Oct 222014
 

It’s kind of nice that unlike video, audio equipment is largely interoperable even when individual components are from different decades.  My main audio setup was a good example of this – I’m using speakers from the 80s (Magnepan MG-IIIs), a power amplifier from the 90s (Musical Design D-140i), a pre-amp (Emotiva USP-1) and one source (Logitech Squeezebox) from the 2000s, and a second source (Chromecast) from last year.  By comparison, video went from RF/coax to composite to S-video to component to HDMI in that timeframe, with HDMI itself going through 1.0, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.3a, 1.3b, 1.3c, 1.4, 1.4a, 1.4b, and now 2.0 revisions – connecting equipment separated by a decade is basically a non-starter.

However, even audio changes with the times, and today I finally made a change that I would have made a year ago if I was less lazy – because getting things to work closer to the way I’d like actually took some custom elements. Here’s what my setup looks like!

Source:  Chromecast + ViewHD

Once upon a time, it was necessary to have multiple sources.  There were legacy sources – AM/FM tuners, LP players, and cassette tapes.  Even today, CD players can remain relevant if you have a large collection of music on CD, plus despite being 25 years old, good CDs sound as good as any digital format.  Of course, digital sources now dominate and are vastly more convenient; my Squeezebox was the primary player for my entire collection of ripped CDs.

However, with subscription services like Google Play Music and Spotify, the very idea of music ownership seems to be coming to an end.  I subscribe to Play All Access, and since Play allows me to upload my existing collection – which does actually include esoteric game soundtracks that aren’t available directly via Play – I truly no longer need any other sources.  The main shortcoming of Play Music was that it was difficult to connect into my audio system.

Fortunately, that changed with Chromecast (though as a reminder, I work on this area, so I’m very biased!).  While Chromecast lacks audio outputs, an audio converter like the ViewHD model above ($40) solves this quite easily.  If you don’t need SPDIF output or EDID controls, there are devices as low as $20 that seem like they’d work equally well.  If I was more worried about the quality of the DAC inside the ViewHD box, I’d use the SPDIF output to connect to a separate DAC – but I’m pretty sure my kids have permanently damaged my hearing anyways.

Output:  Magnepan MG-III + Musical Design D-140i

 

I’m using the same speakers for music that I bought the year I finished school – the Magnepan MG-IIIs.  They’re 6 foot tall ribbon speakers, and while they’re not well suited to home theatre, they’re still plenty good enough for my ears on music content (though positioning them optimally is hard these days, and the kids like hiding behind them while murdering my wires).  I bought these speakers used in the 90s, from a friend’s uncle who purchased them new in the 80s.  They’ve aged much better than the original Nintendo Entertainment System or Sinclair ZX 48K spectrum sitting in boxes nearby from the same era!

The amp, pictured above, is a Musical Design D-140i that I picked up, used, in the late 90s, and have used since.  It’s a Class A amp.  If you’re not familiar with amp terminology, that might sound like a compliment, but it actually refers to the design of the amp.  Perhaps the most pronounced characteristic of Class A amps – now largely obsolete and replaced by newer designs – is their inefficiency.  That’s certainly the case here – if the amp is powered up, it sucks a ton of power and gets very warm even if it’s not making a sound.

This fact has been my main dilemma with my current setup.  I can’t leave it turned on, and the only switch on the amp is the big mechanical one you see on the face plate.  The amp sits nicely inside a cabinet, but I needed to open it up and turn things on every time I played music.  It was very easy to forget that it was on after I stopped casting, in which case, a few days later I’d have both a flaming inferno in the cabinet as well as a higher power bill for the month.

Integration: Custom Ugly Box

Remember I said above that I was lazy? It’s because the solution to my Class A power amp problem was actually simple – all I needed was an automated way to turn the amp on whenever music was playing.  Complex home automation solutions where I could use some other app to power outlets on and off via some app were out of the question, because my family would never use this; I needed the solution that added no complexity over just pressing the Cast icon in Google Play Music.

Sadly, there were no ready-made solutions to this problem, despite that it seems simple.  My power amp wasn’t new enough to have 12v triggers, and 12v triggers would still require me to turn on a preamp.  Some newer amps have auto-sensing, but that would mean replacing the D-140i which continued to have good quality and worked very well – plus very few amps actually have auto-sensing.  There were current-sensing power bars triggered off another device, but Chromecast draws very small amounts of power, with little difference between idle and active states.

In the end, I had to build the custom box pictured above, which takes a single audio input, and uses it to switch an AC circuit.  It should be possible to make a box like this for $10, but being lazy I spent vastly more than this.  If I have time, I will try and make a $10 version someday, but that would require brushing up on basics around filters, op-amps, and timers.  So what’s inside the box, and what did it cost?

