DIY NAS: 2015 Edition

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I built my first FreeNAS a couple years ago and wrote about the process and what my plans were for it. But as time went by, the blog aged and people were asking what I’d use if I were building a new NAS. This request wound up spawning a series of blogs — every 6 months I’d post an updated build based on how exactly I’d rebuild my own FreeNAS box using current parts and then 6 months behind that, I’d follow up with a cost-conscious build that I called the EconoNAS. In 2013, the price difference between the DIY NAS and the EconoNAS builds was significant, but as the year came to a close the prices drew closer and closer to each other. In 2014 the prices between those two builds closed considerably. Ultimately, I decided that there just didn’t seem to be all that much differentiating the two different builds.

Rather than further muddying the water with two builds that were pretty interchangeable, I’m going in a bit of a different direction for 2015. I’ll still be writing about two different builds, but the basis for each build is going to be a bit different than in prior years. The DIY NAS build (this blog) is going to wind up being more performance-based with more features than past versions and more room for upgrades in the future. The EconoNAS is going to mostly remain the same, but maybe instead of focusing on the cheapest parts I can find, I’ll instead focus on parts that return the most amount of value.

I’m quite happy with my own 2-year-old FreeNAS machine; I’ve actually added some drives to it recently, so I’m in no hurry to replace it. Even though the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition puts my old FreeNAS machine to shame, I don’t really have much use for it. If I don’t need it, then what should I do with this machine? Easy! Give it away to a lucky reader! If you’re interested in entering the giveaway, make sure you read all the way through to the end of the blog.

CPU & Motherboard

The motherboard selection is probably the most important choice that’s made when building your FreeNAS machine. Because the motherboard winds up being so important in each of my FreeNAS builds, I’ve established a few “commandments” (sorry for the cheesy Moses pun) that I use to set the criteria that I’m shopping for. I tried my hardest to get all the way up to Ten Motherboard Commandments, but it seemed pretty thin by the time I got past four. I trimmed out the useless commandments down to the ones that truly mattered to me, which are:

  1. A small form factor: I like that my NAS runs headless on my desk without taking up all the square-footage that your typical desktop computer takes up. Keeping the NAS small allows me to keep it nearby without too much extra clutter.
  2. Low-power CPU support: Low-power CPUs and the motherboards that run them tend to be a little bit more pricey than their full-powered cousins. However, a NAS is running 24/7, costing you kilowatt hours from the electrical company. When I researched low-power CPUs for my own FreeNAS machine, I discovered that the cost of electricity would pay for the premium of the low-power motherboard and CPU within the first 2 years of owning the device.
  3. At least 6 SATA Ports: 6 SATA ports is enough to build out a pretty decently sized array which includes a couple drives’ worth of parity for the sake of fault tolerance.
  4. Onboard Gigabit: This is mostly because I wired up my house with CAT5e and wanted to make sure I could make use of it. But because transfer speeds to your NAS are going to depend on the speed of the network interface, it makes sense to try and ensure that the fastest possible is included on the motherboard. Because Mini-ITX motherboards usually only have one PCI-e slot, I like to keep it free for a future SATA controller card rather than occupy it with a network card, which is why I prefer the network card to be built onto the motherboard.
  5. Passively Cooled CPU, preferably integrated: The commandments begin to break down here a little bit. The primary reason I like an integrated CPU is because I’m a little bit on the lazy side; it’s less work if the CPU and heatsink are already installed. It might even take up a bit less room in the case if it’s integrated. Cooling it passively is much more important to me, since fans like to fail and they are a source of noise.

With every FreeNAS build blog I have written so far, the motherboard is the component that I spent the most effort shopping for. My important criteria (small footprint and number of SATA ports) drives the cost of the motherboard up pretty high. I usually spend quite a bit of time sorting through motherboards, trying to find the one that offers the most amount of features the the budget will allow. However, for this build I was able to skip over much of that effort when I got a huge assist from one of the blog’s readers who suggested using the ASRock C2550D4I (specs).

All I can really say is “Wow, what a list of features that the ASRock C2550D4I has!” Here’s what had me most excited:

  • Mini-ITX Form Factor
  • Intel Avoton C2550 Quad Core 2.4GHZ featuring 14W TDP
  • 12 total SATA Ports (4xSATA2 and 8xSATA3) across three SATA Controllers
  • 4x240pin DDR3 DIMM slots up to 64GB of total System RAM
  • Dual Onboard Intel Gigabit Ethernet
  • Many, many, many others…

The motherboard literally meets or exceeds every single one of my “commandments.” And it doesn’t just exceed them by a little bit, it exceeds them by quite a lot! And even better? The ASRock C2550D4I is somebody’s little brother. The ASRock C2750D4I with similar specifications except for the CPU has 8 cores instead of 4. While I certainly think that the ASRock C2550D4I has more than enough horsepower to take care of your home NAS server needs, it’s a nice option for those who want the additional cores for some hardcore CPU-intensive processing.

The only thing not to like about the motherboard? Hands down, its price. Compared to my past DIY NAS blogs, it’s incredibly expensive at $309.17. But in the end, the added money does wind up buying you quite a bit of functionality.

Running Total: $309.17

RAM

One of the interesting features of the ASRock C2550D4I motherboard is the fact that it supports ECC RAM. ECC RAM ultimately is one of the things which is most strenuously recommended for hardware responsible for running FreeNAS, and while ECC is not actually required in the FreeNAS hardware requirements for RAM, it is quite strenuously suggested, and they link you to a case study that has some compelling evidence of ECC’s benefits when paired with the ZFS file system.

For those of you familiar with my past blogs, you might be asking yourself “Now hold on a minute here, wasn’t Brian a big non-ECC supporter for use with FreeNAS?!” I was and I still am; my FreeNAS box is still running non-ECC RAM and I’m still happy with that decision. Had it not been for the pretty overwhelming feature set of the ASRock C2550D4I, the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition very likely would have been running a motherboard which used non-ECC RAM. I still feel the same about non-ECC RAM and I wouldn’t hesitate putting non-ECC RAM into another FreeNAS box for my own use down the road. It just happened to be that the motherboard I found most appealing for this new FreeNAS build also supported ECC RAM. If your motherboard supports ECC, it’s certainly worth spending the extra few bucks to use ECC RAM.

I wound up picking out a 16GB kit (2x8GB) of ECC RAM from Crucial (specs) for $205.99. What’s even better, is that the ASRock C2550D4I has a total of 4 DIMM slots. Most Mini-ITX motherboards tend to only have 2 DIMM slots, which causes upgrading the RAM to be more expensive since you’re swapping out smaller sticks of RAM with bigger ones. In this case the two empty slots could be used for an upgrade.

Running Total: $515.16

Case

Ever since building my first FreeNAS box, I’ve been a bit infatuated with one case: the Lian-Li PC-Q25. It’s been a great case for Mini-ITX, and unlike most of its brethren, it holds quite a few drives. However, last year readers started pointing out that they were having a hard time finding it in stock at reasonable prices, which is very disappointing. All good things must come to an end, so this year I looked closely at other cases to find a comparable case. Like with the motherboard, I have some criteria that I use when looking for a case:

  • A small footprint suited for Mini-ITX motherboards
  • Lots of capacity for hard drives (preferably more than 6 HDDs)
  • Easy replacement or addition of additional hard drives

One case popped right out at me, knocking each of these criteria out of the park. The SilverStone Tek DS380B (specs) is designed specifically with a DIY NAS in mind. Primarily, because it will hold up to twelve different hard drives, 8 of which go in hot-swappable bays accessible from the front of the case. All of which is within $50 of the cost of the Lian-Li PC-Q25. Upon discovering this case, I’ve been tempted to upgrade my own NAS and use it. I’m using this build as a guinea pig to see if that’s something I want to do in the upcoming months. At $166.76, I think it’s a bit expensive for a case, but it’s such a good fit for a DIY NAS, I think it justifies its price tag.

