Dipping My Big Toe in the Waters of Home Automation

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Home automation has been an interesting topic to me for quite some time, but to be honest I’ve found it to be a little too expensive and too proprietary the past 5-10 years. Primarily my interest was originally piqued by X10 and more recently with technologies like Z-wave, Insteon, and others. But I’ve always had the same complaint; these standards seem closed off and the equipment has been too expensive for my tastes. In looking at a comparison of the popular home automation protocols, one of my early worries is still valid; even today it seems to be a very closed off and segmented set of products out there.

I recently extended my house’s WiFi with a new AP and in the comments about that topic on the blog’s Facebook page a reader asked about the ability to remote power-cycle my new access point, which I can’t. It wasn’t necessarily a feature that I cared for much or that I needed, but I was intrigued about the possibility and wondering how much it’d cost to add on. While I didn’t need it to power-cycle my network equipment, I did have a use for controlling at least one or two outlets in the house.

We recently switched out a failing ceiling fan in the office (our den), which had incandescent sockets and really bright CFL bulbs in it. All of our CFL bulbs in the house have a color temperature 6500k, a very bright white. Our new ceiling fan that we wound up replacing it with only had small halogen bulbs, which were very yellow and didn’t match our other lighting at all. I decided that I’d buy a new floor lamp and a bright 150w equivalent CFL bulb to use in instead of the light on the new fan. Because the plan was to tuck this new lamp behind the far corner of my desk, I knew I was going to have problems reaching the switch. If I couldn’t reach the lamp, how would I turn it on? With home automation, of course!

Requirements

After some thought on the matter, I considered what my needs were. So far, I’d only thought of the one really beneficial home automation task. I certainly had lots of other potential ideas for home automation, but only this one idea seemed to provide immediate and demonstrable benefits. Because of that, I decided I’d stick my proverbial toe in the waters and see what home automation was like. In this particular case, a “smart” outlet of some sort would be all that I needed. In evaluating different products, here’s what I used as my criteria.

  1. Easy to be manipulated with Tasker from my Android devices: Tasker is by far my favorite Android application, it’s fantastic and it’s ideally suited for exactly this kind of Home Automation. Whatever product I picked must have a way to be manipulated via Tasker.
  2. Work on a schedule: I wanted the light to turn on in the morning at an appropriate time and then turn off at night also at an appropriate time.
  3. Turn the light on/off from my phone/tablet/computer: Because we won’t be able to easily reach the lamp’s switch, I wanted to be able to control the lamp from as many of our devices as possible.
  4. Simplicity: Having read a few how-tos, I know that the complexity of home automation systems can increase pretty rapidly. Because this was just a proof-of-concept for me, I decided the simplest product was probably the best in the short term.

Product Selection and Setup

Ultimately, what I wound up deciding on is the WeMo switch from Belkin. In my research, I found two products on the Google Play store which would act as Tasker plug-ins: WeMo Way and WeMoManager. In addition to working with Tasker, both of these apps had the ability to control the WeMo Switch from within the app, or I could use the Belkin WeMo app to control the switch. The switch was self-contained, meaning there wasn’t any other devices/controllers that I needed to purchase. And from the user manual the setup seemed incredibly easy.

For demonstration purposes, I grabbed a small table and my beloved beer-stein lamp and set it up somewhere easier to photograph. I started off simple: I downloaded the Belkin WeMo app on my phone, plugged in the WeMo Switch and plugged the lamp into the switch. To set the device up, you connect your phone to its WiFi and then use the app to connect the WeMo Switch to your WiFi network. Within the app from Belkin there are some options for the different kind of rules that you can use to do automation with the various WeMo devices. However, I had other things in mind when it came to the actual automation.

Automation

Early on, my plan was to fully automate the operation of this light using only Tasker and the WeMo switch’s built-in functionality. But because of some issues (mostly on my end) with how I have Tasker configured and after some additional consideration, I decided this wasn’t the best approach. While my Nexus 6 is practically always nearby, I’m guessing there are going to be times when it’s not handy or not functional enough to handle this automation. You can call me lazy, but a goal of mine is to never have to manually flip any switch for this lamp.

After doing some research, I decided I’d use IFTTT’s (If This Then That) service for my automation; I’ve been a fan of IFTTT for quite a long time, I started using it quite a while ago to automate other functions and I really liked how it’s set up and easy to understand. Plus, it’s very encouraging that manufacturers like Belkin have added channels within IFTTT in order to manipulate their devices. My hope is that IFTTT, or something similar, can bridge the gap between all the different home automation standards and will allow me to have a hodge podge of equipment automated at the house. It’s worth pointing out that IFTTT is useful well beyond home automation. I highly suggest signing up and checking it out.

Here’s how I wanted to automate the lamp:

  1. Turn On around when I wake up.
  2. Turn Off around bedtime.
  3. Turn On around sunset.
  4. Turn On when my Home’s WiFi is nearby.
  5. Turn Off when my Home’s WiFi is no longer nearby.