  • RDL ST-ACR2.  This is an audio controller relay, and is the main component in the system.  It cost a whopping $96!  It basically uses an audio signal to control a modest relay, with adjustable sensitivity, and a switching delay up to 50 seconds.  The delay was key – there were cheaper circuits, but you don’t want your amp power cycling between songs!
  • TDK-Lambda LS25-24.  This is a 24v DC power supply, which cost $17.50, but was necessitated by the fact that the ST-ACR2 requires 24v power.  Like the ST-ACR2, the LS25-24 has nice screw-based terminals that saves a bit of soldering.
  • SSR-25DA.  This is a 25A relay, which costs only $5, and has a trigger voltage of 3-24VDC.  While the relay in the ST-ACR2 claims to be rated for 10A, power amps have a notoriously high current draw when they’re first powered on – I blew the auto-switching circuit in my TA-E9000ES because I didn’t realize this.  So I just use the ST-ACR2 to trigger this higher rated relay – plus if this relay blows, it’s $5 to replace instead of $96.  This particular relay also has screw terminals; the first one I got was PCB mount, and worked until too much shuffling of components inside the box caused one pin to break from metal fatigue :(.
  • Hammond 1591E.  This is the black box you see above, which cost $7.  Not much more to say about it, other than that my skills with a Dremel (to cut holes out) are severely lacking!

All told, this was a $125 box – more than what four Chromecasts go for Amazon at the moment.  That’s the price of forgetting my electronics!  Wiring everything up was surprisingly easy and more or less worked the first time.  One mistake I made was not connecting the outer terminal of the audio input to both the negative and ground input pins on the ST-ACR2, which caused a loud hum on the affected input channel, but that was easy to remedy.  Now, my amp powers up whenever I cast music, and is switched off as soon as the music is over!

“Preamp”: Emotiva Control Freak

There was one last piece to the puzzle, and that’s the pre-amp.  My current setup was based on the Emotiva USP-1, which was a nice and not terribly expensive 2-channel analog pre-amp with great build quality.  It’s far more modern and efficient than the D-140i, but I would have had to leave it on all the time, because when you first apply AC power, it goes into standby mode regardless of its previous state. Alternatively, I had an older Halfer analog pre-amp, but it had always been flaky in one channel and I’d been unable to repair it.

However, a preamp has a pretty basic set of functions – input switching, impedance matching, and volume control. When you’ve got just one source, as was the case here, you can scratch input switching. Impedance matching might be important especially with a range of sources, but I was betting that a relatively modern device like the ViewHD, despite being cheap, would have reasonable output impedance.  So that just leaves volume control!

While some passive preamps seem to think they can still get away with a premium price of over $1000, Emotiva’s approach was far more sensible – a big, high quality potentiometer for $50, with decent RCA unbalanced audio interconnects.  With this between my Chromecast/ViewHD and power amp, I have an easy and inexpensive master volume knob – and can use Chromecast’s digital volume control when I’m feeling lazy.

In a perfect world, volume commands sent to Chromecast would turn this knob, but that’s asking the impossible.  In the future, a volume-enabled ViewHD with HDMI CEC based volume control – and the matching feature on Chromecast – would give me what I truly want.  But until then, I have the big, smooth volume knob above.  I just need to make sure to keep it hidden from the kids – because if it was ever turned to maximum, something would break.  My ears, at the very least!

 Posted by at 8:35 am
Sep 062014
 

The last post discussed the details of building a new desktop, a definite anachronism in this time when people get more excited about the computing capabilities of watches. While a traditional desktop continues to serve my primary computing needs better than any of the emerging pieces of technology, I recognize that’s because my needs are unique – not because the world has it wrong!

A case in point was a recent visit by my sister-in-law, Aimee.  Her previous phone was dead, her netbook was archaic, and the machine in her family home in Taiwan is memorable to me mainly because it will literally shock you if you touch it.  Good thing Taiwan uses 110v power, not 220v like many other Asian countries!  Did I build her a custom, relatively high end Windows desktop?  No, certainly not. Instead, we sent her back home with a smartphone, a laptop, and a desktop – all for a little over $600:

It’s truly incredible to live in a time when this much capability can be had so inexpensively.   It wasn’t all that long ago that a single component of your computer – perhaps the CPU, or the memory, or even the hard disk drive if you got something big – could cost as much as all three of the above combined.

Acer C720P (11.6″, Touch, 2GB) – $280

Chromebooks may not yet run Starcraft or Lightroom, but if you live on the web, they provide pretty much everything you need.  I got a couple of the original Samsung Chromebooks back in 2011 (one for Valerie, one for my mom), and while they occasionally want a Microsoft Office feature they got used to over a decade or two of use, both machines are still going strong. In fact, they’re more capable than when I got them due to updates, but perhaps most importantly, I haven’t had to provide a bunch of tech support, and I don’t worry that spyware is actively stealing information from them. Of course, I work on the Chrome team, so I’m incredibly biased here :).

The baseline C720 is only $240, and was actually what we’d planned on, but Aimee wanted white, and the only model that shipped immediately in white with the C720P, which adds touch capability for $40. Ironically, this was a blessing in disguise. Touch on a laptop has never appealed to me; you need to take your fingers off the keyboard, and you get fingerprints all over the screen. What I didn’t count on was that touch appealed to Aimee – a lot. In fact, I don’t even think she noticed the difference between Chrome and Windows as much as she noticed the difference between touch and non-touch.

It’d be nice if the 2GB of memory was user-upgradeable to 4GB, but sadly the components are a little too integrated for that. But for Aimee’s use, I doubt this will make a difference.