To go along with the case, I also picked out a Seasonic SS-350SFE (specs), which is a well-reviewed, efficient power supply sized very well for the purposes of a NAS and it is reasonably priced at $59.78. Efficiency of the power supply is especially important when you consider the fact that the NAS will be left on every hour of every day. Paying a premium to conserve power is an investment, and over the lifespan of the power supply this savings will wind up being cheaper when you account for the cost of electricity. Before shopping, my research indicated that the ASRock C2550D4I consumed up to 75W at load. I budgeted an additional 10W per drive the motherboard can support and then another 50-75% for fudge factor, which led me to the neighborhood of a 350W power supply. Depending on the number of drives you want to use, a bigger power supply may be warranted. One thing to watch out for with the SilverStone Tek DS380B is that it requires either an SFX or SFX-L (like SFX but just longer) power supply. If you notice in my galleries below, the power supply will mysteriously change colors from black to grey and get a little smaller. I discovered that I had purchased too large of a power supply too late and I didn’t bother to disassemble everything just to retake one or two pictures. Oops!

Running Total: $741.70

Storage

FreeNAS Flash Drive

The FreeNAS drive has been the same on every single DIY NAS build that I suggest. It’s become a rather mundane part to shop for and write about. I still recommend the SanDisk Cruzer Fit 8GB (specs) primarily because of its low profile. It’s small enough that it can be installed directly on the motherboard’s rear USB ports. In my own FreeNAS box I have a random flash drive installed on a USB header cable attached directly to the motherboard—not exactly the easiest thing to get to if I needed to. Having the USB drive accessible externally has proven to be very convenient in subsequent builds. The SanDisk Cruzer Fit 8GB is extremely affordable at $7.74 and I’ve had nothing but success with them using FreeNAS in the past. The most recent version of FreeNAS suggests 4GB as an absolute minimum, and 8GB as a recommended minimum on their Compact or USB Flash requirements page.

NAS Hard Disk Drives

Here’s the meat and potatoes of any DIY NAS build—the storage drives. The key feature of FreeNAS is the ZFS file system and all the wizardry it can perform on your behalf. Because of the importance of the drives, this is where I like to encourage prospective DIY NAS builders to carefully consider their own needs. How much data do you need to store today? What rate do you anticipate that growing in the future? How much redundancy can you afford as part of your budget? It’s entirely possible that my suggestions below don’t match your needs.

When pricing out drives for these builds, I usually like to look for what I believe are pretty good values. Last year’s build featured 4 terabyte drives because they seemed like a better deal than the smaller drives with a cheaper per-terabyte cost. This year, larger drives like the 5TB and 6TB were more expensive per-terabyte than I anticipated. That caused me to want to use the same size of drives as last year’s blog, but then I also increased the number of drives to six total as opposed to four from the year before.

It’s good to point out that with ZFS, in order to add drives to an existing array you’ll have to relocate your data, destroy the array, create a new array including the new drives and then move your data back. For this reason, it may be a good idea to start out with a smaller capacity array but with a higher drive count. As the prices of larger drives get more affordable and as your hard drives need replacing, you can slowly start replacing the small drives with bigger drives and eventually grow the array out across the unused portion of the upgraded drives.


Drive
WD Red 4TB WD40EFRX
Seagate 4TB ST4000VN000
Size
4 TB
4 TB
Quantity
3
3
Price
$464.97
$449.10

As I expected, more than half of the total cost (~55%) is made up of the hard disk drives. If you find that pricing out a NAS is exceeding your budget, your best bet is to consider different hard drive combinations. A combination of smaller drives and/or fewer drives could bring the price down by quite a few dollars pretty quickly.

Final Price: $1,663.51


All of the parts (mostly) for the 2014 DIY NAS boxed. All of the parts (mostly) for the 2014 DIY NAS unboxed. Side view of the ASRock C2550D4I Backside view of the ASRock C2550D4I Inside the SilverStone Tek DS380B Outside the SilverStone Tek DS380B Two HDD trays removed from the SilverStone Tek DS380B Removing the HDD Cage Motherboard mounted & mostly plugged in Ram installed #1 Ram installed #2 Removed Case's Audio & USB ports Picture of the Case minus the Audio & Usb Reinstalling the 2.5 Two HDDs installed in their trays Installation of one HDD Fully installed HDD All 6 HDDs and 2 empty trays installed


Towards the end of last year the price of the DIY NAS: 2014 Edition was hovering right at $1000. My prior goal in prior versions of this build was to try and keep the price under $1000. This year when the cost of the motherboard and RAM ate up nearly half of that goal, I knew meeting that objective was probably a bit futile. At first, I was pretty disappointed, but you know what? That extra $600 accounted for a ton of upgrades over the 2014 Edition: 8GB more RAM, ECC RAM, a faster CPU, an additional 2 cores on the CPU, a CPU which consumes much less power, 8TB more of potential storage space, an additional gigabit controller, tons of room for future upgrades of RAM/HDDs, and that list of added features goes on and on.

Altogether, I think it’s an excellent bang for the buck. But there’s no questioning it’s quite a few more bucks than my past builds. For those of you who use this as a template for your own NAS, I think you’re going to be pretty happy with how long you’ll be able to use it.

To double-check how well I did, I compared the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition to some other off-the-shelf NAS systems. Because the drives account for the majority of the expense, I took them out of the equation and compared a diskless version of the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition and compared it to some off-the-shelf diskless NAS appliances. I decided to give the off-the-shelf machines a bit of an advantage and I compared this build to 6-bay diskless NAS systems. Here’s a few that I found:

The 6-bay diskless NAS systems were priced in the range of $600 to $900. A diskless version of the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition would cost around $750, which is is pretty competitive with regards to price. However, there’s a litany of additional features that the off-the-shelf systems lack: there’s room for up to 12 total drives, there’s room for more RAM, and most importantly it’s built out of standard PC equipment that can be upgraded any which way the user wants in the future. Just for grins, I looked for a comparable 12-bay diskless NAS system and found the Synology DiskStation DS2413+ at a whopping $1650. That’s nearly the same price as the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition including drives!

As it has been in prior years, the prices of the hardware (minus the HDDs) can be pretty comparable between a DIY NAS and an off-the-shelf NAS. But the benefits of using PC hardware and FreeNAS within the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition provides an immense amount of value that the off-the-shelf systems simply can’t compete with.

In this particular build, I used some (in my opinion) pretty high-end parts for the configuration. I’ll be excited here in a few months to start researching my “EconoNAS” equivalent of this machine to see how inexpensively I could build something comparable. It’ll be an interesting challenge to see how many of these great features I’ll be able to get to fit in an inexpensive NAS.

Hardware Assembly, Configuration and Burn-In

Assembly

In the past, I’ve had requests for step-by-step assembly information or even videos. I think other people have already created fantastic “how-to” guides on building a PC which are infinitely better than anything that I’d be able to come up with. One such example is this How to Build a Computer: The Complete Guide from Lifehacker.

About the only place where I had to deviate from those kinds of guides is specific to the SilverStone Tek DS380B case. Primarily, it’s a very small case when you consider everything that it can hold. That size leads to a great final product, but working inside the case presented some challenges that prior cases hadn’t. You have to take out all of the removable drive trays and the drive cage itself before you can even begin thinking about mounting the motherboard. On top of that, with the Seasonic SS-350SFE power supply, I found I had to rotate it 180 degrees in order for the cable bundle to not interfere with the drive cage. Essentially, the power supply must be rotated in such a way that the cable bundle is closest to the backside of the case where the drive cage isn’t present, otherwise it won’t be possible to put the drive cage back in.

