoft Surface?

The Microsoft Surface is a computer powerhouse and if I needed another laptop, this would have been a great purchase. I look forward to owining one in the future. Again, it all comes down to price. You have to take into consideration the cost of the computer itself as well as the added type cover. Plus I feared I would be greeted with a long Windows Update when I have a sudden spark of writing inspiration.

Choosing An iPad

Apple’s have positioned their iPad lineup that should meet all demand:

I opted for the iPad Air for the 10.5” screen, A12 Bionic processor and Smart connector. The Smart connector was something previously available to the Pro series only and it was a welcome addition to their mid range tablet as this will give me the ability to connect a keyboard cover and any further peripherals that maybe on the horizon. Future proof!

The performance and multi-tasking support is pretty good as well. I am writing this very post with Evernote in one window, Chrome in another whilst listening to Spotify.

Near Laptop Replacement and iPad OS

I have no expectation to make the iPad a laptop replacement. But it’s the nearest experience to it. In all honesty, I don’t understand how some even find the iPad Pro a complete replacement. Would someone enlighten me?

I found using Jump Desktop to remote onto my laptop a really good way to get a laptop experience on my iPad. Very useful when I need to use applications I’d never be able to run on a tablet like VMWare. Jump Desktop is one of the best remote desktop applications you can use on an iPad.

Jump Desktop features one of the fastest RDP rendering engines on the planet. Built in-house and hand tuned for high performance on mobile devices. Jump’s RDP engine also supports audio streaming, printer and folder sharing, multi-monitors, touch redirection, RD Gateway and international keyboards.

I am really looking forward to the release of iPad OS as it might lead to a more immersive experience that bridges the gap closer to the basic features we expect from a laptop. I always felt iOS still lacks some of features currently present in Android, such as widgets to see app activity at a glance and more control over your files.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for a tablet that has the capability to do a lot of wonderful things with a lot of nice supported accessories, you can’t go wrong with an iPad Air.

Update (21/06/2019): Android Abandoning The Tablet Market

Well this totally caught me off guard. The Verge reported on 20th June that Android are exiting the tablet market and concentrating their efforts on building laptops. This further validates my purchase and choosing an iPad was indeed the right decision.