 

 

Asus Chromebox – $180

My father-in-law still primarily uses desktops, and I’m certainly not going to object to that. If you don’t need portability, I feel like there’s no substitute for a full-sized keyboard, a decent mouse, and a reasonably sized monitor that’s big enough to really show whatever content you’re looking at. And while I spent north of $1200 to replace my desktop computer, astonishingly, if you don’t “need” a 3.5GHz quad core processor, or 32GB of memory, or a 512MB SSD, a mere 15% of that cost buys you a full capable Chromebox.

I am also fairly certain that the Chromebox will not administer electric shocks when touched. The fact that it’s case is entirely plastic will likely do a good job of ensuring this.

Unlike the Acer C720P, the RAM in the Asus Chromebox is definitely user upgradeable (though I did not check if this has any warranty implications). The 2GB version shipped with a single stick of RAM and two slots; it was straightforward to add another 2GB for a total of 4GB. The only thing tricky is figuring out that what you need is a 2GB PC3-12800 204-pin SODIMM (though it’s not quite as bad as sorting through near-infinite options for desktop memory at different performance levels).

Motorola Moto G Play Edition (16GB) – $200

During the last few years, the evolution of smartphones was breathtaking and paralleled the earlier PC years, where each year raised the performance bar in such a significant way that you felt compelled to upgrade every couple of years or so. In no small part, both with smartphones and the PCs of long ago, that’s because the experience was massively stifled by hardware capabilities at the time. Where you used to turn your PC on, and then go get a snack while you waited for it to boot, you used to do the same just trying to load a web page on early smartphones (especially before 3G/LTE became prevalent).

The truth is that in 2014, even mid-end phones are now entirely adequate for pretty much anything you want to do (except perhaps for the tiny fraction of smartphone games that will fully utilize a high-end GPU). While Apple, Samsung, and others will undoubtedly continue to push their latest and greatest new models each year, the improvements barely matter anymore.  Going from 480 x 800 WVGA screens in 2011 (which were definitely pixelated) to  720p (720 x 1280) “HD” screens in 2012 was breathtaking.  By contrast, the transition last year to 1080p “Full HD” flagship phones – giving you the same 1920 x 1080 resolution you’ll probably find on your 50″ HDTV – was mostly unnecessary and not noticeable to many people. The emergence this year of even crazier resolutions, like the 2560 x 1440 resolution on the Galaxy Note 4, is a sign that we’ve clearly gone too far.

Fortunately, that made it possible to pick up a really solid mid-end phone, the Moto G, for a buck less than $200 – unlocked, with no contract, and with a pure Android experience. It’s a great phone that should be a revolutionary upgrade over the HTC myTouch Slide “4G” that it replaces. I’m also pretty happy with the picture I managed to take of it:

While the original budget of $620 for a smartphone, laptop, and desktop replacement was bumped up by $40 for touch and $20 for an additional 2GB of RAM, this trio was still comfortable under $700. I’m still amazed by how much of a steal that feels like.

 Posted by at 8:46 am
Jul 252014
 

The tech and mainstream press all seem to agree on the trend towards smaller, mobile devices.  Six years ago, laptop sales surpassed desktops. Then, smartphones and apps were the new hotness; then came the iPad, which quickly silenced early doubters as to whether there was room for another form factor between phones and laptops.

Even in my own case, I’d replaced my main desktop PC every three years, pretty much like clockwork.  The Pentium 3 based system I’d bought around ~2001 was replaced in 2004 with a 2.4GHz Pentium 4, which served me well until I upgraded to a Core 2 Duo E6400 based system in January 2007, which in turn was my main system until it was replaced with a Core i7-860 in January 2010. I’d stopped building computers from scratch starting with that Pentium 3, because it just wasn’t worth it anymore; the parts cost more than a pre-built, warrantied system from Dell – so all four of the machines I listed above were purchased from Dell, and then customized slightly (often with a better GPU).

As of January, though, my trusty desktop was still serving me relatively well – four years after I’d purchased it. In part, that’s because the mobile focus meant that Intel and others have focused much more on power efficiency than on speed, which hasn’t helped desktops much. A second big factor for me was that the only real gaming I do on PC is Starcraft, which having been originally released in 2010, does not really push a system that hard – even at the native resolution of my 30″ monitor (2560 x 1600). But perhaps most importantly, the majority of computing tasks – interacting with web apps, editing documents, reading E-mail, etc – aren’t too taxing, and are increasingly being designed to run smoothly on low end mobile devices.

Naturally, in denial of the mobile trend – or perhaps as part of a technological mid-life crisis – I decided not just to replace my desktop, but to actually pick each component and assemble the system myself. While assembly is still relatively straightforward, the simplicity of picking between a 3-5 options for each component at Dell was now more like picking a dessert at the Cheesecake factory – there are so many options that as you read the menu you swear you’re seeing the same item multiple times, there just to confuse you. Why did I go this route? In part, because a few pieces of my old system (especially the recently replaced GPU) were entirely adequate; but also because I wanted fewer compromises – plus the kids were away in Asia, so I actually had a little more time.

So what did I pick, and why?

Case: Nanoxia Deep Silence 1.  I clearly came out of a very different age in picking this “mid-tower”.  In my teens, selling 386-era PCs with my friend Herman, “mid tower” actually meant “smaller than the traditional size”, usually giving up a little internal room along the way. Now, like beverage sizes at McDonalds, “medium” really means pretty large, and “full tower” means gargantuan.  I should have looked at actual dimensions ahead of time – as this case is much bigger than what I had, and is more than I actually need.