The thing I disliked the most about putting the machine together was caused by the fact that the ASRock C2550D4I motherboard lacks a sound card and that the USB header is different than the SilverStone Tek DS380B’s USB 3.0 ports. This meant that both the USB and audio components on the front of the case weren’t going to be usable. I considered leaving these cables loose in the case, but they had some pretty thick wires (see below) that wound up in front of the case fans and I worried that in the process of shipping they might wind up getting tangled up in those nearby case fans. Ultimately, I decided to remove the case’s USB ports and audio ports, but I’m not especially happy with those components missing. Thankfully on the SilverStone Tek DS380B’s there’s a door which covers the front of the case and conceals the fact that these have been removed. It’d be pretty easy to add these parts again, only the drive cage and drives would need to come out before the USB and audio ports could be put back in.

After putting the computer together, I had the hardest time to get the system to POST (Power On Self Test), which in my experience is nearly instantaneous after turning the machine on. In fact, if a machine I’m building doesn’t POST instantaneously then I’ll usually turn it off and look for things I could’ve done wrong or looked over. When the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition didn’t immediately POST, I took it apart component by component until I was down to just one stick of RAM, the motherboard, and power supply. But even then, I’d turn it on and wait 10 or 15 seconds, and then power it off and tinker with it more. I read the motherboard’s manual from cover to cover (where I could decipher the languages used), I scoured through the manufacturer’s support website and searched Internet forums for people with the same problem. It wasn’t until Pat started answering my instant messages that reminded me of how long our last ECC RAM computers (Tyan Tiger MP (S2460) based dual Athlon MP) took to POST. It wasn’t a loose connection or something that I’d done wrong, it was a different failure on my part—I’m impatient. On Pat’s suggestion, I just powered it up and waited. After what seemed like an eternity (actually 1 minute and 45 seconds) it POSTed and I was able to get into the BIOS to start tinkering.

Hardware Configuration

Once the assembly and any related issues (primarily self-inflicted) were behind me, I explored the BIOS to confirm or make the following changes:

  1. ECC was enabled and the installed RAM was detected as ECC.
  2. Enabled S.M.A.R.T.
  3. Disabled the two Marvell SATA Controllers’ (9230 & 9172) ability to act as a boot device.
  4. Set the Primary Graphics Adapter to Onboard.
  5. Configured the Boot Options so that the only devices it’d try and boot from was one of the various USB devices I’d be using for the system burn-in and for FreeNAS

Burn-In

Because of my propensity to use non-ECC RAM with FreeNas, my biggest area of concern during this phase has always been the memory. It would be safe to assume that because I am using ECC Memory for this build, that this testing would be less of a concern, but it wasn’t. The reason it’s still a big concern of mine is because I believe you’re much more likely to encounter a defective stick of RAM from the manufacturer than almost any other memory-related problems. I fired up Memtest86+ using Hiren’s BootCD and left it running for 48 hours. Mostly I wanted 24+ hours and at least 3 passes with no errors. It was expected but still nice to know that the brand-new memory is free of major defects. After getting a warm-and-fuzzy on the RAM, I used stresslinux to run a load on it for 12 hours to attempt and exacerbate any hardware instability that might be lurking out there that could be related to the other components on the motherboard.

FreeNAS Configuration

My network-attached storage needs are pretty simple. All I’ve ever wanted is a machine which is hosting share(s) that Windows can see and map a drive to. Anything beyond that is gravy. FreeNAS covers that simple requirement quite easily. In fact, in these DIY NAS blogs I admit that I’m not even scratching the surface of everything that FreeNAS can do. Once I got FreeNAS 9.3 successfully installed on the SanDisk 8GB USB drive, I booted it up and configured it from my primary desktop computer.

After signing into the FreeNAS 9.3 web interface, I was prompted with something new to me: an Initial Wizard for setting up the box for the first time. This seemed handy and friendly enough, so I thought I’d give it a try. I chose volume1 as the name of the pool, and when prompted for the purpose I selected Backups on account of it indicated it was using RAID Z2, which would survive the failure of up to two drives at the same time.

The next step is where Directory Services are configured in FreeNAS, which doesn’t apply in my use-case scenario, so I skipped over it. For the purposes of this blog, I decided to strictly work with the machine’s IP address. Depending on your home network, you’d need to fill in the appropriate details for whichever Directory Service(s) you’re using. After that, the wizard prompted me to configure the sharing. I named the share storage, selected the Windows(CIFS) option, checked the Allow Guest option, and then clicked Add. I made a mental note to go back into the Sharing later and set up the permissions.

The next screen of the Initial Wizard is primarily for setting up SMTP settings to enable the machine to send emails. This will depend on your SMTP server settings, so I left most of this blank. There’s a Send Test Email option, so it’s pretty forgiving to set up and confirm it’s working before moving to the next step. I did check the Console Messages option which displays the most recent lines of console output in the web UI as a footer. This is especially helpful if you plan to run your FreeNAS machine without a monitor. Afterwards, the Initial Wizard prompts you for confirmation of your settings. It takes a couple minutes to commit your changes and restart services, but once you’re done you’ve got a ZFS pool (volume) set up, shared and ready to go.

Because I skipped over the permissions sub-step in the Initial Wizard, the next thing I did was to create a group named “shareusers” and then I created a user named “brian”, which I added to the “shareusers” group and made sure the user’s password matched what I was using on my local desktop (the passwords must agree, since I’m not using Directory Services). After that I went into the permissions (Storage –> Volumes –> expanded down to /mnt/volume1/storage) and made the Owner (group) the “shareusers” group that I created above.

Having completed all of that, I browsed to the machine by its IP address from my desktop and verified that I could see the share named storage, that I could browse its contents, and finally that I could copy files to/from the share.

I’m typically not a fan of any kind of wizards like this one and prefer doing things myself, but in the case of the Initial Wizard in FreeNAS 9.3, I made an exception. It certainly made things easier for me while writing this blog.


Initial Login Initial Wizard: Region Setup Initial Wizard: Creating a Volume (ZFS Pool) Initial Wizard: Setting up Directory Services Initial Wizard: Configuring Sharing Initial Wizard: FreeNAS SMTP Settings Initial Wizard: Confirmation Initial Wizard: Progress Creating a FreeNAS Group Creating a FreeNAS User Granting Permissions to new Group Viewing Share in Windows Explorer FreeNAS Volume Info FreeNAS Disks Info


This is a pretty quick-and-dirty configuration; there’s much much more that can be set up and configured that I skipped over in this blog. My suggestion to whomever winds up winning the NAS is that they start all over from scratch and use that as a learning experience to become more familiar with FreeNAS.

Power Consumption

As part of my FreeNAS builds I am always willing to assume a price premium for low-power components. Because a NAS is very likely to be left on 24x7, it’s wise to factor in the cost of providing power to it as part of your budget. Spending a few more bucks on a low-power CPU and motherboard to support it will likely save you dozens of dollars over its lifespan. I borrowed my friend’s Kill-a-Watt during my burn-in and initial FreeNAS testing to see what the power consumption was like. I took a look at the power numbers on an initial cold boot, when the machine was idling, and also under a “load,” which I define as a handful of simultaneous file copies going to/from a couple different computers.

I left the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition plugged into the Kill-a-Watt for 48 hours and during that time, it used a total of 2.8433 kWh.

Conclusion

I’ll be completely honest here, my immediate reaction to this particular build is that it’s more expensive than I would’ve preferred. It’s definitely more expensive than anything that I would’ve considered building for my own use. It’s also a bit disappointing that it’s not a very unique build—there’s no shortage of videos on YouTube, forum posts, other blogs, etc… where the authors described how they built a NAS using the ASRock C2550D4I and SilverStone Tek DS380B. However, that should be expected due to what a great set of features this hardware has and how it’s ideally suited for building a do-it-yourself NAS.

I found that working inside the SilverStone Tek DS380B was a little bit frustrating; I would’ve preferred more room. But this should be expected because of the reduced footprint and all of the features inside the case. SilverStone fits an incredible amount of hardware in a very small package. That small footprint is extremely high on my list of requirements, so I am more than happy to live with the inconvenience that comes with trying to work inside the case.