I accomplished each of these tasks using IFTTT and combining it with Tasker. The first three tasks were very easy on IFTTT, naturally they had time-based triggers that you can use. Additionally, they have a set of Weather-related channels, one of which is sunset. I combined each of these with the appropriate actions to turn on/off my WeMo switch. In Tasker I have a “Home” profile which gets triggered when my WiFi network is detected. When that network is detected a number of steps happen, so my new WeMo step was going to get included in the Entry and Exit steps of this profile. IFTTT has an SMS event, you’re assigned a phone number and IFTTT recipes can be executed based off text messages to that unique number from your configured phone number. I use Google Voice and Google Hangouts, the combo of which can support sending SMS messages. Using a Tasker/Locale plug-in, Locale GV SMS Plugin, I created entry and exit tasks to send a text message to the IFTTT phone number with certain content and then created recipes looking for that content to both turn the light on and turn the light off. This means I can manipulate the light from anywhere that I can send an SMS from my Google Voice number, regardless if my phone is nearby.

There are a couple drawbacks with this approach:

  1. The lamp can only be operated manually at the WeMo Switch since it controls whether the lamp is getting power or not. The WeMo Switch is hidden behind all of my cable management and isn’t especially accessible.
  2. I’m very dependent upon IFTTT.
  3. If my wife (or someone) else is home and I’m not, then chances are that the light will be off.

I’m not worried about IFTTT disappearing, but I do have a tiny amount of concern regarding whether their service will always be free like it is now. Similarly, I’d be worried that the hardware manufacturers like Belkin might have a squabble and pull their functionality from the site. The third concern is a bit of a bigger one and I’m hoping that I’ve taken a workable approach. My wife, Julia, isn’t as picky as the office being as bright as I am, so I’m betting she’s never going to mind that it’s off. I put Belkin’s WeMo app on her phone and cofirmed she has the ability to manipulate the WeMo switch from the app. If that is too inconvenient of a solution then I can look at getting her set up with her own IFTTT account, a copy of Tasker, and set up some similar automation as what’s on my phone.

Addressing the last drawback brought up just about the only aspect of the WeMo switch that I’m not a fan of; security. Essentially, anyone who has joined my WiFi network at home (either with or without my permission) has the option of downloading the WeMo app and taking over any of the WeMo devices within my WiFi’s reach. This too me, feels like a security hole that Belkin should be interested in closing. I can’t really understand why someone would want to hack my lamp and if they did, I imagine that the novelty would wear off pretty quickly. Because of that, I’m not really all that concerned with the possibility but it’ll definitely be something I consider before adding any more WeMo switches at the house.

Conclusion

First of all, I really like the WeMo switch; it was exactly what I needed to figure out how I felt about a deeper dive into Home Automation. I especially appreciated the simplicity of setting up and automating the WeMo switch; it literally took me about 15-20 minutes to have it all working. However, given the price of their products, depending on how much home automation I’d want to do, it’d start to get expensive quickly if I wanted to be completely WeMo-loyal.

I’m still on the fence about home automation. I’m tempted to start buying additional hardware like light switches, motion sensors, and other doodads and completely automate a number of functions in my home. But I’m a little fuzzy what my next automation project would even be. It’s a bit hard thinking of a task that would provide as much benefit as this one. In my mind, I can think of maybe 1-2 more outlets I wouldn’t mind being automated. Perhaps my greatest need would be a way to manage my WiFi thermostat, but I don’t think there’s an automation feature within the thermostat itself so I’d have to build my own from scratch. Based off of where I’m at right now, my next decision would be to pick a home automation standard and start looking for a good package deal to buy a few pieces of hardware. That being said, I’ll probably never stop using this WeMo switch. If all you want to do is automate a single outlet or two, I think it’s a great product.


Plugged into Wall Plugged into Beer-stein Lamp and Off Plugged into Beer-stein Lamp and On Plugged in at Desk and Off Plugged in at Desk and On My IFTTT Recipes


Pockethernet: the Network Administrator’s Swiss Army Knife

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Just over a year ago, I finished up a project where I cabled a network across my entire house and within the last month I extended the network’s WiFi reach with a PoE Access Point. Early on in the My Network Cupboard project, we had a few little issues between getting the first few cable drops functional. Nothing tremendously serious, but it usually involved one of us having to repeat steps we’d already taken like re-punching down the cable on the patch panel or one of the CAT5e keystones an additional time. At one point I wondered out loud if we needed to buy some sort of network cable tester. Because my network is relatively simple, it was an easy process of elimination to figure out exactly what we’d done wrong and as we completed the dozen or so different drops, we got a bit more proficient. But in the process, we could’ve saved a few hours if we had a testing tool of some sort.