At $120, this case isn’t cheap – in fact, it’s the most expensive computer case I’ve purchased. But as the reviews promised, it’s very nicely designed, it’s very quiet with internal dampening to keep the noise down, has a built-in fan controller (so you can adjust fan speed, and thus noise, down the levels that you need), and it’s nicely built. It’s also one of few options where you want a quality case with a simple aesthetic – it seems like most cases go for over-the-top visual designs with crazy lights, a faceplace that looks like a robot/demon/dragon/etc, and so forth. Some of it’s noise performance is still defeated by my slightly noisy GPU (which, of course, has fan ports that direct exit the case), but all in all I do like it.

Power Supply: eVGA 500B.  $60 was enough to get a 500W power supply with decent reviews and reasonable efficiency. Unless you’re getting a monster GPU, which I wasn’t, 500W is more than enough, and there’s several reasonably rated brands to go with.

CPU: Intel i7-4770K.  In past purchases, $300 has been a price point that’s the final point before the price/performance curve gets out of control (the next stop up is often $500-600, and above that you can pay $1,000 for a CPU that’s only marginally better). I definitely don’t need the extra cores or ability to use multiple processors that more expensive CPUs provide, and the i7-4770K provides basically the best single core performance available (at the time I was building) which still helps for gaming. Intel has CPUs that offer 90% of the performance at 2/3rds the price, but given that I expect this desktop to last 3-4 years, the extra $100 was tolerable.

RAM: 32GB (4 x 8GB) G. Skill Ripjaws Z PC3 1866 CL9.   Picking RAM is truly crazy. There are a dizzying array of SKUs, with infinitesimal differences between options. I spent way too much time trying to understand the relationship between clock speed (1866Mhz in this case), CAS levels (9 in this case), timings beyond the primary CAS level, to understand what it was worth paying for. This is an area where you can really pay more for nothing – getting higher specs that yield zero performance benefit. For my particular configuration (single processor i7), it seemed like PC3 1866 was the fastest RAM you’d get any real benefit out of; above that, RAM got expensive quickly, with marginal if any benefit.  32GB was still quite a splurge, though; at $340, the RAM was slightly more expensive than the processor – and I’m sure 16GB would have completely sufficed. But now I can survive days when the nightly untested build of Chrome (canary) has memory leaks, and I can laugh when Lightroom eats 5GB and just load Starcraft without quitting it anyways.

Motherboard: MSI Z87M Gaming.  There’s a similarly huge number of motherboards for a given type of CPU, but at least this one was easier to whittle down; at $140 the Z87M had what I needed without the extraneous features I didn’t. As a mid-end motherboard, it has the flexibility of adding a second GPU but doesn’t come with the cost of top-end boards that accommodate 3 or 4 GPUs. It’s got a decent onboard Gigabit Ethernet controller, which could be handy, but without the cost of integrated 802.11ac Wi-Fi (which I don’t need, and if I did, would prefer an external adapter anyways). The audio support reviewed decently, though I have an external DAC anyways. Unlike RAM, reviews were more opinionated and this board did reasonably well in reviews.

GPU: Gigabyte GTX 660.  I’d previously purchased this GPU, and just moved it over. Picking a GPU is pretty easy; pick your game, what resolution/settings you want to play it at, and there’s usually a clear winner or at most two contenders as the best choice at that point in the price/performance curve. The GTX 660 handles Starcraft 2 at 2560 x 1600 at reasonably high settings, and that’s good enough for me. At least till 4K :).

HDD: Samsung 840 EVO 500GB SSD.  Going to an SSD, which I did with my last system, is perhaps the most impactful upgrade you’ll ever feel. At $310, it was certainly a splurge to go for 500GB, and 250GB would probably have been plenty sufficient. However, I’ve spent countless hours trying to stay alive in my prior system, which had a 120GB SSD (which actually cost more than this 500GB drive when I first purchased it!) that was perpetually almost full. This meant compromises, like having to put photos I was processing on a slower traditional HDD. To make sure I don’t have to do the next 4 years, I went with the 500GB option. Samsung’s 840 EVO series had top reviews at the time of purchase, and didn’t cost measurable more than alternatives, so this was another category with a clear winner.  I moved a 1GB HDD from my old system over for mass storage; it will be full soon, but quite inexpensive to increase.

Optical: LG BD-ROM / DVD-RW.  It’s hard to describe how dumb I felt, when putting together my Windows Home Server box a few years ago, when it came time to install the OS… and I realized I hadn’t bought an optical drive.  $50 buys a decent Blu-ray reader / DVD writer combo drive, so this was a straightforward choice.

Operating System: Windows 8.1 Professional.  I considered sticking with Windows 7, after several experiences with bad Windows 8 machines, but Windows 8.1 is tolerable overall. I just pretend it’s Windows 7, and hit Win+D anytime I accidentally launch a non-desktop app. Even the start menu is tolerable – just close your eyes, type the name of the program you want, and that’s usually the extent of your interaction with the new Windows UI. Which is really important, because Windows 8.1 was designed to seamlessly bridge your 8-10″ tablet with your 14″ laptop – and so the design, for me, utterly fails on a 30″ monitor. No, I did not get this big monitor to run tablet apps full screen with fat touchable fonts! My friend George, who works at Microsoft, was kind enough to give me the Pro version of Win 8.1, which was very nice!