Even though my gut reaction is that the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition wound up being quite a bit more expensive than I would have liked, the overall list of its features is both lengthy and impressive. There’s also a laundry list of future growth by the way of upgrades: 2 empty DIMMs for future RAM upgrades up to 64GB total, 6 free SATA ports and empty drive bays within the case, and an additional Gigabit Ethernet controller that could be used to double the bandwidth via channel bonding. Even though I think that the NAS wound up being too expensive, that doesn’t mean I don’t think it is a bad value. This is a serious NAS with a price tag to match; $1,663.51 seems like a pretty reasonable cost for the amount of the hardware’s features. In fact, I’m betting that in order to top the list of features, you’d probably need to start looking at entry-level commercial NAS products.

Giveaway

Like with the DIY NAS: 2014 Econonas, I’ll be giving the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition away to a lucky reader. The giveaway essentially works like this:

  1. You follow my blog and myself on Twitter, the blog’s Facebook page and the blog’s Google+ page.
  2. You re-tweet or share the promotional posts from these social networks (links below) with your own friends and followers. (Note: Make sure that your share is public, otherwise I won’t be able to see it and give you credit!)
  3. Your name gets entered up to three times (once per social network) in a drawing.
  4. After a month or so, I’ll pick a winner at random and announce it here.

Here’s a link to the best posts to promote for each social network:

If there are any questions, please go read the #FreeNASGiveaway rules page, I explain it in a bit more detail there. Please keep in mind, it’s more about the “spirit” of these rules, rather than the letter of the law. If you go to the trouble of helping promote my blog, I’ll do whatever I can to make sure you get an entry into the giveaway. The best way to make sure you get your entry is to follow the steps above.

Tile: Bluetooth Tags for Tracking Items

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I have a bit of a confession to make: I’ve been cyber-stalking Tile since stumbling across their crowdsourcing efforts months ago. Tile is a low-power bluetooth item tracker that you can attach to things and then track them. The tracking is done using the bluetooth on your phone and a low-power bluetooth transmitter in the Tile. Using the Tile app, it can keep track of the Tile and give you an idea of how far away it is, where on a map it currently is, and if needed, the app can make the Tile play a tune. On top of that, should your Tile get seen by another user’s cell phone, it’ll also update the location of where your Tile was seen last.

I was disappointed months ago when I discovered their initial release was going to be on iOS devices only. I own an iPad Air and was tempted to order a Tile, but my iPad rarely leaves the house, and the things I wanted to track usually got misplaced away from my house. But still, my curiosity lingered, and I found myself frequently visiting the Tile website. A couple months ago, I decided to go ahead and place an order despite no official Android support yet.

After receiving my Tile a couple weeks ago, I emailed the Tile support team and said that I knew there wasn’t any Android support yet and begged to be added to any kind of beta program they might have in the works. The support team emailed back saying that they’d be happy to add me to a beta program but also that they couldn’t promise it, but they had hoped to release the Android version of the Tile app by the end of the year.

To my pleasant surprise, Tile kept that promise (that they didn’t officially make) and released Tile for Android just a few days ago. I was a bit disappointed because my phone is a Nexus 6 and not on the list of officially supported devices despite meeting the only important requirement (in my opinion) of low-power Bluetooth support. Regardless, I was determined to download the app and to even sideload the app manually if it wouldn’t allow me to install on my Nexus 6. Thankfully, I didn’t have go to such lengths and easily found the Tile app on the Google Play Store and it installed on my phone without any difficulties. If anybody from Tile winds up reading this blog, you may want to consider adding the Nexus 6 as a potentially supported device!

Following their directions, I activated my Tile and tucked it away in the one thing that is both important to me and something that tends to get misplaced: my Diabetes. I’m a type 1 diabetic (insulin dependent) and ever since my initial diagnosis, my friends and I have called my kit of diabetic supplies “the Diabetes.” Up until meeting my wonderful wife, Julia, I always knew where my Diabetes was; I kept it close at hand and never went through any kind of door without it. However, among the many awesome things she does to make me feel special, she likes to pack my Diabetes up in her purse because she knows how important it is. The unfortunate part of that is that sometimes I take that for granted or forget that Julia’s not around (like at work), which leads me to realize that I have absolutely no idea where my Diabetes is.

Tile in Diabetes

Primarily what tends to happen is that Julia will put the Diabetes into her purse and then put her purse by whatever door we’re planning to go out next. After that, I’ll go to look for my Diabetes in its normal spot(s) and find that it’s missing. Assuming it’s within bluetooth’s range of my phone, the Tile app will display pretty accurately where it was last seen overlaid on a zoomed-in map. Plus, within the Tile app it displays a signal strength meter, the closer you are the more segments you get on the meter. As you walk around you can watch that meter to determine if you’re getting warmer or colder. And if those two options are not enough to help, there’s an option to hit to find the Tile, which starts the Tile playing a little audible tune.

If the Tile is out of range, it’ll tell you how long ago it saw it and what the location was back then. In those cases, retracing your steps back to that location with your phone in hand would help you locate that item. This where some of the really interesting possibilities kick in; you can mark that Tile as lost. If a lost Tile is picked up on another device the location of that Tile will get reported back to Tile’s cloud service and the location will be shared with you. I’ll be loading the Tile app on all of our Android and iOS devices and encouraging friends and co-workers for this very reason.

The Tile unit itself is sealed and contains a battery; based off of data on their website the battery should last a year. Because it’s not user-replaceable, when your Tile’s battery dies you’ll need to replace it. The Tile unit itself comes with a one-year warranty, so on the off chance it doesn’t last the full year you’d be likely to get a replacement. However, if the battery runs out exactly one year after you buy it then you will need to buy a replacement. Effectively, Tile then becomes a bit of a subscription service. My understanding is they chose to design Tile this way to keep the device as small and slender as possible. I think the price of $25/year for a single tile is a pretty good deal, though there are also discounts if you buy more than one Tile. At the time that I’m writing this: 30% off if you buy 4, 35% off if you buy 8, and 40% off if you buy 12.

Pictures & Screenshots


Packaging Top-down view of Tile Side view of Tile Tile affixed to my Diabetes Tile App Main Screen Tile App Tracker Details Tile App Location on Map Tile App Editing a Tile


Conclusion

I loaded the iOS Tile app and watched this Tile video on Youtube and it seems that all the features are present in the Android version of the app too. However, there’s at least one feature that I’d like to see added to the apps. It’d be nice if you could configure some sort of notification if a certain Tile has not been seen recently. I’d love if the Tile was able to help me prevent forgetting something in addition to also finding it if it gets lost. Hopefully this is on their development road map, but if it’s not I’m a bit excited to see if I can use Tasker to add that feature myself.

In conclusion, Tile pretty much hit the bullseye for me. It’s inexpensive, it’s easy to set up, it’s handy, and it seems to be something that I could tinker around with to find other kind of interesting uses for. I’d be a bit surprised if there weren’t a handful of Tiles floating around the house here in the next few months.

What other kinds of things would you track with Tile? What kinds of features would you like to see integrated into the Android Tile App? If I wasn’t so opposed to added keychain bulk then I’d strongly consider adding one to my own keychain. What kinds of unconventional uses can you think of for a Tile? Please use the comments below to share your ideas!

Google Nexus 6 Review

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This year, my darling wife was trying to get some Christmas gift ideas from me, which caused me to swing for the fences and tell her that I wanted a Nexus 6. I’ve been a bit curious about the whole phablet phenomenon since the first of the Samsung Galaxy Notes came out. I figured for sure that my wife would point out what a naughty boy I’ve been and that Santa would probably not be bringing me a Nexus 6 this year for Christmas.