Right around the time we completed the project, I stumbled across a crowd-funded project on Indiegogo called Pockethernet. Pockethernet is a pocket-sized adapter which works over Bluetooth and an app on your phone (Android or iOS) while providing a litany of network testing functionality, most of which I didn’t understand at the time and probably still don’t! The best part of all? It was comparatively inexpensive to the other testers which provide the same functionality.

In reading the specifications, I knew that the following Pockethernet features would’ve helped us with each of the issues we encountered during the MyNetworkCupboard project:

  1. Wiremap including shield: Test if you punched the pins in the correct order on the RJ45 jacks. Pockethernet also tests the shield for continuity.
  2. Bit error rate test (10/100/1000): Real-world cable quality measurement at gigabit speeds. Stop finger-pointing with measurement data.
  3. Port blinker: Let Pockethernet toggle the Link LED on switches and routers, so you know which cable you are looking for.
  4. Link establishment test (10/100/1000): Check if a link can be established at different speeds. Make sure the wiring is up to date for gigabit.

I decided to contribute to the Pockethernet campaign on Indiegogo to receive a Pockethernet as soon as they were manufactured. I figured this would be helpful for future cabling endeavors at my house and an excellent candidate to carry around in my backpack. It paid dividends when we added a new Access Point to my network: we initially had issues when we punched down to the new drop on the patch panel. On top of that, we used the Pockethernet to validate each point of failure as we cabled up the access point’s proprietary power-over-Ethernet injector. Pockethernet even was able to detect and measure the voltage of that proprietary PoE injector.

In total, it took about a year for the Pockethernet team to deliver their first batch of products. I’m quickly learning through a number of crowd-funded endeavors that it can require a bit of patience before delivery. But waiting roughly a year for the Pockethernet was fine by me because it showed up exactly when I needed it again and it was everything that they described.


Kit Contents From one Side From the other Side Plugged into PoE AP to measure voltage. Plugged into PoE AP to measure voltage. Plugged into Network


I especially liked that the Pockethernet is a Bluetooth device. In the times that I’ve used it, it’s been very convenient to hook it up where it needs to go then grab your phone to look at the Pockethernet app (Android/iOS). Especially if you have to rummage around behind something: it’s very nice to hook it up, retreat to somewhere more comfortable nearby, and then look at your phone/tablet.


Plugged into Network Successfully Ping Test inside & outside of Network Checking voltage to PoE AP Gigabit Bit Error Rate Test


How To

About my only “complaint” about the Pockethernet is that it seems to be designed for people who already know how to use similar tools. There was very little documentation that came with the Pockethernet and none of it really contained instructions on how to put it to use or described how to use all of the Pockethernet’s features. I thought I’d quickly write up how I used it in my project, just in case it helped a fellow neophyte!

Wiremap & Volts

I used this test to validate segments (and the totality) of cables that I punched down for my new acesss point. Because of how we cabled it up, there were many potential points of failure from the beginning to the end. And I also wanted to see if the Pockethernet would read the voltage of the proprietary power injector it used.

  1. Connected the Pockethernet to the beginning of the cable run on the patch panel.
  2. Connected the Wiremap adapter to the end of the cable run (wherever that was)
  3. Powered on the Pockethernet
  4. Clicked Connect (or Refresh if you’re already Connected) and selected the Pockethernet
  5. From the Pockethernet app select Wiremap & Volts (on the Test page in the app)

The wiremap test allowed us to validate the potential physical errors of the installation. It helped us determine that we’d punched everything down and crimped the cables correctly. It also allowed us to determine that there was power at the remote end of the cable for the access point.

BER Test

We used the Bit Error Rate (BER) test to make sure the cable was good and capable of doing gigabit. In the process of wiring up the new Access Point I also used the BER test to help determine if a problematic network cable was good or not.

  1. Connected the Pockethernet to the beginning of the cable run on the patch panel.
  2. Connected the Loopback adapter to the end of the cable run (wherever that was)
  3. Powered on the Pockethernet
  4. Clicked Connect (or Refresh if you’re already Connected) and selected the Pockethernet
  5. From the Pockethernet app selected the Off-Line tab in the app
  6. In the BER section, set the speed to 1000Mbps
  7. Click Ok

I ran a few different iterations of the BER tests tinkering with the Packet Size and Payload options to make sure that all combinations of the 1000Mbps test came back with a 0% error rate.

Connected to Network

There’s a couple things that I also re-validated by plugging the Pockethernet into the network. When plugged into the network, you can use the Pockethernet to determine the link, provide DHCP information, and ping a few devices on your network.

  1. I validated the Link and DHCP information from the Test page.
  2. From the on-line page in the app, I punched in a server name and an IP address internal to my network and one IP address external to my network and ran a ping test.