The pieces I wasn’t stealing out of my existing computer:

Given the adequacy of my old PC, why would I spent ~$1,200 building this new and somewhat indulgent machine? In a word, Lightroom. While other apps weren’t blazing fast, I was spending a lot of time in Lightroom, and a significant chunk of that time was waiting for it to respond. In part, it’s because Lightroom “upgrades” have, over the years, given it more capability – but at the cost of speed; Lightroom 2 was fast! But more significantly, moving to the 36MP Nikon D800, with it’s 40-50MB RAW files, really had a speed impact. With it approaching 10 seconds to load an image, and ~10,000 images shot per year (that I need to load once even if I’m going to delete), I was literally waiting a full day a year for Lightroom to respond.  Granted, no computer makes it go infinitely fast, but I figured even if I saved ~3-5 seconds an image, it’d be worth it.

Did this pay off? Somewhat. Lightroom is certainly faster with all my RAW files on SSD, and with the faster processor, and the increased speed reduces frustration for sure. But I’m still looking forward to Google+ Photos Auto Enhance getting to the point where manually selecting and tweaking things becomes entirely unnecessary! Until then, I suspect this desktop will more than meet my needs.

 

 Posted by at 7:41 am
Jul 242014
 

Given that digital music downloads put significant downward pressure on physical media sales, and that online streaming/subscriptions now appear to be doing the same to the per-album/track purchase model, it was really funny last year when buying this album (mostly to support the artists) to see the sticker attached to it:

Seems almost like a horse & buggy with a brass plate reading “from the makers of Tesla”. It’s doubly funny because just about anyone can put just about anything on YouTube. Then again, I really did first stumble upon the Piano Guys on YouTube, and I really did buy the physical media afterwards, so perhaps it’s not that crazy after all. Having said this, this album (and their second) are probably the last physical CDs I’m ever likely to buy; I subscribed to Google Play Music All Access when it was introduced in mid-2013, and with the breadth of the catalog it provides, I’ve not found it necessary to purchase anything since. If Nobuo Uematsu was still scoring the Final Fantasy series with tunes memorable enough for me to want to buy exorbitantly priced imported Japanese CDs, things might be different, but as it stands I don’t anticipate any CDs in my future.

Though the Piano Guys become fairly popular in their own right, the path to discovering them was actually fairly convoluted for me. Like most things, it started with Starcraft; back before there was a ton of high quality professional content, I watched free broadcasts from HuskyStarcraft (amongst others).  Husky did a parody music video – “Banelings” – which I found pretty funny even though I’d never heard the Justin Bieber song it was a parody of, with another YouTube act, the very talented KurtHugoSchneider. I’d never heard the original version of the cover of “A Thousand Years” that he did, but the violin part to the that cover seemed pretty nice.  I didn’t actually pay attention to who the violinist was, though, until seeing her again in the hilarious (if you’ve played the series) “Legend of Zelda: Pot Smasher” playing the role of Link, at which point I learned both that her name was Lindsey Stirling, and that a Zelda medley explained how I’d run across her in two very different contexts. From there, it took just one more collaboration – on the Mission Impossible theme – to find the Piano Guys.  Their work was consistently awesome enough that I figured I should at least buy something from them – hence the hilarious sticker above.

The physical albums, incidentally, turned out to be great purchases despite Play All Access. Our kids wound up loving their music too – Leo immediately converted a children’s guitar into a cello – so the CDs have been played probably a hundred times in the car on road trips.

 Posted by at 9:24 am
Jul 232014
 

Lack of time, or some excuse resembling this, has translated into a total lack of recent updates – though I’ve been accumulating a backlog of sorts to post about.  First, a couple of things I started using back around the start of the year!

Etymotic ER-4PT Earbuds

Alas, on a trip late last year, the set of earbuds I was using at the time – Ultimate Ears super.fi 5 Pro – failed to make the final connection from Vancouver to Seattle, and as a result, were probably unceremoniously tossed out along with the usual seatback pocket trash.  Which is unfortunate, since they weren’t particularly inexpensive, nor were they that old (they served me for a little over 5 years, with a replacement cord less than a year ago).  After I didn’t get a response (as expected) to a Lost-and-Found filing with Air Canada, I found myself unwillingly in the market for a new pair of earbuds.

The UEs were actually the first earbuds I ever purchased.  I prefer big speakers over small speakers, small speakers over headphones, and headphones over earbuds.  However, my headphones are entirely impractical for travel since they’re an open design that allows sound to pass both in and out; good for Olivia’s early days – or should I say, sleepless nights requiring a rapid response – but not so good for the constant noise and close proximity to others of an airplane.  And with almost a half million miles of travel during the period of time that I owned the UEs, the airplane scenario was all too common. While I travel far less frequently than I did previously, with two trips to Asia on the calendar for early 2014, I definitely didn’t want to be stuck with airplane headphones that can now miraculously be manufactured for perhaps 20 cents – with sound quality to match.