When the Nexus 6 was announced, I went over the specifications and thought to myself, “This isn’t really that BIG of an upgrade over my Nexus 5.” Don’t get me wrong, the hardware of the Nexus 6 is clearly better than what’s on the Nexus 5, but I think we’ve reached a point where the advances in hardware just aren’t as dramatic as they were in the first generations of smartphones. Early on in smartphone development, each new generation of smartphones had significant hardware advances. These days it seems that most of the really interesting advances are being driven by newer versions of the mobile operating systems—in the case of the Nexus 6, the newest version of Android, which is nicknamed Lollipop.

I Cheated… Twice

Since Lollipop was the biggest reason for me to consider upgrading, I was at an advantage, since I already owned a Nexus 5. Google does a very good job at maintaining their older devices and continuing to release new versions of Android built for those devices as long as it’s feasible. All too often with the other manufacturers, devices get forgotten about and don’t receive updates in a timely fashion, if at all. In my case, I grabbed a copy of Lollipop directly from Google’s Factory Images for Nexus Devices once it was available for the Nexus 5 and flashed it onto my phone.

Additionally, just a couple weeks ago Julia (my wife) confessed to me that she was nervous about buying the phone; she didn’t want to buy the wrong one and she was having a hard time finding it in stock anywhere. I told her as long as it was a Nexus 6 that she couldn’t go wrong with either color (Midnight Blue or White) and that either size (32GB or 64GB) would be fine. In fact, I reversed course in picking this phone, saying that it made more sense to get the smaller version. On my Nexus 5, I’d picked the one with more storage capacity because I kept all of my music on my phone for my Ultimate Car Dock for Android phones. However, in recent months T-Mobile (my wireless carrier) has stopped charging its customers for bandwidth used streaming music, which meant I didn’t need to keep any of my music on my phone anywhere. That’s ultimately what lead me to believe I would be just fine with the smaller capacity of 32GB worth of storage.

We had a pretty difficult time finding the Nexus 6 in stock. I learned from my reading that Google was releasing additional stock in limited batches every Wednesday. One Wednesday I spent all day on the Play store’s devices page for the Nexus 6 and refreshed periodically throughout the day. All day long, they indicated there weren’t any phones in stock, except for briefly one moment it went from “Out of Stock” to “Ships in 2-4 weeks” but by the time I clicked the button to add it to my cart that was out of stock again. Ultimately, I had some luck buying the device directly from my T-Mobile. And even better yet, my wife allowed me to open this present more than 2 weeks before Christmas.

Size

Naturally, the phone’s size is its defining attribute. It is absolutely enormous at 6.29” x 3.26”. I’m not sure if it’s the largest phablet out there, but it’s a bit bigger than both the iPhone 6 Plus and Samsung Galaxy Note 4. This is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing comes from the really large display that fills up most of that space—the 2560x1440 AMOLED screen is surrounded by a bezel which seems to be comparable in its size to the bezel around the Nexus 5.

The unfortunate part of the size is that the Nexus 6 almost certainly requires both of my hands in order to use it. Hopefully it’s just taking a while to get adjusted to the sheer size of the phone, but I also feel less confident when handling it due to its enormity. The feel of the phone is pretty nice. The curved back is an interesting choice and it has a “quality” feel to it that most of my prior phones did not have. My only real complaint is that the back of the phone feels pretty slick; a more sticky material on the back would help a bit in handling the phone, especially those times when a second hand is not available.

While working on the blog, I picked up the Nexus 5 and it felt really really tiny. As quickly as the Nexus 5 started feeling tiny, I imagine the Nexus 6 will start feeling comfortable in my hands.

The Specifications

The upgraded hardware is nice. The Nexus 6 features a verity of improved stats beyond the display, most notably a faster CPU with two additional cores and 50% more RAM. However, having run Lollipop on my Nexus 5 for a few weeks, I haven’t really noticed that extra horsepower in my regular day-to-day use. Using the Nexus 6 feels more or less the same as it did on the Nexus 5. I don’t think that’s an indictment on the Nexus 6, I just think it kind of indicates the direction that we’re heading. The newer, faster hardware just isn’t radically different in newer generations of smartphones.

Of all the numerous hardware upgrades over prior Nexus devices, two jumped out at me in my first days of using the Nexus 6 as being very noticeable.

Firstly, there’s a definite improvement in both of the cameras over the Nexus 5, whose cameras received pretty lukewarm reviews. The Nexus 6 features a rear-facing 13MP camera (up from 8MB on the Nexus 5) and a front-facing 2MP camera (up from 1.3 MP). The few pictures with I’ve taken with both cameras look much crisper and more well defined.


Nexus 5:  Rear Camera Nexus 6:  Rear Camera Nexus 5: Front Camera Nexus 6: Front Camera


Secondly, the battery life is exceptional—helped in large part by the fact that the battery is nearly 71% bigger at 3220 mAh (2300 mAh on the Nexus 5) and also helped by the fact that Lollipop seems to be more power-efficient than Kit Kat. The end result is that the Nexus 6 lasts throughout the day even with me showing it off to friends and tinkering with it on a pretty constant basis.

Of the two most noticeable differences, I’m most excited about the battery life. I was charging my Nexus 5 on a regular basis throughout the day, most typically during my 45-minute commute to and from work. It’d be really nice if I didn’t have to charge throughout the typical day. But even if I am forced to charge up, the Motorola Turbo Charger claims that I’ll be able to get roughly 6 hours out of roughly 15 minutes on the special charger.

Overall, the hardware upgrades aren’t revolutionary. But I think that’s an encouraging sign and that whenever the next Nexus device is announced by Google, I’m not going to need to feel my usual urge to immediately upgrade to the newer device. It also means that Google should be able to keep the Nexus line of devices updated with newer versions of Android much longer into the future. They already have an excellent track record for past Nexus devices, hopefully this will continue on in the future.

Lollipop

Even though I already had Lollipop on my Nexus 5, I think Lollipop still remains one of the best selling points of the Nexus 6. The latest iteration of Android both looks and performs better than the prior version. The new features of Lollipop are very interesting, I especially like the addition of notifications to the lock screen. The smart lock feature is something similar to what I’ve added myself using apps like Tasker.

Lollipop’s not without its quirks or downfalls, but most of those will be corrected. At the moment one of my favorite Android modifications, the Xposed framework, has not yet come out with a Lollipop version. Additionally, my favorite app of all time, Tasker, appears to be misbehaving a bit in Lollipop. Both of these I anticipate are just part of what happens when you’re an early adopter. The Lollipop upgrade is drastic and understandably would require quite a bit of development time to update my favorite apps and add-ons. Additionally, Lollipop also includes a change to how notifications are managed, and getting things configured just exactly the way that I want them to is proving to be a bit difficult. Most difficult of all is the absence of a convenient way to silence the phone from any kind of interruptions.

Overall, Lollipop is fantastic. It’s quite responsive, it’s visually more appealing and I’m pretty excited that it’s on the Nexus 6. The majority of complaints I have with Lollipop are either because I’m an early adopter or an old fart who is having a harder time with things moving around on him. Both of these complaints will quickly fall by the wayside.

Cost

With past Nexus devices, Google built and sold the devices at an extremely competitive price point. It was hard to beat the bang for buck that you got from the Nexus 4 and the Nexus 5. The Nexus 6 is a bit of a different animal. It’s priced competitively, but it’s not hands down the best deal amongst the current phablets. This was a bit of a disappointment for me; I was expecting for the Nexus 6 to beat the pants off of other phablet phones. As it is, it’s priced in the middle of the pack. Its off-contract price is $100 cheaper than the cheapest iPhone 6 Plus and Samsung Galaxy Note 4, but it is also $50 more expensive than the LG G3. I used T-Mobile’s and AT&T’s off-contract pricing on the phones to come up with these numbers, but I found quite a supply of unlocked versions on Amazon that were well under the carriers’ off-contract prices out on Amazon and eBay.