Conclusion

For what I was needing, Pockethernet was perfect. In fact, it’s probably too useful for my simple needs. But it’s a luxury to have such a nice piece of equipment for any kind of potential issues with my network at home. It was handy enough when wiring up my new access point that I certainly wished that I had found it and that it was available before I began my network project! It’s my understanding right now that you can’t buy your own Pockethernet yet, but it’s in the works. If you’re interested in buying one, there’s a Pockethernet newsletter that you can sign up for.

My Network Cupboard: Extending the WiFi

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It’s been a little over two years since we built a Network Cupboard for my house, wiring up every room except the dining room with CAT5e, and using Gigabit switches/routers behind my Verizon FiOS. At the time, I was a relatively new home owner and I was excited to put my geeky mark on the property. The project started out simple: I wanted a dedicated drop in the living room so that I didn’t have to use slower WiFi on my Playstation 3, but it quickly escalated from there.

Having one DIY project under my belt emboldened me to start taking on others, which included a makeover of my garage which has been moving along in spurts. When I recently painted the garage, including the ceiling, I was trying to stream music from my cell phone and using a bluetooth speaker. As I moved around the garage, it caused me to realize that my WiFi coverage was very spotty in most parts of the garage. I wound up using WiFi Analyzer on my phone to find the best spot and parked my phone there while I worked on painting.

This started me thinking about how many other places on our property had poor WiFi coverage. The bathroom of our master bedroom had very little coverage and the backyard was pretty spotty as well. It was important to me that I find a way to improve coverage in at least two of those areas, if not all three. However, considering that the garage and master bathroom were essentially on opposite ends of the house, I assumed that it was probably going to be a bit difficult to get coverage to both without spending some really significant dollars.

My first idea was to buy a WiFi Access Point and mount it to a wall in the garage, close to the ceiling. But Pat pointed something out to me; there wasn’t going to be any convenient power up at the top of the wall that I was considering. This got my brain working and immediately thinking about extension cables and how I didn’t want to muck up the walls I’d just spent the time and energy into painting. In order to save the walls, I decided that I’d put the access point up in the attic, towards the back of the house and closest to the backyard as possible. To solve the problem of getting power to wherever we mounted the access point, I decided that instead of using extension cables or hiring an electrician to install an outlet, I’d play with something I’d only read about so far, power over Ethernet (PoE).

EnGenius ENS202EXT Review

For my access point, I decided on purchasing the EnGenius ENS202EXT (specs) which ticked off most of my important criteria:

  • Relatively inexpensive: Preferably under $100
  • Rated for Outdoor use: Since it was going up in the attic, I wanted it to be durable.
  • Power over Ethernet: The PoE used in the EnGenius ENS202EXT is proprietary, which is a bit disappointing. I wish I’d been a bit more careful in my shopping and picked something that used established standards. This may have been a disappointment, but it was far from any kind of deal breaker for me.

The EnGenius ENS202EXT provides its power by using a proprietary power injector. You connect your network into the LAN side, hook the power adapter up to the injector, and then connect the other end of the injector (labeled: PoE) into the access point. Because of its price and my experience with consumer-level networking equipment, I assumed I’d need to power cycle it occasionally. So we wound up wiring it directly into the patch panel, that way a power cycle was never further away than disconnecting/reconnecting the right cable on the patch panel instead of digging around looking for the power adapter behind the patch panel.

All of the cabling went pretty well. We continued the same cabling convention on the front of my patch panel; purple cables were the drops for the workstations, red cables were used for the network gear (FiOS router, OpenWRT router, switches, and EnGenius ENS202EXT) and finally a green cable was used for the proprietary PoE injector. The color convention will hopefully help me avoid plugging the hot side of that injector back into my other network equipment and potentially frying a switch or router.

It was a little astonishing to me, but the actual act of cabling and installing the router was a snap. I had to do a little bit of traversing the rafters in the attic, but it wasn’t too much effort. All told, I was up in the attic no more than 30 minutes.

The frustrating and time-consuming part came when setting up the EnGenius ENS202EXT. We were astonished when we discovered that its default settings uses a static IP address. In my mind, the default setting on a piece of equipment like this would be to use DHCP. Just about every use-case scenario that I can think of it would be added to an existing network where the default static IP (192.168.1.1) would likely already be in use by another device. Which is exactly what happened on my network; the minute we plugged in the EnGenius ENS202EXT we had all sorts of problems because both it and my FiOS router had grabbed the same IP address. In my opinion, the way the configuration interface is laid out is pretty poor too. I found using it to be pretty counter-intuitive and early on and wound up losing a bunch of changes only because they did not get committed. By the time I sorted out the problems with the static IP and the poor interface, I’d spent more time configuring the device from my chair than we spent physically installing it, which also included having to push my Corvette out of the garage due to a dead battery. I’d assumed that we’d spend way more time on the physical labor, boy was I wrong!