So, I went through the same routine that led me to the now-discontinued UE earbuds I’d purchased previously – going through pretty much all the reviews and comparisons I could find in what I thought was a “reasonable” price range. Earbuds are like anything else in audio: you can spend a near-infinite amount for increasingly infinitesimal gains in sound quality, and while I care about sound quality, I’m not an audiophile with golden ears that detect even the faintest of flaws in sound reproduction. Neither, I suspect, are most of those who purchase $1,000 headphones, but that’s another matter. At $299, the ER-4PT was definitely more than I was looking to spend, but it didn’t take long for my weak brain to rationalize the purchase with exaggerated images of how much nicer the flight would be.

As expected, for that price, the ER-4PTs came with a whole array of useless packaging and other material, which I assume is designed to convince me that I didn’t spend too much for the small improvements over a $50 pair of earbuds:

That box was literally a box within a box within a box – which as expected, I haven’t opened or touched since taking out headphones out. I’m guessing consumer product makers have done their research, and shown that all this superfluous stuff makes the purchaser feel better about the premium that they paid, though somehow on me it has the opposite effect and makes me wonder why I got something so wasteful.

Inside came paperwork assuring me that the flat frequency response of the headphones was manually tested, by a nice person known only as “K.M.”:

The bump in the frequency response, reassuringly, comes from having to correct for the natural frequency response of the ear.  While this is helpfully explained in the material that accompanies the ER-4PTs, this fact seems to undermine the point of the graph; it’s one thing to look at the frequency response for a speaker, or the MTF graph for a lens, where it’s well accepted that you want it to be as close to a straight line as possible.  It’s quite another thing to look at the graph above and know whether it’s the perfect reciprocal for the frequency response of the human ear canal. They could have literally printed anything and I’d be taking their word for it.

So, how’d the ER-4PTs acutally perform? Ignoring the fact that pretty much anyone spending a bunch of money on audio gear is extremely biased towards thinking that it sounds great, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the ER-4PTs.  While I primarily drive it with non-audiophile devices – my Nexus 5 and 2013 Nexus 7, usually – I’ve now spent a lot of time with these earbuds and they surprise me in a way that the UEs never did. I can sometimes be listening to a random assortment of tracks on a plane, but when it switches to really well mastered track with clear vocals – often Norah Jones, or Diana Krall, or something along those lines – it’s actually stunning how clear and pleasant the track is. Perhaps more importantly, the rather odd looking earbud design, which looks like a stack of three earbuds of increasing size, is much easier to insert and wear for an extended period of time in such a way that you’re getting the best that the headphones can offer. I tried all the tips that came with the UEs, and while I was eventually able to fiddle things into place, it took much more effort, and was far less consistent.  I still don’t really like the feel of anything in my ears, but on a ~10 hour flight back from Korea – my first trip with these earbuds – I just listened to music from start to finish, and fully convinced myself that going for the ER-4PTs was not, in fact, folly.

Qi Wireless Charger

Charging your phone by plugging a micro-USB cable into a small, flimsy port on your phone designed for this purpose – and doing this, say, 700 times over the seemingly short two year lifecycle of a modern smartphone is practically begging for something to go wrong. Indeed, my Galaxy Nexus had to go back to Samsung for an issue with the charging port, and Valerie managed to get her phone into a flaky state where the USB charging pins looked a little questionable. So it really seems like an investment in a wireless charger that spares your devices from the daily connection & disconnection is a good idea. Paying ~$50+ for some name brand seemed unnecessary, but $20-25 for a generic model seems perfectly fine. I got a pair of Ruix units, but some OEM lets anyone make and sell these units under their own brand.

There’s really not much else to say, except that there may be compatibility issues with older devices (I had to get a specific model for Valerie’s Nexus 4, and it’s a bit spotty), and that you need to be careful with positioning so you don’t wind up with a dead phone in the morning. But compared to losing my Galaxy Nexus for a couple of weeks of warranty service, and having to completely wipe it, this is a purchase I feel is well worth it.

 Posted by at 5:32 am
Feb 022014
 

If you’re going to decorate the outside of your home with lights over the holidays, or you want to show support for your favorite sports team (in this case, the Seattle Seahawks), make sure you don’t move in next to these folks from up the street:

This shot doesn’t capture everything; the lights you see to the top left are Santa’s sleigh, being pulled by reindeer, and mounted high up in the trees! This magnificent show of lights is an annual thing for them, which they’ve been doing since they moved to the area.  That Seahawks logo is actually strung together using what looks like regular strings of holiday lights – very carefully and precisely arranged. Every year, a few thousand people come by to see the lights and, thanks to the generosity of the hosts, stop by inside where the show continues:

This year, we already outdid ourselves by actually having a (plastic) Christmas tree, and one outdoor light (a pre-made candy cane that was on sale at Costco).  By contrast, they had Christmas trees by a running stream near the village you see above:

 

 Posted by at 10:12 pm
Dec 302013
 

“Everybody guess how many pieces there are!”, says Olivia, organizing her guessing contest.  “But no counting!  That would be cheating.”

To her credit, despite setting the game up, she didn’t actually count, so despite a few extra tries, Uncle Peter was still the winner :).