I think the Nexus 6 is a reasonable value. I think its price is being propped up a bit by demand that’s out-pacing the supply and that buyers like me are paying a premium right now. I wouldn’t fault someone for buying any of the other phablets either. As opposed to earlier Nexus devices, the Nexus 6 isn’t nearly the no-brainer that the Nexus 5 and Nexus 4 were before it.

Other Stuff

As part of a promotion, Google is currently giving Nexus 6 a free six-month subscription to it’s Google Music All Access service, which essentially allows you to stream any of the music in their catalog. Ever since T-Mobile’s free music streaming was announced and included Google Music, I’ve been meaning to give this a try. Getting 6 months for free for buying a Nexus 6 is a pretty nice benefit, maybe even qualifying for consideration as the icing on this upgrade cake.

Pictures


Unboxing Hardware Nexus 5 Comparison - Screens Off Nexus 5 Comparison - Screens On My Nexus 6


Conclusion

The Nexus 6 is a fantastic device, especially if you’re considering a move from a regular-sized smartphone into the phablet space. And so far, Lollipop by itself is a fine reason to purchase the Nexus 6. However, in my case as a Nexus 5 user that was already running Lollipop, this negated one of the key features of this upgrade. My recommendation to fellow Nexus 5 users would be to think carefully before upgrading. In the event you’re like me and you’ve been itching to try out a phablet for quite some time then an upgrade to the Nexus 6 makes sense. Otherwise, I’d find a way to get your Nexus 5 updated and running Lollipop instead.

Ultimately, I’m really excited to be using the Nexus 6. It’s a fantastic Christmas gift that’ll surely keep reminding me this year of what a lucky husband I am.

Piwik Skin for Rainmeter 1.0.0

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Shortly after reaching 5120x1440 worth of resolution between my dual monitors, I started searching for uses for all that space. There’s quite a bit of desktop space that frequently winds up unused, neglected, and potentially feeling unloved. From time to time I wind up on /r/battlestations out on Reddit.com and occasionally I’d see a desktop where the owner had nifty little gadgets on their desktop with system information like CPU usage, memory utilization, or hard drive capacity on them. I got curious and dug into those to try and understand where they came from. It seemed like the ones I thought were the most interesting all came from a program called Rainmeter, which I downloaded and put a popular set of skins on my own desktop.

After about a month or so of using Rainmeter I blurted out (to nobody in particular) that it’d sure be nice if it had the information that my Android Piwik notification displays on my phone also on my desktop in a Rainmeter skin. I started doing a bit of “research” into making my own skin to capture and display that same information. Not being especially creative from a visual standpoint, I emulated the design of the default illustro skins which are included with Rainmeter that were created by poiru.

Ultimately what I wound up doing was using the WebParser plug-in (bundled with Rainmeter) to hit the Piwik API and to pull back the same data I use in my Android Piwik notification. However, instead of using a CSV format I used an XML format and then used a regular expression on what was returned to get the pieces of data that I was most interested in: number of visits, number of actions, average actions per visit, and the average time on site.

I wanted to share it, so I spent some time making it more generic and documenting how other Piwik Users can put it to work for themselves. By default, I have it configured to point at Piwik’s Demo Site so anyone can see it in action right off the bat.

Description

This Piwik skin for Rainmeter is pretty simple. It’s configured to work with your Piwik installation’s API. At a configurable interval, it will query the Piwik API and display the following information from the current day’s traffic:

  1. Total Visits
  2. Total Actions
  3. Average Actions Per Visit
  4. Average Time On Site (in seconds)

One final feature is that if you clicked the title of the Piwik Skin, it’ll launch the URL of your Piwik installation.

Also available within the Piwik skin, but not currently being output, are the remaining statistics from the Visits Summary Module (below). These could be easily added by editing the skin’s configuration within Rainmeter and emulating what I’ve done to expand the information displayed in the skin.

  • Number of unique visitors
  • Number of users
  • Number of visits converted
  • Bounce count
  • Total visit length
  • Maximum number of actions in a visit
  • Bounce rate

In the same vein, the entire Piwik Reporting API is available to you when using Rainmeter. My skin’s intended to be a jumping-off point if you want to dig in and get additional information back from the API and display it in your own version of the skin. It’d be awesome if you described (or even shared) your revisions in the comments below!

Installation Instructions

  1. Gather the necessary data for the Piwik API
    1. Piwik URL
    2. Your Piwik Site ID
    3. Your Piwik authentication token
  2. Download and install Rainmeter
  3. Download and install my Rainmeter Piwik Skin from DeviantArt, GitHub or from my blog
  4. Locate the downloaded file (Piwik_1.0.0.rmskin), double-click it and click Install.
  5. Right-click the Rainmeter icon in the system tray, or right-click an existing skin on your desktop and navigate to Rainmeter>Manage
  6. Click Edit and modify the following found under the [Variables] section to match your own Piwik information from Step 1

     SiteURL="Demo.Piwik.Org"
     PiwikURL="http://demo.piwik.org"
     PiwikSiteID=7
     PiwikAuthToken="anonymous"
    
  7. Expand the Piwik folder and sub folder, select Piwik.ini and click Load


Installation of Piwik Skin - Step 1 Installation of Piwik Skin - Step 2 Installation of Piwik Skin - Step 3 Installation of Piwik Skin - Step 4 Stats displayed in Skin and from Piwik API XML

What’s Next

In reading over the documentation, I’m a bit intrigued by many of Rainmeter’s other capabilities. I would really like some sort of indicator which indicates throughout the day how my web metrics are looking when compared to historical data. Right now, I think I’d like to conditionally color the text to indicate how I’m performing when compared to the average over the last 30 days. For example, display the value red if its value is lagging too far behind the average for the past 30 days. Similarly, if I’m exceeding the average then change the text color to something exciting like green. I need to tinker Rainmeter and the Piwik API a bit more before I can accomplish that, but it’s on my to-do list.

What about you, what other kinds of Piwik data would you want displayed in a desktop gadget like my Piwik Skin for Rainmeter? Feel free to make requests in the comments, or add your own contributions out on the Piwik Skin for Rainmeter GitHub repro that I created.

Cable Management: My War on the Rat’s Nest

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I recently purchased two QNIX 2710 monitors for my new dual-monitor setup, and while setting that up I realized that I was embarrassed at the rat’s nest of cables I had accumulated behind my desk. It was unsightly and frustrating to work with. I’ve been meaning to do something to get the cables under control but I have been procrastinating. I’ve liked some of the cable management ideas that I’ve come across before, like using rain gutters for cable management or even installing PVC pipe to manage cables.

A couple weeks back, I had a brainstorm while out in the backyard with my dogs after work one day. I got to looking at our fence, most notably the metal fenceposts. There are round brackets that went around the post and were screwed into the two-by-fours that made up the structure of the fence. My brainstorm was to install several of those (less than 10) and run my cables through them. I thought this was such a great idea that I ordered several of the fencepost grip ties from Amazon to try them out. Unfortunately, they wound up being a bit too large; my desk has a keyboard drawer built into it and the ties didn’t fit between the backside of that drawer and the lip around the desk’s surface.

Feeling like I was on the right track, I set out for Home Depot one night after work and aimlessly wandered the aisles looking for an inexpensive piece I could screw to the underside of my desk and run cables through them. I strolled down the electrical and plumbing aisles but nothing jumped out at me. Then I took a look at what was around the fencing aisle and I found something promising right on the aisle’s end-cap. A Chain Link Fence Tension Band, which I presume is used with a nut and bolt to clap the chain link material to the fence posts. The best part of these bands? They were very inexpensive at Home Depot at $.98 each.

These wound up being ideal for what I had cooked up in my head. The shape was exactly right that it’d be easy to run cables through them. And anything that had an end which was too fat to fit through could have its cable pushed through where the band clamps together. I intended to use a wood screw and washer(s) to screw the flat part of the band into the desk, leaving the band un-clamped.