In the end, I wound up naming the access point the same as my other WiFi, which I call “silentbob” (Thanks, Kevin Smith). I configured the access point with all the same security settings. However, I moved it down a channel so there’s very little (if any) overlap with my other access point. The “new” silentbob wound up on channel 7 and the legacy silentbob stayed on channel 11.


ENS202EXT boxed ENS202EXT unboxed ENS202EXT parts ENS202EXT 'PoE' parts ENS202EXT 'PoE' injector CAT5e drop for the ENS202EXT ENS202EXT mounted in attic #1 ENS202EXT mounted in attic #2 Pockethernet Tester indicates good cabling Pockethernet Tester reflects ENS202EXT successfully added to the patch panel


Conclusion

I’m a little surprised and a little aggravated that the hardest part of this project was the software on the not-so-“EnGenius” Access Point. Had that been a little bit more well thought out, this project would’ve been a snap. Using the Wifi Analyzer, I walked around the troublesome spots that I had hoped to add coverage to: the garage, backyard and the master bedroom’s bathroom. Here are the results:

Garage (Red & Blue)
Backyard (Red & Blue)
Bathroom (Blue & Cyan)


In the garage and the backyard, WiFi coverage from the new access point is dramatically better than on the legacy access point. Coverage in the bathroom is more or less exactly the same, but I’m pretty impressed since it’s going through the garage’s exterior, across the backyard, and then into the master bedroom. It’s as strong in there as my other access point, which is just down the hall towards the center of the house in the living room.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the results. I’m especially pleased what a great opportunity this project was to play with my new Pockethernet for validation of the cabling. My only significant disappointment is realizing how full my switches and hubs have become already. The next time I need to add network hardware, I may actually have to buy a bigger switch! Have you guys done anything similar to extend your WiFi coverage? Please share your solutions and experiences down in the comments below!

Marley and Us

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Update (03/22/2015): The Brittany Rescue in Texas group has scheduled another get together, this time a Yappy Hour at the Katy Trail Icehouse Outpost here in Plano,TX on Saturday, March 28th. We’re planning on bringing all three of our dogs, most important of which is Marley! Because of this event, I thought it made sense to go ahead and update Marley’s blog a bit.

We have two dogs in our family, Crockett and Zoe. Both dogs are Brittanys (formerly known as Brittany Spaniels). Crockett is creeping up on four years old and Zoe is nearly 1 and a half. I’m no expert, but as far as I can tell they’re both pretty representative of their breed: smart, energetic and sweet dogs. When we got both Crockett and Zoe, we struggled with buying a dog from a breeder or adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue group. Ultimately, we decided on getting both dogs from different, respectable breeders. We don’t regret how we brought Crockett and Zoe into our lives, but we do also recognize there are lots of dogs out there in shelters and in need of help. This fact has inspired us to become a foster home for the local Brittany rescue group, Brittany Rescue in Texas (BRIT on Facebook). Each dog we foster is going to get featured in a blog in the hopes it helps find a permanent home for each fostered dog faster. If you have any questions about what being around Marley is like, feel free to ask in the comments below. If you’re curious about the adoption process, please contact Pattie with BRIT and she can help explain the process and answer your questions.

Not too long ago, BRIT placed our first foster with us. His name is Marley. Marley is a 5-year-old male Brittany. He’s a little bit closer to Zoe’s size, which is around 32 pounds. Marley has been a bit different from Crockett and Zoe, which isn’t a bad thing at all. He’s much more laid back than either Crockett or Zoe with a lower energy level, we suspect that’s because Crockett and Zoe are still very much puppies at heart. Marley is quite content to just follow us around the house and lie down somewhere within a couple feet of us when we’re not especially active. Crockett and Zoe are a bit more high energy and would like Marley to come join in on their hi-jinx. That’s not to say Marley isn’t energetic, when he joins in on the rough-housing he can certainly hold his own. He’s also sprinting out ahead of the rest of us every time we go into the backyard in order to patrol and clear the premises of any squirrels. Marley is also much more cuddly; most of the time we’ve been in the family room he’s been up on the couch snuggled right up next to myself (mostly) or Julia. When he can’t lay right next to us, he likes to lie right at our feet, which is pretty convenient for us because Julia and I both have enjoyed petting Marley’s incredibly soft fur.

Initially, he had a rough few days. He was surrendered, changed hands a few times, went to the vet to get neutered and came to us. Despite all of that, he was instantly warm and affectionate towards both Julia and I. Crockett and Zoe were curious, excited, and playful towards Marley and Marley made them aware that those initial over-engergetic overtures were not welcome with a precautionary growl. Despite his unease and anxiety at the situation, Marley was very patient with Crockett and Zoe as they tried to figure everything out.

Figuring everything out really only took a matter of 1-2 weeks, Marley started to fit a bit better more and more as the first two weeks progressed. By the end of those two weeks, it was quite like he’d been here for a long time.

