Upgrading my Keychain

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I hate my keychain! One of my bigger regrets of growing up into an adult has always been the carrying and keeping track of my keychain. Very recently, we bought a used high-mileage third car so that I could keep miles off my 2002 Chevrolet Corvette Z06, which isn’t exactly the most comfortable and reliable of cars to be driving on a daily basis. I’m glad we bought the car, but you know what that meant? A third car key. You know what else I hate about my keychain? It’s essentially useless 99.9% of the time; I haul it around everywhere but I only really need it when I need to unlock something or drive one of my cars. We get very little utility from packing these things around.

Car keys are the worst offenders on your keychain. Almost all newer cars have some sort of remote unlocking device and worse, they have their car key. Car keys are the absolute worst offender, with all the added bulk from plastic around the key’s head to make sure their branding is prominently displayed and to make sure the key sticks out on your keychain. So you know what happens when you have three different cars’ keys on your keychain? Insanity in your pocket! My keychain has grown so large that I actively take it out of my pocket anytime that I sit down: at home, at work, out at my favorite restaurants, anywhere! It’s only a matter of time before I misplace my keys somewhere because of how much I hate to put them in my pocket.

What I’d really, really like is a bunch of locks all tied to the same smart key, and I’d really like that smart key to be hosted on my Nexus 5, which would effectively eliminate any need for me to carry a keychain. I don’t think this is that far off in the future. But unfortunately, right now it’s not really a practical reality.

The past couple months, I’ve been wracking my brain for ways to improve my keychain. Here are a few of my ideas to enhance my keychain:

  • Universal Remote for Cars: Why can I point one remote at numerous electronic devices and control them all, but I can’t do the same for a couple cars from different manufacturers? This doesn’t seem to be possible today based on my e-mails with a few potential vendors.
  • Unique Keychains: Create a unique keychain for each of my cars and then pick the appropriate key depending on the car. I thought this was a pretty practical solution, as I’d only be carrying around the lowest common denominator on my keychain on any given day. I’m a bit tentative about this plan, since it’s doubling or tripling the likelihood that I misplace a keychain.
  • Add key-sized “features” to the keychain: As long as I have to carry a keychain, it should provide benefits outside of a handy storage space for the keys themselves. If additional features like a multi function tool, USB storage, or charging cables could be added to a keychain without dramatically adding to its bulk, it’d be a decent upgrade.

The Keychain Cannot be Un-Supersized

As everything else in America, our keychains are super-sized, and unfortunately for me, there’s nothing that can be done about it. I had some hope that I could go to a local locksmith and get a thin, normal-sized key for one or more of our cars. Then at least my keychain would be condensed. Imagine my dismay when after describing my problem to the locksmith, he said “Sure, I can make you thinner keys, but none of them are going to be able to start your cars!” Apparently, each of my cars’ keys contain some sort of microchip in the head of the key or on the key itself as a security feature. The thickness of the keys’ heads (or bows) contains these microchips. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not very micro at all.

If I could have done anything with my keychain, I would’ve condensed it and reduced its size. Going into this blog, that was my primary objective, and unfortunately the car key industry doesn’t have very much regard for our pockets. Perhaps I should start carrying a man purse for carrying around my massive keychain.

The Consolation Keychain(s)

Ultimately, I could not do what I originally sat out to do. I couldn’t find a way to take my current keychain and consolidate it down to an acceptable size. But I thought it’d be possible to still somehow improve my keychains to make carrying one every day tolerable and perhaps a bit more functional. But this just wasn’t going to be possible within a single keychain, so I decided to break up my keys across two different keychains. I wound up using a couple different FreeKey keychains and built two keychains: one for utilitarian everyday use (boring car and work keys), and a second performance keychain for fun weekend use.

Utilitarian Keychain

This is my everyday keychain, the one I haul off to work. Because I have some keys to my desk and office, those keys went on this keychain. As far as car keys go, I wound up putting the two “practical” cars’ keys onto this keychain too. I also wanted to add some additional utility to this keychain, so I searched for products that allowed me to reduce the amount of space taken up by the keychain and also for products which add additional utility to this keychain.

Via Massdrop, I wound up learning of the Keysmart product. This device basically consolidates your normal-sized keys down into a smaller package much like a swiss-army pocketknife consolidates all those blades and tools down one device. Keysmart makes a handy little pocket-knife out of all your keys. The Keysmart itself is not all that bulky, and it’s made of pretty lightweight material. In an ideal world I would’ve been able to consolidate all of my keys down into the Keysmart, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t get any of my car keys down to a regular size. However, there were still four typically sized keys on my keychain, and the Keysmart condensed those down enough to be able to add these next two features to my keychain.

At first, I was a bit nervous about adding to the keychain due to my disdain for added keychain bulk. But I felt I’d shed enough size and weight from the keychain to take advantage of something fun and useful. What I decided to do was to look for the smallest, fastest, and most moderately sized USB drive I could find. I mostly was interested in USB 3.0 drives only. After a bit of searching, I wound up picking the Transcend JetFlash 710 64GB. Up until now, I’d been primarily using my Nexus 5 as my portable storage, which was handy, but it isn’t USB 3.0, it’s not 64 GB, and there are other things I wouldn’t mind being able to store on my phone. The Jetflash 710 is a little bit bigger than the smallest USB drives I could find, but it’s considerably faster, and I felt that was a worthy trade-off.

However, the shape of the Jetflash 710 was a bit problematic. Firstly, it wasn’t perfectly flat; the backside of the USB drive was curved upwards ever-so-slightly, resembling the wings you see people put onto their Honda Civics. It had seemed like it’d be pretty flat when I saw it online, which is why I picked it instead of one of its competitors. Additionally, the hole itself wasn’t large enough to fit onto the Keysmart post. And the “wing” was thin enough that I didn’t think I could enlarge it to fit down on the post. I thought briefly about just hooking it onto the same keyring as the Keysmart, but that kind of defeated the purpose of what I was trying to do by adding additional bulk.

My buddy, Pat had a great idea; we’d use his 3D Printer to print something similar to the inside of a USB port on one end and the other end would fit around the post. Pat goes into great detail about the designing of his USB Keychain Connector for Flash Drives in his most recent blog, if you want a copy of your own Pat’s shared it both on GitHub and Thingverse. The object was custom-printed based on what I needed, but I think it’d work pretty well for any similarly shaped USB drive out on the market. You could very easily get this printed and add it to your own keychain, which is what makes 3D printers so darn cool. I decided to go ahead and file the “wing” on the back of the Jetflash 710 so that the flash drive was as flat and thin as possible. It fit nicely and snugly on Pat’s Keychain Connector for USB Flash Drives, and the two of them paired up were installed on the Keysmart.

Additionally, I wanted some sort of bottle opener on my keychain. I found an interesting key tool that acted as sheath around one of your other keys and contained a number of tools, including the all-important bottle opener. The True Utility TU247 KeyTool Multitool Set fit very well on the Keysmart without taking up too much additional room.

Performance Keychain

This is my lightweight, no-nonsense, performance keychain. This inspiration came to me the other day while at a nearby Home Depot. I discovered a Minute Key kiosk where you can make copies of keys on your own. I became curious about seeing it in action, so I went over and was punching some buttons and got very excited to see that I could get a lightweight key made out of aluminum! This weight savings will definitely make my Corvette go faster—not really—and even better, the key is blue, just like my car! On a somewhat more serious note, there’s definitely a noticeable weight difference between your typical key and this lightweight aluminum key.