The Plan

  1. Every 9 or 10 inches, one of the Chain Link Fence Tension Bands would be screwed into the bottom of the desk, between the keyboard drawer and the lip on the back of the desk. The tension band would be installed in such a way that it remained “open” for easier access.
  2. A couple of the tension bands would be installed “closed” on the rear leg of the desk to fully hide the cables being routed down to the computer.
  3. I would use some leftover velcro from My Network Cupboard project to line the underside of my desk’s surface, wrap power adapters in the opposite side and then stick them underneath the desk to hide them from view. Those power adapters would then be plugged into …
  4. … a surge protector mounted underneath the desk either to the left side of the desk’s lip or the left side of the keyboard drawer.
  5. Pat would 3D print some brackets like the ones he made for his QNIX 2710 monitors and speakers. Those brackets would be used to clamp the monitor’s power adapters to the monitor mount’s arms. The power cables would be routed down through the monitor mount to a power splitter cable plugged into a 10-foot power extension cord and ultimately into my UPS.
  6. I would NOT resort to using methods that’d interfere with future cabling I had to do. So things like my trusty zip strips, hot glue gun and J.B. Weld were out of the question.

The hardest part of this whole DIY project was getting the chain link tension bands screwed in. This was mostly a logistical problem, and the fact that I’m hopelessly clumsy didn’t help much either. I picked out some pretty short wood screws, but the bands have pretty large holes. To close that hole, I wound up using a couple different-sized washers. So, I was trying to keep two washers on a wood screw, fed through a tension band and then screwed into the underside of my desk all while lying on my back. I even drilled pilot holes in an effort to make it easier, but alas it took quite a few tries and a couple four-letter words to get it right. Had I removed everything from the desk and flipped it over, this wouldn’t have been an issue at all.

I chose not to add some more chainlink tension bands to the elbow piece and cart that make up the short side of my L-shaped computer desk because those pieces lacked the lip which hides them on my desk. My thought was that the exposed tension bands would ultimately make it look a bit messier than if I neatly routed the cables along the bottom of the media cart.

Originally, I planned on black carpet tacks to hold a few strips of velcro to the underside of my desk. But the degree of difficulty of this also was multiplied by the fact that I was upside down. After a few frustrating attempts resulting in tacks falling on my face or going in at peculiar angles, I decided that I’d just use some of my remaining wood screws to pin it to the underside of the desk. It took me longer to put in two carpet tacks poorly than it did the other dozen or so wood screws. I installed the velcro with the furry side exposed, then cut up some strips and wrapped my power adapters in both directions. At first, I was a bit dubious of whether or not my velcro would hold the bricks. I tested it out just to see how it would work and I was pleasantly surprised to find it took quite a bit of force before I was able pull it down. I’m confident that now they’re up there, they’re going to stay in place until I want them down.

Finally, I affixed a surge protector to the outside of the keyboard drawer on the lefthand side of the desk, just beneath all of the velcro. I tidied this up a bit by wrapping up the excess cable in velcro and sticking both the power bricks and the bundled cables to the underside of the desk. The velcro also worked surprisingly well; had I known that, I would’ve been tempted to completely coat the underside of my desk in velcro first so that I could use it to easily hide things like the power adapters. If Pat not printed two sets of his 3D-printed brackets for me to use, this is exactly how I would have hidden the monitors’ power adapters.

Photos


Rat's Nest #1 Rat's Nest #2 Rat's Nest #3 Underside of my desk Underside of my desk, including keyboard drawer Chain Link Torsion Band Chain Link Torsion Bands Installed #1 Chain Link Torsion Bands Installed #2 Chain Link Torsion Bands with Cable #1 Horizontal and Vertical Chain Link Torsion Bands More Cables being routed through the Bands Power Adapter wrapped in Velcro Velcro screwed to underside of Desk #1 Velcro screwed to underside of Desk #2 Power Adapter mounted underneath desk Power Strip mounted underneath desk Power Adapters and Power Strips being put to use All cables being hidden underneath desk now Cables being routed down desk leg to PC A view of a few of the cables left unmanaged The Final Product


Conclusion

I’m nitpicking a bit, but there are a couple things I wish I could have done better. Firstly, the network jack and the power (my APC Back-UPS RS 800) are located to the right of the desk: on the wall and on the cart attached to my desk. So there’s three power cables (extension cable for monitors, surge protector for accessories and the computer’s power cable) routed to the right of the computer. I bundled the three cables up as nicely as I could and made it look as nice as possible, but it’s not as clean as everything to the left of the computer. I’ll be brainstorming on how I can improve that.

Overall, I’m really pleased with the result. My mess of cables is virtually eliminated. On top of that, it’s been done in such a way that it won’t be difficult to make changes in the future. In past cable management projects, I’ve made the mistake of using things like zip strips to permanently group a clump of cables together. And even though this might look pleasing to the eye, it is also a nightmare to go back later and make a change. All of my cables are organized and/or hidden, but none of them are inaccessible, which is a tremendous benefit.

The icing on the cake was how inexpensive this was to do. Theoretically, I probably could have done most of this for under $10.00. It helped that I had some odds and ends laying around the house, like the velcro and spare extension cables. But the chainlink tension bands were the most important part of the project and they were also the cheapest. In my experience, most DIY projects don’t usually work out that way.

Furthermore, for projects like this one it’s proving to be invaluable having a friend with a 3D printer and excited about the concept. If you want to come up with your own unique cable management solution, a friend with a 3D printer is indispensable. My suggestion is that you either become one by buying a 3D Printer like Pat did, or make a friend who has a 3D printer!

If you have a cables rat’s nest of your own, I recommend tackling it. Maybe not exactly like how I decided, but in some form or fashion. Do some Googling and get some ideas, then just wander around a hardware store. You’ll be surprised the things you think of! My only warning is to be prepared for a minor hiccup or two; there’s almost certainly going to be a cable that’s just not long enough to follow your neatest route. Take a stab at it, make a list of additional cables that you need, and then clean it up a couple days later when you get those cables.

How about you guys, how do you handle cable management behind your workstations? Please feel free to show off your solutions in the comments below!

My New Dual-Monitor Setup

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Back when I was planning on my computer upgrade at the end of 2012, I was admittedly a bit nervous. I’d decided at the time to switch from a couple 23” displays to a single 27” WQHD monitor. My actual resolution was increasing, but the amount of space it occupied was going to be a bit smaller. Plus, I’d been using dual (or more) monitors for probably close to a decade. My first dual-monitor setup involved two 19” CRTs; those monitors were so big and took up so much of my physical desktop that during all-night gaming sessions I broke out my SPF 70 to prevent a sunburn.

Pat had originally turned me on to the QNIX 27” WQHD monitors in the first place. When it came time for his own upgrade he went all-in and bought two new 27” QNIX 2710 monitors earlier this year. I’d be lying if I said I I wasn’t a little bit jealous. Then, my envy grew a bit when he bought a nice mount. And then I completely boiled over when he overclocked the refresh rate and claimed that it was improving his Team Fortress 2 performance, including crediting it with a particularly infuriating kill of me during a payload game.

Unable to manage my jealousy, I decided to go ahead and follow in Pat’s footsteps and advice.

What I Bought

Pat actually suggested that I buy a bigger mount than what he bought. He found that his dual-monitor mount was barely big enough. In his first edition of the blog, he recommended moving up to a bigger mount to give yourself additional flexibility. However, what we found was that the arms were so long on the quad arm mount that it wasn’t possible to center both monitors. The closest they’d get was between an inch or two apart. Pat went home that night and took his entire mount apart and brought two of the shorter arms over the next day. We wound up swapping two of his shorter arms for two of the longer arms from my mount. The result was two perfect 27-inch dual monitor mounts for each of us.