Marley doesn’t seem to have much formal obedience training, but still he seems to understand us pretty well. He’ll come when called, he understands when he is told that it is time to go outside for a bathroom break, and he seems to understand when we correct him by telling him no (which doesn’t happen very often). My personal suggestion for any potential adoptive household would be to sign up for some obedience training. However, this is not a recommendation specific to Marley, it’s just something I think that every dog owner should always be working on. We have had quite a bit of luck teaching (or reminding) Marley how to sit. He’s a very smart cookie and a very quick learner.


Marley, Brian and Julia embarking on a foster adventure. Taking a mid-afternoon nap. A handsome little guy! Enjoying bones with Crockett and Zoe. Winding down for the evening. Binge watching some TV with Brian and Julia Getting some quality time with Julia. What a face! Posing for the camera. Staying hydrated. Zoe, Marley and Crockett catching some Zs Marley showing off his Sit Marley and Crockett both sitting. Marley laying down by Brian's computer desk One last headshot of Marley.


Those first few days, there wasn’t a whole of playing going on. But at this point Marley, Crockett and Zoe are all playfully running around the house, patrolling for the ever-present squirrels, enjoying car rides together and in general just having a fun time. Marley’s apprehension at playing with the dogs early on have proven to be part of his acclimation and acceptance into our little pack.


We have loaded up all three dogs in the car and attended Crockett and Zoe’s group obedience sessions a number of times. When we’re at the obedience lessons, there’s a constant stream of people and dogs through the storefront. Julia and Marley observe while Zoe, Crockett and I participate in the lessons. Marley has been friendly and pleasant with all the people he comes into contact with as well as those people’s dogs. There are always a number of people in the store each lesson, and I’m always very impressed with how Marley behaves. This is yet another sign what a good dog he is.

Marley took some time getting used to our house and learning where was (and wasn’t) acceptable to go to the bathroom. We’ve been working on this and while we’ve had two or three accidents inside, we feel pretty good saying that Marley is housebroken. Because the accidents happened early on, I think his general unease and discomfort with the situation was probably the driving force behind the accidents.

Marley’s manners are quite good and he’s very well behaved. My only behavioral observation so far is that he tends to climb up on you and that’s not a trait specific to just Marley, we have two other dogs right here who want to get as close to you as possible at times too. Marley’s actually very gentle about it, instead of jumping up at you with reckless abandon like Zoe does, Marley kind of inches up your leg and stands up to give you a hug. He does this to us in the mornings and when we both get home from work, he’s just happy to see us.

We don’t know much about his life before he came to stay with us, and I think we’d prefer it that way. We would much rather start off with a blank slate. Whatever happened in Marley’s life before being rescued by Brittany Rescue in Texas doesn’t really matter any more. All we know is what we’ve experienced since he came to stay with us, and it’s all been positive. He’s a great dog, and he’s going to make a good addition to somebody’s household in the very near future. We can’t imagine him staying with us all that long, he really is a wonderful dog.

Are you curious Marley? If you have any questions for us about Marley, please leave them in a comment down below and we’ll answer them as quickly as we can. Are you interested in possibly adopting? Then email Pattie with BRIT to learn more about the adoption process.

I will also update and tweak this blog the more I learn about Marley. If you’d like to move forward with adoption, you can find the BRIT Adoption Application on their website. Did you miss out on Marley? That’s okay, there’s lots of other adoptable Brittanys on BRIT’s website and hopefully we’ll be repeating this with other Brittanys in the near future.

DIY NAS Roundup Poll

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Shortly after publishing the DIY NAS: 2015 Edition blog I started thinking about my next EconoNAS build and the hardware that would go into it. As you can tell from each of my DIY NAS blogs, I’m a great big huge fan of FreeNAS, who I personally think is the leading option for those of you wanting to build a high-quality NAS to use at home. I took a look at a few alternatives to FreeNAS when I built my own DIY NAS, but once I tried FreeNAS, I didn’t bother looking closely at or even downloading any of its alternatives.

FreeNAS has made some interesting choices lately which makes it more difficult to run on legacy hardware, which flies a bit in the face of your average DIYer. In my opinion, the ideal DIY NAS is one that you built primarily with old parts that you happened to have available and supplementing them with some new parts. If you tack on the premium that many ZFS users place on ECC RAM, then FreeNAS becomes a bit intimidating for the risk-averse DIYer to consider.

This ultimately lead me to wonder, if I had to do it all over again what would I do? It’s been two years since I looked at or heavily considered anything other than FreeNAS, but if I were back at square one, has the playing field been leveled a bit? Are there other contenders out there worth giving a look?