 Posted by at 8:39 am
Dec 292013
 

I guess when you do Christmas morning with six adults and just two kids, the grown-up toys seem to outnumber those for the kids. This is especially true when four of the six decide that Christmas morning is a good time to take some photos – and bust out the toys to do this with:

Counterclockwise, from the right – the Nikon D7100, Nikon D7000, my Nikon D800, a Pentax 645 medium-format film camera, Leica R4 35mm film camera, and in the pouch, a Fuji Finepix f31d. At least in the unlikely event that our kids ever become famous, they’ll be used to the paparazzi!

Not shown is the couple of strobes used to light the living room.

 

 Posted by at 11:53 am
Dec 202013
 

One of the things I started this blog for was to share the things I use and why – in large part so that I’d have a record one day of all the things I’d forgotten I’d even gone through. Since my memory isn’t getting any better, now is as good a time as any to provide a quick update on a few new items this year.

Google Nexus 5

When I received the Galaxy Nexus a couple of years ago, it was a big step up from the HTC Sensation I’d purchased just three months prior – and that phone in turn was already vastly better than the Blackberries I’d relied on for a number of years before that.  I was comfortable enough with it to pass on upgrading last year, but the Nexus 5 was tempting enough that I ordered it shortly after it was announced.

There’s 1001 qualified reviews of the Nexus 5, so I can’t say much that has much value. It’s a great phone at any price, but for $349 it’s almost half as much as other top end models while seemingly sacrificing very little. Even if the phone cost as much as the top-end Samsung or HTC flagship devices, I’d probably still go with the Nexus 5 simply to have the latest, clean Android release (though I do have work-related reasons for wanting this).  A few other notes:

  • The screen looks great, though I strongly doubt that I can tell the difference between 1920 x 1080 and 1280 x 720 on a screen this size. Seriously, even when I hold the phone so close that it’s at the minimum focus distance of my eye, I can’t come close to seeing individual pixels.
  • There were some initial issues with the camera, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a step up from the Galaxy Nexus (which was mediocre), it’s quite decent with the current updates to Kitkat, and I’m really impressed with the HDR+ mode.  Despite the name, it doesn’t produce over-saturated, unrealistic HDR images; it really just takes a bunch of shots and combines them. At the same time, it hasn’t at all reduced my inclination to bring the D800 when I think I’ll want pictures.
  • I went with the 32GB model, and I’m glad I did, because SmugMug’s Android app downloads screen-sized downscaled images to a local cache; for me, these 1080p images take up 16GB of my storage on their own. I find this well worth it to have an entire lifetime of photos available instantly with or without a connection.
  • Feel-wise, I slightly prefer the Galaxy Nexus, and I do find the ceramic buttons have a bit more wiggle than I’d like, but it’s still comfortable to use.
  • I find battery life a little better. Most notably, the Galaxy Nexus was decent here but would drain very quickly in some areas while travelling; so far, the Nexus 5 hasn’t seemed to take the same hits when I’m in areas with weaker/stronger signal.
  • Yes, LTE is nice, and it was pretty amazing to be able to watch things (well, to play things for the kids to keep them quiet) off Netflix in the car during a traffic jam with only a cellular network connection. Other than video, though, I don’t notice that much difference between LTE and HSPA+, and I think in browsing scenarios my Galaxy Nexus was constrained more by its own processing power than by HSPA+.

Google Nexus 7 (2013)

I’ve never been a big fan of the idea of tablets. Being in technology, I did make an attempt not to be an old fogey, committed to an archaic desktop computer. My colleagues helped me try things out with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, and I bought myself a Nexus 7 in 2012.  And while I did find last year’s Nexus 7 to be a solid device, I still rarely used it. Unlike my phone, it wasn’t always with me, and at home my PC was always close enough and still vastly better at basically everything.

This finally changed for me with this year’s Nexus 7.  Granted, I still predominantly use my PC – can’t play Starcraft on a tablet, after all – but the new Nexus 7 is finally so usable that I will sometimes grab it for the convenience of reading around the house while paying some attention to the kids, and it’s a great reading device on the road. While the weight reductions seem insignificant, it’s really right around a magic threshold (for me anyways) of generating vs. not generating fatigue.

The screen, of course, is a big deal. I commented about 1920 x 1080 being indistinguishable on a sub-5″ screen; however with the bigger screen on the Nexus 7, the detail and sharpness are notable. Indeed, this is a big reason why I find myself reading on the tablet sometimes instead of on PC; the text is just incredibly sharp and as many websites are now serving high DPI images, some content (e.g. Google Play Newstand items) really just look better. An affordable 4K display for my PC may fix that, but that’s still a generation or so away.

At $269 for the 32GB version that I chose, this was a great value.

GeekDesk Max

max3

In April this year, I decided to try a standing desk. The main decision with standing desks seem to be whether you go for a permanent standing desk (that can’t be lowered), a lower cost hand-crank model which you manually raise or lower, or a motorized version.  I’m lazy, hence, I got the version that raises and lowers itself.