Because this is also my “fun” keychain, it seemed negligent to not include a bottle opener somehow. I’d been a big fan of the Swiss+Tech ST66676 Utili-Key 6-in-1 Key Ring Multi-Function Tool when I had one years ago. This particular tool didn’t appear like it’d work that well within the KeySmart, but it worked just great next to the car key and house key on my FreeKey keyring. With this tool, I guarantee I’m never without a bottle opener unless I’ve managed to lose my keys, and the various knives and screwdrivers will also come in handy too.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I’m still a bit disappointed. I really wanted to add features and reduce the bulkiness of my keychain without having to remove anything. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible when you factor in the realities of today’s car keys and my own requirements. I suppose I need to buy newer, fancier cars if I want to truly solve this keychain problem of mine. I’ll be waiting for a fancy new car to come out with a universal key that can also be programmed to work with other makes and models too. But for some reason, I don’t have a whole lot of hope for this. Perhaps someone will solve this problem in an interesting way I’m not even thinking of at the moment.

As far as taking a crummy hand and turning it into a winning hand, I think I’ve done pretty well. The days I’ve driven the Corvette, I’ve really appreciated not having to carry around that massive wad of keys. And my other keychain is a bit of a Swiss-army knife that has all of my keys on it, a bottle opener, a few screwdrivers, a knife blade not big enough to warrant me a frisk at a TSA checkpoint, and 64GB of speedy USB 3.0 storage, all within a pretty nifty little key organizer.

Perhaps I didn’t quite achieve what I had in mind, but I’m definitely way ahead of where I was with my old, monstrous keychain. Plus, I’ve added quite a bit of utility to both keychains in the forms of multi-tools and USB storage.


My original, bulky,  keychain. 64GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive with annoying wing Filed the wing off the Flash Drive 3D Model of the USB Keychain Connector Prototypes Closeup of 3D Printed USB Keychain Adapter Closeup of Flash drive on 3D printed  Keychain Adapter My 'performance' keychain, with lightweight key! The Keysmart almost fully assembled My 'utility' keychain

Giveaway

I wound up buying two of the Keysmart devices because I thought I might wind up needing to make two different keychains, and it also didn’t hurt that Massdrop had a pretty good deal for the pair. Because I was able to get everything onto one keychain that I could live with, I figured I’d give away the Keysmart to a lucky reader. Included with the Keysmart is also one of Pat’s Keychain Connectors for USB Flash Drives so that you could easily add a small flash drive to your keychain.

Anybody who is following me on Twitter and retweets the following will enter into a drawing for my extra Keysmart. I’ll update the blog and announce the winner in a couple of weeks!

Garage Makeover: Hot, Sweaty, and Dipped in Latex

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I was standing stoically, enveloped completely by the subjects of my conquests. My muscles ached in the delight of a job well done. What was I up to? Cast as an extra in the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey dressed in a gimp suit? Thankfully for the lens of my digital camera and for the future box office success for E.L. James’s movie, the answer is no.

I’ve reached the point in the Garage Makeover project to start painting. We went to Home Depot one recent weekend; I spent what felt like three hours in the paint aisle picking out supplies, and more importantly, paint colors. Because I’m painting in the garage, which is ocassionally exposed to the elements, I decided to use exterior paint in the garage.

I have decided to paint the ceiling a light grey, the walls white, and then I picked up a quart of darker grey paint to paint the flourescent light fixtures, water heater door and trim, and also the attic door.

Because I scraped the popcorn off the garage ceiling, the ceiling was in need of some preparatory work. Firstly, removing the popcorn revealed all of the drywall screws, some gouges, and a pretty beefy patch. I spent Saturday with some sandpaper and spackle and worked on touching up those blemishes—or so I thought!

For some reason, this Garage Makeover project only captures my attention during the hottest time of the year. Because of this, painting has moved at a crawl. On a regular basis, I’ve been closing the garage door and firing up my garage’s air conditioning unit the night before I wanted to paint and then doing it during mid morning the next day. This has slowed things down pretty considerably, but that shouldn’t be surprising for a project I launched over a year ago.

I did my best to touch up some of the defects in both the ceiling and the walls with a bit of spackle and some sanding. Because the texture had been scraped off the ceiling, I decided it was probably a good idea to put a coat of primer on the drywall on the ceiling. I was tempted to do some sort of texture on the ceiling, but ultimately I decided against it. I decided to use Roll-a-Tex Sand as an additive to the paint for the ceiling.

To be honest, I think I’m going to wind up wishing that I’d used an actual texture for the ceiling. I seemed to have a hard time consistently applying the Roll-a-Tex Sand evenly across the ceiling. If you look closely, you can see some spots which seem much more “sandy” than other spots. I tried a few different methods to change how I was applying it, but I think my lack of experience probably meant I wasn’t being very consistent and I never found the right approach.

All that being said, I think it looks way, way better than the popcorn texture that was up there before. Especially the parts where the popcorn texture was peeling away. Hopefully by using exterior paints, it can stand up to the nature of a garage more durably and last longer than the original popcorn texture.

Before Painting #1 Before Painting #2 Painting Supplies Ceiling Primed #1 Ceiling Primed #2 Ceiling Primed #3 Painted Ceiling #1 - Texture contrast with wall. Painted Ceiling #2 Painted Ceiling #3 Painted Ceiling #4 Painted Ceiling #5 Painted Ceiling #6

Up next? Paint everything else, put the light fixtures back up, move everything from the patio back into the garage, and then I can start working on the “fun” stuff! I’m hoping to be done before Thanksgiving, at the rate I’m moving that might be a bit aggressive.

Plano Balloon Festival 2014

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The City of Plano hosts the Plano Balloon Festival every fall at Oak Point Nature Preserve, which is virtually in our backyard. It’s an entire weekend of hot air balloon activity: glows, shows, fly-in competitions, launches, and more. We went out for the first time in 2013 and had a really great time with my parents when they were here for a visit, such a good time that we felt pretty silly that we’d missed it all the years that we’d lived in Plano, especially the couple years we’ve been in our house.

Parachute Team Demonstration

This year, we went early Saturday evening to catch two events: the RE/MAX parachute team demonstration and then the Balloon Launch. The parachute team’s demonstration was pretty impressive—a propeller plane circled the park a couple times, climbing a bit in elevation, and then popped a trail of smoke. About 5 or 6 guys dropped from that plane nearly directly overhead and came down in a pretty tight spiral. Each of them then landed in the same strip of the park in the corner near the crowds; at most the landing area was around 60 feet wide and 90 feet long. Very impressive!


Parachute Team's Plane above the Park First two Parachutists jump Out Three Parachutists with opened Canopies Three Parachutists headed towards the Park Spiraling Down towards the Ground Spiraling Down towards the Ground Lining up for the final approach! About to circle back and touchdown with his teammates.