I posed this question across my social networks:


The response back was pretty interesting. It convinced me that it might be worthwhile to take some time and throw together a DIY NAS roundup blog where I evaluate a few of the options available. Before I start buying hardware (for another NAS giveaway, of course!) and trying things out, I thought I’d ask for some more feedback from the blog’s readers. I created the following poll with a few options that I’ve been curious about and included ones that people had already suggested.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

Hooking up my QNIX 2710 to DisplayPort

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In late 2014, I bought two QNIX 2710 Evolution II monitors off eBay for my dekstop computer because I was jealous of a friend’s new dual-monitor setup. Three or so months later, I absolutely love it. My only regret is that my field of vision isn’t wide enough to use all 5120x1440 of this display real estate all at once. If having too much room is my biggest “complaint” then it must have worked out extremely well!

However, there’s very little open space on top of my desk now and I also frequently work from home. It’s resulted in me being pretty uncomfortable when I’m working from home, especially when I’m doing something productive. I wind up hunched over my work laptop pretty awkwardly, and depending on how long I do that it has some negative repercussions on my chiseled middle-aged computer geek physique. Against my better thoughts, I disassembled my cable management a bit and attempted to hook one of my monitors into my laptop’s DVI port. Unfortunately, the laptop’s video card is not capable of creating a signal that my monitor would recognize.

I did some further research on my work laptop’s video card, the nVidia NVS 5200M, and learned that the only way to run at the monitor’s native resolution was via the DisplayPort on the laptop. Each time I’ve purchased a QNIX monitor via someone in South Korea on eBay the listings have warned many things—including that adapters will not work with these monitors. On reading those listings, I assumed that the sellers didn’t want to deal with unhappy customers who purchased the monitor and the incorrect adapter and now their new QNIX 2710 monitor wouldn’t work. Although, considering what a bargain these monitors have been, I also worried that there was a likely chance that they just weren’t going to be compatible with the adapters.

All that being said, if I was going to be working from home regularly, I still needed some sort of solution. Working directly on my laptop was just atrocious for anything more than a few minutes. I did some Googling and mostly found people like the eBay vendors were worried about; all sorts of people using the wrong adapters, the wrong video cards, and it resulted in them having problems with their QNIX 2710 monitors not displaying anything. Based on what I’d read, I was both discouraged and encouraged. I decided to try and see what I could do to find the perfect adapter for the monitor.

Ultimately, I believed that if I found an active DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter which supported my resolution, that I would be golden. I wound up finding quite a few that said they’d do it, but after reading reviews of those products I’d become concerned. What I found most were that listings were missing whether or not it was active or that they were active but they didn’t list the maximum resolution. I’m sure there were probably one or two adapters that I skipped over that may have worked, but I didn’t want to take the chance on those.

After a little bit of searching, I found the goFanco DisplayPort to DVI Adapter (specs) which stated that it was active and that it’d support resolutions all the way up to 4k. After some more Googling and reading a few positive reviews, I was fairly confident that this was the correct adapter to try out. My only remaining concern was whether or not it’d work with one of my QNIX 2710 monitors. Because all of my cables are finally neat and organized I decided to also purchase a Dual link DVI-D cable to use when evaluating the adapter with my monitors.


goFanco DisplayPort to DVI Active Converter goFanco DisplayPort to DVI Active Converter DisplayPort to DVI Adapter plugged into E6530 DisplayPort to DVI Adapter plugged into DVI-D cable Laptop successfully converting DisplayPort to DVI What's my resolution?  2560x1440 of course!


The goFanco DisplayPort to DVI Adapter proved my assumptions correct. The eBay listings for the QNIX 2710 monitors discourage adapter use because they’re afraid people will buy the wrong adapters and it won’t work with their computers. I don’t blame them, international shipping can be a headache and would both be time consuming and potentially costly. Paying for return shipping because some knucklehead can’t buy the right adapter seems like a waste of money and effort. My suggestion to those eBay dealers? Offer to bundle a goFanco DisplayPort to DVI Adapter along with your monitors to people who want to use DisplayPort at a modest premium in price!

Next up? Finding a nice KVM switch that supports dual-link DVI up to (and past) the resolution and refresh rates that I’m currently running my dual QNIX 2710 monitors at. Does anybody have a good suggestion?

Addressing Medtronic Paradigm Holster Clip Failures

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I’ve been a Type 1 Diabetic now for a about a dozen years and I’ve been using Medtronic insulin pumps for my insulin therapy for nearly as long. A little over a year ago, I upgraded to the MiniMed 530G pump and Continuous Glucose Monitoring, which I’ve been pretty happy with overall.

I’ve tried a variety of ways to “wear” my pump. I’ve experimented with a variety of clips, pouches, and even carrying it in my pocket. What I found works best for me is using the holster-style clips and then swiveling the clip so that the insulin pump is parallel to the ground along my belt—quite like people used to wear their pagers, which coincidentally is a Diabetic pet peeve of mine, I really dislike when people gawk, point at my hip, and then ask me why I’m still using a pager. Grrr!