Here’s my take on standing desks in general, and this desk in particular:

  • If you haven’t already tried standing desks, it’s worth getting one that’s adjustable. Especially in the beginning, you won’t want to stand all the time, and your feet may hurt a little. Getting an adjustable model lets you ease into things.
  • While there are benefit to standing, it wasn’t a magical surge of energy and alertness with incredible calorie burning powers. While I wasn’t really expecting it to be, I think some people find it to be more of a drastic difference than I did. Of course, because I still spend at least an hour a day walking to/from work (and Olivia’s school), the impact of this may have been lower for me.
  • An unexpected but extremely useful side benefit is that I leave my desk in the raised position when not in use.  This has been a marvelous deterrent to attacks by my kids; it turns out that if they can’t see what’s on top of the desk, they don’t have much interest in it.
  • The particular desk I chose has a fairly solid motor that can apparently lift a lot and has no issue with my 30″ monitor, amplifier, two speakers, and 2-3 laptops (yeah, I know) sitting on the desk. It’s held up reasonably well even when Olivia has decided to swing herself on the edge of the desk, and it provides itself able to raise even with her hanging on to it.
  • Having said that, for a “geek” branded desk I was disappointed in the total lack of cable management. At about $1,000, an integrated power strip and some cable conduits would have been a nice touch at a minimum.
  • I find myself still using the desk while seated a lot. This in large part because while I can do a reasonable job of typing while standing, I just can’t play Starcraft competently this way. And because I’m lazy, once I lower the desk for a game of Starcraft, it often stays that way.
  • Get a floor mat.  Your feet will thank you, and it’s really inexpensive.

Overall, it’s worth trying if you’re looking into a new desk, and if you don’t buy into all the hype around standing desks.

Audioengine DS2 Desktop Speaker Stands

x772DS2-F

I was opposed on principle to paying $34 for two pieces of plastic, which is why I mentioned previously that I’d used a couple of rolls of painters tape to raise my speakers off the surface of my desk (with notably better sound quality as a result).  Sadly, moving to a standing desk configuration defeated this somewhat; to type while standing, the surface of your desk needs to be lower relatively to your head, thus any desktop speakers are as well. So finally, I gave in, and paid $34 for two plastic-ish blocks.

Not much to say, other than that they appropriately angle my speakers. I don’t have golden ears by any stretch, but one can easily tell the difference between this and having the speakers aimed at my torso.

 Posted by at 10:48 am
Dec 192013
 

t-mobile-logo

 

I’m a T-Mobile subscriber, a decision I made when moving to the U.S. a little over a couple of years ago.  While choosing a mobile carrier generally involves cost, coverage, speed, and technology tradeoffs, one thing I liked about T-Mobile was their fundamental business model; even in 2011, they’d started to move away from the standard but consumer-unfriendly model of inflating monthly plans by about $20/month – to cover the cost of offering a “free” mid-range phone or $200 high-end phone when you sign a new 2-year contract. I don’t know why that’s taken root in North America as the de-facto model, but I suspect it’s the factors that cause North America to have the highest levels of credit card usage and debt. It was thus refreshing to see a carrier make the actual cost of the phone clear, and to offer pricing plans that don’t effectively penalize you for sticking with an older device.

When I traveled to Asia earlier in the year, I took a few notes on the relative difficulty / ease of getting local mobile coverage in the various places I traveled to. I mentioned that T-Mobile was pretty good about providing an unlock code that allowed us to use a local SIM; it was an easy interaction with their customer service department to get this done.

However, they stepped things up in an unbelievable way with a recent change to their Simple Choice plans – unlimited, worldwide data at no extra charge.  Considering that Rogers was happy to charge upwards of $300 for data roaming in France for a week (on a Blackberry, where I was careful to use minimal E-mail only data, and where I couldn’t swap SIMs because doing so broke integration with corporate E-mail back then), this was a stunning and unexpected change.  Even a $25/month cap on roaming data charges would have been a welcome surprise; making it free was pretty mind blowing.

I benefited greatly from this earlier this month, when I went back to Malaysia for my cousins wedding:

  • I traveled via Vancouver, and before the plane even arrived at the gate, I already knew what gate to head to for my ongoing connection. If you’ve ever been on a flight that arrives late when you have a tight connection, you know it really matters that you can walk off the plane knowing exactly where to go, versus getting on Wi-Fi once you’re inside the terminal, or finding the nearest departure information screen.  Plus if you’re just passing through a place, you’d never have arranged for a local SIM.
  • I spent the bulk of my time in Malaysia, and while it was easy to get local service with Maxis (via their Hotlink products) previously, being able to communicate while still inside the baggage claim area definitely beats that. Sure, speeds aren’t the fastest, but frankly for most uses you don’t really need the speed; I couldn’t have watched video, and maps sometimes loaded a little slow, but E-mail, searching, and light browsing were all fine.
  • On my return, due to a deviously hidden change in my flight schedule, I was stuck in Hong Kong for a day; fortunately Valerie noticed this in time for me to get a hotel, which sure beats spending more than a day in the airport. It was pretty empowering to be able to rely on connectivity while finding my way around on a largely unplanned stay where the short duration would have dissuaded me from finding local options.

I have no doubt that with the plans I’ve had in the past, the data I used on this one-week trip alone would have run me many thousands of dollars.  So it’s quite the gift to get this for free.

I also have to say that the value of Google Now is massively multiplied by an always-on connection that works almost anywhere in the world. I find Google Now occasionally handy here at home, but having up-to-the minute gate assignments, currency tools, guides to the place I was going, a quick translator (Malay-only labels!), and other such things was significantly more useful in a less familiar area.

 

 Posted by at 10:50 am