Balloon Launch

Once the conditions were right after the parachute team’s demonstration they began to inflate the hot air balloons for a launch. But while they were doing that, a RE/MAX hot air balloon launched from further East out of our view, floated above the park, and a final parachutist jumped from that hot air balloon, repeating his teammates’ landings, which was pretty interesting. Slowly, the balloons filled up and launched to float off towards the sunset. I’m not sure if it was accidental or not, but there was even a collision between a launching hot air balloon and one that was filling. Nobody looked too panicked about it, but it was a little exciting from the ground. The launching hot air balloon all of a sudden hit the gas and climbed straight up into the air while the co-pilot (or navigator) kept pushing on the other hot air balloon. Again, this time around a couple of the novelty hot air balloons didn’t actually launch. I’m not sure if the conditions weren’t right or if they were just helping put on a show for the crowd by filling up, but I sure would’ve liked to see both the pirate and ladybug balloons up in the air with the rest of the field.


Hot Air Balloons preparing for Launch Hot Air Balloons preparing for Launch Hot Air Balloons preparing for Launch Hot Air Balloons preparing for Launch RE/MAX Balloon w/ another Parachutist InTouch Hot Air Balloon Launches A swarm of Hot Air Balloons filling up RE/MAX Parachutist Landing after jumping from Balloon Lady Bug Hot Air Balloon filling up Yellow Rose Hot Air Balloon filling up Lady Bug and Yellow Rose Balloons Yellow Rose Balloon Collides with Lady Bug! Yellow Rose Balloon Launched Several Launched Balloons Another Balloon Launches,  Lady Bug deflates Hot Air Balloon Launched Two Balloons Head off into the Sunset The back of the Pirate Baloon Legacy Texas Bank Balloon Launches Several Airborne Balloons headed West Several Airborne Balloons headed West

Scene-stealing Puppies

And nearly stealing the show were our two Brittanys, Zoe and Crockett. They didn’t get the same round of applause that the parachute team got, or the “oohs!” and “ahhs!” that the hot air balloons got as they filled up and launched. But none of those hot air balloon pilots had tons of people ask them “Aww, what a sweet-looking Hot Air Balloon, can I pet him?” or exclaim “Man, what a couple of well-behaved hot air balloons!” As far as Julia and I are concerned, they were a smash hit!


Zoe eagerly anticipating the Parachute team Crockett keeps a keen eye on a funnel cake Zoe trying to do a frog impersonation Crockett getting some quality time w/ Julia

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

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For almost two weeks now I’ve been shivering figuratively in anticipation that one of my friends, family, readers or someone completely random would throw down the ice bucket challenge. Which my Home Depot bucket has been anticipating nearly as much as I have been. Finally said challenge was issued by my dearly beloved sister, Amy this Friday night. Now I get to shiver for real!

Most importantly, I made a donation to the ALS Association and I urge you all to head over there and make a donation regardless if you’ve been challenged yet. Without further ado, I present my fulfillment of Amy’s ALS Ice Bucket challenge:

Video



My Challenges

In keeping with the familial theme inspired by Amy, I’m calling you out cousins! Let’s see your Ice Bucket Challenge donations and hopefully videos in the next 24 hours!

You three have 24 hours! For each of you that complete the challenge and share on Facebook/Twitter, I’ll match your donation! Just message me the details and I’ll make a second donation in your honor!

Indisposable DFW Dog Services

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I have been a pet owner for quite a long time. When I got my first apartment in Texas I was adopted quickly thereafter by a stray tabby cat, Tater. That adoption was followed a year or so later when I gave a kitten who needed a home somewhere to stay and named her Jade. For years, I’d wanted a dog. But living in an apartment, being a full time student and full time worker really deprived me of both the space and time that dogs required.

When my wife and I started discussing shopping for a home, I warned her that a dog might accompany us shortly after moving in. We didn’t exactly agree, though, as she had her heart set on another cat. Thankfully, I am both convincing and persuasive, which lead us to bringing both Crockett and Zoe into our lives, a fantastic decision which has lead to all sorts of scenes like this:


When we first brought Crockett home, we’d read a few books and talked to a bunch of our friends and familie, trying to prepare for what would ensue. That information wound up being invaluably helpful, but some things we figured out on our own. Today I want to write about a couple of local businesses that we’ve come across that have been equal parts of fantastic and helpful: Great Paw Pet Sitters and Man’s Best Friend.

Great Paw Pet Sitters

Great Paw Pet Sitters is exactly what it sounds like, they’re a company whose focus is pet sitting. When Zoe was a puppy, we had different working arrangements than when Crockett had been a puppy. When Crockett was a puppy I had been working close enough that I could let Crockett out occasionally when he couldn’t quite make it all day without needing a bathroom break, and when I wasn’t available our dear friends were more than happy to help out and let Crockett out.

At any rate, we didn’t want to burden our friends and I just couldn’t make a trip home anymore during the weekdays. We decided to temporarily find a pet sitter to take care of our two dogs when we weren’t home. I found the Great Paw Pet Sitters via Angie’s List and gave them a phone call. At the time, I’d considered giving them and a couple of their competitors a trial run and then pick the best of the bunch. Unfortunately for competitors of Great Paw Pet Sitters they never got a chance.

The care we’ve gotten from Great Paw Pet Sitters has been fantastic. We met our pet sitter during an initial consultation and they’ve been taking care of our dogs almost ever since. The business side of scheduling pet sitting and paying of invoices is conveniently handled through the company’s website. The pet sitter visits the house, takes care of the dogs and then later updates the appointment with information about the day’s appointment, including pictures.

At this point, it’s a bit of an extravagance that we continue to use Great Paw Pet Sitters, but we’re okay with trading some of our other extravagances for this one. When our work days are the longest, it’s nice to know that the dogs get a break in the middle of the day. They offer many different kinds of pet-sitting, dog walking and extended pet sitting services.

Man’s Best Friend

One of the things that I’d known when we got a dog was that we were going to need help with obedience training, both to train the puppies, and more importantly to train us. It took me a little bit of time to sort out Crockett. At first, we tried applying what we’d been reading , but we weren’t having much luck. We tried a few one-on-one sessions with a great trainer and decided that we needed a more dedicated approach. When Crockett was about six months old, we decided to seek more help and began researching dog obedience schools in the area. I’d heard the radio commercials for a local company, Man’s Best Friend, and read some complimentary reviews of online.

We had an initial consultation with Man’s Best Friend with Crockett and learned about their training program. Essentially, they board and work with your dog for two weeks, then you have a series of private one-on-one lessons where you work on applying the things your dog learned. They’re kind enough not to say it, but really what happens is they work with your dog and then they work with you one-on-one to train you. We’ve done this training package with both Crockett and Zoe both because of the wonderful results and the great care that the staff of Man’s Best Friend gives to both us and our dogs. Despite both of our dogs “graduating” from their obedience classes, we’re still weekly visitors to their group sessions to reinforce what we’ve learned and mostly because it’s an enjoyable weekend activity that we can include the dogs in.

On top of that, Man’s Best Friend does boarding and doggie day care as part of their business. We’ve boarded both Crockett and Zoe at Man’s Best Friend when we have gone on vacation. If we didn’t have such a nice arrangement exchanging dog-sitting services with my brother, we’d board our dogs with Man’s Best Friend again in a heartbeat.

Conclusion

If you live in the Dallas area and you’re looking for pet sitting, boarding, or training, look no further than Great Paw Pet Sitters for your pet-sitting needs and Man’s Best Friend for your training and boarding needs. I personally can’t recommend either company enough; even where the products/services they offer are expensive, I think you get substantial value for the dollars you spent. And even more importantly, it benefits your little four-legged friends tremendously.

