Studio711

Gadgets

Computer Upgrades

It dawned on me recently that my main home desktop is coming up on seven years old. SEVEN YEARS. I used to be happy if I got four years out of a computer and here I am at 7 years and I can’t come up with any reason why I’d need to upgrade. I took a look at CPU benchmarks and stuff in my price range would only be a ~30% increase of what I have now. Increases in RAM speed and major increases in SSD technology would definitely give me an improvement but I can’t say that I’d notice it much with my use case. I love getting new computer gear, but I think it’s going to be a while before that happens again.

This seems like a good excuse to update my computer ownership history though. The ones in italics are still in use.

  • 1998 – Gateway Pentium 2 350 with a 10GB hard drive and a tape backup.
  • 2002 – Dell P4 2.4GHz with 512MB RAM and an 80GB hard drive. $900
  • 2006 – Dell Core 2 Duo E6600 2.4GHz with 2GB RAM and a 250GB hard drive. $1200
  • 2010 – Core i7 860 2.8GHz quad core with 8 GB RAM. $1000 (Replaced motherboard and CPU ins 2014 for $260)
  • 2011 – Lenovo Thinkpad Edge $700
  • 2012 – Core i7 3770 3.4GHz quad core with 16GB RAM. $1400.
  • 2013 – HP Pavilion Touchsmart 15-b154nr AMD A8-4555M quad core 1.6GHZ and 6 GB of RAM. $550
  • 2015 – Dell XPS 13. $800
  • 2016 – Intel Core i3-6100 CPU with 8GB RAM. $360

I suspect that the next thing we’ll replace is the laptop only because that gets more abuse than the desktop machines. I’ve been very happy with the XPS 13 though. It has held up much longer than our previous laptops and isn’t showing any signs of impending doom.

Cord Cutting the Super Bowl

We canceled cable last summer and for the most part, our antenna has filled our needs. We get great reception on FOX, but not great on NBC. CBS and ABC are somewhere in the middle. Since we host a party every year, reception of the game is kind of important.

CBS had been working fine in the days leading up to the game so I wasn’t too concerned, but then it started snowing (for the first time this year) a couple hours before the game. Since we’re kind of on the fringe with our reception, the snow was just enough to start messing with the signal a little more. If it was just me, I wouldn’t have worried about it, but it’s not fun having 20 people watching a glitchy signal.

Thankfully CBS was streaming the game for free and they even supported Chromecast so I used that on the projector. Our experience there was generally good but it probably buffered 10 times and once I had to restart the stream completely. Downstairs I needed it on the Roku so I signed up for a free trial of CBS All Access. (I used a privacy.com temporary credit card number so that I don’t have to worry about forgetting to cancel my subscription!) I didn’t watch that TV but the people downstairs didn’t ever see it buffer and didn’t realize that it wasn’t a “normal” TV feed.

So it was definitely not as easy as traditional cable, but it was pretty good. I think next time I’d use my Xbox to stream the game through a paid service (like CBS All Access) instead of using the free stream from the website and I suspect that would have gotten rid of the few problems that we did have.

Hi Alexa

We’ve had an Amazon Echo in our house for a couple months now. I’ve resisted these types of devices for a long time because of the privacy implications. What changed? Basically I gave up. Privacy feels like a hopeless game because I’m not willing to live the hermit life required to have a chance at privacy. And aside from the “the sky is falling” reasons, maybe I trust these bigger companies a bit because if they’re going to put so much of their business into a product, imagine what would happen if there was a big privacy snafu. That’s probably naive.

My bar for electronics is “If it broke, how much would I want to replace it?” So far the Echo is pretty low on that list. I probably wouldn’t replace it, but I don’t mind having it around. The two main reasons I got it were to be a source of entertainment for Elijah and to play music from our Spotify account.

Elijah does enjoy it quite a bit. There’s an app called Amazon Story Time that reads free ~5 minute stories to him. He loves audio books and he gobbles up these stories. That’s a big hit.