I think our recommendation would be that you buy one of each mount and swap arms just like we did. But if you don’t have a friend looking to buy two new monitors too, you’re probably better off buying this dual-monitor mount:

Overclocking

Using information I gleaned from this thread on Overclockers.net, I started playing with overclocking the monitors’ refresh rates. What I found was that one monitor easily overclocked to 120hz without any problems. However, the other monitor had problems at 120hz and even at 110hz. I tried swapping the DVI cables between the two monitors, but that didn’t change the results. Ultimately, at 96hz everything displayed quite nicely on both monitors. Like Pat, I fired up Team Fortress 2 and noticed an immediate improvement in playing the game. I didn’t quantify it with any kind of framerate counter but having spent hours playing TF2, the experience was much smoother.

Pictures

Dual QNIX 2710s Mounted on my Desk A closer view of the dual QNIX 2710s Closeup of the Alignment of the mounted monitors. Backside of the monitor mount The monitor's phallus.

Please excuse the mess of cables behind my desk and my computer, I’ve sorely needed some cable management back there. Adding an additional power adapter, power cords, and DVI cable back there has highlighted to me how out of control that tangled mess has become. Buying this additional monitor has inspired me to think about cable management and will be the topic of an upcoming blog in the near future.

Conclusion

More or less, a shining review was a forgone conclusion. My experience with my first QNIX 27” monitor when upgrading my computer in late 2012 was so positive that it was a no-brainer to follow Pat’s lead and buy two monitors. The price-per-performance simply can’t be beat. If I had a much, much wider field of vision, I would’ve considered buying a third monitor to add to it. But I can’t imagine being able to see all of that screen real estate all at once and make use of it. If anything, there is definitely parts of either monitor which I can’t see without turning my head.

About the only thing that I’d consider complaining about is that the leg from the built-in monitor stand is permanently affixed to the casing of the monitor. The only thing that could be removed was the base of that monitor stand. So on each monitor, there’s a bit of a dangling phallus hanging down. It’s nothing that a little rotary tool wouldn’t fix after a few minutes’ worth of work. Either that, or debezeling the entire monitor, which Pat’s in the process of doing to his own monitors. Depending on how that turns out, I may continue playing the copycat.

Perhaps a tri-monitor setup would be more feasible by mounting each of these monitors in portrait rather than landscape. However, with as wide as the monitors are in landscape, you’d probably incur some strain looking up at the monitor in portrait. In the end, having more screen real estate than I can effectively see at once is a great problem to have. Especially when you consider that I didn’t break the bank in order to get all of it.

Ultimately, I can’t foresee upgrading these monitors in the next couple years. Definitely not for 4K monitors and 5K monitors, which are just too expensive to justify at the moment. And even as they fall in price, I expect display manufacturers like the makers of the QNIX 2710 zeroing in on the people in the market for the best bang-for-buck and making something much more affordable, which is almost always the best way to get me to consider spending money on your products.

Movember: 2014

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It’s that time of year again, it’s time for me to humiliate my face. During Movember, men stop shaving their upper lips to draw attention to men’s health issues. This’ll be my third year in a row participating in Movember. Last year, I got more involved by doing some fund raising, and with the help of readers, friends, family and co-workers we managed to make a $500 contribution. If you visit my Movember page and make a contribution, then I’ll match dollar-for-dollar up to $500. I’d really like to double last year’s donation, which seems like a reasonable goal.

Movember

For those of you unfamiliar, here are the rules:

  1. Start off the 1st of the month with a clean shaven face.
  2. For the duration of Movember you must grow and groom a mustache.
  3. Don’t fake it! No beards or goatees allowed.
  4. Use the power of the mustache to create conversations and raise funds for men’s health issues (prostate cancer, testicular cancer and mental health).
  5. Something about each participant conducting himself as a true gentleman

Because I need as much of an advantage as I can muster, this Saturday morning, the second the clock hits 12:00:00 AM, I’ll be shaving my entire face for the last time. Like in past years, I’ll take a photo every day of my “progress” and share those photos at least weekly. If you want to make a donation, please visit my Movember page and make any size of contribution. At the end of the month, I’ll match up to $500.

If you’re Mo-tivated, go sign up on Movember.com and leave a comment with your own Movember page’s address. I’ll update the blog with everybody’s Movember and we can see if you can put my moustache to shame. Just remember to follow the rules.

Let’s get growing!

Week One

As I mentioned above, I shaved at midnight on November 1st in order to guarantee the maximum amount of growing time during Movember as possible. I like to hope that this will make a difference by the end of the month, but do I actually expect for it to matter? Not really. Please, feel free to have a laugh at my expense but also consider contributing a few bucks on my Movember donation page for the entertainment I’ve provided! I’ve been posting daily updates to my Twitter, Google+ and Facebook pages and I’ve already run out of synonyms to describe the slow rate of growth.

Week Two

Now that week one is in the books, there’s definitely some semblance of a mustache on my upper lip. Hopefully as the month progresses we’ll see some more substantial gains but somehow I’m dubious! However, I did learn one thing; wearing white shirts seems to make the mustache “pop” off the photo a bit better aided by the contrast of a white shirt and my pasty white skin. On the last day of week two, I am pretty impressed with my progress so far.

Week Three

Week three began on a horribly long work day, a late night Friday software-release extended well into the wee hours of Saturday (4AM) and then dominated the beginning of the day. But, as I pouted in front of my keyboard wondering how things had gone so far off track, I noticed something annoying! My protruding lower lip was being tickled and annoyed by my mustache! There wasn’t much joy to be had in this working weekend day, but I was pretty excited that my mustache had grown enough to be an annoyance to more people than just my darling wife! I took a late afternoon shower, put on one of my paint-stained shirts from working in the garage and made my first week three entry in my Movember blog!

Week Four

Week four began with a parking-lot championship celebration for my softball team. I got several “compliments” on my mustache from my teammates’ and their families. Including one impish boy who said that “You look ridiculous!” He pretty much hit that nail square on the head. All things considered, I’m pretty pleased with the progress when comparing day #22’s photograph from 2013 with this year’s day #22 it sure seems like I’m a bit hairier this time around. Much to Julia’s chagrin I’m beginning to consider keeping the mustache for the near future to see if I can finally get this thing across the finish line. And perhaps maybe even grow some other facial hair to keep it company? My apologies this week for the rash of recurring Star Wars t-shirts, it’s a result of the excitement around the Star Wars: Episode VII teaser trailer. These shirts got worn and washed a couple times during the days around Thanksgiving.

Conclusion

As the month of November drew to a close, I got to spend Thanksgiving in the warm embrace of loved ones mocking my mustache, which is exactly one of the things I was thankful for. With all the good-natured grief I dispense it’s healthy to receive my fair share in return. Their mockery notwithstanding, I’m pretty proud of this year’s Movember efforts, we managed to raise $280.00 for men’s health issues and my upper lip is fuzzy enough that I’m going to further my embarrassment by keeping the mustache and matching it with some other additional facial hair.

Movember 2014 Animated

Pictures


Day 01 Day 02 Day 03 Day 04 Day 05 Day 06 Day 07 Day 08 Day 09 Day 10 Day 11 Day 12 Day 13 Day 14 Day 15 Day 16 Day 17 Day 18 Day 19 Day 20 Day 21 Day 22 Day 23 Day 24 Day 25 Day 26 Thanksgiving (Day 27) Day 28 Day 29 Day 30

Donations

My friends, co-workers and family who’ve all donated deserve some special thanks for their contributions. Many, many thanks to each of the following folks:

  • Karen Moses, Mom
  • Tuan Pham, co-worker
  • John Robottom, co-worker

Friend’s Movember Pages

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.

Update (10/22/14): After picking out my Transcend JetFlash 710 64GB I thought I’d mention a few other USB storage products that I found both during my research and after publishing the blog that I think would work incredibly well on key chain. Each of these comes in a variety of different storage capacities:

The last two compare especially favorably to the Transcend JetFlash that I wound up picking. If either of them lay perfectly flat on both sides then that’s what I’d suggest to anyone interested in adding USB storage to their key chain like I did.

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