How about you guys? What other similarly indisposable dog-related companies have you used in the Dallas area? What are your favorites and why would you recommend them? Please feel free to use the comments to plug DFW-area businesses that have helped with your pet ownership.

Gizmo Crate Unboxing: July 2014

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My July Gizmo Crate arrived today on August the 4th. Gizmo Crate painted themselves into a corner a bit when their June crate wasn’t delivered until a couple weeks into July. I’ve been a customer since their first crate, so I had been expecting growing pains from Gizmo Crate at some point. Besides, for the most part, I was getting a pretty good deal for what we had paid. But that patience wound up being put further to the test in June by a lless-than-impressive where I was easily able to find the same or similar items much cheaper from Amazon. A little flummoxed, I extended Gizmo Crate the benefit of the doubt.

As July progressed I received an email update from Gizmo Crate which explained a change in their process. Beginning in July we were told that all future crates would not actually ship until the end of the month on the 30th. The shipping date on previous crates had been communicated to us as the 20th of each month.

We would like to inform you that certain changes in the management team of Gizmo Crate have changed. As we have transitioned teams to better serve our members with the utmost in quality products and customer service we apologize if this transition and any previous customer service related issues have caused you an inconvenience now or in the past.

We are happy to announce that we have completely taken over of the wheel and look forward to only making your experience with us top-notch.

Please know that because of this transition and change in personnel (both in the administrative and warehouse team) have caused some delays in July’s Gizmo Crate shipping.

We are on track to be on time every month but wish to inform you that shipping dates for Gizmo Crate from here on forth will be the 30th of every month.

This allows ample time for our vendors to ship product without delays and proper times to package and deliver your packages with priority 2-3 day service.

We appreciate all our members greatly and are truly sorry for the inconveniences you have had to endure with us but we assure you that we are new and are ready to make it up to you.

Customer service is our #1 priority and we are here to assist you with anything you need.

Please know that tracking #’s will be sent on July 30th and Gizmo Crates will be arriving 2-3 days thereafter.

If for any reason you wish to cancel please respond to this email with “CANCEL” and we will gladly take care of it for you.

We will also be postponing renewals so you don’t get charged for August’s Gizmo Crate before you receive July’s :)

We thank you again and appreciate you! We look forward to sending you awesome boxes every month filled with cool goodies.

If there is anything we can do to further assist you please don’t hesitate to let us know.

Gizmo Crate July Gizmo Crate Shipping Update Email

My immediate reaction to this email was not positive. I wasn’t exactly excited. I emailed them back suggesting that they delay a crate by a month, extend everyone’s subscriptions by a month and concentrate on delivering a crate the same month it was supposed to originate from. After receiving this email, I was tempted to cancel my subscription, which was ending in July, but because they assured that billing wouldn’t happen until I’d received the July crate, I figured there wasn’t any harm and that they’d earned the opportunity to evaluate the crate before deciding the status of my subscription. Besides, I’d been promised they’d knock our socks off with July’s crate after the fiasco of June’s crate.

Then the 30th came and went without the tracking numbers. And then so did the 31st. On Friday, August 1st I was excited to wake up and see an email notification from Gizmo Crate on my phone, but this was an email advising me that my subscription had been automatically renewed for the next three months.

Please know that tracking #’s will be sent on July 30th and Gizmo Crates will be arriving 2-3 days thereafter.

Strike One!

We will also be postponing renewals so you don’t get charged for August’s Gizmo Crate before you receive July’s :)

Strike Two!

To their credit, when I contacted the Gizmo Crate support team they immediately refunded my credit card after charging me for my renewal. They even offered a 10% discount on my next subscription as an apology for the inconvenience.

Ultimately, I received my tracking number for July’s crate the evening of August 1st after 10:00 p.m. At that point, I decided that the July Gizmo Crate better completely blow my doors off if they wanted to keep me as a customer. When my wife told me today that the new Gizmo Crate had arrived, I was looking forward to getting home and opening it up to see what’s inside.

Strike Three!

Food Units

July’s food unit is a Bear Naked Nutty Double Chocolate Layered Granola Bar, which pretty much hits the nail on the head; I love granola bars. I probably eat one every couple days. Granola bars inferior to this one are a staple around our house. Much like all the prior food units, the Bear Naked Bar did not survive the writing and proofreading of this blog.

Geek Items

The first geeky item is a dual-port USB power adapter, featuring both a 1.0 Amp port and a 2.1 Amp port. I couldn’t find an exact match on Amazon.com but I did find something pretty similar. I’ve been working on a project in my garage and I’d been using the bluteooth speaker I received in my first Gizmo Crate back in February, but bluetooth drains my phone’s battery faster than I can paint ceilings and walls, which means I need up to two chargers when working in the garage for an extended period of time. I had even been considering searching for a USB AC Adapter that could charge both the speaker as well as my phone at the same time. Even though I had USB AC Adapters coming out the wazoo here at the house, they all had single ports, and it’d take two of them to charge both devices. In this regard, this item was quite fortuitous even if it’s relatively inexpensive.

The second item included in the box was a bit comical, a pair of 8-bit sunglasses which I thought were a pretty clever novelty item. Unfortunately, they’re not very comfortable since all those 8-bit blocks’ corners dug into the bridge of my nose, qnd they’re pretty cheaply made. I can’t imagine wearing these for any kind of duration. They’re good for a chuckle, but not a whole lot more.

The third item was a screen protector for the iPad 2 / 3 / 4. I tried my hardest to look one up on Amazon.com, but the closest I could get was a 3-pack of iPad 2 / 3 / 4 screen protectors. Unfortunately, aside from my iPad Air, all of our tablets are Android. Furthermore, considering the industry’s use of materials like Gorilla Glass, I’ve always thought the whole “screen protector” suite of products to be unnecessary and maybe a bit of a scam.

Ultimately, the fate of this month’s Gizmo Crate wound up in the hands of the fourth item; a pair of STREET by 50 Cent Wired In-Ear Headphones by SMS Audio, which I found to be a rather surprising selection, e specially considering the fact that I’d already received a pair in March’s Gizmo Crate! I was really shocked that I was only six months in and receiving the same item for a second time, especially when you considered what a disaster the prior month’s crate had been due to its poor selection and considerably late arrival.


Bear Naked Granola Bar Dual Port USB Adapter 8-bit Sunglasses iPad 2 / 3 / 4 Screen Protector SMS Earbuds

Conclusion

There’s no question that the value of the July crate is equal to or greater than the cost of the Gizmo Crate, and in that regard, I think it’s a good deal. I think the USB AC Adapter and the 8-bit Sunglasses will not be getting much use from the majority of people because most geeks are going to be knee-deep in USB AC Adapters and few of us geeks would find the shades comfortable enough for everyday use. The iPad screen protector is probably useful, but it’s too product-specific. Lastly, the earbuds are an excellent value, just like they were when we got them back in March.

It’s been a rough go of it for the Gizmo Crate the past couple months. They’ve managed to make deadlines and then subsequently miss them on a frequent basis. They’ve promised they accounted for those delays by making sure nobody’s subscription will renew before they get a chance to evaluate the month’s crate, but those renewals are still happening. They’d already had a disappointing pattern of delivering items which overlap the function of items from the prior months’ crates. And finally, they’ve shipped the same item as they’d already shipped a few months earlier. Considering that this happened in probably what was one of the most important months in Gizmo Crate’s history, you don’t get a very positive impression of what’s to come next month.