The Spotify integration, on the other hand, is disappointing. While I can easily tell it to play one of the playlists on our account, the fatal flaw is that the Spotify Connect protocol only grabs the first 100 songs from the playlist. We have some very nice (long) playlists that blow past the 100 song limit. 100 song sounds like a lot until you listen to it for a few days. Fail. I blame Spotify more than Amazon for that one, but the end result is the same. The workaround is connecting to the Echo via Bluetooth and playing from my phone but that’s not nearly as convenient and I have other devices that can do that.

Spottily was giving away free Google Home Minis to members with a family plan account so I snagged one of those too. It has been sitting in a box for a few weeks. I haven’t even unpacked it. I’ll probably do that at some point but I figure my results are going to be similar but with a lower quality speaker.

For our use case, the Echo feels more like a party trick than a useful home appliance. I’d rate it a solid “Meh”.

Truck Stats

Last year, Tyla got me an OBDII data logger (Automatic) for my birthday and, of course, I ended up writing an app to download my trip data so I could analyze it. I still get those analysis reports twice per day and they continue to be interesting. For example, I don’t know why, but the last two weeks have had some of the worst traffic on my way home from work in the last year. Now that I have over a year of data, there’s enough to calculate some semi-interesting stats on my drives in our 2016 F150 3.5L Ecoboost:

    • The average trip to work takes me 26.3 minutes.
    • The average trip home takes me 33.9 minutes.
    • It feels like if I leave work a couple minutes early, I’ll avoid the worst of the traffic. Here’s my average commute time based on when I leave. (The x-axis is in 24 hour time so 17 is 5pm.) The y-axis is my average commute home in minutes. It does look like if I leave about 10 minutes before 5 my commute is generally 5-10 minutes faster.
    • My most fuel efficient trip was a 43.7mpg drive along the 3.5 mile route from my house to Home Depot. Not bad for a 5000 pound truck! (A lot of it is downhill and I like to see how little gas I can use on that route…)
      • Best fuel mileage for a trip over 10 miles: Church to Totem Lake AutoZone 28.0mpg
      • Best fuel mileage for a trip over 50 miles: Crystal Mountain to our house 24.7mpg
    • My worst gas mileage is going from Work to the butcher. It’s a short trip and when it’s really cold, my truck spends the whole time idling at stop lights and trying to warm up. I’ve gotten 3.5mpg on that route a couple times!
    • Of the days that I drive the truck, I spend an average of 69.3 minute driving.
    • The most driving in one day was 366 minutes. That was May 25, 2018 when we drove down to Ocean Park for Memorial Day.

I love having all this data! I could do this all night but I should probably cut it off here and go to bed. By the way, all of these charts and stats were created with public preview of Azure Data Explorer. We’ve been using that product internally for a couple years and it makes stuff like the stats above ridiculously fast and easy. If you’re at all involved in data engineering or data analysis, you need to get familiar with Azure Data Explorer!

Standing Desk Monitor

We have nice standing desks at work. They have electric motors with memory settings so it’s quick and easy to switch between standing up or sitting down. I believe that it’s significantly healthier to stand up at least part of the day, but I find myself being lazy and sitting for most of the day. I also know that it’s relatively easy to motivate myself by measuring whatever I’m trying to improve. Time for a project!

To measure whether I’m standing or sitting, I decided to use a distance sensor that either sits on top of the desk and looks at the floor, or sits on the floor and looks up. I’m sure there are cheaper ways to do this, but I ordered a SparkFun BlackBoard, Distance Sensor Breakout, and a Qwiic cable to connect them. There was no soldering required. I plugged it all in and I was good to go. I laser cut a wood box to hold all the components.

I wrote a simple program for the Arduino-compatible BlackBoard that would send a measurement when it received a keystroke and then I wrote a program that runs on the computer to periodically request measurements (via USB) and upload them to a database in the cloud. I put a website on top of the page and voila!

A friend at work heard about the idea and wanted to compete with me so now we are both running these devices. You can track our progress at http://standupweb.azurewebsites.net/