I have destroyed a few of the holster-style clips on door frames, car seats, and turnstiles. It’s mostly been car doors since I’m a big fan of sports cars and they tend to have cramped little bucket seats that I bang the pump on from time to time. However, recently I’ve been going through these clips at an alarming rate without accidentally banging them into anything. Over the past year or so, I’ve managed to wear out the swivel function on these clips despite rarely ever using said swivel. Once the swivel fails, it no longer stays parallel to the ground and just swings freely on my hip, which irritates me.

I’ve spoken to Medtronic customer service about it a few times and they’ve been really polite and they always replace the holster clip with a new one. They’ve never really been able to explain why all of a sudden I’ve been going through so many of these clips. My guess is that they probably changed its design, hired a different manufacturer, or both. There’s a small plastic piece inside the clip that has a round nub on it. That nub fits into the dimples on the swivel piece. That plastic piece with the nub gets worn out and it no longer provides enough tension to fit nicely into the matching dimple. Eventually that plastic piece breaks off entirely, rendering the entire swivel useless.

I don’t really care about the swivel function of the holster clips, and I periodically check Medtronic’s online store to see if any of the new clips would do what I want. But about the closest thing they have to what I want is a belt clip which holds the pump vertically. I bought and tried one out for a couple weeks and never really liked how it felt and gave up.

Because I don’t really care about the swivel function, I thought I could “repair” the holster clip well enough to suit my needs. Because I had some success, I thought sharing what I did might help other people in the same boat as I was. Essentially, I “repaired” this by gluing the broken piece back into place permanently. The swivel no longer functions, but because that wasn’t a feature that I cared about, this solution worked just fine for me.

Supplies

Steps

  1. Prepare the epoxy following the directions on the product’s container. For the sake of whatever surface you’re working on, it also wouldn’t hurt to have a scrap of cardboard or something similar to work on.
  2. I adjusted the holster clip’s swivel appropriately for how I wanted to wear my pump, on my right side.
  3. Using a cotton swab, I applied some of the epoxy down inside the dimple on the insulin pump.
  4. Using my fingers (although tweezers might’ve made more sense) I placed the broken plastic nub and pressed it into the glue and dimple beneath it.
  5. Using another cotton swab I placed another layer of epoxy down over the plastic nub and filled in any of the gaps around it. The end result was that the plastic nub was encased in epoxy and there was enough epoxy to fill the entire hole.
  6. With a third cotton swab I cleaned up any excess epoxy off the pump clip.
  7. I left the “repaired” holster clip alone overnight to let the epoxy fully cure.

I fixed two holster clips this way, including one that was missing the broken plastic nub entirely. I just used more epoxy on the one that was missing the broken plastic nub. Once the epoxy was fully set, the holster clip was permanently affixed in the position that I wanted and it was usable again. Because the plastic nub was missing, I may have went a little bit overboard on the epoxy, but it did the trick.


The weakened, tensionless nub. Nub finally breaks off Clip repair supplies A 'base coat' of epoxy applied to the dimple Nub is pressed into dimple and covered in epoxy Two repaired clips; with nub on left without on right


I’m not certain how durable this repair is, but it feels pretty solid. I’ve tried twisting hard on both of my repaired holster clips and it barely moves at all. If I tried to twist the swivel as hard as I possibly could, I don’t know which would break first the remaining plastic or the epoxy. Given my experience with the holster clips, I’m guessing that some other piece of the clip would break first.

Medtronic has told me on the phone more than twice that they will continue to replace the holster clips as long as my insulin pump is covered under their warranty. But warranties eventually expire, and it might not be in your budget to upgrade the insulin pump right away. Even if they do exchange them, it takes a few days for your replacement holster clips to be processed and shipped to you. This fix is easy enough to temporarily repair your broken clip while you wait for that replacement to show up. Or in my case, to have a couple “backup” holster clips available for the eventual failure of your new replacement clips. Isuppose if I ever go outside of the pump’s warranty period that Medtronic may not be willing to replace these defective clips any more. It’s nice to have a potential workaround in case they stop exchanging the defective ones. Hopefully over time, they’ll just upgrade the design and/or materials so that they don’t fail so easily. Everybody would be happier then!

DIY NAS: 2015 Edition

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Update (02/01/2015): Congratulations to Carl Floyd for winning the #FreeNASGiveaway for his Google+ share of this blog. Carl, I’ll reach out to you directly so we can exchange some contact info. This FreeNAS giveaway was over twice as popular as the last one, netting well over my goal of 500 total shares. I am thankful and appreciative of your efforts to help spread the contests’ word! I look forward to doing my next giveaway here in a few months, so make sure you stay tuned!

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: $294.04

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: $454.03

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: $663.51

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: $1,647.99


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 $1575. 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.

Updates

3/07/15: It’s been a couple months, so I thought I’d come in and update the prices of all the parts. The motherboard’s price fell, but the RAM’s price climbed. The other part’s prices trickled down a tiny percentage. Overall, the price for all the components fell by a mere $15 or so.

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.