It’s been a fun six months, but after the last two I’ve decided to go ahead and cancel my subscription. What about you guys? Are you sticking with Gizmo Crate? What kinds of items would you rather see in upcoming months?

Garage Makeover: Back from the Abyss

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Just as I feared, it’s been quite a while since I’ve made any headway on my Garage Makeover project. I started back in March of 2013, with very ambitious plans and little to no regard for the upcoming summer. Unsurprisingly the summer was hot, hot enough to completely sap my interest in the project. As the summer dragged on, I came up with a plan to address the heat in my garage. But I continued to lack the motivation to see the Garage Makeover to its completion. Making matters worse, all of the budget I would’ve spent on this project wound up being diverted into having the nearly forty-year-old windows around the entire house replaced. Nevertheless, the garage makeover project is now an obstacle for my arcade cabinet project. Having this many projects stuck in neutral is a bit annoying, so over Independence Day weekend, I went out and assessed the garage’s status.

Sadly, in the last few months my garage has gotten quite messy! We’ve begun accumulating stuff, and the result of that accumulation is now in the garage. Part of my original motivation for addressing the garage was my anticipation of exactly this kind of accumulation. I feel pretty smug in being able to predict the future, but a bit foolish that I didn’t do anything with that advance knowledge. In addition to this accretive gain in goods, there’s an additional car I’d like to fit into the garage next to my 2002 Corvette Z06. Originally, the only vehicle that was going to be in the garage on a regular basis was going to be the Corvette, so I need to account for this somehow.

Rethinking the Plan

My original hope was to temporarily move stuff out of the garage onto our covered patio, build shelving, and then move the stuff back into the garage as I completed that part of the project. Now that we’ve gained so much additional stuff, I’m going to have to rethink that approach. Rather than build that shelving, I will buy some shelving ahead of time and assemble it out on my patio. There’s still some storage I’d like to build myself, but the basic shelving will be purchased rather than built.

Objectives

  • Build, assemble and install a few sets of basic shelving
  • Repair, texture, and paint the ceiling
  • Paint the garage walls
  • Build a decent workbench
  • Build some storage for yard tools and sports equipment that wind up eating space up in the garage

Wishlist

  • Air Conditioning (completed last year)
  • A garage refrigerator/freezer for storage of frosty beverages (among other things)
  • Extend the house’s wireless network into the garage to better cover the backyard.

Action Resumes

I wound up ordering five sets of shelving from Amazon which arrived last week. On Thursday night, we set the shelves up on the patio and this weekend I started evaluating the state of the garage. I wound up moving things out that had gathered a bunch of dust from the scraping of the popcorn ceiling and sprayed them off with a hose in the backyard. Everything else was slowly moved from the garage onto the shelving temporarily set up on the patio. The shelving on the patio was covered with some tarps to give the illusion of protection from the elements. Hopefully, the contents won’t get too bothered in the event of a rainstorm.

Before
 
After
 

The next step is going to be patching, preparing, and retexturing the ceiling with something other than the abominable popcorn, after which I plan to fill some imperfections in the walls and then paint them also. Once all that work is completed, I can move everything back into the garage from the patio. The shelving will go along one of the two sides of the garage and possibly get anchored to the wall to keep them stable. After that, I’d like to make the majority of the adjacent wall into pegboard storage for all of my miscellaneous yard tools and sports equipment. Finally, we’re going to build a decent workbench to locate somewhere not too far away from the tools and the air conditioning!

Messy left side of the garage Messy right side of the garage Messy garage Before shot of the patio. Before shot of the patio. The patio begins to get filled up Midway through the clean up,  left side Midway through the clean up,  center Stuff which needed rinsing in the yard Shelves full, covered in tarps on the patio Cleaned garage, left side. Cleaned garage, right side. Cleaned garage,  ready for next step

Gizmo Crate Unboxing: June 2014

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Unfortunately for us, the June GizmoCrate was delayed again. This time not just by a few days, but almost by a few weeks. The package didn’t arrive until July 12th, which was very disappointing. To their credit, the GizmoCrate people kept us apprised of the delays both via e-mails and also on their Twitter account. Consider the fact that GizmoCrate’s goal is to ship around the 20th of each month means this crate missed their goal by almost an entire month. It showed up so late that I’m concerned about July’s crate hitting its shipment-date goal. I think there’s also cause for concern that this is a pattern which might be difficult for GizmoCrate to reverse.

In discussing the delayed crate, my wife and I theorized ways that they could make it up. We kicked around a couple ideas: extending their subscribers’ subscriptions by a month for free, or by making sure the July crate really knocks our socks off. We both agreed that the latter would probably be a great way to show their appreciation for their customers. Hopefully, next month’s GizmoCrate will make up for both the delays in May and June.

Food Units

This month’s GizmoCrate included two food items: a Lemon Figbar from Nature’s Bakery and a package of Blueberry Pomegranate Trail Mix Crunch. I was able to find both items on Amazon and they seemed to be well reviewed. Although, there were some recent reviews of the figbar on Amazon indicating that mold was spotted growing on the figbar itself. I wasn’t able to find any mold on my figbar and I enjoyed eating it.

The Blueberry Pomegranate Trail Mix Crunch was my favorite of the two food items; I’m a sucker for the mix of sweet and salty flavors, and this item delivered. In fact, I enjoyed it enough that we’re going to keep our eye out for a local retailer and see if we can pick some up to keep around the house. As with the food units from past GizmoCrates, these food units did not survive the writing of this blog.

Geek Items

This month’s geeky items are themed, which is a bit of a fun novelty. The items are an ADATA 4GB MicroSD Card, a 3.4 foot Audio Cable (3.5mm Male-to-Male) and another portable speaker. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot that can be said about the MicroSD Card and the audio cable. These items are pretty self-explanatory; I wish that I could come up with something compelling to write about them, but I’m not that talented or imaginative.

Unlike the prior month’s speakers, this month’s portable speaker is not just a speaker. It’s also an FM radio and a crude MP3 player as well. The speaker features a mini-stereo audio input, a port for an FM antenna (the port is Mini-USB), and a Micro SD Card reader. At first, when unboxing this particular item I was pretty disappointed. In the unboxing of prior months’ GizmoCrates, I’d already received a couple different Bluetooth portable speakers. A third portable speaker kind of makes me wonder what exactly GizmoCrate is thinking when selecting items. This concern was somewhat addressed when I got to tinkering with the speaker. It’s more of a tiny portable radio than a portable speaker.

Today I decided to resume my garage makeover project that I started last year and then abandoned. While working in the garage today, I was actually using my Bluetooth speaker from the February 2014 GizmoCrate to listen to some music while I worked. However, I was making a mess, and pretty soon my phone was covered in dust. While I wasn’t exactly concerned about the dust, I briefly wished I had some sort of other music device that I could use out in the garage, which this month’s GizmoCrate might provide.

I located a MicroSD Card reader for my computer (this would’ve been a great inexpensive item to include in the GizmoCrate!), popped the MicroSD Card into the SDCard adapter it came with, and started copying music over to the MicroSD card from the GizmoCrate. I do wish that a bigger MicroSD Card had been included in the GizmoCrate. I think I have a meager collection of music and it’s over 14GB. I didn’t like having to pick and choose which 4GB to put on the MicroSD Card.

When first playing MP3s on the portable speaker,it seemed to have been stuck in a single folder (my music is divided up into Artist > Album), so I copied all of the MP3 files up to the root of the MicroSD card to see if the play order got any better, but it didn’t. I’m not sure what (if any) logic it uses to play tracks from the MicroSD card; I would’ve hoped it was random or something similar. But it’s definitely not random. Unfortunately, there wasn’t really any documentation available with the unit, or anywhere online that I can find, so I can’t really figure out what order it decides to play the tracks in. The FM radio function is unique, but you have to use a MiniUSB cable as an antenna in order to get any kind of reception without an antenna I couldn’t get reception on any frequency. The media controls are pretty spotty; I could skip through to previous/next tracks pretty easily, but seeking within the track seemed impossible. If I held the button down, it’d just skip around randomly at the beginning of the track. Altogether it’s not the best little music device, but I think it’ll do the trick in my garage for listening to music when I’m working out there and don’t want to haul out my mobile phone and Bluetooth speaker.


All June 2014 GizmoCrate items Blueberry Pomegranate TrailMix Crunch Lemon Figbar Headphone Cable 4GB MicroSD Card Portable Speaker

Conclusion

This is the first time that I get to say this, but the value of this GizmoCrate doesn’t match the monthly subscription price. Based off of what I found online, the value of this crate is at most $20-$25 which is well under the subscription rate that starts at $29/monthly. It’s really disappointing to discover that when considering what a reasonable value that the other crates had been. I could forgive a poor value in a month’s GizmoCrate assuming that I’d get a lot of use out of the items. Depending on how well this works out in my garage, I may wind up getting quite a bit of enjoyment out of this crate.

DIY NAS: EconoNAS 2014

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Ever since building my own NAS, I’ve enjoyed periodically writing a FreeNAS build blog to help inspire fellow DIYers. Each of the times, these builds have been hypothetical for me, but based on the comments, someone usually winds up using the suggestions as a template for their own FreeNAS. However, I usually wind up having to plead the fifth when someone has a specific question about the hardware. There’s nothing I hate more than having to say “I don’t know,” both personally and professionally, so I made a commitment this year that I’d actually buy and build the NAS myself so I wouldn’t have to say “I don’t know” to some of the easier, more common questions related to building a NAS.

I’ve generally written one FreeNAS build blog about every 6 months and rotate between two themes, a more powerful updated version of my own personal NAS and a cheaper budget-based build that I call the EconoNAS. Originally, I thought I could repurpose this new hardware and use some of it upgrade my NAS, but my own NAS is already pretty close to being maxed out. I thought also about using it to for a media server or something similar, but I couldn’t justify keeping this new hardware for other purposes; I just wouldn’t get any utility out of it. What else could I do with an extra FreeNAS server? Give it away to a lucky reader, of course! Please see the Giveaway details at the end of this blog, or check out the #FreeNASgiveaway page for more details. Here are links to the social-media items to share to enroll in the giveaway:

At one point in 2013, I was thinking about FreeNAS and was curious about what one could build on a shoestring budget. This lead to the creation of the 2013 edition of the EconoNAS blog. My goal was to come up with parts that would cost somewhere around $500 to build a FreeNAS box. Between the features of FreeNAS and the amount of storage, I thought it wound up being a fantastic value. This time around, my goal was to outdo myself, to beat that price and increase the storage capacity of the EconoNAS. This wound up being particularly difficult; in my research I found that hardware prices seem to be nearly the same and have not fallen all that much since I wrote the first EconoNAS build blog. Hard-drive prices proved to be especially stable; I found that hard drive prices were pretty much exactly where they were a year ago when I wrote the 2013 EconoNAS blog. These static prices actually caused this build to be a tiny bit more expensive than the prior build, but I think you’ll see that the hardware improvements should justify the tiny bump in price.

CPU & Motherboard

For all of my FreeNAS build blogs, I would prefer to pick low-power components. Primarily because my builds are intended for home use for only a few users. I wasn’t able to find an affordable motherboard in the 2013 EconoNAS build, sso one of my goals for this edition was get back to using a Mini-ITX motherboard with an integrated CPU, even if it ate up more budget than what the same parts had consumed in the prior edition. An integrated low-power CPU and low-power motherboard are critical to helping save money by lowering your operating costs. The up front cost might be higher, but the electricity savings over the life of the machine would more than compensate for that price premium. I picked the Biostar NM70I-1037U (specs), which ticked off most of my must-haves in a NAS motherboard: integrated Intel Celeron 1037U dual-core 1.8GHZ CPU, 4 SATA ports (1xSATA3, 3xSATA2), onboard video, and onboard Gigabit ethernet. In a perfect world, there would have been more SATA ports (at least six), but at the paltry price of $69.99 I thought it was an exceptional deal. I do not mind the combination of SATA3 and SATA2 ports on account of the fact that both the drives’ maximum throughput and the network are both going to be bottlenecks before SATA3’s higher capacity is put to use.

Running Total: $74.99

RAM

For this build, I chose to go with 8GB of RAM via two 4GB DIMMs of DDR3 1333MHZ Corsair ValueSelect RAM from Corsair. On the FreeNAS, site a rule of thumb is often suggested which says 1GB of RAM for 1TB of storage space because ZFS loves RAM. That suggestion doesn’t scale very well due to the size of hard disk drive storage outpacing the size of sticks of RAM, so I’m not sure how much longer that suggestion will be relevant or attainable. In last year’s EconoNAS I suggested 4GB of total RAM, so in this year’s build I decided to go ahead and bump that up to 8GB. It wound up costing a few extra dollars, but it was a decent value to double the amount of available memory.

Some of you might ask: “Why not ECC RAM?” That is a subject that I’ve already covered in another blog previously. I’ll summarize my thoughts here—I do feel that ECC is the better choice. However, because ECC memory and the hardware to support it (especially in the Mini-ITX form factor) are considerably more expensive, I am willing to take the risk using Non-ECC RAM. Based off of research and experience, I believe that this risk is remote enough to feel comfortable with Non-ECC RAM.

Running Total: $166.23

Case

The case is one of two items which persists from the 2103 EconoNAS build. I built my primary computer using this same case 18 months ago, and the price and quality of the case really seem to be the best bang for your buck. The NZXT Technologies Source 210 is a mid-tower case with room for up to 11 different 3.5” drives internally (8x3.5” drive bays and 3x5.25” drive bays). I would have preferred a smaller, more compact Mini-ITX case, but they generally don’t have room for many drives and carry a much heftier price-tag. The few Mini-ITX cases I found which can accommodate numerous drives tend to be 3 to 4 times as expensive as the NZXT Source 210. The case does not include a power supply, so I picked out a Rosewill RV350-2 Silver power supply as well.

Altogether, the basic components total for about $20 more than the components priced in the 2013 EconoNAS build. However, I think the extra 4GB of RAM upgrade is well worth that added bonus. Furthermore, the power-sipping features of the Mini-ITX motherboard and power supply will wind up bringing the total cost of ownership down beneath last year’s EconoNAS over the lifetime of the device.

Running Total: $229.08

Storage

FreeNAS Flash Drive

There’s not much to be said about this device. I’ve been recommending the same USB drive for each of my builds and at around $7 it seems like a pretty decent deal. The SanDisk Cruzer Fit 8GB has more than enough storage to house FreeNAS, plus it’s slim enough to be permanently mounted on either the front or rear-facing USB ports on the computer without drawing any attention to itself or getting in the way.

NAS Hard Disk Drives

Each time I write one of these blogs, I marvel a bit at how little hard drive prices have fallen since last year’s blog. The sheer size of drives is probably a big reason why the prices haven’t fallen all that much. When I wrote the 2013 EconoNAS blog, the pricing for a 2TB HDD was $85 to $90. Today? Not much cheaper at all, maybe by $5 to 10$. Considering that HDDs are going to account for the majority of your purchase price, especially on budget-centric builds, it’s not surprising to anticipate that this year’s price would be in the neighborhood of last years price. In last year’s build, I wound up pricing out two different sets of HDDs, which I’ve also done again this year. I’ve also decided to reduce the number of drives from six down to four total, since the motherboard lacks enough SATA ports for more. For the lowest price, I picked out 2TB HDDs for this particular build. But for people who want a bit more storage, I’ve also including pricing for 3TB drives.

I operate under the assumption that all HDDs will fail, many of them much sooner than you anticipate. When selecting drives, I simply tend to pick the cheapest drives that I can find unless there’s some really terrible reviews or articles on the drive. Because I’m wary of bad batches of HDDs, I tend to pick two different models, that way you can configure an array to survive two simultaneous drive failures. This might be a bit paranoid on my part, but I think it’s a healthy dose of paranoia.

2TB:

3TB:


8TB
12TB
Drive
Quantity
2X
2X
2X
2X
Price Per HDD
$83.24
$82.15
$122.89
$99.00
Subtotal
$166.48
$164.30
$245.78
$198.00

Alternatively, you could go with the 12TB configuration from above by putting four 3TB HDDs into the box. Paying for that additional 4TB would wind up costing an additional $63. Personally, I think this is a worthy option. The 12TB flavor of last year’s EconoNAS blog wound up in the neighborhood of $750. Building a 12TB NAS is a much better deal this year than it was in 2013. There’s a reason for this—in last year’s blog I reached 12TB by doing six 2TB drives. In this year’s blog, I achieved it by selecting four 3TB drives. The additional drives in last year’s blog added a bit of extra money not reflected above. However, those additional drives also gave you more options for your ZFS configuration and could be configured to be even more fault tolerant. Nevertheless, it was nice to see some considerable savings across two roughly equivalent NAS configurations; this year’s 12TB configuration wound up being over $100 cheaper than what it cost in 2013.

Final Price: $571.84

Assembly and Burn-In

As always seems to be the case, I wound up a few minor components short. The motherboard only came with 2 SATA Cables, and the power supply only had two SATA-style power connectors on it. I was forced to make a run to my local computer store and pick up those couple incidental supplies. Keep this in mind when building your NAS; most motherboards and power supplies aren’t going to have enough to accommodate the number of hard drives you’re putting into your NAS, so it’s worthwhile to have some extra cables and adapters lying around when you go to put it together.

Assembly was a piece of cake and it was a bit comical. Putting the tiny mini-ITX motherboard into the ATX Mid-tower case made the inside of the case feel like a vacant warehouse. The case probably takes up more room inside of the case than the motherboard does. The comparably priced Mini-ITX cases usually only had room for 1-2 HDDs, so to buy a case that would hold 4 (or more) drives would have cost quite a bit more than the NZXT Source 210 and wouldn’t have the room for future expansion. Right now the case has room for at least 7 more drives (4x3.5” bays and 3x5.25” bays) available. I would’ve really liked a smaller footprint, I just wasn’t really willing to pay the premium for it. I used a couple zip strips to do a tiny bit of cable management, mostly because I was worried about things jostling loose whilst in transit to the lucky winner.

Immediately after assembling the new machine, I used the SanDisk Cruzer Fit 8GB and installed UltimateBootCD on it and booted off of the USB drive to test the RAM for defects with MemTest86+. I started running this on Wednesday night and let it run through 3+ passes. I was pleased to see that 0 errors were captured by MemTest86+ during those passes. Once I had some confidence in the RAM, I used one of the CPU burn-in utilities on the UltimateBootCD and let that run overnight. The next morning, it was still humming along with no errors reported at all. For the upcoming weekend, I was ready to do the installation, configuration, and some real-world use of FreeNAS.


Deliveries from Amazon NAS Parts Unboxed Motherboard and RAM Motherboard and RAM from different angle Hard Disk Drives and Flash Drive Case Motherboard and RAM Installed (it's so tiny!) Hard Disk Drives Installed #1 Hard Disk Drives Installed #2 USB Flash Drive installed MemTest86+ Burn-in test in Progress MemTest86+ Results

FreeNAS Configuration

After the burn-in period was complete, I went ahead and got FreeNAS loaded up on the 8GB Flash Drive and booted up. FreeNAS obtained a DHCP address immediately and was ready to go. I logged into the web interface and started getting things set up. I wound up putting the four drives into a RAID-Z2 volume, created a single dataset on that volume and then set up a CIFS share so that Windows computers could see it. The steps I followed for setting up the CIFS shares came from the documentation on CIFS from the FreeNAS WIKI. Here’s a bit of a step-by-step of how I accomplished this configuration:

  1. Set up the initial Root Password
  2. Created a RAID-Z2 Volume named volume1 comprised of all four drives
  3. Set up a weekly ZFS scrub of volume1 to run on Sunday mornings
  4. Added a dataset named storage to the /mnt/volume1 Volume
  5. Created a user named ‘brian’ and set the password to match my desktop machine.
  6. Created a group named ‘StorageUsers’ and added the account above to the group.
  7. Changed permissions on /mnt/volume1 and made sure the StorageUsers group had Read/Write/Execute
  8. Enabled the CIFS service.
  9. Created a Windows share named storage, mapped it to /mnt/volume1/storage and made sure the Browsable to Network Clients box was checked.

After all of this, the net result of the configuration is a NAS device with 8TB of total space, roughly 4TB of which is usable. The volume is configured in such a way that it could survive the failure of two hard drives at the same time. I created a 20.0 GB test file to copy to/from the EconoNAS and used it to grab some screenshots of the throughput and system activity.


FreeNAS System Info FreeNAS Hard Drive Info FreeNAS Volume Info FreeNAS Share Info Windows File Copy Throughput FreeNAS Hard Disk Usage during File Copy FreeNAS Network Usage during File Copy

Conclusion

What I typically do after arriving at a final price is I go out immediately and look at similarly priced NAS machines to see how competitive I am with those devices. A search of Amazon on 8TB NAS and shows that the off-the-shelf devices start a bit lower than our price point. But none of those devices have many of the features or capabilities of FreeNAS. In fact, many of the cheaper off-the-shelf NAS devices don’t feature any kind of redundancy and fewer drives, which means more of your data is in jeopardy and is only a failed drive away from a disastrous loss. As the off-the-shelf systems add some of the functionality available from FreeNAS, their price rapidly climbs and exceeds what I’ve managed to build here. Plus you have to take into consideration the numerous other purposes that a computer (as opposed to an off-the-shelf NAS) can be put to. The FreeNAS Plug-in library allows you to extend the features of FreeNAS’ features beyond what would be typically expected from a NAS.

Personally, I’m a tiny bit disappointed that I wasn’t able to beat the price of the 2013 EconoNAS build ($505), and I also wish it didn’t have two fewer SATA ports. However, in this build the total storage has increased by 25%, RAM has increased by 100%, and it’s now using a low-power Mini-ITX motherboard. Those $50 wind up buying you quite a lot, much more than you’d be able to purchase separately.

As always, when working on a budget and building a system with the bottom line in mind, corners get cut. However, the end result is that the features and hardware of the 2014 EconoNAS (thanks to FreeNAS) wind up far exceeding what you can get in an off-the-shelf NAS from your nearby big-box retailer or even online from your favorite websites. All in all, I’m very pleased with the results. If you’re a home user looking for an inexpensive way to build a powerful NAS, than I definitely encourage you to look at FreeNAS and encourage you to use this hardware, especially the price, as a reference in designing your own NAS.

Giveaway

After spending a good chunk of Saturday crawling through Twitter, Google+, and Facebook. I’m excited to say that we’ve got a winner for the give-a-way of the 2014 EconoNAS. The lucky winner is: Shaun Bender!!! I’ll be boxing up the 2014 EconoNAS this week and get it shipped to Shaun. Hopefully, Shaun will take some “action” shots of the EconoNAS in action and tell us a little bit about what his plans are. Whatever information Shaun shares back with us, I’ll update this blog with it!

Updates

9/5/14: It’s been almost three months since this blog was published, so I thought I’d come in and update the prices on the parts. I was disappointed to find out that the total price had risen by about $20-25 from the last update! The RAM ($20) wound up being the biggest riser in price, followed by the motherboard ($5). The 2TB hard drive prices remained pretty steady, which isn’t all that surprising. However, if you were interested in the 3TB drives the two that I quoted both changed pretty dramatically, one increased by nearly $25 per drive and the other fell by about $8. At those prices, I’d ditch the Western Digital WD 3 TB WDBH2D0030HNC-NRSN for a more reasonably priced drive. Since my first FreeNAS build blogs, I think this is the first time that I’ve seen the prices rise dramatically.

Gizmo Crate Unboxing: May 2014

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I’ve been knee-deep in other projects so when my Gizmo Crate arrived this Thursday, I didn’t get around to blogging about it for an additional day. My Christmas gift 3-month subscription had expired just in time for my wife to extend it for a few more months as an exceptional birthday gift. I’ve really enjoyed receiving the Gizmo Crate, playing with the contents and then sharing my impressions on the blog.

Food Units

Once again, this Gizmo Crate’s food item did not survive the writing of this blog. Nor did it even make it past the first night. I hungrily chowed down the candy while waiting on friends to pick us up for pizza Thursday night. Because it was candy, my wife’s interest was easily piqued. Being the sensitive husband that I am and knowing that she intensely disliked sour things, I warned her that it was sour. Being the mischievous miscreant that I am, I talked her into eating one anyways. Oh, the faces she made! Next time I manage to pull that off, I need to get it recorded on video. Needless to say, I don’t think Julia will be eating any Sour Patch Kids in the near future.

Geek Items

This month’s Gizmo Crate featured five different geeky items! A stylus, a sticky mount for holding your Phone/iPod in the car, a solar charger & battery, a Bluetooth headset, and a Bluetooth Camera remote for your phone/tablet. This is the most items that I’ve received in a Gizmo Crate since being a customer from day one.

For the first time ever, I did not have any luck finding the exact same product (or damn near) on Amazon, but in this case, I couldn’t quite find anything that lined up close enough. I’ve linked to 9-pack of similar styli just for the sake of reference. There’s really not a whole lot that can be said about the stylus. It seems to work just fine on my Nexus 5, Nexus 7 and iPad Air. I’m not sure entirely how much utility I’d get out of stylus but maybe it’ll come in handy in the future; it may even wind up in my backpack.

I didn’t really know what to call this thing. It’s a sticky mat that you can put on your dashboard and it’ll keep things from sliding around. It is shaped like a smartphone, so that’s what I assume it’s for. I value having my phone convenient and handy within the car, which is exactly why I evaluated quite a few options when coming up with my Ultimate Car Dock for Android Phones blog, which diminishes my need for a product like this. Furthermore, if I had something sticky on the dash of my Corvette, I think that’d just be a personal challenge to see if I could drive wildly enough to get it to fall off the pad. This probably isn’t the wisest of ideas, so I won’t be getting much use out of this particular item.

This item was the most enigmatic in May’s Gizmo Crate. I’m always intrigued by the different solar chargers I’ve seen out there. Ever since childhood, I’ve been curious about solar power. I made it through math classes covering/uncovering my cheap little solar calculator’s cell up and watching the display fade to black. This charger is interesting to me, because it also includes a 1800mAh battery. The solar cell charges that battery, which in turn charges the device you plug into. Based on the user’s manual, it takes roughly 20 hours for the battery to be fully charged. Unfortunately, this is another item I won’t get much use out of, because I have chargers everywhere: my desk, my car, my bedroom, my TV room, my office at work, and 2 “emergency” battery chargers in my backpack. I’ll keep this charger around because I’m interested in it, but I don’t expect it to be very useful unless the power grid fails.

I’m a bit surprised that it took four months before a Bluetooth headset popped up in a Gizmo Crate. When I was theorizing what might come in my first Gizmo Crate, a Bluetooth headset was among the items I expected to see. I’ve actually been quite pleased that this has been the case, because I hate Bluetooth headsets. I have never found them to be comfortable or usable. Of the items in my Gizmo Crate, this is the least likely to be used.

This is by far my favorite item in May’s Gizmo Crate: a Bluetooth input device used for controlling your phone’s camera remotely. The first thing I did after opening the Gizmo Crate was to get this set up and paired to my phone. I proceeded to use it to take an outrageously stupid selfie. Afterwards I sat my phone down in front of the TV and took a picture of my wife and I lounging around. I don’t really anticipate having to remotely take pictures with my phone or tablet that often, but I am a little curious about what other things I can think to do with my new toy. I’m hoping that I can use Tasker and use the remote to do interesting things. For example, sometimes Julia can’t find where she left her phone. I can’t imagine it’d be all that difficult for Tasker to crank the volume way up, play an MP3, and start vibrating the phone when you press the button on the remote. These kind of possibilities are what I find exciting about this item.


Watermelon Sour Patch Kids Phone/Tablet Stylus in Package Phone/Tablet Stylus Phone Sticky Mount in Package Phone Sticky Mount Solar Charger and Battery Bluetooth Headset in Package Bluetooth Headset Bluetooth Camera Remote in Package Bluetooth Camera Remote in Package

Conclusion

I really hate to say that any Gizmo Crate is disappointing, but this particular crate has been my least favorite so far. I seriously enjoyed the Sour Patch Kids, and I’m pretty jazzed about what all I can do with the Bluetooth Remote Shutter. But beyond that, I’m not finding much utility in the other items. It was exciting to open a crate and find six items, but it was also disappointing when I realized that most of them just weren’t going to do it for me. The good news for everybody else is that the utility out of this box is entirely subjective. Your usefulness for these items could very well be entirely different than mine!

Just like with past boxes, I went through and tried to math out how much value there was in this crate. I could only find prices on Amazon for 4 of the items; I couldn’t find a price for the Bluetooth Headset. Those four items’ value adds up to the neighborhood of $43.00. I shopped around on Amazon a bit and it looks like a comparable no-name Bluetooth headset the same size and shape starts somewhere between $5 and $10. That brings the total value of the box up to around $50. Assuming that you can find more utility in these items than I did, I think it’s still quite a good value.